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Archie Dent dangled from a rope twenty thousand feet in the air, watching the blue ribbon of the Mississippi River spin far, far below him. At that moment, he didn't feel scared, or dizzy, or angry.
He felt betrayed.
"Retrieving the Dragon Lantern will be easy for three Leaguers," Philomena Moffett had told him and his friends Hachi and Fergus. "For that's what you are. The first of a new League of Seven."
Easy. That's what the head of the Septemberist Society had called retrieving this lantern thing. Even though it was hidden at the heart of a Septemberist puzzle trap. On top of a giant helium balloon. Twenty thousand feet in the air.
As he hung from his safety line for what had to be the thousandth time in the last three days, all Archie could think was that Philomena Moffett had not been entirely honest with them.
"Haul him up," Hachi said over the wind.
Archie sighed, his warm breath filling the mask that fit over his leather helmet. Fergus had built the helmets special. A breathing mask, which snapped on just below the brass goggles Archie wore, brought fresh oxygen to him from the tank on his back. They needed them-like the heavy, fur-lined coats and the spider's web of ropes and carabiners they wore-to scale the mountain-sized helium kite high up in the thin atmosphere that held Cahokia in the Clouds afloat.
Archie felt a lurch on his line, and then the familiar yank-yank-yank of Fergus' ratchet as he was lifted back up. Soon he was close enough to take Hachi's hand, and she helped him grab hold of the network of ropes that covered the vast canvas of the balloon.
"Archie, you've got to hang on better," Hachi told him.
Archie flushed in embarrassment under his breathing mask. Hachi Emartha hadn't fallen off once in all the time they'd been at this, but that was to be expected. She'd spent the last three years of her life training to be the greatest warrior who ever lived. Everything she did was graceful, from eating her breakfast to killing Manglespawn. But what really embarrassed Archie was that Fergus MacFerguson had only slipped and fallen twice, and Fergus had only one good leg. His other leg, hobbled by a meka-ninja, now had only two settings-loose and useless, or straight and stiff-which he controlled with a knee harness he'd built himself.
"I'm sorry," Archie said. "I wasn't made for this. I'm good at punching and being punched. Not hopping around like a monkey."
"Well, one of these times your safety line's going to give way, and then you'll really be sorry," Hachi told him. "You do not want to test Fergus's backup plan."
"Oy," Fergus said. "The gyrocopters work great. Sure, they're better at going down than up. And they're maybe a little hard to steer. But they're better than falling straight down. Besides, there wasn't room for parachutes in the backpacks with all the oxygen and lamps."
Archie looked down again, but clouds obstructed his view of the ground. I'm higher than the clouds, Archie thought, and then he did feel a twinge of fear creep in.
"Archie doesn't need to worry about falling anyway," Fergus said. "He'll just hit the ground and bounce back up, like he did before."
"That was from only half this height," Hachi reminded him. "And he's not totally invulnerable. We don't know what his limits are, but there's no reason to test them until we have to."
Archie shifted his grip on the rope, trying not to think about his fall from his family's airship during their midair battle with Edison. Trying not to think about the crack in his arm, the one he'd gotten fighting Edison's lektrical robot body.
The crack that showed Archie was made of stone.
The crack that showed he wasn't entirely human.
"Let's just get on with it," Archie said.
"Just a little farther, and then we wait for nightfall," Hachi said.
They were working their way sideways around the broad, gently curved side of the enormous helium balloon on the rope-like rigging that covered it like a giant net. Archie thought of the stuff as "rope-like" because it wasn't really rope-not like the twine rope he knew. It was made of something gray and shiny, like metal, but it stretched and hung like a fiber rope. The gray lines, just like the strange canvas-like material that held the helium trapped inside it, had been invented by Wayland Smith and Daedalus of the Roman League of Seven hundreds of years ago, and the world had yet to rediscover the secrets of their construction.
Fergus ran a hand along the glossy veneer of the canvas. "I can't get over this stuff," he said. "Helium is so small it escapes from almost anything. Anything light enough to float, that is. But not this. It's been hanging up here in the clouds for almost two millennia."
"They had to make sure it wasn't going to fall," Archie said.
"Which you're both going to do if you don't focus," Hachi told them. "Next section. Go."
The ropes-that-weren't-ropes formed a grid of squares on the canvas-that-wasn't-canvas, like the latitude and longitude lines on a globe. They were just tall enough for Hachi and Fergus to stand in a grid square on the bottom rope and hold on to the top rope with their hands, but Archie was younger and shorter than both of them. Where they could crab walk across, he had to lunge.
Fergus shuffled his way across the grid square to the next, his kilt flapping wildly in the freezing, howling wind. He'd at least had the sense to put on long underwear underneath it, even though the baggy red long johns looked silly with his blue tartan kilt.
At last he was across, and it was Archie's turn.
"You can do this," Hachi told him.
Archie focused on the rope at the other side of the grid, took a deep breath of the fresh oxygen pumped into his mask, and dove for it. The wind caught his big coat like a sail and spun him, and he fell. He clawed out blindly with his hands and felt only canvas. Zip! He was sliding down again, falling, soon to be dangling from his safety line again-or worse-when at last his hand felt rope, and he snatched at it. Oof. He slammed into the canvas and hung there, panting, as he got his breath back.
"Better. Next grid," Hachi said, already moving along. "And don't forget to reattach your safety line."
Archie closed his eyes and put his head against the canvas balloon. What was it his mother always said? No rest for the weary.
That they were here at all-three kids on a top secret, super-dangerous mission for the Septemberist Society-was incredible by the looks of it. What kind of adults would throw children into the firebox like so many lumps of coal? And what kind of parents would let them?
But Hachi, the thirteen-year-old Seminole girl, had no parents to ask. She had been on her own ever since their deaths when she was little. Fergus, the fourteen-year-old tinker, was on his own too. He had left his family's farm in North Carolina to apprentice with Thomas Edison, but had run away when his boss had pumped Fergus full of lektric squid blood.
It was Archie's parents who had said no.
"He's too young," his mother had said.
"He's not ready," his father had said.
But then it had been pointed out to them that even though he was just twelve, Archie had the strength of a hundred men. Or so it seemed. And Archie couldn't get sick, couldn't be hurt, and couldn't die. At least, nothing had killed him yet. And by all rights, Archie should have died at least five times already that he knew of.
And then Philomena Moffett had told him that the Dragon Lantern had something to do with where he had really come from. How he had come to be this way. All Archie knew was that he'd been adopted, that the Septemberist Society had found him when he was an infant and placed him with Dalton and Agatha Dent and then studied him, watching and waiting for him to grow into whatever superhuman thing he was to become. Mrs. Moffett didn't know what, exactly, the Dragon Lantern had to do with how he was born, but once they had it, she promised she could tell him more.
That sealed it. There was no way Archie was staying home for this mission. In the end, his parents had to let him go.
Not that they were really his parents.
Archie jumped and almost missed the next rope. It took Hachi and Fergus both hauling him back up to keep him from falling again.
"Focus," Hachi told him.
"I'm trying," Archie said.
"No you're not," Hachi said. "Your mind is somewhere else. I can see it in your eyes. You're thinking about how you're not a real boy. You're always thinking about how you're not a real boy. So stop and focus on where you are and what you're doing. You know what happens when you lose focus."
Archie's face burned hot under his mask again. None of them needed any reminder about what happened when Archie lost his head.
Hachi stared at him until he met her eyes. She was hard and demanding, but she also knew what it was to be so angry it consumed you. So angry it ate you up and swallowed you whole, and you let it because deep down youwanted it to.
Archie nodded. "I'm okay. I'll be okay."
Hachi gave a curt nod back. "Tell us the nursery rhyme again while we climb."
Archie sagged. He'd repeated the rhyme a thousand times in the past two days as they'd tried to climb the balloon, but he knew what she was doing. She was trying to get him to say it like a mantra, to focus on the here and now.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are," he said, falling into the singsong of the rhyme. "Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky."
Most nursery rhymes, it turned out, were codes. Riddles that, when unlocked, held the secrets to navigating the complicated puzzle traps previous Leagues had used to imprison the Mangleborn. Sometimes too the puzzle traps were used to hide powerful artifacts, like this lantern.
Archie focused on the next jump and made it. Not gracefully, but he made it.
"Well, 'up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky' can't be anything but Cahokia in the Clouds," Fergus said.
Cahokia in the Clouds. A city in the sky, hanging from a giant, kite-shaped helium balloon tethered at the edge of Illini territory, near the abandoned Francia town of St. Louis. The city had been built by people who had no idea why the balloon was there to begin with. If only they really understood ... But that was the job of the Septemberist Society: to keep the true horrors of the world hidden and buried. Or, in this case, hidden and floating.
The nursery rhyme clearly meant the kite-shaped balloon above Cahokia in the Clouds, and the twinkling star had to be the lantern they were after.
Lóngdeng. The Dragon Lantern. An artifact from the Mu civilization, which existed long before Atlantis fell and Rome rose from its ashes. Archie had no idea what the lantern was, or what it did. All Philomena Moffett had told him was that it held the answer to the secret of how he became whatever he was. That was enough to send him to the top of Cahokia in the Clouds to get it.
How I wonder what you are ... Archie thought.
"You're losing focus again," Hachi told him.
Archie shook himself and nodded.
"Tell us the next part," she said.
Archie was the one who had all the nursery rhymes memorized. His Septemberist parents had made a point of drilling them into him as a boy.
"When the blazing sun is gone, when he nothing shines upon, then you show your little light, twinkle, twinkle, all the night," Archie sang.
This was where they had gone wrong for the past two days. Or so they now thought. Both times, they had attempted to scale the rope net during daylight. And why not? It was hard enough when you could actually see where you were going. But there were traps-dangerous traps-and they hadn't yet been able to find a way around them. Not by day. So they'd gone back to the rhyme. When the blazing sun is gone, when he nothing shines upon, then you show your little light, twinkle, twinkle, all the night. Now it seemed obvious: They were supposed to wait until dark.
Archie made one last leap, slipping and falling off the rope at his feet. He caught it as he fell and pulled himself up with a few choice comments into his oxygen mask. Fergus snickered.
"Okay. This is where the traps start," Hachi said. Above them and to the right, Archie saw the ropes they had tried to climb. The ropes that had come loose as soon as their weight was on them and sent them spilling off the balloon. Traps set to keep the curious out. If not for their safety lines, they would all be dead.
All but Archie.
"And ... it's just about nightfall," Hachi said.
Hachi had timed it perfectly. Hachi, their warrior. The one who always had a plan. It was still too light to see the stars, but the first of them would appear in minutes. In the meantime, Fergus, their tinker, the one who could make anything, lit the oil lamps he had mounted on the shoulder straps of their backpacks.
"Try not to get the lamps near your oxygen masks," Fergus said. "That would be bad."
"Bad how?" Archie asked.
"Boom bad," Fergus said.
"Good to know," Archie said.
The last of the red-orange sky drained away beneath the clouds, and their skyworld became the blue-black of night. There was a metaphor for Archie's new life in that, he thought. Waiting for the light to go away so he could work in the dark. But Hachi had told him to focus, so he put it away.
"All right," Archie said. "The 'blazing sun is gone.' Now what?"
They shined their lamps around, trying to see anything different about the rope maze around them, but it all looked the same.
"Wait a minute," Fergus said. He reached up and turned off his shoulder lamp.
"What are you doing?" Hachi said.
"Oh, brass! You've got to see this," Fergus said. "Switch off your lamps."
"Turn them off? But how are we supposed to see?" Archie asked.
Archie and Hachi did it anyway, and gasped. All around them, the rope net glowed like the tail end of a firefly.
"Phospholuminescence!" Fergus said. "Blinking brilliant! All day it absorbs the sun's light, and then it glows all night. We don't need lanterns at all!"
"But we still don't know which way to go," Hachi said.
For the past two days, they had made guesses. Bad ones, with painful results. But interpreting the second verse correctly had borne fruit, so Archie recited the third.
"Then the traveler in the dark, thanks you for your tiny spark. He could not see which way to go, if you did not twinkle so."
"So we follow the twinkling star?" Fergus asked.
They all looked to the sky. It was filled with twinkling stars.
"They're all twinkling," Archie said miserably.
"Not that one," Hachi said.
Archie and Fergus followed her finger to where it was pointing. Below them, almost at the edge of the balloon's curve, was a single, small white light.
A tiny spark!
"Let's try something," Hachi said. "We've gone up from here, and we've gone sideways, but we've never gone down."
With practiced ease, Hachi released the catch on her safety line and rappelled down one place in the rope grid. As she landed on the rope below, the light beneath them went out.
"It's gone!" Archie said.
"Nae, it's not. It's just moved," Fergus said. "Look."
He was right. Among all the twinkling stars, there was only one that didn't twinkle-a tiny pinprick of light at the far edge of the balloon, directly to the right of Hachi. She slid across her grid with the grace of a tightrope walker, her brown dress flapping underneath her fur coat, and stepped into the next one. The light stayed on, but shifted one grid farther away.
"Then the traveler in the dark, thanks you for your tiny spark," Archie said. "He could not see which way to go, if you did not twinkle so. We need the stars to twinkle so we can follow the one that doesn't!"
"Come on," Hachi told them. "I'll stay one square ahead."
Archie and Fergus followed her, and Hachi waited for them to catch up each time she moved ahead. Right again, then up, up, and up, then left, then up again, and slowly they made their way through the maze toward the top.
"What's the rest of it?" Hachi asked.
"The rest of what?"
"The rest of the nursery rhyme. Let's hear it again."
"Oh," Archie said, focusing on his feet. "Let's see. Um, 'In the dark blue sky you keep, and often through my curtains peep, for you never shut your eye, till the sun is in the sky.' Then the rest of it is kind of the same. 'As your bright and tiny spark, lights the traveler in the dark, though I know not what you are, twinkle, twinkle, little star.' Then the last stanzas are the first one over again."
"You never shut your eye till the sun is in the sky. So we've got until sunup to get there. No problem," Fergus said.
"We've got until sunup to get there and back again," Hachi reminded him.
"Oh. Aye. Moving right along then."
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star," Archie said. "Why do they twinkle?"
"It's the atmosphere," Fergus said. "The light from the stars gets all wonky when it comes through the air, making our eyes see it as a flicker. Doesn't work the same way for planets. They're closer, so they don't-"
Hachi screamed and spasmed, jerking back and forth on the rope in the next grid. Blue-hot energy crackled over her gloves and up her coat, sparking in the fur lining of her coat.
"Hachi!" Fergus cried. He lunged for her and fell. Archie caught Fergus's safety line with one hand and hung on to the rope maze with the other, using his massive strength to keep Fergus from falling. As though he were lifting a wooden toy at the end of a bit of string, Archie raised Fergus back up to Hachi.
"Higher!" Fergus cried.
Archie lifted him up until Fergus could stand again on his own and grab the rope that Hachi still clung to. As soon as Fergus touched it, the lektricity shifted from Hachi to him. Archie knew that right then, underneath Fergus's layers of winter clothing, the black lines that covered his friend's skin like tattoos were rearranging themselves, turning Fergus into a syphon for all the lektricity.
Without the lektric charge to hold her to the rope, Hachi's hands went slack and she fell.
"Catch her!" Fergus cried.
Archie fumbled for her safety line and caught it. Hachi jerked to a stop, and he hauled her back up.
Fergus pulled his hand away from the lektrified rope. The blue-hot lightning followed him, finally disconnecting and slinking back into its hidden home in the rope.
"Crivens! I thought I could wait out the charge, but it kept coming! What's powering that thing?"
"Here, help me get Hachi back up," Archie said. She was awake, which was good, but she was still groggy. Archie lifted her higher, and Fergus helped Hachi get her hands back on the safe ropes in their grid.
"So," Hachi mumbled. "Planets don't twinkle."
"What?" Fergus said. "Oh ... yeah."
Hachi punched Fergus, but there wasn't much strength in it. "You might have said so before I followed one."
Hachi leaned into Fergus, and he hugged her with one arm while he held tight to the rope with the other. Hachi and Fergus put their heads together, and Archie looked away. Blech. Hachi and Fergus had become close in their adventures together, and though neither of them said so, they were practically boyfriend and girlfriend. It always made Archie feel a little weird to see them when they got like this. But a little jealous of how close they were as friends too.
At last they separated. "I don't know how we're going to tell the difference between our guiding light and the planets," Fergus said.
"Planets move. The light doesn't," Hachi said. "We may not run into any more in the right position to fool us," she added, "but if we do, we'll wait and watch."
"And all the while get closer to dawn," Fergus said.
"We should be moving, not talking," Hachi said.
"Are you sure you're strong enough?" Fergus asked.
In answer, Hachi climbed up to the next grid.
"So, she's strong enough, then," Fergus said to Archie.
Together they climbed, sometimes moving up, sometimes side to side, sometimes back down, but all the while working their way around and up the giant dome of helium. The sheer vertical face of the balloon gradually gave way to the gentle slope of the top of the balloon, and they crawled along on hands and knees, still clinging to the ropes so the wind wouldn't tear them off.
Archie heard someone scream, and he froze.
"Crivens! What's that?" Fergus asked. "There can't be anyone else up here!"
But someone was up ahead of them. Lots of someones, from the sound of screams coming to them over the wind. It sounded like someone being tortured.
"I can see silhouettes against the stars," Hachi said, crouching low. "Something's coming. Something's coming right at us!"
Archie ducked with Hachi and Fergus, then remembered he was the Heracles, the strongman of the team. Whatever was coming, it was his job to meet it head-on so the others wouldn't be hurt. But that didn't mean he wasn't scared. Still holding the rope, he raised himself up, closed his eyes, and turned his head away.
"Honk-honk-honk!" the thing cried as it got closer.
Something flapping and feathery smacked Archie in the face and he fell over, glancing up in time to see a big white bird launch itself off the side of the balloon and disappear into the dark night sky.
"It's birds," he said. "Geese!"
Fergus lit his oil lamp and shined it forward to have a look. The top of the balloon was covered with bird nests! There had to be hundreds of them, scattered here and there among the grid lines of the rope net that covered the giant balloon.
"You know what this means?" Hachi said.
"Aye," Fergus said. "If this thing is covered with birds, it's also covered with bird poop."
"No," Hachi said. "I mean, yes, probably, but that's not what I meant. Look at where they have their nests."
Archie scanned the nests, trying to see what Hachi saw. All he noticed was that the birds were packed into just a few of the grid squares, when they had lots more empty ones they could have been using. No-wait. He understood!
"Oh, brass! They're nesting in the grid squares that aren't booby trapped!"
"Exactly," Hachi said.
Sure enough, Archie was able to trace a path from where they stood all the way to the top, where something small and red glowed in the night sky.
The Dragon Lantern.
Copyright © 2015 by Alan Gratz