LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 18

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CHAPTER 18

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

“Z—Sophie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tonight it isn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you know he was back?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s Ona. His wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She ended up having to work last minute.”

“But your office is closed today.”

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

Tua doesn’t get it though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You did this to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 17


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 13

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for people who read the previous draft: this used to be Chapter 8.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 13

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m in love with Dylan or anything. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t know what that feels like, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. What I do think this is maybe, is that Dylan is the only one around right now who knows who I really am. He’s the only one I’m allowed to be myself with, and I guess I felt like I had some sort of claim on him. Like he was, in some small way, kind of my territory or something.

Seeing him with this girl now, though—seeing the way he looks at her as they pull away from their kiss, the way his hands linger on her body as if they’ve always just belonged there—I’d be pretty dumb not to realize that the only person’s territory he’s probably ever been is hers.

“Teresa!”

The sound of Eilian’s voice makes me spin around. I can see her across the room, where she’s standing outside the dining room door as if she’s just stepped through it. All of her usual poise is totally missing. Her eyes are fixed so dumbfounded and happy on the girl standing by Dylan’s side that, with her curls falling around her face like they do, Eilian looks about as bright as the sun itself.

She lets out this squeal so unlike anything I’d expect to come out of her face that I almost doubt it was really her. Then she sets off across the great hall like her feet are on fire or something, doing more of a speeding skip than a run. She ploughs into the new girl’s arms and they exchange ramu, laughing and talking at the same time as each other.   

Eilian’s as giddy as a school girl, and for some reason that also kind of hurts.

Aunt Nia appears at the dining room door then, Uncle Wyn right behind her, and their pleasure at seeing this Teresa person is only slightly more contained than Eilian’s. They hurry across the room to offer their own hugs, their own ramu. Aunt Nia, in that way that she does, is talking about a mile a minute.

“I didn’t know if you’d ever be back,” she repeats just about every other sentence, giving Dylan these little side hugs as if a huge part of her excitement is really on his behalf.

“I just got in this afternoon,” Teresa says, this hint of an accent in her voice. “I came here right away.”

I’m standing barely ten feet away from them, but no one seems to notice me. To be fair, I probably blend in a little with the huge pillar that I’m standing beside, but also, I think everybody just doesn’t have the attention to spare at the moment. I’m not real sure what to do with myself. Seems kind of awkward to step forward and butt in on everything now, but it’d be pretty weird to just sit here and watch them all too.

I’m thinking maybe I could sneak into the dining room and wait for everyone there, but then Uncle Wyn mentions that dinner’s on the table, and he asks Teresa if she’d like to stay.

She does this thing where she touches him all affectionate on his arm and smiles at him with her beautiful, knock-out eyes, and says, “I’ve been dying for some of your home cooking,” as if she really has just been wasting away somewhere without it.

Then they’re all turning back toward the dining room, and I’ve lost my opportunity to sneak in before them. I hug in a little closer to my marble pillar and do my best not be seen, but Aunt Nia catches sight of me anyway. She blurts out my name like she’s only now remembered my existence, and I sort of freeze, trying real hard not to look like someone who’s been standing here lurking this whole time.

As everyone else turns around to look at me too, Aunt Nia’s already bustling across the floor with her arms outstretched so that I feel like I’ve got to move to meet her halfway. She takes me by the shoulders and spins me around in front of her, holding me out toward Teresa like I’m some sort of life-sized doll.

“This is the newest addition to our little family,” Aunt Nia proclaims over my shoulder, while I pretend to myself that I’m not entirely uncomfortable with this situation. “Sophie’s the daughter of one of Gweneth’s dearest friends, and she’s staying with us while she attends Mawihl Academy.”

Teresa graces me with a real pretty little smile, but it’s all mechanical and polite as if she’s trying to figure out what sort of person I am before she decides how to treat me. Faced full-on with that magazine-worthy face of hers, it’s hard not to kind of hope she’s at least a little impressed by my alpha-blue hair.

“I’m also a Mawihl student,” she says finally, and even though the way she says it is real friendly, I still end up feeling like she’s doing me a huge favor just by acknowledging me at all. “I’m starting my last year there this term. It’s so nice to meet you.”

She steps forward to do pono, but somehow the greeting doesn’t feel so much like an exchange. Her energy’s all focused on Dylan, and as soon as politeness would allow for it, she’s already turning away from me and slipping her hand back into his.

All through dinner it’s kind of like that. She laughs with Eilian and Aunt Nia, flirts all charming with Uncle Wyn, asks me exactly the sort of questions you’re supposed to ask a new acquaintance. But I’d be surprised if she’s really paying attention to anyone but Dylan. Like, I’m willing to bet she’s real keenly aware of just about every breath he takes.

And he’s aware of her. He’s all quiet and subdued, watching her like she’s some unaccountable blessing that’s just come blowing back into his life and might go blowing back out of it again at any second.

I understand his feelings. I mean, everything about her pretty much demands that she’d be adored. And it’s not just her sort of ambiguously ethnic prettiness either. There’s an energy to her that’s hypnotizing. A vibrancy that, the more I watch her, makes me think I’d be hard pressed not to fall in love with her myself.

After dinner we go upstairs to the family den to eat cookies and sit all cozy together by the glowing fire. With our chairs pulled in close and warm blankets tucked around our legs, Aunt Nia starts probing Teresa about what she’s been doing for however many months it is that she’s been gone.

Her reason for leaving in the first place, apparently, had something to do with Dylan’s dad, Cadfan. Or really, the fact that after Cadfan was convicted of treason, Teresa’s dad didn’t want that same shame to leak over onto his own family. So he carted her off to her mother’s parents’ house in some remote village in Russia or something, and he wouldn’t let her come back until Mawihl Academy threatened to rescind her position at the school. Almost wouldn’t let her come back even then, which I guess is why her being here is such a surprise to everyone.

“When he finally agreed to let me come, I didn’t want to give him a chance to change his mind,” she explains, her eyes flicking over toward Dylan as if she just can’t help herself. “So I left for Daxa without letting anyone here know I was on my way, as soon as I could get my things together. I thought it would be a fun surprise.”

It’s practically a modern-day Romeo and Juliet scenario, with her and Dylan as the main characters.

I think back to that moment in the woods when that happy family passed by and Dylan looked like someone had punched him right in the gut. I wonder if Teresa was any part of what he was thinking about then, and, if she’s something that could eat him up so much inside, it kind of gets to me that in all the time we’ve spent together he’s never mentioned her even once.

I’m trying not to be mopey about all of this, about the way Teresa’s being here has put some sort of light in everyone’s eye. Probably her arrival hasn’t actually changed anything. Probably it’s just highlighting a truth that was already there, that no matter how much they all may like me, that doesn’t mean I belong yet. Simply being here doesn’t make me one of the family like Teresa clearly is, no matter how many times Aunt Nia says otherwise.

Things feel a little better when Eilian mentions that school starts in the morning. It’s a fact that’d fallen clean off my radar until now and, although in some ways the thought of the first day at a new school is kind of unnerving to me, it’s also a topic I can get involved in a little bit. Even if they do talk a lot about people I don’t know. Like the teachers at Mawihl Academy. Or the other kids who’ve had their becomings recently and which schools they’ll be attending this term.

When they start talking about the symptoms of becoming, I’m kind of surprised that even Uncle Wyn shares a little about what it was like for him. I mean, it’s like they all enjoy talking about it. Like they’re all nostalgic or something, going over every detail as if they’re reliving the good old days. While I just sit and listen and think—with no small amount of disbelief—that all their becoming experiences sound like a series of minor annoyances compared to my nightmare days.

It’s only Eilian that’s having none of the sentimentality.

“I don’t know how you all can be so cavalier about it. I thought it was rubbish. All my life I heard about it as if it were some quaint little spell of feebleness while everyone cosseted and cooed over you, but there was nothing quaint about it at all.”

Aunt Nia and Teresa kind of laugh, but Eilian’s not finished.

“No, really. Didn’t you think it was miserable?” She turns to me for support, and I’m surprised at how gratified that makes me. How glad I am that I can absolutely agree.

“Um, yes,” I say, real emphatic, and my eye catches Dylan’s for a second, long enough for me to notice the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Like, the nausea went right through to your bones,” Eilian continues.

“Right.” I could barely describe it better.

“And that tickle to your skin that you just can’t get rid of. Drove me half mad.”

I nod some more.

“Then there were the raving hormones. It was like…it was like…” She pauses as if she can’t quite conjure up the right words, and I don’t even think about it before diving right in to help her out.

“Like you wanted to just jump on pretty much any guy that came within fifteen feet?”

When Dylan bursts out laughing—this full-bodied thing without any of his usual reserve—I realize too late that obviously he’d guess he’s the only person I could really be talking about.

My cheeks go hot and my eyes flash over toward him, but just then Aunt Nia—almost as if she can’t help herself—blurts out, “Oh, it’s so nice to hear that sound again,” and Dylan’s laughter just dies in his throat.

He looks like he was caught stealing or something. As in, there is actual shame showing on his face. Aunt Nia too—she clamps her jaw shut tight, raises her hand halfway up to her mouth as if she’s kind of horrified with the words that just came out of there. The whole atmosphere of the room has gone real awkward and, from everyone else’s expressions, I’m willing to bet I’m the only one who doesn’t understand why.

It’s Teresa that saves the day. Real quiet and unobtrusive, she takes Dylan’s hand in hers and leans around him to look at Aunt Nia.

“You almost didn’t make the becoming deadline for your first term at Mawihl, isn’t that right?” she asks as if nothing at all weird just happened, and Aunt Nia couldn’t look more grateful for the escape.

“Yes. Exactly right,” she nods all cheerful, shooting a quick glance over at Dylan, who’s already trying his best to act normal again too. “And if I’d started even one term later I might never have met Uncle Wyn.”

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

Back in my room half an hour or so later, I can’t help feeling just a little sorry for myself. I mean, after Teresa’s quick recovery everyone in the family was eager enough to put some cheer back into the room, but they couldn’t fix it totally. That unspoken uneasiness was still there in the air, and it was hard not to feel kind of weirdly left out by it. As if it was just another thing that ties them all together as family and keeps me on the outside.

Standing with my back against my door now and looking around my bedroom that still feels so big it could swallow me, what I want to do most of all is talk to my mom. Or Melodie or Sara or Logan. Even Agni. But I can’t talk to any of them right now. There’s only one person I can think of that I could talk to under the circumstances—only one person who in some way counts as mine—but it seems kind of weird to go calling her up out of the blue.

You barely even know the woman, I tell myself, pushing away from the door and heading into the bathroom. The whole time I’m getting ready for bed, though, her name keeps popping back into my head.

She’s probably sleeping already, I try instead as I head back into the bedroom and take a peek at the clock, but it’s not actually that late yet and in Wyoming it’s probably only about an hour ahead.

You’re supposed to call her.

I’m already slumping down into my bed when this thought occurs to me, and I must be feeling pretty desperate because it’s apparently the only convincing I actually need. Before I can second guess myself, I’m pressing my finger to my handyphone ring and telling it to call “Mom.”

When Mary answers with a “Hello, dear,” there’s the slightest hint of a question in her tone, and I chicken out immediately.

“Oh, sorry!” I say, trying as quick as I can to get off the phone. “You’re probably sleeping. I’ll call back tomorrow.”

“Oh, I can talk now, honey,” she stops me. “I could talk even if I had been sleeping. What’s on your mind?”

Of course, now that I’m on the phone with her I can’t think of a single thing to say. I mean, she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t have any reason to care about me, so I’m not real sure now why I thought this was even a good idea.

“Feeling homesick?” she asks into my silence, and for a second I’m wondering if maybe she can read my mind. “It’s okay to feel lonely.  It’s natural. And eventually, if you don’t manage to get over it, you will at least learn to live with it.”

There’s a touch of humor in her voice and I remember now why I thought about calling her in the first place. There’s something about her that makes me feel like I could talk to her like a friend.

“I’m not real sure it was the right choice to come up here,” I confess to her, and my voice sounds kind of childish and small.

She takes a second to answer. When she does, there’s something about the words she chooses that, just for a moment, reminds me a little bit of my real mom.

“Well, you’ve got to figure that out for yourself, Sophie. Just remember that you’re strong. You’re strong enough to tackle tomorrow. And you’ll be strong enough to tackle the day after that. You do, you’ll remember, come from the Warren family, and there’s nothing a Warren can’t do as long as she takes it a day at a time.”

I kind of laugh at that, at Mary’s claiming me as her own when we both know it isn’t true, but even if I’m not actually a Warren, I do somehow feel a little bit more brave.

“Thank you,” I tell her, staring up at the folds of my bed’s golden canopy and thinking how funny it is that I turned to this stranger for comfort, and that it totally worked. “I think that’s exactly what I needed to hear tonight.”

“We’re both in this together,” she assures me, as if we really are. “You call me any time you want.”

After we say our goodbyes, I doze off for a little bit, with my legs hanging part off the bed and my head sandwiched between two of the huge pillows. I’m drifting through some half-familiar images, things I recognize from the delirium I had while Dylan hauled me through the snow-covered forests on our way here, things from the storm of images that rushed through my head when I first touched his skin.

It’s like my mind’s trying to make sense of it all. Trying to organize everything in a way that might mean something, but when I start to come back to consciousness again I can’t hold onto any of it. The images just go falling away all haphazard until I can’t even remember what most of them were.

What’s there instead is an eerie, familiar feeling. The sense—growing slowly stronger along the back of my neck—that I’m not the only one in the room.

I sit bolt upright, tucking my legs up under me and pushing myself flat against the thick wooden headboard of my bed. Just like this afternoon, I don’t see anyone there and I can’t locate any sort of essence, but at the foot of the bed—right where it just feels like someone is—there’s a deep impression in the quilt, as if it’s being pressed down by the weight of something unseen.


Previous: Chapter 12

Next: Chapter 14


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 12

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for people who read the previous draft: this used to be Chapter 7.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 12

There’s this awful sort of anticipation all heavy in my gut as I turn around, moving real slow as if whoever’s there can’t really exist until I’m actually seeing them. No one is there, though. It’s just the empty hallway and the soft swishing sound of Eilian’s departing footsteps.

It makes it worse that I can still feel the energy of a person there, even though I can’t see anyone. And the fact that the sensation is so strong, as though if I reached my hand out in front of me, there’s no doubt I’d make contact with some physical being. It’s sending prickles up and down my spine like a dozen creepy crawlers.

Just a few seconds ago, all the spookiness was kind of fun. The harmless thrill of scary stories at a slumber party. It’s become something totally different now, though. Now, I’m thinking about the fact that there are real people in this world who want to harm me. People who’s powers I know very little about and who, for all I know, really could be standing there right in front of me, invisible to my eye, trying to decide how best to make me hurt.

The unseen person—or thing, or whatever—isn’t moving, and I can’t make myself move either. Part of me wants to reach out and try and touch it, to make sure that there really is something in that pocket of energy hanging in the air. The rest of me just wants to run away like a scared little kid toward the fading sound of Eilian’s footsteps.

Then her footsteps stop, and for a heavy three seconds I hear nothing from her at all. There’s just this terrible quiet that makes me suddenly sure this ominous, invisible force has gotten hold of her too somehow. Then her voice sounds out, traveling loud and clear down the hallway.

“Are you coming already?” she calls, and the fake impatience in her voice just totally breaks the spell.

Of course no one else is there with me. It’s so suddenly obvious that no one ever was. If they had been, I’d have sensed their essence. I just let the setting get to me—let my imagination run a little too wild—and now, standing here in a glaringly empty hallway, I’m feeling pretty foolish about it all. Swearing kind of sheepish to myself that this is a story no one else will ever hear, I hurry off after Eilian, shooting just one quick glance back behind me as I go. You know, just in case.

On the sixth floor there’s this little nursery that’s full of toys that Eilian swears date back even further than the 1700s. This is the only room where she apparently doesn’t mind lingering for a while. She rummages around through all of the toys and pulls out the ones she thinks might be most interesting, telling me more about their histories than she bothered doing with anything else in the house.

There are a bunch of little wooden ships and animals and things, a nearly full-sized rocking pony, some pretty intense model castles and houses. An ant farm made of hundreds of little robotic ants. Elian’s favorite toys are the real weird ones. Like these rabbit dolls that you can open up, and inside there are some way too real little rabbit organs.

The thing she gets the most excited about, though, are these dead-eyed porcelain dolls with weird little speakers set into their backs.

When she notices them on a shelf in one of the far corners, she says, “Oh, these are terrible,” as if by terrible she means amazing.

She grabs a couple of them and shoves one into my hands, bringing the other doll up to her mouth and speaking into the speaker in this real high-pitched voice.

“I’m Sophie,” she mocks me, and her voice comes out all hollow and eerie from the doll’s staring face. “And when I see steel faces I just go ‘Aaaaaaaaa!’”

Rolling my eyes, I bring my own doll up to my mouth. “I’m Eilian,” I copy her tone. “And I take pleasure in other people’s pain.”

I draw the words out real long, trying to turn it into a sort of ghosty sound, and that’s when Dylan walks into the room. Of course. Right when I’m acting like a total weirdo. He stops on the threshold and eyes the two of us for a second, the smallest hint of a smile playing at the edges of his lips.

“Lunch is ready. Time to put your dollies away.”

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

After lunch, Dylan takes over the house tour, saying that there’s really only one place left that I need to see. We use the main elevator, which runs through the center of the tree and opens up on the first floor, in the wall underneath the marble staircase. The inside of the elevator is covered in golden gilding and hundreds of little odd-shaped mirrors, so that no matter where you look in the thing your own reflection’s staring back at you many times over.

The controls are on a panel that appears over a mirror by the door when Dylan waves his hand in front of it. They’re made of that light matter stuff, all blue and holographic with these elaborate, glowing designs wrapping around the numbers and coming together in a Celtic knot at the top.

I think the knot is just for decoration, but when Dylan taps it, the elevator starts into motion.

“This takes us to the aerie,” he says. “It was my parents’ pet project until—” He pauses just long enough for me to notice it. “Until they had to stop working on it. The thing about the aerie that I like most, though, has been there most of my life.”

We ride the elevator up for what must be at least a dozen stories, and when the doors open finally I’m not real sure what I should expect. There’s a hallway, a bit narrower than on the other floors. It’s still made of that golden-colored wood that’s all over the house, but up here there aren’t any of the bird designs in it. The hall leads to a little reading room that’s lined in cushioned benches, with a few other loungey chairs and strategically placed side tables scattered around.

The far wall is made entirely of windows, and Dylan walks straight over to them, opening a couple french doors and waiting for me to step through. It’s a balcony out there, so high up on the tree it feels like we’re practically flying. The house’s huge green willow branches drape down in front of us, framing the Daxan cityscape in a way that makes me stop dead in my tracks.

All those jumbo tree houses and craggy hill mansions rising up next to monumental desert buttes—that was all pretty amazing to see from the ground, but from up here it’s like some sort of dream world. Off to the left, crystalline downtown Daxa flickers in the sun as if everything there is made of quivering candles, and as a backdrop to all of this, the towering, snow-covered mountains sit there like kings against the dusk-tinged slate blue of the afternoon sky.

I can’t come up with a single word to say. I’m just standing there, staring at it all and thinking that this must be what it’s like to stare into the divine or something. I mean, I couldn’t imagine up a better version of heaven.

Dylan steps over to the balcony’s edge, leans against the carved wooden railing and looks back at me with a gratified smile, as if my appreciation for all of this is somehow a sort of compliment to him.

“Daxa shows its best from up here, doesn’t it?”

As an answer I just walk over to the railing next to him to stare over the side for a better view. It’s like some chess game set up by the gods down there or something, and we’re so high up right now that I can actually smell the cold. As if, with so little else to distract my senses, the scent of it just sings out loud in the air.

Dylan takes a little step closer to me, places his hand on the railing next to mine, and I can sense him heating the air around us. It’s cozy and kind of intimate, standing alone with him up here. After a second he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small gray envelope.

“Here’s your Wyoming drivers license,” he says. “And a Sophie Warren passport, to add further credence to your identity.”

It’s weird to look at those ID cards and see my own face, all framed with my shining blue super-hero hair. Dylan took the pictures this morning before he left for work, but he’s altered them a little. Made my hair a bit shorter all around, my face a little younger. To give the impression that time’s passed since the IDs were issued, he tells me.

Looking down at those things, holding them in my hands—for the first time in days the idea of living this secret identity actually feels kind of cool. I smile up at Dylan.

“This makes me an official spy now, right?” I ask, and he lets out this soft little laugh.

“You still need more training. Which,” he glances around the balcony, “we might as well do now.”

He pulls a couple of the smallest chairs out of the reading room inside and sets them up so they’re facing over the balcony railing.

Looking at me over the top of the chairs he says, “I can’t teach you much about how to be a reader, but I can teach you how to control your sightings so they don’t keep sending you stumbling to the ground. Won’t take long for people to suss you out if they realize you’re already getting sightings at this point in your Painter development.”

He has me sit down while he sets up another bubble of heat around us so that it’s almost as warm as if we were inside the house. For some reason I’m suddenly feeling kind of nervous as he sits in the chair next to me, like maybe I’m not going to be able to do all this painting and reading stuff after all. Like, maybe I’m actually just some sort of a dud.

“Today’s focus will be meditations,” he says. “They’ll help you learn how to channel your essentual energy and receive sightings without giving away any visible signs.”

Digging into his pocket he pulls out a little book and hands it to me. It’s about the size of a notecard and not even a quarter-inch thick. The pages are curled at the edges and most of the cover’s torn off as if this book’s been carried around in his pocket and opened and read every single day.   

“It details a variety of effective meditations,” Dylan explains. “I’ll teach you a few today and you can look over the rest later, but before you can understand what’s in the book you’ll need to know some of the basic principles behind particle painting.”

Propping his feet up against the wooden rungs of the balcony railing in front of us, he slumps back in his chair all casual and unconcerned in a way that reminds me a whole lot of Eilian.

“You’re pretty well used to seeing the particle world now, it seems. Tomorrow, we’ll teach you how to interact with it, but for now, all you really need to know is that intent equals force. You simply will your mind to reach out and make matter do as you wish it.”

He expands his phone and pulls a set of notes up on his screen. As he scrolls through with one hand he taps sort of absent at his temple with the other, running his fingers up through his hair every once in a while in a way that I find just a little distracting. He looks anything but official right now. It’s like he’s younger, more accessible.

“So, for instance,” he looks up from his notes, “the easiest interaction is to make something hotter or colder, which is why one of the most common Painter weapons is the fireball. It takes little of your own energy. Just a bit of heat and some molecular kindling.”

He pauses to reference something else in his notes and then continues.

“You’ve likely noticed that particles are usually in motion. If they’re moving slowly that typically translates to a lower overall temperature for the material they compose. More movement means more heat.”

I turn my attention to the little book in my hand, look down into the particles there to see what Dylan’s describing. Most of the book’s particles are moving pretty slow except around where I’m holding it with my fingers, where my body heat must be speeding the particles up.

“So the idea is that if you wanted to make fire and you had something flammable available to you, you’d simply will the particles to move faster and—”

Before he can get any further, this burst of flame ignites in my hand, shooting skyward and pretty nearly singeing my eyebrows off. I drop the burning book on the balcony floor and kind of jump backwards in my chair, at the same time that Dylan’s springing to his feet, his phone clenched tight in his fist and his eyes fixed on me.

He’s positioned as if ready for an attack, but his mouth is gaping open in so much comical surprise that I can’t help it if I start kind of giggling. It takes him a few seconds to recover, but then he nearly smiles too and drops down to the ground where the book is still burning. With a quick movement of his hand the flames are gone, and he’s looking up at me with this sort of bewildered expression on his face.

“Was that you?” he asks, like he almost can’t believe it.

“I think so.” I nod, still kind of doubtful myself. I glance at the book on the ground in front of him. It’s barely more than a burnt binding now. “Me and your beloved book of meditations, I guess. Sorry about that.”

“I can always get another,” Dylan says, sitting back on his haunches and studying me for a minute, this strange little smile growing across his face. “Well, that was unexpected. Looks like I’ll have to reevaluate the pace I’d planned for your trainings.”

I’ve never had anyone look at me that way before—like I’m a surprise to them and like that’s a good thing—and I really don’t know what to do with it. Dylan gets up and sits back down in his chair, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees and his eyes still turned toward me, considering.

“I wasn’t planning on doing this today, but why not keep working on painting, then?” he says. “We can do the meditations after.”

He paints out this little lump of something that feels kind of like clay. He calls it a practice ball, and he shows me how to influence the speed of the particles there in a more controlled way, trying to get the temperature of the thing just about exactly where I want it.

Every once in a while he reaches over and wraps his fingers around my wrist, to get a better sense of what it is I’m doing on the particle level, he says. And every time he does it I can feel my essensus start to light up at the back of my neck and my pulse beat just a little quicker.

He keeps commenting on how fast I’m picking up painting, but I’d probably pick it up a whole lot faster if he’d keep his pretty hands to himself.

When he thinks I’ve got the hang of heating and cooling, he has me practice a few meditations that he says should help me the most with channelling my sightings, and with Painting in general. Then he takes my phone and downloads an electronic copy of the little meditation book, telling me that before I go to bed tonight I should try the other methods it describes.

The sun’s hanging low in the sky when Dylan finally says we’d better head back downstairs for dinner. I feel like we’ve been training for days, and I’m starving, but as we’re stepping off the elevator onto the first floor the doorbell rings. This chiming arpeggio that sounds out all loud and cheerful from somewhere up near the great hall ceiling.

Dylan turns on his heel and heads to the front door, across from the foot of the stone staircase. Without really thinking about it I just sort of trail after him, lingering by the nearest marble pillar. So, with the way the room is situated, when he opens the door I’ve got a pretty clear view of the person waiting on the other side.

She’s tall and slender and exotic-looking. All thick, dark hair and thick, dark eyelashes outlining eyes as green as a cat’s. Dylan’s stunned to see her there. He’s standing at an angle to me, but I can still see it in the slackness of his jaw, in the sudden stillness of his arms as they hang at his sides.

The girl hesitates on the doorstep for just a second, and then she steps into the house, smiling at Dylan like he’s a bright light after a long, dark night. Each move she makes is like a little piece of poetry. Like she’s in precise control of every muscle in her body.

She reaches up toward him and slips her hand around the back of his neck for ramu. When she kisses him on the mouth like she’s done it a hundred times before, his whole body pulls in to meet hers, and my heart just sort of sinks.


Previous: Chapter 11

Next: Chapter 13


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