Lord loss, p.7
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       Lord Loss, p.7
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  “Do you know who did it?”

  “I was there.”

  Bill-E gulps deeply. “When they were being killed?”

  “Yes.”

  “How'd you get away?”

  I consider how much I should tell him. Decide to try him with the truth. “They were murdered by demons. I escaped using magic.”

  He frowns. “If this is a joke …” Stops when he sees my face. “Does Dervish know?”

  “Yes.”

  “He believes you?”

  “Yes. But he's the only one. Everybody else thinks I'm making it up.”

  Bill-E grunts dismissively. “If Dervish believes you, so do I.” He turns from the photos and does an odd little shuffling dance, mumbling weird words.

  “What was that for?” I ask, bemused.

  “One of Dervish's spells,” he says. “It makes the dead smile. Dervish says it's important to keep the dead happy. The reason this house isn't haunted is that Dervish keeps its ghosts laughing.”

  “Bull!” I bellow.

  “Maybe,” Bill-E grins. “But I've been dancing for years and never been bothered by ghosts. Why stop now and run the risk?”

  We watch MTV on the widescreen TV, munching popcorn, drinking Coke from tall paper cups just like in the cinema.

  “The TV was my idea,” Bill-E brags, the remote control balanced on his left knee. “Dervish resisted to begin with, but I kept on at him and eventually he bought one.”

  “Does he always cave in to your demands?” I ask.

  “No,” Bill-E sighs. “I can wrap Grandma and Grandad round my little finger, but Dervish doesn't crumple. He got the TV because I convinced him it was a good idea — his guests would get good use out of it even if he didn't.”

  “You and Dervish are close, aren't you?” I note.

  “Step aside, Sherlock Holmes — there's a new kid in town!” Bill-E chuckles, rolling his eyes.

  “I don't want to … like … get between you … or anything,” I mumble awkwardly.

  “You couldn't if you tried,” he responds smugly.

  “I could!” I bristle. “He's my uncle.”

  “So?” Bill-E laughs. “He's my father!”

  I stare at him, stunned.

  Bill-E looks sheepish. “I shouldn't have said that,” he mutters. “You won't tell him, will you?”

  “No … but … I mean …” I catch my breath. “You said you didn't know your father!”

  “I don't,” he says. “Not officially. But it hardly takes a genius to work it out. He wouldn't invite me over and make such a fuss of me if we weren't related. And Grandma and Grandad Spleen wouldn't tolerate his involvement unless they had to, no matter how close a friend of Mom's he was. Dervish has to be my dad. It's logic.”

  “Have you ever asked him?”

  Bill-E shakes his head instantly. “Why spoil it? We get along great the way we are. If the truth ever came out, he might decide to sue for custody.”

  “Wouldn't you like that?” I ask.

  He shrugs. “I wouldn't miss Grandma and Grandad that much if I moved in with Dervish,” he admits. “I could still go see them all the time. But if he lost, they might take out a court order to stop him seeing me. I reckon they struck a deal with him when Mom died — he could carry on visiting, or having me over to visit, as long as he never told me who he really was. If I go messing about, it might screw up everything.”

  I scratch my head, thinking that over. It all seems a bit complicated to me — Dervish doesn't strike me as the sort to go in for such subterfuge. But I'm new on the scene. Bill-E has spent most of his life around my uncle. I guess he knows what he's talking about.

  “This makes us cousins — if it's true,” I note.

  “Yeah,” Bill-E giggles, then pokes me in the chest. “It also makes me his son and rightful heir, so don't go getting too attached to this place, Grady, because as soon as the old man kicks it, you're out of here!”

  “Charming!” I laugh, and dump the last of my popcorn over Bill-E's head.

  “Hey!” Bill-E shouts, shaking kernels from his head, all over the couch and floor. “Clean that up!”

  “You clean it,” I grin wickedly. “It's your house …”

  Both of us laughing, he chases me up the stairs to my room, lobbing fistfuls of popcorn at my head all the way.

  CARNAGE IN THE FOREST

  ROUTINES. Daily chores. Lots of chess competitions with Dervish and Bill-E. Dervish taught Bill-E how to play. He's much better than I am, though his concentration wanders occasionally, so I beat him more than I should. Watching TV. Hanging out with Bill-E. We play soccer and explore the countryside when we're not stuck in front of the massive screen or locking horns in chess tournaments.

  I'm recognized in Carcery Vale now. Bill-E introduced me to the shopkeepers and gossips. They accept me the same as any other kid. Pass the time of day with me when I come in to pick up shopping. Ask about Dervish and what I think of the mansion. Tell me tales from its gory past, trying to spook me.

  Bill-E also takes me to visit Grandma and Grandad Spleen. A couple of battleaxes! Narrow-eyed, sharp-tongued, drably dressed, their house in a state of perpetual gloominess. Grandad Spleen rambles on about the old days and how Carcery Vale has gone to the dogs. Grandma Spleen hovers in the background, serving tea and cookies, eyes daring me to spill crumbs on her carpet.

  Both have lots to say about Dervish, none of it good.

  “Not right, living out there on his own.”

  “A house like that's too big for one man.”

  “He should be married — but no one will have him!”

  “If he does anything out of order, you let us know.”

  Bill-E smiles apologetically when we leave. “I love my grandparents, but I know what they're like. I won't take you there too often.”

  I shrug as if it's no big deal, but offer up silent thanks. I don't know how he stands them. I'd have run away from home years ago if I was caged in with a crabby old pair like that! Although, thinking twice about it, I suppose it's better to have grumpy grandparents as parents than no parents at all. I complained a lot about Mom and Dad when they were … still with me. They had their faults. I think everybody does. But I wouldn't complain if they were with me … alive now.

  The murders are never far from my thoughts. The memories of Vein, Artery, and Lord Loss haunt me. Many nights I wake screaming, arms thrashing, eyes wild, imagining demons in the room with me, under the bed, in the wardrobe, scratching at the door.

  Dervish is always there when I wake from my nightmares. Sitting by the bottom of my bed. Passing me a mug of hot chocolate or a towel to wipe the sweat from my face. He never says much, or asks what I was dreaming about. Leaves as soon as I've settled down.

  We haven't discussed the demons. I think Dervish wants to, but I'm reluctant to step back into that world of darkness. He leaves books in my room, or open on the tables downstairs, about monsters, demons, magic. I avoid them at first. Later I read certain passages and study pictures, attracted to the mystery of this other realm despite my fears of it.

  No pictures of my demons in the books. I glance through some of the many encyclopedias in the mansion, but there's no mention of a Lord Loss or his familiars in any of them.

  Friday. Listening to CDs I bought in the Vale. A roaring outside, of a motorbike approaching. But it isn't Dervish — he's up in his study. I creep to the window and secretly watch the cyclist dismounting. A woman dressed in black leather. Long blond hair tumbles down over her shoulders when she removes her helmet. She stretches, hands going high above her head. Ay caramba!

  I'm down the stairs in a flash, but not as fast as Dervish. He's already opening the front doors. I catch a glimpse of a big smile. Then he's shouting, “Meera! I wasn't expecting you for another few days. Why didn't you phone?”

  “You never answer,” the woman says, meeting Dervish in the doorway, hugging him hard. She pushes him away and studies his face. “How's it going, hon?”

 
“Not bad,” Dervish chuckles.

  “How's the house guest?” She spots me over Dervish's shoulder. “Oh, never mind. I'll ask him myself.” She strides over and offers her hand. I shake it politely. “Meera Flame,” she introduces herself. She smiles — dazzling. “And if I know Dervish, he hasn't told you a thing about me, right?”

  I nod dumbly. I think I'm in love!

  “Grubbs Grady — Meera Flame,” Dervish says. “Meera's a close friend of mine. She comes to stay quite regularly. I meant to tell you she was on her way, but I forgot.”

  “He's useless, isn't he?” Meera laughs.

  “At some things,” I mutter, finding my voice at last.

  Meera unzips the front of her leather jacket, revealing a T-shirt with an anti-war slogan. She slides out of the coat, then sits on the stairs and peels off her boots and trousers. She's wearing shorts underneath.

  “Make yourself at home,” Dervish says wryly.

  “Don't I always?” Meera replies. She catches me ogling her, and winks. “Got a girlfriend, Grubbs? If not, watch out — I like younger men!”

  I blush like a fire engine. Meera slips through to the kitchen for a drink.

  Dervish laughs. “You look like a kettle.”

  I frown. “What do you mean?”

  “There's steam coming out your ears!”

  Before I can think of a comeback, Meera calls from the kitchen. “Whoops! I've spilled milk all over my T-shirt. Can you come and help me out of it, Grubbs?”

  I think life's about to get very interesting!

  “Ah,” says Bill-E with a cheetah's smile. “The mysterious Meera Flame. She's hot, isn't she?”

  “And doesn't she know it,” I huff. “She hasn't stopped flirting with me since she arrived. My cheeks feel like they've been slapped a dozen times today!”

  We're in the kitchen, guzzling milk shakes. Dervish and Meera have gone out for dinner.

  “Don't worry about that,” Bill-E says. “She does it with me too. She likes making men — and boys! — blush.”

  “She's doing a good job of it,” I mutter, then cough. “Her and Dervish … are they … ?”

  “Nah,” Bill-E says. “Just friends. She travels around a lot. Always off somewhere exotic. Comes to stay every now and then. They go on biking trips together sometimes, but Dervish says they aren't an item, and I don't think he'd lie. Who could keep quiet if they had a girlfriend like that!”

  Saturday. Meera woke me up this morning for breakfast in bed. Walked right in, wearing a nightgown and (as far as my imagination's concerned) nothing underneath. Sat chatting with me while I ate, asking about life with Dervish and what I thought of Carcery Vale — “Boring as hell, isn't it?” — and just being all-around beautiful. I had a hard time keeping my eyes on my toast and fried eggs!

  Bill-E came early to see Meera. She fussed over him like a mother hen. “You've grown! You're filling out! Becoming a man! When are you going to sweep me off my feet and take me away from all this?”

  Dervish and Meera made for his study after a while, so Bill-E and I head out to explore the nearby forest. Searching for Lord Sheftree's buried treasure.

  “If we find it, we don't tell anyone,” Bill-E says, poking through the roots of an old dead oak. “We wait until we're older and know more about these things. Then we sell it on the quiet and split the profits fifty-fifty. Agreed?”

  “Maybe I'll bump you off and take it all for myself.” I smirk.

  “Won't work,” he says seriously. “I keep a diary. If I die, Grandma and Grandad Spleen will find it, read about us digging for the treasure, and put two and two together.”

  “You think of everything, don't you?” I laugh.

  “I try to,” he says immodestly. “I get it from Dervish and our chess games. He's always nagging me to maximize my potential and use my brain more.”

  “What is it with him and chess?” I ask. “My mom and dad were the same, like it was the most important thing in the world.”

  “I don't know about your mom,” Bill-E says, “but it's a family tradition on your dad's side. Seven or eight of the clan have been grandmasters. When Dervish talks about his ancestors, he often makes mention of the great chess players. He even judges people by their ability on the board. I asked him about one of his relatives once, a girl who died about thirty years ago — she looked interesting in her photo and I wanted to know what she was like. He just grunted and said she wasn't very good at chess. That's all he had to say about her.”

  Bill-E decides the treasure isn't buried under the tree. Picking up our tools — an axe and a shovel — we go in search of other likely spots.

  “How often do you come searching for this treasure?” I ask.

  “It depends on the weather,” he answers. “In summer, when it's hot and the evenings are long, I maybe come out three or four times a month. Perhaps only once a month in winter.”

  “Don't you have any friends?” I inquire bluntly — I've noticed he doesn't talk much about other kids, unless he's chatting about school. And he always has plenty of time for visiting Dervish and me. He never says he can't come or has to dash off early to see another friend.

  “Not many,” he says honestly. “I have friends in class, but I don't see much of them outside of school. Grandma and Grandad Spleen like to keep me tucked up safe and snug indoors, which is part of the problem. I like hanging out with Dervish, which is another part. I guess mostly I'm just odd, not very good at making friends.”

  “You made friends with me pretty easily,” I remind him.

  “But you're like me,” he says. “An outsider. Different. A freak. We're both weird, which is why we get along.”

  I'm not sure I like the sound of that — I've never thought of myself as a freak — but it'd be childish to stamp my foot and shout something like, “I'm not weird!” So I let it ride and follow Bill-E deeper into the woods.

  In the middle of a thicket. Picking a spot to clear, where we can excavate. I find a patch of soft earth between two stones. I start to dig and earth crumbles away. It looks like there's a hole here. Probably an animal's den, but maybe, just maybe …

  “I think this might —” I begin.

  “Ssshh!” I'm cut short.

  Bill-E presses his fingers to his lips — silence. He crouches low. I follow suit. I can tell by his intent expression that this isn't a game. My heart beats faster. I grip my axe tightly. Flashback to that room, that night. Terror starts to dig its claws in deep.

  “I smell him,” Bill-E whispers. “If he spots us, laugh and act as if we were trying to surprise him. If he doesn't, keep down until I tell you.”

  “Who is it?” I hiss. Bill-E waves the question away and concentrates on the trees beyond the thicket.

  Ten seconds pass. Twenty. Thirty. I'm counting inside my head, the way I do when I'm swimming and trying to hold my breath underwater. Thinking — if it's them, should I run or try to fight?

  Sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one … a pair of feet. Sneakers. Lime green sports socks. I stifle a laugh. It's only Dervish! The terror passes and my heartbeat slows. I make a note to myself to give Bill-E a thumping later for scaring me like that.

  Bill-E stays low as Dervish pads past the thicket and moves on through the trees beyond. Then he wriggles out as quietly as possible and gets to his feet, gazing after the departed Dervish.

  “What was that about?” I ask, standing, wiping myself down.

  “Let's follow him,” Bill-E says.

  “Why?” I get a thought. “You don't think he's going to meet Meera out here, do you?” I grin slyly and nudge his ribs with an elbow.

  Bill-E glares. “Don't be stupid!” he snaps. “Just trust me, OK?” Before I can respond, he slips away in pursuit of Dervish, like an Indian tracker. I lag along a few paces behind, bemused, wondering what this silly game's in aid of and where it's leading.

  Several minutes later. Hot on Dervish's trail. Bill-E keeps his prey in sight, but is careful not to give himself away. He moves with
surprising stealth. I feel like a clumsy bull behind him.

  Dervish stops and stoops. Bill-E catches his breath, reaches back, and drags me up beside him. “Can you see?” he whispers.

  “I can see his head and shoulders,” I grunt in return, squinting. No sign of Meera, worse luck!

  “Watch his hands when he rises.”

  I do as Bill-E commands. Moments later my uncle stands, holding something stiff and red. I get a clearer view of it as he turns to the left — a dead fox, its body ripped apart.

  Dervish produces a plastic bag. Drops the fox into it. Studies the ground around him. Moves on.

  Bill-E waits a couple of minutes before advancing to the spot where Dervish found the fox. The ground is stained with blood and a few scraps of fur and guts.

 
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