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Authors: Kaleb Nation

The Specter Key

BOOK: The Specter Key
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Copyright

Copyright © 2010 by Kaleb Nation

Cover and internal design © 2010 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover illustration © Brandon Dorman

Series design by The Book Designers

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and eve
nts portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.jabberwockykids.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher.

Source of Production: Versa Press, East Peoria, Illinois, USA

Date of Production: August 2010

Run Number: 13362

Dedication

To my Dad,

from whom I stole all my best jokes.

Part I
Chapter 1

The Woman and the Briefcase

Elspeth waited for him at the gas station.

A single row of tall pumps sat in front of the building like rust-colored phantoms staring out into the night. Stalks of wispy grass cut through cracks in the parking lot gravel and waved in the breeze, the windows of the store broken and the car wash devoid of life. No cars passed on that road—no one took that old route through the dark, sandy hills anymore. But it was where Elspeth waited, and it was where she knew he would arrive.

If anyone had passed on the deserted road, no one would have seen her in the darkness. She stood alone, her black hair blowing behind her, a streak of white dashed through it, arms crossed over the black wand hidden inside her long coat. The skies were clear, but the moon hardly shone on her face, waiting and emotionless.

An old gray van pulled off the road, one of the windows taped over with a ripped trash bag that flapped intermittently. The van jerked to a halt in the middle of the lot, and the door snapped open, creaking as a man slid out. He was short and overweight with a greasy face, hair graying and eyes bloodshot from long hours in front of a computer screen. He jumped when Elspeth stepped out, but when he recognized her, he pulled a briefcase from the van. His gaze darted around, wary, as he had every right to be. She was wanted by every Magic Investigational Police officer in the world—but she had offered him a reward he could not refuse.

“Cold night, eh?” he said as he came forward, licking his lips with anticipation, wrapping his torn coat closely to his body. His gaze searched the hills around them.

“I presume you got it,” Elspeth said. She glanced at the briefcase, and even that small movement made him shuffle back a step.

“Money first,” he demanded. “Like you promised. Had to knife through m’best mate to get these, so I’m not leaving without the money.”

“Very well,” Elspeth said, drawing a leather bag from its resting place against the worn bricks. She passed it to him, and he took it with shaking hands.

“Count it,” she said. “Hopefully it’s enough to pay for your friend’s casket.”

He dug through the bag. It nearly slid from his fat, sweaty hands, but when he looked up, his eyes were bright.

“A casket of pure gold,” he said with a harsh laugh. “Combination is 1-1-9 on the right, 1-9-5 on the left.” He shoved the briefcase into her hand. She spun the dials and glanced at the contents within. “It’s all there,” he said to her. “The tapes, the papers, all of it. I broke the passwords to the third level administration of the Mages Council database, but that’s as far as I got. If there’s anything deeper, no one’s going to get it besides the Primirus or the Archmages.”

“Everything I need is here,” she confirmed after a few moments.

The man nodded his head in farewell, but froze mid-bow, his gaze trained over Elspeth’s shoulder. A pair of searing blue eyes moved in the grass behind her. Elspeth stepped to the side.

“I’m finished with him,” she said, and something leapt from the darkness with a shriek that echoed against the hills. The man dropped the money and screamed horribly, falling back to the pavement, cursing and struggling, but the creature caught him by his leg, snarling in his face. The man gave one final gurgling, screamed curse before his voice was abruptly cut short by a crack and a tear. But Elspeth was already reading the papers and paid him no attention.

“Let it feed, Joris,” she said as another man appeared out of the shadows of the station. “After it’s done, drag what’s left to his van and burn it. Let that be his casket.”

Joris kept his eyes from the gruner as it fed, a shock of blond hair going to his shoulders and his strong gaze hardly wavering, even as the horrible sounds echoed in the emptiness. Elspeth stepped around the building and held the papers up so she could see the words in the faint moonlight.

Presently, the gruner loped to her side, brushing against her leg, its body like a giant dog standing on its back paws, crouched low, black with sharp bristling fur that flexed across its muscular back and head. Two blade-like tusks protruded from its lips, bearing dirty bits of the man’s jacket. Its cobalt eyes were no longer hungry.

“I’ve covered the van with gasoline,” Joris said when he returned. “We should be moving before I set it off.”

“Very well,” she said. She clicked the briefcase’s lid shut. “I have found the answers we seek.”

“They have the Key?” Joris asked.

She gave a small, dark smile. “No, they do not.” Elspeth’s voice carried a hint of resignation. “Which means Emry passed it on to someone before she left—either physically or by desire. I do not know.”

A harsh ringing sound near Joris pierced the quiet. Shoving his hand into his pocket, he drew out a silver cell phone. The front was lit with the caller ID, and Joris blinked when he saw it: the single letter T.

“It’s him,” Joris breathed.

“Answer it,” she said. He hesitated but finally flipped it open.

“Hello, Joris, chilly night isn’t it?” came the voice of a man on the other end, almost before Joris had a chance to turn on the speakerphone.

“Haven’t heard from you in a few months,” Joris said flatly. “Trouble with the police?”

The man on the other end chuckled. “I think after nearly a decade they’d have given up on us. Tell me…did my directions lead you to Bran?”

Joris stiffened. “They were correct.”

“But he proved to be as difficult as I said, did he not?” the man’s voice went on. “I thought you might be able to handle it, but I guess not.”

“And how would you know that?” Joris hissed. “You wouldn’t be living if you came within a hundred feet of me.”

The man on the phone gave another laugh. “Wouldn’t I?” he said. “What about sending Shambles alone, twice? You, seeing Bran at the tavern?”

Joris’s eyes narrowed, and he looked to Elspeth, who forced him to be quiet.

“Sounds like you blundered it plenty,” the man reproved. “I thought I had him sitting on a plate for you. I can forgive others, but when you lost him at the garage—?”

“That’s enough!” Joris couldn’t contain his rage any longer. “What do you want, before I go back to that house and murder the boy right now?”

“You wouldn’t dare try that,” the man said slyly. “You know the boy’s powers. You can’t risk being caught—not with what you have at stake now that Baslyn is gone.”

Joris clenched his teeth, and the man spoke again. “Elspeth, I see you’re there as well.”

She stood up straighter, glancing over her shoulder in a jerk she could not hide. A flower on the edge of the concrete wavered in the wind. Her gaze swept from it to the grass. Nothing.

“I have a proposal for you,” he said, his voice soft. “A deal that could get you the Specter Key and Bran at the same time.”

Elspeth lifted her chin slightly.

“I see on your face you would enjoy Bran out of the way,” the man went on, and Elspeth’s eyes darted around, still perceiving no one.

“But you want the Key more,” the man finished. “And I know how to get it.”

Chapter 2

The Box in the Bank Vault

The city of Dunce sat directly east of the wild and forbidden West Wood and was generally avoided just as much. Even without terrible beasts and horrifying legends, Dunce was notorious as the only city in the world that outlawed gnomes and magic. Anyone even suspected of being magical was as good as jail-bound, and gnomes might as well have worn big red targets on their backs just for stepping a foot past the sign outside the gates, which proudly declared:

no gnomes

no mages

etcetera

Sewey Wilomas was manager at the Third Bank of Dunce, which was where he happened to be as the sun set on a late Wednesday evening on the fifteenth day of August. All the other employees had quickly left early when Sewey decided to stay late, and anyone on Third Street who happened to be passing by the bank hurried away like scared rabbits. He was in a bad mood, as usual—and since no one else was around to help clean out the vault, fifteen-year-old Bran Hambric was left to take on Sewey by himself.

“Oh rot!” Sewey shouted, hitting his head on the bottom of a shelf in the bank vault for the hundredth time that evening.

Bran looked up from his pad of paper just in time to see a money bag come flopping down from the shelf. It burst open, spilling sawdust all over the floor. “There goes another one,” he said, tallying it on the pad. “That makes one hundred and four of sawdust and…” He counted his marks. “…only three bags of money.”

“Blasted shelf!” Sewey roared, rubbing the top of his head. He kicked the wall with fury. “Bran, I told you not to tally the bags of sawdust! Do you want every bank examiner in Dunce upon us?”

Bran stole another glance at the gray walls lined with shelves stretching high up to the ceiling, filled with bags of what were supposed to look like bank funds, most of which were obviously not. Sawdust had spilled in heaps across the red-carpeted floor along with the random coin or withered sib note. Even seasoned spelunkers might have easily gotten lost if they ventured toward the back, which was filled with precarious towers of cash boxes, some dating back decades.

“You’re lucky the examiners don’t dare step inside,” Bran mused. “We might have a third bankruptcy and the Fourth Bank of Dunce on our hands.”

“Rubbish!” Sewey dismissed, sweeping his black moustache free of sawdust specks. “One of my first classes in banker school was Covert Defense of Bank Examiners to the Avoidance of Audits.”

Bran knew it was best to keep his mouth shut. He started to scoop the sawdust back into the bag. It felt odd and almost creepy to be here in the vault, the same place where he had been found nine years ago at the age of six. His very first memory was of Sewey opening the vault door and seeing him there. From then on, the Wilomases were stuck with him, and vice versa. He didn’t know what they might do if they found out that his mother, Emry Hambric, had been a magic criminal, killed as she hid Bran in the bank—or what they might do if they found out he was a mage as well.

His secret was safe, though. He had his mother’s brown eyes to remind him he was her son and her necklace under his shirt to remind him that she had changed before she died. He reached up and touched the small charm—silver and shaped like a crescent moon. It felt warm today, and it seemed to warm him inside as well.

“Blast it all, I’m through,” Sewey grumbled, flinging yet another bag of sawdust aside. He jumped up and, again, his skull was greeted with the bottom of a shelf.

“Great rot!”

The shelf jumped but didn’t give in, and he tripped forward, tumbling to the floor and colliding with a mound of sawdust. Bran had to stifle a laugh.

“Stupid shelf.” Sewey coughed and sneezed in the cloud of dust. “Must have been put in by—cough!—filthy gnomes.”

Bran shook his hair free of dust, starting another storm. His usually brown hair was getting sawdustier by the minute. Sewey kicked some bags out of his way as he steadied himself, then stumbled over to Bran’s tally pad, wiping his brow furiously. They were miserable figures.

“This is preposterous,” he said. “How do we ever stay in business?” His eyes narrowed. “And Bran, what the rot did you put down here at the bottom?”

Bran had distracted himself by penciling a sketch of Sewey hitting his head on the shelf, on which was sitting a very grim, dwarfish bank examiner who didn’t look at all happy to have Sewey bumping his seat.

“That’s you,” Bran said. “I got bored.”

“Bah!” Sewey snatched the pad and threw it aside. “Enough bags for one evening. We’re getting busy with those safe deposit boxes and the crates, before I single-headedly break every shelf in the Third Bank of Dunce!”

Bran shuddered. He was not looking forward to that job. Some of the safe deposit boxes were ancient. Many dated back to the First and Second Banks of Dunce, and since Sewey had never taken the time to clean the vault out before, the new boxes simply appeared in front of the old ones like fresh mold.

“I say we start in the back, get rid of the older stuff,” Bran said, following Sewey deeper into the vault. The back room was lit by long, dim lights in the ceiling, but Bran still had to watch his step for the occasional crate, sack, or filing cabinet someone had dumped and forgotten. The air grew darker and mustier the farther they went.

“Blasted piles of junk,” Sewey mumbled. “All of it’s rot, just rot, and now I’ve got to be the one who’s told to clean it out before Fridd’s Day comes along.”

Fridd’s Day was yet another celebration that—like Twoo’s Day and Wendy’s Day—was renowned as an event that everyone had to observe or else be talked about behind their backs by all their neighbors. Unlike Twoo’s Day, which was celebrated in the park, or Wendy’s Day, which was celebrated in a hot-air balloon, Fridd’s Day was traditionally celebrated at formal in-home parties, beginning the night before—Fridd’s Day Eve—and running late into the next morning. The Wilomases were to host the Third Bank of Dunce’s company party at their house that year. The bank had a tradition of inviting all the board members and the fifteen richest investors. Sewey anticipated it with both excitement and dread.

Finally they reached the back of the vault. Some of the stacks of deposit boxes had fallen to the floor and were lying in piles, with no way of telling what they were except for thin tabs stuck on the front, labeled with the name of the owner, the date…or simply a big
X
. The
X
could have meant anything from “This one’s expired,” to “This one’s owner is dead,” to “This one’s owner is soon-to-be-dead.”

“We’ll start back here and work toward the fresh air,” Sewey said, sniffing. “Anything expired is going up for auction next week, and I don’t care whose ghost comes for it afterward. And since old Jim Primbletons ate the pages of our key ledger when we fired him last year, looks like we’ll be needing these.”

He held up a pair of screwdrivers.

“Time to put on our burglar hats,” Bran said with a grin, and Sewey gave him a salute. Bran started for a pile of large crates to the right, but Sewey caught him by the arm.

“No sir, I get the crates,” Sewey ordered. “If there’s any treasure to be found it’s me who’s going to find it.”

Sewey waved at the pile of cash boxes. “That’s where you’ll be working, since there probably won’t be anything worthwhile in them for you to bungle with. I’ll handle the big, adult stuff.” He pointed to a cash box on a shelf in the far corner. “But don’t touch that one.”

Bran peered closer at the label, on which was written:
Sewey Wilomas, Inheritance
.

“So you did decide to save it,” Bran said, turning to Sewey proudly.

“Of course not!” Sewey said, dashing Bran’s hopes. “But since one needs a permit to own or operate an elephant in Dunce, my purchasing plans have been postponed.”

Bran sighed and grabbed the box on top, reading the tab.

“Mortimer Snakebob.” He didn’t recognize the name, so he jammed the tiny end of the screwdriver between the lock and lid. It only took a few twists to get it open, revealing a handful of colorful feathers and some dirty old coins.

“A pirate?” Bran wondered aloud with a smile. He dumped the gold coins into a pile beside him and tossed the box into the back, reaching for the next one.

“Pamela Perkins,” he said. Again, he had the lock popped in a minute, discovering that Pamela collected antique western karaoke records and red cowboy boots.

“Throw all that junk away,” Sewey commanded.

Bran dumped them out, and at the bottom of the box, he found something else: a handful of glittery gold bracelets and earrings.

Sewey leaned out from the crates. “Great Moby…” he said as Bran added the valuables to the pile. Sewey attacked his first crate and, with much heaving and hacking, finally split it open. It was stuffed with a worthless collection of balloons and streamers. They were so old that the air itself made them crumble to dust. He threw it aside in disgust.

“No jewels here…” he muttered, jealously eyeing Bran’s pile. He started on the next crate with vengeance, breaking the lid only to find the box filled with one-eyed rocking horse heads.

“Double rot!” he cried, flinging it away.

Eventually he meandered his way over to Bran’s stack of cash boxes and sat on the floor across from him. Piles of things grew around them, and the heap of empty boxes multiplied in the dim light. Sewey reached to the top of the pile, sliding off a box. He peered at the tab and then squinted.

“Hmmm,” he said.

“Come on, we’re supposed to be doing these quick so we can leave soon,” Bran said.

Sewey went on blinking at the box. “What a curious oddity.” He looked up at Bran. “Have you been poking about in the vault lately?”

“Not until this evening,” Bran said, rattling the lock. “At least, not since…you know…the Accident.”

“Well, that’s strange,” Sewey muttered, “because this one’s got your name on it.”

“My name?” He was curious, though Sewey was probably just pulling a prank.

“Well, your last name, at least,” Sewey said, still perplexed. “It’s a different first name.”

Bran sat up straight. “What, who is it?”

Sewey squinted at the tag. “Well, it’s hard to read, it’s so small. But I think it says…Emry Hambric.” Bran froze.

It’s my mother’s.

BOOK: The Specter Key
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