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The Torchbearers, Page 2

Ally Condie

  “I think so,” Nico muttered.

  Tyler groaned. “Any chance we could put on fake mustaches and pretend to sell insurance?”

  Opal chuckled darkly. “I think it’s the uncivilized route for us.”

  Nico led them back up the block, turning into a narrow lane that ended at a wooden fence. Beyond it, waves crashed against a tumble of heavy rocks below. Nico kept an eye on the street as Opal pried a loose board aside and carefully wriggled through the gap. The boys quickly followed, emerging onto the seawall bordering the harbor.

  They walked single file along a ragged, crushed-shell trail atop the barrier, angling toward an abandoned dock, where they scurried beneath its rotting timbers and regrouped. Holding his nose, Nico moved deeper into the recessed space, to where a canvas bag sat alongside a circular concrete hole burrowing below the building. They had reached the sewer gate.

  Nico dug into the bag and removed three flashlights, powering them one by one. “Remember to breathe through your mouth.”

  “That’s worse,” Tyler huffed. “The funk gets into your taste buds, and I already had a mouthful of dumpster trash.”

  Opal tilted her head. “Did what now?”

  Nico and Tyler spoke in unison. “Don’t ask.”

  Opal rolled her eyes. “Let’s get this over with.” Not content to wait, she fired ahead. Nico rubbed a hand over his face and followed. Tyler reluctantly crept in last.

  “No rats today, please,” Tyler whispered in supplication. “I’m begging. Man do I hate rats.”

  The opening was no more than five feet tall, forcing them to hunch as they shuffled along a narrow concrete shelf that ran above the main drainage channel. The stench hit Nico like a physical blow. Gagging, he scurried as fast as he could, nearly bowling into Opal at the first turn. He didn’t look directly at where his flashlight beam fell. He didn’t want to see anything.

  “I’m going to be sick,” Tyler moaned behind him.

  “Well, you’re in the right place for it,” Nico quipped.

  Opal made a second turning, into a larger section where they could all stand. Another grime-crusted channel led to an old metal door secured by a padlock. Opal unlooped the chain—they’d severed its rusty links days ago, and only kept it there now for show. Setting the obstacle aside, she turned the door’s handle and pushed with her shoulder.

  The portal inched backward with a shriek that jangled Nico’s nerves, but they were far beneath the Custom House and he knew the racket couldn’t be heard from up above. The trio wormed through the narrow opening and slammed the door shut behind them. Nico took his first full breath in minutes.

  “We’ve got to find a better option,” Tyler spat. “I can’t handle that reek every time.”

  “It’s the only entry point that isn’t watched,” Nico wheezed, fanning his nose. “You think I enjoy it?”

  “Can we go, please?” Opal said. “We’re already late and I want to get to work.”

  The lightless chamber was an old-fashioned boiler room, unused since the Custom House was retrofitted with a modern HVAC system decades ago. They crossed to an unremarkable closet and entered it one by one. Shelves stacked with ancient paint cans lined each side. Nico approached the back wall, put his hands against two bumps in the concrete, and pressed at the same time. There was a slight click.

  A line of concrete blocks swung inward on silent hinges.

  They had arrived.



  A wall clock ticked in the silent chamber.

  Opal had got it working again with a pair of AA batteries. When they’d first discovered the office weeks ago, the clock’s hands had been frozen at 12:31. Who knows how long the timepiece had hung there, immobile, waiting for a Torchbearer to restore it to working order. The technology was as old and out of date as everything else in the Torchbearer office.

  Opal squirmed behind the lone desk, a battered scrap of parchment in her fingers. In front of her, Nico sat with his elbows on the conference table filling the center of the room. Tyler stood beside a row of steel filing cabinets, leafing through an old folder. He’d spearheaded the effort to restore the office to functioning condition, taking a strange joy in wiping away years of dust and grime. Opal was just glad she’d finally stopped sneezing.

  They’d found this place by following a series of clues Thing had given to Opal, first through mental nudges, and later through direct telepathic communication. Like the houseboat itself—and the ceremonial vault hidden within the tunnel running under Still Cove—this room was a closely held Torchbearer secret, guarded for generations. The records placed there covered decades of the Order’s secret work.

  Opal glanced at a massive bureau against the far wall, flanked by two towering bookshelves. Inside the open top portion was a stack of old nautical flags and a seascape of the Washington coast painted by Yvette Dumont, the original founder of the Torchbearers. Opal got a chill every time she looked at the canvas. That image had led them to the Rift, and all that happened afterward.

  Including Thing’s maddening note-in-a-bottle, which they’d received through the Darkdeep just when they’d thought the danger might finally have passed.

  She read the second-to-last line. There’s something here that doesn’t belong.

  Opal glanced up, mumbling the final line out loud for the thousandth time. “Or, I should say, someone.”

  “It’s me,” Tyler deadpanned.

  Opal rolled her eyes. “Just focus on your task, okay?”

  Tyler shrugged. “I’m all focus, ma’am. I possess a razor-sharp clarity of thought on the issues at hand. Shall I demonstrate?”

  He didn’t wait for an answer, crossing his arms and lifting his chin. “When the Darkdeep began spitting out figments on its own—a serious problem—we determined the cause: the Rift, a pesky hole in space-time linking our world to Thing’s planet by way of an empty Void between dimensions. This portal lurks at the bottom of the ocean, beneath a decommissioned oil platform built by the Torchbearers.” He paused. “Am I going too fast for you?”

  Nico covered his face and groaned.

  Opal’s eyes found the ceiling.

  Tyler plowed onward, undeterred. “The Rift and the Darkdeep are connected in a manner we don’t yet understand. We also don’t know how to reseal the gateway, as the chemical formula used by the old Torchbearers is presently unknown. Then a bunch of nasties tried to cross over from Thing’s world and wreck shop, but we fought like indomitable battle lions and shut those fools down.”

  “You mean the Beast did,” Opal countered. “You were cowering on the platform with the rest of us.”

  Tyler studiously ignored her. “Thus, the main thrust of our research: to determine the status of the Rift, and whether I will be needed once more to fix everything with my inspiring bravery and gigantic, stupendous brain.” He nodded heavily, then smiled wide. “Lecture complete.”

  Nico snorted, leaning back in his chair. “The only way to fix things is to hunt down every scrap of information we can about the Rift. We don’t know if the plan we worked out with Thing actually solved the problem.”

  Opal frowned. “How can we ever be sure? The oil rig is destroyed. It’s not like we can scuba five miles out and inspect a hole in reality on the ocean floor.”

  “I’ve heard worse ideas,” Nico grumbled. He shifted uncomfortably. “We do know for certain that we didn’t restore the old seal that failed when the Rift was left unattended. So we still have to finish that job, at least. And hope it’s enough.”

  Tyler placed a dog-eared file back into its drawer. “Right now, all I want to figure out is what’s been creeping through my mom’s rosebushes at night.” He blew out a deep, shuddering breath. “What about you, Opal? Ready to report any findings to the group?”

  Opal thought of the strange thumps she’d heard in her attic the night before. Lately, all the Torchbearers had bizarre stories to relate—of shadows, and sounds, and suspicious tracks. At first she’d been skept
ical, but Opal was starting to take these rumors more seriously. That morning at dawn, she could’ve sworn something was hovering outside her bedroom window. But when she’d ripped open the blinds, there was only dark, billowing mist and a flicker of yellow-gold. The memory sprouted goosebumps along her arms and legs.

  “Hello?” she heard Tyler say. “Earth to Opal?”

  Nico flinched. “That’s not as funny now that we know other planets exist. Those Takers had an open doorway to attack us. We have to make sure it’s permanently closed.”

  Opal shook her head to clear it. Tyler took that as an answer to his question and turned to a new drawer.

  After Dark Halloween, the group had changed how they worked. Rather than play tug-of-war trying to solve riddles collectively, each Torchbearer was now tackling a specific problem on their own. Everyone had a dedicated space where they could compile notes, images, theories, whatever. Opal’s was already the most chaotic. The office was starting to resemble some kind of police situation room.

  Opal was in charge of the note-in-a-jar Thing had sent back through the Darkdeep weeks ago. She’d been closest to the little green creature before Thing returned to its home world, so Opal had taken on the task of figuring out what the message meant. For background, she was researching Yvette Dumont, the founding Torchbearer. Back when the Rift first formed, Yvette had made the initial contact with Thing and saved its life. Maybe something in her story would help.

  Nico was investigating the bizarre phenomena that had plagued Timbers while the Rift was open. Though the algae bloom off Razor Point had dispersed and the lightning storms stopped, Nico worried about lasting effects. Opal didn’t think there was much point to his research—they couldn’t control nature, after all—but as the son of a park ranger, Nico took environmental threats seriously. The Rift was practically all he thought about now. He had tide charts spread out across the table, and often complained that the sulfur stench hadn’t left Still Cove.

  Tyler was focused on what being a Beastmaster truly involved. Ever since coming face-to-face with the Beast on Dark Halloween—and somehow communicating with it using his algae stick—he’d been obsessed with contacting the ancient sea monster again. Yet another thing Opal wasn’t sure about—in her mind, steering clear of a giant alien carnivore from another dimension was by far the safest course.

  And then there was Emma. She was supposed to be tracking the Freakshow disaster online—steering conversations away from thinking Timbers was a monster haven—but she spent most of her time on her YouTube show, Emma-mazing! It drove Tyler and Nico nuts. Opal privately agreed with them, though she stood up for Emma whenever the other girl wasn’t around. But facts were facts—the Torchbearers needed less attention on their hometown, not more. Emma was gathering followers by the thousands, a budding Colton Bridger in their midst. She wasn’t even there today, which Opal could tell had Nico’s blood boiling.

  Neither is Logan.

  Opal frowned. His excuse was acceptable, but this wasn’t his first missed meeting, either.

  Logan was tasked with discovering everything he could about Torchbearer history, but he seemed more interested in growing his online souvenir business. Opal knew Logan was making a killing—his new gear mocked Freakshow and their incredible flameout on the beach—but she feared he was making enemies. Yet Opal couldn’t deny his talent for turning nonsense phrases into cash. Logan was the only thirteen-year-old she knew with a 401K. And the extra money came in handy for Torchbearer expenses.

  So many threads, but they were all trying to figure out how to permanently seal the Rift. The problem ate at Opal every day. She swallowed a groan. It was a lot.

  “A few reports will be late, I guess,” Tyler grumbled. “Since Emma and Logan didn’t bother to show up.”

  “Emma tried,” Opal said. “It’s not her fault that Internet weirdos are spying on her house.”

  Nico’s head shot up. “Then whose fault is it?”

  Opal winced. Sometimes the underground boardroom felt stifling. She missed the houseboat’s high ceiling and drafty showroom, and the cool mists cloaking the island’s black pond. But with Timbers on lockdown, getting to Still Cove had become increasingly difficult. She felt a twinge of unease that Logan was out there all alone. Cell service never reached that far. We really should go in pairs.

  “At least Logan is watching the Darkdeep,” Nico added. “Emma’s just schmoozing with her fans.”

  “That’s not fair,” Opal snapped.

  Nico lifted an eyebrow, then looked away.

  “She’s always doing something for that show.” Tyler sounded exasperated. “Like she forgot the Torchbearer oath.”

  Nico nodded sharply. “We already have a job. And, um—it’s kind of important.”

  “It’s not just Emma who’s spaced out,” Tyler huffed. “I swear, school today felt like a minefield. Some kids are still freaking about another possible monster invasion, which makes them suspicious of everyone else. Those dopes think whoever sits next to them in the cafeteria might be a bogeyman in disguise. And the others think we’re pranksters ready to ambush them in the bathroom wearing monster masks. It’s insane.”

  Opal nodded, her forehead scrunching. “In class, I can’t tell who’s friends with who anymore. People keep switching cliques. Having fights. Yesterday, I saw the reading club huddled under the bleachers, planning an evacuation route.”

  Nico scoffed bitterly. “Someone wrote ‘Monster Lover’ on my locker in Sharpie.”

  Tyler held up an index finger. “Ten bucks says it was Carson.”

  Opal sighed. She wished Emma and Logan had come today. She wished Thing’s note was more clear. She wished she could talk to the little green creature again, just once.

  But such thoughts led to dangerous places. Opal wasn’t ready to get that crazy.

  Not yet, anyway.

  “Did you find anything else about the first Torchbearer?” Lips pursed, Tyler glanced at the ceiling. Then he snapped his fingers. “Suzette Fremont. There has to be a file on her, right?”

  “Yvette Dumont,” Opal corrected. “And no, nothing yet.”

  “What about you, Ty?” Nico asked. “Anything new on our scaly friend?”

  Tyler picked up a warped book he’d found in the bureau. “Actually, yeah. I’m reading between the lines here, but it seems like the Beast actually chooses the Beastmaster. Like, there were former Torchbearers who wanted the job, but the Beast didn’t accept them.”

  Tyler fell silent, fidgeting with his collar.

  Opal crossed her arms. “Well, what happened to them?”

  “They seem to have been, um … chomped.”

  “Great.” Opal rubbed her face. Though they’d never seen the Beast actually eat anyone, it was an enormous razor-toothed monster from another world. She didn’t love that Tyler—who used to be the most cautious of them all—was clearly enamored with the creature.

  “So how does the Beast pick a Beastmaster?” Nico’s face seemed a shade paler.

  Tyler licked his lips. “It brings something from the sea and lays an offering at the person’s feet.”

  “Like a cat with mice.” Opal winced. “The Beast either chews you up or leaves a dead ocean carcass on your doorstep. And you want this job?”

  Tyler looked away. “I don’t know. Yeah. I think.”

  “So you’re not a full Beastmaster yet,” Nico said, rubbing his chin. “Bummer. I thought maybe it was done when you waved that glowing algae in its face.” Tyler had communed with the Beast once before, and the huge leviathan had even battled Takers with them at the Rift. But whatever alliance they’d forged wasn’t necessarily permanent.

  Super. One more thing.

  Tyler squared his shoulders. “The Beast did respond to me on Dark Halloween, so maybe—”

  “Oooh, that reminds me!” Opal dug into her backpack, pulling out the old leather notebook she’d found on the boat, the one with spiky flowers drawn in the corner of each page. She’d been using it to col
lect notes on Yvette Dumont.

  Opal removed a folded piece of paper tucked within its pages and displayed an indigo-colored monster, rendered in childlike strokes. “A kid I babysit drew this the other night. Ingrid was there on the beach. She must’ve actually witnessed the Beast’s arrival.”

  “Jeez.” Nico ran a hand over his mouth. “Poor kid.”

  “This is pretty good,” Tyler muttered, examining the picture. “The scale is off, though.”

  Opal took the drawing back. Tyler seemed reluctant to let it go. “Ty, you should be careful. The Beast saved us once, but that doesn’t mean we understand it. Or can control it.” Tyler drew in a sharp breath, but Opal quickly changed the subject. “Nico, what about you? Anything new about the oil rig, or what the Rift might be doing underneath it?”

  “No,” Nico muttered. He slumped back in his chair and spoke louder. “The news basically missed the whole thing. I found one local article about the platform going down in the storm, but nothing else, and the link only had thirty views. With so much other stuff going on, I guess the story slipped by. No one’s figured out that the rig was used by Torchbearers to control the Rift.” His expression grew pensive. “I did find some other weird news. There’s a huge red tide off the coast of Australia, and no one knows its cause. It looks exactly like ours did.” He spun his phone around so they could its screen.

  Opal peered at the image. It mirrored what they’d seen encircling Razor Point.

  “Not great. But these blooms do occur naturally, right?”

  Nico nodded. “There’s more. Crazy things are happening at Yellowstone National Park. Last week their sulfur pools turned different colors, and now a few geysers are spouting sky high and off schedule.” Nico made air quotes with his fingers. “It’s all ‘unexplained.’ ”

  He tapped his screen again and slid the phone across the table.


  Opal read a few lines before passing the phone to Tyler, who gave the story a cursory scroll. “Cool,” he said lightly, handing the phone back to Nico. Nico took it with an injured expression.