Darwen Arkwright and the School of Shadows

BOOK: Darwen Arkwright and the School of Shadows
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PRAISE FOR THE DARWEN ARKWRIGHT SERIES:

“An imaginative page turner that manages to be by turns spooky, suspenseful, and touching. . . . ‘Brilliant!' as Darwen would say.”

—
Kirkus Reviews

“If your mirror suddenly turned into a window, and you could climb through it to an amazing—but dangerous—world . . . would you do it? Would you dare? If you answered yes, this is the book for you! Fantastic, surprising fun!”

—RL Stine, bestselling author of GOOSEBUMPS

“Great storytelling draws you into the book just as surely as Darwen— a Lancashire lad caught in the USA—is drawn through the mirror!”

—Joseph Delaney, author of
The Last Apprentice

“A fantastic entry. . . . A.J. Hartley shows an uncanny, brilliant ability to shape the inner life of an unmoored child.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Eloisa James

“Impressive feats of imagination. . . . Young readers will certainly agree with the author's supposition that some teachers are simply inhuman.”

—
BCCB

“Hartley is most effective in creating an air of menace . . . along with an on-target satire of a school overly enamored with standardized testing.”

—
Booklist

“Jam-packed with action from the first to the last page. The characters are well drawn, the alternative world fully developed, and the situations deliciously scary. . . . An enticing selection for young readers who fell in love with
The Golden Compass
and The Chronicles of Narnia.”

—
New York Journal of Books

a.j. hartley

An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

A division of Penguin Young Readers Group

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 345 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

USA / Canada / UK / Ireland / Australia / New Zealand / India / South Africa / China

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

For more information about the Penguin Group visit penguin.com

Copyright © 2013 A.J. Hartley

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Published simultaneously in Canada

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

ISBN: 978-1-101-60430-4

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

To Finie and Sebastian, to my parents, and to all those other parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers who enact the conviction that good books make for good people.

Contents

Praise for The Darwen Arkwright Series

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

 

The Five-Minute Mission

Enemy Territory

Lightborne

Moth's News

Ghost Stories

The Peregrine Mansion

The Watchtower

Under Attack

Eileen

Revelations

The Map Room

A Cold Reception

Plans and Specters

Zingers

Making Friends

The Shadow School

Ordinary Disasters and Terrible Possibilities

Hillside Gets a Mascot

Clues

That Which Eats

Space

Blodwyn

Driving Lessons

Storming the Castle

Problems on the Home Front

Shadows and Ghosts

Back to the Jungle

Tusks, Rails, and Leathery Wings

Choices

The Deep Mine

Scrobblers Again

The Awakening

Revelations at Devil's Bridge

Battle Plans

The Invasion of Hillside Academy

Changes

Talents

Sacrifice

Endings

 

Acknowledgments

Chapter One

The Five-Minute Mission

D
arwen Arkwright stood
in front of the shimmering portal on the floor of the chamber known as the Great Apparatus, Alex O'Connor on his left and Rich Haggerty on his right. The flickering doorway before them was one of a hundred arranged in a great circle around an outlandish contraption whose brass and copper surfaces were studded with elegant, if antiquated, controls. Darwen and his friends had crossed over into Silbrica many times before, but rarely had they done so with such a sense of dread at what would be waiting for them on the other side.

“Ready?” asked Darwen.

Alex—slim, black, her hair pulled away from her face with a spangled headband—scowled.

“Never,” she said, “but we always go through anyway. How about you go through first and make sure it's safe? I can bring Rich through myself.”

It was Rich's turn to scowl. He hadn't gotten over the fact that of the three of them he was the only one who couldn't open the portals into Silbrica by himself. Darwen had been the first—the true mirroculist—but somehow, no one knew why, Alex had picked up the gift during Hillside Academy's trip to Costa Rica. Rich didn't say much about it, but Darwen knew it rankled.

“No,” said Darwen. “We go through as we always did: together. Rich,” he added, “take this.” From his pocket Darwen drew what looked like a toy gun fashioned from wood, copper, and brass, and placed it in Rich's large pink hand. “Weazen lent it to me,” Darwen explained. “You have about ten shots before it will need recharging, so make them count.”

“Why don't I get a cool blasty thing?” Alex demanded.

“Because you get this,” said Darwen, handing her what looked like a miniature snow globe containing a watch mechanism.

“Ooh,” she said. “Nice. What is it?”

“We're not supposed to be here,” Darwen explained, staring at the shimmering rectangle of light in front of them, “and the portals will seal once Greyling detects us. We have five minutes from the moment we step through the first gate. That,” he said, glancing at the device in Alex's hand, “will keep track of time.”

“So it's a clock,” said Alex, disgruntled. “Rich gets a blasty thing and I get a clock. Awesome.”

“If it's any consolation,” said Darwen, unfolding a square of grease-stained cardboard, “I've got nowt but this dodgy-looking map Weazen drew on a pizza box.”


Nowt
means nothing,” said Alex sagely to Rich. “One of his primitive Lancashire dialect words.”

Darwen opened his mouth to protest but changed his mind. Alex didn't have the kind of filter that stopped most people from speaking their mind, but she never intended to be mean. “This is for Mr. Peregrine,” he said. “So let's get it right.”

Rich and Alex nodded seriously. It was Mr. Peregrine who had first shown Darwen the way into Silbrica, and since then he had been a mentor and friend to the three students. But sometime before Christmas, Mr. Peregrine had been replaced with a terrible insect-like creature disguised in a suit made of flesh. The real Mr. Peregrine—it turned out—had been abducted by Greyling, once a member of the Silbrican Council of Guardians but now a powerful and ruthless villain whose armies of scrobblers and gnashers were bent on taking over the world beyond the mirrors. Darwen and his friends had been trying to locate Mr. Peregrine for months without success, but at last they had a solid lead.

“One more thing,” Darwen said. “The loci we have to pass through will all be dangerous. Greyling has deliberately connected places to make it as difficult as possible to reach our destination.”

“Wait!” exclaimed Rich. “What?”

“On three,” said Darwen, not looking at them. “One. Two. Three.”

Alex clicked the timer device and they stepped through the first portal.

There was a bright light and a buzz of power as they crossed over. They had to shield their eyes aginst the glare on the other side, so it took a moment for them to realize that they were standing next to a battered and ancient-looking boat on a beach unlike any they had ever seen. The sand was a brilliant blue and shifted beneath their feet, rippling like water. The water, by contrast, was a milky amber color and quite still.

“Okay,” said Alex. “Fairly weird.”

“It's Silbrica.” Rich shrugged, stirring the air in front of his face with a broad, sweaty hand. “Of course it's weird. Weird is okay, though. I'll take weird over terrifying and deadly. Where to next?”

Darwen studied the pizza box lid. He could feel the sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. “That way,” he said, pointing at an unlikely looking grove of palm trees. He took a step, releasing their hands, but the ground seemed to collapse beneath him and he sank into the sapphire-colored crystals up to his waist.

“Whoa!” exclaimed Alex, reaching out and grasping Darwen's flailing right hand. Holding his ground carefully, Rich did the same, bracing himself against the ancient boat.

“Still just weird, or are we getting close to terrifying and deadly?” said Alex.

“Just weird,” said Rich.

“It's fine,” said Darwen, trying to sound upbeat. “I'm nearly out.”

“Let's make it completely out, shall we?” said Rich, his voice suddenly urgent.

“We've got loads of time,” said Alex, checking the mechanism in the crystal sphere.

“No,” said Rich, his eyes fixed on the blue sand about a hundred yards away, “we really don't.”

There, between the palm tree grove and the edge of the unnaturally still water, something was stirring in the blue sand. Most of it was invisible, but poking through the water was what appeared to be a large, triangular fin.

“Shark!” shouted Alex. “Worse, Silbrican shark! Terrifying and deadly right on schedule!”

“Just get him out,” Rich retorted, leaning back and dragging Darwen till the joint in his shoulder sang with pain.

Darwen glanced back. The shark—or whatever it was—had been tracing a slow semicircle through the blue crystals, but now it had locked onto them and was closing fast, leaving a long furrow behind it in the sand. Darwen tried to clamber out, but he seemed to sink deeper.

“Keep still,” said Rich.

Darwen tore his eyes from the shark thing, which was getting faster, and locked onto Rich's. The bigger boy met his gaze levelly and, almost under his breath, said, “Okay, Alex, now!”

Darwen stayed quite still as they tugged, feeling himself sliding up and out.

“Into the boat!” said Rich.

They half clambered, half vaulted over the wooden side and in. The shark thing almost broke the surface of the sand, showing a slick gray body speckled with leopard-like spots, and then it was diving, rubbing the hull of the boat so the whole thing rolled and threatened to capsize. A moment later the creature, whatever it was, was gone.

“Chuffin' 'eck,” Darwen muttered.

“What is it with this place?” Alex demanded. “I swear it's designed to make you think everything is nice and happy, then WHAM. Where would you most like to go? The beach? Sure. But of course, this is a beach that can kill you, because it's Silbrica and that's just how we roll here.”

“Those palms are a portal,” said Darwen, wiping the sweat from his face. The heat was becoming unbearable. “We've got to get over there.”

“Check this out,” said Rich, taking a long pole of dark, lacquered wood from the floor of the boat.

“What's that, an oar?” asked Alex.

“More like a punt,” said Rich, standing up. “Here goes nothing.”

He pushed one end of the pole into the blue sand and shoved. The boat shot forward at an impossible speed, like a waxed sled on snow. Darwen found himself laughing with delighted relief as Rich fought to steady himself on the plank seats.

“This thing has some serious horsepower,” Rich observed as he recovered his balance.

He punted twice more, trailing the pole in the sand to steer, and in moments, they were gliding into the grove, the unnaturally regular spacing of the trees leaving no doubt that what lay before them was actually a series of portals. Darwen checked the pizza box. “That one,” he said.

Rich plunged the pole deeper into the sand and the punt glided slowly to a halt. He was about to clamber out, his broad pink face split by a contented grin, when Alex grabbed him.

“Wait!” she shouted. “Didn't your daddy tell you to look both ways before crossing the street?”

Rich gave her an incredulous stare, but Alex just nodded significantly at the undulating blue sand. As they looked, one of the ripples broke and another triangular, spotted dorsal fin crested above the surface for a moment, then sliced lazily down again.

“You can take your chances wading around among whatever they are,” she said, “but I'd suggest getting the boat up against the portal and hightailing it through before they can take a chunk out of us.”

“Agreed,” said Darwen.

“Let's just hope they can't jump,” Alex added darkly.

Rich nodded hastily, then used the pole to bump the punt right up against the palm trees framing the portal Weazen had indicated. Like other Silbrican gateways Darwen had seen over the last few months, the doorway looked like it had grown out of the very earth, but it was also studded with dials and controls, valves and levers, all made of finely wrought glass and copper and brass. He reached over, pushed a button, then pulled the lever next to it and waited as the portal hissed out a blast of steam and shimmered into golden life.

“How about I try this time?” said Rich hopefully.

“And have it fire you back yonder to be lunch for those sand-sharky things because you're not a mirroculist?” said Alex.

“Good point,” said Rich. “Darwen?”

Darwen took their hands, and together they leapt out of the boat and through the glittering doorway.

• • •

They were standing in a muddy clearing surrounded by towering scarlet grasses whose feathery stalks reached twenty feet into the still, silent air. A damp path of beaten earth stretched ahead between the walls of vegetation. Somewhere in the distance something called, a ragged
kraaak
sound that Darwen thought was vaguely familiar.

“Ohhh-kay,” Alex ventured. “Doesn't seem so bad so far. And at least we know where to go.”

Straight down the path, no more than a couple of hundred yards away, they could make out another ring of portals, these fashioned into the braided hoops of the gargantuan grass.

“Let's do it,” said Rich. He took a few steps along the trail and grunted as his foot splashed in the soft ground. “Marsh,” he said, peering off into the red grasses. “There's probably all kinds of stuff living out there. Better stick to the path.”

Darwen was gazing to the other side, his eyes locked sightlessly on a patch of particularly tall grass as his brain teased at the sound he had just heard. It reminded him of something. Not something in Silbrica, but something from home, from England, and his associations with it were good, even excited. He tried to summon the sound once more, and as he was trying to mentally re-create it, it came again.

Kraak!

This time he knew it. It was almost the same as the call of a great grey heron, a bird he'd heard when he'd visited the waterfowl sanctuary at Martin Mere with his parents. He remembered being in one of the hides watching a flock of pink-footed geese, a pair of miniature binoculars grasped tightly in his fingers. . . .

Suddenly, the gigantic red stalks he had been staring at shifted, interrupting his reverie, and he saw not blades of grass, but carefully camouflaged feathers of russet and crimson, a pair of bright, hard eyes, and a needle-sharp beak as long as a car.

He cried out, leaping forward just as the colossal birdlike creature lunged. Its bill stabbed into the sandy dirt only inches from where he had been standing. It was so big it plunged the whole path into shadow, and for a second Alex and Rich could only gaze up in rapt horror.

“Run!” shouted Darwen.

They didn't need telling twice. Alex was off like a shot, and Rich followed, his lumbering, pounding footsteps much noisier than the light, mincing steps of the bird on its telegraph pole legs. It lunged at Darwen's back, missing only by inches. Undeterred, it stepped over him with one immense stride, blocking him from the portal that was his goal. It turned its narrow face and unblinking eyes to face him. Behind it, Alex and Rich were off and running, but the heron thing had lost interest in them. Its focus was all on Darwen. Out here in the open, Darwen had no chance, so he did the only thing he could. He leapt sideways into the grass forest.

He landed in water up to his ankles, took three messy steps, and then stopped, eyes turned upward, waiting. For a moment nothing happened. Then, without making any sound at all, the great heron thing stalked slowly into view. It moved with almost impossible care, and was absolutely motionless between steps.

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