A Remote Mountain Village outside the Town of Eamsford, 1542
Tackled by bullies and slammed into mud, Charles couldn’t know he would soon encounter far more dangerous enemies. In fact, he would travel through space and time to face a power so terrible it threatened to end civilization. But every tale has a beginning. This one begins with a frog.
“Open yer mouth.” Felton Thadwick’s heavy knees pinned Charles to the rocky ground.
“Open yer mouth, or I’ll squish yer frog’s guts out on yer face.”
The smaller boy kept his jaw clenched, his lips tight.
Seamus sneered. “So keep yer mouth closed, yeh prat.” He and Rodrick held Charles’s wrists and feet.
“Guts on yer face!” Rodrick cheered. All three bullies wanted to see it.
They weren’t bluffing. Charles was faster and usually got away. But this time he had slipped on the riverbank.
Felton squeezed Charles’s traumatized frog in his meaty fist. Its insides squished. Its eyes bugged out.
Charles couldn’t stand it. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth. At least it isn’t a spider.
Seamus and Rodrick trembled with excitement. Felton stuffed the terrified frog into Charles’s mouth, rear end first.
The boy gagged.
“Got somethin’ to say in yer stupid accent? Close yer mouth! Careful — yeh’ll bite its head off!”
Charles fought the urge to vomit.
Felton pushed on his jaw, squeezing the frog harder. All three Idiot Brothers roared.
“One punch to the chin, Orphan Boy, and it’s double pleasure fer me — I get to cold clock yeh, and watch yeh bite the head off a frog.” Felton wound up to deliver the sucker punch.
Charles braced himself. I should have left the frog behind. Grandfather will be furious.
“Hey, Fatty!” A voice yelled before the punch came. Felton froze. He looked up. “Yeah, you, Fatty! Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size? Oh, right! Because there aren’t any kids your size, you bloated, chicken-bully loser!”
Chicken-bully? Loser? The Idiot Brothers peered into the bushes, stunned. That was a girl’s voice. And it wasn’t local.
Charles strained to see. Who dared challenge Felton Thadwick? He tried to wriggle the frog out of his mouth, but Felton jammed it in deeper.
“Where are yeh?” Felton demanded, still peering into the woods. “Who are yeh?”
Pinned on his back, Charles could only look up. Suddenly, in the tree above, a creature he’d never seen before crept through the branches, camouflaged in the thick leaves. He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t because of the frog in his mouth.
Blending into the rough bark, the creature descended the tree with the grace and silence of a panther. As it inched closer, Charles almost choked.
It was a girl.
Her mouth moved, but her voice came from a bush off to the left.
“Over here, Fatty!” Felton spun to follow the sound. “No, this way!” Her voice jumped again from a tree to the right, then from a sapling directly ahead.
She crept up behind the Idiot Brothers, throwing her voice to distract them. The leafy pattern on her clothes and skin made her almost invisible, but Charles could still see her raise one finger to her lips to silence him.
“Bullies never change, Fatty.” Her accent was unrecognizable. “You’re all the same — cowards. Three of you ganged up on one kid half your size. But if you had the guts to fight fair, you wouldn’t be a bully, would you, Fatty?”
Felton was red with rage. “Go do something!” he shouted at Seamus and Rodrick. They looked at him uncertainly. Seamus started to run.
Then the mysterious girl struck.
She grabbed Seamus by the neck and yanked him backward, flinging him straight into Rodrick. Both boys crumpled.
Charles squirmed against Felton’s grip but still couldn’t move. Seamus and Rodrick scrambled up and tried to run, but they weren’t fast enough. Seamus yowled as they flew through the air. Splash! Straight into the river.
Who was she?
Felton was sweating hard. Salty drops spattered Charles’s face. The second Felton’s grip relaxed, Charles spat out the frog. “Run while you can, Thadwick!”
“Big words,” Felton shot back at Charles. “Yer the one on the ground.”
“Not for long,” said the girl. “I’d listen to him, Fatwick. Running would be a good idea right now, coward!”
Charles coughed out the last of the frog slime, then wiped his face. The silence unnerved him. Am I next?
A pair of bare brown feet appeared. It took all his courage to look up at her face.
She was unlike anyone he’d ever seen. Her face was now light brown, like tea with milk. Her long, dark hair was luxurious and thick, and she stepped so lightly she almost seemed to float. The suit she wore was all one piece, and it clung to her body like a second skin. Was she a traveling acrobat?
“My name’s Geneva.” She held out her hand.
He took it and stood. She was maybe fourteen or fifteen–not much older or bigger than he was. How had she done that?
“Thank you,” he said shyly. “I’m Charles.”
“Charles, huh?” She grinned. “That’s a little formal, don’t you think?”
“Formal?” She’s pretty, he thought, and exotic. Her high cheekbones, blue-gray eyes, and tea-colored skin were a sharp contrast to his freckles and sandy brown hair.
“Yeah, Charles. Are you a prince? Charles is a name for a king, don’t you think? Or an old man.”
Well, that was rude!
“No, I’m not a prince. You aren’t from around here, are you?”
“Nope. You could say I’m visiting. And you know what, Charles? Your fancy name’s not gonna work for me. Too stuffy. How about Charlie?”
“Charlie? That sounds like a girl’s name.”
“Hardly. Where I’m from, Charlie is a cool name. Something you’d call a good friend. Are you all right?” she asked. He nodded. “Do they pick on you a lot?”
“Only if they catch me. But I’m fast, and they’re big and dumb.”
“You’re the smart one?”
“I’m very good at puzzles and mathematics.”
“I bet that’s an understatement,” she said with a knowing smile.
It was. He nodded, unsure of what to say. He didn’t talk about his skills. Only his grandfather knew their extent. Have Isaid too much? Something is off here. His mouth got dry, and he took a step back.
“And you’re good at something else, aren’t you?”
Now his face blanched.
“Something secret,” she whispered.
“No! Puzzles. That’s all. People like to watch me solve them. If you’ve heard anything else, it’s not true.” Her smile no longer seemed friendly.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell. But I know about you.”
He was silent. The Hum. Now he felt it all around them. Could she?
“How’s your grandfather?” she asked abruptly.
“What?” His stomach did a backflip. “How do you know about him?”
“I’ve been looking for you, Charlie. It’s no accident I found you here.”
He swallowed hard. “What do you want?”
“I want to take you somewhere,” she said. “Don’t you want to see the world, Charlie? Fantastic inventions beyond your wildest dreams?”
“How do you know that?” Charles broke into a sweat. After this morning, he didn’t think he could stand one more day with his grandfather. He’d packed to run away. “Who are you?”
“Geneva,” she said. “I told you that. I’m not from around here, remember?”
The power of the Hum grew. “Is it you?” he asked quietly.
“No, Charlie. It’s you. Your secret is what brought me here.”
“There isn’t any secret!” This was how they caught you — the Interrogator’s spies — they tricked you into talking about it. He wouldn’t say a word.
“I need your help, Charlie. In fact, a lot of people do.”
“I’ve traveled a long, long way to find you, Charlie. You’re very special — and you might be able to save a lot of people. Nobody else can do it. Only you.”
“Is this a prank?”
“No! This is real.”
“Then tell me where you’re from,” he challenged.
“You won’t have heard of it. And you won’t believe me.”
“It’s not important.”
“Then I’m leaving.” Charles took a step back.
“Then tell me.”
She sighed. “I’m from a city called LAanges.”
“I told you it was a place you wouldn’t know.”
“Where is it?”
“Far away. LAanges. In another language it means ‘angels.’ I said you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Are you an angel?”
She laughed. “No! I’m just from a city a long way from now.” Then she became serious again. Urgent. “I need to take you there. Everything depends on it. Please help.”
“What if I don’t want to go?”
“But you do. I can see it in your eyes. And you want to know more, don’t you? Admit it.”
He didn’t move. He felt dizzy.
“I promise you won’t be sorry. Meet me here tomorrow at dawn. Be ready to travel.”
“Where do you want me to go?”
“To LAanges—a world that could fall apart unless you help. See you at sunrise, Charlie. Terrible things might happen if you don’t go. Unspeakable things. Everything depends on you. Everything.”
“What if I don’t want to go?” he asked again.
She didn’t answer. Her clothes shifted back to camouflage, blending into the brush behind her.
“Wait!” Charles cried.
Crack! A flash of light lit the woods, accompanied by a deep rumble and a wet, slushy rattle. Geneva had completely disappeared. His stomach flipped again.
The Hum. It had to be. Why else would a stranger come from a foreign place to find me? He shivered. My father. My grandmother. My mother. Am I next? Hundreds of his kind had been hunted down, tortured, and put to death. Of course he was afraid.
“Geneva . . .” He said it under his breath.
Her words echoed in his mind.
I’ve been looking for you, Charlie. . . . Looking for you . . . It’s no accident . . .