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The keep of ages, p.27
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       The Keep of Ages, p.27

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “I don’t know,” he says.

  The vibrations taper off. I loosen my grip on him, but I’m no more certain of what’s happening.

  “Come on,” he says. “We’ll get your parents and get out of here.”

  We run east along the Main Drag, and this time, I’m in too much of a hurry to make any effort to hide from the streetlights or cameras. Another rumble comes from behind me, louder this time, and then, with a loud crack, a section of the cobblestoned street collapses to our left, creating a sinkhole as big as a swimming pool. Linus yells a warning. We veer right, and I instinctively duck under the awning of an old shop, pulling Linus with me. Orange light reflects off the buildings around us, and I turn back toward the damage.

  Dust is rising from the jagged hole in the street, and a fire is burning in a trash can on the other side. When I try to see how deep the sinkhole is, it shimmers oddly, and I get a faint glimpse of the street again from before it collapsed. It almost seems like the hole is merely a dark projection cast over the cobblestones, but I’d have to go nearer to be sure.

  At the end of the street, in the background, the Keep of Ages is weirdly lit with purple light, and gray clouds are lifting out of the moat. The smell of smoke stings my nose. The dragon on the roof has grown to twice its previous size, and its eyes are a wicked, flaming red.

  Linus is ready to run again, but I hold his arm.

  “Do you see the hole? Is it a special effect?” I ask him.

  He cranes for a second look. “It looks real enough to me.”

  “How about the dragon?” I ask.

  “Where?”

  I point. The dragon is slowly turning its head from side to side, as if it’s looking for a meal.

  “No way,” Linus says. “That cannot be real.”

  But he sounds unconvinced.

  That’s exactly how I feel. The dragon is glorious and horrifying, and though I know, logically, it has to be the product of special effects, it makes me question the reality of everything I’m seeing.

  A seam of flame runs horizontally along the top of one of the keep’s windows and then breaks vertically upward. More flames push through the stones near the base of the keep, and the smoke grows thicker and blacker. Popping noises explode in sequence, like giant fireworks, and the keep trembles visibly. Then the south tower topples over in slow motion. It tumbles into the smoke with a deafening crash, and at the same moment, the dragon spreads its wings. It shoots a blast of fire out of its jaws and rises heavily into the sky. It hovers over the keep. Another roaring rumble shakes the ground.

  “Burnham had better not be in there!” Linus says.

  “You’re sure the fire’s not special effects, too?” I ask, clinging to my last stupid shred of hope.

  He looks at me like I’ve lost my senses. “Can’t you smell that?” He pulls his phone out. “I’m calling Burnham again. You try Lavinia. See if she knows anything.”

  But at that moment, the dragon shrieks. It has straightened higher, and its head is now aimed in our direction. Its livid, hateful eyes pierce right to where we’re hiding, and with swooping, enormous wings, it launches from its perch and glides swiftly above the Main Drag, diving lower, coming directly at us.

  I don’t care what it’s made of. I’m not waiting to find out.

  “Run!” I yell.

  An explosion of flame ignites the awning above us just as Linus and I sprint for the street, and a whoosh passes overhead. I glance back at the crackling flames, and sparks reflect in the glass of a window as they shoot upward. Linus pulls me onward. The dragon circles higher again, out of sight above the rooftops of the shops.

  “Now where?” Linus asks at the corner.

  I turn right, past the security office, running toward the Lost and Found with Linus right behind me. From above, I can hear the savage pulse of the dragon’s wings. I know it’s coming, and when I next glance up, it soars into view, closer than before, diving at us.

  It opens its fiery mouth with a roar, and flames rip into a palm tree just above me.

  “No!” I scream. I duck toward the ground, covering my head with my arms, desperate to block the burning force of the dragon’s fireball.

  The roar blasts all around me. I cringe, terrified, but instead of scorching heat, I feel nothing but a sharp wind. Sparks snap around me, and the palm fronds curl into ashy black above, but my skin isn’t singed. I stare up at the burning palm tree, confused.

  “Special effects!” Linus yells by my ear. “The fire’s real in the tree, but that’s all. See?” He waves his arm through a projection of orange light that looks like flames.

  I’m dumbstruck for an instant, but then I see the dragon flying away in the smoky sky. Dragons don’t exist, I remind myself. No matter how convincing and frightening the effects are, they weren’t designed to harm. Yet the fury behind them is undeniable.

  “Ian,” I say, as it hits me. “Ian must be controlling the special effects.”

  He must be mad at me. This has to be his version of revenge.

  “Let’s go,” Linus says, dragging me up. “Where are your parents?”

  “This way,” I say, and I run up the ramp into the Lost and Found building.

  I speed into the second room, where the two sleep shells are parked, and I throw up the lid for my mother’s. Her face is still slack and peaceful in sleep. The sour smell is as strong as ever, but I ignore it and start to pull her out. Linus lifts up Larry’s sleep shell lid, and he’s still there sleeping, too.

  “Help me,” I say, getting my arms under Ma. “I can’t carry her alone.”

  “What about him?” Linus asks, pointing to Larry.

  “He’s too heavy,” I say. “We’ll come back for him.”

  I half expect Linus to argue, or scold me for being hard-hearted, but he just closes Larry’s lid again.

  “Right. We can take her to the van, and then we’ll drive around and come back. Get her legs,” he says. He gets a good grip around Ma from behind, under her arms, and I grab her ankles. “No. Turn around,” he says. “Take her knees on each side of you, like a wheelbarrow. Face around the other way. You’re the leader.”

  It’s awkward, but once I grab her knees against my hips, we’re mobile. Linus is close behind me, bearing most of Ma’s weight. Our first steps are lurching and uneven, but then we get in stride.

  “Watch the glass,” Linus says.

  I’m careful around the broken glass by the door of the Lost and Found, but soon we’re outside, and then we’re hurrying as fast as we can go, back along the Main Drag. The awning is burned to ashy shreds, and the sinkhole is still there. We veer around it, and I look anxiously ahead toward the keep. I know the dragon is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean Ian is fake. He could intercept us at any time.

  “What do you think happened with Burnham and Ian?” I call over my shoulder.

  “I have no idea. Keep going,” Linus says.

  I’m scanning the sky for the dragon and watching for holes in the cobblestones, all the while going as fast as I can. My arms strain from carrying my mom. As we get nearer to the center of the park, I’m completely convinced the fire at the keep is real. The toppled tower burns in the moat with a noxious, smoky stench, and the jumble of fabricated rocks has become a lacy black skeleton in the green-and-blue flames. Streaks of fire race up the north side of the keep and start spreading, fanlike, along the walls. Even the bridges are starting to burn.

  My gaze snags on a dark shape at the bottom of the stairs and I come to a halt, terrified. I lower Ma’s legs to the ground.

  “Linus! There!” I say, pointing.

  The dark shape moves, crawling, and then slumps down again. From behind him, bright yellow flames silhouette his smoking form.

  “Burnham!” I scream. “Come on!” I call to Linus.

  I dart toward the blistering heat and instinctively hunch low, with a hand up to protect my face. I glance back to see Linus right behind me. Arcing sparks drop to the cobblestones and sizzl
e around us. The black smoke is nearly blinding, and the fire creates a deafening roar of wind that whips around me. By the time we reach the dark figure at the bottom of the steps, the heat is overpowering. I roll over his inert, heavy body and cringe at my friend’s pained expression.

  “Burnham!” Linus shouts.

  He hauls Burnham up under the arms, just as he did my mother, and I grab Burnham’s legs the same way. We run away from the keep, carrying Burnham through the burning debris that rains out of the sky. As we reach Ma where we left her in the square, I stumble and fall, bringing Burnham down with me. By the flickering light, I check quickly to see if he’s breathing, and he lets out a moan. Then he coughs raggedly and curls over on his side. His clothes are hot to the touch, but I can’t see any blood, and his hands and face don’t look burned. Trembling, I take off his dirty glasses and lean near to him.

  “Burnham. Can you hear me?” I ask.

  He keeps his eyes closed and shakes his head, but it’s sort of an answer. I tuck his glasses inside my shirt, and they snag in the medical line that’s still bunched there. I’d entirely forgotten about it, but it’s still attached behind my ear.

  “You’re going to be all right,” I say to Burnham. “We’ve got you. Just keep breathing, okay?”

  I check my mother to be sure she’s still breathing, too, and then a rumble draws my gaze back to the keep. The back wall bows out unnaturally, and then the upper floors begin to tumble inward. The flames extend higher, hot enough that I can feel them singeing my cheeks despite the distance.

  Then, after an ominous teetering, the keep implodes inward with a cascade of stone and roof tiles. Flames roar from the crashing ruins and engulf the massive timbers.

  The wind whips my hair into my eyes, and I shake my head, trying to get my vision free. Then the ground rumbles again, and the burning ruins collapse even further, dropping into a deeper abyss. A sleep shell lid, an entire dome of glass, flies up on a wave of heat. My heart clenches as I realize what this means: the burning, dropping keep has fallen deep into the vault of dreamers. The underground dome must have collapsed at last. Everything and everybody down below is being destroyed.

  I stare, aghast. Sparks are careening wildly toward the orange sky, and the lid is still soaring in the heat.

  The hole takes the moat with it, and the nearest cobblestoned pathways, while the inferno burns even hotter.

  “We have to get out of here!” Linus says, as more of the square begins to topple into the hole.

  Burnham coughs again and audibly struggles for air.

  “Rosie!” Linus yells.

  He has my mother over his shoulder, the full weight of her. Burnham is coughing harshly, but he’s rolled over to his hands and knees like he wants to get up. I yell to him again, and slide under his arm to support him. It’s like lifting a tree, but I help him to his feet, and he leans on my shoulders.

  “Go,” he says hoarsely.

  He can barely stumble forward, but I guide him into the Backwoods Forest, following Linus and my mom. The flames behind us send eerie, wavering shadows and streaks of orange light along the paths. I hear a popping explosion somewhere behind us, and then one over to my right, but the deafening roar of the fire recedes. Twice Burnham trips, nearly dragging me down, but I brace him hard, and we stagger on.

  “Almost there!” Linus calls.

  We pass the red-and-white gift shop and finally reach the shadowed wall where we first came in. Burnham sags down to the ground, holding his head in his hands and breathing heavily. Linus lays Ma on the ground beside Burnham, and I check to make sure she’s still breathing. Behind her, the wall looks taller than before.

  Linus is bent over. He spits into the dirt and wipes his wrist over his mouth. He looks sideways at me.

  “How are you doing?” he asks.

  “Me?” I ask. I’ve got no problems compared to Burnham and Ma. “I’m fine.”

  Linus shoots a look toward Burnham, and then turns back to me again.

  “We have to get them over,” he says.

  “I know. Ma first?”

  Linus nods. He climbs on top of the rickety old ice cream cart and reaches down.

  “Give her to me,” he says.

  I strain to lift my mother up to him, and he lifts her carefully higher until he can rest her limp body on the top of the wall. The next moment, he scrambles on top of the wall beside her. Then they both disappear.

  “Burnham,” I say, touching his shoulder. “We have to get you over the wall.”

  He twists to look at me, which starts him coughing again, but then he gets to his feet. I put his arm around my shoulders again and help him to the ice cream cart. He starts to climb but then has to stop to cough. Linus appears at the top of the wall and reaches down a hand.

  “Burnham, let’s go,” Linus says. “You’ve got this.”

  Burnham takes a deep breath and reaches up. Linus grabs him and basically hauls him over. I scramble up the ice cream cart last and heave myself to the top of the wall.

  For a moment, I look back through the trees toward the center of Grisly Valley, where the fire has spread to a dozen buildings. Bright yellow flames lick along the roofs, and a new line of fire is already feeding along the curves of the Glue Factory roller coaster in Bubbles’ Clown World. It’s going to go up like matchsticks. The whole place is.

  Dread stops my heart. Larry is still in the Lost and Found.

  “Rosie!” Linus calls.

  I hurry down the other side of the wall to where Linus has picked up my mother again. Burnham is standing bent over, with his hands on his knees and his head low. Swiftly, I get one of his arms over my shoulder again and wrap my arm around his back, and we all take off for the minivan. By the time we get there, I’m a mess of guilt and impatience.

  “We have to get back for Larry!” I say. “The whole place is starting to burn!”

  “I know. Get in,” Linus says. He’s lifting my mother onto the bench seat in the middle of the minivan, and then he pivots into the driver’s seat. Burnham slumps into the front passenger seat, and I barely have time to close the door before Linus pulls onto the road.

  “Do you know the way?” I ask.

  “Yes,” Linus says.

  I brace my feet to keep steady as Linus accelerates, and I quickly check to see if Ma, beside me, is still breathing. She is, just as evenly as before. Her features have a leaden quality, like she’s been asleep for decades rather than days, like she’s turned into a new kind of stone. She has no idea what we’ve been through and where we’re going.

  “Oh, Ma,” I say, my voice aching.

  “How is she?” Linus asks.

  “Still sleeping. Can you go any faster?”

  Linus takes a hard right. I glance anxiously ahead as we pass a dark stand of trees, and our headlights touch over an old, crooked fence pole. Then, in the distance to our right, I can see the fire in the park. The keep is blazing higher than anything else, but the tall Fodder Mill ride and the End of Daze tower are burning now, too. We’re circling and getting closer to the front, where the main entrance is.

  Burnham’s breath is raspy. “Take us to my jet,” he says. His voice is painfully raw. “Dubbs and Lavinia are meeting us there.”

  “We’re getting Rosie’s stepfather first,” Linus says.

  Burnham coughs again, hacking loudly.

  “Hang in there, Burnham,” I say. “It’ll just take us a minute to get Larry.”

  “Ian’s dead,” Burnham says. “I couldn’t get him out.” Another round of coughing cuts him off.

  “It’s okay. You can tell us later,” I say. “Just breathe.”

  We take another tight curve, and I shift with Ma. As her hand slips, my gaze catches on her wedding band, and I feel a new surge of urgency. The sky over the park has turned a molten orange, and black, smoky clouds roil up into the night. I can actually hear the inferno. Linus turns our minivan onto a narrow road and races down to the parking lot. He swerves to avoid a fallen sign,
and aims toward the flagpoles of the main entrance.

  “See the car?” I ask, pointing toward Berg’s white sedan.

  “I see it. Hold on,” Linus says.

  Our wheels screech as he pulls to a sharp stop beside Berg’s car, and I lurch out of the minivan.

  Sharp, smoky air makes me choke, and the noise of the fire is a rushing wall of sound. The Grim Reaper statue flickers with orange reflections, and a gust of wind tugs at my shirt. The arching entranceway to the park stands silhouetted before the bright, fiery buildings. The palm trees burn like paper candles. Even from outside the turnstiles, I can feel the heat, and my heart sinks. I stagger forward, unbelieving. The whole corner row of buildings that includes the Lost and Found is one blazing mass of burning timbers. Trying to go inside to save Larry would be suicide.

  “We’re too late,” I say, aching.

  “Hey,” Linus says. He wraps his arms around me. “We didn’t know the whole place was going to burn.”

  Guilt broadsides me anyway. We could have pulled Larry out of the Lost and Found and moved him to the entrance here before we went for the van with Ma. We could have pulled both Ma and Larry out here, and one of us could have run around faster to get the van. Better solutions seem brutally obvious to me now.

  “I’m so sorry,” Linus says.

  “What am I going to say to Ma?”

  I won’t have any way to explain.

  Linus hugs me harder, rocking me against him. “She needs help. Burnham, too. We need to go,” he says.

  I stare again at the burning wall of flames, watching a wild spray of sparks fly up into the smoke. I thought I despised Larry, but now, I can’t believe he’s gone. I can’t believe he gets the same fate as Berg.

  “Come on, Rosie,” Linus urges me. “There’s nothing we can do.”

  But I can’t leave yet. From where I stand, I can see the column of white-hot fire in the center of the park that stretches up into the sky. It’s horrible, but also fabulous, in a way. All those dreamers underneath—they’re gone for good now. Berg, the doctors and Whistler, they’re all dead, too. And Ian, and now Larry. I can’t bear to look again toward the Lost and Found.

 
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