Authors: Chad Morris
Abby blushed. She was grateful that Muns was also in a coma. “But if he already has someone inside Cragbridge Hall working for him and a plan is in the works, it’s still just as dangerous.” There were several slow nods.
“Muns did mention hostages,” Rafa’s mother said. “Perhaps it would be wise to ask security to be more vigilant.”
Everyone agreed and Rafa’s mother took on the assignment to contact security. It would be better if the request came from a teacher.
“We all know security isn’t going to stop Muns, or whoever is working for him,” Derick said, tousling his hair, “even though they’ve increased it a lot lately.” After Katarina had used avatars to attack and tranquilize members of the Cragbridge Hall staff, increasing security had been a logical next step. There were many more people wearing the gray security uniform and more thin security robots on their single wheels roaming the campus.
“I think we can prepare at least a little more,” Abby said. She opened her mouth to continue, but had to wait for a yawn. “We know Muns wants the keys to control time and he wants the Bridge. That gives us a place to start.”
“What’s on your mind?” Rafa asked.
“We know,” Abby said, “that my grandpa gave keys to control the Bridge to several different people he trusted. Everyone who we knew had them is now unconscious in the medical unit, but there is another group, another Council of the Keys.” She pulled her hair into a temporary ponytail. She never liked being the center of attention. “If I had to guess, Mr. Sul leads that group.” After the avatar battle, Mr. Sul had helped them clean up the mess and had had security escort the soldiers who had broken into campus to the police. He had been the voice of the school at press conferences and talked to parent after parent, assuring them that the criminals had been taken care of and Cragbridge Hall was still safe. Some students withdrew, but most chose to stay. “We need to ask Mr. Sul to warn the other group to stay as vigilant as possible in protecting their keys.”
“I wonder,” Derick said, “how much we can trust him and the other teachers we think are in his council. Grandpa put us into separate groups for a reason.” Derick moved his hands apart to symbolize the groups. “That way one group doesn’t know who’s in the other, and if there’s a traitor trying to steal keys, only one group is in danger. And the other council can come in for reinforcements.” Derick scratched his chin. “It’s possible that someone in the other council may be the one planning to sabotage the rest of us. We should keep ourselves separate, just in case.”
“I think that’s smart,” Rafa’s mother said.
“My thoughts exactly,” Abby said. “And so I think we should form our own Council of the Keys.”
Carol squealed. “Oh, I’m so totally in.” She bobbed up and down with excitement. “It’s like our own secret club. But we should change the name to something a little awesomer, like
Carol and the Awesomists
“You’re the headliner?” Rafa said.
“It’s nothing personal; I just have the personality for it,” Carol said. “And the face for merchandising.” She struck a superhero pose.
“I’m not sure
are words,” Derick said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Carol responded. “They are now. And we should use secret code phrases like,” she spoke in a lower voice, trying to impersonate a spy, “‘The eagle has landed’; ‘The wolf has returned to its pack’; and ‘The buffalo just sat on the cowboy’s foot, and it’s going to be really swollen.’”
“What was that last one supposed to mean?” Derick asked.
“I have no idea,” Carol said. “I’m just letting the creative juices flow.”
“Making a new Council of the Keys may be a good idea,” Rafa said. “But I don’t deserve to be in it. I don’t have a key.” He pointed at Abby and Derick. “In fact, only you two do.”
Derick looked at Abby. Rafa was right. They were the only two of the group that had keys.
Abby reached into her pocket and pulled out seven keys. All of them had the same metallic sheen and simple design. “These are the keys I stole back from Muns,” Abby explained. “They really belong to my parents, my grandpa, and a few other teachers. But we don’t know when they are going to wake up again. I think we should give each of you one of them to keep safe until they wake up.”
“I agree,” Derick said. “You can guard them. My grandpa already gave Rafa’s mom the clues to gain her own key.” He looked at her. “You just couldn’t complete the challenges at the time. We know he trusted you.” Derick picked out one key and handed it to Rafa’s mother.
“Are you sure about this?” Rafa’s mother asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Yes,” Abby said, with a slow but confident nod.
“Completely,” Derick added. “If it wasn’t for your help, I wouldn’t have come out of our last scrape alive.”
Abby turned toward the others. “Plus, Carol and Rafa, you have more than proved yourselves. You helped us save our grandpa and our parents, and you helped us discover Katarina’s plan. Without you two, Muns would have already won.” She gave each of them a key.
Carol squeezed the key in her hand and clenched it close to her chest. “This is like 75 degrees of awesome with a forecast of
tomorrow,” Carol said, gesturing like she was a weather reporter on a news site, “a haze of awesome through the weekend, and awesome raining down throughout the week!” She opened her hand enough to catch another glimpse of her key. “It’s too bad I have to keep it a secret. But it’s quite fashionable in kind of an antique sort of way. It would be a very cool necklace, especially if I wore it with my blue dress with the frilly white stuff around the neck.”
“Obviously, you have to keep it where others can’t see it,” Derick reminded. “No one can even know you have it.”
“Okay, I’ll wear it underneath my blue dress,” Carol conceded. “Only I will know how truly fashionable I am.”
Rafa pinched his key between his fingers then looked at Abby and Derick with his dark eyes. “
” he asked.
,” Derick responded. “I’m not that far in my Portuguese class, but sometimes it works to just repeat the only thing I understood.”
“In this case, it worked,” Rafa said, smiling wide. “I asked if you were certain and you responded that you were.”
“But what should we do with the other four keys?” Carol asked.
For a moment, Abby pinched the spot where the top of her nose met her forehead. “I think we should hide them where no one else will find them. We can retrieve them when their owners wake up.”
“That seems wise,” Rafa’s mom said. “Where did you have in mind?”
“Anywhere we are certain no one will find them,” Abby said. “And because we have access to the Bridge, that opens up endless possibilities.”
“Let’s get to work,” Carol said, rubbing her hands together.
“Hopefully this will serve as our backup plan,” Abby said. “Now we just have to figure out Muns’s.”
Abby swung her samurai sword around, smashing it into a flying gold dragon before it could sink its glittering jaws into her. It exploded into a firework of color. She wanted to think she moved gracefully, like a leaf on the wind, but she knew she was more awkward, like an off-balance ostrich.
Abby whirled around to see Carol leap off the curved roof of an ancient Japanese building, wielding her sword and screaming, “Hi-yah-yah-yah-yah-yah!” Her blade clashed into another dragon that was swooping down toward Abby, talons poised to strike. After another explosion of color, Abby was safe.
“Thanks,” Abby said.
“Sure thing,” Carol answered, gliding down and landing softly on the ground. “Just put
on my list of talents. Maybe squeeze it in between
smokin’ hot actress
. Oh! And add
virtual dragon killer
too.” She twirled her swords elaborately while doing a flying leap that landed her closer to Abby.
Abby and Carol weren’t really in ancient Japan. They were wearing high-tech suits and visors that allowed them to experience a virtual world. The visors even made a connection with their minds so they felt what it would be like to swing a sword or glide off a roof. In the virtual booth, they were suspended in harnesses that allowed their real bodies to move in any way possible.
“I love how we can move like gravity only sort of applies to us—just like in the old kung fu movies.” Carol looked over her shoulder. “Nice touch, Derick.”
“Thanks,” Derick said, though neither Abby nor Carol could see him. He wasn’t in the virtual ancient Japanese world. From inside another booth, he was observing how well they could navigate this world he had created. “It definitely beats my first shot at this.” Over a year ago, Derick had built a program that helped kids train to be samurai. That was before he had started at Cragbridge Hall and had access to the best virtuality equipment in the world. “And hopefully it’s a good way to relieve some stress.”
“Relieve stress?” Abby blurted out. “You throw me into a world where gold dragons want to bite my face and it’s supposed to relax me?”
“Exactly,” Derick said.
Abby wasn’t relaxed. She hadn’t been for a while. It had been over a month since they had rescued the hostages and formed their own Council of the Keys. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened—yet. But that made it worse. It made Abby more anxious. Muns could strike at any moment and she had no idea how, where, or who.
Abby motioned with her virtual swords in one direction and looked over at virtual Carol. “Let’s go find that . . . special thing we’re supposed to be looking for.”
“Yeah, the mystic letter thing,” Carol agreed.
“‘The Legendary Scroll of Ninja,’” Derick corrected. “Come on! You’ve got to roll with the amazing theme here, girls.”
“The awesome theme is you asking to hang out with me,” Carol said. Technically it was true. He
asked her to try out his game. She turned her head and winked.
Abby could imagine Derick squirming even though she couldn’t see him. “Samurai don’t flirt during their epic missions,” Derick countered.
“Well this samurai does,” Carol said. “But next time, could you make my
handle pink, and my
a light blue? I like to fight my battles in style. Plus, since you’re watching, you might as well see me in all my possible cuteness and . . .” Carol couldn’t finish because another dragon circled around the building. Abby thought Derick might have purposely sent this one just to get Carol off the subject.
Abby twisted her sword in a way that sent a gust of wind blowing at the dragon, knocking it off course. Carol threw her blade like a spear. More fireworks.
“I like that wicked wind thing you do,” Carol said.
“I learned it by accident in the practice dojo,” Abby confessed. “And your javelin thing was cool too.”
“Samurai don’t stop to compliment each other either,” Derick said, his frustration coming out in every word. “You only have three more minutes to conquer the level.”
“And what happens if we finish?” Abby asked. “Because it had better be fantastic.”
“Yeah, like we get to sit in a virtual bathhouse and get foot massages,” Carol guessed.
“Oh, and virtual fudge,” Abby added. “Did they have that in ancient Japan?”
“They’d better,” Carol said.
Abby and Carol moved through Derick’s world, trying not to be seen by the guards in the firelight or the mystic dragons that guarded the city. Soon they slipped in through a window of the mansion they hoped held the secret scroll. But after only a few steps inside, ninjas crept out from every corner, and a golden serpent the length of six or seven cars slithered out to meet them.
“Not good. Really not good,” Abby murmured. “This is definitely not relaxing.”
“There had better be an incredible foot massage,” Carol said.
But everything stopped mid-surge, frozen still for a moment. Then the scene flickered, and the giant snake and the ninjas retreated.
“We must have scared them off,” Carol said. She then yelled back at where the virtual serpent had been. “That’s right, creepy snakey slither demon and your naughty ninja minions. Go home. And don’t come back.”
“You wish,” Derick said. “It’s another glitch. You can be done for now. I’d better start fixing it if I’m going to turn it in tonight.”
The world faded, and Abby and Carol took off their equipment and stepped out of their booths into the math and engineering classroom. They normally would use the booths to create bridges and buildings and cities, but this was a bit more creative. They cracked open the door to Derick’s booth.
“It wasn’t exactly my style,” Abby said, “but it is an incredible challenge. I really think other students will love it.”
“I completely agree,” Carol said. “But if your first entry actually got into the Race, wouldn’t that break a record or something? There are like hundreds of kids who try, most of them a lot older than us.” She stepped away and sat on a desk. “And of those kids, some of them super-care. They submit lots of times. They don’t just count on one scenario making it. They have lots of backup plans.”