Book Two of the Travelers, p.1D. J. MacHale
Trust a Bedoowan?” Gaveth said. “I don’t know.”
For a second Alder thought he was joking. But he could see that the Milago boy was serious.
“Now!” Alder shouted.
“You don’t have to yell,” Gaveth said. He put his arms against the beam, braced himself, and heaved.
The beam slipped a little. But then it jammed on something and wouldn’t move.
The quig was now clearing the rim of the shaft. In only seconds it would be on them.
“Never mind!” Alder shouted. “Run!”
They turned and ran with all their strength.
But they didn’t get far. Alder’s stomach sank as he saw what was in front of them. A blank wall.
“No!” Gaveth shouted. “No!” He pounded his fist against the rock.
Behind them there was a scraping noise and a thud. The two boys turned to look. The quig was in the tunnel now. Its flanks were heaving with the effort, and blood dripped in a steady stream from its nose, compliments of Alder’s sword wound.
The quig was in no hurry now. Its yellow eyes were fixed on Alder, and the spikes on its back scraped the ceiling.
Scrape! Scrape! Scrape!
The only other thing Alder could hear was the sound of his heart.
BEFORE THE WAR
BEFORE THE WAR
Book One of the Travelers
Book Two of the Travelers
Book Three of the Travelers
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2009 by D. J. MacHale
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The armored soldiers dragged Aja Killian through the black gates of the castle, down a long, echoing corridor and into a huge—but nearly empty—room. At the far end of the great chamber, a thin, black-clad man stood next to a large wooden throne. The soldiers hauled Aja across the cold marble floor and slammed her to the ground in front of the man.
“Kneel before King Hruth!” shouted one of the guards.
“Avert your eyes, rebel!” shouted the second guard.
As she tried to get her balance, two more guards dragged her friend Nak Adyms into the room. She and Nak had been traveling together in a trading caravan to visit the capital of Qoom. But when they had reached the gates of the castle, a group of soldiers had taken them captive.
Aja looked up at the man by the throne.
“Avert your eyes!” the guard shouted again.
The man—King Hruth, apparently—waved his hand languidly. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You may look upon me if you wish.”
King Hruth was a thin man with long black hair and very pale blue eyes. He was dressed entirely in black, with no sign of rank other than a small crest embroidered on his collar. It was the crest of the kingdom of Qoom. He studied Aja for a long time without speaking. Nak knelt next to her, but King Hruth seemed uninterested in him.
“I’m surprised at you, Princess Mara,” he said to her finally. “Coming into our city in such a thin disguise! Did you actually think we wouldn’t recognize you?”
“I’m a merchant from Rubic City,” she said. “My name is Aja Killian. I’m bringing trade goods to sell to the people of your city.”
King Hruth laughed genially.
“Tell him, Nak!” she said. “We’re merchants.”
For the first time King Hruth seemed to acknowledge Nak. “Is it true, Nak?” he said. “Is she really here to sell gimcracks to the people of my realm?”
Nak looked at Aja. Then he stood up and tossed his hair back. He had shaggy brown locks that were always slipping into his eyes. “Of course not,” he said. “She’s Princess Mara, the rebel leader.”
Aja felt her eyes widen. “Hey!” she shouted. “You’re supposed to be on my side. You said—”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have trusted me, huh?” Nak said, smirking.
Aja felt a wave of anger wash through her. Before she could think of an appropriate comeback, a frightening cry cut through the air. It was hard to tell where the sound was coming from. It seemed as though it was welling right up out of the stone floor. Wherever it came from, the howl made the hair stand up on the back of Aja’s neck. It sounded like some kind of wild animal.
“My goodness, the Beast sounds hungry,” said King Hruth. “Do you suppose the Beast is hungry, Nak?”
“The Beast is always hungry,” Nak said.
King Hruth turned back toward Aja. “There are those who believe that I am not the rightful king of Qoom,” he said. “They claim that your little brother, Prince Norvall, should be sitting in this chair instead of me.” The king thumped his hand against the throne next to him, then sighed theatrically. “I must tell you, I am growing quite weary of hearing these same tedious arguments. It’s time to put them to an end. For good.”
The huge iron-bound doors at the rear of the room opened with a loud boom. Aja turned. A large soldier wearing full armor came into the room. In his arms he carried a squirming, howling red-haired boy. Aja guessed him to be eight or nine years old. He looked very familiar.
“Leave him alone!” she shouted.
The king raised one finger. As he did so, there was a loud rasping noise, like two huge pieces of rock being ground against each other.
At the sound, a large rectangular hole began to form in the middle of the great stone floor. The armored soldier carried the squirming boy toward the hole. The grinding noise stopped and the hole ceased growing. The soldier held the boy over the hole.
The boy screamed in terror. “No! No, please! Why are you doing this?”
“Why?” the king said. “Because it pleases me.”
With that, the king clapped his hands. The guard let go of the boy. The boy’s mouth opened in a silent scream and his eyes went wide. Then he fell into the blackness.
There was a thump. Then a soft moan.
Then the weird howling cry. “Send some guards into the maze,” the king said. “Restrain the boy somewhere down there. Let us see how long it takes the Beast to find him.”
“Yes, your majesty!” the soldier said.
Aja turned to Nak and shook her head. “I don’t like this, Nak,” she said. “I don’t like this at all.”
Nak laughed. “Hey, I’m having fun,” he said.
The king turned to one of the other guards, snapped his finger, and pointed at the hole in the floor. “Her too.”
The guards grabbed her.
“I’ve had enough of this game, Nak,” she said. “I don’t like it.”
She held up her left arm, expecting the silver jump-control bracelet to appear so that she could terminate the jump.
But nothing happened.
She held up her arm again, feeling alarmed. Nothing. She
Still nothing. This was not good!
Two guards seized her arms and started dragging her toward the hole in the floor. Again the bloodcurdling howl rose up out of the floor.
“The maze is a sort of puzzle,” King Hruth said, “that I designed sheerly for my own amusement.”
Aja managed to briefly yank her hand away from the guard. “Command Level One, password Z-X-E-four-seven-one, invoke jump termination!” she shouted. That was supposed to be the fail-safe command that would end any jump no matter what.
But still nothing happened.
“It might interest you to know,” the king said, “that there is an escape route built into the maze. Anyone who finds the route and successfully escapes the maze is automatically granted a royal pardon. No exceptions.”
The guards restrained Aja’s free arm and pulled her closer to the edge of the rectangular hole in the floor. They stopped only when her toes were sticking out over the edge. She stared down. Below her was a stone shaft leading into inky darkness. Aja’s stomach clenched. The guards were holding her so that her weight was out over the darkness. If they let go, she knew she would fall.
“Of course, in all fairness,” the king said, “I should mention that no one who has been thrown into the maze has ever escaped.”
“Nak!” she shouted angrily. “Nak, the jump won’t terminate!”
“My goodness,” he said. “How strange.”
But the last glimpse she caught of his face—full of fake innocence—told her that he knew more than he was admitting.
One of the guards nudged her gently. And then she was falling down into darkness.
The darkness was endless. There was no up, no down, no cold, no heat—no nothing. Aja waited to hit bottom. But nothing happened. Nothing at all.
And then Aja felt herself waking up. Not the darkness of some frigid old castle, but a warm, pleasant darkness. Despite the warmth though, she was shivering with cold.
She opened her eyes and looked around. She was in her usual jump tube, linked up to the machines that carried her off to the vivid dreams of Lifelight.
She sat up slowly. Something wasn’t right, though. She felt puzzled. This wasn’t like any Lifelight jump she’d ever been on before. Usually Lifelight jumps were neat and simple. A game, a little scenario, a historical vignette. They were always vivid and engaging. But when you were done, you were done. You climbed a mountain. You water-skied. You jumped out of a flyer. Then you just raised your arm and the silver control bracelet appeared. When you hit the termination button, it was over.
But this one hadn’t worked that way. This one had felt less like a jump—and more like a nightmare. And strangely, she still felt cold, the chill of King Hruth’s frigid castle still permeating her bones. That had never happened to her on a jump before.
With a flash of anger, she remembered the knowing look on Nak’s face as she’d fallen through the floor and down into the hole that led into King Hruth’s maze. She slid out of the tube, then pushed open the door of her station. Nak Adyms stood in the doorway next to her cubicle, with his usual smug I-know-something-you-don’t grin plastered across his face.
“What did you do?” Aja demanded.
“Keep your voice down,” he said. His grin faded, and he looked at her with a cold expression on his face.
“You tricked me. You said we were going to do an instructional tandem for history class and—”
He shook his head. “Okay, so I misled you slightly. It’s a simulation. A game. A game I designed. But it’s all based on real history. King Hruth was a real guy. You can look it up in the history files. He had a maze with a beast in it and everything.”
“I don’t like games,” Aja said. Aja wanted to strangle him. Her hands were trembling. She knew what this was about. She was the top student at the academy. Nak Adyms was number two. And he couldn’t stand it. He was always trying to show her that he was smarter than she was. “But that’s not why I’m mad. I want to know why my control bracelet didn’t work.”
Nak cocked his head curiously. “It what?”
“Don’t play dumb. You heard me back there. I even invoked termination with a level-one audible command. Nothing happened.”
Nak looked blank. “Oh, yeah. I vaguely remember that.”
“Oh, please!” Aja said, jabbing her finger at him. “I saw your face.”
Nak shook his head. “Hey, I was just amused because you were losing so badly.”
“Losing? I wasn’t losing. I just didn’t like being there.”
“Come on, Aja, it’s a game. Any fool can see that. The point of the game is that you’re supposed to go into the maze and rescue the kid. That’s how you win the game. Getting captured and all that junk—that’s just the introduction to the game.”
“Well, there’s some kind of serious bug in your game. I’ve never had a control bracelet failure. I’ve never even heard of one!”
“OE,” he said.
“OE. Operator error. You must have goofed up. Called out the wrong password or something.”
“Nak, don’t be ridiculous. I use my password twenty times a day. You think I’d forget it?”
Nak made a face like he didn’t care much. “If it wasn’t OE, then there’s something wrong with Lifelight.”
She shook her head. “Jump-control bracelets are hardwired straight to Lifelight’s origin code. Everybody has the right to terminate a jump at any time. That’s basic jump protocol. You know that. No, Nak, it has to be something you did. Something to do with the way you programmed your game.”
Nak’s rolled his eyes. “Oh, so now you’re saying I hacked the origin code!”
“You know that’s totally impossible,” Aja snapped.
Nak gave her an enigmatic smile. “Well, then it must have been you, right?”
“Come on. How many times have I heard you say that simple logic will solve any problem. It’s simple logical deduction. If it’s not a bug in Lifelight’s origin code…then it had to be you.”
Aja couldn’t think of a comeback. He was right. It was hard to dispute his logic.
Nak Adyms turned and walked toward the elevators that ran down the center of the Lifelight pyramid. Aja frowned.
Assembly period started in about ten minutes! As the top student in the class, she was supposed to be there to lead the assembly. Now she was going to be late.
Aja flew into the front door of the academy at precisely 1803 and then charged into the assembly hall, breathing as if she’d just sprinted about a mile. Which she pretty much had. She was surprised to see that assembly period hadn’t started yet. Usually everything at the academy ran like clockwork.
She ran down the aisle and up onto the stage, expecting to be scolded unmercifully by Headmistress Nilssin. Oddly, the headmistress just glanced at her and said, “Oh, there you are.” Like it was no big deal that she was late.
The headmistress was a tall gray-haired woman with a slight stoop that betrayed her age. She stood up on the podium. “Settle down, settle down!” she said. The kids in the lecture hall quieted slowly.
Normally, Aja made some announcements and then turned the assembly over to Headmistress Nilssin. But today the headmistress skipped over Aja.
“Look, I know you’ve been hearing rumors,” Headmistress Nilssin said. “So let me take a moment to get this settled.”
Rumors? What was she talking about?
“A student in the first level has gone missing,” the headmistress said.
There was a rustle from the crowd. Kids looked nervously at one another.
“His name is Omni Cader. For those of you who don’t know him…” She gestured at the holo projector.
A hologram of a young boy with red hair and freckles floated in the air in the middl
He’d looked familiar to her during the jump. Now she made the connection: She’d seen him around the academy once or twice. He’d always looked like a sweet kid. Nak must have harvested a scan of him and inserted it as a character in the game.
“Omni is a good boy,” the headmistress said. “But for those of you who don’t know him, he comes from a somewhat troubled background. He’s already run away from the academy a couple of times. But never for this long. Needless to say, we’re concerned for his safety. If you would, please keep an eye out for him. If he spoke to anybody, or gave anyone an indication where he might have gone, please contact me or one of your teachers immediately.”
Heads nodded throughout the room.
Odd, Aja thought, that the boy had disappeared at the same time as his image had shown up in a Lifelight jump. But she couldn’t see any logical connection.
“In the meantime, I’d like everyone who resides in Zetlin Hall to make a top-to-bottom search of the building. I’m going to rely on Aja Killian to organize the search.”
Aja saw Nak sitting in the back of the room, slumped down, arms folded. When the headmistress announced that Aja would be leading the search, his eyes narrowed slightly. Could he possibly be more jealous of me? Aja thought. As Number One Student, she was entrusted with a lot of responsibilities—most of which, frankly, she could do without!
There were some more announcements, then Headmistress Nilssin said, “That concludes the assembly. Everyone in Zetlin Hall, please stay here.” She turned to Aja. “I’ll leave it in your capable hands, dear.”
Aja stood up and waited until only the students from Zetlin Hall remained. “Okay, people,” she said. “Let’s keep this short and sweet. Zetlin Hall has four stories and a basement.” She pointed at the holo projector. “Holo, please display 3-D map of Zetlin Hall.”
She repeated herself.
Book Two of the Travelers by D. J. MacHale / Fantasy / Science Fiction / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes