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The keep of ages, p.24
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       The Keep of Ages, p.24

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “Who’s doing this? You really think it’s Berg?” Burnham asks.

  He and Linus look at each other. Then they turn to me.

  “Ask Arself,” Linus says. “What does she know?”

  I take a deep breath. Is Burnham right? I ask her. Is Berg trying to take over the world?

  Not Berg, she answers. She seems to shrink. Did we do something wrong?

  Her uncertainty is a fragile, explosive force at the edge of my mind.

  I grip my head in my hands. Don’t tell me this.

  We found the viewers. We’re learning from them. Learning is good. She starts to churn.

  “Rosie?” Linus asks.

  No, I think. This can’t be right. I couldn’t have that evil a thing living in my own mind.

  Fearful, I fix my gaze on the bruised girl again as if her raw, mute unhappiness is the key to everything. I brace for pain.

  Arself slams into all my senses. She takes over my eyes and jerks my vision from one viewer to the next, speeding impossibly fast, while an amped-up part of my mind memorizes details of their features, electronic tracers, and coordinates. She shoves Burnham aside and runs my fingers over the computer to type at high speed. She’s pulling up more fields, more data, numbers and equations and images. I feel the processing as a burn of energy at the base of my skull. It’s angry. It’s furious.

  I’m absorbing an unfathomable amount of information, and I can’t stop it.

  Let me go! I say.

  She only burns faster, as if she would climb right inside the computer if she could.

  You promised! Let me go!

  Trying to understand, she says. Already told you. Want to understand.

  It’s not right for you to control another person! I say. Don’t you know right from wrong?

  My fingers freeze above the keys. Arself is suddenly silent. The whirl of processing comes to a halt.

  We’re not another person. We’re not like you, she says.

  And that’s the problem, right? I ask. You want to be like me?

  She wavers. A slithering, ticking noise scuttles through the back of my mind. I can tell she’s testing my questions.

  You have to quit controlling me, I say. I don’t care who you are. It’s the right thing to do.

  A voice reaches me dimly. It’s Linus calling my name. My fingers are still poised over the keyboard, and I can hear my breath coming in short, hungry gasps.

  Humans don’t all do the right thing. We know that much, she says, and releases me.

  26

  THE GOLDEN LINE

  I CLOSE MY EYES and drop my head in my hands, suddenly exhausted. A pocket of silence consumes me and a chill squeezes into my bones. I thought I was getting to know Arself. I was starting to trust her and even to like her in a way, but now she’s grown sinister again, and huge. She’s been watching all the viewers! I didn’t understand before that she meant spying on them. How could she think that’s okay? What I don’t know is if she’s been manipulating them.

  Of course she has, I realize. She brought me here. She didn’t exactly brainwash me, but she brought me to Grisly Valley and the vault. And now she’s in me. She’s part of me. Despite what she promised, she can take over whenever she wants. I’m revulsed by the idea.

  Dimly, I become aware that Lavinia is talking over the speakerphone.

  “Okay. Yes. We’re on it,” Linus replies. He swivels my chair toward him and grips my shoulders. “Rosie?”

  I lift my gaze to find his face close to mine, and his concern snaps me out of my horror.

  “Can you hear me?” he asks.

  “Yes,” I say.

  I glance up to see Burnham is watching me, too. Behind him, the computers are reset to the original array of security shots, maps, and The Forge Show. I want to tell Linus and Burnham about Arself, about how she, not Berg, is running the surveillance on the viewers, but it’s too horrifying. I have too many questions of my own.

  Linus gives me a little shake. “I need you to listen to me. Lavinia says two people are climbing around the front gate,” he says.

  Burnham reaches past me to the main console and starts typing. “Check this out,” he says.

  He points to a flicker of motion on one of the screens, and then he expands the view. I straighten slowly.

  Near the entrance to the park, two men are walking side-by-side down the center of the Main Drag. My heart constricts as they step under the glow of the first security light. On the left is Ian Cowles, lanky, hunched, and as scruffy as ever. His baggy camo pants are tucked into his black boots at the ankle, and he’s wearing a black jacket that bulges with pockets and zippers. His left hand is wrapped in a bandage: a memento from Doli. Beside him, Sandy Berg carries himself with natural authority, even here, and I cringe at the familiar sight of his solid build and tidy blond hair. He wears a tan, short-sleeved safari shirt over dark trousers, and his watch glitters gold.

  “That’s Berg for sure,” Linus says. “Who’s with him?”

  “That’s Ian,” I say.

  “The guy from the Onar Clinic?” Burnham asks.

  “Yes,” I say with loathing. “He’s the most repulsive, revolting, putrescent person I’ve ever met, besides Berg.”

  “Don’t hold back,” Burnham says.

  I step closer to the screen, staring as the men walk under some trees. Burnham shifts around with the touchpad, and the next shot shows a closer image of them from another angle as they continue walking up the Main Drag.

  “They must know we’re here at Grisly,” Linus says. “It can’t be a coincidence they’re coming now.”

  “But do they know we’re in the keep?” I ask.

  Berg and Ian walk out of view of the security camera, and Burnham works the touchpad again. The screen remains on the empty street where they just were.

  “Sorry,” Burnham says. “I don’t exactly know how to work this.”

  “Check where their car is,” Linus says. “Let’s see if they came alone.”

  Burnham pulls up a few more camera angles, all wrong. My fingertips itch like wild again.

  Get him out of the way, Arself says. Let us in there.

  Fat chance.

  Don’t be dense. We’re on your side.

  Not enough, you’re not.

  Burnham pulls up a few more security angles, all empty, and finally locates the handicapped parking area beside the main gate. A white sedan is parked in the glow of another tall security light.

  “See the car?” I ask.

  “Yes,” Linus says.

  In another screen, Berg and Ian show up again. They’re still walking down the Main Drag, taking their time.

  “They’re awfully confident,” Linus says. “Why aren’t they coming faster? Do they want us to see them?”

  “Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Burnham says.

  “None of that matters,” I say. “If they come into the Keep of Ages, we’ll be caught.” There’s only one way down from where we are: the staircase that leads back to the main hall.

  “We have to go,” Burnham says. “I’m not fast.”

  “Wait. Look,” Linus says.

  Berg and Ian have slowed before a gift shop, the last one on the Main Drag, right before it meets Scylla Square. I turn to the window in alarm, and I can actually see them out there talking. Berg adjusts an earpiece in his right ear. Ian takes a gun out of his pocket, turns it over in his hand, and nods. Then Berg backtracks a couple paces and goes into a door while Ian resumes walking toward the keep.

  “We seriously have to leave,” Burnham says. “Come on!”

  He doesn’t bother turning anything off and bolts toward the doorway. Linus and I hurry after him, down the dark stairs and out into the hall with the fireplace. We reach the big double doors of the keep and look out the gap just as Ian starts up one of the outer stairway bridges, the one to our left. We can’t get out without being seen, and Ian has a gun. We’d be vulnerable just trying to get through the tight gap of the doorway.
Burnham, beside me, seems bigger and slower than ever.

  “What do we do?” I whisper.

  “Back,” Linus says, yanking my arm.

  I turn and run with him across the hall toward the downward staircase. Burnham’s right behind us. We descend into the dark. Half a dozen steps down, after the first turn, I can’t see a blasted thing. I bump into Linus’s back. Burnham bangs into me with his brace, and I bite back a gasp of pain. Linus’s arms come around me, steadying me, and Burnham goes motionless on my other side. Silent, with my heart beating, I turn my gaze up the staircase to where a faint gleam of reflected moonlight touches the wall. I can feel my pupils expanding, begging for more. A scratching noise comes from above. Then silence. Then a creak of pressure. Then a distinct footstep.

  I wait, hearing only silence, and then another footstep, softer than before.

  “He’s going up,” Linus whispers.

  We listen, straining our ears.

  “He’ll find all the computers on,” Burnham whispers. “He’ll be able to see anywhere we go through the surveillance.”

  We should have turned them off or busted them, but it’s too late now.

  “Come on,” I say. “We have to run for it.”

  “Where to?” Linus says. “Are we going after Berg?”

  I scramble for a plan. Even with Ian after us, I still need to find my parents. If I can do that, I’ll be in better shape dealing with Berg. “I’m going to keep looking for my parents. The next place is the garbage area by the juice stand in Zombieville. That’s down the right-hand staircase to the south, past the Giant Cesspool.”

  “You can’t be serious,” Burnham says.

  “I still have to find them!” I whisper viciously.

  “We should go now,” Linus says.

  Burnham nudges an elbow into me. “Okay,” he says.

  He starts up the stairs, moving silently, and I’m right behind him. The hall is empty, and I glance at the upward staircase before I dart across to the door. Burnham motions me through first. I edge my way out and take a quick look around the deserted square. Linus is right behind me. I glance over my shoulder for Burnham, but the black gap of the doorway is empty.

  “Where’s Burnham?” I whisper.

  Linus grabs my arm, pulling me out toward the stairs. “We have to go! He’s coming!”

  I hesitate, anxious. Linus tugs me again, and I run with him down the right-hand staircase, but my heart is ten steps behind me, protesting all the way. At the bottom of the steps, Linus takes a hard right, hauling me with him, and we don’t stop until we’re crouched into a dark corner beside a fence.

  “What about Burnham!” I say, craning my neck to see toward the keep. The stairs are still empty. “What does he think he’s doing?”

  “He’s okay. He’s smart,” Linus says. “He’ll get out when he can.”

  “You knew?” I say, incredulous. “You talked to him, didn’t you?”

  “He said if we got in a tight spot, I should get you out of it,” he says.

  I lurch upward, fully intending to go back for Burnham, but Linus yanks me down again.

  “Do you want to find your parents?” he asks.

  “Yes, but Ian has a gun!”

  “Trust Burnham. He’s fine,” Linus says.

  He is not fine. I try to imagine a fight between Ian and Burnham, and it’s a disaster.

  “I mean it. Burnham can take care of himself,” Linus says. He points back toward the Main Drag. “I’m going to try and follow Berg.”

  “We were going to stay together,” I remind him.

  “Then do you want to come with me? Berg could be going to your parents.”

  But he might not be, too. “I still want to check the places on our list,” I say.

  “Then you do that,” Linus says. “Try to stay away from the lights so Ian can’t track you.”

  An involuntary shiver of fear runs through me.

  “You can’t try to kill Berg without me,” I say.

  “I’m not going to kill anybody if I don’t have to,” Linus says. “I’m just going to see where he goes. He probably knows a way down to the vault of dreamers, right?”

  Linus is right. But it feels dangerous to be separating. Anything could go wrong. “Where should we meet up again?”

  “Call me,” he says.

  “Your phone won’t work underground,” I say. I instinctively pat my pockets, which are now too soft and empty. “My phone! I left it up in the keep!”

  “It’s here,” he says, passing it into my hand. “I’ll call you when I get back up.”

  I grip the solid little shape and take a deep breath, striving to be calmer, to think. I don’t have my earphone anymore, or my hat, so rigging up the phone again for Lavinia and Dubbs to see from is out. But at least I have the phone.

  “We need a backup plan,” I say. “If I can find my parents, I’ll bring them here. No, I’ll bring them to the gift shop in the Backwoods Forest, near where we came in.” It scares me to think what shape my parents could be in, and the van is back a quarter mile outside the wall. “What if they’re unconscious or something? I’ll need your help. Or Burnham’s.”

  “So then you’ll call me or text me where you are,” Linus says, taking his phone out of his pocket. “The gift shop is only a backup if we can’t call each other. Okay? The first thing to do is find your parents, one way or another.”

  I know what he’s saying makes sense. I guess I’m just afraid, and that’s why I’m rattled and doubting everything. He’s typing into his phone.

  “What are you doing?” I ask.

  “Texting Burnham so he knows where to meet us, just in case.”

  I look back at the keep’s stairs, wishing Burnham would appear there. He doesn’t.

  “He’d better be okay,” I say.

  Linus glances up. He pockets his phone and pulls me near for a hug. “We’ve got this. You hear me?”

  “I know,” I say, holding him tight. “Just please don’t do anything stupid. I couldn’t bear it if you got hurt.”

  He smiles. “I won’t. You be careful, too.”

  The next moment, he’s gone.

  I take another look back toward the keep and realize I haven’t heard a gunshot. Then again, I’m not sure I would hear it through the stone walls of the keep. A soft layer of fog is collecting in the bottom of the moat now, and I frown.

  Are you making me see that? I ask Arself.

  No, she says. That’s real fog.

  Instinctively, I lift my gaze to the dragon on the roof of the keep and discover its eyes are red again.

  What’s going on? I ask.

  Somebody’s playing with the special effects, Arself says.

  I recall that Whistler said Ian liked to play with the special effects when he was here. I don’t know what this indicates about Burnham, but I have to hope he’s still okay.

  I gather my courage and hurry past the Giant Cesspool and farther into Zombieland. More rides and derelict shops line the streets, and I stick to the shadows as much as possible. At the juice stand, I find the garbage area surrounded by a concrete wall. The metal door is locked with a chain and a rusty padlock. Because the garbage area is open to the air, it doesn’t look likely as a place to stash my parents, but I scale the wall to look inside. Old, industrial-sized dumpsters for garbage and recycling line the far side, and they look like they haven’t been opened in ages.

  If someone has stuffed my parents inside the dumpsters, I don’t think I can take it. They have to be somewhere better. Berg wouldn’t have any leverage over me if he actually had them thrown away.

  I drop back outside the wall, landing low on my feet, and run east through Vampyre Graveyard. Next on my list is the Lost and Found, so I aim toward the front of the park where the Lost and Found is located. Please be there, I think as I run. Always looking for the darkest path, I pass the End of Daze spiral tower and wind through another set of shops and freestanding kiosks. Then I spot the East Depot of the train a
nd sneak past a long row of outdoor lockers. I must be getting close to the main entrance. Debris clots the grid of a storm drain where I leap across.

  A sudden, deeper darkness makes me pause and look up. A silver-edged cloud has moved over the face of the moon, casting a shadow over Grisly. I listen to the motionless air, wary for a sound of anyone chasing me, but all I can hear is the far-off fading of a plane. Rounding the next corner, I find the main entrance with the turnstiles, and beyond them, the statue of the Grim Reaper. Lavinia watching through her camera there should be able to see me if I move into some light.

  I scan the nearest row of buildings for the Lost and Found and find it attached to the security office. It’s a small building, clearly marked, with a large plate-glass window. I pull out my phone and quickly give Lavinia a call.

  “Hey,” I say. “We’re all separated. Burnham’s in the keep and Linus went to find Berg. I’m at the Lost and Found.”

  “I see you,” Lavinia says, her voice staticky. “The dragon’s shifting a bit. Otherwise, nothing’s changed by the keep.”

  I peer inside the Lost and Found, seeing only darkness, and my heart dips. I don’t want Dubbs overhearing if I get inside there and something bad happens.

  “I’ll call you later when I know something,” I say.

  “Dubbs and I are coming to the park,” Lavinia says.

  “No, don’t,” I say, alarmed. “You can’t help. You have to keep Dubbs safe.”

  “Then I’m calling the police,” Lavinia says.

  “No!” I say. “We’ve got this under control. I mean it. Just let me find my parents. I’m close, I just know it.”

  A burst of static comes over the phone. “Promise you’ll keep us informed,” she says. “If you’re not out of there in an hour, I’m making the call.”

  “I will be. Just take care of Dubbs,” I say, and disconnect.

  Seriously, the last thing I need is my sister here with Lavinia. I’m not calling them again until we’re all safely out of here. I test the handle on the Lost and Found, but it’s locked, with no code box. I’m getting good at shattering glass with my flashlight. Next, I wrap my sleeve over my hand, reach in to find the inside knob, and carefully unlock the door.

 
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