In Dervish's study. Like most of the rooms, it's huge. But whereas the others have bare walls, with stone or wood floorboards, the study is carpeted and the walls are covered with leather panels. There are two large desks, bookcases galore, a PC, laptop, typewriter, paper and pens. There used to be five chess sets, but not any more. The swords and axes which hung from the walls are gone too.
Prae Athim doesn't want me here. That's obvious from her disapproving look. Dervish doesn't care. He's seated behind the computer on his largest desk, one hand on the mouse, moving it around in small circles, waiting for his unwelcome guest to speak. Prae Athim is seated opposite. I'm standing close to the door, ready to leave if Dervish tells me to.
Prae finally speaks. "Billy Spleen still lives with his grandparents?" Dervish nods slowly. "I thought you might have moved him in with you. To observe."
"You're the master observer, not me," Dervish says quietly.
"Isn't it dangerous, leaving him there?" she presses.
"Billy's time of turning has passed. There's nothing to fear from him now."
"That's debatable," Prae smiles.
"No. It isn't."
Prae looks at her hands crossed over her lap. Thinks a moment. Then nods at me. "I'd rather not speak in front of the boy."
"Is this about him?" Dervish responds.
"Then you'll have to."
"I really don't think-" she begins.
"Grubbs faced the demons with me," Dervish interrupts. "He fought by my side. I'm not going to keep secrets from him."
"Really?" Prae sniffs. "You tell him everything about your business?"
"No. But I don't hide things from him. When he asks, I answer. And since I'm certain he's going to be asking about this, he might as well stay and hear it first-hand."
Prae sighs. "You never make life easy for us. You've always treated the Lambs like enemies. We're on the same side, Dervish. You should afford us respect."
"I do respect you," Dervish says. "I just don't trust you."
I'd forgotten about the Lambs. They loomed large in my thoughts while Dervish was zombified, especially around the time of a full moon. If I'd found myself turning into a werewolf, I was going to phone them and ask them to put me out of my misery. But since Dervish returned, I haven't had time to brood about my potentially fatal genes or the family bogey men.
The Gradys and their kin have been cursed for a long time. We're talking a lot of generations. Over the centuries, family members have tried to figure out the cause of the curse, find a cure for it, and develop ways of dealing with the infected children quietly and efficiently.
The Lambs are the result. A group of scientists, soldiers and I don't know what else, all focused on the problems and logistics of lycanthropy. They spend a lot of time, money and effort trying to unlock the secrets of the rogue Grady-genes. But they also play the part of executioners when necessary.
A lot of parents decide to kill their children if they turn into werewolves. But most can't perform the dirty deed themselves. So they call in the Lambs, who take the transformed child away and do what must be done.
"How did you find out about Billy?" Dervish asks.
"We keep tabs on all the family children," Prae says.
"But Billy didn't leave a trail. There was no evidence that he was turning."
Prae smiles. "You covered up admirably. Gathered the bodies of the animals he slaughtered, disposed of them quietly. But you couldn't be expected to find every corpse. And you couldn't do anything about the operative who saw him sneaking out of his house during a full moon."
"You had him under direct surveillance?" Dervish snaps.
Dervish's hand goes rigid on the mouse. "You had no right to do that."
"We had every right," Prae disagrees. "If a guardian chooses to deal personally with an infected child, it's not our business. But you didn't. You gave him free reign."
"I was in control," Dervish growls. "He wasn't a danger to anyone. I was waiting for the right moment to act."
"I understand," Prae says. "But we couldn't take any chances. We guessed you would handle the matter this way if he turned, so for some years we'd been keeping an eye on the boy. On your brother's children too."
Dervish starts to retort. Stops and scowls. "Tell me why you've come."
"A few reasons," Prae says. "One-to make sure Billy is normal."
"He is," Dervish says. "We cured him."
"But how certain is your cure?" Prae asks. "We know about the demon you deal with, but there's much about the process that's a mystery. You and the others who have faced him keep it a secret. You don't let the rest of us benefit."
"We can't include you," Dervish says stiffly. "He deals with one case at a time, and only with those who have some experience of magic. That's how it works. It's not our choice-it's his."
"The demon," Prae nods. "Lord-"
"Don't say his name here," Dervish stops her. "It's dangerous."
Prae looks around nervously. I feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Then Dervish catches my eye and tilts his head ever so slightly. It's a gesture I know well-he does that sometimes instead of winking. I realise he's winding Prae up, giving her a scare. I hide a smile behind my hand and wait for her to settle down.
"It's not fair," Prae resumes, less composed than before. "We've never had any contact with the demon. Maybe we could strike our own deal if you put us in touch with him."
"But you should let us try. We-"
"We've had this conversation before," Dervish interrupts. "We're not having it again. The Lambs follow the path of science. Demons are creatures of magic. The two don't mix. End of story."
"Very well," Prae says, showing open anger for a second, her pale face flushing. "You choose to lock us out-there's nothing we can do about that. But it means we don't know all that we should about the cure. We have no proof that it works in the long term, or why. So it's natural for us to be suspicious, to run our own checks, to be safe."
"Totally natural," Dervish says sarcastically. "But I don't think you'd have waited until now to make sure Billy wasn't killing. If you were checking on him prior to his change, I'm sure you've monitored him in the year-plus since. So your first reason for being here is a crock-you know Billy's fine. Let's move on to reason two and try to make it a bit more believable this time."
Prae glares at Dervish, then glances at me. "Two," she growls. "We wanted to check on Grubbs. He's at a dangerous age. Both his brother-" My stomach tightens another notch. She knows the truth about Bill-E! "-and sister turned. We thought it advisable to have a look at him. We kept out of the way while you were... indisposed, but now that you're back on your feet, we felt it was a good time to have a chat." She faces me and smiles. "How have you been sleeping lately? Any bad dreams? Woken up with dirt under your fingernails or-"
"You know what she's doing, don't you, Grubbs?" Dervish asks.
"Trying to freak me out," I mutter edgily.
"Correct. If they wanted to check up on you, they'd do it secretly. You'd never know they were there. She's saying this to upset you, because I've upset her. So ignore it. And you," he says to Prae, "tell me the real reason you're here or get the hell out."
"Very well." Prae stares at Dervish challengingly. "We want to run some tests on Billy under laboratory conditions."
"You want to turn my nephew into a guinea pig?" Dervish laughs harshly. "You want me to sign him over, so you can prod and poke him and have him urinate into a bottle at your command?"
"It's not like that. We-"
"Get out!" Dervish shouts.
"You're being unreasonable," Prae objects. "Let me finish."
"Oh, you're finished," Dervish laughs. "I've heard enough. Now march back out to your car and-"
"Have you seen a child who's turned?" Prae asks me, raising her voice. "You must have seen your brother, but only in the early stages of his transformation. It takes a few months for the disease to properly set in. They grow hair. Their features distort. Their spines twist. I have some photographs which-"
"No!" I shout. "I don't want to see any photos. I've seen them before."
"Children your own age," Prae says quickly as Dervish stands and strides towards her. "Some even younger. We have an eight-year-old girl. Her parents didn't know about the curse. She killed her mother. Chewed her throat open and-"
"You're so out of here," Dervish snarls, reaching to grab Prae's collar.
"Wait," I stop him, holding up a hand.
"Grubbs, don't listen to-"
"Just wait a minute. Please?"
Dervish breathes out heavily, then takes a step back.
"We're trying to help," Prae says, speaking to me but looking at Dervish. "Your uncle is a man of old science-he calls it magic, but to us it's science by a different name. We're of the new school. Dervish fights one battle at a time. Your mother and father made that choice too. But we're trying to attack the root of the disease. We want everyone to benefit, not just a few. To do that, we have to examine and explore.
"Your brother is one of the very few victims to beat the curse. If we can study him, unlock the secrets behind his remarkable cure, perhaps we can replicate it and save others-without the need for demons or so-called magic."
"You can't," Dervish says wearily. "I've told you before, it's not science. It's not of this universe. You can't understand it and you can't mimic it. Do you think I'd stand in your way if I thought there was the slightest chance that you could?"
"You can't be sure," Prae says.
Prae mutters something beneath her breath, then tries me again. "We wouldn't hurt Billy. You and your uncle could come and observe. We just want to know more, to understand... to help."
I feel sorry for Prae Athim. Despite her scary appearance and manner, she only wants to do good. But the thought of her taking Bill-E away, locking him up, experimenting on him... I shake my head.
"You should leave now," Dervish says quietly. "We can't help you."
"You're condemning others to change, to die," Prae says angrily.
Dervish shrugs. "We've been condemned a long time. We're used to it."
He lays a hand on Prae's shoulder. She jerks away from him and stands. "My daughter changed," she hisses. "I tried to cure her, but I couldn't. She's still alive. Because I hope and believe. By denying us, you deny her and all the others like her. How will you sleep with that on your conscience?"
"Lousily," Dervish says. "But Billy will sleep sweetly. And to me, that's what matters most, just as your daughter matters most to you." He leans towards her. "If the positions were reversed, would you allow your loved one to be taken?"
"Yes," Prae answers immediately. "Without question."
"Well, that's where we differ. Because I always question."
"There are other ways," Prae says, a dangerous tremble to her tone. "We didn't have to ask. We could just take him."
Dervish's expression goes dead. "Try it," he whispers. "See what happens."
"You couldn't stop us," Prae insists, a red flush of anger rising up her throat. "You're powerful, but so are the Lambs. We could-"
"Mess with me and you mess with us all," Dervish interrupts. "Do you really want to do that? Do the Lambs now think themselves the equals of the Disciples?"
"We aren't afraid of your kind," Prae says, but her words ring hollow.
Dervish smiles lazily. "If you lay a hand on Billy or Grubbs, I'll teach you to be afraid. That's a promise."
"You don't want us as enemies," Prae warns him. "Nobody stands alone in this world, not even the Disciples. You may need us one day."
"Yes," Dervish agrees. "But not today." He points at the door.
Prae opens her mouth to try again. Realises she'd be wasting her breath. Shakes her head with disgust. Shoots a look at me. "Pray you never turn. Because if you do, thanks to people like your uncle, we won't be able to help. All we'll be able to do is kill."
She strides to the door, throws it opens and marches out. The front doors slam several seconds later. Then the faint sound of her engine starting, rising, fading.
Dervish stares at me. I stare back. Neither of us says anything. I don't know what my uncle's thinking, but there's only one glaring thought in my head-who the hell are the Disciples?