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Dylan glances up at me real quick and then back down again, and the expression on his face doesn’t seem much like a vote of confidence. I must look about as useless and small as I feel. Probably the exact opposite of what a Way Reader should be.
“You’ll have us by your side,” he says in this voice that’s real reassuring even if his hands are moving so sharp and fast across the length of his current arrow that you’d think the wood itself was the enemy. “You’re not alone in this.”
“The universe wants you to succeed,” Agni chimes in. “All you need do is let it.”
He watches me until I meet his gaze, like he wants to make sure I understand what he’s saying, that I believe it. The thing is, though, that he’s got a conviction that’s been built by years. I’ve only even known about this stuff for maybe eighteen hours.
Dylan stands up and drops his last arrow on the ground with the others.
“We can’t stay still much longer. It’s time to take down camp.”
“Yes, yes,” Agni nods and starts bundling away his cooking utensils. “I’ll clean up all of this.”
“I can help,” I say and start to stand up, but Dylan gives me this quick shake of his head.
“You need your rest,” he says, and starts pulling down the lean-to by himself, throwing the pine boughs back at the feet of the trees that probably provided them. Then he folds up the silver emergency blankets, grabs hold of the flannel ones where he and Agni slept and shrinks them down into little squares, tucking all of it into the hiking backpack. Over at his station, Agni’s absorbing the silverware and cookware back into that slate brick, gathering up his granola bars and packing everything away as well. Both of them are real focused on their work, busy as little bees while I just sit here twiddling my fingers and feeling like the blanket where I’m sitting might as well be on Mars for how much a part of all this I am right now.
Then pretty much everything is packed and Dylan is pulling out the harness again and approaching me with it kind of apologetic, although this time I don’t complain. I don’t even get too embarrassed about his hands being all up in my personal business as he tugs the straps around, because right at the moment that sort of stuff just doesn’t seem important. My mind’s pretty occupied with one question: “What have I gotten myself into?”
Agni dissolves the energy barrier around our campground. Then, like last night, he makes another one close around me. While he’s doing that, Dylan’s rigging up this quiver for the bow and the arrows that ties like a belt around his waist and that somehow doesn’t get in the way even with my legs all wrapped around him.
He and Agni are real efficient. From the time we finish breakfast to the time we actually leave, it can’t have taken more than twenty minutes. Practically the whole day’s still ahead of us. The sun is high and almost blinding in the sky, and as much as maybe I’d like to get out of my own head a little bit there’s no chance of my falling asleep in order to manage that. So maybe I’m already in a somewhat self-pitying mood when we hit the meadow valleys all blanketed in untouched snow, shining balmy and bright in the winter sunlight.
They’re not exactly like my valleys—the ones in the mountains around Flemingsburg—but there’s something so instantly familiar about them that it sends memories like photographs flashing through my mind. In the spring, our mountain meadows are so spread with golden wildflowers it looks like a piece of the sun itself fell to rest right there. Melodie and Sara and I like to trek out for picnics before it’s technically even warm enough to be inviting, just so we can be sure to have the meadows to ourselves.
Things like that—those will only ever be memories for me now. No more day trips on Melodie’s horses. No more spreading blankets on the ground and laying ourselves down among the flowers to daydream together about the things we want our lives to be. No more Melodie and Sara.
I was the only one who never worried much about leaving Flemingsburg, and now I’m the only one who’s actually doing it.
I wonder where Mom is now. On her way toward a place of heat and sun, to her brother that I never knew she had. What other family have I got out there? Maybe more uncles and aunts and cousins. Maybe grandparents even. All I know is that right this minute the only person that’s ever been family to me is driving steady in the opposite direction from mine, and I’ve got no idea how long it will be before I get to see her again. If I get to see her again.
“Tell me about your family,” I say to Dylan, and the sound of my voice is a little too loud after probably an hour’s worth of silence. He hardly reacts, though, and for a second I think maybe he didn’t hear me, but then he lets out this little sigh that seems about as homesick as I feel.
“What would you like to know?”
I rest my chin on the back of his shoulder, not real worried at the moment about being too much in his space.
“How many of you are there?”
He takes a long time to answer this question, and when he does there’s something kind of spare about his voice. “There are just five of us now. My uncle and aunt, my sister and me, and, much less often lately, my cousin Gwilim.”
I try to get a look at his face, try to figure out what’s in his voice that he’s not actually saying, but all I can see are his dark eyelashes and the line of his cheek as it disappears into his beard.
“What do you mean there are only five of you left?”
Again, a pause. It doesn’t feel like it’s because he doesn’t want to answer the question. It’s more like he’s just not real sure how.
Finally, he says, “Mum’s gone back to Wales to take care of her parents for a while. Da is…my da’s in jail. For a crime he didn’t commit.”
I don’t have to see his face to understand what he’s feeling this time.
“That’s got something to do with the takers, doesn’t it?”
“It has everything to do with them.”
“Why’d they do it? What is your dad to them?”
“A threat,” he says, and it’s not quite bitterness he’s feeling. It’s worse. Something deeper and stronger and more lasting. “He was researching their organization, writing a book about how they’re infiltrating the government. He does a lot of long-form journalism and he’s well respected. They must’ve realized how close he was getting to the truth and knew if they killed him outright his story would still come out. To really stop him they had to ruin his reputation, ruin him. So they got him charged with treason and now he’s sitting in a cell in a high security prison and we only get to see him once every few weeks, and Mum’s had to run off back to Wales—not really because of my grandparents, but because she was afraid the takers’d go after the rest of the family too unless she seemed to be backing off.”
“Was she a part of your dad’s investigation?”
“We all were. Well—” Dylan tilts his head up a bit like he’s looking at the sky. “Well, I was. Because of my work. We tried to keep everyone else in the family out of it, other than Mum. She’s a member of the Guardians of the Way and she was helping Da with his work. The two of them always work in tandem.”
It’s not like all this is any worse than the stuff Agni was saying about the takers earlier, but to hear details about how they’ve affected the life of a very real person that I can hear and feel and see makes the takers themselves all that much more real. More threatening.
“What are the Guardians of the Way?”
“Oh, right!” Dylan reacts like he’d forgotten I’m brand new to practically everything he’s ever known, and as if on reflex his head’s turning toward me and I don’t have time to dodge out of his way. His face goes grazing against the side of my lips and cheek, all smooth skin against smooth skin, and quick as a switch he’s snapping his head back around to the front and I’m yanking my own face away from his.
Then it’s a couple seconds of this crawling silence while the two of us try to figure out how to handle what just happened, him staring straight ahead and me completely fixated on what I can see of his face, trying real hard not to think too much about the feel of his skin against my lips. Or even the feel of his beard, which was sort of soft and weirdly pleasant. You’d think I’d never actually kissed a guy before the way my body’s reacting right now. I tell myself that nothing really happened, but that doesn’t make much of a difference. I can feel that now familiar tingle lighting up right at the nape of my neck.
When Dylan starts talking again his voice is real pointedly neutral, as if things absolutely did not get suddenly weird just now.
“The Guardians are an ancient order,” he says all calm and collected, “that is committed to forwarding the forces of good in the world. One of their biggest roles is to protect and support the Way Reader, when we’ve got one. Right now Agni and my mum are the only Guardians who know who you really are, and we feel it’s safest to keep it that way, but once you’re viable—once we no longer need to hide your identity so closely—the Guardians will be an important part of your life.”
I’m listening to him, I really am. This Guardians of the Way thing sounds like it could be real great. Someday. After I’ve had a chance to figure out all the other new and enormous things coming my way. Like moving in with a strange family. And learning how to live in a world that a few days ago I wouldn’t even have imagined could exist. And like, right now, figuring out how to be around Dylan without turning into a complete idiot.
I mean, I cannot make myself stop getting distracted by things like how cute it is when he says words like Mum, or how basically his whole British accent is really doing it for me right now. I’m totally mesmerized by every movement of the muscles in his jaw as he talks, fixated on the line of his neck just at the edge of his facial hair. The thought of what it would feel like to just run my finger along there is doing things to my body that I didn’t even know were possible.
We barely even touched each other, but every centimeter of my skin’s gone tingly and real aware of how close it is to his skin—or more, the idea of his skin, since there are at least a few solid layers of winter clothing between us. It’s all I can do not to lean forward and just bite his earlobe a little bit, or nuzzle my nose against the back of his neck.
I don’t know how he can act so casual right now. Except that I do know. Obviously, I’m not having the same effect on him as he is on me, and I know why that is too. It’s because his body hasn’t gone completely crazy. This is definitely one of the effects of this whole becoming process. It’s turning me into a hormone-ridden sex-fiend or something. I couldn’t hate this dumb harness any more than I do right now. I mean, geez, I could really use some physical distance from the guy for a minute.
When Agni pauses and turns back to us, I think maybe we’re stopping for real—that I’ll be able to get that physical distance—but all Agni says is that he senses someone else out there, and we’ll have to take a detour to avoid them. Then we’re on our way again, and all I can do is stare hard into the snow-covered trees streaming by on either side of us and wait for the annoying tingle to just die already.
Only, when it finally does, that queazy buzzing comes on again instead and, honestly, I think I’d rather be dealing with the out of control tingles because this time it’s like my stomach’s gone nuclear or something. I try to fight the sick feeling for a while until it’s all I can do to hold my head upright, to keep my eyes open. Finally, I just give in. Sliding my arm up against Dylan’s back to act as a personal space preserver, I rest my head down on my wrist and pretty soon I’m swinging in and out of consciousness. Then flashes of strange lights and colors and patterns start flaring in my mind like some defective film reel, and with every flash my stomach turns and my skull throbs and my throat lunges. It’s like I’m being tossed on the sea during a hurricane or something, and I can’t pull my head out of the water.
Eventually, from outside all the disorientation I hear Dylan’s voice as if it’s behind a closed door. He sounds worried and reassuring and steady, and I hold onto that steadiness, try to locate the source of it in all this fog in my brain. Then I’m opening my eyes with almost as much confusion as if I were doing it for the first time ever, staring bleary-eyed at the winter landscape tinged all pink and purple with the setting sun.
“Alexandra,” Dylan’s saying, “you don’t sound well. Can you talk to me about what’s going on? Alexandra?”
We’re still moving quick—maybe even faster than before—and everything’s sort of blurring into everything else as we pass. It makes my head, my stomach—everything—feel a little worse, especially since on the edges of my vision those unfamiliar little lights and colors are still twitching along.
“I’m seeing things,” I tell him, and my voice sounds real weak. “Weird patterns and shapes.”
He’s quiet for a minute and I can hear that his breaths are coming more heavy than they were earlier in the day, like someone who’s been running hard for a long time.
“You’re starting to see the particle world,” he says, and the concern in his voice is a little sharper, a little more anxious. “That’s your brain learning how to interpret it. Everything’s progressing so fast for you—too fast. I’m sorry, but there are people near us now and we can’t tend to you. We’ll stop as soon as it’s safe. Can you hold out a bit longer?”
“You can call me Zanny,” I say, because for some reason that’s what seems important right now. Then I’m already drifting back into the stormy waters, and this time I’m pretty sure it’ll be a while until I find my way out of it again. At some point I think I feel hands on my back, Agni’s voice real gentle in my ear and I’m aware of the nausea fading and that the sky is dark and filled with stars.
Then time starts warping. It could be days that I’m swimming through brain fog, or maybe just minutes. Now and again I catch little moments of the real world. Things like recognizing once that I’m sitting on the ground, that I’m propped up in someone’s arms—probably Dylan’s—and Agni’s spooning something warm and brothy into my mouth. I surface again sometime when we’re on the move, when the sun is high in the sky.
After that I lose all sense of what’s happening around me. I’m immersed completely in the frenzy inside my head for so long that it begins to feel like this is the only world I’ve ever known. Then other images start coming along with the particle world. Strange faces and dark forests and gaping holes in the ground, and vampires. Lots and lots of vampires.
Only, instead of sucking your blood, they suck the soul out of you. Whisper awful things into your ears until you can’t stand it anymore and you try to take your own life just to stop it, but before you actually die they ever-so-painfully sip your soul from your body. There’s just the tiniest prickle at the back of my mind reminding me that all of this is just a dream.
Some time later—maybe days, maybe months—I wake up enough to realize that I’m lying on the ground between Dylan and Agni beneath a cover of towering pine trees. Or at least, I think I’m awake. When I try to look around everything seems to pulse in my vision. Dylan and Agni lying there and all the trees around us go sliding real far away from me and then rush back again, and again. It makes me sick just to try and focus.
The buzzing is in the core of my bones now, like I’m just this big block of energy and nerves and that nausea that’s like some demon creature inside me, just swirling around in my stomach and trying to jump up out of my throat.
Then Dylan and Agni themselves start to change, their faces turning into the vampires from my dreams. They’re gnashing at me, up on their haunches now and ready to pounce. From one side of the clearing I see other figures, real hazy and inky black, creeping toward me, promising in hissing whispers that what they’re going to do to me will only hurt a little.
Fear shoots through my veins and I manage to get myself upright, and then I’m stumbling forward into the snow and the trees. Somewhere in my mind there’s a voice that’s saying, pay attention to where you’re going, don’t get lost, but that voice is like the squeak of a mouse compared to the roaring of my other impulses.
I’m not sure how far I’ve gone when the bile that’s been churning around in my stomach starts pushing at the back of my throat, and I’m not sure how much longer I can hold it in. I’m realizing too that I must have been hallucinating back at the camp, and that now I’m out in the open without any protection and without any idea of how to get back.
I drop to my knees in the snow and I barely have enough time to pull my hair up out of my face before toxic waste comes erupting out of me.
I haven’t thrown up that much maybe ever, and as the vomit’s coming out so are the tears. They’re just streaming down my face and onto my neck. At first I’m crying because I feel awful, but then it turns into a sort of teary relief because the buzzing is dying away finally, flowing out of me along with probably everything that I’ve ever eaten. I feel empty and thin. Almost nonexistent.
When it’s all over I stay crouched there for a little bit, trying to spit the taste of vomit out of my mouth without much luck. My body’s starting to feel more substantial again, as if it’s slowly wrapping itself back around me in a series of shivers, when at the back of my neck I feel a sharp tingle. Not that oversexed business Dylan keeps activating, but something more piercing and more to the point. It ignites my mind and chest with a sense of knowing. Knowing that there is someone there with me, edging toward me, and that this is no hallucination now.
Standing up real shaky but fast, I stumble a few feet over to clutch onto the limb of the nearest pine tree, and I spin around to look toward the intruder. When I see him my heart drops and my lungs seize.
It’s that tattooed man from the Flemingsburg festival, and he looks real pleased to see me.
“You make it so easy,” he says, with this laugh like he can barely believe his eyes. “I thought it was supposed to be a punishment, making us patrol so far out of the way. In the end, you practically walk right into our arms.”
I can feel someone else here too, behind me, and I inch around so that I can see both of them at the same time. It’s that freaky girl from Flemingsburg, the one I thought was going to bite my face off when I nearly ran into her. She’s approaching real slow, her expression a whole lot more cautious now, maybe even scared.
“Lidi,” the man calls to her, “I guess your sour face wasn’t such bad luck after all.”
He’s moving with a little less caution than the girl is, but he’s still wary of me, like he’s not sure what I might be capable of.
“You’re going to come along nice and easily, aren’t you?” he says with this vicious little smile and a voice that makes my skin creep. “You’re definitely outnumbered, you see, and we don’t want to have to hurt you. We will have to tie you up, of course, but we really would love not to cause you any pain. You’re going to have to come with us one way or another.”
I can’t run; my body’s spent, all trembling and flimsy. I don’t think I even have the strength to scream, and I don’t know how far away Dylan and Agni are anyway, don’t know if we’re close enough to the campground right now that the security alerts would even have triggered. I set my brain speeding through my options, playing one of Mom’s focus games that she calls I Will Survive.
“You’re alone in the forest and you’re cornered by an angry bear. You’re weak and tired and all you’ve got is the clothes on your back.” Only this time it’s not an angry bear. It’s two lunatic takers who, I’m guessing, have the ability to do things to me that I can’t even imagine. And me? I can barely stand.
He’s about six feet away from me now, and it’s about as close as I can handle. I take action on the only solution that’s popped into my brain. I pull a Sorcerer’s Apprentice pose on him, swinging my arm up and thrusting it forward as if I’m casting some sort of a deadly spell.
It’s meaningless, obviously. I don’t know what in the world I’m doing, but it sure startles him and he responds on instinct, swinging his own arm up in defense. Only something happens when he does it. This bundled mass of flame and sparking air comes flying at me so hot I can feel it practically as it leaves his fingers.
It’s such a surprise to me that I’m frozen in place, just staring it down and unable to make myself dodge away.
I’m pretty sure I’m about to die when this huge burst of cool wind slams into me from the side, knocks me clear of the ball of fire and sends me sprawling into the bushes underneath the tree. A second later I hear that girl let out a terrible scream.
She’s spinning all over, clawing at the air around her face and shoulders, and when I stretch around toward her I see that the top of her body’s seared, like someone just melted her skin clean off. My own body snaps into some new instinct and I’m scrambling to get up and go to her, to help her. To do something to stop this horror scene in front of me. But that tattooed man’s suddenly looming over me. He grabs my arm and yanks at me, which sends me stumbling back to the ground.
“Look what you did,” he shouts and slaps me across the face so hard it rings an echo through my skull. Then he catches me by the collar and tries to haul me to my feet. “Get up, you little gindge, before your friends get here! You better believe you’re coming with me now.”
I try to push him off me, but I don’t have the strength and the world’s gone all swimmy with the force of his blow.
“Please,” I hear myself saying over the sound of the girl’s screams. “Please.”
I don’t know if I’m asking more for her or for me at this point, but he just wraps his hand so tight around my throat I can’t tell if he’s still trying to lift me or if he’s trying to kill me. I grasp his wrist and kick at whatever part of his body I can reach with my feet, but even though I know I make contact his grip just gets even tighter so that I can barely breathe.
“You worthless piss!” he spits in my face, and my vision’s clear enough now that I can make out every bright red vein in the whites of his terrifying eyes. Over his shoulder I see Dylan coming toward us through the trees like some movie star hero, bounding through the pines all swift and serious and graceful as if he’s in some kind of grim ballet. He’s nocking an arrow to his bow and pulling the string back. Striding sideways, he dodges off the base of a tree, springs himself up into the air, and lets the arrow fly.
There’s a sickening sort of thwap and the man’s body seizes. This broken gasp spills from inside him and his eyes go wide, checkmark brows creased. For a second he’s still looking right at me and then his gaze unfocuses and, real slow like a tree that’s just been felled, he slumps all heavy and limp across me, his oiled hair pressed against my face and his shoulder jabbing into my jaw.
Two voices are screaming now, and it takes me a second to realize that one of them is my own.
Dylan is by my side in an instant. He’s dragging the man off me and onto the ground, then he’s leaning over me.
“Are you alright, Zanny? Talk to me.”
I hate that I’m screaming, hate that I’ve just completely lost it. I manage to make myself stop, but then I can’t turn off the shuttering gulps that take its place.
Dylan looks me over quick for any injuries and turns back to the man to check for a pulse. Then he places his palm between the man’s shoulder blades, right against the arrow where it’s still stuck in his back. Based on what Agni and Dylan’ve told me, I’m assuming he’s checking the man’s essence. It should be just inside there, right under Dylan’s hand. Dylan sits still for a few seconds, real quiet like he’s listening, and then he sort of shakes his head and turns away.
I can guess what it means.
Either when he fell or when Dylan moved him, the man’s arm has somehow gotten twisted at an angle that no living person could stand. The skin of his hand already looks a few shades too pale, his fingers a little too inert. Dylan must notice my tears before I feel them because he’s crouching beside me again, pulling me up to him, pressing my head against his shoulder.
“The girl,” I whisper into his coat, but I can hear Agni with her now, all urgent and kind, trying to be heard over her pain.
“Please stop moving,” he’s saying. “I’m here to help.”
But her screams die off real sudden in this wet, guttural scratching and, as we hear her body fall heavy to the ground, Dylan pulls me to him a little tighter. Agni’s cooing over her now, so quiet I can’t tell what he’s saying. Her tortured breathing slows and stops, leaving this silence that is way too pressing, that throbs in my chest.
Dylan’s hand goes to the back of my head, his face bends down against my bangs as if he can somehow shield me from what just happened. All I can think is how that man and that girl were standing there alive and dangerous just minutes before, and now they’re simply gone. All that’s left of them just empty shells of meat and bone.
So this is what death is. It’s terrifyingly final.
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Next: Chapter 7
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