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Up ahead, Agni spins back around toward us, the look on his face making it obvious that he’s sensed something too and he knows he’s not going to get back to us in time.
Dylan gives a sharp wave to show he’s got the situation in hand, and then he’s moving. Hauling me over to the nearest tree and pushing me up against the trunk of it, more concerned about speed than comfort. He steps up right against the front of me, places his arms on either side of the trunk.
Then with the softness of a whisper the bark starts creeping outward around us. I can see it in the corner of my eye and sense the multiplying of its particles at the same time. There’s something real pretty about it as it rolls forward, surrounds us in this pillar of fresh smelling wood that tapers as it bends upward to leave just this tiny circle of purple sky peeping through the top. It feels like a totally incongruous thing, to be noticing the beauty in all of this at the same time that I’m real aware of the darkness in whatever’s coming.
It’s two shimmering, clamoring pinpoints of hate, approaching so fast I barely have time to breathe before they’re stopping just feet away from us. Then comes the muted sounds of people moving all cautious and meticulous through the snow. In my mind’s eye I can sense their essences, can sense the darkness inside them where it’s writhing around as if it itself is a living thing. It leaves my whole body feeling cold and thin and terrified.
Low voices come real thick through the living wood of our hiding place. Their owners so close that if it weren’t for the bark surrounding us, I bet we could reach out and touch them.
“I thought I saw something,” a woman’s voice says.
“Doesn’t seem to be anything now.”
I wonder if they can sense us like I can sense them. If they listened close enough they could probably hear the sound of our breathing, and for a second I think they have heard us. Their footsteps pause right beside our tree. Dylan’s still pressed up against me, so tight I can feel his warmth even through our coats, feel the heat of his chin against my cheek. Can even feel the beat of his heart all heavy and fast like mine.
Then the takers—somehow I’m sure they’re takers—are moving off again, launching into a particle sail and speeding away, but Dylan and I just keep standing there as fixed as if we’re frozen, searching our senses for any sign that danger might still be there.
He begins to shift just as I feel someone else approaching. I grab his coat real fast, pulling at it to keep him still, but then, again, I somehow know that it’s Agni. Can sense his essence all pure and familiar and bright.
“It’s me,” he whispers into our hiding spot. “It’s safe to come out.”
As if on cue, Dylan and I sort of relax against each other, and then Dylan’s straightening up again, letting the bark recede back into the tree and opening us up to the chilly night air.
Agni’s face shows relief when he sees us. A relief still tinged with the remains of his alarm.
“I got too far ahead,” he says all soft and apologetic. “They could’ve sailed right into you, coming from the side like that. How did you know—?”
“Zanny sensed them,” Dylan says, and Agni’s eyes shift real quick to mine.
“You’re already at that stage?”
I don’t know what that stage might be.
“It’s more dangerous than ever to stay still now,” Dylan says. “We’ve got to press on.”
This time we walk real close together, moving with the caution of the blind or something as Agni concentrates on scoping for signs of human life. I don’t know how long we’re going like that. Feels like hours and hours though it’s probably closer to just one, but it’s real excruciating to move so slow, afraid that every sound you hear signals danger or that every sound you make is going to give you away.
The moon’s out in its full strength, splashing light over us like a spotlight. We’re the only moving figures in a world that’s totally still.
Then Agni stops without warning. He turns to face us, and something about his expression tells me that now’s the time for another goodbye.
“The two of you must be on your way,” he says, smiling this gentle little smile as he steps over to give me ramu in farewell.
“Zanny,” he says, looking at me with his warm brown eyes. “When next we meet we must pretend to be strangers. Until the time is right to begin your reader training, remember that my thoughts are with you and my mind aware. For now, I must leave you to Dylan’s expert care.”
He exchanges ramu with Dylan, and in the moonlight with their heads together like that they look like brothers, the difference in their ages just melting away.
It’s a scene I remember from the first sighting I had, that rush of images that came to me back in Flemingsburg when I had my hand clamped around Dylan’s wrist, before I even knew about sightings. Recognizing this moment should comfort me. Should make me feel like this is all supposed to be happening right now, but I’m a little beyond being comforted. After what I saw inside those takers—after everything that’s happened in the last few days—the world has just become too big and scary a place.
Agni steps away from Dylan and turns toward me again. With this forced, comical little smile, he waves goodbye and goes sailing off into the snow and the trees and the darkness.
“This next bit’s going to be tricky,” Dylan says, eying me kind of careful. “It’ll be steep and rocky. Are you ready?”
He holds his hand out to me, and I take it, his grip strong and bracing through my thick glove. We head up the side of the mountain at a diagonal for a while until we come to this sort of fissure in the snow. It’s tall and narrow, as if some giant just came along and pinched the mountain together there, leaving a deep and dangerous-looking crag.
You wouldn’t think a person could fit in it, but Dylan pulls me right inside and suddenly its abrupt walls are towering above our heads, blocking everything else from view and giving me the sensation that I’m being swallowed alive.
These tired-looking evergreens are hanging all haphazard off the upper edges of the embankment and great big puffs of snow twirl down through their spare branches to disappear against the white of our coats and the ground. I can feel the flakes falling on my face, cold little kisses that send shivers of crystalline patterns through my mind.
Somehow everything’s quieter in here. Even the sounds of us struggling up the snow-coverd, rocky bottom of the ravine are muffled and ghostly. My breath gusts out in front of me, then brushes back, both hot and cold on my face.
It’s all so strange and dreamlike that I almost don’t realize it when we’ve come out at the top, don’t register at first that I’m staring straight down the gaping edge of a sheer cliff. When I do realize it though, my instincts kick in and I clench tight on Dylan’s hand and take a sort of jumping step backward.
He just laughs and says, “Don’t worry. There’s nothing to fear.” Then he lets go of me and steps right off the cliff into nothing.
He doesn’t fall. He’s just plain not there anymore, and my heart goes leapfrogging inside my chest and I drop down on my knees to look over the edge, calling out his name as loud as I dare.
“Don’t worry,” I hear him say again, his voice coming real strange and muted from somewhere right in front of me.
I look around, trying to place him in all the darkness out there, but I still can’t see anything. Then he steps all sudden back onto the ledge again, materializing as if he’s walking out of a waterfall or something, leaning down and kind of laughing and offering a hand to help me back to my feet.
“It’s an illusion barrier,” he says, his smile playing at the corners of his eyes and mouth. “To get through, you’ll have to come with me. Your DNA’s not in the system yet.”
My heart’s still hammering from the shock he gave me, and just at the moment I kind of wouldn’t mind giving him a good, hard punch, but he’s already grabbing my hand again and, before I can even say anything, he pulls me straight off the ledge along with him.
I shout out a little as I feel the tingle of the barrier pass over me, and then, with a thud, my foot hits solid ground and the world around us has changed completely. The sheer drop-off has been replaced by a gentle snowy slope, and beyond that there’s an ocean of lights spreading across a gigantic valley. One vast city just sparkling away in the night where before it was total darkness.
Dylan looks over at me and bursts out laughing, and it’s such a nice sound that I can’t even be mad.
“You like it?” He gives a little nod toward the city.
“Is it real?” I ask in response, and I’m only part joking. “That’s all Painters that live down there?”
“And there are more cities like this all around the world?”
“Most of them smaller, but yes.”
I’m not even sure how to describe how I feel. “It’s real pretty,” is all I manage, and it comes out kind of hushed like some sort of a prayer.
The trip down into the city takes a couple of seconds, maybe less. With my hand still in his, he takes us particle sailing down the mountain to the city’s edge and into this dark, damp avenue.
It’s illegal to particle sail within city limits, he tells me, so we have to go at our regular pace, inching along through black alley after black alley until here and there we start to see some lights in windows above us and I can get a sense, at least, of the shapes of the buildings that seem to stretch off each other like piles of giant pick-up-sticks.
After traveling most the day and not eating a real dinner, I’m pretty tired and I’m not exactly paying attention to where we’re going anymore. We’ve been walking for over an hour probably when Dylan comes up short and flings his arm out to hold me back, so unexpected that I about jump out of my skin.
Then, from around the corner I hear the footsteps, all slow and shuffling like something out of a horror film. Dylan backs me up against the closest wall, keeps me in the shadows with the pressure of his arm. Not like I’m about to budge at this moment anyway. Not with whatever it is that’s coming our way.
Real slow this figure moves into view, all bowed and curled in on himself. Walking like someone who’s forgotten they’ve got feet at all. His ragged clothes hang off him real limp and dirty and he’s murmuring wild to himself in this eerie hum. Then he breaks off into a sing-song laugh that sends shudders down the alley and straight up my spine.
We’re probably only feet away from him, but he doesn’t notice us. Just shuffles out of sight, all lost and aimless and kind of distressing.
“Calon tân,” Dylan breathes out. “He must’ve been out here for weeks, by the look of him.”
He drops his arm from in front of me and slumps back against the wall himself, staring after the man like he’s trying to work out some puzzle.
“I’ll have to send the medics out here once we’re home safe,” he says to himself still, then lifts his eyes up to mine. “We don’t get many people with troubled minds here in the Painter world. It’s strange he’d have gone unnoticed for so long.”
He pushes himself up from against the wall and starts walking again, real slow now. Our silence after that is not a pleasant one. It’s hard for me to get that man out of my mind, and I’m guessing Dylan isn’t doing much better.
After about another hour of walking, Dylan stops in front of a long wall that looks exactly like any of the other dozens of walls we’ve passed. He presses his hand against the stones there until this doorway opens where there was definitely not a door before. Then he’s stepping through it and holds the door open for me to follow.
On the other side it’s a tunnel of evergreens so thick that I can only get brief glimpses of what might be beyond them. They arch up over us and bend against each other with their tips twined together at the top.
When we reach the end of the tunnel several minutes later, we step out into a well-manicured and enormous garden. The moon’s all swallowed up in clouds now and it’s snowing hard enough that I can’t see much further than a few feet in front of us, but I can make out the shapes of winding sculptured hedges and many dozens of trees all covered in white.
We’re right up against the side of some sort of huge building. I think there’s a window or two off to my left, but they’re just darker shapes against the flatness of an already dark wall. Dylan presses his hand against the building, and pretty soon another invisible door melts into being there and swings open real, real soundless and slow.
There’s something kind of creepy about it in the middle of this already weird night and, when we step into the pitch black hallway, I try to stay as close to Dylan as I can without being creepy myself. Another door opens onto more pitch black, then Dylan hits a switch or something and the place explodes with light so sudden that I kind of wince.
We’re in this curving, seemingly endless corridor—and it is definitely a corridor, not a hallway, if you know what I mean—and Dylan’s already moving down it. I hurry to keep up with him, staring around me as we go.
The walls are a warm and polished sort of wood that’s all marbled with a dark graining that is too precise to be natural. It winds around itself in these pretty vine-like patterns, and every once in a while it erupts into a flurry of delicately-lined flocks of sparrows in flight.
At the end of the corridor, we step into an elevator that is unlike anything I have ever seen. From the outside it’s just this big trunk of a tree growing right inside the wall, like the tree itself must be stretching up into the floors above us.
Dylan waves his hand in front of the bark and two hulking panels slide away from each other to reveal a glowing interior that’s plastered all over with some sort of gold chipping. There’s a sliding knob on one wall with intricately carved numbers running vertical alongside it. Dylan pushes the knob up to the number 2, and the walls around us sort of rumble into motion.
“It’s the first elevator that was put into the house, one of the first in Daxa,” Dylan speaks up for the first time since we arrived.
It’s weird enough to me that he’s got an elevator right in the middle of his house—and an elevator like this to boot—but what’s even crazier to me is the number of levels showing on the elevator wall.
Six floors, I’m thinking. Who lives in a house with six floors?
When we get out, the corridors are the same warm-colored wood, this time with graining winding around in the shape of elaborate, graceful peacocks. I touch my fingers to the wall as we pass, dipping down into the particle patterns there. I note how the patterns in the graining are different from the patterns in the wall itself, how both are a little more fluid than the patterns I’ve seen in the snow and the rocks outside.
We pass several thick, old doors all covered in engravings of flowers and animals and trees. Then, before I know it, we’ve stopped in front of one of these doors, and Dylan’s opening it and switching on a light inside and gesturing for me to walk in.
It’s clearly meant to be a bedroom in there—I mean, it’s hard to miss the jumbo canopy bed squatting right smack in the middle—but the size of the room…well, I’ve never seen a room like that in anyone’s house before. It’s the sort of place where I imagine princesses probably slept back in the olden days, with all these lush drapings over the windows and walls and bed, and real elegant wardrobes and dressers and tables scattered all around the room as if somebody wanted to make it real obvious that they had a lot of things.
Dylan steps over to the nearest wall and opens a door onto an ensuite bathroom that is just about as big as my bedroom back at home. There’s a tub in there that I could probably swim in and thick violet rugs that look as soft as downy fur.
“Once you’ve got the hang of your painting, you can control everything with these sensors on the walls, but it also works like a Particle-Blind bathroom, so you should be comfortable here,” Dylan says, as if these weren’t the most extravagant surroundings I’ve ever encountered in my life.
He steps back into the bedroom and asks for my drivers license, saying he needs it to finish creating the Sophie Warren identity.
“Tomorrow we’ll have to destroy anything you’ve got that could tie you too easily back to Zanny Monroe. Your wallet, your clothes, etcetera, will all have to go. Breakfast is at eight. I’ll come and get you a little before then, take you down to meet everyone. Remember that the only person in my family who knows who you really are is my mum, so be careful not to give yourself away to the others. It’s for their safety as much as yours.”
He’s walking to the door now like he’s going to just leave me here, and I have this little moment of panic. Like, the more steps he takes, the stranger and smaller I feel in that huge room with the huge bed and the army of wardrobes.
But once he’s got his hand on the doorknob he turns back to me, studies my face for a minute while I try real hard to hide the fact that I’m totally freaking out.
“You going to be alright in here all alone?” he asks, and for some reason I just about lose all my cool, and this weird little laugh comes out of me. A sound I would definitely rather not have made.
“Truth is I am kind of anxious,” I admit, while at the same time I’m trying to sort of wave my words away with my hand.
He smiles a little. “You get ready for bed. I’ll be back in a few, and I’ll stay with you ’til you fall asleep.”
The relief is almost more embarrassing than the fear, but I hurry to get ready like he said. I get in the shower, and I don’t know whether to cry or laugh it feels so good to have that hot water rolling down my body.
Putting on my pajamas for the first time since leaving home it suddenly strikes me how real childish they look with these big cartoon cows all over, grinning these stupid grins. Mom always gets these sort of things a couple sizes too big too, because it “keeps you warmer,” she says. They hang real loose off me, which makes me look even more like a kid. So, when Dylan knocks on the door again, I jump quick into bed before telling him to come on in.
He’s clean shaven and washed, and with that dumb beard gone he’s even more handsome than before. He’s wearing these kind of jersey pants and a short-sleeved T-shirt that hangs off him real nice, and for the first time I get a sense of how he’s actually shaped. My pulse sets off pounding and I get that stupid tingle in my neck and all over, and I suddenly feel real shy about him being here at all.
He doesn’t seem to think it’s weird, though. Just sprawls out next to me on top of the covers with his hands behind his head and looks over at me out of the corner of his eye.
With a sympathetic little smile he asks, “You ready to become someone new tomorrow?” and the anxiety kind of leaps up in my chest.
“Honestly, maybe not?”
He laughs a little.
“You’re ready,” he says. “Ready enough. I’ll help you, and it’ll be easy with the others. Just be yourself. Though, not entirely yourself.”
He kind of laughs again, and I can’t help smiling back at him. I try to picture tomorrow, picture meeting his family for the first time.
“What’s your sister like?”
Another involuntary smile springs up on his face.
“Unpredictable. Energetic. A bit loony?”
I kind of raise my eyebrows. “Good loony?”
“Wait and see. I expect you’ll find she’s the best sort of friend.”
Saying good night, he props himself up on some pillows against the headboard of the bed, opening a book he’s brought with him and settling in. I slide all the way under the covers and lie watching him read for a while, my pulse gradually slowing until all I’m thinking is how nice it is not to be alone.
I fall asleep like that, the blankets pulled up to my nose and my mostly lidded eyes turned on him, and, just for that little while, I don’t feel so impossibly scared.
Previous: Chapter 8
Next: Chapter 10
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