LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 8

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CHAPTER 8

Dylan’s moving instantly, scooping up the arrows and the bow that were still lying bent and broken at the edge of the lean-to, his silhouette against the moon turning into some prickling monster thing.

“Which way?”

I point in the direction we came from and he doesn’t ask how I know.

“You get behind those trees,” he tells me.

One by one he’s repairing each arrow with a touch of his hands, his motions real quick and instinctive, and I’m scrambling to hide like he’s told me to when something else burns into my chest like a fact.

“It’s Agni.”

Dylan’s hands freeze and he stares at me like he’s not sure he can breathe, and I wonder if he was as scared as I was.

My eyes flick to some movement in the trees behind Dylan, and he twists around to see where I’m looking. It’s as if Agni’s just melting into existence there the way he comes sailing through the dark shapes of the trees and glides real graceful to a stop in the middle of our little clearing. His wiry frame is practically overflowing with the two backpacks, and his mustache and beard are hanging all limp from his face. He looks half dead, but at the sight of the two of us still tense and paralyzed he smiles his wide, grandfatherly smile and starts to laugh like he’s probably as relieved to see us as we are to see him.

Striding forward he grips Dylan at the back of the neck, pulls his head against his own and touches foreheads in greeting. Then, before I know what’s happening, he’s coming toward me and touching his forehead against mine too, his hand clapped to the back of my neck and this real warm energy passing from his palm into my essensus and then through the rest of my body. It feels like friendship, and like everything’s going to be alright.

“You’re okay?” I ask, searching his tired face as he steps away from me.

He just grins wider, almost giddy or something. “At the moment, could barely be better. Hungry.”

Dylan’s already set to work concocting something in the handmade pot he used to make dinner, and the smell of it makes our little clearing feel just a bit more homey.

“It’ll be ready in a minute. Sit down and rest,” he commands, and Agni laughs again.

“I will.”

The way he slides onto the blankets, it’s almost involuntary, like he’s only been staying upright by sheer will power or something. I sit down next to him, keeping my eyes on his face, a part of me kind of disbelieving that he’s here and in one piece.

“What happened?” I ask. “Did you run into anyone else?”

“Almost,” he nods. “Two other Painters came near soon after you left, but they did not see me. I believe they were companions of the other two. We will need to be more careful going forward.”

His giddy energy seems to be fading away now. He slips the packs off his shoulders and leans back against them like a back rest, closing his eyes and letting out this huge breath that flutters the stray hairs at the edges of his mustache in a way that’d probably make me laugh if it weren’t for the solemn set to the muscles of his face.

With his eyes still closed he says in this real quiet voice, mostly to Dylan, “I helped the takers pass over and returned their bodies to the earth.”

Dylan pauses in his work and glances up at Agni, his lips pulling tight in a way that shows he knows exactly what Agni’s talking about.

“We’ll perform the remembrance ceremony after you’ve eaten.”

Agni nods and leans further against the packs, his head falling back a little with his mustache draping down across his folded arms and onto his stomach. Sitting there so still and quiet, he looks even more like a wizard than ever. A wise, tired old wizard. It’s a little unsettling, seeing him so used up like that, and after a second I’ve got to look away.

When the food is ready Agni eats it real quick and efficient then hands the bowl back to Dylan.

“It’s time,” Agni says, digging for something in his pocket. “Circle in.”

As I move to comply, I feel a little like someone who’s stumbled into the wrong gathering, and I’m watching Dylan out of the corner of my eye to figure out what it is I’m supposed to do. He sits himself down crossed-legged opposite Agni and me, back straight and face real pensive. Agni sets two identification cards onto the ground in front of us. Drivers licenses, maybe. In the moonlight it’s hard to make out the details on the cards, but I recognize the faces there. Probably, I’ll never forget them.

“Brock Schwartz and Lydia Banks,” Agni says in this prayer-like sort of chant. “These names we will carry with us. Though we do not know what life you led, we know what passing you met. One day, should we meet your families, we will offer them this news of you, for it is their right to know.”

He holds his right palm over the ID cards, crumbling them to dust. Then he gives this gentle little wave of his hand and this soft breeze comes licking along the ground, lifting each little speck of what used to be the drivers licenses and skipping them away from us.

It doesn’t seem like this moment should effect me so much—I mean, it was just a couple pieces of plastic belonging to two people that were definitely no friends of mine—but, maybe because I haven’t had a whole lot of ceremony in my life or maybe because I’m still trying to figure out just how to process the things I’ve seen today, I can’t help feeling a little bit of awe. There was a sort of poetry to the ritual. A sort of respect and, especially from Agni, compassion.

It’s a few minutes before Dylan breaks our silence, and when he does there’s a hush to his voice, this church-worthy quiet.

“We’re about a day away from Daxa,” he says to Agni.

“Mm.”

“We have things to prepare.”

Agni turns to look at me, his eyes kind of smiling even though his mouth isn’t. “He means you, you know. We have to turn you into Ms. Sophie Warren.”

“We need to teach you some things about Painter culture, and change your appearance.”

Something occurs to me that I hadn’t thought of before and it kind of makes my heart drop. “Like—like my face?”

Dylan’s mouth twitches out kind of screwy and I think maybe he’s about to laugh, but then he just gives me this nice, lopsided little smile.

“Couldn’t do that even if we wanted to,” he says. “As long as the shadow and essence are in tact we can’t use painting to make permanent changes to the human body without inflicting actual damage. No, as far as we’re aware no one in Daxa knows what you look like well enough to recognize you so there’s no need for extreme measures, but to be safe we’ll dye your hair, change your clothes. Nothing big. Still, it’ll take some energy.”

“Energy neither of us has right now,” Agni says with this yawn so big it’s impossible for Dylan and me not to copy him.

Too worn out to make any other arrangements, the three of us just pile together between the two wool blankets. This time with the warmth of both of them on either side of me and my head full of Dylan’s scent that never seems to go sour, I fall asleep pretty easy, the whispers of new shapes and pigments—my own little particle world parade—dancing at the back of my mind and reminding me that my life has changed forever. I’ve changed forever.

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

In the morning Dylan asks me if I’ve got a preference about how my hair looks, and I just kind of stare at him for a second because yeah, I’ve got a preference. I mean, I’m pretty sure most people would. I, at least, have been wanting a particular hair-do for literally months now, ever since I saw it on a character in one of Sara’s graphic novels.

Mom said it was weird, though, and too high maintenance and she wasn’t about to spend money on something so frivolous, so I’m not expecting Dylan to be all that excited about it either.

“What if,” I say, trying not to sound too much like I’m bracing for Dylan to reject the idea outright, “we straightened it, and did a long a-line sort of bob that starts back here and comes forward just below my shoulders with, like, bangs that kind of sweep across like this.”

I motion with my hand, and keep on talking as if I definitely believe that what I’m about to say is totally and completely reasonable.

“And maybe we could do it in, say, a dark purple-y blue with, maybe, some lighter blue tones that sort of, I don’t know, shimmer when the light hits it?”

As I’m talking Dylan’s lips pull into this real poorly suppressed smile.

“Thought about it much?” he asks, and right at that moment he looks pretty adorable and, even though all those extra hormones from becoming don’t seem to be there anymore, my heart still kind of skips a beat.

I give a little shrug and say, “Maybe a little,” totally failing to repress my own stupid grin.

He studies my face for a second, and I think for sure he’s trying to find a nice way to turn down my idea, but then he says, “I think it could work,” as if he really does think so and as if it wasn’t a totally bizarre request in the first place. Looking at Agni, he asks, “Do you suppose it’d do the trick?”

“Oh yes. Brilliant colors are quite the thing in Daxa these days.”

“Though they’re uncommon enough to leave a strong first impression.”

“While still being sufficiently playful to suit her well.”

Dylan considers me for a minute more. “Yeah, I think you could pull it off.”

He doesn’t say this like it’s a compliment or like it’s supposed to be anything more than an objective observation, but I feel kind of flattered anyway because, I mean, well, it’s Dylan saying it, and also because this hair-do is maybe the coolest thing I have ever wanted for myself.

He finds this loose log for me to sit on—all barkless and bare, but a lot more comfortable a seat than you’d think from its appearance—and then he stands behind me and places his hands on my head.

The particle world is fully with me now, and as he begins to work on the color of my hair I can sense the changes he’s making like little tickles at the back of my mind. It’s all swirling shapes and soft lights. Real pretty. Not like the pink and fleshy sort of pictures of cells and stuff you see in text books.

I can’t imagine what it would be like growing up knowing that someday this whole extra vision of the world was going to be available to you. Knowing that pretty much everyone around you could already see it, could change it. What kind of a life would that be, when this sort of thing is just a part of your every day?

“What’s it like in Daxa?” I ask out loud, and Agni, who’s crouched a few feet away from us absently decomposing all our bedding into some unappealing looking sort of mulch, glances up with a smile.

“Now, that is a difficult question to answer. For me the city is home. It’s where my family is, my wife Ona. But what the city is to me may prove quite different for you once you encounter it.”

“The city of the sun,” Dylan offers from behind me. “The light in the mountains.”

“Yes, yes,” Agni’s nodding. “That is what we call it. Some people say it is because of the way the buildings downtown reflect the sun’s rays, but the city went by these names long before those modern structures were built. Since the time that the original occupants—a group of the Kwakwaka’wakw people—first welcomed other Painters in. There are many theories as to how the title ‘light in the mountains’ might have been born. It is a phrase steeped in Christian mythology, but if you look at the meaning of the word Daxa—to have one’s eyes open—it is not difficult to imagine that the place has always been associated with light. A special place.”

“If it isn’t growing obvious to you yet,” Dylan says with a smile in his voice, his hands dropping lightly from my head as he steps around beside me, “in addition to being a highly skilled reader, Agni is a rather formidable historian.”

Agni smiles at this, shrugging a little. “I like to have a sense of where I fall in time and space.”

Dylan leans down and starts working on the cut of my hair now. As pieces of it scatter in feathery tufts I can feel his fingertips brushing against the back of my neck here and there, real quick and soft and obviously unintentional. Still, the electricity in my essensus sparks a little every time, as if it’s trying to jump out of my skin to reach him. And when he starts talking again, his voice is almost right in my ear, his breath distractingly warm against my neck.

“Daxa is a city with a rich history,” he says. “The oldest real Painter city that’s still in use. To me, it’s like a tapestry of the story of the birth and growth of the Republic. Or really, the story of all Painters as a whole.”

You can hear the pride in his words, this unexpected freedom of emotion that makes me want to turn and look at his face.

Agni’s voice has that same pride when he says, “It is a city of many stories, of many people.” He stands up and uses one of the pots from breakfast to scoop up the mulch he’s been making. “Particle-Blinds might call it eclectic, but I prefer to think of it as complete.”

Dylan steps in front of me to work on my bangs, leaning down for a better angle, his face suddenly real close and his eyes so focused on the line of hair right above my eyebrows that it’s hard not to feel like he’s actually staring into my eyes themselves.

I try not to act too awkward about it, but that’s kind of hard because the whole atmosphere in the clearing feels pretty intimate right now. I mean, the way he and Agni talk about Daxa, it’s like the way you’d describe the love of your life or something, all raw and reverent. Makes me feel a sort of affection for the place too even though I haven’t ever seen it, and at the same time it makes me real homesick. I mean, I don’t suppose too many other people’d wax all poetic like that about Flemingsburg or anything, but that’s kind of how I’ve always felt about the place.

“What’s going to happen when we get to Daxa?” I ask, looking over Dylan’s shoulder to where Agni’s spreading his mulch all over the base of the nearest trees.

“Well,” he glances back at me. “As we have said, I will have to leave you before you reach the city itself.”

“And after that?”

“Dylan will lead you to his home, introduce you to his family, get you ready for your life as Sophie Warren. There will be quite a lot to prepare, since you will start at Mawihl Academy on Monday. That’s just three days away. It will be something of a baptism by fire for you, I’m afraid.”

Three days doesn’t mean much to me right now. It could be years away or just a matter of moments. The time that’s passed since Dylan and Agni found me in Flemingsburg seems real hazy and unquantifiable, and when I try to look at my life going forward it feels about the same.

“We’re done,” Dylan says suddenly, taking a step back and looking down at me like he’s pretty pleased with his handiwork.

“Already?” I tug at the front ends of my hair to try and get a better look at the color.

“Use this,” Agni says, painting out a rectangular sheet of mirror and stepping over to wave it at me. His eyes travel over my hair and face and he gives me this big grin, all appreciative and pleased.

As I take the mirror from him, I’m real aware of this kind of excited, jittery feeling in my chest, but when I see the new me for the first time I just sort of go still.

Play it cool, I’m telling myself, suddenly feeling kind of weird about having an audience for this moment. Don’t act like a freak.

But honestly, I don’t think I’d care too much even if I did do something totally stupid right now because, well, I look amazing. I mean, Dylan got it exactly right. Better than I’d even imagined. The color’s all rich and sleek, and everywhere the sun hits it my hair shines so blue it’s practically sparkling. The way it frames my face I do almost look like a different person, and this girl—this girl might actually be able to save the world.

“I look…awesome.” I breathe out as I grin all giddy up at Dylan and Agni, totally ruining whatever coolness I might have been faking before. But Dylan’s grinning too, real big, and trying his best not to look too proud of himself.

“In Daxa they’d call you alpha,” he says.

“As in a dog?” I raise my eyebrows, and he and Agni kind of laugh.

“As in the first. An original. A trendsetter.”

I’ve never thought of myself as an original before. Of course, I don’t think I’ve ever known enough people to have that be a thing anyway.

“We do still need to do something about your clothes.”

I look down at my white polyester T-shirt and blue hiking pants that I just changed into this morning. First time in days I’ve been able to wear something clean.

“What’s wrong with them?”

“In our current circumstances, mostly it’s the fabrics. Once we’re in Daxa we’ll set you up with a wardrobe that’s more fitting for Painter fashions, but for now we’ll just have to do something about the way your clothes are made.”

“They’re too obviously Particle-Blind fabrics,” Agni chimes in from where he’s now disintegrating all the cookware. “If anyone stumbles onto you before you reach Dylan’s house it could make them unnecessarily curious.”

I look closer at the clothes that the two of them are wearing and I really can’t tell the difference between theirs and mine, but when Dylan takes the cuff of my shirt in his hands and starts to change the particle patterns of the fabric, I start to see what he means.

I may not understand much about the particle world yet, but even I can tell the new patterns probably make for a better fabric. Stronger and more flexible, even prettier as far as the particle patterns go. It’s all smooth and soft on my skin, and real breathable and sturdy. Like if you created the ultimate fabric for every situation, this would be it.

“When people meet you for the first time we want to solidify your new identity in their minds as quickly as possible,” Dylan says, crouching down to pinch at the hem of my pants and start the changes there. “We don’t want them wondering much about who you were before Daxa, about there being a difference between you then and now. The hair will help with that. It will dominate their impressions of you, make it hard to imagine you as anything else. Having the right clothes will help too.”

He’s started changing the color of my pants to white now, and, like he can feel my question before I’ve even asked it, he looks up at me out of the corner of his eye and explains, “We’ll be moving slowly enough now that we’ll be more easily visible to others. We’re heading into a territory that’s sufficiently populated to make particle sailing too risky, so it’s worth expending the energy to help us blend into the scenery a bit. Don’t want anyone to notice us if we can help it.”

He finishes transforming my pants and then moves to my boots, his long fingers all slender and tan against the grey leather. It’s started snowing again, thick white fluffs drifting down out of the blue sky and melting against the heat of the insulation barrier Dylan set up over our camp last night, giving this weirdly damp smell to the air.

There’s an odd sort of hush to the world around us too, as if all the sound is being swallowed up by the snow. And Agni, who’s just finished whitening his own clothes, looks even more like some strange Father Christmas as he strides across our little campsite to start working white into the packs.

Once my shoes are done, Dylan straightens up and glances around as if he’s looking for something. I stand up too, twisting my head back and forth a little to feel the brush of my hair against my shoulders. Dylan steps over to grab my hat off the ground where I left it this morning, and as he’s bringing it back over to me he turns it white as he walks.

“It’s a pity, but we’ll have to cover your hair for now,” he says, and then, as if it’s just some sort of instinct for him or something, he’s sliding the beanie onto my head himself and starting to tuck my hair inside of it.

It’s such a personal thing to do, getting all up in my space like that without any warning, and the surprise of it makes me look right into his eyes.

His hands pause for just a second, and then he’s pulling them away from me again and saying real smooth and casual like nothing’s at all unusual, “You can take over from here. I’ll go change the color of your other things.”

He strides off to where Agni is, and I’m left standing there with my heart still going a few beats too fast and my essensus kind of buzzing. It’s going to take me a long time to get used to having that little energy generator back there, always so ready to send its tingling down the back of my neck.

Not sure what else to do I just hang out in the middle of the clearing for a while, trying to act real nonchalant about it, until Dylan and Agni move away from our packs to take down the lean-to. Then I trudge over to my now white bag and sling it over my shoulders and watch from a safe distance while the two of them finish erasing all signs of our having been here.

When everything’s ready to go I have to climb onto Dylan’s back again, and as I wrap my arms around his neck it’s about all I can do not to think about his hands on the side of my face and his eyes looking right into mine.

We particle sail a ways away from the camp, just far enough to make it hard for anyone who might be trying to follow our trail. Then Agni and Dylan make these little wooden snowshoes for us and we head off on foot. After days of almost 100 mile-per-hour travel, it feels pretty painfully slow.

Agni fills the time by expounding on the customs of Daxa and Painter life there, monologuing along about all sorts of obscure little details that I’m betting Dylan didn’t even know and that, in practical terms, probably aren’t going to mean a whole lot to me day-to-day.

Stuff like, that the proper pronunciation for Daxa is actually something more like Dasha. A fact that he offers up real cheerful as I struggle to get me and my snowshoes over a waist-high ridge in the snow and end up having to get a boost up from Dylan instead.

However,” Agni adds, clearing the ridge himself as easy as if he were just stepping over a curb or something. “Voicing the ‘x’ has become so common throughout the Republic that even the younger Kwakwaka’wakw people do it now.”

He throws out the name of the native Daxans like it’s as simple a word as “dog” or “cat” or something and I kind of get the impression he takes a lot of pride in knowing how to say it, in knowing all the little things he seems to know.

The truth is that I like listening to him go on and on about this stuff. It’s like Melodie talking about her horse-riding competitions or Logan with his conspiracy theories. You end up loving it a little yourself because of the way they do.

Agni goes in depth into Painter greetings, saying that people don’t normally shake hands except with Particle-Blinds. Instead they do something called pono—a Maori word meaning “honest”—where they place their hands together, fingers against fingers and palms against palms.

He has me take off my glove and exchange pono with him, our hands sort of bumping against each other with the swaying of our snowshoed steps, little swells of electricity jumping between us each time we make contact.

“Some of the most sensitive essentual nerves are in our fingers and palms,” he says. “When you touch another Painter’s palm like this, you can feel the connection, can’t you? It is a sign of respect and politeness to allow this connection. It is like saying, ‘I will share myself with you.’ Or in other words, it is a promise of sincerity.”

When he starts talking about ramu, that greeting that involves touching the back of the neck, I can’t help glancing kind of guilty up at Dylan, but if he’s remembering how I accidentally touched him there last night he doesn’t give any sign. Doesn’t so much as look in my direction actually, which, to be honest, is just a little disappointing.

“The word ramu,” Agni explains, “means ‘to love,’ and it is derived from the ancient language Akkadian.” Glancing over at me with an eyebrow cocked and a confessional kind of smile, he adds, “Of course, that is a fact that even most Painters don’t know.”

I have to smile at that, and on the other side of Agni I can see that Dylan’s got a hint of a smile on his face as well.

“To greet someone with ramu and a touch of foreheads is to count them a very dear friend indeed, someone for whom you have great affection and care. Lovers, however, exchange ramu with a kiss, and when you have the chance to experience this you will see that it is one of the best feelings in the world. Which,” Agni waggles a finger at me all playful, “is a good reason not to do it with just anybody.”

My face flashes all hot and probably red, but at least I manage not to look at Dylan this time.

“That is one way by which I knew I had come to love my wife Ona. Ramu with her felt different than with anyone else. It was exciting and peaceful at the same time. Like a promise of what our future could be.”

The sun is bright in the sky now, setting the unbroken snow around us alive with dancing, reflected light. We’re keeping mostly to the trees, but the forest is thin enough here that the sun washes over us every few steps or so, bathing us in this real gentle, wintery warmth.

Not too long before we stop for lunch, we catch sight of a huge male elk. He’s just standing there all mighty and majestic, watching us from the top of a nearby ridge, and, as if on cue, we all stop in our tracks and stare back at him. It’s kind of funny to me that when Agni and Dylan’s lives are so full of things that seem pretty much unbelievable, they can still get just as awed and reverent as I do over something as normal as an animal in the wild.

About mid-afternoon we start having to duck out of sight of other travelers. First, it’s somebody that goes particle-sailing by so fast that I don’t really register them with my eyes so much as with my particle sight. We barely have enough time to find cover before the person’s already come and gone. Then, only half an hour later, a couple middle-aged women in strange flowing dresses and colorful pants come from another direction.

Every time Agni senses someone coming, he freezes mid-stride with this real arrested look on his face and he snaps out a warning in a sharp whisper that starts my heart racing and fills my mind with images of those two takers—Brock Schwarz and Lydia Banks—in the moments just before they died.

The third time Agni gives his warning, the three of us dive down behind a large drift of snow that’s run up against some trees, and we wait in tense silence to see who’s coming. The adrenaline’s biting through my veins and my pulse is pounding and, just like the two times before, I’m bracing myself for something dangerous and terrible, but then it’s just a family with three young kids that comes into view.

The parents are particle sailing pretty slow and pulling their kids behind them in this charming little wooden sleigh. The children are leaning out the sides of it, riding their hands along the wind like you would out a car window, and the whole family’s belting out this boisterous sort of carol or something in a language I don’t understand.

With them all bundled up in festive colors, their cheeks rosy with the cold, it’s like a scene straight off some Hallmark greeting card. It’s so innocent a thing to see when I keep expecting the worst that I almost feel like laughing. When I glance over at Dylan and Agni, though, the expressions on their faces don’t mirror mine at all. Their eyes are fixed on the family and, Dylan especially, just looks totally lost, like his mind’s clocked in somewhere else and like that place is just short of awful.

I glance back over the snow drift at the family and try to figure out whatever it is that’s made Dylan and Agni so suddenly sad, but once again I just end up feeling like the weird kid at the party. The only one that doesn’t know what’s going on. The family disappears into the forest, laughing at something one of the kids just shouted over the noise of their song, and then the three of us are just sitting there in silence again and I’m watching Dylan and Agni and wondering when they’re going to come out of their trance.

I poke with my mind at the particle patterns of the clothes I’m wearing, and, beyond that, at the delicate geometric patterns in the particles of the snow. With the trees blocking us from the sun, I can feel the chill of the air on my cheeks, but whatever it is Dylan did to my clothes, they manage to keep the cold pretty well away from the rest of me. If it weren’t for the strain in my legs I could probably crouch here forever without getting too uncomfortable and, looking at Dylan and Agni’s still stoney faces, I’m wondering if that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

Then Agni breaks, letting out this little sigh of a sound and glancing over at Dylan and me. His eyes pause on Dylan’s face, his lips pulling back into a gentle sort of smile that’s sad enough it might as well just be a frown. Clearly, he knows whatever it is that Dylan’s so broken up about.

He rests his hand all soft on Dylan’s shoulder as he stands up, saying, “If we’re close enough to the city to encounter day-trippers we’ll have to be more cautious going forward.”

He stares off into the trees in the direction we’ve been going.

“I’d better move up ahead of you so I can sense them coming from further away. It’ll only give you a few extra seconds to hide, but every second counts.”

Dylan and I stand up too, me watching both their faces for any signs of what this is all about. But Dylan’s real careful not to look either Agni or me in the eye and, for once, Agni’s expression is pretty unreadable too.

“I’ll keep my mind open for anyone approaching from behind,” Dylan says as he’s brushing the snow off his knees with a level of concentration that is way beyond what the task requires.

After studying him for a moment, Agni moves to slide the backpack off Dylan’s shoulders and Dylan doesn’t protest.

“We’ll reach the pass by midnight, I’m thinking.” Agni says, hoisting the pack onto his own back and adjusting the straps.

Dylan just gives this little nod, in this way that seems to say a lot more to Agni than it does to me.

When we head out again, Dylan and I walk side by side in a silence that is practically pulsing with whatever’s on Dylan’s mind, the absence of Agni’s cheerful stream of trivia making our own quiet all that much more obvious. I watch Agni up ahead of us, moving in and out of the trees, his head angling up every once in a while as if he’s listening for something.

“How do you and Agni know when someone is coming?” I ask after a while, as interested in shutting off the silence as I am in getting the actual answer. “How’d I know it was Agni coming last night?”

It kind of works. Dylan glances over at me and presses his lips together a little as if he’s considering my question. From this angle he’s framed almost perfectly against the sun, his face thrown into a sort of sepia-toned shadow.

“It’s possible to sense another person’s essence from quite a ways off. Not many people can do it. You’ve got to train yourself for it. That is,” he glances at me again, “most of us have to. The current theory for how this works is that our essentual energy is drawn to other essentual energy in much the same way a magnet works, but that you’ve got to open your mind up to the pull of it in order to recognize it’s there. Agni’s much better than I am, but recognizing an essence as belonging to a particular individual like you did—well, as far as I know that sensibility is strictly Way Reader territory.”

“Like, Spidey senses or something?”

I could swear Dylan nearly smiles then, cocking one eyebrow at me in a sort of a question.

“As in Spiderman, the super hero?” I offer, and he gives me this look that is exactly one step away from rolling his eyes.

“I do know what Spidey senses are,” he says. “I simply wouldn’t have thought to compare the two.”

“What other Way Reader senses am I going to have? X-ray vision? A lasso of truth?”

Now the smile flashes through despite himself, and I like the feeling that I’m the one that made that smile happen.

“Couldn’t tell you. It’s different for every Way Reader. Agni can give you a long list of possibilities if you like.”

Then we fall into silence again, and if it’s not quite so heavy as it was a few minutes ago it’s still not as comfortable as I’d like.

After a while of that silence going on and on, I blink myself into my imaginary world, to a magical land ruled by ice trolls. I’ve stolen the seven-league boots from the ice troll prince and escaped from their frozen castle where they were going to roast me and eat me for dinner. Every step I take rushes me away from them, dozens of miles at a time.

My heart’s not in the daydream, though. Not with Dylan glooming along beside me. He’s walking real fast now too. Focused. I think that maybe he’s in a hurry to be home, like maybe being this close to Daxa makes ignoring his own homesickness harder.

“Tell me more about your family,” I say to him, skipping forward a bit so I can see up into his face.

He just gives me this sidelong glance with his eyebrows all raised up in this expression like he’s wondering exactly what I’m expecting him to do with that request.

“Like, how about your cousin. You said he lives with you?”

“Mm,” Dylan slides his hands into his pockets and turns his face up to the sky. “Gwilim’s lived with us since we were both about four years old, he and I. Since his mum died. All of us kids were close, but Gwilim—well, it’s always been the two of us. Like twins almost.”

The way he says it, it’s like he’s talking about something that’s not the case anymore, and I squint up at him, trying to get a sense of his expression.

“What changed?”

It’s a few seconds before he answers and I’m thinking maybe my question crossed some sort of line or something, but then he says, all tired-like, “I’m not sure what happened. Gwilim’s always been…moody, I suppose.”

I almost laugh at this. I mean, I guess moody’s not usually the word I’d use to describe Dylan himself, but at the moment at least, it’s pretty close.

“When Gwilim’s mum died, he came to live with us. His da—well, his da is president now, but even then he was an ambitious politician and I suppose he thought he didn’t have time to raise a kid. Gwilim’s careful not to show it, but he feels things strongly, and his da’s letting him go like that has always bothered him, I think. The idea that he could be sluffed off so readily, that people you care about can just disappear—”

Dylan stops talking suddenly, his jaw clamping shut real tight and that same lost look from before washing over him.

I’m still trying to figure out if he really just said that his uncle is president—as in the president, of the whole Painter Republic—so it takes me a second to register that something’s changed.

When he starts talking again, it’s like every word holds a special little pain for him. A pain that’s got to be handled with care. Like, if he doesn’t maintain absolute control of his emotions right now, one of these words might just break him.

“Last year,” his voice hangs in the air all sour and spare, “my older brother died. Then came Da’s imprisonment, and then Mum left for Wales. Gwilim’s not been the same since. None of us have.”

Calling Dylan moody a few minutes ago—well, that seems real inappropriate now. I’m thinking back to that look in his eyes in the car outside Flemingsburg, when I was trying to decide if I would go with him and Agni. To that moment when I was sure Dylan understood just exactly what I was feeling, and how that made everything just a little bit easier for me.

I’m not real sure I can do the same for him right now—not sure that any understanding I’ve got could even come close to what he’s actually feeling—but after having stood in my ruined kitchen wondering if my mom was dead, there’s at least a little that I think I might understand.

“Is it hard?” I ask, glancing up kind of tentative into his face. “Having so many people that you care about?”

The look he gives me then—out of the corner of his eyes and real sharp, as if he’d never properly seen me before—makes my heart take this little leap and my breath just sort of pause. It’s unnerving, that feeling that for a second there he could see right inside me, to some part of me that I’m pretty sure I don’t even know that well myself.

“You care about people too,” he says finally, looking away again, his profile etched all precise and pretty against the sun.

I kind of nod and shrug, feeling a little extra out of my element for some reason.

“Yeah,” I say, kind of lame, “but other than my mom I don’t think I’ve ever felt all that responsible for anyone else.”

Until now, of course. Until, apparently, the whole world’s supposed to be my responsibility. We’re quiet again for a few minutes, the rhythm of our snowshoes in the snow keeping time as the seconds tick awkwardly away.

Then Dylan, with his voice low and kind of disarmingly gentle, says, “Your da—programming the locket and his photograph like he did—that’s some powerful painting. He must’ve been an incredible man.”

I’ve got no idea what to say to this. On the one hand, it feels somehow like a thing I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear. On the other hand, for some reason knowing that Dylan lost a brother that he knew and loved, it’s hard to feel like I’ve got any claim on a man I’ve never even met.

“Thank you,” I say, kind of quiet, because even if I’m not sure I’ve got much of a right to feel it, Dylan’s words have made me real proud.

The sun is low on the horizon now, stretching all the shadows longer and darker, making it harder to pick Agni out of the mosaic of snow drifts and trees ahead of us.

It occurs to me that this is how it’s going to be for the rest of the afternoon—Agni up there and Dylan and me back here—right up until it’s time to say goodbye. I know I’m going to see Agni again, but I still feel kind of scared somehow. Kind of somber and overwhelmed.

“What do we actually know about these takers?” I ask Dylan, trying not to sound as petrified by the idea of them as I actually am.

He’s clearly been lost in his own thoughts, somewhere far away from this moment and this place. It takes him a minute to answer.

“Not a great deal that’s useful,” he says finally, with this strange, sour little laugh. “We know they’ve infiltrated the Republic government, but not to what level or to what purpose. We know they have a network of hideouts in Daxa and, probably, across the world, but we don’t know where any of the important ones are located. We’ve entrenched agents in their organization, but the leaders are smart about how they’re running things, and they’ve set up so many safeties against infiltration that the information we’ve gained is sadly piecemeal.”

He stares up into the dimming light of the sky for a few seconds, his footsteps falling kind of fierce and heavy on the snow.

“For instance, several of their hideouts are essentially quarantined, where the members stationed there are disallowed from interacting with anyone from other locations, forbidden to speak about the work they’ve been assigned. It makes it practically impossible for us to put together any sort of big picture.”

Bringing his hand up to his head, he starts rubbing along the top of his hat as if even thinking about all this is making his head hurt.

“What makes it worse is that they believe themselves to be guided by some supposed higher moral purpose, that history has taught humans false mercy—taught us to be weak and soft—and that they, the Sons of Morning, have a duty to make us strong again. That the whole human race will die out without them. It’s utter rubbish, of course, but it’s hard to fight against a strong belief like that. Especially when their leaders know how to make good use of it.”

“Who are their leaders?”

“The main one goes by the name Beelzebub, but we don’t know his real identity, or even what he looks like. There’s rumored to be another leader—an even more powerful one—going by the title The Angel, but it’s probably just a ruse. A mysterious figure set up as a sort of savior for the Sons of Morning to rally behind.”

“So, they think,” I start, and I know I sound totally incredulous, “that killing loads of people and gobbling up their energy is somehow part of them saving the world?”

Dylan gives me a rueful smile.

“A means to an end, they say. They need the essentual energy to do whatever it is they’re trying to do. And they say that their victims deserve it. It’s one of their recruiting strategies, offering to help dispense justice against the people that have wronged you, sort of thing.”

“That’s crazy. They’ve got to know that’s crazy, right?”

“You’d be surprised what you can get people to do when you give them a sense of purpose.”

I’m feeling kind of sick to my stomach now. I mean, I knew these takers were bad news, but more and more I’m having to face the fact that I’m not going to be dealing with villains from some campfire story. These people are real. And they’re totally insane.

The mountains here are a lot taller than before. Savage and severe and stunning, with these long peaks as harsh as icicles. The sun’s falling behind them now, transforming their silhouettes into razor-sharp, angry teeth, and covering everything in this blue-hazed duskiness that turns the world around us real unearthly.

The crunch of our shoes in the snow sends dull echoes out against the towering mountain walls, bounces answers back like weird, distant laughter. We don’t talk anymore. I’m guessing neither of us is in the mood for it. Up ahead, even Agni seems to be moving with more caution, and the forest is so quiet here that I can hear Dylan’s breath going in and out, in and out, slightly out of time with his footsteps.

I find myself searching the dark shadows between the trees around us, my skin crawling with this feeling like someone’s watching me, like they’re just out of sight themselves.

Just as the sun gets swallowed completely behind the mountains, a blast of particle sight comes slamming forward in my brain, rushing images in with such a shock of warning that for a second I lose all sense of where I am. I go stumbling forward, feel the world dip all topsy-turvy around me. Then Dylan’s got my elbows and he’s pulling me upright before I can hit the ground.

“What is it?” he’s asking, his eyes fierce on mine, locking me back into the tangible world.   

“Something’s coming.” I think my fingers are digging too tight into his arms. “Something bad.”


Previous: Chapter 7

Next: Chapter 9


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 7

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CHAPTER 7

“You must take her quickly and go.”

Agni’s bending over us, his face real bleak and his mustache and hands spotted with something disturbingly wet and brownish.

“We can’t risk the possibility that there are more takers nearby or that someone heard any of this. I will clean up here.”

“And then?” Dylan asks.

“I will catch up to you.”

Dylan pulls away from me, looks me in the face.

“Can you walk?”

I’m not sure that I can. My tears are gone but I’m real numb all over. I nod anyway.

Dylan’s not convinced. He unslings his bow and quiver of arrows and hands them to me.

“Put these over your shoulder. You’re just going to have to hang on this time.”

When he pulls me by my arms up onto his back, I wrap myself real tight around him.

“The bags?” he says to Agni.

“I’ll get them.”

“See you soon, then.”

When Dylan takes off sailing, there’s no danger of my falling asleep this time even though I wish I could. I’ve got too much in my head that I’d really rather wasn’t in there. The image of the life falling from that man’s face, the silence after the girl stopped breathing.

Being there for their last moments, I can’t make myself believe they deserved it even though they definitely meant me harm. Seeing death in movies is no kind of preparation for what it’s really like. I wish I could talk to Mom right now, feel her warm arms around me and just forget everything, but I’m stuck here clinging to Dylan’s back with nothing to do but think over all of it again and again.

I have to keep re-adjusting my grip around Dylan’s neck. The wind that’s rushing against us is pushing bitter cold into my face now and even inside my gloves my fingers are numb. My arms are hurting, I feel empty inside, and my head’s gone all swimmy again. I’m weary to my bones, heavy as stone, but I’m real aware that we need to keep moving. I want to get as much distance between us and those bodies as we can, so I’m trying my best not to let on that anything’s wrong.

Seems like we’ve been going for hours when I kind of lose consciousness for a second and have to snap my hands back together to stop myself from falling off.

Dylan grabs at my hands too—holds them there, tight against his chest—and his fingers are soft and warm on the skin of my wrists.

“You’re frozen,” he says with this note of guilt in his voice. “I was too focused on speed and forgot you can’t fight the cold.”

Then heat like a warm breeze starts to seep from his hands over my whole body.

“We can stop soon. Do you think you can hold on a bit longer?

“Mm,” I say in a sort of affirmation, but the warmer my body gets the drowsier my eyes become. My head’s already slumping down against his back and neck. With a real effort I manage to stay coherent for the next few minutes, but then before I can even feel it’s happening my gloved fingers just slip away from each other—slip out of Dylan’s grip—and I’m falling backward.

On reflex Dylan’s hands swing down to my legs and his momentum forward falters. Then he’s stopping completely and spinning around and grabbing at my flailing arms.

He’s quick to catch me, but by the time he does I’m already so far downward that it throws us both off balance and he’s falling right along with me. I feel this puff of air balloon up beneath us, which I figure is Dylan’s doing. It’s not enough to completely break our fall, though, and when his body hits against mine the pillow of air bursts and we smack into the snow with a thud.

White powder ruptures around us like a firework. The quiver and arrows crumple beneath me, but what really hurts is the simultaneous impact as my body absorbs the force of the earth from one direction and Dylan from the other.

He’s off of me in an instant, but I still can’t breathe.

Nefsakes,” he says as he bends over me all worried. “Nefsakes, are you broken?”

I’ve got no air to speak so I just stare at him with my mouth gaping fish-like, waiting for my lungs to fill again while his hands are running all over me, checking for anything damaged.

Calon tân, can you speak to me? Zanny?”

Maybe it’s just a relief not to be thinking about death for a minute, but this is when it all gets to seeming pretty funny to me. Dropping off him without warning like I did, the two of us scrambling at each other mid-air. Him flattening me.

The laughter comes out in these real wheezy gasps at first and Dylan obviously doesn’t understand what’s happening.

Calon tân,” he breathes again, “Show me where you’re hurting.”

Finally my air starts coming back and my laughter starts sounding like what it really is, but Dylan looks even more perplexed by this. He sits back on his haunches and stares at me for a minute, and then a smile starts to pull at the corners of his lips and his face slides into a wry, lopsided sort of grin. He lets out this sigh of relief, and then another, and slowly he starts laughing too.

Flopping onto his back in the snow next to me, he flings out his arms like a snow angel and lets his laughter grow deeper and free, as if he hasn’t laughed like this in a long time, like he loves the feel of it in his chest. When he turns his head to look over at me, the smile on his face is so wide and contagious that I start laughing even harder myself.

“Shh,” he says through his own laughter, rolling up onto his side and clapping one hand over my mouth. “Shh.”

But this just makes the moment even funnier, and he knows it. So he gives up and rolls back into the snow, and the two of us lie there with our heads together and laugh like total idiots until we’ve used up all the humor and we just drift off into a friendly sort of silence.

The problem with silence, though, is it gives you time to think, and today there aren’t too many pleasant things to think about.

“What’s a gindge?” I ask, turning up onto my side now so that I can look at him.

My question has an immediate effect. His expression goes real sour and he asks, “Did those takers call you that?”

I nod a little bit, and he looks away, taking in this real long, tense breath.

“It’s an ugly term for a body once the essence and the shadow have left it. It’s a detestable word used only by detestable people.”

“What are the words that you use? The ones that sound like nev-sakes and cah-lone tahn?”

He almost smiles again and glances at me.

“It’s Painter slang, minor expletives. The first one’s a mash of Welsh and English. We do that sort of thing a lot. Usually you use your own language with a more common one. Nef comes from the Welsh word for heaven and sakes is just sakes. In English. Calon tân is Welsh too. Translates roughly to ‘heart of fire’ or ‘fiery heart.’”

I think of that warmth in my chest when I knew to trust Agni and Dylan and when I decided to follow them and leave my mom. I wonder where Agni is now.

“There’re going to be more, aren’t there?”

Dylan slides his eyes over to me again. “Hm?”

“People that are going to die because of me.”

Turning toward me completely now, he props himself up on his elbow so he can look me full in the face.

“Those two did not die because of you.”

“Yeah, but they did, though, really.” I try not to sound petty about it. “I’m sorry, by the way.”

He just raises his eyebrows, questioning, and I pick at my sleeve a little bit, suddenly not real sure how to proceed.

“I’m sorry that you…had to do that.”

Kind of sighing and dropping his head back, he scratches at the hair peeping out of the front of his hat and even in a moment like this I can’t help noticing how cute he is.

“It’s not the first time I’ve had to do it,” he says without any bravado. “It won’t be the last. Those people are starting a war with us. Whether it’s to protect you or to protect someone else, we’ll have to do harm. You’re meant to save lives, and that’s what you will do. If you’re going to make it through all this without going crazy, you’re gonna have to focus on the lives saved instead of the ones lost.”

At the moment I don’t feel like the sort of person who saves lives. I don’t know what that’s like. Right now all I know is the death part. I don’t say that, though.

“How far until we reach Daxa?”

“A day, maybe.”

It’s hard to know whether to be excited or anxious about it. On the one hand it means a little bit of rest maybe, but it also means more change. It means a brand new life, a brand new me. It means being this Way Reader person becomes even more of a reality.

“We can’t keep lying here,” Dylan says, getting to his feet. “The day’s almost over. Let’s make camp.”

He helps me stand up, looks down at the pieces of sticks that used to be arrows and gets his dry little smile on his face.

After he’s cleaned up all the traces of us left in the snow, we head into the trees to find a good place to stay for the night, Dylan erasing our tracks as we go. Even though that awful buzziness seems to be gone for good, I start to get all trembly and weak again, and Dylan has to grab my hand and help me along until we find a workable little clearing.

He makes me sit down while he builds another lean-to and prepares dinner, saying, “You haven’t eaten all day and you emptied your stomach pretty thoroughly this morning. I should’ve thought about food earlier.”

He sets up another sort of invisible barrier right around our lean-to “to keep the heat in,” and with that and some good food in me I do feel a lot better.

Dylan must not think so, though, because he studies my face and says, “You’re tired. You better sleep while you can.”

Any other day this’d probably be a pretty appealing suggestion but right now, sitting all cozy with Dylan in our bubble of warm air, the last thing I wanna do is close my eyes and invite the nightmares again.

When I start to protest Dylan says, “I’m not sure when we’ll have to be on our way again.”

“What about Agni?”

“He’ll find us. I’ve left clues for him along the way.”

He grabs a bunch of pine needles from the foot of some of the nearest trees and throws them in a pile near the lean-to.

“We don’t have our supplies so I’m going to have to make do.”

He holds his hands over the pine needles and they start to shimmy and jiggle against each other in this cartoon-like sort of dance, changing shape and melding together until they transform completely into a brown little pillow that looks inviting enough even if it is real plain.

He makes another of these and then two big wool blankets. With a signal from him I move out of the way so he can throw one of the blankets across the floor of the lean-to and then the pillows on top of that.

“Do you mind if we share?” he asks, holding the second blanket. “I’m too tired to make more of these and we’ll stay warmer that way.”

He does look like he’s about ready to collapse.

“That’s fine.”

“Choose your side,” he says, and I crawl onto the blanket, asking him, “How does painting work exactly? I mean, if even normal people—sorry, Particle-Blinds—have an essence, what makes you—us—different from them?”

Throwing the second blanket over my legs and crawling in next to me, he says, “We’ve got another set of nerves in our nervous systems, and an additional component to our brains. That bit’s called the essensus, and you’ve probably already felt it prickling back here.”

He waves his hand toward the back of his head.

“Here?”

He’s leaning across me now and pulling at the blanket to give more leeway on my side, and I don’t even think about it before touching his neck at the point that he’s indicating—the same spot where I keep feeling that weird tickle myself.

As soon as I touch him, though, there’s this flash of energy that passes between our skin, through my hand and right up my arm to my chest like an electric shock. It’s a surprise to me, but it’s Dylan that’s jerking away so fast you’d think I’d tried to stab him to death. The look on his face—all dismayed and violated—makes me feel immediately and totally imbecilic even if I’ve got no clue what it is I’ve actually done.

“I’m sorry,” he says, recovering quickly. “You caught me off guard. For Painters, touching someone there is very…intimate.”

My face flares as hot as a furnace. “I didn’t know.”

He waves it away, lying back and settling onto his pillow.

“There’s a lot we should probably prep you on before we get to Daxa. You’ll see that when family members or very close friends greet each other, they use ramu—palming the nape of the neck—as a sign of endearment. But people also use it as a way of expressing, you know, romantic affection.”

“Oh.”

I’m trying real hard not to feel rejected. I guess I’d started to think of him as a real friend, like Logan or Sara or Melodie, but his reaction makes me think maybe we’re actually not. I slide all the way up to my nose under our shared blanket, making real sure not to bump against him or crowd his space in any way, while at the same time trying not to make it obvious that’s what I’m doing.

He’s not even aware of me, though. His breathing’s already gone all steady and soft, while I’m left wide awake with a mind so full of ugly thoughts and images that I don’t even want to risk sleeping.

Lying on my back, I stare through the boughs of the lean-to up into the star-dusted sky and I wallow in the mountain nighttime. The sounds, the smells—even the chill in the air—are real close to what I’ve known all my life, but it’s the subtlety of the differences that makes it so lonely.

I’m finally starting to fade off into sleep when I get a tickle of energy at the back of my neck, in what I guess is called my essensus. I’m barely aware that it’s there before it explodes, bursting through my entire body and burning at the ends of my fingers and across my palms. It’s scorching and alive, like lightning coursing through my veins.

Then, with the stroke of a slap, my world changes.

A flood of shapes and colors goes tumbling through my head. Some I know from my recent delirium, but none of them are things I have a name for. Through my wide-open eyes I realize I can still see the towering pines rising up to frame the deep purple sky. All these other images bombarding my mind are getting to me by some other means, and they’re coming in bigger and more hurried waves.

My body’s lit up like a light with all that energy, and pretty soon I lose myself so completely in the rush of chaotic patterns that I can’t even make out the earth beneath me. It’s like I’m pitching down a never-ending water slide, speeding topsy-turvy toward some unknown destination until with a jolt—I arrive.

All the shapes and colors swarm into one fluid shape. With this hot, hot heat in my chest, I know I’m sensing somebody. Somebody moving real fast, right toward me. It’s only a matter of minutes before they’ll be here.

Bolting upright, I push all these new senses to the back of my mind, I don’t even know how. I’m grabbing hold of Dylan, shaking him, hissing at him to wake up. He rises like someone poised to attack.

“What’s wrong?” he hisses back at me, gripping my shoulders.

I must’ve been shaking because at the pressure of his hands I feel my body try to go still.

“Someone’s coming.”

My throat’s tight with the reality of it.


Previous: Chapter 6

Next: Chapter 8


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 6

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CHAPTER 6

Dylan glances up at me real quick and then back down again, and the expression on his face doesn’t seem much like a vote of confidence. I must look about as useless and small as I feel. Probably the exact opposite of what a Way Reader should be.

“You’ll have us by your side,” he says in this voice that’s real reassuring even if his hands are moving so sharp and fast across the length of his current arrow that you’d think the wood itself was the enemy. “You’re not alone in this.”

“The universe wants you to succeed,” Agni chimes in. “All you need do is let it.”

He watches me until I meet his gaze, like he wants to make sure I understand what he’s saying, that I believe it. The thing is, though, that he’s got a conviction that’s been built by years. I’ve only even known about this stuff for maybe eighteen hours.

Dylan stands up and drops his last arrow on the ground with the others.

“We can’t stay still much longer. It’s time to take down camp.”

“Yes, yes,” Agni nods and starts bundling away his cooking utensils. “I’ll clean up all of this.”

“I can help,” I say and start to stand up, but Dylan gives me this quick shake of his head.

“You need your rest,” he says, and starts pulling down the lean-to by himself, throwing the pine boughs back at the feet of the trees that probably provided them. Then he folds up the silver emergency blankets, grabs hold of the flannel ones where he and Agni slept and shrinks them down into little squares, tucking all of it into the hiking backpack. Over at his station, Agni’s absorbing the silverware and cookware back into that slate brick, gathering up his granola bars and packing everything away as well. Both of them are real focused on their work, busy as little bees while I just sit here twiddling my fingers and feeling like the blanket where I’m sitting might as well be on Mars for how much a part of all this I am right now.

Then pretty much everything is packed and Dylan is pulling out the harness again and approaching me with it kind of apologetic, although this time I don’t complain. I don’t even get too embarrassed about his hands being all up in my personal business as he tugs the straps around, because right at the moment that sort of stuff just doesn’t seem important. My mind’s pretty occupied with one question: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Agni dissolves the energy barrier around our campground. Then, like last night, he makes another one close around me. While he’s doing that, Dylan’s rigging up this quiver for the bow and the arrows that ties like a belt around his waist and that somehow doesn’t get in the way even with my legs all wrapped around him.

He and Agni are real efficient. From the time we finish breakfast to the time we actually leave, it can’t have taken more than twenty minutes. Practically the whole day’s still ahead of us. The sun is high and almost blinding in the sky, and as much as maybe I’d like to get out of my own head a little bit there’s no chance of my falling asleep in order to manage that. So maybe I’m already in a somewhat self-pitying mood when we hit the meadow valleys all blanketed in untouched snow, shining balmy and bright in the winter sunlight.

They’re not exactly like my valleys—the ones in the mountains around Flemingsburg—but there’s something so instantly familiar about them that it sends memories like photographs flashing through my mind. In the spring, our mountain meadows are so spread with golden wildflowers it looks like a piece of the sun itself fell to rest right there. Melodie and Sara and I like to trek out for picnics before it’s technically even warm enough to be inviting, just so we can be sure to have the meadows to ourselves.

Things like that—those will only ever be memories for me now. No more day trips on Melodie’s horses. No more spreading blankets on the ground and laying ourselves down among the flowers to daydream together about the things we want our lives to be. No more Melodie and Sara.

I was the only one who never worried much about leaving Flemingsburg, and now I’m the only one who’s actually doing it.

I wonder where Mom is now. On her way toward a place of heat and sun, to her brother that I never knew she had. What other family have I got out there? Maybe more uncles and aunts and cousins. Maybe grandparents even. All I know is that right this minute the only person that’s ever been family to me is driving steady in the opposite direction from mine, and I’ve got no idea how long it will be before I get to see her again. If I get to see her again.

“Tell me about your family,” I say to Dylan, and the sound of my voice is a little too loud after probably an hour’s worth of silence. He hardly reacts, though, and for a second I think maybe he didn’t hear me, but then he lets out this little sigh that seems about as homesick as I feel.

“What would you like to know?”

I rest my chin on the back of his shoulder, not real worried at the moment about being too much in his space.

“How many of you are there?”

He takes a long time to answer this question, and when he does there’s something kind of spare about his voice. “There are just five of us now. My uncle and aunt, my sister and me, and, much less often lately, my cousin Gwilim.”

I try to get a look at his face, try to figure out what’s in his voice that he’s not actually saying, but all I can see are his dark eyelashes and the line of his cheek as it disappears into his beard.

“What do you mean there are only five of you left?”

Again, a pause. It doesn’t feel like it’s because he doesn’t want to answer the question. It’s more like he’s just not real sure how.

Finally, he says, “Mum’s gone back to Wales to take care of her parents for a while. Da is…my da’s in jail. For a crime he didn’t commit.”

I don’t have to see his face to understand what he’s feeling this time.

“That’s got something to do with the takers, doesn’t it?”

“It has everything to do with them.”

“Why’d they do it? What is your dad to them?”

“A threat,” he says, and it’s not quite bitterness he’s feeling. It’s worse. Something deeper and stronger and more lasting. “He was researching their organization, writing a book about how they’re infiltrating the government. He does a lot of long-form journalism and he’s well respected. They must’ve realized how close he was getting to the truth and knew if they killed him outright his story would still come out. To really stop him they had to ruin his reputation, ruin him. So they got him charged with treason and now he’s sitting in a cell in a high security prison and we only get to see him once every few weeks, and Mum’s had to run off back to Wales—not really because of my grandparents, but because she was afraid the takers’d go after the rest of the family too unless she seemed to be backing off.”

“Was she a part of your dad’s investigation?”

“We all were. Well—” Dylan tilts his head up a bit like he’s looking at the sky. “Well, I was. Because of my work. We tried to keep everyone else in the family out of it, other than Mum. She’s a member of the Guardians of the Way and she was helping Da with his work. The two of them always work in tandem.”

It’s not like all this is any worse than the stuff Agni was saying about the takers earlier, but to hear details about how they’ve affected the life of a very real person that I can hear and feel and see makes the takers themselves all that much more real. More threatening.

“What are the Guardians of the Way?”

“Oh, right!” Dylan reacts like he’d forgotten I’m brand new to practically everything he’s ever known, and as if on reflex his head’s turning toward me and I don’t have time to dodge out of his way. His face goes grazing against the side of my lips and cheek, all smooth skin against smooth skin, and quick as a switch he’s snapping his head back around to the front and I’m yanking my own face away from his.

Then it’s a couple seconds of this crawling silence while the two of us try to figure out how to handle what just happened, him staring straight ahead and me completely fixated on what I can see of his face, trying real hard not to think too much about the feel of his skin against my lips. Or even the feel of his beard, which was sort of soft and weirdly pleasant. You’d think I’d never actually kissed a guy before the way my body’s reacting right now. I tell myself that nothing really happened, but that doesn’t make much of a difference. I can feel that now familiar tingle lighting up right at the nape of my neck.

When Dylan starts talking again his voice is real pointedly neutral, as if things absolutely did not get suddenly weird just now.

“The Guardians are an ancient order,” he says all calm and collected, “that is committed to forwarding the forces of good in the world. One of their biggest roles is to protect and support the Way Reader, when we’ve got one. Right now Agni and my mum are the only Guardians who know who you really are, and we feel it’s safest to keep it that way, but once you’re viable—once we no longer need to hide your identity so closely—the Guardians will be an important part of your life.”

I’m listening to him, I really am. This Guardians of the Way thing sounds like it could be real great. Someday. After I’ve had a chance to figure out all the other new and enormous things coming my way. Like moving in with a strange family. And learning how to live in a world that a few days ago I wouldn’t even have imagined could exist. And like, right now, figuring out how to be around Dylan without turning into a complete idiot.

I mean, I cannot make myself stop getting distracted by things like how cute it is when he says words like Mum, or how basically his whole British accent is really doing it for me right now. I’m totally mesmerized by every movement of the muscles in his jaw as he talks, fixated on the line of his neck just at the edge of his facial hair. The thought of what it would feel like to just run my finger along there is doing things to my body that I didn’t even know were possible.

We barely even touched each other, but every centimeter of my skin’s gone tingly and real aware of how close it is to his skin—or more, the idea of his skin, since there are at least a few solid layers of winter clothing between us. It’s all I can do not to lean forward and just bite his earlobe a little bit, or nuzzle my nose against the back of his neck.

I don’t know how he can act so casual right now. Except that I do know. Obviously, I’m not having the same effect on him as he is on me, and I know why that is too. It’s because his body hasn’t gone completely crazy. This is definitely one of the effects of this whole becoming process. It’s turning me into a hormone-ridden sex-fiend or something. I couldn’t hate this dumb harness any more than I do right now. I mean, geez, I could really use some physical distance from the guy for a minute.

When Agni pauses and turns back to us, I think maybe we’re stopping for real—that I’ll be able to get that physical distance—but all Agni says is that he senses someone else out there, and we’ll have to take a detour to avoid them. Then we’re on our way again, and all I can do is stare hard into the snow-covered trees streaming by on either side of us and wait for the annoying tingle to just die already.

Only, when it finally does, that queazy buzzing comes on again instead and, honestly, I think I’d rather be dealing with the out of control tingles because this time it’s like my stomach’s gone nuclear or something. I try to fight the sick feeling for a while until it’s all I can do to hold my head upright, to keep my eyes open. Finally, I just give in. Sliding my arm up against Dylan’s back to act as a personal space preserver, I rest my head down on my wrist and pretty soon I’m swinging in and out of consciousness. Then flashes of strange lights and colors and patterns start flaring in my mind like some defective film reel, and with every flash my stomach turns and my skull throbs and my throat lunges. It’s like I’m being tossed on the sea during a hurricane or something, and I can’t pull my head out of the water.

Eventually, from outside all the disorientation I hear Dylan’s voice as if it’s behind a closed door.  He sounds worried and reassuring and steady, and I hold onto that steadiness, try to locate the source of it in all this fog in my brain. Then I’m opening my eyes with almost as much confusion as if I were doing it for the first time ever, staring bleary-eyed at the winter landscape tinged all pink and purple with the setting sun.

“Alexandra,” Dylan’s saying, “you don’t sound well. Can you talk to me about what’s going on? Alexandra?”

We’re still moving quick—maybe even faster than before—and everything’s sort of blurring into everything else as we pass. It makes my head, my stomach—everything—feel a little worse, especially since on the edges of my vision those unfamiliar little lights and colors are still twitching along.

“I’m seeing things,” I tell him, and my voice sounds real weak. “Weird patterns and shapes.”

He’s quiet for a minute and I can hear that his breaths are coming more heavy than they were earlier in the day, like someone who’s been running hard for a long time.

“You’re starting to see the particle world,” he says, and the concern in his voice is a little sharper, a little more anxious. “That’s your brain learning how to interpret it. Everything’s progressing so fast for you—too fast. I’m sorry, but there are people near us now and we can’t tend to you. We’ll stop as soon as it’s safe. Can you hold out a bit longer?”

“You can call me Zanny,” I say, because for some reason that’s what seems important right now. Then I’m already drifting back into the stormy waters, and this time I’m pretty sure it’ll be a while until I find my way out of it again. At some point I think I feel hands on my back, Agni’s voice real gentle in my ear and I’m aware of the nausea fading and that the sky is dark and filled with stars.

Then time starts warping. It could be days that I’m swimming through brain fog, or maybe just minutes. Now and again I catch little moments of the real world. Things like recognizing once that I’m sitting on the ground, that I’m propped up in someone’s arms—probably Dylan’s—and Agni’s spooning something warm and brothy into my mouth. I surface again sometime when we’re on the move, when the sun is high in the sky.

After that I lose all sense of what’s happening around me. I’m immersed completely in the frenzy inside my head for so long that it begins to feel like this is the only world I’ve ever known. Then other images start coming along with the particle world. Strange faces and dark forests and gaping holes in the ground, and vampires. Lots and lots of vampires.

Only, instead of sucking your blood, they suck the soul out of you. Whisper awful things into your ears until you can’t stand it anymore and you try to take your own life just to stop it, but before you actually die they ever-so-painfully sip your soul from your body. There’s just the tiniest prickle at the back of my mind reminding me that all of this is just a dream.

Some time later—maybe days, maybe months—I wake up enough to realize that I’m lying on the ground between Dylan and Agni beneath a cover of towering pine trees. Or at least, I think I’m awake. When I try to look around everything seems to pulse in my vision. Dylan and Agni lying there and all the trees around us go sliding real far away from me and then rush back again, and again. It makes me sick just to try and focus.

The buzzing is in the core of my bones now, like I’m just this big block of energy and nerves and that nausea that’s like some demon creature inside me, just swirling around in my stomach and trying to jump up out of my throat.

Then Dylan and Agni themselves start to change, their faces turning into the vampires from my dreams. They’re gnashing at me, up on their haunches now and ready to pounce. From one side of the clearing I see other figures, real hazy and inky black, creeping toward me, promising in hissing whispers that what they’re going to do to me will only hurt a little.

Fear shoots through my veins and I manage to get myself upright, and then I’m stumbling forward into the snow and the trees. Somewhere in my mind there’s a voice that’s saying, pay attention to where you’re going, don’t get lost, but that voice is like the squeak of a mouse compared to the roaring of my other impulses.

I’m not sure how far I’ve gone when the bile that’s been churning around in my stomach starts pushing at the back of my throat, and I’m not sure how much longer I can hold it in. I’m realizing too that I must have been hallucinating back at the camp, and that now I’m out in the open without any protection and without any idea of how to get back.

I drop to my knees in the snow and I barely have enough time to pull my hair up out of my face before toxic waste comes erupting out of me.

I haven’t thrown up that much maybe ever, and as the vomit’s coming out so are the tears. They’re just streaming down my face and onto my neck. At first I’m crying because I feel awful, but then it turns into a sort of teary relief because the buzzing is dying away finally, flowing out of me along with probably everything that I’ve ever eaten. I feel empty and thin. Almost nonexistent.

When it’s all over I stay crouched there for a little bit, trying to spit the taste of vomit out of my mouth without much luck. My body’s starting to feel more substantial again, as if it’s slowly wrapping itself back around me in a series of shivers, when at the back of my neck I feel a sharp tingle. Not that oversexed business Dylan keeps activating, but something more piercing and more to the point. It ignites my mind and chest with a sense of knowing. Knowing that there is someone there with me, edging toward me, and that this is no hallucination now.

Standing up real shaky but fast, I stumble a few feet over to clutch onto the limb of the nearest pine tree, and I spin around to look toward the intruder. When I see him my heart drops and my lungs seize.

It’s that tattooed man from the Flemingsburg festival, and he looks real pleased to see me.

“You make it so easy,” he says, with this laugh like he can barely believe his eyes. “I thought it was supposed to be a punishment, making us patrol so far out of the way. In the end, you practically walk right into our arms.”

I can feel someone else here too, behind me, and I inch around so that I can see both of them at the same time. It’s that freaky girl from Flemingsburg, the one I thought was going to bite my face off when I nearly ran into her. She’s approaching real slow, her expression a whole lot more cautious now, maybe even scared.

“Lidi,” the man calls to her, “I guess your sour face wasn’t such bad luck after all.”

He’s moving with a little less caution than the girl is, but he’s still wary of me, like he’s not sure what I might be capable of.

“You’re going to come along nice and easily, aren’t you?” he says with this vicious little smile and a voice that makes my skin creep. “You’re definitely outnumbered, you see, and we don’t want to have to hurt you. We will have to tie you up, of course, but we really would love not to cause you any pain. You’re going to have to come with us one way or another.”

I can’t run; my body’s spent, all trembling and flimsy. I don’t think I even have the strength to scream, and I don’t know how far away Dylan and Agni are anyway, don’t know if we’re close enough to the campground right now that the security alerts would even have triggered. I set my brain speeding through my options, playing one of Mom’s focus games that she calls I Will Survive.

“You’re alone in the forest and you’re cornered by an angry bear. You’re weak and tired and all you’ve got is the clothes on your back.” Only this time it’s not an angry bear. It’s two lunatic takers who, I’m guessing, have the ability to do things to me that I can’t even imagine. And me? I can barely stand.

He’s about six feet away from me now, and it’s about as close as I can handle. I take action on the only solution that’s popped into my brain. I pull a Sorcerer’s Apprentice pose on him, swinging my arm up and thrusting it forward as if I’m casting some sort of a deadly spell.

It’s meaningless, obviously. I don’t know what in the world I’m doing, but it sure startles him and he responds on instinct, swinging his own arm up in defense. Only something happens when he does it. This bundled mass of flame and sparking air comes flying at me so hot I can feel it practically as it leaves his fingers.

It’s such a surprise to me that I’m frozen in place, just staring it down and unable to make myself dodge away.

I’m pretty sure I’m about to die when this huge burst of cool wind slams into me from the side, knocks me clear of the ball of fire and sends me sprawling into the bushes underneath the tree. A second later I hear that girl let out a terrible scream.

She’s spinning all over, clawing at the air around her face and shoulders, and when I stretch around toward her I see that the top of her body’s seared, like someone just melted her skin clean off. My own body snaps into some new instinct and I’m scrambling to get up and go to her, to help her. To do something to stop this horror scene in front of me. But that tattooed man’s suddenly looming over me. He grabs my arm and yanks at me, which sends me stumbling back to the ground.

“Look what you did,” he shouts and slaps me across the face so hard it rings an echo through my skull. Then he catches me by the collar and tries to haul me to my feet. “Get up, you little gindge, before your friends get here! You better believe you’re coming with me now.”

I try to push him off me, but I don’t have the strength and the world’s gone all swimmy with the force of his blow.

“Please,” I hear myself saying over the sound of the girl’s screams. “Please.”

I don’t know if I’m asking more for her or for me at this point, but he just wraps his hand so tight around my throat I can’t tell if he’s still trying to lift me or if he’s trying to kill me. I grasp his wrist and kick at whatever part of his body I can reach with my feet, but even though I know I make contact his grip just gets even tighter so that I can barely breathe.

“You worthless piss!” he spits in my face, and my vision’s clear enough now that I can make out every bright red vein in the whites of his terrifying eyes. Over his shoulder I see Dylan coming toward us through the trees like some movie star hero, bounding through the pines all swift and serious and graceful as if he’s in some kind of grim ballet. He’s nocking an arrow to his bow and pulling the string back. Striding sideways, he dodges off the base of a tree, springs himself up into the air, and lets the arrow fly.

There’s a sickening sort of thwap and the man’s body seizes. This broken gasp spills from inside him and his eyes go wide, checkmark brows creased. For a second he’s still looking right at me and then his gaze unfocuses and, real slow like a tree that’s just been felled, he slumps all heavy and limp across me, his oiled hair pressed against my face and his shoulder jabbing into my jaw.

Two voices are screaming now, and it takes me a second to realize that one of them is my own.

Dylan is by my side in an instant. He’s dragging the man off me and onto the ground, then he’s leaning over me.

“Are you alright, Zanny? Talk to me.”

I hate that I’m screaming, hate that I’ve just completely lost it. I manage to make myself stop, but then I can’t turn off the shuttering gulps that take its place.

Dylan looks me over quick for any injuries and turns back to the man to check for a pulse. Then he places his palm between the man’s shoulder blades, right against the arrow where it’s still stuck in his back. Based on what Agni and Dylan’ve told me, I’m assuming he’s checking the man’s essence. It should be just inside there, right under Dylan’s hand. Dylan sits still for a few seconds, real quiet like he’s listening, and then he sort of shakes his head and turns away.

I can guess what it means.

Either when he fell or when Dylan moved him, the man’s arm has somehow gotten twisted at an angle that no living person could stand. The skin of his hand already looks a few shades too pale, his fingers a little too inert. Dylan must notice my tears before I feel them because he’s crouching beside me again, pulling me up to him, pressing my head against his shoulder.

“The girl,” I whisper into his coat, but I can hear Agni with her now, all urgent and kind, trying to be heard over her pain.

“Please stop moving,” he’s saying. “I’m here to help.”

But her screams die off real sudden in this wet, guttural scratching and, as we hear her body fall heavy to the ground, Dylan pulls me to him a little tighter. Agni’s cooing over her now, so quiet I can’t tell what he’s saying. Her tortured breathing slows and stops, leaving this silence that is way too pressing, that throbs in my chest.

Dylan’s hand goes to the back of my head, his face bends down against my bangs as if he can somehow shield me from what just happened. All I can think is how that man and that girl were standing there alive and dangerous just minutes before, and now they’re simply gone. All that’s left of them just empty shells of meat and bone.

So this is what death is. It’s terrifyingly final.


Previous: Chapter 5

Next: Chapter 7


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