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WhirlwindBOOK FIVE OF DREAMHOUSE KINGS
By Robert Liparulo
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Robert Liparulo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThursday, 6:24 p. m. Pinedale, California
David king's scream echoed against the chamber walls.
Loud in his ears, but not loud enough. He could tell by the way it bounced back at him that his voice did not penetrate the thick stones. He leaned back against a cold wall.
Lifting his head, he screamed again anyway: "Heeeeeeeelp! Can anyone hear me? Anyone ...?"
The last word started strong, but faded, like the shriek of a man falling into a bottomless pit.
Darkness-blacker than ink-engulfed him, but it didn't matter: he kept his eyes squeezed shut, as though doing so would make the last thing he'd seen not be real, would make it go away. He was stuck in a room only slightly larger than an upended coffin, portaled there from a pantry off Taksidian's kitchen. He had found a box of matches on a protruding stone and lit one. He had seen that the floor was covered in bones. Most of them-rib cages, spines, skulls-had been pulverized into gravel-like pellets and dust. Only near the walls were the remains intact enough to recognize, as though feet had stomped around on a roomful of skeletons ... before whoever had been trapped before him died and decayed, adding their own bones to the floor.
Starvation. Lack of air. Heart attack from fright. He could think of a dozen ways to die in a place like this.
The walls all around were made of gray stone, cut into eight-inch cubes and fitted together so perfectly he couldn't wedge a fingernail between them. Moisture had formed or was running down over them, making David think of underground crypts.
Dracula's castle, he thought, and before he could stop it, the image of a white-faced vampire drifted out of the darkness of his imagination. His breath caught in his throat. Had something shifted in the small space? Something that wasn't him? There was enough room for another person, another thing.
Stop! he told himself. Where would someone else come from? Get real.
But his mind answered: The floor, rising up from the bones of its victims.
Or from the same place he had come, Taksidian's house!
Taksidian was the man who wanted his family's home. He wanted them out or wanted them dead. David was pretty sure Taksidian didn't care which, as long as he had the place for himself. Soon after moving into it-just over a week ago! David realized, though it seemed like years-they had found a secret third floor and a hallway lined with doors. Behind each door was a small room, an antechamber, with items that, when picked up or put on, opened another door. This other door, one for each room, was really a portal to another time and place.
His brother, Xander, had been the first to "go over," as they called stepping through the portals. He'd wound up in the Roman Colosseum, fighting a gladiator. Then they discovered that not only could they go from the house to other "worlds," but people from those other places could come into their house. And one did: a hulking brute who kidnapped Mom and took her somewhere ... somewhere in time. They'd been trying to find her ever since.
"Hello?" David said into the darkness, listening to his voice bounce off the walls. If someone had answered, he would have dropped dead on the spot. But no one did. No vampire, no Taksidian.
Taksidian. He had first offered to buy the house, then got the cops to arrest Dad and persuaded the town officials that the house was unsafe. David couldn't argue with that one. When those tricks hadn't worked, the man had somehow sent people from the past to get them-that big brute, the one Xander had dubbed Phemus, and two of his buddies.
David stared into the darkness and groaned. It had been a long week, with enough adventure and brushes with death to fill a lifetime. The latest one had begun just a few hours ago.
He, Xander, and Dad had followed Taksidian to his house way back in the woods. When Taksidian took off, Dad went after him and the boys broke into the house. They discovered a room full of maps, photos, and articles-all of them about war throughout history. Except one wall. It was covered with photos of the king family going about their daily lives, and maps of their house, and notes written in a foreign language.
That's when Taksidian had returned, and the brothers had scrambled to hide: Xander had gone into a bedroom, David into a pantry-which had immediately shot him into this dark chamber ...
How can that be? It can't! It can't!
David prayed his brother was all right, that he'd gotten away. Somehow.
A thought struck him like the blade of a shovel: What if Taksidian's entire house is filled with portals, like our house's third floor? What if it's like a big hunk of Swiss cheese, just waiting for people to fall into a hole and disappear?
But to where? Where was he?
David opened his eyes. He had to blink to make sure he had really opened them and not just thought about doing it; the blackness was that complete. Tears spilled down his cheeks, and he wiped them away.
Remembering that he'd imagined someone in the chamber with him, he stuck out his arms, moved them around. Taksidian could have come through after him, even though David had thought he'd gotten into the pantry without being seen. When he felt nothing but air, he let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding.
He turned to the wall and pounded on it. Each blow landed with a thud, as solid and unrewarding as slamming his fist against a concrete sidewalk.
"Xander!" he yelled, thinking maybe, just maybe, he was still in Taksidian's house somewhere, and his brother would hear him.
He stepped back. The bones under his feet crunched, and he tried not to think about them. A plaster cast-crumbling, thanks to David's plunge into the Atlantic ocean after he'd been dragged through a portal to the sinking Titanic-ran from his left hand to his elbow. Dad had wrapped an Ace bandage around it to keep it together. The skin underneath itched like a thousand ants were swarming over it. Deep within, his bone ached.
He realized he was holding something in that hand: the box of matches. He pushed it open and pulled out a stick. He touched the match head to the side of the box, and thought, Do I really want to see? Walls, that's all that's here ... and skulls.
Like the one that had been glaring up at him with big black sockets last time he'd lit a match. A memory popped into his head. Something from Ancient Civ: the Aztecs or Incas or Mayans-he could never keep them straight-had used a human head as a ball in their version of soccer. He and Robbie, his best friend back in Pasadena, had joked that they'd like to do that with their soccer coach's head when he was in their faces more than usual. The thought turned David's stomach, not only because of the grossness of it, but because of the memory of Robbie and soccer and better times ... normal times.
He pushed the matches into his pants pocket and pressed his palm to the wall. He lowered his head as his breathing turned into short, ragged gasps.
Don't cry, he told himself. There's already been too much of that.
But twelve years of living had not prepared him for this. Not any of it: Mom being kidnapped, a really bad guy trying to kill them, getting stuck in a chamber of bones. Forget that he was twelve: nobody could handle this.
The thought led to another: What were the options, if not to handle it? Give up. Just sit down and die.
No, that wasn't him. He wasn't ready to die yet.
He gritted his teeth and slapped the stones. Then he slapped them harder. His hand squeezed into a fist, and he punched the wall. He kicked it.
"Help," he said. He raised his face and yelled the word. yelled it again ... and again ... and again ...
Chapter TwoThursday, at the same time
For a few seconds, it didn't matter to Xander that Taksidian, knife at the ready, had just burst into the room. All Xander could think about was the hideous sculpture he had backed into: a pillar of severed human body parts, all stacked and stuck together like a demonic version of Jenga.
But whatever had bonded them bound them no longer; as he toppled, loose arms, legs, fingers, ears fell with him. Something struck his cheek, sticky-wet, reeking. He landed on the parts of the sculpture that had fallen with him to the floor. Some pieces were hard, like logs; others squished under him, like oversized sausages.
His head cracked against the hardwood floor, and he lay there, stunned. The ceiling was blood red, with small spotlights glaring down on the items mounted to black-painted walls: weapons, face masks, an ancient soldier's uniform. A tight constellation of bulbs cast a white glow into the center of the room, where the sculpture had stood.
He thought about what else was in the room: Jesse's finger, sitting on a stainless steel cart, waiting to be added to the sculpture. Jesse was Xander's great-great-uncle. He had built their house with his father and brother and had spent fifty years hopping in and out of history, doing ... whatever-Jesse hadn't explained it, said there was plenty of time for that. Turned out there wasn't: the day after Jesse had arrived, Taksidian stabbed him and took his finger. Now Xander knew why.
As his senses came back, he thought of David, hoped he was out of the house and running as fast as his little soccer legs could carry him. Xander mentally kicked himself: he had been stupid to think they could break into Taksidian's house and get away with it. Dae had been scared, but he'd always been able to push his fear aside to do courageous things-like tagging along with his stupid older brother. David deserved to live, even if God had other plans for Xander.
When he lifted his head, he saw that an arm-not his-rested on his chest. Its open stub, showing a bull's-eye of bone surrounded by muscle and flesh, gaped not three inches from his chin. He made a gagging sound and swatted it away.
He rose and propped himself up with his arms, palms flat on the floor behind him. One of his sneakered feet rested on the black cube that had been the sculpture's pedestal. He squinted at his other foot, which was bare, and wondered how the fall could have knocked off his sneaker and sock. Then he realized that the foot was ghostly white, with blackened toenails; it was attached to a leg that ended before it reached a knee. He gasped and kicked, flipping the leg away.
Taksidian shifted-moving his knife from one hand to the other-drawing Xander's eyes back to him. He was simply standing there in the doorway. His black slicker was unbuttoned, revealing gray slacks and a pinstriped shirt. Like any Joe Schmo businessman, Xander thought. But he knew better.
"Wha-what is this?" Xander said, throwing a quick glance at the carnage around him. Pools of syrupy clear fluid were beginning to spread out from the pieces, glistening against the crimson-colored floor. The question was a diversion, something to keep Taksidian from leaping at him with the knife. Xander already knew the answer, had seen enough movies to know: the body parts were trophies, which sick-minded serial killers took from their victims-to remember their crimes.
"Where I come from," Taksidian said, his voice deep and smooth, "we honor our conquered enemies by turning a bit of them into ... art." His tight lips bent up at the corners. He surveyed the body parts, scattered around the room. "I'm afraid what you've done is like-" He looked up at the ceiling, thinking. "Like spray-painting graffiti all over the Mona Lisa." He shook his head, said, "Terrible," and stepped closer.
Xander scrambled to stand. His foot slipped through a pool of liquid, and he sat down again, hard. He got his feet under him and rose. "Is that Jesse's?" he yelled, shakily pointing at a white finger resting on the metal cart. "you took his finger! That's it, isn't it?" More stalling. He scanned the room, looking for a way out, but the window, which would have been right behind him, had been bricked up. Taksidian blocked the only exit.
Taksidian glanced at the finger. "I don't think he'll be needing it anymore, do you?"
"He-" Xander started, wanting to throw it in Taksidian's face that Jesse was still alive-lying in a hospital bed, barely breathing, but alive. But he clamped his mouth tight, realizing it would do Jesse no good for Taksidian to know he hadn't finished the job. Quietly, Xander said, "He was a good man."
Taksidian gave him a one-shouldered shrug, as if to say, So? What he did say was colder still: "I respect your appreciation of him. I'll be sure to put something of you next to your uncle's finger, when I put my art back together." He eyed Xander's arms and legs, taking his time appraising each one, as if he were shopping for a tie.
Xander spun to his right and leaped toward the wall of weapons. The nearest piece was a battered metal shield-A shield! his mind groaned. Why not a knife, a sword like the one too close to Taksidian to reach? He yanked the shield off the wall and almost dropped it. It was a lot heavier than it looked. He swung it around, expecting to make contact with Taksidian.
But the man hadn't moved from his spot on the other side of the room. He watched Xander with bored eyes, the knife gripped in a hand that hung down by his leg.
"Back off!" Xander said, hefting the shield up with both hands, pumping it toward Taksidian. He glanced into the shallow concavity of the shield's back side and saw a leather strap and metal handhold. Straining his muscles to hold the shield with one hand, he slipped his left arm through the strap and grabbed the handle. The shield seemed to get lighter, as though it had been carefully balanced to minimize arm stress when held properly. His right hand was now free. He flicked his eyes toward the next item on the wall: a long stick with a starburst of six-inch spikes jutting from one end.
When his gaze bounced back to Taksidian, he realized the man was now three feet closer. Xander had not taken his eyes off him for more than a half second. The guy moved almost magically, without the slightest warning or wobble. Standing ramrod straight one instant, three feet closer the next.
"Whoa!" Xander said. He swung the shield out and back, like opening and closing a door, trying to show Taksidian what he was in for if he moved closer. His guts shifted inside as he grasped the reason for the man's calmness: Taksidian was a killer, and he was good at it. He knew the moves, could perform them as easily as breathing.
A feeling of hopelessness washed over Xander. Who was he next to this guy? An ant to be squashed, nothing more. He wondered how it would happen. Maybe Taksidian would be standing in front of him before he knew it, the knife slipping effortlessly around the shield. Or the killer would torment him, moving in slowly, telling Xander the artistic merits of adding a fifteen-year-old ear, instead of a toe or arm, to the sculpture.
Xander felt his jaw muscles tighten. Out of the corner of his eye, he gauged the distance to the spike-studded stick, the number of steps he would need to reach it, the number of seconds. He could do it: leap, grab, swing.
Keep the shield up, he told himself. That's what Russell Crowe, the Gladiator himself, would do. Xander searched his memory for something else useful. But this wasn't the movies, and nothing came to mind. Nothing except a quote that seemed about right. He couldn't remember who said it, Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood or some other supertough guy.
Looking at Taksidian over the top of the shield, he narrowed his eyes. He nodded and said, "Bring it on, punk."
Chapter ThreeThursday, at the sametime
Ed king cranked the steering wheel of the VW Bug and pushed his foot harder on the gas pedal, which was already depressed all the way to the floor. The car nearly spun out on the dirt road leading up to Taksidian's place. It slid into the bushes; the sound of branches scraping the metal and glass matched the shrieking Mr. king had been hearing in his head from his jangled nerves. He swung the wheel around and got the car back on the road.
Taksidian had led him up into the hills on the other side of the highway, then doubled back, burning rubber to his house. He had somehow known David and Xander had stayed behind to snoop around.
"How?" Mr. king yelled out loud, smacking his palm against the wheel. "How did you know they were there?" He maneuvered through a hairpin turn in the road. The Bug's rear end slid sideways. It smacked against a boulder, spun its wheels, and took off again.
Excerpted from Whirlwind by Robert Liparulo Copyright © 2009 by Robert Liparulo. Excerpted by permission.
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