Prologue | DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
I BET I can see London from here, I was thinking.
I was literally 150 feet in the air above a grassy field, outside a charming little village called Whaddon. I'd been in England only a couple of days, and I still had some of that excitement that hits you when you go to a new place—until it turns dangerous and deadly. Which was about to happen in a millisecond.
Because before I had time to take a good look around, I started to fall.
Whipping around end over end, I saw the early twilight stars above blurring and the ground rushing up at me like it was about to swallow me whole.
I could hear voices shouting, but it was impossible to tell what they were saying over the blistering wind surrounding me.
Maybe I should have been worried, but I'll admit it—I was enjoying myself. That is, until my good friend Willy kicked me hard in the face.
Willy, Joe, Dana, Emma, and I were playing soccer. Our own version, in which I was the ball.
That's correct. I, Daniel X, had transformed myself into a soccer ball. Usually you'll find me in human form, but occasionally I morph. It's just one of my interesting, sometimes flabbergasting powers.
Luckily, soccer balls don't have nerve endings, I thought as I flew back into the air, reaching new heights this time.
"And Willy controls the centered ball beautifully, shooting a deft pass to Joe. He takes it up the line. But—no! Dana sweeps in with a well-executed slide tackle and steals it!" Joe always liked to deliver the play-by-play for our games. And just about anything else we did.
"Pay attention, Joe," said Willy, grimacing. "We're getting creamed by girls."
Dana, in the middle of passing me to the other end of the field, cracked up. Lanky Joe is the least athletic of my four friends, but when he shuts up even he can play soccer better than most of the guys in the World Cup.
Dana kicked me hard, and I once again savored the rush of flying through the night sky—until I saw Emma's pale, round face rushing right toward me. She caught me easily on her forehead, and juggled me there for a moment as she turned to the "goalposts," two towering oak trees at the end of the field.
Then Em bent her small, nimble body back and "headed" me straight up in the air. Way up. I relaxed into free fall. Below me, Dana and superjock Willy were racing toward the goalposts.
Dana got there first. As I came down, her blond hair twisted around her as she jumped and spun like a top, fell backward, and aimed a scorching scissor kick right at the goal. The teeth-rattling power of her kick took me by surprise.
"GOOOOOAAAAAAL!" screamed Joe from the other end of the field in his best super-stoked announcer's voice.
I had already overshot the goalposts by at least a hundred feet when I realized I was headed straight into the tree-lined gorge that bordered the field.
I focused for a second, and—without even a "pop" or "zap"—I was back to being myself—a teenage kid—again. I grabbed on to an overhanging tree branch as I flew past.
Hanging one-handed over the gorge, I frowned at Dana. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?" I called to her. "Tried to launch me into the briar patch."
She laughed in the way only she can. "Daniel, you look like a hopelessly depressed orangutan."
Before I could come up with a snappy reply, Joe's voice rang across the field. "Okay, you two, now can we get going? London's not going to walk to us! We have a monster to catch."
Part One | BLOOD AND SUCKERS
I JUMPED DOWN from the tree and dusted myself off.
You think playing soccer is dirty?
Try being the ball.
A couple of minutes later, the five of us were strolling down an English country road that was cuter than a postcard. Our pickup soccer match had been a good distraction, but now it was almost eight and night was starting to fall.
"Well, let's hoof it, guys," I suggested. "In a couple of hours we can find somewhere safe to camp out."
"A couple of hours?" Dana complained. "Can't you materialize a car for us or something? Teleport us?"
"Too tired," I replied. "Takes a lot of focus. Which I don't have much of after you guys kicked the bejeezus out of me."
A light from behind made us turn around. A large vehicle was approaching and appeared to be slowing down. My friends moved back toward the shadows, ready to disappear if need be.
Fortunately, they didn't have to. As the vehicle pulled up alongside me, I saw that it was a beat-up van, probably large enough to hold ten or eleven. A tiny woman with short gray hair was behind the wheel, wearing a tweed suit that was at least two sizes too big for her.
She rolled down her window and peered with careworn eyes into the darkness behind me. I thought she would ask directions, but instead she asked, "Are you lost, dearies?" I liked the nice smile lines around her mouth. I liked her spacious van even more.
I put on my best harmless-backpacking-tourist face. "I'm afraid we're stranded, ma'am. We're trying to get to London." To catch some aliens—Number 3 on The List of Alien Outlaws on Terra Firma, to be exact.
"Oh, Americans...!" She smiled. "Well, I'm heading that way. Hop aboard."
IT DIDN'T TAKE MUCH to convince us. We gratefully piled in. Willy and Emma in the back, Dana and me in the middle row, and Joe sprawled out in the passenger seat next to the driver.
We drove in silence for about ten minutes or so. Joe had nodded off, and Willy and Emma, who are brother and sister, were chatting in hushed, lazy voices behind me.
I had almost dozed off when Dana moved her head in close, almost right against my ear.
"Have you noticed anything odd, Daniel?" she whispered.
"What?" I whispered back.
"The driver's seat—it's on the left side."
"So? That's where it's supposed to be."
"Not so. We're in England, remember? They drive on the other side."
That was a little unusual, I thought to myself. Why would the van be American?
And there was something else, something that had been gnawing at me since we got in. Something about what the driver was wearing. Tweed is a rough grayish green material made of wool. It's most often used for the jackets of college professors, pipe-smoking stamp collectors, and—now I remembered—hunters.
And how did I now guess that the little old lady was not a professor or stamp collector? Call me crazy, but it didn't fit with the profile of those folks to be driving a vehicle that had—I noticed with horror—what appeared to be dried bloodstains all over the backseat.
I tried to lean forward to get a better view into the front seat. That's when I realized I couldn't move a muscle. I couldn't even blink.
"So you've noticed, dearie." The driver's voice seemed to get deeper and rattle in her throat. Then an inhuman rasp twisted its way out. "I'm a hunter. JUST. LIKE. YOU. And I do believe I've caught dinner!"
JOE SNAPPED his head up. Or tried to, I should say. "Dinner? Who said something about dinner?" The guy had an appetite bigger than the British Isles.
"The person who's about to devour you," Emma said through gritted teeth.
"Hey! I can't move, guys," he reported. "Even my mouth feels like it's starting to freeze up."
"Thank God," muttered Dana, but I could hear the fear in her voice.
"Silence!" shouted the driver. It seemed all wrong: that grating, metallic voice coming out of that kindly-looking grandmother's face.
But it wasn't my imagination. In the next instant a gray, pulsating tentacle descended from the ceiling and wrapped itself around my mouth. It felt sticky, warm, and alive. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a dozen more tentacles gagging my friends. Dana's eyes were flooded with fear and confusion.
Not to be able to explain what was happening—to her, most of all—was excruciating. The problem was, I couldn't move, I couldn't create anything, I couldn't transform. I couldn't even talk, to tell my friends to break out, to run away.
If I could have activated my powers, there might have been any number of ways I could have gotten us out of this—by making my friends disappear, for instance. (I'll have to explain that trick to you later.)
Since I didn't hear another word from my friends, it looked like they were fully incapacitated at this point, too.
I tried to assess our very sticky situation. As my eyes scanned the walls of the van I could see them moving, pulsing, breathing. And the ceiling—it was a forest of waving tentacles.
Now I understood why we couldn't move our bodies. Strong tendrils that were no thicker than rubber bands had shot out from the van's seats and enveloped our arms and legs more effectively than steel manacles could.
The tentacles reminded me of the sea anemones I used to see in the tide pools on the Oregon coast. Unsuspecting fish who swam too close would be grabbed, stunned by the neurotoxins in the anemones' tentacles, and slowly digested.
That's what this van was, I realized suddenly. A giant anemone.
And then came another totally creepy thought: The driver wasn't actually driving. She was part of the alien, one of its organs. She was the bait.
SHE—IT, I should say—saw my look of understanding and horror.
"By now you've noticed my tentacles are full of neurotoxins." It cackled nastily. "Just be thankful that you'll all be dead before you're digested. I'm told that the process is excruciating."
The old woman's body began to transform now, melting away into her seat. Meanwhile, a bulbous tentacle tightened around my mouth, and the interior of the van seemed to be shrinking.
I blinked, desperately trying to clear my mind and find a quick solution. Being squashed into mush and then digested? Not how I was planning to leave the earth.
Up in the front of the van, Joe's head was shuddering as he struggled against paralysis. Behind me I could hear Willy gurgling and Emma humming in a useless attempt to speak—or scream. And Dana...well, one of her hands had solidified around mine in a death grip of fear.
Hundreds of mouths had opened up in the walls around us and began to speak in unison, like a nightmare in surround sound.
"Alien Hunter," the mouths addressed me, "this is for my beloved brother. It's too bad he couldn't be here to see it. Do you remember Number 40? You disintegrated him in Dallas, Texas!"
Of course I remembered! In fact, the oily-smooth interior of the van reminded me all too much of being inside the stomach of Number 40 before he—well...that's another story, and I couldn't focus on past victories right now.
The roof was pressing down hard against our heads now. The walls and ceiling constricted like a giant heart beating.
"Nice eating you . . ." The beast's final message trailed off in a sickening gurgle. "I'm Number 43, by the way. My brother's name was Jasper."
"May he rest in pieces!" I wanted to quip.
Another powerful contraction came. The walls closed in even tighter, pushing me and Dana together. It was something I might have enjoyed, if we weren't both about to become meat-and-bone Jell-O pudding.
The despair was overwhelming. It was as if all the terror my friends were feeling was being transmitted back to me times ten. I had never gotten them into a situation this bad before, one that I was powerless to get them out of.
The walls were closing in, bending me double. The tentacle around my throat was twisting too tight for me even to swallow. Everything was getting dim, and quiet, and distant.
It's over, I thought. My eyes were finally squeezed shut and I thought I might suddenly burst like an overripe zit.
And then behind the pain and the fear I heard words way in the back of my mind.
"You still have time...you can take out Number 43. At least I think so."
I recognized the voice immediately. It was my father.
My dead father.
EXCUSE ME while I digress. I was only three when my parents were killed, murdered by one of the most evil alien creatures ever to have set foot on Earth—The Prayer by name—who just happens to be Number 1 on The List. Even in those three short years, though, my parents had managed to fill my brain with all kinds of interesting and useful information, which surfaces from time to time—anything from a fantastic recipe for barbecue sauce (the secret's in the sugar) to, say, the speed you need to travel to escape Earth's gravity (around 25,000 mph). It's usually really simple stuff like that—but sometimes it's the bit of knowledge that could save your skin.
Right now I really, really hoped my dead father was about to offer survival tips instead of cooking tips.
"Dad...what? I'm kind of tied up right now," I answered him in my thoughts.
I could still feel the greasy tentacle choking me, feel the wall and ceiling pressing against me, but at least they weren't getting tighter. I wasn't gasping for breath either. Miraculously, I was able to open my eyes.
One at a time.
If I had been able to move the rest of my body I would have reeled in shock. Staring right into my eyes was Dana, her mouth twisted into a circle of horror. But here's the really strange thing: she was totally motionless.
I tried to speak, struggled to touch Dana, but my body, my head, my face, were immobilized. Not just paralyzed, but completely frozen.
That's when I realized something that was easily as fascinating as a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Not only wasn't I suffocating, but I wasn't breathing. Then it hit me.
Time had stopped.
My father's voice rang out again in my skull, stronger this time. "Very good, Daniel. I knew you hadn't forgotten. Even though you were only two when I taught you how to dive below the surface of the flow of time. Well, I'll see you later, champ."
Wait! I thought. What do I do now? But my dad's voice was gone.
I had no idea how I'd made time freeze, but my father's words had stirred something—a distant memory. Rotating stars, spinning planets.
I remembered Dad hanging a mobile over my crib. A model of Earth's solar system—spinning, slowing, stopping. And then it started to spin in the opposite direction—in reverse. It was all coming back to me, the knowledge slowly trickling in like an Internet download.
Imagine that your brain is a spotlight that casts a sharp focus on whatever you're looking at, or thinking about, or feeling. I had to defocus, widen that beam until it shone on everything. It's even harder than it sounds, and I was out of practice.
Usually when I use my powers, I have to concentrate, but this time it was just the opposite. First I relaxed, let my mind go limp—not an easy feat when the girl you care about most is going to die right before your eyes.
Hold on, Dana.
I felt my brain detach itself from all my sensations right down to the taste of sweat in my mouth. And that's when I saw Dana's left eyelid flicker. Her expression was changing, becoming less terrified, but not in a way I'd ever seen a face change before.
I was turning back time.
Excerpted from DANIEL X: DEMONS AND DRUIDS © Copyright 2011 by James Patterson and Adam Sadler . Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.