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The keep of ages, p.9
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       The Keep of Ages, p.9

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “When do you want to go?” she asks.

  “Soon,” I say. “Now.”

  * * *

  An hour later, I park near the outermost fence of the OEZ and get my first look at the evacuated area. As I step out of my car, a dragonfly whizzes past me with a sudden whir. The air smells of dust and a musky, not unpleasant rot of vegetation.

  I half expected the OEZ to be blackened and twisted, like a bomb went off, but instead, the landscape is lush with ashy-green coastal trees and scrub. Under the last light of a streaky sunset, the lines of decaying roads and buildings are softened by the encroaching shadows of the forest. Where the roof of a distant church has collapsed, its pink walls stand hollow to the sky.

  The Grisly Valley Theme Park lies in a shallow valley, half a mile inside the OEZ. A dusky wasteland of parking lots, dotted with bushes, expands for acres around the main gates. Inside another layer of fences, the theme park itself is a village of shops, restaurants, and rides. It has far more trees than I expected from Lavinia’s map. A scattering of security lights cast thin, half-hearted pools of illumination against the twilight, as if they’re only on by habit. The swelling roller coaster of Bubbles’ Clown World stands rickety but intact against the fading light of the sky, and the Keep of Ages looms with eerie majesty. It gives me a kick of nervous excitement.

  I pocket my keys, sling my backpack over one shoulder, and check my knife, which honestly feels more awkward on my belt than reassuring. My phone has one bar. In my jeans and a brown shirt, I hope I’m blending in. I start hiking along the fence where a faint trail dips in the grass, until I find a place where trespassers have wedged an opening between two tilting poles. Sucking in my gut, I squeeze through and pull my backpack after me. Then I descend an uneven, washed-out path toward the parking lots. The evening sky darkens with surprising speed, and a salting of stars appears over my shoulder. I have to crawl through a gap in another fence, and then I start across the cracked tarmac of the parking lots, winding my way past the bushes, old beer cans, and fallen, rusted streetlamps.

  My sneakers make a flat, unnatural sound that’s eerily absorbed into the distance, and I instinctively try to tread softly. Once, I look back the way I came so I’ll be able to find my way out, and that’s when I fully realize how dark it has become. Already, the nearest fence is barely visible. I note an upside-down exit sign for a landmark, and then I keep walking until I reach the main entrance, where “Grisly Valley” arches over the gated turnstiles. Four flagless poles stretch upward, standing sentinel, and a floodlight glares across the plaza to illuminate the dearth of visitors. The only movement is a plastic bag flapping in the fence.

  I don’t like it. The place is too quiet. As if in defiance of the cameras that are posted on poles and corners, the old ticket booth is tagged with graffiti. To the right, the narrow road for emergency vehicles is blocked by a heavy gate. This is where Lavinia wants one of her cameras.

  Stopping in a shadow beside a statue of the Grim Reaper, I take off my backpack and pull out her first camera. I climb up the pedestal of the statue, and I affix Lavinia’s camera and solar panel to a flat place near the hem of the reaper’s robe. I aim it toward the turnstiles and the road, as she requested, and turn it on.

  Then I leave the floodlit area, heading around the tall iron fence, looking for a way into the park. In the darkness, I almost miss the place where a bar has been pried out, but then I manage to wriggle through the narrow gap, and I’m in the park proper. Another thrill runs up my nerves.

  I’ve reached a narrow, curving lane with bathrooms to my right. As I tiptoe forward and peer around the first corner, I enter Camp High, the horror land based on summer camp and high school. The maze called The Showers is right in front of me. Based on the maps I studied, the giant Arts & Crafts slide should be ahead to my right, and the Main Drag should be to my left, only I can’t see either. Ruin and time have shifted things.

  To avoid the lights, I have to take an indirect path, and I get badly lost once before I find the Main Drag. A few widely spaced, pragmatic security lights buzz faintly overhead and cast shadows from the quaint, original streetlamps that aren’t on. Across from me, a white statue of a unicorn has a plastic six-pack ring on its horn. The cobblestoned pavement is uneven underfoot, with missing and cockeyed stones. And yet, when I look up the length of the Main Drag toward the Keep of Ages, I can feel a certain aura of excitement, even now.

  Grisly isn’t just a ruin. It’s has the feel of a legendary ghost town, an ironic tragedy. It’s a horror park that was closed by real catastrophe, almost as if it tempted fate, and I’m here all alone. I keep alert, walking slowly and staying to the shadows.

  Since I promised to set up Lavinia’s second camera near the Keep of Ages before I go underground to search for the vault, I head west up the Main Drag, toward the center of the park. I pass a café, a souvenir shop, and a tattoo parlor, all empty. The faded storefronts seem too small for a real main street, skewing my sense of proportion. An armadillo squats in an empty flower tub, and a hubcap lies in the gutter. A kiosk has been burned to a blackened shell.

  From somewhere to my right, a tinny snatch of carnival music drifts through the night. My pulse takes off. I step back into a doorway and slip my knife out of its sheath, but though I watch and wait, no one comes. A minute later, the music goes off, and all I can hear is my heart thudding.

  Someone’s watching me. I can feel it.

  I take a deep breath and start cautiously forward again. Three mannequins are draped in American flags and posed on a balcony as if waving to a passing parade. At the next corner, a dim alley is piled with baby strollers. I can tell some of the trespassers before me have been more interested in pranks than vandalism, but that only adds to the bizarreness of the place.

  A light comes on in the store beside me, and I jump back. Gilt lettering on the window announces TOYS. I peek in. The toys are long gone. Only a rack remains, and an old price gun. I watch for movement, but no one’s there, and a minute later, the light goes off again.

  “This is weird,” I whisper.

  First the music and now the toy store lights make me think someone is following my progress through the park, but who? Why don’t they come out and talk to me? They can’t be ghosts.

  I peer around and spot more camera lenses everywhere, large ones on poles and button cameras on doorframes and trim, exactly like at Forge. Just because Lavinia doesn’t have access to the feeds anymore doesn’t mean all the cameras are dead. Some of them could still be serving a security system.

  But still no one comes. The Main Drag is as dim and motionless as before.

  I don’t understand this place, but I’m not going to let a little spookiness stop me from looking for my parents. I still have to put up Lavinia’s other camera before I head underground. I note the VIP portal she mentioned, the one between a cookie shop and a gift shop, as I pass. Then, at the end of the Main Drag, I reach Scylla Square, the center hub of the park, where the Keep of Ages rises out of its base of thorny shadows.

  The keep towers above me, twice as large as I expected, and blacker than the sky. Instinctively, I shiver. A dark, empty moat surrounds the massive foundation, and double bridges with rising stairs cross over the void to a big, arched door. One caged light bulb glows above the arched doorway like a modern afterthought, but otherwise, with a shimmer of moonlight on its pointed roof, the keep looks like it was born straight out of a nightmare.

  Clinging to one of the topmost spires, a large black dragon peers over its shoulder with vivid red eyes. It’s no longer sleek and green as it was in Lavinia’s 3-D map. Instead, this dragon has weathered into a dark, motley beast with ragged scales and bony claws. I’m trying to understand how its eyes can glow so brightly, if they’re lit or coated with reflective red paint, when the dragon shifts its head.

  My heart stops. I must be wrong. I peer upward, disbelieving. Slowly, with a creak, the dragon turns its heavy head as if to survey the park below, and then it blin
ks. Nothing more. It doesn’t hiss fire or open its wings, but it has the slight, hovering alertness of a beast that breathes, and it seems all the more lifelike and ominous because of its patience.

  I’ve never seen special effects like this—if Lavinia hadn’t mentioned how remarkable the technology controlling the dragon originally was, I might have worried that I was hallucinating. As it is, I’m completely captivated.

  Cautiously, keeping near to the buildings at my back, I circle Scylla Square and get closer to the moat and the bridge on the left. A small statue of a snaky, six-headed monster presides over a set of defunct water fountains, and I choose the monster’s platform for Lavinia’s second camera. I fit my knife back in its sheath, and then it takes me a second to secure the camera. I aim it across Scylla Square, toward the stairs of the keep, as she requested. When I try to call Lavinia to tell her it’s ready, I can’t get a signal, and now I know I’m on my own.

  When I look back up at the dragon, its head has turned in my direction. It blinks again. I press back into a shadow, but its gaze never wavers. This is crazy, I think. It’s not real. But I can’t shake the feeling that the dragon’s eyes are staring right at me. On the double bridge of stairs that leads across the moat, dim blue lights turn on below the banisters. They shine out at knee height and catch in specks of white in the stone steps, giving them an eerie, black-light sort of glow. They almost seem like an invitation.

  Above, a purple spotlight flicks on, beaming onto the keep’s roof, and the dragon lifts its shoulders in a great double-hunch, as if it’s stretching, or preparing for flight.

  I could swear a bizarre show has started, just for me. I hear an amplified cricket noise. Then another. The chirping continues with a layer of static from a recording. Next, a gurgling, rusty sound comes from the bottom of the moat, and then fog drifts up, filling the moat below the bridges.

  Then, from above, a loud, drawn-out creaking noise heralds the opening of a trapdoor that extends outward from the center roof of the keep. It lowers on two chains until it juts forward like a diving platform or the plank of a pirate ship.

  Now the dragon fully awakens. It rolls its shoulders so its wings partially unfurl. It coils an arm more securely around the spire and leans its head forward toward the plank, moving more naturally than any mechanical puppet ever could.

  Half a dozen purple and white spotlights are now trained on the plank, and a drumroll signals an event. As the figure of a small girl glides out on the plank, my heart catches in my throat. She’s pale and motionless, standing with her eyes closed and her arms at her sides. Her gray gown flutters slightly in the breeze, and her blond hair shifts lightly around her shoulders. Otherwise she doesn’t move. She shines with ethereality, and the staging would be beautiful except for one ghastly truth: she’s my sister.

  She’s Dubbs. Up there.

  Ready to fall.

  And all of a sudden, I can’t think of effects anymore. My sister is far too real.

  “No!” I whisper, staggering forward. I’m afraid to call out, afraid any noise will disturb her balance.

  She’s forty or fifty feet up, and a fall into the foggy moat would kill her. The dragon uncoils slightly to inspect Dubbs. It cocks its head and slowly extends its neck forward. If she turns to look at it, she’ll be only a couple of yards away from its big head. But she doesn’t turn her head. She doesn’t seem to move at all, as if she’s suspended in a trance.

  Go back, Dubbs! I think. Get down on your hands and knees and crawl back inside.

  Another breeze shifts her gown, and she sways with it. I can’t stand it.

  “Dubbs!” I shout. I bolt toward the nearest bridge of blue stairs. “Dubbs! Hang on! I’m coming!”

  The girl above turns her head slightly in my direction and her eyes fly open. They’re wide and frantic, and she lets out a scream. She crouches down to the plank and grips it with both hands. The dragon backs up slightly and flares its wings wide. Dubbs now turns toward the dragon and screams again with wild terror.

  I’m frozen on the stairs, watching in agony. Much as I want to run inside the keep and up to the roof to save her, she could slip any second, and I can’t go farther up without losing sight of her. If only I could distract the dragon.

  “Hold on! Just hold on!” I yell to Dubbs. Then I wave my arms. “Dragon! Over here!” I yell. “Dragon!”

  But the dragon doesn’t see me or doesn’t care. It rises up on its back legs and flaps its heavy wings. Dubbs hugs the plank with all her might. Her gown ripples again, and she looks impossibly small and helpless. The dragon opens its mouth and lets out an earsplitting cry, and Dubbs catches her breath and screams once more.

  “Dragon!” I yell furiously. “I’m over here!”

  It leans its head back and lets out another roar toward the sky. A blast of fire comes out of its mouth, scorching the air above the keep. Wind swirls savagely around Dubbs, who struggles to keep her grip, and then, with a final scream, she’s blown off her perch. She topples into the dark night air and pinwheels down toward the moat.

  In shock and horror, I run against the banister, and then, just as Dubbs is about to hit the ground, the dragon swoops down and catches her in its claws, soaring with her back up into the sky.

  I can’t breathe. For another moment, Dubbs and the dragon are visible in the night sky above the keep. The dragon makes an awkward, dipping circle, as if adjusting to the weight in its claws. Then it flies out of the spotlights, disappearing into the night. The spotlights go off. The lights on the steps, too. The entire area around the keep is plunged into darkness. Even the sole, caged light bulb that hangs above the heavy wooden door is out.

  They’re gone.

  They were real. They couldn’t be real. My mind’s racing with confusion.

  “Dubbs!” I cry.

  Where is she? My helplessness tortures me. I search the night sky but I can’t see anything in the wan moonlight. Then, silently, a single, finely focused spotlight turns on and shines down into the moat, exactly at the spot where Dubbs would have landed when she fell. I lean over the railing, peering closely as the fog shifts. A hole has opened in the bottom of the moat. An opening. A drain, possibly.

  Gripping the railing, I swing myself over and wade through the fog to the middle of the moat. A gurgling comes from a dark circle below the spotlit fog. I touch forward with my toe and feel the edge of a void.

  What on earth is happening? A dragon that I believed was a special effect tormented my sister and flew away with her. Could Dubbs have been a special effect, too? She looked so real! And now a trapdoor has opened in an empty moat. My mind is still racing, surging with adrenaline and horror, and I can barely make sense out of anything.

  But here’s what I do know: ever since I stepped into Grisly, I’ve had the feeling that someone’s been watching me. If this stunt with the dragon was a spectacle just for me, then whoever concocted it might just relish traumatizing me, but also they might be trying to tell me where to go. Whoever it is must know something about Dubbs.

  Grimly, I realize what I have to do. I take a deep breath and step forward.

  10

  THE WHISTLER

  I TOPPLE INTO THE HOLE SIDEWAYS, smashing my arm on some unyielding barrier. Then I’m falling down a wide, slanting pipe. I hit a bend, but there’s nothing for me to grab on to, and as I keep sliding down, faster and faster, I duck my head in my arms and let out a scream. It’s too dark to see anything. For half a second, my backpack snags me up on something. Then I rip free and I’m falling again. The chute follows a swift, mind-spinning spiral down until I’m disgorged onto a large metal grate. I skid across the bars and bang to a stop.

  “Ouch!” I say.

  I blink hard in the darkness and struggle to catch my breath. My elbow is sore. My knee, too.

  A trickling noise matches a scent of moist stone. Cautiously, I crawl forward toward the trickle, and a faint green luminosity guides me to the edge of an underground gully with a shallow, fragrant
stream. Above, gray stone arches unevenly in organic curves. The light comes from the water, where bits of green flicker at the edges of rounded stones. Bioluminescence, I think. Microbes live in the stream. Burnham talked about them once, back when we were at Forge, but I didn’t know I’d ever see the shimmering effect myself.

  My phone gets no signal, unsurprisingly. I shift to my feet and brush off my limbs, blinking as my eyes keep adjusting to the dim light. My backpack is gone. Behind me, the opening of the chute that dropped me here is a black hole. It has to be part of the drainage system for the moat, and climbing back up it would be impossible.

  Fortunately, to my left, a narrow bridge spans the stream. I cross over to a short wooden dock where an old length of rope hangs from a cleat and trails silently in the flow. Beyond, a tunnel is hewn out of the rock. It’s dark, but it’s the only way to go, so I use my phone for a light, and I edge slowly forward. The air grows musty and close, and then I find a gaping, heavy door. With a creak of hinges, I push past and find the next tunnel extends in two directions. To my left, the dark is impenetrable, but to my right, far off, a faint, cool light touches the walls. I turn off my phone light. With increasing hope, I head toward the light, and as I round the next corner, I can see an archway at the end of the tunnel.

  Quietly, cautiously, I creep to the archway, and when I stop in the shadows to look through, I’m rendered breathless.

  A large, round cavern sprawls before me, and dreamers fill the space. They lie in sleep shells, in circular rows, and their lids are all glowing with soft blue light. My heart turns sick. Body after body rests in a motionless trance, but I can feel the pulse of them breathing. An attentive presence fills the room, like the hush as a conductor first raises a baton. Far above, faintly visible by the blue light, an uneven dome of rock arches over the room. Half a dozen round holes are cut into the slanting sides like for an overlooking gallery, and above them, a larger oculus at the top is a purply shade of black, like a starless patch of a clear night sky. The color is so deep, I half think my eyes are deceiving me.

 
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