LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 15

Posting for feedback. Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can fix me,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That won’t be necessary.”

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

“The poor dear is with me, you see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was that woman? Shama Haddad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Gwilim Lucas.”

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

“You are. Aren’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You misplaced her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 14

Next: Chapter 16


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 10

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for returning readers: this used to be Chapter 6.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 10

After a night full of dreams of my own room and my own house with my own mom in it, waking up in that strange bed covered in its billowing golden canopy feels a little like stepping into another dream rather than out of one.

Dylan’s gone when I wake up, but I’ve barely had a chance to bathe and clothe myself before he’s knocking at the door again. He comes in all brisk and purposeful and just a little bit apologetic. He says it’s time to get rid of all the stuff I brought with me from Flemingsburg, but he hands me some clothes to put on first. Clothes that I am not at all sure I’m ready to go around wearing in public.

There’s a leathery black bodysuit that fits as comfortable as my own skin and this real thin, asymmetrically-hemmed T-shirt to go over the top of it, with dark red combat boots that look a lot heavier than they actually are. The outfit’s accented with a little black lacey jacket, and it all looks much more effortless and cool than I’ll probably ever feel.

When I come out of the bathroom in the thing it must be real obvious that I’m kind of skeptical about it because Dylan gets this amused little look on his face and says, “Don’t worry, it suits you. And we’ll take you to get some more clothes after breakfast.”

He grabs my backpack off the floor by the bed and carries it past me and into the bathroom. I watch from the doorway as he sets it in the tub and crouches down to rest his hands on top of it. He glances up at me for a second like maybe he’s checking to make sure I’m okay with whatever he’s about to do, but then before I can say anything he just starts liquifying my bag to smithereens. Diffusing it and all of its contents down into this rainbow-colored sludge that goes oozing like melted crayons along the bottom of the tub.

It’s kind of a shock to see almost everything that ties me back to my old life just disappear down the drain like that, a visible reminder that I’m probably never going back to Flemingsburg again. Never going back to that world I’m already learning to call “Particle-Blind,” as if it’s something foreign.

I kind of can’t handle it, and I’ve got to turn away before Dylan’s even halfway done. I slip back into my bedroom and wait all quiet for him by the outer door, trying to pretend like I don’t feel suddenly and overwhelmingly lonely.

When Dylan comes out of the bathroom he doesn’t say anything. Just gives me a sympathetic almost-smile and steps out into the hallway, pausing there until he’s sure I’m going to follow.

The house seems brighter today, even though there aren’t any windows in the hall. There’s a fresh, alive sort of smell to the air too, as if it’s been pumped in straight from the garden outside or something.

Dylan leads me down the corridor to a wide set of marble stairs, all bright white and curving slowly downward. It’s not exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to see inside someone’s home, even a house like this one. It’s more like what a king would use, with whole throngs of servants straggling behind him and trumpeters at the bottom announcing his descent. All we’ve got to accompany us is the heavy echoes of our shoes against the stone.

At the bottom, the staircase opens up onto a room that is literally the size of a small amphitheater. The blue stone floor is marbled with veins that look like enormous waves spreading out from our feet. All over the place massive pillars the same white stone as the stairs rise up and up to the ceiling, which has got to be at least three stories high. It’s made of white marble too, with these big, oddly-shaped sheets of stain glass all over it, showing unfamiliar scenes made of eye-popping colors and filtering light through in these little shafts of softly diffused rainbow.

At this point I’ve just got to stop and stare because, I mean, this is just a little too much.

Dylan’s several strides into the room before he notices I’m not following. Turning to see what’s wrong, he takes in the stunned look on my face and is immediately and kind of annoyingly entertained by it.

“This is the great hall,” he says, as if that explains everything.

“Who lives in a house like this?”

“As of last night, you do. Come on. Breakfast has probably already been served.”

The dining room, which Dylan calls the family dining room as if there’s maybe another, is in the furthest corner from the stairway. It’s lined with huge, arching windows and so many hanging potted plants you’d almost forget you were indoors. Most of the room’s taken up by a dining table that could fit probably upwards of twenty people, but in a far corner there’s a smaller, round table set up with just five plates and a spread of food that’d give most of mine and Mom’s Thanksgiving dinners a run for their money. The smell of it—all savory and sweet and inviting—seems to fill the entire room.

There are three people sitting there—a man and a woman and a girl a couple years younger than me—and when Dylan and I step through the door, the three of them look around toward us all wide-eyed and curious like they’re expecting to see a five-armed monkey or something.

The woman, who I’m guessing is Dylan’s aunt Mrs. Jacoby, makes this excited little noise and pops up out of her seat to scurry over to us in a way that could only be described as dainty.

“Oh, it’s so good to have you here,” she says, wrapping me up in her arms as tight as if she actually knows me. Her hair is all in my face and she smells like flowers, and her hug is so full of exactly the kind of warmth and welcome I need this morning that for a second I’m afraid I’m going to cry.

Then she’s pulling away and smiling at me like I’m just the sort of person she likes the most, and she grips my shoulders and says, “Dylan’s mum’s told me all about you. Well, I suppose, about your mother, but I’m sure the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Do come and eat, my dear.”

She takes one of my hands and starts pulling me toward the table.

“I’m sure you haven’t had a proper meal for days. No slight meant to our Dylan, of course, but he’s not known for his culinary skills.”

She’s a short woman, and sinewy and as sun-wrinkled as if she’d never spent a whole day indoors in her life. She smiles easy and almost constantly, but somehow it still feels like something real special every time she flashes that smile at me. She tells me to call her Aunt Nia just like Dylan and Eilian do because, according to her, I’m officially part of the family now.

Her husband—who she introduces as Uncle Wyn—is a stocky man with a bald head and a long face and a little bit of a pooch to his belly. He’s gotten out of his seat to greet me, standing there and waiting with his hands behind his back and his feet slightly apart, looking somehow real solid and a little imposing.

I feel pretty out of my element about now, but I hold my palm out kind of tentative for pono, like Agni taught me. The man’s lips just sort of twitch at that, though. Then he takes a quick step forward and pulls me into a hug. His arms are real substantial and strong, in the way you’d expect from someone who works with his hands on a regular basis. He and Aunt Nia, with their weathered skin and that air of hard work about them, seem like they shouldn’t belong in this grand, opulent old house, but somehow they just really do.

The girl—the one I’m thinking must be Dylan’s sister Eilian—stays in her seat through all of this. Lounging there like she just can’t be bothered, eyeing me real critical with her head cocked to one side and her arms draped across her chair, all casual and kind of dignified.

She’s dressed in orange harem pants with a green silky tank top and a fedora, her mess of gold curls tumbling out around the bottom of the hat and framing her face like a halo. She’s pretty and petite like a pixie, but there’s something kind of intimidating about her too, and the way she’s staring me down right now is more than just a little bit disconcerting.

When she’s sure she’s got my attention she sort of leans toward me as if she’s trying to get a better look. Real blunt, she says, “You don’t look like a farmer,” and I’m pretty sure Dylan and Aunt Nia just about die.

“Eilian!” they both say as if scolding her is a pretty regular necessity, but I catch Uncle Wyn’s hint of a smile and I remember the way Dylan described Eilian last night.

So I get this real exaggerated sort of apology on my face and I say to her, “I left my overalls upstairs, and the straw hat blew off while we were traveling.”

She just looks at me for a few seconds, and then she says, “Well, that was pretty careless of you,” as if she’s real unimpressed, but there’s a smile peeping out at one corner of her mouth and, just like that, I know we’re going to be friends.

“Leave off, Eilian,” Dylan says, kind of affectionate, pulling out a chair for me next to her. “We’re starving.”

He takes the seat on my other side while Uncle Wyn dishes mounds of food onto our plates with a sort of pride that makes me think he’s probably the one who cooked it.

Aunt Nia asks about our journey, and I let Dylan tell her that it was fine, that we took it slow and leisurely and that the only difficult thing we encountered was a little too much snow. He’s a real good liar. It probably shouldn’t impress me, but turns out it does.

The food is delicious—like to the point of maybe actually blowing my mind—so I’m pretty content to sit there eating real slow, letting the flavors develop on my tongue in ways that I didn’t know food could do even, and I just listen to the others talk. The conversation’s mostly about their close friends and family—cousins living halfway around the world sort of thing—and it’s interesting to watch how they all interact with each other.

Uncle Wyn mostly just sits and listens as quiet as me, but Aunt Nia talks in a sort of stream of consciousness that’s accentuated by these exclamations of “Oh! Did you know that…?” and “Ah! Have I told you…?” in varying levels of excitement, all while Dylan grins at her and does his best to respond appropriately.

Every few minutes Eilian leans forward to deliver some imperious commentary on whatever Aunt Nia or Dylan’s just said. Then she punctuates her statements by thrusting herself back into her chair again, her arms folded all smug against her chest and her whole demeanor radiating this sort of playful self-satisfaction.

They’re all energized by each other, having fun. It’s the most noise I’ve heard in days and I’m loving it, but then the conversation lulls for a second and Dylan just totally ruins the mood.

“Where’s Gwilim?” he asks, real soft and unexpected, and you can tell his question makes everyone pause.

At least, everyone except maybe Eilian. She gives the nearest table leg a good, sharp little kick.

“Who knows? He’s been gone since before you left and he’s not been home once. At least not that I’ve noticed.”

“No. Nor have we seen him,” Aunt Nia agrees, kind of subdued.

“Franny Demirci said she heard he’s been staying at young Tom Cloutier’s,” Uncle Wyn speaks up, his eyes on Dylan’s face and his voice sounding like he knows this is definitely not good news.

Dylan stares back at him for a second, all stony-faced and stoic. Then he looks down at his plate again and starts picking at his food with his fork, suddenly real done with a topic that he brought up himself.

Aunt Nia kindly changes the subject, asking Eilian if she was aware that her friend Tua Moeaki would be starting at Mawihl Academy with the two of us on Monday, which just makes Eilian roll her eyes and let out this real exaggerated groan.

“Yes. Ever since he learned he got in, he talks of nothing else. Nefsakes, I wish he’d just gone to Central.”

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

After breakfast Dylan says he’s going to take me downtown to do some shopping and Eilian insists on coming along. I follow her and Dylan out to this huge garage that they call “the hangar,” where there are three car-sized vehicles that are just hovering there a foot or so off the ground, as if they were little mini spaceships or something. They’re shaped like raindrops that’ve been caught in a heavy wind and Dylan tells me they don’t run off of actual fuel.

“They’re called ‘emvees,’ or electomagnetic vehicles,” he says with a smile in his voice as he watches me crouch down and look under one of them to make sure the thing really is floating in mid-air. “They’re powered by the push and pull of electromagnetic forces. Not, like it appears you’re thinking, by magic.”

His emvee is a soft, silvery seafoam color and it’s a whole lot roomier than you’d expect from it’s flat-ish outer profile. Inside, the thing is all sleek and comfortable, with two captain’s chairs in the front and a bunch of holographic screens and buttons spread across the dashboard like some alien control panel.

Eilian climbs into the back so I can take the passenger seat next to Dylan. When I sit down, the cushioning of the chair actually sucks in to conform to the back of my body, and it’s such a shock to me that I let out this squawk of surprise that makes Eilian burst out laughing.

In fact, she seems real tickled with the way I’m responding to just about everything right now, and as the emvee skims all silent and gently swaying out onto their long driveway, I notice that she’s leaning real far forward in her seat, trying to get a look at my face. Which I know means something’s up.

There are loads of tall, dense evergreen trees lining the drive so I can’t see much of the garden beyond them, but I start scanning what I can see, trying to figure out whatever it might be that she’s so sure is going to get a reaction out of me. Other than the sheer size of their yard, though, I don’t notice anything too out of the ordinary.

Then, as the line of trees drops away, I get a clear view of the outside of their house for the first time, and at this point, I’m pretty sure my jaw drops.

“You live in a tree.”

It comes out all monotone and disbelieving, and Eilian pretty much loses it.

“It’s a great big, hulking tree,” I say again and look around at them as if maybe this time they’ll appreciate how weird that is, but Dylan just sort of smiles and Eilian laughs even harder.

I crane my neck around to try and get a better angle. Most of the side and top of the emvee is really just a huge window so even though their house—some sort of a willow, from the looks of it—is as tall as a large office building and probably as wide, I can still see most of it. It’s dotted by all these arched, paned windows with little balconies here and there and flowering vines growing all over the trunk of it. It should look like something straight out of a Keebler Elves commercial, but it doesn’t. It’s charming and pretty and even kind of dignified.

“Back in the early days of the Republic people took a lot of pride in shaping houses of out of living things,” Dylan says. “Or at least, out of things that already existed in nature. This house has been in our family for generations.”

I stare at him for a second and then jab my thumb back toward the tree. “Did you just say that thing is still alive?”

Eilian goes off in another peal of laughter like she just cannot get enough of this, but even though Dylan grins, he answers me without any hint of teasing.

“Aunt Nia mostly cares for it. We call her the plant whisperer.”

We’ve pulled out onto the street now, and as we drive down the road I see a lot of these kinds of strange houses. Huge trees of all varieties, towers made out of what looks like stacks of giant stones, hill houses like humongous hobbit mansions.

They’re interspersed with buildings that are more recognizably man-made, built out of bricks and stone and cement and wood, though there’s always something that’s a little strange about them. Turrets jutting out at unexpected angles, walls bulging into the air where you’d never think a building should bulge. As if, even though they are manmade, these houses were still built to look like the things you’d find in nature, made to loosely resemble mountains and plants and animals and things.

There are a lot more people out on the streets than I’d expect to see in an area that seems so residential. They’re dressed in all colors and all fashions as if they’ve just stepped off a runway show where the theme was everything, everywhere or something. Their clothes throw together styles from all over the world—from probably every time period since humans started dressing themselves—and it’s hard not to stare at them as we pass by.

Downtown Daxa is even more eye-boggling. I mean, I’ve seen some pretty amazing skyscrapers in movies and things, but these buildings are out of this world. There’s a fifty-story, shimmering orca rising out of the ground as if out of water, a jumbo-sized water bird poised as if it’s just landed gracefully on feet that seem way too delicate to support an entire building.

Most the other structures aren’t inspired so directly by real-life things, but they’re still much less buildings than they are works of art. As if they were sculpted on the spot by some giant, loving hand. Every surface is smooth as still water and wears the light of the sun like a cloak, shimmering all soft as if the city itself is glowing, and I understand now what Dylan meant when he called Daxa a light in the mountains.

I just stare out the windows at it all for a little while, stunned that a place like this can even exist. When I glance kind of wide-eyed around at Eilian she gives me a big, appreciative smile but she doesn’t laugh. Probably she thinks it’s pretty amazing too. Probably no matter how long you live here you never stop thinking that.

As we hit the streets between the skyscrapers, the crowds outside triple in size. People are bustling along the sidewalks that line the road, spilling into the intersections every time the lights change. The traffic lights themselves are the usual red, yellow and green, but they’re cased in decorative copper and they hang without support above each intersection, apparently just floating in the air. There are huge wooden totems at the corners of every intersection too. A reminder, Dylan says, that even though this is the capital of the Painter Republic, it’s really the home of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

“We are their guests here,” he says. “This city only exists because they allowed it.”

Winding around the buildings a few stories above us, I notice huge transparent tubes with these blurring colors inside as if something’s moving through them at impossible speeds, going too fast for the naked eye to see.

“Those are for particle sailing,” Dylan says, noticing where I’m looking. “The only place, other than private residences, where it’s legal to do it in city limits. Allows you to get around town quickly if you want a good sail.”

He’s about to say something else, but he never gets the words out because, just then, this huge figure looms up right beside us, and after one glance at it I start to scream. The thing is like something straight out of a nightmare, all long and lanky, with half a dozen tentacle-like arms and a face of shining metal. It’s bent down toward my window, and it’s staring at me with these stone cold, pupil-less eyes.


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Next: Chapter 11


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 9

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CHAPTER 9

Up ahead, Agni spins back around toward us, the look on his face making it obvious that he’s sensed something too and he knows he’s not going to get back to us in time.

Dylan gives a sharp wave to show he’s got the situation in hand, and then he’s moving. Hauling me over to the nearest tree and pushing me up against the trunk of it, more concerned about speed than comfort. He steps up right against the front of me, places his arms on either side of the trunk.

Then with the softness of a whisper the bark starts creeping outward around us. I can see it in the corner of my eye and sense the multiplying of its particles at the same time. There’s something real pretty about it as it rolls forward, surrounds us in this pillar of fresh smelling wood that tapers as it bends upward to leave just this tiny circle of purple sky peeping through the top. It feels like a totally incongruous thing, to be noticing the beauty in all of this at the same time that I’m real aware of the darkness in whatever’s coming.

It’s two shimmering, clamoring pinpoints of hate, approaching so fast I barely have time to breathe before they’re stopping just feet away from us. Then comes the muted sounds of people moving all cautious and meticulous through the snow. In my mind’s eye I can sense their essences, can sense the darkness inside them where it’s writhing around as if it itself is a living thing. It leaves my whole body feeling cold and thin and terrified.

Low voices come real thick through the living wood of our hiding place. Their owners so close that if it weren’t for the bark surrounding us, I bet we could reach out and touch them.

“I thought I saw something,” a woman’s voice says.

“Doesn’t seem to be anything now.”

I wonder if they can sense us like I can sense them. If they listened close enough they could probably hear the sound of our breathing, and for a second I think they have heard us. Their footsteps pause right beside our tree. Dylan’s still pressed up against me, so tight I can feel his warmth even through our coats, feel the heat of his chin against my cheek. Can even feel the beat of his heart all heavy and fast like mine.

Then the takers—somehow I’m sure they’re takers—are moving off again, launching into a particle sail and speeding away, but Dylan and I just keep standing there as fixed as if we’re frozen, searching our senses for any sign that danger might still be there.

He begins to shift just as I feel someone else approaching. I grab his coat real fast, pulling at it to keep him still, but then, again, I somehow know that it’s Agni. Can sense his essence all pure and familiar and bright.

“It’s me,” he whispers into our hiding spot. “It’s safe to come out.”

As if on cue, Dylan and I sort of relax against each other, and then Dylan’s straightening up again, letting the bark recede back into the tree and opening us up to the chilly night air.

Agni’s face shows relief when he sees us. A relief still tinged with the remains of his alarm.

“I got too far ahead,” he says all soft and apologetic. “They could’ve sailed right into you, coming from the side like that. How did you know—?”

“Zanny sensed them,” Dylan says, and Agni’s eyes shift real quick to mine.

“You’re already at that stage?”

I don’t know what that stage might be.

“It’s more dangerous than ever to stay still now,” Dylan says. “We’ve got to press on.”

This time we walk real close together, moving with the caution of the blind or something as Agni concentrates on scoping for signs of human life. I don’t know how long we’re going like that. Feels like hours and hours though it’s probably closer to just one, but it’s real excruciating to move so slow, afraid that every sound you hear signals danger or that every sound you make is going to give you away.

The moon’s out in its full strength, splashing light over us like a spotlight. We’re the only moving figures in a world that’s totally still.

Then Agni stops without warning. He turns to face us, and something about his expression tells me that now’s the time for another goodbye.

“The two of you must be on your way,” he says, smiling this gentle little smile as he steps over to give me ramu in farewell.

“Zanny,” he says, looking at me with his warm brown eyes. “When next we meet we must pretend to be strangers. Until the time is right to begin your reader training, remember that my thoughts are with you and my mind aware. For now, I must leave you to Dylan’s expert care.”

He exchanges ramu with Dylan, and in the moonlight with their heads together like that they look like brothers, the difference in their ages just melting away.

It’s a scene I remember from the first sighting I had, that rush of images that came to me back in Flemingsburg when I had my hand clamped around Dylan’s wrist, before I even knew about sightings. Recognizing this moment should comfort me. Should make me feel like this is all supposed to be happening right now, but I’m a little beyond being comforted. After what I saw inside those takers—after everything that’s happened in the last few days—the world has just become too big and scary a place.

Agni steps away from Dylan and turns toward me again. With this forced, comical little smile, he waves goodbye and goes sailing off into the snow and the trees and the darkness.

“This next bit’s going to be tricky,” Dylan says, eying me kind of careful. “It’ll be steep and rocky. Are you ready?”

He holds his hand out to me, and I take it, his grip strong and bracing through my thick glove. We head up the side of the mountain at a diagonal for a while until we come to this sort of fissure in the snow. It’s tall and narrow, as if some giant just came along and pinched the mountain together there, leaving a deep and dangerous-looking crag.

You wouldn’t think a person could fit in it, but Dylan pulls me right inside and suddenly its abrupt walls are towering above our heads, blocking everything else from view and giving me the sensation that I’m being swallowed alive.

These tired-looking evergreens are hanging all haphazard off the upper edges of the embankment and great big puffs of snow twirl down through their spare branches to disappear against the white of our coats and the ground. I can feel the flakes falling on my face, cold little kisses that send shivers of crystalline patterns through my mind.

Somehow everything’s quieter in here. Even the sounds of us struggling up the snow-coverd, rocky bottom of the ravine are muffled and ghostly. My breath gusts out in front of me, then brushes back, both hot and cold on my face.

It’s all so strange and dreamlike that I almost don’t realize it when we’ve come out at the top, don’t register at first that I’m staring straight down the gaping edge of a sheer cliff. When I do realize it though, my instincts kick in and I clench tight on Dylan’s hand and take a sort of jumping step backward.

He just laughs and says, “Don’t worry. There’s nothing to fear.” Then he lets go of me and steps right off the cliff into nothing.

He doesn’t fall. He’s just plain not there anymore, and my heart goes leapfrogging inside my chest and I drop down on my knees to look over the edge, calling out his name as loud as I dare.

“Don’t worry,” I hear him say again, his voice coming real strange and muted from somewhere right in front of me.

I look around, trying to place him in all the darkness out there, but I still can’t see anything. Then he steps all sudden back onto the ledge again, materializing as if he’s walking out of a waterfall or something, leaning down and kind of laughing and offering a hand to help me back to my feet.

“It’s an illusion barrier,” he says, his smile playing at the corners of his eyes and mouth. “To get through, you’ll have to come with me. Your DNA’s not in the system yet.”

My heart’s still hammering from the shock he gave me, and just at the moment I kind of wouldn’t mind giving him a good, hard punch, but he’s already grabbing my hand again and, before I can even say anything, he pulls me straight off the ledge along with him.

I shout out a little as I feel the tingle of the barrier pass over me, and then, with a thud, my foot hits solid ground and the world around us has changed completely. The sheer drop-off has been replaced by a gentle snowy slope, and beyond that there’s an ocean of lights spreading across a gigantic valley. One vast city just sparkling away in the night where before it was total darkness.

Dylan looks over at me and bursts out laughing, and it’s such a nice sound that I can’t even be mad.

“You like it?” He gives a little nod toward the city.

“Is it real?” I ask in response, and I’m only part joking. “That’s all Painters that live down there?”

“It is.”

“And there are more cities like this all around the world?”

“Most of them smaller, but yes.”

I’m not even sure how to describe how I feel. “It’s real pretty,” is all I manage, and it comes out kind of hushed like some sort of a prayer.

The trip down into the city takes a couple of seconds, maybe less. With my hand still in his, he takes us particle sailing down the mountain to the city’s edge and into this dark, damp avenue.

It’s illegal to particle sail within city limits, he tells me, so we have to go at our regular pace, inching along through black alley after black alley until here and there we start to see some lights in windows above us and I can get a sense, at least, of the shapes of the buildings that seem to stretch off each other like piles of giant pick-up-sticks.

After traveling most the day and not eating a real dinner, I’m pretty tired and I’m not exactly paying attention to where we’re going anymore. We’ve been walking for over an hour probably when Dylan comes up short and flings his arm out to hold me back, so unexpected that I about jump out of my skin.

Then, from around the corner I hear the footsteps, all slow and shuffling like something out of a horror film. Dylan backs me up against the closest wall, keeps me in the shadows with the pressure of his arm. Not like I’m about to budge at this moment anyway. Not with whatever it is that’s coming our way.

Real slow this figure moves into view, all bowed and curled in on himself. Walking like someone who’s forgotten they’ve got feet at all. His ragged clothes hang off him real limp and dirty and he’s murmuring wild to himself in this eerie hum. Then he breaks off into a sing-song laugh that sends shudders down the alley and straight up my spine.

We’re probably only feet away from him, but he doesn’t notice us. Just shuffles out of sight, all lost and aimless and kind of distressing.

Calon tân,” Dylan breathes out. “He must’ve been out here for weeks, by the look of him.”

He drops his arm from in front of me and slumps back against the wall himself, staring after the man like he’s trying to work out some puzzle.

“I’ll have to send the medics out here once we’re home safe,” he says to himself still, then lifts his eyes up to mine. “We don’t get many people with troubled minds here in the Painter world. It’s strange he’d have gone unnoticed for so long.”

He pushes himself up from against the wall and starts walking again, real slow now. Our silence after that is not a pleasant one. It’s hard for me to get that man out of my mind, and I’m guessing Dylan isn’t doing much better.

After about another hour of walking, Dylan stops in front of a long wall that looks exactly like any of the other dozens of walls we’ve passed. He presses his hand against the stones there until this doorway opens where there was definitely not a door before. Then he’s stepping through it and holds the door open for me to follow.

On the other side it’s a tunnel of evergreens so thick that I can only get brief glimpses of what might be beyond them. They arch up over us and bend against each other with their tips twined together at the top.

When we reach the end of the tunnel several minutes later, we step out into a well-manicured and enormous garden. The moon’s all swallowed up in clouds now and it’s snowing hard enough that I can’t see much further than a few feet in front of us, but I can make out the shapes of winding sculptured hedges and many dozens of trees all covered in white.

We’re right up against the side of some sort of huge building. I think there’s a window or two off to my left, but they’re just darker shapes against the flatness of an already dark wall. Dylan presses his hand against the building, and pretty soon another invisible door melts into being there and swings open real, real soundless and slow.

There’s something kind of creepy about it in the middle of this already weird night and, when we step into the pitch black hallway, I try to stay as close to Dylan as I can without being creepy myself. Another door opens onto more pitch black, then Dylan hits a switch or something and the place explodes with light so sudden that I kind of wince.

We’re in this curving, seemingly endless corridor—and it is definitely a corridor, not a hallway, if you know what I mean—and Dylan’s already moving down it. I hurry to keep up with him, staring around me as we go.

The walls are a warm and polished sort of wood that’s all marbled with a dark graining that is too precise to be natural. It winds around itself in these pretty vine-like patterns, and every once in a while it erupts into a flurry of delicately-lined flocks of sparrows in flight.

At the end of the corridor, we step into an elevator that is unlike anything I have ever seen. From the outside it’s just this big trunk of a tree growing right inside the wall, like the tree itself must be stretching up into the floors above us.

Dylan waves his hand in front of the bark and two hulking panels slide away from each other to reveal a glowing interior that’s plastered all over with some sort of gold chipping. There’s a sliding knob on one wall with intricately carved numbers running vertical alongside it. Dylan pushes the knob up to the number 2, and the walls around us sort of rumble into motion.

“It’s the first elevator that was put into the house, one of the first in Daxa,” Dylan speaks up for the first time since we arrived.

It’s weird enough to me that he’s got an elevator right in the middle of his house—and an elevator like this to boot—but what’s even crazier to me is the number of levels showing on the elevator wall.

Six floors, I’m thinking. Who lives in a house with six floors?

When we get out, the corridors are the same warm-colored wood, this time with graining winding around in the shape of elaborate, graceful peacocks. I touch my fingers to the wall as we pass, dipping down into the particle patterns there. I note how the patterns in the graining are different from the patterns in the wall itself, how both are a little more fluid than the patterns I’ve seen in the snow and the rocks outside.

We pass several thick, old doors all covered in engravings of flowers and animals and trees. Then, before I know it, we’ve stopped in front of one of these doors, and Dylan’s opening it and switching on a light inside and gesturing for me to walk in.

It’s clearly meant to be a bedroom in there—I mean, it’s hard to miss the jumbo canopy bed squatting right smack in the middle—but the size of the room…well, I’ve never seen a room like that in anyone’s house before. It’s the sort of place where I imagine princesses probably slept back in the olden days, with all these lush drapings over the windows and walls and bed, and real elegant wardrobes and dressers and tables scattered all around the room as if somebody wanted to make it real obvious that they had a lot of things.

Dylan steps over to the nearest wall and opens a door onto an ensuite bathroom that is just about as big as my bedroom back at home. There’s a tub in there that I could probably swim in and thick violet rugs that look as soft as downy fur.

“Once you’ve got the hang of your painting, you can control everything with these sensors on the walls, but it also works like a Particle-Blind bathroom, so you should be comfortable here,” Dylan says, as if these weren’t the most extravagant surroundings I’ve ever encountered in my life.

He steps back into the bedroom and asks for my drivers license, saying he needs it to finish creating the Sophie Warren identity.

“Tomorrow we’ll have to destroy anything you’ve got that could tie you too easily back to Zanny Monroe. Your wallet, your clothes, etcetera, will all have to go. Breakfast is at eight. I’ll come and get you a little before then, take you down to meet everyone. Remember that the only person in my family who knows who you really are is my mum, so be careful not to give yourself away to the others. It’s for their safety as much as yours.”

He’s walking to the door now like he’s going to just leave me here, and I have this little moment of panic. Like, the more steps he takes, the stranger and smaller I feel in that huge room with the huge bed and the army of wardrobes.

But once he’s got his hand on the doorknob he turns back to me, studies my face for a minute while I try real hard to hide the fact that I’m totally freaking out.

“You going to be alright in here all alone?” he asks, and for some reason I just about lose all my cool, and this weird little laugh comes out of me. A sound I would definitely rather not have made.

“Truth is I am kind of anxious,” I admit, while at the same time I’m trying to sort of wave my words away with my hand.

He smiles a little. “You get ready for bed. I’ll be back in a few, and I’ll stay with you ’til you fall asleep.”

The relief is almost more embarrassing than the fear, but I hurry to get ready like he said. I get in the shower, and I don’t know whether to cry or laugh it feels so good to have that hot water rolling down my body.

Putting on my pajamas for the first time since leaving home it suddenly strikes me how real childish they look with these big cartoon cows all over, grinning these stupid grins. Mom always gets these sort of things a couple sizes too big too, because it “keeps you warmer,” she says. They hang real loose off me, which makes me look even more like a kid. So, when Dylan knocks on the door again, I jump quick into bed before telling him to come on in.

He’s clean shaven and washed, and with that dumb beard gone he’s even more handsome than before. He’s wearing these kind of jersey pants and a short-sleeved T-shirt that hangs off him real nice, and for the first time I get a sense of how he’s actually shaped. My pulse sets off pounding and I get that stupid tingle in my neck and all over, and I suddenly feel real shy about him being here at all.

He doesn’t seem to think it’s weird, though. Just sprawls out next to me on top of the covers with his hands behind his head and looks over at me out of the corner of his eye.

With a sympathetic little smile he asks, “You ready to become someone new tomorrow?” and the anxiety kind of leaps up in my chest.

“Honestly, maybe not?”

He laughs a little.

“You’re ready,” he says. “Ready enough. I’ll help you, and it’ll be easy with the others. Just be yourself. Though, not entirely yourself.”

He kind of laughs again, and I can’t help smiling back at him. I try to picture tomorrow, picture meeting his family for the first time.

“What’s your sister like?”

Another involuntary smile springs up on his face.

“Eilian is…ionic.”

“What’s that?”

“Unpredictable. Energetic. A bit loony?”

I kind of raise my eyebrows. “Good loony?”

“Wait and see. I expect you’ll find she’s the best sort of friend.”

Saying good night, he props himself up on some pillows against the headboard of the bed, opening a book he’s brought with him and settling in. I slide all the way under the covers and lie watching him read for a while, my pulse gradually slowing until all I’m thinking is how nice it is not to be alone.

I fall asleep like that, the blankets pulled up to my nose and my mostly lidded eyes turned on him, and, just for that little while, I don’t feel so impossibly scared.


Previous: Chapter 8

Next: Chapter 10


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