Lord loss, p.6
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       Lord Loss, p.6
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  get along with them.

  Not many shops, and a very limited selection of goods. I need new clothes, but socks and underpants are all the local stores have to offer. I suppose there's a town within easy driving distance where Dervish can take me. I'll ask when I get back.

  The people in the shops and on the streets eye me curiously but without suspicion. I keep expecting them to ask for my name or pass a comment — “You must be Mr. Grady's new house guest,” or “You're not from around here, are you?” — but they just nod pleasantly and let me go about my business.

  Early afternoon. Wandering around the mansion. Checking out the rooms.

  I knew the instant I arrived that this was a monster of a house, but it's only today that I realize just how enormous it is. It doesn't have a single modest inch or nook to it. Everything's overblown and over-the-top. I feel out of place. I'm used to ordinary houses, wallpaper from chain stores, furniture bought from glossy catalogues, paperback bestsellers, and brand-name reference guides on the bookshelves.

  But as awkward as I feel in this massive, ornate old house, I'm not scared. Although it reeks of history, and is full of barbaric weapons and grotesque items like the piranha tank, I'm not frightened. I don't get shivers down my spine strolling through the corridors (some longer than the street where I used to live). I don't imagine monsters lurking under the beds, or demons cackling in the shadows.

  This house is safe. I'm protected within these walls. I don't know how I know — I just do.

  The hall of portraits. I've been here fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, studying the faces of my relatives. Most are strangers, faded faces from the long-forgotten past — many of them young, just teenagers — but some are familiar. I spot Grandad Grady, my great-aunt Martha, a few cousins I met when I was younger — all of whom have died during the course of my short life.

  I look for my picture but I'm not among them. Dad and Gret are though, in new frames. Recent photos. I remember the day they were taken, last summer, when we were on vacation in Italy.

  No photo of Mom. I go through them all again, but she isn't here. The two of us are missing.

  Shopping for clothes, twenty miles from Carcery Vale, in a large mall. Lots of people and noise. I feel lost in the crowd. Dervish sticks close by me, sensing my nervousness.

  Kebabs when we've finished shopping. Hot and juicy. Dervish nibbles slowly at his, delicately. I finish long before him. Slurping down the last of my Coke. Studying him as he eats. Wondering if I should mention Mom's and my absence from the hall of portraits.

  “An unasked question is the most futile thing in the world,” Dervish says, startling me. Doesn't look up. Swallows his food. Waits.

  “I was looking at the photos and portraits in the hall today,” I begin.

  “And you want to know why there are so many teenagers.”

  I frown. “No. I mean, I noticed that, but it was Mom and me I was curious about. You have photos of Dad and Gret, but not us.”

  “Oh.” He grimaces. “My faux pas. Most people ask about the teens. The photos and portraits are all of dead family members. I like to frame them as they looked at the end of their lives, so most of the photos were taken shortly before the subject's death. We have a tragic family history — lots of us have been killed young — which is why there are so many pubescents up there.”

  He wipes around his mouth with a napkin, carefully balls it up, and lays it aside. “As for why Sharon hasn't been included, it's simple — no in-laws. Everybody on those walls is a blood relative. It's a family tradition. But I have lots of photos of her, as well as Cal and Gret, in albums that you're free to browse through.”

  “Maybe later,” I smile. “I just wanted to make sure you didn't have any underhanded reasons for not including us with the others.”

  “Everything's aboveboard with me, Grubbs,” Dervish says, then sips from his mug of coffee without taking his eyes off me. “Well — almost everything.”

  Late. Close to midnight. In my pajamas. No slippers — I left my old pair at the hospital and I forgot to buy new ones today. The stone floor's cold. I have to keep moving my toes to keep them warm.

  I'm drawn back to the hall of portraits. Studying them in moonlight, the faces mostly concealed by shadows. Focusing on the teenagers. Dozens of them, all my age or slightly older. Wondering why the faces of the dead teens fascinate me, and why I feel uneasy.

  I'm back in my room, in bed, before the answer strikes and drives all hope of sleep away in a flash. In the restaurant, Dervish didn't simply say that many of our family members had died young — he said they'd been killed.

  SPLEEN

  SETTLING in. Daily chores — washing up after meals, sweeping a different couple of floors each day, polishing the furniture in one of the large halls or rooms. Lots of other less-regular jobs — taking out the garbage, cleaning windows, running errands in the village.

  I enjoy the work. It keeps me busy. Not much else to do here apart from play chess with Dervish, watch TV — Dervish has a massive 60-inch widescreen set, which he hardly ever uses! — and read. Chess doesn't thrill me — Dervish is like Mom and Dad, a chess fanatic, and beats me easily each time we play. I'd as soon not play at all, but he gently presses me to work on my game. I don't get my family's obsession with chess, but I guess I'll just have to bear it here like I did at home.

  I read more than I normally do — I'm not big on litrachoor — but Dervish doesn't have a great collection of modern fiction. I pick up a few new books in the Vale, and order some more over the Internet, but I'm not spoiled for choice. I try some of the thousands of occult books littering the shelves, figuring they've got to be better than watching the moon all night, but they're too complicated or densely written to be of interest.

  So that leaves me with the TV — an endless stream of soap operas, talk shows, movies, sitcoms, sports programs. And while I never thought I'd admit such a thing, TV does get a bit boring after a while, if it's all you have to keep yourself amused.

  But, hey, it's a million times better than the institute!

  A week passes. At ease with the house. Getting to know Dervish, though he's a hard one to figure. Kind, thoughtful, caring — but aloof, with a warped sense of humor. He came in one day while I was watching the news. Caught a report about a serial killer who'd chopped off and collected his victims' heads. Commented drily, “There's a man determined to get ahead in life.” Spent the next five minutes doubled over with laughter, while I gazed at him, astonished, and the TV broadcast pictures of bloodbaths and weeping relatives.

  His thirst for chess is at least equal to that of Dad and Mom, if not more so. He went easy on me to begin with, gently encouraging me to play, treating the games as fun. Now he's showing his true colors. Insists that I play with him every night and gets irritated when I play badly.

  “You've got to love the game,” he told me last night, tossing a captured rook at me with unexpected force. “Chess is life. You have to love it as you love living. If you don't …”

  He said no more, just stormed out of the room, leaving me at a loss for words, rubbing my cheek where the rook struck. Later, when I'd recovered and was passing him in the hall on my way to bed, I muttered, “Get a life, you freak!” The perfect comeback — just an hour too late.

  He's got no time for music. I find a grand total of three CDs in the house, all old albums by some group called Led Zeppelin. Doesn't read fiction. Watches only the occasional documentary on TV. Spends a lot of time on the Web, from what I've seen when I've visited him in his study. But he doesn't seem to surf or play games — he mostly exchanges e-mails with contacts around the globe, or visits dull-looking encylopedic sites.

  Apart from his books and antiques, chess and jogging, and his e-mail friends, he doesn't seem to have any hobbies, or any apparent interest in the world beyond this house.

  There are stables — long abandoned — behind the mansion. I'm exploring one of them, idly toeing through the old nails and horseshoes on the gr
ound in search of some interesting nugget, when somebody raps on the rotten door and startles me out of my skin.

  “Peace, hombre,” the stranger chuckles as I duck and grab a horseshoe for protection. “I come to greet you, not to eat you — as the cannibal said to the missionary.”

  A boy a year or so younger than me enters and sticks out his hand. I stare at it a moment, then shake it. He's a lot shorter than me, chubby, with black hair and a lazy left eye that hangs half-closed. Wearing a faded pair of jeans and an old Simpsons T-shirt.

  “Bill-E Spleen,” he says, pumping my hand. “And you're Grubbs ‘don't call me Grubitsch!’ Grady, right?”

  “Right.” I grin thinly, then repeat his name. “Billy Spleen?”

  “Bill-E,” he corrects me, and spells it out. “Actually, it's really Billy,” he confesses, “but I changed it. I haven't been able to do it officially yet, but I will when I'm older. There's nothing wrong with Billy — it's a hell of a lot better than Grubitsch or Grubbs! — but Bill-E sounds cooler, like a rap star.”

  He talks quick and sharp, fingers dancing in the air to accent his words.

  “Are you from the village?” I ask politely.

  “Yup — I'm a Valer,” he yawns, as though it's the dullest thing in the world. “I used to live a few miles over — in a cottage smaller than this stable — until Mom died. Then I moved in with my grandparents — ‘the original Spleens,’ as Mom used to call them. They're OK, just a bit old-fashioned and straitlaced.”

  Bill-E studies the disturbed nails and horseshoes on the ground and grins. “You won't find any gold here,” he chortles. “I've been through these sheds more times than I can count, looking for old Lord Sheftree's treasure.”

  “Treasure?” Bill-E's a little too chummy for my liking — I've never been fond of people who come along and immediately start acting as though you're old friends — but I don't want to say anything to insult him, at least not until I know a bit more about him.

  “You don't know about the treasure?” He hoots as though I've admitted I didn't know the world was round. “Lord Sheftree — he owned this place years ago — is supposed to have hidden cases full of treasure somewhere on these grounds. His getaway stash, in case he ever had to make a quick exit and needed some ready cash. He was a real swindler. He used to keep a fish tank full of —”

  “— piranha,” I interrupt. “And he fed a baby to them. I know.”

  “Dervish told you?” Bill-E looks disappointed. “I love telling that story. Just about everyone in Carcery Vale knows it, so it's not often that I have the chance to break it to someone new. I'll kick Dervish's ass for spoiling it for me.”

  “Excuse me,” I mutter, exasperated, “but who the hell are you and what are you doing here?”

  Bill-E blinks. “No need to speak to me like that,” he sniffs. “I'm only trying to be friendly.”

  “And I just want to know who you are,” I respond coolly. “You come in here, telling me your name and that you know all about me, but I've never heard of you before. Are you a relative of Dervish's? A paperboy? What?”

  “Paperboy!” he snorts. “I don't think Dervish ever bought a paper in his life! If it doesn't come bound in leather or bat's wings, packed full of spells and dark incantations, he isn't interested!”

  Bill-E steps to the left, into the light shining through a hole in the roof. “I'm no relative,” he says. “Just a friend. I hang out with Dervish, play chess with him, do some odd jobs. He takes me for rides on his bike in return, and teaches me some spells. Has he taught you any spells yet?”

  I shake my head.

  “They're cool.” He grins. “I don't know if most of them really work, but the words you use are wicked. I feel like a real magician when I'm casting them.”

  “Could you teach me some?” I ask.

  “No,” Bill-E answers promptly. “That's the first thing Dervish taught me — only a teacher is allowed to teach. He says if he ever catches me passing on my spells to anybody, he'll can the lessons and ban me from coming here. And he means it — Dervish isn't the sort to yank your chain about stuff like that.”

  I'm warming to Bill-E Spleen — I like the way he talks about Dervish — but it's been a while since I made a new friend, so instead of saying something simple, I find myself asking cynically, “Did Dervish tell you to come chat to me? Are you supposed to be my new best friend?”

  Bill-E sneers. “My friendship can't be bought or bartered. I usually come over a few evenings every week and on the weekends. Dervish asked me to stay away this week, to give you a chance to settle in. I was looking forward to checking you out and showing you around the Vale — as a fellow orphan, I thought we might have stuff in common — but now I don't think I'll bother. You're a bit too up-your-own-ass for my liking. I'll just go see Dervish and leave you to scurry around out here on your own.”

  Bill-E turns to leave in a huff.

  “When did your Mom die?” I ask quietly.

  He stops and squints at me. “Nearly seven years ago. I was just a kid.”

  “And your Dad?”

  He smiles crookedly. “I never knew him. Don't even know who he was. He's still alive — I think — so I'm not an official orphan. But I've felt like one since Mom died.”

  “My folks only died a few months ago,” I say. “It still hurts. A lot. So if I act like a spaz, sorry, but that's just the way I feel right now.”

  Bill-E's features soften. “When my Mom died, I didn't speak to anyone except Grandma and Grandad for almost a year. If other kids came near, I'd scream and attack them. Their parents stopped them from hitting back. One day, in a shop, I tried it on a kid when there was nobody around — he knocked the crap out of me. I was fine after that.”

  I offer my chin. “Take a pop if you want.”

  Bill-E pads over, makes a fist, then taps my chin lightly. “Come on,” he laughs. “Let's go see what whirling Dervish is up to.”

  The study. Dervish and Bill-E catching up. Lots of names I don't recognize. Bill-E talking about school, looking forward to the summer break. Dervish telling him about a new book on Bavarian sorcerors which he bought off the Web.

  “What about the eye spell?” Bill-E asks. He looks at me and points to his lazy left eye. “I'm supposed to have this operated on in a few years, but I'm sure Dervish can conjure up a spell to spare me the hassle.”

  “I've asked around,” Dervish laughs, “but the great magicians of yore didn't bother much with drooping eyelids. Besides, magic shouldn't be used for personal gain, Billy.” Dervish always refers to Bill-E as Billy. I guess he's known him so long, he finds it hard to change.

  “Tell that to great-great-wotsits Garadex!” Bill-E snorts. “He used his magic to make millions, didn't he?”

  “Bartholomew Garadex was an exception,” Dervish says.

  Bill-E treats the study as though it's his own. Pulls books out and only half-pushes them back. Shoves Dervish out of the way to go surfing on the Web. Opens a drawer in the desk to show me the skull of a genuine witch, “burned at the stake for casting lascivious spells on the virile young men of the community,” he informs me, waving it around in front of his face, poking his fingers into its empty sockets. Dervish lets Bill-E do as he pleases. Sits back and smiles patiently.

  “He's not normally this wound up,” Dervish remarks when Bill-E goes to the toilet. “Your arrival upset him. He's used to having the run of the house. I think he's worried that things are going to change now that you've moved in.”

  “Why does he come here?” I ask.

  “His mother and I were friends,” Dervish says. “She died in a boating accident, leaving Billy in the care of his grandparents.” He pulls a face. “All I'll say about that pair is they're aptly named — Spleen! A more cantankerous old couple you couldn't imagine. I felt sorry for Billy, so I started visiting and taking him out on my bike. Ma and Pa Spleen weren't too keen — they still do everything they can to stop his coming over here — but persistence is something I'm good at.
I tend to get my own way when I really want to. The odd persuasion spell or two helps.” He winks. I can't tell if he's serious or joking.

  Bill-E returns, shaking water from his hands. “No towels, Derv,” he grumbles.

  Dervish raises an eyebrow at me. “Fresh towels are your department, aren't they, Master Grubbs?”

  “Sorry.” I grimace. “I forgot.”

  “If I was you, Mr. Grady, sir, I'd sack 'im,” Bill-E says with relish, then laughs and asks Dervish to teach him a new spell.

  “Will I make the two of you disappear?” Dervish asks innocently.

  “Yeah!” Bill-E gasps, face lighting up — then curses as Dervish shoos us out of the room and slams the door shut behind us.

  The hall of portraits. Bill-E knows the faces and names off by heart. Giving me a lecture, filling me in on my family background. I listen with pretend politeness, only paying attention to the occasional juicy snippet.

  “Urszula Garadex — pirate,” Bill-E intones, tapping the frame of a large canvas portrait. The woman in the picture only has one eye, and three of her fingers are missing, two on her left hand, one on her right. “A cutthroat. Utterly merciless.

  “Augustine Grady. Servant to some prince or other. Cause of death — he got kicked in the head by a horse.

  “Justin Plunkton — a banker. Nothing interesting about him.”

  And so on.

  After a while I ask Bill-E about the teenagers and if he knows how they died.

  “Dervish doesn't say much about them,” he replies. “I think it's some ancient family curse. You'll probably go toes-up any day now.”

  “I'll try hard to take you with me,” I retort.

  We come to Dad and Gret. Bill-E pauses curiously. “These are new. I don't know who —”

  “My dad and sister,” I inform him quietly.

  He winces. “I should have guessed. Sorry.” He looks at me questioningly, licks his lips, stares back at the photos.

  “An unasked question is the most futile thing in the world,” I prod him.

  “That's one of Dervish's sayings,” he notes. Licks his lips again. “Do you want to tell me how they died, or is it a secret? I asked Dervish, but he won't say, and Grandma and Grandad don't know — nobody in the village does.”

  My stomach tightens. Flashes of a crocodile-headed dog, a hell-child, their eerie master. “They were murdered.”

  Bill-E's eyes widen. His lazy left eyelid snaps up as though on elastic bands. “No bull?” he gasps.

  My expression's dark. “No bull.”

 
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