Demon Thief

Chapter 21. AMAZEING

Darkness. Silence. I'm crouched over, hands covering my head, trying to protect my face from the sizzling webs. Then I realise I'm not on fire. There's no pain. I relax my hands and sit up, brushing cobweb ash from my cheeks.

I can't see. Total blackness. I reach out with my hands but don't touch anything. "Hello?" I call, then wait for Shark or Dervish to respond.

No answer.

I get to my feet, stretch my hands out and start walking. I count steps inside my head. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Fifty. A hundred. On my hundred and thirtieth step, my left hand brushes something soft and sticky. I pause and explore with my fingers. It's a wall of webs. When I try ripping through the webs, they resist.

"Dervish!" I shout. "Shark!"

No answers. No echoes. Only silence.

Walking, keeping one hand on the webby wall. I come to another wall after several minutes, blocking the way ahead. I turn right and follow the new wall. Only get twelve paces before striking another wall. So I'm either in a very long, narrow room or some sort of alley. Hand on the wall, I start back in the direction I came, trying hard not to panic.

After sixty-two paces there's a left turn. A long walk after that, the wall curving slightly. Then I come to the mouth of another room or alley. I head down it, left hand staying in touch with the wall. After twenty-two paces I come to another turning. I start to follow it around to the left then pause. I've had an idea.

Lowering my hand, I shuffle twelve paces across to the right and find the wall opposite. I continue straight ahead, right hand feeling the way. After thirty-six paces I come to a halt. Turn left. Walk ahead. Ten paces... twelve... twenty.

I stop, smiling ever so slightly. I know where I am now. In a maze.

A few seconds later, the smile fades - there's no telling how large this maze is or where the exit might be. Or even if there is an exit. I guess there's only one way to find out. Keeping a hand on the wall, I start ahead again, further into the pitch-black, demonic maze.

I'm mapping the maze inside my head. I must have been here for hours. Trying to remember all the twists and turns I've taken, the paces between them. Focusing on numbers helps me not worry so much about the darkness, the silence, being all alone with no idea of where...

The darkness.

I come to a stunned stop, only now realising why I find the darkness so unsettling. It's total darkness - there aren't any patches of light! For the first time in my life I'm experiencing darkness as other people understand it. The lights I've grown up with - which I used to create windows between worlds in this universe - have disappeared.

A terrifying thought strikes like a missile - maybe I'm blind! Perhaps that's why the darkness is absolute. Maybe Lord Loss burnt my eyes out of their sockets and it's actually bright as day in here.

My heart thumps fast. My legs go weak. A life of blackness, lost in a maze, no friends to turn to for help... Maybe that's what Lord Loss meant when he said I had to find and name the demon thief. Perhaps that's why he was smirking. He knew that blind, I wouldn't have any way of identifying Cadaver. He's tricked me! Robbed me of my sight! Stranded me in this maze of eternal darkness!

I moan aloud, losing hope, the map of the maze disintegrating inside my head. I should have listened to Beranabus. What made me think I could strike a fair deal with a demon? I feel hysteria bubble up within me. Madness digs its claws into my brain, dragging its way to the surface.

Magic, a voice inside me whispers. Use magic to create light. Then you'll find out if you're blind or not.

"I don't know how to do that," I whimper.

This is a good time to learn, the voice says drily.

I nod slowly. The voice is right. No point freaking out when my eyes might be perfectly fine. I concentrate, drawing upon the magic. I'm not much good at fighting, but let's see how I fare in other areas.

I imagine a ball of light, small, not too bright, like the bulb in my bedroom at home. A simple ball of light - that can't be too much to ask for.

But it is. I can't generate one. Or else I've created light, but can't see it.

No, the voice says. You'd know if you had done it. There is no light.

"So I can't tell if I'm blind or not. Though I don't suppose it matters much. If this darkness holds, I might as well be blind."

The voice doesn't answer immediately. Then, as if speaking to a simpleton, it says, Remember the chess board?

"What about it?"

It had black squares and white squares. If those squares correspond to the worlds within the Board...

"...then half the maze is dark and half is bright!" I shout.

Exactly. So all you have to do is find your way to a white square. Then you'll see again.

"Unless I'm in a white square already and I'm blind," I quibble.

Just walk! the voice snaps.

Stumbling through the maze. I've given up trying to keep track of my route. It's too large to map without a pen and paper (and light). I just have to keep walking and hope that I eventually find my way out by (blind) luck.

I think about the demon master's castle and how familiar it seemed. I wonder if I saw it that first time I crossed through a window into the universe of the Demonata. I guess there's a strong possibility that I did, especially given the fact that I saw Lord Loss beforehand.

I still can't remember anything about that trip. I try again to recall what happened when I vanished from my bedroom, where I went, if I came to Lord Loss' world. But it's a blank.

Thinking about that night reminds me of how lonely I was. Without the patches of light I feel lonely again, like before Art came along. I hated being an only child after Annabella died. I think I've risked so much for my brother not just because I love him, but because I'm afraid of being alone. He's the only true friend I've ever had.

For some reason, I find myself thinking about leaving our home in the city. Dad tucking me down in the back seat of the car, handing Art to me, covering us with a blanket, telling me to pretend we had to hide. Mum looking worried. "Take care of your brother, Kernel. Protect him."

Then my memory cuts to Art playing with the orange marbles in Sally's house. Holding them up, the marbles twinkling in front of his eyes. I had the sense that he'd been possessed by an evil spirit. That must have been a vision of what was to come. If Art remains with Lord Loss, and the demon master keeps him alive, will he raise him like one of his familiars? Give him evil powers? Bring him up to be monstrous... to kill?

The marbles are still in my pocket. I pull one out to have something to touch that isn't a webby wall. I roll it between my fingers, careful not to drop it. It helps calm me down. A pity I can't see - I could play a game with the marbles if I had some light.

As I think that, I feel magic seep through my fingers into the marble - and it starts to glow! A soft orange light. I gasp and clutch my fingers tight around it, scared my mind is playing tricks, not wanting to be disappointed.

Staring down at the space where I imagine my hand to be. Slowly, hesitantly, I allow my fingers to loosen - and light flashes through the cracks! With a burst of relief, I thrust my hand up and let more magic explode into the marble. It flares to life, causing my eyelids to snap shut. I pull back some of the power, then open my lids slowly, not looking directly at the marble.

I can see! I must have been in a black square of the maze all along, as my inner voice suggested. Not that sight is much of a bonus here. All I see are webby walls and a floor. Several feet above me hangs the ceiling, a mass of black webs, impossible to see through.

I smile weakly, gazing at the orange marble throwing off the light, feeling more grateful to it than I ever thought possible. I mean, how many people can say their lives have been enriched by a marble!

Then, because I can't stand here gazing at the marble all day like it's some godly artefact, I bring my hand down, hold it slightly ahead of me to light my path, and continue working my way through the seemingly endless maze.

Not long after. Making my way down a narrow path much like any other, when I hear a sound somewhere ahead and to the left. I pause, listening carefully. Nothing for a few seconds. But then it comes again, a soft ripping noise, then giggling.

I advance cautiously, dimming the orange light. I think about letting it go out completely, but then not only wouldn't the person or creature around the corner not be able to see me - I wouldn't be able to see them.

I pause at the corner. Listen closely. More ripping sounds. An occasional giggle. I think about calling Dervish or Shark's name. Dismiss the idea - I never heard Dervish or Shark giggle like that.

I cup my fingers round the marble, directing the light upwards. Step forward, around the corner.

It takes my eyes a second to adjust. Then I make out a small shape sitting by the wall to my right, maybe fifteen feet ahead of me. A baby. Pulling at the webs, tearing handfuls out of the wall, eating them. "Art!" I shout, letting the light brighten and my fingers drop.

The baby whirls and of course it isn't my brother. I knew as soon as the shout left my lips that it wasn't. It's the same general size as Art, but green, with lice for hair, fire in its eye sockets and small mouths in the palms of its hands - the first demon I saw when I came to Lord Loss' world.

The hell-child spits out a mouthful of webs and hisses at me. I glare at him, hating him for not being Art, for raising my hopes and then dashing them. Not afraid. Despite the fact that I'm not much of a fighter, I'm confident that I can take this demon. He ran once already, which makes me suspect he's not the bravest of his kind.

"Come here," I mutter, stepping towards the hell-child, thinking he might know the way out. The demon shows his teeth and takes his own menacing step forward. But then he hesitates, glances around and darts away.

I grin viciously. I'm through being meek Kernel Fleck, unable to take care of himself. It's time for payback. With a wild whoop of abandonment, I give chase.

I race through the maze, hot on the demon's heels, reckless with excitement. Taking corners without slowing, I bounce off the webby walls more than once, stick for a few seconds, then tear myself free. The hell-child squeals as he runs. That goads me on, makes me eager to catch up with him. The loneliness and uncertainty have vanished. The chase is everything.

I almost catch the demon a couple of times, when he hits walls and sticks to them. But he pulls free each time and escapes. His back and shoulders are covered in webs. I'm caked with them too, but I don't stop to wipe them away.

The demon disappears round a corner to my right. When I turn, I see we're at the start of an extra long path, and at the end of it... light! Too soon to tell if it's daylight or the light of a fire. Maybe it's the glow of some demon. But I race towards it regardless, focusing more on the light than the hell-child now, anxious to leave the darkness behind.

Almost at the end of the path. I can tell now that the light is coming from overhead and it seems to be widespread. A dull, yellowish light.

The hell-child darts out of the maze and off to the left, out of sight. I'm at the exit a few seconds later. I pause before stepping out, in case it's a trap. I let the light of the marble fade, then replace it in my pocket. I flex my fingers - nervous now I've stopped - and cautiously nudge out.

A rocky landscape. There are lots of hills and mounds, and steam spurts out of the ground in many places. The stench of sulphur is thick in the air. In the near distance runs a river of bubbling lava. I know what it is because I've been to museums and seen videos of volcanic eruptions. I can't see the source of the river, but it can't be far away, since the lava's red-hot and liquid, flowing swiftly.

I spot the hell-child running towards the river. I'd like to explore, but I've got to maintain my focus and keep up the chase. Perhaps the demon knows where Dervish and Shark are, or Cadaver. Maybe he's Cadaver in disguise!

The hell-child reaches the river of lava and stops. Turns and faces me. Squealing louder than ever, head thrown back. I close in on him, ready for him to break left or right, trying to outguess him.

The demon stops squealing and glares at me. He looks like he plans to attack, but then, surprising me, he takes a step back - on to the river of lava. Steam rises from the demon's feet, and seconds later they burst into flames. But the hell-child only laughs and blows on them, extinguishing the fire. With a grin at me, he skips across the forty or fifty feet width of the river, jumping off at the other side, only the top of his head visible now.

I stop at the lava's edge. The heat is incredible. I feel my skin redden. I use magic to cool it, but even with the help of magic it's hard to bear. I stare at the lava uncertainly. If the hell-child was able to skip across, I probably can too. But what if I can't? What if my magic fails me? If I venture out on to the lava, and things take a turn for the worse, I'm finished. This body will rot away and Lord Loss will imprison my soul.

Trying to work up the courage to test the lava. I look left and right, in case there's some other way to cross, like a bridge or tunnel - but there's nothing. The river stretches as far as I can see in both directions.

As I'm looking around, my eyes flick up to see what the sky is like. But instead of a sky, I find myself gazing at the hideous face of Lord Loss! It's huge, filling my entire field of vision. He's laughing, though I can't hear him. I freeze, horrified by his immense red eyes, the pores and cracks in his skin, which look like moon craters and valleys when magnified to this extent. Then he pulls back and Beranabus replaces him. He's almost as ugly when seen from this perspective.

The magician is shouting at me, pointing with a finger the size of a battering ram. It takes me a few seconds to realise he's gesturing to a spot behind me - trying to warn me! I whirl defensively, but too late. I catch sight of a winged demon with a red, lumpy body, hurtling at me through the air. I duck instantly, but the demon has judged its flight perfectly. It hits me hard in the chest, driving me off my feet, backwards - into the river of molten lava.

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