LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 18

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CHAPTER 18

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

“Z—Sophie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tonight it isn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you know he was back?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s Ona. His wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She ended up having to work last minute.”

“But your office is closed today.”

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

Tua doesn’t get it though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You did this to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 17


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 17

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CHAPTER 17

When Eilian hears that I spent the afternoon with Gwilim, she gets this look on her face like she’s just short of furious.

“What is going on with him? He’s purposefully avoiding the rest of us, but then he goes off to lunch with you? I don’t understand him at all.”

I’m perched on the armrest of one of the big wingback chairs in the den and Eilian’s sprawled on her stomach on the floor in front of me. When I first came in the room, both she and Dylan had their tablets expanded and were absorbed in their own things, wrapped up in blankets and sipping at cups of hot tea. There was something cozy about them like that, but there’s nothing cozy to the mood now.

In the chair across from me Dylan’s studying my face, kind of pensive and perplexed.

“I wonder what Gwilim’s interest is in you?”

“Oh come on, Dylan. That’s obvious.”

Eilian gestures at me all pointed, in a way that I find kind of embarrassing.

“Actually,” I say, studying the cuticles on my fingernails. “I don’t think he’s too interested in me at all. I mean, he barely talked the whole time we were together.”

Eilian’s not really listening. She’s collapsing her tablet back into her ring and getting to her feet. She stands there for a second and stares all unfocused and stormy at the floor. Then suddenly she thrusts her leg out and kicks the foot of the chair closest to her.

“Why doesn’t he just come home?” she says in this little wail, and goes stomping out of the room.

Dylan’s eyes meet mine and he gives me half a smile. Even though he hides it a whole lot better than Eilian, I’d be willing to bet he’s as bothered by Gwilim’s behavior as she is.

“She’s not upset with you,” he says.

“Oh, I know. She’s mad at Gwilim, and with what I’ve seen of him so far, I’d be surprised if anyone in Daxa wasn’t.”

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

At training that night Dylan teaches me how to make things bigger and smaller. How to look at an object’s particle pattern and duplicate it or subtract from it evenly and in the proper directions. Mostly, we use the clay practice ball, but he also has me try it out on the sphere of light matter that can project out of my phone, and then on an apple and a little kiwi that he swiped from Uncle Wyn’s stash in the kitchen earlier.

Seeing these things expand and shrink right there on the table in front of me—and to be making it happen just with the force of my own mind—I get kind of giddy about it. And when Dylan says I’m doing real well, I can feel the pride spread all conspicuous across my face. He ruins it, though, by adding that my technique, while functional, is lacking in finesse.

My reaction to that must be pretty priceless because he actually laughs out loud, and he says, “You just need more practice. You’re still learning faster than any average Painter would do.”

He picks up the clay ball and tosses it to me.

“Take the practice ball to your room and you can work on it when you have free time. Just don’t do it where anyone can see you.”

“Isn’t this something the other kids at school already know?”

“Probably. But it’ll likely be only a another day before you’re much better at it than they are. Actually,” he stands up, stretching his arms above his head for a second and then walking around the table toward me. “We can probably start on transforming material states tomorrow. Which means you need to focus on learning more particle patterns.”

He slides down onto the arm of my chair and reaches for the handyphone ring on my finger. Every time he does this—getting all into my space so sudden—it gives me a weird sense of panic. I need pretty much all my will power not to react too strong when he takes my hand in his and does that thing where he expands my phone for me.

“I’m downloading an index of particle patterns. You’ll want to look over them, memorize them.”

I’m real aware of his body so close to mine. Of that scent of his that makes my breath come faster. He hands my phone back to me, pointing at the index that’s now showing on the screen.

“It has light matter diagrams for each pattern so you can explore it from any angle.”

I stare at my phone, at the top of the screen where it says that the index has over a million entries. Over a million different particle patterns that Dylan expects me to memorize.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Dylan just laughs.

“The more you know about what you’re seeing, the more powerful your painting will be. And the more finesse you’ll have,” he adds with a little smile. “A good Painter can tell when someone else’s painting isn’t up to scratch. I’m assuming you do want to be a good painter.”

“When you put it that way,” I make a face at him and he smiles again. “But still, you want me to memorize all of these?”

I flick my finger over the screen a couple times, scrolling down the seemingly unending list. I can’t help kind of groaning.

“Well, not all at once, of course. It’s easier than you think, though. Especially with your mind. And it really is necessary. Here, let me show you.”

He turns toward me a little more, which means we’re so close that we might as well be hugging. He wraps his fingers around my hand that’s holding the clay practice ball and this time I have to actually bite my lip when his skin touches mine.

“You know the pattern for an apple now,” he says, as calm as if being this near to me has no effect on him at all. “So to change this ball into an apple, all you have to do is look at its particles and determine what the difference is between the two and what needs to happen for the clay pattern to look like the apple pattern. Then, with your mind, you will that change to happen.”

With my particle sight I see the shift as the pattern changes, as the clay ball turns all subtle into this shining, red little apple in my hand. I obviously know it’s not magic, but it still feels magical, and in a sort of laughing surprise I look straight up into Dylan’s face. Which, it turns out, is kind of a mistake.

The way he’s smiling back down at me—like maybe he finds me a little magical—makes my heart beat as hard as a big bass drum. Sends shivers in a rush all over my body, and for just that one little second while we’re looking at each other like that, I think maybe he’s reacting to me the same way too.

Then his handyphone—on his hand that’s still wrapped around my fingers—vibrates to tell him someone’s calling, and whatever sort of moment we were having is immediately over. He lets go of me real quick, standing up and pressing the button to answer the call.

“Hi Teresa,” he says, with his back toward me now, and as fast as my excitement had rushed in, it rushes right back out again. Replaced with this achey sort of melancholy that I’m kind of surprised comes on so strong. As if hearing him say Teresa’s name like that actually hurts somehow.

Dylan turns back to me. “Sorry,” he mouths, pointing at his handyphone ring, and I know that my training is done.

Standing up, I give him an awkward little wave. Then I book it out of his room so I don’t have to hear him sounding so happy to be on the phone with her. By the time I make it back to my own room, it’s pretty obvious the melancholy’s here to stay.

My plan was to practice a little more this evening—I’ve still got that stupid apple in my hand—but I’m definitely not in the mood for painting. I set the thing on my desk and go into the bathroom to get ready for bed because I can’t see that there’s much use in my staying awake any longer.

When I’m climbing under the covers nearly half an hour later, I’m still feeling pretty sorry for myself. Sorry and lonely and homesick. And pretending real hard that I’m only sad because I miss my friends back in Flemingsburg, and not at all because I’m jealous of the way Dylan feels about Teresa.

The blanket’s already pulled way up to my chin when I remember my parents’ locket, which I stashed in the back of one of the dresser drawers my first night here. Before Dylan melted all my other belongings. I slide back out of the bed and shuffle through the dark over to the dresser, fumbling blind around in all the folded clothes in the drawer until my hand slides over the metal of the necklace’s chain.

The locket itself is still all beat and broken, and the feel of it in my hand brings up the image of Mom standing in our kitchen, passing me that picture of my dad. I see his curly hair and his playful smile, and my heart feels somehow full and empty at the same time.

Taking the locket over to the bed I climb back in again, slipping down under the covers and pressing the necklace one-handed, real tight against my chest. I didn’t realize how much of an emotional response I was going to have to the thing, but suddenly I feel on the verge of crying.

I think about what Dylan told me a long time ago, about a person’s essence moving over to another dimension when they die. It means my dad might still exist somewhere, and as I start to drift off into sleep I wonder if he ever thinks about me.

When something tickles at the back of my consciousness—something deep inside the locket—it’s more on instinct that I reach my mind out to examine it. The sighting it unleashes brings me real shocking and sudden out of sleep, although the state I’m in is not exactly what I would call waking.

There’s a hand around my throat. Crushing me down onto a hard, cold surface as if it’s going to press the air right out of me. I’m struggling against the grip of it, flailing around in a frenzy and trying to make contact with whoever it is who’s got hold of me. I can’t see anything. It’s just pitch blackness all around, but somewhere near I can hear the sounds of someone else in pain. Wheezing breaths that remind me of the death of that taker girl in the forest.

Suddenly, there’s a voice hissing right into my face, his breath full of a weird scent like chemical grass and cucumber.

“Did you really think you were so special?” the hiss is saying, and it feels like a knife thrust straight into my lungs. “Whatever gifts the universe may have supplied to you, it is still your witless brain directing them. Can you hear how your friend suffers for your foolhardiness? You should suffer too, for what you’ve done to him. The universe made a mistake with you, but it’s brought you to me now so that I can fix it, and you’ll never be so foolish again.”

He grips the top of my head with his free hand, his fingers driving hard down into my scalp, pushing my head backward.

“Don’t worry. Though this will hurt quite a lot, you won’t remember any of the pain afterward.”

There’s some thing in my mind now. Something foreign, as if my attacker’s reaching his energy inside me. Pushing his own darkness right into my brain matter.

I’m petrified, trying to pull myself from his grasp but barely able to breathe. And that horrible gasping from the other person—someone dying beside me. A friend, apparently. Their breath is scratching like razorblades at my ears, and the panic’s taking total hold of me. Pounding through my whole body and into the back of my throat, beating at my temples and threatening to overwhelm me.

Just as I’m sure I can’t struggle any longer—that I’m experiencing my own death—the whole scene dissolves. I’m sitting upright in my bed in the Lucases’ home. The lights are out, but moonlight is filling the room. There’s no one there but me.


Previous: Chapter 16

Next: Chapter 18


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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


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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.?