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Chapter 3. LYING LOW

I can't tell the others about the lights, the whispers, or my suspicion that we are being used. I want to, but whenever I try to share my fears, my lips seize up. I'm unable to speak, or else everyday babble spills out and we end up talking about something else. I've tried writing, scribbling a warning in the sand of the oasis, but my fingers clench and turn against me.

When we first stepped through the window, I thought I might have imagined the whispers or the influence they're exerting over us. Now I'm sure I called it right. The lights did-do-control us. They must have planted a hidden command inside my brain that makes me clam up whenever I try to share my misgivings.

While I struggle to break through the spell, the others argue about what to do next. Beranabus wants to hunt the Shadow, pick up where we left off. Dervish is against that. He's determined to go after Juni, to settle old scores.

I stay out of the arguments for a couple of days. But when Dervish is pressing his claim for the umpteenth time, trying to sway Beranabus by saying we might be able to torture Juni to find out information about the Shadow, the small, ever-changing lights pulse and the air hums with whispers only I can hear.

"We can't go after Lord Loss directly-he's too powerful," I find myself telling Beranabus, and although I know these aren't my words, that I'm being used like a puppet, I can't stop. "But we can target Juni. Lord Loss didn't show himself at the hospital but Juni was acting on his behalf. She might have been part of the group in Carcery Vale too. If more assaults on the Disciples are planned, she'll possibly act as the go-between again, conveying Lord Loss's orders to their allies. If we can trap her, we can find out what she knows about the Shadow."

Beranabus thinks that makes sense-or the lights make him think it-so he tells me to focus on Juni, track her movements, and let him know when she slips out of Lord Loss's realm.

I want to scream and tell them we're being toyed with, but my lips gum up. I throw everything I have at the spell, to no avail. In the end I do as Beranabus bids. I retire to one of the fake trees-the oasis is dotted with trees made of bones and scraps of flesh-and sit in the shade, glumly training my thoughts on Juni Swan.

As days pass, the others recuperate. Beranabus and Bec fashioned new legs for Sharmila out of the bones and skin of the trees when we arrived, and she adapts to them smoothly. Bec has worked a lot with Dervish, drawing on her healing powers, doing what she can for his faltering heart. Neither he nor Sharmila can live on Earth again, but as long as they stay in this universe of magic they can function almost normally.

The four of them pass a lot of the time dueling, sharpening their reflexes, testing their skills. Magic is all about trial and error. Even after thousands of years, Beranabus is still discovering new aspects of himself, depending on what's thrown at him.

I'd like to join them, but I've been given a task and Beranabus doesn't take it kindly when one of his assistants disobeys a direct order. So I keep to myself, studying the lights and focusing on Juni Swan and her master.

It's difficult because of the whispers. The murmurs come regularly while I'm concentrating, not as strongly as at the hospital, but distracting nonetheless. I can't stop thinking about the spell they've woven. Is it the work of the Shadow? Unlikely-if the creature could exert such influence, it would turn us against one another.

The Kah-Gash? A weapon that can destroy universes and distort the laws of time would have no difficulty bending a few humans to its will. But the Kah-Gash would surely have wanted me, Grubbs, and Bec together, to unite so it could be reassembled.

If not the Shadow or the Kah-Gash, who can be controlling the lights? Are they self-conscious, some new life-form? Or maybe I'm imagining them. I've doubted my sanity in the past. Maybe this time I've cracked for real.

Finally, after a week of self-torment and doubt, I sense Juni opening a window and leaving Lord Loss's world.

"She's moving," I tell the others, disrupting their latest duel.

They crowd around me. "Where did she go?" Beranabus asks.

"Earth," I say after a brief pause to confirm her location.

"And Lord Loss?"

"He stayed in his own realm."

"Can you tell where exactly she is?" Dervish asks.

"No. I should be able to, but I can't place it." That worries me more than I reveal.

"Is she close to Grubbs?" Dervish presses.

I do a quick scan and shake my head.

"Well?" Sharmila asks Beranabus.

"Kernel and I will investigate," he says. "The rest of you stay here."

"Nuts to that," Dervish huffs.

"Don't forget about your heart," Beranabus says. "Or Sharmila's legs. You're a pair of wrecks on that world. Let us check the situation and report back. We won't engage her if we can avoid it."

"What about me?" Bec asks. "I can survive there."

"Aye, but I'm asking you to wait. Please. Until we know more about what we're walking into."

I'd like to know more about it too before I cross. But I've lived with Beranabus long enough to know he doesn't hold much faith in the philosophy of look-before-you-leap. Except for his edgy pursuit of the Shadow, I've never seen him act cautiously. He believes it's best to jump in the fire and deal with the flames when they're licking the soles of your feet.

Keeping silent about my fears, I slot patches of light together and open a white window. With my back to the others, I offer up a quick prayer, the kind I used to reel off when I was a fresh apprentice, before I grew hardened to the terrors of the Demonata. Then, sensing Beranabus behind me, I step forward into the unknown.

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