Authors: A. J. Hartley
“You're staying here tonight?” asked Simon Agu as he passed, carrying a stack of books. “After what happened yesterday? You're braver than me.”
“What happened yesterday?” asked Darwen.
“You're kidding, right?” said Simon. “Naia, Melissa, Jennifer, and Bobby Park all saw ghosts.
. Naia saw two at the same time. They were in our homeroom. She was just finishing up some work and there they were: two of them. Floating about.”
“What did they do?” asked Rich.
“Do?” said Simon. “They scared her half to death is what they did.”
“Just by being there, though, right?” Rich pressed. “Not by attacking her or something.”
Simon was affronted. “There were two ghosts in the room with her!” he exclaimed. “One of them had this really weird face with big teeth. That's not scary enough?”
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
At the end of the day, as the other kids filed out to their clubs and the waiting cars driven by their attentive parents, Darwen, Rich, and Alex found themselves alone in the very homeroom class where Naia had had her spectral encounter.
“Just close the door when you're done,” said Miss Harvey, who seemed more cautious than usual. It was rumored that the janitor had reported seeing a spectral apparition in the basement of the clock tower and that he had discussed it with Mrs. Frumpelstein, who had confessed to glimpsing something similar while she was grading papers after school the previous evening. Even the teachers were getting nervous. “Don't get in the way of the workmen,” said Miss Harvey, “and if you see anythingÂ .Â .Â . out of the ordinary, stay together and call the principal's office. Principal Thompson will be working late this evening.”
“Right, miss,” said Darwen, eyeing the scaffold in the quadrangle, where two men were hoisting tools up to the new window in the clock tower. “I mean, ma'am,” he added to her retreating back.
They listened to the clack of her heels down the hall.
“She seems back to normal,” said Alex. “I mean, normal for here.”
“The Hillside teachers aren't
weird, Alex,” said Rich. “My dad says you have an unhealthy fixation with everyone around you being strange.”
“Your dad said âunhealthy fixation'?” said Alex, dubious rather than offended.
“Got it off some TV show,” Rich began, stopping when he realized that Alex was looking past him to where a face had appeared in the glass panel of the classroom door.
“Eileen!” Darwen exclaimed, getting to his feet as she came in. “What are you doing here?”
Rich nearly fell out of his chair. He stood hurriedly, his face flushing.
“Hi,” said Eileen. She looked small, Darwen thought, and a little sad, as if their last disastrous return to the school was still on her mind. “I'm sorry. I just wanted to see whether you guys were making any progress with regard to Octavius. I can't go to your place anymore, so I figured I'd try to catch you here.” She had a huge canvas duffel bag slung over her shoulder. To Darwen's inquiring look, she just shrugged. “Blaster,” she said. “Only has a few shots left, but I take it everywhere now. Paranoid, I guess.”
Eileen set the bag on a nearby desk, and Rich immediately opened it and began studying the blaster. “I can't get any more power to this,” said Rich, looking up from the triple-barreled blaster, “but if you adjust these gauges here, I'll bet you could get one big punch out of it. 'Course, it may just turn it into a giant flashlight.Â .Â .Â .”
Before Eileen could respond, the classroom door cannoned open and Mr. Stuggs lumbered in. He was stooping, his head thrust forward in a way that looked oddly bearlike, his beady eyes scanning the students as if choosing which to go after. Eileen took a step back, snatching up the blaster, and Stuggs advanced on her, his arms bent and fingers spread like a wrestler in his fighting stance. Rich stood too, ready to step into the teacher's path if he attacked, and Mr. Stuggs considered him, snarling. Darwen was the furthest away and could only watch anxiously. Stuggs's eyes had none of the casual smugness they usually held: they were mad and cruel. This was going to be bad.
And then the electric light in the room brightened and the distant humming sound they had barely been aware of went away. Mr. Stuggs considered his hands for a moment, bemused, then straightened up and ducked out of the room quickly, as if embarrassed.
“An unhealthy fixation, huh?” said Alex.
Rich said nothing. He was trembling with tension.
“It's getting worse,” said Darwen. “Whatever it is, it's lasting longer.”
“Yes,” said Rich. “The lights dimmed, did you notice?”
“They did before too,” said Darwen. “So that means what, that it's electrical?”
“Or spectral,” said Alex. “Maybe there's a link to the ghost stories. Some kind of energy spike.”
“I don't believe in ghosts,” said Rich.
“Got any better ideas?” asked Alex.
“Actually,” said Rich, “I might.” He went to the door, angling his head so that he could see across the corridor and into the quadrangle beyond, where the workmen were carrying tools and spools of wire. “What exactly are they doing out there?” he said. He was looking through the classroom door and out to the quadrangle, where a man in blue coveralls was unrolling a spool of cable across the grass at the foot of the clock tower.
“Supposed to be a computer-and-communication system, right?” said Alex with a shrug. “They are probably connecting speakers out there. If the weather is fine, that's where they'll be holding the gala. See? They're building a stage.”
“The cable could be for the PA and lights,” said Rich thoughtfully.
“But we already know that that window is a portal to the shadow school,” said Darwen. “So laying lots of cable round it worries me.”
“It's not just around it,” said Rich, peering out. “It's up the whole tower. Could they be doing something that is causing these weird moments with the teachers?”
“Not just the teachers,” said Darwen. “It affected my aunt too.”
“Doesn't make any sense,” said Rich. “I gotta check this out.”
Without waiting to see what the others thought, he stepped out into the hallway and made his way around to the door into the quadrangle. Eileen shoved her blaster back into her duffel bag and followed.
“Uh-oh,” said Alex, watching Rich. “Captain Science smells adventure. Look at him. He's like Sasha when my mom fries bacon: hotter than a dancing bobcat.”
“Hotter than what?” Darwen asked, following.
“It's a well-known Southern phrase,” said Alex.
Darwen gave Eileen a glance and she just shook her head as if to say,
No, it's not
. Darwen grinned and Eileen managed to return something similar.
They all spilled out onto the quadrangle lawn, where they found themselves gazing up to a stage built just beneath the still-draped stained glass window.
“You kids can't be out here,” said the man in the coveralls. “It's dangerous.”
“We're just researching a report for the school paper,” said Alex easily. “Can I have your picture?”
The man's attitude changed immediately. He looked far less grumpy and puffed his chest out. “School paper, huh?” he said.
“Yeah, but the local NBC affiliate follows us pretty closely,” Alex lied.
“Yeah?” said the man. “No kidding?”
“Fancy school gets new technology while the public schools are bursting out of trailers,” said Alex with a knowing look. “You know the kind of thing.”
“Right,” said the man. “My name's Ed McGinnis. Two
“Got it,” said Alex, producing her mother's dead cell phone. “Say
He did so and she mimed taking a picture.
“I'm about done for the day,” said Mr. McGinnis, “but if there's anything I can tell youÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“What are those wires for?” said Rich, pointing.
“Power supply,” said McGinnis.
“To what?” Rich pressed.
“Those,” he said, nodding to each side of the stage, where two open wire racks sat. Darwen thought they looked like satellite receivers or the kind of radar dishes you saw rotating in old war movies.
“What do they do?” asked Rich.
“That I couldn't tell you,” said McGinnis, looking slightly abashed and checking Alex to be sure she wasn't recording. “I just install 'em.”
“Great,” muttered Rich sarcastically.
“Yeah, that's great!” said Alex, very cheery before McGinnis could grasp Rich's tone. “That's really helpful. I'll try to make sure NBC interviews you when they take the story for
“Not that I
to be on the news or nothing,” McGinnis lied, “but sure. Right. Well, I'll leave you to it. Don't touch anything.”
“Wouldn't dream of it.” Alex beamed.
He got his tools together and left, walking through the quadrangle without even glancing back.
“He's very trusting,” said Eileen.
“Nah,” said Alex. “He just doesn't take kids seriously. And adults will do anything to get on TV.”
Rich was pacing the perimeter, studying the wiring, his face creased into a thoughtful frown.
“What?” said Darwen.
“This is all wrong,” said Rich. “This cable is designed to handle massive power, way more than any PA or lighting rig could need, and most of it is going in the wrong direction. Look! Those black wires running that way go to the outlets on the wall.”
“That's fine,” said Rich. “But what about those red ones? They go up the tower from that rack thing, as if the power source was up there, not down here.”
Darwen looked where Rich was pointing. He was right. “Maybe they're for hanging lights?”
“No,” said Rich. “The cable plugs into those transformer things there, then into the racks themselves. I don't know what they do, but when they are switched on, the racks themselves will be live. And where's the power source? Looks like it's up in the clock, but that doesn't make any sense. There are two completely separate systems here in addition to the power for the sound and lights, and I don't know what either of them do.”
“Hey,” said Alex from over by the clock tower. “Check this out.”
There was another transformer, this one quite different. It appeared to be connected to the main electrical supply, though it also seemed to feed into the clock. On top of it, surmounted by lights and dials, was a control box with a single heavy metal lever.
“This has scrobbler technology written all over it,” said Darwen.
Rich nodded. “What do you suppose it does?” he asked.
“One way to find out,” said Alex.
And she pulled the lever.
Shadows and Ghosts
ich shouted for
her to stop, but it was too late. The lever thunked home and there was a curious sigh, a long, slow gasp that seemed to come from all around them. Then nothing.
“Maybe it's not hooked up properly,” said Alex.
“I don't know,” said Darwen. “I feltÂ .Â .Â . something.”
“Most of the cables aren't attached,” said Rich. “Whatever it tried to do took more power than the system had access to. Still, that was a really stupid stunt, Alex.”
“We don't have a lot of time to play Sherlock Holmes,” she returned, defiant. “And besides, no harm, no foul, right? It didn't do anything. Not getting enough power to the thingy.”
“Guys,” said Eileen. “Is it me, or is it getting darker?”
Rich checked his watch but then looked up into the sky. Darwen did too and was baffled to see the light thickening even as he looked. It was as if time had sped up and the sun had set, except that it didn't feel truly like night either. There were no stars. No moon. It was simplyÂ .Â .Â . dark.
Darwen gazed around him, and something else struck him. The shape and texture of the school buildings were shifting. Everything was roughly as it had been, but the hard angles were becoming rounded and irregular. Darwen turned slowly, peering at what was but somehow was
Hillside Academy. The roofline was growing craggy and the glass in the quadrangle windows was fading to nothing. It looked almost as if the window frames had become holes carved into ancient, natural rock by centuries of wind and rain.Â .Â .Â .
“It's the shadow school!” Darwen gasped.
“Two different worlds inhabiting the same space,” breathed Rich. “Not good. Not good at all.”
And that was when Darwen noticed that in one corner of the quadrangle, the darkness was deeper still. He stared at it and it shifted fractionally so that for a second it seemed roughly human-shaped, if large and crouching. He felt his mouth go dry as he watched it stand tall, far bigger than any living man, and then it moved like a shadow flashing across the walls and was suddenly thirty feet closer.
He had seen one of these before and knew what it felt to be inside its terrible embrace: the darkness, the silence, the sense of drowning in the airless space.
“A Shade!” Darwen cried, pointing.
Even as he said it, it moved, momentarily winking out of existence and appearing only a few yards from where Alex stood. She shrieked and ran, and the Shade rippled, a column-shaped hole in the night. It shifted again, fractionally this time, its edges blurring and re-forming like a shadow on water, and Darwen felt it watching them, sizing them up like a lion among lambs. Choosing.
“Any of that magnesium ribbon in your pocket?” Darwen asked Rich, recalling the dazzling light they had used to dispel the last Shade they encountered. That was the only way to fight them: light, brilliant to the point of being blinding.
Rich shook his head, his eyes on the impenetrable darkness. “I've got nothing,” he said.
Without warning there was a bang and a flash: Eileen's blaster. The shot tore straight through the Shade, the light of the charge opening a hole in it almost a foot across. But as the shot exploded against the stone of the quadrangle, the hole closed itself and the Shade moved again. Eileen's action had succeeded in doing nothing but making the Shade's mind up. In under a second it was on her.
Another shot rang out, tearing through the Shade harmlessly and shooting up into the night.
“No!” shouted Rich, pounding across the grass toward where Eileen was now lost in the surging mass of empty blackness.
“Alex,” called Darwen, “pull the lever back!”
He doubted it would get rid of the Shade, and it wouldn't save Eileen, but it might stop anything else from crossing over from the shadow school. As Alex stepped back toward the mechanism, Darwen watched in horror as Rich took a breath and leapt into the Shade. The creature seemed to hesitate as if surprised, and then began thrashing and flickering all the more. In the process, Eileen fell out and onto the ground, her eyes wide, face pale. Darwen ran to her as she gasped for air, but his eyes were on Richâor ratherâthe surging black nothing where Rich had been.
, he thought desperately.
Something. Maybe if the stage lights had been hooked up to the power?
But there wasn't time for that. Rich had seconds left to live. The only thing Darwen could do to save his friend was distract the thing that was drowning him in the hope that they would get away. He did the only thing he could, the same thing Rich had done. He charged it.
He was entering the black emptiness of the Shade when he was thrown back by a blaze of light erupting from inside the monster. The Shade shrieked once as it was ripped into nothing, and there, on the ground, looking dazed and exhausted, was Rich, cradling the charred remains of Eileen's blaster.
“Overloaded the power cell,” he managed. “Switched off the cannon so that all remaining energy emerged as a single pulse of light.”
“Alex, did youâ” Darwen began, but a look at her told him all he needed to know. No, she hadn't reset the lever, and he could see why. At the empty stone windows of the quadrangle, ghostly figures were collecting. Alex was staring at them, terrified.
As before, some were the merest smudges of gray light, others were more distinct and clearly human, clearlyânow that he saw them properlyâchildren. One whose outline was firmer than the rest was drifting toward them through the doorway into the quadrangle.
“Alex!” called Darwen. “Pull the lever!”
But Alex was staring at the pale figure gliding out to meet them. It was, without question, a girl, and when it drifted a little closer, making directly for Alex, Darwen felt almost sure that it was in factÂ .Â .Â .
“Naia!” gasped Alex. “It's Naia Petrakis! How is that possible?”
Darwen stared. Alex was right. The ghostly figure was none other than their classmate, hovering only feet from Alex now, one hand outstretched.
“Pull the lever!” Darwen called again, and this time, Alex blinked, as if waking up, and seized the metal arm of the machine and shoved it hard back to where it had been. Immediately the air around them seemed to shudder, then lighten, and the ghostly figures were fading to nothing. The last to go was the one closest to them, the one that looked like a pale, spectral version of Naia Petrakis.
“You think that means she'sÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” Rich hesitated.
“Dead?” said Darwen, watching with amazement as the Hillside buildings took their familiar, hard-edged shape around them. “I don't think so. I mean, they look like ghosts, but that doesn't mean they are, right?”
“She was wearing the owl bracelet,” said Alex thoughtfully. She was still gazing at the space where the Naia apparition had been. “The one that was stolen to fuel the scrobbler generator, remember? Sheâthe ghost thingâhad it on her wrist.”
“I think,” said Darwen carefully, “that they're like the buildings. They're, like, echoes of us, but some are stronger, more conscious than others.”
“Why?” asked Rich.
“I'm guessing that it must have something to do with their contact with Silbrica. That's why the Naia we just saw was wearing her bracelet.”
“But why would Naia attack us?” asked Alex.
“I'm not sure she was doing,” said Darwen. “Everyone who has seen them has been scared because they look like ghosts, but no one has been hurt by them. Perhaps they aren't trying to do us harm at all.”
“What about the one who raised the alarm when we were there last time?” said Alex, giving Darwen a shrewd look. “The ugly one? I'm pretty sure he wanted to hurt us.”
“It looked like a scrobbler,” said Darwen. “Or halfway to being one.”
“Halfway from what?” asked Rich.
“From Chip Whittley.”
He had expected disbelief, even indignation at the suggestion, but Alex was unsurprised. “That so figures,” she snorted. “If anyone would side with Greyling, it would be him.”
“He was actually in Silbrica only a couple of months ago,” added Rich. “Maybe that's why he seems more solid than the others. But why does his echo look like he's partway to being a scrobbler?”
Darwen shook his head.
Alex formed her hands into fists. “That weasel. When I see Chip, the real Chip, I mean, I'm gonna take him out to the woodshed.”
“You're going to take him where?” asked Darwen.
“Means I'm gonna give him a beating,” said Alex. “It's an expression.”
Darwen glanced at Eileen and this time she shrugged and nodded agreement, even if no one believed Alex could give Chip any kind of beating. “You should probably give that back to me,” Eileen said, turning to Rich. She nodded at the burned-out blaster he still cradled in his arms.
“It's dead, I'm afraid,” he said, handing it sheepishly to Eileen, “but I guess it did the jobâ”
He would have said more, but Eileen had thrown her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said. “If you hadn'tÂ .Â .Â . I'll never forget it.”
Rich didn't speak again for the next ten minutes, during which time his face was so red that Alex started calling him Rudolph and observed that if they were attacked by another Shade, they would be able to banish it by pointing Rich's head at it. Darwen laughed, but Eileen, for all her gratitude, still looked badly shaken and her smile was strained. The four of them sat on the grass and looked around at the Hillside quadrangle.
No one spoke, and despite the hot Atlanta night Darwen felt strangely cold. Something was coming to Hillside. Something new that involved the shadow school actually materializing on this very spot. Darwen did not need to wonder when. Greyling would strike as he had done at the Halloween Hop, when the whole school, their friends, their families would be in attendance, and they had no Mr. Peregrine to turn to for help.
“Whatever is going to happen,” he said, “it's going to happen during the gala.”
“Why?” asked Alex. “Wouldn't he want to be more sneaky? Why pick the one time when the place is packed with people?”
“I don't know,” said Darwen, “but that window is going to be unveiled tomorrow night and it's at the heart of whatever he's planning. I don't know why, but my hunch is that he wants people to see it come online.”
“It's not finished,” said Rich, considering the equipment and the hanging cables. “Maybe we could sabotage the machinery. Stop it from happening.”
“Would at least slow him down,” Alex agreed.
“It also tells him we've guessed his plans,” said Darwen, vetoing the suggestion, “and we lose the element of surprise. I think we go after him in his world first.”
be pretty surprising,” said Alex. “Since it's likely to get us killed.”
“I think that if we're here tomorrow night,” Rich said, “when Greyling brings the shadow school to Hillside, we get killed anyway.”
“If Greyling is going to bring his reality into ours,” said Darwen, nodding his agreement, “we have to assume that, despite whatever technology is set up here, the controls will be largely at his end. I say we go after him there, and that means finding Mr. Peregrine and any allies we can get. Tonight.”
He and Rich looked at Alex.
“Okay,” she said at last. “Doesn't totally answer the question of how we're going to do it, but yeah, that sounds like one of our plans.”
Rich took a breath, suppressing a smile, then nodded.
“I'm sorry,” Eileen interjected. “But I”âshe fought to say the wordsâ“I don't think I can help you.”
The others stared at her.
“It's just that I'm of no use to you. Without being able to open portals, I'm aÂ .Â .Â .” Her voice broke. “A hindrance.”
“What are you talking about?” said Rich. “I just learned how to open portals. And Darwen brought me to Silbrica loads of times before.”
Eileen waved Rich silent. “That's sweet of you, but I'll just get in the way and slow you down like I did with the Shade. My time in Silbrica is done.” She turned to face Darwen. “I'm sorry, Darwen, but I can't help. Not in that wayÂ .Â .Â .”
“No,” said Rich. “You'll be really useful to us. Won't she, Darwen?”
Darwen looked at Eileen, searching for the right answer. Instinctively he felt they were stronger together, that she would be useful to have around, but her eyes were determined. He gave her a questioning look, and the shake of her head was final and strangely sad. “You know what?” said Darwen, trying to look upbeat. “You stay here. Maybe when the time is right, you could disrupt the technology here, yeah? An ally on this side will be dead helpful, especially if we get stuck on the other side.”
“Thanks,” Eileen replied. She looked down quickly, but not before Darwen saw a tear slide down her cheek. For a long moment she did not look up, but then she fished in her pocket and added, “You'll want this.” She produced a round compact Darwen had seen her use many times. She flipped it open and showed Darwen the mirror inside. “There are two buttons on the side. Press this one”âshe did a demonstration with her fingerâ“and you'll get me.”