Lord loss, p.3
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       Lord Loss, p.3
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  “Disobey me at your peril, Artery,” the monster says softly. The barbaric baby drops its hands and shuffles backwards, the fire in its eyes dimming. The croc-dog retreats too. Both keep their sights on me.

  “Such sadness,” the monster sighs, and there's genuine pity in his tone. “Parents — dead. Sister — dead. All alone in the world. Face to face with demons. No idea who we are or why we're here.” He pauses, and doubt crosses his expression. “You don't know, do you, Grubitsch? Nobody ever explained, or told you the story of lonely Lord Loss?”

  I still can't answer, but he reads the ignorance in my eyes and smiles thinly, painfully. “I thought not,” he says. “They sought to protect you from the cruelties of the world. Good, loving parents. You'll miss them, Grubitsch — but not for long.” The creatures to my left and right make sick, chuckling sounds. “Your sorrow shall be short-lived. Within minutes I'll set my familiars upon you and all will soon finish. There will be pain — great pain — but then the total peace of the beyond. Death will come as a blessing, Grubitsch. You will welcome it in the end — as your parents and sister did.”

  The monster drifts around me. I realize he has no nose, just two large holes above his upper lip. He sniffs as he passes, and I somehow understand that he's smelling my fear.

  “Poor Grubitsch,” he murmurs, stopping in front of me again. This close, I can see that his red skin is broken by tiny cracks, seeping with drops of blood. I also notice several appendages beneath his arms — three on either side, folded around his stomach. They look like thin, extra arms, though they might just be oddly molded layers of flesh.

  “Wh-wh … what … are … you?” I moan, forcing the words out between my chattering teeth.

  “The beginning and end of your greatest sorrows,” the monster replies. He says it plainly — not a boast.

  “Mu-Mom?” I gasp. “Dad? Gr-Gr … Gr …”

  “Gone,” he whispers, shaking his head, blood oozing from the cracks in his neck. “Remember them, Grubitsch. Recall the golden memories. Cherish them in these, your final moments. Cry for them, Grubitsch. Give me your tears.”

  He smiles eagerly and his right hand reaches for my face. He brushes his mashed-together fingers across my left cheek, just beneath my eye, as though trying to charm tears from me.

  The touch of his skin — moist, tough, sticky — repels me. Without thinking. I turn my back on the hell of my parents' bedroom and run. Behind me, the monster chuckles darkly, clears his throat, and says, “Vein. Artery. He is yours.”

  With vile, vicious howls of delight, the creatures give chase.

  The landing. Growls and grinding teeth getting closer every second. Almost upon me. My legs slip. I sprawl to the floor. Something flies overhead and collides with the wall at the top of the stairs — the croc-dog, Vein.

  A tiny hand snags on my left ankle. Artery's teeth close on the cuffs of my jeans. I pull away instinctively. Ripping — a long strip of material torn clean away. No damage to my leg. Artery rolls backwards, choking on the denim.

  Vein scrambles to its feet, shaking its elongated crocodile's head. My eyes fix on its legs. They don't end in dog's paws, but in tiny human hands, with long, blood-stained, splintered nails — a woman's.

  I wriggle past Vein on my stomach and drag myself down the stairs, gasping with terror. Out of the corner of my eye I spy Artery spitting out the denim, jumping to his feet, rushing after me.

  Vein crouches at the top of the stairs, reptilian eyes furious, readying itself — herself — to pounce. Just as she leaps, Artery crashes into her. Vein yelps as her companion accidentally crushes her against the wall. Artery wails like a baby, kicks Vein out of the way, and totters down the stairs in pursuit of me.

  My hands hit floor. I lurch to my feet and start for the front door. I've a good lead on Artery, who's still on the stairs. I'm going to make it! A few more strides and …

  Something brushes between my legs at an incredible speed. There's a sharp clattering sound. The door shakes. At its base, Artery rights himself and grins at me. The grotesque hell-child is rubbing his right shoulder, where he collided with the door. The fire in his eyes burns brighter than ever. His mouth is wide and twisted. No tongue — just a gaping, blood-red maw.

  I scream incoherently at Artery, then grab the telephone from its stand — the closest object to hand — and lob it with all my strength at the demon. Artery ducks sharply. Unbelievably, the telephone smashes through the door, ending up in the street outside.

  I have no time to ponder this impossible feat of strength. Artery's momentarily disoriented. Vein's only halfway down the stairs. I can escape — if I act quickly.

  Making a sharp turn, I dive for the kitchen and the back door. Artery reads my intentions and bellows at Vein. The croc-dog leaps from the stairs and sails for my face and throat. I bring up an arm and swat her away. Vein's nails catch on my arm, rip through the material of my shirt and make three deep gouges in the flesh of my forearm.

  Yelling with pain, I kick out at the demon's crocodile head. My foot hits it just beneath the tip of its snout. Vein's head snaps back and she tumbles away with a grunt.

  I don't stop to check on Artery. I burst through to the kitchen and throw myself at the door. My fingers tighten on the handle. I twist — the wrong way! Reverse the movement. A click. The door opens …

  … and slams shut again as Artery rams it. The force of the demon banging into the door knocks me aside. I roll out of harm's immediate way. When I sit up, Artery has recovered and is standing in front of the door, legs and arms spread, three sets of teeth glinting in the glow of the red light cast by the fire of his eyeless sockets.

  I back away on my knees from the green-skinned hell-child. Stop — growling to my rear. A panicked glance. Vein closing in, blocking my retreat.

  I'm caught between them.

  Artery's smiling. He knows I'm finished. A cockroach topples from his head, lands on its back, rights itself. It starts to scuttle away. Artery steps on the roach and crushes it. Holds his foot up to me, so that I can see the insect's smeared remains. Laughs evilly.

  A snapping sound behind me. The stench of blood and decay. Vein almost upon me. Artery hisses — he wants to join in the bloodshed, but he's wary. Won't desert his post. Better to stay and watch Vein kill me than go for the kill himself and leave the door unguarded. I sense the demon's fear of the one upstairs. He called these two his familiars — that means he's their master.

  Vein butts me in the back with her leathery snout. Growls throatily. It's over. I'm finished. Dead, like Mom and Dad and …

  “No!” I roar, startling the demons. My thoughts flash on the telephone smashing through the sturdy wood of the front door, and Artery and the speed with which he moved. My eyes fix on the dog flap. Much too small to fit through, but I don't think of that. I focus only on escape.

  I bring my legs up. Come to a half-crouch. Propel myself at the dog flap as Vein snaps for me with her teeth. I fly through the air, faster than any human should or could. The fire in Artery's sockets flares with alarm. The demon snaps his tiny legs together. Too late! Before they close, I'm through, fingers pushing the dog flap up out of the way, arms, body and legs following. Shrieks and howls behind. But they can't harm me now. I'm flying … outside … free!

  Soaring. Arms spread like wings. Exhilaration. Magic. Momentary delight. I feel invincible, like a —

  Smash!

  The backyard fence cuts short my flight. I hit the ground hard. Come up groaning and wheezing. Right elbow cut where I rocketed off the rough wood of the fence. Woozy. I stagger to my feet. Feel sick.

  I remember the demons. My eyes snap to the dog flap. I turn to run …

  … then stop. No sign of them. Ordinary night silence.

  They aren't following.

  I stare at the dog flap — tiny — then at my arms and legs. The three red ravines gouged out by Vein. My shirt and jeans ripped from where the demons snagged me. My left shoe missing — it must have come off m
id-flight. But otherwise I'm unharmed.

  No way! Even if the dog flap had been bigger, I couldn't have dived through it at that speed without scraping myself raw. How did … ?

  All questions die unvoiced as I recall the horror show of the bedroom.

  “Mom,” I sob, staggering towards the back door. I pause with my hand on the handle. Almost turn it. Can't.

  I get down on my knees. Cautiously poke open the dog flap. Peer into the kitchen. No demons — but the many bloody prints on the tiles are proof I didn't imagine the chase.

  On my feet. Again I try to enter. Again I can't bring myself to do it. Memories too terrifying. The demons too threatening. If I could help my family, perhaps it would be different. But they're dead, all of them, and I have too much sense (or not enough courage) to risk my life for a trio of corpses.

  Stepping back from the door, I stare up at the house. It looks like all the others from the outside. No webs. No blood. Normal walls and windows.

  “Gret,” I mutter mindlessly. “I never said sorry for the rat guts.”

  I think about that for a moment, stunned, sluggish. Then I raise my face, open my mouth, and scream.

  It's a wordless scream. Pure hatred. Pure sorrow. It builds from somewhere deep within me and bursts forth with the same impossible force I summoned when lobbing the telephone at Artery and diving through the dog flap.

  The glass in the windows shatters and explodes inwards, ripping curtains to shreds, littering floors with jagged, transparent shards. The glass in the houses to either side also explodes. And in the nearby cars and street lamps.

  I scream as long as I can — perhaps a full minute without pause — then lapse into a silence as all-encompassing as the scream. It's an isolated silence. Almost solid. No sounds trickle out and none penetrate.

  After a while people emerge from the neighboring houses, shaken, making their cautious way to the source of the insane howl. I see their mouths moving, but I don't hear their questions, or their cries when they enter my house and come racing out shortly after, faces white, eyes filled with terror.

  I'm in a world of my own. A world of webs and blood. Demons and corpses. Nightmares and terror. The name of the world from this night on — home.

  DERVISH

  LOST, spiraling time. Muddled happenings. Flitting in and out of reality. Momentarily here, then gone, reclaimed by madness and demons.

  Clarity. A warm room. Police officers. I'm wrapped in blankets. A man with a kind face offers me a mug of hot chocolate. I take it. He's asking questions. His words sail over and through me. Staring into the dark liquid of the mug, I begin to fade out of reality. To avoid the return to nightmares, I lift my head and focus on his moving lips.

  For a long time — nothing. Then whispers. They grow. Like turning up the volume on the TV. Not all his words make sense — there's a roaring sound inside my head — but I get his general drift. He's asking about the murders.

  “Demons,” I mutter, my first utterance since my soul-wrenching cry.

  His face lights up and he snaps forward. More questions. Quicker than before. Louder. More urgent. Amidst the babble, I hear him ask, “Did you see them?”

  “Yes,” I croak. “Demons.”

  He frowns. Asks something else. I tune out. The world flames at the edges. A ball of madness condenses around me, trapping me, devouring me, cutting off all but the nightmares.

  A different room. Different officers. More demanding than the last one. Not as gentle. Asking questions loudly, facing me directly, holding my head up until our eyes meet and they have my attention. One holds up a photograph — red, a body torn down the middle.

  “Gret,” I moan.

  “I know it's hard,” an officer says, sympathy mixed with impatience, “but did you see who killed her?”

  “Demons,” I sigh.

  “Demons don't exist, Grubbs,” the officer growls. “You're old enough to know that. Look, I know it's hard,” he repeats himself, “but you have to focus. You have to help us find the people who did this.”

  “You're our only witness, Grubbs,” his colleague murmurs. “You saw them. Nobody else did. We know you don't want to think about it right now, but you have to. For your parents. For Gret.”

  The other cop waves the photo in my face again. “Give us something — anything!” he pleads. “How many were there? Did you see their faces or were they wearing masks? How much of it did you witness? Can you …”

  Fading. Bye-bye officers. Hello horror.

  Screaming. Deafening cries. Looking around, wondering who's making such a racket and why they aren't being silenced. Then I realize it's me screaming.

  In a white room. Hands bound by a tight white jacket. I've never seen a real one before, but I know what it is — a straitjacket.

  I focus on making the screams stop and they slowly die away to a whimper. I don't know how long I've been roaring, but my throat's dry and painful, as though I've been testing its limits for weeks without pause.

  There's a hard plastic mug set in a holder on a small table to my left. A straw sticks out of it. I ease my lips around the head of the straw and swallow. Flat coke. It hurts going down, but after a couple of mouthfuls it's wonderful.

  Refreshed, I study my cell. Padded walls. Dim lights. A steel door with a strong plastic panel in the upper half, instead of glass.

  I stumble to the panel and stare out. Can't see much — the area beyond is dark, so the plastic's mostly reflective. I study my face in the makeshift mirror. My eyes aren't my own — bloodshot, wild, rimmed with black circles. Lips bitten to shreds. Scratches on my face — self-inflicted. Hair cut short, tighter than I'd like. A large purple bruise on my forehead.

  A face pops up close on the other side of the glass. I fall backwards with fright. The door open and a large, smiling woman enters. “It's OK,” she says softly. “My name's Leah. I've been looking after you.”

  “Wh-wh … where am I?” I gasp.

  “Someplace safe,” she replies. She bends and touches the bruise on my forehead with two soft, gentle fingers. “You've been through hell, but you're OK now. It's all uphill from here. Now that you've snapped out of your delirium, we can work on …”

  I lose track of what Leah's saying. Behind her, in the doorway, I imagine a pair of demons — Vein and Artery. The sane part of me knows they aren't real, just visions, but that part of me has no control over my senses anymore. Backing up against one of the padded walls, I stare blankly at the make-believe demons as they dance around my cell, making crude gestures and mimed threats.

  Leah goes on talking. The imaginary Vein and Artery go on dancing. I slip back into the shell of my nightmares — almost gratefully.

  In and out. Quiet moments of reality. Sudden flashes of insanity and terror.

  I'm being held in an institute for people with problems — that's all any of my nurses will tell me. No names. No mingling with the other patients. White rooms. Nurses — Leah, Kelly, Tim, Aleta, Emilia, and others, all nice, all concerned, all unable to coax me back from my nightmares when they strike. Doctors with names that I don't bother memorizing. They examine me at regular intervals. Make notes. Ask questions.

  “What did you see?”

  “What did the killers look like?”

  “Why do you insist on calling them demons?”

  “You know demons aren't real. Who are the real killers?”

  One of them asks if I committed the murders. She's a grey-haired, sharp-eyed woman. Not as kindly as the rest. The “bad doctor” to their “good doctors.” She presses me harder as the days slip by. Challenges me. Shows me photos that make me cry.

  I start calling her Doctor Slaughter, but only to myself, not out loud. When she comes with her questions and cold eyes, I open myself to the nightmares — always hovering on the edges, eager to embrace me — and lose myself to the real world. After a few of these intentional fadeouts, they obviously decide to abandon the shock tactics, and that's the last I see of Doctor Slaughter.

/>   Time dragging or disappearing into nightmares. No ordinary time. No lazy afternoons or quiet mornings. The murders impossible to forget. Grief and fear tainting my every waking and sleeping moment.

  Routines are important, according to my doctors and nurses, who wish to put a stop to my nightmarish withdrawals. They're trying to get me back to real time. They surround me with clocks. Make me wear two watches. Stress the times at which I'm to eat and bathe, exercise and sleep.

  Lots of pills and injections. Leah says it's only temporary, to calm me down. Says they don't like dosing patients here. They prefer to talk us through our problems, not make us forget them.

  The drugs numb me to the nightmares, but also to everything else. Impossible to feel interest or boredom, excitement or despair. I wander around the hospital — I have a free run now that I'm no longer violent — in a daze, zombiefied, staring at clock faces, counting the seconds until my next pill.

  Off the pills. Coming down hard. Screaming fits. Fighting the nurses. Craving numbness. Needing pills!

  They ignore my screams and pleas. Leah explains what's happening. I'm on a long-term treatment plan. The drugs put a stop to the nightmares and anchored me in the real world — step one. Now I have to learn to function in it as a normal person, free of medicinal depressants — step two.

  I try explaining my situation to her — my nightmares won't ever go away, because the demons I saw were real — but she refuses to listen. Nobody believes me when I talk about the demons. They accept that I was in the house at the time of the murders, and that I witnessed something dreadful, but they can't see beyond human horrors. They think I imagined the demons to mask the truth. One doctor says it's easier to believe in demons than evil humans. Says a wicked person is far scarier than a fanciful demon.

  Moron. He wouldn't say that if he'd seen the crocodile-headed Vein or the cockroach-crowned Artery!

  Gradual improvement. I lose my craving for drugs, and no longer throw fits. But I don't progress as quickly as my doctors anticipated. I keep slipping back into the world of nightmares, losing my grip on reality. I don't talk openly with my nurses and doctors. I don't discuss my fears and pains. Sometimes I babble incoherently and can't interpret the words of those around me. Or I'll stand staring at a tree or bush through one of the institute windows all day long, or not get up in the morning,
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