Lord loss, p.15
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       Lord Loss, p.15
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  “What are you doing?” I ask.

  “Several spells must be cast to open a window between Lord Loss's world and ours,” Dervish says. “I have to make sure it's a small gateway — we don't want other demons following him through.”

  “That can happen?”

  “Sure. The Demonata are always eager to cross the divide and wreak havoc. They'll seize any opening that presents itself.”

  “But don't you know the spells already?” I frown. “I thought you summoned him before.”

  “I did,” Dervish nods. “Several times. But some spells are best not memorized.”

  He finishes the paragraph and closes the book. Walks to the wall to his left and lays both hands on it. “I'm starting now,” he says, “but it'll be twenty minutes, maybe half an hour before the window opens. Stay close to the tables. Relax. Don't distract me.”

  While I lean against a table, nervously tapping and scratching at the wood, Dervish mutters arcane words at the wall, drawing signs upon it with his fingers. After a few minutes, steam seeps from the rough stone. Dervish leans into the steam, inhales, turns, and breathes out.

  A shadowy bat flies from his mouth and flits across the cellar. I duck instinctively, even though it's nowhere near me. When I look again, the bat has vanished and Dervish has moved on to another patch of wall.

  Fifteen minutes into the summoning. All the walls are steaming. The air of the cellar is moist and hot, like in a sauna. Bill-E makes deep choking noises and flaps at the air with blood-red hands. Dervish has been breathing out a variety of smoky creatures — bats, snakes, dogs, insects. As I watch, he turns and exhales his largest yet — a full-sized wolf.

  Bill-E gibbers wildly at the sight. Hisses at it, then ducks to the rear of his cage and crouches low, whimpering, as the spirit wolf floats towards him, evaporating before it touches the bars.

  At any other time I'd feel pity for the poor beast Bill-E has become, but right now there's only room in my heart for terror.

  Dervish steps away from the walls at last, eyes closed, face contorted. Walks directly to the folder containing the Lord Loss drawings. Picks it up and clutches it to his chest.

  “This is where things get weird,” he mutters, as steam pours from the walls and transparent worms drift in and out of his mouth.

  “I can't wait,” I half-laugh, almost hysterical.

  “Whatever happens, don't scream,” Dervish says. “We're at our most vulnerable while I'm searching the various portals for the one that connects with Lord Loss's realm. A scream could attract the interest of other demons — and that might be the end of us.”

  “We'll probably end on a grisly note anyway,” I say gloomily.

  “Perhaps,” Dervish agrees. “But there are worse demons than Lord Loss.”

  My thoughts threaten to spin out of control as I try to imagine anything worse than Lord Loss. Then Dervish spreads his arms and barks a loud command, and the world dissolves around me.

  Walls and ceiling fading. Infinite space … a scattering of stars … meteors streak across the sky. But this space isn't black — it's red. An unending sky of redness, encircling the cellar like the drapes of hell.

  The temperature escalates off the scale. Some of Dervish's books burst into flame and incinerate instantly. The bars of Bill-E's cage glow from the heat. All the candles in the cellar melt to the wick.

  I check my clothes and hair, expecting flames, but although I can feel the terrible heat, it isn't burning me. Dervish and Bill-E aren't harmed either. Nor are the chess sets.

  “Why aren't we toast?” I cry. The words come out as a croak — my mouth and throat are unbelievably dry.

  “Protected,” Dervish wheezes in reply, then lays a finger to his lips and shakes his head — no more speaking. He points to a meteor screaming across the sky overhead. As I gaze up, I realize it isn't a meteor — it's some enormous, incomprehensible, reality-defying monster!

  Dervish squats and places both palms on the floor, which ripples beneath his touch, as if made of water. Muttering some spell — or prayer — he turns in a circle. His eyes are yellow when I next catch sight of his face, his teeth sharp and grey.

  I open my mouth to scream — remember his warning — shut my lips quickly.

  Dervish continues turning, and when he faces me again he looks normal. Standing, he picks up one of the unburnt books, flicks it open, and starts singing. Long, complicated words. His voice unnaturally clear and beautiful.

  The red sky shimmers, then darkens as Dervish sings. I lose sight of the stars and meteor-monsters. The room slips into a hot, fearful blackness — no candles to shed any light. The last thing I see — Dervish, eyes closed, singing as though his life depended on it.

  I feel alone in the darkness, though I know by Dervish's singing and Bill-E's grunts and whines that I'm not. Whistling sounds around me. Something long and silky brushes against my cheeks. I swipe at it, terrified — nothing there.

  Dervish stops singing. The sudden silence is as disorienting as the lack of light.

  “Dervish?” I whisper, not wishing to distract him, but needing to know he's still there.

  “It's OK, Grubbs,” comes his voice. “Don't move.”

  “It's dark,” I note redundantly.

  “We'll have all the light we care for soon enough,” he promises.

  An object brushes my left ear. I flinch. “There's something in the room with us!” I hiss.

  “Yes,” Dervish says. “Take no notice. Stand your ground.”

  It isn't easy, but I obey my uncle's order. The whistling sounds increase in volume, and I'm struck in various places by what feels like thick strands of rope. I wince and rub at my flesh, but otherwise don't react.

  Gradually I notice a dull grey glow all around me, which grows in strength, illuminating the distorted cellar. The walls have been replaced by thick strands of cobwebs, which stretch away, layer after layer, apparently endless. Many of the strands are stained with blood. Some are as thick as a tree trunk, while others are as thin as a line of thread.

  From one of the strands hang the severed heads of Mom, Dad, and Gret.

  I can't hold back the scream, but Dervish anticipated this. He slides behind me and clamps both hands over my mouth. I howl into the flesh of his palms, wild, sobbing, reaching for the heads, while at the same time trying to back away from them.

  “They aren't real, Grubbs,” Dervish grunts, struggling to contain me. “They're illusions. Let your fear go and they'll vanish.”

  I thrash more wildly in response. Can't think straight. The heads seem to be growing. Eyes huge, filled with sadness and pain. Mom's lips move silently. Gret sticks here tongue out at me — it's alive with maggots.

  “They're testing you!” Dervish growls, fingers tightening over my lips. My neck's strained almost to snapping point. “If they can drive you insane, I'll have nobody to protect me from Artery and Vein!”

  The names of the demons penetrate. Fighting the terror, I stare at the faces of my parents and sister, and spot minor mistakes — Dad's nose bends to the wrong side, Gret's hair shouldn't be that long, Mom's eyebrows are too thick.

  I stop shaking. Lower my hands. Dervish releases me, but stays close, ready to gag me if I start screaming again.

  “How do I make them go away?” I moan.

  “Show you're not afraid,” Dervish says. “Look at them without flinching.”

  “It's hard.”

  “I know. For me too. But you can do it, Grubbs. You have to.”

  Deep breaths. Exerting control. I lift my eyes and train them on the three heads dangling in front of me. Their features twist. Mom and Gret hiss at me hatefully. I don't look away.

  Under the strength of my gaze, the heads disintegrate, melting like the candles. The web vibrates. The air bubbles. The molten waxy flesh of the heads rises, twisting, forming itself into three new shapes. A crocodile-headed dog. A murderous baby. And their master — Lord Loss.

  “It begins,” Dervish sighs, and step
s forward to confront the demons.

  THE BATTLE

  DERVISH stops at the place where the floor gives way to webs, spreads his arms, and shouts something unintelligible. Blue flames crackle from the tips of his fingers. He brings his hands together, then touches a thick strand of web. Blue fire runs up the thread to where it connects with another. Like lightning it streaks from strand to strand, arcing ever closer to Lord Loss and his familiars. Lord Loss shows no sign of fear. When the blue flame reaches him, it sizzles and hisses around him, but he only smiles and waves a hand, and the flame sputters out.

  Lord Loss stretches his arms above his head. As he does, six other arms unfold from around his body, three on either side. No fingers, just mangled lumps of flesh at the ends. The demon master grips two strands, one with either set of hands, and climbs towards us like a grotesque spider. Vein and Artery follow close behind their master. Vein yapping, Artery snapping his teeth.

  Studying the demons with terror. So many details I'd forgotten. The tiny mouths in Artery's palms, the fact that he doesn't have a tongue in any mouth, the writhing cockroaches on his head, the fierceness of the flames burning in his empty eye sockets. Vein's tiny cruel eyes, her long leathery snout, bits of flesh caught between her teeth, the sleekness of her canine coat, female hands instead of paws. And Lord Loss — red skin stained with blood that oozes from hundreds of thousands of ragged cracks, his strange dark red eyes, and the hole where his heart should be, filled with writhing, hissing snakes.

  The demons come to the end of the web and hesitate, swaying on a thin strand like evil vultures on a vine. Dervish stands beneath them, cool as a chunk of ice, hands pressed together.

  “Hello, Dervish,” Lord Loss says, his voice even sadder than I remembered. “It is good to see you again, my doomed friend.”

  “Good to see you also,” Dervish replies tightly. Vein snaps at him, trying to frighten him, but Dervish only sniffs with disinterest.

  “And my younger friend, poor Grubitsch Grady.” Lord Loss sighs, subjecting me to his eerie red gaze. “Your sorrow is still strong. So sweet.” His face wrinkles and blood seeps from cracks on both cheeks. He licks the blood from his flesh with an inhumanly long tongue, then extends a hand. “Come to me, Grubitsch. Let me feed on your pain. Misery should be celebrated, not endured. In my world you will be an emperor of suffering. Be mine, Grubitsch. Turn your back on this insane challenge and accept your true destiny.”

  I find myself sneering, and without meaning to, I draw myself up straight, glare openly at the demon lord, and snap, “Stick it up your crack, you warped son of a mutant bitch!”

  Lord Loss's face drops. Vein and Artery gibber furiously. Dervish laughs.

  “You will pay for that insult,” Lord Loss snarls, eyes glowing, blood flowing.

  “Only if we lose,” Dervish chuckles. “You can't touch him if we win.”

  “Oh, but Dervish, you won't win,” Lord Loss says, his voice reverberating with gloominess. “I wish there was hope — you remind me of Bartholomew Garadex, a most rare human. But you must face facts — this night you die. The boy is weak, unfit for such a challenge.”

  “Don't listen to him,” Dervish warns me. “He's trying to make you think you're lost before you start.”

  “I know what he's up to — it won't work,” I grunt. But inside I'm not so cocky. There's such sadness in the demon's voice and eyes. Is it true? Are we destined to lose?

  “One final chance, Grubitsch,” Lord Loss whispers. “Give yourself to me now and you can avoid the terror and agony. Your death will not be quick, but it will be pleasurable. Your mother, at the end, wished she had accepted my offer. She begged to serve me, but it was too late.”

  “I don't believe you,” I say evenly. “Mom would never have begged a piece of scum like you for anything — even her life!”

  Lord Loss's eyes narrow. “A second insult,” he murmurs. “You shall not make a third.” He faces Dervish. “I tire of these vain human posturings. I came to play chess. Are you ready?”

  “Yes.”

  “Who will take to the boards with me?”

  “I will.”

  Lord Loss lays a hand over his mouth to cover a small smile. “The boy is to fight Vein and Artery? I am astonished. I assumed Grubitsch was a chess maverick who would pit his wits against mine. But to throw him into combat with my savage familiars …”

  “Grubbs will be fine,” Dervish says, but his voice doesn't ring with confidence.

  “So be it,” Lord Loss sighs. “I would have rather fought a noble contest, but if you are to play into our hands, there is nothing for it but to sweep to a swift victory and make a quick end of you.”

  Lord Loss lowers himself off of the web and hovers just in front of Dervish, the jagged strips of flesh at the ends of his legs never touching the ground. Six of his arms fold around his ribs, leaving the upper pair free. Blood drips from his body and sizzles when it hits the stones of the floor.

  Dervish steps aside and points to the chess boards. Lord Loss drifts towards them, lips splitting into the closest he can get to a genuinely warm smile. He circles the tables, running his fingers over some of the chess pieces. On the web, Vein and Artery snap and spit, scratching impatiently at the silky strands, hungry for battle and blood.

  “I hope you prove more worthy an opponent than your brother, Dervish,” Lord Loss says spitefully. “He was on the back foot from the fourth move. It was quite embarrassing, the ease with which he succumbed. I think, deep down, he secretly wished to lose — just as Grubitsch does.”

  “Shut up!” I yell, taking an angry step towards him, hands clenched into fists.

  “Easy, Grubbs,” Dervish mutters. “He's trying to goad you. Ignore his crap. Clear your mind. Focus on the fight.”

  “Wise advice,” Lord Loss nods. “But Grubitsch is unable to heed it. He is full of fire and fury — like his mother. Her failures proved to be your father's downfall. He might have fared better had he not been so worried about her, just as Dervish is worried about you. What will you say to your uncle when you fail him, Grubitsch? How will you apologize for —”

  “If this continues,” Dervish interrupts softly, “the game's off.” Lord Loss stares at him archly. “I'm not bluffing. Let it be a fair contest, me against you, Grubbs against your slaves, or there'll be no contest at all.”

  “You would sacrifice the wretched Billy Spleen so cheaply?” Lord Loss smirks.

  “If I have to,” Dervish says, and his face is stone.

  Lord Loss studies my uncle in troubled silence, then shrugs and sits on the side of the chess boards behind the black pieces. “Very well. We shall dispense with the pleasantries. Take your place, Dervish Grady, and face your finish.”

  Dervish walks across to me. Grips my shoulders. Stares hard into my eyes. “You know what you have to do,” he says. “Fight hard and dirty — to the death.”

  “Piece of cake,” I grin weakly. “Good luck.”

  “We make our own luck tonight,” he says in reply. He releases me and marches to the chess boards. Sits, takes a breath, then without any formalities reaches forward, grips a pawn on the middle board, and moves it forward.

  Immediately, Vein and Artery leap from the web and zone in on me, screeching, snarling, the stench of death thick in the air about them.

  No time to check Lord Loss's response to Dervish's opening move. I toss myself wildly to the left. Vein shoots overhead, crocodile jaws snapping together on thin air, human fingers wriggling.

  Artery lands on my back. His left hand grabs my neck. Teeth bite into my flesh. I howl and roll over, seeking to squash the hell-child. He leaps free before I complete the move, chuckling darkly.

  In the cage, Bill-E roars and shakes the bars, sensing the threat of the demons even in his beastlike form.

  Vein attacks again, bounding across the floor. My right hand snakes out. Fingers open. An axe jumps into my palm from the pile of weapons several meters away. I sit up and throw. It arcs towards Vein. Bounces
hard off her snout. Only a scratch, but the wound makes her pause.

  I rise without using the muscles in my legs. Look down — I'm hovering in the air! Close my mind to the impossibility of the situation. Extend both hands. An axe flies into my left, a short sword into my right. I look for the demons. They're huddled side by side, glaring at me.

  “Come and get it, creeps!” I grunt, twirling the axe like a baton.

  “A clever maneuver,” Lord Loss notes, clapping drily. “Did you teach him that one, Dervish?”

  “Never mind the commentary,” Dervish growls. “It's your move.”

  My eyes dart to the boards. Incredibly, dozens of moves have been made in the few seconds since the game began. Play is at an advanced stage on all five sets.

  Artery attacks while I'm distracted. Faster than my eye can follow, he crosses the room, jumps, and drags down hard on my legs. I kick at him, but he scrabbles up above my knees. The teeth in his hands sink into both my thighs. I scream. Artery laughs. Vein yaps excitedly. Bill-E butts the bars of his cage with his head and tries to bite through them.

  I collapse to the floor. Artery's shaken loose by the jolt. I kick him backwards. He barrels into a pile of charred books, scattering them, squealing viciously.

  Vein's on me before I can get up. Her teeth clamp around my outstretched left leg. She bites through my shinbone. Rips her head left and right. Flesh and bone tear. My foot and ankle fly across the room. Blood pumps from the lower part of my left leg — agony!

  Vein and Artery scramble to the wound. Immerse their faces in the spray of blood. Gulp it down. Push each other out of the way, hungry for the taste of me.

  Shaking — going into shock — eyes rolling — room spinning — numb to the pain — watching the demons feed — defeated — dying.

  “Use your magic!” Dervish screams. My eyes half-focus. He's standing, face ashen. “Magic!” he bellows again, as Lord Loss grins and takes one of Dervish's queens with a bishop.

  Staring at the demons — their faces red with my blood — imagining
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