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The keep of ages, p.19
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       The Keep of Ages, p.19

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  I ease out of his arms and touch my way back into the cottage. Dubbs is still sleeping on the couch, and I curl up next to her feet.

  Linus lights a couple of candles. He brings pillows and blankets in from the bedroom, and he moves the crate along the wall, making room to stretch out on the rug. Slowly, I crawl off the couch into the nest of blankets and curl a pillow under my cheek. It feels like forever since I slept somewhere safe. Maybe this will work. Maybe I won’t have nightmares. Linus settles behind me and gently smooths another blanket over my shoulder.

  “Warm enough?” he whispers.

  I nod.

  Night comes. One candle still burns in a dish on the crate before the windows, where I don’t have to worry that it will accidentally set fire to anything. Arself is gone still, just as she should be. I press my thumbnail against the gap in my teeth and watch the flame burn, hungry for its steady light.

  * * *

  The butterfly is back. It drifts under the dim dome above me, and I sense it up there, each noiseless flutter of gray wings, even with my eyes closed and covered with gel. I can feel the blue light on my face as a faint, phosphorescent prickling along my skin, and my body is long and weighty, stretched out in the cool hollow of my sleep shell.

  Come to me, I plead with the butterfly. It flies lower and nearer in an aimless, meandering path until it hovers over the sleep shell beside mine, and then it flies nearer still. It stretches out its tiny, fragile legs and lands above my face, where it clings to the upper side of my glass lid and folds its wings up like a prayer. Dainty, it takes a step. It brushes its minuscule paws along its proboscis, like it would sip from the glass if it could.

  And I, captive beneath the glass, I would do anything to be that butterfly and fly out to a world of clear blue air. It opens its wings and readies itself. I have only one chance. I summon all my strength. As the butterfly lifts off, I smash my hand upward through the glass and grab the butterfly out of the air. Its powdery wings are crushed between my fingers, but only for an instant before the butterfly twists and hardens. It grows at an alarming rate. It expands and transforms into a dragon, first with chicken skin and then with scales. Black and heavy, it swipes its wings at me, but I have a grip on its ankle and I won’t let go. I can’t ever let go. This is my one chance to escape. The dragon lurches into the air, dragging the weight of me, but it rises only a couple of yards before I feel a horrible weight pulling back at my ankle.

  I twist to look down. A dreamer in a pale gown with gel on her eyes has me by the ankle, gripping me so tightly I can’t get free. The dragon manages to pull us upward a bit farther, and then a little more. But below my dreamer, another dreamer takes her by the ankle, and beneath her, still another dreamer grabs tight to her ankle. We’re a chain of dreamers, each grasping tight to the ankle of the one before us. The dragon strains with its wings, but it will never get free of the vault, and we will never let go, and the agony of the struggle will never be over.

  I wake with a gasp and bolt upright, struggling to breathe.

  I’m in the dark living room of Lavinia’s cottage, with the distant crashing of the ocean down below. Dubbs lies on the wicker couch just behind me. Linus is in a bundle of blankets to my left. I reach for the matchbox, and with trembling fingers, I strike a light.

  “Rosie? What is it?” Linus asks.

  I touch the flame to the wick, and the candle comes to life.

  “You’re shaking,” Linus says. Candlelight flickers along his profile and glints off his eye, the blind one.

  “I had a nightmare,” I whisper. Then I feel her, Arself, slithering slow and heavy through my internal shadows. Waking up is almost as bad as dreaming.

  “Come here,” Linus says softly. “What was it about?”

  “The vault,” I say. “I don’t want to think about it, though.”

  “Remember the beach,” he says. “All that sunlight.”

  As I recall the gilded light over the water, the worst of my tension eases away. Linus shifts to sit beside me and snuggles his arm around me. I lean into his warmth, resting my cheek against his sweatshirt.

  “Why do you suppose your dad told you that story about the fish and the bird?” I ask.

  “I used to think it was about him and my mother,” he says thoughtfully. With a gentle, sustained tug, he uncoils a lock of my hair. “Dad was always a bit out of his element in Wales. Mum was the same here in the States once we moved. Now, though, I think it’s more about how people can be different and still love each other.”

  I picture the bird and the fish meeting at the surface of the air. “Do you think I’m different?” I ask.

  “From me? I know you are.”

  He makes it sound like a good thing.

  I stare at the candle flame for a long moment while the waves continue their heavy beat below. “Sometimes, when I hear a voice or have a nightmare, it’s like the vault is dragging me back,” I say. “Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll never be free.”

  “Maybe not,” he says.

  Startled, I shift so I can see his face. His eyes are near and steady in the candlelight. He hasn’t attempted to reassure me, but then, with a sense of relief, I realize he’s done something better. He’s understood.

  At that moment, a sweep of headlights passes over the front windows. It could be Lavinia, but what if it isn’t? I take a quick look at Dubbs, and then I blow out the candle. The car wheels crunch slowly under the carport.

  Together, Linus and I shift to the front windows. I wish I had a weapon. A bat or a crowbar or something. I miss Lavinia’s knife. I reach back for the branch of driftwood that Dubbs brought up from the beach.

  A car door opens.

  Then I hear a female voice that sounds like Lavinia’s, and a quiet answer from someone else. A flashlight flickers along the porch.

  “Watch your step,” Lavinia says, just outside.

  Before she can bother with her key, I set aside the driftwood and open the door to let her in. Lavinia carries a large gray cat against her chest and, with her other hand, she wields a big flashlight. Behind her, Burnham Fister steps into the house with a duffel and a couple of shopping bags. Surprised, I stare. As his eyes meet mine, he gives me a big, warm smile.

  “Well, hello! You’re up,” he says. He lowers his gear to the floor and pulls me into his arms for a massive hug.

  * * *

  I’m happy to see him, positively. I’m also amazed, and I shouldn’t be. This is Burnham. He said he was coming. I just didn’t believe him. I give his back a chummy pat and awkwardly extricate myself.

  “What are you doing here?” I whisper, and lift my finger to my lips. “Dubbs is sleeping.”

  “Thea sent me,” Burnham says in a hush.

  “Thea did?” I say, astonished. That meddling stinker.

  “I was coming anyway, but she approved,” Burnham says. His gaze goes past me. “Pitts. Good to see you, as always.”

  “Fister,” Linus replies.

  “Close the door there,” Lavinia says. “I don’t want Tiny getting out.”

  Burnham reaches to comply, and as Lavinia lowers her cat to the floor, I look back to see Dubbs is still a small, sleeping mound on the couch.

  “Come on in the bedroom,” Lavinia says quietly. “Let the girl sleep.”

  In the little bedroom, Lavinia steps out of her loafers and turns on a small, battery-operated camping lamp in the corner. It would have been handy if I’d noticed it earlier, and now it sends a practical circle of light toward the ceiling. Lavinia props a pillow against the headboard and sits on the bed, stretching her feet out before her. Tiny curls up beside Lavinia’s knees and starts licking a paw.

  “Goodness, what a day,” Lavinia says. “Have a seat.”

  She points to the opposite corner of her bed, and I slide onto the faded bedspread.

  “What happened to you?” I ask.

  “What didn’t happen to me,” she says. Her bright eyes scan over me. “Have you talked to Berg?”

nbsp; “No,” I say.

  “He left an ominous message on my machine,” she says. “Perfectly polite, of course. He said your parents are at Grisly. He said it’s time for a reunion.”

  I glance toward Linus. It’s as we thought.

  “Did Berg say when?” I ask.

  She shakes her head. “He wants you to call him.”

  I’m afraid to call Berg. He’ll threaten me, for sure. All he has to do is hurt my parents, and I won’t be able to withstand him.

  “Does he know where I am?” I ask.

  “I certainly hope not,” Lavinia says. “He’s no dummy, though. He left me that nice message, so he suspects I know where you are. It might take him some time to realize I’ve gone and trace us here, however.” She nods to Linus. “There’s another box in the backseat of my car. Bring it in and pour me a scotch, won’t you?”

  Linus slants a look at me, and then steps out.

  Burnham is facing out the window, though it’s so dark now I doubt he can see the water. He’s wearing a brown, button-down shirt, and a brace over his jeans encases his knee like a mini cage. His left wrist is tightly curled, as before, and his dark skin gleams gray in the cool light of the lamp. He’s wearing his grandfather’s watch, and I can just make out the glint of his St. Christopher medal beneath his shirt. When he turns, resting back against the windowsill, his black-rimmed glasses briefly reflect a glare, and there’s a new, hard stubbornness about his jaw.

  In the next room, the front door audibly opens and closes.

  A short laugh escapes me. “I still can’t believe you’re here.”

  “Where else would I be?” Burnham says.

  “In Atlanta? In your bed?”

  “I couldn’t sleep,” he says.

  From someone else, it might be a joke, but I suspect he’s speaking the truth.

  “What happened to your cheek?” he asks me.

  I’d practically forgotten my bruise, but I touch the tender skin now. “One of the doctors hit me down in the vault. I’m okay now.”

  He goes on staring, like he’s doubtful I’m all right. His concern makes me tense.

  “Do your parents know you’re out here?” I ask.

  He smiles for real. “I can’t just take my parents’ plane without asking. I told them I was coming out for Comic Con.”

  “Is that going on?” I ask.

  “It is. In L.A.”

  That’s convenient for an excuse. Still, I wish he didn’t have to lie to his parents for my sake.

  “How did you know where to find me?” I ask Burnham.

  “I asked Thea,” Burnham says. “She gave me Lavinia’s address.”

  “She didn’t mention that to me,” I say.

  He tilts his face. “She only told me yesterday. I’ve been trying to reach you, but you never got back to me, so I was worried.”

  Faintly, a car door slams. I glance at Lavinia, who’s watching me and Burnham with interest.

  “Don’t mind me,” she says.

  “No,” I say, feeling my cheeks get warm. “There’s nothing—Burnham and I are just friends.”

  Burnham’s smile turns faintly ironic.

  “Mm-hmm,” Lavinia says.

  I let out an awkward laugh and glare at him.

  “How’s your sister?” Burnham says.

  “She’s okay, I think, for now,” I say, wishing I could stop blushing. What is wrong with me?

  The front door quietly opens and closes again.

  “How’s your family?” I ask.

  “They’re good,” Burnham says. “They’re all good.”

  Linus enters with a short, empty glass and a bottle of scotch.

  “You brought a supply,” he says to Lavinia. “Plan on staying a while?” He uncorks the bottle with a sucking sound, and then pours her an inch of the amber liquid.

  “Looks like it,” she says, taking the glass. “My place on Mallorca is surrounded by cameras. I can shoot them out, but Berg will only send someone to put up more. It’s time for a vacation.” She tosses back her scotch and signals to Linus to pour her another.

  He does. Then he sets the bottle on her nightstand and leans his shoulders back against the wall, folding his arms over his chest. His gaze turns expectantly to me. In fact, they’re all looking at me. The heat in my cheeks returns full force.

  “Isn’t this all cozy?” Lavinia says.

  Cozy isn’t what I’d call it.

  “We were starting to worry you wouldn’t come back,” I say to Lavinia.

  “We had to wait for Tiny. She was skittish,” Lavinia says. “But that allowed us to have a nice cup of tea, didn’t it, Burnham?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” he says, and then turns to me. “Lavinia wasn’t home when I first arrived at her place. So I watched until she came back, and then I followed her in.”

  “Scared me nearly to death,” Lavinia says. “There I was with my umbrella trying to work my key, and this big black stranger approached me unannounced on my own doorstep. Not that I’m racist, but goodness, you scared me.”

  “We got over it,” Burnham says.

  “Yes, we did,” she says. “It took me a second to recognize him from the show, and then we had our tea. After that, we just had to wait for Tiny, our own little Godot. Though not exactly Godot, because eventually she came.”

  I don’t follow her reference, but I can picture the two of them in her kitchen, drinking tea, with Lavinia politely grilling him for information and Burnham pulling out his Southern manners.

  “You said there were cameras on your place. Do you think you were followed here?” Linus asks.

  Lavinia and Burnham look at each other.

  “Tell them,” she says.

  “Lavinia has a secret passage into the house next door,” Burnham says. “And the house after that. We waited until her cat came back, and then we left three doors down. I don’t think we were seen.”

  I’m impressed with Lavinia. She seems like she’s prepared for almost anything.

  “Now we just have to plan out our next move,” Lavinia says.

  They all look my way again, and a tingle of nervous energy stirs in my gut. Lavinia’s smile is weary, but her eyes are alight. Burnham still leans against the windowsill to my right, and his stubborn look is conspicuous again. On the other side of the bed, against the wall, Linus is frowning thoughtfully at me, his gaze inscrutable. They’re all forceful in their own way, and together, they give me real hope. The wind buffets a blast around the little cottage on stilts, and I can feel the walls vibrate as they withstand the squall.

  “This is about more than my parents, isn’t it?” I say.



  FOR A LONG MOMENT, nobody replies. Burnham will never be the same since his fall, and he doesn’t blame me for that. He blames Berg. Linus has been living with a spy in his eye, and that’s Berg’s fault, too. I glance at Lavinia, whose contempt for Berg goes back decades. But beyond revenge, there are larger issues of justice involved.

  “I’d like to get a look at that vault,” Burnham says.

  “For Fister?” Linus asks.

  Burnham can have a subtle, superior air about him sometimes, and it shows now as he turns to face Linus. “For myself,” Burnham says.

  Yet Linus’s question was astute. Even as far back as when we were at Forge, I know Burnham was trying to find out what was going on at night when we were asleep. He’s always been concerned about a potential link between the dreamers and his family’s business. I can’t forget about his reaction when he heard about me and Thea, too.

  “You made a promise,” I remind Burnham.

  “I know. I’m keeping it,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I’m parking my own curiosity.”

  “Bring me my computer, won’t you?” Lavinia says to Linus.

  He leaves the room quietly and returns with the two beach chairs and Lavinia’s computer. She props her puck in the middle of the bed and turns off the camp lamp so that we can all see the
projected, conical screen as she types on the light keyboard. Now that I’ve been there in person, I’m quick to locate the Main Drag and the Keep of Ages on the map. I can see the waterless moat where the image of Dubbs fell and where I entered the chute that tumbled me down to the underground stream. The vault of dreamers does not appear on this official map, but the full basement level is rendered the same as before.

  I tell Lavinia and Burnham everything I know about the deepest layer under Grisly Valley, from the vault full of dreamers, to the incinerator through the twelve o’clock arch and the operating room through the nine o’clock arch. Burnham asks me to jot out a drawing for him, and I try, but it’s hard to guess at the distances and proportions from how I experienced it in the dark. I wonder if the oculus lines up at all with the Bottomless Pit.

  “This is totally out of scale,” I say. “The vault is way bigger than the operating room.”

  “It still gives us an idea. Where do you think your parents could be?” Burnham asks.

  I stare at my sketch and idly add a fish in the river. “I really don’t know,” I say. There could be other rooms I don’t know about. “Whistler said they weren’t in the vault, but Berg said they were.”

  “Berg said they were at Grisly. There’s a distinction,” Lavinia says.

  “That fits with what Dubbs said. She saw my parents taken out of the truck when they were aboveground, near a row of colorful stores,” I say.

  “Why wouldn’t Whistler know about them?” Linus says.

  “Maybe Berg doesn’t trust the doctors,” Lavinia says. “He might not have told them.”

  “But it’s been six days,” I say. “Who else would look in on them?”

  It’s not good.

  “Clearly, we need more information,” Lavinia says. “Here’s what the cameras you posted for me show.” She pulls up two live-action views of Grisly Valley.

  The first angle, from the Grim Reaper statue, shows the entrance area with the turnstiles and the open area that funnels into the Main Drag. Nothing moves. The second view, from the statue of Scylla aiming toward the Keep of Ages, shows the moat area in front and the steps leading up to the big double doors. The keep itself stands dark and ominous, and the dragon on top is just as motionless as the stone.

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