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Page 25

"You're lying!" I scream.

Lord Loss shakes his head slowly. "I do not lie."

"You have to be the thief! You gave the order for Art to be stolen! If Cadaver isn't the thief, it can only be you!"

"But it isn't," he says calmly. "Doubt my word if you wish, but Beranabus knows it is sacred. He is watching this now. If I lied to you, he would have cause to seek revenge. And while I do not fear Beranabus, I would rather not provoke him, especially when there is no need.

"Search again, Cornelius Fleck. Look for the real demon thief. You will find him if your heart is true and your eyes are clear. Then you will understand. And be set free." He raises a hand warningly. "But you have only once chance left. If you make a third wrong call, your souls are mine, as we agreed." I feel angry tears in my eyes. Blink them away. I'm still not sure if he's telling the truth, but I've no choice other than to believe him. I have to focus. Think. If it's not Cadaver or Lord Loss, then who? Trying to make sense of it. Crazy thoughts flickering through my head -

Maybe Beranabus struck a bargain with Lord Loss to steal Art. He might have sensed my power and wanted to draw me into this universe.

Mrs. Egin? The witch opened the passageway for Cadaver.

Perhaps she was the true thief. But she's dead. Unless, like Nadia, her soul has been preserved here.

Mum and Dad? Maybe they got into trouble or craved power, sold Art to Lord Loss, arranged for him to be kidnapped when they were away.

Madness. But the way my mind is whirring, I can almost believe it. I could believe the worst of just about anyone right now. Dervish, Shark, Sharmila - they're all suspects. Maybe the thief doesn't have to be a demon. It might be one of my closest allies.

Dervish steps up beside me and speaks in my right ear. "Don't like to rush you, Kernel, but we have company."

I look around and spy the demons from Lord Loss' castle. He's brought them into the Board with him. They're creeping up on us, sliding over and around the chains and hills of guts. I spot the crocodile-headed demon - Vein - off to my left, flanked by the fire-eyed hell-child. Advancing steadily along with the others.

My gaze passes on, then stops and returns to the hellish baby. I keep seeing him since I came to Lord Loss' kingdom. First when we arrived, then in the castle, the maze and volcanic zone, now here. Why does this demon cross my path more than any other? He's a fearsome little beast, with his fiery eyes, lice-ridden head and mouths in the palms of his hands. But no more frightening or vicious than a hundred of his kin. What draws me to him time and time again?

"We need to move," Shark says, nudging me hard in the ribs. "We can get out if we act fast, but in another minute they'll have blocked the path to the panels and we'll have to fight."

"It's one of them," I mutter, glancing at the hordes of demons, then at the hell-child again. "The thief's here. I'm certain."

But you were certain it was Lord Loss, the voice inside my head says, the first time for ages that it's spoken.

"It has to be one of them!" I cry.

Unless it's Beranabus, or Dervish, or your father, the voice says, and I don't know whether it's mocking my earlier hysteria or hinting I was on the right track.

"Kernel!" Dervish hisses. "We have to decide now!"

"Do not rush him," Lord Loss murmurs. "It is a hard, momentous decision. You should give it more thought, Cornelius. Escape. Rest. Ponder. You have more time than you could possibly imagine. Wait a hundred years, then try again. You don't want to act on a hunch, do you? Risk all on a blind gamble?"

"He's right!" Shark shouts, grabbing my arm and turning me in the direction of the panels. "Survival first - strategy second. Let's get the hell out while we - "

I pull free of Shark. "No! We'll never be free if we don't find him now! It's the hell-child! It must be! I keep seeing him!"

"You can't know that, Kernel," Dervish says. "Not for sure. Why him?"

"I don't know! I just..."

Cursing, I race after the hellish child, ignoring the threat of the demons and the possibility of escape. I'm gambling, a bigger gamble than any I've ever taken, but I have to. This is the moment when everything will be decided. That's why Lord Loss is here. He wants to see me fail, be here in person to gloat. But I can't worry about failing. I have to believe this is my chance, my time. And pray to all the gods that I don't waste it.

The hell-child sees that I've set my sights on him. He squeals with surprise, turns and flees. Vein snarls and sets herself between us, blocking my path to the demonic baby. Other demons pile in around her, increasing my belief that the hell-child is the thief.

"Shark!" I roar. "Dervish! Help me get through!"

They answer my call without question, placing their faith and future in my hands. They drive ahead, savaging the demons, Shark pounding them with his fists, Dervish scattering them with bolts of magic. I try not to dwell on the trust these men have shown in me, the awful fate which awaits them if I let them down.

A demon made entirely of bones throws itself at my legs. I kick out at it, smash its jaw, leap over the pieces of skeleton as they clatter to the ground. I've passed Dervish. Shark is wrestling with demons just ahead of me, to my right. "Leg-up!" I shout and Shark crouches, cups his hands together, holds them out for me to step into. Then hurls me up, forward and over the heads of the demons in front of us.

I hit the floor running. Almost skid on the guts and go flying into a pool of gore, but flail with my arms and keep my balance. The hell-child is directly ahead of me, looking back, snarling with a mix of hate and fear. My speed propels me past him. I snatch wildly as I race past, unable to slow. Grab one of the demon's bony arms. Haul him forward with me, the hell-child shrieking like a real baby.

My feet go and this time I don't try to stay upright, concentrating instead on holding on to the demon. I tumble over and slide several feet, smack up against a towering pile of organs. The guts shake then topple, smothering me and the hell-child. My field of air shatters. The foul stench causes me to vomit again, but I don't let go of the wriggling, furious demon.

A brief pause to restore the field round my head. I spit vomit from my lips. Shrug off the larger shreds of guts, revealing the distraught hell-child. Most of the lice have been knocked from his head. The fire in his eyes has dimmed and he's whimpering softly. I sit up and drag him closer, so he can't escape. I prepare myself to announce him as the true demon thief.

Wait! the voice within me bellows. This is your final chance. Don't blow it.

I hesitate, eager to finish this business, but cautious. I wait for the voice to speak again, to give me a clue. But there's only silence. Which is broken by Lord Loss.

"My, my. What now?" he purrs. He's hanging just a few feet overhead. Dervish and Shark are still battling the demons. It's down to us three - me, Lord Loss and the hell-child.

"I keep seeing him everywhere!" I scream, shaking the demon at its master.

"Really?" Lord Loss says, acting surprised. "Then maybe he is the thief. Or he might be a red herring, placed by me to throw you off the scent of the real culprit. Or perhaps it's just coincidence and he has nothing to do with anything."

I stare from Lord Loss to the hell-child to Lord Loss again. "Please," I croak. "Help me. Don't make me..."

"What?" Lord Loss asks, not unkindly. "Don't make you choose? But I am not. The choice -  whether you make it or not - is entirely yours. There is no time limit. Use your final chance now, if you believe you have caught the one you seek. Otherwise, retreat and try again later. Perhaps you can train the marbles to unmask the thief. Or maybe I'll drop clues for you over the centuries. Or Beranabus might find a way to rescue you."

"All I want is my brother back!" I wail. "Why are you tormenting me like this? What did I ever do to you?"

Lord Loss only smiles in answer then strokes the hell-child's head, calming him. "You hold one of my favourite familiars against his will and mine. It is time to call him a thief or set him free. Gamble or wait. But do it now, before I lose my temper and deny you any real choice." He grins viciously. "Remember how I gave Cadaver a mouth with which to speak? I could just as easily remove yours, robbing you of your chance to name the thief."

I'm crying helplessly. I want to let the hell-child go, delay the moment of naming, give myself time to think. But I know I can't wait. I know. Delay it... run... and the chance will never come again. The hell-child will go into hiding, skip ahead of me through the zones of the Board, stay out of my reach no matter how hard I search.

But what if he's not the thief? If he's a decoy, like Lord Loss said, or completely unconnected?

I study the demon through my tears, desperately hoping for some sort of a clue. But there's nothing I haven't seen before, no evidence that he had anything to do with the theft of Art. One last scan, to be on the safe side. His tiny feet, bony legs, skinny body, oversized head. Green skin. The small mouths in his palms, snapping open and closed. The few remaining lice on his head. The orange flames in his otherwise empty sockets.

Nothing about him helps. Guess I'll just have to name him as the thief and hope for...

No. Wait. His eyes.

I stare at the flames. Something about the way they flicker... the colour... but what is it? They remind me of something. Someone. I've seen eyes like this before. Not exactly the same, but similar. And only once. But where?

"Come on, Cornelius," Lord Loss encourages me. "Say it quick, before I - "

"Wait!" I roar, clutching the hell-child tighter, shielding him from the demon master. "I'm trying to remember! The eyes! I've seen - "

The hell-child yelps - I must have hurt him when I tightened my grip. With a snarl, he opens his mouth, latches on to my left arm and bites, grey teeth breaking my flesh with ease. I scream and try jerking my arm free, but he has too firm a grip. I reach over with my right hand to prise his jaw loose...

...then stop as though struck by a bolt of red energy.

The biting... the eyes... I remember... the strange hair... the marbles... the large head... orange... I remember... playing with the marbles, holding them up to the light... orange light... finding the hell-child here when we stepped through, when I was searching for my brother... Dad tucking Art and me down beneath the blanket... I remember!

And, weak with disbelief, not sure how it can be true, but sickeningly certain that it is, I mutter over the rotten head of the hell-child, "I know who the demon thief is - it's me!"

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