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 11

Posting for feedback. Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 11

I’m twisting around in my chair, scrambling at the seatbelt with no other thought than that I need to get away from this crazy monster thing. It takes me a couple seconds to realize that Eilian is practically cackling now and that Dylan, through his own fair share of laughter, is trying hard to calm me down.

“It’s just a golem, Sophie,” he’s saying, his hand all warm and steady on my arm, and it’s weird to hear him address me by that name. “They wash the windows while we’re stopped. It’s stupid and unnecessary, but people find it charming to mimic the Particle-Blind world in these little ways.”

I notice the metal bucket on one of the thing’s arms now, and the yellow rags in its other hands. Dylan waves the thing off, and it turns away and ambles back to the side of the road, its six arms hanging loose like some sort of homemade insect costume, its movements real creepily smooth.

My heart’s still beating twice as fast as it should be, but I can feel my breath starting to slow down a little. Eilian scoots forward and flops across the shoulder of my seat, and there’s still laughter in her voice when she says, “You’ve really never heard of steel faces?”

“If that’s what that thing is called, then no. I have definitely never heard of those.”

The light turns green and Dylan starts the emvee moving forward again, saying, “They’re basically service golems, performing whatever tasks they’ve been programmed for. They’re used all over Daxa, as well as most other cities in the Republic.”

“They give them the metal faces so they don’t make people uncomfortable,” Eilian offers as if this makes a whole lot of sense.

“That face is supposed to not make people uncomfortable?”

They both laugh.

“It’s supposed to make them less humanoid,” Dylan explains.

“Right. Well they definitely hit that nail on the head.”

As we keep moving I start to notice all sorts of those things around. Tall ones and small ones with any number of arms and legs, moving up and down the sidewalks right alongside the real people. They all have those shining steel faces, and it gives me the jeebies every time they so much as glance in our direction.

The shopping mall where Dylan takes us is shaped like a ten-storied crescent moon and inside it’s not so much that the shops have gardens in them as that the gardens have got shops. I mean, it’s just flowers and trees everywhere, and it’s all real pretty. The ceilings are vaulted with crown molding running along the edges, and the outer walls are made entirely of this rainbow-tinted glass.

Eilian dives into the stores as if shopping is some sort of an olympic sport or something, pulling items off shelves and hangers one after the other and tossing them at me to catch. She wants me to try on practically everything she gets her hands on and, if Dylan wasn’t there, she’d probably make sure I bought it all too.

Still, the number of clothes we do come away with—all paid for from some mysterious bank account Dylan keeps referring to as mine—would probably make my mom have a hernia or something. I can hear her voice in my head saying, “Who in the world would ever need so many things?”

There are pants and shoes and sweaters and little jackets and long coats and hats and gloves and earrings and tiaras and basically anything you could ever imagine a person putting on their body. Even, of all things, an honest-to-goodness ball gown that I’m supposed to wear to something called the Welcome Ball that Mawihl Academy hosts at the end of the first week.

At one point Eilian informs me, all nonchalant like it’s no big deal at all, that in addition to the Welcome Ball, Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn are going to throw me an introduction party, which is apparently a thing people do to welcome friends to Daxa for the first time.

“At least a hundred people have already confirmed they’ll be coming,” Eilian says like this is somehow a good thing.

I glance over at Dylan, probably looking exactly as horrified as I feel, and from the expression on his face I’m guessing this introduction party is as much a surprise to him as it is to me.

“Mum already bought you a dress,” Eilian says as she leans over an assortment of slipper-like shoes and scrutinizes them with a professional eye. “And jewelry. Aunt Nia’s got it all hanging up in her room as inspiration for the party design.”

I give Dylan another look, which he returns with a heavy dose of apology. As we’re leaving the store he comes up beside me and under his breath he says, “I suppose it will help establish Sophie’s identity in Daxan society,” as if this is supposed to make everything okay.

I just groan a little and make a face. If Melodie were in my place she’d probably be dying of happiness right now—if she were here with me, maybe I would be happy about it all too—but mostly I just feel overwhelmed.

Our last stop is to get me something that Dylan and Eilian call a handyphone. It’s basically a cell phone that you wear as a ring on your finger, and it is mind-bendingly cool to me.

First of all, by some sort of Painter voodoo magic that Dylan still insists is science, even though the ring part of the phone stays snug on your finger during a call, you can hear the other person’s voice in your ear as clear as if they were actually in your head. Text messages show up in blue light on your palm when you’ve got your hand faced toward you, and if you press your thumb against the back of the ring a piece of it will detach and expand until you’re holding a full-sized, touch-screen phone.

There’s a “mind reading” sensor on the ring itself and on the front of the cell phone that responds to your brain synapses when you’ve got your thumb pressed over it, so you can control your phone by painting. Another button expands the cell phone into a tablet and, if you happen to set the cell phone or tablet down and walk away, as long as you’re within a few feet of it you can just press your thumb to the ring and the detached part will come flying back into your hand.

The whole time the shop attendant’s explaining this stuff to me, I feel pretty much like James Bond getting the rundown from Q. I mean, I just keep wondering when she’s going to show me some secret compartment in the ring that shoots out poisonous darts or something.

What it does have, it turns out, is the ability to produce something called “light matter,” which is this blue, holographic-looking ball of light that you can touch and manipulate by painting. Dylan says it’ll come in handy when I’m practicing for school, that eventually I’ll find all sorts of other uses for it.

The shop walls are covered in little floating handyphone displays. There are metal ones, jeweled ones, wooden ones—pretty much any style a person could want. Dylan’s is a simple band, made out of a dark black stone that seems to glow from somewhere inside when you look real close, and Eilian’s is a white gold ring shaped into a graceful sort of Celtic-looking tree on her finger.

I think it’s going to be hard to pick out the one I want, but I find it in about five seconds. A delicate little dragonfly, all sparkling blues and greens. Real uncannily like the dragonfly that formed out of my dad’s photograph back in Flemingsburg. I know it’s the one as soon as I see it, and there’s a hint of something in Dylan’s expression that tells me he can probably guess why.

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

That afternoon Dylan goes to work for a couple hours, saying he’s got a lot to catch up on. Then, in the evening when he’s back and we’re all lounging around together in the family study, he texts me on my new handyphone and says he needs to speak with me alone. He arranges this by having me announce that I’m tired and I want to go to bed. Before I leave, he offers to walk me to my room so that I don’t get lost in their huge and rambling house, but as soon as we’re out of earshot of the others he says we’re going to his room instead.

It’s on the fifth floor, and to get to it we’ve got to pass through this gym that has a real tall, domed ceiling and these weird pegs and ledges all over the walls. The gym is pretty big—at least as large as the one in Logan’s church building back in Flemingsburg—but after everything else I’ve seen in Daxa today I’m not all that surprised the Lucases have got a space like that in the middle of their home.

Dylan’s bedroom, other than the size of it, is about as different from mine as a room could be. It’s all modern and sleek and pretty spotlessly clean, and from the ceiling right down to the threading in the quilt on his bed, everything’s a bright, crisp white with just a few pops of color here and there.

The only thing about the place that seems at all cluttered or disorderly is the built-in bookcases lining one wall. There are so many books in there that it looks like some kind of literary explosion. Books are squeezed in at every angle, double- and triple-parked on the shelves, and they’re nearly all real well-worn like they’ve been lovingly and frequently handled.

Dylan leads me over to a tidily arranged set of chairs surrounding a white coffee table in the far corner of the room. I flop down into the seat he indicates and curl my legs up under me. Then, on second thought, I carefully unfold my legs again and place my feet nice and neat back on the floor because it occurs to me that maybe having people rub their shoes all over his pristine furniture isn’t exactly Dylan’s favorite thing.

He doesn’t seem to notice any of this, though. Just slides down into the chair across from me, leaning all relaxed against the back of it and folding his arms behind his head like he’s very much in his own territory.

“I got hold of your mum,” he says, real nonchalant like it’s not all that big a deal, but as soon as I hear those words I’m practically out of my chair.

“You talked to her?” I ask, and he’d have to try real hard not to hear the million-and-one follow-up questions that hang ready in my voice.

He smiles a little bit.

“First thing she asked was if she could talk to you,” he says, but when he sees the reaction on my face he’s quick to add, “which we can’t allow yet, though. There’s more I need to set in place before I’d advise any contact between the two of you.”

I sit back in my chair again and try not to act too disappointed.

“Is she safe, then?” I ask, and Dylan nods, reassuring.

“She said it’s nice to be with her brother again, and to get to know his family.”

I don’t say it, but for some reason this just makes me feel a little worse, picturing Mom out there all happy without me, reestablishing ties to some family I’ve never known.

“I’m still working on tightening up any loose ends with her situation,” Dylan says, sitting up and pulling out a thin drawer in the coffee table. “I’m setting her up in protective custody. She’ll have security watching her at all times, but if they do their jobs right she won’t be able to tell they’re there. And they won’t know who she is or why she’s in the program. I’ll be the only one who knows that. Most of those arrangements should be finished by tomorrow afternoon.”

He slides some file folders out of the open drawer and drops them on the table in front of me.

“Your identity, on the other hand, is already nearly complete.” He pulls a couple maps and some photographs out of the folders and pushes them across the table toward me. “This is Gilford, Wyoming. Sophie Warren’s home sweet home.”

It’s small. Smaller than Flemingsburg even. I’m guessing probably way less than a hundred people live there, including kids. There’s only one real road that goes through the town, and a couple little side streets that look so beat and broken that they might as well’ve never been paved. Dylan shows me pictures of the shops and the houses that skirt the main street, and they’re not exactly anything to get excited about. Mostly they’re dirty and kind of rundown. Still, there are some things about the place that feel comforting and familiar. One house in particular, with a real well-kept garden and an old wrap-around porch, reminds me of Sara’s house back home.

On one of the maps, Dylan shows me the Warren farm—my supposed home. It sits at the end of a narrow dirt road that stretches away from the town and winds partway up the nearest mountain. The farm itself is a bit smaller than mine and Mom’s farm, but it’s charming and clean, and I’m betting it wouldn’t be hard to fall in love with the place if I ever did have to live there.

Dylan’s got pictures of practically every Gilford resident and their dog (and there are a lot of dogs), and he explains to me who they are, what they do, how I supposedly know them.

“This is Roger Sheridan” he says. “He’s the town handy man. His son Boyd has been a friend of yours since you were children. This is Margaret Tulley. She owns the general store just like her family has done for generations. She calls you ‘Soph’ instead of Sophie and when you were about 6 years old she caught you and Boyd Sheridan trying to carve your initials into the wall of her shop. She still calls you a ‘little scamp’ to this day.”

It’s like he’s written a whole novel or something. Seems like every person in the town has some story that connects to me, and I’m wondering how in the world he’s arranged all this in a matter of just a few hours.

“Are these actual people in an actual place?” I ask, kind of impressed but also a little skeptical. “What are they going to do if some taker comes walking into town and says, ‘Hey, do you know Sophie Warren?’”

“They’ll say, ‘Why, yes we do. That’s the little scamp I found carving her initials into the wall of my general store.’”

I just stare at him for a second and he gets that little look on his face like he knows he’s being pretty impressive.

“Most of this is Mary Warren’s doing,” he concedes, indicating all the photos and maps with his hand. “She really is an old friend of my mother’s, and when Mum approached her a week or so ago with the vague idea that Mary might be willing to pose as your mum, Mary said she rather thought she could offer up most of the town, and that’s what she has done. Told them all she’s working with the US government. That her job is to provide a false backstory for a sweet young girl who’s real parents got themselves mixed up in something awful. Told them this girl is now hiding out with a new identity until she can testify in court, and that Mary needs all her friends to act as if she’s always had a daughter and as if that daughter’s gone away to university now.”

“All those people were willing to do that?” I ask, and Dylan nods.

“Mary says her only problem has been keeping everyone to the same narrative. They all want to make up their own stories about you, and those stories can get fairly elaborate.”

To be honest I guess I’m not all that surprised. Logan would probably lose his mind if he had the chance to be part of some complicated scheme like this. Sara and Melodie—any number of other people in Flemingsburg too. Especially if they thought they were helping out a neighbor, and a friend.

Dylan pushes another photo across the table to me.

“This is Mary Warren,” he says, tapping his finger next to the person’s face. “This is your new mum.”

It’s a picture of a tall, dark-haired woman standing at the edge of a dirt road. She’s leaning against a rough, handmade log fence and looking at the camera all unsmiling like someone straight out of some Great Depression movie.

I don’t mean to, but I can’t help feeling just a little bit disappointed. I mean, yeah, my real mom’s spent most her life working on our farm too, but there’s just always been something so soft about her still. Sophisticated. This woman is all sturdy and earthy and physical.

“To make it believable for anyone who might be paying attention, you’re going to have to call Mary sometimes,” Dylan says, watching me real steady, and I’m guessing he’s noticed the disappointment in my face. “Treat her as if she’s your real mum who’s waiting back at home for you and whom you miss. Do you think that’s something you can do with her?”

I look back down at her picture, trying to imagine talking to her like she means anything to me at all.

“She doesn’t know you’re the Way Reader,” Dylan says, still watching me real close. Waiting. “She believes she’s simply helping out one of Mum’s friends who’s found herself in a tight spot.”

The more I’m staring at this Mary Warren woman, the more I’m thinking she’s not so severe after all. If you look close enough you can see the hint of a smile there, mostly in the wrinkles around her eyes.

“I can treat her like she’s Sophie’s mom, I think,” I say finally, and this appreciative smile flashes across Dylan’s face.

“Good,” he says, standing up and stepping around the coffee table to grab my hand.

“What are you doing?” I ask, kind of taken off guard by the sudden flare of essentual energy that sparks between our fingers and reverberates up my arm.

“Calling Mary,” he says, pushing his thumb down on the back of my dragonfly ring to expand it into handyphone mode.

He pauses for a second, this look on his face like he’s listening to something that I can’t hear. Then he lets go of me and steps back a little, expanding his own phone and bringing it up to his ear.

S’mae, Mum,” he says, almost cheerful. “You’re up early.”

Sort of smiling down at me, he holds his finger up to tell me it’s going to be a minute. Something about the way he does this—like he’s comfortable with me, like we’re just two friends hanging out—makes me feel kind of warm and snugly inside, and I relax back into my chair and settle in to wait for him.

“How’s nain and taid?” he’s asking. “Hm. Ie. Oes, she’s here with me now.”

Then he’s holding his phone out to me and saying, “Mum wants a word,” and any sense of snugness I was feeling is gone in a snap.

 I take the phone from him, but not because I want to. My insides feel suddenly like something’s in there that’s alive. I mean, what is he thinking springing a conversation with his mom on me like this? You’ve got to give a person a minute to prepare.

But turns out his mom’s got the same knack as Aunt Nia for making you feel all charming and interesting and worthwhile. Although, her accent is a bit more pronounced than Nia’s, dipping up and down in these real unexpected ways. And she doesn’t talk to me like she thinks of me as a kid. She tells me to call her Gweneth and treats me as if I’m just like any other friend.

“I’m sure Dylan will do his best to make you feel comfortable in our home,” she tells me. “Cadfan’s sister Nia, and Wyn as well. But if you find you’re in need of anything that they can’t provide, do feel free to contact me. I’ve asked Dylan to put my number into your phone, and hopefully someday soon I’ll have the privilege of meeting you in person.”

We don’t talk for very long. She says it’s morning in Wales and she’s got to get breakfast made for her parents.

“Maybe someday you can stop off at our little home here in Caergybi. From everything Dylan’s said, I think my mam and tad would really like to know you.”

When we say our goodbyes I hand Dylan’s phone back to him, and he goes grabbing for my other hand again, taking my own phone from me and saying that it’s time to call Mary.

“Best to jump right into these sort of things. Besides, she’s a few hours ahead of us so it’s growing late for her.”

He sits down on the armrest of my chair and props one foot on the coffee table, entering Mary’s number into my phone and hitting send. Then he hands it back to me and I see that the screen says it’s calling “Mom.”

The nervousness I feel as I take the phone now is entirely different than what I felt when Dylan’s mom called. With his mom I didn’t have to play act. Even though she talked to me as if I really was the daughter of her long lost friend, I was fully aware that she knew who I really was and all I had to do with her was be myself. With this Mary Warren person, I’ve got to pretend that I’ve known and loved her my whole life, and I’ve got to do it without letting her in on my real identity.

Staring up at Dylan as if he’s going to somehow save me from this, I bring the phone up all tentative to my ear and within seconds I’m hearing the voice of a stranger. It’s deep for a woman’s, and strong. With this gentle ripple to it like it’s being played over some old phonograph or something.

I barely have time to babble something about it being me, Sophie, before she jumps right in, asking me if I’m well, if the trip was pleasant, how I’m liking the Lucases and their home. Her questions come so quick that I just answer back on instinct, responding as honest as I can to every subject that she poses. Until, totally out of the blue, she asks point blank if I think Dylan’s kind of good looking, and at that point all I can manage is an awkward sort of stutter.

“His mother was stunning so I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says with this laugh that reminds me of well-worn quilts and cozy log fires. I glance kind of wary up at Dylan where he’s still perched on the arm of my chair, but if he can hear what Mary’s saying he doesn’t show any sign of it.

Then, just as unexpected as everything else about tonight, Mary’s already wrapping up our conversation, making me promise to enjoy myself in Daxa, to learn a lot.

“Good night. I love you,” she says as easy as if she’s said it to me every day of my life, and after an uncomfortable pause I repeat it back to her. Then just like that, the call is done.

Dylan’s kind of laughing as I’m shrinking the phone back into my ring. This pleasant, real quiet sort of laugh that I’d probably hardly notice if he weren’t sitting so close to me.

Looking down with a wry little smile he says, “You’ll have to learn to tell her you love her without rumpling up your face like that. It’s a dead give away.”

He slides off my chair and walks back around to the other side of the coffee table, starting to gather up all the photographs and maps of Gilford and putting them back into their folders.

“I’ve kept all of these files offline for now so that no one can hack into it,” he says, dropping the folders back into their drawer and then standing straight and looking down at me again.

“We need to start training you in painting and particle reading—as much as I can teach you before Agni comes back—so we should meet here every day, probably after dinner. You can go over all of the Gilford details as well, and once you’ve got them down I’ll get rid of all these files. You’ll need to seal it all into your mind as solidly as actual memories.”

   I’m pretty sure his standing there like that means tonight’s secret meeting has come to a close, so I stand up too, realizing suddenly how real tired I am. Dylan starts walking toward the door, and I trail after him.

“I’ll walk you back to your room,” he says as he waits for me to step out into the gym. “Until you get more familiar with the house, we don’t want to send you out on your own to go and get lost in it.”

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

In the morning Dylan goes back to work again, and he asks Eilian to take me on a tour of the house while he’s gone. She’s happy enough to do it, but to call what she gives me a tour would be really stretching the meaning of the word. It’s more like a game of hide and seek, the way she’s already disappearing around corners or into another room every time I so much as pause to get a better look at something.

The hallways are like a maze, and most of the rooms aren’t too much better. Every space seems to be filled with family heirlooms and ancient Painter artifacts. Eilian says that each floor of the house was built by a different Lucas generation, carved out of the inside of the tree as it grew big enough to allow for it.

In addition to an army’s worth of bedrooms, the place has loads of spaces that no normal person would have in their house. Like, on the ground floor there are two entertainment rooms that Eilian calls the blue and red salons as if she’s stepped straight out of some old romance novel or something, and on the fourth floor there’s an honest to goodness ballroom just dripping with chandeliers and golden sconces. Not too far down the hall from that there’s a huge arboretum where Aunt Nia grows a whole jungle of plants and herbs and things.

One wing on the third floor seems a little mustier than the others, a little less commonly used, with all sorts of extra weird artifacts and things stashed away in the rooms there. Things like a huge old Asian-style gong or an antique Particle-Blind printing press. They’ve gathered some dust and cobwebs, and they send strange shadows crawling along the floors and walls.

Eilian has even less time to give to this part of the house, as if she thinks whatever might be here isn’t worth our attention, but to me this all seems like exactly the kind of place where some ominous, ghostly figure’d be roaming the halls. Makes my hair sort of stand on end in that way that’s kind of exciting because you know there’s really not anything to be scared about, but maybe I am already a little bit primed and ready for a haunting by the time we pass by the little nook at the end of one of the corridors.

It’s not an inherently creepy nook. There’s a comfortable-looking little cushioned bench seat and a shelf with a few books on it, a vase of kind of quaintly dried flowers. What makes it creepy is the snarling brass dog’s head that’s hanging on the wall right smack above the bench. There’s no light on in the nook and the dim light from the hallway falls across the dog’s features at just the right angle to make it look pretty downright terrifying.

“What is this?” I ask, kind of laughing and stopping in the nook’s arched entryway in fascinated disbelief. But, as usual, Eilian just shrugs and keeps walking, barely looking over her shoulder to say that it probably belonged to one of her long dead ancestors.

I can’t turn away from the thing, though. I mean, it’s so alarming that I’ve just got to keep staring. And despite the fact it’s made out of brass, it’s real mesmerizingly life-like. I wouldn’t be surprised if any second now it turned it’s metal eyes down on me and made a quick lunge for my jugular.

So that’s where I am—rooted in that dim hallway, staring up at the dog while I listen to the sounds of Eilian’s footsteps disappearing around the corner again—when I feel suddenly sure that there’s someone else in the hall behind me. Someone standing real still and real close.


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Next: Chapter 12


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 5

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CHAPTER 5

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

“Okay…you will come with us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no,” I say. “There is no way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You might want this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you were going to train me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dylan’s a spy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought as much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geez, he knows how to ruin a mood.

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

Geez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So…from Earth.”

Agni grins. “We believe so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 4

Next: Chapter 6


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