The journal soon draws them into a covert and sinister conspiracy, a conspiracy centred around an otherworldly artefact with the power to change everything …
Karl and Esther have spent almost every day of their thirteen years in the quiet market town of Shraye. Stifled by their rural surroundings and frustrated by their unfulfilled ambitions, they find the allure of the journal’s mysterious pages impossible to ignore. The book seems to be beckoning them away from Shraye, away from their homes and towards the coast where an unsolved disappearance has set in motion a dark chain of events.
The voyage the teenagers soon find themselves undertaking is one of desperate importance and true peril; it will change the way they see the world, and each other, forever.
Prologue: Locus Two
MARRIOTT SET HIS oil lamp down on top of the table beside him. ‘Who goes there?’ he said, reaching for the pistol tucked into the back of his belt.
The room’s iron door swung open and at once a bright light flooded into the gloom from behind it.
Marriott squinted. ‘Who goes there?’ he said again, louder this time.
‘Calm down, Marriott,’ answered a strident and familiar voice, ‘it’s only me, lad. I’m coming in now ...’
As his eyes began to adjust, Marriott saw it was indeed the grey-haired Mr Lawford stepping in through the open door, and that he was holding a large lantern at arm’s length in front of him. Unexpectedly, Mr Lawford was followed into the room by a second man Marriott didn’t recognise. The second man wore a long winter cloak which licked across the floor as he walked, the glaring lantern in his hand throwing a lank shadow in his wake.
Marriott shuddered as he realised the second man was staring straight at him.
‘That won’t work in here, boy,’ the stranger snarled, apparently disgusted.
Marriott had forgotten to withdraw his pistol, he slipped it away immediately.
‘Ah, sorry, my fault,’ said Mr Lawford, walking over the soot-stained floor and towards Marriott’s table, ‘should have told you about that already, lad. This building isn’t like the others you see, it’s a tad – how should I put it – funny.’ His grey moustache parted as he smiled.
Marriott said nothing; he knew better than to ask his employer to explain himself.
‘Anyway,’ said Mr Lawford, ‘were there any problems whilst I was gone?’ He placed his lantern on top of the table as he spoke.
‘No, sir,’ Marriott reported. ‘All quiet since you left, sir.’
‘Excellent, good work, Marriott,’ said Mr Lawford routinely. ‘Now where on earth did I put that ...’ He began fumbling around his jacket pockets for something.
Marriott took the opportunity to look back at the stranger. He was still standing near the open door, but now his lean and clean-shaven face was staring distantly into the darkness concealing the far end of the room, his right hand gently massaging the hilt of the sheathed sword protruding menacingly from within his cloak.
‘Right then, lad,’ said Mr Lawford, raising a handkerchief to his brow. ‘Be a good chap and hang my lantern up over there, would you?’ He pointed to a lantern fastening above a large coal scuttle not far from the table.
‘Yes, sir,’ answered Marriott, picking up the lantern.
‘Oh, and Marriott,’ said Mr Lawford, before Marriott could walk away with it, ‘this gentleman is Mr Dufor. You won’t have met him yet, will you? Mr Dufor is our principal investor – very important you know who Mr Dufor is, lad.’
Marriott turned politely to face Mr Dufor. ‘Sir,’ he said, nodding respectfully.
Mr Dufor ran an uncomfortably long and calculating gaze over him but said nothing.
Determined not to show any unease, Marriott turned calmly before walking over to the coal scuttle and attaching Mr Lawford’s lantern to the rusty fastening above it.
Once it was properly mounted and casting its light across the ceiling, Marriott could finally see the entirety of the room he had been dutifully guarding since nightfall. He instantly realised two things. Firstly, the room was huge. It was much larger than he had previously thought, and was perhaps even larger than the stone storehouse above ground he had been tasked with guarding the night before. And secondly, what he had supposed in the darkness to be the room’s central supporting pillar was, in fact, not a pillar at all. It instead appeared to be some kind of mechanical bronze column.
The column’s reflective surface was segmented into elongated panels, with the topmost row connected by thick black cables to several metallic struts arranged in formation throughout the room. Marriott couldn’t tell what the struts were in turn connected to because the lower portion of his view was obscured by stacks of splintered crates and by piles of seared metallic equipment.
Wide-eyed, Marriott turned back to look at Mr Lawford and Mr Dufor. Mr Lawford had taken the second lantern from Mr Dufor, and was now guiding him along a crate-lined passageway leading towards the reflective column. Marriott strained hard to listen in on their conversation.
‘... can see we’ve managed to repair the damage caused by the last test,’ said Mr Lawford assuringly. ‘All that’s left to do now is to remove the crates and redundant equipment and we’ll be ready for the next phase. I’m pleased to report that the situation is the same at Locus One as well as at Locus Three.’
‘And you’re certain you’ve corrected the malfunction?’ asked Mr Dufor.
‘Oh yes, Julian is quite sure his modifications will prevent –’
‘And what of the girl?’
‘Ah, yes ... our young Scot,’ replied Mr Lawford solemnly. ‘She did briefly regain consciousness this morning, but she wouldn’t stop spouting the same hysterical nonsense so in the end we had to sedate –’
‘What exactly did she say?’ asked Mr Dufor.
‘Oh, nothing really, it was just a result of the head trauma I should –’
‘What did she say?’
‘Really, I’m quite sure it was just a delusional –’
Mr Dufor raised his voice. ‘When I ask you a question Mr Lawford, I expect an immediate and appropriate response.’ His aggravated words carried the faintest tinge of a French accent.
‘Of course,’ replied Mr Lawford at once, ‘my apologies.’
‘Now tell me,’ said Mr Dufor, relaxing his tone, ‘what did the girl say?’
‘It’s preposterous of course,’ said Mr Lawford nervously, ‘but the silly girl was quite adamant that tonight you’re going to –’ He paused momentarily. ‘– that tonight you’re going to murder her.’
They disappeared behind a particularly high stack of crates and Marriott could hear no more.
Chapter One: Karl and Esther
‘AND STAY AWAY from Mr Stratham’s house!’ yelled Karl’s mother down the stairs.
Karl pulled a flat cap over his messy brown hair and slipped eagerly out of the front door. He had spent much of the day wandering about the town with nowhere in particular to go, but now, as the afternoon drew to a close, his mother’s stark words had finally enthused him. Gaining pace, he passed through his front gate and began recalling the moments just before he’d been caught trespassing in Mr Stratham’s back garden a fortnight ago.
Seconds ahead of being spotted from a third floor window, he remembered stealing a brief but clear view into one of the rooms on Mr Stratham’s ground floor. Everything had seemed normal at first; papers strewn lazily about the top of old tables, gnarled furniture facing a well-used fireplace. Normal at least, until he had spied a single peculiar object. Atop a bulky drinking cabinet and beside a near-emptied crystal decanter, a small and ornately engraved silver box had sat staring proudly at him as it basked in the morning sunlight. With one of its sides covered in a mosaic of intricate components, the box, as Karl was now assuring himself, had no business in sitting atop a fusty old man’s drinking cabinet and definitely deserved further investigation.
‘Karl! Oy, Rum-eyes!’
Karl was torn away from his thoughts.
‘What are you up to?’ shouted the voice.
He span around. A short, thinly framed girl wearing a plain dress was bounding up the street towards him, her scorched-black hair bouncing freely beside her rosy-cheeked face as she ran.
‘I’m not up to anything, Esther,’ Karl yelled back at her. ‘And don’t call me Rum-eyes.’ He turned abruptly and carried on walking.
He hated the name Rum-eyes. It was a nickname he had unwillingly acquired at school because he had one blue eye and one green.
‘Wherever you’re going,’ said Esther, catching up and slowing to keep pace by his side, ‘I’m coming with you – I’m bored you see.’
Karl sighed; he knew if they got into an argument he would inevitably lose it. ‘Well, alright,’ he relented, ‘but I’m going to Mr Stratham’s house – nowhere else.’
A wide grin spread across Esther’s face. ‘Me mam told me you got caught sneaking about at Mr Stratham’s a couple of weeks ago.’
‘How did she know about that?’
‘She runs the pub, stupid,’ teased Esther, ‘she hears about everything that happens in Shraye. Ey, that reminds me, did you hear about the man who’s moved into the Judds’ old cottage, Mr Cauldwell?’ She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘He knows Mr Stratham, Mam says he’s a polymath – did important work for the government when he lived down south in London. Do you know what a polymath is?’
‘Er – not really,’ said Karl, struggling to follow.
‘It’s some sort of expert in lots of difficult things, or is it just one thing? I can’t really remember. Anyway, I –’
Failing to keep up with Esther’s cheerful ramblings, Karl peered towards the market square at the end of the road they were walking along: the crooked silver birch framing the vacant stall spaces still wasn’t in bud, but the daffodils around its trunk were finally in full bloom.
Smiling, Karl looked away from the square and eyed the cobbled street coming up on his left-hand side: the road there was still catching the last of the delicate afternoon sunlight.
‘Let’s go this way,’ he said, interrupting Esther, who had somehow arrived at the topic of Lincolnshire’s toad population, ‘it’ll be warmer I bet.’
Esther nodded and then, after a brief moment, began questioning him again. ‘So what are we going to Mr Stratham’s for, then?’
‘I’m not sure, really,’ answered Karl. ‘When I was there before, I saw summat strange in one of his rooms. I dunno, I just want see if it’s still there.’
‘What did you see?’
‘It was – it’s hard to explain,’ said Karl, a precise description of the box eluding him. ‘I guess I’ll just have to show it to you when we get there.’
Esther drew a sharp and excited breath as if she intended to press him further, but seemingly thought better of it and restrained herself. ‘Fair enough,’ she uttered, as they both turned onto the sunlit road.
Karl kicked a pebble across the smooth cobbles as they ambled past a sack-filled cart there. ‘Was it Mr Stratham himself that told your mam about my trespassing?’ he asked, watching the pebble fall short of the gutter he’d been aiming for.
‘Probably,’ answered Esther, ‘I’ve seen him in the pub a fair bit lately.’
Karl found himself wondering if living above a rowdy pub was the reason Esther had learned to be such a skilled arguer; the trait of hers he secretly admired and envied the most. ‘Do you get to stay in the pub, then?’ he asked. ‘You know, in the evenings?’
Esther casually flicked a stray lock of hair away from her bright green eyes. ‘Course,’ she answered. ‘Although Mam usually sends me upstairs if it starts to get too late – she can be a bit of a pain really.’
Karl laughed. ‘Maybe she’ll let you stop up when you’re a bit older.’
‘Oy!’ snapped Esther, evidently taking offence. ‘I’m only a couple of months younger than you remember.’
Karl grimaced at his mistake; unlike Esther he was tall for his age and so he sometimes forgot that she was thirteen, just as he was.
‘Sorry,’ said Karl, attempting to defuse the situation. ‘I think my memory must be starting to go.’ He smiled apologetically.
Esther flashed a smile back at him. ‘Nah, it’s nowt new,’ she said jokingly, ‘you’ve always had a memory like a sieve.’
They both laughed and walked on, soon trading the small and tightly-packed buildings near the square for the larger and more lonesome ones towards the outskirts of town.
Born in High Wycombe, Jack Croxall now lives in rural Nottinghamshire with his chocolate Labrador, Archie. He has a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Nottingham and currently toils away as a science writer in between working on his books.
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