David watched the horde of humanlike creatures surge up the incline toward them.
“Dad?” he croaked. He reached out for his father, but Dad was too far away. His legs refused to budge, locked in place by the sight of the approaching creatures—their spindly limbs jittering up and down as they climbed, their pale skin almost glowing in the sunlight, their mouths spewing out howls and snarls, their eyes crazy, desperate.
Along with his dad and Keal, Uncle Jesse’s caretaker and friend, David stood at the top of a hill between two valleys: the one behind them, peaceful and pristine; the one in front cradling the ruins of Los Angeles. Between them and the destroyed buildings lay a massive junkyard of concrete slabs, rusted hunks of automobiles, twisted and broken debris. It all seemed to have been blown against the hill, the way litter gathers in gutters. It was from this trash dump that the creatures had emerged.
And as soon as they had spotted the Kings and Keal, the creatures attacked.
Creatures, David thought. They were human—something about them told him it was true—but they were so different, so animalistic, so . . . creaturelike.
“Hey!” Xander yelled. He was thirty paces down the peaceful side of the hill. “Let’s go! What are you waiting for?”
David turned, yearning to be tearing down the valley with his brother, putting acres of distance between himself and the approaching horde. He called, “Dad says the portal’s that way, toward”—he glanced at the creatures, getting closer— “toward them!”
Dad and Keal held the items from the antechamber: a parasol, a butterfly net, a picnic basket. The stupid things had given them no clue of the dangers they had just walked into— not the way the helmet, shield, and chain mail had predicted Xander’s journey to the Roman Colosseum. But the items served another purpose. Besides allowing whoever possessed them to open the portal door, the one that led from their house in present-day Pinedale, California, to some other time, some other place, they also showed the way home by tugging you to the portal that would take you back.
Right now, they were urging Dad and Keal to descend into the other valley, right into the arms of the creatures. David shook his head: everything about this world was messed up.
“What?” Xander said. His mouth hung open, only slightly wider than his eyes. Fear made him appear much younger than his fifteen years. He waved at the woods and meadow below him. “But we came from over there!”
David knew Xander understood the portals better than that. The portals’ homes sometimes appeared near the ones that dropped them into the other worlds, but they could be anywhere.
“Not this time, Xander!” he said. But that didn’t matter, did it? They couldn’t follow the items’ prodding, not now. He broke from his stance and crashed into his father. He pushed him toward Xander. “Dad, let’s go— anywhere but down there!”
Dad nodded. He hooked a hand around the cast on David’s broken left arm and pulled David away from the creatures. The one nearest was so close David could hear its panting and the rattling of the pebbles it dislodged as it scrambled up the hill; he could see a thread of spit spilling over its trembling bottom lip.
Keal rushed forward, pistol in hand. He thumbed the hammer back.
David tore away from his father’s grasp. “No!” he yelled. He stretched out his left arm. His cast prevented him from reaching Keal’s arm, but then he lunged with his right, catching Keal’s bicep, knocking his aim toward the sky. David squeezed his eyes closed, expecting the sharp crack of the firearm. When it didn’t come, he looked: Keal was glaring down at him.
“David!” he said.
But the creature had stopped mere feet from the top of the hill, almost on top of them. He stared at David, blinking, confused or startled. An old scar ran vertically down his face from forehead to jaw. There seemed to be no muscle separating his facial bones from the white skin that clung to them: sharp cheek bones and chin; hollow cheeks, and eyes almost lost in the pits of his sockets. His head seemed too large for his scrawny neck and bony body. Wispy brown hair clung to his skull and sprouted here and there on his face.
Keal pushed David away. He skipped closer to the creature, brought his foot up, and kicked the thing in the chest.
The creature flew backward, arms flying. He crashed into another of his kind, and they both tumbled down the hill. Dust billowed in their wake. Other creatures moved out of their way. One leaped over them, caught his foot, and went down. He was back up in a flash, scowling. He lowered himself and scampered toward them on all fours. Dozens more around him scurried up the hill.
Keal pointed the pistol at the clouds and squeezed the trigger.
Instinctively, David ducked. The sound was loud and sharp, thunder from a lightning bolt in his ears.
The creatures must have thought so too. They all stopped. Several fell back, tumbled, turned, tried to get their feet under them as they moved down the hill toward the rubble below. Others backed away more slowly. One howled, and the others joined in. Their voices grew in volume, a chorus of angry, scared screams. To David, it was somehow worse, more piercing than the gunshot. He covered his ears.
Keal fired at the clouds again.
The howling voices spiked even louder. More creatures turned and ran.
Some held their ground. One, then another, and another, began climbing again.
David felt a tug on his collar. Dad was pulling at him. Without a word, Keal wrapped a powerful arm around David’s waist, picked him up, and began jogging down the opposite incline. Dad fell in beside them. Xander saw them coming. He spun and booked toward the valley in long, pinwheeling strides.
Every time Keal’s foot hit the ground, David felt his ribs crush between the man’s body and arm. Air pumped out of his lungs like a bellows. More painful was the damage to his pride: he was twelve, and Keal was carrying him like a baby.
“Put . . . me . . . down!” he said, each word pushed out on a gust of breath. “Keal!”
Keal didn’t slow, but he did turn David’s feet toward the ground. When David’s kicking matched Keal’s pace, the big man let him go. David stumbled forward, stayed up, and darted ahead. The woods at the bottom of the hill were still a long way off. Ahead of him, Xander lurched forward, then his feet slid out from under him. He fell back, bounced off the ground, and was back up and running faster than David would have thought possible.
David looked behind him. The first of the pursuing creatures appeared on the crest of the hill, and started down toward them.