Authors: A. J. Hartley
“Doesn't make sense,” he was muttering. “Should have seen one by now. The house is big, but it's not
“Where's Alex?” asked Darwen.
They had been right on her tail, but as they made the last turn of the hallway, there was neither sight nor sound of her.
“Alex!” called Rich.
His voice sounded unnaturally loud in the tight and dusty hallway, where it seemed no one had spoken for decades.
“Alex!” he called again. “Don't be fooling around now. I'm serious. Where are you?”
But there was no sound.
Darwen tried another door, which stuck and only yielded judderingly when he leaned his weight upon it. It opened with a high-pitched squeal, revealing a bathroom with an antique, claw-footed tub and no sign of Alex. He stepped out, dragging the door closed behind him.
“Not in there,” he began, then caught himself and looked wildly around. “Rich?”
But Rich was nowhere to be seen either.
“Not funny, Rich,” he said, opting for bravado. “Come on out.”
Darwen took three hurried strides down to the next corner and rounded it, half expecting to see both of them huddled together and giggling, but there was only more of the same moth-eaten carpet and blank wooden doors. No people. No windows. No way to gauge which way he should go.
Darwen pressed on to the next corner, the next door, behind which he found bunk beds and a nonsensically massive chandelier right in the middle of the room, then doubled back, his heart starting to race.
He was lost, and alone.
He tried another door and found himself on the edge of an impossibly large and empty swimming pool, lined with cracked tile. The room on the opposite side of the hall contained a huge snooker table with a polished bar at one end with high stools. When he came out, he tried finding his way back to the bathroom with the claw-footed tub, but he couldn't remember which way he had come. There was no sign of Rich or Alex anywhere.
. Not good at all.
He ran back around the corner to a T junction, which he was sure he'd seen earlier, but now a pair of those women statues that Rich had called caryatids stood on either side, and Darwen was certain they had not been there before. He considered them warily, studying their blank stone faces and closed eyes, while he chose which way to go. They were elegant and their stone clothes hung in finely chiseled folds, their heads bent slightly below their out-turned elbows, as if focused on the weight they were bearing, but there was something about their stillness that unnerved him. They wore belts from which hung long stone swords, and while they were only carved, they looked curiously sharp. It took him a moment to realize that though Rich had said the caryatids were structural, these twoâthough they had their hands above their heads like those in the lobbyâweren't actually supporting anything at all.
, he thought
, doesn't feel right.
Darwen edged around them, moving to the right, and called for Rich and Alex in a loud, slightly unsteady voice. No one replied.
There were no doors on this hallway so Darwen moved quickly until he came to a rickety-looking staircase. There was nowhere to go but back, so he began to climb, each step creaking beneath him as if he was the first person to tread on it for years. He was halfway up the square spiral when he heard something on the stairs below and behind him: a creaking footfall and a curious rustle as of fabric. Darwen stopped moving to listen, conscious that the hairs on his arms were prickling upright. When no sound drifted up to him, he took two hurried steps down and peered around the corner.
Where there had been nothing but the angular twist of the stairwell, there was now a single caryatid. The statue was motionless, caught in the moment of climbing the stairs, her arms no longer above her head, the long, keen-looking sword now held in front of her in one elegant stone hand. Darwen gasped, staring into the blank face with its closed eyes, but it did not move and gave no sign that it had not been standing in that very position for decades. Very slowly and carefully, making as little noise as possible, he began walking backward up the stairs, his eyes locked onto the caryatid till the corner of the stairwell hid her from view. Only then did he turn to face the right way and run up the steps two at a time.
He climbed ten, twenty steps, then stopped. In the sudden silence he heard the creak of a step below him, the familiar swish of fabric for a fraction of a second before it too fell utterly still. He took two steps down and peered around the corner, a throbbing sense of dread making his arms and legs tremble. He knew what he was going to see but couldn't stop himself from looking.
There, frozen mid-stride, was the caryatid, sword drawn back this time as if she was going to bring it slashing down, eyes still closed, body utterly motionless, even the material of her dress seemingly carved from solid rock.
Darwen didn't wait. He hurried back up the stairs, sure now that he was ascending one of the house's towers, perhaps the tallest one, the one with the door onto the balcony. He was suddenly desperate to see outside, even if he would be too high to make his escape that way. He rounded two more corners as he climbed, his legs starting to wobble with panic. There was a door at the top. He reached out to press the latch, and as it clicked home, he heard the rustle of fabric once more, this time right behind him. He turned quickly, and there it was, inches from where he stood, the stone woman with her sword raised over her head.
And this time, the eyes were open.
hatever the rest
of her was made of, the caryatid's eyes were not stone. They were amber and alive, and fastened on him with something like fury. Darwen was momentarily spellbound, then the caryatid came to lethal life, the sword swishing savagely through the air. He leapt backward through the unlocked door as the blade sliced into the doorframe, scattering splinters.
Darwen fell backward into the room, landing heavily on a stained hardwood floor. His eyes were locked on the figure in the doorway, which was poised to stride in and skewer him where he lay. He tried to get to his feet, but he was almost paralyzed with fear and couldn't wrest his gaze from the stone figure with the blazing eyes.
The caryatid straightened up, filling the doorway with her impossibly fluid stone form. Then, without warning, she turned her back on him, becoming still as a sentry as she blocked the door.
Darwen realized he had been holding his breath. He blew it out and inhaled deeply, finally managing to scramble to his feet, his eyes never leaving the caryatid's back. She did not move, and the sense of her being somehow on guard insisted itself to Darwen's mind ever more sharply.
But guarding what? Keeping others out, or keeping him in?
Darwen moved as far back as he could, then did a quick scan of the chamber before returning his gaze to the caryatid. The room was circular, or very nearly, and there were indeed windows all the way around it. Darwen thought Rich would be relieved, though the windows did seem curiously dark. Could he have been so lost in the house that he had lost track of time and it was now after sundown? That seemed unlikely, but then everything about this place was unlikely. He turned slowly, keeping the caryatid in the edge of his vision, and risked a closer look at the nearest panes of glass. He suppressed a gasp as he realized that they were not, in fact, windows at all, but floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a dozen of them.
No comfort for Rich after all
, he mused.
Darwen checked the caryatid again, but it was still as any statue, so he dared another look around the chamber.
In the middle of the room was a bed with a nightstand on which stood a glass of water. The bed was the only thing he had seen in the house so far that did not look like it belonged in a museum. Yes, it was as old as everything else in the mansion, but its covers had been kicked half off, and there was a clear depression in the pillow. Someone had slept in that bed recently.
It might stretch his sense of
, but Darwen hoped so. The caryatid still hadn't moved, so Darwen began to cautiously walk the perimeter of the room. At his back was a doorâpresumably the way to the balcony he had seen from the outsideânext to which was a tall grandfather clock, its hands set to twelve and its mechanism silent. But Darwen wasn't interested in that. All his attention was on the dark mirrors, through which he could see other places entirely.
As he got over the panic of running from the caryatid, he became aware of irregular noises coming from the various mirrors: movement, distant machinery, even snatches of what sounded like conversation. He became still again, terrified of giving his own presence away, and edged closer to a mirror that showed what he could only describe as a laboratory whose walls were lined with machinery, much of it hooked up to a series of coffin-like metal pods, each with a window about head height.
Darwen tested the surface of the mirror and, when it did not give to his touch, flattened his face against it to get a better look at the image on the other side. There was light inside the pods, and by that light he could make out strange faces. He gazed at them and then something in his brain clicked into place and he recognized what were surelyÂ .Â .Â .
There could be no doubt. They were huge and greenish, with protruding tusks, but they were also still, as if they were sleeping or dead. It took Darwen a moment to realize why he hadn't recognized the scrobblers for what they were at once: they wore no goggles. He shivered and double-checked that there were no controls around the mirror he might accidentally trigger if he wasn't careful. Fortunately, there weren't any; these were portals for looking through, hearing through, but you could not pass through them. Mr. Peregrineâif this was indeed his roomâhad used this place as a kind of observatory, not a means of transportation.
Before Darwen could examine the other mirrors, he heard footsteps on the tower steps: clumsy, running footsteps.
Rich and Alex. Darwen spun around. His friends were about to run right into the caryatid at the top of the stairs.
He dashed to the doorway and called over the armed statue's shoulder. “Rich? Alex? Don't come up any higher. There's something waiting for you!”
“Like a big stone something with a sword?” Alex's voice countered.
“Yes,” Darwen shouted back. “How did you know?”
“'Cause we got two more behind us,” she shouted. “Two behind, one ahead. You do the math.”
“No!” Darwen shouted, but he could hear them coming up. With no other choices to pick from, he prepared to grab the caryatid when it attacked them.
Fat lot of good that will do
, he thought.
But before he could devise an alternate plan, he saw Alex's anxious face peer around the corner. The stone of the caryatid seemed to ripple, and it came to life, the sword blade sweeping wide. Alex ran right at the door, Rich stomping up in her wake, and Darwen got a glimpse of the other caryatids that pursued them. He grabbed at the one in the doorway, trying to stay its sword arm, but the statue was impossibly strong, the flesh as cold and hard as granite. The caryatid didn't even bother shrugging him off, but it did step to the side, leaving the doorway wide open. Alex and Rich threw themselves into the room, and the three caryatids immediately turned their backs on them and became still.
“I don't think they can come in here,” said Darwen.
Rich, who looked sweaty and alarmed, stared at what were now three stone sentries and shook his head.
“I don't think it's that they can't come in,” he said. “I think they wanted us in here.”
“Like it's a prison?” asked Alex.
“Maybe,” said Rich. “But I'm not sure they were really trying to hurt us.”
“What?” Alex demanded. “Are you forgetting the whole chasing-us-with-giant-swords thing?”
“I'm saying they kind of herded us up here,” said Rich. “Like dogs moving sheep.”
“You calling me a sheep?” Alex said warningly.
“Hold it,” said Darwen. “Rich may be right. I think those things are like guards, but I don't know that they mean us harm. In fact, they brought us to the one place that seems like it really has a connection to Mr. P. Look,” he said, nodding at the unmade bed.
“But even if this was his room,” said Alex, “how does putting us in here help us or him?”
“Not sure yet,” said Darwen, “but check out these mirrors. I don't think they're portals, just sort of viewing points. We can see and hear through them, but I don't think there's a way for us to pass through.”
“You're right,” said Rich. “This must be a surveillance room. Or, better yet, a watchtower. I'm guessing this was where Mr. P kept an eye on things in other places.”
“Why these?” said Darwen. “I can't tell what I'm looking at. This looks like some kind of lab with scrobblers in it.”
Rich peered over his shoulder and they both stared into the glass and the dimly lit chamber beyond. Each of the windows had a brass plate inscribed with a four-digit number, but there seemed to be no connection among the various codes.
“Guys,” said Alex from the other side of the room. “I think you're gonna want to see this.”
As they crossed to her, she did not take her eyes off the mirror she was gazing into, the plate above which read 8449. “There,” she said, pointing.
It was, Darwen supposed, another kind of laboratory, though it was quite different from the one they had just been looking at. There was movement inside: two men, one in a white coat, the other in greasy overalls. Not the headless gnashers with their shark-mouth chests and snake tongues. Not the brutal scrobblers that were Greyling's soldiers: ordinary men.
“You think they can see us?”
Alex and Rich just stared in silence.
The man in the lab coat had a clipboard and was making notes while the other lugged a coil of heavy wire to a set of tanks filled with green fluid in which odd shapes floated.
“Not that one,” said the man in the lab coat, pointing. “
Darwen winced at the sound, but neither man showed any sign of awareness that they were being watched.
“What difference does it make?” said the other gruffly, plugging the wire into one of the pods.
“Trust me,” said the one in the lab coat, his voice lilting with a curiously musical accent that Darwen found vaguely familiar, “it makes a difference, look you. Just do as you're told, for once.”
“Or what?” said the bigger man. “You think the odd bods will take your word over mine if you go whining about my work? Fat chance.”
Only then did Darwen process the tanks of liquid that Alex had been staring at. They were the size of Darwen's bedroom and, had they been at the Georgia Aquarium, would have been large enough to hold a dazzling array of colorful fish and even a couple of small sharks. But they weren't full of fish.
Floating motionless inside, his face slightly flattened against the glass, was Mr. Peregrine.
It was too awful. The shopkeeper looked impossibly old, haggard, faded somehow. He was naked except for a series of straps and a metal contraption fitted about his head, half tiny cage, half bridleâfrom which wires ran to equipment outside the tank. His usually bright eyes were closed, and his wispy hair drifted back and forth in the currents of the bubbling tank. It was, Darwen thought, the saddest thing he had ever seen.
“He's dead,” said Darwen.
Alex silently took his hand and squeezed it, but Darwen couldn't look away.
“He's not,” said Rich. “That makes no sense.”
“Doesn't have to make sense,” said Alex. “Look at him.”
“If he was dead, why would they keep him in there?” Rich persisted. “He's not dead. He's in some kind of stasis.”
Darwen wrenched his gaze from Mr. Peregrine's lifeless face and looked into Rich's eyes, searching for any sign that this was just wishful thinking. Rich stared back at him and his gaze was level, determined. He believed he was right.
“Alex?” asked Darwen. “What do you think?”
“Makes a kind of Silbrican sciencey sense,” she said. “Can't say I like it, but it's better than the alternative.”
“So we just have to get there,” said Darwen, considering the two men. The one in the lab coat was studying his clipboard while the other paced silently, occasionally tapping on the glass of the tank like a kid in the zoo. Why were there peopleâhumansâmonitoring Mr. Peregrine?
“Where is it, though?” asked Alex, as if reading his mind. “I mean, is it Silbrica or our world?”
Darwen was forced to shrug. He suddenly felt tired and defeated. “I don't know,” he said. “He's right there. If we could just step throughÂ .Â .Â .”
“What was that?” asked Rich. He had straightened up and his head was cocked on one side, listening intently.
“What was what?” asked Alex.
“Shh,” hissed Rich.
“Excuse me?” said Alex, putting her hands on her hips.
“Alex,” said Rich, eyes squeezed closed, “for once in your life, shut up.”
Alex's eyebrows just about climbed off her head, but she said nothing, and at that very moment, the house shook with a deafening animal bellow from below. It was as if an impossibly oversized grizzly had roared immediately below them. Darwen put his hands to his ears and winced, as if the whole place was exploding, but the noise stopped as quickly as it had come.
,” said Alex. “Yeah, I heard that.”
Rich took a step toward the door. All but one of the caryatids had gone.
“Something's coming,” said Rich.
And now they could all hear it, a dragging groan of a sound, like something huge pulling itself slowly through the house. There were footfalls within the noise, vast and heavy and slow, like the steps of an elephant, but there was also a strange scraping that didn't stop, as if the sides of the creatureâwhatever it wasâwere rubbing against the walls as it moved. They heard the creak and snap of breaking furniture, the shattering of falling pictures and crockery as it shambled inexorably through the house. Darwen was sure the sound was getting louder.
“Whatever it is,” said Rich, “it's big.”
Then there was another earthshaking roar, followed by a terrible wailing scream that lit the air for a moment, and then was gone.