Authors: Tony Abbott
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Fantasy & Magic, #Historical, #Renaissance
To my family, adventurers all
ow and why—and precisely when—Wade Kaplan dreamed that his priceless star chart had burst into flame he didn’t know, but the instant its swirls of silver ink and richly painted constellations caught fire, he bolted awake.
The room was pitch-black. There was no fire.
Knowing the door between his room and his stepbrother Darrell’s was open, he tilted his head toward it. Slow, rhythmic breathing.
Their first official day of school vacation had hardly been restful, rushing around doing last-minute chores before his stepmom, Sara, flew off on a business trip to South America. Her flight would leave early in the morning, and despite the hectic day, he and Darrell had promised to be up at the crack of dawn to see her off.
And yet . . .
Wade pushed the sheets aside, walked to the window, and quietly raised the shade.
It was a nearly moonless night, and stars were sprinkled thickly across the velvety black. His house in the hills some miles from the Austin city lights usually meant a vivid night sky, and tonight was no exception.
Turning to his desk, he opened the top drawer and drew out a leather satchel the size of a large paperback. Not only had it not burned, but it was cool to the touch, and he realized it had been weeks since he’d last handled it. He undid its straps and removed a thick sheet of folded parchment. His skin tingled when he opened it. The map was a gift for his seventh birthday from a dear friend of his father’s, a man he’d come to know as Uncle Henry. Engraved and hand-painted in the early sixteenth century, the map was a work of science, art, and history combined, and he cherished it.
Why, then, had he just dreamed of its destruction?
Wade turned the star map around until it matched the arrangement of constellations outside his window. Then, as if it had waited for him simply to look up, a meteor slid slowly across the dark, sparking as it passed. “Darrell, look!” he said instinctively, waiting for a second streak of light, knowing that one never comes when you expect it. A slow minute went by. No. That was all. He traced his finger across the map. “Right through Draco and Cygnus.”
“The bad kids from
Wade spun around. “Darrell! Did you see it?”
His stepbrother staggered over, rubbing his eyes. “The sky? Yeah. I saw it yesterday too. What time is it? Is the world ending? Answer the second question first.”
Wade laughed. “About midnight. I just saw a meteor. They’re actually much more common than people think.”
“And yet here we stand, staring out your window. Mom’s trip comes in, like, an hour, doesn’t it?”
“I know. Sorry.”
Wade had known since he was a toddler that stars were energy-producing balls of fiery gas burning at incredible heat hundreds of millions of miles away. Since his very first years in school, science had been his thing, his strength. But spread out over the Texas skies—or anywhere, really—stars were also something else. Not merely randomly positioned specks blinking in the darkness.
“Darrell, look,” Wade said, pointing to the chart then the sky. “That’s Cepheus. See, it’s a kind of box with a pointed hat on top. And there’s one of Pegasus’s legs. Stars are like, I don’t know, messages from way out there to us down here. If only we could read the code, you know?”
Darrell squinted. “I don’t really see them, but I believe you, which is part of the stepbrother code. I also believe I need to sleep or I’ll die.” He started back to his room.
“Uncle Henry wrote me once, ‘The sky is where mathematics and magic become one.’ Isn’t that so cool?”
“I’m becoming one with my bed.”
“Tomorrow we’ll go to the campus observatory,” Wade said. “You have to see it.”
“It’s already tomorrow, and I’m already asleep!” Darrell said. Then he turned from the doorway. “But seriously, bro. Very cool. I get it.” In three strides he was on his bed, where he snorted exaggeratedly, went quiet, and was, amazingly, asleep.
Wade watched a minute longer, then drew the shade down. He folded the celestial chart and carefully returned it to his desk drawer. Where math and magic become one. Wade felt that too. He felt it like he felt his own heartbeat. Since the beginning of time, people had read whole stories in the sky, finding the past, present, and future in the seeming arrangement of star to star to star. When he thought of the kind old man who’d given him the priceless chart six years before, he smiled. “Thanks again, Uncle Henry.”
Crawling back into bed, Wade felt strangely calm.
He had no idea that in the coming days he, and Darrell too, would measure their lives as happening
that starry night.
Eight hours earlier
he night was bitterly cold for March, and even more so near the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.
A young woman, not twenty years old, pulled her fur coat tightly around herself. Her long dark hair waved in the constant wind off the water. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she gazed up at the square brick tower standing tall and empty against the sky. That vague W-shaped cluster of stars flickering behind the tower was Cassiopeia, she thought. The throne of the queen.
. The title meant something to her. Or might someday.
She knew she wouldn’t be able to linger long. A limousine idled thirty feet away at the edge of the road near the pine trees. Four men sat quietly inside the car. A phone call was expected. The call that she had been waiting such a long time for—years, in fact. And after the call? There would be miles to travel tonight. She knew that, too.
And yet she could not move.
The longer she stared at the tower—her sharp eyes scanning the broad granite lintel over the oak door, the narrow catwalks and stairs draping the outside wall from the ground to the high peaked summit standing starkly against the sky—the more the old scene overwhelmed her.
And just like that, it was five hundred years ago, a night she had heard about so often, it seemed as real as if she had been there. Snow swirled against the walls and up to the doorstep. Normally white and clean, the drifts burned red from the flames boiling up the sides of the tower.
“Fire! Magister, awake!” A boy, sixteen years old, ran
-skelter down the tower steps, racing to the inlet with empty buckets flying in his hands.
The legend has given us the boy’s name: Hans Novak.
Then came the thundering of hooves, and the young woman saw horsemen, fierce-faced and monstrous under plates of angled armor. Their blades were thick with blood, their eyes wolfish with rage. The village beyond was an inferno of flame. Now they’d come in for the kill.
And there he was. The scholar. The mathematician. Magister. The man she felt she had always known. He leaped down the tower steps from its summit, his leather cloak flying behind him.
“Fiends!” he cried at the horsemen. “I know why you have come! I will not obey!” From the folds of his cloak he drew a sword—Himmelklinge, he called it: “Sky Blade.” He jumped to the ground and planted his boots in the snow while the horsemen circled around, outnumbering him eight to one.
The clash of sword against sword echoed under the sparkling sky. More than a scholar, the Magister was also a swordsman, trained in the ancient arts. She smiled at that. Swordsman. He fought off one knight, then a second and third, tumbling them from their saddles. Not only Sky Blade whisked in the air, but so did his dueling dagger, its wavy blade piercing the chinks in their armor. The Magister was swift and efficient, tutored by the best swordsman in Bologna. But his ferocity couldn’t last. Two horsemen roped the boy, wrestling him to the ground, his now-laden buckets spilling, cracking.
The scholar’s dagger ceased flashing. Sky Blade fell silent.
“Stop!” he said, hanging his head. “Release the boy. Release him, and I will do as the Grand Master says. . . .”
The sound of the car horn broke the night air and brought the young woman back to the present. She turned, drawing a stray strand of hair behind her ear. If the men in the car had looked closely they might have seen a three-inch vertical scar on her neck below her ear. She didn’t conceal it. In more ways than one, the scar was a sign of her survival.
But the men in the car dared not look. Instead, a pale runtish specimen, large-headed and bent, shivering in his thin coat, stumbled out of the backseat and scurried over.
“They have found him,” the man said eagerly, drying with a finger the drool that had leaked from the edge of his mouth. “They have found the head of the five. They have found him—”
“Where?” she asked.
“Berlin! Just as you suspected!”
Her eyes lingered on the tower a moment longer.
Her eyes. One blue, one silver-gray. A condition called heterochromia iridis. A chance mutation, both a blessing and a curse. Was this what made her so mesmerizing?
Brushing a wave of hair back over her collar, she strode to the limousine, slid into the backseat, and caught a glimpse of the nameless driver in the rearview.
“Airport,” she said. “We five fly to Berlin tonight.”
“Yes, Miss Krause,” said the driver, who had a name, though she never used it. “Right away, Miss Krause.”
“Galina. My dear,” said the pale man as he slipped into the seat next to her, “when we arrive in Berlin—”
“Silence,” she said, and the pale man caught his breath and lowered his gaze to the ruby necklace that shone below the collar of her coat. The red stone was in the shape of a sea creature.
As the car roared away, Galina Krause glanced once more at the tower, standing black against the starry firmament.
In her mind, the flames—as they always did when she imagined that night so long ago—coiled higher.
“And so,” she whispered to herself, “it begins.”
Just before two in the morning, in the sector of the city once called East Berlin, on a street named Unter den Linden,
a long black car crawled to a stop with the quiet ease of a panther.
The engine went silent.
For decades Unter den Linden
“under the linden trees”—had been cut in two by the infamous Berlin Wall. Now that the Cold War was over and the wall was down, the avenue was whole again and teeming with life. Three floors above, a dim light shone in the window of a small apartment. The haggard face of an old man blinked out over the passing cars, the raucous music clubs, the bustle of pedestrians crowding the avenue. Their night was in full swing.
All seemed normal, all seemed well.
All was not well.
Heinrich Vogel, retired professor of astronomy at Humboldt University, hobbled from the window into his study, deeply troubled.
Was the great secret unraveling at last?
And what of the future? Of humanity? Of the world itself?
He stoked the small flame in the fireplace. It blossomed. Sliding into a chair, he typed furiously on his computer keyboard, then paused. Among the seven newspapers on his desk sat the Paris daily
. Two hours had gone by since his dear friend, Bernard Dufort, was to have called him. He always called the instant the coded crossword appeared online. He had done so the second Monday of every month for the last seventeen years. “RIP.” A morbid joke, perhaps, but one easily missed unless you knew to look for the letters near the intersection of 48 Across and Down.
Tonight, there was no call. The encoded crossword did not appear.
Vogel could only assume that the delicately constructed system of communication had been compromised. The inner circle had been breached.
As he hit Send on his computer, he wondered whether his colleague at
had fled his post. Or worse. That he had
fled his post but had perished in defense of their secret.
“In either case, I must leave Berlin,” he said to himself, standing and scanning the room. “Flee now and hope my American friend will understand my message . . . and remember the old days.”
He checked his watch. Two a.m., give or take. It was six hours earlier in Texas, after office hours. His friend would see the email in the morning. The clues were there. If only Roald would connect and follow them.
“I have kept you out of it until the last. Now, I have no choice. And young Wade. I dread this even more for him. The terrible responsibility . . .”
He lifted the phone from its cradle and pressed a number into it, waited for the connection, and spoke four words.
“Carlo, expect a visit.”
He set down the receiver, knowing that the number dialed and each word spoken were twisted and garbled in a way that could be unscrambled only at the receiving end. Technology had its uses, after all.
Checking his vest pocket for the fifth time in as many minutes, he fingered the train ticket. Then he placed his computer on the floor and stomped on it until its shell cracked. He removed the hard drive, bent it nearly in half, and threw it into the fire.
“What else?” He spied the starfish paperweight on his desk. It was no more than a cheap beachside souvenir. A sea star—
its Latin term—molded in glass.
Asterias. The name he’d called his hand-picked group of students so long ago. All that was over now. He gave the paperweight a pat, then took up a framed photograph. It was of himself two decades before, with three young men and two women standing under the blue glow of a café’s sign. They were all smiling. Professor and students. Asterias.
“My friend,” Vogel whispered to one of the faces. “It is all in your hands now. If only you will take the challenge—”
Something snapped sharply on the street below the apartment. Vogel’s heart thumped with dread. A door creaked and footsteps thudded up the stairs. “No, no. It is too soon—”
He threw the photograph in the fire and the door burst open. Three thick men in dark suits pushed their way in. They were followed by a shrunken man with wire glasses and flat hair and a woman young enough to be a student herself.
“Who are you?” Vogel cried, dragging the glass paperweight off the desk and clutching it tightly. He knew too well who they were. The enemies of man.
The first thug knocked him down. Vogel stumbled hard to his knees, then to the floor. “Murderers! Thieves!” he screamed, while the other two men fanned out into the small apartment, turning over everything in sight. The woman stood by the door as calm and silent as a coiled snake. What was wrong with her expression? She was beautiful. Like an angel, even.
And yet . . . those eyes.
The men tore the books from the shelves. Tables crashed to the floor. Upholstered chairs, his bed, his pillows, all sliced open. His priceless collection of musical instruments tossed aside as if they were worthless toys.
“Brutes!” the old man cried out. “There is nothing here!”
The bent man with pasty skin and spectacles perched on his nose like a second set of eyes leaned over him.
“Your associate in Paris gave you up,” he snarled at Vogel. “You have the key to the relics. Give it to us.”
Adrenaline spiking his old veins, Vogel gripped the starfish paperweight and slammed it hard against the temple of the pale man. “There is the key. There, on your head!”
The pale man pawed his bleeding temple. “What have you done to my face, you fool?”
“Improved it!” Vogel snapped.
One of the thick men knelt and wrapped his massive hand around the old man’s neck. He grinned as he brought his fingers together.
“Breathe your last, old fool!” shrieked the pale man.
Vogel burst out with a cold laugh. “No. Not last . . .”
The woman glared at Vogel, then at the hearth. “He has told someone! There is something in the fire—get it!”
Without thinking, the pale man thrust his hand into the flames, screaming as he dragged the smoldering hard drive onto the floor. The photograph was already ash.
“Discover who he has told,” the woman said coldly. “I should have known. The key was never here. Finish him. Drop his body in the streets. Leave no clues—”
Choking, Vogel flailed frantically. He knocked over a music stand, hoping to grip its shaft. Instead, all that came to his hand was a battered silver pitch pipe.
As life ebbed swiftly from the old man, Galina Krause stared at him from two different-hued eyes. One blue. One silvery gray.
“Go ahead, Vogel. Play for us. Play your swan song. . . .”