The Jumping Jan creaked against her moorings in the gathering dusk. The street lamps far off at the shore twinkled. It was a calm night. Cool and dry. The first two pinpoint stars peeked out of the sapphire skies. Small waves licked the hull of the ship, and kissed the bounding, wooden feet of Jan. Her carved eyes gazed toward the open sea, and her wild curling hair raced up the front of the bow as though she were already rushing forward, playing her small pipe and grinning at the thought of adventure.
On deck, the crew of the Jumping Jan prepared to set sail. The decks shined from a good swabbing; the sails were tight and secure; the cargo was carefully loaded in the hold, every last crate. But in the gloom of below deck, they had not noticed the slivers of light seeping through the cracks of one crate, tucked away amid the others. Nor had they paused to listen to the soft creaking of the ship, or the gurgle of waves lapping the woodwork; if they had, they might have heard the crinkle of a map and the quiet hiss of a turned page. They might have even heard breathless whispers comparing bruises received during the cargo loading, and a slightly less breathless hiss, "Well, I still think it was a good idea!"
Inside the crate there was no room to stretch out aching legs, much less stand. Otto and Megan crouched on one side with an ungainly sea chart unfolded before them; Daphne sat crunched on the other side with her knees pulled up, supporting the spine of Artemus' journal as she scanned the lines of his careful penmanship. No one was in a particularly good mood, but all were attempting to keep their irritation at bay.
"I'm pretty sure it's going to take us at least an hour to get close enough to Northermeed to make our move. But the deck won't be cleared by then, so we're going to have some trouble getting a row boat." Otto frowned and twisted the map toward the shining glyph over their heads to better see the small, scratchy writing.
"How are we going to know when an hour has passed?" Megan asked. "I can't even tell how long we've been in here. Are you even sure this is the right ship?"
The boy gave her a dour look and rolled his eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. I'm not stupid, you know."
"Well there have been a few times when you could have fooled me."
Megan scowled and searched for a good example that would slam the snotty kid hard and finally win her an argument against him. But the longer it took to summon up a specific moment, the more Otto's smirk widened.
"You can't think of one!" he said at last with a scoff of victory.
"I just couldn't pick one out of the millions of- Oh, shut up." Megan crossed her arms and leaned back against the crate's side.
Otto grinned and turned his attention back to the map. "So what I'm thinking is this: I've been working on a glyph that should basically function like an invisibility potion, only indefinitely. It's still far from perfect—last time I gave it a try, I turned invisible, but my clothes didn't-"
"We are not showing up on Northermeed naked."
"Oh, come on, what are you being so prudish about? I've already seen most-"
There was a loud thwack and a squeak as Megan smacked him, none too lightly, but it only made him laugh and her blood boil.
"Would you two please be quiet for a minute?" Daphne shifted, adjusting her grip on the journal. "I think I've found something you might want to hear, Meg. Listen to this." Daphne flipped back a number of pages, then read aloud:
The visitor has been moved to the infirmary by Keeper Ren, but it is not looking well for the poor lad. He can't be older than fourteen years, maybe fifteen at the most. His clothes are like nothing I or any other Keeper has ever seen before; not even Keeper Hesperia, and she has traveled to many foreign places. The lad has not fully come awake in all the time we've watched over him since Keeper Thomas found him bleeding by the Compound's secret entrance. How did he know where it was? Perhaps it was merely a lucky chance. The wounds he has sustained look to be from a city guard's blade; they are not the bruises of a Hammerite's mallet, and it is too clean a wound for a Pagan's knife.
He talks of strange things, this lad. Places no one has ever heard of. Things that don't exist. I fear the poor boy must be out of his mind, but Keeper Ren has heard no rumor of an escaped patient from any of the prominent care homes. And again, his clothes… They are of no material I have ever seen. His dark blue trousers are rough to the touch, and are shredded in places though they do not seem to be old enough to sustain such damage. The stitching is tight as though new.
And there's something about him… something I can't put my finger on. He seems strange, and strangely outside of himself. His feverish tales never vary, no matter who does the questioning. He claims to be Benjamin Garvey of some Michigan. He talks of some kind of box he was using for entertainment, and that's when he drifts off and loses consciousness.
Keeper Ren has tried to give him health potions, but the lad cannot drink. I fear he will pass away before morning, despite our best efforts.
"That was right around the time we showed up, Meg," Daphne said as she frowned down at the page, her finger still resting on the word "Michigan." "There was someone else who came here, just like us."
Megan's face was drawn and pale. "Does it say if he's all right?"
The other shook her head solemnly. "Two days later, Artemus writes that he dies. Wait, here it is."
The lad died early this morning before sunrise. Keeper Uther was with him when it happened. The boy shivered and every muscle tensed up, and then with a sigh, his eyes rolled back and he passed. Keeper Uther hurried to inform me of this, but when I returned with him to see about preparing the body for burial, we found that it was gone. We searched the Compound, but could find no sign that it had been stolen. Surely, strange things are afoot in this city. I feel the chill of ill portent.
Megan sighed and leaned back against the crate wall, hugging her stomach. "Well, now we know we can die here."
"We also know that Artemus knew there was another one of us out there," Daphne said, "even before we came to him. This is important information, and he's been hiding it from us!"
Megan scoffed. "And you're surprised by that? Since when has any Keeper actually told the whole truth? If he were here, he'd just use the same old argument he always uses: I didn't lie, you simply didn't ask the right question."
"I think he's worried about us, though." Daphne flipped to the last written page in the journal. "At least he sounds like it in this entry. I think he knows more about what's going on and what it all means than anyone else; maybe even more than Garrett. Here, let me read this."
Garrett gave us some disturbing news this evening. He has been to the Old Quarter and has seen what looks like the remnants of a Pagan resurrection ceremony. There were two graves: one contained a body with no torso, and one contained a body with no head. Garrett seemed to believe these were sacrificial deaths, but I am not so certain. The conjuring dust would lead me to believe those specific body parts were necessary somehow. But why just the torso and the head? What about the arms and legs?
Then again, I suppose that if such limbs were sacrificed, it would not necessarily kill the donor.
The conjuring dust is what has me most concerned. It seems clear now, as Garrett himself believes, that the Pagans have resurrected someone—perhaps not a single one, but perhaps a conglomeration of several. The Hammerites' warning to Garrett transpired on the same evening Megan—and likely her friend Daphne—appeared, claiming to be from another world. It coincides as well with the lad who came to us, claiming to be from Michigan. I have a feeling that if I were to ask Megan, provided she would answer me, she would be familiar with the name of this place. That means that three lives were brought here, clearly by force, at the same time as the resurrection took place.
The Hammerites believed that somehow the Pagans had brought something unnatural to this place, through an item or some kind of ritual. Is it possible that somehow, in attempting to bring this conglomeration of bodies back to life, the Pagans somehow unwittingly opened a channel to some other world? But why only three?
The Pagans' interest in regaining the Eye, and the Hammerite's clear interest in keeping it from them, leads me to believe that it is an intricate part to this whole mess. I am not sure yet what to make of it, but I suspect that if the girls' friend ever does get the Eye into Pagan hands, it will set into motion something truly terrible.
I wonder if each resurrected limb drew on some kind of life force? That would explain at least the three, I think. I have read about some Pagan rituals which use the life-force of others to animate dead tissue. But this—to resurrect a body made from several different people? I have never read anything that would explain it, or its purpose. But supposing this ritual somehow required life-force to animate the limbs again, the head, the torso—I believe the heart—the arms, and the legs, that would mean that there are—or were—four of these people pulled into our world out of their own.
Megan said that this place, this world, was "a game" in her own. Perhaps they come from a plane of existence which transcends our own? Perhaps it even created our world? It seems far-fetched to me, but could it not be possible? Their life force, were that the case, would be significantly stronger than our own. I suppose their life force would be the purest to use for a Pagan ritual, even if the Pagans were unaware of the source from which they drew the necessary strength.
I will ask Keeper Cyrus to see if he can locate a fourth person from this "other world." If he can find one, that will verify this interpretation. If not, then perhaps there is some important shred of information I am missing.
I will speak with the girls tonight and see if I can't find out a little more about this other place. Perhaps it will shed some light on how we could send them home?
"He wants to help us get home!" Daphne said, closing the book. "How can he be all that bad if he wants to help us? Sure, he keeps lots of secrets, but who's to say that if we hadn't decked him with a hardcover he wouldn't have told us about this stuff?"
"Wait, what's all this about another world?" Otto asked, glancing from one to the other. "I thought you were all just thieves."
Megan frowned down at her knees, thinking. After a long pause, she said quietly, "He thinks there's another one of us here. Somewhere."
Daphne shifted onto her knees. "When we get out of Northermeed, I think we should find Artemus—alone—and talk about this. He obviously knows a lot more about what might have happened than we do."
"I'm not going to go walking back into some trap just so they can keep us locked up and ask us lots of questions."
"But what if they can get us home? Isn't it worth it?"
Megan glared at Daphne for a moment, but the look soon faded and she nodded with a sigh. "Maybe you're right. I just don't trust Keepers. That's all. Who's to say he didn't write all that in there simply because he suspected we'd somehow get our hands on it?"
"Geez, are you paranoid," Daphne replied with a grin. "I mean, sure, Keepers are pretty insightful, but they're not exactly psychic."
"What's all this about another world?" Otto demanded. "What are you talking about? What's going on? Is Raife from a different world, too?"
"No, he's a local, all right," Megan replied. "Look, it's kind of a long story."
"We've got an hour or more."
Just then, overhead, they heard the cry for the anchors to be drawn up and the heavy clattering of the anchor's chain being pulled in. Otto extinguished the glyph light and they all disappeared into the darkness.
"Better keep our voices really low now," the boy's voice said. "In an hour's time, we'll slip out and I'll put the invisibility glyph on us. It'll probably work all right, even with clothes on. We'll just have to be very careful.
"And now," he said, "You can explain to me what all this nonsense about other worlds is about."
Sherry curled as tightly as she could into the corner beside the stone sarcophagus, praying to the Builder, the Trickster, and anything else that might even consider listening to a street girl's pleas that the clinking of invisible chains would pass her by, unnoticed. She clutched the invisibility potion to her chest, barely able to keep it from slipping out of her sweating hands. A drop of cool perspiration trickled from her temple down to her chin, and though it itched like mad, she couldn't move to brush it away. Not with the thing so near, looking for her. She could hear its rasping laughter—see it's skeleton grin. Her heart was in her throat, and the air had long since fled her lungs. She realized now that breathing was a luxury afforded only to penitent Hammerites in these twisted tunnels of the dead.
Perhaps carrying a three-foot mallet helped keep one calm when the ghosts stalked past.
Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth as the thing drew near, step after step bringing it closer to her hiding place. Did the torchlight touch her here? Did darkness hinder undead eyes? The phantom chains grated against the floor; the footsteps fell heavily beside her. Sherry stared down, certain that if she looked up and caught its eye, she would learn very quickly that a Hammerite in death is no safer than a Hammerite in life.
It paused, listening. Had she made a noise? The thundering of blood in her ears was so loud and so strong it made her feel as if her whole body rocked back and forth with each pulse. Could it hear her heartbeat?
A cold breeze murmured through the tombs, but her skin couldn't prickle anymore. Death loomed beside her in the well-lit passage, listening, waiting, thirsty for heathen blood.
Just go, she thought in a whisper, leave me alone. My mother was a good Hammerite. She trusted the Builder, and I swear to Him that if you pass by and let me go, I'll give fifty silver coins to the next collection box I see!
Breathing. It was breathing, or thought it was breathing. Raspy breath in, raspy breath out.
Please go! I won't tread here long, I can swear that much to you! And once I leave, I swear I will never trespass here again.
The clink of ghostly chains, a shifting of massless weight, and then the footsteps resumed, passing down the hall, growing softer and softer. Sherry remained curled up in the shadows, listening. It was gone, returned to its phantom patrol. Would it come back around?
Shivering almost too much to stand, Sherry crept from her hiding place and glanced down both ends of the passage, but no translucent Hammerite was in sight. On the wall in front of her, a small copper sign reading "Workshops" pointed down the hall, the way the thing had gone. Likely, its path was a circular one; it would not double back on its own steps. This was the safest way to proceed.
Cautious of the noise she made as she walked, Sherry followed the torch-lit passage past dark alcoves and cold sarcophagi. Small golden hammers, unlit candlesticks, small, saintly statuettes littered the floor around and on top of the stone slabs. Easy pickings for the resourceful thief. But she was no thief, and even the thought of laying a commandeering finger on one of the holy relics with phantom zealots roaming about made her keep her hands wrapped tightly around her invisibility potion.
Through the stone passageways, she could hear the sounds of bellows and the clinking of metal work. The air had grown warmer, gradually, and she suddenly realized that her skin no longer prickled at the cold. As she turned the corner, she could see the door to the workshops standing open, a furnace filled with fire belching heat in her direction. If she only closed her eyes, she could imagine sitting beside the hearth at the bar, soaking up the heat in the moments between serving another patron. Never in her whole time as a barmaid had she ever thought she would look back with fondness on those times, or think that they had been remotely safe and comforting.
The slithering hiss of chains moving made her jump and she glanced behind her. Was that a flicker of movement in the dim shadows between the torches? Was it coming after her again? Had she been spotted?
The only way to move was forward. Her fear of the undead Hammerites was even stronger than her fear of meeting with those still living. In a few quick steps she was at the door of the workshop, and with a fleeting glance behind her to look for pursuers, she ducked inside, shut the door, and ran to the first shadowed corner she could find. The grinding of gears and the roaring of the furnaces drowned out any other sound from the catacombs. Bubbling metal plopped and hissed in a giant melting vat, the heat it emanated made her face and eyes burn.
For some time, she waited, listening for movement inside the workshop and watching the door for any sign of a ghostly entrance. She heard and saw neither. She was alone in the sweltering heat, and it built up the strength she had lost in the cold, damp catacombs. Gradually, she regained her courage, too.
When at last she emerged from the warm, dark shadows, she felt her confidence returning. To think that the Hammerites took so little interest in their fortress' security that a street girl with no thieving background could slip in so easily. She could have laughed in their faces for being so naïve. Did they think the Builder would protect them?
This front room of the workshop had only the furnaces and the bubbling, boiling metal in cauldrons. There wasn't even a workbench here, and there was certainly no Gus. Where would they put something like him?
Sherry stalked through the room, unconcerned by the bright light of the furnaces. She was alone here, and knew she was in no danger. Yet. She kept her ears and eyes tuned for the slightest change—a cool draught of air, a shift in the throbbing sounds of the fires—anything would have sent her ducking to the nearest shadowed spot. But the heat stayed strong, and the noises remained steady as she stepped into the next room. Here, scraps of metal were piled high; even the Hammerites felt this an unimportant room, for there was almost no light save for what came through the doorways on either side.
Sherry hurried through it and into the next, high-vaulted room, where she found herself staring into a copper cherub face. At first, she jumped back, startled to find even a sightless pair of eyes looking directly at her after so long of avoiding detection, but her gasp of surprise quickly faded.
"Gus, thank goodness!" she whispered, moving toward him. Her eyes followed his metal face up to where his looming body should have been. Slowly, a chill pierced the heat of the workshop, wriggling like a worm into her chest.
His body—or what his body had been—was no longer there. Instead, his cherub face was attached to some kind of shield, and the shield was attached to an enormous crouching thing. It was easily three times larger than Gus' original body had been, and appeared to have a place in its chest, behind the shield, that could have held a person.
Behind her, she felt a gust of musty, cold air, and Sherry quickly dove to hide behind a pile of metal crates. Footsteps and voices, muffled by the workshop noises, approached.
"How close are we to being finished?"
Two Hammerites entered the room led by an acolyte. It was the acolyte who had spoken.
"This is difficult work," the first of the two Hammerites said, glancing with a scowl at the metal monstrosity before them. "We have not thine skill with such materials. This is…not something we have been trained to do."
"You're craftsmen, aren't you?" the acolyte snapped, moving to stand in front of the cherub face. He couldn't have been more than sixteen. He stroked the metal face with an almost loving touch. "The Builder works not just in wood and stone, but in metal as well."
"This is true, Brother Farrus," the other Hammerite said to his companion. The first's scowl darkened at the comment. "The Hammer speaks the will of the Builder. Surely, we canst do better and work with greater speed if he requests?"
"Don't suck up to me, Prolan." The young man turned on the second of the Hammerites with a chilling glare. "Neither I nor the Builder care for posturing flattery. I want results, not compliments. You said it could be finished by today, and yet here we are—no closer to our goals."
The second of the two bowed his head deeply toward him. "It is with the greatest humility that I taketh the responsibility for this abominable failure. Thou hast every reason to blame me."
"Damn right, I do," the boy replied, turning to walk to the other side of the workshop hidden by the boxes where Sherry crouched. "The Builder sends me to deliver this city and yourselves to His holy hand, and you waste my time with your petty sect battles. I know what this is about." The two Hammerites stiffened, and Sherry could imagine the young man turning abruptly to face them. "You're so consumed with earthly pride that you loathe touching one of Karras' creations."
The first opened his mouth to say something in reply, but the young man did not allow it.
"No! Don't make up excuses, don't tell me you've done your best or that you don't know how to work with this material. Everything you could possibly need is transcribed in Karras' writings. He explains everything, and you'd know this if you'd bothered to crack the cover."
There was something about his voice, his way of speaking, that reminded her of someone.
"Thou art correct, Oh Holy Messenger of the Builder," Brother Prolan said, again sinking his head as if showing deep respect. "We hath been remiss in our duties to thee, and for that-"
"Shut up, Prolan! I don't want your hollow sacrifices and self-punishment. What I want is for my suit to be completed! You said yourselves that the Pagans have a stranglehold on this city, and if not the Pagans, then the City Guard, and if not them, then it's the thieves. This city is possessed by everyone but the Builder, and you stand here in front of me professing your undying loyalty when all I see are failed, barely half-hearted attempts! You haven't spoken to the Evil One as I have; I have seen his Pagan heart through the Builders' eyes, and if you continue to drag your feet, those tree-huggers will get the upper hand and destroy us!"
It was Brother Farrus who took a step forward, his face shining with perspiration. Sherry could only imagine how hot it must been in these workrooms for a Hammerite in full armor. "I beg thine pardon, Holy One, but is not that filthy wretch locked deep within this compound? How could he perpetrate any such act of evil while he doth lie behind our holy bars of iron?"
She heard more than saw the tiny metal hammer fly across the room and ricochet off Farrus' breastplate. The man barely winced, which was more than she could do. The little hammer skittered to the floor at her feet. Brother Prolan followed its path and looked right into her eyes.
"A heathen spy!" he shouted, brandishing his hammer as the other two turned to look where he pointed.
Whether it was divine intervention from the Builder, or a humorous little trick on the part of the Trickster, Sherry jerked up the invisibility potion, downed it in a single gulp, and vanished into thin air. It gave her a moment's head start, allowing her to stumble back from her hiding place just before Prolan's hammer slammed into the slate tile where she'd crouched, shattering it into a hundred tiny pieces.
She spun away, dizzy and disoriented, right into the waiting arms of the acolyte. He was strong and his grip was tight. In one swift push, he tackled her invisible body to the ground and held her there, shouting something to the others. Flecks of spit pattered her cheek as she struggled against his grip, but soon, the two others joined him, pinning her to the ground.
Then she was visible again, and the acolyte stood over her, glaring down at her with a strange, twisted smile. "Well, look what we have here," he said, crossing his arms. "A spy."
Was it better to talk or to stay silent? Either could result in her death.
The young man bent down beside her, daubing the blood on his lip where her elbow had caught him. "Thief or pagan?" he asked. His voice was calmer now, but she had never felt comfortable when a Hammerite was calm. "Come on now," he said, "I'm not going to hurt you…much. Answer me quickly, and maybe I'll take it easy on you."
"Why art thou wasting thy time?" Proland demanded. "Kill her now! She knows too much!"
The boy's hard eyes flickered from her face to the Hammerite's. "Don't tell me what to do, Proland. I'm in charge here." When he returned his gaze to her, it was softer still. Not a good sign. "Do you know who I am?" he asked.
Time to lie. There wasn't much worse than being bludgeoned to death; might as well take a chance and see if the outcome wasn't a little better. "Yes," Sherry gasped, doing her best to look doe-eyed and helpless. Tormented. It usually worked miracles with the penitent crowd who lurked the dark alleys on lonely nights. "You're the Builder's Hammer. His Holy One."
The boy's gaze was piercing. Hard. He was questioning her every word. "Why are you here? How did you find this place?"
"I was looking for you," Sherry lied. "I came to the cathedral to beg for your help."
"My help?" She could see the doubt in his eyes. If he decided that she was lying to him, she was a dead woman. "What for?"
"My father. He was a Mechanist, and the Hammerites took everything from him. They beat him and scoured his hands. He can't work, and we're starving."
Was that a crack in the doubt? Perhaps it was working, but better not to push it too far or her lies would become too complicated. Better to act on more instinctual needs. Sherry breathed deeply, making certain her chest swelled in her bodice. The young man's eyes flickered down. Good. He was human after all, not some divine being from the heavens. Human she could work with.
"A Mechanist, you say?"
"Yes," she breathed. His eyes hadn't made any attempt to move back up to her face. A clean hook, this one. If she were lucky, she might get out of this unscathed yet. "He was a gear-smith. He helped build Karras' servants."
Her knowledge of mechanist trivia ended there; if he asked her any more penetrating questions, he'd see her for what she was, and no amount of bosom-heaving or lash-fluttering would help her. Better distract him.
"Please," she begged, "don't hurt me. The Hammerites have taken everything from us…from me." A well-timed glance toward her legs made all three look down as well. That's right, let your minds go. How had the men who assaulted my fake father used me? Was it rough? Did I scream for mercy? Even stiff Brother Farrus was flushing a deep, hearty red, and not from the heat of the furnaces.
The acolyte was the first to look back at her face. His eyes were hard again. "You're lying." He knew. She could see it in his cold gaze and in the stiffness around the corners of his lips. How did a man so young learn to make that wizened expression? "But you do know something. Farrus-" The Hammerite's head jerked up. "-bring her to the dungeon. A cell of her own, please, away from other prisoners. Our little friend here is quite skilled in manipulation, and I don't want her working her wiles on the guards down there."
Farrus nodded, swallowing as he rose to his feet and hauled her up from the floor. "Thine will I shalt obey, Holy One," he said hoarsely. There was no mistaking the look in Proland's eyes as he watched his companion grip her arms behind her.
"Oh, and Farrus," the boy said glancing up at the older man. "Keep your hands to yourself, or you might find the little tramp has snitched your knife and buried it in your chest."
They were being chased through the dark, twisting streets. Megan's head spun from the turns and shortcuts they took. None of them spoke, but she could hear their panicked breathing. The Hammerites were gaining on them, but she couldn't see them. She could only hear their shouts of "Heathen!" and "By the Builder!" Their voices rang off the stone walls, the volume flickering in and out like the dancing shadows from street-hung torches. Gaining, they were gaining.
"Over here!" Raife shouted, and she and the others ran after him down a dark, cluttered alley. There were boxes and canvas bags everywhere. She kept tripping and falling farther behind. She tried to shout to tell them to slow down, to help her, but of the group, only Daphne looked back—one quick, fleeting glance. An apology in her eyes.
Behind her, she could hear the crashing of giant hammers slamming into the boxes, clearing the way for their wielders. She couldn't run; it was like the alley had filled with knee-deep mud. Everything slowed down. She begged for help, but her friends turned the corner.
There was a flash of blue light, and screams. Shrieks of pain and fear. Megan clawed her way over the boxes and barrels, threw herself toward the end of the alley.
There was blood. A sea of blood. It was smeared on the walls, on the cobblestones; the torchlight made it shine. Daphne lay crumpled to the side, writhing in pain. Megan wanted to run to her, to help her, but she couldn't move. Basso's head rolled out of a shadowed alcove; the darkness had provided no hiding place for him.
She could see figures moving; shadow-cloaked figures with masks and crescent weapons in their hands. They swarmed over a body on the ground; blue light strobed the street. The legs pinned beneath them jerked, and over the cacophony of the Hammerites behind her, she could hear a moan that sounded like death itself sweeping through the streets.
It was so horrible, she screamed and awoke.
There was sunlight, and warmth. Mid-day already. The shades on her bedroom window were up, and tiny fluffy dust particles drifted in the light, swirling gently. She was warm, tucked amongst a pile of thick blankets and soft pillows. Her posters were on the walls. The mirror frame she made in eighth-grade shop class stood propped up against her small bookshelf, waiting to be hung up. Piles of binders and books lay on the floor.
Home. She was home.
A flood of relief swept over her and she sat up, elated. It had all been a dream! How could she not have realized that?
Her whole body started shaking with relief. None of that had happened. She had never been in the game. She had never killed a man. Daphne was at her own home, safe and sound, probably sleeping in, just like her.
She pressed her hands to her hot face, catching the tears rolling down her cheek. A dream! A dream! It was all just a dream! There were no Keepers, no Hammerites, no thieves, no robots, no Pagans, no zombies, no anything from Thief! She was at home—at home!—and she always had been.
Downstairs she could hear her sister's terrier barking, probably at the breeze. Leaf-pattered shadows danced on her walls, across her bed, along the windowsill.
The clink of breakfast dishes, the low murmur of her parents talking, even the strange gurgling of her sister's relaxation-alarm clock. Everything was fine. She was home, and it had all been just a horrible nightmare.
Megan sighed and lay back, grinning, savoring the rush of relief and ignoring the trickle of tears sliding along her cheeks and clogging her ears with water.
Below, she heard footsteps coming toward the staircase, heard a voice: "Megan!"
It wasn't her mother. Who was that? Daphne?
"Megan! Wake up!"
Megan jerked awake on the floor of the crate, the pale blue light of Otto's glyph barely illuminating the two faces looking at her. The cold swept over her immediately, and she started shaking. Not a dream.
"Megan, Otto says it's time to go. We need to get up on deck."
The warmth, the sunlight, the familiarity of home. Gone. She could barely breathe. "Yes, okay," she gasped, doing her best to ratchet down the shivers. "Right."
"Bad dream?" Otto asked. His youthful face looked sinister in the blue light, deeply shadowed.
She shook her head, but said, "Yes," as her eyes darted about the crate. It was tight, dark, and cold here.
Daphne put her hand on her shoulder. "You can tell us about it later," she said, and though she smiled, it was stiff. "Right now, we need to get going, or we'll miss Northermeed."
"My invisibility glyph is ready to go," Otto added. His voice was sympathetic. Was he trying to make her feel better?
Megan ran her hands over her face, wiping away the dampness around her eyes. Her clothes felt thin; her hands were cold. What were they thinking, going into a Hammerite stronghold? Did they have a death wish? She'd never made it through any Hammerite level without having to restart at least once. Could they restart here if they failed? The boy from Michigan didn't restart, did he?
"We shouldn't stall, then," she heard her own voice say. Her body ached as she pushed herself up into a crouch. "Which way out of this box?"
Otto pointed to the left. "This way."
"Are you sure? The box got all turned around when they loaded us."
The boy grinned confidently. "I just know, okay? Geez, will you relax? Who's brilliant idea was this, anyway? Was it yours?"
At any other time, she would have gladly slapped his face to wipe that smirk away, but at the moment, she felt too drained.
"Well, I feel safer now," Daphne said with a smirk and a wave of her hand toward the wall of the crate. "If you're so smart, you go first."
"With pleasure." Otto moved toward the wall and drew a glyph, whispering the incantations to activate it. The crate was suddenly filled with blinding white-blue light, and Megan had to squint to keep from ruining her night vision. Through the blur, she saw Otto's shadow slide through the wall as though it were a sheet of water.
"Well, here goes nothing," she heard Daphne say, sounding less than confident. Then Daphne's shadowy figure vanished.
With a deep, trembling breath, Megan plunged through the crate wall.
She'd expected to feel something—a rush, a tingle, anything—when she passed through the crate, but she felt nothing. It was like walking through open space. She followed the light and the flicker of shadows ahead of her. She could hear Otto's voice, echoing and distant telling them he was sure it was just a little further. It was quiet in this light—she couldn't hear the creaking of the ship or the soft grating of shifting crates as the boat pitched from one side to the other. It wasn't cold here, but it wasn't exactly warm, either. It was like a perfect spring day, when the temperature outside is the same as your skin.
With a pop, the light and pleasant sensations vanished, and she heard a shriek just before she hit an icy, wet thing. Salty water filled her mouth and darkness enveloped her. She clawed for air, and finally broke the raging surface, just in time to be slapped in the face again by a wave. The salt made her eyes sting, and the water was so cold, she couldn't feel her feet. Her clothes clung to her, pulling her down.
Far above her, she saw the globes of lantern-light on the ship's deck as it drifted past them. Even father away, she saw other dim lights. Then a wave struck her in the face, making her cough as it tried to trickle into her lungs.
Realization hit her hard. Panicked, she twisted around in the water, searching for some sign of life. "Daphne!" she called, but her voice was hoarse. It didn't seem to carry over the sharp waves pummeling her, tossing her like a twig. "Otto!"
A splash nearby, then a head emerged. A panicked, gargled cry, and then it sank again beneath the waves. Megan threw herself toward Otto, hauling herself through the water to him just in time to catch his sinking arm in her numb hand and yank him back up to the surface. He gasped at the air and clung to her, his arms around her neck as she struggled to stay afloat.
"Megan!" The familiar voice sent the first trill of relief through Megan as she turned to find Daphne stroking toward her. It was good timing, too, because Otto's weight pulled her down under the surface, and she felt herself choking as he flailed against her, trying to keep himself up.
Then his weight was gone, and she popped back up above the waves. "Megan! Are you all right?" Daphne's voice was thin and shook, but she seemed to be holding her own with Otto tucked under one arm.
"Fine!" Megan gasped, fighting to keep above the waves. "Northermeed!" She swung her arm in the direction of the dim lights.
"It's going to be a long swim!" Daphne shouted. "Maybe a mile! Can you make it?"
"Less talking, more swimming!" Megan sputtered, forcing her arms to start dragging her through the waves. She couldn't have said another word if she'd wanted to. Her lungs felt like they were in a vice, slowly being crushed of air.
Every stroke seemed short, hardy moving her forward at all. She tried to focus on the lights, on floating, on how wonderful it would feel to be ashore, but it wasn't long before desperation set in.
Whether they'd been swimming for hours or seconds, she felt herself sinking a little more with each stroke. Daphne trudged along beside her, dragging Otto's barely conscious body with her lifeguard stroke. Her eyes were always fixed on the lights with determination. Megan slipped further and further behind.
Once or twice, Daphne would stop, shout for her, and wait until she caught up. They never seemed to get closer. More and more, Megan's mind drifted to what it would be like to drown. Would it be slow? Or fast? Would it be a relief? Her arms and legs had gone totally numb long ago; she could barely tell if they were moving. Sooner or later, they wouldn't be, and she'd slip beneath the waves.
After the hardest fight of her life, Megan felt her body giving up. Her face dunked in the water as another wave slapped her so hard it actually stung, and she didn't have the strength to pull her head up again. She felt the water close over her back, she felt herself sinking further and further. In one last ditch effort, she threw all her energy into a forceful kick, and was rewarded when her leg slammed into a hard object. The pain vibrated through her bones and she jerked involuntarily, her head shooting up out of the water as she cried out. Then she felt a hand grab her shirt and haul her forward onto what felt like gravel.
The water fell away, and she stumbled forward, collapsing on solid ground. Daphne sat down hard beside her as Otto coughed and gulped air. The cold sea breeze cut through them, and Megan started shaking, curling in on herself as she savored the steadiness beneath her.
Daphne sighed and lay back on the dirt. "I thought that was it," she gasped.
"No kidding." Megan could barely get her voice to pass through her throat. Otto replied with no more than a guttural grunt.
Slowly, the water drained out of her ears and she could begin to hear the growl of the ocean as it hit the shore. There was a high-pitched noise above it that sounded vaguely familiar, but her mind refused to identify it. She couldn't lift herself up, but she opened her eyes, looking at the large, light-streaming windows of the Hammerite compound. Despite the stained glass bearing the ominous symbol of the Hammer, she couldn't help but be overwhelmed with joy at seeing it.
"What is that noise?" Daphne asked, shifting up onto her elbows.
Megan shook her head, relishing the smell of wet dirt. "No idea." Slowly, she pushed herself up onto her knees. Every inch of her shook under the strain of staying upright. "How's Otto?"
Daphne nudged the limp body with her foot. "Hey, idiot. You alive?"
The boy grunted.
"Thought you said you knew which way to get out of that damned crate!"
Otto opened his eyes and glared at her, still too breathless to speak.
The high-pitched noise continued. Why did it sound so familiar? Where had she heard it before? Megan glared up toward the compound and felt her blood turn as cold as the sea. A troop of Hammerites were moving toward them, gradually. They couldn't have seen them yet, or they would have had their hammers raised.
"We need to get out of here," Megan whispered. Daphne lifted her head to look where Megan was staring and almost squeaked.
"Where? Where do we go?"
Otto had forced himself up on his arms, and he lay, gazing with wide, terror-stricken eyes at the approaching Hammerites. "Builder's balls," he gasped.
"We need to get out of here!" Megan hissed again, forcing herself to a crouch. "We need to leave. Move. Somewhere!"
The sound—the high pitched screeching—she knew what it was now. A siren. Someone had activated the alarm, and it didn't take a professional thief to guess who. Hell, it didn't even take an amateur thief. "Damn him!" she growled, just as the first of the Hammerites pointed toward them and she heard him shout.
The three scrambled to their feet, but their exhausted limbs could barely keep them balanced, much less move them with any speed across the slick, unsteady ground. Otto was the fastest of the three, having most of his energy left. Megan could barely get herself off her knees.
"Run!" she screamed at the boy, just before she felt a blunt object slam into her side and punch all the air out of her body. She curled in on herself and collapsed, pain crashing through her. Far away, she heard Daphne scream, but she couldn't respond. A gauntleted hand struck her across the face and everything went black.
A pair of silent eyes watched as the trio scattered; the acolyte fled successfully, disappearing among the rocks and shadows. Likely he would use some kind of glyph to hide himself. The two girls, however, were overtaken and beaten down. Not killed, not yet. But their fate didn't interest the silent observer, who had himself crawled from the sea, his dark clothes drenched. How diligently he had followed these three to bring him here, where his prey lurked.
He lifted the pale mask he wore and wiped the water from his face, a face no one had seen since his youth. Then he replaced the mask and stole along the bank to a shadowed overhang by the compound's walls. A shining glyph arose beneath his fingers and the wall faded, allowing him passage into the building.
Soon. His prey would fall swiftly. Now that he was here, it was only a matter of time. The Keeper-murdering thief would die soon.