Empire of Bones (Ashtown Burials #3) is a part of the Ashtown Burials collection.
Fans of both Percy Jackson and Indiana Jones will be captivated by the lost civilizations, ancient secrets, and buried treasure found in the third book of the Ashtown Burials series, an action-packed adventure by the author of 100 Cupboards.
Cyrus and Antigone Smith have thwarted Dr. Phoenix’s plans—for the moment. They’ve uncovered a new threat from the transmortals and managed to escape with their lives. Their next adventure will take them deep into the caves below Ashtown, where they will look for help from those imprisoned in one of Ashtown’s oldest tombs.
“An extraordinary new series.”—SLJ, Starred
An Excerpt fromEmpire of Bones (Ashtown Burials #3)
People wear places like they wear shoes. A place shifts around you, and you shift inside it, growing blisters and then calluses, becoming used to each other. But shoelaces tatter. Soles grow thin. Every day spent in a place frays the carpets, compresses the dirt, scuffs the sidewalks, or kills the grass just a little bit more. Floors creak, stairs bounce, trees, moss, weeds, and mildew grow, walls sag, pipes chatter and finally leak. Every breath changes the paint in a room, or the growth of green things beside you; every switch of the lights sends lightning rivers racing through secret grooves in hidden copper wires.
No place is ever the same tomorrow.
Take off your shoes and leave them in the tall grass for a year. Return and slip them on if you can. Disturb the ants and centipedes and beetles that now live inside. Wiggle your toes. You have changed.
No place is yours forever.
The evening sun dragged its light sideways across a lake, across miles of hills and barns and highways until it found Cyrus Smith, tipping back in a wooden patio chair in a place that had once been his own. Cyrus inhaled a rich slice of autumn air, scented with distant cattle and ripe fields and dusty asphalt and whole forests of yellowing trees. The smell was familiar, and it plucked memory strings inside him. But everything else had changed. The Archer Motel was nothing like the decaying roadside carcass that he and Antigone and Daniel had once made their home. As Cyrus looked around, he felt like he was being lied to. The motel was a little bit taller now, and the new metal roof gleamed. The walls were bright Jamaica blue, new windows set inside angel-white trim threw perfect reflections back at him, and working air conditioners hummed to themselves in diligent boredom. At the far end of the building, the motel had even grown a sparkling diner with huge windows and bright-red bar stools. Out front, smooth asphalt wore fresh yellow reflective parking stripes with casual pride. And at night, the Golden Lady, with her arrow drawn, bathed the motel with warm, uninterrupted neon.
Strangest of all, immediately in front of where Cyrus sat, tipping in his chair with one knee bouncing, chlorine-blue water slurped gently at the edges of a swimming pool that had once held only a collection of cast-off tires.
To be completely fair, Cyrus Smith wasn't much like the boy the motel remembered, either.
It had been well over a year since he had called Room 111 his own, since he and his sister had been swallowed up by the Order of Brendan. A year of training, a year of struggle, a year of blood.
Cyrus's shoulders were broader than when the motel had seen him last, and his arms were longer and knotted. Veins striped his dark forearms and the backs of his hands. His black hair was short enough to be uncombable, but long enough to jut out from his scalp in whichever direction it liked. A seamless white silk bandage was wound tight around his left wrist, stained on the inside with the ooze of an unhealed wound where Oliver Laughlin, nephew of Phoenix, had slashed him with the Dragon's Tooth.
He rubbed the bandage with his thumb while his knee bounced.
The biggest change was in his dark eyes.
Cyrus Smith knew who he was. He had seen nightmares become real. He knew what it was to be hunted, and he knew what it was to hunt, to run and to attack, to stand his ground, willing to kill and willing to die. He knew the smell of Death's breath and how cold it felt on his skin.
And he knew how sluggish and tired he felt every time he even thought about trying to learn something. It was like being a bug stuck in tree sap.
Cyrus looked at an old leather-bound book open on a little table beside him, and the pad of paper where he had been using a heavy two-legged compass to spin circles and transcribe triangles. He had done more of the proofs than he'd expected, but less than he'd promised himself he would. There were too many distractions, inside his mind and out. He hated it when Rupert Greeves left him behind. And Cyrus was sure that this time Rupert was sneaking back into Ashtown--where Cyrus's mother was being kept in the shiny, lemon-smelling hospital wing.
She'd been awake for weeks now. Weeks. And if Bellamy stinking Cook hadn't been named Brendan, and if he hadn't sold out and gotten the treaties with the crazy transmortals voided, then Radu Bey and his stupid Ordo Draconis wouldn't have put their little death order out on Cyrus and Antigone, and the O of B wouldn't have ducked and groveled, and Rupert wouldn't have yelled at the Brendan, and maybe he wouldn't have to be running from his trial or whatever the O of B used to depose an Avengel, and Cyrus could have been there when his mom woke up. He could have just been sitting in the room with his sister and his brother, and he could have seen her eyes open.
He could hardly imagine her awake. Sitting up. Smiling. It made him ache. Of course, they had sent her letters. Antigone had sent one every single day for two months, ever since they'd heard. Rupert had someone inside deliver them. But they'd never heard anything back. How could they? They hadn't slept in the same place more than two nights in a row since Diana Boone's house right after the brawl in the old cigar factory. They hadn't even stayed one night in California when they'd buried their father.
For two months, Rupert Greeves hadn't stopped moving, and Cyrus and Antigone had been dragging around behind him like a forked tail. Strange people, strange houses and estates and airplane hangars. Strange meetings and messages and men with trucks full of fuel waiting beside tiny airstrips with only one tattered old wind sock flapping above an outhouse.
Strange looks. Lots of those. And always directed at the two strange kids who stood behind the tall black Avengel, running from the Order he had sworn to defend, and still struggling to defend it. Cyrus knew that for many members of the O of B, the long list of what-ifs and if-onlys didn't start with Bellamy Cook becoming Brendan. They started with him. Cyrus. That Smith kid. From that Smith family. The kid who'd had the Dragon's Tooth and hadn't told. The kid who'd lost it . . .
Every night, as he slipped toward sleep, in this house or that one, in this barn or that warehouse, or in the back of a thrumming plane, he could feel the tooth being torn away from him all over again. And then he saw the tooth on the end of a broken cane in poor Oliver's hand, just within reach. He saw the tooth slashing at him, and he felt its cold edge parting the skin on his arm.
Every night, he jerked out of half-sleep, clawing at the wound beneath his snug spider-silk bandage and blinking away sweat.
Cyrus wasn't going to think about it. There was no point. He let go of his arm and flipped the book shut on the table beside him. His knee was still bouncing.
At least tonight he'd be in his old room. And if Rupert had to ditch him, being left at the renovated Archer had been interesting. At first. But he and Antigone and Dan had been here since breakfast. He'd seen every new little thing.
And the swimming pool bothered him. Two brutal years he had lived in this motel with this stupid pool refusing to hold water. And now? The pool was making it look easy.
Cyrus's knee stopped bouncing. The clear water rippled gently, licking the line of fresh blue tile around its rim like a liquid puppy waiting to be played with.
Cyrus stood up, kicked off his flip-flops, and began unbuttoning his faded green safari shirt.
Across the pool, Antigone Smith looked up at her brother. She was in a tank top and shorts, her dark hair in a blue bandana, and she was seated at a table with two large and delicate rice-paper globes covered in ink gibberish perched in front of her. Both had belonged to the outlaw William Skelton. One had been left to them in his will; the other they had found hidden in his rooms.
Cyrus dropped his shirt on his chair. The pool water licked the walls, waiting.
"Do you have a change of clothes?" Antigone asked.
Cyrus grinned. "Do I care?" He stepped forward, his toes tracing a fresh black proclamation painted onto the concrete:
Cyrus dove. The cool water swallowed him, tugging at his heavy pocketed shorts. Patricia, his hidden little silver snake, tightened around his neck at the sudden cold. Cyrus bent his back and flared his arms, keeping his dive shallow, but his bare chest still grazed the rough bottom. He relaxed, twisted onto his back, and let himself drift beneath rippling light.
Rupert Greeves should have called already. He should have given them a time when he would be back, or at least explained what he was doing.
Since when had Rupert ever cared about explaining things to Cyrus? No. That wasn't fair. Rupe had done hours of explaining and planning and discussing in the past two months. Just never as much as Cyrus wanted. And not at all this time. This time he had gone back to being his old mysterious self.
Cyrus stood up and surfaced, flinging water off his head.
"Tigs," he said, wiping his face. "What time is it?"
Antigone didn't answer. Cyrus blinked, looking around. Antigone was on her feet, both hands over her mouth.
Rupert Greeves stood on the patio, just outside the sliding glass door to the motel office. His hair was shaved on the sides and short on the top, but his pointed beard hadn't been trimmed in a while. The big man rubbed his jaw with a dark scarred hand. He looked from Antigone to Cyrus. Then he grinned.
"She's not strong yet," he said. "Not physically, leastways. But she's here."
Rupert Greeves stepped aside.
John Horace Lawney VII, the round, tweed-suited lawyer who had been with the Smiths from the beginning of their adventures, pushed a wheelchair out onto the patio.
Seated in the wheelchair, thin but bright-eyed with happiness, Katie Smith looked at her children. Her deep-olive skin glistened with life, and her smile was pearl and sunlight. Three years of pure white hair had been shorn from her head and lay in a braid across her lap. Raven-black hair still shorter than her sons' grew in its place. She reached out a slender arm to Rupert and he took her hand. Slowly, wavering only slightly, the woman who had slept for three years rose to her feet.
Cyrus Smith had never seen anything so beautiful in his life.
Cyrus didn't know how he got out of the pool. One second he was in water up to his ribs, and the next he was dripping on the patio. Antigone was already racing forward, yelling for Dan to come quick. Cyrus watched his sister slide her arms gently around their mother. He saw his mother's tears and his sister's ribs shaking. He moved forward, and then he froze, dazed, unsure what he should do next.
His mother was so small. And she looked so much like Antigone, with her high cheekbones and wide smile, but shorter, and far more fragile. Cyrus suddenly felt how much he had changed. He'd grown at least ten inches in the three years since his mother had gone to sleep in the ice-cold sea, since Dan had dragged her out of the surf, unconscious. Cyrus saw the wonder in his mother's eyes as they took him in, and he felt like an ape next to a doll. And then his mother reached for him. Her hand found his face and her eyes settled on his.
"My Cyrus," she said. "You are your father and your uncles bound into one." She pulled him in with one arm. Wet and dripping, Cyrus wrapped his mother and sister together, and he began to laugh.
Dan exploded out of the motel and his arms joined Cyrus's. Rupert Greeves stepped back and laughed, and Horace said things that were probably funny, and Antigone was trying to tell her mother something, and all Cyrus tried to do was feel.
The wind was blowing through the fields and over and around and under distant cows. The sun was still dropping, and the pool still licked its new blue tiles, and beyond a chain-link fence there were dense scrub plums with paths that had once known the sound of Cyrus's feet and ditches where Cyrus had fished for tires and drowned his homework. In the trees and on the telephone poles, old-man cicadas whirred anger at the world for changing. In their youth, the world had been in a spring of green and flowers. Now, they buzzed, everything was coming to an end. Nothing would ever be the same again. And they were right.
Another three years could have passed for Cyrus, standing there, dripping and laughing beside the pool that now held water. Another three years, so long as nothing changed again. But everything changes. Even moments die.
Cyrus's mother was pulling away. Still holding his hand, she sat back in her wheelchair and said that she was hungry. Looking into his eyes, she spoke strange words in a rolling language he had not heard since he'd been a much smaller boy, rooting through kitchen cupboards in the old California house.
"My hungry son could swallow mountains," Katie translated.
Cyrus smiled. "I remember," he said. "And yeah, I think I could."
Dan took control of his mother's wheelchair, turning her back inside the motel.
Antigone leaned her head against Cyrus's bare shoulder.
"Wow," she said quietly. "Cy, can you even believe it?"
Cyrus inhaled slowly, watching his mother go. No. He couldn't believe it. Not any of it. He couldn't even believe his mother had ever been gone. He couldn't believe she was back. His mouth opened and shut, but he had no words.
"Insightful," Antigone said. "Good chat." She straightened up and poked his arm with a sharp finger. "Clothe yourself, Rus-Rus. Make like a gentleman. I don't want Mom to find out that I've let you go totally wild."
Cyrus reached out to mess up his sister's hair, but she ducked away laughing and shot into the motel.
Rupert Greeves still stood on the patio. He walked around the little pool and picked up Cyrus's shirt and flip-flops. Then he came back to Cyrus and held them out.
"Sorry I didn't say much," Rupert said. "Didn't want you two frantic with waiting when it mightn't work. Almost didn't, point of fact. Touch and go in the hospital, and again getting her off the grounds. Bellamy Cook has an entire bleeding army at Ashtown now. Dennis Gilly and Nolan were pure gold. Wouldn't have come off without them."