LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 15

Posting for feedback. Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 15

All the self defense training Mom made me go through must’ve been good for something because at this point my panic gives way to pure instinct and before I can even process what my body’s doing, I’m spinning around, swinging my hand up and back as I go. Mostly by feel, I grab my attacker just under their chin, all ready to shove them away from me as I’m coming around to face them, but then I actually see the person and I just freeze.

I mean, the woman standing there is so not a threat it’s almost shocking. She’s crooked and raggy with these eyes that are so wild and urgent and scared that even the idea that I was about to do some sort of violence to her makes me let go of her real fast, makes me try to back away. She catches hold of both my hands, though. Grips them so tight with her bony little fingers that it’s kind of alarming. Actually, everything about her is alarming, and not just because it’s obvious she’s not at all in her right mind.

“Fix me, fix me. You have to fix me,” she’s saying over and over in this voice like rusted iron, and I can’t tell if it’s more a question or a command.

I glance around for that silver-eyed man, but he’s gone. Completely vanished. Not even a sign of his trench coat or hat in the crowd. Which I guess should be a relief to me, but it just makes me all the more uneasy.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I say to the woman, trying to kind of delicately release my hands from her death grip while still scanning the square for any other danger. “I can’t do anything for you.”

“No, no.” She lets go of my left hand, but then she just takes my right hand in both of hers, pulling it up toward her head with that deceptive strength that she’s got and trying to press my palm against her skull while I try, in total dismay, to stop that from happening.

“You can fix me,” she says.

She’s really freaking me out now, and I fight down an urge to just wrench my arm away from her. Despite the strength in her hands, she still looks to me like some sort of fragile, broken little bird and I don’t want to hurt her.

In fact, it’s starting to dawn on me that I’m going to have to do something about her. I mean, someone in her state of mind and health shouldn’t just be left to roam the streets by themselves, right? I don’t think that’s something a Way Reader would let happen. But the question then is, what exactly am I supposed to do?

Several people have glanced at us as they’ve passed by, but not one of them seems too inclined to get involved and I’m real aware of a new sort of panic setting in: the panic of feeling totally inadequate for this situation.

Finally, I get my hand out of her grasp, but then she pounces in real close to me, speaking in this grindy sort of whisper that practically drenches me in the smell of her rotten breath.

“They broke me,” she says, a weird little glint in her eye that is not at all helping to alleviate my panic. “They thought they erased the memories, but I will never forget.”

I suddenly remember what Dylan said when we saw the troubled man in the alley that first night here. Something about calling the medics, which is another thing I don’t have any idea how to do—maybe you just dial 911?—but obviously Dylan would know how to handle this situation.

“I’m going to call someone who can help you,” I tell the woman in a voice that I hope sounds reassuring, but before I can expand my phone she grabs at my hands again and this time her grip is painfully tight, and extra desperate.

“It’s only you who can help me,” she hisses right into my face, her eyes kind of frightening and hypnotic. “Please, you have to make it work again.”

My panic leaps straight up into my throat at this point, and neither of us are aware of the other person coming up to us until he’s put a hand real gentle on the woman’s arm. There’s something about his touch that almost instantly calms her a little.

“I’m sorry, madam,” he says with this soft, British accent. “But I do believe you’re scaring the girl. Perhaps, if you let her go…”

The kid’s got to be just a few years older than I am, but—whether it’s the inherent sense of authority in his voice or the kindness in his face when she looks up at him—the woman does as he says. She drops my hands and pulls her own all tight against herself in these rigid, knuckly little balls, glancing back and forth between the kid and me.

“The girl—” she says, kind of faltering, glancing in my direction. “She can fix me.”

The kid looks at me for the first time then, this subtle sort of mockery tingeing all that kindness in his face, and there’s something in that look that strikes me as totally familiar, though I can’t for the life of me name what it is.

“No madam,” he says. “No, I really do believe that she cannot.” Looking at her again, he gives this gentle little smile. “Perhaps we can find someone a bit more likely to be helpful?”

She looks like she’s about to disagree with him, but then another woman’s voice comes from behind the kid.

“That won’t be necessary.”

The three of us spin around to see who’s talking.

“The poor dear is with me, you see.”

This other woman is kind of a lot to take in. I mean, she’s short and kind of round and, I’d say, more elegant than beautiful, but there’s something about her too-wide smile and intense, keen eyes that pretty much exudes presence. It only adds to the effect that she’s wearing a flowing robe of a thousand colors and a wide-brimmed hat decked all over in little, moving, golem birds.

“Hello Shama,” the kid says, clearly already familiar with her and not even fazed at all. “What makes me think that your statement’s not entirely accurate? What are you up to now?”

The Shama woman’s nose flares in a way that’s sort of like a smile.

“Oh, I’ll admit she didn’t come into the park with me, but she’s certainly under my protection. Elspeth,” Shama says, looking at the tiny, broken woman with an authority that’s altogether different from the kid’s. “Do you recognize me, dear?”

She holds her hand out like a peace offering, and the other woman perks her head up a bit as if maybe something about Shama is familiar.

“Elspeth,” the troubled woman tries the name out. “Elspeth used to be me once, I think. And you…you’re Shama Haddad.”

For just a second, there’s this frantic sort of relief that washes over Shama’s face, but she gets it real quick under control again.

“Yes. It’s been a long time, dear. And I’ve been looking for you.”

Elspeth takes a tentative little step over to her, kind of cautiously taking Shama’s offered hand. Then Elspeth turns back toward me and points an emaciated finger.

“That girl can fix me,” she says, but this time it definitely sounds more like a question.

Shama’s eyes turn toward me too, boring into me as if she can see right inside me. I get this strange sort of apprehension, as if I’m about to be found out or something, but then she looks away again. She wraps her arm around Elspeth and, giving the British kid and me a little nod in farewell, turns away, gently pulling Elspeth along with her. I can just barely hear what Shama’s saying as they walk off.

“For today, my dear,” she tells her friend, “I don’t think the girl will be of much use, but I will take good care of you until proper help is available.”

There’s a moment, right before they disappear into the crowd, when both Shama and Elspeth glance back at me at the same time, and the power of the scrutiny in their eyes is like a physical force against my chest.

The British kid’s watched this whole exchange in a bemused sort of silence, and he turns this satirical little smile on me now, his eyebrows raised and his head tilted in a way that reminds me of the Cheshire Cat. Or, more appropriate, the Big Bad Wolf.

“I don’t suppose you know what’s just happened?” he asks, and I give a little shake of my head. He eyes me for a few seconds longer and then says, “Dangerous people here in Daxa these days, you know. Best not to go wandering about by yourself.”

Maybe it’s his eyes that are so familiar, or something about the way he holds his mouth? Whatever it is about him, it puts me pretty immediately at ease. I take an exaggerated glance around us, as if I’m looking for something that I just can’t find.

“Yeah?” I say to him. “So where’s your protective entourage, then?”

His smile kind of twitches. “Ah. Well. You see, I can take care of myself.”

He clearly guesses this will annoy me, but I can’t think of an appropriate response. I mean, it’s not like I can pretend that I was doing a great job of handling my situation before he showed up.

His smile gets even deeper, as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking, and then he does this quirk of a shrug and says, “I noticed some Academy kids wandering down the street just now. I’m probably wrong, but it occurred to me you might like a hand in locating them.”

He doesn’t wait for an answer. Just starts walking off as if he’s totally sure I’m going to follow. The sense of familiarity about him surges to the point of near revelation, but the answer still doesn’t quite come. I feel like I can trust him, though. That same warm feeling in my chest that I got when I met Dylan and Agni. Taking a few skipping steps, I hurry to catch up with him, match my stride with his.

“Who was that woman? Shama Haddad?”

He glances down at me. “A journalist. Rather respected, when she’s not ruffling all the wrong feathers.”

“Do you think her friend is going to be alright?”

His wry smile doesn’t change much when I ask this question, but there’s some unreadable emotion that passes over his face.

“What does it mean to be ‘alright?’ Perhaps she’s too far gone to fully comprehend her own suffering. Isn’t that better than being sane enough to know it well?”

I have no idea how to respond to this. Partly because it’s hard to tell if he’s joking.

Finally I just say, “Well, you’re real cheery,” and I’m kind of surprised when he lets out this involuntary laugh.

With that one laugh, though, I realize exactly who he is. I just can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

“I know you.” It comes out all crowing and childish, but I do feel like I just beat him at a game or something.

The kid glances at me again, real quick and furtive. “Oh, I don’t think we’ve ever met.”

“You’re Gwilim Lucas.”

He stops dead in his tracks then and looks right at me, considering. Like he’s trying to decide what he’s going to say next. There’s a hint of sheepishness to his expression, and I can feel my smile growing more and more gloating. The family resemblance—the family good looks—I mean, it’s so obvious, now that I realize it’s there.

“You are. Aren’t you?”

He’s saved from answering by Leti shouting my name from the far end of the street. She’s standing there, a good head taller than most the other people walking by her, and she’s waving her arms at me. Gabriel’s by her side and the others are coming around the corner after them.

As soon as he sees Eilian, something in Gwilim’s face shifts.

“That’s my exit,” he says, then dodges away into a narrow alley between the buildings to our left, pausing just long enough to give me this jaunty little salute.

“Pleasure to meet you, Cousin Sophie,” he calls, and then he’s particle sailing away.

Seconds later, my friends come crowding around me, everyone apologizing for leaving me behind, wanting to know where I’ve been, what I was doing. Eilian’s first concern, though—as soon as she can get a word in—is to ask, “Was that my cousin Gwilim?”

Her face is as unreadable as her cousin’s, but from her tone I’m guessing she’s right on the verge of some real strong emotion. Anger or tears, I don’t really know, but I feel like maybe I should try to tread lightly.

“Well, he took off before admitting what his name was,” I offer, “but…yeah, I’m pretty sure it was him. By the way, isn’t it illegal to particle sail in city limits?”

Tua and Nando burst out laughing at this, before Eilian can respond. Apparently she’s in on the joke, though, because her face kind of relaxes and she gives a half-hearted eye roll.

Leti, as reserved as ever, only gets a tinge of a smile on her lips, but there’s obvious humor in her voice when she says, “Sounds like Gwilim, sure enough.”

Eilian lets out this quiet, exasperated sort of sound, shaking her head a little and folding her arms against her chest.

“He’s never truly happy unless he’s breaking the law, just a little bit,” she says.

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

When we get home we find Dylan in the study, and Teresa’s with him. They’re on this love seat that’s tucked into the big bay window and she’s got her fingers all up in his hair and her long legs draped across him. She looks elegant and kind of unnecessarily impressive, like some queen who’s claiming ownership over something that everyone already knows is definitely, definitely hers.

Seems to me like they were in the middle of discussing something real private and my instinct is to step right back out of the room again, but Eilian goes charging forward, announcing that we saw Gwilim today. From Teresa’s expression, I’m guessing she’s either not pleased to see us or not pleased by the news, but Dylan’s real interested. He sits forward, his eyes all alert and hopeful.

When he asks us to explain, I’m too focused on wondering why it is that I feel so uncomfortable every time Teresa so much as glances in my direction, so Eilian’s the first to respond.

“Sophie was accosted by one of those people that keeps turning up. The ones with the troubled minds,” she says. “And Gwilim essentially rescued her.”

She’s summed up my whole dramatic experience in just a few dismissive words, but I guess they get the point across.

“Of course, as soon as the rest of us came back to find her, Gwilim made his escape. Trust him to be aggravating even while acting the hero.”

I expect Dylan to laugh at this, but he doesn’t. Instead, his eyebrows go down all disapproving, and he tilts his head in a way that feels like some kind of a warning.

“I’m sorry, but it sounded as if you just said you weren’t with Sophie when Gwilim found her.”

Eilian glances over at me, looking like she knows she’s gotten herself into trouble but she’s not entirely sure how.

“Well, we might’ve misplaced her for, like, a few minutes, but it’s not as if she needs a babysitter—”

“You misplaced her?”

Dylan’s suddenly sort of half laughing, but I bet I’m not the only one that can see the apprehension in his face. Teresa, for instance, real quick shifts her gaze from him to me, and I have to try hard to act like I am totally unaware of it.

“Eilian,” Dylan says, kind of pleady, “I told her mum we’d take care of her. She’s our guest here. We can’t just go dumping her off in the middle of the city.”

“I know, I know,” Eilian throws her hands up, giving in. “I felt bad about it as soon as it happened.” She looks over at me with a sheepish little pout. “I really am sorry, Soph. I should’ve been watching out for you.”

She looks so much like an impish little pixie right now that I can’t help laughing, and I’m about to say that it’s no worry, when Teresa speaks up instead.

“Sounds like Gwilim took care of her for you, Ellie.”

She says it with a bright little smile, but there’s something about the look on her face that I do not like one bit.


Previous: Chapter 14

Next: Chapter 16


FEEDBACK

Please let me know what you think, either by commenting below or emailing me here. Tell me if anything stood out to you in a good way. If anything stood out to you as bad. Is there anything in particular that you like about the characters themselves? Anything that bugs you about them? Were there any parts of this chapter that made you happy, scared, excited, sad, etc.?

LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 14

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for people who read the previous draft: this used to be Chapter 9.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 14

In the morning I’m the first one at the breakfast table, after Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn. That’s because I’ve basically been awake ever since the sun came up. And that’s because I didn’t exactly sleep much last night anyway, on account of my mysterious invisible guest.

I tried to talk to the thing. At least, I asked it who it was and what it wanted, but it didn’t respond. What it did do was to disappear. As in, both the feeling of its presence and the weight of it on the bed just faded away. Which means it’s not just invisible. It can apparently teleport too.

You can bet I didn’t wait around too long to see if it was coming back. I booked it out into the hallway to the central elevator, and I found Dylan’s room after only a couple wrong turns and several moments of panic. Just as I was about to knock on his door, though, I heard Teresa in there laughing her bell-like little laugh and talking to him in this voice that was all soft and charming.

It turns out that between her and a ghost, I’m less afraid of a haunting. I spent the rest of the night locked in my own bathroom, trying to sleep in a nest of blankets and pillows I’d piled up on the floor. Of course, I was well aware that the shut bathroom door was no real defense against that ghost thing, which is why sleep wasn’t exactly forthcoming.

So I’m real antsy this morning, waiting all impatient for Dylan to come down to breakfast and hoping that I can get a moment to talk to him alone before Eilian and I head off for school. When Dylan does come into the room and there’s no sign of Teresa with him it makes me feel kind of guilty, how much of a relief that is. I guess I’d been picturing her as an unavoidable constant in my life.

Dylan’s in a good mood this morning, greeting everyone real cheery and sort of humming all quiet to himself as he fills his plate with food. It’s like he’s allowed himself a level of happiness that he’d forgotten how to feel for a while or something. Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn notice it, and they exchange their own smiling little glances when they think neither Dylan nor I is watching.

When Eilian comes slamming into the dining room, though, everyone’s mood changes real quick for the worse.

Her expanded tablet’s gripped all tight in her hand and she’s got a terrible look on her face. The kind that tells you good news is definitely not coming. We all watch her as she stalks over to us and tosses her tablet onto the table, as if she can’t let go of that thing quick enough.

It’s playing some sort of video, and I glance down at the screen just in time to see this horribly high-quality footage of someone slicing a knife across the throat of a bound and terrified looking man.

I snap my eyes away real fast, let out this involuntary gasp that comes from way down inside of me. Without a word, Aunt Nia reaches out and quietly turns the tablet over, her face about as pale as I feel.

“They’ve done it again,” Eilian says, her eyes traveling to each of us in turn, boring into us with a sort of furious trepidation. “Another public execution.”

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

Mawihl Academy is like a micro-cosm of Daxa itself, with its eclectic hodgepodge of buildings in every Painter style. They’re all connected by ivy-covered glass passageways, which Eilian navigates as if she’s walked down them a million times herself.

The place is filled with people. Kids around my age or younger mostly. We have to squeeze past each other to get through the halls, and it should feel kind of chaotic but instead it’s about as subdued as a funeral service. Here and there you can see people gathering in little circles, talking in whispers as if we really are in some sort of a church. A couple times I hear people laughing, but even that sound gets overwhelmed by the quiet fear that seems to hang in the air.

Eilian and I haven’t spoken much since breakfast, though that conversation is still playing pretty vivid in my mind. The video was posted by the Sons of Morning apparently, a recording of their entire ritual as they harvested the energy from the man they’d just killed. We didn’t watch any more of it, but Eilian described it in pretty gory detail.

Any thoughts about my personal haunting have pretty much faded away. There was no chance to talk to Dylan about it, and whatever was in my room last night seems a whole lot less alarming compared to this execution. I mean, it’s kind of hard to think of anything else after hearing that the takers did the killing as a message to the Way Reader. So in other words, a message to me. With part of that message being that more people are going to die as long as I stay in hiding.

Following Eilian through the hallways now, staring down the fear in everyone’s eyes, you can bet I feel the weight of that on my shoulders.

Our class today, which Eilian and I have together, is Introduction to Particular Sciences with a teacher named Eugenius Braun. It’s in a building shaped like an enormous submarine, a made-to-scale WWII replica. The hallway is tiny, but the classroom looks like pretty much any classroom I’ve ever seen. It’s white, and mostly bare, with tables set up in three long rows across the width of it, three chairs to a table.

There are already a few kids in there when we walk in. Two of them are Eilian’s friends. A tall girl named Leti Kjar, who’s blond hair falls down her back so long and shimmery that she looks like some Scandinavian princess or something. And Tua Moeaki, whom I remember Aunt Nia mentioning the other day. The other kid, who introduces himself as Gabriel Lobato, is apparently brand new here, from Brazil. Practically right off the plane, he says, and I wonder what sort of planes fly into a Painter city like Daxa.

He’s almost shockingly good looking, all tan-skinned and dark-curly hair with eyes like Hershey’s syrup. When we touch our hands in pono he flashes me this shy kind of smile, and the fact that a kid with that face also has that smile seems pretty categorically unfair.

Eilian’s friends already know all about me. Or, about as much as Eilian knows. They greet me with hugs and refer to me as her cousin, which Eilian says is a thing Painters do with close family friends.

Tua Moeaki’s real tall and broad shouldered, with a voice so deep you can almost feel it in your bones. He’s wearing a lava-lava printed in some sort of Polynesian-looking modern art pattern, and he’s got an Asian-style lady’s comb perched kind of whimsical in his close-cut afro.

There’s this real grim look on his face as he says his hellos. A look that doesn’t seem to fit right, as if his cheek muscles aren’t all that sure how to express that a sort of emotion.

“Did you see the video?” he asks us, and in response Eilian just gives this short little nod.

We’re standing near the front of the room, between the right-most rows of tables, and Eilian sinks down against the edge of one of them as if she doesn’t even have the energy to stand.

“First thing that came up in my feed this morning,” she says.

All of a sudden, I just want to pretend that the video doesn’t even exist for a while. Like, until I have a moment alone to maybe panic a little, I would like to categorize the video in my mind on the same level as one of Logan’s conspiracies. Something far removed from myself and, probably, not even real. I definitely don’t want to talk about it.

It’s very real for these kids that I’m with, though. You can see in their eyes that its reality is a weight that each of them feels.

“People shouldn’t be sharing it,” Gabriel says. “It’s exactly what the takers want them to do.”

The sound of the classroom door opening makes us all turn toward the back of the room as two kids walk in. There’s a Hispanic looking boy wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a brightly colored plaid vest, and behind him there’s a Black girl who’s so small you could mistake her for a child if it weren’t for her kind of elegant facial features and a totally alpha afro that probably doubles the size of her own head.

“Nando!” Tua exclaims, his face lighting up for second.

He steps forward and grabs the Hispanic kid in this complicated series of handshakes that look like something they’ve been doing for years.

“What’s up, my brother? I didn’t think you were going to be able to make it this term.”

Nando glances kind of uncomfortable at the rest of us and gives this stiff little shrug of his shoulders.

“Academy Admin Center gave me a job last minute. Means half tuition, and money to pay the rest.”

He nods his head toward the Black girl, who’s sort of hovering a few feet away from us all as if she honestly thinks that one of us might bite.

“This is Hina Amura,” Nando says. “Works with me at the Admin Center.”

After Leti and Eilian introduce Gabriel and me, we all exchange pono, and I notice that although Hina does look up as she greets each of us, she never actually focuses on anyone’s face. It’s as if she’d really rather just fade completely from our view, which, for some reason, just manages to make me more curious about her.

When the Nando kid and I exchange pono I’m mostly still watching Hina, and the feeling of a sighting coming on is a total surprise. I have just enough warning to throw my mind kind of desperate into one of the meditation methods that Dylan taught me, and even though it takes pretty much all my will power, I do actually manage to channel the energy of the sighting in some sort of controlled way.

As in, I don’t fall over or anything, but I do react. I go all still and silent, just trying to hold myself together while the thing goes through me. I see Nando in a dark room by himself somewhere, weeping all wild and fierce, grabbing in this sort of unhinged desperation at the skin of his own face.

When I come out of the sighting, I realize I’m just staring at him all blank-faced and startled, our palms still together and his eyebrows raised in a kind of curious concern.

“Still getting used to pono,” I’m quick to say, smiling kind of rueful, as if my behavior just now was simply a reaction to the tiny spark of energy that our hands exchanged.

I think for sure he’s not going to buy it, but he does after all. Gives me his own sympathetic smile and turns his attention back to the rest of the group. Meanwhile, I’m feeling like I just intruded into one of his private moments, like some sort of psychic peeping Tom or something. Like if he knew what it is I’d seen just now he wouldn’t be at all happy about it.

Still, I can’t stop sneaking glances at him. Studying his face and comparing it to my sighting, wondering what event could possibly make him feel that much anguish, and why it is that with everything else going on today that’s the only sighting I’ve been shown.

Some other kids start trickling into the classroom, sitting down in the chairs at the long tables or huddling in their own little conversational groups. Pretty much everyone seems to know Eilian and her friends, but nobody else joins us in our circle, though some of them do seem to be listening in.

Tua brings the conversation back to the video again, as if he just can’t stop himself from thinking about it. He asks, in a general kind of way, if anyone knows anything about the victim, but I notice as he asks the question that his eyes focus mostly on Nando.

“Uncle Wyn says it was one of the partners at the Mountain Vista Realty firm,” Eilian offers, and Tua lets out this little snort.

“Biggy Argyle? Partner at Mountain Vista he may be, but what he’s really known for is an enormous list of shady dealings down in Stranger’s Hollow. Didn’t you read the takers’ written statement underneath the video?”

“I didn’t really want to give them that much of my time,” Eilian says, kind of defensive.

“Why do the takers even care about that place?” Nando cuts in with a bite to his voice that I notice makes Hina glance up at him real quick.

“I doubt they do care about Stranger’s Hollow.” Eilian looks to Tua again. “What are they trying to do this time? Set themselves up as the good guys or something? Some sort of ‘watching out for the downtrodden’ rubbish?”

Leti’s the one that responds to her, speaking in this real measured voice, almost like she’s reciting the words or something.

“They say that Biggy Argyle represents the corruption of ‘the establishment,’ and that the Way Reader will inevitably be part of that establishment too. By killing Argyle, they’re challenging the Way Reader to come out of hiding and prove them wrong.”

Her words make me feel cold all over. Heavy, like maybe I’m slowly turning to stone.

“What’s Stranger’s Hollow?” I ask, trying not to sound like I have any more interest in this conversation than the rest of them. The way they all look at me, though, you’d think I’d just announced the world was flat or something.

“You don’t know?” Tua asks. “Gabriel’s never left Brazil until now and even he knows about Stranger’s Hollow.”

“Give her a break, you guys,” Eilian injects with a lighter tone, half in my defense and half kind of teasing. “She grew up on a minuscule farm in the mountains of Wyoming. Only Painter she’s ever known is her own mum. Of course she’s never heard of Stranger’s Hollow.”

The rest of them kind of laugh at this and I manage to join in, but our laughter’s cut short by the sound of someone real pointedly clearing his throat from the front of the room. The teacher—who apparently came in unnoticed—waits until he’s got our full attention and then looks at the tables around us as if to say that the time for us to sit down was at least three minutes ago.

We all move pretty much on instinct, kind of tumbling into whatever chairs are immediately beside us, which puts me at a table with Nando and Hina, and Eilian and Tua and Leti at the table next to ours. Gabriel takes a second longer to choose an open seat at the next table up. A table at the very front of the room, under the critical eye of our teacher. From where I’m sitting I can see Gabriel give the man a sheepish little smile, but Mr. Braun doesn’t even acknowledge it.

He’s a tall man with a real straight-backed sort of posture and a head so bare that you’d think the few wispy hairs still hanging out around the edges must’ve been left there with a specific purpose. His rectangular glasses are perched half-mast on his nose, adding a good dose of severity to the way he’s glaring out at all of us in the class. I don’t know what I was expecting from a teacher at a Painter school, but this wasn’t really it.

When he starts talking, it’s with a German accent and in a voice so direct you almost feel like you should come to attention.

“The administration would like me to perform some sort of morale-building fluff and getting-to-know-you time wasters. I’m not going to. If you want to get to know each other, do it before or after class. This isn’t some Particle-Blind high school where our main concern is making sure you feel warm fuzzies about yourselves. Your purpose here is to learn, so feel warm fuzzies about that.”

I notice now that there’s a little glint in his eyes as he’s talking, as if deep down he’s having one huge laugh about all this and he’s just waiting for the rest of us to figure it out and join in.

“Let me explain to you how the term is going to work,” he continues. “The first couple hours of class will be devoted to a lecture, given by me. If you’re thinking this is a good time to get your nap in, think again. If you don’t want to learn, go somewhere else not to do it. If I see you sleeping, I will wake you up in a very unpleasant manner. Imagine ice cold water splashing over your face. When you feel you’re growing drowsy, try entertaining yourself by reading these—”

He pulls a tiny glass jar out of his jacket pocket and moves as if he’s flinging its contents up into the air. A bunch of posters materialize on the ceiling, written in real precise script and saying things like, I hope when I die it’s during one of Mr. Braun’s boring lectures because the transition from life to death would be almost imperceptible.

Eilian looks over at me and rolls her eyes, sort of half-smiling.

“The second half of class is practicum, during which time you will demonstrate to me that you have grasped at least some inkling of the principles taught each day. Don’t smile,” he directs his scowl at an Asian girl sitting next to Gabriel. “It isn’t going to be fun. We don’t have fun in this class.”

At this point I’m pretty sure no one in the room is really buying his crotchety act, except for maybe Hina who’s barely taken her eyes off the table in front of us since the moment she sat down.

“Twice during the term you will be required to conduct team projects. That chair you’re sitting in right now? That’s where you’ll be sitting for the rest of the term. Those people you’re sitting by? They’ll be your team. If the person next to you smells badly, just remember that it was you who chose to sit there.”

This all seems so weirdly normal all of a sudden. Everything that’s happened so far this morning—the video, the fear, the sighting—you could believe for a moment that none of it ever happened. We’re just a bunch of normal teenagers with nothing more to worry about than how to navigate life at our new school. Normal except for the whole Painter aspect of it of course, which is only not normal to me.

Mr. Braun launches into a lecture on the “foundational principles of particular sciences.” At the front of the room, he brings up a light-matter model of a plant cell that’s as big as a beach ball. He’s got it floating high above the ground a few feet away from the front tables and he’s walking around it as he describes its various parts. Then, with a quick little twitch of his wrist, a smaller version of the cell model appears without any warning right smack in the air directly in front of each of us.

I’m not the only one that jumps, but I am the only one that’s so startled I make a sound like a squeaky toy being strangled to death.

Mr. Braun directs a glowering look in my direction and says, “No sound effects from the peanut gallery, thank you.”

I can hear a few people snicker, and Tua and Eilian both throw me these appreciative little looks that make me feel just slightly less like I want to sink down under my table.

Most of Mr. Braun’s lecture is pretty basic. Scientific principles that I’ve already learned either from school back in Flemingsburg or from the training with Dylan. But as Mr. Braun has us reach inside our light-matter models and feel the different parts of the cell, I can’t help wondering what Melodie and Sara and Logan would think of all this. I mean, it was a pretty big deal when our high school finally installed whiteboards in the classrooms a few years ago. The technology here in Daxa is way beyond anything anyone in Flemingsburg has probably ever seen.

We explore the insides of cells, of molecules, of atoms. The light matter itself is almost as interesting to me as the models we’re examining. Its particle pattern seems both flexible and kind of tenuous. I don’t know much about this sort of thing yet, but seems to me that if there was a texture that felt like ghost, this would pretty much be it. Which makes me wonder if that thing that visited me last night is made up of particles, and if so, what is its particle pattern like.

After a couple hours of lecturing, Mr. Braun says it’s practicum time. With a snap of his fingers, these silver bowls materialize on top of the tables in front of us, taking shape as if someone were pouring metallic sand into an invisible silicon mold or something. Once the bowls are complete, water slowly fills them up about halfway, and even though I’m watching Mr. Braun real close, I can’t figure out how he’s making it all happen.

“We’ll begin with the basics,” he says, starting to move around the room. “Heating and cooling. First, let’s try bringing the water in your bowls to a soft boil.”

Yesterday, during my first training—which feels now like it must’ve been five years ago—Dylan told me that it was important when I was around other people not to let on how easy everything is for me.

“You won’t be the only girl in Daxa this year who comes from a rural town in the Western United States,” he said. “But if there’s any clue as to how good you are at painting, it won’t be long before the takers realize you’re the only one they need to worry about. Assume they’ve got eyes and ears everywhere.”

Now, for the first time, I’m having to put that advice into practice, and I’m realizing that I don’t really know how. Looking around at everyone else in the room, with their hands on the sides of their bowls getting ready to heat up their water—I mean, I don’t know how hard this stuff is for other Painters. How do I avoid making it look too easy when I don’t actually know what easy is?

I focus on my own bowl and take my mind down into the water particles, trying, at least, just to be extra gentle about it. “Don’t push too hard,” I tell myself over and over again, until several minutes later it slowly dawns on me that Mr. Braun is standing there by my side. Has probably been standing there for a while.

Looking up into his face, I see he’s got one eyebrow raised as if he’s just asked something and he’s waiting for me to answer. For the life of me I can’t find anywhere in my brain where I might’ve registered what he said.

“What I wondered, Miss Warren,” he repeats, sort of gently sarcastic, “is if you’ve not had much time for practice down there on your farm?”

A quick glance around the room shows me thirty or so bowls full of cheerfully boiling water. Nando’s water apparently even boiled so powerfully that half of it spilled out onto our table. My water, on the other hand, is almost as still as ice.

What I’m realizing now—what I should’ve realized immediately—is that all these kids probably became weeks, or even months ago. Probably they’ve had all the time in the world to be practicing these foundational things. Probably none of them were doing this for the first time today, and I didn’t need to try and hide anything.

“Perhaps,” Mr. Braun says, his expression very nearly sympathetic, “Your friend Nando could give you some helpful tips on heating.”

No one tries to stifle their laughter now. Even Hina laughs a little, and it’s clear from everyone’s expressions that Nando and I are meant to be in on the joke. Nando grins over at me and even though I smile too I can feel myself kind of blushing. Eilian gives me one of her affectionate eye-rolls and Gabriel flashes me his drop-dead smile.

We’re barely halfway through the first day and I’ve managed to make myself stand out already, even if it is in the exact opposite way that Dylan feared. I don’t know if I should be worried about it, but looking around the classroom at the way everyone’s smiling at me I get this feeling like everything’s going to be alright. I don’t know exactly what just happened—what it is that they’re all thinking about me now—but weirdly, in this moment, I finally kind of feel like I belong.

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

After another half hour or so of practicum Mr. Braun lets us leave early, grumbling something about it being the first day of term and having better places to be himself. Leti suggests we all go downtown for some hot chocolate, and everyone but Hina agrees. In this quiet little voice she says she has to work soon, and then she slips out of the room as quick as if she were making an escape.

We take something called the Magnix downtown—a sort of subway train that, like the emvees, moves mainly by electromagnetic forces. I’ve never been on any kind of commuter train before and the sheer number of people around us is kind of overwhelming, but I try to act cool about it because even Gabriel seems totally at home right now.

Still, when Eilian takes the window seat, I’m grateful to get the aisle. It’s just nice to know I have the option to bolt toward the doors if I need to. Although, there’s a guy standing in a trench coat over there that kind of weirds me out a little with the way he keeps his fedora pulled low over his face.

Once the train starts moving, almost as silent and smooth as Dylan’s emvee, Nando leans across the aisle to me and brings up Stranger’s Hollow again.

“No one ever answered your question about it,” he explains, and there’s something real sober in the way he says it.

“Eilian mentioned something about the downtrodden?”

“It’s Daxa’s district of vice.”

That look on his face is making me kind of wary, like everything he says is riddled with extra meaning.

“It’s a slum,” his voice comes out with that added bite to it again. “Dark and dirty and dangerous. Full of thieves and murderers and people who have given up on believing that the world can be kind.”

I have no idea how to respond to that. Those words coming from any of the other kids, I might think they were joking or something, but Nando’s eyes are dead serious. That image of him weeping and wild comes into my mind again, and I have to look away for a second for fear that he might actually be able to see that in my face.

Calon tân, Nando,” Eilian says from my other side, half laughing and reaching across me to slap at his arm. “Don’t freak her out. She practically had a hernia the first time she saw a Steel Face. After what you just said, she’ll probably never sleep again.”

It’s my turn to roll my eyes at Eilian. Nando kind of laughs, but I can still see a hint of that dark expression in his eyes. As if he’s got some huge emotional burden that he can’t ever seem to shrug off entirely.

The shop where we go to get our hot chocolates is only a few blocks away from the train station. On the sign it says it’s called “a chocolatier,” which I didn’t even know was a thing. The place looks like something straight out of a child’s dream. Or like, if Willy Wonka married an ice queen, this is how they’d design their home. The walls and ceiling are made out of shimmering, wintery-looking glass that’s filled with rivuleting liquid chocolate in pretty much every color under the sun.

When Leti notices the way I’m staring around the place she kind of raises an eyebrow at me and, trying to be funny, I tell her that I’ve never been to a chocolatier before, as if that’s the aspect of this place that’s blowing my mind.

She only semi-smiles, though, and it’s this real matter-of-fact sort of thing.

“Oh, this is a special occasion for the rest of us too,” she informs me. “Normally when we go out for drinks, we head to a regular café or a neighborhood tea shop or something.”

“Tea shop?” It brings up images of little old British ladies in floral dresses and enormous hats, but here in Daxa I’m guessing the reality of a tea shop is a whole lot crazier. “Never been to one of those either.”

Tua’s been paying attention to our conversation apparently. He gives me this real exaggerated, incredulous sort of look.

“Where do you go out with your friends?”

It seems like an easy enough question, but the truth is my friends and I don’t really go out anywhere. Not in that sense of the word.

“Some of the older kids drive into the city sometimes to hit up the bars,” I offer, and I’m surprised when this makes even Eilian look at me in near shock.

“You don’t drink that stuff, do you?” Nando asks, and suddenly I feel like I’ve stepped onto dangerous ground or something.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It messes with your brain, farm girl,” Tua says, adding emphasis by using both hands to point at his head. “Messes up your painting. Your mom never told you this?”

“It’s not the worst of the drugs,” Eilian breaks in like she’s coming to my rescue a little bit, “but here in Daxa, Stranger’s Hollow is the only place you can get that sort of thing.”

My mind’s working quick on this one, trying to figure out some right way to respond.

“Oh, well, I didn’t say that I go to the bars. Besides,” I sort of shrug my shoulders and try to look real nonchalant like what I’m about to tell them is definitely not being fabricated on the spot, “Mom’s always been kind of weird about Painter stuff. Tells me things on a need-to-know basis, and, well, obviously it’s not as if I was doing a whole lot of painting back at home. So, you know, not a whole lot of need to know.”

To my relief, referencing my screw-up in class earlier makes everyone start to laugh. Tua claps me on the back, saying, “Stick with us, Farm Girl,” in a way that makes me think the name’s probably going to stick. “We’ll teach you all the necessaries.”

After finishing our hot chocolate, we wander around the city for a while, and it’s kind of crazy to me that no one else seems to have the urge to just stop in their tracks and stare up, and up. I mean, walking at the feet of these skyscrapers is a whole different experience than driving by them in the emvee.

The buildings looked big before, but now they seem impossible. They rise up so high that I can’t even pick out the tops of them, and you’d think it’d make me feel as small as an ant or something but instead it’s almost transcendent. It’s this feeling like, if I just reached my hands up high enough, I could actually borrow some of the buildings’ height somehow and stretch myself out as far as the sky.

There are little parks and market places scattered every few blocks or so, most of them heated enough to keep out the winter snow. When we come into one little square where there are a bunch of acrobats performing, this time I’m not the only one who wants to stop and watch.

Nando—who somehow knows a lot about what the acrobats are doing—explains that the reason they’re able to stand in mid-air and fling each other unbelievable heights and distances is because they’re playing with the density in the air particles around them.

Knowing something about how they do it doesn’t stop me from being totally enthralled with every flip or tumble that the acrobats pull off. Apparently I’m a little too enthralled, though, because when the others decide to leave, I don’t even notice until it suddenly dawns on me that I am now very much on my own.

I catch sight of them at the far edge of the park already, fully immersed in their conversations and obviously unaware that they left me behind. I shout out their names, but what with the acrobats’ accompaniment music and the noise of the watching crowd, my friends can’t hear me.

As I start after them, I notice that man with the trench coat again, the fedora still covering most of his face. He’s several feet away from me, hidden partly from view by a group of women who are watching the acrobats. When I start moving so does he, very much as if he’s following me. A glance behind me a few seconds later tells me he’s still on my trail, and that’s when I start to get scared.

I try to remind myself that no one knows I’m the Way Reader and that it would be crazy for the takers to try to grab me in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of this crowd anyway, but the more aware I am that every face around me is the face of a stranger’s the more vulnerable I feel. I hurry faster toward the place where my friends just disappeared, but when the man picks up his own pace to keep up with me, I can feel the beginnings of a panic coming on.

I’m almost to the street corner when I glance back again. This time the man’s head is raised up a little bit and our eyes meet. What I see makes my heart leap up into my throat. He’s got no real eyes at all. Just these oval sockets of cold, slick silver.

The shock of it makes my steps falter, makes me twist around toward him in a mesmerized sort of fear. I’m on the verge of letting out a scream, when someone else grabs me from behind.


Previous: Chapter 13

Next: Chapter 15


FEEDBACK

Please let me know what you think, either by commenting below or emailing me here. Tell me if anything stood out to you in a good way. If anything stood out to you as bad. Is there anything in particular that you like about the characters themselves? Anything that bugs you about them? Were there any parts of this chapter that made you happy, scared, excited, sad, etc.?

  

  

LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 6

Posting for feedback. Thanks for reading!


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


FEEDBACK

Let me know what you think! Either by commenting below or emailing me here