Demon Thief


We trail from one enormous room to another. The rooms are so cavernous, I feel like an ant. The ceilings are all high overhead (a few don't even have ceilings, but open up to the sky), the walls so far apart that you could fit a couple of good-sized houses between them. There's not much in the way of furniture or fittings, but the few pieces I spot - chairs, a statue, a dry fountain - are all made of webs.

It's hot inside and gets hotter the further in we move. I'm soon sweating through my T-shirt. The others are uncomfortable too, pulling at their clothes, trying to breathe more freely. Dervish removes his jacket again, starts to tie it round his waist, then just dumps it. His spikes are drooping from the heat.

Lord Loss doesn't look back. Glides silently, smoothly, following after Cadaver and Art. It's hard to contain myself. I want to dash ahead of the demon master and grab my brother. But I can't. This is Lord Loss' home. I have to respect his rules. I'm not sure what he'd do to me if I didn't, but I'm certain it wouldn't be pleasant.

We enter a room filled with chess sets perched on webby pillars. Ordinary sets, like you'd find in any toyshop. The pieces in different positions on the various boards, as if games were being played on them before we arrived.

Dervish freezes when he sees the chess sets. He takes a few steps away from the rest of us, staring around the room. Then looks at Lord Loss with an entirely new expression. "You!" he croaks. "I know you now. You're the one who..."

"Yes," Lord Loss says, pausing to look back. "I knew you were a Grady as soon as I smelt you. The stench of your family cannot be disguised. But I didn't wish to announce myself, in case you had not heard of me."

Dervish is trembling. He starts to say something but Beranabus cuts in. "This is not the time to have a discussion about your family's curse."

"You know about the curse?" Dervish says sharply.


"And you know about...?" He nods at Lord Loss.

"I'd heard the rumours."

The rest of us look at each other blankly, no idea what this is about. Only Nadia pays no attention, still muttering her spell, gaze fixed on Lord Loss.

"We could play a game if you wish," Lord Loss says eagerly. "A practice match. A chance for us to test each other, in case we ever have to play for real."

Dervish glances at the chess boards, then shakes his head. "That will never happen. I won't have children. I refuse to subject them to the curse, to have them live in fear as I have."

"Noble intentions," Lord Loss murmurs. "But one should not tempt fate by saying never. Perhaps circumstances will conspire against you. Maybe your brother will reproduce..."

"If Cal has kids, he'll account for them himself," Dervish says stiffly.

Lord Loss inclines his head slightly, turns and carries on, further into the castle, out of the room of chess sets. We follow, Dervish visibly shaken, looking over his shoulder at the boards like a man who's seen a ghost.

We come to a room even larger than the rest. A huge spider-shaped throne in the centre, made of webs. A chandelier overhead, again woven from webs, with naked flames flickering in place of candles or light bulbs. Objects from my world are strewn across the floor - items of clothing, a tennis ball, walking sticks, the skeleton of some large animal, toys, more chess sets, scattered bones. A portrait of Lord Loss on the wall behind the throne, painted in the style of Vincent Van Gogh.

Lord Loss glides to the throne, over the legs which jut out of its base, up to the seat which is set in the body of the spider. He lowers himself on to it, so he can look down on us like a king upon his subjects. Cadaver sits on one of the legs to the left of the throne, playing with Art, holding him up on his knees, then letting him drop and catching him.

The demon master raises a hand to stop us about ten or twelve feet away from the throne. Smiles imperiously, then waves the hand at the room in general. "What do you think of my humble abode?"

"Not what I'd choose," Beranabus says. He nods at some of the objects on the floor. "The remains of previous guests?"

"Mementoes," Lord Loss says. He gestures at a knife, which rises from the floor and floats into his mangled hand. It's not like the knives in our kitchen at home - this is more of a small sword. Lord Loss turns it around a few times, smiling at Beranabus. "You should recognise this. It was yours once."

Beranabus' face is stone. "I'm not interested in the past or your mementoes."

Lord Loss shrugs and lets the knife drop. Art grabs for it, but Cadaver flicks it away before my brother can do any damage with the blade.

"Tell me what you are interested in," Lord Loss says. "Tell me why you have come and risked my wrath. You know uninvited visitors are not welcome, that I am entitled to kill you all if I wish - and probably will."

He waves at the walls. Looking up, I see the demons from outside sneaking into the room through windows which I hadn't noticed before. They cling to the walls, growing in number by the second, completely surrounding us. Several block the doorway through which we entered.

"I've been in more promising situations," Shark mutters wryly.

"Do you think we could blast through the walls?" Dervish asks. "They're only webs."

"Magical webs," Sharmila corrects him. "Built to protect Lord Loss from all the demons of this universe. I would not bet on us being able to force a way through."

Beranabus ignores the demons. He's gazing calmly at Lord Loss. Points at Cadaver and says, "We want him."

"The baby?" Lord Loss smiles, misinterpreting the gesture.

"No. The demon."

Lord Loss frowns. He'd expected Beranabus to ask for Art. I had too. I want to yell at the magician and remind him of his promise. But that would be the wrong thing to do. We're in a dangerous spot, the odds stacked against us. I have to trust Beranabus for now. Let him play it the way he wants. Only step in if I feel I absolutely have to.

"Cadaver isn't one of your familiars," Beranabus says. "You're not bound to protect him. I know you've granted him shelter, but I ask you to revoke that privilege and let us take him. We have no quarrel with you. Give us Cadaver and we'll leave at once, owing you a debt which we shall do our best to repay."

"You would put yourself in debt to me?" Lord Loss says, eyes burning bright.


"Tempting," the demon master purrs. "Cadaver must be very important to you. But why? He is an average, unremarkable demon." Lord Loss doesn't know about our quest to find the Kah-Gash so this makes no sense to him.

"Our reasons are private and should be of no concern to you," Beranabus says. "Just as it's no concern of ours why you offered him sanctuary in the first place."

"But that is no secret," Lord Loss laughs. "I gave him shelter because he did a service for me. He brought me the child." Lord Loss glances down at Art, then looks at me mockingly. I know in that instant that Lord Loss gave the order for my brother to be kidnapped. It was no accident that Cadaver took Art - the demon had been searching for him!

Beranabus sees this too. He starts to ask about it then changes his mind. Perhaps he's afraid that Lord Loss will realise he's searching for the Kah-Gash. I don't think the demon master would be so playful if he knew we were after a weapon which could destroy him and every other demon.

"So Cadaver did a service for you, and you rewarded him or promised to," Beranabus says. "Does that make him one of your familiars?"

"No," Lord Loss says and Cadaver looks at him quickly, worried. "But it would be wrong of me to dismiss him. I cannot let you kill him, not until I pay him for his service and he takes his leave. And that could be quite some time - he is under no obligation to depart before he wishes."

"What if we promised not to kill him?" Beranabus presses. "If we only made enquiries of him? I'm not saying we won't harm him, but I'll give my word that he won't die."

The hairs on Cadaver's arms lengthen menacingly and he whines softly. (Again I find myself wondering how he makes any noise, since he doesn't have a mouth.) He holds Art more tightly to his chest, issuing a warning.

"Do not be foolish, my swift-footed friend," Lord Loss says without warmth. "If you harm the child, your torment will be eternal." Cadaver scowls but relaxes his grip. Lord Loss faces Beranabus again, but only after staring at Nadia for a moment. Her lips haven't stopped moving. Maybe he thinks her spell is something we've worked on, that she's part of a trap.

"As tempting as it is, the favour is not enough," Lord Loss says. "I would need a stronger reason to turn Cadaver over to you."

"Such as?" Beranabus asks tightly.

Lord Loss frowns thoughtfully, but it's a deceptive frown - he knows exactly what he's going to ask for. "There is no point in your promising not to kill Cadaver, since it is a promise you cannot guarantee. If I gave him to you, it would have to be unconditionally."

"That suits me fine," Beranabus growls.

Cadaver gets to his feet, trembling with rage and fear. Lord Loss ignores him.

"A life for a life," the demon master whispers. "I will give you Cadaver if you give me one of your followers."

"Which one?" Beranabus asks without blinking. Shark, Sharmila, Dervish and I gawp at him, unable to believe that he'd sacrifice one of us so casually.

"The choice would be mine," Lord Loss murmurs. "All I guarantee is that it won't be you. Otherwise, no deal and I'll unleash my familiars immediately, with orders to slaughter you all."

Beranabus looks around at us. His gaze is steady but there's a slight tremble in his left hand, the only sign that he's not as calm as he seems. Shark returns the stare honestly - he's ready to die if the choice goes against him. But Sharmila, Dervish and I look away. Not that it matters whether we agree or not - the choice is Beranabus', not ours.

Nadia has stopped chanting. She's sneering at Beranabus. "Go on," she says witheringly. "Don't pretend there's any doubt. Sell us out. It's what you're good at."

An angry red rash rises up Beranabus' neck, but he doesn't respond. Instead he casts an eye over the demon-encrusted walls. "Agreed!" he says abruptly.

Lord Loss laughs and extends a hand towards us. "Eeny... meeny... miny..."

"Such games belittle you!" Beranabus barks. "Choose!"

"Very well." Lord Loss' hand points at me. Vomit creeps up my throat. I see the end coming, perishing in this horrible universe, far from home. I prepare myself to run, even though I know it's hopeless.

But then the hand moves on and settles on its real target - Nadia!

"Hah!" she shouts at Beranabus, all of her contempt for him contained in that one small sound.

Then she shoots across the room. Lord Loss grabs her out of the air. Wraps all eight arms around her. I see her eyes snap tight, her lips close, her face scrunch up with fear. There's a blinding flash of light. I cover my eyes until the glow fades. When I look again, Lord Loss is covered in blood, bits of flesh, and shards of bone and hair - all that's left of poor, pockmarked Nadia Moore.

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