THE WAY OUT
I liked the night because in darkness, I could pretend I was no longer in Wormwood. I don’t know where else I would be, but it was inspiring sometimes just to imagine a place other than here.
It was chilly this night, but not cold enough to see my breath as I walked along. I had rolled up my blanket and my old sweater to rest my head on in case I was stopped. If anyone wanted to know, I was sleeping at my tree.
The path to my tree had been clear enough under the milky ball in the heavens we call the Noc, but then clouds came and blocked it out and the path fell into darkness. I tied my blanket and sweater around my waist and lit a lantern I’d nicked from the Loons, using one of the three matches I had brought with me. I lowered the hood and opened its shield, illuminating the way.
That’s when I heard it. Every sound in Wormwood needed to be considered, especially at night. Once you left the cobblestones, heightened care was needed. And there was someone or something else out this night. I turned my lantern in the direction of the sound.
As I waited, my other hand dipped to my pocket and clutched the cutting knife that I took from Stacks a long time ago. The knife fitted neatly into my hand. I could wield it with great skill. I waited, dreading what might be coming and hoping it might simply be Delph prowling around as he sometimes did.
Then the smell reached me. That confirmed it wasn’t Delph.
I couldn’t believe it. This far from the Quag? It had never happened but apparently it was happening right now. I clutched my knife tightly, even though I knew it would be of no use, not against what was coming. It brought back memories to me so fierce, so painfully fresh, that my eyes clouded with tears even as I turned to flee.
I put out my lantern because I knew the light was leading it to me, slung the rope tethered to the lantern over my shoulder, and shoved my knife into my pocket, freeing my hands. Then I ran for it.
The thing was fast, much faster than I, but I had a bit of a head start. I followed the path by memory, though I took a wrong turn once and banged off a tree. That mistake cost me precious moments. The thing nearly caught up to me. I redoubled my efforts. I was not going to die this way. I just wasn’t. My breaths came in huge clumps and my heart was hammering so badly I thought I could see it thumping through my cloak.
I tripped over a tree root and sprawled to the ground. I turned and there the beast was, barely six feet from me. It was huge and foul and its fangs were not nearly its most fearsome element. It opened its jaws and I had but a moment to live because I knew what would be coming out of that hole. I flung myself behind a thick trunk an instant before the jet of flames struck the spot I had been. The ground was scorched and I felt the blast of heat all around me as I hid behind the tree. But I was still alive, though maybe not for much longer.
I could hear it taking a long breath in preparation for another blast of fire that would surely engulf me. I had bare moments left. And in those few moments, I found a certain calm, from where I did not know. I knew what I had to do. And I had just a moment left to do it.
I leapt out from behind the tree just as the beast was finishing its replenishing breath. I hurled my knife straight and true and it struck the creature directly in its eye. Unfortunately, it had three more of them.
Then, as blood sputtered from the destroyed eye and the creature howled in fury, I turned and ran. The knife throw had purchased precious moments for me. I made the most of them. I ran like I never had before, not even when the attack canine was after me at first light.
I reached my tree, put one hand on the first rung of my wooden ladder and climbed for my life.
The wounded garm, sensing blood and meat, was coming so fast now, it was as though it were flying. It was said that the garm hunts the souls of the dead. Others say it guards the gates of Hel, where Wugmorts who are bad during life are banished, to spend eternity.
Right now, I did not care which theory was right. I just didn’t want to become a dead soul this night, headed to Hel or any other place.
I hated garms with all my being, but I could not fight a garm and have any hope of winning. So I climbed with a focused fury, driving my arms and legs. Even then, it might not be enough. I knew my tree’s trunk as well as I knew the flaws on my face. However, halfway up, my hand struck an unfamiliar object, but I grabbed the next board and kept climbing.
I could feel the garm nearly on me. It was a large beast, easily thirteen feet long and over a thousand pounds in weight. It was a flame expeller from living in Hel, it was said, where all they had was heat and flames and old, moldy death. I did not want to feel its flames on me. It was closing fast, but I was climbing faster. Terror can compel extraordinary physical action. I reached the last board step. Below I heard claws on wood. I thought I felt heat rising toward me. Part of me didn’t want to look, but I did.
In the flames down below I saw the hard, armored face of the garm. Its chest was smeared in blood. It had killed nothing to get this. Its chest was always dripping with its own blood as though it were constantly wounded. Maybe that’s why it was always in a foul, murderous mood. It looked up at me, its thin, spiky tongue flicking out, its three remaining cold, dead eyes staring up at me, hungry, dangerous, fatal. Its fourth eye was bloody and vacant, my knife still sticking from it.
I screamed at it. I hurled spit from my mouth at it. I wanted to kill it. I wanted another knife to throw, so the point could find its heart and send it back to Hel for all of eternity.
Yet these were hollow thoughts. My only saving grace was that the garm, with all its strength, ferocity, and ability, could not climb.
Momentum alone allowed it to get a few feet off the ground, but it fell back and hit the dirt with a thud. It roared and flames leapt upward, scorching my tree and blackening the edges of several of the wooden rungs. Even though the flames could not reach up this high, I jumped back. The garm rammed itself against the tree, attempting to knock it over. My tree shook under the assault and my oilcloth fell down. And then disaster struck. One of my planks was knocked loose, tilted upward and caught me full in the face. I collapsed backward and plummeted downward before my thrashing hands closed around one of my short climbing boards. My plunging weight nearly sheared it off the trunk. As it was, only one nail remained to hold it to the bark.
As my fingers were slipping over the wood, I looked down below. The garm was up on its hind legs less than fifteen feet from me. Its mouth opened to deliver a blast of flames that would turn me to a blackened husk. With one hand gripping the board, I pulled my sweater from around my waist, balled it up and threw it directly into the gaping opening. The garm choked and coughed and no flames came out. At least not yet.
I regained purchase with my other hand and fled up the boards as the garm roared again to clear its mouth and as the flames erupted anew I could feel them hurtling up the trunk of my tree at me. I leapt over the last short board, threw myself up on the planks. I lay there panting, staring at nothing because my eyes were closed tight.
The garm made one more attempt to reach me and then fell back again. Its innate ferocity was paralyzing.
One sliver later, it turned and headed off. It would look for easier prey. I hoped it would not find any, unless it was Julius Domitar, Roman Picus, or even the smooth-talking Jurik Krone, whom I had decided I could not trust because of that underlying look of hostility in his eyes and because he had said Quentin Herms had broken laws. I would pay good coin to see them encounter a hungry garm. But they possessed weapons the garm feared, particularly a long metal tube that fired out a projectile that would kill anything it hit. We called it a morta. Roman Picus had used one to kill a garm. That’s how he got the boots he wore. And it was said that Jurik Krone was the finest morta shot in all of Wormwood. That was, for me, a discomforting thought.
You couldn’t do much with a dead garm. Its meat was poison. Its blood was like acid. It was said that the claws could still kill after death and that the flames inside it never truly died. Thus, you only could use the skin.
I sat on my bum in my tree, breathing hard, letting my terror cycle down to mere paranoia. The garm was nearly gone. I could barely see its flames now as it moved in the direction of the Quag. I wondered what had drawn it here this night. Then the Quag made me think of Quentin Herms. He’d said he had left me something that would set me free. And I intended to find it.
I looked in the waterproof tuck I kept hanging from a branch. But inside I found nothing. So where else could he have left anything? There was really no other place.
I looked down my tree. Something was itching at the back of my brain, but I couldn’t think what. I went back over my frantic climb up here with the garm at my heels and it occurred to me.
My hand had hit something unfamiliar.
I opened my lantern and peered over the edge of my planks. There was not much to see. Except one thing. I had nailed twenty boards as rungs against my tree’s trunk and now I counted twenty-one.
That was what my hand hit. An extra board that shouldn’t have been there.
If I was right, then Quentin was brilliant. If I hadn’t initially noticed the extra board, who else would have? Probably not even Thansius, as smart as he was.
Trembling with excitement, I climbed down to the board and examined it under my lantern’s light. Fortunately, the garm’s flames had not touched it. It looked exactly like the other boards. I found this remarkable until I recalled that Quentin was a skilled Finisher.
I scanned the front of the board for a message. There was none. But a message on the front would have been too easily seen. I tugged on it. It appeared firmly nailed into the trunk. Now I began to wonder whether Quentin was actually that smart after all. How was I supposed to pull the board out without falling and killing myself?
But as I looked more closely, I saw that the nail heads in the board were not nail heads at all. They had been colored to look like nail heads. So what was holding the board up? I felt along the top edge of the board. There was a slender length of metal that hung over the board. I felt along the lower edge of the board and felt an identical stretch of metal there. The metal had been darkened to blend in perfectly with the stain of the board. I put one hand on the end of the board and pulled. It slid out from between the two metal edges. The metal had acted as both a track and a support, to slide the board into place and keep it there. Now, with the board gone, I could see how Quentin had attached the metal to the trunk using stout screws.
The board was light. It was probably a good thing I did not step on it while fleeing the garm. I doubted it would have held my weight.
I scampered back up to the top of my tree and sat on my haunches, the board in my lap. I turned it over and there it was: a small, flat metal box. Inside was a roll of scroll. I unfolded it. It was surprisingly long to have fitted inside such a small space.
I shone my lantern light on it and caught my breath. It was a map. It was a map of something I never thought anyone could have mapped.
It was a map of the Quag.
More than that, it was a map of a way through the Quag.
What Quentin Herms had left for me was a way out of Wormwood.
I sat there staring at the parchment like it was both a sack of coins and a bag of serpents. As my eyes ran over the detailed drawings and precise writings, the enormity of what I was holding washed over me. My skin tingled as though I had been hit by a sudden thunder thrust riddled preceded by spears of skylight.
But when had he placed the board here? I had been here at first light and there had only been twenty boards, of that I was sure. I had seen Quentin flee into the Quag, also at first light. So had he come out of the Quag to place the extra board on my tree after I had gone to Stacks? If so, why? And how could he have survived the Quag in the first place?
Yet this was clearly the message from Quentin Herms. But it was far more elaborate than the cryptic one I had swallowed back at Stacks. This map also could be construed as him contacting me and Jurik Krone had been especially clear on that point. If Quentin contacted me and I did not tell Council, I could be sent to Valhall if I did not report it. For how long, he hadn’t said. But even one light and night in that place would be far too long. And since it was illegal to enter the Quag, it would most certainly be against our laws to have a map of the place. That would get me in Valhall faster than Delph could say, “Wotcha, Vega Jane.”
But in truth my curiosity overrode my fear. I lit my lantern and studied the map closely. The Quag was an unfathomably large place. Quentin had not marked the map with precise distances, but he had included the footprint of Wormwood within the parchment. I studied the two side by side and saw quickly that the Quag was many times the size of my village. Also telling was the fact that the map ended at the edge of the Quag. If there was anything on the other side, Quentin either did not know or else for had not put it down on this parchment for some reason.
My gaze ran down the last bit of the map, and then my dilemma became obvious. Every Wug knew that entering the Quag meant death and I could never see myself going into it. And even if I survived the Quag, where would I be?
We had always been told that nothing lay on the other side of the Quag. In fact, we had always been told that there was no other side. For all I knew, once I left the Quag, I would fall off a cliff into oblivion. But even if I had been tempted to leave, I could not because of my brother and my parents. In his message, Quentin had said I could escape this place if I had the desire. Well, I wasn’t sure if I had the desire, but abandoning my family was not an option. So the easy answer would be to destroy the map since I would never be using it. In fact, I should destroy it right now.
I opened the glass folds of my lantern and held the map up to the flame. But my hand didn’t move. It wouldn’t dip toward the fire with the parchment.
You can never go through the Quag, Vega, so what does it matter? Just burn it. If you’re found with it, your punishment will be Valhall! You can’t risk that.
Still, my hand didn’t move. It was as though an invisible tether was keeping it in place. I slowly pulled the parchment away from the flames and pondered what to do. I had to destroy the map. But could I destroy the map and yet also keep it?
My gaze moved to my waterproof tuck. I opened it and pulled out my ink stick. I kept it here because I would draw pictures on my boards of things that I would see from this vantage point: birds, clouds, the canopy of massive trees at eye level. But transferring the map from one piece of parchment to another was not an answer to my dilemma.
So I had another solution.
It took some time, a bit of contortion, and a fair amount of ink, but when it was done, I held the map up to the spark of my lantern and let its end ignite. I dropped it and watched it descend to the wooden planks as the ends curled up and blackened. In less than a sliver, it had disappeared to ash that floated away in the breeze. And then even the ash was gone.
I slipped down the rungs with the extra board in hand, put it back into its metal slot and continued my descent. My feet hit the dirt and I looked around, suddenly fearful that the garm might return. But I did not smell it. I certainly did not see it. Perhaps it had gone back to Hel. I hoped with all my heart that it stayed there.
I now had a map that I could never use to leave here. But I had something else. A mystery surrounding a ring that had belonged to my grandfather. It wasn’t simply curiosity, although I have more of that than most Wugs. This was about my family. This was about my history. Which, in the end, meant it was ultimately about me.
Excerpted from The Finisher by David Baldacci. Text copyright © 2014 by Columbus Rose, Ltd.
First published in the UK 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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