Lord loss, p.8
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       Lord Loss, p.8
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
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  “The blood hasn't thickened,” Bill-E notes, poking a red pool with a twig, holding it up as though judging the quality of the blood. “The fox must have been killed last night or early this morning.”

  “So what?” I ask, bewildered. “A dead fox — big deal!”

  “I've seen Dervish collect others like that,” Bill-E says quietly. “There's an incinerator on the far side of the Vale. Dervish has a key to it. He takes the corpses there and burns them when nobody's around.”

  “The most hygienic disposal method,” I note.

  “Dervish doesn't believe in interfering with nature,” Bill-E disagrees. “He says corpses are an important part of the food chain, that we should leave dead creatures where we find them — unless they're likely to cause a public nuisance.”

  “What all this about?” I ask edgily.

  Bill-E doesn't answer. He stares at the forest floor, thinking, then turns sharply and beckons. “Follow me,” he snaps, breaking into a jog, and I have no option other than to run after him.

  A clearing by a stream. Beautiful afternoon sun. I lie down and soak it up while Bill-E drags a large black plastic bag out from under a bush.

  “I've collected these over the last three months,” he says, untying a knot in the bag's top. “I saw Dervish removing a couple of bodies during the months before that, and thought I'd keep an eye out for corpses and grab hold of them before he did.”

  He finishes with the knot, clutches the bottom of the bag, and spills the contents out. A swarm of flies rises in the air. The stench is disgusting.

  “What the … !” I cough, covering my mouth and nose with my hands, eyes watering.

  Lots of bones and scraps of flesh at Bill-E's feet. He separates them carefully with a large stick. “A badger,” he says, pointing to one of the rotting carcasses. “A hedgehog. A swan. A —”

  “What the hell is this crap?” I interrupt angrily. “That stench is enough to knock —”

  “I didn't know why I felt I had to hold onto them,” Bill-E says softly, eyes on the putrid corpses. He looks up at me. “Now I know — to show them to you.”

  I stare back uncertainly. This feels very wrong. If Bill-E was trying to gross me out, I could understand — even appreciate — the joke. But there's no laughter in his eyes. No grisly delight in his expression.

  “Not you personally,” he continues, looking back to the animals. “But part of me must have wanted to show them to somebody. It was just a matter of time until the right person came along.”

  “Bill-E,” I mutter, “you're freaking me out big-time.”

  “Come closer,” he says.

  I study his expression. Then the spade lying close to him on the ground. I take a firm grip on my axe. Walk a few steps towards him. Stop short of easy reach.

  “Look at them,” he says, pointing to the animals.

  Like the fox Dervish found, their bodies have been ripped open. Heads and limbs are missing or chewed to pieces. I flash back on images of Dad hanging from the ceiling.

  “I'm going to be sick,” I moan, turning aside.

  “These haven't been killed by animals,” Bill-E says. I pause. “Look at the way their stomachs have been ripped apart — jaggedly, but up the middle. And the bite marks don't correspond to any predators I know of. If this was the work of a wolf or bear, the marks would be wider spaced, and larger, because of the size of their jaws.”

  “There aren't any wolves or bears around here.” I frown.

  “I know. But I had to assume that it could have been a bear or wolf — or a wild dog — until I was able to examine the corpses in closer detail. I didn't leap to any conclusions.”

  “But you've come to some since,” I note wryly. “So hit me with it. What do you think did this?”

  “I'm not sure,” Bill-E says evenly. “But I've checked out the teeth marks in the best biology books and Web sites that I could find. As near as I could match them, they seem to belong to an ape —”

  “You're not telling me it's King Kong!” I whoop.

  “— or a human,” Bill-E finishes.

  Cold, eerie silence.

  Dervish's study. Bill-E leads me in. I'm not sure where Dervish is, but his bike isn't outside, so he's not home. Meera's bike is gone too.

  “We shouldn't be here,” I whisper anxiously. “Dervish said this room is magically protected.”

  “I know,” Bill-E replies. He steps in front of me, spreads his arms, and chants. I don't know what language he's using, but the words are long and lyrical. He turns as he chants, eyes closed, concentrating.

  Bill-E stops and opens his eyes. “Safe,” he grunts.

  “You're sure?”

  “Dervish taught me that spell years ago. He updates it every so often, when he alters the protective spells of the house. It'll probably be one of the first spells he teaches you when he decides you're ready to learn.”

  I feel uncomfortable, especially since I promised Dervish that I wouldn't come in here without him. But there's no stopping Bill-E, and I'm too curious to back out now.

  “What are we looking for?” I ask, following him to one of the bookshelves. He came here directly from the clearing, without saying anything more about the dead animals he'd collected.

  “This,” Bill-E says, lifting a large, untitled book down from one of the shelves over Dervish's PC. He lays it on the desk but doesn't open it.

  “Demons killed your parents and sister,” he murmurs. My insides freeze. He looks up. “We inhabit a world of magic. My proposal would make an ordinary person laugh scornfully. But we're not ordinary. We're Gradys, descendants of the magician Bartholomew Garadex. Remember that.”

  He opens the book. Creamy, crinkled pages. Handwriting. I try reading a few paragraphs but the letters are indecipherable — squiggles and swirls.

  “Is that Latin, Greek, one of those old languages?” I ask.

  “It's English,” Bill-E says.

  “Coded?”

  He half-smiles. “Kind of. Dervish cast a reading spell on it. The words are written clearly, but we can't interpret them without unraveling the spell.”

  Bill-E turns to the first page and runs a finger over the title at the top. “Lycanthropy through the ages,” he intones.

  “How do you know that if you can't break the spell?” I challenge him.

  “Dervish read it out to me once.” He looks at me archly. “Do you know what ‘lycanthropy’ means?”

  “Of course!” I huff. “I've seen werewolf movies!”

  Bill-E nods. “Dervish read bits of it to me. They were all to do with werewolf legends and rules. He's fascinated by werewolves — lots of his books focus on shape-changers.”

  Bill-E flicks to near the end of the book, scans the pages, flicks over a few more. Finds what he's searching for and lays a finger on a photograph. “I discovered this a year or so ago,” he says softly. “Didn't think anything of it then. But when I saw Dervish removing the bodies of the animals a few months ago, and found others ripped to pieces … always close to a full moon …”

  “I don't believe where you're going with this,” I grumble.

  “Remember the demons,” he says, and turns the book around so that I can see the face in the photo.

  A young man, maybe sixteen or seventeen. Troubled-looking. Thin. His face is distorted — lots of hair, a blunt jaw, sharp teeth, yellow eyes. There's something familiar about the face, but it takes me a few seconds to place it. Then it clicks — it reminds me of one of the faces from the hall of portraits. One that hangs close to Dad and Gret's photos.

  “Steven Groarke,” Bill-E says. “A cousin. Died seven or eight years ago.”

  “I met him once,” I whisper. “But I was very young. I don't remember much about him. Except he didn't have hair or teeth like that.”

  Bill-E flicks the pages backwards. Comes to rest on a page with another photo from the hall of portraits, this time a young girl. “Kim Reynolds. Ten years old when she died — supposedly in a fire.”
>
  He flicks back further, almost to the start of the book. Stops at a rough hand-drawing of a naked, excessively hairy man, hunched over on all fours like a dog — or a wolf. Razor-sharp teeth. Claws. An elongated head. Yellow, savage eyes.

  “That's not a human,” I mumble, my mouth dry.

  “I think it is — or was,” Bill-E contradicts me. “I can't be sure, but I've compared it to a drawing of Abraham Garadex — one of old Bartholomew's sons — and I'd swear that they're one and the same.”

  I reach out with trembling fingers and gently close the book. “Say it,” I croak. “Say what you brought me here to tell me.”

  “I'm not saying this to shock you,” Bill-E begins. “I wouldn't say it to anyone else. But you were honest enough to tell me about the demons, so I think —”

  “Just say it!” I snap.

  “OK.” Bill-E takes a deep, relaxing breath. “I think those people in the book were shape-changers. I think lycanthropy runs in our family, and has for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. I think your uncle — my father — has it.

  “I think Dervish is a werewolf.”

  A THEORY

  “YOU'RE crazy.”

  Storming down the stairs to the main hall. Bill-E hurrying to catch up.

  “It makes sense,” he insists, darting ahead of me, blocking my path. “The bite marks. The way the animals were ripped up the middle. Why he collects the carcasses and incinerates them — getting rid of evidence.”

  “Crazy!” I snort again, and shove past him. “A while ago you told me Dervish was your father — now you think he's a werewolf!”

  “What's one got to do with the other?” Bill-E says. “Werewolves are normal people except around the time of a full moon.”

  “You're barking mad!” I shout, throwing open the front doors, stepping out into welcome sunlight. “This is the twenty-first century. The police have cameras everywhere. DNA testing. All the rest. A werewolf wouldn't last a week in today's world.”

  “It would if it had human cunning,” Bill-E disagrees. “Hear me out, will you? I've been working this through in my head for the last few months. I've got most of it figured.”

  I stop reluctantly. A large part of me wants to keep on walking and not listen to another word of Bill-E's madness. But a small part is fascinated and wants to hear more.

  “Go on,” I grunt. “But if you start on about silver bullets or —”

  “You think I want to kill him?” Bill-E snaps. “He's my father!”

  Bill-E strolls as he outlines his theory. I wander along beside him.

  “In movies you become a werewolf if another werewolf bites you. But I don't think dozens of people from one family would get bitten, one after another, over so many centuries. It must be passed on by genes, from parents to children. The unlucky ones are born to become werewolves. So I imagine they start to change pretty early, when they're kids or teenagers. Dervish is in his forties. If he is a werewolf, I think he's been living with this for decades.

  “Werewolves can't be wild killers,” he continues. “If they were, Dervish would have killed loads of people here. I've checked old newspapers in the library — nobody nearby has been killed by a savage beast anytime recently.”

  “Maybe he roams further afield to do his killing,” I insert wryly.

  “I thought of that,” Bill-E says earnestly. “But I've kept a close eye on him these past few months, and I haven't seen him spending nights away around full moon time. Besides, we've seen some of his local kills — the butchered animals. If he hunts and kills animals this close to home, there's no reason he shouldn't hunt and kill humans here too. But Dervish isn't a killer. If I thought there was even a slim chance that he was, I wouldn't be talking to you — I'd be telling the police.”

  “You'd turn in your own father?” I sneer.

  “I'd have to if he was killing,” Bill-E says softly. “Murderers can't be allowed to roam freely.”

  We're getting near to the sheds. A large sheet of corrugated iron lies on the ground between the sheds and the mansion. We head for it simply because there's nowhere better to go. This used to be a small orchard. There are several smooth tree stumps closeby. Bill-E sits on one and I sit on another. I tap the corrugated iron with my foot, considering the “evidence.”

  “So you think Dervish is a werewolf with a conscience. He kills animals but not people.”

  “Is that so hard to believe?” Bill-E asks. “You accept demons are real — why not werewolves?”

  “I accept demons because I've seen them,” I answer stiffly. “And I'm sure they're demons twenty-four hours a day, corrupt and evil all the time. If you asked me to believe that people can turn into savage beasts — physically transform into wolf-like creatures — maybe I could. But I don't believe an ordinary human can change into a hairy, yellow-eyed, fanged werewolf overnight, then resume his ordinary shape the next day.”

  “I never said he transformed,” Bill-E notes swiftly. “I think it's more a mental condition than a physical one.”

  “What about those creatures in the book?”

  “Maybe it works different ways in different people,” he suggests. “Some get it bad and change completely. Others, like Dervish, are able to control it.”

  “Degrees of werewolfism,” I chortle. “This gets crazier every time you open your mouth.”

  “OK,” Bill-E huffs, getting up, shoulders slumping. “Have it your own way. I thought I was doing you a favor, but if you're going to mock me, I'll just —”

  “How do you reckon you were doing me a favor?” I interrupt.

  “I don't live here,” Bill-E says, turning to depart. “Come the next full moon, I'll be tucked up in bed, in the Vale, safe with Gran and Grandad. You'll be out here by yourself … alone in the house … with Dervish.”

  Hours later. Trying to laugh it off. Craziness. Utter lunacy. I shouldn't even be considering it.

  And yet …

  In a world beset by demons, why shouldn't werewolves exist too? And I can't think why Dervish should be searching the forest for dead animals and burning them secretly. And some of the faces in the book definitely match those in the hall of portraits.

  Then again, I only have Bill-E's word that the book is about werewolves. Dervish has a weird sense of humor. He might have been kidding Bill-E about the book. Maybe he even stuck in the photos and drawings himself. That makes more sense than Bill-E's werewolf theories. Much more logical.

  And yet …

  Dervish arrives back just before sunset. I greet him as he enters. “Go anywhere special?”

  “Just for a drive,” he replies, slicking down his grey hair at the sides of his head.

  “Where's Meera?” I ask.

  “Off touring the countryside. She's basing herself here for the next week or so, but she'll be coming in and out a lot. Where's Billy?”

  “He went home.”

  “Oh?” Dervish pauses on his way to the bathroom. “I thought he was going to watch TV.”

  “He had other things to do,” I lie.

  Dervish continues on to the bathroom. My eyes follow him automatically, studying his face, the set of his jaw, the crown of his head, searching for abnormalities.

  Night. Heavy clouds. Only brief glimpses of the three-quarters full moon.

  Watching TV with Dervish — a documentary about some Indian woman that he knows. All about using people's natural body energies to cure diseases. Y-A-W-N!

  A game of chess afterwards. Dervish appears distracted (or am I imagining it?). Plays loosely, less aggressive than usual. He beats me, but I take a couple of his major pieces and make him work hard for his victory.

  Dervish stretches. Groans. Checks his watch. “I'm exhausted. Going to tuck in early. You staying up late tonight?”

  I keep my head down. “No. I'm pretty tired too. I'll follow you up soon.”

  Slyly watching him trot up the stairs — not the pace of a sleepy man heading for bed.

  Lining up the chess pieces o
n the board. Idly playing against myself. Quiet, the house creaking around me, a wind blowing lightly outside.

  I abandon the game halfway through. Go up to my room. Pause at the door. This is stupid. If I leave it like this, I'll be imagining danger everywhere I look. I've got to share this house — my life — with Dervish. I can't let something this ridiculous come between us.

  Retreating, I carry on up the staircase to the top floor. Dervish's room. I stand outside a moment, getting my story straight, deciding to tell him everything Bill-E said. I grin as I picture his incredulous response. Then I rap twice with my knuckles and enter.

  “Sorry to interrupt, by I've got to …”

  I grind to a halt.

  The room is empty.

  I've explored the entire house. His study. The bathrooms. The other bedrooms. Downstairs. Even the cellar, in case he's scouring the racks,
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