Lord loss, p.16
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       Lord Loss, p.16
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  their next attack — the torment — spurred into action.

  I'm still holding the axe. Summoning all my strength, I lash out with it and bury it dead in the middle of Vein's hard, elongated head. The demon falls away, choking. Her strength deserts her. She falls in a heap. I've killed her!

  I almost shout aloud with glee, until I spot Artery climbing on top of Vein. He pulls the axe out and pushes the edges of the wound together. Blood glows. The wound knots itself closed. Vein gets to her feet, shaken, but very much alive.

  My heart sinks — then leaps. Dervish's cry makes sense now. If the demons can use magic to repair their wounds, so can I! While Vein's still recovering, I point at my severed foot on the other side of the room and will it back into place. For a second nothing happens. Then it vanishes and reappears at the end of my leg. Flesh, bone, and sinews meld. The pain is worse than when it was bitten off. But it works! Within seconds I have my foot back, and though it's sore as hell, it will serve.

  I don't test my weight on the foot. Instead, I calmly spread my arms and imagine myself airborne. With slow grace, I rise. Tucking both legs up behind me, I face the demons, then stab at them with my sword.

  Artery bats my sword away. Vein jumps into the air and snaps for my legs, but I'm too high. I laugh at the demons, then slash at them again. They scatter, Vein to my left, Artery to my right.

  Bloodlust. Sensing victory. I chase after Artery. Hack at him with the sword — miss by bare inches. Hack again — closer. He races from me, wailing, tiny limbs waving in an almost comical manner. Throws himself to the floor in desperation. I have him! Hurling myself forward, I take careful aim with my sword, bring it screaming down, and …

  … hit the strands of web at the boundary of the cellar!

  Sharp resistance, like hitting a steel bar. Bones crack. Sword drops. But worse — I stick! The strands of web are coated with a gluey substance. It clings to my arms, body, legs. I'm a fly stuck to flypaper. Struggling. Trapped. Helpless.

  Artery and Vein gather below me. Their faces split into evil leers. The teeth in Artery's hands gnash dreadfully. Vein's eyes appear beadier than ever. She grips the web with her human hands. Crawls towards me. Artery not far behind.

  Thrashing — tearing at the web — trying to bite through the strand nearest my face. I call upon my magical abilities — wish myself off of the web — it doesn't work! Blind panic — the demons closing in — here comes the kill!

  A CHANGE OF PLAN

  VEIN creeps closer. Artery slithers next to his demonic sister. Both growling softly. My cries die away to a terrified whimper. Watching, sickly fascinated, accepting my doom.

  “No!” Dervish roars, and he's suddenly floating above the demons. Grabs each by the scruff of the neck and hurls them across the width of the cellar, where they crash into webs on the opposite side. He reaches down, grabs my arms, and rips me free of the sticky strands. Presses his fingers into my back where the bones broke. A warm surge of power — the bones knit together.

  “This is unpardonable, Dervish,” Lord Loss mutters from his place at the chess boards. “To abandon our game while it's in progress …” He tuts disapprovingly. “You have broken the rules of our agreement. I am now free to summon as many of my familiars as I wish and set them loose upon you and the boys.”

  “Wait!” Dervish roars as Lord Loss rises. “I'll return to the game!”

  “Too late,” Lord Loss sighs. “Besides, what would be the point? Grubitsch is out of his depth. Let us put an end to this sham. You have disappointed me, Dervish, but there will be other Gradys and other matches.” Lord Loss extends five of his eight arms, picks up Dervish's kings from each board, and starts to crush them.

  “What if Grubbs plays you?” Dervish shouts.

  Lord Loss pauses. “That was not our deal.”

  “We'll make a new deal,” Dervish hisses. “The game continues where I left off. Grubbs assumes my position. I pit myself against your beasts.”

  “Why should I agree to that?” Lord Loss asks. “I have already won.”

  “No,” Dervish disagrees. “We may have forfeited the game — but you haven't won. You can take our lives now, quickly, or you can prolong the agony and savor Grubb's desperation and sorrow as he loses to you.”

  Lord Loss's eyes light up at the mention of desperation and sorrow, but he hesitates before replying. “What if he doesn't lose?” he finally murmurs. “I will have sacrificed the pleasures of a certain victory for the humiliation of defeat.”

  “It's a gamble,” Dervish agrees, “but Grubbs is a poor player. Our chances are slim. Imagine the satisfaction you'll extract as Grubbs slowly and painfully comes to realize he can't win.”

  “You make it sound almost irresistible.” Lord Loss smiles thinly. “But what does the boy think?”

  Dervish looks questioningly at me. I shake my head uncertainly. “I just want it over with,” I sob. “We're going to lose anyway — why drag it out?”

  “As long as there's life, there's hope,” Dervish replies quietly. “And it's not just yourself you'd be playing for — it's me and Billy too. Will you throw away our lives without a fight?”

  I stare at my uncle's cold expression, then at the howling Bill-E in his cage. Wearily, I nod. “I'll try,” I mumble. “If Lord Loss agrees to it, so will I.”

  Dervish's head whips round and he glares at Lord Loss. “Well?” he barks. “Can you match this child's courage, or will you flee with the easy victory?”

  Lord Loss rolls the kings around in the stubby layers of flesh at the ends of his arms, considering the proposal. Then, with a smile, he replaces them on the boards. “Come,” he says, gesturing to the seat which Dervish vacated.

  Gliding to the floor. Dervish sets me down. Pain flares in my left foot. I ignore it. Hobble forward. Gaze at the five boards, the ranks of white and black pieces, then into the demon master's cunning eyes.

  Breathing raggedly. Clearing my thoughts. Trying to remember every lesson Dad and Mom ever taught me.

  I sit.

  Instant peacefulness. An unnatural silence. I stare around the cellar, startled. Everything seems to have stopped. Dervish stands motionless, facing the demons, while Bill-E's frozen at the bars of his cage. Then I realize they are moving — only incredibly slowly.

  “What happened?” I gasp.

  “I have separated our time frame from theirs,” Lord Loss says. “It allows us to play without distractions.”

  I watch as Dervish's right hand slowly comes up, fingers unfurling, red flames streaking from the tips. Slower than snails, Vein and Artery break to the sides, out of the path of the firebolts.

  “Come,” Lord Loss says, tapping the middle board. “The fight is no longer your concern. Focus on the match.”

  With an effort I tear my eyes away from Dervish and the demons and stare at the pieces lined up in front of me. Assessing the damage. I immediately note that the game on the far right board is beyond saving — that's where Lord Loss took Dervish's queen with a bishop. The game on the center board also looks like a lost cause, with white down both knights and a bishop.

  “Depressing, isn't it?” Lord Loss sighs, looking more miserable than I feel. “Dervish was not at his best tonight. His fear for you affected his game. I warned him about that, but he would not listen.”

  Lord Loss picks up the queen he took from the far right board and toys with it. “It's your move, Grubitsch,” he says, “but take your time. There is no rush. Study the pieces. Plan a campaign. Search for openings.”

  I reach towards a rook on the board to my immediate left. Pause. Withdraw my hand without touching the piece. “Can I move any piece, on any board?” I ask.

  “Of course.”

  I run an eye over the five boards again, then pick up a pawn on the board to my far right and move it forward a space. The battle's already lost on that board, so I might as well start there and treat it as a warm-up. Hopefully work my worst moves out of my system.

  “Ah,” Lord Loss n
ods. “A cautious approach. Very wise, young Grubitsch.” He moves a knight forward and checks my king. “It will make no difference to the end result, but at least you may lose with some dignity. Perhaps that will provide you with a glimmer of comfort when you and your unfortunate companions roast tonight in the fires of my own personal hell.”

  It takes Lord Loss nine moves to checkmate me on the far right. When he wins, my king melts into a foul-smelling white puddle. Lord Loss picks up the board, snaps it into pieces, and tosses it aside.

  “Then there were four.”

  Sweating. Fidgeting. Trying to concentrate on the boards. Eyes constantly flicking to Dervish and the demons, locked in slow-motion combat.

  I'm trying to keep play confined to the board on my left — taking the contest one game at a time — but Lord Loss won't oblige. He makes a few moves on that board, then switches to another, then another.

  Though I have a free run of the boards, I can't make more than one move on any board until Lord Loss has replied to it. So, if I make a move on the middle board, and Lord Loss then moves a piece on the board to my far left, I can't make a second move on the board in the middle — I have to wait for Lord Loss to move one of his pieces on it. He's tied by the same rules as me, of course, but it feels like the odds are stacked in his favor, as if I'm the only one restricted.

  I've played chess like this before, but not often, and not recently. Dad tried me on multiple boards when I was younger, saw I wasn't able to maintain my focus, so worked on improving my individual game. Perhaps he'd have tested me again when I was older—if he'd lived.

  It's impossible not to think about my parents and Gret. Did Dad sweat this much when he faced the demon lord? Was Gret half-frozen in time, like Bill-E is now, unaware of what was occurring, but somehow sensing doom? Did Mom lose limbs to the familiars during the fight?

  I move a wizard-shaped rook across the middle board. The game here seems lost, but I'm taking it slowly, hoping a route to victory will present itself.

  “Oh dear,” Lord Loss says, and my stomach sinks. He takes one of my pawns with a bishop, exposing my queen. I'll have to move her now, but that's going to leave my king vulnerable. Any half-hopes I entertained of winning on this board vanish.

  “So sad,” Lord Lord whispers, red eyes glowing dully. “To lose nobly is horrible — but to carelessly throw the game away …”

  “Stuff it,” I half-sob, knowing he's right, hating myself for surrendering so cheaply.

  “You can concede defeat now, if you wish,” he says. “I have no heart, but if I had, there would be room in it for mercy. I will let you —”

  “I said stuff it!” I roar, cutting him off. I brutally push my queen to safety, then turn my thoughts away from the board in the middle and focus on the three on which I still stand a slim chance of winning.

  Lord Loss doesn't finish me off on the center board, but chooses instead to flirt with me on the others, toying with me, threatening my major pieces, letting me escape, then slowly moving back in for the kill.

  I'm playing through tears, fingers shaking, breath rasping in my throat. It's not losing that I despise, but doing so in such a humiliating fashion. I ignored Lord Loss when he spoke of losing with dignity, but now I understand what he meant. To crumble at the moment of truth, to allow your opponent to psyche you out, to defeat yourself by playing dreadfully — that's a million times more sickening than coming, competing, and being beaten fairly.

  “I could chase you forever, Grubitsch,” Lord Loss murmurs, once again sliding a queen backwards on the board to my left, when he could have pressed on with her and ensnared my king. “Perhaps I will.” He smiles with evil pleasure. “Time can barely touch us here. I could make this game last an eternity.”

  I respond by moving a pawn sideways on the far left board. A blind move, born of exhaustion and resignation.

  “I'm afraid that's an illegal move,” Lord Loss says, putting the pawn back on its original spot. “But I'll overlook it this time. Try again.”

  “Why don't you just finish it?” I scream, picking the pawn up and throwing it straight at the demon's face. The pawn sticks in the flesh of Lord Loss's left cheek. He leaves it there a moment, while blood pools around it, then pries it free and places it back on the board.

  “You should be grateful that I procrastinate,” he chuckles, pressing a finger to the fresh cut on his cheek, then licking it clean of blood with his long grey tongue. “This is your final ever game as one of the living. It's only fitting that it should last a lifetime.”

  Hitting brick walls. Every time I advance, Lord Loss drives me back. Every time I go after one of his pieces, he smoothly evades capture. Every time I fall back and group my pieces around my kings — inviting him on, in the hope he'll get arrogant and make a mistake — he circles like a vulture, patient, cold, mocking.

  My temper rises and drops from minute to minute. I scream at him, turn my back, and refuse to play, then give in and beg him to end the torment.

  Through it all he observes me with a slight, cutting smile, which spreads during my darkest moments, as he feeds on my sorrow with relish.

  Since my cause is hopeless, I spend more and more time watching Dervish battle the familiars. He seems to have the upper hand — the pair are wounded in many places — but Vein and Artery are still active, tracking him, probing for weak spots.

  “A nasty nick,” Lord Loss notes as Artery makes a pass and catches Dervish's left hip. Blood sprays into the air in slow motion, each drop vividly visible from where I sit. Dervish's lips press tightly together into a pained wince.

  “I think your uncle might succumb before you do,” Lord Loss says, reluctantly taking one of my pawns. “As brave and resourceful as he is, he cannot continue forever.”

  “You'd like that, wouldn't you?” I snarl. “To see him fail. To be able to pin the blame on him and make him feel guilty. I bet you'd tell him I was enjoying great success on the boards — torment him before you let your slaves finish him off.”

  Lord Loss beams ghoulishly. “You see through me, young Grubitsch,” he purrs.

  “I'm starting to,” I mutter, and return to the game. I'm reaching forward to move a knight when I pause, thinking about what I've just said. I am starting to understand how Lord Loss operates. He isn't a difficult creature to make sense of — as Dervish told me already, the demon master feeds on pain. He thrives on the misery of others.

  “Continue,” Lord Loss encourages me, nodding at the knight. “That's one of your finer moves. You'll threaten both my rook and queen. I'll have to do some quick thinking to wriggle out of this one!” He laughs, as though my cunning delights him.

  But it's not my cunning he craves.

  It's my suffering.

  I withdraw my hand and jam it under the table, thinking furiously. My wits and chess skills are no match for Lord Loss's. I've tried all I can to upset his game plan and disturb his style of play. But what if the answer doesn't lie in the game? What if I can compete with him on an emotional level and undermine him that way?

  Thinking —

  He's a parasite.

  He feeds off the misery of others.

  He takes delight in my failings.

  Observing —

  His smile, how it grows as my mood dips.

  The glow in his eyes when I run out of ideas and break down in tears.

  The eagerness with which he attacks, then withdraws.

  Wondering —

  What would happen if I robbed him of his grisly satisfaction?

  How would he respond if I cut off his supply of desperate grief?

  I close my eyes. Forget the boards, the game, Lord Loss. Think about Dervish and the speed with which he pushed me into this encounter. He could have prepared me for this in advance, told me about Bill-E and Lord Loss, worked with me on my weapons and chess skills, just in case he ever had to use me. But he didn't. He dropped me in it. No training or commands, except one simple, core piece of advice — don't act — react
.

  Understanding clicks in. My eyes snap open. I've been going about this the wrong way! Thinking, plotting, planning — those are all the things Dervish told me not to do. He warned me to obey my instincts, let the magic flow, react to the lunges and parries of the demons. He was talking about hand-to-hand combat, but why shouldn't those guidelines apply at the chess board too?

  I recall the way he launched into the game. No hesitation. No long study of the boards. I assumed it was because he had his game plan set clear in his mind before he sat down — but perhaps he didn't have one at all!

  “Grubitsch?” Lord Loss asks, fake concern in his expression. “Are you well, my young friend? Can you continue?”

  I stare at him wordlessly for a long, pregnant moment.

  Then I laugh.

  “Of course I can!” I boom, startling the demon master. “Forgive me for the long delay — I was trying to remember if I left the light on in my bedroom before coming down.”

  “What?” he blinks.

  “Dad hated it when I left the lights on,” I tell him, casually moving my queen on the middle board forward, presenting her to Lord Loss's rook. “Electricity bills don't pay themselves, you know. Your move.”

  Lord Loss stares at me, astonished, then down at the board. “That was an unwise choice,” he mutters. “Born of haste, perhaps?”

  “No,” I smirk. “I knew what I was doing.”

  “You can retract the piece if you wish,” he says.

  “Really?”

  “It is not normally allowed.” He smiles. “But I will make an exception. Take your queen back. Recalculate. Choose a wiser course of action.”

  “Very kind of you.” I pull the queen back six places to her original position, pause a moment — then move her forward into the exact same spot as before.

  Lord Loss's face darkens. I throw my head back and rock with laughter.

 
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