Blood beast, p.6
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       Blood Beast, p.6

         Part #5 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
 
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  what we’ve started?” Loch growls. “There aren’t any fences around your land, are there?”

  “No.” I clear my throat. “Actually, this isn’t our land. We don’t own this part of the forest.”

  Loch stares at me hard, then at Bill-E, who fidgets uncomfortably. “You don’t have legal rights to it?” he says softly. “You were bluffing, trying to cut me out of any find.”

  Bill-E shrugs. “You wouldn’t have known about the treasure if we hadn’t told you. Anyway, it’s ours — Grubbs’s — by right of birth.”

  “No, it’s not,” Loch objects. “He isn’t any relation to Lord Sheftree. Dervish just bought the house, that’s all. If I wanted, I could come back here with others and dig without you.”

  Bill-E gulps and looks to me for help.

  “Thirds,” I say steadily. “An equal split. Assuming there’s anything down there. And assuming we get to keep it if there is. For all we know, there are laws that won’t allow us to keep any of it. But if the treasure’s there and we can make a claim, we divide it in three. Agreed?”

  “Agreed,” Loch says quickly.

  Bill-E looks disgusted but nods angrily. “OK.”

  “And we don’t tell anybody, not until we figure out what our rights are,” Loch adds. “There’s no point doing all the hard work and not being able to reap the rewards. If we find treasure, we keep our mouths shut and check the law. We might have to wait till we’re eighteen to declare our find. Or maybe we can never declare it. Maybe we’ll have to sell it on the black market.” He grins. “The gold and diamond market!”

  “I’m not so sure about that,” Bill-E says. “Not revealing a find like this could land us in a lot of trouble.”

  “We can buy our way out of it with the money we make from the treasure.” Loch laughs. “Either way, we don’t say anything until we know, right?” Bill-E and I share a glance, then nod. “Great. It’s settled.” He hauls himself out of the hole and lays his shovel aside. “I don’t know about you two, but I plan to be back here first thing after school tomorrow, and every day this week, and the week after, and the week after that, until we get to the bottom of this damn hole. You with me?”

  “I’ll come,” Bill-E agrees. “Not every day — Gran and Grandad would get suspicious if I was late coming home every evening — but most of the time it shouldn’t be a problem.”

  “Grubbs?” Loch asks.

  “I’ll be here,” I promise, glad to have something to distract me from my recent fears. I look up at the darkening sky and add a proviso. “But only until dusk. I’m not staying out here nights. Not when the moon’s up.”

  Home. Waiting for Dervish. He should have returned by now. I call his cell, to check that everything’s OK, but only get his voice mail. Sitting in the TV room, TV switched off, no lights on. In my guts and bones I can feel the moon rising. Concentrating on my breathing, willing myself not to change, trying to stay human.

  Without any sound of a motorcycle, the doors open at about ten o’clock and Dervish stumbles in. “My head,” he groans, slumping on the couch next to me, a hand thrown over his eyes.

  “What’s wrong?” I ask, thinking he’s been in a crash. Then I catch the stench of alcohol. “You’re drunk!”

  “I forgot how much Meera can drink when she puts her mind to it,” he mumbles. “And unlike normal people, she doesn’t get a hangover the next morning. She was at it again first thing when she got up, and she made me join in.” He puts his hands over his ears and moans. “The bells, the bells!”

  “Tell me you didn’t drive home in this state,” I snap.

  “You think I’m crazy?” Dervish huffs. “I cast a sobering spell.”

  “You’re full of it!”

  “No, really, it works perfectly. Except it’s very short-term. It ran out when I got near Carcery Vale. I had to stop and walk the rest of the way. And the worst thing is, when it wears off, the hangover kicks in with twice as much venom as before.” Dervish doubles over, head cradled between his hands, whining like a kicked dog.

  “Serves you right,” I sniff. “You should have more sense at your age.”

  “Please, Grubbs, don’t play mother,” Dervish groans. He staggers to his feet and heads for the kitchen. “I’m going to make an absolutely huge cup of hot chocolate, then retire to my room for the night. I don’t want to be disturbed unless the house is burning.” He pauses. “Strike that. I don’t want to be disturbed even then. Let me burn — I’d be better off.”

  I think about calling him back, making him sit down and listen to me. But it wouldn’t be fair. Better to let him get a good night’s sleep, then tell him about it tomorrow. Besides, I don’t feel too sick at the moment, not as bad as I felt last night. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I think I might be over the worst.

  Dervish’s snores rock the house to its foundations. I don’t want to sleep. I want to keep a vigil, stay focused on my breathing, alert to any hint of a change. But I’m exhausted. All the energy that went into the party. . . lack of sleep last night. . . walking and digging this afternoon. My eyelids refuse to stay open. Even coffee — which I hardly ever drink — doesn’t work.

  I undress and slip into a T-shirt and boxers. Slide beneath the covers. Lying there, I think that maybe I should get a rope, tie it round my ankles and the bed frame, maybe tie up one of my hands too. That should hold me in case I change during the night. A good plan, but it comes too late. Even as I’m gearing myself up to get out of bed and fetch a rope, my eyelids slam down and I’m out for the count.

  Harsh breathing. Thumping sounds. Cold night air.

  I come to my senses slowly, the same as last night. I see a pair of hands lifting a large rock out of the ground. They throw it overhead casually as if it were a pebble. They stoop, start clearing more dirt away. . . then stop as I realize they’re my hands. I exert my will and look around.

  I’m standing in a hole, dressed only in my T-shirt and boxers. Bare feet. Dirtencrusted fingers. It takes me a few seconds to realize I’m in the hole where we were digging earlier. The reason I didn’t recognize it instantly — it’s about four times deeper than when we left it.

  I look up. I’m about six feet below ground level, surrounded by rock. In a sudden panic, afraid the rocks are going to grind together and crush me, I grab a handhold and haul myself up. A couple of quick thrusts later, I’m standing by the edge of the hole, shivering from cold and fear, looking around with wonder.

  There are rocks and dirt everywhere. I don’t know how long I was down there, but I must have been digging like a madman. The weird thing is, I don’t feel the least bit tired. My muscles aren’t aching. Apart from some scared gasping, my breath comes normally and my heart beats as regularly as if I’d been out for a gentle stroll.

  I walk over to one of the biggest stones. Study it silently, warily. I bend, grab it by the sides, give an exploratory lift. I can shift it a few inches and that’s it, I have to drop it. It weighs a freaking ton. Under any normal circumstances I doubt I could lift it higher than knee level, not without throwing my back out completely. Yet I must have. And not only picked it up, but lobbed it out of the hole too.

  Back to the rim of the mini abyss. Staring down into darkness. What brought me here? I’d like to think I was just sleepwalking, that I came here because I’d been thinking about the hole all evening. But there’s more to it than that. My senses are on high alert, animal sharp (wolf sharp), and I don’t think it’s any accident that I wound up here, digging as if my life depended on it.

  As much as I don’t want to, I sit, turn, and lower myself into the hole. When I’m at the bottom, I allow a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, then take a really good look. The hole isn’t any wider than it was earlier. The rocks on the sides run down smoothly, like a mine shaft. The angle that we were following has continued, so although it’s a steep slope, it’s easy to climb up and down.

  I bend and touch the next rock in line for removal. It’s jammed firmly in the earth. I tug har
d and it barely moves. Yet I’m sure, if I’d tried a few minutes ago, while asleep, I could have ripped it out and. . .

  Whispers.

  I frown and cock my head. The sound has been there for a while, maybe since I regained my senses, but I thought it was the wind in the trees. Now that I focus, I realize it’s not coming from the trees. It seems to be coming from the rocks.

  A bolt of excitement cuts through my confusion and apprehension. Maybe I’m close to a cave and the noise is the wind whistling between earth and rock. I flash on an image of Lord Sheftree’s treasure and the glory of being the first to discover it. With renewed enthusiasm I grasp the rock again and pull as hard as I can. I might not be able to toss it out of the hole, but if I can budge it slightly, maybe I can. . .

  A flicker on the rock. A slight bulging. A shadow grows out of it, just for a second, then disappears.

  I fall backwards, stifling a scream, heart racing.

  Eyes fixed to the rock, waiting for it to change again. A minute passes. Two.

  I get to my feet, legs very shaky, and climb out of the hole, not looking back. I make for home quickly, head down, striding through the forest, ignoring the twigs, stones, and thorns that jab at my bare feet.

  Trying hard not to think about what I saw (or thought I saw). But I can’t block it out. It keeps coming back, rattling round the inside of my skull like a rabid rat in a cage.

  The flicker. . . the bulging. . . the shadow. . .

  It might have been a trick of the light or my skittish mind, but it looked to me like a face was trying to force its way up through the rock from the other side. A human face. A girl’s.

  Hard Work

  NO sign of Dervish in the morning. He’s normally an early riser, so I guess he’s still suffering from his binge drinking this weekend. I want to wake him, tell him about my inner turmoil, the magic, the howling, what happened at the hole. But instead I decide to let him sleep in and get his head together. We’ll discuss it when I come home after school, when he can think and focus clearly.

  Scrubbing hard in the bathroom. The dirt doesn’t want to come off. Especially bad under my nails. Without wanting to, I think about grave diggers — their hands must be stained like this all the time.

  Looking up when I’ve scraped them as clean as I can. My reflection in the mirror. Remembering the face I saw/ imagined in the rock. Something about it bugs me. It’s not just the fact that there shouldn’t have been a face in the rock at all. There’s something more. . . something else. . . .

  I’m on my way out the front door when it strikes me. The face looked ever so slightly like my dead sister, Gret.

  The day passes slowly, as if I’m experiencing it second-hand, watching somebody else’s body going through the motions of a normal school day. Talking with Charlie, Leon, and Shannon. Greeting Reni with a big smile when she arrives with Loch. Making light of my friends’ compliments about the party. Shrugging off the incident with the bottle — “A good magician never reveals his secrets.”

  Bill-E turns up. I know he’s itching to discuss the cave with Loch and me, but we can’t speak of it in front of the others, so he slides past silently. Loch yells an insult after him, meaner than usual, maybe to cover up the fact that he’s become Bill-E’s secret ally.

  Classes don’t interest me. The teachers could be ghosts for all the impression they make. Fading in and out of conversations between classes and at lunch. The major part of my mind stuck on the twists of the last few nights, the hole I’ve dug, the face in the rock, the beast I’m apparently becoming.

  Heading back to class after the lunch bell. Loch and I are by ourselves. Bill-E hurries up to us and says quietly, “Still on for after school?”

  “Sure,” Loch says.

  “No.” Both stare at me. “Dervish wants me home,” I lie. “Not sure what it’s about. Maybe something valuable got smashed at the party.”

  Loch winces. “Bad luck. Guess it’s just me and Spleenio then.” He pinches Bill-E’s cheek.

  “Get off !” Bill-E yelps, pulling away, rubbing his cheek. “That hurt.”

  “Sue me,” Loch laughs.

  Bill-E turns his back on him. “Maybe you can come later?” he asks me.

  “I doubt it.” I sigh.

  Bill-E looks worried. “Perhaps I’ll cancel too, leave it till tomorrow.”

  “No, you don’t,” Loch grunts. “If you back out now, you stay out. This is a joint venture. If you don’t pull your weight — and I know that’s a heavy load to pull, you chubby little freak — get lost. We don’t need free riders.”

  Bill-E’s fists ball up. The rage inside him froths to the surface. I think he’s finally going to go for Loch and I silently will him on. If he fights back, maybe that will be the end of the teasing and Loch will start treating Bill-E as an equal.

  But then Bill-E looks Loch over, sizes up his height and muscles, and chickens out. His hands go limp and he turns away with a weak, “See you later then.”

  Loch leans over and mock-whispers to me, just loud enough for Bill-E to hear, “Do you think anyone would notice if I took Spleeny out to that hole and made him disappear?”

  “Shut up, you jerk,” I snap, and march ahead of him, paying no attention to his theatrical gasp.

  Home. No Dervish. A note on the kitchen table. “Went to get my bike. Don’t worry about fixing me dinner — still not in the mood for solids.”

  Damn it! Of all the times in my life, why does Dervish pick these few days to be Mr. Impossible to Pin Down! Now I wish I’d hit him with the news as soon as he got home. Would have served the old souse right.

  Too itchy-footed to wait for him. Better to do something than hang around here, struggling to kill time with home-work and TV. So a quick change of clothes, a hasty sandwich, then it’s off to the hole to find out what Loch and Bill-E make of my late-night digging marathon.

  They’re baffled. Standing around the pit when I arrive, jaws slack, staring from the rocks and piles of dirt down into the hole, then back again. Both are holding shovels limply and look like you could knock them over with a fart. “Hell,” I gasp playfully. “You’ve been working hard.” “We didn’t do it,” Loch says numbly. “It was like this when we arrived,” Bill-E mutters. I force a frown. “What are you talking about?” “We haven’t been digging,” Loch says, becoming animated. “We only got here a few minutes ago. We found it like this.” “But who. . . how. . . what the heck?” Bill-E mumbles. We spend ten minutes debating the mystery. The simplest solution, which I offer shamelessly, is that somebody discovered the hole after we’d left and did some digging themselves. Bill-E and Loch dismiss it instantly — there are no shovel marks in the newly excavated sections, and no footprints except our own. (I didn’t leave any barefooted prints in the night. I must have been extra light on my feet. Padded softly. . . like a wolf.) Besides, they argue, who the hell would go digging in the middle of the night? “An earthquake?” I suggest as an alternative.

  Snorts of derision. We don’t get earthquakes here. Besides, even if we did, that wouldn’t explain the dirt and rocks piled up around the hole.

  Loch wonders if a wild animal is responsible.

  “What sort of animal do you think that might be?” Bill-E sneers. “A troll or an ogre? Or maybe it was elves, like in the fairy tale with the shoemaker.”

  Eventually Bill-E comes up with a theory that satisfies all three of us, at least in the absence of anything more believable. “Lord Sheftree,” he says. “If this is where his treasure’s buried, maybe he booby-trapped the entrance with explosives. When we were digging, we set them off, but because they’d been buried so long, they didn’t ignite right away. It took them a few hours to explode, by which time we were safely home, clear of the blast radius.”

  “I dunno,” Loch mutters, examining the rocks around us. “These look like they were pulled out cleanly, not blasted.”

  “Maybe it was a catapult-type mechanism,” Bill-E says, warming to his theory. “He had all these rock
s loaded on a platform, which was set to shoot them upwards when the trap was sprung. They’d crush anyone nearby.”

  We discuss it further, trying to figure how the trap worked and wondering if there might be more than just one. I advise caution and propose retreat — we should report this and leave it to professionals to mine the dangerous hole. Bill-E and Loch shout me down.

  “We’ll go slowly,” Bill-E says.

  “Carefully,” Loch agrees.

  “If there are other traps, they’re probably slow burners too,” Bill-E argues.

  “But I doubt if there are more,” Loch says. “What would be the point? One’s enough. If it was set off, old Sheftree could have simply cleaned up the bodies, then set the trap again.”

  In the end, despite the dangers, they decide to keep going. Since they can’t be swayed and there’s no profit in cutting myself off from them, I reluctantly grab a shovel and all three of us climb down into the hole.

  For an hour we work doggedly and fearfully — me fearful of faces appearing in the rocks, Bill-E and Loch fearful of running afoul of the dead Lord Sheftree.

  We pause every time there’s a rustling in the trees over-head or when a heavy stream of earth trickles down into the hole, me anticipating whispers, Bill-E and Loch thinking it might be the grinding gears of Lord Sheftree’s next weapon of mass destruction. But gradually we adjust to the natural sounds of the forest and stop flinching at every minor disturbance.

  Bill-E and Loch are more convinced than ever that we’ve unearthed the final resting place of Lord Sheftree’s buried treasure. Not me. There’s something magical about this hole. It drew me to it last night, sang out to the moon-affected beast I’d become, and lured it here, turning me into a conspirator, using me to clear the way for. . . what?

  I don’t know. I haven’t the slightest idea what we might be digging our way down to. But I’m pretty certain it’s not a rich miser’s hidden treasure.

  Loch and I work together, chipping away at the hard-packed earth around the large rocks, prying them out slowly, often painfully, rolling and dragging them up the slope.

  Bill-E cleans up after us, removing the smaller rocks, pebbles, and dirt. We’re an effective team, although as Loch tires from the hard work, he starts cursing and teasing Bill-E, taking out his irritation on him. At first I ignore it, but he keeps on and on, Spleenio this, fat boy that, lazy eye the other, and eventually I snap.

  “Why don’t you lay off him?” I snarl after an especially brutal remark about Bill-E’s dead mother.

  “Make me,” Loch retorts.

  I square up to him. “Maybe I will.”

  Loch holds his shovel in both hands and raises it warningly. I grab the handle and we glare at each other. Then Bill-E slips behind me and whispers, “Ice him, Grubbs!” It’s so flat, so vicious, so un-Bill-E, that
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