Blood beast, p.7
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       Blood Beast, p.7

         Part #5 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
 
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  I turn around, startled, releasing the shovel.

  “What did you say?”

  Bill-E looks confused, but angry too. “I meant. . . I just. . . ”

  “I heard him,” Loch growls. “He told you to bump me off.”

  “What if I did?” Bill-E bristles, and now he tries to get around me, so that he can go toe-to-toe with Loch.

  “Stop,” I say firmly. I lay my left palm against the nearest rock wall and concentrate. After a few seconds I feel or sense the vibrations of a very faint throbbing. A nonhuman throbbing. “We all need to chill.”

  “Who made you the leader?” Loch barks.

  “We’re being manipulated.” His forehead creases and I start to tell him there’s magic at work, affecting our tempers. But then I realize how crazy that would sound. “The soil,” I say instead, inventing quickly. “There must be some sort of chemical in it. Put there by Lord Sheftree. It’s making us feel and say things we shouldn’t. If we don’t stop, we’ll be at each other’s throats soon.”

  Loch’s frown deepens, then clears. “I’ll be damned,” he sighs.

  “The sly old buzzard,” Bill-E hoots. “Chemicals to alter our dispositions and turn us against one another. Coolio!”

  “I thought you were my enemy,” Loch says wonderingly, staring at me. “It came so suddenly, without warning. I believed you were out to kill me. The shovel . . .” He looks down at the sharp, grey head, then drops it and clambers out of the pit. Bill-E and I follow. We find Loch sitting by the edge of the hole, shivering.

  “Are you OK?” I ask.

  “I don’t think we should keep going,” Loch whispers. “You were right. We should turn this over to someone who knows what they’re doing. Chemicals. . . that’s out of our league.”

  “No way!” Bill-E protests. “We’re close, I know it. You can’t back out now. That would be real craziness.”

  “But —” Loch begins.

  “There might not be any chemicals,” Bill-E interrupts. “Maybe we’re just tired and edgy. It’s been a long day, we’re hungry, we’ve been working hard, it’s late. . . . Combine all those things and you get three soreheaded bears.”

  “It was more than grumpiness,” Loch says.

  “Probably,” Bill-E agrees. “But let’s say there are chemicals down there. It’s been so long since they were planted, their strength must have dwindled by now. I bet, if we’d dug fifty years ago, they would have blinded or killed us. Now all they can do is make our hackles rise. We should take a short break, clear our heads, then get back to work. If we find ourselves getting short-tempered again, we come up for another rest.”

  “I’m not sure,” I mutter. If we were alone, I’d tell Bill-E about my fears — that this place is part of the world of magic. I’m sure he’d take more notice of my warnings then. But I can’t speak about such things in front of Loch. “Why don’t we leave it alone for today? It’s getting late. Let’s go home and sleep on it.”

  “Not yet,” Bill-E pleads. “Give it until dusk, like we planned. Since we’re here, we might as well make the most of the daylight.”

  “Spleenio’s right,” Loch says. Now that the influence of the hole has passed, he’s his old self again, intent on getting his hands on the treasure, quickly forgetting his fears. “Let’s do what we came to, then go home and relax. It might be weeks before we dig all the way to the bottom. We can’t get cold feet every time we run into an obstacle.”

  I don’t like it, but their minds are set, so after a short break, we pick up our tools and edge down into the hole again.

  We remove one of the biggest rocks yet and haul it to the top. Standing by the edge of the hole. Sweating, shaking, flexing our fingers. “This is torture,” Loch groans.

  “Think the treasure will be worth it?” I ask.

  “It better be.”

  “What if there’s nothing there, if it’s just a hole?”

  Loch smiles. “It isn’t. We’re on to something big. I can feel it in my bones.”

  “You’re just feeling what you want to feel.”

  Loch scowls. “Stop being such a —”

  Bill-E screams.

  Loch and I bolt down the hole. We find Bill-E submerged in earth up to his waist, clinging to the rocks around him, face bright with terror. “There’s nothing underneath!” he shouts. “My legs are dangling! I’m going to fall! I’m going to fall! I’m going to —”

  I grab his right hand. Loch grabs his left.

  “We won’t drop you!” I yell.

  “Not unless you give us reason to,” Loch jokes.

  “I was digging.” Bill-E gasps, fingernails gouging my flesh. “Rooting up stones. The floor gave way. My shovel fell. I heard it clanging all the way down — a long way. I thought. . . I dropped this far. . . I managed to grab the edge. If I hadn’t . . .” He starts to cry.

  “Look at the chubster.” Loch howls with delight. “Boohooing like a baby!”

  “Can’t you shut up just once in your stupid bloody life!” I roar — then catch myself. “The chemicals,” I hiss. “Loch. . . Bill-E. . . take it easy. No outbursts. No insults. Relax. Think nice thoughts. Tell me when you feel normal.”

  “How can I be normal when I’m stuck down a —” Bill-E shrieks.

  “Nice thoughts,” I interrupt sternly, sensing the throbbing again, coming from the rocks around us. “Loch — you thinking nice things?”

  “Yeah.” Loch grins. “I’m imagining the baby’s howls if we let him drop.”

  “Loch!”

  “OK,” he grumbles, and shuts his eyes. After a few seconds his expression clears. He opens his eyes and nods to show he’s in control. Bill-E is less composed, but that’s understandable, given the situation he’s in.

  “You need to talk to us,” I tell him. “We’re going to pull you out, but we don’t want to hurt you. Are there any stones jabbing you, sticks, wire. . . anything that might cut into you if we pull you out quickly?”

  “I don’t think so.” Bill-E sobs. “But it’s hard to tell. I don’t know.”

  “Relax,” I soothe. “You’re safe. We have you. Now concentrate and let us know how we can help you out of this mess with the least amount of discomfort.”

  Bill-E focuses and moves slightly, exploring the unseen territory around his legs. Finally he gulps and says, “I think it’s safe to pull.”

  “Great.” I smile falsely. “Loch — you ready?” He grunts. “We’ll take it easy to begin with. Act on my command. Pull softly when I say. Stop if I give the order. Understand?”

  “Whatever,” he shrugs.

  I’d like to wipe my palms dry but I don’t think Bill-E would hang there patiently if I released him. So, gripping tighter, glad of the dirt on my skin that counteracts the sweat, I give Loch the nod and we tug. Resistance, but not for very long. Soon Bill-E’s sliding out of the hole within the hole, trembling wildly but otherwise unharmed. When his feet are clear, we give one last yank and he sprawls on top of us, knocking us to the ground, where we lie, panting and laughing weakly.

  After about a minute, without discussing it, we get up and crawl forward, eager to check out the hole that Bill-E has uncovered. It’s a black chasm. Impossible to see very far down it. The light’s too bad.

  “Wait here,” Bill-E says, scrambling up to the surface. He returns quickly, a baseball cap on his head, two small flash-lights strapped to either side. “Spent half an hour last night fixing this up,” he says proudly, then holds up a bigger, stronger flashlight. “I brought this too. Been lugging it around all day. Just in case.”

  “Spleen, you’re a genius,” Loch says, and Bill-E smiles. “A fat, deformed simpleton, but also a genius,” he adds, and Bill-E’s smile turns to a scowl.

  “Why don’t you take one of the lights off the hat?” I suggest. “Then we can each have one.”

  “No,” Bill-E says. “They’re not powerful enough by themselves. You need the two together for them to be worth anything.” He brushes by us, justifiably smug,
taking temporary leadership. He crouches by the edge of the hole he made and flicks on the strong flashlight. Loch and I crouch by him and stare. The hole continues down as far as we can see, at a slight angle, lots of little stones jutting out of the main rock face, plenty of niches for hands and feet.

  “Hell,” Loch gasps. “It’s massive.”

  “There’s no way Lord Sheftree could have dug this,” Bill-E notes. “He might have widened the entrance to make it easier to get to this point, but the rest of it’s natural.”

  “How far down do you think it runs?” I ask.

  “Only one way to find out.” Bill-E grins.

  “You’ve got to be joking!” Loch snorts.

  “What?” Bill-E frowns. “You’re not coming with me?”

  “We can’t go down there,” I mutter, taking Loch’s side. “Not without good climbing boots, ropes, those metal pegs with the loops that climbers use. . . all that sort of gear.”

  “It doesn’t look so difficult,” Bill-E argues. “I say we try it and go as far as we can. If we run into difficulties, we’ll come back later with climbing equipment.”

  “Why risk it?” I press. “Let’s wait until the weekend, stock up, then —”

  “You ever used any of that stuff before?” Loch asks. “Boots, ropes, and so on?”

  “Well, no, but —”

  “Me neither,” he interrupts. “Spleenio?” Bill-E shakes his head. “If we’re going to do that, we need to practice,” Loch says slowly.

  “So we practice. It means a delay, but —”

  “What if someone comes along in the meanwhile, finds this, and claims it for their own?” Loch cuts in.

  I glare at him. “I hate the way you start out on one side of an argument, then talk your way completely around to the other side.”

  Loch laughs. “You’re too conservative, Grubbs. I share your concerns for our safety, but the Spleenster’s right. If we take it easy, go cautiously, stop if we feel it would be dangerous to go on. . . ”

  “What if the batteries in the flashlights die while we’re down there?” I ask stiffly, fighting a losing battle but determined not to give in gracefully.

  “I replaced them last night,” Bill-E says. “They’re all fresh.”

  “Genius,” Loch murmurs, then grins at me. “It can’t be that deep — old Sheftree needed to be able to get up and down with his cases of treasure. The angle’s not too steep. And there are loads of toe- and fingerholds.”

  “Let’s try, Grubbs,” Bill-E whispers. “We won’t do anything foolish. You can call it off if you think things look dicey. We’ll follow your lead. Promise.”

  I hesitate and check the time. Glance up to where the moon will soon be appearing. I place my right hand on the rocky floor, feeling for vibrations, but there aren’t any. I think of all the dangers — then of the treasure, if it’s there. If I’m wrong, if this isn’t a place of magic, if I’ve been imagining hidden perils.

  A deep breath. A snap decision. I grab the big flashlight from Bill-E. “Let’s go.”

  The Cave

  DESCENDING slowly, testing each foothold firmly before setting my weight on it. Coming down three abreast, me in the middle, Loch on the left, Bill-E on the right. Loch complains several times about not having a light of his own, but Bill-E refuses to relinquish either of his. I’ve been to his house. I know that Ma and Pa Spleen keep several flash-lights around the place, ever fearful of power outages, determined never to be left stranded in the dark. He could have easily brought another one for Loch. A mistake or intentional oversight? I don’t ask.

  It’s stuffy down here, warmer than I imagined. The air’s not so bad though. I thought it would be stale and thin, but there’s a good supply of it. Easy to breathe.

  Part of me knows this is crazy. It screams from the back of my head, reminding me of what happened last night, the face, the whispers, the throbbing today. It wants me to assert myself, demand we make for the surface, tell Dervish, leave all this for experienced spelunkers to explore.

  But a larger part thinks it’s thrilling. We’re the first humans to come down here in decades. In fact, if the others are wrong, and this wasn’t used by Lord Sheftree, maybe we’re the first people to ever find it. Maybe it will turn out to be an amazing geographical feature and we’ll get to name it and be on the news. Reni would really dig being a celebrity’s girlfriend.

  You’re an idiot, the cautious part of me huffs with disgust.

  “Put a sock in it,” I grunt back.

  I lose track of time pretty quickly. Have we been down here ten minutes? Twenty? The hands of my watch are luminous, so I could check. But I’m not going to start fiddling around in the dark, rolling up my sleeves, leaning forward to squint. I’m keeping both hands on the rock face and all my senses focused on the climb.

  I go carefully, one hold at a time. Foot-hand-foot-hand-foot-hand-foot. Bill-E and Loch are the same. We don’t speak. My flashlight hangs from my right wrist by a strap. The light bounces off the rocks. I’d have to stop, turn around, lean back, and point the light down to get a clear view of what lies beneath. But I’m not going to do that. I’m taking no chances. The thought of slipping. . . sliding. . . tumbling into the unknown. . .

  Foot-hand-foot-hand-foot-hand-foot-ha —

  I touch ground. Or a very large overhanging rock. Can’t tell yet. “Wait,” I call softly to the others, who are slightly higher than me. “Let me feel around a bit. I think . . .” I extend my foot outwards. More rock. I tap it — solid. Gently lower my other foot, still holding tight to the wall. Gradually letting my full weight shift to my feet, I release my grip and stand unsupported. The ground holds and my stomach settles.

  Bringing up my flashlight, I shine it around and gasp.

  A cave. Not the largest I’ve ever been in, but a reasonable size. Lots of stalactites and stalagmites. A waterfall to my right. I should have heard the noise before now, except my breath and heartbeat were heavy, muffling my hearing.

  “Grubbs,” Loch hisses. “Are you OK? What is it?”

  “I’m fine,” I whisper, then raise my voice. “It’s a cave.” I shine the light on the floor around my feet, making sure I’ve truly struck bottom. I spot the shovel that Bill-E dropped. “It’s OK,” I tell my friends. “You can come down.”

  They detach themselves from the wall and stand beside me. The light from Bill-E’s hat mingles and crosses with mine, and we gaze around in awed wonder.

  The formations are beautiful, some of the most incredible I’ve ever seen. Water drips slowly from the tips of many stalactites, so this is an active cave, still growing. I recall lectures from a couple of class trips to caves. It can take thousands of years for spikes to form. Thousands more for them to alter. If I lived to be a hundred and came back here just before my death, this cave would probably look no different than it does right now.

  “It’s amazing.” I sigh, taking a step forward, head tilted back, looking up to where the roof stretches high above us. “How can this have been here all this time. . . hidden away. . . nobody knowing?”

  “The world’s full of places like this,” Bill-E answers even though I wasn’t really asking him. “We only see a fraction of what’s there. People find new caves, mountains, rivers, all the time.”

  “OK,” Loch says loudly, shattering the mood. “It’s a lovely cave, beautiful, glorious, la-dee-da-dee-dum. But I don’t see any treasure.”

  “Moron!” Bill-E snarls. “This is the treasure. You couldn’t buy a cave like this, not with all the gold and diamonds in the world.”

  “I don’t want to,” Loch says sourly. “What good’s a damp, dirty cave? I’ll settle for the gold and jewels.” He looks around and spits. “If there are any.”

  Bill-E turns, temper fraying. I speak up quickly. “He’s right, Bill-E. Not about the cave not being worth anything — it’s amazing, beyond any price. But we came looking for a different sort of treasure. We should check to see if it’s here. If it isn’t, that doesn’t matte
r — we’ll still have found the cave. But if there’s treasure too, all the better.”

  Bill-E relaxes. “Yeah, let’s look. The cave isn’t that big. If there’s treasure, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

  We move forward, three explorers in wonderland. Even Loch looks impressed, although he isn’t blown away by the cave’s beauty in the same way as Bill-E and me. We touch the rising pillars, fingers coming away damp. In certain places the stalactites and stalagmites have grown together to form giant, solid structures that join the floor and ceiling. One is wider than the three of us put together, a monster resembling a couple of massive chimneys.

  “I’ve never been down a cave without a guide, or in such a small group,” Bill-E says after a while. “It’s strange. Quiet. Peaceful.”

  “Hey,” Loch grins. “You know my favorite part when I’m in a cave? It’s when they turn the lights out, so you can see what it looks like pitch-black.”

  “No way!” I say quickly.

  “Uh-uh!” Bill-E chimes in.

  “What’s the matter, ladies?” Loch laughs. “Scared of the dark?”

  Bill-E and I share a look. Neither of us wants to switch the flashlights off. But Loch’s smirking goadingly. If we don’t meet his challenge, we’ll never hear the end of it.

  “Go on,” I mutter to Bill-E. “You first.”

  He gulps and turns one light out, then the other.

  The cave feels much smaller now, more threatening. It’s probably my imagination but I believe I can sense shapes in the shadows, waiting to form fully in the darkness, so they can leap forward and pounce on us unseen. My finger hovers over the switch on my flashlight. I’m torn between not wanting to look like a coward and not wanting to fall prey to forces of magical malevolence.

 
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