Demon Thief

Chapter 17. HELL–CHILD

I don't search for Cadaver directly, figuring that wherever Art is, the demon must be too. (Unless he killed Art and dumped his body as he darted between worlds, says an inner voice which I ignore.) So I search for my brother instead. To my surprise, it takes me a few seconds to bring up an image of him. His face is hazy in my mind and I have to concentrate hard to make it clear. For some odd reason, I think of the orange marbles which he was playing with before he was stolen. He dropped them on his way to the window and I picked them up. Put them in my pocket. I reach in and touch them now, and when I do that, I click on an image of Art in Sally's house, that night in the bedroom when he was holding them up in front of his eyes.

As soon as I recall that, a number of lights round me pulse. Many are orange, reminding me of the orange patch I saw over Art's head that time. Maybe individual colours are associated with certain people. I must take more notice of the colours the next time I'm looking for someone, to check.

I haven't reached out to the lights yet. I find myself reluctant to start. Afraid almost. Because now, finally, I have to face the facts. If Art's dead, I'll know as soon as I step through the window. I've been living in hope, trying to convince myself that he's alive and well. But once I put these pulsing lights together, hope will vanish, leaving me with the truth. Which is fine if Cadaver hasn't killed him. But if he has...

I steel myself against the possible awfulness of the discovery. I can't falter now, when I'm so close. If I'd known about my gift earlier, I could have gone after him from that first demon world. But this has been a learning process. I've found out things about myself, and this strange universe, bit by bit. Time to put my learning to good use - and pray it's not too late.

I let out a deep breath. Scratch an itchy spot on my head. Start to slot the lights into place.

The window is orange when it forms, which is no great surprise. I step back from it, nervous, thinking about how angry Beranabus will be if Art isn't with Cadaver.

The magician steps up to the window and sniffs at it. Looks back at us. There's a glint to his eyes which, looking round, I see reflected in Shark's. The eager glint of men who enjoy fighting. Sharmila looks scared. Dervish seems more confused than anything else. He's put his leather jacket on and is stroking one of his spiky clumps of hair for comfort.

"Nadia," Beranabus calls. She's still sitting with her back to us, though her shoulders are no longer heaving. At the call, she stands and turns. Her pale, pockmarked face is composed, like a mask. Her eyes are red from crying but there are no fresh tears. She walks towards us at an even pace, stops close to Beranabus, looks at him without interest.

"I want you to concentrate," Beranabus says. "See if you can gain an insight which might let us know what's on the other side."

Nadia smiles coldly. "I'm not feeling very insightful," she says then steps through the window before Beranabus can respond.

Beranabus curses, but the slightest look of guilt flits across his face. He shrugs it off and nods sharply at Sharmila. "You next. I'll come after you. Then the boy, Dervish and Shark. Is everybody ready?"

"Ready for what?" Dervish asks.

Beranabus chuckles. "Hell, most likely."

Webs everywhere. Strand after strand, some the thickness of several trees placed together, others as fine as a length of thread. A gloomy, silvery, moonless sky, dotted with giant meteor-like demons. Nothing but blackness when I look down through the many layers of web. I wriggle my bare toes over the moist, sticky fabric of the strand. It's like standing on candyfloss.

There's a demon close to us, a nightmarish beast. He has the body of a child but the head of an adult. Pale green skin.

No hair, but a wig-like cluster of lice scuttle around his scalp, feeding on his flesh, digging holes through to his brain. No eyes - instead, a ball of fire burns in either socket. A large mouth full of sharp teeth, no tongue. Two smaller mouths set in his palms, one in either hand.

The demon hisses when he sees us, turns and races away at a great speed, crisscrossing the network of webs, leaping from one level to another. Nobody gives chase, not even Shark. We've just spotted the castle towards which the demon is running.

A castle of webs, set amidst a cluster of extra thick strands. It looks like a medieval castle, except ten times bigger. Taller than any skyscraper I've ever seen, wider than a couple of street blocks in the city where I used to live. Towers and turrets galore. Several huge drawbridges. Everything spun out of webs. Glistening and forbidding, even from this distance.

There's a moat round the castle. The hell-child leaps across it with ease, but instead of waiting for the drawbridge to be lowered, he scales the outside wall of the castle like a spider. Disappears through a narrow window.

"This is bad," Beranabus says.

"You know this place?" Sharmila asks.

"It's the home of a demon master called Lord Loss."

"I like his style," Shark grunts, then looks around. "So, where's the demon we're meant to be chasing?"

"Where else?" Beranabus points to the castle.

"How do you know?" Dervish asks.

"No demon can set foot here without Lord Loss' permission. Only his familiars and those he chooses to shelter are welcome. Cadaver isn't one of his slaves, so I'm guessing he asked for sanctuary and it was granted - otherwise he would have fled from here already."

"Company's coming," Nadia says, smirking at us crookedly.

I spot scores of demons wriggling through the windows of the castle and over the tops of turrets. A couple of the drawbridges are lowered and more of the monsters advance over them.

Dervish glances back at the orange window, still open behind us. He looks at Beranabus questioningly.

"No," the magician says after a moment's hesitation. "We can't defeat Lord Loss on his own territory. But maybe we can bargain with him."

"Bargain with a demon?" Sharmila frowns.

"He's not like other demons. He prefers suffering to execution - he feeds on the misery of the living rather than the bodies of the dead. He won't kill us swiftly. If we can find some way to amuse him... give him something which Cadaver can't... maybe he'll turn the thief over to us. And let us go."

"You really believe that?" Sharmila asks.

"No," Beranabus chuckles drily. "But it's the only hope we have."

Then the demons are upon us.

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