Barclay Thorne was running so fast he nearly ran straight off the edge of the world.
“Whoa!” he shouted, swerving just before the ground dropped into cliffside. His arms flailed out as he lost his balance, and he tumbled backward onto the tall grass and soppy mud. Then he crawled to the cliff’s edge and stared out at the most incredible sight he’d ever seen.
It was gray—gray water stretching out on and on until it met gray horizon. For thirteen weeks, Barclay had been traveling, and though he’d passed many places on his journey—quaint villages, grand cities, and untouched wilds—this was the first moment he felt truly on an adventure.
They had finally reached the Sea.
“This isn’t the Sea,” said a voice flatly, and Tadg Murdock stepped beside him. Tadg was a Lore Keeper apprentice, just like Barclay. And he’d faced the Legendary Beast of the Woods, just like Barclay. But they were far from friends. “This is a gulf. It doesn’t look anything like the Sea.”
Barclay bristled. He had no way of knowing that. He was from the Elsewheres, which was Lore Keeper talk for any land without magical Beasts. More precisely, Barclay was from Dullshire, a small and silly town nestled beyond the edge of the Woods, another of the six Wilderlands. And one very, very far from here.
“What does the Sea look like, then?” asked Barclay. He couldn’t imagine a body of water bigger than this. With a nervous gulp, he inched forward and peeked down the drop. Waves lapped at the rocks hundreds of feet below.
Tadg rolled his eyes. “Believe me—when we get to the Sea, you’ll know.”
Whether or not that was true, Barclay refused to let Tadg spoil his adventure. Barclay glanced behind them to make sure they were alone, and then he whispered, “Root, you need to see this.”
At the summons, a huge wolflike creature appeared at Barclay’s other side, his fur so dark and shaggy that it looked like coils of wildfire smoke. He had black eyes and black claws to match, and stark white bones jutted out at the base of his spine.
Barclay had once found Root terrifying, because everyone from the Elsewheres was raised to fear all Beasts and their dangerous magic. But now he slung his arm around Root’s back and leaned into the Beast’s side.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” he asked.
Root shook his head, wagging his tail eagerly.
Beside them, Tadg could only grimace.
“What is it?” Barclay asked, though Tadg never needed an excuse to be a grouch.
“It’s home,” Tadg grumbled.
“What did I tell you?” snapped their teacher, Runa Rasgar, behind them. She’d stopped at the edge of the cliffside road. “Put Root back in his Mark.”
Runa was not the sort of person anyone might like snapping at them. She wore the leather coat and chainmail of a warrior, and a gruesome scar was etched across the right side of her face, leaving a rippled trail of white and pink across her fair skin. She was a famous Guardian Keeper, a six-time Dooling champion, and fearsome enough to have earned the nickname the Fang of Dusk.
Per usual, Viola Dumont, Barclay and Tadg’s fellow apprentice, hovered in Runa’s shadow. She tsked with mirrored disapproval.
Root whined. Because most of their journey had cut through the Elsewheres, they’d each kept their Beasts confined to their golden tattoolike Marks, where they rested in stasis and out of sight. Barclay had learned the hard way how even the whiff of Lore Keepers could send Elsies scrambling for their torches and pitchforks.
“But we haven’t seen anyone on this road all morning,” Barclay protested. “Root just wants to run. Can’t he—”
“I’m afraid not.” Runa pointed farther ahead. “Get up and you’ll see why.”
Barclay stood and peered down the hill. A village of cobbly gray stone huddled along the shore below, smoke billowing from its crooked chimneys.
Excitement swelled in Barclay’s chest. Their travels were over at last.
“Sorry, boy,” Barclay told Root, then returned him to his Mark on Barclay’s shoulder. The Mark prowled across his pale skin, as though annoyed. But then Root padded a few times in a circle and curled up to take a nap.
The group started down the winding dirt road to the village.
Beside Barclay, Viola clicked and clacked as she walked. Her coat was so covered in gold pins, buttons, and baubles that Barclay could scarcely see the wool beneath. She claimed they distracted her pesky dragon, Mitzi, from nipping at her ears or poofy hair buns of tight curls. Even so, she had a tiny welt on her cheek where her light brown was skin swollen from when Mitzi had last nicked her.
“How do you always get yourself so dirty?” Viola asked him.
Dried mud was crusted all over Barclay’s clothes and hands. When he lived in Dullshire, he would’ve panicked at breaking one of their many ridiculous rules, which forbade everything from uncleanliness to hiccups.
But now Barclay only shrugged. “How come you always agree with everything Runa says?”
Viola fiddled with her pins, looking embarrassed. “I do not.”
“Yes you do,” Tadg muttered.
“Don’t you have some flowers to stomp on?” Viola shot at Tadg. “Or sunshine to complain about?”
Tadg gave them a very Tadg-like frown and stormed ahead.
Soon they reached the village, which was a dreary, unhappy place. All of the doors and window shutters looked to be made from rotted driftwood. Sheep milled about the main street beside the beach, munching on the brittle grass that sprouted amid the sand and cobblestones. It smelled of salt and Springtime and a lot of manure.
“This is the town of Knunx,” Runa declared. “It’s the closest Elsewheres town to the Sea.”
Just like Dullshire, Barclay thought.
In fact, a lot about Knunx reminded Barclay of Dullshire. The villagers he passed ogled their group suspiciously, and even without their Beasts roaming free, Barclay knew their group must look peculiar. Barclay’s shoulder-length black hair hung wild and tangled from the winds up on the cliffs. Viola clattered with each step. And Runa’s menacing presence made every shopkeeper avert their eyes.
Seeming to sense the unease around them, Runa halted at the edge of the docks along the beach, which bustled with sailors and fishermen. Her gaze swept over Barclay’s untamed hair and Viola’s bizarre coat, then rested on Tadg’s simple blue sweater.
She pointed at Tadg. “You’re going to ask these sailors for passage to the Isle of Munsey.”
Tadg’s usual scowl deepened. “Couldn’t Orla send a ship? No one here will agree to take us.”
“Orla has been preoccupied. We’ll need to find a way there ourselves.”
As they spoke, one of the sailors—a burly man with a coil of rope slung over his shoulder—bumped hard into Tadg’s side. Tadg looked daggers at him as the man strolled away.
“I better come with you,” Runa said hastily. “I’m not sure we’ll be welcome here for long.”
While the two strode off down the docks, Barclay asked Viola, “What’s the Isle of Munsey? Who’s Orla?”
Viola, being the daughter of the Grand Keeper, the leader of the Lore Keeper world, always knew these sorts of things.
“The Isle of Munsey is where the Sea’s Guild headquarters is,” Viola replied matter-of-factly, “and Orla Scudder is the High Keeper.” High Keepers were each in charge of one of the six chapters of the Guild, and they answered to the Grand Keeper. “You would know this if you did the reading Runa assigned you.”
Barclay loved reading and rarely failed a challenge when it came to homework. But because Barclay was an Elsie, he had a lot more to learn about the Wilderlands than Viola and Tadg. And so during their journey, Runa had assigned him the grueling task of catching up.
“I am doing the reading,” Barclay said. “But if I have to memorize one more fact about the Great Capamoo War or the Ickypox Plague, my head might explode.”
Beside them, a fisherman heaved a net of today’s catch onto the pier. A foul stench filled the air—every fish in the pile was dead. They spilled out over Barclay’s and Viola’s boots, leaving streaks of gunk across the wooden boards.
Viola yelped and jumped back. “Gross,” she groaned.
Barclay pinched his nose. However these fish had died, it must’ve happened a while ago. They’d already gone too rancid to eat.
At the mess, the fisherman mumbled something to them that Barclay didn’t understand but that he guessed meant “sorry.” Then the fisherman looked the two of them over, and his eyes widened in alarm.
“Lore Coimadaí.” This time, whatever he said, his voice was harsh. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a spiky conch shell. Then he clutched it to his chest and darted away from them.
Because Barclay spent most of his time with Runa and his fellow apprentices, he often forgot that they all heard one another in Lore-speak, which all Lore Keepers could use once they bonded with a Beast. So even though they each came from far-flung parts of the world, they could understand one another. But the fisherman was an Elsie.
“Do you know what he said?” Barclay asked. Viola had a knack for languages.
“I’ve never learned Sea-speak, but if I had to take a guess… I’d say it’s their word for ‘Lore Keeper.’ And his shell reminded me of that twiggy charm you used to carry. Remember? The one that made you smell like a skunk.”
Barclay’s cheeks grew hot. After he’d accidentally bonded with Root and been run out of Dullshire, Barclay had taken his charm with him. After all, it supposedly warded away Beasts, and Barclay had been about to venture into the vast and frightening Woods, which was crawling with Beasts. He’d later learned that the charm was useless. All it had done was make him look very, very foolish.
“Dullshire has no idea that Lore Keepers help protect them from Beasts. They just know that Beasts are dangerous,” Barclay said hotly. “I bet Knunx is the same way.”
Viola crossed her arms. “It’s not like we keep what we do a secret. Elsies are just ungrateful. You saw the way that sailor knocked into Tadg. He definitely did it on purpose.”
“Knunx knows that Lore Keepers bond with Beasts. They think we could be bringing danger.” Dullshire did far worse things to suspicious travelers, the kindest of which was sending a herd of goats chasing after them or pelting them with moldy fruit.
Viola elbowed Barclay in the side. “You just think that because you’re an Elsie.”
The words shouldn’t have stung like they did. Not just because Viola was only teasing, but because Dullshire had treated Barclay terribly—even before they’d banished him. But Barclay would always care about some of his companions there. Like Master Pilzmann, the local mushroom farmer. Or Mrs. Havener, the librarian who’d lent him books about adventure. And most importantly, Dullshire was where Barclay’s parents had lived.
And where they were buried.
The Legendary Beast of the Woods, Gravaldor, had killed Barclay’s parents when he’d destroyed the town almost eight years ago. Dullshire was wrong about a lot of things, especially Beasts. But Barclay also understood why they were afraid, and so it was hard to blame them for it.
Not wanting to explain his messy feelings to Viola, Barclay trudged across the shore. On the docks, Tadg and Runa were in a fierce debate with another sailor. Though Barclay could understand Tadg (“I’m not being rude, old man!” he shouted, then rudely gestured with his hands), the fisherman’s words were foreign to him. His voice lilted up and down, as though the words swelled like the sea. But judging from his angry tone, the conversation wasn’t going well.
A chilly breeze tore across the beach. Resting nearby on the sand was a ship with snapped masts and shredded sails, and Barclay ducked behind it as shelter from the wind. Then, miserably, he took in his bleak surroundings. Everywhere was wet sand and muddy sheep wool and scratchy burlap. Seagulls circled overhead, their shadows looping across the dunes. Sinister storm clouds gathered behind them.
This time last year, Dullshire had just finished their week-long Midspring celebration. The townsfolk had dyed eggs bright colors and hung them from the tree branches, which all bloomed with pink and orange flowers. Barclay had even convinced Master Pilzmann to get festive, and so they’d strung mushroom garlands across all their windows.
This year, Dullshire celebrated without him.
You’re a Lore Keeper now, Barclay reminded himself, and the thought comforted him—a little. Because Barclay wanted to be a Lore Keeper more than anything. He wanted to protect towns like Dullshire and Knunx, even if they never thanked him for it.
Besides, Dullshire didn’t want him anyway. They’d barely ever wanted him—before he was a Lore Keeper, he was just a scrappy orphan who accidentally broke too many rules. Barclay might’ve had a few fond memories of his home, but that didn’t mean he’d ever belonged there.
Tadg stalked across the beach, his fists clenched. Barclay watched from afar as he yelled at some unsuspecting sheep, who paid him no mind.
Runa joined Barclay by the damaged ship. The wind was so strong that her braid had come undone, and she spit strands of blond hair from her mouth. “Unfortunately, no one is willing to sail us across the gulf to the Sea, no matter what we pay them. They claim it’s because there’s a storm coming. But I’m not sure that’s the only reason.”
“They’re just scared, is all,” Barclay mumbled. There he went, defending Elsies again. He didn’t even know these people.
Runa looked out onto the water grimly. “They should be scared, given the news I’ve heard.”
Unnerved, Barclay was about to ask Runa what she meant when his Mark gave a painful twitch, as it always did when danger neared.
Not a moment later, a scream ripped across the pier. A woman crouched at the helm of one of the docked ships, swatting away a seagull.
Only the seagull didn’t resemble the ones Barclay had seen while traveling along the cliffs. It was at least three times as big, with four wings and a beak as long and sharp as a spear.
It wasn’t a seagull at all. It was a Beast.
“Well, that can’t be good,” Runa said. Except she wasn’t looking at the docks. She was looking at the sky.
Hundreds of the Beasts swirled overhead, a flock so dense it was darker than the storm clouds.
Then, all at once, they dove.