The League of Seven (Excerpt)

In an alternate 1875 America electricity is forbidden, Native Americans and Yankees are united, and eldritch evil lurks in the shadows. Young Archie Dent knows there really are monsters in the world. His parents are members of the Septemberist Society, whose job it is to protect humanity from hideous giants called the Mangleborn. Trapped in underground prisons for a thousand years, the giant monsters have been all but forgotten—but now they are rising again as the steam-driven America of 1875 rediscovers electricity, the lifeblood of the Mangleborn. When his parents and the rest of the Septemberists are brainwashed by one of the evil creatures, Archie must assemble a team of seven young heroes to save the world.

The League of Seven is the first book in an action-packed, steampunk series by the acclaimed author of Samurai Shortstop, Alan Gratz. Check out an excerpt below, and look for it August 19th from Starscape!




The secret entrance to the headquarters of the Septemberist Society could only be reached by submarine. Twelve-year-old Archie Dent had been there a dozen times before and still he had no idea where it was. Mannahatta? Staten Island? Breucklen? Queens County? For all he knew, the submarine they took to the group’s secret headquarters didn’t go to any of New Rome’s boroughs at all. It might turn right around from the Hudson River Submarine Landing in Jersey and head back to Hackensack territory. And asking didn’t help either. His mother and father either didn’t know where it was, or they wouldn’t tell him.

“I’ll bet the Septemberist Society is under the big statue of Hiawatha in New Rome Harbor,” he told his parents as they wove their way through the crowd down to the submarine docks. “That would be so brass!”

“We don’t talk about the Society in public, Archie. You know that,” his mother told him. “And I’ve asked you before not to use that awful slang.”

Archie sighed. His parents were such square cogs. They were researchers for the Septemberists, both of them, and they spent their days with their noses in old books and their nights with their eyes glued to telescopes, looking for signs that the Mangleborn might be breaking out of their underground prisons. That’s why they had left their observatory and come to New Rome today: The stars were right for Malacar Ahasherat, the Swarm Queen, to break free of her prison in the Florida swamps, and the Society had to be warned.

“There,” Archie’s father said. “The red submersible. That’s the one we want.”

The red submarine was dwarfed by its ocean-liner cousins— the massive four-hundred-foot-long, seven-thousand-tonne gray behemoths that carried passengers up and down the East Coast, from Acadia in the north to New Spain and Brasil in the south. Men in heavy frock coats and neckties and women in crinolines and petticoats waited for clockwork porters to load their steamer trunks onto the subs. As much as Archie was looking forward to seeing the Septemberist Society’s secret headquarters again, he wished he were boarding one of the enormous submarines, setting off on an adventure that would take him all over the United Nations and beyond. But no. After his parents delivered their warning to the Society, it would be back to the family estate in Philadelphia again. Back to the books and the telescopes.

The little submarine was whale shaped, with great fins at the back that controlled its position in the water. A white plume of smoke and steam rose from a hole on its back like water from a whale’s blowhole, and it had great round eyelike windows at the front for the pilot to see out of. Its name, painted along its side, was the SS Seven Seas.

“Ahoy there,” the Dents’ Tik Tok servant called to the machine-man pilot who stood sentry at the wood-and-rope gangplank to the sub. “I am Mr. Rivets. This is Mr. and Mrs. Dent, and their son, Master Archie.”

“Thirty days hath September,” the Tik Tok captain said.

“Seven heroes we remember,” said Mr. Dent, giving the Society’s secret pass phrase. He lifted the lapel on his jacket to reveal a pin with an image of a human eye atop a pyramid, set inside a seven-pointed star. The symbol of the Septemberist Society.

“Permission to come aboard, Mr. Hull?” Mr. Dent asked.

“Aye. Permission granted.” Mr. Hull was a brass Emartha Mark II Machine Man like Mr. Rivets, but instead of a riveted metal vest and bowler hat like the Dents’ machine man, he’d been customized with a copper sailor’s cap and captain’s jacket, both of which had turned green over time. Mr. Rivets had talent cards that could be switched out to give him different skills, but Mr. Hull’s Submarine Pilot card was permanently installed.

“Why do we have to give the Society’s secret pass phrase and show him the pin?” Archie asked his mother. “Mr. Hull’s been our captain every time. Doesn’t he know us by now?”

“It’s protocol, Archie. What if we weren’t really ourselves this time?”

Archie frowned. “Who else would we be?”

“Hurry along, Archie,” Mr. Dent said from the hatchway. “Time and tide wait for no man.”

Inside, the submarine was all riveted steel and brass pipes and fittings. To the aft down a narrow passage was the hissing, steaming boiler room. To the fore was a small lounge with two red-cushioned couches. Beyond that, through a small open door, was the pilot’s cockpit. Archie’s parents and Mr. Rivets had already taken seats in the lounge and were fastening their safety harnesses when Mr. Hull closed the tophatch and screwed it shut.

Archie headed for the cockpit.

“Archie, I think we can leave the piloting of the ship to Mr. Hull this time,” his father said.

“But I always sit up front,” Archie said. As a kid, he’d begged to sit up front and watch Mr. Hull pilot the submersible, and Mr. Hull had always let him.

“Don’t you think you’re getting a little old for that?” his mother said.

Archie was crestfallen. Slag it. He was telling his parents all the time that he wasn’t a little kid anymore, and the one time they agreed, he didn’t want them to.

“It’s all right by me, Mrs. Dent,” Mr. Hull said as he walked through the lounge to the cockpit.

Archie grinned and hurried into the cockpit with Mr. Hull before his parents could tell him not to. Next time he’d ride in the back. Maybe.

Archie sat down in the copilot’s seat beside Mr. Hull. The Tik Tok flipped switches and turned dials and checked gauges. Archie had no idea what any of them did, but he loved the sound of them clicking and whirring and spinning. One day maybe he’d have a submersible of his own, and run missions for the Septemberists.

With a metallic clank and a lurch, the SS Seven Seas disengaged from its mooring on the dock and turned in the cavernous underground port.

“Hold fast now,” Mr. Hull announced. “We’re ready to dive.”

The machine man flipped a switch, and the submarine shook as air burbled out of the ballast tanks. Sloshing water rose on the window until the cave disappeared, replaced by the black of the Hudson River. The Tik Tok captain flipped another switch, and a keel-mounted carbide lamp lit up the water in front of them. The Seven Seas passed underneath the huge steel hood that protected the submarine landing from New Rome Harbor, and the ghostly, shimmering light of the gray New Rome morning filtered down to them through the choppy sea. Ships had once traveled on top of the water, not underneath it, Archie knew. Mr. Rivets had shown him pictures in old books. But all that had changed when the Darkness fell on the Old World a hundred years ago. Now the Atlantis Ocean was too rough to sail above. It could only be navigated under the waves, and every submarine sent to Europe to find out what had happened never came back.

“How long can you stay underwater?” Archie asked.

“About two hours at normal speed,” said Mr. Hull. “Then I have to come up for air and stoke the furnace. But we’ll have you to Septemberist headquarters long before that.”

“Because it’s just under the statue of Hiawatha on Oyster Island, right?”

Mr. Hull adjusted a dial. “I’m afraid I couldn’t say, sir.”

Archie smiled. That’s what machine men said when they’d been ordered to keep a secret. Mark IIs were fundamentally unable to lie. It was built into their clockworks. Instead, they just said “I’m afraid I couldn’t say.” It had been worth a shot though.

True to Mr. Hull’s word, the SS Seven Seas soon surfaced in a gaslit cave. This port was far smaller than the Hudson River Submarine Landing, but still big enough for two other small submersibles to bob at the unadorned and empty dock. Mr. Hull pulled them up alongside, and Archie helped him tie off the boat before following his parents up the stone steps to the great hall of the Septemberist Society.

Archie loved the great hall. It was round and tall, with domed steel arches to hold up a ceiling carved out of rock. Leading out of the room were seven doorways, one of which led back the way they had come from the submarine landing. All around the hall, in between the seven doorways, stood seven stone statues—one for each member of the Ancient League of Seven. Wayland Smith, the Norse tinker who invented the raygun, with his hammer. Maat, the Aegyptian princess with her talking staff, who brought justice to the world. Daedalus, the Greek scientist who taught mankind how to fly in airships. Anansi, the Afrikan trickster who stole the Mangleborn gauntlet. Hippolyta, the Amazonian warrior, whose arrows had taken down legions of Manglespawn. Heracles, the hulking, half-naked Greek with his club, whose dark, angry fury had brought the League to its knees—but saved it too. That statue had always frightened Archie, and still did. But last there was Theseus, Archie’s favorite, the Athenian hero with the curly locks and the neat tunic and the short sword, who had brought this League of Seven together and led them to victory over the Mangleborn.

It wasn’t the original League of Seven, of course. The original League’s names and faces had been lost to time. There had been more Leagues before the Ancient League and more since, but they were always seven, and always the same: a tinker, a law-bringer, a scientist, a trickster, a warrior, a strongman, and a hero. Seven men and women with incredible powers from all parts of the known world who joined forces to stop the Mangleborn from enslaving humanity. Different Leagues had saved the world over and over again, but few people knew that. Only the Septemberists remembered—septem for “seven” in Latin, September having once been the seventh month, and named in their honor—watching for signs that the Mangleborn might escape the elaborate prisons the Ancient League had built for them, and waiting for a new League of Seven to be born.

“Archie, we’ll be meeting with the chief and her council in their chambers,” his father told him. “You and Mr. Rivets wait out here. Mr. Rivets, I don’t want him getting into any trouble.”

“I shall do what I can, sir,” Mr. Rivets said. Before they’d left the family airship in Hackensack territory, Mr. Dent had replaced Mr. Rivets’ Airship Pilot talent card with his Protector card. Or, as Archie liked to call it, the “Babysitter card.”

Mr. and Mrs. Dent went through the door next to Theseus, which led to the council chambers.

“Odd,” Mr. Rivets said, the clicking of his internal clockworks echoing faintly in the tall round room. “I would have expected someone to greet us. Mr. Pendulum, at the very least.” Mr. Pendulum was the head Tik Tok at Septemberist headquarters.

“If a Mangleborn is rising, they’re probably all in the council chambers worrying about it,” Archie said. “So… can I have it?”

Mr. Rivets tilted his mechanical head. “Your father directed me to keep you out of trouble, Master Archie, not to abet it.”

“Aw, come on, Mr. Rivets! Don’t be clinker. It’s just a toy.”

“Language, Master Archie,” the Tik Tok scolded, but he opened a door on his brass body disguised as a vest pocket and revealed a toy raygun stowed inside. Archie snatched it up. It was made to look just like a real aether pistol, but when you pulled the trigger all it did was rev and spark.

“I’ll be Theseus! You be Lesool Eshar, the Deceiver in the Dark.”

“As you wish, Master Archie. I shall endeavor to be monstrous, gigantic, and cruel. Roar.”

Archie clicked the trigger a few times at Mr. Rivets, peppering him with an imaginary heat ray as the toy gun sparked, then ran through the door beside Heracles. Sometimes he would visit the workshop through the door beside Wayland Smith to marvel at the Society’s latest gadgets. Another time he had explored the archives through the door beside Daedalus, but he got enough of libraries and books at home. Once he had even sneaked into the weapons room beyond the statue of the warrior Hippolyta and gaped at the arsenal of aether pistols and oscillators and wave cannons stored there until Mr. Pendulum dragged him out by the collar. But it was the catacombs underneath the Septemberist headquarters that he really loved playing in.

Like the statue of Heracles that guarded their entrance, the catacombs had always creeped Archie out a little, but fascinated him too. The catacombs were where the Society stored all the bones from the monsters they had fought over the centuries. Not the bones of Mangleborn like the Swarm Queen or the Deceiver in the Dark. Mangleborn were immortal—or at least no one had figured out how to kill one yet. The bones in the catacombs were Manglespawn. Creatures descended from the Mangleborn. Monsters that did their masters’ bidding. The Septemberists could handle Manglespawn. Usually. But to deal with the Mangleborn, the Septemberists needed the superhuman powers of the League of Seven.

Archie ran through the maze of crypts, ducking and hiding and shooting at pretend minions. Kzzz kzzz kzzz. He was Theseus—but not in the labyrinth fighting a man-sized minotaur. That’s not what had really happened. Archie’s parents had taught him the real story. He was Theseus, fighting the twentystory-tall Mangleborn Lesool Eshar, the Deceiver in the Dark. A giant with bull horns and cloven feet who could make you see things that weren’t real—like make you think you were in a dark, claustrophobic labyrinth when you were actually in the wide-open grasslands of Afrika. The minotaur was the popular version. The safe version. The truth—that there was a race of misshapen giants imprisoned inside the earth and under the sea—was a little too much for most people to handle.

People didn’t want to know there really were monsters in the world.

“Theseus!” Mr. Rivets’ voice boomed in the underground passageways. “Theseus! I come for you!”

Mr. Rivets made a pretty good Mangleborn in their backyard adventures. He was tall, for one thing, almost six and a half feet from his brass spats to his painted black bowler hat. He was heavy too—almost a thousand pounds—so that his clockwork legs made an impressive chi-koom chi-koom chi-koom sound when he walked. Where any illusion of a monster broke down was in his face, with its shining glass eyes and brass handlebar moustache shaped into a smile.

Archie crept through the dark tunnels, lit here and there by flickering gaslights. Shadow flames played on the stacks of crypt-like boxes set into the walls. Archie kept his toy aether pistol raised, ready to jump out at Mr. Rivets as soon as he heard the soft tick-tock of his clockworks. Water dripped slowly from the ceiling nearby as he held his breath, listening. Drip. Drip. Drip.


Archie leaped around the corner. “Ha-HA!”

But it wasn’t Mr. Rivets. It was… something else. Something black and shiny and big, bigger than Archie, with too many legs and too many eyes and a curled, segmented tail with a thick stinger at the end. It hung on a thick nest of white web that covered the corridor in front of him from floor to ceiling. It wasn’t a giant spider or a giant scorpion or—were those human hands under there? It wasn’t a spider or a scorpion or a person but something in between. Something unnatural. Something monstrous.

Something Manglespawn.

“Oh, slag.”

The thing looked up at Archie with its dozens of eyes, and he realized he was still pointing the toy raygun at it. He lowered it, his hand shaking. He wanted to step back, to turn and run, but he was too scared. His feet wouldn’t move.

At the base of the web, near the floor, a small ball of webbing shook like something inside it was trying to get out. Archie watched as a little stinger like the one on the big daddyManglespawn tore through the web ball, and a baby Manglespawn clawed its way out. It landed upside down on the stone floor, righted itself, and scrabbled toward Archie. Scritch scritch scritch scritch.

Now Archie’s feet moved.

He stumbled back away from the thing, but it was fast. Faster than he was. He turned to run and clanged right into the brass chest of Mr. Rivets. The Dents’ machine man lifted Archie into the air like he weighed nothing at all and stomped a metal foot on the black bug. Splurch. Green-black blood spurted on the stacked crypts.

An egg sac shivered on the web, and another black stinger poked its way through. Then another. And another.

“Run,” Mr. Rivets said. He let Archie go, and Archie ran. He sprinted back through the crypts, running as fast and as hard as he could without paying any attention to where he was going. He didn’t know how far or how long he’d run before he realized he was lost. Slag it all, where was he? He had to get upstairs and tell everyone there was a Manglespawn in the catacombs! He stopped. Spun. There! That crypt, there—he recognized it. He knew where he was. Four turns later he was running up the stairs, into the great hall, past the statue of Theseus, and into the offices where the Society’s leaders worked.

No one was there. Not even Mr. Pendulum.

Just beyond the offices, the double doors to the council chamber were closed. Archie wasn’t allowed in there.

Slag it—this was an emergency!

Archie burst into the council chamber. “Manglespawn! There’s a Manglespawn—in the catacombs!” he said, breathing hard.

The Septemberist council sat at a big, round table with the Society’s all-seeing pyramid eye emblem carved into it. There were seven of them, one representing each of the seven guilds within the Society. Archie knew the lawyer Frederick Douglass with his wild, frizzy hair, sitting in the law-bringer’s seat; General Lee, wearing the dark blue jacket and Hardee hat of the United Nations army, sitting in the warrior’s seat; and of course he would have recognized the famous actress Sally Tall Chief in the trickster’s chair and the lacrosse star John Two-Sticks in the hero’s chair anywhere, even if they hadn’t been Septemberists. The others he didn’t know so well, except for Philomena Moffett, who was the head of his parents’ guild—the scientists—and the current chief of the Septemberist Society.

Not one of them turned to look at him.

Archie ran up to the table. “Did you hear what I said? There’s a… a thing in the basement! A monster, with little monster babies. Mr. Rivets smushed one, but there were more of them hatching, and—”

The Septemberist council finally looked at him then, and Archie shuddered like a braking locomotive. The council members turned their heads slowly, all at the same time, like they were all one. But that wasn’t the creepiest thing. The creepiest thing was, they were smiling. All of them. Great big stupid smiles, like they were pretending to be happy. Like they were smiling through some great pain. Even the woman in the shadow chair was smiling, the ugly New Rome gang leader they called Hellcat Maggie, who kept an eye on the slums. Archie had never once seen her smile. Now she was smiling so wide he could see her teeth were filed down into points.

Jandal a Haad,” they all said, all at the same time. “They brought the Jandal a Haad.”

“Who did?” Archie asked. “What’s a Jandal a Haad? That thing in the catacombs?”

The Septemberist council stood up, all at the same time, and turned toward Archie. He didn’t know what was going on, but something about this was totally clinker. He took a step back as Mr. Rivets ticked into the room, his brass feet stained green black from squashing the bug things.

“I have sealed the catacombs, Master Archie,” Mr. Rivets said, “but I fear my efforts may not be enough to contain the creature.”

“The Jandal a Haad will stay,” the council said as one. “There is something in the basement we would like you to see.”

“Master Archie?” Mr. Rivets said.

Archie backed toward Mr. Rivets, never taking his eyes off the advancing council members.

“Where are my parents?” Archie asked.

“They’ve gone already,” Philomena Moffett said through her fake smile. “You’re to stay here with us.”

“They wouldn’t leave without me,” Archie said. “What’s going on here?”

“There’s something in the basement we would like you to see,” the council said again, still advancing.

“Yeah. I saw it already,” Archie said. “Run, Mr. Rivets!”

Archie took off for the submarine landing at a sprint. If his parents were leaving, that’s where they’d be. But they would never leave without him. It didn’t make any sense. None of this did. What was wrong with the council?

“Mom! Dad!” Archie called as he ran. “Mom! Dad!”

He came through the arch at the top of the steps that led down to the submarine landing, and there were his parents— following Mr. Hull onto the SS Seven Seas.

“Mom! Dad! Wait!” Archie called. He went down the steps three at a time, twice almost falling and breaking his neck. What were his parents doing? How could they be leaving without coming to find him first?

Archie caught his mother by the arm as she reached for the ladder up to the Seven Seas’ hatch.

“Mom, wait! Where are you going?”

And that’s when he saw it. A thick black bug, like the little baby Manglespawn that had hatched and come after him in the catacombs. It sat on the back of his mother’s neck, beneath her swept-up hair. Its insect legs wrapped around her neck, like it was holding on, and its scorpion-like tail was buried deep inside her. His dad had one on the back of his neck too, halfhidden by his high collar.

Archie’s parents turned their heads around together slowly, and he saw the same awful smile on their faces that he’d seen on the faces of the Septemberist council. His skin crawled like he had those bug things all over him, and he let go of his mother.

Whatever that thing was in the basement, it had already gotten to his parents. And the rest of the Septemberist council too.


The League of Seven © Alan Gratz, 2014


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