By Paul Stewart Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Random House Copyright (C) 2003 by Paul Stewart Chris Riddell
All right reserved. ISBN: 0552548499
It was cold in the great chamber; bitter cold. Above, through the frost-edged panes of the glass dome overhead, the stars glittered like phraxdust in the black sky. Below, at the large ring-shaped ironwood table, a hulking figure was hunched over a sheaf of sky charts, a carved tankard in front of him, and an upturned telescope by the foot of his chair. Loud snores echoed through the chamber as the figure's head slumped slowly forwards, a red gobbet of spittle bubbling on his lips.
The sky charts rustled like dead leaves as they were caught by an icy draught whistling through the chamber. The academic shivered in his sleep and the light clink of a phraxdust medallion tapping the heavy chain of office round his neck mingled with his snores.
He slumped further forward, cheeks wobbling and neck creasing into plump, grublike layers of fat. The dangling phraxdust medallion knocked against the rim of the all but empty tankard. The snores were deep and rumbling now and, as the sleeper's jowly face hovered over the table, the medallion hung down inside the tankard.
All at once, with a volcanic snore, the sagging figure fell completely forwards. He slammed his forehead on the edge of the table with a thud - and sat bolt upright. In front of him, there was a hiss, a crackle, a whiff of toasted wood-almonds - and the tankard abruptly exploded.
The academic was thrown back from his chair. He landed heavily on the other side of the chamber, twisting a leg and knocking his head sharply against the tiled floor.
From high above, like a faulty echo, there came an answering sound of breaking glass and an ear-splitting crash, as something hard and heavy burst through the dome and landed in the middle of the ironwood table, splitting it in two.
The academic coughed throatily as he heaved himself painfully to his feet. The air was thick with dust and smoke. His head throbbed, his ears were ringing, and wherever he looked, the after-image of the explosion flashed before him; now pink, now green. He coughed again and again, great convulsions racking his body.
At last the coughing subsided, and he fumbled for a spidersilk kerchief and wiped his streaming eyes. Above his head, he saw that several of the glass panels had shattered in the blast. At his feet, the jagged fragments glinted in the moonlight. He frowned as his gaze fell on the object nestling amongst the shards of glass and splinters of wood. It was a stone head dislodged from one of the statues on the roof, the thick frost coating its surface already melting and dripping down onto the floor.
Who is it this time? the academic wondered. Which venerable figure of rank has taken a tumble tonight?
He crouched down, seized the slippery head with both hands, rolled it over - and gasped with sudden foreboding. It was his own face staring back at him.
Although it was close to midnight, with the full moon dull and greasy yellow behind the thickening mist, the air - even high up at the top of the Tower of Night - was still clammy and warm. The Most High Guardian, Orbix Xaxis, emerged onto the main upper gantry, looked round uneasily, and began at once to fiddle urgently with the metal muzzle that covered his mouth and nose.
With the vents closed by spidersilk gauze, Orbix's face sweated beneath the mask and his voice took on a muffled and rasping tone - but at least it protected him from the vile contagion of the night. The High Guardian clicked the muzzle-guard securely into place. When the great purifying storm finally arrived, he thought with quiet satisfaction, the air would be fit to breathe again, but until that glorious day . . .
'The chosen ones await your bidding, master,' came a gruff voice behind him.
Orbix turned. The cage-master, Mollus Leddix, stood before him. Behind him, flanked by hulking flathead Guardians, were two young librarians, their faces white and drawn. One, a shock of ginger hair matted by a gash in his eyebrow, tried to stand up straight, but the muscles in his jaw betrayed his fear. His companion, smaller and slightly hunched, stared with pale blue eyes at his feet. Their arms were tied behind their backs.
Orbix thrust his muzzle into the smaller one's face, and took a long, deep sniff. A tear squeezed out from the librarian's eyelashes and slid down his cheek.
'Very good,' said Orbix at last. 'Sweet. Tender . . . Caught them in the sewers, did you?'
'One of them, master,' Leddix nodded. 'The other was shot down over Undertown.'
Orbix Xaxis tutted. 'You librarians,' he said softly. 'Will you never learn that it is we, the Guardians of Night, who are the masters?' He nodded to the flatheads. 'Put them in the cage,' he growled. 'And remove their gags. I want to hear them sing.'
The flatheads tore the knotted rope from the prisoners' mouths and bundled them to the end of the jutting gantry, where a heavy cage hung down from an overhead pulley. One of the Guardians opened the barred door. Another shoved the prisoners inside. The ginger-haired librarian stood stock-still, his head held high. Beside him, his companion followed his example.
Orbix snorted. They were all the same, these young librarians. Trying so hard to be brave, to hide their fear - he had yet to meet a single one prepared to plead for his life. A cold fury gripped him. They would be singing soon enough.
'Lower the cage,' he barked.
Leddix gave a signal, and a Guardian stepped forward, released the locking-bolt on the crank-wheel, and began turning. With a lurch, the cage began its long descent. Orbix Xaxis raised his arms and lifted his head. The moonlight glinted on his mask and tinted glasses.
'Thus perish all those who pollute the Great Sky with blasphemous flight!' his rasping voice rang out. 'For we, the Guardians, shall purify the Sky, ready for that Great Night. Hail, the Great Storm!'
The gantry filled with voices raised in salute. 'Hail, the Great Storm! Hail, the Great Storm!'
Far below them now, the cage continued down. Past the dark angular Tower of Night it went; past the surface of the crumbling Sanctaphrax rock and the vast network of scaffolding erected to support it, and on down into Screetown.
Inside the cage, the two librarians struggled to keep their balance as they stared out.
'Try not to look down,' said the ginger-haired one.
'I . . . I can't,' said his companion. 'I saw something down there in the darkness . . . Waiting . . .'
Created when massive chunks of stone had broken off from the crumbling Sanctaphrax rock, fallen and crushed the area of Undertown directly beneath, Screetown was a rubble-strewn wilderness. Every building had been demolished, every street destroyed, while the weight of the immense boulders crashing down was so great that the shock waves had opened up gaping canyons in the ground.
It was into the deepest of these canyons that the librarians were being lowered. All at once, the cage jerked to a standstill. The two young librarians fell against the bars of the cage as, far above their heads, the voice of the High Guardian rang out.
'Come, Demons of the Deep!' he cried. 'And rid the Sky of its polluters!' He turned to Leddix. 'Release them,' he hissed.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Vox by Paul Stewart Illustrated by Chris Riddell Excerpted by permission.
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