Lord loss, p.17
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       Lord Loss, p.17
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  “You would be well advised not to try my patience,” he hisses.

  “To hell with your patience,” I jeer. “This game bores me. You bore me. Take my queen or drag things out — I don't care anymore.”

  “You wish to concede defeat?” Lord Loss asks with undue eagerness.

  “Nope,” I chuckle. “You'll have to come take me. And if you don't — if you play it coy, like you have been — I'll chase you. I'll give you no option but to rid me of my queens, rooks, and bishops. And you know what I'll do then, old friend? I'll giggle! I'll guffaw! I'll positively explode with every last scrap of mirth I can muster!”

  “You've lost your mind,” he croaks.

  “No.” I smile spitefully. “You've lost your juicy meal ticket. I won't play the sad, bewildered victim any longer. You'll never feed from me again. You can kill me, but you won't squeeze one further drop of pleasure from me, not if you keep me alive for twenty lifetimes!”

  The demon lord's jaw trembles. His eyes flare with pale red light. The snakes in his chest slide under and over each other in a sudden frenzy. Then he reaches out, pushes his rook forward with a stubby, ill-shaped excuse for a finger, and knocks my elfin queen from the table.

  In response, I look him straight in the eye — and laugh.

  SPIRAL TO THE HEART OF NOWHERE

  LORD Loss surrounds my king on the middle board — checkmate. I giggle as my king melts. While it's still bubbling, I move a knight forward on the board to my right, then sit back and twiddle my thumbs, whistling tunelessly.

  “This show of indifference does not become you,” Lord Loss says stiffly, attacking my knight with a pawn.

  “No show.” I smile, switching play to the board on my far left, shoving a rook deep into enemy territory, barely thinking about it, not pausing afterwards to check my opponent's response.

  “This is ridiculous, Grubitsch,” Lord Loss says. He fakes an encouraging smile. “If you throw the game away, you throw your life away too. You are already two games down. You cannot afford to lose again. You must concentrate. If not, you and your uncle —”

  “Chess is dumb,” I interrupt. “Like all games, it's silly and pointless. People who take it seriously are fools. I'm sorry, but I can't pretend to respect your foolishness any longer, regardless of what's at stake.”

  The demon master's lips peel back from his sharp grey teeth. “I could reach across and crush you into a million pieces!” he hisses.

  “But that won't silence my laughter,” I giggle. “Have you moved?” I lean forward to advance a pawn on the board to my left.

  “Leave that alone!” he shouts. “I haven't had my turn yet!”

  “Well, hurry up,” I tut. “I've wasted enough time on this garbage. Let's get it over and done with.”

  Lord Loss trembles. Starts to say something. Catches himself. Mutters darkly and takes one of my pawns on the far left board. Before he's placed it on the desk, I push forward the pawn on the board to my near left, and once again fall back to studying my thumbs, twirling them mindlessly, thinking about summer, TV, music — anything except Lord Loss, his familiars, and chess.

  Lord Loss isn't smiling any longer. His features are contorted with hatred. He takes long, agonized pauses before each move — not to drag the torment out, but because he's unsure of himself.

  I think about cracking jokes or singing songs, but I don't want to go overboard. Indifference is infuriating enough. He's unaccustomed to opponents showing no interest in the match or their fate. He's had long, delicious decades of pressure contests, feeding off the anxiety of those he faces, growing strong on it. He doesn't know how to cope with a vacant, yawning teenager.

  I don't play blindly, but I play recklessly, pushing forward on all three boards, taking wild chances, surrendering myself to the random mechanics of chess. I'm presenting Lord Loss with more chances to finish me off than he could have ever dreamed of — but he fails to capitalize on them. He's too agitated to press for the kill. He fumblingly takes a few of my pieces but doesn't follow up on the captures.

  And then I start taking his pieces.

  I capture pawns first, a few on each board. I line them up in neat little rows, toying with them while he contemplates his moves. Then one of his knights falls prey to my queen on the board to my right. On the far left board I take a rook and bishop in quick succession. While he struggles to shore up his defenses on that board, I push my queen ahead on the board next to it — straight into the path of a black bishop.

  Lord Loss gasps, his face lighting up. He sweeps the bishop forward, giggling intensely, eyes shining evilly.

  I snort at the demon master's pleasure and slip a knight in behind his bishop. “Check.”

  He freezes. Stares at the knight, then his king, then the captured queen in the mangled palm of his hand. His jaw quivers, then firms. “A clever strategy,” he commends me with icy politeness.

  “Actually, I only saw the opening as you were removing my queen,” I answer honestly. “Lucky, I guess — though luck always plays a part in childish games like these.”

  Lord Loss turns his face away in disgust. “You are a disgrace to the game,” he growls.

  “So punish me,” I goad him. “Make me pay. Put me in my place.” I adopt a very young child's challenging tone. “Dare ya!”

  He hisses. Fixes his gaze on the boards. Studies them feverishly.

  I pick at the nail of my left index finger and wonder if I should start using clippers instead of scissors.

  The balance of power lurches wildly between us. Lord Loss works hard to take three of my pawns. I respond by idly chasing his king with my knight on the board to my left, the one on which I lost my queen. He blocks my path, attacks my knight, and does all he can to repulse me, but I hang in there, amused by his failure to capture my knight. After a while I start thinking how lonely he looks, a single white knight stranded amidst a sea of black, and to provide him with company, I press forward with a bishop and a rook.

  Lord Loss throws everything into smashing the three white irritants. He abandons attack completely and chases my knight, bishop, and rook as though they were responsible for some personal insult. After several frenzied twists and cutbacks, he traps my bishop and chuckles fiercely. “Next move — it's mine!”

  “I reckon you're right,” I sigh, then grin impishly and push a pawn forward. I'm not quite sure how it got there, but it's now only one space away from the end of the board, where I can exchange it for any piece I like. “But on the move after that, my pawn becomes a queen — much preferable to a bishop, don't you think?”

  Lord Loss stares at the pawn, then the knight, then back at the pawn.

  Two of his spare arms unfold around him. He covers his eyes. And moans.

  “Checkmate.”

  I mutter the word emotionlessly and scratch my left elbow. “Can I make your king melt?” I ask curiously.

  Lord Loss doesn't respond. His eyes are fixed on the trapped king on the board to my left, as though he can spot a way out if he looks at it long enough.

  “I asked if I could make your —”

  The black king explodes into tiny shards. I duck to avoid the flying bits of crystal. When I look again, Lord Loss's face is peppered with shiny splinters. Blood trickles from the cuts.

  “You should take more pride in your appearance,” I tell him. “You'll never attract girls with an ugly mug like that.”

  “I'll see you suffer for this,” he says hoarsely, red eyes bulging. “Win or lose, I'll find a way to pay you back for the insults you've dealt me tonight.”

  “I don't know what you're talking about,” I smile. “It surely can't be an insult to show no interest in a game in which I have no interest.”

  “Later,” Lord Loss hisses, head shaking violently. “Later!”

  He turns to the board on my right — the one with the In-can pieces — and broods over it in menacing silence, collecting his thoughts.

  He pushes me hard on the Incan board. Slow but steady adva
nces. Cutting off my avenues of attack. Forcing me back. Pegging me to my own half.

  I take no notice of the mounting threat. When I can't move forward, I slide sideways, dancing out of the path of his soldiers, shrugging it off when he captures one of my rooks, laughing as my knights leap clear of the closing net.

  Lord Loss's breath thickens the closer he gets to victory. Bloody sweat seeps from his pores. He twitches on his chair.

  I ignore the danger I'm in. Keep one eye on Dervish as I shift a pawn forward. He's locked in close-quarters combat with the familiars, holding Artery away from his throat at arm's length, while Vein chews on his left leg. It looks serious, but I observe with cool disinterest.

  Lord Loss grunts contentedly and takes my pawn. A path is opening up to my king. Another few moves and I'll have to sacrifice my queen.

  “You're not laughing now,” Lord Loss notes sadistically.

  “Only because my laughter seems to disturb you,” I smile sweetly, sending one of my knights to the right of the board, to cover my queen.

  Lord Loss brings up a rook, blocking my queen's path of retreat. I move my knight again, lodging it between my queen and his rook. Grinning wickedly, he swiftly takes my knight with a pawn.

  I wince — then wink. “I can't believe you fell for that one,” I chortle.

  Picking up my queen, I slide her diagonally far up the board, through the gap left by the pawn he moved when capturing my knight — and knock Lord Loss's black queen clean off the table.

  His breath stops. His mouth closes. His stomach rumbles.

  “Checkmate in four moves,” I note drily. “Or is it three?”

  In response, Lord Loss picks up his king and crushes it softly between his mangled fingers.

  “Two-two,” he croaks, and turns to the board on my far left — the final board — the decider.

  Lord Loss moves his pieces sluggishly. He plays with sad remoteness, face cast in dull misery, flinching every time I capture one of his pieces, handling the game to me without a real fight.

  I feel a bubble of joy rising in my chest — and swiftly move to burst it. If I show any emotion now, he might seize upon it and revive with a flourish. Although it's difficult, I remain detached, moving my pieces instinctively, automatically, not dwelling upon thoughts of victory.

  Gradually I rip his defenses to shreds. I check his king and he beats a sad retreat. For a couple of moves he threatens my queen, but then I drag her out of the way and check him again, with a rook. For a second time his king is forced to flee.

  A short while later I trap him on the left side of the board.

  He's caught between my queen, two knights, and a bishop. He starts to move his king. Pauses. Does a double-take. Sighs deeply and slowly tips the king over.

  “Checkmate,” he intones morosely.

  I blink — I hadn't seen it. “Are you sure?” I ask, frowning.

  In response he pushes himself away from the table and floats out of his chair, face impassive.

  Real time crashes over me. I'm hit by a wave of hot air. Sounds — Bill-E's howls, the snapping of Vein and Artery's teeth, Dervish's grunts. I spin. My uncle's on the floor, furiously wrestling with the demons. Blood everywhere. His left leg cut to ribbons. His right hand chewed off.

  “Stop them!” I scream, darting to Dervish's aid.

  Artery hears me, turns, and snarls. Spreads his hands wide — morsels of Dervish's flesh caught between his teeth. Rises to meet me.

  “Peace, Artery,” Lord Loss says, and the demon stops. “Cease, Vein,” he commands, and the crocodile-headed monster quits chewing on Dervish's arm and looks questioningly at her master. “I have been beaten. We must respect the rules of the game.”

  The demons chatter and gibber madly. The flames in Artery's eyes flare and he hisses at his lord, shaking his head negatively. Vein snaps her jaws open and shut, then turns again on Dervish.

  “You will obey me,” Lord Loss says softly, “or I shall have your heads.”

  The demons pause. Then Vein clamps her teeth around Dervish's arm. Dervish screams. A blinding red light fills the cellar. I shut my eyes and cover my face with my arms. When I dare look again, Vein's lying in scraps of bloody flesh around my uncle. Artery has backed up to one of the webs and is whimpering fearfully.

  Lord Loss floats over to Dervish and studies him blankly as he sits up and sets to work on his injuries, using magic to patch himself back together.

  “I won,” I remark, carefully approaching my preoccupied uncle, wary of Lord Loss — he might have killed the rebellious Vein, but I still don't trust him.

  “So I see,” Dervish says, not glancing up from his wounds. I'm bitterly disappointed by his reaction. I expected cheers and tears, hugging and back-slapping — not this.

  “You needn't sound so excited about it,” I sniff.

  Dervish looks up at me. A thin smile crosses his lips, then vanishes. “I'm delighted, Grubbs,” he sighs. “Truly. But this isn't over for me. I have to fight Lord Loss now, and it's a fight I probably won't win. So while I'm ecstatic for you and Billy, I'm a little too worried about myself to celebrate.”

  “What are you talking about? We won. I beat him. We can …”

  I stop, recalling the full rules of the challenge. Lord Loss is under oath to cure the person affected by lycanthropy if he loses at chess — but the one who beats him has to travel to the Demonata's universe and fight him there.

  “But I beat him!” I cry, stooping to catch Dervish's eye. “I'm the one who has to go with him and —”

  “No,” Dervish interrupts. “The player always goes, while the one who fought the familiars remains. But since we swapped roles, we can choose who goes and stays. Isn't that right?” he asks Lord Loss.

  Lord Loss nods slightly. “It is an ambiguous point, but I have had enough of the boy. I shall seek him out some other time. As I vowed, he will pay for his humiliation of me, but for now I wish only to wash my hands of him.”

  “But you're wounded!” I protest. “You're not fit to fight anymore. Let me. I know how to beat him. I can do it. I'll —”

  “This isn't a debate,” Dervish says gruffly. He grips both my hands in his and squeezes tightly. “You performed brilliantly on the boards, Grubbs, but this is a different matter. He's far stronger in his own universe than he is here. Leave it to me, OK?”

  Tears roll down my cheeks unchecked. “I don't want to lose you,” I sob.

  “But you must,” he says, smiling. “At least for a while.” He finishes healing himself and stands, groaning loudly. Turns to Lord Loss. “The cure?”

  Lord Loss sneers. “I had not forgotten.” He floats across the room to the cage. Bill-E backs away, snarling fitfully, but at a gesture from the demon master he flies across the cage and thrusts his arms through the bars. Lord Loss wraps two of his own arms around Bill-E's and slides the other six through the bars of the cage, encompassing the struggling werewolf. He exerts pressure, until Bill-E goes stiff, then presses his face forward, places his lips over Bill-E's, and ex-hales heavily, as though giving the kiss of life.

  Bill-E's fingers fly out rigidly, then curl up into tight fists. His legs shake fitfully, then go slack. After ten or twelve seconds, Lord Loss breaks contact and releases Bill-E. He floats backwards, coughing and spitting. Bill-E teeters on his feet a moment, then crumples to the floor.

  I start towards my brother, concerned. Dervish stops me. “Wait. He'll be OK. There are things I must tell you before we say goodbye.” I face my uncle, who speaks quickly. “You know where the forms, credit cards, and contact numbers are. Use them. Act swiftly. Don't be ashamed to ask for help. And don't let the authorities take you away from here. They might interfere when they discover the condition I'm in, seek to separate you from me. Don't let them.” His face is grim. “Lord Loss has threatened you — that's serious. He can't harm you in Carcery Vale — as long as you stay out of this cellar — but you're vulnerable elsewhere. In time you'll learn spells to protect yourself — friends o
f mine will help — but for now you mustn't leave the Vale.”

  “What can I do to stop them?” I ask.

  “Stand up to them. Sic my lawyers — your lawyers — on them. Be brave. Prove you're fit to live independently. Don't give them any excuse to take you away. Meera will help — if she recovers — but you'll have to do a lot of it yourself.”

  Lord Loss has drifted to the edge of the cellar while we've been talking. He's floating in front of a thick bank of webs, gesturing at them with all eight arms, muttering something inhuman. Artery has crept up beside his master and squats sullenly next to him.

  As I watch, the webs shimmer, then twist in a clockwise direction, winding and wrapping together. The center of the web pulses outwards a couple of times, then stretches backwards at lightning speed, cutting a path through the layers of webs behind it, creating an impossibly long, rotating funnel from the cellar to some indefinite point beyond.

  “Take care of Billy,” Dervish says. “He won't remember any of this. It's up to you how much you tell him. I won't advise you one way or the other on that point. If you start to change …” He hesitates, then presses on. “Meera and one of my other friends might challenge Lord Loss on your behalf. If you want to make a fight of it, ask Meera, and she can —”

  “No,” I interrupt softly. “I won't put anybody else through this. It wouldn't be fair. If the curse hits me, I'll abandon myself to it, call in the Lambs. But I won't ask anyone to face Lord Loss for me.”

  Dervish smiles wanly. “You might lose some of those noble ideals when you get a bit older.” His smile softens. “But I hope not.”

  “It is time, Dervish Grady,” Lord Loss says. The spiraling funnel he's created glows redly, the webs revolving rapidly. Artery leaps onto the web at the rim of the funnel. He's sucked into it instantly. Spins around several times, head over heels, then vanishes down the funnel's maw, never to be seen in these parts again — I hope.

  “Must you go?” I sob, clutching Dervish's hands.

  “Yes,” he answers simply. “If I refused, he could bring his hordes of familiars through and destroy us all.”

  “How will I know … if you're … successful?” I gulp.

 
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