Wandering the streets of the city. It's been a long time since I was in a place this crowded and noisy. I missed city life when I was living in Paskinston. I remembered only the good things - cinema, swimming pools, parks, school. I forgot about the traffic, the towering buildings that cut out the sunlight, the isolation.
I was always with Mum or Dad when I lived in the city, or with a teacher or babysitter. But one day, on a school trip to a museum, I got lost. It was an hour before I was found. I remember now what that felt like, how scary it was, how I believed I'd be lost forever. I was sure I'd have to sleep on a park bench or underneath a bridge like a homeless person. It was terrifying.
This is scarier. At least then I knew what city I was in, but this could be anywhere. None of the street names or buildings is familiar. I think about asking an adult where I am, but I don't want to appear out of place. If I go up to a stranger and they learn that I'm lost, that I don't even know what city I'm in, they'll take me to the police. And while part of me would love that - the police would arrange for me to be sent home - I can't go down that route. If the police take me into custody, I won't be free to search for Art.
I haven't given up on my brother. The lights might not work the same way as in that other universe, but I can still see them. There must be a way for me to start the patches pulsing. I just have to figure it out.
While I'm puzzling over the problem, I continue walking. I listen carefully to people talking. Most speak the same language as me, but the accents aren't familiar. I wish again that I could ask where I am, but it isn't possible.
I'm growing hungrier with every step. I've drunk plenty of water from drinking fountains, but I've had nothing to eat. I pass a stall selling hot dogs and pretzels. I root through my pockets, but I don't have any money. I think about trying to steal a pretzel, but if the owner catches me it could mean big trouble.
Stomach growling, tears tickling the corners of my eyes, I walk on.
My watch is working again. I've been here at least two hours, wandering without direction. The sun is starting to set. It will be night soon. Where will I sleep?
Time to sit and think this through. I find a bench in a small park. I'm shivering. Though it's not especially cold, I'm only wearing a T-shirt, no jumper. There aren't many people in the park. One woman who passes looks at me closely. I think she's going to stop and ask if I'm OK. I'm not sure what to say if she does. I was never a good liar. But then she carries on, deciding I'm not her business.
I try to lay all my problems out nice and simply, so I can think them through one at a time. My main priority is getting back to the Demonata's universe. But that will have to wait. Things I have to settle first - Where am I? Where will I sleep tonight? How will I find food?
Take them one at a time. Location. I can't find out by asking passers-by but there must be alternatives. A library, perhaps, except I don't know where to find one. But now that I set my mind to it calmly, I see there are other ways. I can look in a telephone book in a phone box. Or go into a newsagent's and read the titles of the local papers.
I manage a small chuckle when I realise how simple it is to place myself. That gives me confidence and I turn to the other problems more positively. I can dig through rubbish bins for food. Not very nice, but I'm sure I'll scavenge enough to keep myself from starving.
Finding somewhere to sleep is harder. Hide in a library or museum? Or maybe in a shop that sells furniture? Keep low while they're closing, then come out when it's deserted, sleep on a couch or bed.
Not a bad plan, except all the shops have already closed. I might be able to do it tomorrow, but it won't work now. Maybe I'll have to sleep in the open tonight, over a street grille or on a park bench. Collect newspapers to wrap round myself. Hope I'm not discovered by a policeman. Look for somewhere better in the morning.
As I'm thinking that over, I catch sight of a pulsing light out of the corner of my left eye. My head jerks towards it. This isn't the first time it's happened. I've been reacting to every flashing light in shops or on street corners, hopes rising, thinking for a second that they're one of the magical pulsing patches.
I scowl at myself, feeling stupid for falling for the same trick for the hundredth time. I start to look away, telling myself to behave more sensibly next time, when it strikes me -
There's no shop or street corner where the flash came from.
I look left again, but slowly, not letting myself get excited. It's probably somebody on a bicycle, or a bird with a strip of foil in its beak, or...
But it isn't. It's a yellow patch of triangular light, drifting through the park, attached to nothing.
I'm on my feet immediately, thoughts of food and shelter forgotten, hurrying after the light. I catch up to it, reach for it like a baby reaching for its dummy, then stop. There's no point interfering with it, since there are no other pulsing patches for me to add it to. Better to follow, see where it leads and hope that luck is with me.
The light passes through the bars at the rear of the park. I clamber over them, almost spearing myself on the spikes at the top, ripping the back of my T-shirt. I start to follow it across the road behind the park, but the driver of an approaching car blows his horn, warning me back. I wait impatiently for him to pass, then hurry after the light. Luckily, it's not moving very fast, so I soon catch up.
I walk along beside the patch until it passes through the wall of a building. I stare at the wall for a moment, lost, then look backwards, judging the path of the light. It's come at an angled line from the park. If it continues in that direction, it should come out again at some point to my right on the other side of the building.
I race round the building to the back. Advance to the point where I think the light will emerge, then stand, clenching my hands into fists, waiting, counting the seconds off inside my head. Five... eight... ten... fifteen... twenty-one...
The light reappears on the count of twenty-three, further to my right than I'd calculated. Grinning, I jog over, catch up with it, walk with it to the wall of another building, then quickly make my way to the rear, to wait for it again.
I eventually lose the light at a collection of warehouses. There's no way for me to get to the rear before the light re-emerges. But that's not a worry. Because I've spotted other lights, floating through the air from different directions, all angling towards the same spot several hundred yards ahead of me. I can't see where they meet because of the buildings, but I have a good sense of where it is, so I weave through the streets. There's no need to bother with the lights anymore, just head for the point of intersection.
Ten minutes later I round a corner and see a handful of lights penetrating the walls and roof of a large building in the middle of a row of restaurants, pubs and shops. There are people in front of the building, waiting to get in. As I edge closer I see that they're mostly teenagers dressed in leather jackets, ripped jeans, fishnet stockings. Many have spiky, coloured hair and chains dangling from their ears, noses and lips. They look quite frightening. Not as frightening as demons, but pretty scary as humans go.
I hear music coming from inside the building and realise this is a concert. It's harsh, ugly music, loud and unpleasant, very fast. It sets my ears ringing, even from this far outside.
I stop close to the crowd. There are a couple of men at the front door, dressed differently. They're the ones in charge, taking money from the people who want to go to the concert, letting in a few at a time. As I watch, the doormen turn away a girl and three boys. A row develops. I hear the girl shouting that they're over eighteen. One of the doormen laughs and tells them to produce ID or leave.
This isn't going to be easy. If they won't let those four in, they certainly won't let in someone like me. I'll have to try a bluff, say that my dad - maybe an older brother would be better - is in there. It probably won't work, but I've got to give it a go.
I listen to the teenagers chatting about the concert, gathering as much info as I can. They call it a punk concert. There are several bands on the bill. Names like the Clamps, Thunderballs, the Damnable. When I'm ready, I walk boldly to the front of the line and smile at the doormen. "Excuse me," I say politely. "Is this where the Clamps are playing?"
The doormen squint at me. One grunts, "Yeah. But it's over-eighteens."
"I know," I reply. "But my brother's in there. I need to find him. Mum and Dad have gone out for the night. He was supposed to leave the key to the back door for me, but he must have taken it with him. I can't get in without it. Can I pop in and get the key off him? I'd leave again immediately."
The doormen look at each other, then one of them says, "What's his name?"
I'm about to say Art, but that's not a common name. So I say "John" instead.
"John what?" the doorman asks.
Again, Fleck isn't common, so I say the first name that comes to me. "Smith."
"John Smith." The doormen laugh.
"You've got to admire his nerve," one of them says.
"Yeah, but not enough to let him in," the other chuckles, then jerks his thumb at me. "Nice try. Now clear off."
"You don't understand," I gasp. "I can't get in without the key. I have to - "
"I can look for him if he really exists," the first doorman cuts in. "But if I go in there and call for a John Smith and don't find one - or find a few who aren't your brother - I'm going to be very angry. So have a good long think about it, then tell me - do I stay or do I go?"
"You don't have to do that. I'll look for him. He's a bit... he's slightly deaf. He wouldn't hear you calling. I need to go in myself, to look for..."
The doorman takes a step forward, crouches and in a low, foul curse tells me to go away. Then he returns to his post and waves forward the next few punks in line.
I've blown it. Defeated, I slink away, ignoring the catcalls of the punks, and find a quiet spot where I can think up my next approach.
More lights are floating into the building, faster now. I could wait until the concert's over, then break in, but I don't think I have much time. So I go looking for another entrance, figuring there must be a fire door at the rear.
A narrow, dirty alley runs behind the shops and pubs. Rubbish bags all over the place, empty cardboard boxes, bottles and cans. Dried blood, vomit and dog crap. I wade through the mess, trying to find the building where the concert's taking place. The noise guides me and a minute later, I'm standing outside a pair of large doors, which are rattling from the vibrations of the music.
I try opening the doors, but they're locked from the other side. I push and pull, kick and punch, to no effect. I look for windows to sneak through, but there are only a couple and they're both bricked over.
Back to the doors. They can't remain shut all night. People will have to come through eventually. I'm sure they'll be opened at the end of the concert, but that might be too late - the lights may have stopped by then. I just have to hope that someone comes through before that, for fresh air or to be sick.
There are a few rubbish bins to the right of the doors. I crouch behind them and wait, planning on sneaking in if the doors open. Not a great plan, but in the absence of anything better, it's my only hope.
Ten minutes pass. Fifteen. Twenty. Thirty. I'm truly cold now. I don't think the sun has ever shone directly on this horrible hole of an alley. My nose is running. I wipe the back of my hand across it, but that doesn't do much good.
The lights are moving very quickly, in greater numbers, powering through the walls and roof. I think a window is going to open soon. Maybe there's a witch like Mrs. Egin inside, or perhaps the music is summoning the demons - this is the sort of din I imagine the Demonata would love.
Maybe some of them are coming to check out the concert.
I grin as I picture Cadaver and the vulture-headed demon slipping through a window between the two universes to dance with the punks. As I'm grinning, the doors open and two men step out into the alley, a wave of metallic music bursting through with them. I'm immediately alert, praying for them to turn left so I can duck in without them seeing.
But they stand where they are, looking around. One is a punk, with jeans, a leather jacket, no T-shirt, a thin black scarf knotted around his throat, spiky purple hair, a ring through his nose. Scrawny. Not much older than me. The other is wearing an army-type uniform, boots and a beret. A bit older than the punk and much bigger. There are letters tattooed on his knuckles, but I can't read them from here.
"This will be our getaway route if we have to run," the man in the army clothes says, letting the doors half close, cutting out the worst of the noise. "We'll split up if we're chased. You go left. I'll take the right. Meet again at the hotel."
"Can we outrun it?" the punk asks.
"Depends on what it is. Some are slow, some fast. If we can't stop it crossing, we'll try to fight, but if it's too strong, we'll have to run like hell."
"I don't like running," the punk says.
"Me neither," the army guy grunts, "but sometimes it's the only option. These demons are fierce mothers. We can whup some of them, but others..."
At the mention of demons, a shudder of relief churns through me. In a rush, I scuttle out from behind the rubbish bins. The army guy takes a step back, fists coming up protectively. The punk puts out a hand to calm him. "Relax. It's only a kid."
The army guy scowls. "What are you doing here? Trying to sneak in to the concert without paying? It won't work. Scram, you no-good - "
"Excuse me," I interrupt, "but are you... this might sound crazy... but I heard you talking about demons and I - "
"You heard nothing!" the army guy shouts. "Now beat it, quick, before I - "
"Wait a minute," the punk says, squinting at me with pale blue eyes. He nods for me to continue.
"Well... like I said... I heard you talking and... well... are you two guys... by any chance... I mean... are you Disciples?"
The pair stare at me dumbly. Then the army guy looks round, picks up a piece of metal, lets the doors swing almost fully closed, sticks the metal between them to keep them ajar. Strides over, the punk a couple of paces behind him.
"Who are you?" he growls.
"My name's Kernel Fleck. I was with Beranabus. I want to get back to him. I... Do you know who I mean? Are you...?"
The pair exchange silent glances. I start to think I got it wrong, that I misheard, or maybe the Demons are just another band. But then the army guy shrugs and the punk sticks out a hand. "Yes," the punk says as we shake hands. "We're Disciples. This is Shark. And my name's Dervish. Dervish Grady. But don't ask me to whirl," he says warningly. And smiles.