Thursday, 6:24 P.M.
David King’s scream echoed against the chamber walls.
Loud in his ears, but not loud enough. He could tell by the way it bounced back at him that his voice did not penetrate the thick stones. He leaned back against a cold wall.
Lifting his head, he screamed again anyway: “Heeeeeeeelp! Can anyone hear me? Anyone . . . ?”
The last word started strong, but faded, like the shriek of a man falling into a bottomless pit.
Darkness¬–blacker than ink–engulfed him, but it didn’t matter: He kept his eyes squeezed shut, as though doing so would make the last thing he’d seen not be real, would make it go away. He was stuck in a room only slightly larger than an upended coffin, portaled there from a pantry off Taksidian’s kitchen. He had found a box of matches on a protruding stone and lit one. He had seen that the floor was covered in bones. Most of them–rib cages, spines, skulls–had been pulverized into gravel-like pellets and dust. Only near the walls were the remains intact enough to recognize, as though feet had stomped around on a roomful of skeletons . . . before whoever had been trapped before him died and decayed, adding their own bones to the floor.
Starvation. Lack of air. Heart attack from fright. He could think of a dozen ways to die in a place like this.
The walls all around were made of gray stone, cut into eight-inch cubes and fitted together so perfectly he couldn’t wedge a fingernail between them. Moisture had formed or was running down over them, making David think of underground crypts.
Dracula’s castle, he thought, and before he could stop it, the image of a white-faced vampire drifted out of the darkness of his imagination. His breath caught in his throat. Had something shifted in the small space? Something that wasn’t him? There was enough room for another person, another thing.
Stop! he told himself. Where would someone else come from? Get real.
But his mind answered: the floor, rising up from the bones of it’s victims.
Or from the same place he had come, Taksidian’s house!
Taksidian was the man who wanted his family’s home. He wanted them out or wanted them dead: David was pretty sure Taksidian didn’t care which, as long as he had the place for himself. Soon after moving into it–just over a week ago! David realized, though it seemed like years–they had found a secret third floor, and a hallway lined with doors. Behind each door was a small room, an antechamber, with items that, when picked up or put on, opened another door. This other door, one for each room, was really a portal to another time and place.
His brother, Xander, had been the first to “go over,” as they called stepping through the portals. He’d wound up in the Roman Colosseum, fighting a gladiator. Then they discovered that not only could they go from the house to other “worlds,” but people from those other places could come into their house. And one did: a hulking brute who kidnapped Mom and took her somewhere . . . somewhere in time. They’d been trying to find her ever since.
“Hello?” David said into the darkness, listening to his voice bounce off the walls. If someone answered, he would have dropped dead on the spot. But no one did. No vampire, no Taksidian.
Taksidian. He had first offered to buy the house, then got the cops to arrest Dad and persuaded the town officials that the house was unsafe. David couldn’t argue with that one. When those tricks hadn’t worked, the man had somehow sent people from the past to get them–that big brute, the one Xander had dubbed Phemus, and two of his buddies.
David stared into the darkness and groaned. It had been a long week, with enough adventure and brushes with death to fill a lifetime. The latest one had begun just a few hours ago.
He, Xander, and Dad had followed Taksidian to his house way back in the woods. When Taksidian took off, Dad went after him and the boys broke into the house. They discovered a room full of maps, photos, articles–all of them about war throughout history. Except one wall. It was covered with photos of the King family going about their daily lives, and maps of their house, and notes written in a foreign language.
That’s when Taksidian had returned, and the brothers had scrambled to hide: Xander had gone into a bedroom, David into a pantry–which had immediately shot him into this dark chamber. . . .
How can that be? It can’t! It can’t!
David prayed his brother was all right, that he’d gotten away. Somehow.
A thought struck him like the blade of a shovel: What if Taksidian’s entire house is filled with portals, like our house’s third floor? What if it’s like a big hunk of Swiss cheese, just waiting for people to fall into a hole and disappear?
But to where? Where was he?
David opened his eyes. He had to blink to make sure he had really opened them and not just thought about doing it; the blackness was that complete. Tears spilled down his cheeks, and he wiped them away.
Remembering that he’d imagined someone in the chamber with him, he stuck out his arms, moved them around. Taksidian could have come through after him , even though David had thought he’d gotten into the pantry without being seen. When he felt nothing but air, he let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding.
He turned to the wall and pounded on it. Each blow landed with a thud, as solid and unrewarding as slamming his fist against a concrete sidewalk.
“Xander!” he yelled, thinking maybe, just maybe, he was still in Taksidian’s house somewhere, and his brother would hear him.
He stepped back. The bones under his feet crunched, and he tried not to think about them. A plaster cast–crumbling, thanks to David’s plunge into the Atlantic Ocean after he’d been dragged through a portal to the sinking Titanic–ran from his left hand to his elbow. Dad had wrapped an Ace bandage around it to keep it together. The skin underneath itched like a thousand ants were swarming over it. Deep within, his bone ached.
He realized he was holding something in that hand: the box of matches. He pushed it open and pulled out a stick. He touched the match head to the side of the box, and thought Do I really want to see? Walls, that’s all that’s here . . . and skulls.
Like the one that had been glaring up at him with big black sockets last time he’d lit a match. A memory popped into his head. Something from Ancient Civ: The Aztecs or Incas or Mayans–he could never keep them straight–had used a human head as a ball in their version of soccer. He and Robbie, his best friend back in Pasadena, had joked that they’d like to do that with their soccer coach’s head when he was in their faces more than usual. The thought turned David’s stomach, not only because of the grossness of it, but because of the memory of Robbie and soccer and better times . . . normal times.
He pushed the matches into his pants pocket and pressed his palm to the wall. He lowered his head as his breathing turned into short ragged gasps.
Don’t cry, he told himself. There’s already been too much of that.
But twelve years of living had not prepared him for this. Not any of it: Mom being kidnapped, a really bad guy trying to kill them, getting stuck in a chamber of bones. Forget that he was twelve: nobody could handle this.
The thought led to another: What were the options, if not to handle it? Give up. Just sit down and die.
No, that wasn’t him. He wasn’t ready to die yet.
He gritted his teeth and slapped thestones. Then he slapped it harder. His hand squeezed into a fist, and he punched the wall. He kicked it.
“Help,” he said. He raised his face and yelled the word. Yelled it again . . . and again . . . and again. . . .