Curse of the broomstaff, p.16
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       Curse of the Broomstaff, p.16

           Tyler Whitesides
 
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  She pressed a button, lifted the device to her lips, and spoke. “This is Landfill, calling all Aurans. We have a Code One. I repeat, Code One. This is not a drill.”

  As Rho spoke, the walkie-talkie hummed slightly, shimmering with a magical glow that could mean only one thing.

  “That’s a Glopified radio,” said Alan. “Similar to the ones we were using before we found the package. It’s a simple device, but it has unlimited range.”

  “What’s she thinking?” Daisy whispered. “Doesn’t she know we’re supposed to be off the grid?”

  “I’m more concerned about Code One,” Penny said, still untrusting. “What do you think it means?”

  “Relax.” Rho lowered the two-way radio. “By crossing that bridge, you’ve earned every right to be here. And believe me, we’re just as excited as you are. We’ve waited a long time for this day.”

  Spencer had just opened his mouth to ask what that meant when movement from the nearest dumpster caught his eye. He staggered an involuntary step back, shocked by what appeared to be happening.

  A hand thrust through the trash and gripped the rim of the dumpster. A head appeared next, with brilliant white hair to match Rho’s. It was another girl, and she didn’t appear to be distressed at all by the fact that she was climbing out of a dumpster.

  The Rebel team spun around as, one by one, the Aurans emerged from the row of trash bins. They pulled themselves over the edge of the dumpsters and climbed onto the concrete pad.

  Another girl followed. And then another. Within a minute, there were ten Aurans, Rho included, standing alongside the dumpsters. One detail seemed to unite their appearance—each had a head of silvery white hair. They wore the hair in a range of lengths and styles, but the distinctive feature made them easily recognizable.

  “Ten girls,” Penny whispered.

  It was sinking in for Spencer now. “Where are the three boys?”

  One of the girls stepped forward. She was tall and slender, and her white hair flowed around her in incredibly long, thick waves. She studied the Rebels silently for a moment, her gaze a mixture of excitement and surprise.

  “Welcome to the landfill.” She smiled broadly, her eyes lingering on Spencer for an extra moment. “My name is V. I’m sure you have questions, and you’ve definitely earned some answers. Let’s head inside where we can talk.”

  The Aurans moved forward, opening a personnel door on the side of the building as V led the Rebels inside. After the midmorning sun, the building’s interior seemed dim. The group headed down a windowless hallway and around a corner. Finally, V directed them into a large room that had a vaulted ceiling pocked with skylights.

  In the center of the space was a wooden table, vast and round, with thirteen carved chairs tucked around it. The Aurans quietly slipped into their seats, leaving three chairs conspicuously empty.

  Bernard smirked as he touched the edge of the table. “Just like Camelot?”

  V shrugged. “It worked for King Arthur.”

  “Until Sir Lancelot came along,” Bernard pointed out.

  V’s eyes dropped to the three empty chairs. “We’ve already had our share of Lancelots.”

  The Rebels stood awkwardly behind the chairs until V gestured for them to take a seat. Clearly, there weren’t enough chairs for everyone, but Walter and Alan were the obvious choice. Spencer was surprised when the third chair was pulled out and Penny sat him down in it. Bernard, Penny, and Daisy stood behind them like bodyguards.

  “Let’s have a proper introduction.” V placed her hand on the table. “I’m V, named for Virginia.”

  The girl next to her placed a hand on the table. “I’m Jersey, named for New Jersey.”

  The introductions proceeded in the same manner around the table. “I’m Lina, named for South Carolina.”

  “I’m Netty, named for Connecticut.”

  “I’m Yorkie, named for New York.”

  “I’m Dela, named for Delaware.”

  “I’m Sylva, named for Pennsylvania.”

  “I’m Shirley, named for New Hampshire.”

  “I’m Gia, named for Georgia.”

  Then finally, Jenna spoke. “I’m Rho, named for Rhode Island.”

  “Phew,” Bernard said. “That’s a lot of names. I hope there’s not a quiz at the end.”

  Daisy nudged Spencer in the arm and whispered, “Does that make you Ida, named for Idaho?”

  “As you can see,” V explained, “we get our names from the original thirteen colonies. A long time ago, those were the regions that we served. America has grown a bit. Now we’re all over the place.”

  “What about the other three?” Spencer asked. He wasn’t quick enough to deduce which three colonies were missing, but Rho had said there were three boys.

  The table grew somber at the question. The Aurans glanced furtively at one another. Then V answered. “Three hundred years is a long time to survive. The others are dead. There are only ten Aurans now.”

  Spencer felt a pit in his stomach. The boys were dead? He wanted to find out more, but his dad was already moving the conversation forward.

  “Thank you for welcoming us here,” Alan said. “My team has sacrificed a lot to reach you. But I believe it will all be worth it if we can stop what the BEM is doing.”

  “Do you have a plan?” V asked.

  Alan paused for only a moment, seeming to wonder if honesty was the right answer. Then he went ahead with the truth. “My old associate, Rod Grush, and I discovered that Toxites are being born out of Glop. If we can find the Glop source, and destroy it . . .” He trailed off, but V finished for him.

  “Then you destroy all Toxites forever.”

  The Auran girls were glancing at one another. Spencer looked to Rho, but she was studying her fingernails in thought.

  “So,” Alan prompted. “Do you know where the source is?”

  V took a moment to make eye contact with each girl. Then she slowly nodded her head. “We do.”

  More silence. Then, “Will you take us there?”

  Again, V nodded slowly. “We will take you to the Glop source,” she said deliberately. “And we will help you destroy it.”

  Alan couldn’t hold back his grin. Spencer could see the joy and relief etched on every feature of his father’s face. This was the quest he’d started over two years ago. This was what Rod Grush had died for.

  “It’s the least we can offer,” V said, “after all your efforts to solve the thirteen clues.”

  “Where is the Glop source?” Walter asked.

  “It’s here at the landfill. Quite far, though,” V said. “We’re looking at a two-day hike to get there.”

  “Hiking through trash . . .” Bernard smiled. “Sounds thrilling!”

  Thrilling wasn’t the word Spencer would have used, but he saw the importance. They had come a long way to learn about the Glop source. Now they would be there in two more days and a whole lot of trash.

  “When do we leave?” Alan asked.

  V smiled. “Right away.”

  Chapter 33

  “They left us no choice.”

  The landfill was rugged terrain. The deeper they hiked, the more things changed. Heat increased beyond the warmth of the Texas afternoon. The very earth seemed to radiate stifling waves of heat, and before long everyone was bathed in sweat. The smell increased with the heat, the only relief coming as a light wind whipped across the trashheaped landscape.

  They had separated into two groups. V and Rho stayed back with the Rebels, while the other eight Aurans hiked about an hour ahead, scouting for traps and enemies. “Enemies?” Daisy had asked. “More Thingamajunks?”

  “Or worse,” V had answered. Then she instructed everyone to meet by nightfall in place called the Valley of Tires.

  Spencer paused to tighten the straps on his backpack, feeling his water bottle glug sideways. His dad was suddenly there, hoisting up the pack in an attempt to be helpful.

  “I got it, Dad.” Spencer stepped away and c
hecked the buckle on his janitorial belt. He moved over to Daisy, annoyed at himself for ignoring his dad again. Maybe when this was all over he and his dad would see eye to eye.

  V strode past, and Spencer looked again at the strange object she had brought from the building. It was an oldfashioned shovel. The long handle was wrapped in rawhide, and the wide end was made of shiny black metal, tapering to a dangerous point. She swung it over her shoulder and glanced out over the endless piles of trash before them.

  “What’s with the shovel?” Spencer finally asked her as they began skirting along a deep, garbage-filled ravine.

  V wiped the sweat from her forehead and hefted the item. “It’s called the Spade. We’ll need it to reach where we’re going.”

  “We have to dig to get to the source?” Alan asked.

  “If that’s the case, then shouldn’t we all have shovels?” Bernard pointed out.

  “It’s not digging in the traditional way,” V answered. “Think of this whole landfill like a giant treadmill. Right now, we’re hiking across, from the southern gorge that you crossed this morning to a similar gorge on the north side. When we get there, it might look like we’re out of land. That’s when the Spade comes in.”

  Spencer slipped on a piece of trash, but Penny caught his arm and steadied him. “I’m guessing the shovel’s Glopified?”

  “When we reach the other gorge,” V said, “I’ll stick the Spade into the ground, and the whole landfill will rotate. Like someone started the treadmill. New ground will come up from below, and we’ll be carried back to the other side of the landfill, where we continue our journey.”

  “I’ve never heard of a Glopified tool powerful enough to do something like that,” Penny said. “Where did it come from?”

  “The boys,” V answered. “I don’t remember which one created it.”

  The answer caused Spencer to pause in his tracks. “You mean the boy Aurans? They created the Spade? But I thought only warlocks could use Glop . . .”

  “Those boys were special,” V said. “They had unique powers.”

  Spencer felt all eyes boring down on him. He wanted to reveal it then, to tell V that he was an Auran. Maybe he had hidden powers that she could help him discover.

  “You see,” Rho cut in, “all of us have the ability to see through the warlocks’ eyes when we touch bronze. That’s a standard power. It’s how we make raw Glop deliveries to the warlocks.”

  “But the boys,” Alan pressed. “They had powers that the rest of you didn’t have?”

  “Too much power,” V said. “That’s what got them into trouble. The boys weren’t like the rest of us. Their powers changed them. Their hearts were consumed by selfish darkness and evil. We called them the Dark Aurans, and eventually, they betrayed us.”

  “What did they do?” Daisy asked.

  “They got out of control,” said V. “They stopped us from making a very important decision.”

  “How did they die?” Spencer finally asked.

  “We destroyed them, of course,” V said, with remarkably little feeling. “They left us no choice.”

  The Rebels fell completely silent, and Spencer was sure that each of his friends was renewing their pact not to reveal his identity as an Auran. But that wasn’t the only thing bothering him.

  Spencer paused to drink from his water bottle. He let the distance widen between him and V, trying not to think too hard about the Dark Aurans. He had only minimal powers, not like the boys V was talking about. Being an Auran was hard enough. Being an evil Auran would be far worse.

  Chapter 34

  “I couldn’t be honest about anything.”

  The Valley of Tires was a sight unlike anything Spencer had ever seen. V and Rho led the team of Rebels in, cresting a giant mound of trash as the sun finally set. In the dusk light, Spencer looked into the valley head, trying to comprehend how such a thing was even possible.

  The valley was made of thousands, maybe millions, of old car tires. They were stacked unbelievably high on both sides, with a deep and narrow ravine cutting down the middle. Some tires were set vertically, others horizontally, as if some great architect had carefully placed each one. The result was stunning, with purplish red hues from the sunset shining through uncountable holes.

  As they drew nearer, descending into the valley, Spencer noticed an even more stunning feature. The tires, so carefully placed, seemed fused together, as if the rubber had melted and rejoined. Every size and diameter of tire was present, and Spencer saw several brands that he recognized—Michelin, Goodyear, Firestone.

  Wind whistled through the gaps in the tires, creating an eerie hum of varying pitches. As V led them deeper into the valley, the tires on both sides seemed to radiate unnatural warmth.

  “Who built this place?” Spencer whispered to Rho. She hadn’t said much to him as they’d hiked along. So different from the Jenna he knew. Now she merely laughed.

  “No one built it,” Rho said. “This is the Valley of Tires. The edge of the landfill.” She pointed ahead, and Spencer sensed, more than saw, another deep gorge at the far side of the valley.

  “So we reached the other side already?” Spencer was puzzled. He could envision the landfill, ringed by a deep gorge to keep out trespassers. But if they’d already traversed the whole place . . .”Then where’s the Glop source?”

  Rho glanced at Spencer. Shadowy rings from the tires fell across her face in the dim twilight. “Tomorrow V will use the Spade to uncover more ground. You’ll see.”

  At the heart of the valley, V stopped. She slipped out of her backpack, shoulders marked with sweat from the straps.

  “We sleep here tonight,” V said.

  The other Aurans had already arrived, breaking out a minimal camp and getting a fire going with scraps of garbage that let off plumes of stinky smoke. As the last trace of daylight faded, the Aurans settled into the walls of the valley, searching for comfortable tires to curl up in while the Rebels huddled alone near the fire.

  “Listen,” Walter whispered, when he saw they were alone. “This probably goes without saying, but we have to keep Spencer a secret.”

  Penny nodded in agreement. “V was pretty shifty about the Dark Aurans. I don’t think she’d like to find out that there was another boy Auran around.”

  “We can’t risk anything,” Walter said. “We need to make sure they never suspect.”

  “What about your friend from the Academy?” Alan said. “Jenna. Does she know?”

  “Her name is Rho now,” Daisy corrected. “Confusing, I know.”

  “I don’t think she knows,” Spencer said. “I’ve been trying hard to remember our time together and I’m pretty sure it never came up . . .”

  Spencer trailed off as Rho approached, rolling a loose truck tire near the fire and sitting down next to the Rebels. It was awkwardly silent for a moment. The kind of silence that seemed to scream, “We were talking about you!” Then Walter broke out with a question.

  “The Spade,” he said. “V mentioned that she’ll need to use it to reach the Glop source?”

  Rho tore open a granola bar and bit into it. “This landfill is a lot bigger than what we can see,” she said. “The surface is just the normal part.”

  Spencer cast his eyes around, but he didn’t feel like anything he’d seen today was too normal.

  “How much do you know about landfills?” Rho asked.

  “I did a report on them in high school,” Penny said. “By the way, is this a landfill or a dump?”

  Rho shrugged. “What’s the difference?”

  Bernard gave a soft chuckle of victory and folded his hands behind his head.

  “Anyway,” Rho said. “In a common landfill, trash is dumped into a big hole. As liquid trickles down through the garbage, it collects pollutants and dangerous chemicals. It settles at the bottom—a nasty, sludgy substance called leachate.”

  Rho threw her wrapper onto the ground. It didn’t matter since the whole place was covered in trash already. “T
his landfill’s a little different. Old Glopified supplies have been dumped here for hundreds of years. As liquid trickles down through the garbage, it gets tainted with Glop instead of normal pollutants. The Glop pools at the bottom of the landfill and causes some strange side effects.”

  She gestured up both sides of the Valley of Tires. “It’s only going to get weirder, the deeper we go. When V uses the Spade to turn the landfill, we never know exactly what might surface.”

  “This place just keeps getting crazier,” Spencer said. He sat quietly upon the hard ground, his head tilted back so he could watch the stars wink overhead. The Rebels were silent again, each lost in thought about their strange location.

  “I wish I would have known who you really were,” Spencer finally said. He didn’t care that the others were listening. He needed to get it off his chest. “At the Academy. I could have used your help. Instead, you just . . . pretended.”

  He was thinking about the heart picture she’d drawn in art class. He was thinking about the attention she’d given him, and the conversations they’d had at lunch. He was thinking about the note.

  “I had to pretend,” Rho admitted. “I was there for a very specific reason, and I couldn’t let you know about it. I couldn’t be honest about anything.”

  “What about chicken tenders?” he asked.

  “Huh?”

  “You said you liked chicken tenders dipped in ranch,” Spencer said. “Was that true?” It was a dumb question, and now he felt embarrassed to be speaking in front of his dad and friends. But Spencer needed something from their time together at New Forest Academy to be real.

  She smiled then, a Jenna smile. It made Spencer feel ridiculous. Of course Rho didn’t feel anything special for him. He was twelve. She was three hundred. He’d spent months hoping to get another letter from her. Now he knew why she never wrote.

  “The truth is,” Rho said, “you didn’t need my help at the Academy. I needed yours. I was there to spy on Garcia, but things were a lot worse than we expected. I’d probably still be trapped at the Academy, with giant Toxites rotting my brain, if you and Daisy hadn’t saved me.”

 
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