Lord loss, p.14
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       Lord Loss, p.14
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  Dervish hesitates, choosing his words carefully. “I've got to be truthful — I was the logical choice. But logic and magic don't always mix. Sometimes amateurs fare better than professionals. Nobody ever really knows how they'll fare until they put themselves on the spot.”

  He pulls out a handkerchief and blows his nose. “In the end, it's all relative. Your father chose — rightly or wrongly — and the outcome stands. We can't change the past and we'd be fools if we tried.

  “But whatever my personal feelings about his choice,” Dervish adds, “don't ever think I believe it was your mother's fault. It wasn't. It was our curse, not hers. She deserves nothing short of absolute love and respect for taking on that curse, and laying her life on the line to try and avert it.”

  I nod slowly, thinking it over. “But if they hadn't laid their lives on the line,” I whisper. “If they'd called in the Lambs and not gone to Lord Loss …”

  “They'd be alive.” Dervish says it bluntly. “That's why I said you might not like the truth. They put Gret's life before their own — and yours. If they hadn't interfered, you'd have lost a sister but kept your parents.”

  I stare at him uncertainly, my lower lip trembling, part of me hating Mom and Dad for putting me through this, another part hating Gret, blaming her for the mess.

  Dervish reads my thoughts and shakes his head calmly. “Don't go down that road, Grubbs,” he says. “Cal and Sharon did what they had to. They'd have done the same for you if you'd been infected. I know you feel cheated. I know you want them back. But if you look deep inside, and recall the people they were, the love they had for you and Gret, you'll understand why they did it.”

  “They should have told me,” I moan. “They cut me out completely. I could have helped. I —”

  “No,” Dervish says firmly. “The rules are clear — only two may challenge Lord Loss and his familiars. Telling you would have achieved nothing.”

  “It would have prepared me for the worst,” I disagree.

  “I don't think they wanted to think about that,” Dervish sighs. “Doubts have a way of eating a person from the inside out. Most who face Lord Loss choose not to focus on all that can go wrong, because it makes it more likely that something will go wrong.”

  “But —” I begin.

  “Grubbs,” Dervish interrupts curtly, “we can sit here arguing all night. But that won't bring your parents and Gret back. And it won't help Billy. Letting go isn't easy, but you have to forget about your parents for a while. If you can't, you're no good to me.”

  “‘No good to you’?” I echo, frowning. “What are you talking about? What do you want me to do?”

  Dervish leans forward, his features impassive. “I want you to be my second,” he says. “I want you to stand by my side and battle Vein and Artery while I challenge Lord Loss at chess.”

  The world goes numb.

  THE CHOICE

  “YOU'RE loco!” I scream. “Sheer bloody nuts!”

  “I'm many things,” Dervish answers calmly, “but I don't think I'm crazy.”

  “You must be! Only a crazy man would ask a kid to fight a couple of demons!”

  Dervish studies me quietly, then gets to his feet and picks up his Lord of the Rings chess set. He heads for the door.

  “Where are you going?” I snap, lurching in front of him, blocking the way.

  “I'm taking this down to the cellar,” he says. “I need to have five sets in place before I summon Lord Loss — each game is played on a separate board.”

  “Didn't you hear me?” I hiss. “I won't do it! I'm not —”

  “Grubbs,” he silences me with a smile. “It's OK. I asked. You refused. That's the end of it. It was a request, not a command.”

  I glare at him suspiciously. “It was?”

  He nods. “There are others who can help. One of my friends is a near grandmaster. He'll face Lord Loss. I'll handle Vein and Artery.” He nods at a plain chess board to my left. “But I'd be obliged if you'd help me carry the sets down.”

  My eyes narrow. “If you're trying to trick me …”

  “No tricks,” he says, and I believe him. Getting out of his way, I pick up the board and follow him out of the room.

  Down the stairs to the main hall. Taking our time, careful not to drop any pieces. Thinking hard about what Dervish said.

  “If you've got friends who can help,” I mutter, “why ask me?”

  “Billy's your brother,” Dervish replies. “I thought you might want to be part of this.”

  “But it doesn't make sense,” I press. “You need the best person for the job. Why offer it to me?”

  “Ideally I want to face Lord Loss with someone who's proved their courage and ability under fire,” he says. “Some-one who's faced a demon and lived. I only personally know six people who've done that. Meera was one of them. But she can't do it now.”

  “What about the others?”

  “Four of them are currently out of contact.”

  He reaches the door to the cellar and stops talking while he opens it with his elbows. Silence as we descend. I wait until we're at the wine rack that hides the entrance to the secret passageway before asking, “And the sixth?”

  “You're the sixth,” he says, stepping forward into darkness.

  The secret cellar. Five chess sets lie in place on the three tables, which we've shoved together, piling the books and other odds and ends on the floor. Dervish is lining up the pieces, making sure they're in the right places. Bill-E's still chewing on the deer carcass. He spits and snarls at us every so often.

  Dervish hasn't said anything since our trip down with the first two boards. We've worked silently, carting in the boards and pieces, clearing the tables and rearranging them. It's only now, while I watch him adjust the pieces, that I work up the courage to broach the subject again.

  “I still don't understand why you want me to help. Why not wait for Meera to recover? You don't have to stage the contest tonight, do you?”

  “No,” Dervish says. “But waiting's dangerous. Lord Loss can reverse the change, even in one who's been a werewolf for several years. But often the mind can't be restored. Every day we wait drives. Bill-E closer to the point from which it's not worth bringing him back.

  “Besides,” he adds, “how would we explain his absence to his grandparents, teachers, the police? We're in the middle of an unreal adventure, but we're still part of the real world. Try telling a cop you've got a boy locked up in a cage because he's a werewolf — see where it lands you!”

  “I didn't think of that.” I manage a sick smile, which quickly fades. “I'm just a kid,” I say quietly. “I wouldn't be any good to you.”

  Dervish wipes a spot of dust from the head of a king. “You've fought demons and lived to tell the tale. You've tapped into your magic potential. You can fight them on their own terms — even if you are just a kid,” he adds with a grin.

  “I want to help,” I groan. “I'd do almost anything to get Bill-E out of the hell he's in. But I saw Artery work Gret like a puppet, and —”

  “Don't beat yourself up over it,” Dervish interrupts kindly. “You're under no obligation. You came here to recover, not get dragged deeper into a nightmare. I shouldn't have asked. And I wouldn't have, except …”

  He doesn't finish, so I say it for him. “… except you need me.”

  He shrugs. “Like I said, there's a friend I can call. But I'd rather have you. If I told you anything else, I'd be a liar.”

  Studying Bill-E as Dervish fetches weapons. His face and hands red with the deer's blood. Patting his stomach. Smiling jaggedly. Gazing at me through unnatural yellow eyes.

  Thinking about Lord Loss. Recalling the ferocious power and speed of Artery and Vein. Fearing for my uncle's and brother's lives.

  Dervish enters with a small axe, a mace, and a sword. Lays them on the floor with the others he's already installed. Part of the rules — he can use as many weapons as he pleases.

  “Would you want me to play c
hess or fight?” I ask, wishing I could keep my mouth shut.

  “I've seen you play,” Dervish says. “No offense, but you'd have to fight — Lord Loss would crush you on the chess boards.”

  “But you'd stand a better chance against Vein and Artery than me,” I counter. “You're stronger and experienced. I know nothing about weapons or magic.”

  “You don't have to,” Dervish says. “The magic knows you. That's what matters. You tapped into your potential when you faced the demons before. You'd tap into it again. Instinct.”

  “But you're the logical choice,” I insist. “You'd be better than me.”

  Dervish nods somberly. “Probably.”

  “And your friend's better at chess than me. So you fighting and him playing is the ideal partnership. Right?”

  Dervish looks at me curiously. “You don't have to talk yourself out of this,” he says. “You've said you don't want to do it and I've accepted your decision.”

  “But I feel lousy!” I cry. “Like I'm letting you down!”

  “You're not,” Dervish says. “Ability and potential mean nothing if the will to compete isn't there.”

  “But even if I had the will, you'd still be better off with the other guy, wouldn't you?” I press, hoping he'll agree.

  Dervish shakes his head and doesn't answer.

  The room where Meera lies unconscious. Dervish tries again to wake her. Again he fails. He returns to his study, rubbing the back of his neck. Sitting behind his desk, he runs his fingers over a phone book. “Time to call my friend,” he says, glancing up at me. “Final chance to change your mind, Grubbs.”

  I don't say a word.

  Dervish opens the book and searches for a number. “Pablo should be here within a few hours. You can go stay in the Vale if you want, but you don't need to. You'll be safe here. The demons won't be able to leave the cellar.”

  I don't reply. Thinking of the battle to come. Filled with shame.

  “If Pablo and I defeat Lord Loss and his familiars, but I lose the one-on-one fight later,” Dervish continues, “you'll have to take care of me.”

  “What?” I mumble.

  “My body will survive if I lose the battle after the chess match,” he explains, “but my soul and mind won't. I'll be able to move about, but I won't be capable of thought or speech. I won't be able to shop, pay bills, cook, clean the house, etc. You'll have to babysit me, or hire somebody to do it.”

  Dervish taps a drawer in his desk. “The necessary forms and information sheets are here. Names and numbers of lawyers and bankers, details of various credit accounts. You have my permission — written as well as verbal — to manage my estate as you see fit, though a large portion will remain in the hands of your legal guardians until you come of age.”

  “I don't want your money,” I sniff.

  “You won't feel that way always,” he smiles. Picks up the phone. Hesitates. Lays it down. “One last thing. If things pan out badly. I'll appear no better than a mindless robot. You might feel sorry for me, be tempted to put me out of my misery.”

  “I wouldn't do that!” I shout. “I'm not a killer! I couldn't —”

  “You could,” Dervish cuts me short. “Most people are capable of extreme actions when pushed.” He licks his lips nervously. “You mustn't. Time is different in the Demonata's universe. There's no telling how long our fight could last. The few who've fought him and returned have been absent for months … years … on one occasion, decades.

  “No matter how much time passes, there's always hope,” he says. “Don't give up on me, Grubbs. Look after my body. I might have need of it again someday.”

  He finds the number in the book, picks up the phone, and starts dialing.

  “Wait,” I stop him. He looks up expectantly. I lick my lips nervously. “What happens if you don't win and I turn into a werewolf later?”

  Dervish's features soften. “‘And the wolf shall lie down with the lamb.’”

  “Come again?” I frown.

  “It's a biblical quote. Isaiah. It's where the Lambs got their name from.” He jerks his head at the desk. “There's a black folder in the second drawer down on the left. Names and numbers for the Lambs. Contact them if the need arises. But only do it if you're sure that you're changing. The Lambs don't mess around. Once you set them in motion, they won't stop, even if you change your mind and try to call them off.”

  “How will I know?” I ask. “Bill-E didn't know he was changing.”

  Dervish chews on his lower lip in thoughtful silence, then says, “Nobody turns without warning. If the lycanthropy strikes, there'll be at least two or three full moons during which you won't physically alter, but run wild like Bill-E did. You won't be able to recall such episodes, but if you find blood under your fingernails, animal hairs between your teeth …”

  Dervish stiffens and speaks roughly. “That's when you need to think about calling in the Lambs.”

  As I stare at him miserably, Dervish returns his attention to the phone and hits the buttons. The phone at the other end rings and is picked up almost instantly. I hear a man say, “Yes?”

  Dervish starts to reply.

  “Tell him it's OK,” I interrupt softly. “Tell him you rang his number by accident.”

  “Grubbs, you don't have to —”

  “I won't live with the threat of the change hanging over me. Or with the guilt of not fighting for Bill-E.” Deep breath. Thinking — crazy for doing this. But also — it's what Dad would have wanted.

  “I'll do it,” I wheeze. “I'll fight Vein and Artery.” The thinnest, most fleeting of smiles. Mock bravado. Grubbs Grady — demon killer! “I'm your man.”

  THE SUMMONING

  THE cellar. Bill-E beating at the bars of his cage with a bloody leg he's torn from the deer, howling madly. Dervish checking the chess boards and weapons, ignoring Bill-E. I want him to talk me out of it, tell me it's madness, reject my offer.

  But he says nothing. In the study, he didn't even ask if I was sure, just nodded once and told Pablo he'd call him some other time. Then it was straight back here. No “Thank you,” or “Well done, Grubbs,” or “I'm proud of you.”

  I examine the chess boards with forced interest, desperate to keep my mind off the weapons. Five boards, laid in a line across the three tables. The Lord of the Rings set in the center, flanked by a board of crystal pieces on one side and Incan-fashioned pieces on the other. The sets at either end are ordinary.

  “Did you lay the boards out that way for a reason?” I ask Dervish.

  “No,” he replies, testing a sword's handle, wiping it clean. “The sets don't matter, as long as there are five.”

  “Explain how the contest works,” I urge him.

  “The games are played simultaneously,” Dervish says without looking over. “When it's my turn, I can move any piece I like, on any board. Lord Loss can then reply to the piece I've moved, or move a piece on a different board.”

  “That must be confusing.”

  “Yes. But it's confusing for him too.” Dervish holds an axe up to the light of a thick candle and squints, judging the sharpness of its blade. “Lord Loss is an accomplished player, and he's had centuries to work on his game, but he has no supernatural advantage. If I keep my head, focus on the moves, and don't lose my nerve, I'll stand a fair chance.”

  “What sort of chance do I stand against Artery and Vein?” I ask.

  Dervish looks at me coldly — then whips his arm forward and sends the axe flying straight at me!

  Instant reaction — I spin — my left hand flies out — my fingers close around the axe handle mid-air — I arc it down, taking the speed out of it — then raise it high to defend myself, heart racing, confused and afraid.

  Then I see my uncle's grin.

  Breathing hard, I stare at Dervish, then at the axe in my hand.

  “That sort,” he says.

  “I still don't know how I caught it,” I grumble, as Dervish searches among his books for a particular volume.

/>   “You don't have to know,” Dervish says. “It's magic.” He pauses and looks up at me. “Your instincts have been sharpened by your previous encounter with the demons. Obey those instincts. Let Vein and Artery set the tone and pace of the battle. React. Don't think. Suspend the laws of reality completely.”

  Dervish returns his attention to the books, finds the one he's after, flicks it open, and stands. “Make your inexperience work for you,” he says. “You can't out-plan or out-think the demons. So don't try. Just go with the flow.”

  “You make it sound easy.”

  “It certainly won't be easy! But if you switch your brain off, you'll be amazed by what your body can do.”

  Dervish lays the book on the floor, bends over it, and reads a passage, running a finger over the words, muttering softly.

 
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