Dervish rushes out of the office, leaving a laughing Davida and unconscious Chuda Sool behind. Bill-E and I hurry after him. "Shouldn't we have tied Davida up or knocked her out?" I pant, running fast to catch up with Dervish.
"No time," he barks.
We race through the mostly deserted streets of Slawter. Dervish spots a group of people making their way to the assembly point. He roars, "Get out! Go back!" They stop and stare at him oddly.
"There's been an explosion!" Bill-E yells, lurching up behind us. "They think it's a gas leak. The entire gas system's been compromised. There could be further detonations anywhere within town. We have to get out. Now!"
"Good one," I compliment him as the panicked group turns and heads west.
"We need to think about this logically," he gasps, face red from running. "If we tell people that demons are going to kill them, they'll think we're mad."
"So we make it a gas leak instead," I nod. "Get them moving away from the danger zone. You hear that, Dervish?"
"Whatever," he grunts. "But in another few minutes we won't have to tell them anything- they'll see the demons themselves."
We round a corner and approach the gigantic D warehouse. A huge crowd has gathered outside. Most of the people are at the southern end, but some spill around the east and west wings of the building. There are cameras everywhere, on tripods and cranes, in the hands of cameramen mingling with the crowd, a couple on top of the warehouse roof. I guess the cameramen are part of Davida's inner circle, wise to the Demonata, otherwise she couldn't trust them to man their posts when the chaos erupts.
Several of the crew have megaphones and are directing the crowd. Dervish storms over to the nearest one-a young man with a ponytail-grabs the megaphone and shouts into it, "Gas leak! There have been explosions! Everybody out! We have to evacuate now!"
Uncertain mutterings among the crowd. People stop talking and stare at Dervish. He's running up and down, repeating his message, gesturing in all directions, telling people they have to make for the outskirts of town immediately.
Before anyone can move, a large man steps forward with a megaphone of his own. It's Tump Kooniart. "Ignore that lunatic!" Tump roars. "It's Dervish Grady. We fired him last week. He's trying to disrupt proceedings to get his own back. Guards-seize him! The boys too!"
Security guards move forward. Dervish curses and tosses his megaphone aside. "Enough of this gas-leak crap," he mutters. "Time to open their eyes."
Dervish says something magical and points at the guards closing in on him. They float up several metres into the air with yells of alarm and fear. All around us, jaws drop. Eyes fix on the floating guards, then on Dervish, who looks like a man charged full of electricity.
Dervish touches a couple of fingers to his throat and addresses the crowd, his voice far louder than it was with the aid of the megaphone. "You're all going to die. Davida Haym has struck a deal with demons. Real demons. They're going to break out of the warehouse in a couple of minutes and kill everyone. Unless you flee now, you're doomed."
"Ignore him!" Tump Kooniart screams. "He's lost his mind!"
I see Bo and Abe close behind their father. They look worried, scared, incredulous, like most of the people around us.
"Real demons?" Tump snorts. "Madness! He's trying to wreck the shoot. He-"
Tump Kooniart chokes, drops the megaphone, falls to his knees, face purple, hands clawing at his throat and mouth.
"Don't kill him," I whisper in Dervish's ear.
"He deserves to die," Dervish snarls, looking completely unlike the gentle man I've lived with all these months.
"Maybe," I say, voice trembling. "But we don't have the right to kill people. We're trying to save them, even those who don't deserve it."
Dervish snorts, but breaks the spell. Tump Kooniart breathes again.
"Listen to us," I shout, using magic to amplify my voice. "I know it's hard to believe, but you can see the guards floating overhead. You can hear our voices, even though we're not using any equipment. Your lives are in danger. You have to run now or else-"
"Enough!" Davida Haym screams, her voice even louder than mine or Dervish's. The guards fall back to earth, some injuring themselves badly. Davida's standing behind us, a groggy Chuda Sool by her side. Her eyes are blazing. "You're not going to ruin my movie! Cameramen-are you ready?" Dozens nod and shout that they are. "Sound?" Davida cries.
Dervish raises a hand to stop her. Before he can, he's spun aside by a magical force. It's not Davida's work. Doesn't look like Chuda's doing it either. There must be a powerful, hidden mage somewhere in the crowd.
"Sound?" Davida shouts again and this time there's an answering bellow. "All right. Let's dispense with the countdown and cut to the chase. You lot inside the warehouse-it's time to make your grand entrance.
"Action!" she roars, and the hounds of hell are unleashed.
The giant door in the middle of the southern wall of the warehouse explodes outwards. Those nearest it are caught by flying splinters, some as long as my arm. Most go down screaming, though a few are torn apart and killed instantly by the shrapnel.
Stunned silence from those not struck by the debris of the blast. Everybody's staring at the wounded and dead. Wondering if this is real or part of the movie. They live in a make-believe world where anything can happen and nobody is ever really hurt. Their senses tell them this is different, it's not part of a script, they should run. But the movie-making part of their brain is trying to figure out how the explosion was arranged and how the scattering of the splinters was timed so as not to harm anybody-struggling to convince themselves that those on the ground are acting, the blood isn't real, it can't be.
Dervish is back up on his feet. Staring at the hole in the wall like the rest of us. The explosion created clouds of dust around the doorway. As they clear, a figure glides forward from within the warehouse. Pale red skin, lumpen, no heart, eight arms-who else but the ringmaster himself, Lord Loss?
"Alas," he sighs, looking around sadly. "Here we all are. Bound by chains of blood and death. No way out. Doomed. Dervish tried to warn you, to save you, but he failed. Here you are trapped. Here you will die."
One of the cameramen moves in for a close-up. "Yes," I hear Davida murmur. I glance back. She's speaking into a microphone, directing the cameraman. "His face first, then pan down to the hole in his chest. I want to see those snakes slithering."
Lord Loss gazes without much interest into the camera. He smiles slightly, then runs his eyes over the crowd, judging their mood, taking in their expressions, most more confused than terrified. "Ah," he notes. "You do not believe. You think this is part of the film. That I am a movie prop." He chuckles. "It is time to burst that bubble of misperception."
He moves to one side. I glimpse other shapes behind him. Eyes. Tendrils. Teeth. Claws. Fangs. "Now, my darlings," Lord Loss whispers.
The demons spill out in their dozens, each one more misshapen and nightmarish than the last. A variety of vile monsters, spitting bile, oozing pus and blood, screeching and howling with malicious glee. They collide with the shocked members of the cast and crew closest to the building. Cut into and through them, severing limbs and heads, disembowelling, biting and clawing.
Realisation hits the masses swift and hard. A single scream rings out. Then a volley of them. Panic sweeps the crowd. A stampede develops, everyone wanting to get away from the demons, trampling over one another, the weak going down in the crush, dying beneath the feet of their workmates. Anarchy at its most destructive and terrifying.
Lord Loss laughs and his laughter carries over the sounds of the screams. I'm rooted to the spot, unable to react, heart jackhammering, not wanting this to be happening, wishing I could be anywhere in the world but here.
I see the cameraman who moved forward turning away to capture the scenes of mayhem. "Not yet!" Davida snaps. "Stay on the hole. Give me a close up."
The cameraman steps right up to Lord Loss' chest, manoeuvring his camera to within a few centimetres of the writhing, hissing snakes. He moves his head from behind the camera to check something-and one of the snakes strikes. It lashes out from within the hole where Lord Loss' heart should be. Sinks its tiny fangs into the cameraman's left cheek. He yelps, drops his camera and tries to pull away. But the snake has a firm hold. It yanks him closer so his face plunges into the hole. And now all the snakes are biting. The cameraman's arms and legs thrash wildly, then go still. He falls away a few seconds later, his face a blood-red map of bites and rips, skin flailed, bone cracked, brains dribbling down his chin.
"No!" Davida gasps. "He hadn't finished the shot! They shouldn't have..."
She stops and studies the demons tearing into the humans. They're drawing no distinction between the intended victims and the collaborators, dragging down cameramen and other technicians as well as the unsuspecting members of the cast and crew.
"No!" Davida screeches. "We had a deal!"
Lord Loss looks at her sneeringly. "I do not make deals with fools. I promised you chaos, which you and your underlings could film, but I never said I would spare any of you. You simply assumed-and assumed wrong." He smiles at me. "Greetings, Grubitsch. Such a pleasure to see you again. I will take much satisfaction from your long, slow, painful death."
"Not today!" Dervish bellows and suddenly he's by my side, right hand raised. He fires off a bolt of energy at Lord Loss. The demon master deflects it, but is knocked sideways. "Come on!" Dervish snaps at me and Bill-E. "We have to get out of here."
"But what about...?" I gesture at the fleeing people.
"We'll summon them when-if-we blast a way out," Dervish says. "The best thing they can do for now is flee. That will delay the demons and buy us some time."
"But-" Bill-E begins.
"No arguments!" Dervish barks. "Follow me now or, so help me, I'll leave you for the bloody Demonata!"
With that he turns and flees south, sidestepping the stunned, frozen Davida Haym. There's no sign of Chuda, who must have deserted her when he realised they were going to perish along with those they'd planned to sacrifice. I'm not sure where he thinks he can run to or hide, but he fled anyway.
Davida can't move. She's weeping, seeing all her dreams of immortality go up in flames. I'd like to say I feel sorry for her, but I don't. All I can think right now is, "Serves you right, you mad old cow!"
Then Bill-E and I are past the desolate producer, following Dervish through the warren of streets and alleys of Slawter, the screams of the dying and yowls of the demons rising all the time.
Twisting and turning, Dervish in the lead, no apparent route in mind. He stops in the middle of a street. There are doors on either side of us. Handy for a getaway if we're attacked. "Are you OK?" he asks us.
"Any reason we should be?" I reply calmly, hiding my terror as best I can.
Bill-E says nothing. He looks like a shell-shocked soldier. As awful as I feel, I think Bill-E feels a hell of a lot worse.
"Billy?" Dervish says softly. "Are you with us? Are all the lights on in there?" He taps the side of Bill-E's head.
"They killed them," Bill-E wheezes, his lazy left eyelid snapping open and shut at great speed. "I saw a thing with... it looked like a tiger... but bits and pieces sticking out... it killed Salit. He tried to stop it. He didn't know it was real. He was acting his movie part, where he was a big hero. But it cut him down the middle and-"
"We don't have time for hysterics," Dervish growls. "Be a man and help us fight, or go and babble somewhere until the demons find and kill you."
I hate him for saying that, but I know he's only doing it for Bill-E's sake. Cruel to be kind and all that guff.
Bill-E glares at Dervish, anger driving the fear away. "I'm not hysterical," he says stiffly.
"Glad to hear it," Dervish says. "Now listen and listen good. Lord Loss is the only demon master. The rest are his familiars or others Davida roped in. Some are stronger than us but most aren't. We need to capture one of the weaker demons and use it to get out."
"And the other people?" I ask quietly.
"We'll take as many as we can," Dervish promises. "If we're successful, I'll send a telepathic signal and let all the survivors know where we are."
"Why not do that now?" I ask. "Arrange a meeting place and tell them to go there. It would give them more time, a better chance."
Dervish shakes his head. "Those who were working for the Demonata would receive the message too. They'd go running to Lord Loss-try to save their own foul lives by selling out the rest of us."
"OK," I mutter. "So how do we catch a demon?"
Dervish scratches his left cheek nervously. "Bait," he says softly. And his gaze settles on Bill-E.
I don't like it. Hell, I hate it! But it's the quickest, easiest way. We're up to our eyeballs in trouble. We have to take risks.
We leave Bill-E standing in the middle of the street, twisting his hands, face crumpled with fear. He trusts us but he's terrified. I would be too in his shoes.
"If anything happens to him..." I whisper to Dervish.
"It won't," Dervish says solidly. "Now don't talk-watch."
A minute passes. Two. Screams fill the air, a chorus of agony and anguish. Every hair on my body is standing upright. I have to keep my teeth parted, afraid I'll grind down to the gums if I don't take care. Part of me wants to run, make for the barrier, force a way through, forget everybody else.
Save your own skin, it whispers. Dervish and Bill-E are the only ones who matter. Convince them to leave with you. Let the others look after themselves.
I ignore the treasonous, selfish voice-but only with an effort.
Movement at the end of the street. Several figures come racing around a corner. Dervish and I tense, ready to unleash a burst of magic, then hold it back when we see that the figures are children. Bo Kooniart, Vanalee Metcalf, three others.
"Run!" Bo screams at Bill-E. "We're being chased! Get the hell out of here, you moron, before-"
"Bo!" I yell. "Over here." She stops, panting, eyes wide with terror. "Quick!"
"I know. Trust us. We can stop it. But you have to-"
"Here it comes," Dervish interrupts.
I look left. A demon with the body of a giant bee is humming through the air after Bo and the others. As it gets closer I see that it has a semi-human face, except with bee eyes and more teeth than any human I've ever seen. Magic flares within me. I stretch out a hand in the direction of the bee demon.
"Not yet," Dervish says. "Let it get closer... closer... Now!"
Together we channel magic and unleash it. Twin bolts of energy strike the demon sharply, knocking it across the street, away from the children. It smashes into the wall on the opposite side. As it slumps to the ground, Dervish runs towards it. I follow, caught up in the moment, acting instinctively.
The bee shakes its head and starts to rise, buzzing angrily. Dervish grabs a wing before it gets out of reach. Yanks it down. The bee lashes out at him with a stinger the size of a large kitchen knife. He ducks. I scream and smash an elbow into the bee's semi-human face. Its teeth bite deep into my forearm, but I jerk my arm free before it can do serious damage.
As I grab the bee with my uninjured arm, I feel Dervish's magic burn into the demon. It makes wild buzzing sounds. Thrashes, trying to break free, snapping its teeth, stabbing at him with its stinger. He holds on tight. I do too. I head-butt the bee, letting magic shoot through my forehead, intent on sizzling the demon's brains.
"Not too much!" Dervish pants as the demon goes slack. "We want it alive." He stands, sliding both arms around the bee. "Let's keep it like this and-"
"Monster!" a voice screams and suddenly there's someone beside us. A hand shoots by my head. A fist buries itself deep in the demon's chest, then comes ripping out, dragging guts and yellow blood with it. Stunned, I fix on the face of the assailant-and my heart leaps joyfully.
"Juni!" I yell, releasing the bee's head, throwing my arms around her.
Juni Swan hugs me hard, then steps away, staring at the demon, then her fist. "How did I do that?" she croaks. "I felt something inside me. It was power, but I don't know where..."
"Hi," Dervish says quietly, letting the dead demon drop to the floor. He smiles crookedly, then slips his arms around Juni and buries his face in her neck. "We thought you were dead," he half sobs.
"I was... dreaming, I think," she says. "Bill-E was kidnapped. We rescued him. Then we were attacked by ninjas and had to go to a mountain in search of their lair." She shakes her head. "I woke up in a small room. I came out and saw demons. I fled. Then I saw you. I thought the bee was going to kill you. Something exploded inside me. Before I knew it..."
She stares at her fist again, a look of astonishment on her face.
"Seems you have a talent for magic after all," Dervish chuckles, then sighs. "But you timed it badly. We wanted this one alive." He quickly explains his plan to her and the children, who've crept across. Bo seems to be less shaken than the others. She's trembling fiercely and her face is white with fear, but she's in control of her senses and listens intently.
I use magic to heal my wounded arm and watch Bo cautiously. Her father was one of the collaborators but that's not her fault. I'm pretty sure she didn't know about his pact with the Demonata. Bo was never anything worse than a spoilt brat. You don't deserve to be killed for that.
Dervish finishes outlining his plan. "So Grubbs, Juni and I will pull back, leave you kids here, wait for another demon to come along, then... kablooey!"
"Kablooey?" Juni repeats, raising an eyebrow.
"I liked comics when I was a kid," Dervish says with a shrug.
"How are we going to get the demon to the barrier?" Bo asks, and though her teeth chatter, her voice sounds normal.
"Grubbs and I will drag it there," Dervish says. "Juni can help."
"Here she goes," Bill-E groans. "Always has to have her say!"
"Shut up, shrimp-breath!" Bo snaps, then appeals to Dervish. "I don't want to be a troublemaker. I just want to get out of this alive. But it's what you said about how you were going to alert everybody and tell them where to come." She pauses.
"Go on," Dervish says kindly, though if I was in charge, I'd tell her to put a sock in it. She's being a drama queen, trying to grab the attention. Typical Bo.
"Well," Bo says hesitantly, "if you're able to use telepathy, I was wondering... can demons do the same?"
Dervish stares at Bo, then nods slowly. "Some can."
"So," Bo continues, "if you catch a demon and it realises you're dragging it off to the edge of town to kill it, won't it call for help? And bring a load of other demons down on top of us?"
Dervish scowls. "She's right. It'll take several minutes to get to the barrier from here. If the demon summoned help, we'd never make it."
"Can't we knock it unconscious?" Juni asks.
"Perhaps. But if it gets out a shout..."
He falls silent. Bo looks at me smugly, but I'm too impressed to bear her any ill feelings. She's not entirely brainless, I'm reluctantly forced to admit.
"I have a suggestion," Bo says. She's stopped trembling. Confident. On a roll.
"I'm all ears," Dervish says with a wry smile.
"Why don't we lure a demon to the barrier before you go messing with it? Trick it into chasing after us. It wouldn't call for help if it didn't know its life was in danger."
"We have a genius in our midst," Dervish says, smile widening. Bo beams like an angel. Despite myself, I have to laugh. She'll be more unbearable than ever after this, but right now that doesn't seem like such a bad thing.
"There's only one problem with your proposal," Dervish says.
"Problem?" Bo frowns.
"Running's dangerous. If there's a demon hot on your heels, you can't concentrate on what lies ahead. Very easy to run into another demon, or a pack of them. We can't control the situation if we do what you suggest. And control is vital. Grubbs and I must reach the barrier. If we don't, everybody dies. We can't risk running into a trap."
Bo mulls that over, starts to speak, goes silent, then says very quietly, "What if the rest of us did the running? What if you and Grubbs went to the barrier and we tried to lure a demon to you?"
I blink, astonished. I never thought I'd hear the spoilt Bo Kooniart make a suggestion like that. What she's proposing is close to self-sacrifice. Without us, she and the others won't stand much of a chance against the demons.
"You know what you're saying?" Dervish's voice is grave. "You know the risk you'd be taking?"
"Of course. But it doesn't seem like we have much of an option, does it?"
"I'm not doing it!" Vanalee protests, bursting into tears. "I want to come with you, Mr. Grady! Please don't make me go after demons!"
"I won't make anybody do anything," Dervish says. He looks at the other children. "Bo's risking a great deal for us. Will anyone volunteer to help her or does she have to face the demons by herself?"
The three children look at one another. Two raise shaky hands. The third hangs his head.
"OK," Dervish says. "Now all we have to do is arrange a meeting place, so you know where-"
"I'll go too," Bill-E interrupts.
"No!" I yell.
"I have to." He smiles thinly. "I'm not magical like you and Dervish. There's no benefit in me coming with you. I can do more good with Bo and the others."
"He's right," Dervish says. I look at my uncle, unable to believe he'd let Bill-E go like this. But his eyes are dark and firm. This isn't easy for him but he's going to let Bill-E go anyway. I start to protest, but then I realise why Dervish is doing this-it wouldn't be fair to let Bo and the others volunteer and not put forward one of our own.
"I'll go," I whisper. "You take Bill-E."
"No," Dervish says. "I need you at the barrier."
I shake my head. "You can kill a demon without me. And you have Juni to help. The others will stand a better chance if I go with them."
"We can both go," Bill-E says.
"No. You're sticking with Dervish, no arguing." I lower my voice so only Bill-E can hear. "I don't want him to lose us both. And you're his son-you're more important to him than I am." I hate lying to Bill-E, but if it saves his life, it will be worth it.
"OK," Bill-E says miserably, after a moment of tormented consideration. "But I'll kill you if you don't come back alive."
"All right," Dervish says. "We're wasting time and we don't have much of it. Grubbs can go with the others. Now, you know the old hat store we passed when we tried to drive out of here?" I nod. "Make your way to that, then head due west. We'll be waiting. Come as fast as you can." He looks at Juni. "Ready?"
"Don't you think I should go with the children?" Juni says nervously.
"No. They're as safe with Grubbs as they would be with you. Safer."
"Well... I don't like it... but if you think that's best..."
"It is." Dervish looks at me steadily. "See you soon-and that's an order."
Then he, Juni, Bill-E, Vanalee and the boy head west to safety. Dervish is the only one who keeps his sights set firmly ahead. The others all look back, faces dark with doubt. They think they won't ever see us again.
I want to call after Bill-E and tell him we're brothers. I don't want to die without telling him the truth. But my mouth's dry. My throat's tight. I can't.
I stare at Bo and the others. One's a boy a year or two older than me. The second's a girl a few years younger. I don't know either of them. I think about asking their names, then decide it's better not to know.
"Are you ready?" Bo asks, taking control, even though I'm the one who should be in charge. We nod silently and turn towards the sounds of bloodshed and mayhem. Pause a terrified moment. Then silently jog back into the death den of the Demonata.