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To say that there’s a lot on my mind the next morning would be to hugely understate things. I really need to talk to Dylan about everything, but he’s not at breakfast. He was gone all night helping with the Luis Peréz case, according to Uncle Wyn. Gwilim’s not at breakfast either—though I wasn’t expecting him to be—and it seems like no one else is even aware that he came back after the party last night.

With those of us who are here, the mood is pretty sombre, to say the least. Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn and Eilian have all seen the news reports now too. They know exactly how Luis Peréz died, and I’m guessing it’s brought back some pretty horrible memories.

Elian’s definitely silent enough, all lackluster and subdued. Poking at her food with her fork and staring kind of blank into the floral centerpiece.

At the other end of the table, though, Aunt Nia isn’t quiet at all. She’s like a little human white noise machine or something. Drumming her fingers on the tabletop, scraping her spoon along her plate without actually scooping up any food. Every few minutes she leans over to Uncle Wyn and says something in this low whisper, as if Eilian and I can’t still hear her pretty much perfectly from where we’re sitting.

“If it is the exact same method in nearly every way,” she whispers to Uncle Wyn, “doesn’t that call Cadfan’s conviction into question?”

He kind of glances at us, like he’s well aware we can hear every word, but he still speaks as quiet as Aunt Nia when he responds.

“Cadfan certainly can’t have done this one too, not under the circumstances. I’m sure Dylan won’t miss the opportunity to make that obvious.”

I look over to see what Eilian thinks of this, but she’s not giving much away. It’s hard to miss the tension in her muscles, though, and the tightness to her lips. Probably it wouldn’t take much at this point for something to just break her.

“That man must have come here right after killing Luis,” Aunt Nia’s still whispering to Uncle Wyn. “He came here to our house to gloat in his terrible deeds. To watch Luis’s poor boy get the news, and to stare us in the eyes as we relived what he did to Padrig, what my brother has suffered in his place.”

The effect of these words on Eilian is immediate and intense. She sits up a little straighter, her face going real alert.

“Wotan Schmid was at our house last night?” her voice cuts through the air all dangerous and raw, and Aunt Nia snaps her head around toward us, her face drained suddenly of color as if she honestly hadn’t realized we were listening in.

“He came here,” Eilian goes on, looking nothing like lackluster now. “After what he’d just done to Nando’s father?”

“I’m so sorry,” Aunt Nia says, and I don’t know if she’s apologizing for Wotan’s presence in the house or for blurting out all of those things just now. What I do know is that for some reason I’m real relieved she makes no mention of Gwilim being the one that brought the man here.

“I thought you must have seen him here, dear,” she says. “There was little we could do about it. We couldn’t force him to leave, not when there’s nothing actually proved against him.”

Calon Tân,” Eilian breathes out. “Don’t the rules of hospitality have limits?”

She pushes her chair quick away from the table and stands up.

“I don’t feel well. I’m going to my room.”

Stalking over to the door, she flings it open so hard that it comes flying back, barely missing grazing her arm as it slams itself shut behind her. Aunt Nia rises to go after Eilian, but Uncle Wyn touches her arm to hold her back.

“Give her some time alone,” he murmurs. “Words aren’t going to help her right now.”

It’s obvious Aunt Nia doesn’t quite believe him, but she sits down again anyway, and I’ve got to admit that it does feel kind of wrong to just hunker in here after Eilian’s gone storming away. Seems to me that Uncle Wyn is actually right, though, so sitting here and hunkering is exactly what I do.

The three of us barely say four sentences to each other for the rest of breakfast, and I doubt any of us actually eats. We stare at our food in silence, and every once in a while when I do look up at Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn, it kind of hurts to see the subtle lines of worry etched so deep on both their faces. See the sadness they wear in the slope of their shoulders as they sit there in their chairs.


When I go up to Eilian’s room to check on her after breakfast there’s a sign on the door that says, “Yes, I do actually want to be by myself right now.”

I stand there for a few minutes, staring at that sign and listening to the soft sounds of her crying in there all alone. It reminds me, again, of that sighting I had of Nando weeping—makes me think of Padrig and Mr. Peréz dying in all that pain—and I feel a sudden, pressing anger surge through my muscles and bones. I mean, it just kills me that there’s not one thing that I can think to do to help anyone right now.

After a few minutes I head back to my room, telling myself I’m respecting Eilian’s privacy by not bothering her, but really I’m just feeling like I’m failing her hugely somehow.

My tablet is still sitting on my desk when I walk into my room. I left it there when I went down to breakfast because I felt kind of weird about carrying the thing around with me after what happened last night. I mean, by the time I woke up in the morning, the tablet had expelled all that essentual-type energy it was spewing and it seemed to be working just fine, but I guess it felt to me like it was connected to the ghost somehow. Like taking it with me downstairs meant also carting around a part of him.

I’m pretty much over the jeebies about it now, though. It’s harder to be afraid of a ghost in the full light of day, and besides, while sitting all silent at breakfast I remembered something Agni told me that might explain the whole haunting thing.

I sit down at the desk and pull the tablet over to me, searching on it for painter beliefs about ghosts. It’s essentially what I was thinking. Essentially everything Agni said, about how a person has both an essence and a shadow—the thing Particle-Blinds call an aura—and when we die both things are supposed to pass over to some other dimension. Only, if a person gets killed violently, their essentual energy can drain too quick and the shadow can get left behind.

Agni called it not being fully one place or the other, and it sounds like a pretty miserable state of affairs to me. Being aware of everything your life used to be, but not actually being able to live in it.

That’s not really the information I was looking for, though. What I was looking for was this:

“Both the essence and the shadow are believed to be composed of energy—or, in other words, matter—and disunited shadows have been known to interact with our physical dimension in surprising ways. Often in the attempt to establish some form of communication.”

I thought that was probably what the deal with my tablet was—what my ghost thing was attempting to do—and I’m sorry now that I scared him away before he could really try it.

I push back from my desk and stand up, looking around the big room, and thinking that maybe even though I can’t do much to help any of my friends that are living, there might be something I can do for someone who’s already died.

“Hi,” I say, feeling kind of silly talking to any empty room. “Hey…you.”

I don’t want to actually say his name in case I’m totally wrong about all this. Don’t want to commit to the idea completely just yet.

“I think I know what—who—you are, and I’m not freaked out anymore, so, you know…it’s okay to try and communicate with me again.”

I wait for some kind of response. For any sign that there might be somebody else in the room with me, but there’s nothing. Just a quiet so profound that I’m pretty sure I can hear the house itself growing around me.

“I’m here. I’m listening,” I try again, but still there’s no response, and after the little glimmer of hope I was feeling a second before, standing there now in all that silence—it’s like the air itself starts to feel heavy with a suffocating sense of loneliness.

As if over the years the walls have collected every single lonesome thought that ever crossed the mind of anyone who lived here, and now it’s all seeping out into my room.

I think of Eilian crying by herself in her bedroom down the hall from me—think of Nando’s face after the GIB agents had just finished telling him what had happened to his dad—and the anger just surges up inside of me again so fast I could scream.

I fling myself over to the nearest window seat and throw open the window, letting the cold winter air burst in, feathery snowflakes flurrying against my face. I want to smash things. Crush something to smithereens. I want to force the universe—or whatever power it is that’s supposed to be in charge here—to make things right somehow. To make me useful like I’m supposed to be. Instead I sit there, gripping the sill and gritting my teeth, thinking how satisfying it would be to just chuck something fragile right out that window and watch it crash into the ground below.

It’s a while before it occurs to me that there is something I can do right now. That I don’t have to wait for Dylan to work on improving my painting skills. I mean, I’ve got the necessary information, don’t I? School books downloaded onto my phone and loads of tutorials strewn all over the Painter internet. It’s true that I may not be real useful to anyone just yet, but I don’t have to be totally hopeless.

If I stay in this room for one second longer, though, I still might go totally insane. So I close the window again and shrink my tablet back into my phone and get ready to go up to the balcony, pausing at the door to look around the room one last time.

I still can’t sense anyone, but I try talking to Padrig’s shadow again anyway.

“I’m off to become someone that can keep your family safe,” I say, and kind of cringe because it sounds pretty lame. “I’ll be up on the balcony, if you’re interested in joining me.”

This time I don’t wait for a response, though. I try to play it cool like Gwilim would probably do, and I just twist on my heel and walk out of the room.


The shadow of Padrig Lucas never does visit me on the balcony, which is probably better anyway because I wouldn’t exactly be great company. I try to tackle color transformation since it’s the next thing Dylan said he wanted to teach me, but it turns out it’s a whole lot more complicated than the other things I’ve learned.

Except for a couple breaks to go eat meals with Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn—where the three of us just sit there all strained and silent—I’m up on the balcony all day trying to figure how to do that stuff. By the time evening hits, I’m about ready to tear out my hair.

I’m encased in a bubble of warm air, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and I’m glaring hard at this big clay dragonfly that I painted out of the practice ball. There are a lot of times lately—now that I’m getting used to the idea that I can see the world on this microscopic level—when I can really lose myself in my painting. When it puts me into a state of increased focus and calm. This is definitely not one of those times.

In order to change the color of something, you’ve got to take into account a mess of factors, like surface properties and light wavelengths and other things that just a few a weeks ago would’ve sounded like mumbo-jumbo. Now it’s all just understandable enough to make it feel both barely and maddeningly out of reach.

The dragonfly in front of me looks pretty splotchy and awful, with different variations of a murky, unsanitary hue of brown covering its surface. I’m starting to think to myself how pointless this is. Wondering how exactly it’s supposed to help me fight the takers. I mean, what am I going to do to them? Make their clothes look all drab-colored and tan? Depress them into submission?

But then, after hours of trying to force all this color changing stuff to make sense to me and when I’m pretty much ready to give up, everything just sort of clicks into place in my mind. Not, honestly, like I actually understand the science of it too well, but it’s like I can see the recipe or something. I can see what ingredients I’ve got to add to get what I want.

A trickle of some pretty impressive blues and greens starts to shimmer across the surface of one of the dragonfly’s wings, and I feel this little frenzy of pride bubbling up inside of me. I want to holler again, but not out of anger. I mean, I did it. I figured it out by myself.

That’s when I hear Dylan behind me.

“This probably isn’t the best place to be doing that,” he says, and I practically jump out of my skin, instinctively shoving the dragonfly under my crossed legs to hide it from view as if Dylan doesn’t already know I’m the Way Reader.

“When did you get here?” I demand, with a lot more shock than authority.

“My point exactly. What if I’d been someone else? All alone like this, you can’t pretend you’re not the one doing the painting. Barely more than a week into the term, you’re already getting into territory many of the other kids haven’t begun to touch.”

He comes around in front of me, and crouches down, kind of pulling at my hands to get a glimpse of the dragonfly, and I notice now with a little embarrassment that the shape of the wings on the thing is pretty wonky.

“You’re doing very well,” he says, the approval in his voice reigniting some of that sense of pride I had a few minutes before.

But then he says, “I’ve got something to tell you,” and looks at me with one of his unreadable expressions, and I’m suddenly sure he’s come to give me bad news.

“Is it my mom?” I ask. “Nando?”

He seems kind of surprised by this, his eyebrows shooting up and something nearly like a smile pulling at his lips.

“That’s not it at all. Agni’s ready to begin training you. You start tomorrow morning before school.”

This is so not what I was expecting.

“Are you serious?” I get this rush of relief and excitement and nervousness all at the same time.

“Don’t get too thrilled about it,” Dylan says, kind of wry. “As a cover, we’re telling everybody that you’re taking tai chi.”

Of course. Because tai chi lessons are a thing that Painter’s say a person needs if they’re totally awful at painting.

“Farm Girl strikes again, I guess,” I make a face at Dylan and he actually kind of laughs. Somehow, though, it strikes me as one of the most exhausted sounds I’ve ever heard him make.

I look closer at him, but—as if he can tell I’ve noticed that something’s off—he’s careful not to look back at me.

“I have a few minutes before I have to go back to the office. Shall I help you with your color-changing technique?” He slides down so that he’s sitting across from me, and takes the clay dragonfly in his hand, looking it over and saying, “Of course, it looks like you’ve essentially sussed it out. I can teach you some helpful tricks, though.”

“You’re going back to work tonight?”

He nods.

“You were gone all night last night. Have you even had any sleep?”

He throws a real masked sort of glance at me and kind of shrugs. “We’ve got to strike before the takers can cover anything up.”

I think about what I know of his dad’s trial, and I understand his sense of urgency. Still, there’s only so much he can do before he’s going to need a rest, and, honestly, it’s hard not to think about the fact that Padrig lost his life going after this Wotan guy. Seems like just Dylan leaving the house might be putting himself at risk.

“The shimmer that you’ve used here is quite good,” he says to me, ignoring the clear concern in my face. “But since it’s only a layer on the surface it can’t offer quite as much brilliance as is possible. I can show you how to make it look like it’s coming from deeper within the wing.”

I stare at him for a minute, thinking about all the things I have to tell him—all the things I want him to tell me—but he just keeps on talking.

“You see, what you did was to create, essentially, one reflective plane at the top, but if you think of it more like a diamond, which contains many planes that reflect light at different angles, then you can achieve a fuller and more complex shine. Let me show you.”

He scoots closer to take hold of my hand and place it on the dragonfly with his so I can see what he’s doing in the particles down there.

This feels like it’s probably not the most important thing to be doing right now, but I get it. I understand wanting to have just a minute to breathe and not have to think about all the worrisome things in the world. So I let him continue on with his lesson, and for a while I think it does actually help him.

As long as he’s talking to me about the finer points of painting, at least, he seems able enough to focus on the here and now rather than all the other things waiting for his attention. But when we’re taking the elevator down about half an hour later and he leans against the wall and closes his eyes, it’s not just that he looks exhausted. It’s like he’s taut. Brittle. As if he’s being stretched so far from absolutely every possible direction that any minute now he might just snap.

I know he really needs a break and I feel bad bringing anything up that could stress him out even more, but there are some things he’s got to know.

“You should look into José Anjo,” I say, and one of Dylan’s eyes comes open in a mild sort of curiosity.

“The artist?”

“He—” I’m not exactly sure where to start. “My friend Gabriel Lobato—when he saw Anjo he looked downright terrified. And when I actually met Anjo myself, he wouldn’t do pono with me. As in,” I’m warming up to the subject now, “when I tried to touch his palm, he totally freaked. And then, when the agents first got her last night I caught him looking at Wotan, and Anjo knows that man. I mean, it was like he knew exactly what Wotan had done.”

Dylan’s kind of slid up straighter against the wall and he’s got both eyes fully open now, looking at me all serious and attentive.

“Was there anything else you noticed? Did he smell at all like that man from your sighting, perhaps?”

I can’t believe that’s not a thing that I’d even thought to check.

I sort of shake my head. “I don’t know. We were never close enough for me to tell.”

Dylan goes quiet for a minute, stares all thoughtful over my shoulder into the corner. Then he turns his eyes on me again, and I don’t know how to describe the way that look makes me feel.

“That’s good work, Zanny,” he says, kind of grateful, of all things. Sincere. “It’s—Well, I think it’s something that could prove very useful.”

The elevator comes to a stop at my floor, and Dylan gets off and starts walking with me down the hall. Looking up into his face, I ask him how the Luis Peréz case is going, and I notice that it takes him a second to respond.

“It’s hard to know at this point,” he finally says, watching his feet as he walks. “I’m hopeful, but there’s still the problem of the double agent—or agents—at the GIB.”

“Have you found anything that could point to Wotan Schmid?” I ask,  and Dylan shoots me this weird little dismal smile.

“Not anything near conclusive enough.”

There are still a lot of other things I’d like to ask him, but we’re nearly to my room and there’s one thing in particular that I’d like to get cleared up tonight.

“Do takers have the ability to make themselves invisible?”

He quirks one questioning eyebrow over at me like he’s trying to figure out why this topic’s coming up from out of the blue.

“They’ve got the same abilities as anyone else,” he answers. “But, technically yes, it is possible to play with the particles in the air around you and make it look as if you aren’t actually there. Some of the GIB vehicles have that capability, but you’d have to be highly skilled to do it for yourself. Especially if you were walking around or, honestly, moving in any manner at all.”

“What about getting into the house? Would it be possible for one of them to come sneaking in here?”

I don’t think I sound scared or anything when I ask it—I’m just trying to rule out the possibility that my invisible visitor is anything other than a shadow—but now Dylan looks full on at me now, as if I’ve just confessed to having another nightmare.

“Why do you ask that?” he wants to know, but for some reason I don’t really want to tell him.

I was considering it—when it first occurred to me who the ghost thing probably was—but now it seems like it’d be kind of a cruel thing, to bring information like that into Dylan’s life before I’m absolutely certain it’s true.

“It’s just—” I give a little shrug. “It’s just something I’ve been thinking about.”

I must not be real convincing, though, because Dylan searches my face for a second, his own expression hinting at a kind of careful concern.

“Our house has a DNA barrier set up,” he says. “We’re the only people that can get inside unless one of us invites someone in, and you’d need a small army to produce enough energy to break that barrier down, so no. No one could sneak in, invisible or otherwise.”

We’ve reached my door now, and when I turn to face him before stepping inside, he surprises me by leaning one hand against the doorframe, looking me real steady in the eyes. Real pointed.

“You’re safe here,” he says. “As long as Gwilim doesn’t bring any more takers here at least, no one can hurt you while you’re in my home.”

It’s not what I was expecting, that sort of response from him. I have to admit I don’t dislike it. I mean, it’s nice when he puts on that reassuring air, but at the same time I don’t actually need any reassurance right now. At least, not about that. I’d so much rather feel empowered and capable. I want to really believe I have, in some part maybe, the potential to live up to my Way Reader responsibilities and put a stop to the takers and their sadistic lunacy.

“I know I’m safe,” I tell Dylan, trying to show still that I’m grateful for his concern. “I’m not worried about myself.”

He looks at me a little longer, searching my face again like he realizes he read me wrong and this time he wants to get it right.

“We’re going to win,” he says finally, standing up straight again and looking down at me with the sort of confidence that’s meant to be shared. “We can’t stop anyone from ever having to feel pain, but Zanny, it won’t be long before you’re a force to be reckoned with.”

I just stare back at him for a minute, kind of surprised at how he guessed it so dead on.

“Thank you,” I murmur, and he gives me a little nod.

“I’ll be back in the morning to take you to tai chi. Get some good sleep tonight.”

He turns away and walks off toward the marble stairs, and I stand there looking after him for a minute, thinking how someday I want to be able to make everything right for him, in the same way that he’s just—at least for the moment—made everything right for me.

I go into my room kind of buzzing with a sense of determination and optimism. Tearing out a piece of paper from a little notebook I keep on my desk, I write four names at the top of the page: Brock Schwarz, Lydia Banks, Luis Peréz, and Biggy Argyle—the man the takers publicly killed. After a second, I write Padrig’s name too.

These are the deaths I have to remember, the deaths that remind me what this is all about. These are my silent declaration of war, and looking at them there on the page, for the first time in days I feel like maybe it’s a fight I can figure out how to win.

Previous: Chapter 22

Next: Chapter 24


Let me know your thoughts and feelings. Either by commenting below or emailing me here


4 thoughts on “LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 23

  1. Nae says:

    LOVE! There was a good bit of up and down emotion-pulling in here. I liked having things to think about and I’m glad Zanny is practicing. Also, way excited for tai chi. 🙂

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