Slawter

Page 1

PART ONE VISITORS

Chapter 1 LIFE AS WE KNOW IT

"My eyes! They stabbed out my eyes!"

I shoot awake. Start to struggle up from my bed. An arm hits the side of my head. Knocks me down. A man screams, "My eyes! Who took my eyes?"

"Dervish!" I roar, rolling off the bed, landing beside the feet of my frantic uncle. "It's only a dream! Wake up!"

"My eyes!" Dervish yells again. I can see his face now, illuminated by a three-quarters full moon. Eyes wide open, but seeing nothing. Fear scribbled into every line of his features. He lifts his right foot. Brings it down towards my head-hard. I make like a turtle and only just avoid having my nose smashed.

"You took them!" he hisses, sensing my presence, fear turning to hate. He bends and grabs my throat. His fingers tighten. Dervish is thin, doesn't look like much, but his appearance is deceptive. He could crush my throat, easy.

I swipe at his hand, yanking my neck away at the same time. Break free. Scrabble backwards. Halted by the bed. Dervish lunges after me. I kick at his head, both feet. No time to worry about hurting him. Connect firmly. Drive him back. He grunts, shakes his head, loses focus.

"Dervish!" I shout. "It's me, Grubbs! Wake up! It's only a nightmare! You have to stop before you-"

"The master," Dervish cuts in, fear filling his face again. He's staring at the ceiling-rather, that's where his eyes are fixed. "Lord Loss." He starts to cry. "Don't... please... not again. My eyes. Leave them alone. Please..."

"Dervish," I say, softly this time, rising, rubbing the side of my head where he hit me, approaching him cautiously. "Dervish. Derv the perv-where's your nerve?" Knowing from past nights that rhymes draw his attention. "Derv on the floor-where's the door? Derv without eyes- what's the surprise?"

He blinks. His head lowers a fraction. Sight returns gradually. His pupils were black holes. Now they look quasi-normal.

"It's OK," I tell him, moving closer, wary in case the nightmare suddenly fires up again. "You're home. With me. Lord Loss can't get you here. Your eyes are fine. It was just a nightmare."

"Grubbs?" Dervish wheezes.

"Yes, boss."

"That's really you? You're not an illusion? He hasn't created an image of you, to torment me?"

"Don't be stupid. Not even Michelangelo could sculpt a face this perfect."

Dervish smiles. The last of the nightmare passes. He sits on the floor and looks at me through watery globes. "How you doing, big guy?"

"Coolio."

"Did I hurt you?" he asks quietly.

"You couldn't if you tried," I smirk, not telling him about the hit to the head, the hand on my throat, the foot at my face.

I sit beside him. Drape an arm around his shoulders. He hugs me tight. Murmurs, "It was so real. I thought I was back there. I..."

And then he weeps, sobbing like a child. And I hold him, talking softly as the moon descends, telling him it's OK, he's home, he's safe-he's no longer in the universe of demons.

Never trust fairy tales. Any story that ends with "They all lived happily ever after" is a crock. There are no happy endings. No endings, full stop. Life goes on. There's always something new around the corner. You can overcome major obstacles, face great danger, look evil in the eye and live to tell the tale-but that's not the end. Life sweeps you forward, swings you round, bruises and batters you, drops some new drama or tragedy in your lap, never lets go until you get to the one true end-death. As long as you're breathing, your story's still going.

If the rules of fairy-tales did work, my story would have ended on a high four months ago. That's when Dervish regained his senses and everything seemed set to return to normal. But that was a false ending. A misleading happy pause.

I had to write a short autobiography for an English assignment recently. A snappy, zappy summing-up of my life. I had to discard my first effort-it was too close to the bone, and would have only led to trouble if I'd handed it in. I wrote an edited, watered-down version and submitted that instead. (I got a B minus.) But I kept the original. It's hidden under a pile of clothes in my wardrobe. I dig it out now to read, to pass some time. I've read through it a lot these past few weeks, usually early in the morning, after an interrupted night, when I can't sleep.

I was born Grubitsch Grady. One sister, Gretelda. Grubbs and Gret for short. Normal, boring lives for a long time. Then Gret turned into a werewolf.

There's a genetic flaw in my family. Lots of my ancestors have turned into werewolves. It hits in your teens, if you're one of the unlucky ones. You lose your mind. Your body alters. You become a blood-crazed beast. And spend the rest of your life locked up in a cage-unless your relatives kill you. There's no cure. Except one. But that can be even worse than the curse.

See, demons are real. Gross, misshapen, magical beings, with a hatred of humans matched only by their taste for human flesh. They live in their own universe, but some can cross into our world.

One of the Demonata-that's the proper term-is called Lord Loss. A real charmer. No nose or heart-a hole in his chest full of snakes. Eight arms. Horrible pale red flesh. Loads of cuts on his body from which blood flows in a never-ending stream. He's big on misery. Feeds off the unhappiness, terror and grief of humans. Moves among us silently when he crosses into our universe, invisible to normal eyes, dropping in on funerals the way you or I would pop into a cafe, dining on our despair, savouring our sorrow.

Lord Loss is a powerful demon master. Most masters can't cross from their universe to ours, but he's an exception. He has the power to cure Lycanthropy. He can lift the curse from infected Grady teenagers, rid them of their werewolf genes, return them to humanity.

Except, y'know, he's a demon, so why the hell should he?

"What are you reading?"

It's Dervish, standing in the doorway of my room, mug of coffee in one hand, eyes still wide and freaky from his nightmare.

"My autobiography," I tell him.

He frowns. "What?"

"I'm going to publish my memoirs. I'm thinking of Life with Demons as a title. Or maybe Hairy Boys and Girls of the Grady Clan. What do you think?"

Dervish stares at me uneasily. "You're weird," he mutters, then trudges away.

"Wonder where I get that from?" I retort, then shake my head and return to the autobiography.

Luckily for us, Lord Loss is a chess addict. Chess is the one thing he enjoys almost as much as a weeping human. But he doesn't get to play very often. None of his demonic buddies know the rules, and humans aren't inclined to test their skills against him.

One of my more cunning ancestors was Bartholomew Garadex, a magician. (Not a guy who pulls rabbits out of a hat-a full-on, Merlin- and Gandalf-class master of magic.) He figured out a way to cash in on Lord Loss' love of chess. He challenged the demon master to a series of games.

For every match Bartholomew won, Lord Loss would cure a member of the family. If old Bart lost, Lord Loss would get to torture and kill him.

Bartholomew won all their matches, but future members of the family-those with a flair for magic who made contact with Lord Loss-weren't so fortunate. Some triumphed, but most lost. The rules altered over the years. Now, if a parent wants to challenge Lord Loss, they need a partner. The pair face not only the master, but two of his familiars as well. One plays chess with the big guy, while the other battles his servants. If either loses, both are slaughtered, along with the affected teen. If they win, one travels to Lord Loss' realm and fights him there. The other returns home with the cured kid.

Time works differently in the universe of the Demonata. A year of our time can be a day there, a decade or a century. When the partner goes off with Lord Loss to do battle, their body remains in our world-only their soul crosses over. They become a mindless zombie. And they stay that way unless their soul triumphs. If that happens, their mind returns and they resume their normal life. If they don't fare so well, they stay a zombie until the day they die.

"Are you coming down for breakfast?" Dervish yells from the bottom of the giant staircase which links the floors of the mansion where we live.

"In a minute!" I yell back. "I've just come to the bit when you zombied out on me."

"Stop messing about!" he roars. "I'm scrambling eggs and if you're not down in sixty seconds, too bad!"

Damn. He knows all my weaknesses.

"Coming!" I shout, getting up and reaching for my clothes, tossing the bio aside for later.

Dervish does a mean scrambled egg. Best I've ever tasted. I finish off a plateful without stopping for breath, then eagerly go for seconds. I'm built on the big side-a mammoth compared to most of my schoolmates-with an appetite to match.

Dervish is wearing a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt. No shoes or socks. His grey hair is frizzled, except on top, where he's bald as a snooker ball. Hasn't shaved (he used to have a beard, but got rid of it recently). Doesn't smell good-sweaty and stale. He's this way most days. Has been ever since he came back.

"You eating that or not?" I ask. He looks over blankly from where he's standing, close to the hob. He's been staring out the window at the grey autumn sky, not touching his food.

"Huh?" he says.

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

He looks down at his plate. Smiles weakly. Sticks his fork into the eggs, stirs them, then gazes out of the window again. "I remember the nightmare," he says. "They cut my eyes out. They were circling me, tormenting me, using my empty sockets as-"

"Hey," I stop him, "I'm a kid. I shouldn't be hearing this. You'll scar me for life with stories like that."

Dervish grins, warmth in it this time. "Take more than a scary story to scar you," he grunts, then starts to eat. I help myself to thirds, then return to the autobiography, not needing the sheet of paper to finish, able to recall it perfectly.

I have a younger half-brother, Bill-E Spleen. He doesn't know we're brothers. Thinks Dervish is his father. I met him when I came to live with Dervish, after my parents died trying to save Gret. (I spent a while in a loony asylum first.)

Bill-E and I became friends. I thought he was an oddball, but harmless. Then he changed into a werewolf. Dervish explained the situation to me, told me Bill-E was my brother, laid out the family history and our link to Lord Loss.

I wasn't keen to get involved, but Dervish thought I had what it takes to kick demon ass. I told him he was mad as a moose, but... hell, I don't want to come across all heroic... but Bill-E was my brother. Mum and Dad put their lives on the line for Gret. I figured I owed Bill-E the same sort of commitment.

So we faced Lord Loss and his familiars, Artery and Vein, a vicious, bloodthirsty pair. I got the better of Lord Loss at chess, more by luck than plan. The demon master was furious, but rules are rules. So I got to return to reality along with the cured Bill-E. And Dervish won himself a ticket to Demonata hell, to go toe to toe with the big double L on his home turf.

I'm not sure what happened there, how they fought, what sort of a mess Dervish went through, how time passed for him, the manner of his victory over Lord Loss. For more than a year I guarded his body, helped by a team of lawyers (my uncle-he mucho reeeech) and Meera Flame, one of Dervish's best friends. I went back to school, rebuilt my life and babysat Dervish.

Then, without warning, he returned. I woke up one morning and the zombie was gone. He was his old self talking, laughing, brain intact. We celebrated for days, us, Bill-E and Meera. And we all lived happily after. The end.

Except, of course, it wasn't. Life isn't a fairy tale. Stories don't end. Before she left, Meera took me aside and warned me to be careful. She said there was no way to predict Dervish's state of mind. According to the recorded accounts of the few who'd gone through the same ordeal as him, it often took a person a long time to settle after a one-on-one encounter with Lord Loss. Sometimes they never properly recovered.

"We don't know what's going on inside his head," she whispered. "He looks fine, but that could change. Watch him, Grubbs. Be prepared for mood-swings. Try and help. Do what you can. But don't be afraid to call me for help."

I did call when the nightmares started, when Dervish first attacked me in his sleep, mistook me for a demon and tried to cut my heart out. (Luckily, in his delirium, he picked up a spoon instead of a knife.) But there was nothing Meera could do, short of cast a few calming spells and recommend he visit a psychiatrist. Dervish rejected that idea, but she threatened to take me away from him if he didn't. So he went to see one, a guy who knew about demons, who Dervish could be honest with. After the second session, the psychiatrist rang Meera and said he never wanted to see Dervish again-he found their sessions too upsetting.

Meera discussed the possibility of having Dervish committed, or hiring bodyguards to look after him, but I rejected both suggestions. So, against her wishes, we carried on living by ourselves in this spooky old mansion. It hasn't been too bad. Dervish rarely gets the nightmares more than two or three times a week. I've grown used to them. Waking up in the middle of the night to screams is no worse than being disturbed by a baby's cries. Really it isn't.

And he's not that much of a threat. We keep the knives locked away and have bolted the other weapons in the mansion-it's dotted with axes, maces, spears, swords, all sorts of cool stuff-to the walls. I usually keep my door locked too, to be safe. The only reason it was open last night was that Dervish had thrown a fit both nights before and it's rare for him to fall prey to the nightmares three times in a row. I thought I was safe. That's why I didn't bother with the lock. It was my fault, not Dervish's.

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