Spirits are bullshyte, Jac thought.
Her twin brother Darwin said their skin and hair would forever reek of smoke, like an evil spirit haunting them, but Jac knew spirits—good or evil—weren’t real. Smoke and fire and burned-down dining halls, on the other hand, were. Jacqueline and Darwin Ellery had encountered all three the night before when they had set fire to Cloverton Academy’s dining hall. Accidentally.
As their father Marcus puffed on a cigarette and paced in front of them, Jac and Darwin sat on an extravagant antique sofa in an extravagant sitting room of the extravagant Ellery mansion. A short copper robot, like a bronze egg with bendy limbs and a single protruding lens for an eye, held an ashtray and scrambled to avoid Marcus’s footsteps while trying to catch the ashes drifting toward the priceless rug.
“Dad—” Jac began.
Marcus waved his hand. The house-bot lurched for the tiny comet that flew from his cigarette.
“Why would you…? How in God’s name…? Setting a fire?” Marcus covered his eyes with his hand, nearly singeing his disheveled bangs with the cigarette. “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”
Jac loosened her green and mustard yellow plaid tie. She couldn’t wait to shed the rest of the Cloverton uniform: the scratchy white shirt, mustard blazer, and green skirt. Next to her, Darwin took out one of the colored pens he always carried in his pockets. He flipped over his tie to expose the white silk backing and began doodling the triangular DeVol Robotics logo from the house-bot’s casing.
“Darwin, don’t draw on your clothes,” said Marcus. He sighed. “I know it’s been tough on you two after… all that business with your mother.”
Business? That seemed too normal a word for what had happened. The nightmare they were forbidden to speak of was more accurate.
A painting of the twins’ mother hung over the fireplace in this very room: Cathryn Ellery primly posed with a serious expression on her face, her hands in dainty lace gloves on her lap. Jac had never liked this portrait because it wasn’t her mother. It was a portrait of her mother, of course, but it wasn’t her—the real her. Jac had always heard that people’s souls shone through their eyes, and her mother’s eyes had always glimmered with devilish mischief, but the part of Cathryn’s face that really glowed with her spirit was her cheeks. And she had never been dainty. She didn’t mind the twins getting dirty or scraping their knees and elbows or bringing into the house whatever insect or frog they happened to catch that day. Often she joined in, rolling in the grass and climbing trees and wading into a creek to grab minnows with her bare hands. With Darwin she would draw pictures of monsters all over the walls on his side of the twins’ bedroom, and with Jac she’d make up stories and songs. And one of the few things that could ever make their dad smile—really smile—was Cathryn’s laughter ringing through their entire house.
Now more than ever Jac hated looking at the portrait, not because it didn’t accurately capture her mother’s essence but because her mother was gone. Not dead, as far as anyone knew. Just gone, which to Jac was worse. Death was certain. What had happened to Cathryn was anything but.
“This makes the third school you’ve been expelled from this year,” said Marcus. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”
He threw up his hands, sprinkling the air with cigarette ash confetti. The house-bot scurried around to catch it all.
Marcus rolled the cigarette between thumb and forefinger. “I just… I’ve run out of options. I have to send you two to separate schools.”
Jumping to their feet, the twins protested in unison, “No!”
“It’s the best solution. The only solution at this point. You aren’t bad kids, but… you burned down a school, for God’s sake. You could have killed somebody.”
“Nobody was hurt,” said Darwin.
“It wasn’t the whole school,” said Jac. “Just the dining hall.”
Marcus clenched his jaw and exhaled loudly through his nose. “All the same, I’ll be paying Cloverton back for years.”
Jac doubted that. Their father had probably already paid in full for the destroyed building that morning when he came to get them. Because of their family’s extensive wealth, the twins managed to keep getting accepted into one prestigious boarding school after another, despite the disasters that accompanied them.
“This family must be cursed,” said Marcus.
“Curses are bullshyte,” Jac mumbled.
“Maybe so, but pretty soon no school will take either of you, no matter who your grandfather was… or how sizeable a donation I give. And watch your mouth, Jac. It’s not ladylike.”
Jac started to mumble that being ladylike was also bullshyte when the intercom on the wall crackled and a thickly accented voice said, “Mr. Eerily? Marcus Eerily? I must speaking to you on urgent matter. It concerning your children.”
“My children?” Marcus cocked his eyebrows at the twins as if to say What now?
“Yes,” said the man. “May I entering?”
“Of course. A house-bot will show you in.” Marcus crushed his cigarette in the ashtray before pressing one of the intercom’s buttons. After a beep, he said, “Let in the visitor at the front door. Bring him to the first-floor sitting room.”
A thin tube snaked from the top of the house-bot’s head and vacuumed the ashtray clean. The bot set the ashtray on an end table, then waddled to a corner where it stood like a punished child.
As their father tried to smooth his hair into place, the twins looked at one another and, as they did frequently, communicated with their eyes.
We’ve got to think of something, Jac’s eyes said. Fast.
Right, said Darwin’s. He scrawled something on the back of his tie above the DeVol logo doodle, then held it so she could read it:
GO TO SAME HOSPITAL
Jac shook her head.
Got a better idea? Darwin’s eyes said.
A different egg-shaped robot opened the sitting room door, and the tallest man the twins had ever seen stooped through the doorway.
“An Yndari,” Darwin whispered to Jac.
The twins had never seen one in the flesh. These albino barbarians inhabited the Great Ice Desert, where Cathryn Ellery supposedly now lived, beyond the northernmost borders of both the Drevian Federation and the Koth Empire.
The giant’s skin was as white as alabaster, and on the side of his shiny bald head was a bluish crescent moon tattoo. His deep-set eyes and square jaw seemed chiseled from marble. His gray three-piece suit strained to contain his broad chest and bulging arms and thighs.
“I am Cragar Sturgo,” he said, crossing the room. His white fist swallowed Marcus’s as they shook hands. “Pleasing to meet you, Mr. Eerily.” His deep, booming voice was somehow both frightening and friendly.
“Please, call me Marcus. These are my children, Jacqueline and Darwin.”
The twins bowed.
Sturgo sniffed the air. “Something burn?”
“That’s just my children’s education going up in smoke,” said Marcus. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit, Mr. Sturgo?”
“I coming on behalf of Dr. Rook.”
“Eljus Rook?” said Marcus, surprised—as were the twins. Eljus Rook, their uncle, had had a falling out with both their mother and grandfather shortly after the twins were born, so they had never actually met him. They hadn’t so much as heard his name spoken in years.
Sturgo shook his head. Then he said another name the twins hadn’t heard for quite some time. From the Yndari’s mouth it sounded like Benyadeect.
“Benedict,” said Jac. Eljus’s only son, and the twins’ only cousin.
“Benny?” Darwin said to Sturgo. “You know the Lunadict?”
“Darwin!” Marcus snapped.
“What? That’s what we called him.”
“That’s what you called him,” said Jac. “I never called him anything.”
“Enough,” said Marcus. He motioned to Sturgo to continue.
“Like father,” said Sturgo, “Benyadeect is doctor and also professor at Wellsverne University.”
“He’s not that much older than us,” said Jac. “How can he be a professor at Wellsverne?”
“That sounds like those books you read,” said Darwin.
It did sound like Raven Morrow, the heroine of Jac’s favorite book series. Raven was a genius and debunker of the paranormal, and she had become the youngest university professor ever at the age of seventeen. But Raven Morrow was fictional.
“What does he teach?” she asked.
“He is expert on many subject,” said Sturgo. “The biology, the psychology, the zoology, the archaeology, the astronomy, and the metalphysics.”
Marcus looked both impressed and bewildered.
Darwin, however, looked only bewildered. “What’s metalphysics?”
“Meta,” said Jac. “Metaphysics.” She’d seen the term a dozen times in the Raven Morrow books. “The study of the essence of reality. Basically of anything that can’t be explained by real science.”
“Sounds exciting,” said Darwin.
“Sounds bizarre,” said Marcus.
Sturgo cleared his throat. “Dr. Rook— Benyadeect Rook—having urgent matter and could not be here himself. He sending me to extend his offer. To your children.”
“Us?” said the twins.
“Dr. Rook has keeping tabs on all his kin. He has following your children for some time. He knowing of Cloverton incident almost as soon as you, Mr. Eerily.”
Marcus’s face reddened.
“Instead of sending them to another school,” continued Sturgo, “they can living with him. Dr. Rook saying he can give best possible education. Other schools cannot offering same… opportunities he can. Also, he saying children cannot be expelled from his home. No matter what.”
Marcus took a step closer to his children. “You weren’t sent by the Federal Constables, were you?”
Sturgo reached into his coat, for an instant revealing a long curved dagger holstered to his belt. Jac snapped her head toward Darwin, expecting his eyes to be as wide as hers, but apparently he hadn’t glimpsed the Yndari’s weapon. He was still staring at the giant’s hairless, tattooed head.
Sturgo handed Marcus a folded piece of paper. “I having letter from Dr. Rook. Stamped with family seal, so you knowing I tell the truth. I would not expecting you to send your children off with stranger without proof.”
Marcus opened the letter and skimmed its contents. Then he raised his eyebrows and peered over the paper at Sturgo. “Sounds too good to be true. Probably expects me to pay an arm and a leg for this, eh?”
Sturgo held up both hands. “No, no, no! No arm or leg, Mr. Eerily. Dr. Rook very clear. You are family.”
"Indeed.” Marcus folded the letter, crossed his arms, and eyed Sturgo as if waiting for him to admit it was all a joke. Then he said, “All right, Mr. Sturgo. It’s a deal.”
Sturgo’s lips curled back, exposing his humongous square teeth. He appeared on the verge of unleashing a fierce battle cry. Then Jac realized he was attempting to smile.
“Dad, aren’t you going to think about this first?” Jac asked. “We’ve never even met Benny… Benedict… Dr. Rook.”
“I saw him,” said Darwin. “Once. At Grandpa’s funeral.”
Hearing that brought back one of Jac’s first and most vivid memories, not of their grandfather’s funeral eight years earlier but of her refusal to go to it. Jac had curled into a ball on the floor—not very far from where she now sat, in fact—pulling at her hair and wailing until Marcus decided to stay home with her. Cathryn, since it was her father’s funeral, had gone and taken Darwin with her.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” Marcus said to them. “This sounds like a fine alternative to sending you two to separate schools, doesn’t it?”
The twins looked at each other, but this time telepathic communication wasn’t needed.
“Yes sir,” they said.
Marcus turned to Sturgo. “So, when will he be expecting them?”
“They coming with me to train station,” said Sturgo. “It leaving in one hour. We arriving at Rook’s home by morning.”
“Today?” said Jac. “Right now?”
Darwin sidestepped a little closer to his sister. “I’m not going anywhere with him!”
“Children!” said Marcus. “Need I remind you of separate schools?”
Darwin fell back onto the sofa. Jac, however, stood her ground. She tried to piece together the most compelling argument why they shouldn’t be shipped off to live with their cousin, but her father had the upper hand. He knew if he reduced their choices to either going to Benedict’s together or to new schools separately, it wasn’t really a choice at all. Jac didn’t want to so easily admit defeat, though, so she didn’t break eye contact with her father as she sat down.
“It’s settled, then,” said Marcus. “Mr. Sturgo, we can discuss the details over a drink while the children get packed.”
“We never unpacked,” said Jac. “Our trunks are still in the car.”
“I’ll have a house-bot move them to Mr. Sturgo’s car.”
“I having no car,” said Sturgo. “Walking.”
“Well, I’ll drive all of you to the station myself. I insist. Now, how about that drink? You know, I think I have a bottle of Yndari ertok in my study. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to share a glass with an actual Yndari.”
Sturgo’s eyes lit up. “Yes, yes! But no glass. We must drinking from bowl. Only way to drinking ertok.”
“From a bowl, then,” said Marcus. “You know, my wife is currently staying with an Yndari tribe in the Ice Desert.”
Jac suppressed a groan. She had heard her dad recite this rehearsed fiction a multitude of times over the past year. She swallowed the rising anger—along with the truth, or what little she knew of it—and held her tongue.
“That is so?” said Sturgo.
“She was awarded a national grant to live with an Yndari tribe for five years. She photographs the Ice Desert’s people and wildlife.”
“What little wildlife there is up there,” Jac mumbled under her breath.
“What little wildlife there is up there,” said Marcus, smiling as he finished his story the same way he had for perhaps the thousandth time.
“I assuring you,” said Sturgo, “there is plenty of wildlife where I am from. Very dangerous. What tribe is your wife with? Where in Desert is she?”
“Uh… I’m not exactly sure.”
Marcus scratched the back of his head. He had never recited his rehearsed lie to an actual Yndari before. As far as Jac knew, no one had ever asked him this, so he didn’t have a prepared response at the ready.
“I’m terrible with Yndari tribe names,” said Marcus. “Too many syllables. It may be written on the bottle of ertok. My wife sent it to me.”
Also a complete lie. Jac was with him when he bought the liquor from the market a few miles from their home.
“Let’s go find a couple of bowls and have a taste, shall we?” Marcus ushered the towering man from the room, leaving the twins alone.
Jac huffed. “What are we gonna do?”
“What can we do?” said Darwin. “We don’t have a choice.”
“We could go to separate schools.”
“We can’t do that. Living with the Lunadict could be a thousand times worse than any boarding school, but at least we’ll be together.” Darwin took out a blue pen and returned to the back of his tie, this time sketching a crescent moon.
“What do you remember about Benedict from Grandpa’s funeral?” Jac asked.
Darwin kept doodling. “There were thousands of people, crying and holding flowers and candles. There were reporters there, too. Angry people, shouting and jabbing signs in the air. I couldn’t read well back then, so I don’t know what the signs said, but I asked Mom about it and all she would say was it wasn’t nice. I do remember one person holding up this big picture of Grandpa with horns drawn on him. I thought it was kind of funny.”
Darwin looked up. “I know that now, but when we were seven I thought it was funny.” He returned to his crescent moon sketch on the back of his tie. “Anyway, Mom and I went inside to this huge, open room, and there were still lots of people, but nobody yelling. She pointed to somebody and said it was our cousin Benedict and that I should go say hello. But as soon as I saw him, I hid behind Mom and said I wanted to leave.”
“His eyes. He was across the room, but when Mom pointed him out to me he was glaring right at me like a psychopath. Like he knew we were talking about him. And his eyes were dark, like yours.”
“So I have the same eyes as a psychopath,” said Jac. “Thanks.”
“Not really. They were dark like yours, but his were like… like a wild animal’s eyes. A vulture or something. Hungry.”
“When have you ever seen a vulture’s eyes?”
“I haven’t. It’s… I don’t know… It’s what I imagine a vulture’s eyes would look like.”
“Okay, so our cousin’s a twenty-something-year-old university professor with several areas of expertise, some of them more valid than others, and he’s a vulture-eyed psychopath. What else do we know about him?”
Darwin continued drawing, and Jac thought maybe he hadn’t heard her until he said, “He whispered something to Grandpa.”
“Before the funeral started, I snuck into the room where they had Grandpa’s casket, and I saw the Lu—Benedict in there, standing over him. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I could tell Benny was talking to him, like Grandpa was still alive and just lying there with his eyes closed, listening.”
“I’m more worried about being around that Sturgo guy than some creepy cousin of ours, though,” said Darwin. “The Yndari eat people.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Then she thought of Sturgo’s long, sharp knife and how easily it could carve someone into bite-size morsels.
“They do,” said Darwin. “I read it somewhere.”
“I’ve read a thousand more books than you. There’s never been any documented proof of that.”
"That doesn't mean it's not true." Darwin swapped his blue pen for a black one and began sketching a pair of eyes on the back of his tie. “Maybe someone was gonna write about it, but they ate him first.”
Jac stared at her mother’s portrait until the familiar tightening—partly sadness and uncertainty, mostly anger—started to take hold of her chest and she had to look away. She plucked a stray thread from her tie and tossed it onto the floor. The house-bot in the corner sprang to action, scuttling across the room and sucking up the discarded thread with the narrow hose that emerged from its head.
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