"Fans of the Grey Griffins series will be thrilled to revisit their old friends in this action-packed adventure."School Library Journal
Grey Griffins: The Paragon Prisonby Derek Benz, Jon S. Lewis
A new world means a world of trouble...
The Paragon Engine, a machine that can unlock portals to any dimension throughout the universe, is the most powerful and dangerous invention in Templar history-and the Grey Griffins have just been pulled through it. After they are transported through the engine, Max, Ernie, Natalia, and Harley have no idea what/i>… See more details below
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A new world means a world of trouble...
The Paragon Engine, a machine that can unlock portals to any dimension throughout the universe, is the most powerful and dangerous invention in Templar history-and the Grey Griffins have just been pulled through it. After they are transported through the engine, Max, Ernie, Natalia, and Harley have no idea what to expect. There could be vicious monsters or terrifying creatures lurking around every corner. But soon, they discover that this new world looks just like theirs. Except there is one big difference: everything that went wrong in their world never happened and the Templar rule society. Is this world truly perfect? Or should the Griffins risk their lives to find a way back home? Things get even more complicated when they learn that their arch enemy, Otto Von Strife, is also in this world-and he has the power to destroy everything.
In this final book of the Clockwork Chronicles trilogy, the Grey Griffins face questions about destiny, personal choice, and what courage really means-all while finding a way to destroy Von Strife, his evil half-fairies, and his legion of killer clockworks.
"Fans of the Grey Griffins series will be thrilled to revisit their old friends in this action-packed adventure."School Library Journal
Read an Excerpt
Grey Griffins: The Clockwork Chronicles #3: The Paragon Prison
By Benz, Derek
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Benz, Derek
All right reserved.
THE OTHER SIDE
Max Sumner awoke to a blaze of swirling light. Everything around him spun like the inside of a fiery cosmic drain. He tried to get his bearings, wondering if this was only another dream or if this was real. All he knew was that moments before, Max and the Grey Griffins had been staring at the Paragon Engine, wondering how to blow up the interdimensional gateway, before Otto Von Strife’s clockworks stopped them. It hadn’t worked out as planned. Now they were seemingly tumbling across a kaleidoscope of dimensions. Lights flashed. Worlds swept by. And always the humming of the wormhole that funneled them to some unknown destination. It smelled of bleach.
Then the walls of the wormhole collapsed. Max saw—or thought he saw—a massive ringlike structure ahead. Another Paragon Engine? But as it neared, something else seemed to catch hold of him and pull him away. The lights blurred as he moved sideways through several doors of light.
With a flash, he was tossed out of the wormhole and onto wet grass. He heard shouting, and before he could roll out of the way, the other three Griffins tumbled on top of him. There was another flash, and the wormhole disappeared.
They were in a midnight forest so suffocated with shadows that the only sounds they could hear, besides their own breathing, was the soft patter of rain overhead.
“Did we screw that up or what?” Harley Eisenstein groaned. “One second, we’re about to blow up the Paragon Engine, and the next, someone throws a switch and we’re sucked into the very machine we were supposed to destroy. I bet Von Strife planned it all along.”
“I don’t care what he planned,” said Max anxiously. “We left Logan back there, with Brooke and Raven. If we don’t get back fast, the clockworks will finish them off.”
“Well, at least we’re alive. I don’t suppose anyone thought to be thankful for that,” Natalia Romanov said, fixing her braids and cleaning her sweater of leaves. Her summer glow had long since faded, along with her freckles, thanks to a cold winter fighting monsters. She looked through the lens of her Phantasmoscope, an ornate cousin of the magnifying glass, but instead of magnifying words, it made the invisible world visible. Not even the fingerprint of a pixie could escape her notice. “Wherever here is. Say, this place looks awfully familiar.”
Ernie—the half faerie, teen super speedster known as Agent Thunderbolt—took off his helmet, slid his goggles up on his forehead, and scanned the dense woods. “You’re right. It’s like we’re back in Avalon. These are the Old Woods. But why would the Paragon Engine send us back home? I thought we were going to another world.”
“The trees are taller here,” said Max, squinting up in the darkness. “Anyway, wasn’t Von Strife going to use the Paragon Engine to invade the Shadowlands? Maybe that’s where we ended up.” Max hoped he was wrong. The Shadowlands was a wild, magical world controlled by the dark king Oberon, who had an unfortunate and ugly grudge against Max. Meeting him this way, in his own world and on his own terms, would probably result in the Griffins’ being hand-fed to a nest of dragons.
Harley’s pocket flashed twice. He pulled out his communicator. “Wherever we are, they’ve got phone service. Full bars!” The Griffins sighed in relief.
Natalia took the phone from Harley and flipped through the screens as he protested. “If you have reception, that means you have GPS. Let’s figure out where we are!” The Griffins gathered around the communicator and watched it zoom in on a familiar map. A moment later, Max backed away.
“If this is correct,” Max said, “my grandma’s house is right over there.” He pointed through the trees. “What I don’t get is, what happened to all the snow? Look at the trees. Some of them have leaves already. What’s going on?”
Natalia looked at the phone again. “Midnight of March twenty-first.”
“We were stuck in the Paragon Engine for a month?” asked Ernie, turning pale. His thoughts returned to Raven, the changeling girl who he’d come to think was the prettiest and scariest girl in the world. “What if Raven’s dead? Do you think…? Oh, no. And she was just starting to like me.”
“She’s a tough girl,” said Harley, patting his skinny friend on the back. “I’m sure she’s fine. And when we see her again, you can tell her what it was like to go through a Paragon Engine.” Ernie brightened at the thought. It would certainly be nice to have something to brag about.
“We need to take a look around,” Max said, who wasn’t as optimistic as Harley on the topic of their friends’ survival. For now, he had to focus. He turned to Ernie. “How’s your super speed, Agent Thunderbolt? Working?”
Ernie replaced his goggles and helmet, then zipped across the forest floor in a blur. He went faster and faster until, with a flash, he disappeared completely. A moment later, he was back with a bug-smeared grin. “Holycowthisissoawesomelyawesome. NotonlyamIworking, butI’mfasterthanever!”
“How fast?” asked Natalia. “And try to slow down, okay?”
Ernie took a breath and began again. “The whole world freezes. It’s sick fast.” Ernie wiped away the bugs from his goggles and grinned. His teeth were a traffic pileup of insect fatalities. “I think I need a windshield.”
Natalia blanched at the sight. “Or a mouth guard.”
“So what did you see?” asked Max.
“Let’s just say that your grandma’s house is there, all right. So is Avalon. Although it looks kind of weird. But it’s night, so who knows?”
Max grabbed his backpack.
“Where do you think you are going, Grayson Maximillian Sumner?” Natalia exclaimed. “We need to be careful. Ernie’s super speed may not be the only changes around here.”
“Well, we’re not sleeping out here,” said Max, wiping a slick of mud from his knees. “Let’s head to the red barn. At least it will be dry.”
The others agreed, and they quickly slipped out of the woods, trudged along the cold and barren rows of corn in the neighbor’s field, and rounded the murky old pond. They soon opened the barn’s back door and stepped into the darkness. Harley switched on his flashlight.
“Sure looks the same,” he whispered.
“Smells the same, too,” complained Ernie. He covered his nose as he stepped over a pile of fresh horse manure.
They were in the main section, which was broad and dirt-floored. To their left were the tack rooms and the horse stalls. To their right was a door leading into the milk room, which was filled with all the usual junk: lawn mowers, bicycles, tin cans, jam jars, and chain saws. Confident they were alone, Max circled back to the main room and led the way up into the loft.
“Oh, hey, Mouser!” Max whispered, after nearly stepping on the familiar black cat. It sniffed Max’s outstretched fingers, then coiled back into a hiss. With a yelp, it disappeared behind a crate and howled. The rest of the barn cats fled the loft like rats leaving a sinking ship.
“That was weird,” said Natalia.
“Mouser’s always been weird.”
The Griffins piled onto the mountain of hay bales, making sure their flashlights couldn’t be seen through the loose sideboards. “Well, so far so good,” Harley said.
“And we’re dry,” Natalia added, wiping her wet hands on her jeans. She took off her shoes and wiggled her toes. “Or we will be. My socks feel like oatmeal. Anyone bring an extra pair?”
Ernie dug through his pack, then whimpered.
“I only have one candy bar left. Agh! What was I thinking? It’s times like these I hate being a changeling. I mean, I love eating. But why does it have to be every second?” He wasn’t exaggerating. Ernie’s faerie metabolism burned through calories. And if he didn’t get enough calories, he passed out.
“Not that I mind carrying you,” Harley said, “but you don’t always smell so good.”
“Hardy har har.” Ernie snorted. “And it’s my changeling medicine that smells bad, not me. Speaking of which, I didn’t bring any dragon dung tea with me, Natalia….”
Natalia looked over at Max with concern. Hunger was one thing, but this was serious. If Ernie didn’t have his special tea, his changeling blood would start to take over. Good-bye Ernie, hello monster—or whatever it was he might become. Nobody would know for sure until it actually happened. “We’ll get you some more. Don’t you worry, Ernest.”
“Fine. But I’m still starving. First chance I get, I’m raiding his grandma’s refrigerator.”
“Oh no, you’re not,” Max said.
Natalia stretched her damp toes. “You know what bothers me about this whole thing? Paragon Engines only work in pairs. The one we went through in our world had to be connected to one in another world. But instead, we were dumped off in the woods like a sack of unwanted kittens. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“The Paragon Engine is just a big clockwork computer, and computers have glitches,” said Harley, an engineering genius. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t learn or couldn’t build. He sure didn’t look the boy-scientist part, though. A head taller than most boys his age, he fit the action-hero description much better than Ernie did.
“A glitch?” asked Natalia. “A glitch just wiped out a month of our lives? Is that what you call a glitch?”
“A month is better than dead,” said Max bleakly. “Which is what Logan, Brooke, and Raven might be.” He sighed. “I feel horrible. Like somehow it’s my fault they were left behind.” He stood up and paced the floor. “Don’t you guys ever think about it? I mean, what we are and what we do? Nothing’s simple anymore. And no one is safe. Don’t you just ever wish we could go back before everything got so crazy? Before we met the Templar? Before I found the Codex?” He paused, his voice growing quiet. “Before Dad left…”
The Griffins regarded Max silently. He was a great leader. The bravest of the brave, and the truest of the true. They’d been through thick and thin together. Each of the Griffins had had these same thoughts. They knew. They understood in a way that only the very best of friends could.
“Max,” said Natalia, placing a hand on his shoulder, “we were trying to save the world. And if you haven’t noticed, the world’s still here. That means that somehow, whatever it was we did, it worked. There’s every chance in the world they are alive. Just wait and see. In the morning, everything will look different. I promise.”
Max nodded. He was exhausted. Too tired to think. They all were. Maybe Natalia was right. Maybe things would be better after all. They turned off their flashlights, and the Grey Griffins went to sleep one by one.
Max awoke to the sound of a car engine rumbling to life. He rolled off the bale of hay, nearly kicking Ernie in the head, and sprang to look out. It was Grandma Caliburn. He caught just a glimpse as she pulled out of the white gravel driveway.
“Did you see her?” asked Natalia as she joined Max.
“Sure looked like her,” he replied with a smile. He never realized how relieved this fact would make him feel. And what if things had turned out just fine for everyone? Maybe Logan was out there somewhere, tuning up his Ferrari’s engine. Maybe Brooke was curled up in a chair with her favorite book. Maybe everything had worked out after all. Then Max spotted Ernie popping a hard-boiled egg into his mouth.
“Hey, where’d you get that?”
“From your grandma’s kitchen—where do you think? She should really lock her door. It’s not safe.”
“Ernie! I told you not to do that. What if someone saw you?”
Ernie brought out a tray of carrot sticks and gnawed away. “I don’t think so. I’m pretty fast. You should try your Skyfire, Max. I bet you are all powered up, too.”
Max looked down at his magical ring—the Codex Spiritus. A little more awake now, he could definitely sense something had changed. Was it the enchanted Skyfire that coursed through his veins? Or perhaps his shape-shifting ring, which could turn into a gauntlet of power or a magical book? Max would have to figure it out. “So inside the house—it’s all the same?” he asked.
“Looked the same to me. Man, I love the way your grandma always keeps the carrots so crispy in the water tray.” He munched a dozen sticks in rapid succession. “I was only in the kitchen. Want me to go back? There’s a pecan pie on the counter I had my eye on.” Before Max could answer, Ernie disappeared… and reappeared again. His careless smile had vanished, and his hands were behind his back.
“What’s the matter?” asked Harley. “What have you got there?”
Ernie squirmed. “I, ah… here!” He thrust a photograph into Harley’s hand. In it, Harley saw himself, standing next to his mother. Beside them stood a man Harley had never seen before. “Check the writing on the back,” Ernie prompted meekly.
The Eisensteins. Summer at Lake Waconia. Harley, Candi, and Henry.
“Holy smokes, Harley!” Max gasped. “That’s your missing dad! You look just like him.”
Harley said nothing. His finger traced the figures. He’d never known his father. Never even seen a picture.
“Henry,” Natalia read aloud. “That’s a really nice name.” She studied Harley closely and saw a frown forming.
“What sort of sick joke is this?” Harley growled.
“Guys,” Ernie said, “that’s not all.” He pulled out a newspaper clipping. It was a picture of all four Griffins standing together on the grounds of Iron Bridge Academy. They were dressed in their monster-hunting gear and looked very grim. More grim, however, was the headline: MISSING TEENS PRONOUNCED DEAD.
“Dead?” exclaimed Max.
“Well, I certainly don’t remember this picture being taken,” said Natalia. “Even if it was, how do you explain the earrings in that picture? My ears aren’t even pierced!”
“Keep reading,” Ernie said.
Harley Davidson Eisenstein, Natalia Felicia Anastasia Romanov, Grayson Maximillian Sumner III, and Ernest Bartholomew Tweeny—the intrepid Agent Thunderbolt—have been declared dead by the Avalon crimes unit. The four teens went missing on December 24 last year while on assignment with the Templar. An anonymous tip led investigators to Sumner’s bodyguard, a man known only by the name Logan. The man was questioned, but he denied involvement, then injured several officers—including Sheriff Wilfred Oxley—in his escape. At this time, the bodyguard is still at large and considered extremely dangerous.
Ernie sat down and sighed. “I feel so weird. Is this what it’s supposed to feel like when you’re dead? Why would Logan kill me? Do you think he was mad because we left them behind?”
“Wait,” said Max. “I don’t get it. December twenty-fourth? Is this the future, or the past?”
Natalia scanned the clipping again. “Neither. You’re totally missing the point.”
“What do you mean?”
“The photo. It was taken in front of Iron Bridge Academy, right? But this is the Avalon newspaper. Last I knew, no one in Avalon knew Iron Bridge existed, except us. They aren’t supposed to know about the Templar, about monster-hunting, and they certainly shouldn’t know Ernie is called Agent Thunderbolt.”
Max’s and Natalia’s eyes locked. They spoke at the same time: “This isn’t our world!”
“You mean the Paragon Engine worked?” asked Ernie.
Natalia looked up from the newspaper clipping. “It gets weirder. This paper calls itself the New Avalon Times. And look, there’re advertisements on the other side for dwarf-made furniture and pixie-dust elixirs. I don’t know what weird, parallel world we just discovered, but magic isn’t a secret here. It’s as normal as a box of Cheerios.” Natalia quietly scribbled some notes into her Book of Clues—her pink detective notebook that had been with her on every mission.
“Once Grandma discovers the missing food,” said Max, “she’ll call the cops. We need to find someplace else to hide until we figure this out.”
“Do you have a place in mind?” asked Harley.
“If the Griffins here are dead, no one will be looking for us in our old tree fort, right?”
“Maybe we should take a look around town first,” said Ernie. “Just to see how much has changed. I can do it. No one will see me.”
“We can’t take any chances on getting caught, Ernie,” said Natalia. “We should stay together, at least until we know more.”
They agreed, and after Ernie gathered up enough food for all of them, they crept out of the loft and through the back door, and tromped down an old, familiar path back to the Old Woods, where they’d hide out until dark. This was the very path that the other Griffins might once have taken. They were dead now. As Max regarded the well-worn footprints, he shivered. If the other Griffins could be killed, then so could they.
When the sun went down, the Griffins snuck out of their hiding place in the Old Woods and took the dusty road leading toward the outskirts of town.
“I still don’t understand why we’re taking the long way around the woods,” said Ernie. “There’s a shortcut to the tree house from your grandma’s. It’ll only take twenty minutes.”
Natalia sighed. “Like I’ve told you already, Ernest, there’s no telling what’s lurking in those woods at night. With your speed, maybe you’d be all right. But the rest of us are safer walking around the woods. Trust me.”
They soon crossed a pungent field of alfalfa and struck the road leading past Max’s house. They hadn’t meant to come this way. But Max found his footsteps pulling him along. He wanted to see his house. He wanted to see who lived there.
“Into the ditch!” Max hissed. A moment later, a strange car swept by, a mechanical horse and carriage that floated on a field of blue energy. The driver wore a topcoat and top hat, while the passengers inside were hidden by smoky glass.
As the Griffins clambered out of the ditch, Max smiled. “I’d expect something like that in New Victoria. But in Avalon? This world is going to take some getting used to.” Even as he spoke, the stars disappeared behind a slow, hulking shadow overhead: a zeppelin! It had overtaken them without a sound.
“It’s the Graf Zeppelin!” Harley exclaimed with a smile. “Monti’s zeppelin.” It was the very same airship that had carried the Griffins across the world and back only a few months before. “Wait a second. Are those deck cannons? And missile launchers? Holy smokes! He’s turned her into a battleship!”
The Griffins ascended a familiar hill framed by iron lampposts that flickered with gaslight. To their left sprawled the Victorian mansion where Brooke lived. If this was a completely different world after all, then there were no guarantees that the Brooke back in their world had survived. Max’s eyes dimmed.
“There’s your house, Max,” Natalia said as they reached the top of the hill. The Sumner mansion, just one of several luxurious homes on the lakeshore, stood forth in its castlelike majesty. A warm, cheery glow shimmered from inside. But Max’s own home hadn’t been cheery in years.
“How do you do it, Harley?” asked Max.
“What do you mean?”
“After seeing your dad. Don’t you want to meet him? Look at him, at least? You haven’t said anything about him since you saw the photograph.”
Harley shrugged. “I guess I do. But… I’ve spent my whole life thinking he left Mom and me behind. What would I say to this guy?”
“How about ‘hello’?” said Natalia. “You have to be curious to meet him.”
“I like my life just fine the way it is.”
Max turned toward the Sumner mansion. “Well, I need to find out. I’m going to take a look.”
“Max!” Natalia protested. “There are security cameras everywhere in this neighborhood. What if you get caught?”
“Let me go for you,” Ernie suggested. With Agent Thunderbolt’s speed, he’d be there and back again faster than Max could blink.
“I’m sorry, but I have to do this,” said Max. “You guys will understand when you see your own houses.” He took in a breath of courage and set off. Moving from bush to bush, he made his way to the living room window. Inside, he could hear the blare of a television. His heart pounding, Max peered through the window.
In Max’s home back in his world, the living room had been a sterile cube fit only for blobby white sculptures made in Barcelona that cost as much as a yacht. Max wasn’t even allowed in the room. But in this world, there was a wraparound leather couch, a wall-sized television, and a floor covered with toys. Unfortunately, the couch faced away from him, obscuring its occupants. Max moved to another window.
As he peeked through the lowest pane, his jaw dropped. There sat his mom with his little sister, Hannah. His father sat next to them, laughing and absently playing with his wife’s hair. A bowl of popcorn rested on his lap. He certainly didn’t look like the scoundrel and traitor who’d nearly taken over the world.
Max slid to the ground, his heart racing. This wasn’t the shattered home he’d left behind. This was his old family. The one before the divorce and before his father had revealed himself as the iron-fisted leader of the armies of the Black Wolf Society. Lord Sumner’s werewolves had nearly exterminated the Knights Templar on his quest for global annihilation. The man was a military genius. A business icon. And an actor capable of fooling those who loved him the most. Max hated him. Sometimes. Max decided on one more look, just to be sure.
There it was again: the perfect family picture. And his father, the most loving of them all. Max tried to clear his head. He scanned the room for other familiar objects, and his eyes stopped on a picture frame: a photo of Max looked back at him. A small candle burned nearby. A memory candle. Pictures of Max covered the room—on the shelves, on the hearth, on the walls. And each of them had black silk ribbons wrapped around the corners. Max turned to leave, wondering if he’d just seen something he shouldn’t have.
As Max tried to make sense of everything he’d just seen, he heard a slight rustle of grass behind him. Max turned in time to see a black bag thrown over his head. It smelled strange. Before he could cry out, he wobbled, fell to the ground, and closed his eyes.
“Who are you?”
Max slowly regained consciousness as he felt two strong hands shake him. Max’s brain tried to reassemble a jumble of memories. He tried to stand up, but he couldn’t find the strength. His mind cleared after a moment. Ropes secured him to his seat, and a bag covered his head.
“Who are you and where did you come from? Fast,” the voice pressed. Max’s mind slowly turned the question over and over, unsure how to answer. “Don’t make me repeat myself, boy.”
Max knew he wouldn’t be held captive for long. Not once he activated his Codex ring. But as he felt for it, his stomach dropped. It had been taken! But if his abductor knew what the ring could do, then he must have also known who Max was. There would be no point in lying. He replied slowly, his tongue thick and slow, “Max. Where are my friends?”
“They’re not your concern. I am. Now, how did you come here?” The voice was being deliberately disguised. But the way the words came out seemed familiar to Max.
Max paused to consider his answer. “A portal,” he said finally. True enough. He didn’t have to blurt out that it had been the Paragon Engine. After all, it could very well be Von Strife questioning him.
Max fell silent. “I, uh, I don’t remember.”
“Who do you think you’re foolin’?” Max heard the man growl. A very familiar growl.
The head covering lifted. Staring back at Max was the face of his old friend Logan. But this Logan looked older and wore a patch over his eye. He took hold of Max’s collar and pulled him close. “Look, kid, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you ain’t Max. The real Max wouldn’t be skulking about the Sumner place, peering in windows. You say you popped out of a portal? Fine. How long ago?”
“Midnight, last night.”
“Has anyone else seen you? Talked to you?”
Logan looked long and hard at Max. “Seems to me there’s only one way to prove your story. Only the real Max Sumner could wield the Codex ring.”
“Then give it back to me.”
“Right. I don’t think I’ll be doing that.” He held up Max’s ring. “My scanner readings put this little darlin’s power off the charts. But it doesn’t mean it’s the Codex.”
Max remembered his Skyfire. He didn’t want to use that magical flame on Logan, especially without the Codex to keep it under control. But maybe just a show. Maybe that would be enough to prove who he really was. Yet, after several frustrating moments of concentration, his eyes opened again in desperation. “What did you do to me?”
“You’re wired to a neural inhibitor,” said Logan. “And I’m not about to take it off.”
“I’ve already told you everything.”
“Not nearly enough,” the Scotsman said. As he spoke, Max noticed a hovering clockwork emerge from the shadows behind Logan. As it moved toward Max, its gears whirring and ticking, he could see in its claw a syringe of bubbling blue liquid with a very long, very frightening needle. Max’s jaw dropped. “Now, kid,” said Logan, “suppose we start from the beginning. My way.”
Max rolled over and blinked up at the early morning sun. He slowly raised himself up. His muscles were stiff; his mouth tasted chalky. Then he remembered Logan and the clockwork interrogation probe.
“Good morning, sunshine,” greeted Harley. The other Griffins were sitting nearby, eating the rest of Grandma Caliburn’s hard-boiled eggs. Overhead hung a thick cloud of trees. Max knew these trees well. They were in a small park across from his house. “Logan got the drop on all of us.”
Max rubbed his neck and winced. “Man, he’s good. I never saw him coming.”
“No one did,” said Natalia with a disgusted sigh. “You’d think Agent Thunderbolt, with his fantabulous powers, might have seen him coming.”
“I told you, it’s not my fault,” Ernie said as he pulled a tiny metal gadget from his pocket and tossed it over to Max in annoyance. “It’s a changeling inhibitor. He shot this into my neck with a blowgun. Can you believe that? Man, I hate these things.” Ernie threw the inhibitor on the ground and stomped on it a few times.
“At least you got your powers back,” said Max. “Logan still has my ring.”
“Well, you aren’t dead,” Natalia said. “And goodness knows he had the chance to kill you. Anyway, none of us can remember much—it’s all blurry. How about you?”
“I’m not sure.” Max sighed as he peeled an egg. “Oh, boy, was I stupid visiting my house or what?”
“Look, if Logan knew we’d be at your house, then ten-to-one he was already following us. This is Logan, after all. We never stood a chance.”
Max shook his head. “Well, if he didn’t kill us, maybe he didn’t kill the other Griffins, either.” Max shoved his hands into his pockets and heard a squeak. Something warm and furry had been sleeping inside. An instant later, the face of a baby chipmunk blinked up at him. It stretched its paws, then cleaned its whiskers.
“Oh my gosh, it’s the cutest thing!” exclaimed Natalia. “Can I pet it?”
The chipmunk cast a withering glare at Natalia. With a shimmer, the brown fur became a coat of jagged needles. “Do not touch!”
“Sprig!” Max exclaimed as the shape-shifting spriggan changed into a tiny dragon. Bounder Faeries like Sprig were inseparable from their masters, though Sprig liked to stretch the limits from time to time. There were only a handful of students at Iron Bridge with Bounders, and none were like Sprig. How she’d followed him here was nothing short of a miracle. She flew to Max’s shoulder and melted into her true form: a catlike creature with gleaming teeth, spiky dark fur, and mesmerizing, long-lashed eyes. Her leathery tail swished back and forth across Max’s back.
Natalia shook her head at Max, warning him that this might not be his Sprig. But the spriggan yawned and said, “Max shouldn’t have left us behind. But Sprig followed. Sprig knows the way to many worlds.”
“But… how did you get here?” asked Max.
Sprig batted at a moth lazily. “Sprig is a Bounder. Wherever Max goes, Sprig goes.”
“If you’re so smart,” Natalia said, “then maybe you can tell us exactly where here is?”
“You are in the same place you were. Only different.”
“Oh, could you be any more useless?” Natalia sighed.
Sprig changed forms into a figure that looked exactly like Natalia. “Now,” said Sprig. “Now Sprig is more useless.” Her eyes suddenly darted to the foliage. Someone was coming. Sprig changed into a bat and disappeared.
“Well, well, well. Looky what we’ve got here.” The Griffins turned to find a man in an officer’s uniform and a Stetson. His thin, craggy face presented a push-broom mustache that concealed his mouth. On either side of him stood two broad-shouldered clockworks, both with badges. Despite the humor in the man’s voice, he didn’t look amused. “Now aren’t the four of you supposed to be dead?”
As the Griffins rode in the sheriff’s car, they peered out at the town. It was Avalon, all right—the Lutheran church, the town hall. But it was as if the town had somehow blended with the strange Victorian qualities of Iron Bridge Academy. The streetlights were gas lamps, the roads were cobblestone, and people were walking down wide thoroughfares with parasols and top hats. As the squad car drove around the square, Max noticed that the buildings, all the ones he remembered, were stretched thin and tall, and loomed out over the sidewalk like rows of giants hunched with age.
The Griffins were quickly sat down in Sheriff Oxley’s office. He closed the door, locked it, and sat back in his chair. He put his feet up on the desk, one boot at a time. This was the same sheriff mentioned in the newspaper clipping. The one whom Logan injured in his escape. Max could see a fresh but slight scar on the man’s jaw. But he didn’t look much like the Chief Constable Oxley from their own world. Max wondered who else might look different.
“Now, let’s get started. Where in the blazes have you been? You put the town, not to mention your parents, through the wringer.” As he spoke, he didn’t look sad and he didn’t look relieved. He looked suspicious. Max had seen that same look in Logan’s eyes the night before.
Max shared the story he told Logan, careful to leave out the Scotsman. The sheriff said nothing, then kicked back and picked up the handset of an old rotary phone.
“Jane? Where is that file I told you to bring me? Of course the one on the Griffins—who else do you… oh, all right. That’s fine. Oh, and get me a coffee while you’re over there. No. Black. See that it’s hot. There’s a good girl.”
“Well, now.” The sheriff set down the phone and stood up. “There’s a few people who will be very interested to ask you a few questions. So don’t you go nowhere.” He tipped his hat to them, then stepped out of the office, locking the door behind him.
“Well, aren’t we a nice little catch?” Natalia sighed in annoyance. “We didn’t last a day in this world without getting caught. How embarrassing. And can somebody tell me what a sheriff is doing working with clockworks?”
“Von Strife’s clockworks,” added Ernie. “I saw a stamp on their arms. This is too crazy. It’s nuts! Maybe this is all just a bad dream.”
“Okay, then whose dream is it?” asked Natalia.
“Shhh…” warned Harley, pointing at the sheriff’s telephone, which wasn’t quite hung up.
Just then, the Griffins heard a great commotion outside, and the door burst open. There, her face as white as chalk, stood Ms. Merical, their homeroom teacher. They were quickly scooped into loving arms. “Oh, it’s true. I couldn’t believe it!”
“Now wait just a minute, ma’am,” the sheriff protested as he pushed his way past her. “You can’t just barge in here. We’ve got an investigation on our hands. We’ve got a process to follow.”
Ms. Merical smiled back at him with a glittering glow in her eyes. “What you have here is a miracle.” As their gazes met, the sheriff’s own eyes glazed over. He reached for his chair and sat down. To Max, it appeared the man’s brain had just fallen into a cloud. A cozy cloud. But a cloud, nonetheless.
“Well, then,” Ms. Merical continued as she put her arm around Natalia, “your mom and dad are going to be over the moon to see you!”
The sheriff suddenly roused himself, his eyes refocusing. “Listen here, I don’t know how you found out about these kids, but this is as far as this information goes.” He tried to stand, but his heel broke on his cowboy boot. He sank back into his chair with a thud.
“I’m afraid it’s a little late for secrets, Sheriff,” Ms. Merical replied. “Their parents are already on their way.”
“Well, I called them, naturally.” Her eyes intensified. “I am sure they will be especially thankful to you, Sheriff, for bringing these families back together. You’re a hero. Something you’ve always wanted to be. And towns don’t forget their heroes.” She smiled warmly at him. He smiled back dreamily.
“Well, I…” He paused. Then his eyes took on a similar glow as Ms. Merical’s. “How can I help?”
“By doing a little dusting and cleaning,” she replied, looking around the office thoughtfully. “It probably hasn’t had a thorough going-over in years. Not your fault, of course. You’re a busy man. But there’s no better time to begin than right now. After all, we’re about to have guests.” She turned to the Griffins. “I think it’s time for the four of you to get ready!”
“Ready for what?” asked Max.
“A welcome-home party like you’ve never seen!”
Within five minutes, Ms. Merical had taken over the police station, assigning each Griffin to a private office as plans were made, while Sheriff Oxley took on the role of hero as if it had been his idea all along. Then the media swept in, setting up their wooden box cameras and snapping photos of everything, from Ernie’s flashy goggles to Max’s missing ring.
“Where’s the Codex, son?” asked a photographer. “Hate for that beauty to go missing. And what’s with the strange getup?” Max looked at him quizzically. “Your clothes, son. What do you call those?”
Max looked down. “Um, blue jeans and a polo shirt?” Judging by the clothes of everyone else in the room, Max concluded that what he considered normal was anything but. It was all about top hats, trousers, and waxed mustaches.
“So you’ve been playing polo while you were away, eh?” The man whistled, lifting his bowler hat and scratching his head. “I don’t go in for the sport myself. Silly hats. Well, we’re all glad you’re back. And, if your obituary helped our circulation, just wait’ll your resurrection hits the presses.”
Max sat in the sheriff’s office, his legs dangling over the leather chair. He wrung his hands anxiously. He was about to see his family—the family he always wished he’d had. Yet now that they were on their way, he desperately wanted to disappear. What would they be like? Kind? Loving? Or stern and suspicious? After all, Max was a fraud, posing as their dead son. He was a rat, and he knew it.
He drummed his fingers on the desk. Not much longer now. He heard the station door burst open outside and heard the shouts of Ernie’s parents. His mom wept with joy, and Max’s worry that Ernie would blow the whole thing was unfounded. His friend played it all off as a big misunderstanding. The Griffins hadn’t had much time to rehearse their story, but it seemed to be working.
The doors opened again, and there were the sounds of Natalia’s parents and sister. More cries of joy and sobbing hugs. Soon, Harley’s parents arrived. Max peeked out the door to look at Harley’s dad. He looked like a kind man and as strong and handsome as Max’s own father, but in a more rugged-linebacker sort of way. He threw open the door to Harley’s room and wrapped a viselike hug around his son.
Max shuffled back to the chair and sat down. He swiveled it around twice and drummed his fingers again. Were his parents even coming?
“Max?” called a soft voice, startling him. Annika Sumner stood in the doorway. Dark mascara ran down her face as she looked at him in disbelief. She moved slowly toward him, then reached out and ran her hand through his hair so carefully it seemed as if she was afraid he might suddenly disappear.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m, uh, sorry I gave you a scare,” he told her, readying his speech. But the words didn’t come. This wasn’t the mother he’d left behind, the cold, businesslike woman who knew entirely too much about pearls and not enough about jelly sandwiches.
As he looked up, he spotted Lord Sumner standing nearby. Max’s eyes met his father’s, and he felt an instant connection. His dad nodded at Max and smiled. Max knew what it meant: “Good to see you, champ. I never had a doubt.”
Sniffing and wiping her eyes, Annika stepped away. “Well, let me take a look at you.” Max did his best to straighten up and stick his chest out, but she only giggled. Smile lines appeared, unlike the grim frown lines his own mother had.
“I can explain everything,” Max offered.
Lord Sumner shook his head. “Ms. Merical told us enough and warned us not to rush you. You’ve been through a lot.”
“Not as much as you,” Max replied honestly. “Where is Hannah?” He quickly bit his tongue. What if his sister’s name wasn’t Hannah?
Annika took him by the hand and led him out of the office. “She’s with your grandmother. We had to be sure. It would have just broken her heart if you weren’t… well, you.” Max swallowed a lump.
Max climbed into the Land Rover. His mother sat in the back with him, not letting him out of her sight. She held his hand the entire way home. And Max liked it.
The ride back to the house was surreal, both in the way his parents were talking to him and in the landmarks they passed. It wasn’t only because the town had wrapped itself in brass, stone, and steam. The land itself was different. The streets were broader. The trees were taller. The hills rolled more. Then there was the lake. Before, a lazy rowboat could slide across Lake Avalon in twenty minutes. This new lake seemed to just stretch on and on. And the island, where Iron Bridge Academy lay, was now connected to land by an expansive stone bridge lined with ornate lamps. There was a city on its misty summit, and over its skies were dozens of airships, floating freighters, and strange dragon-sized birds. Yet, in the car, everything seemed normal enough. The air-conditioning hummed. The satellite radio played. In the cup holder next to him was a Big Gulp.
This world would take some getting used to.
They pulled into the driveway, and Max hopped out. His mother’s hand was on his shoulder all the way through the door into the house. Then she knelt down in front of him and looked him over, as if he might disappear at any moment. “Your grandfather’s dog tags from the war,” she said, looking at his throat in sudden disappointment. “The ones he gave you before he died. Did you lose them?” Max instinctively felt for the absent necklace, then tried to give a convincing nod. “That’s too bad. I know how much they mean to you. And to me.” She took in a resigned breath and offered a weary smile. “I’m sorry… I’m probably over-mothering you. I bet you’d like some time to yourself. Go on upstairs. Your room is just the way you left it. Rosa will call you for dinner.”
With an awkward good-bye, Max made his way up the stairs. The stairs even squeaked in the same place as back home.
He closed the door to his room and threw himself onto the bed, noting that the pillow smelled the same and had the same lumps in it he knew so well. For a long while, he just stared at the ceiling. Then he realized he was smiling. He sprang up and walked over to the mirror—his mirror! There was his smile, looking back at him.
“I’m happy,” he said quietly. Max couldn’t remember the last time he felt like this. Every cell in his body seemed to be jumping with joy. It had been so long since he’d had a family—a normal family.
He scanned his room, a near twin of his own. There were different posters on the wall. Same comics, though. Same aquarium—different fish. Then Max walked over to the computer. It wasn’t his home computer. It was a DE Tablet from Iron Bridge, a clockwork computer so elegant and refined it could have been hung on a museum wall.
“I wonder if we use the same password….” Max fired up the computer and typed in his password. It worked!
You have four hundred thirty-six unread messages.
Max cringed. Probably the friends of the dead Max…
Then a chat window popped up. It was Natalia.
Natalia: What in the world took you so long?
Max: Sry. Just got home. R ur parents cool?
Natalia: OMG, you wouldn’t believe it. Everything has changed. The house. The cars. Thankfully my room is still pink. But more on that later. You have to know something. My dad. He’s some sort of expert on magical relics. And he works for you know who….
Max: Von Strife?
Natalia: Surprise, huh? By the way, VS is also the director of our school. NOT the Baron. How’s that for a shocker?
Max: O… M… G
Excerpted from Grey Griffins: The Clockwork Chronicles #3: The Paragon Prison by Benz, Derek Copyright © 2012 by Benz, Derek. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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