The Onyx Vial (Shadows of The Nine Book 1) (8 page)

Chapter 7

 

Dawn had just begun to paint its watercolors across the sky when Ariana snuck out of her room, careful not to wake Tehya as she closed the door. She wanted to be out of the house before the gates opened and her mother awoke. She had changed into a sea-blue dress she'd been meaning to get back from Tehya anyway, and looked less peculiar than she had in her lounge clothes the night before. With her satchel slung over her shoulder, she headed downstairs.

When she saw the wide-open door of the room Dilyn and Perry usually shared, she paused on the landing and listened hard. No one seemed to be awake. She peeked inside. Hunter was fast asleep on the spare bed closest to the window. His bag was stuffed beneath it.

With a glance over her shoulder to be sure all was clear, she slipped through the doorway. Dilyn snored softly as she passed him. Perry's foot stuck out from the covers on his bed, his face buried under a pillow.

She stopped at Hunter's bedside. He
couldn't read the book without her help. If he was too stubborn to let her help him, she'd have to take charge. What harm could she really do? She'd take the book to Pabl's, start translating it, and have it back this afternoon. It was absolutely useless to him if he couldn't get it translated.

Pulling Hunter's damaged tin from her satchel, she knelt beside the bed. If it made him mad that she borrowed his book without permission, he couldn't stay mad long. Not when she returned the Scales he thought he'd lost.

She lifted the flap of the bag and peered inside, trying not to feel guilty. Really, she was doing him a favor. And, in a way, she was
paying
him for it. Granted, it was with
his
Scales.

She stuck the tin in place of the book,which she tucked safely away in her satchel. Then she left the room and ducked quietly out of the house.

It was a little disconcerting to be out in the city this early. But it wasn't as scary as it was at night. There was already a lot of activity. The first rays of sun brushed themselves on the white stone and alighted on the riot of multicolored awnings. Merchants called out to one another as they set up their stalls, brimming with bright colors, crammed into the street. Ahead, a plump, frazzled-looking woman threw open the wooden panels of her second-level window. She beat a deep blue woven rug against the oversized face of King Fyrenn plastered on the wall below her. Soft specks of dirt spiraled to the ground. Ariana skirted the impromptu shower, darted through a short alley, and emerged on Page Street.

It was quieter here

the colors more subdued. The atmosphere more like morning. The gentle scent of flour floated along the cool air, twirled up her nose, and tingled the underside of her tongue. She stopped in front of a fading midnight-blue building.

Cracks branched from its foundation and stretched along the only painted stone exterior in Eastridge. Above the crumbling doorway, a rusty pole protruded, a worn wooden sign hanging from it. The words on the sign, painted in a silver that had lost its shimmer long ago, read:
Pabl Farstat's Slightly Second-Hand Books
.

As she pushed against the chipped wooden door, a tinny bells tinkled. She stepped inside. Books of midnight blues, forest greens, ruddy maroons, coffee and toffee browns lined row upon row of sagging wooden shelves. There were so many books crammed in the small shop that they flooded onto the floor in large piles.

From somewhere on her right, a musty voice issued forth. "I would tell you we are not yet open, come back when the gates have opened, but I'm in a spot of trouble and could use some assistance."

She navigated the stacks and found the owner of the voice lying under a thick blanket of books.

She rushed to help him. The books fell to the floor with thwaps and thuds, stirring dust as he got to his feet.

He stood, as dingy and tattered as his surroundings, all softly lit by sunlight slipping through the paint-chipped, once-opaque front window. His eyes were large and owl-like behind black, thick-lensed spectacles.

Clumsily balancing himself on a patch of visible floor, he extended a fist. "Thank you, dear girl."

His Eerden mark sprawled across his skin like something written on the wind. "Pabl." She grinned, putting her hand over his. "It's
me
. Ariana."

Pabl's eyes widened further. "Oh! Oh, lawks. Ariana, I apologize. Being ambushed by my books has knocked away my sense."

She lifted a tome teetering perilously above him from the top of a nearby stack. "I haven't been by in a while," she said, a little bitterly. "Can't blame you for not recognizing me."

With a knobby finger, Pabl shoved his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. "It's not the same without you here." He sighed. "If only your mother would focus on what
good
your talent could bring the Shadows, rather than the bad it'd bring herself."

Pabl's words were a kick to her stomach. "I agree," she said, looking away to keep from getting upset about it. She let her eyes soak in the shop to calm her.

It was her favorite place in all of Eastridge. Books hung over shelf edges as if the stories inside their covers, desperate for someone to read them, might leap at the first person to walk by. At least if she couldn't find a way out of her mother's plans, she'd have this place.

"Until then, I suppose your visits will have to remain a secret between the two of us."

She eyed him. "I think you're confusing me with my mother, Pabl."

"What? You? A Secret Keeper?" Pabl smiled. He set a rickety hand on her shoulder. The jovial gleam in his eyes shifted to something serious. "No. You are your father's child." He squeezed her shoulder. "Though there's a part of you that's very much like your mother."

She snorted. "Yeah. My reflection."

Pabl shook his head. "Your mother's heart has been deeply affected by the secrets she carries," he said slowly, each word weighed as if consoling her. "There was once a time when her spirit was as wild as yours."

He let his hand fall. Sadness, or maybe pity, tugged at the corners of his eyes.

"Nowadays, she's determined to break mine."

"Oh, Ariana. I am sure she will come around. In fact, I believe she will very soon."

Tears sprang to her eyes. She shook her head. "No, Pabl. She won't. She—" Ariana took a deep breath. Then she confessed the awful truth in one swift exhale. "She's banned me from Ruekridge."

Pabl's eyes widened. His lips pursed in disapproval. For one long moment, he simply looked her in the eyes. Then he gave her a short, sharp nod.
"I have something for you," he said, a little mischief creeping into his otherwise resolute expression. "Are you in a hurry? You're here so very early."

She frowned. This wasn't the reaction she expected. But then, it was hard to tell with Pabl. She thought of Hunter missing his book and of her mother waking to find she had gone. "Not at all," she said. "I came to spend the day."

"Good." Pabl turned and shuffled to the stairs on the right wall. He eyed the open doorway at the top of the stairway and slowly, like a predator stalking its prey, mounted the first step.

While Pabl made his ascent, she waded through the stacks, breathing in the scent of books and absently stroking their spines.

Eventually, Pabl started back down, and she tread carefully to the stair bottom to wait for him.

His eyes glittered with excitement.

Ariana's heart fluttered in anticipation.

"Unlike your mother,
I
see the good your talent can bring." His chin jutted out seriously. "We need
someone
as Master of Words, dangerous profession or not."

She straightened and nodded. "I want that. I want to fill my father's place more than
anything
."

He grinned and thrust a small box into her hands. "I know."

She gasped as she took it. "A masking box."

Seamless, and surprisingly light, the box was big enough for a book like Hunter's, which was twice the size of her father's, to fit inside. With the dark wood stained black, highlights, even from the dim lighting in the store, brought out the ghosts of once detailed carvings. This was the perfect place to hide her father's book the next time she found it. Her mother would never be able to sense it, and never be able to take it away. As she ran her finger across the smooth surface, Pabl spoke.

"This is not
just
a masking box, Ariana."

She lowered it to meet his gaze. "No?"

"The Shadows have put me in charge of something very important. I was going to come to your mother about this. Explain what I needed —that I'd keep your name out of it. But I see now that we are past the point of reasoning with her."

Ariana's
heartbeat took off. She stared into Pabl's twinkling, mustardy-green eyes. "You mean...?"

He grabbed her shoulders. "There's a half-working portal book inside."

She sucked in her breath. "Pabl, I —"
What? Shouldn't take this because my mother forbade it? Won't help the Shadows in exactly the way I've always wanted
? "What do you need me to do?"

"Fix the side that's broken. It's the return side. The Ionian side."

She broke into a smile so big it hurt.

Pabl's bushy brows drew together. "Find those break words you're always going on about, and get this thing in working order."

"Thank you, Pabl," she said, nearly bouncing now.

Pabl raised a hand. "You're a smart girl, but I'd feel better warning you. Be
very
careful not to touch the working pages, or you
will
get sucked through the flaming thing."

"I know."

His expression darkened. "The working side is Helede."

Ariana's stomach dropped. "Helede?" She breathed the word in fear and wonder, picturing the desert-lands of her father's final resting place. "But that means..."

"Yes. We could finally resume contact with the Heledians."

"And pick up where my father left off."

Pabl's smile was sad. "Yes. That is the hope."

She felt her heart swell. Finally.
Finally
she had the opportunity to truly make a difference. To turn the tide for the Ionians and save them from a future like the citizens suffered—were still suffering—in Helede. Her dream could still come true after all.

Pabl
winked at her. "Now upstairs with you. The machines are ready and waiting."

Ariana turned, then paused. "
What if I had said no?"

He only smiled knowingly, patted her on the shoulder, then began picking books up off the floor.

 

V
ery little time passed before she was absorbed in the work. She barely noticed Pabl come and go, offering her food or drink from time to time. She ate and drank on automatic, too focused on her work. She sat hunched over the book at Pabl's spare desk, filling her notebook with possible break words and the page numbers of the places that were damaged. She coded them in Elder Script, as any Master of Words would be required to do. Hunter's book lay open atop the masking box, a useful tool for reference. The pages he'd been so keen to keep hidden from her had been tucked inside. He wouldn't be happy to find those missing, she knew. She hadn't meant to take them, of course, but she hadn't realized they were inside it. Though she was very curious to read them, she let them be, and focused instead on his book. The damage was all but irreparable. The side back to Earth had been hastily and thoroughly destroyed. In comparison, the Heledian book gave her hope. The damage was minimal; a few ripped pages and blanked words. But no pages torn out completely, and nothing burned.

She studied tirelessly through the viewing panel

a sheet of glass set in a wooden frame that slid over the edges of the papers to prevent contact
—and eventually stowed Hunter's book and the masking box back in her satchel, giving her room to spread out so she could be more careful with the page turning.
The wood on the viewer was the same as the masking box. Something in its chemical makeup suppressed the etâme, making the book far safer to study than holding the edges of the covers and trying not to touch the pages, but it still required that a certain level of care be taken when operating it.
A mechanism in the wooden frame, which attached to a small glass slider, enabled her to turn the pages without removing the viewer. It was small, delicate. The last thing she wanted was to break that.
It was a new problem for her to have. She'd only ever been in contact with a portal book so damaged that it had become a notebook. She could put her hands all over that.

"Ariana!" Pabl's panicked yell jolted her from the peaceful silence and she was suddenly very aware of how different the light was in the room. How long had she been working?  "Stay out of sight!"

She dropped her quill and whipped around. "Why?"

"Huntsmen," Pabl rasped.

Her heart shot into her throat. She ran to the wall that opened to the stairs. Several large shapes darkened the windows. She ducked out of sight as the bells of the shop door sounded, and clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle the sound of her breathing.

"Farstat." A voice, more of a rumble than speech. "You lied to me."

She pressed her back to the wall, pinched her eyes shut, and listened.

"They're all legal, Marek. I assure you."

Marek. A familiar name. He'd been in the Pass.

A hiss of anger. "Don't speak to me that way, old man."

"So sorry,
Master Ryszard
," Pabl replied, his voice edged with derision. "But as I told you the last time you barged into my shop, I do not sell

or lend

any banned books."

A low growl. "You don't have to sell or lend them to
own
them, Farstat."

"I assure you," Pabl repeated. "I have no banned books in my possession."

She clenched her teeth. The air in her lungs grew thick as soup.
But I do
. Her eyes snapped open. Across the office, her satchel hung over the back of the chair, the Heledian portal book lying open on the desk.

Pabl coughed and sputtered. One of the men must've gripped his throat.

"There's no tolerance in the Sovereign's domain for liars, Farstat."

She had to get that book back in the box before they searched the place. She inched away from the opening in the wall, dropped low, and snuck back to the desk.

"Master Ryszard," said one of the men as she got to her feet. "The girl. She's upstairs."

They'd seen her. How?

A loud thud. Pabl's heavy groan.

She scanned the wall that ran parallel with the stairs. They couldn't have seen her. She hadn't been anywhere near the opening.

Then she saw it: A large rectangular mirror set at an angle near the ceiling, where Pabl could see customers enter the store from his desk. It had worked the other way. Her movement had caught someone's eye. Now all five of the Huntsmen stared at her in the reflection, and the hungry look in their eyes made one thing very clear: they had come for her.

Her eyes swept the rest of the room. There were two heavy wooden desks, a wall stacked with books from floor to ceiling. No door. Nowhere to hide. No way out except down.

"Bring her here," Marek ordered.

Immediately, three of the men barreled up the steps.

“Pabl!” She cried, tearing her satchel from the chair and yanking the viewing panel off the portal book.

The men exploded into the office

the very men she’d seen in Rockwood Pass. And in the lead was a man so thick with muscle he filled the entire width of the doorway. Gruon. The man she'd pawed the tin of Scales off of in the rain.

You think you’re invincible.
Her mother’s words rang in her ears as she slipped the satchel over her head, the strap tight across her chest.
But the moment they get their hands on you, you’ll learn how fragile you really are.

She blanched. She couldn’t let them touch her. Any fate was preferable to the one charging toward her.

“Run, Pabl!” She screamed, forcing the words around the knot of fear in her throat as she hurled the viewing panel at the Huntsmen. It hit one of them in the nose with a crack of glass and the crunch of bone. He yowled.

She turned her back on them, her muscles tensed.
Don’t think about it. Do it, or die
.

With the portal book exposed, its pages flipped, as if blown by a fierce wind, to a page adorned with intricate illustrations. She slammed her hand into it and turned her head as her fingers disappeared through the liquid surface.

A blazing, blood red light flooded the small room, bathing the white-swathed men in overbearing brightness.

But they were undeterred. Gruon latched his meaty hand under her shoulder and squeezed. She yelped, jerked her arm, but he only squeezed tighter. His other hand groped at the air just shy of the book. If he touched the pages, he was coming with her.

She twisted around and bit his fingers. The salty taste of sweat soured her tongue and she gagged. But she dug her teeth harder into his thick skin. He howled, releasing her arm.

She unclamped her jaw, spitting the taste out as the book sucked her in to her shoulder. Her head was so close to the page, the red light overwhelmed her vision. But she could feel the Huntsman’s rough hands grip her ankles.

The opposing forces of the book and her attacker were tearing her in two. She screamed, but it was cut off with a brutal jerk.

Gruon had help. They were pulling her back out.

The glow was fire against her eyes, but she forced them open. She had to see what they were doing. Gruon had her ankles. Another, skinny and snakelike, had his arms around her left thigh. The one she’d hit with the viewer tugged blindly at Gruon’s back, his face bloody and swelling fast.

For a fleeting moment she marveled at the force of the book.

Then she kicked and twisted her legs violently, attempting to force the Huntsmen off. It didn’t work. The Snake's strong, skeletal fingers slid higher, making her wild movements more futile.

Panic flashed and burned through her veins. She flailed desperately, twisting into a barrel roll. But Gruon held her feet in place. Her legs crossed as she turned, inadvertently trapping the Snake's hand between her thighs. His fingers wiggled as he tried to free himself. She jerked her knees toward her chest, wrenching her right ankle free.

The book sucked her through to her waist.

Gruon’s grip on her left ankle strengthened, dragging her back. She kicked at him with her free leg, but missed. The Snake's fingers slid higher up her thigh. She gasped, her scream lodged in her throat. Stinging tears turned the light to glittering red as they filled her eyes. Tremors raced through her body.

She swung her leg again as hard as she could.

This time, her foot made contact with something. A skull?

Snake’s hands slid off her.

She wrenched her knee up. Gruon’s grip slackened. She bucked and kicked and flailed. Her foot came free.

The loss of opposing force was sudden and violent, dragging her into the black abyss of the page, the tearing sensation replaced by one of compression. The book slapped shut.

Then she hit the ground, flat on her back. Air expelled from her lungs.

Her satchel slammed down beside her head. Boiling heat washed over her in a thick wave, settling on her with the weight of a horse. The portal book drifted down like a leaf, landing lightly on her stomach.

She stared, still and unblinking, at the dull blue heat-hazed sky.

You’re alright. Breathe. Calm down.

But a dam in her chest imploded. Her eyes filled with tears. She moaned, though her lungs held no fuel to breathe, and hugged herself tightly. Her body shuddered as it released a heaving sob.

She could still feel their hands on her, as if they’d burned their prints into her skin. Her ankles throbbed. Bruises would come. She closed her eyes, but all she saw were their faces. The memory engulfed her, refused to leave her. She cried out, taking painful breaths between racking sobs.

But each sob dragged the poison of the memory out of her. Eventually, she took bigger, deeper, slower breaths. And after a while, the tears subsided.

Lying on the hard-packed ground, squinting through puffy lids and the glaring refraction of light off sand, she examined the arid, unchanging expanse of nothingness surrounding her. Heat swarmed on the horizon like oil on glass. It bit at her eyelashes, sucking greedily at the lingering moisture.

But there was nothing and no one around. She was alone. In a vast, dry ocean of emptiness.

"I'm not alright."

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