Demon Thief

Chapter 18. FLY ON THE WALL

Fighting desperately. Swamped by demons of every mutation imaginable. Some are small, like the one we saw when we arrived. Others tower above us. Many are strange hybrids - mixtures of animals, lizards, birds, even fish. Others look like nothing I've ever seen, lumps and blobs, teeth and claws, shadows and blood.

We fight in a tight circle, back to back. Sharmila sets the demons on fire when they come within reach. Shark rips heads and limbs loose, using the severed arms and legs as clubs to beat back other demons - he's loving this. Dervish uses bolts of magical energy where he can, his fists and feet when a demon closes in. Nadia has magically grown her nails and is using them as swords, ten deadly blades. Beranabus uses a mix of spells and punches to shatter the bodies of our enemies, fighting calmly, controlled.

I lash out with my fists, punching wildly, trying to be as much of a nuisance as possible. I'm not terrified. Scared, but in control. Panting hard, but not roaring. Maybe it's because I know this is a fight which can't be avoided. Even if I ran away, I'd have to come back and face these demons again. Unless I abandon Art. Which isn't going to happen.

The demons should have overwhelmed us by now. There are so many of different sizes, shapes and powers. We shouldn't be able to stand up to them. But they don't take advantage of their strength and numbers. They snap and bite at us, inflicting minor wounds, but don't pile upon us all at once.

"What's going on?" Dervish yells, wiping a demon's yellow blood from his face and kicking an otter-like beast away. "Why are we still alive?"

"Like I said," Beranabus grunts, "Lord Loss wants to play. He must have given orders not to kill us."

"Then why don't we stop fighting?" Dervish asks.

"When demons catch the scent of blood, they don't always obey their master's orders," Beranabus chuckles.

"So are we just going to stay here?" Sharmila shouts, face bright, lit by the flames of the burning demons around her.

"No," Beranabus says. "Let's move towards the castle. But keep up our defences. I think they'll let us through, but they won't make it easy for us. If one of us stumbles and falls behind..."

He doesn't finish. Doesn't need to. It's clear that anyone who stumbles will be left for the demons.

Battling our way through the ranks of demons, edging across the strands of web, feet sticky, coated with a glue-like substance. The stench is unbelievable - not just the demons, but all the blood and guts. The webs around us are slick with the entrails and life juices of the demons we've wounded or killed. Lord Loss must be a strange master to let so many of his servants perish at our hands.

Some of the wounded fall between the layers of webs and disappear into the darkness, howling and screaming. But their cries never last more than a few seconds. As we draw close to the moat, and pass over a patch where the webby strands are thin and sparse, I see what happens to those who fall.

There are shark-like demons floating in the darkness beneath the layers of webs, constantly circling. Whenever a demon falls, the sharks move in for the kill, ripping the unfortunate monster to shreds, sometimes swallowing it whole.

In this universe, just when you think things can't get any worse, they usually do!

We come to a halt at the edge of the moat. This close, I see that it's actually just open space - a circular gap between the layers of web, with nothing to stop us falling straight down to where the shark demons are waiting. The bridges have been drawn closed, leaving us with no simple way of getting across.

As I'm staring at the webby castle walls with one eye, keeping the other on the demons, I get the strangest sense of d��j�� vu, like I've seen this place before. But I can't have. I'm probably just thinking about castles I've seen in books and movies.

A demon with powerful hind legs bounces high into the air and throws itself at Dervish while he's grappling with another of the beasts. Acting on instinct, the punk lowers his head and the spikes of his hair turn to steel. The demon is impaled and dies screaming. Dervish flicks his head left, then right, dislodging the dead demon. He bellows at Beranabus, "What now?"

"We have to jump across and scale the wall," Beranabus shouts.

"I don't think I can jump that far," I roar.

"Then we'll leave you behind for the Demonata," Beranabus retorts. Before I can think of a reply, the magician grabs the back of my neck and leaps. A second of stomach-dropping terror as I gaze down into the abyss and the circling shark demons. Then we hit the wall and stick. "Come on!" Beranabus yells at the others.

Shark jumps with ease. So does Nadia. Dervish is nervous and flails with his arms when jumping, but he makes it. Just as Sharmila leaps, a demon snags her sari. She rips free, but the attack robs her of her momentum, and instead of sailing across the moat, she falls towards the sharks.

"No!" Dervish shouts, reaching for her - but he's too late. He misses. She falls. I open my mouth to scream.

Then Beranabus is beside her. He wraps an arm around her. Angles her upwards. Soars back to the wall with her, holding on until she gets a grip on the webs. She's sobbing weakly - she thought she was finished.

"You never told us you could fly," Shark grunts.

"It varies from world to world," Beranabus says. "In some I can. In others I can't."

"Did you know you could fly here?" Dervish asks.

Beranabus shrugs. "I had a pretty good idea."

Which means he wasn't sure. He risked his life when he threw himself after Sharmila. Another sign that he isn't as cold and unfeeling as he pretends.

As we're clinging to the wall, the drawbridge nearest us is lowered. It's amazing how it operates - the bridge and the mechanism driving it are constructed entirely of webs. Even in the middle of my fear and madness I pause and mutter, "Cool!"

There's no creaking sound as the drawbridge touches down on the other side of the moat. Perfect silence. The demons have stopped chattering and howling. All are focused on the drawbridge now, holding their position, waiting for... what?

We soon find out.

I spy the shadow of something small, coming out of the castle. At first, I think it's the lice-headed, fire-eyed demon we saw when we arrived, but then the figure comes into sight and my heart gives an actual physical leap.

"Art!" I scream as my kidnapped brother totters on to the drawbridge. He looks at me and giggles. Exactly as I remembered him. Unharmed by the demons. Not the least bit afraid. Looks as happy and at home as he did in Paskinston.

My initial urge is to rush to my brother, but Beranabus snaps, "Stay where you are!"

"But it's - "

"I know. But wait. Let's see what comes out after him."

As he says it, I see two more shadows appear. The first of the pair steps out. It's Cadaver, the demon thief, looking as hairy and loathsome as the last time I saw him. His long ears are upright and his wide, white eyes are alert. He picks up Art and glares at us with his half-human, half-canine face. Art cuddles up to the demon and a bolt of jealousy shoots through me.

Then the other figure appears and jealousy washes away to be replaced by awe and terror - and recognition.

The creature is maybe seven or eight feet tall. He has eight arms, each of which ends in stubby, misshapen fingers, with bones sticking out of the flesh. No legs or feet, just long strips of flesh beneath the waist. He doesn't touch the floor of the drawbridge, but hovers in the air. Lumpy skin, a pale red shade, cracked in dozens of places, blood oozing from the cracks. Bald like me. Dark red eyes, no white at all. A small mouth with a grey tongue and teeth. No nose, just two holes set above his upper lip. A gaping hole in the left side of his chest, where his heart should be. Lots of small snakes inside the hole, wriggling around, hissing and spitting.

This was what I was trying to remember earlier, when Beranabus was asking me about the first window I formed, a year ago, when I went missing, just before I stepped through, something looked out at me from the other side. It was a demon. This demon.

He's one of the creepiest monsters I've seen, but that's not what sets him apart. He has an air of authority. I can feel the menace, the evil, the energy and power. Easy to see why these other demons obey him, why they stand like soldiers in the presence of a general, awaiting his command, eager to please him, afraid of what he'll do if he loses his temper.

This is a demon of an entirely different class. I can sense it. So can the others. Even Shark doesn't look confident any longer. I know now why Beranabus doesn't want to fight this monster. Why he said we couldn't.

It's Lord Loss. It must be. It couldn't be anybody else.

After several seconds of silence, which I'm sure Lord Loss allows just so we can admire his awful beauty, the demon master reaches out with one of his eight hands and pats Art on the head. Art gurgles and tries to bite into the bloodstained flesh. Lord Loss jerks his hand away before Art brings his teeth together - even demon masters are wary of my little biter of a brother!

Lord Loss' head turns right, slowly. Fresh cracks open around his neck and shoulders. Blood flows from them. He levels his gaze on us, studying us one at a time. Nadia is murmuring the words of some spell - a protective spell perhaps, though I don't think that will be much use if he decides to attack. Lord Loss observes her longer than the rest of us, frowning softly, then his eyes move on.

As he studies me, I remember how he looked at me before, the way his eyes lingered on me then, how I stood up to him. He could have crossed that night, I'm sure, and taken me. But I stared him down. Made a fist and threatened him with magic. He wasn't sure how powerful I was. He retreated. That gives me hope and the strength to look at him directly now, without flinching.

"It is pleasing to see you again after all these years, Beranabus," Lord Loss finally says, breaking the heavy silence. His voice is the saddest I've ever heard, as if everyone close to him had recently died in tragic, painful circumstances.

"I don't know if I would call it a pleasure exactly," Beranabus answers.

"This is the first time you have visited me here, though I have felt you pass a few times before. You should not have waited so long, old friend."

"I'd have happily waited a few more centuries."

The pair smile thinly at each other. I can tell there's no love lost between them. If we survive, I must ask Beranabus to tell me about their history. I bet it's an interesting story.

Lord Loss lets his gaze settle on me again. He sighs mournfully. "Cornelius Fleck. I hoped you would not embark on such a foolhardy quest. You should have stayed and comforted your father and mother. They are distraught without you, even after all this time. I know you love your brother, but it would - "

"What do you mean?" I interrupt, curiosity forcing me to speak. "It's only been a few days since I left home."

The demon master makes a miserable sound. "You poor child. Did Beranabus not explain the vagaries of time in this universe?"

"Yes," I say uneasily. "But... I mean... a couple of days... it can't make much of a..." I look to Beranabus. "How long have I been here?"

"I don't know," he says shiftily. "It doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters," Lord Loss disagrees. "The boy thinks he can come here, rescue his brother, return and all will be well. If only it were that simple." He sighs again. "I cannot be accurate, Cornelius, since it is hard to judge the passage of time in your universe, but it has been at least five or six years since Cadaver made off with young Art."

"No!" I cry. "That's impossible!"

"I'm afraid it is not only possible - it is true," Lord Loss insists. "You were unfortunate with the worlds you visited, although it may not have been mere misfortune. Cadaver is roguish. He might have chosen those worlds deliberately."

My heart's pounding. Five or six years! All the children my age who I knew in Paskinston will be adults now. Mum and Dad must think we're both dead. They'll have grieved and moved on with their lives. If I return with Art, the pair of us looking no older than we did on the day we disappeared...

"Don't think about it," Dervish hisses. "He's probably lying. He wants to destroy your confidence."

"I am not in the habit of lying!" Lord Loss booms, just the slightest hint of anger in his otherwise morbid tone. "In fact, I have never told a lie, have I, Beranabus?"

"So it's said," Beranabus mutters.

"Whatever," Dervish sniffs.

"Dervish is right." Sharmila smiles at me. "Do not think about it. There is a price to pay for coming into this universe. If it is the loss of five or six years... what of it? The important thing is that we return with your brother. Yes?"

"I guess so," I mumble unhappily. "But - "

"Don't start with 'buts'," Dervish warns me. "You'll be 'butting' all night if you do." He squints up at the silvery sky. "If they have nights here."

Lord Loss watches me, a malicious twinkle in his red eyes. As he's studying me, the demons on the other side of the moat begin to fidget and mutter. They're growing impatient. Lord Loss throws a cold glance at them. "I think it will be better if we continue our discussions inside. Less distractions, hmmm?"

Beranabus tenses. "Do I have your word that no harm will befall us in there?"

"I promise that I will not injure you - or allow anyone else to - while we are discussing whatever it is that brought you here. Once those discussions have concluded..." He grins like a corpse.

"We could make a sneak attack, grab Cadaver and the child," Shark whispers. "Kernel could open a window for us."

"Not quickly enough," Beranabus murmurs. "If we anger Lord Loss, and he sets his familiars on us, with orders to kill..." He looks at the ranks of demons. Shakes his head. "Very well," he says to Lord Loss. "We accept your generous offer, with many thanks but no sense of obligation."

Lord Loss nods slowly, then turns and glides back into his castle, Cadaver hurrying ahead of him with Art, perhaps afraid we'll hurl ourselves at him once the demon master's back is turned.

Beranabus crawls towards the drawbridge, cutting across the vertical wall of the castle. I'm reminded of a scene in a Dracula film I saw once. If only vampires were all I had to worry about!

Sharmila is next to cross, followed by Dervish, then Nadia, still softly chanting the words of a spell. Shark motions for me to go ahead, covering my back, in case any of the demons on the other side of the moat attack. I smile my thanks, take one last look at the turrets and towers of the castle, trying to recall why they look so familiar. Then I focus on the drawbridge and drag my way across the wall of webs towards my meeting with the terrible monster who rules within.

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