Authors: A. J. Hartley
Darwen thought of Alex's little “clock.” He was wasting time, and the longer he tried to inch toward the portal from here, the more likely the heron thing would get him. For a brief moment he wondered what that would be like, the spear-like beak stabbing at him from on high, but he pushed the thought from his mind, remembering something his father had told him:
Herons are stealth hunters. They aren't built for pursuit.
As the thought struck him, something moved in the grass a few yards from him. It was long and black, and reached through the stalks beside him to land carefully in the wet ground: it was one of the heron thing's feet. Darwen looked up again and saw the great bird, its head perfectly level, its bright, unblinking eyes fixed, gliding past like some lethal, animated crane on a building site.
It was now or never. He took three silent steps back toward the path, then pushed through the last of the grass stalks, turned up toward the portal where Rich and Alex were waiting for him, and broke into a flat run. He didn't need their cries of panic to know the bird was coming after him. He felt its shadow on him, felt the wind of its first lunging stab as it darted its beak into the silty ground, but he did not look back.
A couple of seconds later, he knew it had given up the chase. Darwen thought gratefully of his dad: without that memory of the two of them at Martin Mere, Darwen would never have tried to outrun the heron.
“Quite the safari we're on, huh?” said Alex as Darwen reached the portals. “Like being in Costa Rica all over again. Only instead of jaguars and snakes, it's giant, freak-show birds that are trying to kill us.”
They both looked badly shaken.
“Well,” said Rich as they prepared to step through the gate, “the next locus can't be as bad as this.”
“I really wish you wouldn't say things like that,” Darwen muttered. Then he led them through the shimmering rectangle.
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They landed hard on cold, wet rock in a howling gale that blew rain in great horizontal sheets. They were high on a mountainside, which was treeless except for the twisted and misshapen trunks that formed the portal ring they had just come through. All three of them bent their heads and turned their backs into the wind.
“It's looking a bit black o'er Bill's mother's,” Darwen remarked dryly.
“Huh?” said Alex. “Black or Bill's mother's what?”
“It's looking black
,” Darwen explained. “Like you're looking out over the town and there are clouds overhead.”
“What?” said Alex.
“It's an expression,” said Darwen. “Means the weather is going to be grim.”
grim,” said Alex.
“I know,” said Darwen. “It's a kind of joke.”
“Who's Bill?” asked Rich.
“No one,” said Darwen. “It's just something mi dad used to say.”
“I don't get it,” said Alex.
Darwen had to shout to be heard. “Never mind,” he yelled, checking the pizza box. “It's not important.” Then, pointing right into the mouth of the gale, he called, “That way!”
“Of course,” Alex retorted.
“How long?” Darwen called back as he trudged through the driving rain, already soaked to his skin.
Alex consulted the glass device, wiping the water away as best she could. “Three minutes,” she said. “Greyling
doesn't want anyone finding a way through, does he?”
Darwen started walking faster.
They covered about fifty yards, but the rain was so heavy they could barely see ten.
“You sure this is right?” shouted Rich.
Darwen wasn't, but he said nothing and pressed on, eyes scouring the blasted windswept slopes for signs of another portal.
“Two minutes, twenty seconds!” called Alex.
Darwen gritted his teeth. There was nothing up here. They had taken a wrong turn.
“What's that?” demanded Rich. “There in the mountainside.”
“It's nothing,” said Darwen.
“No,” Rich insisted. “There, see? Looks like a cave.”
“I don't see it,” said Darwen.
“Two minutes,” said Alex.
“Follow me,” said Rich. He pushed ahead, veering to the right and up a slope of ragged scree and scattered boulders. The wind seemed fiercer here, and Darwen was actually blown back a step. He stooped till he was almost bent double, and managed a few faltering steps. When he looked up, he could see that Rich was right.
It was a cave, Darwen supposed, but as soon as they were inside the opening, they could see that the walls pulsed with an eerie blue light as if the very stone was breathing. There were alcoves set into the wall, though whether they had formed naturally or been carved was hard to say. What was clear was the system of brass numbers set above them, and the ornate switch mechanisms that brought them online. Darwen rubbed the rain from his eyes, shuddered at the chill of the cave, and with one hurried look at his sodden cardboard map chose the third alcove. He pushed a button, grabbed Alex and Rich by their damp, cold hands, and stepped in.
As Darwen gaped, stricken with dread and fear, Alex leaned in and whispered, “It's looking black o'er Bill's mother's.”
Darwen nodded seriously. It was.
hey were indoors,
but this was no cave, and the air was hot, thick with the tang of acrid smoke, and thrumming with the drone and clank of heavy machinery. They crouched together, huddled in the corner of what seemed to be a large factory, shielded by heaped crates and stacked metal refuse. Around them were brick furnaces with great iron hoods. Blackened, oily smokestacks rose up from filthy engines draped with chain and cable. There were trucks loaded with coal. There were nameless hulking pieces of equipment sprouting drills and funnels, plows and tendrils of wire. And there were scrobblers.
Lots of them.
They were lumbering about in their clumsy helmets, goggles over their bright red eyes, their huge muscles tight beneath their greenish skin, their yellowing, overlarge fangs showing between heavy, animal jaws.
Darwen tore his eyes away, his heart hammering. These were Greyling's servants and soldiers. The scrobblers were intent on their work, but he couldn't expect to remain undetected for long.
“We need to find
,” Darwen hissed, showing the increasingly smeared and battered cardboard panel on which Weazen had scrawled something that looked like a flying saucer with a studded outer rim. “I need to pull one of these electronic box things from the edge and take it through to the next portal.”
“Remember that little screen you had back in September when we first went into Silbrica?” Alex said, her eyes still fixed on the milling scrobblers. “The thing that meant they couldn't see us? That would be useful to have about now, don't you think?”
“It got broken, remember?” Darwen hissed back.
“So we brought a clock instead,” said Alex, deadpan. “One minute, fifteen seconds, by the way.”
“There!” said Rich, pointing between a pair of smokestacks.
Darwen stared through the industrial fog, swallowing back the urge to cough, and saw the dish-like apparatus, its rim pocked with metal boxes the size of his fist. “Cover me,” he said, gathering into a racing crouch. “Then meet me on the other side. There should be another group of portals just like this. Be quick.”
Alex stayed him with a hand. “I'm faster than you,” she said.
“What?” Darwen sputtered. “No! This is my taskâ”
“No, it's not,” said Alex.
“The Peregrine Pact, remember?” Rich agreed. “It's our fight too. If this could help save Mr. PÂ .Â .Â .”
Darwen turned to look at him, and in that instant, Alex bolted out into the factory.
With a cry of surprised frustration, Darwen got to his feet. “Make sure she gets through,” he said to Rich, who was already up and aiming Weazen's blaster.
A great bellow of rage went up from the nearest scrobblers as they spotted Alex. Then they were grabbing shovels and wrenches to use as weapons as they lumbered toward her. Alex bobbed and weaved, feinted right, then left as she shot through the factory. One of the scrobblersâclearly a guard rather than a workerâturned a long and lethal-looking energy weapon in her direction and fired. It shot a wandering shock of light that caught the edge of a furnace and exploded with a bright orange flare and a bellow of sound.
Rich ducked away, but a moment later he was up again, aiming Weazen's blaster with amazing composure. The weapon kicked once in his hands, and the scrobbler was thrown backward before it could get off a second shot.
Darwen looked for the other group of portals. Spotting them on the far side of the factory, he sprinted deliberately away from Alex, shouting to draw the scrobblers' attention. How long would she need? Ten seconds? Twenty? He looked over his shoulder once to see if she had reached the saucer apparatus, but when he turned back, two scrobblers were closing on him. One was squat and trailed a piece of heavy pipe in its massive fist; the other was bigger, rangier, and had a coil of steel cable that it was flicking back and forth like a whip. Darwen heard the crack of Rich's blaster somewhere close to Alex and knew he would be getting no help from that quarter.
The scrobbler with the cable lashed it suddenly in his direction, and Darwen flinched to his left, hearing the lethal snap of the thing inches from his face as he fell onto his side. The squat scrobbler took a couple of hasty strides and swung the pipe at his head. Darwen rolled, and the flagstone beside him cracked in a shower of grit.
Darwen skittered backward, struggling to his feet as the bigger scrobbler cocked his whip hand again. Darwen took a chance, lunging toward the other one. It pivoted, unsure what to do. As he heard the cable come scything through the air, Darwen dived and rolled on the hard floor. The whip flashed above him, lashing the other scrobbler hard across the face so that a great gash opened beneath its goggles. The creature shrieked with pain and rage and took a vengeful step toward its companion.
In that instant Darwen was up and gone.
All around him the reverberations of the machinery were now topped by the bellows of the scrobblers and the fizz and roar of weapons fire. As Darwen wheeled to the left, a truckload of coal beside him exploded into the air, showering him with hot sparks. He cried out and brushed them from his arms and hair, but he did not stop running. Rounding a corner, he saw Alex, perched on top of the saucer-shaped contraption, tugging something from the rim, while Rich stood beneath her methodically aiming and firing as the scrobblers emerged from cover.
“Got it!” Alex shouted, starting to climb down. “Catch!”
She flung it at Darwen, who reached for it with one hand as it sailed toward him. It bounced off his outstretched fingers, turning slowly in the air as he dived underneath it. It fell neatly into his stomach and he clamped it there, shooting a baleful look at Alex.
“What?” she said. “Oh, and by the way? Forty seconds.”
“Go!” shouted Rich, still standing guard and loosing off another whistling shot that exploded somewhere deep in the factory behind them.
They ran, feeling the weight of the smog in their lungs, their knees unsteady with exertion and panic, till they saw the cluster of gates.
“Number four!” Darwen called to Alex, who got there first.
She was through before Darwen reached the portal. He reached behind him, snatching Rich's hand and pulling him into the shimmering curtain of light.
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They were outside, surrounded by gusting, yellowish smoke that made it impossible to see much beyond the rough gravelly stone at their feet.
“Last one,” said Darwen, coughing. “We have to get to a portal somewhere overÂ .Â .Â .”
He paused, looking around.
The smoke was thicker than it had been in the factory, but it smelled different, like bad eggs.
“Sulfur,” said Rich as the wind shifted, revealing a beaten ash path toward a precipice. He stooped and picked up an irregular pockmarked stone. “Pumice,” he decided. “We're on top of a volcano.”
“Great,” said Alex, who was further up the path. “And you are really not going to like where this portal is.”
Darwen and Rich took a few quick steps so they could see what she was looking at. They were standing at the very rim of the volcano crater. In front of them was a great rock bowl spewing smoke and steam from innumerable crags and gashes, and deep in the center was a thick black ooze that bubbled as they watched, the surface revealing a smoldering red heart. Spanning the crater was an iron bridge no more than three feet across, and in the middle was a wheel-like cluster of metal gateways where four huge scrobblers stood motionless in podlike sentry boxes.
“Twenty-five seconds,” said Alex.
“I'll lead,” said Rich, readying the blaster.
But at that instant they heard the telltale noise of the portals they had just come through. The scrobblers from the factory had followed them.
“Cover the rear!” shouted Darwen, purposefully setting his foot onto the iron bridge. It stirred slightly beneath him, swaying against its cable suspension. As Rich hesitated and fired a preliminary shot back the way they had come, Darwen locked his eyes on the sentries up ahead. They still hadn't moved. He took a step, then another, and he was running now, pounding the iron causeway so that it rang beneath his feet, Alex hot on his heels, Rich a step or two behind her. Darwen was halfway across when he saw a greenish light begin to glow around the sentry boxes. Moments later, the scrobblers inside them began to move.
Darwen kept running, but only because he didn't know what else to do. He had no weapon, and he was sprinting right into the arms of the scrobbler sentries. There was no room to hide or dodge, and one wrong step would mean a terrible fall into boiling lava.
He risked a look back and Alex ran right by him. Rich, meanwhile, had stopped shooting. He turned and Darwen could read the anguish in his face: the blaster was out of power.
“Come on!” Alex urged. “Those scrobblers ahead. They'reÂ .Â .Â . I don't know. Slow. Like they're just waking up.”
She was right. Instead of massing for assault, they seemed hesitant, uncertain, barely aware of what was happening. Darwen reached inside himself for another burst of speed and ran right between two of them and onto the central platform. One turned vaguely toward him, extending a heavily muscled arm.
Darwen shrugged it off, catching a glimpse of the monster's face. He was surprised to see watery blue eyes beneath the goggles. Every scrobbler he'd encountered before had had red eyes. But before Darwen could make any sense of this, the monster tried to clutch at him. He elbowed it hard in the ribs and the scrobbler staggered, misjudged its reach for the rail, and fell silently off the platform and down.
Darwen caught his breath, stepped into the inner circle of rusty, lifeless gates, and chose. He jammed the component into a socket above the controls and threw a lever. Slowly, very slowly, he heard the portal humming into life.
“Quick,” shouted Alex, slithering between two of the sentinels as they reached for her. If they had indeed been asleep, they were waking fast. “And you have eight seconds!” she added, wide-eyed.
Darwen pushed a button and flicked a switch. There was a hiss of steam and something thunked into place. “Rich!” he called.
Rich was running along the bridge and the scrobblers were coming after him, shooting so that one of the cables popped from its bracket and the whole causeway sagged dangerously.
“Four seconds!” called Alex.
At his back, the portal flickered into life, and Darwen backed into it, arm outstretched. He felt Alex push past him and through. And then, as his vision filled with the blundering scrobblers trying to reach for them, Rich was grabbing his hand and pulling himself in.
On the other side, Darwen didn't even turn to see where they were before dragging a wire from the metal gate frame so that its energy died, and with it any opportunity for the scrobblers to pursue them.
And that's when they heard the most welcome sound in the world.
“Darwen Arkwright!” said a tiny, familiar voice.
Darwen turned, took in the rich green of the forest and its ornate fountain, then found the source of the voice hovering a few feet in front of him.
“Hello, Moth,” he said.