My Favorite Things, June 4

Mostly for my own enjoyment, here are some of my favorite things of late. Some of them are pretty old news, but I’m still loving them right now.

Me and new bike

LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 18

Posting for feedback. Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 18

I burst into Dylan’s room, shaking all over and calling his name, only vaguely remembering how I got up here. He’s still on the phone with Teresa, lounging in one of the chairs in the far corner, all bare-chested and wearing those jersey pajama pants of his. But at the sound of the door crashing open, he’s up on his feet and spinning around toward me.

“Z—Sophie.”

As soon as he registers the fear on my face, he gets off the phone: “Teresa, I’ll call you back. Everything’s fine. Yes, you too.”

He’s already moving across the floor, reaches me just as he’s hanging up.

“What’s wrong?” he says, gripping me by the arms real firm and bracing.

It’s so bright in here. Such a startling white after the dark of the nightmare, the dark of the halls as I ran to his room.

“A sighting,” I sort of stammer. “I— He—”

I don’t even know where to start. The whole horrible thing is still real present in my mind and I can’t seem to stop shaking. It’s like I’ve gone all weak and flimsy or something. Like any second I might just fall down on the floor and cry.

Dylan’s hands move up to my shoulders and he bends toward me, looking me right in they eye until he knows he’s locked me back into reality.

“Come here,” he tells me, and leads me back over to the chair where I was sitting just an hour before.

He sits on the coffee table in front of me, leans his elbows on his legs and looks me real sober in the face, waiting for me to calm down. From the total patience in his own expression, you’d think he had all the time in the world, and when I finally start to stumble through my story he doesn’t interrupt me. Just listens all silent and still.

It’s kind of weird how describing it out loud helps the panic to die down a bit. Sure doesn’t get rid of the fear, though. I mean, just minutes ago I felt myself dying—felt someone killing me—and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It may have just been a sighting, but it felt pretty potent and real to me, and I don’t know if the shock of that will go away anytime soon.

“Do sightings always come true?” I ask when I reach the end of my story, and Dylan hesitates before answering.

“Yes,” he says. “Though not always in the way you expect. Agni would explain it better, but while some sightings are merely hints or abstract interpretations of events, I believe a sighting as clear as yours is usually accurate. Did you recognize the voice of the man?”

“No.”

“Do you know who the friend was? The one in pain nearby you?”

I’m not sure how to answer that. For a second I just study the straight line of Dylan’s nose, count each perfect little eyelash arcing off of his eyelids.

“No.” I say finally, instead of telling him that I’m terrified the kid I heard was actually him. That someday, I’m afraid, he’s probably going to die because of me.

He’s quiet for a few minutes too, biting his lip a little and thinking. The way he’s sitting, with his elbows resting on his knees and his fingers linked kind of loose and easy—he seems as calm as ever and I wonder if it’s bothered him more than he’s showing, the fact that I’ve just described what is probably going to be my own death.

“There’s no conclusion,” he says all of a sudden.

“What?”

Meeting my eye, his expression edging somewhere near to relief, he explains, “Your sighting didn’t have a conclusion. We don’t know what happens to you or the other person you heard. You can still determine the ending. You just have to work hard to be ready for it. Perhaps it’s a blessing even, seeing it now, so you have something specific to train toward.”

I try to picture it as a blessing, but all I can think about is the feel of that man’s hand around my neck, of him reaching his mind inside me.

“When Agni comes back,” Dylan says, “he can help you put it all into perspective. That should be soon, but there’s not much else we can do until then, except what we’ve been doing. Do you want me to come sit with you for a while?”

I shake my head, trying to be brave even though I’d actually love not to be alone right now.

“Do you want to sleep up here with me?”

My heart kind of skips a beat. I mean, I know what he’s actually asking, but suddenly I’m real aware of his half-naked body right there in front of me, and of me in my lacy little camisole and pajama shorts. And the fact that we’re sitting so close to each other that I can see the speckles in the color of his eyes.

I’m also real aware that it’d be a disaster if I did any of things I’m suddenly thinking about doing to him, and it seems like it’s probably not a great idea for me to be one-on-one with him much longer.

“I’ll be alright,” I lie. “I was just kind of shocked.”

“May I walk you to your room at least?”

Picturing the dark and winding halls out there I give a little nod, thinking that it’s funny how in the middle of a totally fearful moment, I can still get so distracted by the appeal of a cute guy’s naked chest.

***********************************************************************

The next day is the Mawihl Academy Welcome Ball, which is, apparently, a much bigger deal than I’d realized. Family and friends of the new students come from all over the city to add to the welcome, and everyone takes their dress and appearance real serious. Aunt Nia even hires hair and makeup artisans to come and fix her and Eilian and me up. Three artisans for each of us, which feels like a small army invading the house.

The traditional style of clothing for these events is always something historically inspired. My dress, which Eilian picked out for me, looks like something from the late 1800s, with this tight bodice and a flowing skirt. It’s all shimmering green and as soft as downy feathers, embroidered with blues and yellows in a delicate sort of raindrop pattern running from one shoulder and down into the gauzy folds of the skirt.

To match the style of my dress, the artisans add length to my hair and curl it and pull it up on top of my head. They also alter the pigment of my cheeks, my eyelashes, my nails—just enough to “enhance my natural beauty,” as they put it. When I ask how they’re able to make the changes to my skin like that, they tell me none of it’s permanent.

“Think of it like a particle dye,” says the one in charge, an older woman with shiningly silver hair falling in real ordered waves down the length of her back. “It will all fade away by morning.”

“Like Cinderella,” another one says with a strong German accent, kind of laughing at her own joke.

This girl is curvy and big-eyed, and she’s got such a jovial laugh that it shakes pretty much her entire body. Probably I’d really like her if it weren’t for the fact that she smells almost exactly like that man from my sighting. All chemical-like grass and cucumbers. Or maybe celery?

Every time the girl comes near me—pulling strands of hair up onto my head, pushing her fingers across my cheeks real slow as she changes the pigment—I get all washed over in that smell of hers, and I feel the panic again. Feel sure that I’m dying. That Dylan’s dying beside me.

I want to ask her what the smell is exactly, but I’m not sure it’d be safe. I mean, I don’t know this girl. There doesn’t seem to be anything too sinister about her, but it’s real weird that she’s here today, barely twelve hours after I had a sighting where that smell of hers featured pretty strong.

I tell myself I can just ask Dylan about it later. Have him look into her a little bit. But my mind keeps trying to work the puzzle out on it’s own. Trying to figure out if there’s anything about her that’s suspicious. I keep finding my eyes following her, searching in the profile of her face for any sign of what that smell of hers really means.

When the artisans finish their work and stand me up in front of the mirror, I barely recognize myself. I look somehow taller, more sophisticated. My blue hair’s piled on top of my head with little wispy curls dangling down onto my shoulders, and my whole head’s dusted over with these blue and yellow crystalline things, barely bigger than the point of a needle. Combined with the shimmer in the fabric of my dress, I look like some sort of Marie Antoinette who’s been hand-dipped in a vat of stars or something.

The artisans are clearly waiting for some reaction. They’re lined up behind me, their faces visible in the mirror, and it’s so obvious they want to know what I’m thinking. They’ve done good work—I look amazing—but the only thing I can think as I stare at myself in the mirror is what a waste of time this all is. I should be training right now. I should be learning how to save lives. Dylan’s life, in particular. Mine too, if I can.

It’s Eilian that salvages the moment, bursting into my room without knocking and then stopping on the spot and staring me up and down and all over, like she’s in some sort of shock.

“I knew it!” she says, all accusing. “I knew you’d look stunning in that dress. Calon tân, you’re gorgeous.”

It’s all the artisans needed to hear. They smile at each other with this open pride, compliment Eilian on her own appearance, which is just as incredible as mine. If I’m wearing the stars, she’s draped in sunset. All clinging, coral-tinged silk underneath an ethereal looking sheer fabric in a light, yellowy sort of orange.

She thanks the artisans for their work, then she grabs my hands and spins me out the door in front of her, telling me she can’t wait to hear what everyone else says when they see me.

As she pulls me down the hall—talking the whole time about the people she hopes we’ll see at the ball, the dresses other girls might be wearing—I feel kind of restrained and disoriented. It’s strange to be swallowed up in her excitement and feel so removed from it all myself.

Aunt Nia and Unlce Wyn and Dylan are waiting at the foot of the marble stairs for us, and seeing Dylan there dressed in a dark, double-breasted tuxedo that’s straight out of the 1920s, I manage to regain some sense of steadiness. He watches me as Eilian and I come down the stairs, and there’s just something so reassuring about his presence there.

As we get near the bottom, Eilian says to the three of them, “Isn’t Sophie just drop dead?” and Uncle Wyn and Aunt Nia real readily agree.

“You’re both like beautiful visions,” Aunt Nia says with even more than her usual level of warmth. “Just look at the two of you.”

For a second, with her smiling at us like that, it’s almost like being an actual part of their family, and I feel this unexpected little thrill of pride shoot through me.

Dylan, all mock-serious and gentlemanly, takes my hand as I go down the last step and flashes me this conspiratorial little smile, saying in a near whisper, “You won’t be taken for a farm girl tonight.”

Before I can stop myself I’m kind of blushing, and I feel the first seeds of excitement begin to push out the fear from last night’s nightmare.

I look up at Dylan, unable to hide the gratified smile that’s pulling at my cheeks.

“Isn’t that a bad thing?” I ask, and he shakes his head, his eyes passing over me again as if he’s not aware he’s even doing it.

“Tonight it isn’t.”

***********************************************************************

The ball’s held in one of the skyscrapers downtown, in this huge octagonal room surrounded entirely by windows. The space is filled with thousands of white, delicate glass lanterns that are just hanging in the air there above our heads. They’re floating outside the windows too, making it seem like the room goes on forever.

You can feel the music of the live orchestra in the sound waves as they travel toward us through the particles in the room. The musicians are playing a variety of instruments, some of which I recognize, like the violins and the cellos. The rest, Dylan tells me, are Painter specific and they make sound by being manipulated on a particle level.

The combination of the Particle-Blind and Painter instruments makes the orchestra’s music almost unearthly, both beautiful and kind of strange. And the dancing is a perfect match for it, like something out of a dream.

Eilian and Aunt Nia took a little time this week to teach me some of the steps—mostly old-style waltzes and things—and they described the ascensè technique, where Painters add shallow pillows of air beneath their feet as they move from one step to the other, to lengthen their stride and give the illusion that they’re floating across the floor. Having it described to me and seeing it in person, though—well, those are two real different things.

With everyone dressed in their fantastical clothing from all periods of history, gliding around each other in these elegant, seamless twists and turns—all of it backdropped by the already magical setting—it pretty much takes my breath away. Standing with Dylan at the edge of the dance floor, all I can do is stare.

“Do you like it?” he asks, and there’s laughter in his voice as well as that same sort of pride that he had the first night I saw Daxa spreading out through the valley below us.

“It reminds me of the story of the twelve dancing princesses,” I say, and he cocks an eyebrow at me.

“I don’t believe I’ve heard that one.”

A couple dancers pass by, the man wearing an Indian-style turban and some sort of military uniform, and the woman dressed in African-looking patterns and bright colors. Both of them are real tall and handsome and dignified. The kind of people you notice in a crowd. And the way they dance, it’s like they were born for it.

I glance up at Dylan, giving him this teasing little smile. “Well, it’s a story that reminds me of this.”

“Fair enough,” he laughs. “Want to try it?”

“Yes—no. I don’t know,” I falter, imagining myself stumbling around real awkward among all those highly coordinated people, but Dylan’s already grabbing my hand and leading me onto the dance floor anyway.

“Oh, I’ll do most of it for you. Come on.”

We swing into motion with everyone else, and with him guiding me along it turns out I can perform most of the steps with an un-embarrassing level of credibility. Then, once he’s sure I’ve got the hang of the movements, he starts doing ascensè, and suddenly we’re dancing on air.

“We’re flying!” I laugh up at him, kind of afraid to look anywhere else in case I totally ruin this moment by losing my balance and falling on my face.

With his arm around me all warm and solid, our bodies close together, and his attention focused entirely on me—if there’s going to be one truly happy moment the whole evening, I’m thinking this is probably it.

When I start to feel comfortable enough to look around us, I notice that same couple from before, dancing just a few feet away. It’s not just the way they dance that draws my eye to them. They’re both so totally lost in each other, as if none of the rest of us exists. It comes as kind of a shock to me when I realize that I actually know the man.

His face is shaved, the turban covers his bald head, and he looks like some movie star instead of Father Christmas, but I’d recognize those smiling eyes of his anywhere.

I let out this little gasp and Dylan, like he was just waiting for my  reaction, swings me real swift away from them, nearly to the center of the floor.

“Don’t show your recognition,” he says all quiet and firm, but kind of smiling.

I bring my eyes back to his face and try hard not to look as surprised as I am.

“Did you know he was back?”

Dylan shakes his head. “He must’ve returned this evening. No, don’t look at him again.”

Kind of laughing at myself, I apologize and whisper, “But he looks so different tonight. I barely recognized him.”

“Other than the ball attire, this is how he normally looks in Daxa.”

“Who’s that woman with him? She’s gorgeous.”

“That’s Ona. His wife.”

Obviously. I remember now that Agni talked about her, but I didn’t expect her to be so stunning.

“She’s like a tree,” I say, and Dylan nearly bursts out laughing even though I’m pretty sure he understands what I mean.

When the music stops Dylan doesn’t let go of my hand as we walk back across the room. It’s like it’s just natural for him to hold onto it, and it gives me this tiny little sense of giddiness to think so.

Then we see Teresa waiting for us there at the edge of the floor and all my giddiness ends. Dylan lets go of me to wave at her, picks up his pace a bit like it’s simple instinct for him to close the distance between them as fast as possible.

Teresa’s leaning all languid against one of the room’s stone pillars, looking like some model from the 1920s with her newly bobbed hair and a midnight-colored flapper dress that is clearly meant to complement Dylan’s suit. Elian’s next to her, chatting away at her while picking at a plate piled high with cookies and custards and things. It’s obvious Teresa’s only half listening to Eilian, though. Mostly, she’s watching Dylan and me, with that look in her eyes that always makes me feel uncomfortable.

As we get closer, she pushes herself up from the pillar, her body unfolding as graceful as if she were in some sort of ballet. Then, for just a second she looks straight at me like she wants to be sure I’m watching, and she takes a couple steps to come right into Dylan’s space, sliding her hand up and around the back of his neck to his essensus and pulling him into a kiss that is way more intimate than the occasion calls for.

I feel suddenly real weird, standing there right next to them while they’re doing such a private thing. When I meet Eilian’s eye, though, she seems to think it’s pretty funny.

“Get a room,” she says when Teresa and Dylan pull away from each other. “There are children here. You could burn their eyes out.”

Laughing all engagingly, Teresa twines her fingers into Dylan’s grip and leans her shoulder against his, smiling up at him. He smiles back, but I notice a tinge of a question in that look he gives her, like maybe he’s not exactly sure what’s just happened between them either.

Our other friends start to arrive then. Leti and Gabriel each come alone, staying by us most of the evening. Tua, on the other hand, shows up with what must be every person on the planet who is related to him in anyway, and he brings them all over to introduce them to us.

Nando—here with just his two younger sisters and his dad—introduces us to his family as well. His sisters are like little female, much more lighthearted copies of himself, and it’s pretty obvious he adores them. But I notice that, as he watches them run off to talk to some of their friends, the proud look on his face is tinged with a level of care and responsibility that seems a lot heavier than you’d expect in most brothers.

I get something of an idea of why that might be when he tries to introduce his dad. The man—all disheveled hair and an easy, vague sort of smile—seems harmless enough, but it’s also real obvious that he’s not exactly present. Like, his eyes are strangely unfocused and he can’t seem to stay even remotely still. Before Nando’s even finished telling us his dad’s name, the man’s moving around the perimeter of our little circle of family and friends, staring off into the distance and not really talking to anyone. I notice Nando’s eyes following him kind of anxiously, until Mr. Peréz comes back over and tells Nando in this slurred sort of a whisper that he’ll be back “pronto.”

“You have a nice time with your friends,” he pats Nando’s arm several times too many.

When he wanders kind of aimless away, it’s like Nando’s relief is actually palpable. His shoulders relax and he definitely seems to breathe a bit better. Though he still looks to me like it wouldn’t take much to push him out of his calm.

So, of course, this is when Tua decides to start interrogating him about why Hina’s not here.

“I thought she told you she was going to come tonight,” Tua says, when Nando just kind of shrugs.

“She ended up having to work last minute.”

“But your office is closed today.”

Nando stares at Tua for a little bit. Long enough that Tua should see the warning in it. “Yeah.”

Tua doesn’t get it though.

“So…what, she’s working a second one? I thought you’re not supposed to work off-campus jobs if you’re getting that half-tuition employee discount.”

At first Tua doesn’t seem to catch the change in Nando’s expression—this deadpan look that’s just seething with anger potential—but I’m pretty sure the rest of us do. I notice Leti and Eilian exchange quick glances, and even Gabriel looks at me and kind of raises his eyebrows.

“Unlike most of the rest of us,” Nando’s voice comes out like a snap. “Hina hasn’t got anyone here to give her support or to put a roof over her head. When you’re in a situation like that, you find work where you can and maybe, yeah, you have to bend the rules a little.”

Tua’s shocked. Just totally unprepared for this sort of response from Nando. Real quick, he does some back pedaling.

“No, no! That’s fine. I mean, that’s not what I meant. Lagisakes, I just thought,” he suddenly looks real embarrassed, “I thought maybe she was trying to avoid us or something.”

That’s when it dawns on the rest of us, why it is that Hina’s absence is bothering Tua right now, and I’m guessing he immediately wishes he could take back what he just said. It has a sort of magical effect on Nando, though. His anger dies as quick as it flared in the first place, and Eilian starts punching Tua sort of playful in the arm.

“You wanted to see her dressed up all pretty,” she says in this sing-song voice as Tua tries to push her hands away.

“Can’t imagine why anyone would want to avoid you, Tua.” Nando adds.

“Come on, you guys,” Tua’s kind of laughing, still fending Eilian off. “Try being a bit mature for a minute.”

Just then, this crash sounds out from a dozen or so feet behind us, and we all spin around to see what it was. Nando’s dad is standing there, and the broken shards of what used to be one of the floating glass lanterns is scattered at his feet. He’s looking both kind of sheepish and kind of confused, his cheeks a ruddy red that could be from embarrassment, but I’m guessing are from something else entirely.

The color in Nando’s own face has washed almost completely away. He rushes over to his dad’s side as people around us all turn to try and see what’s happening. Nando’s jaw is so tight I’m surprised I can’t hear the sound of his teeth grinding. He whispers something at his dad, all intense and angry, but it doesn’t seem to faze the man at all.

“I think I did that,” I hear him say. “Did I do that? I’m pretty sure I’m the one that did that. I was just trying to turn it green.”

Then he looks at Nando, and his eyes suddenly go all warm and tender as if he’s only just noticed that his son’s the one standing there.

Ay, mijo!” he says, going in for a hug that Nando only half manages to deflect. “I really love you, you know? You’re a good young man, so much like your mother.”

More people are craning their heads to catch a glimpse of the two of them, and Nando’s embarrassment is obviously in a pretty neck-and-neck competition with his anger now. He bends down to try and gather up the pieces of the lantern just as one of the venue’s steel faces swoops in to clean it up.

Once it’s clear the steel face is going to make quick work of it, Nando grabs his dad’s hand and pulls him kind of gruffly through the curious crowd. As the two of them disappear through the ballroom doors, I catch Tua and Eilian and Leti exchange another glance, and from the expression on their faces I’m guessing this sort of scene with Nando’s dad isn’t exactly uncommon. The way Nando talked about that Stranger’s Hollow place is starting to make a whole lot more sense.

About ten minutes later Nando shows up again, not seeming so much angry now as just kind of tired and sad. I hear him tell Tua that he sent his dad home in a taxi.

“I just hope he actually makes it this time,” he says, and I see that heavy look in his eyes again. The one like he’s staring into the face of overwhelming responsibility.

I feel something like that myself, seeing that pain of his and having zero idea how to make any of it better for him. He throws himself into the party, though, and pretty soon he’s doing a convincing job of seeming okay.

As the night wears on, our little circle of friends and family fluctuates a lot, with people coming and going. Some leaving to dance and some to talk to other friends. About two hours into the party, I’m coming back from a dance with Tua’s older brother Kaho when someone steps real purposeful right into my path.

I look up, and I’m kind of surprised to see that it’s not someone I know.

“You are Dylan Lucas’s little cousin Sophie, are you not?”

The woman is not exactly tall, but she sure gives off the impression of tallness. This feeling like to see her properly you’d have to sort of shade your eyes.

“Yeah. I’m Sophie Warren.” Using that name is getting to feel less and less like a lie.

“I am Nunurai Takafar,” the woman says, her words coming out all compact and to the point. “I am Dylan’s supervisor.”

“Oh!” I say, trying not to show on my face the sudden memory of Dylan telling me that the double agent at the GIB might be one of his bosses.

“He has told me a lot about you,” she says, and I can’t help thinking that everything about her is sharp. The tone of her voice, the angles of her face. I have a hard time imagining her ever smiling. “Quite a lot.”

I’m saved from responding to this by Dylan appearing kind of miraculously at my side, Teresa right behind him.

“Director Takafar,” Dylan says. “I didn’t realize you were coming tonight.”

“It is not possible for me to attend your cousin’s party tomorrow. I thought I would pay my respects here.”

If Dylan thinks this is at all weird, he doesn’t show it. Just says, “That’s very kind of you,” with this easy sort of sincerity that I don’t think I could muster myself. There’s not much about that woman that suggests kindness.

“Additionally,” she says to him, “there is something I would like to discuss with you in private.”

Dylan’s eyebrows kind of raise, but he gives her a little nod. “I can speak to you now.”

They excuse themselves—or rather, Dylan does the excusing—and then they walk off and leave me and Teresa standing there together, and compared to facing this Nunarai Takafar person, I am definitely way more uncomfortable now.

Still, when Teresa’s eyes shift over to me, it’s kind of a shock. I mean, this is the first time she’s ever looked at me like she truly hates my guts.

“I heard you had a bad dream last night,” she says like it’s obvious that bad dreams are real childish. “It must’ve been so terrible, to make you go crashing into Dylan’s room like that.”

She pauses as if she’s waiting for me to respond, but I’m pretty sure nothing I could say would make this conversation go in a direction that I’d appreciate.

“Did you know that Uncle Wyn brews a calming tea that helps people sleep?”

I make myself just look at her still, wait to see what’s coming.

“Seems to me that it’d make much more sense to go rushing off to his room the next time you have a bad dream.” She flashes me one of her killer smiles. “Don’t you think?”

Then—before I can even comprehend what she’s doing—she brings her hand up to my face and sort of pats my cheek, as if I really am just some kid or something. And with just that one, stupid gesture she manages to make me feel real pointless and ridiculous and small.

It takes me a second after she’s walked away before I can even breathe, and a second after that before I realize that I am totally furious. I’m not sure what makes me madder, the thing that she just did to me or the fact that I let her do it. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m dealing with this sort of thing at all. That when there are people out there dying because of me, I’m stuck at this frivolous little party, letting that evil princess treat me like I’m some sort of a joke.

And it only makes me feel more foolish to think that for a while tonight I’d forgotten what my role here in Daxa is supposed to be. For a while I was actually letting myself have fun.

There’s a word that they use in the Painter world—bisher—that means someone who’s just totally rubbish, and I can’t decide whether it’s her or me that it describes best right now.

I spin around on one foot and start pushing my way past people, heading toward the refreshment table as if it offers some sort of escape. As I go, it occurs to me just how many strangers there are here and that, for all I know, any number of them could be takers. It threatens to make me feel even more vulnerable and small, which just makes me all the angrier.

When I reach the refreshment table I grab a plate and start just shoveling food onto it like it’s the end of the world and I’m gathering rations. I don’t notice Gwilim until he’s pretty much right by my side.

“Why the long face, little cousin?” he asks, and my stomach practically jumps straight out through my chest.

As I spin around toward him, the jelly-filled pastry I’m currently holding goes slipping out of my fingers and real nearly beans him in the stomach, grazing his suit jacket as he dodges out of the way. The look he gives me then is full of so much scolding you’d think I’d thrown the thing at him on purpose.

“Now, what was that for?” he asks, painting away the powder trail that the pastry left behind. He’s dressed like some rockstar straight out of the 1960s, with a sort of Beatles hairdo and a real well-tailored suit.

“Geez,” I say, not bothering to hide my exasperation. “How do all of you Lucases manage to look so freaking good in pretty much anything you wear?”

He’s stooping down to pick up the pastry, and he looks up at me with this laughter in his eyes.

“I could say the same of you, of course.” He stands up and hands the pastry to a passing steel face. “Were you planning on eating all those things tonight?” he asks me, eyeing the pile of food on my plate.

“Yeah, actually,” I answer real truthful. “I was probably going to shove every last bite of it down my throat while hiding by myself in a corner.”

“Crikey,” he says all sarcastic, as if the word itself is a joke. “Something seems to have ruined your night. I’m all ears, you know. Should you need a chance to talk about it.”

It beats me how he can come across as sincere at the same time that he’s clearly making fun of me. Maybe it’s his eyes or something. All laughing and unreserved.

“I do not want to talk about it,” I say, and his lip sort of twitches.

“Fair enough. I’m not going to let you mope all night, though. You and I are going to dance.”

I’m about to tell him that we are definitely not going to do that, but he’s already taking my plate out of my hand.

“You won’t be needing any of this,” he says, setting the food back down on the refreshment table. “Come on.”

When he grabs my hand he holds it tight, like this is a hand that he likes holding. Like he’s actually aware of what it means to be holding someone’s hand, and like he knows I’m also aware of it.

I follow him to the dance floor, feeling suddenly kind of confused and exhilarated. And dancing with him doesn’t exactly help that feeling to go away. He dances like it’s second nature to him—like it’s as habitual a thing as taking a walk in the park—and I’m surprised that he’s not at all satirical about it even. Though he does keep leaning in close to me to whisper real wry critiques of just about anyone that passes by.

“Eilian’s going to be furious when she sees you’re here and you came to talk to me first,” I say after a while.

He just smiles and does this lift of his eyebrows that’s basically the same thing as a shrug.

“Perhaps she shouldn’t get her way all the time,” he says, with this laughing smile that makes my heart do a triple beat.

We’re swinging around in this gently ascenséd turn, when the music just suddenly comes to an end, leaving all of us on the dance floor to sort of stumble to a stop ourselves. There’s some kind of commotion by one of the ballroom doors, and as we look to see what it’s all about Gwilim takes the opportunity to slide his arm over my shoulder all casual and easy.

After a few minutes, I catch sight of a security detail surrounding a real tall man—all perfectly styled hair and a movie star-worthy sense of poise—who’s making his way through the crowd, stopping every few steps to shake hands and grace party guests with his impressive smile.

I don’t need the sudden tension in Gwilim’s body to tell me the identity of the man. He’s definitely much older than Gwilim is and, I’m thinking, a whole lot more arrogant, but other than that the resemblance is real uncanny. He’s got to be Gwilim’s dad. In other words, the president of the Painter Republic.

At the moment he’s bending over a little elderly woman, holding her hand in both of his and looking into her eyes with a real practiced air of attentiveness as she talks. Off to the side a photographer’s snapping photos of the two of them, the flash of her camera going off so rapid I’m surprised it’s not sending anyone into an epileptic fit.

President Lucas nods his agreement to whatever it is the elderly lady’s just said, and he pats her hand all comforting before moving on to to the next person waiting for a chat. The whole vibe he puts out is like he just can’t get enough of listening to these people. Like they’re all doing him real big favors by taking up so much of his time.

When he notices Gwilim and me standing there though, a dozen or so yards away from him now, this cruel little smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. He excuses himself from the woman he’s currently talking to and starts moving all purposeful toward us through the crowd.

Glancing up at Gwilim, I take in the expression on his face—anger, maybe some sort of disgust even—and I’m suddenly sure I don’t want anything to do with whatever’s about to go down between the two of them.

I try to sort of slip out from under Gwilim’s arm, but his grip on my shoulders just gets a little tighter.

“Oh, don’t go abandoning me now,” he says with this real dark humor, his eyes never leaving his dad’s face. “You’ll have to meet the man eventually.”

  As if by some sort of pre-arranged cue, Dylan and Eilian materialize out of the crowd then, lining themselves up on either side of Gwilim and me like a couple real fancily dressed bodyguards. Just as Gwilim’s dad reaches us, the photographer darts out ahead of the president’s own security detail and immediately starts snapping photos of the five of us together.

“An unexpected family reunion,” the president says to Gwilim. “I’d not thought to see you here. My sources tell me you’ve been avoiding most of your family ties of late.”

The security guards have lined themselves up in a sort of perimeter around us now. I know they’re just protecting the president from any threat that might try to get through from the outside, but I can’t help feeling more like they’re trapping us in.

“I’ve been visiting friends,” Gwilim responds, all cool and unwelcoming. “You should teach your sources not to exaggerate.”

President Lucas accepts this with a little nod of his head, this look on his face like he’s mildly amused by it.

“Odd choice in friend who’s been getting so much of your attention, though. Son of the man who put your uncle in jail?”

My reaction to this little bombshell about Tom Cloutier is probably real visible on my face, but at this point nobody’s paying any attention to me.

“How is my brother, by the way?” the president asks Dylan and Eilian. “I believe you still see him dutifully.”

When Dylan answers, you don’t have to look too hard to see the irritation there on his face.

“We saw him this morning,” he says, which is only slightly less of a surprise to me than the news about Tom Cloutier. I mean, neither Dylan or Eilian even mentioned going to see their dad. “Da’s as well as could be hoped, under the circumstances.”

“Yes, it must still be quite hard on him, to have been caught in such a hypocrisy.”

The effect of those words is like the shock of a thunderclap. I feel it in the sharpened tension of Gwilim’s arm, see it in the expression on Dylan’s face. But it’s Eilian, who’s mostly been feigning boredom up until now, that can’t help responding.

“He didn’t do it!” she spits out, and I notice the photographer flash this tiny little, vicious smile before snapping a photo of Eilian’s angry face, as if the woman knows exactly what’s going on here and she couldn’t find it any more entertaining.

Kind of surprised, I look at the president to see if he noticed it, but then something happens that makes it pretty much a moot point.

You,” a voice hisses out from behind him, and he turns real sharp to see who it is.

Gwilim recognizes the person before I do, and he’s already stepping around to block me from view by the time I realize it’s that woman Elspeth standing there. She’s just outside the ring of bodyguards, staring President Lucas down like she’d love nothing more than to break his neck. I mean, I thought the way she acted toward me was pretty intense, but right now she looks downright scary.

You did this to me.”

“Excuse me?” President Lucas asks, sounding truly confused, if curious.

His guards are barring Elspeth’s way, though they haven’t made a move to do anything else yet. They’re waiting for the president to give them some sort of signal, but he doesn’t seem too inclined to.

“What is it you imagine I did?” he asks, and that cruel little smile’s playing on his lips again.

I’m wondering where in the world Elspeth came from. I mean, she’s all dressed up for the ball—and she actually looks pretty good, healthy even—but if she’d been here the whole time, I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed.

“You think,” she chomps at him, “that your conscience can remain clean because you never laid a hand on me yourself?”

At this point everyone even sort of near us has noticed that something’s going on, and I can’t be the only one that hears the bite in the president’s voice when he responds.

“I don’t know you, woman. And I don’t know what you mean to say.”

He practically towers over her with his authoritative, athletic body, but even still when she takes the teeniest, tiniest little step toward him, there’s something so menacing about it that I’m surprised he doesn’t even react.

“They may have tinkered with my memory,” she says, all chilling and calm, “but my painting is still very much intact.”

Then all at once, with a sudden tensing of her muscles and a guttural, terrifying sort of scream, she erupts into a pillar of electricity and flame.


Previous: Chapter 17


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 5

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CHAPTER 5

“Okay,” I say, and Agni’s eyebrows raise up by about half an inch.

“Okay…you will come with us?”

“Well, I’m going to try to be this Way Reader thing. So…okay to whatever that means, I guess.”

Up in the driver’s seat I hear Dylan let out this breath as if for a while there he’d forgotten how to breathe.

“Well then,” Agni snaps his fingers. “We have no time to lose.”

He swings himself around in his seat more quick than a man his age and length should be able to do, and then he and Dylan get out of the car and move to the trunk to start unpacking whatever it is they’ve got in there.

Mom’s looking like she’s been turned to stone. A human statue, all bent forward with her head against the seat in front of her, her right hand resting on her knee and her left hand real cold in mine. She’s still as still as still. I’m suddenly sure now that I made the wrong decision—that she thinks I’m making a huge mistake—but then she’s turning toward me and grabbing my other hand in hers and pulling me around to face her more directly.

“I’m so proud of you,” she says, her eyes real fierce and affectionate. “You are a good person. So kind and clever.”

She tucks my hair behind my ears, cups my chin in her hands like she’s trying to memorize me.

“You are strong and capable. When things feel hard remember that I know this about you, and remember that I love you, and that we will be together again soon.”

She opens up my hand and presses the broken locket into it.

“Remember that your father also loves you even if he’s gone, and that he saw into the future and he knew what he had to do to protect you. You’re not alone in this. You’re never alone.”

Over her shoulder I see Agni approaching her door, but she beats him to it. Sort of rips her hands from mine and launches herself out of the car before either he or I can say anything. The cold air rushes in at me, stabs at my throat and chest, leaving me sitting there suddenly vulnerable and alone. I’m trying to recapture some of that certainty I had just a few minutes ago, but it’s hard to say goodbye to your mom and still feel like some all-powerful being.

When I get out of the car, climbing out the same door Mom just exited, she’s talking real quiet with Agni off to one side. The snow is still falling and it’s cold enough that with every word they speak their lungs puff out steam like tiny little ghosts in the night. Agni asks her if she’s got somewhere she can go where she can hide out for a while.

“I have a brother in Arizona,” she says, which is news to me. She’s never talked much about her family and she’s got to know this comes as a surprise, but she doesn’t even glance in my direction. I guess she’s retreated back into her force field again.

Real quiet, Dylan steps up beside me and hands me my backpack. I look up to thank him, but have to snap my eyes back down again right away. His face is so full of sympathy you’d think he was trying to make me cry.

“The license plates are changed,” he tells Agni, who nods a couple times and walks over to the sedan without looking away from Mom.

“You can take our car,” he says, placing a hand on the hood kind of absently while talking to her. I watch as white pigment spreads away from his fingers and across the surface of the car like a never-ending milk spill. “It is practically a non-entity and they should not be able to trace you.”

“You’ll need to lend me your cell phones too,” Dylan says to Mom and me. “I’ll make sure they’re untraceable and I’ll hold onto them until you’re not in hiding anymore.”

He hands Mom a new one, real simple and black and small.

“Turn this on once you reach your brother’s house, but don’t use it until you hear from me. We will contact you as soon as we’re sure it’s safe.”

He takes our phones over toward the tree line to a little pile of things he and Agni must’ve pulled from the trunk. I’m wishing now I’d left my phone on during the car ride to see how my friends responded to my text. To say goodbye to them in a way that actually counts.

“It could take us some time to reach our destination,” Agni’s telling Mom. “Possibly a few days. Possibly a couple weeks. The distance is not so large for us, but there will be people looking for her and we will have to weave our way around them.”

After everything they say to her Mom just nods, short and sharp and matter-of-fact. Then Agni’s handing her the car keys and wishing her a safe journey, and the time for her to leave is suddenly staring me right in the face, but I’m not at all ready for it.

She finally turns to look at me, only now I don’t know what to do with it. She’s coming toward me, opening her arms to me, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to hug her back. Afraid that my own arms will just hang limp at my sides and my tongue won’t be able to tell her I love her. It’s an instinct, though, wrapping my arms around Mom. A reflex programmed into me by years of doing that exact thing. And even if the only word I can get out is a goodbye, I think she knows what I mean.

I follow her around to the driver’s side and watch as she gets into the car. The sound of the engine starting up again is real jarring in the quiet night. We lock eyes through the window, put on brave faces for each other so that we both don’t break.

“I love you,” she mouths through the glass, and then with a tight-lipped little smile she faces forward and puts her foot to the gas.

It doesn’t take long for the nearest bend in the road to swallow up the lights of the car, but I keep standing there staring after her for a while. The wind’s gusting snow around my head and with a blink of my eyes I imagine it just picking me up and sweeping me away, taking me along with her.

Agni steps up beside me, puts his hand real gentle on my shoulder and considers the point on the horizon where my mom just disappeared.

“We have to leave now,” he says. “We have a long way to go and we want to get started before the takers have a chance of finding us.”

I just nod. The things going through my head right now are not the kind that feel better by sharing them.

Over by the line of trees, Dylan’s messing with a tangle of straps that looks a lot like a harness.

“We have to go by foot,” he says looking over at me. “But the way we do it is not something you’ll be able to do. You’re going to have to ride on my back.”

He holds up that harness thing, and it takes me about one second to figure out what he really means by that.

“Oh no,” I say. “There is no way.”

“You won’t be able to keep up with us on your own. No matter how hard you try.”

“I’ll hang on tight. I’m not riding in some baby backpack.”

Again there’s this moment where I could swear he’s about to smile, but then he just kind of frowns instead.

“It’s not exactly the most exciting thing for me either, but it’s the best option we’ve got right now,” he says in a voice that does not make me any more eager to comply.

“We will be going for hours at breakneck speeds,” Agni chimes in. He’s methodically slipping items from the pile into a small hiking backpack. I see a few of those silver emergency blankets all folded up, a long-nozzled lighter, and what looks like a tiny brick of slate or something. “I’m afraid your flaring—your discomfort—is only going to grow worse for you, and holding tight will not be an option for long. Dylan needs to focus on his movements rather than on making sure you don’t fall off. I know the situation is quite ridiculous and I would certainly feel the same as you, but I think this really is the best solution.”

I don’t know how to argue with Agni on any of that. I don’t know if he’s the sort of person you do argue with. Still, I feel about two years old as Dylan packs me into that harness. It doesn’t help that as he’s doing it I notice again how even with that dumb beard he’s real annoyingly handsome.

“Why were you rubbing yourself all up against me at the hot chocolate stand?” I ask him, and for just a second his hands go real still.

“There was no such thing as rubbing,” he says. “I was simply trying to make sure the flaring I was feeling was coming from you.”

He’s got to know I’m only goading him but, still, as he moves up to work on the strap running right under my bust line he keeps his eyes real carefully leveled on a point just around my belly button and not a centimeter higher. From this angle his lashes are almost startlingly long and I can’t help kind of relishing the idea that I’ve managed to make him a little uncomfortable. He’s so pretty it’d be easy to forget he’s actually human.

Once I’m all in the harness, he’s still got to strap it on himself. There are some loops hanging off the front of me, and he crouches down a bit and sort of backs up to me and slips his arms through, buckling the harness across his own chest and waist. I stare real hard at the sky the whole time he’s doing this and try to pretend like it’s not actually happening.

Then he stands up and lifts me into the air, and I’m pretty sure this is the most embarrassing moment of my entire life. I’m dangling off of him as stiff as a board, trying to touch him with as little of my body as possible, and I’m sort of hating Agni a little bit for looking over just now and so obviously wanting to laugh at us.

“If you don’t relax it’s going to make things very difficult,” Dylan says.

I can see what he means. He has to bend real far forward just to keep the balance right between us.

“If you wrap your arms around my neck, it might help,” he prompts, but when I do it brings my face right up next to his, and boy, does he smell good. Kind of sweet almost, and also kind of musky.

He grabs my legs at the knee and pulls them forward around his torso so he can stand up straight while still bearing my weight. Wrapped around him like that, real aware of the unsettling solidness of his body against mine, this electric tingle ignites all down my arms and my legs—pretty much anywhere I’ve got skin—and I’m praying to any power that may be listening that, unlike the flaring, this is not a thing that Dylan can feel.

Agni pulls the hiking backpack closed and slings it onto his back. “Ready?” he asks, and the laughter in his voice is still real obvious.

Dylan nods, accidentally bumping his cheek against mine and I pull my head back quick so he doesn’t think I was trying to get too cozy.

“Let’s go then.”

Agni takes off running, and Dylan starts after him with such a jolt that I nearly fall off, which means those stupid straps are, obnoxiously, good for something. We’re going so fast that for a second it’s like the whole world stretches out around us, and then it snaps back into focus and I realize that what Dylan and Agni are doing isn’t really running at all.

Up ahead, Agni looks like he’s wading through water. Or, more like gliding across ice. His movements are graceful and kind of dreamlike and not the sort of thing you’d associate with speed, but more importantly, the man isn’t even touching the ground. He’s just skimming along an inch or so above the surface of the snow as easy as if he really were ice skating.

I try to look down over Dylan’s shoulder, then crane around behind me so I can see the ground. His legs are moving, stride after long stride, but there’s no impact to his steps. From up here I can’t tell if he’s actually touching down at all, but we definitely aren’t leaving even the hint of footprints in the snow. Perched where I am, the sensation is as gentle as the rocking of a boat, but all around us the world is just whizzing by.   

The wind isn’t as strong as you’d expect going at this speed, but it is cold. Just enough to be bracing. It’s pulling through my hair and singing against my cheeks. This is how I imagine flying feels. I want to throw out my arms and scream like a little kid, but I’m guessing Dylan wouldn’t appreciate that. Instead, I open my mouth real wide and pretend I’m a giant cloud animal swallowing the wind, gulp by gulp by gulp.

I don’t realize I’m making any sound until Dylan asks real sudden, “What are you laughing about?”

“I wasn’t laughing,” I say real fast, even though I was. Right out loud like some sort of crazy person.

“Don’t do it anymore. It’s distracting.”

I clamp my mouth shut and for a long time after that I do my best not to make any noise, even when I breathe. We pass through fields and forests, glide along the edges of mountains. Minutes merge into each other, stretch into hours until I can’t even guess how long we’ve been going anymore. I try real hard to stay awake, but Agni was right about the buzz in my body getting worse. It’s whirling in my stomach and all up behind my eyes. I get drowsier and drowsier, and the sway of Dylan’s body is just too relaxing. The last thing I remember is my head slumping down onto his shoulder and me hoping that maybe he won’t mind.

A while later I wake up to the pressure of hands on my upper back and the sound of Agni’s voice right by me. My body feels like it’s a fire that’s just been put out. Like it’s the absence of a heat that was just barely burning bright.

“I’ve siphoned out most of it,” Agni’s saying to Dylan, his hands sliding away from me. “Which should give both of you some relief. Would you like to make use of any? Give you an extra boost?”

“No. She’s not exactly the lightest weight I’ve ever carried, but I’m fine. Since she fell asleep she hasn’t been wriggling about as much.”

We’re stopped under a dense thicket of trees, and you can feel the damp in the air as if it’s been accumulating for years. The moonlight doesn’t reach down here, but I don’t need to be able to see to know that I’ve drooled on Dylan’s shoulder. Not enough for him to feel it through his jacket, I’m hoping, but definitely enough to be gross. I close my eyes and try to hold real still so that they don’t notice me—so that Dylan never has to describe me as ‘wriggling’ again—and I tell myself that if I don’t acknowledge the drool, the drool never happened.

“She’s been flaring really badly,” Dylan says. “I’ve never known someone that’s had it come on with such strength or so quickly. We can’t keep stopping so you can siphon it, and we can’t risk the chance of another Painter sensing it. Even if they’re not a threat, we don’t want to leave a trail.”

“I’ll try to contain it,” Agni says, and I feel him close to me again. After a couple seconds I get the distinct impression of the air near me being a little thicker, a little closer. “I’ve painted a barrier immediately around her. It will keep the energy in for now, but it may also increase the becoming’s negative effects on her.”

“We’ll have to go faster, then. How are you doing?”

“Never better. I’m very much in my element.”

Dylan laughs and I can feel him nod. “Then let’s be off.”

It’s not long before that buzz has started purring through my body again, growing strong to the point of real discomfort. I try to focus on the scenery going by—still lakes reflecting the sky like windows into the galaxy, sharp valleys, mountain peaks higher than anything I ever saw at home—but the sickness in my body keeps demanding all my attention. When a real troubling queasiness starts up in my belly I figure it’s not worth it to be conscious anymore and I give in again to the sleep pressing at the backs of my eyes.

The next time I wake up I’m lying on my stomach on a flannel blanket under a lean-to of pine boughs and my nose is only inches from Dylan’s face. He’s picture perfect with his dark eyelashes and the sunlight soft on his cheekbones and his lips parted just enough to make them look extra full. He reminds me of something from some Greek fairytale or something, real serene and sweet and classical. I bet he’s never drooled on anyone in his life. Even his breath smells pure and fresh as it whispers all warm against my cheeks.

There’s something about him as he sleeps that’s almost intimate. As if my being awake right now and staring at him like this is some sort of invasion of his privacy, sacrilege. He hardly makes a sound as his breath goes in and out, but me—just the buzzing of my body feels loud enough to wake the forest. I try to time my own breaths to the rise and fall of Agni’s snores as they drift over to me from the other side of Dylan, and I let myself enjoy watching Dylan for a while as if he’s some sort of automated art piece instead of a real boy.

I lie there until my bladder decides it’s going to make me move, and then I’m surprised by how trembly and weak I feel. It’s about all I can do to get up on my feet, to move one leg after the other.

Our lean-to is at the edge of a little clearing, and I head kind of gingerly for the pine trees on the other side. There’s thick snow on the top branches of the trees but it’s pretty warm and dry in the clearing itself, even though it’s totally open to the sky. I’m guessing this was also covered with snow before Agni and Dylan got to it.

As I walk into the shadow of the trees, it feels like passing through a sheet of mist or something, all tickly and cold. I stop, and take a step back again nice and slow. That same sensation moves over my body from the back of my head, down my face and arms, all the way to my fingertips. I try it out a couple more times, back and forth, and the feeling gets stronger every time.

“That’s the energy barrier,” Dylan’s voice cuts through the air, and I spin around to face him. He’s still under the lean-to, propped up on one elbow with a sort of ease that makes him look like he owns the place. “As well as keeping unwanted guests out, it’s the only thing preventing your energy from beaconing to every Painter in a mile radius. You should probably stay inside it.”

I glance around the clearing. It is not a private place, and my bladder situation is getting worse by the second.

“The barrier only covers…here?” I indicate the tree line with a twirl of my pointer finger.

Dylan considers me for a minute, and then he stands up and stretches and starts walking toward me. It’s easy to see the smile playing at the corner of his features now, and in this setting his lumberjack look actually works. I mean, it really, really works. Like, that tingle’s suddenly going crazy all over my body again, and the closer he comes to me the tinglier it gets. By the time he’s standing beside me and looking down into my face I’m pretty sure I’m about to say or do something real embarrassing. I’m wondering if maybe an increased libido is part of this whole becoming thing, but that’s not a question I want to ask him right now.

He holds his hand up in the air for a minute, at about where I’m guessing the barrier is, and says, “It should follow you now, but don’t go far. You don’t want to stretch it too thin.”

I give him this little nod and try to walk off real nonchalant like I’m just going for a stroll and not at all heading out to take care of a bathroom emergency.

“You might want this.”

When I look back at him, he’s got this bundle of crisp tissues that I’m guessing he just made by painting or whatever. He’s holding them up in this relaxed way that’s sort of like taunting, and the smile on his face isn’t playing around anymore even if it is kind of wry and lopsided. He looks so unfairly cool. I snatch the tissues from his hand and spin back toward the trees.

“There are sensors set up to alert us if anyone comes too close” he calls after me, “so don’t worry, your only audience will be the squirrels.”

I shoot a quick glare back at him but I just keep walking, stomping a little as I go because it feels appropriately expressive.

When I come back Agni’s alone in the middle of the clearing, cooking something in a pot over a little fire. It must be real obvious that I’m feeling all quivery and nauseated and sweaty because the first thing he says is, “You look like you could use some food, and a relief from your energy build-up. Sit down and I’ll siphon you off in a minute.”

He’s making some sort of soup. I can smell it as I pass by and I realize I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday morning, which has got to be over 24 hrs ago. My stomach makes this sound like a lion in a cage or something and Agni looks up and smiles. He’s got this little pile of green pine needles and other vaguely organic tidbits and, as I sit down on my blanket under the lean-to, I see him pinch out something that looks all dark and wet and limp and probably moldy. He holds it between his hands for a second and then drops it into the pot in the form of bright little pieces of carrot.

I try not to show it, but I kind of want to gag. He’s making our food out of compost.

“Where are we,” I ask him. The forest here is real similar to the one back home, but everything seems darker, bigger, closer.

“At the top of Montana, nearly to Canada.”

“Canada?” I’m floored. “We were really moving that fast?”

“Particle sailing,” Agni raises his eyebrows with a lot of flare, “is my favorite way to travel. Both quick and tranquil. Dylan is better than I am, better than most. He’s been known to hit speeds well over one hundred miles per hour, but he had a little extra weight last night,” he winks at me, “so I had no trouble keeping up with him.”

I make a face. “Right. And where is this place we’re going?”

“Daxa? It’s hidden in the mountains a ways north of Vancouver, in Canada. I think you will like it there very much.”

I’ve got a pretty vague sense of geography outside of Idaho so his description doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but I’m pretty sure Vancouver is a busy place.

“There’s a whole city of people like you just hanging out in the mountains around Vancouver and I’ve never heard about it?”

“We have ways of hiding ourselves. Illusion barriers, similar to the energy barrier Dylan and I created here. It tells Particle-Blinds that the only thing their eyes and their sensors are seeing is more mountains. Or, in the case of some of the other city-states, more desert or ice or more water, etc. We tend to build in places where Particle-Blinds find it difficult to live.”

He finishes adding ingredients to the soup and pulls out that little brick of slate-looking rock that I saw him pack up before. Sliding his hand across it, this steel serving spoon appears between his fingers as if it’s being pulled out of the stone itself. He gives the soup a few quick stirs then gets up and comes over to me, telling me to hold still. He places his hands on either side of my head, and soon the buzz and the nausea and the heat are growing more and more bearable.

When he’s done, he says, “One benefit of your excess energy is that we can use it. Shall we make some fresh bread to go with the soup? It would taste better if we had time to let it rise naturally, but we will have to make due.”

He digs some sort of sage brush twigs out of his garbage pile and holds them up to me all proud and smiling so that I have to smile back at him a little bit even though I’m not sure I love the idea of something that’s come out of me going into my food.

“Back in Flemingsburg you made a flower out of thin air. Why are you using those things to make the food now?”

“It takes less energy if you use something with a similar molecular structure. Proteins to make proteins, that sort of thing. The energy we use for Painting will replenish itself if you give it time, but it is possible to overtax it so we conserve whenever we can.”

He stretches the slate brick into a long flat plate like a cutting board and places the sage branches on top. With a pass of his hand, the branches turn into a fine powder that looks like it’s probably wheat flour.

“In order to paint anything, you have to know it’s particular pattern, and when I say ‘particular’ now I am referring to particles. There are some things in the particle world—especially for readers—that each brain may interpret a bit differently, but particle patterns manifest the same for every Painter. It’s a thing that can be taught, and it is a thing that you will learn once you’ve become and once we reach Daxa.”

Placing his hand flat against the ground, he pulls a palm-sized globe of water straight out of the earth and adds it bit by bit to the flour. All this stuff he’s doing—his brain must be completely filled with these particle patterns. It’s a wonder he’s got room in there for anything else.

“What am I going to do in Daxa, exactly?”

He’s kneading the dough now, and he doesn’t look up when he answers, “You will attend school.”

“There’s some sort of university for Way Readers or something?”

“Not Way Readers, no. Once Painters become they attend painting academy.”

It figures that, now that I’m finally going on an adventure that wasn’t conjured up by my own imagination, what I’m really going to do is more school.

“I was going to graduate in a few months,” I say, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice but obviously failing.

Agni looks up again and grins. “This is a very different thing from your high school. It’s closer to what you know of as university. It’s generally a four-year program. Two years to master Painting basics and two more for specialization. I do not know if you will get the opportunity to finish your schooling, but it’s important for you to start.”

“I thought you were going to train me.”

“Oh, I am, yes. I will train you separately in your specialized skills, but we will have to do it secretly. It is very important that no one knows we are connected to each other. Back in Daxa I train readers, have done so for years, and many people believe that the most obvious person to train the Way Reader now is me. I will be closely watched by all interested parties.”

What does it mean that people can’t know we’re connected? Who else am I going to be connected to? I get this pang of anxiety, wondering if I’m going to be living all by myself at this academy or something, away from the only people in this new world that I know.

“You said…I wasn’t going to be alone.” I try hard not to sound defensive, so it just comes out in this weird monotone.

He’s pulled some metal out of the slate board and is partway through shaping it into a bread pan, but he stops and looks me in the eye.

“We will certainly not leave you alone. Even though I will not at all times be physically with you, I will be watching out for you and so will Dylan. You will be staying with the Lucases— Dylan’s family—and he will train you in self defense while you are there. You will go into his home as the daughter of an old friend of his mother’s and you will be treated as family. You will attend Mawihl Academy with his younger sister Eilian. It is a prestigious school where the Lucases have always gone. As someone under the protection of the Lucas family you will be treated well there too.”

I’m not real sure how to respond to all this, not at all sure what I think about living with Dylan and his beautiful face. I’ll probably just go around feeling tingly and foolish all of the time. Plus, it all sounds real fancy. Formal. With words like prestigious, and under their protection.

“Isn’t it kind of dangerous—kind of, I don’t know, conspicuous—for me to go to a school like that?”

Agni starts nodding and points at me like he’s got just the answer. “Ah, yes, well. Dylan works for our nation’s Global Intelligence Bureau and he is arranging for an air-tight secret identity for you. You will be Sophie Warren from a small farm outside of a small town in Wyoming. There is a Mary Warren there who will pose as your mother. She has already started the process of sewing your history all over that place. Dylan says that the two most important things about selling a lie are to keep it very close to the truth and to act as if everything is normal. Therefore, most of the details of your identity will be similar to your actual life, and you will attend painting academy just like all the other Painters of your age. But most importantly, Alexandra, to be Way Reader you must learn more than simply the ins and outs of reading and painting and the martial arts. You must learn what it means to be a Painter, and the best way for you to do that is to act like a Painter yourself.”   

There’s one detail in all of this that’s really sticking out to me.

“Dylan’s a spy?”

Geez, I really can’t live with that guy. I’ll never stop tingling again.

Agni busts up laughing. Then leaning forward a little bit, he says, “Cool, right?” like some sort of kid or something, and then he busts up laughing again so that I’ve got to laugh along with him. That’s the scene Dylan walks in on when he comes back to the clearing, his arms full of long branches and sticks and his hat covered in a light dusting of snow.

He eyes the two of us kind of skeptical, but Agni waves him over, announcing that breakfast will be ready soon.

“I’m going to make you both wait fifteen or so minutes and give the bread a moment to start its rising on its own terms, but we’ll have a full, hardy meal in no time at all.”

Dylan dumps his sticks in front of the lean-to. “There’s no trace of anyone for miles around,” he says to Agni. “We should be safe to take the route we planned. Still, we’ll want to leave as soon as we’ve eaten.”

Flopping down on his back on the blanket near me, he throws his arm over his eyes for a minute and then shifts onto his side a little so he can peer at me around his elbow.

“How are you feeling? Your flaring seems better.”

He’s so casual and comfortable-looking lying there right now that I can’t help smiling a bit. With a nod toward Agni I say, “I had a little help.”

“Thought as much.”

Dylan sits up and absently reaches a fist around to thump his shoulder blade a couple times like it’s sore, which I’m guessing is because of hauling me. Then he opens his fist and lays his palm flat on his back, closing his eyes in concentration. He’s obviously doing something Painter-y but I can only guess what it might be. Loosening his muscles up, maybe?

When he opens his eyes again he gives his shoulders a few little rolls like he’s working out some kinks, and then he leans forward and starts going through the sticks he brought back.

He finds a long one that’s probably a little thicker than my thumb, slides his hand down the length of it three times and then tests it for flexibility. He does this over and over again, the stick getting thinner and flatter and bending more with every swipe of his fingers. Once he’s happy with the spring in it, he pinches one end and draws a bit of woven twine out of it. He works this until it’s long and thin and smooth and strong, and then he pulls it tight toward the other end of the stick and fastens it there, making it so the stick itself bends out into a graceful bow.

I know a little bit about bows. Mom was always asking Logan’s parents to take me on their family hunting trips even though it was not exactly my favorite thing. She said it was an important skill to have. Logan’s mom’s favorite way to hunt is to sit high in the trees and wield a bow instead of a gun because she says it takes more finesse. She only ever uses those high-tech compound bows, though. The kind that look like some kind of robot skeleton, so maybe I’m not expert enough to judge the sort of thing that Dylan just made, but seems to me you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of it.

He’s standing now, aiming the bow and testing the draw. He looks pretty cool like that and you can tell he knows how to use it. When he sits down again, he starts working on the rest of his bundle of branches, turning them into arrows with tips of slightly different shapes and sizes.

“Are you going to hunt as we go?” I ask him kind of teasing. “When you make a kill you’ll just sling it on your back right beside me?”

“These arrows aren’t for animals,” he says in this real grim voice. “In this situation we are not the hunters.”

Geez, he knows how to ruin a mood.

Come to think of it, suddenly Mom’s wanting me to learn to hunt is taking on a whole new meaning. Lots of things she’s done are starting to look different. All her little focus games, her hypothetical situations. Asking Sara’s dad, Sheriff Ackerman, to show me self defense moves, how to use a handgun. Even having Melodie’s brother teach me how to throw knives. (Not that I took that lesson very seriously at all.) Mom must’ve been grabbing at even the most remote opportunities to prepare me for all this, all without telling me a word. It’s like my whole life has just been one blind road toward violence and death.

Geez.

When Agni slaps his hands together I about jump out of my skin.

“Breakfast is served,” he announces, sweeping his arm out in front of him to indicate bread and cheese laid out all pretty on these little stone trays, bowls of soup set into the corner of each of them. The food looks good. No matter what rotting plant matter may have gone into it, the food does look real good, and when Agni brings me my tray, the smell of it—all homey and savory and fresh—is real good too.

My over-empty stomach and my overactive mind probably wouldn’t care if it was made out of pig spit right now. I practically shove that stuff in my mouth, and the taste of it on my tongue washes away any remaining concerns about its ingredients. It’s pure comfort sliding down my throat.

When I’m done Agni gives me seconds, and I don’t complain. The sun’s shining down at an angle, glancing all soft off the tops of the trees and washing over us. Agni’s crouched at his little cooking station preparing cereal bars for the road, and, in between bites of his own food, Dylan’s sitting there shaping his arrows.

In this light, with the smell of Agni’s cooking still strong in the air, it’d be easy to pretend that this morning is just one serene little moment out of many on a friendly little camping trip or something, but I don’t feel much like pretending right now. Every arrow that Dylan finishes, every granola bar that Agni shapes, reminds me that we’re just another minute closer to the time when I have to start living a completely new life. A life that, right now, feels like a total mystery.

“Who are you guys, really? Painters, I mean. Where do you come from?”

“The same place that you come from,” Dylan says with his hint of a smile. “You’re one of us.”

I don’t feel like one of them. “You know what I mean.”

“We are a sub-species of human,” Agni responds. “Since those aspects of our bodies which make us Painters do not last long after death, our origins are still rather vague. We do know that all the Painters alive today come from common ancestors, a group of people that lived in the 14th century in the central European region.”

“So…from Earth.”

Agni grins. “We believe so.”

“If you—if we’ve been around for so long, why doesn’t anyone else know about us?”

“Oh, we maintain low profiles in the Particle-Blind world. History has shown that when we don’t, the consequences can be dire.”

“Witch trials,” Dylan cuts in this kind of caustic tone, “have always been rather destructive for us.”

“It can be bad for Painters and Particle-Blinds alike. Genghis Khan, for instance, believed he could bring peace to the world by forcing it into alliance. Many lives were lost in his wake and the takers of his age grew much stronger. It was a Way Reader that stopped him. A girl from his own family.”

I don’t know a whole lot about Genghis Khan, but I’m guessing her “stopping” him did not involve a simple appeal to his sense of reason. My eyes travel to Dylan’s growing pile of real deadly-looking arrows.

“How do takers fit into all of this? What is it that they do exactly?”

Dylan and Agni kind of look at each other, as if deciding who’s going to be the one to answer this one. Then Agni puts down the half-formed granola bar in his hand and gives his full attention to me.

“We have told you about the energy inside you, your essence. You also have something called a shadow—Particle-Blinds think of it as the aura—which is indelibly connected to your essence. All humans have both of these but only Painters can reliably detect them. They are like road maps to your body, the DNA of what people think of as their souls. They existed before your tangible form and will continue after. When someone dies, their essence and shadow pass on. We have evidence to suggest they go to a different dimension. However, when death comes violently—purposefully—it can cause a tear in the essence and the energy begins to spill out. If this spillage happens too quickly, the essence itself may still pass over to the other dimension, but the shadow can be left behind. It seems a cruel fate, to be not fully in one place or the other. So it is our custom, in the case of violent death, to give the shadow time to pass by guiding the energy gently out of the body and taking it into ourselves. It is meant, then, to be used for something positive, constructive. A way to honor the life to whom this energy belonged.”

“You use it like you used my energy earlier?”

Agni smiles and nods. “Essentially, yes. While you are alive I am able to take in your energy only because your body is shedding it, and what you are flaring now is a great deal, but to take the whole of someone’s essentual energy is an indescribably powerful thing, and that is where the problem begins. The word ‘taker’ is one we use to refer to a person who has grown addicted to that power. They crave it, they do anything it takes to feel it so that destruction becomes their narcotic. However, one of the mysteries of the essence—and there are many—is that you cannot receive the essentual energy of a person whose death you have purposefully caused. Either that energy will not flow to you or your own body rejects it, we do not know. It means, though, that takers tend to band together and do their killings and their takings in turn. Either that or, if they can find a way to do it, they get others—often Particle-Blinds, who do not know their reasons nor their ways—to do the destructive work for them. Takers quickly learn the art of manipulation, learn how to sew the kinds of hate that lead to violence. In battlefields and dark alleys all over the world you will find takers lurking, waiting for their next fix.”

Agni speaks in these real soft tones, all lilting and even beautiful. It’s totally incongruous with the things he’s saying. You’d think it would mellow their impact a little bit, but instead it just makes all of it seem that much bigger.

“These are the people I’m supposed to be stopping?”


Previous: Chapter 4

Next: Chapter 6


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