Island of Silence (Unwanteds) (26 page)

He sucked in an enormous breath and down he went a third time, deeper, farther, until his ears ached and popped. He strained to reach anything he could touch in the murky water. Just when he was about to give up he kicked his feet, and his toes got tangled up in something.

It was hair.

He turned sharply and reached for her hair, grasping it with his hand, and yanked as hard as he could, rushing, kicking, with all of his might, pulling her up alongside him and then pushing her above him to the surface. When they broke through, Alex gasped and sucked in air, flipping on his back and holding Meghan tightly to his chest, trying to float, and unable to do another thing until he had replenished his oxygen stores.

He squeezed Meghan’s stomach and started kicking toward the shore. “Breathe!” he cried. And then, between ragged breaths, he chanted to keep himself focused. “Breathe. Please breathe.”

Meghan choked and silently coughed up water. She took a raking breath in and coughed some more.

“Come on,” Alex said. “Breathe! That’s it!”

Meghan struggled. The sharp thorns around her neck cut into Alex’s chest like lethal scatterclips hitting their mark, but he couldn’t do anything to adjust his pain or hers right now. Waves constantly washed over their faces, causing them to feel like they were drowning over and over again.

“Come on, now,” Alex said again, barely whispering. “We’re going to make it. We’re going to make it.” He put everything he had into getting through the next second, and the next, and the next.

It took almost an hour to reach the shore of Artimé. When Alex could touch the bottom, he stumbled, dragged Meghan to the measure of sand, and collapsed. They rested there for several minutes in the dark, Alex just feeling the solid wet earth beneath him, Meghan not feeling anything at all. Alex didn’t let go of her. The only way he knew she was alive was by feeling her stomach rise and fall beneath his arm.

Finally, when he was able, he called out in a hoarse voice. “Help’anyone? Is anyone out here?”

No one answered.

No one? On a beautiful evening like this? Carefully he rolled Meghan off of him and staggered to his feet, his legs wobbly and his arms feeling like seaweed. He picked up Meghan under her arms and walked backward, dragging her up the shore, and then when he could go no farther, he set her down gently and turned toward the mansion to go and find help.

But there was no mansion there.

There was no mansion, no trees, no water fountains, no beautiful colors. No happy little creatures wandering about. No brightly lit lawn to sit on.

There was only a gray shack, sitting on a slab of broken cement. Burned-looking weeds grew out of the cracks. A stark wall stood in the distance, with a gate standing open. And strewn across the cement were the lifeless bodies of squirrelicorns and beavops and owlbats.

Alex felt his head spinning. Was he hallucinating? Had he landed on the wrong island? He stumbled forward in the moonlight, leaving Meghan lying on the sand. He went past lifeless body after lifeless body, not comprehending anything, until he saw a familiar lump with seven and a half quiet legs, none of them floating about at all. A pair of vanity glasses had fallen from her snout and lay next to her. “Ms. Octavia?” he whispered.

He kneeled at her side, feeling panic bubbling up inside. “Ms. Octavia!” he shouted in her face, but she didn’t blink or move. He touched her. Her face felt like cloth. Like she was some ridiculous patchwork doll.

Alex looked up. “Florence,” he murmured. “Florence!” He got up and started to run toward the gray shack, where Florence stood unmoving, in full stride, as if she were heading for the entrance. Alex went up to her and tugged on her arm. “Florence!” he shouted, but by now he knew.

Everything Mr. Today had created was dead.

But what about the humans?

“Mr. Today! Ms. Morning!” he screamed, his voice failing him. “Mr. Appleblossom! Sean? Eva?
Anybody?

He ran to the gate now, watching the path carefully so as not to step on any platyprots or other creatures. “Tina,” he whispered, not even bothering to yell anymore. The three girrinos were giant heaps in the dark. From somewhere beyond the gate he could hear voices’angry ones’and the sound of weapons clashing. He ran into Quill, encouraged to have heard some hint of life. But then out of the shadows someone strong reached out and grabbed Alex, clamped a hand over his mouth, and pushed him up against the wall.

 

To the Next Frontier

A
aron couldn’t stop the heart palpitations that apparently came packaged with the honor of killing the great mage of Artimé. When everyone had left the room, he sank weakly to High Priest Haluki’s desk chair and mopped his face with his hands. He rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath.

It didn’t matter that it had been pure luck. An accidental ambush. A surprise attack from both perspectives. It didn’t matter that he was young and rash and quick, and that the old man wasn’t willing’or intelligent enough’to kill on first draw. This wasn’t some planned duel where each had the advantage of fairness. This was the enemy, without warning, entering Aaron’s own private quarters. Or, at least this place
felt
like Aaron’s home now. It was self-defense.

Then why did he feel like he had cheated somehow? He thought briefly of his brother, and how this would hurt him. Aaron was surprised to feel little satisfaction from this. Perhaps because the battle was not nearly over. The mage’s death may well get him the chaos he wanted in Artimé, which would surely bring the Necessaries back home, but Aaron was no closer to the throne. Or perhaps it was because Aaron had felt this same pain that Alex would soon know. He scowled and banished the pity from his mind. His brother deserved so much more pain than this. It was just the beginning.

Aaron turned and looked through the open closet door. It was empty, though Aaron
knew
there had been a giant glass tube in there a short time ago. Where had it gone? It was too much for Aaron’s mind to grasp. But one thing was clear. The glass tube had been a passageway to Artimé. And since it was here in Haluki’s home, there was no doubt that the new high priest knew exactly how it worked. All Aaron cared about right now was that High Priest Haluki didn’t know it was gone.

When Liam Healy stepped into the office, Aaron looked up. His team needed direction. This was his moment to get it right.

“Is the woman securely imprisoned?” Aaron asked.

“Yes.”

Aaron nodded and looked over at Mr. Today. He still couldn’t believe he’d killed the man. Aaron felt numb, not powerful. “Take the body to the Ancients Sector and bury it yourself.”

“Just me?”

“Yes. I need the others. We have to take over Quill now while we’ve got the chance.”

Liam hesitated. When Aaron gave him a sharp look, he went over to the body and tentatively picked it up, hoisting it over his shoulder.

Aaron couldn’t look at the mage. He chided himself for the weakness, but he told himself that he had other things to do besides wasting time staring at dead people. As Liam walked to the door Aaron stood up. “Wait,” he said.

Liam stopped and looked back at Aaron.

“Give me the old geezer’s robe. It’ll be our . . . reward.” He hesitated. “Perhaps we’ll cut it up and make ridiculous flags from it in memory of this day.” His eyes shifted, anxious to avoid the body.

Liam laughed hollowly and obliged. When Liam finally left the Haluki house in the thick of darkness, Aaron took the colorful robe, folded it into a neat square, and placed it solemnly on the corner of the desk.

» » « «

“We’ve a slight change of plans,” Aaron said, addressing the two allies that remained, Bethesda and Crawledge. “Eva and the others have started their secret mission to Artimé now. They are too far away to fetch. However, the opportunity is ripe to seize the palace. No doubt Haluki was planning on Today’s visit. When he doesn’t arrive, Haluki will come looking for him. And we will be lying in wait.”

» » « «

While Aaron plotted against Haluki, Haluki went in search of Matilda to find out why his friend Marcus had not yet arrived for the peace meeting. When he found her crouching on a windowsill, she was uncharacteristically unresponsive. It was almost as if she’d never been alive at all.

He glanced out the window, down the long driveway. “Guards,” he said quietly, and immediately his four guards appeared. “Take a vehicle to Artimé and see if anything is amiss. Go swiftly, now.”

The Clash

A
lex, his mouth covered and his back against the wall, kicked with all his might, but his foot was anticipated and blocked by his captor.

“Alex, stop. It’s me. Stay quiet!”

Alex’s eyes widened but that didn’t help him see. It was black as pitch in the shadow of the wall. He didn’t know who “me” was and he wasn’t going to trust anybody until he found out. He struggled again, and tried biting the hand that covered his mouth and pressed painfully against his cut, swollen lip. When that didn’t work, he stuck his tongue out and licked the hand. It did the trick, and at last Alex’s mouth was free.

“Ew, sick!” the voice said. “What the’?”

Alex could hear the person furiously wiping his hand on his pants. “Who . . . wait. Sean? Is that you?”

“Yes, you dolt. Gak. That was disgusting.”

“Well, you didn’t have the worst end of it.” Alex spat on the ground, trying to get the taste of dirt and sweat out of his mouth. “Blech.” He wiped his tongue with his sleeve and in an instant, everything came flooding back to him. He gripped Sean’s arm and grew solemn. “What happened to Artimé?”

Sean didn’t answer at first, as if he were contemplating what to say. Then he sighed and said, “Come on. Back into Artimé. Don’t close the gate, mind you’it might lock us in, and we’ve no magic at all.”

No magic at all.

Alex remembered how suspicious Sean had seemed over the past weeks, and he almost hesitated, wondering if he was being trapped. But there was something else Alex had to say before Sean could begin talking, no matter where Sean’s loyalties lay. “Sean . . . first we need to save your sister.”

“What?” Sean’s whisper grew loud. “Where is she? Is she okay?”

“She’s on the beach. Come on.” They ran in the moonlight, dodging bodies.

When they reached her, Sean kneeled down and picked her up, wrapped his jacket around her, and cradled her in his arms. “Oh, Meggy . . .” He looked around helplessly. “There’s no hospital wing, no nurses around . . . Everyone who could move took off, and most of them have been fighting since the attack.” He touched the metal thorn necklace, a look of horror on his face. “I can’t even believe this.”

Alex squinched his eyes shut. “The attack?” he said in a hollow voice.

“Yes.”

It was almost as if those words were enough to answer all the questions that were swimming around in Alex’s head, unable to form complete sentences. Everything around him made absolutely no sense’and he didn’t even want to make sense of it. Because that would mean admitting the truth of what Alex was already quite sure.

The two young men stood together on the beach with an unresponsive sister and best friend, the waves crashing on the shore as if the whole sea were at war with itself. And both quite nearly wished to be swallowed up in it rather than face the insurmountable truths before them.

Wearily they sat down and took turns filling each other in.

“Simber and I went after them, and found the boat at the island,” Alex said.

“There’s a group in Quill called the Restorers,” Sean said.

“Samheed and Lani are still . . . out there. Somewhere.”

“Your brother, Aaron, is in charge, and he’s been building his followers.”

“We had to leave them’to try and save Meg, and then’”

“Mr. Today went to his peace meeting, and the next thing we knew, Artimé was gone and the Restorers had managed to open the gate. The girrinos went down when Artimé did. The Restorers stormed us in all the confusion and our spells wouldn’t work. . . .”

“Out of nowhere the boat died, and then Simber . . .” Alex choked and couldn’t go on as he remembered the cheetah’s frozen descent, and the crash into the water. He demonstrated Simber’s ride into the water with his hand. “He’s out there. Somewhere at the bottom of the ocean.” A cough-sob escaped, and he cursed himself. If he lost it now, he’d never get through this.

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