On the outskirts of Slawter. Proceeding slowly, Dervish slightly ahead of Bill-E and me, one hand held palm up, trying to determine whether or not there's a barrier in place. He said we should determine the lay of the land before raising the alarm. No point trying to herd dozens of people out of town if they're going to be knocked out by a magically enforced shield.
"Why aren't we hungry?" Bill-E asks, checking the date on his watch. "We've been asleep for... hell on a Harley! Six days! We should be ravenous but I don't even feel peckish."
"Trust you to be thinking about your stomach at a time like this!" I snort.
Dervish laughs gently. "No, it's a good question. The answer's simple-magic. We were cocooned from the demands of the real world. Hunger and thirst will hit us later, if we make it out, but right now we're still operating by the magical rules of Slawter."
"Is there anything magic can't do?" Bill-E asks.
"Not much," Dervish says, then draws up short. His fingers are trembling. He moves his hand left, right, left again. "Can you feel it?"
"No," Bill-E frowns.
"Yes." I take a step forward, sniffing the air. It doesn't smell different, but it feels wrong. I raise a hand like Dervish, slide it forward, sense power building against it.
"No further," Dervish says. "We don't want to disturb the fabric of the barrier-it might tip off our enemies."
"What is it?" I ask.
"In non-technical terms, a bubble of magic. They've sealed off the town. Enclosed it within a magical sphere, like putting a giant glass bowl over everything." He frowns. "No demon is powerful enough to create a barrier this size, not in our universe. They're using the stone you saw in the D workshops. It must be a functioning lodestone, a reservoir of ancient power. There aren't many left in the world. The magic drained from most of them centuries ago. Others were deliberately destroyed, to prevent them falling into the hands of demonic mages.
"This is worse than I thought. With the power of a lodestone at their disposal, they can build a tunnel. Dozens of demons can cross and run riot within the barrier. Stay as long as they like. Nobody will be able to escape."
"We have to stop them!" Bill-E gasps. "We can, can't we, Dervish?"
"Of course," Dervish says wearily, lowering his hand. "If we shatter the lodestone, the bubble will burst. But now that we know about it, the Demonata will have increased security around the warehouse. They're not stupid."
"We have to try," I say quietly. "We can't stand by and let people die."
"You're forgetting our earlier conversation," Dervish says with a bitter smile. "The Disciples often let people die. In a situation like this, we'd normally sit back and let the Demonata run their course. We don't have the power to stop them. Better to conserve our strength and fight them when we have a chance of winning."
"But this is different," I growl. "We know these people."
"That's not enough of a reason to get involved. I've had to sacrifice friends to demons before."
"Don't tell me you mean to-" I start to explode.
"Easy," Dervish calms me. "We won't stand by idly. We can't. Because you're right, this is different. We're caught up in it. If we don't find a way out, it's not just the cast and crew of Slawter who'll perish-we'll die too."
Heading into the heart of town. Dervish says there might be another way out of this mess-burst through a small section of the bubble, creating a temporary gap through which we can flee. But we're not powerful enough to do it ourselves. We need to pin a demon against the bubble, then explode it with magic. By focusing the energy generated, we should be able to blast a hole through the barrier, which we can keep open for a while, allowing people to slip out.
Should. No guarantees.
One of our main problems will be getting a demon in the right place, at the right time. We can't just march into the D Workshops and ask one of them to come to the barrier with us.
But before that, we have to figure a way to convince the rest of the crew and cast that we're not crazy, their lives are in danger, demons are real, they have to trust us if they want to live. To that end, we're heading for Davida Haym's offices. If she's innocent-bloody unlikely!-Dervish hopes to recruit her and use her to issue a general alarm. If, as we suspect, she's in league with the Demonata, he plans to make her confess in public, to persuade the others to trust us.
It's hair-raising stuff, sneaking through town, ducking down side-alleys, keeping out of sight. We don't know who our enemies are. Dervish doesn't think many humans will be working for the demons, that most of the people here are innocent. But we can't be sure who to trust. We know a few of the traitors-Chuda Sool and Tump Kooniart, the guards who were with Kuk and his father when they disappeared, probably Davida. But there will be more. We can't expose ourselves and risk raising the alarm.
I suggest making ourselves invisible. Dervish vetoes the idea. "Powerful demons can sense magic being used. We've been lucky so far, but every time one of us draws on the power in the air, we risk pinpointing our position."
So we steal through town unassisted by magic. Luckily, although it's afternoon, Slawter is quiet, not many people about. We make it to Davida's offices unnoticed and let ourselves in. One of her secretaries is usually stationed at the front desk, but our luck holds-the chair is vacant. We slip past and into the main office, the hub of operations, from which all orders flow.
Davida isn't here. The office is empty. Lots of papers, small demon models, a miniature set of the town, maps on the walls with scores of dates, names, times, schedules. But no Davida Haym.
"Go through the drawers," Dervish says, hurrying to one of the many file cabinets in the room. "Look for anything that might give us an advantage-plans, a list of demons, spells, whatever."
"You think she'll keep details like that in unlocked cabinets?" Bill-E asks.
"No," Dervish sighs. "But it'll keep us busy. And you never know-we might strike lucky."
Rooting through drawers, pulling out folders, glancing through the pages, then discarding them, scattering them across the floor, not caring about the mess we're making.
I'm halfway through a drawer when Bill-E makes a shushing sound and hurries to the door. He listens for a second, then nods-people are coming. Dervish and I move up next to him, taking cover behind the door, crouching low so as not to be visible through the upper panels of glass in the office wall.
Footsteps. Two people talking. The door opens.
"...have to get it right," Davida Haym says, stepping into the office. "This is a one-time deal. If we blow it, we won't-" She spots the mess and stops.
"What the hell?" Chuda Sool says, stepping up beside her.
Dervish springs to his feet. His right hand comes flying up, fingers curled into a fist. He punches Chuda's jaw like a professional boxer. Chuda grunts and spins aside, smacking hard into the glass of the upper wall, cracking it. Bill-E and I leap on Davida as she screams. We pull her down and cover her mouth with our hands. She tries to bite but we jam our hands down more firmly.
Dervish closes in on Chuda, who's dazed but still on his feet. Chuda tries to block Dervish's next punch, but it penetrates, grazing the side of his head, not connecting as firmly as the first blow, but knocking Chuda back a few more centimetres. I always knew Dervish was stronger than he looked but I've never seen him in this sort of kick-ass mode before. It's cool!
Chuda grabs a paperweight from Davida's desk and swings it round, but Dervish blocks his arm and knocks it aside. Chuda roars and gets the fingers of one hand on Dervish's throat. Dervish lets him squeeze, cool as ice, sizing him up.
Then he pummels a fist into Chuda's stomach. Chuda grunts. His fingers loosen. Dervish takes a step back, judges the angle, then takes one final crack at his opponent's jaw. Chuda's head snaps back, his eyes flutter shut and he slumps to the floor.
Dervish turns away from Chuda, panting lightly. His eyes fall on Davida, still struggling beneath Bill-E and me. He jerks his head at us. We slide off. Davida starts to sit up, spluttering furiously. Before she completes the move, Dervish puts a foot on her chest and pushes her back down. Stands over her like a triumphant gladiator, fixing her with a glare which is evil in its intensity.
"Now, lady," he snarls, "it's time for you to talk. And you're going to tell me exactly what I want to hear." He moves his foot up to her throat. "Or I'll do things to you that would make a demon blanch."
"You have no right to do this," Davida says sourly. Dervish has allowed her to rise. She's sitting in her plush leather chair, glaring at us. "When I tell security what you've done, you'll be in so much-"
"We know about the Demonata," Dervish snaps. "Lord Loss and his familiars. The barrier and the lodestone in the D workshops. You can't fool us any longer. So talk."
Davida pinches her lips shut. We think she's working with the demons, but we're not sure. I guess Dervish figures it's best to assume the worst and treat her harshly. He can apologise later if she's innocent.
"Don't think I won't do terrible things to you," Dervish says softly. "I obey human laws when it suits, but break them without hesitation when I must. The only reason I haven't gone to work on you is the boys. But I'm five seconds away from sending them out to the next room and doing whatever I have to to get answers."
"You don't know what you're interfering with," Davida snarls, betraying herself, confirming our worst suspicions. "This is way beyond anything you can imagine."
"You underestimate my imagination," Dervish smiles icily.
"These are real demons, you fool! They can do things you wouldn't believe. If you mess with them, you'll wind up-"
"I've been messing with the Demonata for decades," Dervish interrupts. "Now tell me your story. How deep are you in this? What did they promise? Power? Magic? Eternal life?"
"They promised nothing except what I asked for-a great movie."
Dervish frowns. "We're past that stage. Your lousy movie cover is blown. I want to know the real reason why-"
"Cover?" Davida laughs contemptuously. "It was never a cover. I'm making the greatest horror film ever. A movie with real demons, doing what real demons do, captured on film-what better reason could there be than that?"
Dervish's frown deepens. "You're telling me that was the trade-off? You helped the demons cross to our world, provided them with all the victims you could and they agreed to be filmed? It was as shallow as that?"
"You know nothing about movie-making," Davida sneers. "Life is shallow. It's meaningless. Life passes and is forgotten within minutes. But movies endure. A film outlives everyone involved. If it's good enough. If it's magical."
She leans forward intently. "You think I'm evil and you're probably right. I brought all these people here, knowing they'd die. But we all die in the end. Pointless, forgettable deaths. We fade and it's like we never existed. We come, we live, we die, and that's that. Not much of a story, huh?
"But that's about to change for you, me, everybody here. We'll become part of history. I'm making a movie which will survive as long as the human race itself. Demons will attack... kill hundreds of people in unimaginable ways... and I'll capture it all on camera. Splice it in with the other scenes I shot. Make the most shocking horror film ever. I'll be notorious, yes, feared and despised. I'll be imprisoned, maybe executed. But I'll be remembered. And so will the others. And that's the most any of us can hope for."
She stops, breathing heavily, face flushed.
"She's loco," Bill-E says. "How come she wasn't locked up years ago?"
Dervish shakes his head in wonderment. "You planned to let these people be butchered in the name of art, so you could film the massacre and turn it into entertainment. That's a new one. I've seen crazy mages bring the Demonata into our world for all sorts of reasons-but never to break box-office records."
"You don't get it," Davida laughs. "This is immortality. It will put us up with the ranks of the great. We'll mingle with the giants of history-Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon. The world will always want to see this film, to experience true terror, to get as close as they can to the reality of the demonic."
"You're deluding yourself," Dervish says. "There won't be a film. Even if you capture the footage, you won't live to edit it. The Demonata will kill you along with the rest of us. You'll be a brief news item-nothing more."
"No," Davida insists. "We have a deal. I give them you, they let me make my film."
"Do you have that in writing?" Dervish chuckles, then stops. "What do you mean, you give them us?"
"I've spent the last several years recruiting demons," Davida says. "I got a few lesser demons involved once I laid my hands on the lodestone and they saw that I was serious, but I needed a demon master. By myself, I could only use the stone to create a brief window between universes. I knew a demon master could help me use it to build a tunnel, letting many more demons cross and giving them plenty of time to cavort.
"The trouble is, demon masters are hard to contact. I managed to find one-Lord Loss-but he wasn't interested. I pushed ahead anyway, determined to make the best of what I had. Then, a few months ago, Lord Loss sent one of his most trusted servants to me and offered his services-if I could lure you and the two boys to the set. Lord Loss hates you. He wanted you to be here, to suffer horribly before he personally ripped you to pieces."
"So you came to Carcery Vale to ensnare me," Dervish says bitterly. "Did you cast a spell? Mess with my mind?"
"Of course," Davida smirks. "It wasn't that difficult, or so I've been told-I didn't do it myself. Your brain was all over the place. Quite easy to manipulate. You fell into our trap without any complications. I'm just surprised you recovered your senses now. You weren't supposed to wake until tomorrow, when the bloodshed was in full flow. Still, it doesn't really matter. Your timing's slightly ahead of schedule, but only just. It's far too late for you to make a nuisance of yourself."
"What do you mean?" Dervish growls.
"You don't know?" Davida giggles with delight. "I did think it strange that you were here, grilling me instead of... I thought you hoped to use me as a shield, to bargain your way out. But you really don't know, do you?"
"What the hell are you-" Dervish starts to shout, but is cut short by a voice outside, amplified by a loudspeaker.
"Ten minutes," the voice says. "Will everyone please assemble immediately outside the D workshops. Ten minutes to showtime, folks!"
Dervish stares at Davida, face whitening. She giggles again. "It's the final scene, Grady. When the demons break through and hell erupts. We brought it forward once you found out the truth-we couldn't keep you comatose indefinitely. The actors and crew think the heroes in the movie will save the day. But that's not how it's going to work. I've a surprise up my sleeve. Dozens of demons who aren't playing by the rules of monster movies, who don't have weak spots, who aren't going to be thwarted by a clean-cut movie brat with a cool haircut and a dazzling smile."
Davida looks at her watch and smiles serenely. "Nine more minutes. Then Lord Loss and his familiars burst out of the D warehouse and kill just about every living soul in town." She brings her hands up and claps slowly, to emphasise each word. "Lights! Camera! Slawter!"