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Chapter 23 ALL AT SEA

Arms squeeze my stomach and I vomit. My eyes flutter open and I groan. My head's hanging over the edge of the lifeboat, bits of my last meal bobbing up and down in the water beneath me. I know from the memories flooding into me that Dervish is doing the squeezing.

"It's OK," I groan as he tenses his arms to try again. "I'm alive."

Dervish gently tugs me back over the side. There's water in the bottom. Kirilli is bailing it out with his hands. But we're afloat and the lifeboat doesn't look like it sustained any major damage.

"We thought we'd lost you," Dervish says, smiling with relief. "Kirilli fished you out, but you were motionless..." He clears his throat and brushes wet hair back from my eyes. The tenderness in his expression warms me more than the sun.

"Have I been unconscious long?" I ask.

"No."

"The ship...?"

"Still there."

Dervish helps me sit up and we gaze at the sinking vessel. It's listing sharply. It can't last much longer. We're quite far away from it, but if I squint I can make out the shapes of zombies throwing themselves through the hole in pursuit of us. They don't last long once they hit the water.

Kirilli stops bailing and studies the ship with us. We don't say a word. It's a weird sensation, watching something so huge and majestic sink out of sight. It's as if the ship is a living creature that's dying. I feel strangely sad for it.

"All those people," Dervish sighs as the last section slips beneath the waves in a froth of angry bubbles. "I wish we could have saved them."

"Beranabus," I whisper, fresh tears welling in my eyes. "Sharmila. Kernel."

"A costly day's work," Dervish says bitterly. "And we didn't even destroy the Shadow. It'll come after us again. We've lost our leader and two of the strongest Disciples. If Lord Loss was telling the truth, Grubbs is probably dead too. Hardly counts as a victory, does it?"

He doesn't know how true that is. I start to tell him what I learnt about the Shadow, but Kirilli interrupts.

"When I left you in the hold," he says shiftily, "I hope you didn't think I was running off. I just wanted to make sure the stairs and corridors were clear, so we could make a quick getaway together."

"Of course," Dervish murmurs. "It never crossed our thoughts that you might have lost your nerve and fled like a cowardly rat, leaving the rest of us in the lurch. You're a hero, Kirilli."

Dervish claps sarcastically and Kirilli looks aside miserably. I put my hands over Dervish's and stop him. "Don't," I croak. "He helped us in the end. We couldn't have escaped without him."

"I suppose," Dervish mutters.

Kirilli looks up hopefully. "You mean that?"

"We'd never have shifted this boat ourselves," I assure him. "We needed your magic. If you'd fought in the hold and used up your power, we'd have all died."

"Then it worked out for the best," Kirilli beams. "I did the right thing running. I thought so. When I was down there, sizing up the situation, I-"

"Don't push your luck," Dervish growls. Then he narrows his eyes and studies Kirilli closely. "Are those bite marks?"

"Yes," Kirilli says pitifully. He stares at the stumps where his fingers were bitten off. He must have unwittingly used magic to stop the bleeding, scab over the flesh and numb the pain. He'll be screeching like a banshee once the spell fades.

"Those beasts bit and clawed me all over," Kirilli says sulkily, ripping a strip off a sleeve to wrap around the stumps. "I'm lucky they didn't puncture any vital veins or arteries. If I hadn't fought so valiantly, they'd have eaten me alive."

"Such a shame," Dervish purrs, shaking his head.

"What?" Kirilli frowns.

"You've seen a few zombie films in your time, haven't you."

"One or two," Kirilli sniffs. "I don't like horror films. Why?"

"You must know, then, that their saliva is infectious. When a zombie bites one of the living, that person succumbs to the disease and turns-"

"No!" Kirilli cries, dropping the strip of shirt and lurching to his feet. "You're joking! You must be!"

Dervish shrugs. "I'm only telling you what I've seen in the movies. It might all be nonsense, but when you think about it logically..."

As Kirilli's face crumples, Dervish winks at me. I stifle a smile. This isn't nice, but Kirilli deserves it. Not for being a coward, but for trying to lie. A good scare will do him no harm at all.

We drift for hours. The sun descends. Night claims the sky. After letting Kirilli fret for an hour, Dervish finally told him it was a wind-up. Kirilli cursed us foully and imaginatively. But he calmed down after a while and we've been silent since, bobbing about, absorbing the refreshing rays of the sun, thinking about the dead.

It all seems hopeless without Beranabus, especially knowing what I do about the Shadow. Mankind has reached breaking point and I can't see any way forward. I doubt if even Beranabus could have made a difference. There are some things you can't fight. Certain outcomes are inevitable.

Kirilli has spent the last few minutes examining the lifeboat, scouring it from bow to stern. He returns to his seat with a bottle of water and a small medical box. "Good news and bad," he says, opening the box and looking for ointment to use on his wounds. The healing spell must have passed because he's grimacing. "The good news-both oars are on board, there are six bottles of water and this medical box. The bad news-there's no radio equipment or food, and once we drink the water we can't replace it."

"Do you know if the crew of the ship sent a distress signal?" Dervish asks.

"No idea. Even if they did, would it have penetrated the magical barrier?"

"Probably not," Dervish sighs. "Can I have some water?"

Kirilli takes a swig, then passes it across. "Not too much," he warns. "That has to last."

Dervish chuckles drily. "It'll probably last longer than me. My heart could pop any minute."

"Let me check." I place my hand on his chest and concentrate. I can sense the erratic beat of his heart. He's in very poor condition. He needs hospitalisation or magic. If we could cross to the universe of the Demonata, we'd be fine.

I try absorbing power from the air, to open a window, but there's virtually nothing to tap into and I'm in a sorry state. The moon will lend me strength when it rises, but it won't be enough.

"Were you trying to open a window?" Dervish asks softly.

"Yes."

"No joy?"

"I'll be able to later, when I'm stronger," I lie. But Dervish sees through me.

"No tears," he croaks as I start to cry. "Don't waste the moisture."

"It's OK," Kirilli says, trying to cheer me up. "Even if there was no distress signal, the ship's absence will be noted. The seas are monitored by computers and satellites. Most passengers had mobile phones and were in regular contact with family and work colleagues. They'll be missed. I bet there'll be an army of planes, helicopters and ships out here by dawn."

"What if we've drifted so far they can't find us?" Dervish asks.

"We can do without the pessimism, thank you," Kirilli protests.

Dervish laughs, then his expression mellows. "Listen," he says earnestly, "if I do croak and help doesn't come, I want you to use my remains. Understand?"

"I'm not sure I do," I frown.

"There's not much meat on these bones, but it'll keep you going for-"

"No!" I shout. "Don't be obscene."

"I'm being practical," he says. "I'm letting you know I won't object if-"

"There'll be no cannibalism on this boat," I growl. "Right, Kirilli?"

"He has a point," Kirilli mutters. "He wouldn't just be a food source-humans are seventy per cent water. And we could use his skin for shelter. His bones might come in handy too, if we have to fight off sharks or-"

"Nobody's eating anybody!" I yell, then burst into tears.

"OK," Dervish soothes me. "I was only trying to help. Don't worry. If you don't want to eat me, I won't force you." He pulls a crooked expression. "Does that sound as crazy as I think?"

I laugh through my tears. "You idiot! Besides," I add, wiping my cheeks clean, "it doesn't matter whether we live or die. It might even be better if we perish on this boat. I'm not sure I want to go back."

"What are you talking about?" Dervish frowns.

I take a deep breath and finally reveal what I learned on the ship. "I touched the Shadow and absorbed some of its memories. I told Beranabus. That's why he gambled so recklessly and sacrificed himself. He knew the Shadow couldn't be defeated, that we couldn't kill it. Sending it back to the Demonata universe for a while was the best we could hope for."

"I don't believe that," Dervish snorts. "I don't care how powerful it is. Everything can be killed."

"Not the Shadow," I disagree.

I lie back in the boat and stare at the darkening sky, listening to the waves lap against the sides of the boat. It's peaceful. I wouldn't mind if I fell asleep now and never awoke.

"The Shadow's not a demon," I explain quietly, and Dervish and Kirilli have to lean in close to hear. "It's a force that somehow acquired consciousness. I don't know how, but it has."

"A force?" Dervish scowls.

"Like gravity," I explain. "Imagine if gravity developed a mind, created a body and became an actual entity-Gravity with a capital G, intelligent like us, able to think and plan."

"That's impossible," Dervish says. "Gravity's like the wind or sunlight. It can't develop consciousness."

"But imagine it could," I push. "You've seen the true nature of the universes. You know magic exists, that just about anything is possible. Imagine."

Dervish takes a moment to adjust his thinking. "OK," he says heavily. "It's a struggle, but I'm running with it. Gravity has a mind. It's given itself a body. And it's coming after humanity. Is that what you're telling me?"

"Almost," I smile weakly. "But it's not gravity. It's an altogether different force. More sinister. Inescapable. Every living being's final companion."

"Don't tease us with riddles," Dervish snaps. "Just spit it out."

"I think I already know," Kirilli says softly. "The greatest stage magician ever was Harry Houdini. He was a master escapologist. He could cheat any trap known to man. But there was one thing he couldn't escape, no matter how hard he tried, and it caught him eventually-the Grim Reaper."

"Aye."

I sigh as Dervish stares at me with growing understanding and horror, then close my eyes and cross my hands over my chest. I think about Beranabus, Sharmila, Kernel. Dervish's weak heart. The trap Lord Loss set for Grubbs. What will happen to Kirilli and me if help doesn't arrive in time.

Dead ends everywhere. The dead coming back to life on the ship. Juni and me returning to life from beyond the grave. The Shadow's promise to the Demonata, that they'll live forever once the war with humanity is over.

"The Shadow is ancient beyond understanding," I whisper. "It's as old as life. It doesn't have an actual name. It never needed one. But we've given it a title. The demons have too. It's the darkness when a light is quenched, the silence when a sound fades. It takes the final breath from the smallest insect and the mightiest king. It knows us all, stalks us all, and in the end claims us all.

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