The Blade of Shattered Hope, Page 3James Dashner
A rattling sound from the back of the house snapped her mind alert.
Like a shot of pure caffeine, adrenaline rushed through her body, and she jumped out of the chair before any thought had time to form. Wondering why Atticus would come home the back way—and feeling the slightest fear that it might not be him—she ran out of the room and down the hallway, into the kitchen, toward the door leading to the patio behind their home. The rattling noise continued. Someone was pulling at the knob, twisting it back and forth in vain because it was locked.
The trickle of fear turned into a gush; she pulled up just short of the patio door.
“Atticus?” she called out.
No answer. But whoever was out there quit trying to open the door.
“Atticus?” she repeated, louder.
Still no answer.
The door had a large window, currently covered by the drawn yellow curtain. Alarmed, she grabbed the side of the stiff material and pulled it back an inch, peeking outside.
The thing standing on her back patio wasn’t her son.
When his house finally came into view, Tick somehow found another burst of energy and ran faster. The loud thumps and waves of energy had stopped, but he couldn’t rest until he made sure everything was okay at home. A fresh spurt of panic squeezed his insides, and he picked up the pace yet again.
He was only two houses away when he noticed a car coming down the road from the other direction. His heart skipped a beat when he saw that it was his dad’s.
Then his heart almost stopped beating altogether when the car suddenly accelerated, the engine screaming, the tires squealing. The car swerved off the road, over the curb, and onto his front lawn. It shot across the grass until it reached the driveway, picking up speed instead of slowing down.
Tick watched in horror as the car slammed into the garage door with a thunderous crunch, then disappeared in a pile of shredded wood and dust.
In her head, Lorena couldn’t reconcile the thing she saw through the door’s window with any semblance of reality she knew or felt. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie—a man-shaped, shimmering ghost made out of clear liquid, its rippled surface glistening. The face had no features, but it seemed to be looking at her all the same.
For a bare instant, she actually considered unlocking and opening the door. The creature seemed so harmless, so peaceful, the water rippling like the gentle, lapping waves of a Caribbean beach. But her hand froze halfway to the latch, and a shudder of fear snapped her out of her hypnotized state. Her mind kicked into gear, reminding her that creatures made out of water were not normal, that although she’d lived a life believing only in things that were normal, not supernatural, seeing this creature probably changed things forever.
The sparkling water creature she saw through the window could not be a good thing. And most likely, it had something to do with her son.
She stepped back, her hand rising involuntarily to her mouth as the shock of her visitor hit home. Somehow she knew that something terrible was about to happen.
The creature’s watery hand reached out and grabbed the outside door handle, rattling it again. Lorena couldn’t actually see the knob from her angle, and she wondered how the thing grasped objects if it was made only out of liquid. Then better sense told her that now probably wasn’t the best time to figure out the physics of the situation, and that she’d better run.
But just as she took a step away from the door, the creature melted right in front of her, the water crashing to the pavement outside with a loud splash. It was as if a force field or an invisible membrane had been holding the thing
together, and it had been abruptly taken away, leaving nothing to hold the body together. She realized she’d been holding her breath and sucked in a huge gulp of air in relief. Whatever it had been, whatever purpose . . .
Her thoughts were cut short when movement down by her feet caught her vision.
In the thin space between the door’s lower edge and the short strip of wood that kept out the wind and bugs, a three-foot wide sheet of water began pouring through and onto the kitchen floor. A puddle formed in a matter of seconds, somehow deepening into a narrow pool on the flat linoleum surface.
Before Lorena could react, a horrendous crash rocked the house, the sounds of crunched metal and shredded wood thundering through the air like a sonic boom.
Even as her hands rose to cover her ears, even as the beginnings of a scream formed somewhere in the back of her throat, Lorena saw the puddle at her feet bubble and churn, swirling, coalescing into a bulbous glob, like a huge see-through water balloon about to burst.
And then the glob rose toward the ceiling, slowly reforming its human shape.
The scream finally escaped Lorena’s mouth.
Tick had faltered when the car hit the house. He was too stunned to move. Of all the things he’d expected to see when he came home, it wasn’t this.
He shook himself out of his daze and ran for the mangled mess of the garage. A hissing sound came from within, the engine letting out its last, dying breath. Smoke and dust billowed out, attacking Tick’s lungs with a vengeance. Coughing, he kicked at the loose metal and broken boards, digging his way in to see if his dad was okay.
“Dad!” he yelled again.
He’d just moved a big chunk of something heavy when the front door to the car popped free, a horrible metal groan screeching through the air as his dad forced it open all the way.
“Dad! What’s going—”
Tick’s voice stuck in his throat when he saw the large body of Edgar Higginbottom stumble out of the car and fall onto the garage floor.
He was covered in . . . goo. Clear goo.
Frozen by fear. Not able to move. Your mind screaming at your legs to run, but your legs not listening. This was why Lorena had left the Realitants long ago, hoping she’d never have to experience it again.
She stared as the mysterious, impossible thing formed, water sluicing upward from the floor, defying the law of gravity in the process. Legs, then torso, then arms, finally a head. The entire process took less than twenty seconds, but it looked unnatural, like a time-lapse film of a geological event that had taken thousands of years.
When the creature finished reforming, the watery demon stood silent for a long moment, staring at her despite the lack of eyeballs or even eye sockets.
Lorena stared back, frozen as much by stubborn disbelief as fear.
Without warning, the creature moved toward her.
Death by Water
Tick’s dad thrashed about on the garage floor, the thick layer of transparent goo that covered every part of his body bouncing and wiggling like jelly. The gel-like substance was never more than an inch thick in any one spot, but it enveloped Edgar from head to toe. Most alarming was the clear mask covering his face.
The man obviously couldn’t breathe. More than a year ago, Tick had almost seen his dad die; he felt the same horrible panic now.
“Dad!” Tick yelled again. He knew screaming wasn’t going to help no matter how many times he did it. He had to do something.
He knelt down beside his squirming dad, who kept grabbing and tearing at the gel on his face, ripping sections away from his mouth to catch a quick breath only to have the goo be replaced almost instantly. When Tick saw his dad’s hands rip at the stuff and saw the way it splashed and wavered, he realized it wasn’t goo at all.
It was water.
Somehow, some force had captured his dad in a man-sized pool of water.
And it was killing him.
Something trembled inside Tick, fluttered, as if a raven had magically appeared inside his stomach and was trying to escape. Heat surged through his veins. Pressure built up behind his skull, pushing outward, hurting. He closed his eyes, rubbed them.
His . . . problem. He knew it
was his problem. The stress of the situation had ignited his inexplicable reservoir of Chi’karda, causing it to erupt inside him. It was just like what had happened in Chu’s palace. It was starting all over again. But he couldn’t afford to lose control now.
No, he told himself. Not this time. I have to save Dad.
He took several long breaths and concentrated, probing his body with his thoughts, reaching out to something he didn’t comprehend. Repressing it, pushing it away. Calming himself. He imagined the Chi’karda surge as a cloud of orange mist—as Mistress Jane had shown him months ago—trapped within his ribcage. Mentally, he made the cloud dissipate, weaken, flow out of him. Go somewhere else. Somewhere safe.
He had no idea what he was doing. He’d spent months trying to understand the power within him, make it a tangible thing. He’d spent months failing. But urgency won out. He felt his heart slow, felt the heat cool away, felt the pressure release.
It was gone. Tick opened his eyes, looked down, focused.
His dad’s face was turning purple.
Lorena’s screams were drowned out in a sickening
gurgle as the cold wave of water crashed into her. The creature had leaped into the air and dove for her face, forming into a thick stream and slamming into her like a sudden burst from a fire hose. She shook her head, spitting and coughing, and grabbed at her face. Instead of washing off her and falling to the floor, the liquid seemed to stick, enveloping her head and neck in a mask of water. It crept into her mouth, into her throat. She gagged, spit again. She wiped frantically at her face, but it did no good.
The terrifying situation had created a crisp sense of clarity in her mind, and an idea formed somewhere in the dark factory of her thoughts. A very bizarre idea.
She turned and bolted for the garage. With every step, she felt rivulets of water running down her torso, the creature capturing her inch by inch. She knew she wouldn’t be able to move once the thing had control of her legs.
The garage. She had to reach the garage. She made it out of the kitchen and into the short hallway with coat hooks and shoe racks. The door was only a few feet away.
The water reached her knees. She felt herself slow a bit.
She lurched forward, reaching for the door that led to the garage. One arm had been taken completely over, and the other had only a second left before its fingers would be swallowed by the possessed water. The liquid encasing her arms made it harder to control her movements, but the creature seemed mostly focused on her head. She found the handle. She twisted the knob and pulled. An instant later, the wet monster had consumed her fully.
Lorena fell forward and toppled down the three stairs that descended into the garage. Ironically, the thick layer of water cushioned her fall.
Tick slapped at his dad’s face with cupped hands, like a dog digging for a bone. Each swing caught a little pool of water and sent it flying, but more instantly sloshed back in, and the displaced splashes somehow flew back onto his dad’s body like metal shavings returning to a powerful magnet. Every once in a while their combined efforts would clear just enough water for his dad to take a quick breath, but Tick knew they couldn’t keep it up much longer.
The garage door that led to the inside of the house banged open.
Tick looked up and saw his mom. Fully encased in water just like his dad, she fell down the short staircase and crashed onto the floor with a wet flump.
“Mom!” Tick cried, scrambling over to her and falling on top of her. He could only hope his dad could find enough breaths to survive.
His mom clawed at the water around her nose and mouth. She kept trying to say something, but all that came out was the garbled mess you hear when someone talks to you while submerged in the swimming pool. Her eyes were open, fixed on Tick through the crystalline, shimmering layer of water. She wasn’t panicked, but definitely trying to communicate something.
Tick forced himself to stay calm. Reaching forward, he placed his hands on either side of her face. She got the message, and remained completely still. With a quick jerk, Tick slid his hands across her mouth, swiping away a huge section of water long enough for her to get one word out.
He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it sure wasn’t the two syllables that came out of her mouth in a gargled scream.
“Vacuum!” she yelled.
At first, confusion engulfed Tick. He thought surely his mom’s mind had snapped under the pressure of being possessed by a blob of water. But then he realized it was quite the opposite. She’d been the only one to actually come up with a solution.
He turned his head to look over his shoulder, across his dad’s heap of a wrecked car, and focused on the huge beast of a machine that sat next to some tools and cleaning supplies on an old wooden workbench.
The MegaVac. The thing looked like R2-D2 with a big hose.
And it could suck water out of rock.
Tick got up and ran around the front of the crashed car and over to the workbench. He reached up and grabbed the heavy, squat yellow cylinder with its thick, snaking hose attached. He dragged the vacuum toward his mom, whose face was darkening into a sick blue color.
“Mom!” he yelled. “Keep swiping at it!”
He reached her and flipped the switch on the MegaVac.
It didn’t turn on.
For one agonizing second, despair crushed Tick. But then he realized the stupid thing wasn’t plugged in. He scrambled for the long black cord, found its end, then crawled over to an outlet and pushed the big plug in. A heavy roar kicked in behind him. Tick scooted back over and knelt down beside his mom, grasping the end of the vacuum hose like the mouth of a deadly cobra.
The thing worked like a beauty.
He stuck the hose on his mom’s mouth and watched with elation as the vacuum sucked up the water with no problem. The MegaVac had been a birthday present for his dad two years ago, and Edgar had excitedly given a demonstration to the family on how the beast could make anything disappear into its glorious, hard-plastic belly, be it cereal bits or gallons of floodwater. It was the closest thing to a black hole that the Higginbottoms would ever experience, he’d said.
Tick wanted to shout in victory as he realized even a supernatural creature made of liquid couldn’t resist the monstrous sucking power of a MegaVac, lord of all vacuums.
He finished cleaning the water off his mom, her soggy hair and clothes the only sign she’d been encased by a water monster just moments before. Tick’s dad was only a few feet behind him, and twenty seconds later, the vacuum had sucked up his captor too.
Tick leaned back, panting as his mom and dad gasped and spit, doing their best to recover from the ordeal. He thought of Lisa and Kayla in Seattle, and had an almost overwhelming feeling of relief that they hadn’t been here. The odds of Lisa—and especially little Kayla—surviving something like this . . . Tick quenched the horrible thought before images formed that might never go away.
He looked over at the body of the MegaVac, which now contained two—what exactly were those creatures?—within its belly.
A worry hit him. He didn’t want to turn off the vacuum for fear the creatures would find a way to seep back down the hose. “What should we do? Do you think we killed them?”
His dad laughed, a mere sputter between heavy breaths. “I say we flush the suckers’ guts down the toilet. That oughtta do it.”
And that’s what they did.
A Mother’s Love
Sofia leaned forward against the railing of the balcony outside her bedroom, resting her elbows on the smooth stone as she looked out over her family’s estate toward the east, where the sun slowly rose above the horizon. The orange glow sparkled on the waters of the Adriatic Sea in the distance. A cold breeze blew past, stirring her black hair and sending chills across her arms and down her back. Though she enjoyed the cold—it was just pleasant enough to keep her awake, keep her alert and alive—she
pulled her jacket tighter.
She missed Tick and Paul. She missed Sato. Master George, Mothball, all of them. Even Rutger. Days dragged like weeks now. Their adventures in the Fourth seemed like a million years ago. She knew it was crazy to want something to happen again, considering they’d almost died, but ever since she’d returned home, returned to school, and gone through the motions of a normal life, she’d been utterly bored out of her mind.
The Realitants were her true friends now. Yes, Frupey the Butler was good to her, kind to her, ready to fulfill any command she spoke, but he was paid to do that. She had her parents, of course . . .
“Sofia?” said a soft voice.
Startled, Sofia whipped around to see her mom standing behind her—as if she’d snuck up on her. Arms crossed, her mom rubbed her shoulders through her fur coat, looking cold and miserable.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” her mom said. In Italian, of course. How Sofia missed speaking in English with Tick and Paul.
“It’s okay,” Sofia replied, turning back to the railing and her previous position so her mom wouldn’t see the roll of her eyes. Of all the days to come up here. She couldn’t remember the last time either one of her parents had stood on this balcony atop their mansion. And Sofia wasn’t in the mood.
Her mom stepped up beside her and leaned forward just like Sofia, almost mockingly copying her. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something. Ever since you . . . came back. Ever since I realized how close we came to losing you.”
Not this, Sofia thought. Please, not this. “Mom, I’m not quitting the Realitants. I don’t care what you say. It’s too important.”
Her mom stiffened, then relaxed. “I don’t care for that tone, young lady. I’m your mother.”
Sofia was shocked but quickly tried to hide it. Her mom never showed the slightest hint of parenting or discipline. Almost not knowing how to respond, Sofia muttered an apology.
“In any case,” her mom said, “that’s not what this is about. Your father and I recognize that this . . . Realitant thing is something you will do, either with our consent or without it. Which is why I want to make sure you understand something. I think it will show you how much we care about you, despite what you may think.”