LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 5

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CHAPTER 5

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

“Okay…you will come with us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no,” I say. “There is no way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You might want this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you were going to train me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dylan’s a spy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought as much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geez, he knows how to ruin a mood.

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

Geez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So…from Earth.”

Agni grins. “We believe so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 4

Next: Chapter 6


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 4

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CHAPTER 4

Upstairs in my room I just start shoving stuff into my backpack, taking my frustration out on anything I happen to have in my hands. Jamming in as many pairs of underwear and socks as I can fit. I may be in a pretty huge hurry, but if we’re going to be camping for a few days I’m sure going to have clean underwear. I pack some of my cosmetic stuff too because, I mean, that sort of thing is important when the rest of your life has gone crazy.

I’ve tried to stay calm about all of this, tried to remind myself that there’s no use freaking out about things I can’t change, but that’s the sort of thing my mom would probably say, and she is definitely one of the things I’m mad about.

The adrenaline is wearing off and my body’s giving in again to that buzzy tickle, which is just another thing that makes me furious. In a matter of a few hours my whole world’s been totally turned upside down, and somehow I’m the only one who doesn’t know what this is that’s happening. I’ve just found out that my dad was apparently some sort of mutant or something and that my mom’s lied to me about it my whole life. I’m having to say goodbye to my home, my friends—pretty much everything I’ve ever cared about—without actually being able to say goodbye. And to top it all off, my body’s currently turning itself into a human static machine.

When I go stomping back downstairs probably five minutes later, both the doors have been fixed and everyone’s already outside. Dylan’s fiddling around with the takers’ car and Agni and Mom are standing by the gray sedan, Mom looking about as white as the snow falling all soft around her.

“It would be best, I think, if you were to contact your friends here and tell them you’re going on an extended vacation,” Agni says to me as I walk up to them. The snowflakes are catching in his mustache and the brim of his bowler hat, turning him into some sort of steam punk-ish Father Christmas. “Your continued absence from town will eventually cause suspicion, but we don’t want anyone looking into it too quickly.”

“You can tell them you’re visiting family in Oregon,” Mom says, only sort of looking at me. “It’s a place I’ve mentioned to people before. Ask one of your friends to take care of the truck while we’re gone. It might fend off some of the suspicion for a while. They can use the key stashed in the wheel well.”

She’s trying real hard not to give away any emotion, which usually means she’s chock full of it, and which also usually means I’d be trying to comfort her. Right now, though, it just feels pretty unfair to me that she’s the one retreating behind her emotional force field when I sure could use some comfort myself.

“Oh, alright,” I say as I pull out my phone, and I don’t even try to stop the sarcasm from blistering up in my voice. “Do we have family in Oregon? Are they vampires maybe? Or werewolves? Lizard aliens in disguise?”

Mom doesn’t answer and Agni just takes my bag from me real silent and puts it in the trunk. I send the text message to Logan and Sara and Melodie telling them we’ll be gone, asking Sara—who loves cars but doesn’t have one of her own right now—to take care of our old truck for a while. I leave it up to her to figure out why it’s still sitting in the middle of town in the first place. Then I turn off my phone because I don’t think I want to get their responses at the moment.

I’m slipping my phone back into my pants pocket when Dylan comes striding over to us. It’s like the only way that kid knows how to move is by striding.

“Well, if they choose to come after us it’ll have to be by their own strength, at least,” he announces to the world in general. “No taker is going to waste their energy on fixing that.”

I straighten up a little and look behind him. Where the sports car used to be is a giant, white car-shaped sculpture made of snow, and every detail on that thing is so exact that I’m guessing even the shape of the engine’s been perfectly preserved. From what I’ve seen today I’m betting the kid could’ve done about anything to that car to make it unusable, but this—this is funny. This took real effort, and there’s a sort of artistry and purpose to it that makes it feel a whole lot like a prank.

Agni gives the snow car an appreciative once-over, breathing out this quiet chuckle that’s meant only for himself. Even Mom manages a sort of smile, and you can tell Dylan’s trying real hard not to show just how pleased to death he is with himself. Our eyes meet and for a second I swear he’s going to laugh out loud, but then he’s glancing away again, sort of pulling at the bottom of his jacket like he’s re-situating something that’s out of place.

Once we’re all inside Dylan and Agni’s car, I think maybe now I’ll get some explanations about all of this that’s happening, but nobody breathes a word. Other than the sound of the snow rolling away beneath us, it’s as quiet as a church as we drive back down the mountain. That’s got to be one of the loneliest feelings in the world, on a winter night with the snow falling all noiseless against the windows and everything around us about as motionless as a corpse.

When we reach the main road we turn the opposite direction from Flemingsburg to head out toward the main freeway, away from home. In the backseat beside me Mom looks like she’s thinking all at once of all the saddest things she could possibly imagine, as if this, right now, is the worst moment of her life. Obviously I hate that we’re leaving too, but the expression on her face now—this goes way beyond homesickness. This is a sadness that makes my whole insides go hollow just looking at her, and for the first time today it occurs to me that those people we’re running from may not be the scariest thing about all this. Maybe there’s something even worse in whatever we’re running toward.

“Do you think—” my voice sounds real sharp breaking into the quiet, “now might be a good time for some explanations?”

That heavy silence continues for a few more long seconds, and then Agni twists around in his seat and looks at me like he’s trying to decide where to begin. But he’s not really the one I was talking to.

“You first,” I point at Mom, and, as if she knew this was coming, she gives this tiny nod and sits up a little straighter.

“I’m sorry,” she tells me, looking me straight in the eye for the first time since she found Dad’s picture in the locket. “I was going to tell you everything soon.”

Soon obviously wasn’t good enough. She should have told me before a bunch of strangers chased us out of our house and we found ourselves on some bizarre road trip with a real-life Gandalf and Ron Weasely.

“I wanted you at least to have a normal childhood, and then it got to be a habit to keep it from you. We were so happy—you were so happy here that I didn’t want to end it.”

“So what is it you were going to tell me? What is it that you should be telling me now?”

Kind of agitated, she brushes some stray hairs out of her face, runs her other hand down her pant leg to smooth away imaginary wrinkles.

“Your dad was…very special.”

“That much, I figured out,” I say, but it feels kind of lousy as soon as it’s out of my mouth. Anyone who knows my mom would be able to tell just how much she’s struggling right now, and seeing it so clear on her face I can feel my anger just sort of dying away.

“He used to have these visions,” she continues real deliberate. “He called them sightings. After you were born he came to me and told me that he’d seen you when you were older, and that you were going to be—”

She glances at the front seat.

“Well, Mr. Mitra would be better at explaining that, but your dad said you were going to be very important. Necessary, was the word he used.” She tries to smile but it’s so strained it just ends up looking like a grimace. “He said there would be people who would want to hurt you, but that you would have two guardians—these two—that would keep you safe and teach you what you need to know.”

She’s staring at me so hard in the face now that her brows have pulled together and her lips have gone all tight. For the first time ever I notice she’s looking kind of old, and the thought of that scares me a little.

She finishes in a rush, her words all spilling out of her. “He told me that your life would be difficult—that you’d feel the weight of impossible responsibilities—and I just wanted to protect you from that for as long as I could.”

It sounds like a sort of plea, like this is her way of asking for forgiveness, but even though I’m not so angry anymore I’m not quite ready to give her that. How does she expect me to process that sort of emotion right now, when I’m apparently careening pretty helpless toward some enormous and mysterious fate? How does she expect me just to understand?

In the rear view mirror I catch Dylan watching me and it strikes me that he’s got the eyes of someone who knows. Like this kid has been through some things and whatever miserable emotions I might be feeling right at this moment he probably gets it, and for just a second I feel that much less alone in all of this. Still, when I look at Agni I’m not sure anymore that I really want to hear what he’s got to say. Seems like life has been a whole lot easier not knowing it.

“Your turn,” I say, halfhearted.

He’s a lot more eager to explain than Mom was. With a businesslike little clap of his hands he shifts almost completely backward in his chair and pulls his legs up in front of him so that he can look at me more easily while he talks.

“Under the circumstances I will have to give you simple explanations for incredibly complicated situations,” he warns.

“That’d be more than I know right now.”

He nods a couple times and grins kind of rueful. “I’ve explained already that we—” he gestures toward Dylan, “that Painters—can interact with the world on a sub-atomic level. There are also those of us, called readers, who can sense ripples in the particle patterns, clusters of information about events that are distant from us in space and time. Our minds interpret these in the form of visions, which, as your mother mentioned, we call sightings.”

“And my dad was one of these readers.”

“Yes, yes. And so am I. Readers tend to have a special sensitivity to the particle world. They are often talented at painting in ways that most Painters are not, and sometimes there are readers whose connection to the particle world and to the universe itself is so intense that their abilities far, far outstretch that of any other readers as well. Indeed, these individuals, whom we call Way Readers, have powers that most Painters can only dream about. They come to us only once every century or so, when the balance of forces in the universe threatens to bend too far toward destruction.”

Agni’s face is like a prism or something, reflecting even his smallest shifts in emotion in this constantly shifting rainbow of vivid expressions. As I’m listening to him, though, I’m doing my best to keep my face as neutral as possible. I want to hear everything he’s got to say before I decide how I’m going to feel about it.

“A few weeks ago several readers across the globe had the same sighting—a very rare occurrence indeed—in which they saw that the universe had chosen a new Way Reader. They saw a girl—very vaguely, not her face—at a festival in a mountain town in the northwestern United States. Not much to go by, but enough to turn the eyes of the entire Painter world toward any small town festivals. My sighting, however, was very specific. I knew I was to find this new Way Reader and guide and protect her. I was given her name, her location. I knew what I was to be doing when I found her. I saw her face. I think you know where I’m going with this. Alexandra Monroe, the Way Reader whom the universe has called is you.”

He’s staring at me real sober now. They’re all looking at me, watching and waiting for me to respond, weighing me down with their almost touchable expectations. I don’t know why, but I just start laughing. I mean, I do know why I’m laughing—this whole situation is completely insane—I just wish I was expressing that with a little more dignity.

They don’t know what to do with my reaction. Mom leans away from me a bit and cranes her neck like she’s trying to get a better look at my face. Dylan’s eyes in the rear view mirror are all narrowed and perplexed. And Agni—he’s sitting there like he was frozen in time, his head at an angle and one eyebrow slightly raised, that mustache of his cascading down across his folded arms and legs. The looks on all their faces just make me laugh even harder and it’s a few minutes before I get ahold of myself.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say with my hand up to my mouth to hide my totally moronic smile. “It’s just…I’m not that type of person.”

“It’s very seldom the sort of person you’d think it would be. Any storybook can tell you that.”

“No, I mean I’m not able to do any of those things you’ve said. There’s absolutely nothing even half special about me. I’m not like you.”

“No Painter can do those things when they’re young. Your body must go through the becoming, the maturation.”

“Maturation.” It’s a word with too many fifth grade health class connotations.

“When the body finishes developing the necessary organs for painting. You’re going through it now. The last phase, if I’m not mistaken. That sickness you’re feeling is due to the final formation of your essensus, the place where you store your energy,” he holds his hand just over his chest. “It is currently excreting waves of energy through your body and out into the particles around us. This flaring process seems to have been intensified when you touched Dylan as you did. Your flaring is so strong now that it’s growing quite distracting.”

He says this last part almost cheerfully, but I’m sinking deeper into my seat.

“You…can feel it?”

I get this urge to wrap my arms around myself like I could maybe stop this stuff from coming out of me. Stop my body from excreting anything. I know I made fun of Logan for being awkward about girl issues, and if that was actually the topic right now maybe I wouldn’t feel so weird about it. At least a period is a pretty private thing. At least no one else has to actually feel it.

“Once the flaring is done,” Agni continues, “you’ll be for all intents and purposes just like any other Painter. Then it will simply be a matter of training and practice.”

“You mean I will be able to, what do you call it, paint with matter?”

That part? Well, that could be pretty okay.

“And much, much more,” he says like it’s something to celebrate, but this is the part that is not okay. I don’t need much, much more. I don’t want it. Much, much more sounds like it comes with a whole lot of extra baggage.

“What does it mean to be this Way Reader person? What is it that I’m supposed to do?”

“We’re nearly there,” Dylan interjects real quiet.

“Yes, indeed,” Agni nods. Then to me again, “Every Way Reader has their own peculiar calling to fulfill. Definitely it will involve working against darkness, trying to bring more good into the world. My best guess is that your task will relate to the takers, some of whom your mother chased away from your house tonight. Takers are Painters who, to put it shortly, feed off of the energy inside each of us, which they can only access through the destruction of human life. These particular takers belong to a group called the Sons of Morning and we have reason to believe they have already in some part infiltrated the Painter government. If they are able to get a stronghold in our government their reach will be long. Perhaps the entirety of the world, Painter and Particle-Blind alike.”

“Particle blind?”

“The way we refer to humans who are not Painters. We are not yet sure what the takers’ exact ambition may be, but it most definitely means the end of many lives. I will be blunt with you and tell you that, as Way Reader, a terrible weight will be on your shoulders. If the takers’ plans continue, you will likely have to use your abilities to fight against very powerful and dangerous people. You will come to know death, see it first hand in ways that you may never have imagined.”

I hear Mom suck in her breath real quiet, like a stab. The sound of it frightens me in a way that Agni’s words haven’t.

“But as Way Reader you will also be able to save many lives. You will bring hope to people who have lost hope. And you will come to understand the most intricate details of the universe, see wide and far and deep.”

Dylan takes an exit off the highway onto this small country road, pulls over next to some snow drifts under a little cluster of trees, and turns the car off. Agni talks into the silence.

“If you accept this calling, we will take you with us. It may be months before you see or talk to your mother again. Dylan and I will be by your side, though. We will train you and support you and protect you. There will be others there to help you too. You will not be alone.”

“What do you mean I wouldn’t see Mom?” I look over at her, but she’s staring real hard out the window. “Wouldn’t she just come with us?”

There’s a long pause before he answers. “We have tried to devise a scenario which would allow us to safely bring your mother along. We are headed to Daxa, the capitol city of the Painter Republic. It is a beautiful place that is usually peaceful, but there are dangerous people there right now. For you, it is the best place for us to take you where you can learn everything you need to learn while maintaining the strongest protection. Part of your security lies in being right under their noses, but to add your mother to the equation makes it much more dangerous for you both. It is not unheard of for Particle-Blinds to live in Daxa, but there are so few she would draw a great deal of attention. We could attempt to hide her identity just as we will hide yours, but we could not disguise the fact that she is not a Painter.”

I study the back of Mom’s head, the rigid huddle of her usually graceful shoulders. I think I understand now why she looked like her heart was breaking earlier.

“If I choose not to go with you?”

“We will conceal you and your mother. Keep you safe. The takers—as long as you are alive, they will be looking for you. You will still become a very powerful reader because it’s part of who you are, but without real training and support you will find it difficult to develop abilities strong enough to protect yourself for long. We will try to protect you, but if we are waging a war against the takers our resources for you will be limited. I don’t say this to try to scare you, but to give you an honest idea of what I think you will be facing. I wish we could give you more time to make this decision, but we cannot stay still for long. It is time to make your choice.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not emotionally mature enough to be making these types of decisions. As if she knows what I’m thinking, Mom glances at me now, takes my hand and squeezes it, but doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t have to speak. I know what this means. She’s saying that I’m the only one that can make this choice, but what I keep thinking about is that moment before I turned the doorknob to the pantry tonight. That moment when I thought maybe I’d lost her for good. I don’t want to lose her again.

“People have already died,” Dylan says, all soft like he’s not so sure he should be saying it. “There will be more, but you can stop it.”

I see Agni touch his fingers real gentle to Dylan’s arm, maybe quieting him, maybe for comfort.

It isn’t Dylan’s words that get to me. It’s the tone of his voice. He isn’t just telling me stories. He knows what he’s talking about first-hand.

There’s only one person I’ve ever known too well who’s died. This girl who sat next to me in kindergarten. She was one of those girls whose hair was always half falling out of its braids and who always had something to say when the teacher asked a question. She and I used to play hopscotch together at recess and she’d laugh the whole way skipping through the squares.

One day she fell down behind her dad’s tractor without him seeing and he backed over her. Mom took me to the funeral, and the way her family was crying I was worried they’d shrivel up and disappear themselves, losing all that water. What I’m saying is that even though I haven’t experienced much with death myself, I do know that it’s awful.

Dylan saying I can save people’s lives…I’d like to do that, but I’m really not sure I am the sort of person who can. Dylan still watching me in the rearview mirror, Agni turned toward me with that grandfatherly kindness all over his face, Mom not looking at me at all—which just shows how much this decision really means to her—all of them are expecting an answer from me, but all I can think is how scared I am, how real small and incapable.

This time I don’t notice that warm feeling in my chest until it’s practically erupting out of me it’s so strong. At the same time this weird tingle starts nipping at the back of my neck, spreading through my body. This is a different feeling than the awful buzzy static. This is exciting, kind of pleasantly disconcerting. It feels like I’m growing, outward and upward and downward. Like I’ve got roots stretching out from all directions and I’m reaching into everything around me, becoming a part of the fabric of the world itself. I feel real powerful. Whole, as if before I was just a hollow shell or something.

I’m not so scared anymore. I know what I’ve got to do.   


Previous: Chapter 3

Next: Chapter 5


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 3

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CHAPTER 3

It’s hard not to think the guy is joking, like any minute now some dopey-eyed actor is going to jump out shouting, “Punked!” I do a quick check around the yard. You know, just in case. But I don’t see any hidden cameras. What I do see, when I look back toward the old man, is that kid from the hot chocolate truck standing there at the mouth of the alley where he definitely wasn’t two seconds before.

I’m on my feet without even meaning to be, that knife in my hand again and my legs very nearly what you’d call steady.

“What are you doing here?” I snap at him, trying real hard not to look like a big gust of wind could probably knock me over at any second, but the kid doesn’t even respond. Just looks me over, his eye traveling past the knife as if it isn’t even there.

From this angle the whole shape of his body is telling me it wouldn’t take much for him to hurt me if he tried. Then, in this voice like someone who’s genuinely concerned and not at all psychotic, he blurts out, “Calon tân, you can barely stand,” and he’s moving toward me with a speed that is totally unnatural. I flinch away, but the old man’s already standing up and he stops the kid with just a gesture of his hand.

To me he says, “Dylan is with me. He won’t hurt you,” and you can tell the guy really believes it.

“Except for that he already did try to hurt me.”

The kid’s reaction is immediate and real earnest. “That was an accident,” he says, leaning around the old guy to talk to me. “I never even meant to touch you.”

With him looking me full in the face like he is it’s hard not to believe him. He just has the kind of eyes that make you want to believe. Plus, he’s got a point. I definitely was the one who touched him first.

“The other man that hurt you is a different story, however.” The kid steps out so he can look at both me and the old guy at the same time. “And, I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to hash this all out right now because he and all of his friends are already on their way to your house, and there’s no telling what they might do to anyone they find there.”

That’s all it takes to make whatever doubts I still had about the kid just kind of disappear. All he had to do was put an image in my head of my mom all alone and in danger. It wouldn’t matter if he were the devil himself now. I’d still do just about anything he said if he promised Mom would be okay.

“How far ahead of us are they?” that Agni guy asks.

“By now, five minutes.”

“Then we still have—”

“We’ve got to talk to the police,” I cut in, and I start taking some trembly steps toward the alley, but Agni grabs my arm to hold me back. It’s not like he grabs hard. There’s barely any pressure at all, actually, but there’s just something about his grip—some sort of instinctive authority—that makes me stop in my tracks.

“Your police can do nothing to help you against these people, but Dylan and I can. If you take us to your house now we can keep you and your mother safe. Will you trust us?”

I pause for a second and think about what it might mean to take them to my house, to my mom. What if this is all a trick and he and this Dylan kid are really the ones I should be worried about? I stare at the old man, look up into the kid’s eyes, and I get that warm feeling in my chest again. That certainty. If it had a voice it’d be purring at me, telling me that the answer is yes. That trusting them is exactly what I should do.

I hear Logan coming down the alley, then. The clumsiness of his footsteps in the snow is so unmistakably him that even Dylan and Agni have no trouble guessing who it is.

“Your friend cannot know about any of this,” says the man in this quick whisper. “It would put him at terrible risk.”

I look between him and Dylan again. What is most important to me right now is to get to my mom as quick as possible, and Logan’s just turned into a huge distraction. I head him off, kind of wobbily, a few feet into the alley, and he’s surprised to see me up and walking. His eyes go all wide with so much relief that I feel bad for being annoyed with him.

“Sara says Sheriff’s at the sleigh rides,” he says. “But he’s not answering his cell. I came to check on you on the way there.”

I can see sweat on his face as if he’s been running hard, which cannot have been easy in those boots, and for some reason this moment feels suddenly like it’s a goodbye.

“We don’t need to talk to the sheriff,” I say. “I’m okay. Everything’s okay.”

He squints real hard at me like he’s got a whole load of questions he’s about to ask, and just like that I lose all my patience again. I don’t have the time to do this properly.

“But you said those guys—?” he starts, and I cut him off.

“I was wrong. Turns out it was just weird hormones making me feel funny.” I say this because I know it’ll shut him right up. “I gotta go take care of things before, you know, anything’s showing.”

When I move to step past him now, he’s happy enough to let me go. Even shifts away from me a little bit like maybe I’m contagious. He’s lived his whole life on a functioning farm, but he still gets real weird about human reproduction.

I’m already almost to the end of the alley when he calls after me, “Are you okay to drive?”

I just give him a little wave and keep walking as if I am actually okay to be doing anything right now. The old man and the kid are waiting on the sidewalk. I don’t know how they got there so fast and right now I don’t care. I follow them across Main Street and down a residential road to their car. It’s a dark gray sedan, real nondescript and boring and the inside of it is the same. As in, every inch of that interior is the same dull gray, the same bland texture without even an ounce of anything that could hint at personality. As if the car was conjured up out of the dream of someone who doesn’t know anything about cars, just the bare minimum of what it takes to be an automobile.

As soon as I’m settled in the backseat I try to call my mom, but no one answers. I try again with the same result. So I text her not to open the door to anyone. Or better yet, to get out of the house completely before anyone comes. You’re in danger, I write, but still no one responds.

There are a lot of people out still. The festival will keep going ’til pretty late and now, with the evening creeping in real fast, the lights around town are starting to turn on. Snow-covered Flemingsburg is at its best at night, all lit up by the blue moon and with the snow sparkling like fairy dust under every patch of lamplight. As we pass Fleming Park with its hanging lanterns strung from tree to tree, it’s looking real magical. A place where nothing bad could ever happen.

I’m glad the kid drives fast. Like break-the-sound-barrier fast. As urgent as if it’s his own mom he’s rushing toward. But when we pull off the highway onto the mountain road and we’re barreling toward the end of the plowed pavement I sort of panic. Even in my truck I couldn’t take the ridged and frozen snow of the dirt roads at this speed. Their grandma sedan will probably just disintegrate.

“The road isn’t plowed,” I practically shout at them. “You can’t take the snow at this speed.”

The old man is already unbuckling his seatbelt and moving his chair back as far as it will go. He looks at me from the passenger seat.

“We have a secret weapon,” he says, holding his hands up and sort of twiddling his fingers. Then he crouches down on all fours under the dashboard and closes his eyes in real deep concentration. I don’t know how the guy even fits down there.

“What are you doing? What is he doing?” I ask the kid, but he’s too focused on driving and he doesn’t answer, just keeps steering the car straight down that road toward what is probably about to feel to us like a sheer wall of ice. I throw myself against the back of my seat and try to brace against the shock, but then there’s barely even a bump. Like we’d probably feel it more if we ran over a trail of ants or something.

I sit up again and lean forward as far as my seatbelt will let me, trying to get a good look out of the front window. Lit up in the headlights it’s all blue-tinged icy dips and ridges coming at us so fast that they should be completely murdering the car’s suspension right now, but out the back window we’re trailing a winding ribbon of fresh-looking snow packed just soft enough for the speeding car to leave real shallow tire marks.

I guess this isn’t too different from anything I’ve already seen the old guy do today, but it’s the scale of it that surprises me. And the speed. I mean, he’s just happily transforming whole stretches of snow pretty much instantaneously.

“Who are you guys?” I ask the kid. “Harry Potter or something?”

His lips twitch. I can see it from where I’m sort of leaning between the two front seats, so I know he’s that close to smiling when he says, “It’s not magic,” like he’s pretty sure I should already know this. “It’s painting. Agni’s fiddling with the molecules.”

He’s got some sort of British accent, but I’m not appreciating that right now because I’m thinking that if this old man can do what he’s doing to the snow, what will those other people be able to do to my mom?

“Turn here,” I remember to say just in time, and the kid takes the corner kind of sharp. Down on the floor, the old man bumps against the bottom of the dashboard, but he doesn’t react.

“How did these people know where I live?”

“Your boyfriend shouted your name out loud and clear. Might as well have handed them the directions,” he says like Logan couldn’t be a bigger pain, which is real unfair. We live in Flemingsburg, probably the safest town in America. Just what was Logan supposed to be afraid was going to happen?

Plus, Logan is not my boyfriend.

“Who are they? What is it that they want from me?”

The kid’s expression barely changes. It’s not like he flinches or does anything remotely dramatic. He doesn’t even take his eyes off the road. There’s just maybe the slightest tightening in the muscles around his jaw, but that’s enough to make him look like some sort of shadow’s passed right over his heart or something.

“They’re called takers. They live off of death and pain.”

It’s not exactly an answer to my question. It’s terrifying, but it’s vague. I already figured those guys weren’t headed to my house to sell bibles, if you know what I meant. But the way he says it, it’s like he’s sent that shadow of his stabbing straight into my heart too. Again I’m picturing Mom alone in that house, the nearest neighbor miles away.

“Turn,” I say one more time, and the closer we get the smaller my throat feels. Whatever that buzzy-ness is that I’ve been feeling all day, I’m barely aware of it now. I’m just a pillar of adrenaline, a ball of anxiety seconds from detonating in one giant blast.

After the next turn we’re sliding up the long drive to our farm and in the dusk I can see the shadowy shape of the house. The front door’s wide open, letting the light from inside beam out in a beacon across the snow-covered field. A snakey black body, all winged like a giant bird, rises up behind the house for a minute and then shoots down into the evergreen trees.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Dylan says, and I can’t tell from his tone if he’s as freaked out as I am or if monster-sightings are just an every day sort of thing for him. Me—it’s like my heart’s right up in my throat, just pounding against the back of my tongue so hard I can practically taste it.

We’re slowing down now, coming up to the front of the house, and the old man is quietly unfolding himself from his spot on the floor. There’s a strange car in the yard, a four-door sports car, all sharp and dark. Dark windows, dark hubcaps, dark headlights. It looks more like a weapon than a car. The sight of it there, real out of place against the rustic homeyness of our log house, sets my pulse pounding like thunder in my ears.

Agni is already out of our car, almost before it’s stopped.

“You stay here,” Dylan commands me, but I don’t. There’s no way that’s going to happen.

I fumble a little with my seat belt, but I’m not too far behind them when I enter the house. The front door is broken clean off its hinges. It’s lying across the foyer several feet from the wall, as if it was thrown there by some raging giant. Agni and Dylan are disappearing into the other room and I hurry after them.

Our kitchen is a mess. Seems like everything we ever owned has been smashed across the place. There are scorch marks all over, one of our a butcher’s knives is imbedded in the wall by the hall, and the kitchen door has been blown off its frame and is lying in the snow in the backyard. Agni’s looking out there with this real worried expression on his face, and I can hear Dylan moving through the next room over.

There’s a U-shaped set of wood counters at the far end of the kitchen, and the island that’s usually in the middle of that is sitting all askew, backed up against one of the counter corners like it was thrown there by the same explosions that blackened the walls. The countertops are burnt and some tomatoes that were sitting out by the sink have been cooked through, their red juices still spreading all slow across the ruined wood and dripping onto the floor. It’s like a scene from a horror movie, except there aren’t any bodies.

Please, please, don’t let there be any bodies.

The only place in the room that’s nearly untouched is the nook between the refrigerator and the wall where there’s a little pantry. You probably wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking, it’s tucked back there so tight. I’m staring at it because we never keep the pantry door closed unless guests are over and the door is definitely shut now. Mom’s steel meat tenderizer is on the ground beside it, partly hidden underneath the edge of the refrigerator and reflecting the room’s light like some sort of signal.

I bend down and grab it off the floor, gripping the handle in my left hand like it’s Thor’s hammer or something. Everything in my body’s gone real still. As if there’s no heart pumping blood through my veins, no breath passing in or out. I wrap my fingers careful around the pantry doorknob like I could break it if I squeeze too tight, and with a tilt of my wrist it turns.

I don’t know what I’m expecting to see in there. My mom’s broken body maybe. Somebody else’s. Based on the rest of the kitchen, I’m definitely expecting something gross. Instead I see my mom standing there very much alive, her hair all wild and her eyes wilder, a gun in her hands and pointed at the pantry door like she’s absolutely going to use it. Like she definitely knows how. I didn’t even know we had something like that in the house.

At the sight of me she lets out this crazy little whoop that sounds half like a sob and she flings herself at me, wrapping me up in her arms so tight I can hardly breathe.

“Zanny, Zanny, Zanny,” she’s saying into my hair, and I’m mumbling back at her with just about as much relief in my voice, although I’m having a hard time concentrating on anything except the gun that is currently being pressed grip-first pretty hard into my spine.

Then Agni’s beside us and Dylan right after him, and they’re both asking Mom if she’s alright, and she’s swinging me around behind her and pulling her gun hand free.

“Who’re you?” she demands in a voice I’ve never heard her use before.

“Mom! Geez!” I grab for the gun, but she’s not actually pointing it at them. Yet. “They’re here to help.”

She’s standing there, still holding me a step behind her with one arm, and she’s staring at those guys like she’s the god of war or something and they’re just lowly worms she’d have no problem squashing to death with her almighty feet. Agni’s staring back at her with this smile on his face like she really is some sort of deity and he couldn’t be happier about it.

“Mrs. Monroe, what happened here?” Dylan asks in this quiet voice. “How did you drive them away?”

Her eyes fix on his face, bore into him like if she looks hard enough she might be able to read his soul. Then, and maybe it’s that sense of calm about him or maybe it’s those eyes of his, but she just sort of descends. As if every muscle in her body’s unwinding at the same time and shrinking her back down to her normal size.

“You’re supposed to be Zanny’s guardians, aren’t you?” she says, suddenly real tired, and she sets the gun down on the counter. “Daniel said I’d know you when I saw you.”

“And you are not a Painter yourself, I gather,” Agni says, his smile gone a lot more gentle.

I’m staring real hard at Mom now, watching her profile because it’s all I can see of her face. What does she mean, Dad told her she’d know these guys? Why is she acting suddenly and absolutely not even a little surprised? Just staring out the window like she’s found some sort of intense memory out there in the dark.

“I haven’t heard that term in ages,” she says.

“Your husband was a reader?”

With a little nod, she pulls something out of her pocket and holds it dangling from her fingers by its chain. It’s the locket she’s worn around her neck for as long as I can remember. I recognize the geometric design on the front even though the locket itself looks like someone’s tried to smash it to smithereens.

“This is how I got rid of them. Daniel gave it to me before he left.” That’s the way Mom talks about Dad’s death: leaving. “He told me they would come for her, but he didn’t know when. I guess it started to feel like a fairy tale, and when they showed up at my door they caught me off guard. I threw half my kitchen at them before I remembered this.”

“The golem,” Dylan says suddenly. “He programmed the dragon into the locket.”

Mom just sort of raises her eyebrows at Dylan and shrugs. “Daniel was always turning things into dragons. I should’ve known his idea of protection would be something like that.”

This conversation is making my whole world shift, like suddenly the Earth’s orbit doesn’t apply to me anymore and I’m being left behind. Mom’s always talked about Dad’s little magic tricks, but this was not one of them. Dragons was never one of them. I see it now, though. She knew all along that they weren’t tricks. She knew all along about all of this and she never told me, which makes everything I ever thought I knew about my parents kind of feel like a lie.

“Dragons?” Agni is saying with his head tilted to the side like some sort of broken bobble-head.

“Is that strange?”

“Oh, no, no. It is merely…an interesting choice.”

“How many golems were there?” Dylan asks Mom.

“Three, I think. They grew so fast it was hard to know exactly what was happening.”

“Five takers fighting off three golems. With dragons of that size I’m guessing we’ve got forty minutes at best, then. We have to go.”

“What, already?” Mom turns to Agni and there’s this question in her face that I get the impression he understands exactly.

He’s real direct when he responds to her, but also somehow kind of soothing. “It must be now. Pack lightly, only what you can fit into one bag. Alexandra will need warm clothes for camping.”

For a second Mom looks about as lost as I feel. Then she grabs my arm and pulls it through hers, squeezing her fingers in between mine and marching us out of the kitchen with Agni and Dylan trailing a few steps behind. The hand thing is something she’s done since I was a kid, to help me be brave. Only right now I’m pretty sure it’s more for her, and that’s when I realize we’re not coming back here. That when we walk out our door tonight, this place will stop being our home. I’ve spent nearly eighteen years in this house. This is all I know, and the thought of leaving it for good makes me wish I could dig in my heels and refuse to go.

We’re nearly to the foot of the stairs when mom lets out this little breath of surprise and stops walking. She pulls the locket out of her pocket where she must’ve been holding onto it with her other hand, and when she opens up her fingers it falls open across her palm, which is a thing it never could’ve done before. As a kid I played with it enough to know it didn’t have working hinges.

Staring down at her hand, Mom’s got a weird expression on her face, with all her muscles real tight and her mouth pulling down in this tiny frown. Sliding her arm out of mine, she takes a little square of paper from inside the locket.

“I think this is for you,” she says, and hands it to me.

It’s an old photograph of a man, probably in his mid-twenties with this head of tight curly hair that you’d only ever see on a total dork. Still, he’s handsome anyway, all strong jaw and broody eyes. There’s something about him that reminds me of me. Something in his half smile that’s so familiar it hurts. It’s like someone’s lit a fire in my chest, and crawling up the back of my neck is this sensation like two points in time colliding. I feel like I’ve just been given back something necessary that I didn’t even know I’d lost.

I’ve had barely enough time to get a grasp of the face when the photograph suddenly disintegrates into dust in my hand. Just crumbles away like ashes. Then it’s rising again into the air, melding together and growing until there’s a tiny little dragonfly hovering there in front of my face, all shimmering greens and blues. It’s wings, which look more delicate than glass, start whirring so fast you can barely see them, and the thing goes veering away from me and out the open kitchen door. In a matter of seconds it’s gone. He’s gone.

This is pretty much the last straw in this whole crazy day and I think everyone else knows it. My eye falls on Dylan, who’s watching me with this sympathetic expression that just about pushes me over the top. I cram my hands into my coat pockets, balling them up into real tight little fists, and will myself not to cry. Mom thinks swear words can actually alleviate pain. She likes to say that that’s why I should save them up until I really need them. This is definitely one of those times.

“Damn it,” I say, real quiet. “Damn it to hell.”


Previous: Chapter 2

Next: Chapter 4


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