I keep expecting the worst as we reel back through the warehouse, anxiously retracing our steps, making mistakes and having to backtrack. I'm sure the lamps will come on outside, the hole will be discovered, guards will pour into the building to block our escape. Chuda Sool will appear and summon an army of demons. We'll die miserably and be added to the pile of corpses around the stone.
But none of that happens. Apart from the wrong turns, our journey back to the hole in the external wall passes unremarkably. And when we get there, the lights are still dead outside, the guards in their huts, nobody aware of our presence.
"Will we try and fill in the hole?" Bill-E asks.
"That would take too much time," Juni says. "We should just-"
I point at the mud-like mess on the ground. Draw upon the magic. Snap my fingers. "Ubsacagrubbsa!" I quip. And the molten rocks flow upwards, defying gravity. They fill the gap, solidifying within seconds. It's not perfect-there are no individual bricks now, just one large patch of unbroken block-but it should only be noticeable if one of the guards passes up close.
"Nice work," Bill-E says.
"You're growing more powerful by the minute," Juni notes.
"Let's not waste time on compliments," I grunt, then lead the way through the welcome, nighttime darkness of Slawter in search of my uncle.
Even though I'm soaked from head to toe in demon blood, Dervish doesn't believe us. Rather, he doesn't want to believe.
"This is a movie set," he insists. "The D workshops are full of amazing demon facsimiles. It wasn't real, just a-"
Juni curses crudely, surprising us all, then points a finger at the startled Dervish. "Don't give me that rot!" she snarls. "You weren't there-I was. You didn't see it-I did. It was no piece of movie magic. It was a demon. It would have killed us all if not for Grubbs."
I feel pride welling up inside. Bill-E gives me a dig in the ribs and sticks his tongue out, making sure my head doesn't get too big.
Dervish stares uncertainly at Juni, finding it harder to dismiss her protests than mine. That's a positive sign. Chuda Sool hasn't fried Dervish's brain completely.
"It was a real demon," Juni says slowly, keeping her eyes on Dervish's. "I don't know how these things can be real but they are. It killed Emmet, Kuk and Kik, a lot of others. It-"
"No," I cut in. "That demon wasn't the killer. I think it was just a guard, set there to protect the stone in case anybody got through the rest of the building. There are worse demons than that around-Lord Loss, for one."
"I told you that wasn't-" Dervish begins.
"Shut it!" Juni stops him. "If Grubbs says he saw the demon master, he did. I believe him now. Totally."
Dervish sighs, confused. "What do you want me to do?" he grumbles. "If you've already killed the demon..."
"There are more!" I hiss. "The one that killed Emmet. Lord Loss." I glance at Juni and Bill-E. "That was an awfully large room. Why make a room that big for just a few demons? I think more are planning to cross. A lot more." I face Dervish again. "You have to stop them. Call the Disciples. Destroy that stone and get all the actors and crew out of here."
"Who are the Disciples?" Juni asks, but I wave the question away, glaring at my bemused-looking uncle.
"I still think it was only..." Dervish mutters, then pulls a face. "But I'm not going to argue with all three of you. Let's go back to the warehouse. Show me the demon. If you're right, we'll-"
"If you think we're going back inside that place, you're certifiable," Juni says, beating Bill-E and me to the punch. "Run the risk again? Give them another chance to discover what we're up to, so they can trap and murder us? No way!"
She points at the door. "We're out of here. We'll get to safety, call in help-soldiers, police, whoever the Disciples are-then have this place evacuated. I'm not happy leaving the others behind, but it will be safer to help them from the outside."
"That's the sort of plan I like," Bill-E beams. "Run for the hills, tails between our legs- excellent!"
"You're asking me to believe this and flee with you-breaking our contracts, by the way- without any proof, purely on the strength of your word?" Dervish asks sullenly.
Juni stares at him straight. "Precisely."
"That's crazy and insulting," Dervish says coolly. Then winks, looking like my real uncle for the first time in weeks. "Last one to civilisation's a rotten egg!"
We take Juni's car. She and Dervish sit up front, me and Bill-E in the back. We drive through the heart of Slawter, heading for the connecting road to the motorway. Everybody's silent, staring out the windows. We've seen enough movies to know that this is the part where the bad guys are supposed to rumble us, block off the road, stop us from leaving.
But we see nobody except a few technicians working on the sets and they pay no attention to us. Moments later we pass the last building-an old hat store that's been designed to look like it did a hundred years ago-and are on the road to freedom.
"I bet they'll come after us," Bill-E whispers, gazing out the back window.
"No," I say. "By the time they realise we're gone it'll be morning and we'll be too far away for them to catch up."
"A pity," Bill-E sighs. "I always wanted to be part of a high-speed car chase."
Juni accelerates once we're in sight of the motorway... then slows to a stop, though she leaves the engine running. She and Dervish are staring hard ahead.
"What's wrong?" I ask, peering over Dervish's shoulder.
"There's something in the middle of the road," Juni says. "It might be rubbish sacks."
"Or a body," Dervish murmurs.
I squint but I can't see anything. "Are you sure?"
Dervish nods slowly, then looks at Juni. "Can we circle around?"
"Yes." She licks her lips. "But if it's a person in trouble..."
"No way!" Bill-E gasps. "You can't even be thinking about getting out!"
"It doesn't sound like the best of moves," Dervish agrees.
"I know," Juni says. "It feels like a trap. But I can't see anybody else. And if there are demons lurking, why wait for us to get out of the car? If they meant to attack, they'd have hit us as soon as we slowed."
Dervish stares out the windows, then checks the rear-view mirrors. "I'll go," he decides. "Keep the engine running. If anything happens-anything-slam your foot down on the accelerator and forget about me. Do not play the hero. Grubbs?" He glances at me, trusting me to know about life and death situations, and how to deal with them.
"We'll do what we have to," I tell him.
"Wish me luck," Dervish mutters and opens his door. Just as he's stepping out, the car shakes wildly. Dervish falls. The rest of us shriek. The engine cuts out. Juni fumbles for the key. The lights go dead. Something hits the car. A cloud of gas. Coughing, I reach for the door handle. Before my fingers find it, gas fills my mouth and nostrils. My eyes close. I groan softly. Then slump over, senses shutting down, figuring the next thing I see when-if-I awake will be the jaws of a ravenous demon.
I was wrong about the demon. Instead I wake to Juni slapping my cheeks and calling my name. A far more pleasant sight than one of the Demonata!
"What happened?" I moan, sitting up, shaking my head, ears ringing, the taste of the gas still thick on my tongue.
"We were knocked out," Juni says, going to check on Dervish. I'm lying outside the car, on the road. Dervish is close by, sitting upright, massaging the back of his neck, looking around woozily. No sign of Bill-E.
"Where's Bill-E?" I ask.
"We've been unconscious for forty minutes," Juni says. "I'm not sure what they used on us. It might have been-"
"Where's Bill-E?" I ask again, sharply this time.
Juni looks at me steadily. "I don't know. He wasn't here when I regained consciousness."
I try to stand. Dizziness hits me hard. I stagger and sit down again.
"That happened to me too," Dervish says sluggishly.
"Why are we alive?" I ask. "Why did they spare us and only take Bill-E?"
"I don't know," Dervish says. "It doesn't make sense. This is... confusing."
"They might be playing with us," Juni says. "They could have taken Bill-E to use as bait, to lure us back to town, so they could torment us."
"If they did," Dervish says, standing slowly, groaning, "they're smart as hell. I'm not leaving him behind."
"It would be madness to return," Juni says. "We can help him more by-"
"No," I say, standing up like Dervish, fighting the dizziness. "We aren't going without Bill-E."
"But you can leave," Dervish tells Juni. "In fact it would be better that way. Us on the inside, you on the outside. You could spread the alarm and fetch help-if not for us, then for the rest of the people here."
"But..." Juni starts to argue, then stops. "No. I can see your minds are made up. I'm not going to waste time trying to talk you out of it. I'll leave, like you suggest. You can give me the names and numbers of anyone you think I should contact. I'll return as quickly as I can and just pray that's quick enough."
"I like your style," Dervish smiles, reaching out, gently touching her right cheek.
Juni smiles back. Then blinks. "Oh, here, I don't think this has anything to do with Bill-E, but..." She picks a small object off the front passenger seat and hands it to Dervish. "I found it when I came to."
Dervish stares at the object. I see his mouth tighten at the corners. A new cloud of anger rises in his eyes. His fingers clench, then relax. He holds his hand out to me. There's a silver ring nestled in his palm. A flat, circular piece on top, with a gold "L" inscribed on it.
My eyes shoot up. Dervish and I stare at each other, more astonished than furious. If this ring is what I think it is, demons didn't kidnap Bill-E. He was taken by the Lambs!