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Chapter 22 THE ONLY WAY


Stunned, I stare at the spot where Kernel and the window were. I'm not sure what happened. Where did the explosion of light come from? Are those the remains of Kernel and the zombie, or just one of them? Did Kernel slip through the window before it closed or did he perish here, the window blinking out of existence along with its creator?

"Is he dead?" Dervish roars, smashing the nose of a zombie which was about to sink its teeth into my skull.

"I don't know."

"Sharmila?"

She shakes her head uncertainly.

Dervish doesn't bother to ask Kirilli. He glances around, desperation lending a wild look to his already strained features. "The lifeboats," he mutters. "We have to get away from here or we'll be sucked under."

"But-" I begin.

"No time," he barks, staggering towards the nearest lifeboat. "Come on. Don't stand there gawping."

Kirilli moans and stumbles after Dervish, picking up Sharmila without having to be told. She punches weakly at a couple of zombies, not much strength left. We're all firing on our final cylinders. Only the promise of escape keeps us going. But I've thought of something Dervish hasn't. Escape will be more complicated than he thinks.

Dervish is working on a lifeboat when I reach him. He doesn't have the magic to release it, so he's having to manually lower it over the side. Kirilli is helping.

"We had a safety drill a few days ago," Kirilli boasts. "Leave it to me. I know what to do. If we pull this lever here..."

"That's where the oar goes," Dervish growls, pushing Kirilli aside.

The lifeboat slides towards the edge of the ship, but comes to a sudden halt just above the rails. "It's stuck," Dervish grunts, pushing at it, looking for something-anything-else to pull.

"No," I sigh, keeping an eye on several zombies heading our way. "It's the barrier. The ship's still encased in a bubble of magic."

"Nonsense," Dervish snorts. "That's gone. My heart wouldn't be hammering like a pneumatic drill if-"

"The barrier's still there," I stop him. "I don't know how, but it is." I point at the nearest zombie, a woman a long way ahead of the others. "Kirilli, grab her and throw her overboard."

"With pleasure," Kirilli says-the zombie is much smaller than him. He runs across, picks her up and chucks her over the rail. She bounces off an invisible wall and lands on top of Kirilli. As she chews his left forearm he squeals and wriggles free. He kicks her hard, then glares at me. "You knew that was going to happen!"

I ignore the irate conjuror and lock gazes with Dervish. The fight has sapped his strength. He looks like an old man ready for death.

"The barrier might crumble before the ship sinks," Sharmila suggests, more out of wretched hope than any real conviction.

"It's as strong as when we arrived," I disagree. "We could have maybe swum out through the hole in the bottom-the barrier must be breached there, since the water's coming in-but we can't get back to the hold to try."

"The zombies!" Dervish cries, coming alive again. "We can use them to punch a hole through the barrier. I did that in Slawter, exploded a demon against the wall of energy. It worked there-it can work here."

"I'm not sure," I mutter, but Dervish has already set his sights on a zombie. Finding extra power from somewhere, he sends the dead person flying against the invisible barrier and holds it there with magic.

"Sharmila," he grunts. "Blast it!"

The old Indian lady tries to focus, but she's too exhausted.

"Leave this to me," Kirilli says, preening himself like an action movie hero. He slides a playing card out from underneath his torn, chewed sleeve, takes careful aim and fires it at the zombie. When it strikes he shouts, "Abracadabra!" and the card and zombie explode. "There," Kirilli smirks. "I'm not as useless as you thought, am I?"

"Nobody could be," Dervish murmurs, but the humour is forced. The explosion hasn't dented the barrier. It holds as firmly as before.

"They're not powerful enough," I note sadly, felling another zombie as it attacks. "The magic they're working off isn't the same as ours. They're puppets of the Shadow, not real creatures of magic. We could butcher a thousand against the barrier, but it won't work any better than exploding normal humans."

"That's why Juni sent the demons back to their own universe," Dervish groans. "So we couldn't use them if we got away from the Shadow."

"Lord Loss isn't a fool," I smile sadly. "He learns from his mistakes."

"We're finished," Dervish says miserably.

"Aye," I sigh, unconsciously mimicking Beranabus. "All that's left to determine is whether the zombies eat us or if we drown in the deep blue sea."

I stare at the ranks of living dead shuffling towards us. The Shadow's magic is dwindling. Many of the zombies have fallen and lie twitching or still, returned to the lifeless state from which the Shadow roused them. But a lot remain active, clambering up from the lower levels, massing and advancing, hunched over against the sharp, angled incline of the deck. If the ship doesn't sink within the next few minutes, they'll overwhelm us.

"I don't want to drown," Kirilli says softly "I've always been afraid of that. I'd rather be eaten." He tugs at the tattered threads of his jacket, trying to make himself presentable. Facing the oncoming hordes, he takes a deep breath and starts towards them.

"Wait," Sharmila stops him. She's smiling faintly. "Disciples never quit. Zahava must have taught you that. We carry on even when all seems lost. When dealing with matters magical, there is always hope."

"She's right," I tell him. "If Kernel's alive, he might open another window and rescue us. Or I could be wrong about the barrier. Maybe it will vanish before the ship sinks and we can clamber overboard."

"What are the odds?" Kirilli asks.

"Slim," I admit. "But you don't want to surrender to the zombies, only to spot the rest of us slipping free at the last second, do you?"

Kirilli squints at me, struggling to decide.

"Actually I was not planning on a miracle," Sharmila says. "We have the power to save ourselves. We do not need to rely on divine intervention."

"What are you talking about?" Dervish frowns.

"There is a way out," Sharmila says. "We can blow a hole in the barrier."

"You've sensed a demon?" I cry, doing a quick sweep of the ship, but finding nothing except ourselves and the zombies.

"No," Sharmila says. "We do not need demons." She looks peaceful, much younger than her years. "We are beings of magic."

Dervish's expression goes flat. So does mine. We understand what she's saying. As one, our heads turn and we stare at Kirilli.

"What?" he growls suspiciously.

"No," Sharmila chuckles. "I was not thinking of poor Kirilli. I doubt he would volunteer and we are not, I hope, prepared to turn on one of our own and murder him like a pack of savages."

"We'll draw lots," Dervish says quickly. "Kirilli too, whether he likes it or not."

"Draw lots for what?" Kirilli shouts, still clueless.

"There will be no lottery," Sharmila says firmly. "Bec is too young and Kirilli is not willing."

"Fine," Dervish huffs. "That leaves me and you. Fifty-fifty."

"No," Sharmila says. "You must be a father to Bec. She has lost Beranabus. She cannot afford to lose you too."

"Wait a minute..." Dervish huffs.

"Please," Sharmila sighs. "I have no legs. I am the oldest. I have no dependants. And I am now too weak to be of any use-I do not think I could find the power to kill you even if you talked me into letting you take my place."

Dervish gulps and looks to me for help. He wants to persuade her not to do this, to let him be the one who goes out in a blaze of glory.

"Everything she says makes sense," I mumble, practical as always.

"Quickly," Sharmila snaps. "There is almost no magic left. It might be too late already. If you do not act now, it will fade entirely and we will all be lost."

"You're a stubborn old cow, aren't you?" Dervish scowls.

"When I have to be," she smiles.

Dervish checks with me and I nod sadly. We move side by side and link hands. Focusing, we unite our meagre scraps of magic. I wave a hand at Sharmila and she slides across the deck, coming to a stop next to the invisible barrier. She sits up and wipes blood from her cheeks. She smiles at us one last time, then serenely closes her eyes and places her hands together. Her lips move softly in prayer.

Dervish howls, partly to direct our magic, partly out of horror. I howl too. Blue light flashes from our fingertips and strikes Sharmila in the chest. The light drills into her head, snapping it back. For a moment her form holds and I fear our power won't be strong enough.

Then the light crackles and a split second later Sharmila explodes. Her bones, guts, flesh and blood splatter the barrier behind her, while the unleashed energy hammers through the shield, creating a porthole to freedom.

We're both shaken and crying, but we have to act swiftly or Sharmila will have died for nothing. We try nudging the lifeboat over to the hole in the barrier but the restraints won't let it be moved in that direction. Weary beyond belief, I yell for Kirilli to join us. When we link hands, I draw on his energy-he hasn't used as much as we have, so he has a fair supply in reserve. I snap the ropes and chains holding the lifeboat in place. Guided by us, it glides through the air, centimetres above the deck. We shuffle along after it.

When the boat is level with the gap, I edge forward, dragging the others with me, refusing to focus on the gory remains of Sharmila which decorate the rim of the hole. I glance over the rails. We're high up in the air. The water's a long way down. Two options. We can let the boat drop and try to scale down to it. Or...

"Climb in," I grunt.

"Will it fit?" Kirilli asks, studying the lifeboat, then the hole, trying to make accurate measurements of both. Typical man!

"Just get in, you fool!" I shout. "That hole could snap shut in a second."

Kirilli scrambles in. When the contact breaks, the lifeboat drops and lands on the deck with a clang. I push Dervish ahead of me, then crawl in after him. The zombies are almost upon us, mewling with hunger.

I grab Kirilli's left hand and Dervish's right. Focusing the last vestiges of our pooled magic, I yell at the lifeboat and send it shooting ahead.

It catches in the hole, jolts forward a few centimetres under pressure from me, then stalls. It's too wide. We're stuck. Worse-it's plugged the hole, so we can't try jumping to safety. What a useless, stupid way to-

The lifeboat pops free with a sharp, creaking noise. We shoot clear of the hole, the barrier and the ship, gathering momentum. We sail through the air like some kind of crazily designed bird. We're whooping and cheering.

Then, before any of us realises the danger of our situation, we hit the sea hard. The boat flips over. I bang my head on the side. My mouth fills as I spill into the sea. I try to spit the water out, but I haven't the energy. As I sink slowly, I raise my eyes and steal one last look at the sky through the liquid layers above me. Then the world turns black.

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