PART THREE - THE LABORATORY
Chapter 12 DISCIPLES
We get back in the car and tear out of Slawter as fast as Juni dares drive, Dervish busy on his mobile. He makes a series of calls and speaks with six or seven different people. Juni and I listen silently, not understanding everything that he says.
When Dervish finally lays the phone down, he shuts his eyes and massages his eyelids. Juni gives him a few seconds, then says quietly, "I assume the plan is for us to go after Bill-E?"
"Yes," Dervish says.
"And those we left behind? I don't want to be insensitive, but we're talking about the lives of hundreds of people. Is Bill-E that important?"
"He is to me." Dervish opens his eyes and sighs. "I'm not forgetting the others. I've convinced two of my colleagues to help us get Billy back. And I'll find another couple to send to the film set."
"Only two?" Juni frowns. "Shouldn't we alert the authorities? Send in more than just a pair of your friends?"
"My friends have devoted their lives to dealing with the Demonata," Dervish growls. "The Disciples are people with magical abilities, accustomed to handling messes like this. They'll know what to do."
"But surely, the more back-up we provide..."
Dervish looks at Juni with a wry smile. "OK. Call the police. Tell them demons are on the loose. Draw little pictures of Lord Loss and-"
"Don't," Juni snaps. "I won't stand for sarcasm, not in my own car."
"Sorry," Dervish says. "But you have to understand, we're on our own, just us and the Disciples. That's the way it's always been. Even if you convinced the police to send in troops, they wouldn't achieve anything. Demons can only be killed by magical means. Human weapons don't affect them, not unless they're wielded by a mage. If the Disciples can't stop the massacre, nobody can."
"No more talk," Dervish says, letting his seat back.
"You're going to sleep?" Juni snorts with disbelief.
"I'm going to try," Dervish says. "Unless you want me to drive?"
"Then wake me when we hit the airport."
And with that Dervish shuts his eyes and dozes.
Juni looks at me in the mirror, astonished. I shrug. "At least he's not acting like a brainwashed simpleton any longer," I say with a smile.
"I think I preferred him when he was!" Juni huffs.
We have to wait four hours for a flight, then three hours in the next airport. Dervish makes more phone calls, recruiting a couple of Disciples to go to Slawter, while Juni and I use the restrooms.
I spend several minutes at one of the sinks, splashing water over my face, enjoying the coolness. As I'm dripping dry, I study my reflection in the mirror and frown. Something's not right, but I don't know what. I look much the same as always, skin a touch paler than normal, eyes a bit wider.
Yet I can't shake the feeling that something's wrong. Is it my hair? I run a hand through my ginger mop-nothing amiss there.
Unable to put my finger on the problem, I go see how Dervish is getting on, then Juni and I grab a bite to eat.
"You shouldn't worry," Juni says as I nibble with disinterest at a BLT. "We'll get your brother back."
"Thanks." I start to smile, but again I'm struck by an uneasy feeling. I glance around nervously-are we being followed? But nobody's watching us. I'm just being paranoid, imagining threats that aren't really there.
A long second flight. Seven hours in the air. Dervish fills Juni in on what's happening. Tells her about the Lambs, the visit from Prae Athim, her interest in Bill-E. Explains about the Disciples, their efforts to stop the Demonata from crossing into our world and slaughtering at will.
Dervish says he knows where the Lambs' main laboratory is situated. It's part of a vast security complex. Lots of armed guards. Breaking in will be very dangerous. He won't blame her if she doesn't want to get involved. Juni waves that away, but she's not entirely happy with the plan.
"You can't know for certain that they'll take Bill-E to this laboratory," she says. "What if they place him somewhere less obvious?"
"Then we'll find out," Dervish says flatly. "But this is as good a starting point as any."
I can't shake the edgy feeling I've had since the restroom at the airport. This feels wrong. How did the Lambs know where we were? How did they know we'd be leaving, that they could hit us outside town? And why should Prae Athim kidnap Bill-E in such a dramatic fashion? She must have known Dervish would come after her. She was scared of the Disciples the last time we spoke. Why do something guaranteed to turn them against her now?
I discuss my fears with Dervish but he dismisses them. "Prae Athim always had a chip on her shoulder about the Disciples. The Lambs don't like playing second fiddle to anyone. Maybe she sees this as their chance to test us. Or perhaps she figured we wouldn't suspect the Lambs, that we'd blame Billy's disappearance on the Demonata. If we hadn't found the ring, we'd never have guessed the Lambs were involved. We were ready to face down the demons. Maybe she hoped they'd kill us."
I remain unconvinced. That doesn't explain how Prae Athim knew about the demons in Slawter. Or how she judged her moment so finely. Or why her people would leave us for the demons to kill, instead of murdering us themselves while we were helpless. This is more involved than it seems. There's a conspiracy afoot. The Lambs in league with the Demonata? Maybe. If Lord Loss or one of his crew offered to give the Lambs the power to reverse lycanthropy, in exchange for a little help getting rid of the meddling Grubbs and Dervish Grady...
But that's crazy. We were knocked out. At their mercy. If they'd been working with the demons, they'd have simply handed us over. We'd be dead now, not flying after them in hot pursuit.
Something's wrong, but I can't pin it down and it's driving me mad.
The plane touches down. The two Disciples meet us in the arrivals hall of the airport. A man and woman. The man's tanned, tall and bulky, with short grey hair, dressed in army fatigues. There are letters tattooed on his knuckles-SHARK-and a small picture of a shark's head on the flesh between his thumbs and index fingers. No surprise when he tells us his name is Shark.
The woman is Indian, dressed in a colourful sari. Old. A kindly face. She walks slowly, with a pronounced limp. Hugs Dervish hard, kisses his forehead, then introduces herself to us as Sharmila Mukherji. She looks familiar, and I realise after racking my brains that Dervish and I watched a documentary about her a while ago.
"I never did like Prae Athim," Shark barks. "I'm looking forward to cutting her down to size."
"But we will have to be careful," Sharmila warns. "The Lambs should not be underestimated. They might not be able to repel us with magic, but they are well versed in other forms of warfare."
"Against us three?" Shark snorts. "They don't stand a chance! It's just a pity Kernel and Beranabus aren't here-it'd be a proper reunion."
Dervish, Sharmila and Shark smile at each other, while Juni and I share an uncertain look. Then the Disciples quickly discuss their plans and how to proceed. Before setting off, Dervish again gives Juni the option of pulling out.
"To be honest," Juni says, "I'm not comfortable. I'd rather we focused on the problems in Slawter. But if this is where you think the battle is, I'm with you. I won't quit now."
"Fighting words," Shark grins. "You're my kind of gal!" He looks around the airport, sniffs, then nods towards the exit. "Let's go round up some Lambs."
A four-hour drive. Dervish, Shark and Sharmila discuss the past for the first hour. From what I gather, the three only fought together once before, many years ago, but kept in touch and are close friends. As we progress, talk turns to the present and tactics. Shark has seen the plans of the building and knows the layout of the laboratory, its weak points, where the greatest obstacles will be.
I fall asleep as Shark and Sharmila are discussing the plans, exhaustion catching up with me. I don't dream.
When I wake, we're in the middle of nowhere. Dry, arid land stretches out in all directions. A huge metal and glass building stands ahead of us, ringed by a security fence, dotted with armed guards, sporting a massive antenna on the roof. It reminds me of something. I think I've seen it before, but I can't have. I've never been here.
The feeling that something's wrong sneaks up on me again, but I ignore it and focus on the conversation.
"-electrified, but that won't bother us," Shark is saying. "Once inside the perimeter, we head left. There's a small, disguised door that opens on to a corridor that cuts past a lot of the building- an emergency exit."
"What about the guards?" Juni asks.
"We'll fight them with magic," Shark says. "I would have brought a few weapons along-fight fire with fire-but Dervish vetoed the idea."
"I don't want to harm anyone," Dervish says quietly. "Most of the staff here are just ordinary people doing their job. They won't know about the kidnapping or that we only want to rescue Billy. We mustn't kill them. A person shouldn't be killed just because they're ignorant of the truth."
"You're too soft," Shark grunts, then throws his door open and smacks his right fist hard into his left palm. "Let's do it!"
We stand outside the electrified fence, in plain sight, watching as more guards gather. They cock their weapons, eyeing us critically.
"We're here for Billy Spleen," Dervish shouts. "Tell Prae Athim we know she took him. We'll settle for his safe return. If she gives him back to us, or tells us where he is, we'll leave without a fuss. We don't have to go to war."
A high-ranking guard speaks into his headpiece. Listens to the response. Nods and addresses us through an amplifier. "This is private property. If you try to come on to our grounds, we'll use all available force to halt you."
"War it is then," Dervish sighs. He extends a hand and snaps his fingers at the fence. The wire splits and unfurls, leaving a gap wide enough to drive a bus through. The guards around it yelp with surprise and fall back a few metres. At a signal from Dervish we press ahead, marching but not running. The officer shouts a command. A group of guards raise their weapons and aim at us. Shark and Sharmila mutter a spell. The weapons melt and distort and the guards drop them, crying out that they're too hot to hold.
Gunfire from our right. Much louder than in the movies. Terrifying. I yell and duck, covering my ears with my hands, expecting to be ripped apart by bullets. Juni ducks too. But the Disciples only pause, concentrating hard. After a few seconds I realise the bullets aren't striking. Looking up, I see them dropping to the ground half a metre away. We're surrounded by a magical energy shield which the bullets can't penetrate.
"You could have told me about that!" I snap at Dervish as I stand.
"You'd have known if you'd stayed awake in the car," he retorts.
We press on.
Shark finds the secret door and we slip inside. I'm delighted-the air was red with bullets around us, and I heard Sharmila grumble that she wasn't sure the shield was going to hold much longer. Shark shuts the door once we're all in and uses magic to seal it in place, so the troops will have to blast through to enter.
We hurry down a long, brightly lit corridor. As with the outside of the building, there's something familiar about it. I'm sure I've seen it before. This is d��j�� vu of the highest order. It's really starting to bug me.
Guards spill into the corridor as we come to the end. Shark roars as they fire upon him, then throws himself at them, scattering them like a bowling ball knocking apart a set of pins.
We slip through the gap and race down a staircase. Guards are firing at us from all directions but the shield holds. At the bottom of the staircase we wait for Shark to catch up. The volume of gunfire increases. "We could use some help," Dervish grunts at me. He's sweating.
"What do you mean?"
"Break those up," he says, nodding at the guards. "Stop them all firing at once."
"How?" I frown.
"But I can't-"
"Of course you can," he snaps. "Just focus."
I feel uneasy about it, but I do as Dervish says, set my sights on a group of guards and direct a ball of magic at them. Seconds later, unnatural energy floods through me, smashes into the middle of the group of guards and sends them flying in all directions.
"Way to go!" Juni whoops.
I grin at her, pleased with myself, then disrupt more of the guards, causing as much chaos as I can, careful not to seriously injure anybody.
We advance through a series of corridors, up and down staircases, Shark leading, the rest of us-apart from Juni-providing cover from the guards. Eventually we come to a door which is operated by fingerprint recognition.
"This is your field of expertise," Sharmila says, winking at me.
"No problem." I step forward, lay my hand on the panel and trick the computer into believing I'm Prae Athim, much like I did back in the D workshops. The door slides open. We enter a large, dimly lit room. Grim brick walls. Lots of cells, cased off by hard glass panels, like those in the movie The Silence of the Lambs. Several lab technicians in white jackets. A handful of guards.
And Prae Athim.
The scientist is scowling at us, her dark eyes like a couple of drill bits. "You're trespassing on private property," she growls.
Dervish laughs. "Sue us!"
"This is outrageous," Prae Athim says. "You have no right to come in here."
"You have no right to steal my nephew," Dervish retorts.
"I don't know what you're-" she starts to say, but before she can complete the denial, we hear a voice shouting from one of the cells.
"Dervish! Hey, Dervish, I'm in here! Help!"
Prae Athim glares at one of the technicians close to her. "I told you to dope him so he couldn't speak!"
"I did," the underling whimpers.
"Magic is stronger than drugs," Sharmila laughs. She smiles at me. "I thought they might try something like that, so I sent out a wake-up call when we came in, guaranteed to raise just about anybody who was not dead."
I race to the cell where the call came from. Bill-E's inside, smiling shakily. "What took you so long?" he says flippantly.
"We weren't going to bother coming at all," I reply, turning the glass in front of me to water, stepping back as it splashes over the floor and washes away. "But Dervish said every family needs its simpleton."
"Charming!" Bill-E huffs, then steps through the puddles of water and hugs me hard. "Thanks for not leaving me here," he whispers. I can hear tears in his voice.
"I'd never leave you behind," I whisper back, then push him away before things get any more mushy.
"Did they harm you?" Dervish asks, standing where he is, keeping a wrathful eye on the quivering Prae Athim.
"Hark at our old maid of an uncle!" Bill-E sniffs, winking at me. "Nah, they gave me some nasty injections, but they didn't have time to do much else. You came too quickly-ruined their well-laid plans."
"That's a habit of mine," Dervish laughs. He stares coolly at Prae Athim. "Now, we just have to decide what to do with-"
"No," I say softly, interrupting. Dervish glances at me, one eyebrow raised. "No," I say again, shaking my head, staring at the cells, the technicians, Prae Athim, Bill-E. My head's clearing. All the little bits that didn't add up... that seemed out of place or too familiar... I'm starting to see it now. Bill-E helped me make the breakthrough. Provided the jolt that shattered the spell. He called Dervish his uncle. Nothing wrong there-Dervish is his uncle. Except Bill-E doesn't know that.
"What's wrong?" Dervish asks.
"Wait," I mutter, waving his question away. Thinking hard. Cutting through the web of lies and crapola.
These cells don't just look like the set from Silence of the Lambs-this is Hannibal Lecter's institution. And now I realise where I've seen the building before. In James Bond movies. There are elements from several of the films, all jumbled roughly together.
I step away from Bill-E, dizzy, fighting to hold on to my train of thought. "Grubbs," Juni says, concerned, stepping towards me. "Are you OK? Can I help? Is there-"
"Shut up!" I shout, breaking through the labyrinth of untruths, rapidly, one lie falling after another, mental dominoes toppling quickly.
I'm a mage, not a true magician. I was only able to draw upon my potential in Slawter because of all the magic in the air. There's no magic in this laboratory, so how come I'm able to unleash great energy bursts and turn glass into water? The same goes for the Disciples. They shouldn't have so much power here.
All the logical hiccups and flaws reveal themselves in quick succession. The Lambs turning up at just the right moment to knock us out and kidnap Bill-E. Dervish handily knowing the location of the main laboratory. Prae Athim taking Bill-E there. Shark so conveniently having seen the plans of the building.
Sharmila knew that I'd opened the fingerprint-operated door in the D workshops-but we hadn't told her about that. In the second airport, Juni referred to Bill-E as my brother-but she doesn't know we're related.
And in the restroom, the first time I became aware that something was wrong. I get it now, what I saw but couldn't make connect. My reflection was clean. It had been all the time, even before I washed my face. Clean skin, hair, clothes. No grey demon blood. But I got soaked in the D chamber. I never washed the blood off. It should have been caked on at the airport, just as it should be now. But it wasn't and it isn't, because...
"None of this is real!" I scream, startling everyone around me.
"Grubbs," Juni says softly. "Calm down. You're losing control."
"You're not real!" I shout. "None of you are!"
"What's wrong with him?" Dervish snaps at Juni.
"I don't know. Maybe he-"
The magic part of me whispers something. It's been quiet all this time, even while I thought I was working magic. But now it breaks its silence and tells me what to say. Ignoring the chatterings of the figures around me, I bellow out loud, words of magic and power. Prae Athim's face contorts with hatred. Demon eyes glare at me. She shrieks, as do all the scientists and guards-but it's too late.
The walls of the cells bubble. The human Lambs turn into demons, then fade. A red haze comes down around Dervish and the others. Magic phrases trip off my tongue. Pain washes over me. I fall to my knees but keep on shouting, ripping the vision to pieces. The redness thickens. Fills the room, blocking out everything, humans, demons, all.
I utter the final words of the spell and wearily close my eyes.
Everything goes silent.