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Chapter 21. THE CARRIAGE HELD...

I try opening a window to Beranabus, then Bill-E, but enjoy no luck. It's too difficult on this world. The lights are few and scattered. I need more power to piece them together. I need the magic of the demon universe.

We cross to a realm we know is safe, where we've based ourselves in the past. Grubbs brings his pack of werewolves along ("For fun," he grins bleakly) but we leave the soldiers behind. I choose a place where time operates like it does on Earth. That way we should be back to face the next assault. Assuming we survive our brush with Death. Which is a pretty big assumption.

As the others prepare for battle, I use the lights to pinpoint the position of our enemies. I still can't get a fix on Death, even though I now know its identity. But I find Lord Loss and Juni Swan easily enough. They're on a world I've never been to, surrounded by thousands... no, millions of demons. The thought of entering the midst of such an army is terrifying.

I think of telling the others, but what's the point? We have to do this. Bec, Dervish, and Grubbs for personal reasons, me because I believe-hope-Beranabus can reveal something about Death which will give us the power to defeat it. If all goes well, we won't have to face the demons, just their shadowy master. If it goes poorly...

Best not to dwell on that.

I turn my thoughts away from demons. Breathing calmly, I focus on Beranabus. Lights begin to pulse, but there aren't many of them and I have a tough time piecing them together. Normally lights flock to me when I summon them but these patches resist. I have to focus harder than I've ever had to, and even then they only drift towards me sluggishly, reluctantly.

Gritting my teeth, I bully the patches into place, slotting them together as if they were pieces of a crudely carved jigsaw puzzle. I'm aware of time ticking, the others growing impatient, especially the werewolves, who howl and hammer the ground with their fists, eager for action.

I push the distractions from my mind and focus on the lights. Normally I can multitask, chat with others while I'm working on a window. Not now. This will take everything I have. I'm doing something no one has ever done before, breaching the barriers of life itself.

Eventually, after hours of fierce concentration, when I'm starting to think it's impossible, a small window opens. It's an unimpressive, jagged panel of brown light, and it flickers alarmingly at the edges. But I don't care. It shouldn't by rights be open at all, so I'm more proud of it than any window I've ever created.

"Come on," I shout, reacting quickly to push the outermost lights back in place before they can buckle. "This will only hold for a few seconds."

"Where does it-" Grubbs starts to ask.

"No time!" I yell. "We have to go now or not at all."

"Then let's go," Grubbs grunts and dives blindly through the window.

The werewolves rush after him. When the last of the sixteen has vanished, a nervous Meera crosses, followed by Bec. Kirilli steps forward but hesitates.

"I really don't want to do this," he mutters.

"Too bad!" Dervish laughs and pushes the startled stage magician through.

"Hurry," I gasp, feeling the window start to disintegrate.

Dervish ducks past my whirring arms. As soon as he's out of sight, I throw myself after him. I sense the window collapse as I sail through. Whatever happens next, whatever dire mess we wind up in, there's no quick way out. We're in this to the end, whether we like it or not.

I find myself in a realm of shadows, dark and swirling. The shadows whip at me and then flit away as if blown by a strong wind. But there's no wind here, just the ever-circling shades of the dead.

I was expecting cries and moans of torment, but it's silent. That surprises me. At the least I should be able to hear the howls of the werewolves. But when I open my mouth to call for the others-I can't see any of them-I realize why it's so quiet. Sounds don't carry. Though I shout at the top of my voice, nothing emerges.

I hunker down, fighting the dark wisps which threaten to bowl me over and sweep me away. There's no floor, just banks of shadows all around. I'm not floating. It's more like being stuck in a pool of mud.

I try to create a ball of light but nothing happens. There's magic here, waves of energy washing between the shadowy souls and binding them, but it's a different type of magic and I'm unable to channel it.

As I try again, something solid strikes my left shoulder. Cringing away from my assailant, I peer through the streams of shadows masking my eyes. I spy a bulky shape bearing down on me. Impossible to tell if it's friend or foe. I back up, desperately scouring the space around me for a trace of magic I can use. Then a pair of huge hands grasps my arms and tugs me to a halt. A face thrusts up next to mine. It's a fearsome, demonic face, and my first instinct is to lash out. But as a veil of shadows whisks away from over the creature's eyes, I realize it's Grubbs.

He says something. I shake my head and mouth back the words, "I can't hear."

Grubbs narrows his eyes. Nothing happens for a few seconds. Then I hear his voice inside my head. "-me now? Can you hear me now? Can you-"

"Yes," I stop him, replying silently, thinking the words instead of voicing them.

"Are you able to channel the magic?" he asks.


He tuts, then grins. "I couldn't either. Nobody could. But Bec adapted swiftly and showed the rest of us. Come on."

He leads me through the shadows, half-staggering, half-swimming. The others aren't far away-they're grouped together, Bec at the center, the rest huddled round her, lit dimly by flickering balls of light which she has generated. They all look scared, especially Kirilli. Even the werewolves are subdued, whining silently and glancing around uneasily.

Once I'm in physical contact with the group, Bec speaks. "We haven't much time. Death isn't aware of us yet but it will discover us soon. You have to find Beranabus and Bill-E as quickly as possible."

I realize she's talking to me. "How can I find them?" I protest. "I opened the window and brought us here. What more can I do?"

"You're the eyes of the Kah-Gash," she snaps. "You see more than any of us. To me there's no difference in the shadows. They all look the same. But I'm sure you can see more."

"Well, I can't," I snarl, hating the way she's heaping the pressure onto me.

A wave of energy floods through me, opening doors within my brain, clearing passageways. Suddenly I find myself absorbing and converting the magic of Death. I fill with power and breathe out easily, smiling at the buzz of it.

"How did you do that?" I ask, relaxed and cool.

"I used my gift," Bec says. "Now use yours and look."

Still smiling, I cast my gaze around and see that Bec was right. Now that I've tapped into the magic, the shadows have taken on a new consistency. There are thousands of individual shards and shapes whirling around us, no two alike. I can't believe I didn't see them before. Each has its own shade, form, and way of moving. They're all a grey-black color, but there are more variants of grey and black than I would have dreamed possible.

My first thought is, "So this is what souls look like." But that's not right. This is only what they look like here. Death has taken these unfortunates and molded them into what it wanted them to be.

As I study the souls, I extend my thoughts, focusing on individuals, trying to communicate. Nothing happens for a while. Then, all of a sudden, I'm struck by a burst of voices, screams and yowls, tormented cries for help and release. Wincing, I shut out the noises. After a brief pause, I open myself to the voices again but put filters in place, blocking out the worst of the background noise.

"Who are you?" I ask a nearby shadow as it floats past.

"Free me!" it screams.

"Who are you?" I shout again, but it only repeats its plea. Others that I focus on are the same, impossible to question, wailing for freedom.

I turn to tell the others but I don't need to. Bec has been in touch with me the whole time and has broadcast the short snippets to the rest. They look distraught. The suffering of these souls is awful. In life, no matter how bad things get, at least you have the release of death to look forward to, the belief that no matter what lies beyond, nothing can be as bad as this.

But these people have shuffled off their mortal coils, only to find themselves ensnared by the force they were relying on to set them free. Every soul here knows it wasn't meant for this hellish realm. Having escaped the confines of natural life, they've found themselves caught in an unnatural web and it's driven them insane.

"We have to get out of here!" Kirilli shrieks. "We can't help them!"

"Bran won't have given in to madness," Bec insists. "Find him, Kernel. He won't have surrendered. Not Bran."

I don't have her faith in the ancient magician but I search anyway. Using the magic of Death, I send a radar-like cry out in all directions, calling for Beranabus, trying to locate his position. Once I've sent the signal, I wait for it to echo back. If he's still conscious, he'll respond. But if he's like the others... if he's lost his senses and forgotten his name... become just a swirling shadow with no idea of self...

"Bill-E," Grubbs snarls as we wait. "Look for Bill-E too."

"I will," I tell him, "but give me time. Beranabus first. If we-"

I stop, jaw dropping. Because an answering burst of energy has echoed back to me from a point far away.

"Was that Bran?" Bec hisses.

"I think so," I say hesitantly. "But it was very weak. I guess there's only one way to find out." I look around to make sure everyone's ready, then start forward, wading through the sluggish swirls of shadows, repeating the signal, zoning in on the area where the soul of Beranabus seems to be signaling back.

We reach the place where the response came from. I don't see anything different at first. It looks like any other part of this wretched no man's land. The souls cluster and swirl around us. I call Beranabus's name but there's no reply. I study the river of souls but it's impossible to say who they might have belonged to in life. Maybe the reply was a fluke, or I only heard-

"That was always your problem," a voice snaps inside my head. "You take too many things into consideration."

"Bran!" Bec cries, head whipping from side to side, searching the gloom for her childhood friend.

"I'm here," Beranabus says, and I trace the voice to a shadow circling overhead, no more remarkable than any other.

"Where is he?" Bec shouts. "I can't see him."

"Relax, Little One," Beranabus hushes her. "Kernel's the only one who can see me. You'll have to be content with my voice. Not that it's a bad voice. I've roared down demon masters in my time."

I burst out laughing. This is the most incredible thing ever. I never thought I'd be in direct contact with my old mentor again. But before I can tell him how sorry I am that he was killed, Grubbs shouts at the dead magician.

"Is Bill-E here?" he cries.

"Aye," Beranabus rumbles.

"Where? Let me talk with him. Bill-E!" Grubbs swivels wildly, shouting his dead brother's name.

"Were you always this stupid or is it a result of your recent metamorphosis?" Beranabus snaps. "I was thousands of years old when I died, more powerful than any human in history. Yet it took everything I had to hold my thoughts together and not become one of the wailing cretins this place is stuffed with. Do you really think your young brother fought off the madness that all the others succumbed to?"

Grubbs draws to a stop and turns to face me, his eyes cold with hatred. "Show me where that vile old buzzard is. I'll kill him again."

Beranabus laughs cruelly. "Control yourself. I never put things politely when I was alive, so I'm hardly going to start now that I'm dead! Your brother's here, he's lost his mind and is suffering, and unless you free us all, he'll remain trapped indefinitely."

"Then we can free you?" Bec shouts hopefully.

"I think so," Beranabus mutters. "That's not why I told you to ask Kernel to find me, but it will certainly be a bonus. I can't hold my mind together much longer. The effort..." In those few words I get the sense of how close Beranabus is to snapping. Despite his brave front, he's terrified.

"Before we try that," Beranabus says more brightly, "I want to know everything that's happened since I died. Bec-open your thoughts to me."

The shadow of Beranabus's soul darts closer to Bec and hovers over the girl's head. A tendril gently touches her forehead. She closes her eyes and smiles. I get the impression of memories being transferred, like data being uploaded from one computer to another. Then Beranabus sighs.

"I'd gathered some of that already-you can learn a lot here if you keep your eyes and ears open, metaphorically speaking-but there's much more to consider now. I don't think..."

He falls silent. Bec's eyes half open, then close again. She nods softly and I realize he's speaking privately to her.

Grubbs steps up beside me. "Can you find Bill-E?" he asks.

"Even if I could, would you want to speak to him like this?" I answer quietly. "Wouldn't it be better to just free him?"

"But I never said a proper goodbye. There are so many things-"

"Kernel's right," Dervish says, laying a trembling hand on Grubbs's shoulder. "Better to remember Billy as he was. If we can set his soul loose, that will be enough."

Grubbs nods reluctantly, then squints at Bec. "What's going on between those two? Why the secrecy?"

"I was wondering the same thing," I whisper.

"Such suspicious minds," Beranabus barks. "You'll need to trust each other if you're to defeat Death and save the universe. Haven't you heard of teamwork?"

"You think we can beat it?" I ask eagerly.

"Not a hope in hell," Beranabus chuckles. "But you have to try, don't you?"

Bec's eyes are open. She looks troubled. I don't know what Beranabus shared with her, but I'm reminded of Raz's warning. I have a bad feeling. Suddenly I wish I hadn't insisted on this mission, that I'd left Beranabus alone. I thought he could teach us how to vanquish our foes, but all he's done is predict doom and tell Bec something that's set her mind awhirl. But awhirl with what? Deceit?

Before I can press the issue, a cluster of shadows to my left bunches together, throbs, then rises high above us like a cobra's head.

"Ah," Beranabus sighs. "The behemoth awakes."

"It's alive!" Kirilli shrieks as the shadowy growth studies us ominously.

"This would be a good time to split," Meera mutters.

The pillar of shadows smashes down on us before anyone can volunteer a plan. We're thrown apart, yelling with panic. The werewolves howl and lurch at the massed head of shadows, but it bats them aside with ease and rises above us again. As it does, more shadows converge around us. Death might have taken a while to note our presence, but it's moving swiftly to turn its imprisoned souls against us.

"Bec!" I roar, dodging another of the Shadow's blows. "How do we get out?"

Beranabus answers mockingly. "Can't you open a window, Kernel? That was always your specialty."

"No time!" I yell. "Bec?"

"The Kah-Gash," she says shakily, reaching towards me. A twisting fist of shadows slams into her right arm, snapping it at the elbow. She screams as her hand goes limp, then grits her teeth and unleashes a burst of energy at the fist. The shadows shatter beneath the force of the blow. Bec clutches me with her left hand. "Grubbs!" she yells.

He's already making his way towards us, lips moving silently as he speaks to his piece of the Kah-Gash. A sword of shadows slices across his back, drawing blood, but he just grunts and pushes on.

Kirilli's bouncing about like a Mexican jumping bean, dodging the spines and hammers that are forming and striking at us, yelping with each narrow escape, the rags of his tattered suit flapping up and down to comical effect.

"That's the way." Beranabus laughs at the petrified stage magician. "Dance, fool, dance!" He cackles madly. I think he's closer to insanity than he realizes.

Grubbs reaches us and lays a powerful paw on my neck, the other on Bec's. I immediately feel the Kah-Gash flare into life. There's not as much power as before, because we're surrounded by Death, unable to draw energy from the stars. But I still feel about ten times more powerful than normal.

As a hammer of shadows crashes upon us, Grubbs roars and it disintegrates. He releases Bec and me but the link remains. With his hands, he claws at the shadows around us, ripping dark holes through the fog of souls. Bec and I follow his lead, using magic to split shadows and blast through thicker banks of them. The others join in-except Kirilli, who's still leaping about-and we attack the formations that Death has sent against us.

"This way," Beranabus calls, shooting ahead. I don't know how anyone could find their bearings here, but I have to trust him. It's not like we have much choice.

We struggle after the fleeing shadow. I'm following Beranabus, the others are trailing me. Kirilli is the only one who doesn't come. He hasn't looked around. I call his name a few times but he doesn't respond. In the end I curse and leave him. I feel bad, abandoning the Disciple, but you can't save everyone. Some of the werewolves have already been killed. The power of the Kah-Gash is fading, having no outside source to draw from. If I went back for Kirilli, I'd waste energy and time, and that would prove the death of us all.

A noise grows as we push on. It's a hissing sound, the spitting of a million furious snakes. Death is venting its rage. I've heard all sorts of shrieks and cries during my years in the demon universe. Nothing sent a shiver down my spine as much as this.

A spear of shadows strikes Grubbs just above his heart and shoots out the other side. With a roar of pain he falls to his knees but is up again instantly. His fangs lengthen and as another spear arcs towards him, he snatches it between his oversized teeth and grinds it to pieces, then spits them out.

A shadowy scythe splits the flesh of Meera's lower back. She staggers, finds her feet, then is struck by a thick club. She falls unconscious, but Dervish is there to grab her and haul her forwards. His face is flushed, his limbs are trembling, his heart must be pounding fit to burst, but he carries on. I don't know if it's for Meera's sake or his own, but he doesn't quit, even though it would be easier for him to lie down and die.

I've been hammered all over and I'm bleeding from a variety of cuts, like the others, but Bec's hardly been touched. She's the strongest of us in this place of death. Grubbs might be the trigger, but Bec is pulling the strings at the moment, directing the energy of the Kah-Gash, using it to keep the lights going, protect herself from the blows of the Shadow, and help the rest of us as best she can. For such a small girl, she packs one hell of a lot of power.

"Here!" Beranabus calls. He's come to a halt by a thick bank of souls. "This is a wall. Focus on this spot. Quickly-you're almost out of time."

Bec unleashes a ball of energy at the wall. I do the same. Grubbs starts to, then snarls and hurls himself at it instead. He hits the bank of shadows and rips into it, roaring as he scoops dark handfuls out of his way. The surviving werewolves crowd around him and tear at the shadows too.

"Nearly there," Beranabus roars cheerfully as Dervish and Meera are knocked aside, and I narrowly avoid being speared through the center of my head.

A hole appears in the side of the Shadow. Light shines through, blinding after the gloominess of this unnatural realm. The werewolves howl gleefully and double their efforts. The hole widens and I hit it with another blast of energy. Bec focuses on the area around it. Grubbs rips at the shadows like a madman. More holes and tears appear. Some of the souls drift free and disappear as they hit the air outside. Others follow, streaming after the first few. The holes widen, then the fabric around them crumbles away. The hissing reaches its peak, only now it's a scream of pain. Souls dart from their prison, sensing escape, surging towards the exit from all parts of Death's makeshift body.

Beranabus yodels enthusiastically, fighting the flow, holding his position. "Not bad," he chuckles approvingly.

"Is that it?" I cry, hardly daring to believe it could be this simple. "Have we killed Death?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Beranabus snorts. "Death can't die."

"But conscious Death... the Shadow... have we destroyed it?" I yell.

"No," Beranabus says sadly, sounding more like his old self. "You've delayed matters, that's all. It will have to find new souls and create another body. That will take weeks, maybe a month or two. Then it will be back, stronger than ever. Having learned from this setback, it will be more vigilant. You won't pierce its defenses so easily again."

"Then how will we beat it?" I shriek. "How will we win?"

"You won't," Beranabus whispers. Then he's gone, whipped free of his prison, cheering wildly, to depart the universe of the living once and for all, bound for whatever lies beyond. Bec yells a frantic farewell but I don't think he hears. He doesn't care about life now or those who inhabit it. He's done.

As I stare at the souls flying past, shocked by Beranabus's parting prophecy, Death's brittle shell dissolves and I fall through the layers of shadow onto hard, dry land-and drop into the middle of an army of millions of demons.

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