Searing heat. I scream and thrash, splashing lava up into the air. I go under, immersed in the fiery liquid, feeling it fill my mouth, nose, ears, burning away the soft flesh of my lips and ear lobes, destroying my eyelids, setting to work on the jelly-like globes of my eyes.
I come up. Spit out lava. Scream again, tongue crackling, throat pinched tight, sizzling eyes wide with terror. I don't try using magic to protect myself. Panic has taken over. I'm helpless. Caught by the river. Lost.
I start to sink. My legs kick out automatically, like when I'm swimming, to keep my head up. Gasping for air. I feel my toes burning away, and the acid of the lava eats its way through the wall of my stomach. A few more seconds and it'll all be over. I'll just be scraps of flesh and bone smeared across the surface of the river - then nothing.
I hear a shout to my left, but I'm not able to look round. I'm going under. No lower legs left to kick with. Bones are showing through the flesh of my fingers. The skin of my throat is peeling back like burning paper.
Then hands snake around the remains of my chest and I'm hauled out of the lava. My lidless eyes focus blearily. It's a woman, her face contorted by my ruined eyes. She's yelling, but my ears are full of lava. I can't hear what she's saying.
The woman pulls what's left of me free of the river and races with me to the bank, dumping me on hard, cold land. Falls beside me, her feet and shins on fire. She slaps at the flames, then stops, stares, quenches them with magic.
I'm bubbling away to nothing beside her, covered with lava that's still eating through my flesh. When the woman has put out her own flames, she turns her attention to me. Shouts the words of a spell and waves a hand over me. The lava explodes off me in splatters, out of my nose, mouth and ears. I take an unbelievably welcome breath of air, then cry out my agony to the world.
"Kernel!" the woman yells. "You have to help me! The damage is too great - I can't repair it by myself."
I'm gasping like a dying fish, unable to respond. I never thought there could be so much pain this side of death. The woman casts another spell. A cool wave washes through me, numbing me to the worst of the torment. I draw back from the brink of pain-fuelled insanity. Lay my head down, moaning weakly instead of screaming madly.
"Use magic," the woman urges me. "Help yourself. Restore the flesh that's been burnt away. It'll hurt like hell, but you have to do it."
I want to say that I can't, I'm too weary and don't know the spells. But my incinerated vocal cords and lips won't let me form the words. Annoyed, I try to fix the damage, so I can tell the woman I'm finished. Magic flows to the areas which I've targeted and cells knit together in response to my command. As my lips return, bloody and stinging, but workable, I start to complain. Then I realise - the fact I can complain proves I have the power to heal myself. So instead of whinging, I set to work on the rest of my wrecked body.
It takes several minutes, and is every bit as painful as the woman predicted, but eventually, I'm almost whole again, scorched and blackened from the heat, pink new flesh glistening sorely in the yellow light, scarred around the places where I've had to create fresh flesh and bones, tender as... well, as somebody who'd been dunked in a river of lava! But I'm alive and mostly in one piece.
Smiling painfully, I lift my face to thank the woman who came to my rescue. I'm expecting Sharmila - I figure she couldn't stand by and watch me die, so she entered the Board to save me - but the face my new eyes fix on is much younger and paler than the Indian lady's. But just as familiar.
"Nadia!" I gasp.
She stares at me with an angry but wary expression. "You should have been prepared for an attack. You fell too easily. It would have served you right if I'd left you."
"But you're dead!" I cry.
She laughs. "Then you have a ghost to thank." She stands and looks into the distance. "Dervish is on his way. I was leading him to you when I sensed you fall into the lava." She starts to walk away.
"Wait! I don't understand! I saw you die. How can you be here?"
She hesitates and looks up. Following the direction of her gaze, I see that the sky is hazy now, cutting off my view of Lord Loss and Beranabus. "You must not tell him," Nadia says quietly.
"Tell who what?" I frown.
"Beranabus. That I'm alive." She faces me and now she wears a cool, flat look. "I had enough of it, Kernel. He treated me like scum, using me any way he wished. I had no freedom or say over my life. So I decided to trade allegiances and go where I'd be appreciated and rewarded."
"You mean...?" I can't bring myself to say it.
"I joined Lord Loss," she whispers. "I spoke to him secretly when we arrived at his castle. Told him of my gift. Promised to serve him if he'd allow me a few simple pleasures and some time to myself."
"But he's a demon!" I shout. "They kill humans!"
"Yes," she answers smoothly.
I gawp at her, unable to believe it. She shifts uneasily and looks away. "Beranabus can't see us now. He'll never know I'm alive. Unless you tell him."
"But Lord Loss is our enemy. You - "
"I saved your life!" she snaps. "I didn't have to. I could have left you to sink."
"Why did you save me?" I ask softly.
"Because I like you." She laughs and there are tears in her eyes. "I like all of you - except Beranabus. I hate him, with good reason. But I don't wish harm to anyone else. I came here to hide. Lord Loss separated my soul before destroying my body - or most of it. He kept my brain and heart whole. He can put my flesh and bones back together around them later, and restore my soul from here. When I felt you and the others enter the Board, I asked Lord Loss if I could help you. He said I could, but only once. So this is it. You're on your own now."
"Nadia... you mustn't do this. Lord Loss is evil. If you stay with him, he might ask you to do evil things."
"I'm certain he will." She shrugs. "But I no longer care. I've been apart from humans so long, I don't feel like I have anything in common with them. This might be the last decent act I ever perform. But I'm fine with that. If I'm to become like the Demonata... like my new master..." She draws herself up straight, blinking the tears away, eyes flashing. "So be it."
"Nadia..." I try again, but she stops me.
"I saved your life, Kernel. In return, I'd like you to keep my secret and tell no one I'm alive. I can't make you promise, but I'll be disappointed if you betray me."
"I won't tell," I mutter.
"Thank you." She smiles awkwardly, but it quickly fades. "One last warning. If you escape this Board and our paths cross in the future, we'll be on different sides. Don't expect me to ever help you again."
With that, she turns, raises her face to the sky, extends her arms, then turns into a beautiful, swan-like demon. As I watch, she gracefully rises and glides away, picking up speed, soaring higher and higher, until she's only a speck against the skyline... then gone.
Dervish arrives some time later. I'm lying in the same spot, still in agony, using magic to make little changes and tweaks. As Dervish fusses over me, I tell him about the attack and my fall, but claim I pulled myself out and patched my body together unassisted. I don't mention Nadia.
"Can you stand?" Dervish asks, fanning his face, sweating from the heat of the river.
"I don't think so," I croak.
"How about levitate?"
I manage a chuckle. "I'm not Beranabus. I can't fly."
"Then I'm going to pick you up," he says. "We need to get away from here. I'll be as gentle as possible. Ready?"
I nod, gritting my teeth so I don't cry out too loudly when he touches me. As carefully as he can, Dervish sneaks one arm under my neck, the other beneath my knees, and lifts. It's not as bad as I thought, but I can't stop myself from gasping and shutting my newly grown eyelids against the pain.
"Sorry," Dervish says, then hobbles away from the lava, carrying me like a baby.
Resting behind a hill, sheltered from the heat of the river. I'm still working on my body, using magic to undo the damage and smooth over the cracks. Make sure all my bones are solid. Regrow fingernails and fingerprints. Separate my toes. Try to get my ears the right shape. Let warm energy circulate through my legs, strengthening them, knowing I'll have to get up soon and walk.
No more faces in the sky. Just a ceiling of yellow light. I asked Dervish about them, but he didn't see Lord Loss or Beranabus. He'd been wandering like me, but in this zone of light, not darkness. Then he spotted a white, winged demon. Since it seemed to be the only living creature, he followed it until it vanished. Having no better plan, he kept going in the same direction - and found me.
"Where do you think Shark is?" I ask.
Dervish shrugs. "He could be anywhere. I've no idea how large this place is." I tell him my idea, that it's laid out like a chess board, thirty-two dark areas, thirty-two light zones. Dervish hadn't thought of that. "I think you're right," he says. "But we've no way of working out the size of each square."
"Did you find any water?" I ask. "I'm thirsty."
"Don't think about it," he advises. "You can keep thirst and hunger at bay, like sleep. Your body will do almost anything you tell it here."
He strokes his spikes of hair, stiff and upright again, a few inches longer than before. He's putting on a brave front, but I can see he's terrified. He's not much older or more experienced than me. He's never been in a situation like this. He's acting grown-up, but I bet - like me - he'd give anything to have somebody to turn to for help.
"We need a plan," I say, wanting to make things a bit easier for Dervish. "We can't just stagger around, waiting to be attacked. We should have a purpose."
"Getting the hell out of here would be a good start," Dervish mutters.
"Yes, but Lord Loss said we could only get out if I found and named the demon thief. First, I think we should find Shark. Then we can try to figure out a way to unearth Cadaver."
Dervish nods. "That sounds good. But how will we look for Shark? Just pick a direction at random?" I suppose...
"But what if we're in a square at one end of the Board and he's in a square at the opposite end?"
"Then it'll be a long walk."
"What else can we do?" I ask.
Dervish frowns. "Maybe one of the demons could lead us to him - the hell-child or the winged monster." He walks around to the other side of the hill to look for them. Returns a minute later, shaking his head.
"There will be others," I say. "Lord Loss won't want to watch us walk around in circles for too long. That would be boring. I bet he'll send lots of demons to attack us."
"Great." Dervish doesn't sound too optimistic.
"I could use the patches of light to find Shark, except there aren't any here. The Board isn't like the outside universes. The rules are different."
Dervish chuckles. "From one universe of insanity to another."
"Maybe I could..." I stop and dig the marbles out of my pocket, remembering how I used one to create light in the maze of darkness.
"What are those?" Dervish asks.
"Marbles. My brother was playing with them before he was kidnapped."
"Oh. I was hoping they were some sort of magical globes."
"Maybe they are... or can be." I tell him about the maze, how I tried to create light but couldn't, until I got one of the marbles out.
"But we don't need light here," Dervish says.
"Thanks for pointing out the obvious," I snap. "What I meant was, if I could use a marble as a torch, maybe I could use it as some other instrument. Like a compass or a tracking device?"
Dervish looks sceptical but says, "Well, go on, give it a try."
I study the orange marbles and again find myself thinking of that night in Sally's house, Art holding them up over his eyes. Shutting the image out, I focus on thoughts of Shark, asking the marbles to lead me to him. Nothing happens immediately, but then Dervish gasps and leans in closer. The orange swirls at the heart of the marbles have turned mistlike, and through the mist we can see Shark, battling demons, his hands wet with blood.
"Where is he?" Dervish cries.
"I don't know." I try to bring the land around Shark into clearer focus but can't. Abandoning that tactic, I let the pictures of him fade and ask the marbles to guide us to him. They quiver in the palm of my hand, then leap into the air like jumping beans. I cringe away from them. Dervish does too. But when they just hang there, we recover and grin at each other. I get to my feet, Dervish helping me. Pain flares afresh, but I use magic to fight it. Then I focus on the marbles, still hanging in the air above us.
"Shark," I say quietly, directing my magic towards the marbles. They dart off ahead of me at a furious speed, twin bolts of orange lightning. "Wait!" I shout. They come to a halt, hovering in the air like bees. I glance at Dervish and he claps slowly.
I stumble forward, feet still blistered from the lava, Dervish supporting me. As we come up to the marbles, I again ask them to lead us to Shark. "But slowly," I add. "Don't get too far ahead of us." The marbles bob in the air, as though nodding, then float smoothly over the volcanic landscape, leading us in search of our demon-tormented friend.