It's strange, trying to settle back into everyday life, not telling anyone about Slawter, acting like normal people who've merely survived a very human tragedy. Bill-E and I lie to our friends, make up stories about the filming, describe the fire and how we were lucky to escape. Not a word about demons.
Bill-E stays with us the first few nights, despite the objections of Ma and Pa Spleen. Nightmares galore, both of us. Remembering. Screaming. Crying. Talking with each other and Dervish, trying to cope. Ironically-considering how this all started-Dervish sleeps like a baby. The confrontation with evil was a tonic for him. It blew the cobwebs from his head, helped him out of the bad patch he'd been stuck in. The fighting, the cover-up, getting in touch with the other Disciples, discussing ways to keep the truth secret... All of that was nectar to my uncle. It fired up his engines. He was in his element dealing with the demonic fallout. I'm not saying he enjoyed it, but he needed it. That's his real work.
I wish it was so easy for me, that I could go off, find a demon, have a scrap, purge myself of the bad memories and fears. But I took nothing positive out of what happened in Slawter. I'm just disgusted, tired and afraid. I'm sure it will be years before I can sleep properly. If ever.
But the show must go on. The charade has to be maintained. So Bill-E returns to Ma and Pa Spleen. We go back to school. We force ourselves to focus on homework, friends, sports, TV, music, day-to-day life. We pretend that's all there is to the world, that there's nothing more frightening in life than a surprise test or saying something stupid in front of your friends and having them laugh at you.
And sometimes-just sometimes-I almost believe it, and for a little while I forget about Lord Loss, Davida Haym, Bo Kooniart, Emmet, the demons, the dead. And life is the way it should be, like it is for most people. But the sensation never lasts. It can't. Because I know the truth. I've seen behind the curtain of reality. I know that monsters are hiding underneath a billion beds across the world. And I know that sometimes... more often than we imagine... they come out.
"Time for that talk."
We've been home for nearly three weeks. I'm in the TV room, some comedy show playing on the big screen, not really concentrating. When Dervish sits beside me and speaks, I'm not sure what he's talking about. Then, as he switches off the TV, I remember. In the middle of the madness he said that if we got out alive, we'd have to have a chat about my magical prowess.
"You were amazing in Slawter," Dervish says. "Magic was pumping through you and you had complete control over it."
"I just tapped into the power in the air," I shrug uneasily. "No biggie."
Dervish smiles. "Modesty's becoming, but let's not bull ourselves-you were on fire. You did things I can't even comprehend. When I was fighting Lord Loss, I noticed some of the demons trying to get through the hole in the barrier. You kept them back. How?"
"I established a second barrier around the hole. Demons couldn't get through it but humans could."
Dervish chuckles. "Do you realise how difficult that is? I couldn't do it. Even when I was in Lord Loss' realm, at my most powerful, I couldn't have pulled off something like that. I don't know many who could."
"It wasn't like I planned it," I say, for some reason feeling edgier the more he praises me. "I reacted to what was going on around me. The magic told me what to do. I wasn't in control. I couldn't do any of it again. I don't even remember most of what I did."
Dervish studies me closely, his expression serious. I sense his reluctance to continue-and with a jolt, I guess the reason why and instantly understand why I've been so nervous.
"The Disciples are few in number," Dervish says quietly. "We're always on the lookout for new recruits, but most mages never realise their magical potential. It lies dormant unless they have an encounter with the Demonata. Even then there's no guarantee that it will develop, that we'll be able to make use of them."
"No," I say softly.
Dervish frowns. "I haven't asked you anything."
"I know what's coming. And the answer's no. Please don't ask me." I look away, trembling, fighting hard not to cry. "I hate it, Dervish-the demons, the battles, the madness. I don't want to face Lord Loss or anything like him again. I don't want to become a Disciple."
A lengthy silence. Finally Dervish sighs. "I'd spare you if I could. But there are so few of us and we're so limited. From what I saw in Slawter, you could be one of the most powerful Disciples ever. You might even..." He clears his throat. "You might even be a true magician. Like Bartholomew Garadex."
"No way!" I cry. "You told me I wasn't. You said magicians are born that way, that their powers are obvious from birth."
"I know. But the way you handled yourself... Maybe I was wrong. Maybe there are late-developing magicians. But even if you're not a magician," he says quickly as I start to protest, "you are part of the world of magic. No normal person could have done what you did. You have a very powerful, important talent and it would be a crime to deny it. I know you don't want to involve yourself with the Disciples, but you have to. Some of us believe that the universe creates champions, that a few humans in each generation are given the gift of magic in order to protect this world from the Demonata. If you've been chosen by the universe..." He smiles shakily. "You can't say no to a calling like that, can you?"
"Just watch me," I snap.
Dervish's expression darkens. "You're acting like a child."
"Well, duh! Haven't you noticed? I am a child! Big for my age, but don't let size fool you. Try me again when I'm old enough to vote."
"I can't wait that long," Dervish says. "Magic must be nurtured. Every day we hesitate is a day wasted. When you face your next demon, you might-"
"There won't be a next!" I shout. "Weren't you listening? I don't want to join your band of do-gooding Disciples! I said NO!"
"Unacceptable," Dervish replies flatly. "You have a responsibility. I know it's hard-I've gone through it myself-but you have to be who you are."
"You don't know anything!" I hiss. "You didn't lose your family to demons. You didn't have to fight Lord Loss when you were my age. You haven't felt the terror of... of..." I'm breathing hard, hands clenched, tears in my eyes.
"You can't let fear rule your life," Dervish says. "Everyone's afraid when they face a demon. We learn to mask our fear, but it's always there, chewing away at us. Fear... doubt... wishes that we weren't magical, that we didn't have this cross to bear. I can help you overcome that fear. I can show you the way."
I stare at him heavily. There's no point arguing. He really doesn't understand. I'm not just afraid-I'm horrified. In Slawter I did what I had to. It was an unreal situation and I had no choice but to let the magic wash through me and use it to fight my way out. But I hated the whole experience and I've no desire to repeat it. I'm through with the universe of demons. I've done more than my fair share. Got the better of them-and saved lives-twice. That's enough.
I start to tell Dervish this, to try to make him see it from my point of view. But all that comes out is a sigh, then a sullen, "Anyway, it's irrelevant. I'm not a magician or a mage. It was just a Slawter thing."
"You're wrong. The power is there. We have to develop it. You can't-"
"What if it isn't?" I interrupt. "What if I'm just an ordinary kid who did something weird and wild, but is back to normal now? Would you leave me alone then?"
He frowns. "Yes, of course. If the talent isn't there, obviously we can't fan it into life. But it is. It must be."
"Look for it," I challenge him. "Can you find out if a person has magic in them or not?"
Dervish nods. "We can't in people who haven't tapped into it, but once someone unleashes their power, it's always there. I can search for it, find it, prove it to you. I should have done it before, after you fought Vein and Artery, but I wasn't thinking straight when I returned from my battle with Lord Loss."
"Go on then." I face him directly. "You won't find anything, but if you want to look, feel free."
Dervish puts his hands on my shoulders. My left arm's still sore from when it was cut off. I wince, but steel myself and grunt for him to continue. I'm not sure why I'm so confident that he won't find anything. But I am.
Dervish's eyes close. "Relax," he says. "You'll feel a force... an intrusion. Try not to fight it. I'll get out as quickly as possible."
I let my eyelids flutter shut. Seconds later I sense a presence, a soft probing, like fingers creeping through the corridors of my brain. I tense against it.
"Relax," Dervish murmurs. "It's OK. I won't hurt you. Trust me."
It's hard, but I do as Dervish says, opening myself up to him, letting him probe deep... deeper. I feel him closing in on a part of myself which I wasn't aware of a few months ago. I know that if he finds it, he'll continue pestering me to become a Disciple. He won't give up. He'll keep on and on, and eventually I'll cave in and let him train me. And that will mean facing the Demonata again. More pain, craziness, terror.
Something moves within me. A pulse. A shiver. Hard to define. Like when you think you catch a movement out of the corner of your eye, but you're not sure, and when you look closely, nothing's there.
My eyes open. Dervish's forehead is creased, his lips moving. I close my eyes again. Smile faintly and let him continue. Warm now, safe, at ease.
Finally Dervish releases me. When I look at him, he's shaking his head, confused. "I don't understand. I was certain. You shouldn't have been able to... if there was nothing there... if you're not a mage... It doesn't make sense!"
"I assume that means no magic," I grin.
"Not even a trace. I thought I was zooming in on it, but then... nothing. I carried on looking, went deeper than necessary, because I was so sure..."
"You can try again if you want," I tell him.
"No point." He manages a brief smile. "It's either there or it isn't. I'd have found it if it was. You can't hide magic, not from those who know what to look for. I was wrong. You were right. You're clean."
"So I don't have to sign up? The Disciples can struggle on without me?"
Dervish pulls a face. "I don't know. The magic isn't there now, but I suspect, if we placed you in an area of magic again or took you into the universe of the Demonata... Our leader, Beranabus, is more powerful than any of us. He spends a lot of time among demons. Perhaps..."
I feel fear creeping back, but then Dervish scowls. "No. I'm not going to sign away your life to him. Maybe you'll choose to go down that path when you're older. But I haven't the right to pass that sort of a sentence on you. Beranabus plays rougher than the rest of us. I've seen how he treats those closest to him, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone."
"Then I'm free?" I say hopefully. "I don't have to...?"
"No." Dervish smiles, warmly this time, pleased for me, even though he's disappointed not to have found a powerful new recruit. "Congratulations, Grubbs. You're ordinary. I hope you enjoy a long, happy, boring life."
"Coolio!" I laugh. Then the pair of us settle back, turn the TV on and spend a few hours surfing channels, chatting about things deliriously unimportant.
In my room. Dark. I haven't turned the light on. Sitting on the end of my bed. Thinking about what happened earlier, Dervish's probe, what it would have meant if he'd found magic, how awful my life might have been. I should be celebrating the fact that I'm not one of the magical breed. Rejoicing. But I can't. Because I know that's a crock.
I rise, walk into the bathroom and stand in front of the basin, facing the mirror above it, even though I can't see it in the darkness. I don't want to do this. But I have to be sure.
I think I outfoxed Dervish. I think there is magic inside me, but it responded to my wishes and hid itself or deflected my uncle's probe. He said that wasn't possible, but if you're powerful enough, maybe it is. I could be wrong-I'm praying that I am-but I'm not sure. And I have to be. Even if nobody else ever knows, I need to.
I focus on the light bulb overhead. For a long second nothing happens. The darkness holds. I begin to hope.
Then the light comes on. A warm, steady, unnatural light. And the hope dies away as quickly as it was born.
I look at my scared reflection in the mirror. Make it disappear, so only the wall behind me is reflected in the glass. Then I let my reflection reappear and the light fade. I stumble back to bed. Lie down on top of the covers. Silent. Shaking. Terrified. Unable to sleep. Certain now-I'm not normal. I tricked Dervish, but I'm part of the world of magic. I can't escape. The universe of the Demonata will call to the magic within me and suck me back in. I know it will. This isn't over, not by a long shot.
There are no happy endings.