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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (24 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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“An object can't straddle two times,” Aaron said. “It would be torn apart.”

“I don't think it would be torn apart,” Joan said. She'd seen her family's power her whole life. She'd seen the way objects disappeared piece by piece. “You just saw Ruth do it—that twig stayed intact as it crossed the barrier, half in here, half in there. Ruth held it together with the Hunt family power. The twig didn't disappear until she stopped touching it.” She could hear her excitement making her voice shaky. She wanted this so much.

“We don't have time for this,” Aaron said.


Aaron
,” Joan said. For the first time since the confrontation with Edmund, Aaron met her eyes properly. “We're so close,” she said. “That door is right
there
. We could save them all. We could bring them back.”

Aaron shook his head, clearly unconvinced. But he glanced at Tom's watch and sighed. “What can we use as the bridge?”

They ended up rolling up the rug from the entrance, keeping a center loop big enough for them all to crawl through.

Ruth's mouth was an unhappy twist as they lined it up with the door. “I really don't think the Hunt power can do this.”

“I think it can,” Joan said.
Please
, she thought.
Please work.
The archive felt so close.

“This is not even a proper tube,” Ruth said. “We just rolled it up.” But she was already facing the wintry moat. Frowning with concentration, she pushed the rolled rug against the barrier. Joan held her breath.

For a long moment, it looked like it wouldn't cross. “I don't think I can—” Ruth started, but as she said it, the rug abruptly breached the barrier, scooping into the thick snow. Falling snowflakes sprinkled the wool. Tom pushed out a sharp breath, as if he'd been holding his too.

It was clearly an effort for Ruth. Her jaw clenched tight as she fed the rolled rug over the snow.

“Hope that tiger wandered far away,” Aaron murmured.

Joan hoped so too. She was pretty sure that cats were the same everywhere—even cats with giant saber teeth.

And then the rug hit the end of the snowy landscape and Ruth couldn't get it any farther.

“Keep going,” Tom said.

“I can't.” Ruth sounded strained. “I think it's stuck at the barrier on the other side.”

“It's okay,” Joan said. She tried not to make her voice sound as desperate as she felt. “Just try.”

Ruth pushed harder—her arms shaking with the effort. She ducked her head and grunted.

“A little over ten minutes left,” Tom said. “If we want enough buffer to get out of here.”

“Ruth,” Joan said. “You can do it. You can.”

Ruth took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She
pushed again, and this time they all gasped as the rug cleared the snow. Part of the tube was here in the corridor; part of it was inside the barrier. And when Joan knelt to look, she could see the door of the archive through the eye of it. She pulled a bobby pin from her hair and tossed it through the tunnel. It hit the door on the other side with a
plink
.

“Ruth,” she said wonderingly. “You did it! It's a bridge!”

“Now, that's impressive,” Aaron conceded to Ruth. “Didn't imagine that the Hunt power could do that.” The considering way he said it made Joan look at him properly. Aaron had the kind of mind that was constantly sorting people, reorganizing them like a pack of cards—kings and queens and twos and threes. Joan suspected that all Hunts had been low-number cards to Aaron. Now they'd exposed a new aspect of the Hunt power to an Oliver. Joan felt wary. Gran would not have liked that.

“Olivers. Always underestimating us,” Ruth said, but with a shadow of her usual bravado. “Hey, I don't know how long I can hold this, actually.” Her hands were trembling.

“Go,” Joan said to Tom. “Quick.”

Tom nodded. He scooted through the makeshift tunnel fearlessly, Frankie following.

“Now you,” Joan said to Aaron.

Aaron looked gray with terror, and Joan didn't blame him. If the bridge collapsed while they were in it, they might get stuck in the Paleolithic period.

“Joan.” Ruth's hands were shaking hard enough to make ripples in the cloth.

“Go!” Joan said to Aaron.

“Joan, you too!” Ruth said. “Bloody well
go
!”

Aaron hurled himself in, and Joan dived after, close enough that he was nearly kicking her face. Cold hit her suddenly—such cold that her lungs stuck on the in breath. Wind howled.
I'm going to be stranded here
, she thought.
The tiger is going to attack. It's going to break the bridge!

But then Aaron was dragging her out. Joan scrabbled with her heels to help him. She knelt at the edge of the snow, panting. She peered through the bridge to Ruth. “Are you all right?”

Ruth was breathing hard, and unevenly too. “Peachy,” she managed. “Hurry?”

Joan scrambled to her feet. She could tell that Ruth wasn't going to be able to hold the bridge open long. Tom showed her the watch again. Ten minutes before the new guards arrived.

Before them, the door to the archive was surprisingly plain: thick polished wood with no apparent joinery—as if it had been cut from a single massive tree. But, plain as it was, there was a craftsmanship about it. The arch of the door fit perfectly into the stone wall. And the wood was so polished it seemed to glow. The only decoration was the winged-lion insignia on the middle of the door.

Joan reached for the heavy iron handle. She tried to turn it. It wouldn't budge. She tried the handle again. Then again. She felt a bubble of hysterical laughter leap into her throat. “The door's locked.”

“Stop messing about,” Aaron said. He snatched at the handle,
bobbling it up and down. “It's bloody well
locked
.”

“Who locks a door behind a Paleolithic barrier?” Joan said.

“Keeping
us
out, isn't it?” Tom said.

That was undeniable. Joan knelt again and called to Ruth. “You need to come through!”

“I can't.” Ruth was still breathing unevenly. “And I really need you to hurry up.”

Joan thought. “I need your picks, then. It's one of those big iron-key type locks.”

Ruth's pause said a lot. “When did you last pick a lock?”

Joan swallowed. “A while ago.” They both knew that Joan had never actually done it beyond the games Gran had had them play as kids. Padlocks at the dinner table.

Ruth's pick set hit Joan's knee. “You can't take long, Joan.” There was careful effort in Ruth's voice. “I can't hold this open much longer.”

“Okay,” Joan said. “Okay.” She got to her feet fast, sorting through the roll of picks. She squinted at the keyhole. “How are we for time?”

“Nine minutes away,” Tom said.

“Okay,” Joan said again. She took a pick from Ruth's kit and probed at the keyhole. To her surprise, the pick met something just inside. It felt like a metal plate. Joan's heart started to beat faster as she traced the shape of it. It seemed to cover the hole entirely. “Can I have some light?” she asked.

Light appeared from Aaron's dying phone. The battery icon was red.

Joan bent to examine the keyhole. It was big enough that she should have been able to glimpse the room beyond. But instead the phone's torch revealed a metal sheet just inside the keyhole.

“What's wrong?” Aaron said.

“I can't pick it,” Joan said.

“I thought Hunts could pick any lock,” Tom said. “That was the deal we made. I get you in the gate. You get me in there.”

“You don't understand,” Joan said. “It's not a lock. There's nothing to pick.”

“What are you talking about?” Tom said.

“The keyhole is sealed up. There's no room to fit a key into it.”

Tom peered at the keyhole and swore.

“We're out of time,” Aaron said.

“No!” Joan heard herself. “No!” They'd come so far to get here, and the gate wouldn't open again for a hundred years. They were so close to saving their families. They were so close to where they needed to be. And someone had made this stupid, false, mocking lock. “No!”

“Joan—” Aaron said.


No!
” Joan slammed her hand against the door, frustrated and furious.

And something woke up inside her.

Not the Hunt power, but another.
Someday soon, you'll come into an ability
, Gran had said.
You can trust no one with the knowledge of it.

Power poured out of Joan—invisible, but real and strong as electricity. She felt disoriented and unbalanced. She felt as if she were falling off a cliff.

There was a sound like ice cracking.

From far away, Aaron's voice said, “We need to go.”

“Wait.” That was Tom. “Look, she did it. The door's ajar.”

The torrent of power ended abruptly, and Joan was left feeling shaken and drained.

Aaron and Tom were peering around the edge of the door, into the next room, but all Joan could see was the keyhole she'd touched.

The silver metal of the lock had become reddish and dull, as if the metal had been turned into stone. Cracks ran through it; the new material seemed too brittle for this form.

Joan had a sudden clear memory of the gold chain with those dark, stonelike patches.
I did that
, she thought.
And I did this.

And then Tom flung the door open, and the lock disappeared from Joan's view.

“Good God.” Aaron took a step back.

The smell hit Joan first. It was familiar and terrible: excrement and confinement. Joan knew it well. It was the smell from the nightmare she'd had since she was small.

The room was tiny, with stone walls and a vaulted wooden ceiling.

“What
is
this?” Aaron sounded bewildered.

There was a mattress on the floor with a thin blanket—too
thin for this cold stone room. A bucket had been pushed into one corner. A wooden desk was against a wall.

Joan made herself step inside. “It's a prison cell.” Not the prison from her nightmares, but she knew one when she saw one.

“But where are all the King's treasures?” Aaron said.

Someone had been kept in here. There were brown bloodstains on the edge of the desk. Scuff marks on the stone floor. Someone had put up a fight.

Tom crouched to touch an indentation in the mattress. The mattress was so thin that his knee compressed it to the cold stone floor.

“Where is everything?” Aaron said. “Where are the books? Where are the records? Where's the
transformatio
? Isn't this supposed to be the Royal Archive?” He turned to Tom. “This is the wrong room.”

“It's the right room,” Tom said. “You saw the protections around it.”

“But there's nothing
in
here.”

“I can see that, can't I?” Tom growled. He'd been talking for days about what the room might hold.
They say that the King collects treasures from all of time.
Now, frustrated, he ripped into the mattress, as if something might be hidden there. When he found nothing, he hurled it against the wall. It hit the bucket, and something disgusting slopped all over the floor.

“Oh, for—” Aaron backed up from the spreading mess. “Oh, that's repugnant. Why did you do that? Frankie,
no
.” He called
the dog back before she could bound over there.

And now Tom was pushing at the walls, apparently hoping to find a hidden door.

“Tom, stop,” Joan said. “We can see what was in here.”

A person had been here. A prisoner. Someone all alone, cut off from the world, behind a slice of winter from a hundred thousand years ago.

“For God's sake,” Aaron said. He hoisted up Frankie with a grunt, staggering a bit, as if she was much heavier than he'd expected. “Come on. There's nothing here. We need to go.”

But then Joan hesitated. The scuff marks and the blood said there'd been a struggle.

Blood on the corner of the desk and messy scuff marks on the floor beside it. Someone had struggled next to the desk. And, after that, there were long scraped lines all the way to the door, as if the person had stopped struggling. Had they been unconscious? Or had they stopped struggling for a reason? Had they accomplished something near the desk?

On a hunch, Joan bent to run her hand under the desk. An uneven notch had been carved into the wood to create a shallow ledge. There was something in it. Joan had a flash of hope that it might be the
transformatio
, but even before she'd slid out the object and pocketed it, she knew it wasn't. It was clear that this room had never held the King's treasures. And in their research, the
transformatio
had been described as an ornate golden frame—a doorway.

“Hey.” Ruth's voice sounded from the other side of the moat.
The rolled rug connecting the archive to the rest of the palace seemed to shiver right out of existence for a second, leaving an empty expanse of white snow between them and Ruth. The rug reappeared again a moment later.

“Oh my God,” Aaron said, voice shaking. He had both arms around Frankie, and he tucked her closer, seeming to need the comfort. “What if we get stuck in that time?”

“Go! While the bridge is still here!” Joan pushed at Aaron. He went without argument, diving through the tunnel, careful of Frankie. “
Go!
” Joan said to Tom. He jumped into the tunnel too, and Joan threw herself after him.

The second crossing was more terrifying than the first. One time when Joan blinked, she saw an endless field of snow in front of her instead of Tom's legs. In the distance, trees rose from the landscape—like great monoliths, stark and leafless against the blue sky. Joan hadn't known that trees could be so big. The cold hit her belatedly, like a physical blow.

Then the snow and trees were gone. Tom was in front of her again. Joan scrambled after him, and then strong hands were pulling her out—Aaron's and Tom's. And just in time. As Joan cleared the barrier, Ruth tottered backward and lost her grip on the rug.

BOOK: Only a Monster
2.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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