Chapter 8. DEMONS AND DISCIPLES
Beranabus is still working on his spells. Trying to find Cadaver and open a window which will lead us to the creature. According to Nadia there are thousands of demon worlds like this. Cadaver could be on almost any of them. "One of us needs to be," he laughs back, then squats. "As I said, the Disciples mostly act without orders from the master. He leaves us free to operate as we see fit. Occasionally, he'll assign one of us a task, perhaps to watch for signs of demonic activity in a certain area, or to come into this universe with him to fight. But mostly we follow our own path."
I'm squatting with the Disciples in a semi-circle. We can't sit down because of the water. They look tired and upset. Sharmila argued with Beranabus for a long time, insisting he send me back. She said he was irresponsible and vile. He just swore and told her not to tell him his business. He said when she'd lived as long as he had, and seen all the things he'd seen, she could lecture him -? but only then.
I study the Disciples while Beranabus works. Sharmila's the eldest, fifty or more (though I'm not very good at guessing ages). She has a painted red spot in the middle of her forehead. I should know the name for it, but I can't remember. Wrinkly skin. Dark, soft eyes. A long sari, many colours, ripped in several places and stained round the edges with blood and dirt.
Raz is fat and black. His skin's incredibly dark. If it was night, no moon and he shut his eyes, he'd be invisible. Tight, curly hair. Not overly tall. Maybe in his thirties. He wears a very fine suit. I think he's wealthy - he looks like someone who hasn't worked with his hands a lot. No shoes -? none of the Disciples wears shoes or socks.
Nadia is in her late teens or early twenties. She has short blonde hair, blue eyes and very bad skin. Lots of spots and acne scars. A hard, plain face. She wouldn't be especially pretty even if she had the clearest skin in the world. Plump, but with bony legs and arms. She wears jeans and a dark green jumper. Looks unhappy, as though she's suffered a lot.
Nadia catches me watching her and smiles. Her whole face changes. She looks a lot prettier. "Strange days, huh, Kernel Fleck?"
"I still don't understand it all," I mutter. "Actually, I don't really understand any of it."
Nadia laughs. "At least you're honest." She chews a fingernail, considering what to say. Eventually, she gestures at the elderly man on his feet. "That's Beranabus. He's a magician. There aren't many of them in the world. Lots of people can do some magic if the situation is right, but only a few are born with full magical powers."
"He is our master," Raz says, gazing at Beranabus adoringly. "He unites us, gives us direction, shows us the way."
"He is an egotistical, reckless fool!" Sharmila disagrees, snorting harshly. "He cares nothing for any person's life. He claims to be on a greater mission to save the world, but I have my doubts. I do not trust him and I advise you to be cautious also, Kernel."
"But isn't he your leader?" I ask, confused.
"Yes. But we follow him reluctantly, not out of choice." She looks at Raz and smiles. "Well, some of us do."
Raz and Sharmila start arguing about Beranabus' faults and strong points. Nadia listens for a while, then shuffles away from them and nods for me to follow.
"They're new to this," she says quietly when we're out of earshot. "Beranabus has always been a legendary figure to them. They haven't spent time around him, so they're not sure how to respond to his... peculiarities. Raz over-idolises him. Sharmila criticises. But he doesn't care what people say or think, as long as they obey his orders."
"You've been with him a long time?" I ask and she nods. "Is he your father or something?"
Nadia laughs. "No, he's just..." She pauses and chews another fingernail. "We've all been where you are now. Sharmila, Raz and I led normal lives once. We sensed we were different, not completely like other people. But we had families and friends, jobs and dreams. We were ordinary. Happy. Then, one way or another, we found out about the Demonata."
"Yes. That's their proper name - Demonata. They exist in a multi-world universe of their own. They've been around as long as mankind, maybe longer. Evil, murderous creatures, who revel in torment and slaughter. They try to cross over into our world all the time, but most are either too weak or too strong."
"Too strong?" I frown.
"You stepped through a window to get here," she explains. "Windows are the most common way of moving between universes, but they're limited in size. Larger, stronger demons can't squeeze through. There are other ways to cross - tunnels can be created - but they're rare.
"Anyway, demons are real and they like nothing better than to cross into our world and murder humans. They're usually unable to stay in our universe more than a few minutes, so they only have time to kill a handful of people. They've slaughtered hundreds of thousands over the centuries, but for the most part we've escaped pretty lightly, protected by the laws of physics."
Nadia glances at Beranabus, still working to find Cadaver. The patches of light have stopped gliding towards him, but there are lots in the air around the magician, pulsing at different speeds. As he chants spells, pieces slot together, joining in a panel forming in front of him. It's strange that only I can see the lights, but I don't comment on that in case I break Nadia's train of thought.
"Centuries ago, a few mages - people with magical talents, but not true magicians - decided to actively combat the demons," Nadia continues. "They studied the disturbances created in advance of a demon crossing to our universe. If they could predict their coming, they could stop the beasts or fight them when they entered our world. They recruited other mages, then approached Beranabus and tried - "
"Wait a minute," I interrupt. "You said this happened hundreds of years ago."
"But..." I stare at the elderly, bearded magician. He looks maybe sixty or more, but nothing like a guy in his hundreds, assuming a man could live that long - which is impossible.
"Time works differently in the Demonata's universe," Nadia says. "It can move more slowly or quickly, depending on where you are. But normally it's slower. An hour here could be a day or more on Earth. A week could be a year. You could spend three or four years here and return to a brand new century. Or spend ten years here and return to a world which has only moved on by a week.
"But humans can't survive in this universe. Even real magicians fall foul of the demon forces. Several have tried to extend their natural lifespan by coming here, but they've all been ripped to shreds by the Demonata. Except Beranabus. He's strong enough to fight the demons as an equal, to survive among them. He's a few hundred years old. At least."
Raz and Sharmila have stopped arguing. Raz moves close to his master, in case he needs help. Sharmila comes to squat by Nadia and me, and listens as Nadia continues her explanations.
"The mages who wanted to fight the Demonata contacted Beranabus. He'd been fighting demons long before they came along, but usually in this universe. He saw it as his duty to prevent the stronger demons from building tunnels and crossing over. He focused on the demon masters -? the ones who could destroy our world if they found a way across."
"Have you ever fought a demon master?" Sharmila asks Nadia.
"Not yet," she says and a troubled expression flits across her face. She falls silent and starts chewing her nails again, biting hard. Sharmila squeezes the younger woman's shoulder, then takes up the story. She has a soft but firm voice.
"The mages asked Beranabus to teach them his ways. They wanted to study his methods, so they could fight the stronger demons too. He told them he was not interested in being their teacher. But they were persistent. Dogged him. Begged to become his students, to learn, to help.
"Finally, because he was tired of being bothered, or because he thought they might serve some good, he agreed.
"He let a few travel with him through this universe, showed them how to fight, helped them understand more about their enemies. They passed that knowledge on, teaching others how to destroy windows before they were fully formed, how to fight demons who made it through. Although often, when a demon crosses, it is better not to engage them directly, just try to limit the damage."
She pauses and shrugs stiffly. "That is not the way we like it, but it is the way it must be. There are too few of us to take risks. Better we avoid direct conflict, and prevent other crossings, than fight, perish and leave the demons free to come as they please. Some disagree with that and take the fight to the Demonata, but they do not last very long."
"You tried fighting when you were younger," Nadia says, and Sharmila nods. "That's why Beranabus recruited you. You and Raz have fought demons. He knows he can take advantage of your nobler nature." She chuckles dryly and shoots Beranabus a dark look. I realise she doesn't like the ancient magician. Maybe even hates him. But in that case, why does she work for him? Before I can ask, Nadia picks up the story again.
"The mages called themselves the Disciples, to honour Beranabus. He didn't care about that, but to them it was important. It still is. Their followers have kept the name. There are never many Disciples - maybe forty or fifty at any time. They patrol the world, thwarting the plans of lesser demons, searching for other humans with powers like their own, to recruit, train and set against the Demonata."
"Mostly we act independently of the master," Raz says and all our heads bob up. He's standing over me, rubbing his hands together, smiling. "We were not properly introduced earlier. My name is Raz Warlo. This is Sharmila Mukherji. And Nadia Moore. We are - I'm sure I speak for us all -? delighted to meet you, and will do all in our power to make you feel that you are among friends and allies."
Sharmila laughs shortly. "Always the diplomat, Raz."
"Lucky you," Nadia says bitterly and shoots another harsh look at Beranabus.
"Are you his... slave?" I ask hesitantly.
"I might as well be," she spits, then smiles painfully. "No. Beranabus is a real son of a bitch, but I'm free to leave if I wish. I'm different from Raz, Sharmila and the rest of the Disciples - more gifted. Not necessarily more powerful, but I can..." She trails off and glances at Raz and Sharmila, who are staring at her curiously. They don't know this bit either.
Nadia sniffs. "It's not a secret. Beranabus didn't tell you because there wasn't time. He won't mind if I fill you in. And I think I should because it concerns you and Raz too. It's the reason you're here."
"I have been curious about that," Sharmila says, and though Raz says nothing, I can see that he's intrigued also.
Nadia rubs her arms, shivering slightly. "I've been with Beranabus a long time, maybe seven or eight years - though it's been a lot longer than that in the human world. When Beranabus recruited me, talking movies had just come into fashion. It was 1929."
We gawp at her. Sharmila covers her mouth with a hand. Raz blinks owlishly.
"1929?" I echo. "But you're so young."
"I've spent most of those seven or eight years here, where - as I've explained - time works differently."
"You mean you missed the Second World War?" Raz asks. "Rock and roll? The Beatles?"
"Beetles?" Nadia asks innocently.
"The Beatles. The biggest band in the world. They..." He stops, not sure how to explain the Beatles to somebody from 1929.
"Poor girl," Sharmila says, tears of pity in her eyes.
"It's not so bad." Nadia shrugs uncomfortably. "When we return to the human world, we stay in a cave which has been Beranabus' base for many centuries. I haven't seen the outside world since I joined him. I'm not jealous or regretful. Not really."
She tries to make it sound like she honestly feels that way, but it's clear that she's deeply unhappy.
"Why?" Raz asks softly. "Why did the master ask this great sacrifice of you? What is your gift?"
"Fortune-telling," Nadia says with a giggle. "I was a child fortune-teller. I'd dress up as a gypsy and read people's palms, tea leaves, a crystal ball - whatever. When my parents realised I could make money doing it, they set up a special room in our house. Later, they took me on the road with a travelling fair. I had a tent of my own. They billed me as Nadia Le Tarot. It was fun, but frightening sometimes - I could see people's death. I was supposed to just tell them good things, but if I saw something upsetting, I couldn't always hide it. That got me into trouble.
"I don't know how Beranabus found me. He just turned up one night, and whisked me off into the madness of this. I was terrified. I didn't know who he was or what he wanted. And all the demons..."
She shudders and glares at Beranabus. I try to imagine what that must have been like. It's not difficult, since I'm in much the same boat as she was. But at least I made the decision to come here.
"In time, I learnt why Beranabus took me," Nadia says. "I can sense things which have not yet happened. There are many people who claim that gift, but I'm one of the few who can really do it. Beranabus says my kind are even rarer than magicians."
"How much can you see?" Sharmila asks, and there's an edge to her voice. "Can you see when we will die? And by what means?"
Nadia shakes her head. "Not yet. I have to focus to gain insights like that. And I prefer not to. I don't like knowing such details."
"You say you can see the future before it happens," Raz says slowly. "But if that is true, surely you can act to change it."
"No. It's not that specific. I might, for instance, see that you'll die in a fire, but I won't know when or where it will happen. My insights are never something that can be altered. If I get a glimpse of a future event, it's because it has in some way already happened. It can't be undone or prevented.
"But it is possible to use my gift to our advantage - that is, to Beranabus' advantage." She goes quiet, staring at her fingernails. Most are bitten down to the quick, except the smallest nail on her left hand. Maybe she's saving it for an especially stressful moment.
"There is a weapon," Nadia whispers, and we have to lean in to hear. "A demonic weapon, maybe legendary, maybe real - Beranabus doesn't know. They call it the Kah-Gash. According to the legends it's ancient, even by the standards of the Demonata. We're talking millions of years. It was broken up into a number of pieces aeons ago and they've been missing ever since."
"How many pieces?" Raz asks.
"We don't know. We don't think any demon knows either. But certain demon masters have been looking for them ever since. Beranabus is searching for the pieces too. Because whatever the Kah-Gash is, the legends claim it has the power to destroy universes. They say it can wipe out either the universe of the Demonata and every demon in it - or our own, and everyone in that."
"What weapon could be so powerful?" Raz gasps. "Even a nuclear missile cannot destroy an entire universe."
Nadia shrugs. "If I had the answer, I'd know more than Beranabus or any of the Demonata. But I know this much - one of the pieces will soon be found. I've seen it." She starts chewing at the smallest nail on her left hand. "Beranabus has had me concentrating on the Kah-Gash ever since he brought me here. I spend hours of every day brooding about it, running the word through my thoughts, trying to find out where the pieces might be.
"A few days ago I had an insight. I sensed that part of the Kah-Gash was going to be discovered in the near future. I caught a glimpse of a demon - Cadaver. Words popped into my thoughts - 'The demon thief will guide you. Find the thief.' "
Find the thief. That's what Mrs. Egin said when she was freaking out, and just before she exploded! I start to tell the others, but Sharmila speaks up before me.
"Cadaver stole the baby - Kernel's brother."
Nadia nods. "Beranabus was ecstatic when that happened. It confirmed that we were on the right track, that Cadaver was a demon thief."
"So that's what this is about," Raz says, nudging my right arm. (It doesn't hurt now. It's been healed by magic.) "Nadia and the master came for me - having already collected Sharmila - a day or so ago. The master said he had need of me, but didn't say what he wanted me for. Now I see - it was to help search for the Kah-Gash."
"But I don't see what difference you or I can make," Sharmila frowns. "Were we in your vision, Nadia?"
"Then why involve us? If Beranabus has searched for this weapon by himself all these years, why come to us for help now."
"Because of what I saw and sensed," Nadia mumbles. "If we pursue this, there will be a confrontation. I caught glimpses of a battle with forces greater than our own." She pulls her finger away from her mouth. Sets both hands on her knees. Looks at each of us slowly, one after the other, as she speaks. "Beranabus didn't tell you about this because there was no time. But I doubt he would have told you anyway, in case he frightened you away."
"I'm not frightened of a fight," Raz snorts.
"I am," Sharmila says. "But I would fight regardless, if Beranabus asked me. He knows that. I have fought before. Raz too. You said that is why he chose us."
"Yes. But it wasn't just a fight that I sensed." Nadia lowers her eyes and looks at the hands on her knees. They're trembling, but only slightly. She stares at them hard. When they stop trembling, she looks up at us and says directly, without any emotion, "I also sensed death."