The Fire Chronicle, p.1John Stephens
Also by John Stephens
The Emerald Atlas
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2012 by John Stephens
Jacket art copyright © 2012 by Jon Foster
Jacket border art and chapter-opening art copyright © 2012 by Grady McFerrin
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The fire chronicle / John Stephens. — 1st ed.
p. cm. — (The books of beginning; bk. 2)
Summary: “In the second book in the Books of Beginning Trilogy, Michael and Emma must track down the Chronicle of Life, while Kate must find a way back to present day from the year 1899” — Provided by publisher.
[1. Brothers and sisters—Fiction. 2. Magic—Fiction. 3. Space and time—Fiction. 4. Identity—Fiction. 5. Monsters—Fiction. 6. Prophecies—Fiction. 7. Books and reading—Fiction.
8. New York (N.Y.)—History—1898–1951—Fiction.] I. Title.
Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.
Other Books by This Author
CHAPTER ONE The Letter in the Tree
CHAPTER TWO The Storm
CHAPTER THREE The Devil of Castel del Monte
CHAPTER FOUR Dr. Hugo Algernon
CHAPTER FIVE Rafe
CHAPTER SIX Malpesa
CHAPTER SEVEN And Three Will Become One
CHAPTER EIGHT The Savages
CHAPTER NINE Ice
CHAPTER TEN The End of the World
CHAPTER ELEVEN The Snowball Fight
CHAPTER TWELVE To the Fortress
CHAPTER THIRTEEN Hello, Rabbit
CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Hothouse
CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Book of Life
CHAPTER SIXTEEN For Auld Lang Syne
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Hostage
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Henrietta Burke’s Last Wish
CHAPTER NINETEEN The Battle of the Volcano
CHAPTER TWENTY Into the Fire
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Separation
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO In the Trees
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE The Ghost
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR The Rise of the Dire Magnus
About the Author
The boy was small, and new to the orphanage, which meant he had the worst bed in the dormitory, the most uneven, the saggiest, the strangest-smelling; it was little more than a cot, jammed into an alcove at the back of the room. And when the scream came—a scream unlike any the boy had ever heard, the way it seemed to reach into his chest and crush his heart—he was the last of the frightened, shrieking children out the door.
At the bottom of the stairs, the mob of children encountered a dense fog and turned right, stampeding down the hall. The boy was about to follow when two figures emerged from the mist, close on the heels of the children. They were black-garbed, with burning yellow eyes, and held long, jagged swords and stank of rot.
The boy waited till they passed, then fled in the other direction.
He ran blindly, with fear thick in his throat, knowing only that he had to get away, to hide. Then, somehow, he was in the director’s office, and there were voices in the hall. He dove beneath a desk, tucking his legs up close.
The door of the office banged open; a light snapped on. A pair of green slippers backed into view, and he heard the orphanage director, a dull bully of a man, begging:
“Please—please, don’t hurt me—”
A second man spoke, his voice strangely cold and lilting. “Now, why would I do a thing like that? It’s three children I came for.”
“So take them! Take three! Take ten! Just don’t hurt me!”
The other man stepped closer, the floor groaning under his weight.
“Well, that is generous. Only it’s three very special children I’m after. A brother and two sisters. They go by the lovely names of Kate, Michael, and Emma.”
“But they’re not … they’re not here anymore. We sent them away! More than a year ago—”
There was a strangled gurgle, and the boy watched as the slippered feet rose, thrashing, into the air. The other man’s voice was calm, without a hint of strain.
“And where did you send them? Where do I find them?”
The boy pressed his hands to his ears, but he could still hear the choking, still hear the man’s lilting, murderous voice. “Where are the children …?”
Kate finished writing the letter, sealed it in an envelope, then walked over and dropped it into the hollow of an old tree.
He’ll come, she told herself.
She’d written to him about her dream, the one that had yanked her out of sleep every night that week. Again and again, she’d lain there in the dark, covered in cold sweat and waiting for her heart to slow, relieved that Emma, lying beside her, hadn’t woken, relieved that it had only been a dream.
Except it wasn’t a dream; she knew that.
He’ll come, Kate repeated. When he reads it, he’ll come.
The day was hot and humid, and Kate wore a lightweight summer dress and a pair of patched leather sandals. Her hair was pulled back and cinched with a rubber band, though a few loose strands stuck to her face and neck. She was fifteen and taller than she’d been a year ago. In other respects, her appearance hadn’t changed. With her dark blond hair and hazel eyes, she still struck all who saw her as a remarkably pretty girl. But a person did not have to look closely to see the furrow of worry that was etched into her brow, or the tension that lived in her arms and shoulders, or the way her fingernails were bitten to the quick.
In that respect, truly, nothing had changed.
Kate had not moved from beside the tree, but stood there, absently fingering the gold locket that hung from her neck.
More than ten years earlier, Kate and her younger brother and sister had been sent away from their parents. They had grown up in a series of orphanages, a few that were nice and clean, run by kind men and women, but most of them not so nice, and the adults who ran them not so kind. The children had not been told why their parents had sent them away, or when they were coming back. But that their parents would eventually return, that they would all once more be a family, the children had never doubted.
It had been Kate’s duty to look after her brother and sister. She had made that promise the night her mother had come into her room that Christmas Eve so long ago. She could picture it still: her mother leaning over her, fastening the golden locket around her small neck, as Kate promised that she would protect Michael and Emma and keep them safe.
And year after year, in orphanage after orphanage, even when they had faced dangers and enemies they could never have imagined, Kate had been true to her word.
But if Dr. Pym didn’t come, how would she
But he will come, she told herself. He hasn’t abandoned us.
If that’s so, said a voice in her head, why did he send you here?
And, unable to help herself, Kate turned and looked down the hill. There, visible through the trees, were the crumbling brick walls and turrets of the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans.
In her defense, it was only when Kate was frustrated or tired that she questioned Dr. Pym’s decision to send her and Michael and Emma back to Baltimore. She knew he hadn’t really abandoned them. But the fact remained: of all the orphanages the children had lived in over the years—one of which had been next to a sewage treatment plant; another had made groaning noises and seemed to be always catching on fire—the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans was the worst. The rooms were freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer; the water was brown and chunky; the floors squished and oozed; the ceilings leaked; it was home to warring gangs of feral cats.…
And as if that weren’t enough, there was Miss Crumley, the lumpy-bodied, Kate-and-her-brother-and-sister-hating orphanage director. Miss Crumley had thought she’d gotten rid of the children for good last Christmas, and she had been less than pleased to have them turn up on her doorstep a week later, bearing a note from Dr. Pym saying that the orphanage at Cambridge Falls had been closed due to “an infestation of turtles,” and would Miss Crumley mind watching the children till the problem was resolved.
Of course Miss Crumley had minded. But when she’d attempted to call Dr. Pym to inform him that under no circumstances could she accept the children and that she was returning them on the next train, she’d found that all the information Dr. Pym had previously given her (phone number for the orphanage, address and directions, testimonials from happy, well-fed children) had disappeared from her files. Nor did the phone company have any record of a number. In fact, no matter how much she dug, Miss Crumley was unable to find any evidence that the town of Cambridge Falls actually existed. In the end, she’d been forced to give in. But she let the children know that they were unwelcome, and she took every opportunity to corner them in the hallways or the cafeteria, firing questions while poking them with her pudgy finger.
“Where exactly is this Cambridge Falls?”—poke—“Why can’t I find it on any maps?”—poke—“Who is this Dr. Pym fellow?”—poke, poke—“Is he even a real doctor?”—poke, poke, poke—“What happened up there? I know something fishy’s going on! Answer me!”—poke, poke, poke, pinch, twist.
Frustrated at having had her hair pulled for the third time in one week, Emma had suggested that they tell Miss Crumley the truth: that Dr. Stanislaus Pym was a wizard, that the reason Miss Crumley couldn’t find Cambridge Falls on a map was that it was part of the magical world and therefore hidden from normal (or in her case, subnormal) humans, that as far as what had happened there, the three of them had discovered an old book bound in green leather that had carried them back through time, that they’d met dwarves and monsters, fought an evil witch, saved an entire town, and that pretty much any way you looked at it, they were heroes. Even Michael.
“Thanks,” Michael had said sarcastically.
“Anyway, we can’t say that. She’ll think we’re crazy.”
“So what?” Emma had replied. “I’d rather be in a loony bin than this place.”
But in the end, Kate had made them stick to their story. Cambridge Falls was an ordinary sort of place, Dr. Pym was an ordinary sort of man, and nothing the least bit out of the ordinary had happened. “We have to trust Dr. Pym.”
After all, Kate thought, what other choice did they have?
Faint strains of music were drifting up the hill, reminding Kate that today was the day of Miss Crumley’s party, and she looked down through the trees to the large yellow tent that had been erected on the orphanage lawn. For the past two weeks, every child in the orphanage had been working nonstop, weeding, mulching, cleaning windows, trimming hedges, hauling trash, collecting the carcasses of animals that had crawled into the orphanage to die, all for the sake of a party to which they were not even invited.
“And don’t let me catch you peering out the windows at my guests!” Miss Crumley had warned the assembled children at breakfast. “Mr. Hartwell Weeks has no desire to see your grubby little faces pressed against the glass.”
Mr. Hartwell Weeks was the president of the Maryland Historical Society, in whose honor the party was being given. The society ran a weekly bus tour of “historically significant buildings” in the Baltimore area, and as the Home had been an armory in some long-ago war, Miss Crumley was determined to see it added to the list. She could then—Miss Crumley had this on good authority—charge groups of hapless tourists ten dollars a head for the privilege of stomping through the orphanage grounds.
“And if any of you mess this up”—she’d taken particular care to glare at Kate and her brother and sister as she said this—“well, I’m always getting calls from people who need children for dangerous scientific experiments, the sort of thing they don’t want to waste a good dog on; I could easily volunteer a few names!”
The guests were now beginning to arrive, and Kate watched as men in blue blazers and white pants, women in creams and pastels, appeared around the side of the orphanage and hurried toward the shade of the tent. In truth, she was only half watching. Once again, she was thinking of her dream. She could hear the screams, see the yellow-eyed creatures stalking through the fog, hear the man’s voice saying her and her brother’s and sister’s names. Had the events in her dream already happened, or were they about to? How much time did she and her siblings have?
She trusted Dr. Pym; she really did. But she was scared.
“Well, she’s done it again!”
Kate turned to see her brother, Michael, huffing up the slope. He was red-faced and sweating, and his glasses had slipped down to the end of his nose. A tattered canvas bag was slung across his chest, the pouch resting on his hip.
Kate forced a smile.
“Done what again?”
“Gotten in trouble,” Michael said with put-on exasperation. “Miss Crumley caught her trying to steal ice cream meant for the party. I thought she was going to have a heart attack. Miss Crumley, I mean, not Emma.”
“That’s it? You’re not angry?” Michael adjusted his glasses and frowned. “Kate, you know Dr. Pym sent us here to hide. How can we keep a low profile if Emma’s always getting into trouble?”
Kate sighed. She had heard all this before.
“She needs to learn to act more responsibly,” Michael continued. “To use her head. I can’t imagine I was so careless at her age.”
He said this as if he were referring to some distant era in the past.
“Fine,” Kate said. “I’ll talk to her.”
Michael nodded his approval. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’ve got the perfect quote. Maybe you can slip it in. Just a moment.…” He reached into his bag, and Kate knew without looking that he was taking out The Dwarf Omnibus. Just as she clung to her locket, Michael treasured the small leather-bound book. The night they’d been taken from their parents, their father had tucked it into his son’s blankets, and, over the years, Michael had read and reread the Omnibus dozens of times. Kate knew it was his way of staying close to a father he scarcely remembered. It had also had the effect of giving him a deep appreciation of all things dwarfish. This had come in handy in Cambridge Falls when they had helped a dwarfish king claim his throne. For that service, Michael had been given a silver badge by King Robbie McLaur, and named Royal Guardian of All Dwarfish Traditions and History. More than once, Kate and Emma had come upon him, silver badge pinned to his chest, staring at himself in the mirror and striking somewhat ridiculous poses. Kate had warned Emma not to tease him.
“Honestly,” Emma had said, “it would be too easy.”
“Now, where was it.…” The Omnibus was th
Michael had a very low opinion of elves.
“Here we go! It’s a quote from King Killin Killick—that’s his real name, K-I-L-L-I-N, not a nickname because he did a lot of killing, though he did that too. So he says, ‘A great leader lives not in his heart, but in his head.’ ” Michael snapped the book shut and smiled. “Head, not heart. That’s the key. That’s what she needs to learn. Yes, sir.”
His argument made, Michael settled his glasses once more upon his nose and waited for his sister to respond.
Michael was nearly a year older than Emma. Nearly, but not quite, which meant that for a few weeks every year, the two of them were technically the same age. And every year, it drove Michael a little crazy. Being the middle child, he clung to his sliver of superiority. It didn’t help matters that he and Emma were frequently mistaken for twins. They had the same chestnut hair, the same dark eyes; they were both small and scrawny-limbed. Kate knew that Michael lived in fear of Emma getting a growth spurt before he did. Indeed, for a while, she’d noticed Michael trying to hold himself as straight and rigid as possible, as if hoping to give at least the appearance of greater height. But Emma had kept asking if he had to go to the bathroom, and finally he’d stopped.
In five days, he would be thirteen. Kate knew he couldn’t wait. For that matter, neither could she.
“Thanks. I’ll remember that.”
He nodded, satisfied. “So what were you writing to Dr. Pym? I saw you put the letter in the tree.”
This was how they communicated with the wizard. Letters placed in the hollow of the tree would reach him immediately. Or so the children had been given to believe. As they had not heard from the wizard since arriving in Baltimore, Kate sometimes wondered if all the notes she’d dropped in the tree were sitting there, unread.
The Fire Chronicle by John Stephens / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes