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TimescapeBOOK FOUR OF DREAMHOUSE KINGS
By Robert Liparulo
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Robert Liparulo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDavid watched the horde of humanlike creatures surge up the incline toward them.
"Dad?" he croaked. He reached out for his father, but dad was too far away. His legs refused to budge, locked in place by the sight of the approaching creatures-their spindly limbs jittering up and down as they climbed, their pale skin almost glowing in the sunlight, their mouths spewing out howls and snarls, their eyes crazy, desperate.
Along with his dad and Keal, Uncle Jesse's caretaker and friend, David stood at the top of a hill between two valleys: the one behind them, peaceful and pristine; the one in front cradling the ruins of Los Angeles. Between them and the destroyed buildings lay a massive junkyard of concrete slabs, rusted hunks of automobiles, twisted and broken debris. It all seemed to have been blown against the hill, the way litter gathers in gutters. It was from this trash dump that the creatures had emerged.
And as soon as they had spotted the Kings and Keal, the creatures attacked.
Creatures, David thought. They were human-something about them told him it was true-but they were so different, so animalistic, so ... creaturelike.
"Hey!" Xander yelled. He was thirty paces down the peaceful side of the hill. "Let's go! What are you waiting for?"
David turned, yearning to be tearing down the valley with his brother, putting acres of distance between himself and the approaching horde. He called, "dad says the portal's that way, toward"-he glanced at the creatures, getting closer-"toward them!"
Dad and Keal held the items from the antechamber: a parasol, a butterfly net, a picnic basket. The stupid things had given them no clue of the dangers they had just walked into-not the way the helmet, shield, and chain mail had predicted Xander's journey to the Roman Colosseum. But the items served another purpose. Besides allowing whoever possessed them to open the portal door, the one that led from their house in present-day Pinedale, California, to some other time, some other place, they also showed the way home by tugging you to the portal that would take you back.
Right now, they were urging Dad and Keal to descend into the other valley, right into the arms of the creatures. David shook his head: everything about this world was messed up.
"What?" Xander said. His mouth hung open, only slightly wider than his eyes. Fear made him appear much younger than his fifteen years. He waved at the woods and meadow below him. "But we came from over there!"
David knew Xander understood the portals better than that. The portals' homes sometimes appeared near the ones that dropped them into the other worlds, but they could be anywhere.
"Not this time, Xander!" he said.
But that didn't matter, did it? They couldn't follow the items' prodding, not now. He broke from his stance and crashed into his father. He pushed him toward Xander. "Dad, let's go-anywhere but down there!"
Dad nodded. He hooked a hand around the cast on David's broken left arm and pulled David away from the creatures. the one nearest was so close David could hear its panting and the rattling of the pebbles it dislodged as it scrambled up the hill; he could see a thread of spit spilling over its trembling bottom lip.
Keal rushed forward, pistol in hand. He thumbed the hammer back.
David tore away from his father's grasp. "No!" he yelled. He stretched out his left arm. His cast prevented him from reaching Keal's arm, but then he lunged with his right, catching Keal's bicep, knocking his aim toward the sky. David squeezed his eyes closed, expecting the sharp crack of the firearm. When it didn't come, he looked: Keal was glaring down at him.
"David!" he said.
But the creature had stopped mere feet from the top of the hill, almost on top of them. He stared at David, blinking, confused or startled. An old scar ran vertically down his face from forehead to jaw. There seemed to be no muscle separating his facial bones from the white skin that clung to them: sharp cheek bones and chin; hollow cheeks, and eyes almost lost in the pits of his sockets. His head seemed too large for his scrawny neck and bony body. Wispy brown hair clung to his skull and sprouted here and there on his face.
Keal pushed David away. He skipped closer to the creature, brought his foot up, and kicked the thing in the chest.
The creature flew backward, arms flailing. He crashed into another of his kind, and they both tumbled down the hill. Dust billowed in their wake. Other creatures moved out of their way. One leaped over them, caught his foot, and went down. He was back up in a flash, scowling. He lowered himself and scampered toward them on all fours. Dozens more around him scurried up the hill.
Keal pointed the pistol at the clouds and squeezed the trigger.
Instinctively, David ducked. The sound was loud and sharp, thunder from a lightning bolt in his ears.
The creatures must have thought so too. They all stopped. Several fell back, tumbled, turned, tried to get their feet under them as they moved down the hill toward the rubble below. Others backed away more slowly. One howled, and the others joined in. Their voices grew in volume, a chorus of angry, scared screams. To David, it was somehow worse, more piercing than the gunshot. He covered his ears.
Keal fired at the clouds again.
The howling voices spiked even louder. More creatures turned and ran.
Some held their ground. One, then another, and another, began climbing again.
David felt a tug on his collar. Dad was pulling at him. Without a word, Keal wrapped a powerful arm around David's waist, picked him up, and began jogging down the opposite incline. Dad fell in beside them. Xander saw them coming. He spun and booked toward the valley in long, pinwheeling strides.
Every time Keal's foot hit the ground, David felt his ribs crush between the man's body and arm. Air pumped out of his lungs like a bellows. More painful was the damage to his pride: he was twelve, and Keal was carrying him like a baby.
"Put ... me ... down!" he said, each word pushed out on a gust of breath. "Keal!"
Keal didn't slow, but he did turn David's feet toward the ground. When David's kicking matched Keal's pace, the big man let him go. David stumbled forward, stayed up, and darted ahead. The woods at the bottom of the hill were still a long way off. Ahead of him, Xander lurched forward, then his feet slid out from under him. He fell back, bounced off the ground, and was back up and running faster than David would have thought possible.
David looked behind him. The first of the pursuing creatures appeared on the crest of the hill, and started down toward them.
Chapter TwoWednesday, 6:30 p.m. Pinedale, California
Flat on her stomach, Nana slid backward up the third-floor stairs toward the hallway of doors.
Toria crouched on her grandmother's back, holding on with everything she had-a grotesque horsey ride in which neither horse nor rider had any fun. Nana grabbed at every step.
"Hold on, Nana!" Toria screamed.
But Nana's fingers would slip off one step, then another, and the two of them would bang up, up, up.
"No!" Toria yelled. She swung her head around, expecting to see someone, something at the top, waiting for them. No one was there, just the light from the hallway, flickering on and off. She knew what was happening. Jesse-her great-great-great uncle, or something like that-had talked about it the night before: the portals wanted Nana back. Time wanted her back, and it was pulling her back. But she belonged here. After thirty years, she had made it home. It wasn't fair! It wasn't fair!
"Let go, Toria!" Nana yelled. "You have to-" Her fingers slipped.
They bounded up three more steps. Almost to the top.
Nana groaned. "You have to stay here, Toria. You can't let it take you too!"
Toria gripped tighter. She knew her weight must have been awful for Nana, pushing her into the stairs, as the force yanked them up. She didn't care. She wasn't going to let her grandmother go.
"Jesse!" Toria called toward the hallway at the bottom of the stairs.
The big men who had come out of the portals earlier that day had broken down the two walls that separated this staircase from the main house. Now it was a straight shot to the second floor. But Jesse was hidden around a corner. He had come to help when the pull on Nana had started. He had grabbed Nana's wrists, but lost his grip. Now he was down there somewhere, crawling without his wheelchair.
Nana let out a painful-sounding grunt, and they shot up the rest of the stairs and jarred to a stop. Toria almost flipped off her grandmother's back. She caught herself, clutching her hands on Nana's shoulders. Nana was holding on to the sides of the doorway. Her legs hovered a few inches off the floor, quivering under the strain of the pull.
"Hold on, Nana," Toria said. She pushed her face into the fabric between the woman's shoulder blades. "Hold on," she whispered. "Please hold on."
Chapter Three"Wait! Wait!"
Keal stopped them before they'd reached the woods. Xander was the farthest down. He skidded and wound up on his backside again. He got up, brushing away dirt and grass.
David stopped more slowly. When he turned, Keal was facing uphill. The creatures had reversed direction and were heading away, back over the crest. As they walked, their oversized heads swiveled to cast curious glances over their shoulders. Again one howled, and the others joined in. Only one remained facing Keal, Dad, David, and Xander. He was braced on the hill, bony shoulders rising and falling. He yelled an unintelligible word and clawed at the air toward them. He gestured to his comrades, urging them to continue the attack, then screamed in what David thought was frustration when they ignored him.
"They weren't after us," David whispered. "They just wanted us gone, away from their home."
The creature seemed to stare right at David for a long time. David wondered what he-and Xander, Dad, and Keal-would do if the guy suddenly ran for them. That made him think of the gun, and he saw that Keal had returned it to his waistband. The back of his shirt was hiked up over it.
David touched dad's arm. He said, "Let's go. Keal, come on."
Keal held up an open hand.
The lone creature finally turned and trudged back up the hill. At the top, he looked at them once more, then disappeared down the other side.
Dad rubbed David's shoulder. He said, "What are you thinking, Keal?"
"I'm thinking we gotta get to that portal."
He turned, and David saw in his face the army Ranger Keal used to be.
Keal said, "Right, Ed?"
Keal held up the tam-o'-shanter and blanket Xander had given him in the antechamber. "And these things say it's over that hill."
Dad hefted the butterfly net and looked at the picnic basket that was lifting off his body, tethered to his neck by a strap. "That's right."
"If those creatures are guarding that area," Keal said, "we're not going to get to it ... easily."
"It moves," Xander said, stepping up to David's side. "The portal moves. It drifts around."
"you want to wait for it?" Keal said.
David looked into Dad's and Xander's faces. None of them wanted to wait. David wasn't even sure they could; they'd always assumed the time they could spend in the other worlds was limited. And the items became more insistent about getting home the longer they stayed. He didn't want to think what would happen if the items started dragging them, kicking and screaming, into those creatures' camp.
"Didn't think so," Keal said. "Look, from what you've told me, these items will lead us right to the portal. I say, let's make a run for it."
"What?" Xander said. "Through those ... things, those creatures that just came after us?"
Keal shrugged. "They're scrawny."
David wished he felt Keal's confidence.
"Come on," Keal prompted. He took a step up the hill, stopped to wait for them.
Dad's brows came together. He looked into each of his sons' eyes. He said, "Stay close."
"But, Dad ..." Xander started. His lips closed on his words. He shook his head and started to climb.
Chapter FourWednesday, 6:36 p.m.
The flickering lights cranked up the dial on Toria's panic. They fluttered on and off quickly, almost in time with her heartbeat. She lifted her head off Nana's back to look along the crooked hallway. Way down, toward the farthest wall, a steady bright glow splashed against the floor, wall, and ceiling. It must have been coming from an open portal door. That meant the door to the antechamber leading to the portal was also open. The force tugging on Nana must be coming from there.
A wind blew past, brushing the hair off her face. She couldn't feel the pull, but she felt the wind. Chilly, like the air when the family went to Mammoth Mountain for skiing lessons.
"Hold on, Nana," she said again, and slid onto the floor. She rose and ran for the light.
"Toria!" Nana called. "What're you doing? Don't go near it!"
"The door, Nana!" she yelled. "I'm going to shut it!"
I am. I am. I'm going to shut it.
The flickering light came from lamps mounted to the walls between the doors-creepy things carved to look like fighting warriors or faces or animals. Their strobing-darkness, light, darkness, light-made Toria feel like she was moving through the hallway in jittery jumps, leaping forward, then stopping, leaping again. She concentrated on the steady glow at the end of the hall and kept running.
As she approached, the air grew colder. Her tears felt icy. A light spray of water stung her cheeks.
Then she was there, squinting into the light that poured from the open portal door and filled the antechamber. Water droplets blew in with the light, swirled around the room. The wooden floor glistened with wetness. It smelled salty, like the ocean. She started to take a step into the small room, but immediately she felt her feet sucked out from under her. She fell, twisted, grabbed the edge of the door frame, just as Nana was doing at the other end of the hall.
Now Toria did feel the pull. It gripped her like hands, tugging her toward the portal. It was as if the portal didn't care who was in the antechamber-it wanted someone. An image flashed through her mind: the antechamber was a mouth, the portal was the throat. She remembered what Jesse had said about the house: it's hungry.
The wind wailed in her ears. Her hair whipped around, slapping her face.
She pulled and kicked, her sock feet slipping against the slick floor. She hooked her elbow against the hallway side of the wall and rolled until she was completely free from the pull. Then she sat, leaning her back against the wall. She breathed-panted.
"Toria!" Nana yelled.
"I'm okay." Toria stood and tried to grab the handle of the antechamber door. Invisible hands pulled at her hand, her arm. She couldn't reach the handle, and she couldn't risk leaning in any farther. Probably the door would not remain shut anyway. It would open again, lips parting for a bite.
As she ran toward her grandmother, the flickering engulfed her again. "Keep holding on, Nana."
"Can't ..." Nana said. Her legs fluttered, as though she were clinging to the wing of an airplane instead of a door frame.
Toria grabbed one end of the ladder her brother Xander had used to mount the camera above the doorway to the landing. It was heavy and awkward, but she managed to drag it back to the antechamber. She laid it lengthwise on the floor across the opening. It was something, anyway.
She returned to Nana. She knelt at her feet, pushed the bottoms of them. They wobbled under her palms, as though she were trying to connect two magnets.
Nana's feet shoved Toria back six inches. A piece of the door frame had snapped away. Nana was holding it, uselessly. Her other hand gripped the opposite side of the opening. Nana released the length of wood, stretched, and reclaimed a grip on the edge.
Toria shifted over her grandmother to the landing. She clutched both hands on Nana's wrist, put her feet against the wall, and pulled.
"I got you," Toria said. "But don't let go." Movement at the bottom of the stairs caught her eye. "Jesse! Je-"
Excerpted from Timescape by Robert Liparulo Copyright © 2009 by Robert Liparulo. Excerpted by permission.
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