She soon gave up trying to convince them and stared silently at us over the bear’s shoulder, her face projecting strength. Don’t be afraid, she seemed to telegraph. We’ll survive this, too.
I worried not all of us would survive even the trip to the top of the tower. Turning around, I tried to see who it was that had been shot. Amidst the tight-packed group behind me, Bronwyn was carrying someone limp in her arms—Miss Avocet, I think—and then a meaty hand smacked me in the head.
“Face forward or lose a kneecap,” growled my guard.
Finally we came to the top of the tower and its very last door. In the hallway beyond, pale daylight shone on the curving wall. There was an open deck above us, a fact I filed away for future reference.
Caul stood beaming before the door. “Perplexus!” he called. “Signor Anomalous—yes, there in the back! Since I owe this discovery in part to your expeditions and hard work—credit where credit is due!—I think you should do the honors and open the door.”
“Come now, we’ve no time for ceremony,” said Bentham. “We’ve left your compound unguarded …”
“Don’t be such a ninny-willow,” Caul said. “This won’t take but a moment.”
One of the guards dragged Perplexus out of the crowd and up to the door. Since I’d last seen him, his hair and beard had turned alabaster white, his spine had curved, and deep wrinkles grooved his face. He’d spent too long away from his loop, and now his true age was beginning to catch up to him. Perplexus seemed about to open the door when he was struck by a fit of coughing. Once he’d regained his breath, he faced Caul, drew in a snorting lungful of air, and spat a glistening wad of phlegm onto his cloak.
“You are an ignorant pig!” Perplexus cried.
Caul raised his pistol to Perplexus’s head and pulled the trigger. There were screams—“Jack, don’t!” Bentham shouted—and Perplexus threw up his hands and spun away, but the only sound the gun made was a dry click.
Caul opened the gun and peered into its chamber, then shrugged. “It’s an antique, like yourself,” he said to Perplexus, then used its barrel to flick the spittle from his jacket. “I suppose fate has intervened on your behalf. Just as well—I’d rather watch you turn to dust than bleed to death.”
He motioned for the guards to take him away. Perplexus, muttering oaths at Caul in Italian, was dragged back to the group.
Caul turned to the door. “Oh, to hell with it,” he muttered, and opened it. “Get in there, all of you!”
Inside was the same familiar gray-walled room, only this time its missing fourth wall extended into a long, dark corridor. With a few shoves from the guards, we were hurrying along it. The smooth walls became rough and uneven, then widened into a primitive, day-lit room. The room was made from rock and clay, and I might’ve called it a cave but for its approximately rectangular door and two windows. Someone had carved them, and this room, using tools to dig it out of soft rock.
We were herded outside into a hot, dry day. The view opened dizzyingly. We were high in a landscape that could’ve been an alien world: everywhere around us, towering on one side and rolling away into valleys on the other, were humps and spires of strange, reddish rock, all honeycombed with crude doors and windows. A constant wind blew through them, producing a human-sounding moan that seemed to emanate from the earth itself. Though the sun was nowhere near setting, the sky glowed orange, as if the end of the world were brewing just beyond the horizon. And despite evidence here of a civilization, other than ourselves there was no one in sight. I had a heavy, watched feeling, like we were trespassing someplace we were not meant to be.
Bentham climbed down from his bear and removed his hat in awe. “So this is the place,” he said, gazing across the hills.
Caul threw a big-brotherly arm across his shoulders. “I told you this day would come. We certainly put each other through hell getting here, didn’t we?”
“We did,” Bentham agreed.
“But I say all’s well that ends well, because now I get to do this.” Caul turned to face us. “Friends! Ymbrynes! Peculiar children!” He let his voice echo away into the strange, moaning canyons. “Today will go down in history. Welcome to Abaton!”
He paused, waiting for applause that didn’t come.
“You’re standing now in the ancient city that once protected the Library of Souls. Until recently, it hadn’t been seen in over four hundred years, nor conquered in a thousand—until I rediscovered it! Now, with you as my witnesses …”
He stopped, looked down for a moment, then laughed. “Why am I wasting my breath? You philistines will never appreciate the gravity of my achievement. Look at you—like donkeys contemplating the Sistine Chapel!” He patted Bentham on the arm. “Come on, brother. Let’s go and take what’s ours.”
“And ours as well!” said a voice behind me. One of the guards. “You won’t forget us, will you, sir?”
“Of course I won’t,” Caul said, attempting a smile and failing. He couldn’t disguise his irritation at having been challenged in front of everyone. “Your loyalty will be repaid tenfold.”
He turned with Bentham and started down a footpath, the guards pushing us after them.
* * *
The sunbaked path split and split again, sending branches and feeders into the spiked hills. Following a route he’d no doubt forced Perplexus to reveal and had trod many times in recent days, Caul led us down obscure and bramble-choked lanes with certainty, his every step oozing the arrogance of a colonizer. The watched feeling I had only grew. As if the rough openings bored into the rock were a colony of half-closed eyes, some ancient intelligence encased in stone, waking slowly from a thousand-year sleep.