Summer was fading into fall, bringing a hint of winter’s chill to the nights and early mornings. Charlie lay with his head rested on his backpack and watched the gray sky shading toward the golden hues of dawn. The alley in which he’d spent the night was still and silent, except for the soft snores of
He hated to wake the sprite but he was stiff from sleeping on the hard ground. Besides, it was never a good idea to stay in one place for too long, and he was hungry. “
He gently prodded her with his finger.
The sprite stirred with a sigh and propped her head up on her slender hands. Her almond-shaped brown eyes regarded him wearily. “What you need, Charlie?”
“It’s time to get up.”
“I know. But this isn’t like sleeping in a tree or a gully somewhere. We’re in the city now and someone might see us.” They’d been avoiding populated areas as much as possible on their trek across Angland, using
Spree’s corridor of non-light whenever
they could. But Spree could only carry another
person that way for so long before her magic wore out and so Charlie had spent
part of the journey on foot.
They had used the corridor three days ago to bypass the checkpoint at the border and enter the country of Kiloreen, ancestral home of the elves. From here on out, Charlie must travel by foot alone. He was looking for something and he didn’t want to take the chance of missing it by using the corridor. There was a map in his pocket which was supposed to lead him to his destination if only he could figure out how to use it.
Spree had hopped
off his chest, Charlie took the canteen out of his backpack. He screwed off the
lid, filled it with water, and handed it to Spree,
then drank what was left himself. They would need more water and soon. Though
he wasn’t sure where to get it in a city.
“Is more food in back sack?”
Charlie looked inside the backpack and tried not to smile. One would think that someone who’d spent more than a hundred and twenty years living in the heating ducts of a school would have a clearer grasp of the language but
Spree persisted in mangling it. Charlie’s
few attempts at correcting Spree had done
nothing but agitate her and he’d long since given up.
“No,” he said, closing the backpack. “You better go see what you can scrounge up. And bring back real food this time, not cookies.”
Charlie leaned his head back against the brick building. He found himself missing the home where he’d spent the last seven years of his life. At least there he had three meals a day and a real bed on which to sleep. This whole thing was like one long nightmare from which he could not wake. Sometimes, he wished he’d never met Lily, never heard of the Silver Catacombs; then he would still be with Grant and the others instead of on this endless quest.
Well, no time to dawdle in this alley, wallowing in misery; he needed to move. He had no worries about leaving this spot without
Spree. She could always find him. He reached into his
pocket and withdrew the silver disk. He stared down at it for the hundredth
time and traced a finger over the strange symbols etched blackly into its
surface. He thought they were words but could find no one capable of reading
In the center of the disk was a small, white magestone. Charlie concentrated on it, calling up his magic, which he was sure was the key to unlocking the map. The stone shimmered faintly, the air above it rippling, only to fade away again. Charlie muttered a curse and stuffed the disk back into his pocket.
“The map and the key” was what Lily had called the disk. But she had known no better than he how to operate it.
Charlie headed for the street and hoped there were no constables about who might be inclined to stop him. He had no papers; if he was caught they would take him straight to jail. Once they got a look at his record and saw elfblood in bold red letters, he would be finished.
As Charlie stepped out of the alley, someone came running around the corner and barreled directly into him. They went down in a tangled heap and Charlie found himself looking into a pair of bright blue eyes surrounded by long lashes.
“Idiot,” the girl muttered, pushing herself to her feet. “Don’t you watch where you’re going?”
Charlie, who was a bit dazed from having hit his head on the asphalt, stared stupidly up at her. She was tall and trim, with unruly black curls, highlighted purple, falling across her shoulders. She was dressed all in black: jeans, tank top, boots with chains, and fingerless gloves. A silver belt circled her narrow waist.
Charlie thought she was a little older than he was, maybe sixteen, judging by her shape, which wasn’t bad to look at even from where he was lying on the ground. The sound of running feet came from the side street. The girl glared down at Charlie. “You didn’t see me.” She darted down the alley and hid behind the nearest dumpster, which was overflowing with foul-smelling refuse.
Charlie managed to get himself into a seated position before two men came around the corner. He knew by their blue uniforms they were town constables and a cold fear cramped his guts.
The fiery dragon in Charlie’s mind leapt to the defense, the magic eager to take control. Charlie mentally grabbed hold of the chains that had once bound the beast in the darkest depths of his mind and pulled back, hoping to at least keep it from going for the kill.
He was on his feet before the men even knew he was there. With a quick kick, he hit the first constable in the chest and heard something snap as the man fell backward. The second constable went for the pistol holstered at his side but he wasn’t half fast enough. Even as his hand closed around the leather grip, Charlie’s leg came around in a roundhouse kick that caught the man on the side of the head. He spun and fell face first onto the ground.
Magic rushed through Charlie’s veins eager for the kill. But he held it back, forcing the dragon to retreat. Once it was safely put down, Charlie knelt beside the first man. The man’s face was pale, his breath short and raspy. Charlie hadn’t allowed the full force of his magic to come through, but he had still broken several of the man’s ribs and judging by his breathing one of them had likely punctured a lung. The second man was unconscious and bleeding but his heartbeat was steady enough.
There was no one else on the street so early in the morning. Charlie had chosen this place because it seemed mostly deserted, though he could hear traffic from somewhere on the other side of the brick buildings. He was torn. Should he try to find help for these men and endanger himself, or leave them and hope some passerby would find them before they died?
“How did you do that?”
Charlie turned at the sound of the girl’s voice behind him. Her eyes were wide with amazement. He stood. “I… uh…” He couldn’t tell the truth and reveal what he was. But he never had been good at lying. “Uh…”
“Uh…” she mimicked him with cruel accuracy. “What’s the matter? You can fight but you can’t talk?”
“I can talk,” Charlie said, blushing furiously. “I just don’t like answering questions, that’s all.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. My name’s Raven and I guess I owe you something for taking care of these two for me.” She glanced at the men. “Although they aren’t dead.”
“My name’s Charlie and I don’t kill people if I don’t have to. In fact, I’d like to get them some help before they do die.”
Raven eyed him with a frown, then shrugged again. “A conscience can be a dangerous thing, but if you insist.” She stepped around him and knelt beside the first man who watched her with a mixture of fear and pain in his eyes.
There was a small, black box on his belt, which looked to Charlie to be very similar to the coms the guards had used back at the prison camp. Raven pressed a small red button on the side of the box. “There. This place will be swarming with constables in about ten minutes. I would suggest we be long gone by then.”
“Sure. You saved me from going to jail so the least I can do is get you something to eat. You are hungry, aren’t you?”
Charlie hesitated. “Well, it has been awhile since I ate.”
“So come on, then.” Raven led the way down the alley and along a rutted back road. On one side, the backs of tall brick buildings loomed over them. On the other was an overgrown lot with a few motor cars rusting under the rising sun.
“You’re not from here, are you?” Raven asked.
Charlie was instantly suspicious. “Why do you ask?”
Raven gave him a lopsided smile. “Right. You don’t like to answer questions. Not a bad view in most instances but it could get you in a lot of trouble where we’re going.”
“Why? Where are going?”
“A special place,” she said, still smiling. “A place not everybody is allowed to go. But don’t worry; I think you’ll fit in just fine.”