An Empire of Dreams
The Opening Chapters
LEWIS J JONES
Copyright © 2016 Lewis J Jones
All rights reserved.
— CHAPTER ONE —
The Fleeing Family
The dream of spring felt more distant than ever before. Summer had been a beautiful lie, autumn a blustery storm, and now the scathing hand of winter was at play. The once golden fields and thriving meadows of Merlow had been gradually transformed by the season’s astonishing beauty. So tenderly the snow had fallen, dressing the endless patches of green in cloths of pristine white. The tops of ponds formed brittle shells, and curtains of woolly clouds slowly drew in overhead. Only then, when all was convinced of its cool innocence, did winter prevail with sullen brutality. A fierce tempest had grown over the course of a few days, drumming up arctic winds off the thunderous shoreline and hurling hurricanes down the streets. Hedges were stripped bare and loose windowpanes rattled and cracked in their frames whilst the shrinking days slowly sank into a favoured memory. Winter had never been so stunningly violent.
Alex sat at the window watching the fat flakes fall, mesmerised by their swift and daring dance. They topped the neat hedges and sprinkled the tall trees of the front garden he was surveilling, setting the scene as silent and absent of all life. Alex found his eyes tracing the reflection of his father’s shadow, which stretched out over the snowy carpet. Despite his father standing in the stuffy heat of the hallway nearby, he was visibly shivering.
Two beams of light emerged at the road junction opposite, piercing the thick blizzard. Alex and his father watched together for a moment as the car drove cautiously down the street. Then the shadow swelled back into the warmth.
‘He’ll be here soon,’ said Alex’s mother to his father. ‘It’s not half past seven yet and he’s always so punctual.’
His father gave a low hum. ‘Yeah, I suppose he is.’
‘It’s going to be all right, you know. We get this done, we get tonight done, and you will feel the world better, trust me,’ she said, her voice strong but soft. ‘The world better . . .’
The past few weeks had been long and strange for the Priar family. It was out on an icy road, similar to the one Alex was now staring at, where his grandparents had tragically died. It was a car accident, he had been told, but a copy of last week’s Merlow Messenger had told him considerably more. Their car had unexpectedly veered into oncoming traffic before crashing through the roadside barrier and skidding into a ditch towards the neighbouring village of Magralow. The sadness that hung over the family was like an oppressive cloud, painted even blacker by the fact that no one seemed to know just where his grandparents had been headed at eleven o’clock on an otherwise uneventful Sunday night.
A pinprick of light grew until a small red car came skidding out of the junction and bumped up the kerb outside Alex’s house. The car’s engine promptly stalled, a door slammed, and Alex could make out a slim figure battling its way through the snow and up the path through the front garden.
‘That’s him!’ his father gasped.
Moving into the hall to welcome his uncle, Alex found his mother standing a few paces back from his father. A heavy stare of concern was locked upon her face, but as she spotted Alex her expression broke into a faint smile.
‘Perfect timing. Uncle Abraham’s just arrived,’ she said, cuddling Alex at her side. ‘Must have gotten caught up with the weather.’ She looked down for a brief second, and Alex noticed tears welling in her bright blue eyes.
‘Are you OK?’ Alex said.
‘Of course I’m OK,’ she said with a sniff, rubbing his arm. ‘I’m fine.’
Abraham climbed the steps and called out, ‘William!’ as he and Alex’s father crashed into each other’s arms. There was a moment of heartfelt mumbling between them, and when they separated Abraham rubbed his narrow, bony face. ‘Brrr! So very cold! Sorry for being so late, the bleedin’ car wouldn’t start!’ He wiped his eyes. ‘Alex!’ he then said with a gasp, rushing over to ruffle his hair.
‘I’m glad you’re here,’ Alex said, looking up to his uncle with great admiration.
Leaning down, Abraham replied, ‘Me too!’ before brushing the snow from his slippers and turning to Meredith. ‘Merry . . .’ He sighed, squeezing her in a warm hug. ‘How we’ve missed you. Maudlyn sends her love.’
‘So glad you could make it. How are you?’ As she took a step back, her gaze travelled down Abraham’s tall body and then up again; beneath the weary, woolly shell of his cardigan he was hovering dangerously close to gauntness and ill-health. ‘How are you both doing?’
‘We are well—as well as we can be. I would have told Alex to come to ours but Maud said it’d be good for me to get out. I haven’t left her side in weeks.’ When Abraham noted the time, William and Meredith pulled on their coats and stepped out onto the icy top step. They each gave Alex a great hug and kissed him on the head before linking arms.
‘I’m sorry you have to leave so soon,’ Abraham said, his arm now cuddling Alex as they stood on the balmy border. ‘How about you all come to ours for dinner? An evening next week? I know Maud would love to see you.’
‘Of course we will. Sounds like a great idea,’ Meredith said, tying her scarf.
‘Love you, son,’ William said.
‘Love you,’ Meredith added, and with that, they descended the steps through the white garden and moved out into the dark street. After one lasting wave they walked along out of sight.
By the time his parents had driven away, Alex had rushed off to set up the game of chess, his uncle’s favourite game, in the lounge immediately off the hall. His uncle soon joined him on the thick rug, his nose burning as brightly as the handsome scarlet walls. The game stormed into play. Alex had long since learned, by letting his uncle win, he was guaranteed the treasured prize of his uncle’s joy in return.
After the grandfather clock struck its eighth and final chime, the telephone abruptly screamed from the hall.
‘Hello?’ Alex said as he picked up the receiver.
‘. . . Hello? Is that . . . ? Hel-hello?’ The elderly woman’s voice was crackly but not from the bad connection. ‘Alex, is that?—It-it’s your aunt. Is Abe there? I need him . . .’
Finding his uncle paralysed with fear at his side, Alex hastily passed him the phone.
‘Maud, are you all right? What’s wrong?’
Abraham fired his questions, and his eyes bulged behind his heavy glasses. Almost shrieking that he would be with her right away, he unintentionally slammed the phone on its hook. He launched back into his boots and had barely managed to say, ‘I’ll be right back!’ before the door clanked shut behind him.
The small red car skidded away and Alex retired to the sofa to face the empty room. He was certain his uncle wouldn’t be long. Maudlyn often needed Abraham’s aid at the drop of a hat when he wasn’t at her side. As his eyes became heavy, Alex allowed them gentle rest. He pushed back into the cushions and within no time felt himself drift from the cusp of wakefulness and plunge, dreamlessly, into the depths of sleep.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Alex bolted upright and rubbed his face. The grandfather clock wore the expression of quarter past eight in the corner of the room. The door blew open the moment he pulled on the handle, but to Alex’s surprise, the top step was empty.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
The three loud knocks rapped through the house from behind him. Battling the door shut and turning around, Alex felt as though his insides had slid into a bucket of ice: through the square glass panes of the back door he could see three dark figures. The shadows swayed in the brisk wind. Taking hesitant steps through the bright hall and into the gloomy kitchen, Alex could see their heads move in sync, following him.
‘Hello!’ The middle figure spoke abruptly in a loud, booming voice.
Alex stopped. His racing heart lurched within him. ‘Hello,’ he replied with a quiver.
‘We are sorry to disturb you. So sorry,’ said a woman in a calmer tone. ‘We hope we haven’t scared you. Our vehicle has faulted, er—broken, not far from here.’ She pointed back to somewhere beyond the heavy snowfall.
A sharp gust of wind shot at the three figures, nearly knocking them over, so Alex hastily unlocked the door and offered them refuge, luring them into the brightness and warmth of the hall in order to see them better.
The central body emerged first, dressed in a long black cloak and propped up by a silver cane. Peering down at Alex through his thick bottle-end glasses, the man lifted the corners of his mouth, which was set in an aged, wise-looking face. ‘Hello again. We can see each other now!’ he announced in his lively voice. ‘My name is Winton, and it is a great pleasure to meet you this evening.’ His striped black suit and waistcoat were briefly exposed as he bowed over one arm.
As the shorter man and the woman joined him on either side, Winton guided them further into the house.
‘This is Irwin here,’ Winton said. The man had jet-black hair, a square-ish face and a particularly strong, short jawline. ‘My son-in-law.’
Irwin shook Alex’s hand firmly and nodded to him. ‘A pleasure it is to meet you,’ he said.
‘And this is my daughter, Evelyn,’ Winton continued, ushering her forward.
‘Please, call me Evie,’ she insisted.
Evie curtseyed, and her golden hair brushed her shoulder. When she rose again, Alex noted how remarkably similar to his mother she appeared; Evie too had a small, round face and bright eyes that gleamed like perfect gems, though hers were green, not blue.
Unsure whether to reciprocate with a bow himself or some grander gesture, Alex shyly offered, ‘Hello, I’m Alex.’
The three strangers glanced to one another before Winton craned his neck around and commented on how beautiful the house was. But then the guests appeared quite lost. Evie continued to stare at Alex, wringing her hands in some state of concern.
‘I must apologise again if we scared you. That was far from our intention,’ she said. ‘As we mentioned, our vehicle has broken and we wondered if we could possibly borrow your . . .’ Evie’s voice lowered before drawing to a halt. ‘Your . . . er, the erm . . . a way to communicate, to speak to . . .’
‘A telephone?’ Alex suggested.
‘Exactly, yes. Thank you,’ Evie said, blushing.
Frowning with curiosity, Alex motioned to where it sat beneath the mirror.
Irwin picked up the receiver, and after examining it, held it the wrong way up against his ear while pressing seemingly random numbers. Winton smiled apologetically at Alex before moving to help Irwin. His cane clonked repeatedly against the floor as he shuffled.
After inviting Evie and Winton into the lounge, Alex filled up four glasses with water in the kitchen. Upon returning, he found them sitting where he had drifted off to sleep earlier. The space between seemed filled with secrets; their faces were mere inches apart, and words were slipping from the corners of their mouths.
‘I feel quite the hypocrite wearing this,’ Alex heard Winton say; he was stroking the silver watch on his wrist. But their conversation quickly turned to gratitude as Alex passed them their drinks, and the concerned looks on their faces subsided.
The embers in the fireplace were snoozing quietly as Alex sat down on the sofa nearby to feed on their warmth. Not knowing quite what to say, he began by asking where his guests were from.
‘London. I grew up close to what was Mayfair,’ Winton said.
‘I know where Mayfair is. My uncle gave me a book about London before he took me to Hyde Park earlier this year,’ Alex said. ‘Where were you heading tonight?’
Winton glanced at Evie’s jittering knee. ‘To see a friend,’ he replied. He paused. ‘It has been terrible weather though, just terrible.’
‘Are you home alone?’ Evie asked with an undeniable clench in her voice.
‘My uncle was here but he had to leave. It’s my aunt—she isn’t well.’
‘I am most sorry to hear that,’ Winton said sincerely.
Irwin set down the receiver and walked into the lounge. ‘It is done,’ he said, and in a gesture, he toasted to Alex before swiftly draining his glass.
Rising from beneath the faint screech of the wind outside, a dull humming emerged from somewhere in the room. It gradually rose above the grandfather clock’s persistent ticking and the fire’s waning crackles. In a swift movement, Evie set her bag on her legs, prised open its mouth and peered inside. Winton and Irwin leaned in closer around her as Alex watched on.
‘What is it doing?’ Irwin whispered.
‘It hasn’t done this before!’ Evie said, sniffing nervously. ‘Look! They’re spinning!’ she almost yelled, pointing to the concealed, resonating object within the bag.
‘We barely know what it is capable of. We weren’t told much about—’
‘We weren’t told anything!’ Evie snapped.
Winton clambered to the window, unaided by his cane, but the closing storm meant that nothing but black sky and white earth was visible.
Evie was blinking rapidly now, and visibly panting. ‘This isn’t right! What are we going to do? We have to get back to the children! Imagine if we didn’t, just imagine!’
‘We’ll be fine, don’t worry,’ Irwin said as he swooped his arm around her. ‘It’s getting stronger,’ he called to Winton.
He’s right, Alex thought; the humming sound was definitely escalating.
‘It must be them, but how could they know we came here?’ Winton asked. ‘How could they have followed us back?’ He turned away from the window. ‘It didn’t say specifically why we had to come; no more was said, was it?’
‘We don’t even know why we are here!’ Evie said, her words strained through gritted teeth.
‘What choice did we have?’ Irwin said.
Alex noticed in the window behind them a flurry in the snowfall, a sharp gust of wind and then—
Everyone jolted as the red front door sailed recklessly through the hallway, ripping the telephone from the table in its stride. A ghostly wall of dust floated into the house. Figures shifted behind its veil. Before Alex could gasp for breath, red and green pulsating lights rained into the lounge. In a series of deafening explosions Alex dived to the floor, guided by instinct. Evie, Irwin and Winton crashed down around him as the house was plunged into a raging battle.
Rubble blasted through the room, cascading down upon Alex and his guests as shots ripped through the air. A particularly bright, pulsating light fizzled overhead and struck the grate in the fireplace. A huge fireball swelled into the room, it’s heat almost blistering their skin, before oddly swallowing itself whole.
A glisten of silver caught Alex’s attention: in Irwin’s hand, a metallic device rapidly twisted and wrapped around itself until a weapon with a pointed, glowing tip formed, fitting his fingers like a glove. Irwin pushed to his feet, and with white shots screaming from his gun, he rushed defiantly into the war zone.
As the wall separating the hall from the lounge blew apart as though made of cards, Alex skidded onto the kitchen tiles, half crawling, half being pulled by Evie. A vivid green pulse struck the back door up ahead, shooting shards of glass in all directions. Winton threw out his arms, allowing his thick cloak to shield Alex and Evie.
‘Under you get!’ Evie demanded, shoving aside the kitchen chairs around the table and pushing her host beneath it. ‘Stay here!’ she shouted over the deafening battle. ‘Don’t move unless your life is in undeniable danger! Do you understand?’
Alex’s mouth tried to form words but his voice failed him. He drew in his knees. Another earth-shuddering explosion boomed close by.
‘You must stay here and keep quiet!’ Evie yelled, and after forming a protective barrier around Alex with the chairs, she and Winton hurried away.
A violent flash of red light illuminated the kitchen. It sounded as if an angry giant was throwing a lifeless rag doll around the house. Alex gripped the hair around his temples as his world spun. Everything was beginning to slip away. Sounds were fading, colours were draining. He squeezed his eyes shut; his senses blurred into one another before they came crashing together. The pressure built, soared in his head, rose higher and higher, until—
Alex opened his eyes. He continued to pant through the ensuing stillness. It felt as though a hefty hand was forcibly plunging down his throat and plucking out his precious gasps for air. One by one his senses returned and kindly began to piece together his surroundings. He could make out the muffled creaks of the splintered house and an irregular tapping noise somewhere nearby. There was a strong smell of burnt wood in the smoky air. When his vision cleared, it revealed chairs askew around the table as though an invisible monster had tried to seize him. After a quiet minute alone, and with no further sign of movement, Alex crawled out, heaved himself up and moved slowly into the hall.
The swinging chandelier caused lifeless shadows to dance all around Alex as he navigated his way through the destroyed room.
Evie rushed towards him, visibly shaking. A trickle of blood flowed in a tiny river down her forehead. She latched on to him. ‘Were you hit? Are you all right?’
All he could do was shake his head. Evie secured him under her arm. Vicious flames burned from holes stamped into the walls; furniture, snapped and splintered, was strewn across the fractured floor. With his glasses resting lopsidedly on his bloodied nose, Winton hurried them along, followed by Irwin, who had a bruise swelling on his right cheek.
A short distance from the front door Alex’s feet drew to a halt. In the short corridor opposite the lounge were the bodies of two men. They were dressed in long black cloaks and lying on their backs. Their gaunt white faces suggested they were dead but their chests, which rose and fell very slightly, assured him otherwise.
‘Almost there love, keep going,’ Evie muttered over the whirling hum from her bag.
Alex and his guests had barely walked ten paces into the deserted street when a bright light swung over their shoulders. They turned to see a small red car crash up the kerb. In the drivers seat Alex could see Abraham, but it wasn’t the Abraham who had left previously. The previous look of terror was now locked with a distinct sadness upon his face. He was trembling, shaking as much as Alex knew he himself should be having just experienced what he had. It was only after Abraham wiped his eyes that he glanced up to spot the four of them. Looking next to the doorless house barely visible through the blizzard, he leapt out of the car and yelled: ‘WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED!’
Alex had never heard his uncle scream before; his bones quivered and his skin shrieked with goosebumps. Something was definitely not right. Abraham rushed over and grabbed Alex in an embrace that a boa constrictor would have been envious of, covering every inch of him with his protection.
‘What happened?’ Abraham panted, on the verge of sobbing. ‘What the hell happened? Are you hurt? Are you—’
‘I’m fine, I’m . . . all right,’ Alex said, suffocating under his uncle’s weight.
Abraham continued to mumble something, and when he came to stare at Alex, his wet eyes were bulging from his face. It was only as his uncle said it for the third time that Alex heard it clearly: ‘We have to go.’
He found himself suddenly being pulled to the car by Abraham’s iron grip and promptly smothered with a chequered blanket in the front seat. He said his uncle’s name five times, and finally grasped his hand to get his attention.
‘What’s the matter? What’s wrong?’ Alex asked. ‘Why were you crying?’
‘You need to keep warm, that’s what’s the matter,’ Abraham replied. ‘It is very cold. I need to keep you warm. Keep you safe. You must be warm.’ His preparations complete, Abraham closed the door and rushed off to inspect the broken house, not noticing the three visitors nearby.
There was a knock at the window, and Alex saw that his three guests were standing on the other side of the door.
‘I’m afraid we must be leaving too,’ Evie said, stooping down between her father and Irwin as Alex pushed open the door. Her words, however, were not followed by any others; suddenly, and once again, everyone seemed at a loss as to what to say. An apology? A ‘nice to meet you’? A ‘see you around someday’?
Winton cleared his throat before speaking in a slow and sorrowful voice. ‘One day I truly hope you find it in your heart to forgive us for what has happened here on this rather . . .’ He looked up, searching for the right word. ‘. . . betwixt night. I hope for that the very most.’
‘I know not if I will ever forgive myself for what happened here tonight,’ Evie began. ‘I . . . I . . . I just wanted to say . . . I . . .’ She lifted her head. ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
On the verge of tears, she turned away into Irwin’s embrace.
‘Take care, my friend,’ Winton said, and he closed the door.
As quickly as they had arrived, the visitors had left, vanishing within the blizzard. Abraham entered and started the car some minutes later, seemingly too overcome to have noticed the guests. The vehicle rumbled to life and sped off back down the road from which it had come.
As the streets blurred by, Alex found that the only words in his head were the final ones Evie had said to him. Again and again he heard them, as if they were a colossal tidal wave washing away every other thought and feeling. Despite his attempts to elicit his memories, he could not recall whether he had mentioned his grandparents to the three mysterious people.
Abraham’s muttering breaths kept rising and falling over the steering wheel. A spiderweb of wrinkles crinkled around his eyes as they squinted and strained. ‘We have to go, get back,’ he kept saying. ‘Go back to Maud, yes . . . Get home, get back, sort it all through. It’ll be fine!’ He laughed with a sob before shaking his head.
‘What is wrong?’ Alex asked very quietly. ‘Please, please tell me.’
‘I know . . . I just know . . .’
‘Know what? What aren’t you telling me?’
‘I know!’ He slammed his hands upon the steering wheel, as if to persuade himself of this more than Alex. ‘They are . . . they are . . .’
‘Who is? Is it Maud? Is she all right?’
Confused and aggravated by his uncle’s avoidance, Alex tried a different approach. ‘Why did you come back so quickly to get me?’
Abraham’s gaze did not move from the road ahead. ‘I had to come and get you—had to know you were safe, keep you safe . . .’
Alex was exhausted. ‘What has happened?’ he asked wearily. ‘Please tell me.’
Abraham did not respond. Instead, the car gained speed; the onslaught of snow consumed them further and further. They were nearly there.
And then only one.
Abraham finally turned to look Alex in the eye. The passing street lamps lit up the stream of tears upon his face. ‘They are . . . they are gone.’
Dread dropped into Alex’s stomach, and he felt himself sink deeper into his seat. The sensation of fear shooting through his body was breathtaking, spreading to every empty fibre between crown and toe. It felt almost as if something had fractured his body. ‘Who is gone? G-gone where?’
‘They are just . . . your parents . . . they won’t be . . .’ Abraham’s words fell from his mouth. ‘They are gone.’ He faced the road again.
That was it: the sudden, stunning and lasting truth.
In the wing mirror beside Alex everything was fading away, draining into white, yet through the windscreen ahead a path was being thrown at him that he had no choice but to take; the unknown, swallowing them both up, was coming into sudden and immediate clarity from the darkness. Upon facing the wall of daggers before him, Alex felt the first sensation of warmth since leaving his house: a gentle tear rolling down his cheek.
And Alex didn’t say a word because none came to him. And he didn’t move an inch because he felt that if he did, his body would simply shatter as if it was made of the finest and purest glass in the world. But shatter it did nonetheless, and away he went.
— CHAPTER TWO —
When and Then
Alex was often woken by the eerie silence that settled into his bedroom around the midnight hour. The symphony of the rushing sea seemed so turbulent during the day, but when the cool night poured over the town, it brought with it a definitive stillness to all things. And this night in early July was no exception.
It had been a long time since ‘that night’, as Alex and his uncle called it. The night when everything changed. Alex, now nineteen years old, often spent the hours between twilight and dawn in an unbreakable limbo, with thoughts about what had happened and how little his life had changed since then swimming slowly through his head.
Right on time, things became too much to think about, and so, pushing the hungry questions into the corners of his mind, he turned over.
A sliver of moonlight broke through the curtains, like a thief in the night. It caught the edge of the photo frame on Alex’s bedside table and spread down over the faces of his parents, sealed within it. Like beacons they shone, captured in a moment they could never depart from. Accepting that sleep was a world away, Alex pushed to his feet, slipped on his dressing gown and stepped out onto the balcony.
The sweeping beacon atop the lighthouse in which Alex now lived illuminated the tip of the tall, chapel-like building to his right. Perched on the rising cliff edge at the end of town, the Clockhaus stood with strong white walls, long stretching windows and a steeple so tall it often touched the clouds. Try as he might, Alex couldn’t help but wince whenever he looked at the place; in this building he had spent almost all of his years. Those long, long years, Alex thought.
He turned back to the vast, open sea, watching its black mirrored body breaking over the rocks far below. The protracted quietness, so loud and so prevalent, had not left him since that night. It summed up all that he now was: empty, muted . . . nothingness. Being in such a small, quintessential seaside town, where the only event of mild interest was the high street market every Tuesday morning, the absence of anything remotely unexpected let the solitude of his existence prosper without discontent.
The foghorn blasted out far away. Its violent echo swept through the town and into the shroud of the woodlands surrounding it. Piercing the curtains of night far in the distance, the bow of what grew to be a magnificent ship was revealed. Each sweep of the beacon above revealed a greater shadow; it was the length of a skyscraper and slicing through the water at frightening speed, heading right for the shore.
The horn bellowed again, like a long lick to Alex’s quivering eardrums. The hull of the ship suddenly loomed over him, and he dived under his bed just as the sound of metal striking the shallow shores screeched beneath him. As if a bomb had been detonated, everything in his room was blasted from its place. Books flew from shelves, his wardrobe sailed across the room as if snapped from a slingshot and even the bed above him leapt as though flames had been ignited beneath its four feet. Alex threw his arms over his head as the foghorn blew one final time and the earth rumbled to a standstill.
He carefully slid himself out from his hiding place. Is it them? Are they back? Navigating the smothered floor, he raced downstairs. He threw on his coat as he fought with the lock, but before the air beyond could tempt or tease him, the front door flew open and a pair of bony hands plunged in.
‘Are you all right? Are you hurt?’ Abraham stammered, swiftly closing the door behind him.
‘I’m fine . . . I wasn’t hurt—’
‘What if it’s them? Do you think it could be?’ Abraham asked, a crash of fear and madness in his expression.
‘I don’t know, it’s probably just an accident, Abe,’ Alex said. ‘Just calm down for a minute.’
Watching his uncle rush to the small window overlooking the sea, Alex couldn’t help but feel once again the almighty weight of the secret he had kept from him. Whilst Abraham had come to fear a night such as this, when those who had torn apart Alex’s house could have returned, Alex had come to dream of it—a night when the three people he had met so briefly might make their way back into his life, and he might just be found again.
The words of truth about the three visitors that night again lined up on his tongue, always ready but always unspoken. He went to speak, but before he could utter a single syllable Abraham had opened the back door and was guiding him out onto the wet stone platform.
‘Watch your footing, be careful now,’ Abraham instructed, forcing Alex along the thin edge of the cliff face. With their backs to the jagged rocks and the spraying sea before them, they progressed along the pathway and up into the Clockhaus’ small garden. ‘Have to get you safe, keep you hidden,’ Abraham mumbled under his breath. He unlocked the back door and ushered Alex inside. ‘Can’t have people seeing, now can we?’
‘No, couldn’t have that,’ Alex muttered sarcastically.
The overpowering stuffiness of the Clockhaus was immediate, but Alex didn’t feel its true strength until he had moved through the narrow kitchen and up into the lounge. It was so intense that it knocked him back a step. Abraham often set the temperature so high that the big-leafed plant by the window wilted and drooped, the black sofas were difficult to remove oneself from and the crisp pages of the books lining the bookcases wrinkled and curled.
‘Stay here, OK?’ Abraham moved to peel open the front door only far enough for his thin frame to squeeze through. Receiving no response, he looked back to Alex.
‘Yes, I won’t go outside!’ Alex said with a huff. After a lingering glance at his nephew, Abraham left.
Moving to his usual spot by the window, Alex sat down and prised open only the smallest gap in the curtains to watch the world beyond. One after another, people wandered sleepily into the cobbled street and made their way down to see the magnificent vessel. Having lost sight of his uncle amongst the growing throng of people, all still dressed in their nightclothes, Alex thought about just what someone would make of him if he was spotted. His hair had grown slightly longer and his freckles had at long last faded. His height now surpassed his uncle’s, but he was far less weedy-looking. In many ways, without realising it, he had morphed into the image of his father in his younger years. His sea-blue eyes shone just like his mother’s and father’s in the few cherished photos he had of them.
And then, like a feather tickling some feeble part of his insides, a voice teased him. It’s night-time, no one would see you. No one would notice you in light of what has just arrived—who would even spot you joining them? The voice was soothing, speaking in the same persuasive tongue that it had employed since ‘that night’. However this time there was an opportunity for change. The three visitors could be out there; the events unfolding on the other side of the window could be because of them . . .
The idea possessed Alex so fully that before he could contemplate his actions, and more importantly their consequences, he left the safety of the Clockhaus and hurried down to join the stirring crowd. Suddenly, and most successfully, he had broken his old, withering promise to his uncle. Alex’s heart was a sledgehammer thrashing in his chest—it had not acted in such a way for over seven years, lacking any worthy excitement or almighty fear.
Abraham’s white wisps of hair became visible at the front of the group, and instantly Alex felt a sharp twist of doubt. He was about to turn back, but before he could move an onslaught of blinding flashes shot out into the crowd. Alex flinched, throwing his hands up over his face. Expecting devastation and destruction, the muscles in his body clenched. But nothing more than the grumbles and cursing of those around him filled the air. Lowering his hands to discover the local press responsible, taking photographs of the growing crowds, he turned back to the Clockhaus feeling somewhat foolish.
‘What are you doing here?’
With a swift yank, Alex was immediately marched back to the Clockhaus by Abraham. Once inside, his uncle sealed each and every single lock upon the front door—at least half a dozen—and flipped around to face him.
In the seconds before his uncle’s impending release, Alex was struck by just how haggard his uncle appeared. His face was shadowed, and his skin hung loosely upon his softening bones, giving him an air of sadness and regret beneath his rising anger. Despite the layers of clothing that padded his uncle, Alex knew that underneath was a walking skeleton with little apparent strength.
‘WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?’ Abraham howled, now safe within their walls. ‘What if that ship out there is them!’
‘I wanted to see if . . . I wanted . . .’ Alex sighed. ‘I had to know if someone would—’
Abraham’s scolding sigh cut through his words.
‘You know, I try, I have tried for all this time to keep you here, to keep you safe. But . . .’ Abraham screwed up his face and raised a fist before swinging it like a club back against the door. ‘I can only do so much, Alex. What if someone saw you? All of this would have been for nothing! You can’t do this, Alex. You can’t!’
‘I know, I am sorry, it’s just, I never—’
‘You know it’s because I love you? Because I love you so damn much that I do this, that we do all of this?’ Abraham looked at him with urgency. ‘I understand, you’ve been kept away for all this time. I know—’
‘But you don’t know!’ Alex roared as he marched forward. ‘You don’t know! You never “knew”—it’s what you believed that led to all of this, but what if you were wrong? You already believe that ship is them, coming back again. And no other truth will persuade you otherwise!’
‘I-I thought you believed the same!’ What “other truth” could it possibly be, Alex?’
Alex shook the pictures of Evie, Irwin and Winton out of his mind before speaking again. ‘I feel like I don’t know what to believe now,’ he grumbled. ‘And I’ve had enough. I’ve had’—Alex caught his breath and expelled it gradually—‘I just want to be a part of this world. I want to meet people, and have a friend again, a friend!’ Alex gave an empty laugh. ‘I mean, could you imagine such a thing? Can you imagine what that must feel like? Because I can’t. I can’t even begin to fathom it.’
Alex latched onto the back of one of the armchairs for support. Abraham wore a sympathetic expression; in the few feet between them was a great gulf of misunderstanding and secrets.
‘I know we don’t talk about what we have each been through over the years,’ Abraham replied in a steady voice. ‘All I know is what we, together, as a family, have been through, with . . . everything.’
‘It’s OK, I don’t expect you to understand,’ Alex mumbled as he moved directly towards the stairs.
‘Alex please, please don’t think I’m being cold.’
Impossible in this place, Alex thought, using the banister to hoist himself up. He knew his uncle would never truly understand what he felt, and at the moment, he was just too tired to care. ‘It’s OK,’ he repeated unconvincingly. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’
Crossing the landing, Alex walked into the bedroom he occasionally called his own, closed the door and fell onto the crisp bed sheets to escape.
The town was filled with an even larger group of bewildered onlookers the following morning. Those who had miraculously slept through the ship’s arrival had stepped outside to find the typically quiet streets bustling with groups, most of which had ventured from villages and towns far and wide. Rivers of people flowed down to the shoreline to inspect the vessel and trickled away from it dumbfounded. Ten o’clock came and went and still there was no sign of anyone on board the ship.
After he’d showered and pulled on fresh although ill-fitting clothes from his wardrobe, Alex found his way back to the window with a steaming cup of tea and some toast. Between the pulled curtains he could see that the local police were attempting to tame the crowds, and barriers were gradually cornering off the shore. Despite the fierce downpour battering the crowd, Alex was able to spot a number of familiar faces.
Arthur Pemtril, a tall white-bearded gentleman dressed in a flat cap and his usual canary-yellow trench coat, paused to speak to various people before heading off down the high street. A stout and hunched old woman Alex had named Angelica drifted, to her apparent surprise, into the gathering of bodies. Shaking her head disapprovingly at the ship, she set her sights on the baker’s shop and shuffled away through the crowds. Alex even spotted Herga Hyll, Abraham’s greatest friend, dressed in a leopard-print coat and waving her arms exaggeratedly while talking to a neighbour.
With the arrival of the Precipitous, as Alex read it was named, timed perfectly with the printing of the Merlow Messenger, the week’s edition was full of news about the ship, most of which Alex presumed to be either speculation or completely untrue. He glanced over the townspeople’s accounts of their rude awakening the night before but couldn’t help but feel that none came close to his own, and so cast the newspaper aside in favour of a new book from the shelf.
The day trudged on with the grisly onslaught of rain and occasional grumble of thunder. The wind picked up too, giving flight to a number of lucky umbrellas not held tightly enough. When five o’clock finally neared, Alex knew that Abraham would soon be home and they would exchange apologies, as was normal after one of their arguments. As he returned the newspaper to the table beside Abraham’s armchair and slotted his book back on the shelf, through the window looking up to the woods Alex saw something that made him do a double take. Beneath the brooding clouds and through the wicked downpour, amongst the overweight trunks of Bedfellow Meadows’ oak trees, Alex could make out a number of bodies. Between the streams of rain upon the window, there they were. Seven figures. Four adults and three children.
The tallest figure, who seemed to be directing the group, glanced towards the busy shore, and as he did so, Alex’s heart leapt into his mouth. The man was wearing distinct bottle-end glasses, and a long stretch of silver propped up one of his hands.
It was Winton.
Alex’s racing breath instantly fogged the window, and when he smeared it away the man and the six others were gone.
Could it have been him? Really? Alex thought. Precious seconds were falling, wasted and unused, like sand slipping between his fingers. Temptation was not calling now but mightily singing from the other side of the glass. Without another second of doubt, he threw on his coat, flicked up his hood and charged off down the path behind the row of old thatched shops. Passing behind the back of the post office, the fish-and-chip shop, the bakery and finally his uncle’s clock shop, Alex quickly came to be beyond what he had ever been able to see from the Clockhaus.
The path before him was empty, and Alex slowed to a stop. He was imagining things, he knew it now, and his heart had drawn him from the warmth to the cold, from dream to disappointment. Imagining his uncle’s reaction to his escape, he felt a swell of fear. Perhaps his wishing to see them again had led to his vision, but yet that did not explain why he had seen not three people but seven. Seven.
Alex shook his head; it was no use, there was nothing there to see.
But there was . . . There were footsteps! Footsteps dashing through the puddles, multiple feet pummelling the ground in haste. And as he turned back, peering through the relentless rain, Alex saw them. Shivers rippled through him just as the wind, like a howling banshee, carried words of warning:
‘Quick! Don’t just stand there!’
It was the voice he had longed to hear again; it was Evie. And as sinister shots rang out and the alleyway detonated as though filled with landmines, Alex scrambled amongst the group of people to run as fast as he could. Crackling spitfires of light shot around Alex’s head. He ducked and swerved whilst dodging the bursting walls to either side of him.
An older lady—Winton’s wife? Alex thought—was running beside him with a ghostly, fear-stricken expression.
‘Haven’t you missed this?’ Winton shouted. White flashes behind them let Alex know that Irwin was returning vengeful fire.
‘Being blindly terrified with little chance of survival?’
A row of bins up ahead exploded, spewing their flaming contents into the sky.
‘Not exactly!’ Alex shouted back.
The young boy leading the group swerved out into Haggowe Lane, the long road back to Alex’s house, and they stampeded after him and into a side-street. Irwin held back to return fire using the same weapon Alex recalled from that night, but when the car beside him was struck and sent somersaulting across the street, he grabbed Evie’s arm and charged on.
‘There! Markle Woods!’ Alex shouted, and the group swerved right, clambering over a fence and into the empty field on the other side. The soil was poisoned against their ambitions; it was soggy and stopped their feet from moving as quickly as possible. Evie swept up the youngest girl, who looked no older than about seven, into her arms and pleaded.
‘Keep running, my loves! Don’t look back now! We can never look back!’
Missiles of soil exploded up from the angry earth, chasing them up to the tree-line at the top of the hill and down the steep slope on its other side. Managing to keep his balance, the brave young boy skidded down into a deep trench difficult to see amongst the uneven ground and rocks, and one by one the group, apart from Irwin, who pressed back against a thick tree trunk, skidded down into hiding.
Neither a whisper nor a thought could afford to be spared; who knew quite what their assailants could detect? Evie, huddled at Alex’s side, pulled in the boy and two girls and held on to them devotedly. At the opposite end of the trench, Winton pressed his and the elderly woman’s hands together in prayer.
Is this it? I finally meet them again so we can die together? I rob Abraham of his last immediate relative? Alex thought. His decision to leave the Clockhaus, to leave his uncle, had come with consequences so colossal that Alex wished with all his being that he would make it through this for Abraham. As he glanced at Evie, who was staring back at him, she placed a finger carefully to her lips.
Unbearable waves of apprehension rose and fell. Dirt tumbled down upon Alex’s shoulders, and he crushed himself deeper into the damp trench wall. They were there, somewhere above them: inspecting, waiting, scrutinising the scene. A gradual thumping sound grew louder and louder, followed by the appearance of a great glowing sphere. It soared overhead and burst like an igniting sun, throwing out a great web of light into the thick nest of branches above.
Through a small gully in the ground, Alex saw Irwin throw something, a stone possibly, in a different direction. It took a short while, but very gradually the footsteps moved on, snapping twigs at distances further and further away from them.
Irwin pointed in the opposite direction, and then leaned down and began to pull everyone up from the crevice. ‘Keep safe, have faith!’ he insisted, and so the troop, which now included Alex, rushed off through the woods.
They made their way wordlessly through the dips and troughs, following no path other than the one they were carving. The glowing orb dimmed, and the only sound remaining was that of bullets of rain hammering the leaves above, setting the woodlands alive with sound. Pausing every so often to inspect their surroundings, the eight finally emerged into a small enclosure where a fence blocked their path.
Treading carefully, Irwin, at the front of the group, stretched his hand forward. His fingers twitched. ‘I can feel it,’ he said. ‘It’s definitely here.’
And then Irwin disappeared.
Within a moment he had reappeared, and with him came a falling shimmery veil. Behind it, in the distance, was the same colourful field, in front of that the same fence, but now right before them a large vehicle was parked. Alex rubbed his eyes, and as he wondered whether he was only now beginning to imagine things, Evie ushered everyone inside before moving over to him.
Wearing the same red coat and troubled face as she had been that night, Evie had seemingly remained in a constant state of turmoil. Alex felt like he wanted to give her a reassuring hug.
‘I’m afraid we need to leave at once,’ she said hastily, ‘but we cannot leave you here. We can get you home.’ Evie lowered her head to meet Alex’s stare. ‘Do you trust us to do so?’
‘Yes,’ Alex replied immediately.
‘Come on then, in you get.’
With Irwin and Evie taking the front seats, and the three children settled in the back, Alex took the free seat beside Winton in the central row of seats. The car grumbled to life and they slowly crawled up the hill.
Winton gasped. ‘I am terribly sorry, Alex, how rude. This is my wife, Ambrose.’ He leaned back, and the elderly woman on his other side finished checking on the children in the back seat and then turned to him.
‘Hi, I’m Alex.’
‘Oh, I’ve heard quite a lot about you,’ Ambrose said affably. ‘Beyond a pleasure to meet you, at long last.’
Ambrose had a kindly face and light, butter-smooth skin adequately fending off her true age. She had sincere and bright green eyes, like everyone else in her family, and her cheeks were perched high upon her face, so it seemed as though she was always smiling.
The car revved moodily as Irwin threw the gearstick around. ‘Can’t figure out . . . these . . . bloomin’ . . . things,’ he said with a huff before finally slotting it into gear.
Their destination, a place where they could hide, became the next topic of conversation. It was a discussion that, in total, took barely more than a minute of suggestions and one that culminated in a unanimous agreement: ‘Your earlier suggestion, Dad’, as Evie had put it.
Alex caught a glimpse of something silvery on Evie’s lap in the wing mirror as the car crawled to the top of the hill and promptly stalled, not for Irwin’s lack of skill. Overlooking Merlow and its distant shore, Alex saw the sizeable mass of the ship, domineering as it was, in the passing glare of his lighthouse.
The doors suddenly locked. Alex whipped round, confused.
‘Hold on, everyone!’ Evie squealed, causing Alex to clench his arms tight at his side, although he was completely unsure why.
There was a hissing noise, presumably from the device nestled in Evie’s lap, and the car began to shudder as though protestors were stamping along its underbelly. Darkness shrouded the car in a hazy curtain, like the one from which it had appeared, and the vehicle suddenly lurched up from the ground. There was a sensation of simultaneous momentum and motionlessness; they were either moving incredibly fast or not at all, or quite possibly neither, or both.
Peering through the glass, Alex watched in wonder as seeds of blinding colours warped and waved and shot and whizzed and exploded all around them. So mesmerised, so completely enthralled was Alex that if he had been speechless in the woods he was now utterly breathless.
They were lifted right from their seats as they plummeted through layers of colours, which flicked past like pages of an infinite book. A cyclone of light lassoed the shaking vehicle, and now, somehow, their uncontrollable free fall had transformed into a spiralling ascension. As though with a gradual turning of gravity, they soared higher and higher, shooting through the panoramas of a million skies. And just as Alex’s chest felt fit to burst, and he began to fear that they might not make it to morning, the colours connected and found their resting places around them, and they finally arrived.
END OF CHAPTER 2
What secrets do the Evergreens possess?
Why did they return to Alex?
And what happened to Alex’s parents?
Continue the adventure of AN EMPIRE OF DREAMS on:
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Thank you for reading the opening chapters of An Empire of Dreams.
Chapter three, The Day in the Night, follows Alex on his whirlwind adventure through time as he arrives at an infamous point in history with the Evergreens.
It is here that the family reveal their deepest, darkest secrets: Why they are running, who they are running from, and most importantly of all, why they have returned to Alex.
As time goes on one thing will become incredibly clear . . .
Every family has its secrets.
If you live outside of the United States and United Kingdom, you can find the full book by simply searching for An Empire of Dreams on your local Amazon store.
I hope you enjoy the story!
Lewis J Jones
Discover the beginning of a groundbreaking time-travel adventure - Read the opening chapters today completely for free! Some criminals will travel miles to escape. Some will travel centuries. The Evergreen family have just been framed for the first murder in one hundred years. The future is crumbling and everything is ending, and it's all because of them. Their only hope for freedom lies further than they could have ever imagined ... in a young boy called Alex, from centuries before, on the night his parents mysteriously disappear. What can possibly connect a criminal family from the distant future and a twelve year old boy from 1993? As destinies collide and the dark forces that framed the Evergreens rise, hunting them down through time, can Alex help the family uncover the secrets to their innocence before it's too late?