LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 16

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CHAPTER 16

Dylan’s already sitting in his usual chair when I come into his room for training that night. He’s got his phone expanded and he barely looks up from it when I walk through the door, but as I’m settling into my own chair he suddenly asks, “Farm Girl, huh?” in this voice that sounds like a smile.

My eyes flash up to his face, and the way he’s looking at me—all wry and warm and kind of teasey—it’s like both my lungs and heart’ve turned upside down for a second. I mean, he could give a person some sort of hernia with a smile like that.

“How’d you hear about it?” I ask, hoping it’s not real obvious that he’s just made strange things happen to my insides.

Leaning back in his chair, he brings his arms up behind his head in that way that he does, with his body all stretched out and his foot propped up against the coffee table. I don’t know why, but there’s something about him when he’s all relaxed like that that kind of kills me.

“Tua’s older brother Kaho works at the GIB,” he explains, with a hint of that smile still playing on his lips. “By tomorrow, most of Daxa should know you as Farm Girl. When a Moeaki gives you a nickname, it spreads.”

I let out this little groan and slump further down in my chair. This day has turned out to be kind of a disaster.

“Looks like I drew attention to myself already,” I say, poking at the arm of the chair sort of hard and glowering at it like maybe I hate the thing.

“In this case I’d say it’s a good thing. Fortuitous even.”

“Fortuitous?” I’m pretty sure it’s not.

“Well,” Dylan starts, and the apology in the way he drags the word out makes me glance up at him real quick. “Fortuitous because you were added to a GIB watch list today.”

“I what?”

I sit straight up in my chair now, staring at him real hard, as incredulous as I am dismayed.

“On a list of possible Way Readers.”

If Logan were here, he’d probably say that everyone’s on some sort of government watch list, as if that makes it all better, but I really don’t need any extra attention right now. I’ve already had way more than enough today.

I’m sure Dylan can tell I’m not at all excited about his news, so his reaction to that is kind of baffling to me. I mean, he does look real rueful and everything, but even as he’s trying to comfort me about the situation there’s this hint of a laugh to his voice.

“Don’t worry!” he says. “Agni and I anticipated this. It’s common sense procedure for the GIB to try to suss out who the Way Reader is before the takers do. Try to offer her some protection. The lucky thing is,” he sits forward and leans his elbows on his knees, looking at me with all this self-assured optimism, “they made me head of the task force.”

There’s something kind of hypnotic about his mood tonight. I mean, the whole time I’ve known him he’s been pretty tight with his emotions, but now, suddenly, he’s all brightness and energy. Charming in a way that I’m not even sure how to handle. Still, for some reason I just can’t get myself to match his enthusiasm.

“I thought one of our biggest rules was that no one except you and Agni are supposed to know who I really am.”

I try not to sound too grumpy about it, but it comes out that way anyway and Dylan sobers up a little. Looks me over like he’s just realizing that something might actually be wrong.

“We did start out with nearly thirty Way Reader candidates here in Daxa,” he says, his voice tinged with a subtle sort of reticence. “Narrowing down the list leaves us still with over a dozen names, and narrowing down that dozen is going to be much more painstaking. In the scheme of things, the GIB is so far away from pinpointing you. Even if you remain on the list as we whittle it down further, all it really means is that you’ll get some added protection. And it’s protection over which I’ll now have some control.”

It is comforting, to have him looking at me all serious and competent like that—like, here is a guy who will keep me safe when he says he will—but there’s still something that’s bugging me. Something I can’t quite figure out.

“Okay,” I say to him finally, because I can’t think of anything else to say. He can tell I’m not convinced, though, and it seems like it kind of gets to him. Like there’s a little part of him that needs to be able to fix whatever’s bothering me right now.

“I can’t take you off the list without causing suspicion,” he says like an apology. “But with me heading up the team I can help to point their attention away from you. There’s nothing you need to worry about.”

That’s when it comes to me. The thing that’s been feeling wrong.

“Has the GIB already started watching me?” I ask, and something about my voice makes Dylan sit up a little straighter, look at me a little closer.

“What makes you ask that?”

There’s a pretty clear picture in my mind now, of that man with the silver eyes. Just the memory of him gives me a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“I was followed today. Before that lady grabbed me and I met Gwilim, there was a man following me. I’m pretty sure all the way from the school.”

Dylan sits silent for a minute, staring at me with that inscrutable expression everyone in his family seems to do so well.

“What did this man look like?” he asks finally. “You’d better tell me everything that happened.”

I describe the trip downtown and the silver-eyed man, and how he disappeared pretty much the second that woman Elspeth grabbed hold of me. The whole time, Dylan’s expression barely changes, but I’m pretty sure he’s not at all pleased.

He settles back down into his chair, but not in that casual, comfortable way like before. Pretty much every muscle in his body is tensed, like some dangerous animal thing ready to pounce. He’s staring at my face, but I’d be surprised if it’s me he’s seeing. He’s somewhere in his own head, weighing the things I’m saying, calculating.

When I’m describing the strange man’s cold metallic eyes, Dylan gets this weird, bitter little smile. His own eyes are hard and his hands are tight around the arm of his chair and, to be honest, he’s kind of freaking me out.

When I finish talking, he doesn’t say a word at first. Just shifts his gaze to the window behind me where the moon’s shining high and bright.

After a few minutes of a tense sort of silence, I finally ask him, “Who was that man that followed me?”

His eyes come back to my face for barely a split second before looking back out the window.

“A golem.” He half-shrugs, like this detail’s not all that important. “Modified Steel Face set to track you. Equipped with visual recording, I’d wager.”

He says this like it is not, in fact, a totally alarming idea, and for a minute I just want to reach across the coffee table and shake him. I mean, shouldn’t he be a little bothered by the possibility that right this second any number of taker creeps might be watching some video of me and my friends. Video of his sister?

Before I can say anything about it, he shifts his eyes back to me again and lets out this tired little sigh.

“Look, I am worried,” he says, as if he knows what I’m thinking. “The fact that the takers are interested in you is no great surprise, but at this point their list of possible Way Readers should be unmanageably long. If they’re using a humanized Steel Face—which is both illegal and possibly traceable, not to mention incredibly expensive—it means they’ve narrowed down their list enough to deem the risk worth it. They don’t have the resources to have narrowed it down that much themselves. In fact, there’s only one way I can imagine that the takers could do it.”

“You think someone from the GIB told them.”

He gives this stiff little nod, somehow managing to look both angry and kind of vulnerable.

“And for the golem to be trailing you by two o’clock already, the takers had to be getting the information from us almost as we decided on it. I knew—or at least I suspected—there were double agents in the GIB, but this means it’s someone I work with closely. Someone I think of as a friend, or perhaps even a mentor. Possibly one of my direct supervisors.”

“So, is that it then? Do the takers know who I am?”

There’s a weird sort of relief when I ask this, along with the dread. This draw of being able to just be myself again instead of constantly playacting. But Dylan shakes his head.

“No. I’ll wager every girl on the GIB list was being followed today, by one method or another. You have little to fear yet. The takers would be foolish to act before they knew the Way Reader’s identity with some certainty. You will need to be more careful, though, now that we know they’re watching you so closely.”

He brings his hand up and runs it kind of rough through his hair, which means, I’m guessing, that he’s not feeling quite so confident as he’s letting on.

Trying to give me one of his rueful smiles, he says, “Looks like you’ll really have to lean into the Farm Girl persona now.”

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

Dylan wasn’t joking about the Farm Girl name spreading. The next day half the school’s referring to me that way. Even people I don’t know wave at me and call out, “Hi Farm Girl!” as if getting me to say hi back to them is some sort of a thing now.   

When I see Tua after school I tell him thanks a lot for turning me into some sort of weirdo celebrity on campus, and he just laughs and slaps my shoulder.

“You’re welcome, Farm Girl.” He gives me a little wink. “Didn’t I tell you you’d do alright here? Just stick with me.”

Eilian and Leti are meeting up with some of their mutual friends today, so Tua’s supposed to give me a ride home. We’re just walking out through the front doors of the school when he suddenly bursts out laughing.

I look up at him in surprise, and he just nods toward the street, saying in his deep voice, “I’ve a feeling you’re not going home with me today after all.”

The sun’s almost blindingly bright against the snow-covered lawn and it takes me a second to make out what Tua’s seeing. It’s Gwilim Lucas standing there at the side of the road, leaning all confident and casual against an emvee that’s so black it’s like manmade night or something. He’s dressed all in black himself, which looks real good with his dark hair. Obviously, he’s got Dylan’s knack for perpetual coolness.

When he sees me and Tua, he doesn’t even wave or anything. Just sort of raises his eyebrows at us.

“Eilian’s not here,” I say as Tua and I walk up to the emvee.

“Oh?” Gwilim does that eyebrow thing again, sounding totally disinterested. Looking at Tua, he says, “I suppose you have your own way home.”

Tua bursts out laughing. “Not like I’d mention it if I didn’t. I know when I’m not wanted here.”

Then, before I can say anything about it, Tua claps me on the back and tells me goodbye.

“See you in the morning, Farm Girl. Don’t let him get you arrested or anything.”

He’s off in a second, waving and calling after someone else that he knows. I turn to look at Gwilim, half laughing and half exasperated.

“So, I guess you’re taking me home today?”

“Eventually. Right now, I’m hungry.”

He opens the passenger door and then steps around to the driver side without even looking at me, as if there’s no question about whether I’ll get in. I consider making a point of just walking away and figuring out how to make it home on the Magnix train by myself or something, but after the silver-eyed man and that Elspeth lady yesterday, I’m thinking taking off on my own isn’t such a great idea. Also, my curiosity about Gwilim gets the best of me.

He takes me to this restaurant right in the heart of downtown. A little sign on the door says it’s been voted best in Daxa for six years in a row. Inside, the place is real romantic. Not at all the sort of mood that Gwilim’s giving off himself. There’s real low lighting and trickling water falling in sheets around each table, forming fantastical, sparkling little walls.

Melodie’d probably die in a place like this. She’d start clapping her hands and probably squeal in that way that she does when she thinks something’s “just perfect.” In any other situation, I’d text her a picture. Of course, without hearing from me for so long now, she’s probably already decided she hates my guts. Or, more likely, she thinks I’m dead or something.

The waiter seats us at a table by a window and Gwilim orders food for both of us without asking me what I want. Then he looks at me as if he knows I’m about to complain about it, and he says, “Yes, I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of ordering for yourself.”

I laugh, and I’m about to respond when he gets a text message on his handyphone. He views it on his palm, resting his arm on the table as he reads. From my angle I can see the blue glow of the light matter text even if I can’t actually read what it’s saying.

It shines a weird light up onto his cheeks that makes it kind of hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure he’s just gone kind of suddenly pale. His jaw’s definitely real tight, and I’m willing to bet whoever texted him wasn’t sending any good news.

Muttering a distracted apology to me, he expands his phone and holds his thumb over the mind reading sensor, composing what I’m guessing is a pretty aggravated response based on the look on his face. It’s hard not to lean forward and try to get a look at what he’s saying because he doesn’t seem like the sort of person to get upset like this over just anything.

When the waiter brings us our food ten minutes later, Gwilim’s still absorbed in his text conversation. He barely looks up to tell the waiter thank you. Then—like he needs a more tangible outlet for his frustration than the mind reader button’s allowing him—he suddenly grips his phone in both hands and starts typing furiously away on the touch screen.

He’s hardly said a word to me this whole time. When I tell him that it turns out my food—some kind of Asian-flavored beef or something—is real good, he just sort of nods and says, “Their signature dish.”

I stare at his face for a few seconds, not knowing whether I’m amused or annoyed. I mean, he’s the one that brought me here. Now I’m wondering what was the point.

“Eilian says you haven’t been home in ages.”

He glances up for a second, but only to give me this sort of half shrug.

“I think they’re pretty worried about you.”

I just get that shrug again from him. Then—apparently in reaction to another text message—he suddenly wipes his hand over his eyes and down his face and sits there in irritated silence for a second before starting to type again.

A couple kids I recognize from school walk by our table and, though they try to hide it, I can see them eyeing Gwilim and me real curious. Gwilim doesn’t notice a thing, of course.

Rolling my eyes, I look out the window next to us and resign myself to an afternoon of total silence. It’s a cold day and everyone out on the streets is all bundled up against the wind. It’s interesting to me that here in Daxa—where the whole city could be temperature-controlled if they wanted—they’ve chosen to leave all that up to mother nature for the most part.

I remember Dylan saying something about there being a vote on that a few decades back. On whether to heat the air in the whole city or just some of the parks here and there. If Dylan were here I could ask him about it. If Agni were here I probably wouldn’t even have to ask because he’d just tell me, probably in too much detail. I glance over at Gwilim, who is still typing real rapid on his phone, a look of sheer exasperation on his face now.

I’m kind of exasperated myself—sitting here in the nicest restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life while the person who brought me here just totally ignores me. I mean, probably any stranger that I can see out the window would be willing to pay more attention to me right now than Gwilim is. Although, odds are at least one of those people is some sort of taker, creeping around after me. A thought that makes me a little extra irritated.

Still, I can’t deny that this whole situation is, at least, a little bit funny. I catch sight of a kid walking on the sidewalk below us, pushing this little hovering stroller-like thing with a tiny white dog in it. The dog—sitting in there about as prim as a princess—is wearing a bright pink bonnet with so many lacy little ruffles at the front of it that you can barely see the dog’s face.

I can’t help laughing about it, glancing over at Gwilim and saying, “That kid’s got a dog in a stroller.”

Gwilim just raises a finger at me like he wants me to wait a minute, but I’ve been waiting a whole lot of minutes.

“The dog is wearing a pink bonnet,” I try again, staring at Gwilim to see if I can get any sort of reaction out of him. “I bet it’s not even his own dog. I bet he lost a bet with his sister. Probably this is some sort of punishment for him. He looks real embarrassed about it.”

I’m just making stuff up now. I can’t actually even see the stroller kid’s face. When Gwilim still doesn’t respond, I choose some other person walking along the sidewalk below and I make up a story about them. This one’s a former pickpocket who worked her way up to being a high-powered business woman, but sometimes she can’t help but pinch a trinket from some unsuspecting victim now and again.

Still no response from Gwilim, so I start again, but this time he does finally glance at me. Gives me this sarcastic look that’s only one smile away from the exasperated expression he was wearing seconds before.

“Your turn,” I say, grinning back at him, but he just keeps looking at me with that same expression. “You owe me.”

I tap the handyphone on my own finger and look all pointed at his.

“Fine,” he says finally, leaning toward the window and looking out of it with an exaggerated sort of consideration. “Hm. Let’s see. That woman there, standing at the corner like she’s got little idea where to go? I’ll tell you about her. She’s got no interests, no friends, and no talents. She does exactly nothing all day. The end.”

I burst out laughing, which it turns out is not what he was going for at all. In fact, he actually looks kind of disconcerted, but this only makes it funnier to me because it’s not an emotion I’m expecting to see on his face. After a minute one corner of his mouth starts to pull out into an off-kilter smile and he makes this sound that’s real close to a laugh.

“Okay, Farm Girl,” he says, in his usual, mocking tone of voice. “I know I’m being a terrible host. Shall I prove that I can be better?”

He places his elbows on the table and leans forward toward me, resting his chin on top of one hand and looking me right in the eyes. Making a real point of giving me his full attention.

“So, tell. What’s my little Cousin Sophie’s story? If you’re such a good friend of my family’s, why haven’t I ever heard of you before?”

His question catches me totally off guard. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have an answer prepared for this, but it’s the way he asked it. Like maybe he knows something’s fishy. The story Dylan told his family—that Gweneth and my mom simply lost touch for a while after Mary decided to go off the Painter grid—none of them even seem to have batted an eye at it. Gwilim on the other hand. Well, I can’t tell if he’s teasing or completely serious.

I open my mouth to answer him, but just then someone calls out his name.

“Gwilim Lucas, you sly devil. You said you were busy.”

This red-headed kid is striding toward our table. As he pulls a chair over and scoots in next to Gwilim, he looks me up and down, real obvious and bordering on gross.

“Looks like you are busy after all.”

“Yes,” Gwilim says. “So go away.”

“She can’t want to be alone with you. Is he boring you with his childish sarcasm?”

“The opposite actually.”

I wouldn’t say that I dislike the guy exactly. It’s just that, on first impressions, there’s not much about him that I like at all.

He nudges Gwilim and says, “Going to introduce me?”

“Not likely.”

“Do it for myself, then.”

The guy leans over the table, offers me his palm. “Tom Cloutier. Gwilim’s mentor and best friend in the world.”

The name sounds real familiar, but I can’t think of why.

“I’m Sophie Warren.”

His eyes narrow a little bit. “Gwilim’s cousin, eh?”

“We’re not actually cousins.”

He lets out this laugh that’s real annoying and says, “Yeah, well, you do want to make sure to get that clear. Don’t want people to get the wrong impression.”

For just a second there’s a look on Gwilim’s face that tells me he’s not too keen on Tom Cloutier either, but Tom’s still yapping on.

“You don’t look like a farm girl,” he says to me. “You seem like a lot more fun than that.”

“What are you doing here?” Gwilim says.

“Meeting Wotan Schmid, like I said in my text. He’s back in town. Staying with us tonight.”

I remember now where I heard Tom Cloutier’s name. This is the guy Gwilim’s been hanging with lately? No wonder Dylan hadn’t looked pleased by the news.

“You’re meeting Wotan here?” There’s a strange expression on Gwilim’s face. He turns his eyes on me, studies me with a look I can’t read. Then he stands up. “I’ll be sorry to miss him, but we’ve got to go.”

“You’re leaving already?”

“Catch my check and I’ll pay you back tonight. Tell Wotan I’ll see him then too.”

Gwilim’s coming around to my side of the table, and I grab my bag, wondering what’s going on.

“Where you guys going?” Cloutier asks like it’s some sort of dirty secret.

“Do you think I’m going to spend my whole date staring at your ugly face? Nothing more calculated to ruin the mood.”

Gwilim takes my hand and pulls me after him, giving Tom a brusque wave.

“Was this a date?” I tease as we’re getting into the emvee a few minutes later.

He shrugs. “Sure. Why not?”


Previous: Chapter 15

Next: Chapter 17


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 5

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CHAPTER 5

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

“Okay…you will come with us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no,” I say. “There is no way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You might want this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you were going to train me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dylan’s a spy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought as much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geez, he knows how to ruin a mood.

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

Geez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So…from Earth.”

Agni grins. “We believe so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 4

Next: Chapter 6


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