Authors: Lian Tanner
Petrel was stunned. Two whole fillets! Two
fillets! It was almost enough to make her forget why she had come.
But not quite. She tapped Squid's arm, and made sewing motions.
“A needle?” said Squid, raising her eyebrows. “Is that what you want? What for?”
Petrel didn't answer.
“You got secrets, Miss Nothing? Course you have. Spose you want thread too?” Squid dug in her pocket and handed over a sliver of bone with a hole drilled in one end, and a length of thread spun from seaweed. Then she gave Petrel a gentle shove and whispered, “Now get out of here. And be careful. Folk are angry and frightened, which makes 'em behave worse than usual.”
Petrel was too hungry to go far. She slipped out of the galley and squatted in a quiet corner. Then she tore a piece off one of the toothy fillets and shoved it in her mouth so fast that the sweet juice ran down her chin. She groaned with pleasure and licked her fingers, and tore off another piece.
The fillets were huge, and she was full even before she had finished the first one. She sat there for a moment, thinking about Squid, who had handed over the toothies and the needle far too easily. She hadn't tried to squeeze information out of Petrel. She hadn't offered her the fish, then snatched them away at the last minute, which was one of Skua's favorite tricks. She hadn't done anything.
And that was a puzzle.
Maybe she's just worried about the murder,
Or maybe she's trying to soften me up for something. Ha! I'll take all the toothies she wants to give me, but I won't trust her, not me.
With that settled, she considered the remains of the fish. She should hide what was left for tomorrow. Somewhere on the afterdeck, in the cold, so it wouldn't spoil. Behind the aft crane, maybe.
Then she remembered Fin.
Petrel wasn't used to thinking of other folk, and at first she hugged the second fillet to her chest and told herself that the boy could find his own food.
Except, of course, he couldn't. Everyone was hunting for him, and besides he was as useless as a baby. “Stupid sky folk,” she muttered, enjoying a rare sense of superiority.
She scrambled to her feet. Maybe she'd hide
the fish, and give Fin the other half.
With the fishing shift over for the day, the afterdeck was almost deserted. Petrel hid half a fillet behind the crane, then ran back down through the ship, down and down and down. By the time she reached Grease Alley, her heart was thumping wildly. She'd been gone longer than she had intended. Truce had not yet been officially declared, but the search was already underway.
It gave Petrel the shivers to see folk poking into every corner and ransacking lockers and sea chests. She ran faster, sliding around corners in her ragged shoes, ducking past angry Engineers with her face as blank as she could make it.
But still she was too late. When she came to the lockers at last, and crawled inside, they were empty. The only sign of Fin was the rag she had given him, lying limp and useless on the floor.
The boy waited until he was sure Petrel had gone. Then he crept out of the locker.
He knew the risk he was taking. But he would not let danger deter him, or exhaustion, or the knowledge that nearly everyone on the
thought he was a murderer and was hunting for him. According to Brother Thrawn's ancient diagram, the demon was hidden in the very bottom of the ship, which meant that the boy was in the right place and must not waste the opportunity.
He crept through the narrow noisy spaces, trying to make sense of what he saw. Trying to connect it to the markings on Brother Thrawn's diagram.
Everything was strange and dilapidated. The walls were clammy, the air was foul, and there were machines of one sort or another everywhere the boy looked.
Some of them clanked and growled. Others were silent, and he suspected that they were dead, but still they made him uneasy. What if they weren't dead? What if they were about to spring to life and steal his soul? He had heard of such thingsâthe Initiates whispered about them late at night, whispered about the treacherous nature of machines, and how they could catch the unwary and change them forever.
“I will not be caught,” whispered the boy fiercely. “I will not be changed!”
And he crept onward.
He was not sure when the black rats began following him. At first he thought his senses were playing tricks on him, causing the shadows to scuttle and squeak like vermin. He reminded himself of Brother Thrawn's wordsâ
Imagination is for weaklings and fools
âand kept going.
But then the imp appeared.
The boy caught only a single glimpse of its gray body, with a flash of green around its neck, but that was enough. His skin crawled, and his every instinct warned him that, although the creature looked like a large rat, it was something far more sinister.
Brother Thrawn's voice echoed in his ear.
According to the diary we found, the demon is asleep. But its imps are awake, and they are as vile as their master.
This imp seemed to have some control over the rats. The
rats. The black rats. In its presence, they grew bolder, and before long they left the shadows and began to dash at the boy with high-pitched cries.
The boy loathed rats. There were none in the main part of the Citadel, but the punishment hole, which was underground and lightless, swarmed with them. They made him feel sick. They made him wish he had stayed in the lockers where Petrel had left himÂ â¦
“No!” he whispered, despising himself for his weakness. “I wish no such thing!” And he gritted his teeth and shuffled forward.
The wall was damp and horrible under his fingers, but he thought he knew where he was now. He could picture Brother Thrawn's diagram, which showed a hatch somewhere near here, in the floor.
And there it was! The boy felt a fleeting sense of achievement. But as soon as he bent over and tried to lift the hatch cover, the black rats surged around him, leaping and bumping against his bare hands until he jerked away with a cry of disgust.
He made himself try again almost immediately. “I am no longer three years old,” he whispered, “and this is
the punishment hole. I will not be stopped by a few rats!”
And with that, he grabbed the hatch cover and threw it to one side. Then he dropped through the hole, with the black rats pouring after him.
The space below the hatch was not made for standing upright. The boy had to bend his knees and duck his head, and even then it was a tight fit. He forced himself to stumble forward, with the rats pressing against him from every side.
It was like trying to wade through mudâthrough
mudâand it made the boy whimper in protest. But he kept going, feeling his way along the wall, judging his path by how furiously the rats tried to stop him.
The farther he went, the bolder they became.
The imp is driving them,
thought the boy.
I must be getting closer to the demon!
That thought gave him courage and he pressed on. The rats nipped at his ankles and scrambled up his legs to his knees. When that did not stop him, they changed tactics, climbing the wall and flinging themselves at him. One of them managed to cling to his shoulder, and he felt its filthy teeth brush his earÂ â¦
With a sob of disgust, he grabbed it with both hands and threw it as far as he could. Then he plunged furiously through its mates, lashing out with his feet and hissing, “Go away! Get
It made no difference. The rats grew more frenzied than ever, until he was sure that they would pull him to the floor and kill him.
He groped frantically for the wall, for something to hold him upright, and found another hatch. He scrabbled at it with one hand, flailing at the rats with the other. But the hatch did not have a handle. There was no way of opening it.
Not from this side, anyway.
This is it!
The demon lies behind this door!
He felt a great flurry of triumphâfollowed immediately by a disappointment so immense that he wanted to howl. What was the use of finding the right door if he could not open it?
The rats were falling back nowâperhaps the imp had realized he was helpless. The boy's arm throbbed and he wanted to kick something.
He stood very still and listened.
The darkness seemed to magnify the relentless clatter of the engines, and the scrape of ice on the hull. But beneath those noises, the boy thought he could hear the imp's claws on the deck. They made a different sound from the
rats. Sharper. Cleverer. More metallic.
The boy clenched his teeth. He could not yet reach the demon, but he
destroy one of its minionsÂ â¦
Without warning, he threw himself at the imp. He was so sure of the direction, and so full of fury and frustration, that he held nothing back. He grabbed at the creature, caught it in his fingersâand fell onto his sore arm.
howl then. His fingers spammed. The imp was gone. And the boy was left alone in the darkness.
As he lay there, panting, the steady reverberation of the engines seemed to change, and take on a mocking tone. At first the boy did his best to ignore it. He was starting to feel sick again. Not nauseous this time, but thick-headed and dopey, as if his skull were filled with sawdust. His arm hurt, and so did his throat and chest.
The sound of the engines changed againâand now it seemed to form a word.
rumbled the engines.
Finnn, Finnn, Finnn.
“That is not my name,” whispered the boy. “I do not
Still the engines rumbled,
Finnn Finnn Finnn.
And the ice, scraping against the hull, joined in.
Fffin, Fffin, Ffffin.
The boy gritted his teeth. This was a test, he told himself, and nothing more. In fact, the whole ship was a test. Everything about it unsettled himâincluding Petrel. When he had been given this mission he pictured himself being calm and clever, no matter what happened. But instead he felt as if he was losing controlÂ â¦
He took a deep breath and bent his mind to the Spire Contemplation. Then he stood up and fumbled along the wall, searching for the all-important hatch. He would try again. He would
But the imp had turned him around somehow, and the hatch was nowhere to be found. What's more, his head felt thicker than ever, so that he could hardly think straight.
With a groan he bent down and groped along the floor, hoping to find a weapon of some sort, in case the imp came back. The darkness was so profound in this part of the ship that he could barely find his own fingertips, but he eventually tripped over an iron device. It was narrow, and curved at the end like a crescent moon, and he knew that it was something to do with machines. He did not want to use a machine-thing, in case it corrupted him. But he
need a weaponÂ â¦
As he hesitated, weighing the device in his hand, he thought he heard footsteps. He stiffened. Had someone discovered his presence? Were they after him? Who could it be? Albie? Skua? The
It was a terrifying thought. The demon was supposed to be asleep, but perhaps all his bumbling around had woken it. Perhaps it was coming for him, right now!
The boy clutched the iron device, wishing that his throat and chest did not hurt so much. Wishing that his head was clearer. According to legend, the demon could kill with a glance. It could destroy whole cities. It could boil the blood in a man's veinsÂ â¦
And then the footsteps were upon him, and it was not Albie or Skua or the demon after all. It was Petrel.
She put her face right up to his in the darkness, so that the boy could feel her hot breath. “I've been looking everywhere for you!” she said. “I thought Albie'd got you, and no wonder. I told you to stay put, Fin!”
“That is not my name,” said the boy automatically.
“I don't care. What d'you think you're doing down
The boy grasped at the first excuse he could think of. “Iâ I thought I heard someone searching for me, so I had to move. I got lost.” He shivered. “And there were rats, dozens of them. They attacked me.”
“You're lucky it was just rats,” said Petrel. “The whole ship's in a fizz, and getting worse by the minute. Albie's seething, Cooks are sharpening their knives, Officers are just about frothing at the mouth. I nearly bumped into Crab on the afterdeck. Never seen him acting so daft, washing his hands in the snow over and over again. And it's all 'cos of you murdering Orca!”
“But I did
murder her!” cried the boy, trying to ignore the fuzziness in his head.
“Doesn't matter,” said Petrel. “Everyone
you did, and that's what counts.”
Above all things, the boy hated feeling helpless. But that was how he felt now. Helpless and alone.
These savages are mad,
He tried to recall Brother Thrawn's voice, but it was drowned out by the subterranean sounds of the ship, the distant scurry of rats and the beating of his own pulse.
It does not matter if they kill me,
he told himself.
As long as I can first destroy the demon, I will die knowing that I have helped cleanse the world of evil.
The thought was not nearly as comforting as it should have been.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“I brought you something to eat,” said Petrel, when they were back in the lockers.
Fin stared at her and said nothing. And when she unwrapped the package of fish, he merely picked at the sweet toothy flesh with his left hand. In his other hand, he clutched something and would not put it down.