Blood beast, p.9
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       Blood Beast, p.9

         Part #5 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
 
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  over Loch. His attention is fixed on the walls, the roof, the formations, the waterfall. Then Bill-E nudges him softly and mumbles, “Over there.”

  Dervish snaps to his senses and advances. “Billy told me what happened,” he says, still several yards away. “How is he?”

  “Fine —” I say, and Dervish smiles “— for a dead man.” The smile vanishes. He slows. Behind him, Bill-E covers his mouth with his hands, stifling a sob or a scream.

  “You’re sure?” Dervish asks softly.

  “Check for yourself,” I say hollowly. “Prove me wrong.” My face crinkles. “Please.”

  Dervish kneels and gently pushes me away. He examines Loch. Rolls his eyelids up. Puts his ear to the dead wrestler’s chest. Goes through all the same resuscitation tricks that I tried. I don’t bother telling him that he’s wasting his time. Let him find out for himself.

  Eventually he draws back, saddened — but worried too. He looks at me. Then at Bill-E. “Tell me again what happened.”

  “He slipped,” Bill-E moans. “I tried to grab him but I couldn’t reach.”

  “There was nobody else in the cave?” Dervish presses sharply. He looks at me and licks his lips. “Nothing else?”

  “No,” Bill-E cries.

  “No,” I whisper.

  “You’re sure?” Dervish asks, voice low, directing the question just to me this time. “It’s important. You were alone? The three of you? You’re sure?”

  I nod slowly, confused.

  “I tried to save him.” Bill-E sobs. “But he was too big. Even if I’d caught him, he’d have dragged me down with him, right, Grubbs? It wasn’t my fault. Please, Dervish, don’t say it was my fault.”

  “Of course it wasn’t,” Dervish sighs. “It was an accident.” He rubs his chin, troubled. He stands, looks around, glances at the waterfall and the spot Loch fell from. Doesn’t mention the crack — he hadn’t seen the wall before I howled and split the rock, so he assumes it’s a natural feature.

  “Is there anything you can do?” I ask. “Any spells. . . ?”

  “No,” Dervish says plainly. “He’s beyond help.”

  I fight back tears. “Will the ambulance be here soon? Maybe they —”

  “Nobody can do anything!” Dervish snaps. “He’s dead. You’ve seen death before. Don’t ask the impossible. You’re not a child.”

  I stare at my uncle, stunned by his harsh tone. It sounds like he’s criticizing me for caring about my friend, as though that’s wrong.

  Dervish catches my look and his expression softens. “This is bad. And not just because Loch is dead.” He looks around again, nervously. “I didn’t call for an ambulance.”

  “What?” I explode. “But —”

  “He’s dead,” Dervish says as if that explains everything. “An ambulance wouldn’t have helped.”

  “But you didn’t know that when you came,” I shout. “When Bill-E came to get you, Loch was alive. Why didn’t you call for help? Maybe they would have gotten here before you. Maybe Loch would be alive if —”

  “Billy, come here,” Dervish interrupts me. Bill-E approaches slowly, fearfully, trying not to look at Loch. Dervish keeps me silent with a fierce frown. I want to scream bloody murder but I bite my tongue, waiting to hear my uncle out. When Bill-E’s a few feet away from us — the closest he’s going to come — Dervish speaks.

  “What happened tonight is a tragedy. I feel for you, honestly, even though I’m not showing it. We’ll talk about this afterwards. I’ll give you all the support I can, make it as easy for you as possible. But right now I have to be hard. And I have to ask something hard of you.”

  He pauses. Again a nervous glance around. “As far as the official verdict goes, Loch can’t have died here,” Dervish says. “I’ll explain later. Right now you have to trust me. We need to move the body. Make it look like this happened somewhere else. Cover up the entrance to the cave and tell nobody about it. Understand?”

  Bill-E and I gape at him.

  “Please,” Dervish says. “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t crucial.”

  “You want to. . . tamper. . . with the body?” Bill-E croaks.

  “I just want to move it,” Dervish says. “We’ll take it to the quarry. You can say you were climbing there. We’ll call the emergency services once we —”

  “What the hell, Dervish!” I yell. “Loch is dead, and you’re playing games? What sort of heartless —”

  “You’re not listening!” Dervish roars, losing his temper. He glares at me. “Let me say it again — this is crucial. This cave has been hidden for hundreds of years for a very good reason. It must be hidden again.”

  “Hidden?” I whisper, and Dervish nods. “You mean you knew about it?”

  “I didn’t know the exact location, but I knew it existed.” Dervish is white-lipped. “The entrance was deliberately blocked off many centuries ago. We’ll have to fill it in again.” He stands and offers his left hand to me, his right to Bill-E. I don’t want to take it but his eyes tell me I must. Bill-E is even slower to accept the hand, but eventually he takes it too.

  “You have to promise,” Dervish says. “Promise you’ll back me up, lie for me, say this happened in the quarry, tell nobody about the cave. On all that’s holy to you. . . in the name of your dead mothers. . . promise.”

  “And if we don’t?” I ask stiffly.

  Dervish smiles bitterly. “I could force you, but I won’t.” He squeezes our hands tightly. “You both know that we live in a world that’s not the exclusive domain of humans. There are other forces. Demonic forces. This cave could be valuable to them. If we don’t handle this right, demons will benefit, and Loch won’t be the only one who dies. Will you

  promise?”

  Neither of us says anything.

  Dervish sighs wearily. “I’ll tell you more about it later. You can retract your promise then if you feel I didn’t have good reason to ask for it. But there isn’t time now. We have to work quickly, get Loch to the quarry, and call the police immediately. If we delay, it will show up on the autopsy. It’ll be risky, no matter how we play it, but if we don’t act now, while we have the advantage of time, it will be a lot harder. For all of us.”

  Bill-E and I share a look. Neither of us knows what this is about but we trust Dervish. He’s saved both our lives in the past.

  “You swear you’ll explain?” I ask, voice shaking hoarsely.

  “I swear.”

  “Then I promise.”

  Dervish smiles gratefully and looks to Bill-E.

  “OK,” Bill-E says weakly.

  “In the name of your mother?” Dervish presses, hearing a wavering tone in Bill-E’s promise.

  Bill-E hesitates, then nods. “In the name of my mother.”

  Dervish relaxes and lets go of our hands. “Thank you. This is more important than either of you can possibly realize. It’s . . .” He looks down at Loch and gulps, then mutters under his breath, “At least there wasn’t any blood.”

  That reminds me about the mysterious disappearance of Loch’s blood. I start to tell Dervish about it. . . then stop. It isn’t important. The blood must have simply seeped through cracks in the ground. I’ll only confuse the situation if I speak up now.

  Dervish bends beside the body, gently touches Loch’s pale forehead, then sighs and tugs at his beard. A moment’s pause, during which I see how hard he’s having to work to cover up his true feelings. Then his expression firms and he moves into professional mode. “Billy, you bring the flash-lights. I’ll take the shoulders. Grubbs, grab his legs. And for hell’s sake, don’t drop him — that’s the last thing we need.”

  The next few hours are nightmarish. We carry the body home, load it onto the back of Dervish’s motorbike, strap the arms around Dervish, and put a helmet on it so if anybody sees Loch it’ll look like he’s a living passenger. Shivering next to Bill-E, I watch them drive away, then go inside and try to drink a mug of hot chocolate in the kitchen. But I’m unable to gulp it down.
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  Dervish comes back for us. Usually he’d only let one of us ride behind him, but there’s no time to follow the rules of the road. At the quarry, Dervish throws Loch over the highest edge of the cliff. The dull thump as he collides with the hard floor brings tears to Bill-E and me. I don’t know why Dervish didn’t chuck Loch down when he brought him out here. Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight. Or maybe he wanted our tears, to make the rest of the charade seem more realistic.

  I make a phone call. Following Dervish’s instructions, I dial the emergency number, report the accident breathlessly, give my details, and wait. I wonder why Bill-E and I didn’t do that before. We both have cell phones. Why didn’t one of us climb out of the cave and call for an ambulance? Did we simply lose our heads and panic? Or did something in the cave control our actions?

  The police arrive before the ambulance. Dervish debated whether he should stay with us or go home and return after the emergency services got here. In the end he chose to stay, instructing us to tell them that we called him after calling for help. Everybody here knows Dervish. They know how fast he goes on his bike. The police are always trying to catch him, but he’s too crafty. They’ll assume he tore over here at top speed. They won’t like it, but given the tragic circumstances they’re hardly going to make a fuss.

  Paramedics examine Loch. They do what they can to bring him back to life. But they go about their job sluggishly, without hope, knowing it’s too late. They don’t cover his face before loading him into the back of the ambulance, because they don’t want to upset Bill-E and me. But as soon as he’s out of our sight, I’m sure the sheet will be pulled up and over.

  The officer in charge asks to take our statements. Dervish clears his throat and gently suggests calling Loch’s parents first. The officer blushes — he’s young, probably hasn’t seen a corpse before, temporarily forgot his training. Dervish offers to make the phone call. The officer accepts the offer with a grateful smile.

  Dervish keeps it quick and to the point. There’s been an accident. Loch’s been taken to the hospital. Says it’s serious. Doesn’t say Loch’s dead. Leaves that for the doctors. Not the sort of news you should break over the phone.

  Home. The police drive Bill-E and me. Dervish follows on his bike. More hot chocolate. I still can’t drink it. Biscuits that I can’t eat. Dervish turns on the heat. While the police are talking with us, Dervish calls Ma and Pa Spleen. They arrive before we’re finished, splashing out on a taxi for maybe the first time in their lives. Anxious to protect their grandson. Eager to whip him away from the police and their questions. Dervish has to drag them aside and explain that it will be easier if they let the police finish — if we don’t do it here, we’ll have to go to the police station later. He takes them into the kitchen and plies them with tea and coffee. I imagine them discussing me, Ma and Pa Spleen blaming me for Bill-E being in the quarry after dark, saying I’m responsible for him risking his life on such a dangerous climb — and for Loch’s death.

  The interrogation goes softly. The police don’t suspect foul play. They just want to get the facts straight. We tell them we went for a walk. Wound up at the quarry. Went climbing. Loch fell. Bill-E tried to catch him. Couldn’t. The end.

  Kids fool around at the quarry all the time. Every few years some local official vows to block it off. Nobody’s ever followed up on the promise, though I think they will after this. The police take the attitude that a fatality was bound to happen sooner or later. Just bad luck that it happened to us.

  They leave not long after midnight. (How did it get so late, so quickly?) They say they might return to take follow-up statements, but that shouldn’t be necessary. They tell us to take a few days off school, maybe go away for a while. They warn of a possible backlash — parents sometimes over-react in situations like this. Loch’s relatives might blame Bill-E and me, hurl insults and accusations at us. The police say we shouldn’t be too upset if that happens, to try to understand their position.

  Bill-E wants to stay the night, hear Dervish out, learn why we had to lie. But Ma and Pa Spleen are having none of it. They want out and fast. They’ve never liked Dervish and aren’t much fonder of me. Bill-E’s arguments are shot down before they’re out of his mouth. Then it’s into the back of the taxi that they’ve kept waiting, and home, where they can pour poison in his ear and remind him of all the times they warned him about the grisly Gradys, how we’d led him astray.

  Then it’s just me and my uncle, alone in our old mansion. A foul smell in the air — the stench of lies and deception.

  Without discussing it, we retire upstairs to Dervish’s study, where we sit on opposite sides of his huge desk, facing each other, me suspicious and wiping away tears, Dervish ashamed and tweaking the hairs of his beard.

  Time for explanations.

  Coming Clean

  YOU know about the Demonata,” Dervish begins. “You’ve seen them at work. You know of their powers, their magic, how destructive they are. You know that some, like Lord Loss, can cross between their universe and ours.”

  “Does this have anything to do with him?” I croak.

  “No. He doesn’t need the cave, and from what I know of him, he isn’t interested in it.” Dervish stops for a moment, thinking about the best way to proceed. “Lord Loss is an exception. Most demons can’t cross easily between universes. If they could, this world would be awash with the Demonata, and humans would be their playthings and slaves.

  “Many demons hunger for that. They spend a large portion of their time trying to open windows between the two universes. They find weak points where crossing is easier and work on them, assisted by power-crazed mages on this side. The Disciples try to stop them. We look for focal points, prevent crossings where we can, deal with the aftermath when we can’t.”

  “Like in Slawter,” I nod. “You explained all that to me before. But what about the cave?”

  Dervish puffs his cheeks up, then blows out air. “More than a millennium and a half ago, the Demonata invaded. Normally they cross singly or in small groups. The demons hate one another almost as much as they hate humans — infighting is rife. But in this case thousands banded together to launch an all-out assault. They set out to create a large, permanent opening — a tunnel instead of a temporary window. The cave was the focus of their attempt.

  “They were helped by a twisted druid. Our world was more magical then. Magic is an energy, and like any form of energy it can ebb and flow over the course of time. Back then it flowed strongly through this world. There were many more magicians and mages than there are now, though they called themselves druids and priestesses. It’s a source of debate as to why there’s so little magic in the world these days. I guess —”

  “You’re rambling.”

  Dervish grins sheepishly. “Sorry. Keeping it simple, the Demonata tried to open a tunnel through the cave. They nearly succeeded. From what we know, many did cross over, but only lesser demons. The tunnel was shattered before the masters could cross, and the cave entrance was later filled in and hidden from the world, so nobody could make an attempt there again.

  “Since that time a watch has been kept on this area. There’s always been a watcher here — even before the Disciples were formed — monitoring the situation, making sure the cave isn’t reopened. I’m the latest in a long line of watchmen. That’s why I don’t wander the world like most Disciples. I get away to deal with other matters occasionally, but the cave is my main priority.”

  “But you said you didn’t know where it was. How could you keep people away from it if you didn’t know its location?”

  “Powerful spells were cast when the cave was filled in. As watcher, I would have known instantly if anyone tried to gain access. The spells would have led me straight to the cave.”

  “Then why didn’t you come as soon as we started digging?” I frown.

  Dervish’s left eye tics. “The spells didn’t work.”

  “But you said —”

  “Something went wron
g,” he snaps. “That’s why I was so worried. I thought a powerful mage must be at work, one with the ability to override the protective spells. When you told me Loch was dead, worry turned to outright panic. Before the tunnel can be reopened, a sacrifice must be made. If Loch had been murdered, the magical potential of the cave would have been reactivated, allowing the Demonata to start building a new tunnel.”

  “That’s why you wanted to know if there was anybody else in the cave,” I note.

  Dervish nods and licks his lips. “I’m still concerned. Those spells were cast by a magician — they should have worked. You didn’t see Loch slip, did you?”

  “No.”

  “So you can’t be certain there wasn’t somebody else present, that he wasn’t deliberately killed.”

  “Bill-E was with him. He would have seen if there’d been anyone else up there.”

  “Maybe,” Dervish says dubiously. “But if there was somebody, and they were powerful enough to mute the warning spells when the cave was reopened, they might have been invisible, or used magic to wipe their presence from Billy’s memory.”

  I smile weakly. “You’re seeing phantoms where there aren’t any. We only broke through to the cave today — yesterday, I mean. We went down by ourselves as soon as we discovered the entrance. There couldn’t have been anybody else.”

  “You’re right,” Dervish sighs. “I’m jumping at shadows. But I’m so wired! Back when the tunnel was open, only lesser demons were able to cross. But the core of the tunnel was widening all the time. It had almost gotten to the point where the masters could cross. The shell of that core remains intact. If the Demonata ever restored it, thousands could cross in a matter of days, masters and all.”

  “Couldn’t you force them back again, close it like before?” I ask.

  Dervish makes a face. “Humans are much less magical now than they were the last time it was open. And back then they only had to deal with weaker demons. We could stop it happening if we caught wind of it in advance, but if they opened it without our knowing. . . ”

  He trails off into silence. It’s hotter than normal in here. Dervish doesn’t usually have the heat on this late. The temperature reminds me of the time we fought Lord Loss in the cellar, the unnatural heat of the Demonata’s universe. I feel highly uncomfortable and shift around nervously in my seat.

  “What happens now?” I ask quietly.

  “The cave will need to be hidden again. Fresh spells will have to be
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