The walk was one of his favorite parts of his new routine since the battle. Sometimes Claire accompanied him, and that gave him some lovely time to spend with his daughter. But he really favored the walk when he was alone. While the road was hot, and the odor and scenery left much to be desired along the way to the palace, it was often quite deserted for a good portion of the way, and it gave Mr. Today some much needed peace and quiet from the mostly friendly chaos that had overtaken Artimé. It was good for him to be alone sometimes, he knew. And occasional solitude was especially good for the creative mind. Some of his best ideas of the past months came out of that weekly walk. The greatest of which was Alex Stowe.
The boy was young, but Marcus had no doubt that he would flourish in the years ahead. And the old mage was set on helping Alex build his self-confidence and belief in himself as being worthy of the title of mage of Artimé. It would take time, but Alex would come around eventually.
As Marcus smoothed his flyaway shock of hair, he thought back on his meetings with Alex over the past months. How fun it was to surprise the boy with his eccentric ideas. How smart Alex was, and how capable. And how disappointed the boy could get when he wanted something so badly but was denied. He knew back then that Alex would feel incapable of being mage. He also knew, more than Alex himself, that Alex wouldn’t want anyone else taking the job from him.
“Oh!” he said to his image in the mirror. “That reminds me. . . .”
He picked up a pencil and scribbled a note to himself for after the meeting:
Teach Alex Triad spells
He chuckled to himself as he put his pencil down. “Oh dear. Getting forgetful,” he said. “It wouldn’t do to leave out that little gem, now would it. In fact . . . I’ll grab it now.” He got up and walked out of his chambers and across the hall to the Museum of Large. Inside he gazed at the overflowing piles of books for a long moment, concentrating. Slowly he walked halfway down the library wall to the very center of the middle shelf, and pulled out a thin, handwritten diary simply called
The Triad: Live, Hide, Restore.
He brought the book to his chambers and set it on his dressing table so he wouldn’t forget to give it to Alex that night.
A moment later there was a light tapping on the doorframe. Ms. Morning poked her head in.
“Hello, dear,” Mr. Today said, smiling brightly.
“Just about,” he said. “Has Alex returned with the boat?”
“Not yet,” Ms. Morning said. She was starting to get worried, but she knew that there was no better companion for Alex to have than Simber. “I’m sure they’ll be back before we get home after the meeting.”
“Perhaps we should wait.”
Claire smiled. “Father, you put us in charge. Alex is no doubt handling everything with utmost care. And if he and Simber are not back by morning, obviously you can cancel your trip.”
Mr. Today nodded. “You’re right. You know, Claire, this is very good for me, to let go of a few things now and then.”
“I know,” she said.
Mr. Today turned to Charlie, the gargoyle. “Charlie, can you let Gunnar know we’re on the way?”
Charlie gave Mr. Today three thumbs-up. He’d always felt very lucky to have three thumbs, so he used them all whenever the opportunity arose.
Mr. Today and Ms. Morning left the mage’s private chambers and walked across the hall to the kitchenette. Ms. Morning stepped to the side of the tube and flourished regally with her hand to her father. “Age before beauty, as they say.”
Mr. Today chuckled softly and stepped into the tube.
eghan!” Alex hoisted Meghan’s limp, sodden body into the boat, nearly toppling over when her foot caught on the ladder. He yanked her free and they both fell to the deck. “Meg!” he cried out again.
Her skin was blue white and very cold except for the swollen red skin of her neck, where the thorny band was sewn, but her eyelids fluttered and she breathed shallowly. She focused on Alex for a second and tried to speak, but couldn’t make a sound. Her fingers brushed past her throat and her face twisted up, lips quivering, tears leaking from her eyes in a silent chest-heaving sob.
Alex stared. And then he sprang to his feet. “Simber!” he shouted, leaning over the boat’s edge and cupping his mouth. “Simber!” He scrambled around the boat to find towels, wrapping Meghan in them and giving her a pillow. Her eyes were closed now, and she didn’t open them when Alex shook her arm. He stood again to shout the cheetah’s name, but this time saw him coming.
The cheetah glided in and landed with his back paws precariously on the side railing of the boat, still flapping his wings to keep the majority of his weight from capsizing them all, but being careful not to touch the water. His eyes were eagle-sharp, his teeth bared. “What’s happened to herrr? Wherrre’d she come frrrom?” he growled.
Alex, now fighting the wind from Simber’s wings, shielded his face’he’d been accidentally knocked about by those wings before, and it wasn’t fun, so he was cautious. “She was in the water, clinging to the ladder. I didn’t know she was there until she splashed. She can’t talk. They’” He choked up a little. Whoever “they” was Alex didn’t know, which made it even more frightening. “They put that horrible metal thing on her neck.” His own face threatened to twist up in emotion, but he gripped the captain’s seatback, trying to control it. “I haven’t seen Lani or Samheed.” He dug his fingernails into the cushion and closed his eyes a moment, trying to compose himself. He was supposed to be in charge. And people in charge can’t buckle. He knew he had to take his personal pain out of it for now and focus on what to do next. He took a deep breath and let it out. Then he looked at Simber, his face serious. “Did you see anything on the island?”
Simber nodded grimly. “Yes. Not Samheed orrr Lani, but I saw two natives with the necklaces made of thorrrns. I chased them until they disappearrred into a hole in the grrround, much smallerrr than I could get into.” He looked at Meghan and then at Alex.
“A hole in the ground?” Alex echoed. He didn’t have time to contemplate that right now’he knew he had another decision to make. But this one was beyond his ability. “Simber . . .” He stared at Meghan’s limp body and looked up at Simber again. “I need your help,” he said.
“I’m always herrre,” he said softly.
Alex scanned the island once more, desperate to see Lani or Samheed. “It’s going to be dark soon. Meghan’s freezing’the water here is much colder than it is at Artimé. I don’t know if she’s injured more than just the neck thing, or what. She’s . . . She won’t wake up.”
Simber nodded and waited.
“So . . . you’re sure there’s no sign of Sam and Lani?” Alex knew, of course, that Simber wouldn’t have lied about it. He just had to get himself to accept that his friends were missing . . . and quite possibly worse off than Meghan. He couldn’t bear to take it all in.
“I’m sorrry. No sign. No scent. And, of courrrse, no sound.”
Alex looked down at Meghan. “We need to leave them here . . . don’t we.” It wasn’t really a question.
Simber’s eyes softened. “Yes, Alex.”
Alex blew out a breath and nodded. “Okay.” That was the help he needed. “We need to save the one we know we can save.” Hurriedly he grabbed more dry towels from the stack he’d found and began rewrapping Meghan in them.
Alex looked at the almost-setting sun, and then peered in the direction of Artimé. His heart pounded and he sat upright, leaning forward, squinting and worrying. “I can’t see home.”
“I can,” Simber said. “We’ll go togetherrr, as always.”
Alex gave one last fleeting glance over his shoulder at the silent island, and then released the anchor spell and situated himself behind the wheel of the boat, straining his eyes to read the instructions in the dimming light. He started the boat and looked up at Simber. “Lead the way. Full speed.”
“If we hurrry, we’ll make it by darrrk,” Simber said. He looked down at Alex. “I won’t leave you.”
Alex nodded. With a powerful flap, Simber rose and headed east toward home.
“Hang on, Meg,” Alex whispered as he powered the boat to full speed. “You’ll be safe soon.” He clenched his hands around the steering wheel and followed Simber. He didn’t look back again.
The Dark and Quiet Place
fter the screaming came the silence, and then the burning eye drops, which were not nearly as bad as the thorny necklace surgery, but the drops still stung ferociously and made Lani blind. She ached everywhere. They brought her somewhere cool and dry, and left her there, free of ropes or tethers. But it didn’t matter. She didn’t feel like moving.
She had heard Samheed’s cries for a while not far away, but she was too weak, too blind to even attempt to find him. And then Sam, like Meghan, and like herself, had gone silent without warning when the sharp device was connected in place. There was nothing to be heard after that.
Later she felt a slight breeze, as if someone or something moved past her, and she swung her arms out weakly, but they didn’t connect with anything but air. She crawled around, shaking with pain and weakness and fear, until the panic inside her finally shuddered its way out of her body. But no one who cared would ever see it.
Lani could do nothing but sit in this cave. She could see nothing but a sheet of black. And she couldn’t hear anything at all’no noise transmitted anywhere on the island. Not through voice, or friction, or shuffle of feet.
Not even through dripping tears or cracking hearts.
aron went back to worrying over the weapons on the desk in Haluki’s office, having no stomach for food now. He sat in Haluki’s chair, elbows on the desk and face in his hands. He was in over his head and he knew it. He had four dozen fighters at most . . . at most! How could they possibly prevail against hundreds of Artiméans, even if the Restorers did have a little magic? Artimé had more. They always had more.
Besides that, he was not playing it out right at all. What was he doing, getting Eva so mad at him? But he could feel it’the control he so desperately desired, flitting just out of his grasp, and it made him crazy. He should just call the whole thing off. “It’s too soon,” he muttered, not for the first time that evening. He lifted his head and stared at the measly weaponry in front of him. And then he heard a noise.
When the closet on the wall across from him rattled, and the doors unlatched, he first thought that his stressed-out mind was playing tricks on him. But then the doors opened further, and before Aaron could make a sound Mr. Today emerged from the closet into the office through the enormous glass tube.
Mr. Today took a few steps before he noticed the strange weapons strewn over the top of Gunnar’s desk, and then he looked up and saw Aaron slowly rising to his feet.
They stood stock-still, both completely startled, facing each other just a few feet apart. Neither moved a muscle, and thoughts flooded both of their minds.
Mr. Today’s first instinct was to warn his daughter. But before he could do anything to stop Claire from coming through the tube, Aaron Stowe jerked out his arm and grabbed a handful of heart attack components from the desk.