Demon Thief

Chapter 26. THE THEFT

Soft pink light swallows me, engulfs the world of guts, blocks everything out. A few seconds of coolness and pinkness, all alone, confusion, uncertainty. Then the light fades and I'm back in Lord Loss' throne room, on my hands and knees in front of the spider-shaped throne, gasping and shivering.

"Kernel!" a woman shouts - Sharmila. She hurries towards me, but Beranabus reaches out and holds her back. The magician's smiling, but a faint frown wrinkles the dirty flesh of his forehead. Shark and Dervish are on their knees close by, sniffing the air and their hands. The stink is gone. That puzzles me, until I remember that only our souls entered the Board. The bodies we inhabited there were fakes. Our real bodies remained in the castle.

Lord Loss is on his throne, the hell-child on his lap, Vein sitting to attention at the base of the throne. No other demons are in the room.

"Say it again, Cornelius," Lord Loss murmurs. "So there can be no doubt."

"I'm the thief," I mutter, still not sure how that can be true. "I stole... I don't know how, but... It was when I was lonely, a year ago. I came here... when I stepped through the window of lights in my bedroom..."

Lord Loss chuckles and bounces the hell-child up and down. "This is Artery," he says, "brother of Vein. They are two of my current favourites. Loyal servants, and most amusing when I set them loose on a human. Some time ago, an intruder opened a window into my kingdom. When I peered through it, I found you, Cornelius. I was inclined to take you, to punish you for your impudence. But there was something about the way you faced me and a crackle of unusual magic in the air. I thought it better to wait and observe.

"You came through the window after me. It was outside the castle. Artery was playing nearby, torturing a lesser demon. You grabbed and subdued him, magically transformed him, supplied him with human features, took him to your universe, created a new identity for him and shortened his name to..."

"Art!" I croak, more of the memories clicking into place, understanding coming slowly but certainly.

The air around the hell-child shimmers. When it clears, my brother is sitting on the demon master's lap. He gurgles at me, but with Artery's screechy voice. Dim flashes of orange light in his eyes. His messy hair. Head that's slightly too large for his body. His sharp teeth.

"It was when he bit me," I whisper. "That's when I knew. Art loved to bite. And the marbles, when he held them over his eyes - they looked like the demon's."

Lord Loss nods slowly. "You stole him, Cornelius. You were lonely, desperate for a friend, somebody who would be true to you and with you always. You found a way into my kingdom. Snatched Artery. Gave him human shape. Convinced yourself that he was your natural brother."

"But Mum and Dad must have known the truth!" I cry.

"They knew he was not theirs," Lord Loss agrees. "But they did not know he was a demon, where he came from or why you believed he was your brother. He reminded your mother of the baby daughter she lost. She saw him as a second chance, a gift from the gods. Your father wanted to give the baby to the police, to be returned to its rightful parents. He tried to sway Melena, without success. She used you to swing him round to her way of thinking. You thought the baby was your brother. If they took him away, she said you'd suffer dreadfully. Out of love for you, he agreed to lie.

"They watched the news closely - furtively - over the coming days. If a baby had been reported missing, perhaps decency would have won out and your father would have handed Art over. Or perhaps not. Your sister's death had hurt him terribly too. Maybe he would have let your mother talk him into holding on to the child, no matter what.

"In any event, when there was no mention of a missing baby, they decided to keep him and rear him as their own, as the brother you believed he was. But they couldn't stay in the city, where people knew they only had one child. So they abandoned their jobs and fled. Took you and the baby away. Started a new life in Paskinston, where nobody had cause to be suspicious, where things were simpler, where they could rear their new son in peace."

He strokes Art's head, never taking his eyes off me. I'm trembling uncontrollably, my world falling to pieces, the last year of my life exposed as a lie, me revealed as a villain, Mum and Dad as devious accomplices.

"How did he transform the demon?" Beranabus asks. "Transfiguration's a complicated spell. He couldn't have managed it alone."

"Yet he did," Lord Loss says. "I assumed he was the pawn of a powerful magician, maybe even a fellow demon. That is why I did not retrieve Artery immediately. I hoped the manipulator of the boy would reveal himself. Eventually, I decided to steal Artery back, hoping to tempt Cornelius' master out of hiding. It was only when Cornelius came into this universe and tested his powers that I realised he'd acted alone. I still do not know how he did it - only that he did."

Everyone's staring at me. I feel like an exhibit at a freak show. Roll up! Roll up! Come and marvel at Kernel Fleck, thief of demons, master of disguise! He can hide a demon from everybody -??even himself!

"So I never had a brother," I whisper. "It was all a lie."

"A dream," Lord Loss corrects me. "And now you have awoken, thanks to my generous help."

"Some help!" Dervish snorts. "You could have just told him."

"That would have been cheating," Lord Loss says. "He had to discover the truth himself - or search for it in vain for the rest of his life. I would have been happy either way. The misery of his ignorance would have been sweet. But the misery of his understanding is just as welcome."

"What misery?" Shark asks. "He beat you. He found out the truth."

"And lost a brother in the process," Sharmila says softly, as I weep quietly.

"But he never had a brother," Shark says. "It was a sham, a cuckoo's child."

"But Kernel thought it was real." Sharmila frees herself from Beranabus' grip, walks over and lays a hand on my shoulder. Squeezes gently.

"What now?" Beranabus asks, businesslike, no longer interested in the mystery of the theft or the illusion. "Are we free to leave?"

"Of course," Lord Loss says. "Cornelius fulfilled the terms of our agreement. He discovered the true thief and named him. You can depart whenever you like." He looks around absent-mindedly. "Cadaver seems to have slipped away while we were otherwise involved, but I am sure you can track him down again."

"Then let's go," Beranabus says. "We've wasted enough time on this farce."

"Shut up, you stupid, thoughtless man!" Sharmila shouts, surprising us all. She glowers at Beranabus, then strokes the back of my neck. "There is the matter of Kernel's brother to settle."

"Brother?" Beranabus huffs. Sharmila points at the child on Lord Loss' knee. "But that's just a demon made up to look like a boy."

"Yes. But he has been Kernel's brother for the past year. And I suspect, by the smile of his master, he can be again. If Kernel so wishes."

Lord Loss laughs hollowly. "You have a sharp eye, Miss Mukherji." He holds Art - Artery - up with four of his hands. The baby giggles and tries to bite off one of the demon master's fingers. "Artery is precious to me, but he has been equally precious to Cornelius. I am not evil-hearted - I have no heart, either evil or good - so I am willing to let my familiar go. If Kernel wishes to take him, I will not stand in his way."

I slowly look up. "I can have Art back? He can be my brother again?"

"If you want," Lord Loss smiles.

I stare at the demon master, then at Art, grinning at me over the lumpy fingers. He looks no different than he did the day Cadaver took him. Why shouldn't I take him home as my brother, carry on with life and try to forget that this mad period of time ever happened?

"What would he be like when he grew up?" Dervish asks.

"Can one ever judge how a child will grow up?" Lord Loss says slyly.

"You know what I mean. Right now he likes biting people. Will he want to do worse things when he's older? Will he be more demon than human? A man on top, a monster beneath?"

"What a way you have with words." Lord Loss shrugs. "I think the true Artery will shine through. Cornelius has the power to shackle him, but not rid him of his origins. He'll want to do terrible things, and will probably find a way to act on his desires. But he will never harm Cornelius, of that I am certain."

Dervish comes over to stand beside Sharmila. He looks at me seriously. "It's your call, Kernel, but I don't think you should take him back. You've seen the way demons behave. You couldn't change him."

"I could try!" I cry. "If I can change his shape, why not his heart?"

"Demons don't experience emotions like we do," Beranabus says softly. "Sometimes they give the impression that they can feel as we feel, care as we care. But they're monsters, all of them. It's their nature. We cannot alter that."

I'm crying hard. I look at Art again, wanting so much to hold him, play with him, grow up with him. It's not fair, having to choose. I'd have been happier if I'd never had a brother. To have him for a year... to come through so much to find him... only to be faced with this... having to go back to the loneliness... tell Mum and Dad I couldn't protect him...

"Maybe I don't care if he kills!" I shout. "Maybe I just don't want to be lonely anymore, and having a brother matters to me more than anything else. What if that's the case?

Beranabus sniffs. "Then good luck to you. Just don't call on my Disciples when the bodies start mounting up. And you might want to tell your parents to stay out of Art's way. They should be safe on the other side of the world."

I howl at Beranabus, Dervish, Lord Loss, Art - the entire world and all the worlds beyond. I hate this universe, both universes, life itself. I wish I could destroy it all, the whole damn lot of it, myself as well. One burst of almighty energy and - bang! No more worries or pain.

Then I catch sight of Lord Loss smirking. And Art, smiling innocently, just the slightest twinkle of wickedness in the corner of his eye. I think about Mum and Dad, how they loved me and gave up everything, risking imprisonment and who knows what else, to protect my dark secret and keep me happy. Sure, they did it for themselves too, but I think - believe - they mostly did it for my sake.

And I know I can't do this to them. I can't take a demon in human form into their home and leave it free to strike. I'd be as demonic as Lord Loss if I did that.

"To hell with your rotten familiar!" I moan, turning my back on Lord Loss and the baby-shaped demon. Tears overwhelm me and the world becomes a watery, salty sea. I'm aware of Sharmila hugging me tight, leading me away, the others solemnly following. Lord Loss says something, mocking my misery, but we ignore him. Pass out of the main room, through the other webby chambers, past the room of chess sets, to the drawbridge. Where we pause, just a moment. And I hear, during a gulp between sobs, from deep within the castle, one final childish giggle from the demon Artery - my lost never-brother, Art.

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