Life at home continued to deteriorate over the next few days. Mom and Reed weren’t talking to each other. I became the subject of a recruiting effort from both. I stayed out of it as best I could, which made me popular with neither.
I continued to draw a blank on how to get the gauntlet back, yet I knew my home life wouldn’t get any better until I did. Reading was out of the question, so I spent my time in the forest behind our backyard. My life is a mess. I’ve brought a curse on my family and who knows who else. I’ve lost the gauntlet and lost my ability to read. Life sucks. My only solace was the trees, dreaming about my adventures with the Travelers. I closed my eyes, picturing their faces. I could almost hear their voices.
After a few moments I did hear voices but they were real and coming toward me. More out of habit than anything, I quickly jumped for cover. Hiding deep in some brush I watched two boys I knew from school approach, half-leading, half-dragging a younger boy between them.
“This should do just fine,” said the boy I knew only by his nickname, Red, which was due to his flaming red hair.
“Yah, this is a nice quiet spot.” agreed his buddy, Jon. “I would imagine little Momma’s boy here could scream as loud as he wants and he won’t be disturbing anybody’s afternoon.” The little boy didn’t look familiar.
Red and Jon were always hanging around together at school although they didn’t seem like the bullying type. More like class clowns. Last year at school they had put some sulphur in the ventilation system which made the whole school smell like rotten eggs and got everyone out of a day of classes. Jon was an average-sized kid for his age. Red was shorter but built like a brick wall. He had thick arms and legs that could have doubled as tree trunks.
“Okay little Jackie, we know your mommy likes to wear nice jewelry. You are going to go into your house and get it for us. If you don’t, then Red might become your new nickname. Got it?” Jon laughed and Red joined in.
The little boy fell to the ground, curled up and began to cry. Looking around, I found a thick branch on the ground not far away. It was straight and pretty smooth, almost as good as the sticks I had practiced on with Unbar.
The two brutes balled up their fists and moved towards the kid. Not daring to wait another moment, I rushed from my hiding spot with the stick. Using Sun-Across-The-Sky, I hit Red in the stomach before he even knew I was there. All the air went out of him and he went down holding his stomach. When Jon saw Red go down he pulled a knife from his pocket and pointed it at me, shaking with anger.
I kept my stick between us, stunned that this boy I knew at school would actually be willing to stab me, maybe even kill me. Before my experiences with the Travelers, I would have been terrified. But having faced a dozen men on horseback with swords, a kid with a puny knife didn’t seem so bad. Something wasn’t right about the whole thing and I suspected I knew what it was.
Jon lunged which I avoided using the Moon-Falling-To-Earth. I attacked him with the sun-in-the-eye, which was a quick jab to the face. He hit the ground, out cold. Red was still down, making no attempt to get up. The young boy didn’t need any urging to run when he saw his attackers down. When we had put some distance behind us we stopped to let him catch his breath.
“How did you do that?” he said, with a little too much hero worship in his tone for my comfort.
“What’s your name?” I said, ignoring his question.
“Henry, I’m from over that way a few blocks,” he said, pointing toward Mrs. Kilbern’s neighborhood.
I decided to walk him to his house to make sure he got there safe. It didn’t take long which was a relief. I didn’t want any thanks for helping him; most likely I was the cause of the whole thing. A sick feeling began in the pit of my stomach as he walked up the small sidewalk to his front door. The gauntlet was starting to change people. The time for waiting was over. It was time to do something drastic.
Amelia checked the silver plate of the Liatope. Nothing. Relieved she didn’t have to make the trip and her decision today, she walked through the warehouse looking through the rooms. She peeked into the garden room where exotic plants of every color grew in every direction. The cement ground had been removed so the plants could grow into the rich dirt underneath. A massive garden of vegetables grew on one end. The cucumbers were massive; the tomatoes were as big as basketballs. Fruit trees of every type could be found with the most perfect pears and peaches filling their branches. She picked a juicy apple from a nearby tree and moved on.
The warehouse had an emptiness to it. She climbed steps her third floor living quarters. A long hallway with doors spaced equally apart down each side stretched away from her. The light blue ceramic tile on the floor was chipped and worn. The walls were white once perhaps, but now were grey. Single light bulbs hung on lines from the tall ceiling. To an outsider the place would have looked run down, but to her every chip of paint, every scratch on the old maple doors was like an old friend.
She didn’t see a single person in the halls or hear any sound at all from the rooms as she walked by. She knocked on a few doors to say hello but nobody answered. She poked her head into a few doors and in every one were open books on the desks and beds which meant they were in the World of Books. It was considered rude to look at the title of the books. They were supposed to use their ability to gain knowledge and wisdom. But like the others, she sometimes used hers for fun and relaxation.
It appeared that every person on the 3rd floor had breached, which was quite unusual. At most, a few Gifted at a time breached the World of Books.
Amelia picked up her pace, still looking for someone who hadn’t breached. Finally, getting a little worried, she decided to visit Wilfred. She was grateful to see him at least still in his little office on the first floor. He smiled as she entered, looking up from an object in his hand. He held a silver star which usually sat on a pedestal on his desk. He once told her it was just a decoration.
“You know what this is, Amelia?” He held his palm forward. “Aaron gave this to me many years ago before he, well, many years ago. He said he searched long and hard to find one that would work in our world without unintended consequences.”
“What is it?” Amelia said, sitting in the chair across from him. It appeared to be just a silver star.
“This is how it works.” He put the star on his desk and spun it. The star began to pick up speed. The silver color shifted to orange and then pink and then a light red. It began to slow and then stopped. In its last rotation each of the five points of the star stopped at the same point; the object no longer resembled a star but a pointer. The object pointed to Amelia’s right. Wilfred looked up from the star at Amelia expectantly.
“In the past day someone has used magic—the brighter the shade of red the more powerful the magic. Using this artifact, we could pinpoint its exact location by following the pointers. I wouldn’t recommend that though. I think we both know the source.”
Amelia was shocked. The person casting the spell could only be Mephitis. If he was using magic it meant trouble for the Gifted.
“What do we do?” Amelia shifted in her chair.
“We stay as far from him as possible. He is merciless and without a weakness so far. I only show this to you to let you know I have it. If I were the Master of Books I would bring more than simple trinkets such as this back from the World of Books. I would bring items of real power that would protect us from Mephitis or maybe even destroy him.”
“I was not born the Master though. I was born in Montana. The Master is always born in Covington. He is always of the lineage of Van Flett, which I am not. But that is all I lacked. My mother married the wrong man and birthed me in the wrong hospital. If not for that I would have been the Master. We wouldn’t be fighting Mephitis because he wouldn’t be here. I would have never made the same mistake as Aaron.”
Amelia listened in stunned silence. She had never heard Wilfred say anything about the previous Master of Books before. Usually he always changed the subject if anyone brought him up.
“And now, we watch, helpless, while Mephitis kills us off one by one.” Wilfred continued, “We wait for another Master to come like some savior. Even if we were to find one with the power to draw out objects again from the World of Books, would that guarantee anything? Should I be excited if a new Master appears, or afraid? My heart is filled with dread Amelia. The Master of my generation caused us more misery than is worth all of the knowledge found in the World of Books.”
Every Gifted knew the story of how Mephitis had tricked Aaron into bringing him to the real world. Aaron’s name wasn’t well spoken of by many of the older Gifted but Wilfred’s talk was nothing short of treason. He could be removed as Keeper if anyone else heard him.
Wilfred grew silent, staring at the pointer. When he spoke again his voice was low and menacing, “Mephitis didn’t just kill Aaron. He turned my best friend. He used some kind of spell on his mind. Now Kaleb helps the wizard track down the quickened with offers of power and riches and distorted training.”
Wilfred’s voice increased in volume, “They teach them the forbidden exploitations. They are searching for the next Master. If they find him, their power will know no bounds. Can you imagine the Gifted trying to escape the day the wizard comes? Where would they run?”
Wilfred paused, his anger passed and he seemed to grow old before her eyes. “It would almost be better for this generation if a Master did not appear.”
Amelia only thought she was shocked before. The Gifted were taught to seek out the quickened but with a special eye on those born right there in Covington. Every year at least one boy or girl quickened in Covington, which for a city of its size was quite remarkable. For the Keeper of Books to suggest they would be better off without the Master? The Master would be their best hope against the Wizard! Amelia had to believe that.
Wilfred rubbed a small chain in his hand while rocking back and forth in his chair. She hadn’t noticed him doing that before. Why would he tell me this all of a sudden? The more Amelia thought about it, the entire warehouse seemed affected by something.
The conversation with the new script came back to her from the day before. The boy had given her some story about a gauntlet and a curse brought back from the World of Books. She dismissed it out of hand at the time but now she wasn’t so sure. What if the boy told the truth? The implications were so exciting and yet devastating, she didn’t know what to feel.
There is only one way to find out though. “Wilfred, I need to go look into some things. I hope you understand.” She got up to leave.
Lost in thought, he barely acknowledged her departure. In the hallway, her mind racing, Amelia knew what she would have to do next. She dared not hope. She had to know for certain if Thomas Travers was the next Master of Books.