WAKEY WAKEY

Dervish snoring. When I hear that, I know I’m back in the real world—there’s no mimicking a dreadful, pig-choking noise like that! I open my eyes and sit up, groggy, head pounding, utterly confused but no longer ensnared by the dream reality of the laboratory.

I’m in a small, dark room, chinks of light sneaking in around the edges of a dusty old set of blinds. Propped up on a bare wooden floor. Dervish and Bill-E spread out next to me. Both asleep.

“Dervish,” I mumble, shaking him hard. No answer. I shake him again, hissing his name in his ear, not too loud in case anybody’s on the other side of the door. Still no response. I roll up his eyelids with one hand and snap my fingers in front of his eyes with the other. He carries on snoring.

You were all dreaming the same thing, the magic part of me whispers. They’re still trapped inside it. They can’t wake themselves. You’ll have to use magic to bring them back.

It tells me the words to use. I murmur them softly, feeling magic flow out of me, into my uncle and brother. They stir.

Bill-E moans. Dervish grunts something about an armadillo. Their eyelids flicker and they struggle awake.

“What’s happening?” Bill-E groans.

“Where are we?” Dervish asks. “Where’s Prae Athim? Sharmila? Shark? The—”

“That was bull,” I cut in, steadying him as he tries to stand. “Easy. Don’t make any noise. We’re probably under guard.”

“I don’t understand. What…?” He stares around, forehead creased.

“It was a dream. The kidnapping, meeting up with the Disciples, the lab. None of that was real. It was all fantasy.”

“Don’t be crazy!” Dervish snaps. “I know the difference between…” He stops. Thinks about it. His jaw drops. “Bloody hell. It had me fooled completely.”

“Me too, for a while. But bits didn’t add up. There were mistakes.”

“The lab,” Dervish says slowly. “It looked familiar. Now I know why—I got the image from Franz Kafka’s book, The Trial.”

“Kafka?” I frown. “It looked like buildings from James Bond movies. And the cells were straight out of Silence of the Lambs.”

“What are you talking about?” Bill-E says. “The cells were like something in a sci-fi flick, all those control panels and lasers.”

“We provided our own dream variations,” Dervish says wonderingly. He rises, panting, and leans against a wall until his legs support him. He staggers to the blinds and parts a few slats. Peers out. Then looks at us. “We’re still in Slawter. We never left. Grubbs is right—it was all an illusion.”

Dervish walks around the room, giving his head time to clear, flexing his legs and arms. “I forgot how cunning the Demonata are. They’re masters of deception. They found out we were leaving, or they had a barrier in place to stop anyone getting out. Blocked us with magic. Created an insane scenario which seemed logical to us. Since our minds were active and focused on the dream—thinking that was reality—we couldn’t wake up.”

“Why not simply drug us?” Bill-E asks.

“They’re demons. They don’t work that way.” Dervish chuckles. “I can’t believe I fell for it. Walking on to the planes without tickets. Breezing through customs, nobody asking to see our passports.”

“I didn’t spot that,” I wince.

“What about you, Billy?” Dervish asks. “Notice anything out of place?”

“No,” Bill-E says, scratching his head. “Although I did think it strange that some of the nurses weren’t wearing any…” He coughs and blushes.

“They wanted us out of the way,” Dervish says, “so they subdued us. They could have killed us, but I guess they want us around for the finale. If Lord Loss is masterminding this, he won’t want to slaughter us while we’re sleeping. He’ll want to make us suffer first, so he can feast on our pain and gloat.”

“We have to get out of here,” I pant, getting up, fighting off a wave of dizziness. “We have to stop them. Get everybody out. Call the Disciples.”

“What about Juni?” Bill-E asks, and Dervish and I flinch, only now realising that she isn’t with us.

“They’re probably keeping her in another room,” Dervish says.

“Why?” Bill-E frowns.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. There isn’t time to think about it.”

He strides to the door and presses an ear against it. I can tell by Bill-E’s expression that he’s going to push Dervish about Juni. I slip up beside him and whisper, “Dervish didn’t say it because he didn’t want to freak you out, but Juni’s probably dead. That’s why she isn’t here.”

Bill-E stares at me, ashen-faced. “But she was in the laboratory…”

“So were a lot of people. That doesn’t mean anything.” I squeeze his arm. “Dervish cares about Juni a lot, but he can’t think about her now. We can’t either. We can hope for the best, and if we’re lucky we’ll find her, sleeping like we were. But if she’s not… if the worst has happened… we have to overlook it. We have ourselves to worry about. And all the others.”

Bill-E trembles, but nods reluctantly. I squeeze his arm again, then help him to his feet. When he’s able to walk, we edge up behind Dervish, who’s still listening intently at the door. “Anything?” I ask.

“No. But that doesn’t mean there’s no one there. Or no thing.”

“We can’t wait in here forever,” I note.

“True.” Dervish looks over his shoulder at me. “Ready to fight?”

I crack my knuckles. “Damn straight.”

“Then let’s go for it.”

He turns the handle and slams open the door. Nobody’s outside. We creep along a damp, musky corridor. We’re in one of the town’s original buildings. It hasn’t been renovated. Holes in the walls, rotting floorboards, broken windows.

“How much of that dream world was real?” I ask Dervish, trying to calm my nerves by focusing on something other than the possibility that we might run into a team of demons any second. “Sharmila and Shark—do they really exist?”

“Yes,” Dervish says. “And pretty much the way we saw them—or at least the way I saw them. From your viewpoint, was Shark wearing army fatigues? Sharmila a sari?

“Yes.”

“Then that much we shared.” Dervish pauses and looks at me. “How did you know it wasn’t real? What tipped you off?”

“Lots of little things. But it was when…” I glance at Bill-E. “What did you say to Dervish when we broke you out?”

Bill-E thinks a moment. “I’m not sure. Something like, ‘Hey, neighbour, what took you so long?’ ”

“I heard you say something else, something you shouldn’t have said. That let me draw the different pieces together.”

“What did I say?” Bill-E asks.

“It’s not important,” I lie, not wanting to tell him that in my version he knew Dervish was his uncle.

“You were clever to break the illusion,” Dervish says. “Even if I’d twigged, I’m not sure I could have woken up. A spell like that will normally divert you down another path when you start to suspect something, lead you into the middle of another dream.”

“Maybe it has,” I laugh edgily. “Maybe this isn’t real and we’re still lying on a floor somewhere, asleep.”

Dervish grunts dismissively. “I’m not that gullible. This is the real world. We’re awake. I’m sure of it.” But he looks around nervously all the same. Then his gaze settles on me again. “If we come through this, you and I need to have a talk.”

“What about?”

“Magic. You’re doing things you shouldn’t be able to. I want to know how.”

“No big mystery,” I shrug. “I’m just drawing magic out of the air, putting it to good use, like when we fought Artery and Vein.”

“Hmm,” Dervish says, unconvinced. He licks his lips and focuses. We’re almost at the back door. I can hear voices outside. But they’re human voices and they fade quickly—people walking past.

“What now?” Bill-E asks. “Do we try driving out of town again?

“No,” Dervish says. “We have to alert the others. Tell people what they’re up against. They might not believe us, so we’ll have to be firm. Get them out of here, even if we have to force them. Fight if necessary—and I expect it will be. If we’re lucky, we’ll only have to worry about Chuda and his human accomplices.”

“And if we’re unlucky?” I murmur.

“Let’s not think about that,” he says, then opens the door and walks out to face whatever hell awaits.

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