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Archibald Lox and the Forgotten Crypt

Darren Shan






  Archibald Lox, Volume Two, Book One of Three

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Archibald Lox and the Forgotten Crypt





































  also by Darren Shan

  copyright page

  “Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.”

  — Robert Louis Stevenson



  The face in the pillar seems to be smirking at me. I’d punch the damn thing in the nose, except I’d bruise my fingers.

  I’m in Seven Dials, in London. There’s a tall pillar at the centre of the small roundabout where seven streets meet, with half a dozen sundials near its top. I often hear people puzzling over why there are six dials, rather than seven.

  I stopped caring about the dials a long time ago. All I focus on these days is the lock in a panel at the pillar’s base. It’s styled like a person’s face. It’s old, regal-looking, strangely beautiful.

  And it’s driving me mad.

  I first spotted the lock a few months ago. I was wandering the streets, killing time, when it caught my eye. Locks are an obsession of mine and I’m always on the lookout for them. I’m not talking about normal locks, but locks on boreholes that lead to another universe called the Merge. The Born – Earth – is where humans start out, while the Merge is where the souls of murdered people wind up.

  I entered the Merge last year when I followed a girl called Inez. I had a series of wonderful, terrifying, life-changing adventures. I sailed on a river of blood. I faced killers and hell jackals. I mingled with royals and helped save a realm from falling into the hands of ruthless tyrants.

  And then I came home.

  It wasn’t easy, settling back into regular life. In the Merge I was Archibald Lox, a young but highly talented locksmith, treated as an equal by adults. In the Born I’m plain Archie, and I had to deal with school and homework. Not to mention foster parents.

  I had a tricky time trying to explain to George and Rachel where I’d been and what I’d been doing. I can’t even remember exactly what I told them, along with all the others who wanted to know, but in the end I managed to spin enough stories to satisfy carers, the police, teachers, friends, everyone. The dust settled and I slipped back into my old routines. There was no place for the Merge in my everyday life, so I tried not to think about it.

  Sometimes I’d get all the way up to three or four minutes.

  But even when I could briefly push memories of giant vines, overlaps and grop from my thoughts, there was no ignoring the boreholes that I’d spot at least a handful of times every day. Most of them were locked, but as a locksmith, that wouldn’t be a problem. I was tempted to stop and pick one, to open a borehole and return to that sphere of wonders for a few minutes, to breathe the pollutant-free air and take off my shoes and feel springy mushrooms beneath my feet.

  The trouble was, I knew I’d want to push on, to travel from zone to zone as I had before. I might end up going AWOL for days, or weeks, and since I didn’t want to put my foster parents through that again, I chose to ignore the call of the Merge.

  I was managing pretty well until I saw the lock in Seven Dials.

  I instantly knew it was special, and stopped in my tracks. I stood there, staring at the face in the middle of the inactive borehole for at least ten minutes. The lock sang to me like a siren. I guess it was like a violinist spotting a Stradivarius sitting on a shelf. How could he walk on without stopping to pluck its strings?

  Eventually I tore my gaze away and looked up at one of the dials near the top of the pillar. “Trouble o’clock,” I muttered.

  Then I sighed, edged up close to the lock, and surrendered.

  The lock is the shape of a woman’s elongated face. Her eyes are wide open, larger than they would be in real life, and her lips are closed. Her nose has been flattened by the elongation, and the nostrils are mere pinpricks above her upper lip. Only the outlines of her earlobes are visible.

  That first time, I sat in front of the face for a couple of hours, just staring at it. I knew I’d have to start with the eyes – I could see a glint of levers behind the irises – but left without touching them. The lock disturbed me. There was something eerie about the woman’s expression.

  It was nearly a week before I returned. I’d hoped the lure of the lock would fade if I stayed away, but it had sunk its hooks into me and I was even dreaming about it when I slept. I had to go back and grapple with it.

  My hands were trembling when I sat down beside the face and reached towards it. I brushed my fingertips across its cheeks, its lips, then the eyes, which widened at the contact — many Merged locks expand when a locksmith touches them.

  With a gulp, I began to push a finger into the right eye.

  Then I stopped.

  Master locks are dangerous. I might get so caught up that I’d forget everything else, lose track of time, not pause to eat or drink, and die while working on it.

  Reaching into the pocket of my school jacket, I dug out a mobile phone that I’d picked up during the week. I checked the time, set an alarm to go off after an hour, then laid the phone by my knee and set to work.

  All these months later, I haven’t made much progress. I’m still stuck on the eyes. They’re a swamp of levers and tumblers, so they’d be difficult to pick no matter what, but at some point somebody went in and tore things up, ripped pieces out of place, mashed sections together. It’s not damage that a thug with a screwdriver could have caused. This was the work of a skilled Lox who wanted to ensure the lock could never be opened again.

  Unfortunately for the vandal, it’s hard to completely destroy a Merged lock, and I’ve a feeling I can repair the worst of the damage. That feeling lures me back three or four times a week, to slide my fingers into the eyes and fiddle with the levers.

  The alarm on my phone goes off and I withdraw. I turn and sit against the panel at the base of the pillar, squinting at the sky, frustrated. I still set an alarm whenever I work on the lock, but I’ve gradually allowed myself longer and longer between breaks, and now go three hours at a time.

  Nobody’s ever stolen the phone, even though I always leave it on the stone bench. That’s because nobody sees me. The lock’s part of the Merge, and when I work on it, I become part of that sphere, invisible to people in the Born.

  I swivel my head to look at the lock again. I feel like it’s mocking me.

  “You won’t be grinning when I crack you,” I growl. “And I will crack you.”

  The lips don’t move. The eyes don’t blink.

  I sigh and stretch, then look around. A couple of tourists are sitting next to me, munching sandwiches from a neatly stacked pile, discussing what to do next.

n me,” I murmur, taking a sandwich from the top of the pile. I don’t like stealing, but I’m hungry and need to keep my strength up. I should have brought a snack from home, but forgot.

  “Hey, did you eat the other half of my pastrami?” the man asks.

  “No,” the woman says. “I don’t like pastrami.”

  “Someone must have taken it,” the man says. I don’t flinch as his gaze washes over me. I’ve done this too many times to be fazed by it now.

  “Sure,” the woman drawls. “Pastrami sandwiches are like gold over here.”

  “But then where...?” the man persists.

  The woman laughs. “You must have eaten it.”

  “I didn’t,” he says.

  She prods his stomach. “Are you certain?” she sings teasingly.

  “Of course,” the man says hotly, then deflates. “At least, I think there was half left...”

  I smile and finish off the sandwich. I consider returning the crust, but that would be cruel.

  “Right,” I say, unlocking the phone to reset the alarm. “I can squeeze in another few hours. Maybe this time...”

  I’m turning towards the face, but when I see those blank eyes, I stop. I can’t endure any more. My knees are already sore, and my back aches too. I’ve had enough for today, and there’s no rush. It will still be here tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. And...

  I wince and push away thoughts of defeat. I’ll crack this lock in the end. I will.

  But in the meantime, I decide to go where I went that day after I first failed to open the lock. I head for the Houses of Parliament and the tower clock known all around the world as Big Ben. Or, as I prefer to call it — Winston’s place.


  The mechanism that makes a clock tick is called an escapement. I didn’t know that until a few months ago, when Winston said he wanted me to help with his collection of cuckoo clocks. He has dozens of them, all made in the Merge.

  I’m tweaking the escapement of a small clock. I’ve opened the back and have been picking at the machinery with a thin, pointed tool. The clock’s been losing a minute every three days, and Winston wants me to correct it.

  “Done,” I sigh, scratching my chin with the tip of the pick.

  Winston’s working on another clock, but shuffles across to peer into the back of mine. He nods as he surveys the springs and pendulum.

  “Good work, Archie,” he says.

  I replace the rear panel before returning the clock to its hook on the wall. “Why do we waste our time on these?” I ask. “What difference does it make if they lose a few minutes here or there?”

  “I feel happy when they work correctly,” Winston says. “And it’s good practise. Clocks and locks aren’t so different. The skills you’re developing here may prove useful to you with your lock in Seven Dials.”

  “I don’t see how,” I mutter.

  “That’s why you’re the student and I’m the teacher,” Winston says with a wink. “I know you get bored, so I won’t keep you any longer. Let’s go play with some locks. Oh, and you can keep the pick.”

  “Thanks,” I say drily, sticking it in a pocket, and follow him out of the room to where the locks are waiting.

  Winston’s home is based behind the clock face of Big Ben. It lies at the end of a vine in a wrap zone, a special area of the Merge that’s mixed with the Born. From here I could walk to New York, Sydney or a host of other cities in hours.

  The walls, floors and ceilings are made of vines. There are no windows. The rooms are lit with candles that have been dipped in a substance called gleam. We do most of our work in a large room furnished with a couch, a few chairs, and lots of tables and benches overflowing with locks.

  The elderly locksmith has a head of white hair, and twinkling green eyes. His cheeks are a blend of wrinkles and old scars. Winston was hurt very badly in the past, but he’s never discussed it with me.

  He’s wearing dark overalls and a dirty white shirt, a spotty bow tie, and sandals. In all the months I’ve been coming here, he hasn’t changed his clothes. That’s not unusual in the Merge. No animals live there, not even bacteria, so you rarely need to wash.

  I met Winston when I was travelling with Inez. He saw my talent and offered to be my teacher. I didn’t initially accept his offer, as I was trying to lead a normal life, but when I saw the lock in Seven Dials and realised how difficult it would be to open, I made a beeline for Big Ben, found the entrance borehole at ground level, climbed a set of stairs until I came to the top, and knocked on the door.

  Winston was working on a lock when he opened the door. He looked up at me, smiled, led me inside, nodded at a rusty lock on a table and said, “See how you get on with that one.”

  We spent the rest of the day working in silence. I picked the lock quickly, then moved on to others. At the end of our session he handed me a few mushrooms (the common food in the Merge) and invited me to tell him what I’d been up to.

  I filled Winston in on all that had happened after I’d left him — teaming up with Inez again and travelling to a city called Cornan to change the course of history. He clapped at the end and said, “I knew you had it in you.”

  “You could have told me about the obstacles I’d have to face,” I grumbled.

  Winston shook his head. “I’d have upset the Balance.”

  “What balance?” I frowned.

  He steepled his fingers. “I believe there’s a force that works to keep things evenly balanced, that limits the powers of those who plot and scheme to alter the course of the spheres. It would have been fine if I’d agreed to help Inez, as in that case I’d have been reacting to the threat of the SubMerged and taking an active part in the game. But if I’d openly directed you, from behind the scenes, the Balance could have read that as an outside force trying to determine the game’s result, and it might have acted to help those who were set against you.”

  “But you gave me a clue,” I reminded him. “You said a weird thing about a wise dog barking when he comes to the vine at the end of the line. That made me look at the bark of the tree more carefully.”

  “A calculated risk,” Winston said. “There are little things we can do to help tip the scales slightly, without upsetting them. Slipping you a clue was different to telling you specifically what to do.”

  “This Balance sounds complicated,” I frowned.

  “It is,” Winston laughed. “And there’s no telling if it’s real or not — it might be nothing more than an idle notion of mine.”

  I brought Winston up to date by telling him about the lock in the pillar. He asked me to describe the face, and was nodding before I’d finished. “I’m familiar with that type of lock,” he said. “I see why it caught your eye.”

  “Could you help me repair and open it?” I asked.

  “I can probably help with the repairs,” he said, “but I can’t open that lock.”

  “But you’re a master locksmith,” I replied with surprise.

  Winston shrugged. “We all have our limits.” Then his eyes narrowed. “Maybe you could open it.”

  “Me?” I squeaked. “But you know way more about locks than me.”

  “True,” he said immodestly, “but a keen student sometimes overtakes his mentor in certain areas. I’m not sure you could pick it, but...” He lapsed into silence, before looking up at me. “Would you have come here if not for that lock?”

  “No,” I said quietly.

  “You didn’t want to study under me?”

  “My foster parents...” I tried to explain. “School... my friends...”

  “I understand,” he smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live a quiet life, but the spheres call some of us away from the easy paths. That’s what’s happened with this lock, right?”

  I nodded miserably. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

  Winston chuckled. “Every Lox knows what that’s like. We all find certain locks that compel us to work on them, even if they take decades to crack

  “Do you think it will take that long?” I gasped.

  “No,” Winston said, “but if you’re able to open it, it will certainly take months, maybe years. You’ll have to visit me regularly and train hard. It will mean embracing the Merge and finding ways to hide it from your foster parents. Do you really want to make that commitment?”

  “I don’t think I have a choice,” I whispered.

  “Those who are called by the spheres rarely do,” Winston said sympathetically. Then he clapped loudly. “Come back tomorrow and we’ll begin.”

  And with that, I embarked on my life as a locksmith’s apprentice.


  It’s a pleasure to be back working on locks after the distraction of the cuckoo clock. Winston has tried me on all sorts since I became his apprentice, simple and complex, old and new, common and rare. I’ve conquered them all.

  I finish up with the latest lock and set aside my skeleton keys. When the locks are embedded in a borehole, they’ll take on a shape of the deviser’s choosing and open to one of a variety of keys – sometimes a physical key, but many Merged locks are opened with a touch, or a specific word or musical note, or a grimace – but here in the workshop most are the same as metal keyhole locks in the Born.

  Winston’s working on a lock of his own, humming softly, oblivious to everything else. I think about slipping away, as I often do when he’s preoccupied, but I want to try another lock before I go.

  I look for something interesting among the locks scattered across the table. I run my fingers over them, letting my instincts guide me, and they come to rest on a lock half-hidden beneath several others. It’s been devised to resemble a chunk of marble.

  I drag the lock forward. It’s a dark white colour, with streaks of green running through it. I grunt with satisfaction. This is exactly what I was looking for. It should prove a good challenge.

  I settle down and let my fingers explore, the small hole at the heart of the marble chunk expanding obligingly at my touch. There are lots of tumblers in this lock, and I get the sense that more are hidden behind the first array. I like multilayer locks. It’s always a thrill when you crack a code, only for the walls to recede and reveal another level.