Outside the castle. At the point where we entered this world. Beranabus claps my back and says, "Let's go find Cadaver." Sharmila groans. Dervish looks at Beranabus as if he has two heads. Even Shark fidgets as though a terrible curse had been uttered. "What?" Beranabus snaps, frowning at his Disciples. "We have to capture him, squeeze out whatever he knows about the Kah-Gash. That's what we came here for."
"It is over," Sharmila says. "Nadia was wrong about the Kah-Gash. Or we already came upon it and failed to recognise it. Either way, Cadaver's real purpose was to bring Kernel into this universe, so he could learn the truth about the theft. Now it is time for him to return to his parents and - "
"No!" Beranabus shouts. "His brother never mattered. This is about the Kah-Gash and always has been."
"To you, perhaps," Dervish says softly. "But not to Kernel. And not, I think, to the rest of us. Sharmila's right - it's over.
Beranabus glares at us. An angry red flush creeps up his neck. He starts to say something but Shark steps forward, halting him. "I'll serve if you want me. If you think I can help you find this demon-destroying weapon, I'm yours for life. But I doubt I'll make a difference. I don't think any of us will. I agree with Dervish - this was about Kernel and his search. That's what brought us here. It doesn't seem like much, and it's crazy that Raz and Nadia had to die because of it - but that's life."
Beranabus growls. "Think you're smarter than me, do you?"
"No. But I can see the truth when it's sitting before me plain as day. I don't know anything about the Kah-Gash. Maybe you'll find it later, maybe you won't. Maybe Cadaver can lead you to it, maybe he can't. But it's time to let Kernel go. He doesn't belong here. He's not part of this. Not anymore."
It's the most I've ever heard Shark say. I want to thank him, but my throat's as tight as when I was being strangled by Cadaver's hairs.
Beranabus scowls at his three Disciples, lets his gaze linger on me, then gives a disinterested sniff. "So be it. I'm not going to argue with all of you. I'm starting to think it was a fool's errand. I'll look for Cadaver anyway, just in case, but there's no reason for you to come with me. The fighting's over. And the deaths."
He turns away, takes a deep breath, starts muttering the words of a spell.
Sharmila, Shark and Dervish exchange uncertain glances.
"That's it?" Dervish asks. "We can go?"
"Aye. Get the boy to open a window for you. Return to your normal duties. I'll be in touch later. If I need you."
Dervish laughs. Sharmila and Shark smile. Then all three look at me.
"Where do you want to go?" I ask them.
"Drop us off at your place," Shark says. "We'll make our own way from there."
I nod slowly, then face the patches of light. They surround me as usual, now that I've come out of the Board, glowing in the air around me. Half eager, half afraid, I think about Paskinston.
It doesn't take long. I slot the patches of pulsing lights together. The window opens. Clean blue light. The doorway out of all this craziness. I take one last look back at the castle, the demon-laced sky, Beranabus.
"Thank you," I mutter. "I know you only helped me because you wanted to find the Kah-Gash. But I couldn't have discovered the truth without you."
"Much good it did you," Beranabus grunts. He looks at me with his grey-blue eyes. Cocks his head. "Home isn't always where you expect it to be. It can change, as life changes. If you ever need me, you know where to find me."
"He won't," Dervish says shortly, then pushes me through the window of light, out of the universe of demons.
Night. We're in a field outside Paskinston. Where Mrs. Egin exploded and Cadaver crossed. The four of us standing beneath a half moon, looking at each other, breathing in the delicious smell of our own world.
"We are a sight," Sharmila laughs, nodding at our torn clothes, ripped flesh and bare feet.
"At least we're not a stench," Shark says. He sniffs a sleeve and his face turns green at the memory of the gory pool.
"Thank you," I whisper, eyes lowered, suddenly shy, feeling like a child again, the way I did before I crossed universes. I was their equal over there. Here, I'm just a boy.
"No need for thanks," Dervish smiles. "We had the adventure of a lifetime."
"I would not call it an adventure," Sharmila says thoughtfully. "More a nightmare - the like of which I hope never to experience again."
Dervish smiles. "Be truthful. Now we've come through alive, don't tell me you aren't a bit sorry that it's over. It was wild but magical. Right?"
"No. It was horrible. I hated every minute of it."
"Shark?" Dervish asks.
"I hated the pool of slime," he grunts and we all laugh. "Otherwise, it was a buzz. But that's because we survived. I'm sure Raz and Nadia had a different view of it."
I feel a jolt of guilt when he mentions Nadia. I should tell them about her. But I gave my word. Besides, she said she wouldn't hurt them. The only one she hates is Beranabus.
"What was Raz like?" Dervish asks, smile fading.
"A gentleman," Sharmila says.
"Yeah," Shark agrees. "I knew Raz. A top cat. But let's not talk about him. In our business, it's best to forget about death and focus on living." He stretches and groans. "I'm off to find a lake to soak in. How about you lot?"
"I'll come with you," Dervish says. "I still have a lot to learn about being a Disciple."
"I'm not so sure," Shark murmurs, then raises an eyebrow at Sharmila.
"I want some time off," the Indian lady says, gazing at the moon. "I have been a Disciple for many years. I am due a break. Maybe I will go to the village of my parents and pray to their memory. They were killed by demons." She sighs and lowers her eyes. "I will pray for Raz too. And Nadia. And the others who died in the course of this quest." She looks at me. "And I will pray for Kernel. And maybe for Art, even if he did not ever really exist."
I smile at Sharmila thankfully, then stretch out my arms for a hug. As she wraps her arms around me, she whispers in my ear. "It was strange that you could not find the Kah-Gash."
"Maybe it doesn't exist," I reply.
"Or maybe..." She hesitates, then releases me. "I wonder what would have happened if you'd tried to open a window to one of us when we were with you in that universe."
I frown. "What do you mean?"
She smiles cryptically in answer, kisses my cheeks, then steps back.
"We can stay with you a while," Dervish says, as I hover uncertainly at the edge of the village. "Help you readjust and explain all this to your parents."
I laugh. "You really think you can explain Lord Loss to my mum and dad?"
"You have a point," Dervish chuckles.
I shake Shark's hand, admiring his tattoos one final time. He salutes sharply when I let go. Then I shake hands with Dervish. "Your spikes have gone floppy," I note.
"I feel floppy all over," he grins.
The four of us share one final glance that says more than any words. With a tired wave, I turn away from the three Disciples, face the village lights, steady myself and wonder what Mum and Dad will say when I step through the door. With an excited but nervous shiver, I start on the short walk home.