Chapter 1 Chapter 1
Zebedee Bolt was good at running away from home. He’d done it enough times, after all. And not the half-hearted wandering off that involves shouting at your parents, storming to the bottom of the garden, then slinking back in time for tea. When Zeb ran, he crossed bridges and raced through unfamiliar parks, safe in the knowledge that he had memorized all the latest tricks from the Tank (a survival expert who did deeply uncomfortable things, like drink his own sweat and make rescue ropes out of his beard hair, on his television show).
But Zeb was always discovered in the end. And this was because he found it almost impossible to rein in the Outbursts. These episodes came upon him without warning and consisted of an embarrassing amount of sobbing on street corners. By the time he’d got a grip on himself, various grown-ups were usually stepping in to bring his getaway to a close.
You see, Zeb wanted to be tough. He longed to be like the Tank, who could escape any situation, like surviving weeks in the wild on a diet of grasshoppers, or emerging from a tussle with a bear with nothing but a bit of light bruising. But when you’ve got no money, a limited supply of food, and no friends to fall back on if things go wrong, it is a bit harder to remain upbeat.
So, while Zeb’s getaways always started well, it wasn’t long before the fear and panic kicked in. Where, really, was he running to? What hope was there for an eleven-year-old boy alone in New York? Who actually cared about what happened to him? Not that he ever talked about his feelings to the grown-ups who found him, the social worker in charge of him, or the foster families he’d lived with. Because talking meant trusting. And trusting other people had gone out the window years ago for Zeb.
Tonight would be different, though. Tonight he had remembered cookies. And he had made a solemn vow in front of the mirror that he wouldn’t burst into tears and get found, not even when it got dark, or a little bit scary. Because Zeb had had enough of being passed around people’s homes like an unwanted package, enough of hearing the same things whispered about him by the foster families he’d known: He’s so quiet. Why does he never smile? Is he always this moody? And, overheard this morning, from foster parents Joyce and Gerald Orderly-Queue of 56 Rightangle Row, Manhattan, while on the phone to his social worker: We’ve had him for six months now, and it’s simply not working. He doesn’t smile; he doesn’t laugh; he barely even talks! And he spends so much time shut away in his bedroom, he is almost certainly plotting something dreadful. So before he poisons us in our sleep, or worse, sprays graffiti all over the sitting room, we’d very much like to hand him back.
Their words jostled in Zeb’s ears as he ran over the Brooklyn Bridge. It was always the same thing; he was never what foster families wanted. And while the welfare agency in charge of him had placed dozens of other children in loving homes, those—like Zeb—under the care of social worker Derek Dunce hadn’t had the same luck. Derek Dunce was a buffoon of a grown-up who was capable of messing up even the simplest of things, like walking down a corridor. Finding loving families to nurture and understand vulnerable children was completely beyond him. So, like a disappointing meal in a restaurant or a faulty coat from a department store, Zeb was always sent back to the welfare agency in the end.
Zeb had crept out of Number 56 Rightangle Row for good over an hour ago, as soon as he’d gobbled down his dinner and finished talking to himself in the mirror. Now he was on the run, and though he wasn’t sure where he was running to, he kept going, even as the dark settled in and the city lights began to glitter. He pulled the hood of his jacket up, partly because he’d once seen the Tank do the same, moments before facing down a lion, and partly as a precaution. If the Orderly-Queues had sounded the alarm and the police were out looking for an eleven-year-old boy with blond hair, green eyes, and a fondness for hysterical crying, Zeb wanted to be disguised.
He turned off the bridge and hurried into the heart of Brooklyn. The place was buzzing. People poured in and out of restaurants, music sailed through open windows, and taxis honked. For a second, Zeb allowed himself to wonder what belonging to a neighborhood like this, with family and friends around him, would be like. Bike rides with a mom and a dad in the park? Weekend cinema trips with kids from school? Sleepovers at the neighbor’s house?
A longing grew inside Zeb and with it, a lump in his throat—the first sign of an Outburst. He swallowed it down, then did what the Tank did when the going got tough: some jaw clenching, followed by a grunt. Instantly, he felt better, and as he made his way on through the crowds, he reminded himself that dreaming up family and friends was pointless, because you could never count on other people. Not when they’d let you down time and time again. Humans, Zeb had come to learn, were a bit like vegetables. They claimed to be full of all sorts of good things, but ultimately, they were pretty disappointing.
According to Derek Dunce, Zeb had been born in the Bronx, his mother had died when he was only a few months old, and his father had wanted nothing to do with either of them. At first, those responsible for Zeb had hoped that the foster homes would be temporary, that he might soon be adopted into a loving family. But because Derek Dunce was entirely unqualified for his job, the foster parents Zeb had encountered were the sort of grown-ups who only really wanted uncomplicated children, the types who may throw the odd tantrum around mealtimes and get in a flap about having their toenails cut, but who generally just got on with growing up.
Zeb was not one of these children because it is hard to get on with growing up when being loved hasn’t happened first. His Outbursts led to him being labeled a “difficult child,” and at the string of schools Zeb had been to, he’d never made friends. He kept to himself, too wary to let his guard down even for a moment. It was a lonely business, but it was better than trying to make friends only to move again.
Zeb slowed to a walk as he made his way on into the city alone. He left the bustle of restaurants and bars behind him and turned onto sleepy side roads lining closed parks, until the neighborhood began to fray and become a less-visited sort of place. Zeb gripped the straps of his rucksack. This was the farthest he’d ever come by himself. He contemplated a brief sob before thinking better of it and walking on through the trail of autumn leaves.
It was quieter here—and darker. Many of the street lamps had fizzled out, and the moon was tucked behind the clouds. Zeb went on into the shadows, unknowingly drawn by the pull of magic. The streets had emptied, and now the night belonged to strays: a prowling cat, a dog hunting for scraps, and a rat scampering into the gutter.
Zeb stopped again, and the panic swelled inside him. He had pinched a sheet of tarp from the Orderly-Queues’ garage because the Tank was always talking about thinking ahead when building a shelter. But how did you know where to set up camp? Should you just curl up beneath the tarp with your cookies and hope for the best?
As if the city could sense Zeb’s unease, a breeze came out of nowhere, stirring a handful of leaves at his feet before nudging them on down the road. Zeb found himself following the leaves as they tumbled one after the other down the street and across another road.
He passed a discarded newspaper and only half registered the headlines:
GLOBAL TEMPERATURES SOAR
POLAR REGIONS MELT AT RECORD SPEED
ARCTIC ANIMALS FACE EXTINCTION
SEA SWALLOWS COASTAL TOWNS
In the last hundred years, there had been two major climate disasters. A series of hurricanes that had nearly torn the world apart, then a drought that had starved the planet of rain for months on end. And now huge chunks of polar ice were melting each day; the polar bears and beluga whales were almost extinct; the rising sea was flooding entire cities; and the hottest summer on record had seen raging wildfires across the world. Millions had lost their homes, thousands had lost their lives, and the Arctic and the Antarctic were disappearing at terrifying speeds. Everyone living in a city by the sea was nervous—everybody except Zeb. Because stopping global warming wasn’t top of his agenda tonight, or any night really. Preventing an Outburst and finding a place to hide was.
Zeb followed the leaves until they settled at the foot of a signpost that marked the start of a street so dark, it looked like the mouth of a cave. Zeb felt his knees wobble and a familiar lump slide into his throat. To prevent an episode of uncontrollable howling, he puffed out his chest, raised his chin, and focused on the fact that there was nothing and nobody waiting for him if he let an Outburst loose now. Joyce and Gerald Orderly-Queue had shown more affection for the Saturday crossword than for him. He had to go on. He had to start a new life on his own.
He looked up at the street sign. It was rusted at the hinges and the lettering was chipped, but he could just make out the words.
“Crook’s End,” he murmured.
He took a small step closer. There were more signs nailed to the buildings: PABLO’S PIZZAS, PASTA HEAVEN, BROOKLYN BURGERS. But these restaurants looked like they’d been boarded up for a while now, and at the end of the street, closing the road off into a dead end, was another building. It was taller and wider than the others, and the stonework above the old wooden door was a little fancier.
Zeb glanced at the faded sign hanging above the door: THE CHANDELIER, it read, and beneath it was a list of what appeared to be outdated showtimes.
“A theater,” Zeb whispered. “All the way out here.” He eyed the door, which had been padlocked shut. “Grown-ups, they always focus on the doors.…”
But Zeb knew, from personal experience, that if you could escape a building in a number of ways: out of a window, via a skylight, down a fire escape—then there were multiple points of entry, too.
He settled for a ground floor window now, one covered with planks that had rotted through. He pulled them away to find a grubby pane of glass, and he hadn’t expected to see much when he pressed his face up against it. But at that precise moment, the moon edged out from behind a cloud. And because the roof of the theater was in need of repair, the moonlight slipped in through the cracks and shimmered on the most enormous chandelier Zeb had ever seen. Hundreds of glass droplets hung from the domed ceiling, glinting silver like a giant’s crown.
The moonlight was so bright that Zeb could see quite clearly inside now. Beyond a tiny foyer, the theater opened to reveal a balcony of seats up high, and down on the floor, more seats arranged in rows and draped in cobwebs. These led up to a stage fringed by tattered curtains and covered in dust. The stage was empty but for one thing. And when Zeb saw what it was, a small smile escaped his lips.
“A piano,” he breathed.
You see, Zeb had not been brewing poison or shaking up cans of graffiti paint inside his bedroom on Rightangle Row. He had been teaching himself to play the keyboard he’d found under the bed there. Music, it turned out, was the one thing that could blot out everything else for Zeb. As soon as the first few notes of a song sounded, the rest of the world fell away. And while music didn’t seem to be a priority for the Tank, Zeb had watched an episode where the survival expert fashioned a rescue horn out of an ox’s thighbone, so he decided it must be all right to play a few sonatas from time to time.
Zeb gazed at the grand piano, sleek and black, as if it had been cut from midnight. And suddenly he forgot all about Outbursts and disappointing foster homes. He heaved the window up until there was space enough to climb through. Then, throwing one last look down Crook’s End to check that he hadn’t been followed, he squeezed himself into the theater and closed the window behind him.
It was absolutely silent inside, and Zeb winced as his footsteps bit into the quiet. But he made his way past the stalls, beneath the chandelier, and toward the stage. In the wings and scattered in moonlight, Zeb could see old set designs piled up on top of each other—mountains, palaces, and jungle trees—as well as heaps of abandoned props. Birdcages stacked up beside lamps, parasols left on sagging armchairs, and typewriters plonked on old trunks. Zeb was relieved that he would be spending the night curled up in an armchair rather than huddled under the tarp outside. Now, though, he wanted to play the piano—while the moonlight was at its brightest and everyone else was asleep, so that whatever he played would go unheard and he wouldn’t be caught.
He sat on the stool before the piano. The keys were coated in dust, and Zeb wondered how long the instrument had stood there unused. He blew the dust away, and the chandelier glittered mischievously above, as if inviting him to play. Perhaps if Zeb had known that the real danger that night didn’t lie out on the street but under it, he would have gotten up there and then and left Crook’s End. But Zeb did not know that a harpy was waiting for him beneath the theater. And so he played the tune he loved most, the tune he chose whenever he felt afraid and alone, because it carried him back to a memory of long, long ago. He played it softly, slowly, but even as the first few notes tiptoed out into the empty theater, Zeb felt a sense of calm settle inside him.
He forgot about the Orderly-Queues. He forgot about eating lunch alone in the school cafeteria. He forgot about nights spent crying under his duvet. Instead he thought about the mountains, palaces, and trees in the wings of the theater, and as he played, he imagined they were real and that he was walking among them in a land far away. On and on Zeb played, unaware that deep underground, below this very piano, Morg’s dark magic was stirring.