LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 16

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CHAPTER 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I what?”

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

“On a list of possible Way Readers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes you ask that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think someone from the GIB told them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eventually. Right now, I’m hungry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks like you are busy after all.”

“Yes,” Gwilim says. “So go away.”

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

“The opposite actually.”

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

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

“Not likely.”

“Do it for myself, then.”

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

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

“I’m Sophie Warren.”

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

“We’re not actually cousins.”

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

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

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

“What are you doing here?” Gwilim says.

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

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

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

“You’re leaving already?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugs. “Sure. Why not?”


Previous: Chapter 15

Next: Chapter 17


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 15

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CHAPTER 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can fix me,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That won’t be necessary.”

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

“The poor dear is with me, you see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was that woman? Shama Haddad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Gwilim Lucas.”

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

“You are. Aren’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You misplaced her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 14

Next: Chapter 16


FEEDBACK

Please let me know what you think, either by commenting below or emailing me here. Tell me if anything stood out to you in a good way. If anything stood out to you as bad. Is there anything in particular that you like about the characters themselves? Anything that bugs you about them? Were there any parts of this chapter that made you happy, scared, excited, sad, etc.?

LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 14

Posting for feedback. (Frame of reference for people who read the previous draft: this used to be Chapter 9.) Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 14

In the morning I’m the first one at the breakfast table, after Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn. That’s because I’ve basically been awake ever since the sun came up. And that’s because I didn’t exactly sleep much last night anyway, on account of my mysterious invisible guest.

I tried to talk to the thing. At least, I asked it who it was and what it wanted, but it didn’t respond. What it did do was to disappear. As in, both the feeling of its presence and the weight of it on the bed just faded away. Which means it’s not just invisible. It can apparently teleport too.

You can bet I didn’t wait around too long to see if it was coming back. I booked it out into the hallway to the central elevator, and I found Dylan’s room after only a couple wrong turns and several moments of panic. Just as I was about to knock on his door, though, I heard Teresa in there laughing her bell-like little laugh and talking to him in this voice that was all soft and charming.

It turns out that between her and a ghost, I’m less afraid of a haunting. I spent the rest of the night locked in my own bathroom, trying to sleep in a nest of blankets and pillows I’d piled up on the floor. Of course, I was well aware that the shut bathroom door was no real defense against that ghost thing, which is why sleep wasn’t exactly forthcoming.

So I’m real antsy this morning, waiting all impatient for Dylan to come down to breakfast and hoping that I can get a moment to talk to him alone before Eilian and I head off for school. When Dylan does come into the room and there’s no sign of Teresa with him it makes me feel kind of guilty, how much of a relief that is. I guess I’d been picturing her as an unavoidable constant in my life.

Dylan’s in a good mood this morning, greeting everyone real cheery and sort of humming all quiet to himself as he fills his plate with food. It’s like he’s allowed himself a level of happiness that he’d forgotten how to feel for a while or something. Aunt Nia and Uncle Wyn notice it, and they exchange their own smiling little glances when they think neither Dylan nor I is watching.

When Eilian comes slamming into the dining room, though, everyone’s mood changes real quick for the worse.

Her expanded tablet’s gripped all tight in her hand and she’s got a terrible look on her face. The kind that tells you good news is definitely not coming. We all watch her as she stalks over to us and tosses her tablet onto the table, as if she can’t let go of that thing quick enough.

It’s playing some sort of video, and I glance down at the screen just in time to see this horribly high-quality footage of someone slicing a knife across the throat of a bound and terrified looking man.

I snap my eyes away real fast, let out this involuntary gasp that comes from way down inside of me. Without a word, Aunt Nia reaches out and quietly turns the tablet over, her face about as pale as I feel.

“They’ve done it again,” Eilian says, her eyes traveling to each of us in turn, boring into us with a sort of furious trepidation. “Another public execution.”

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

Mawihl Academy is like a micro-cosm of Daxa itself, with its eclectic hodgepodge of buildings in every Painter style. They’re all connected by ivy-covered glass passageways, which Eilian navigates as if she’s walked down them a million times herself.

The place is filled with people. Kids around my age or younger mostly. We have to squeeze past each other to get through the halls, and it should feel kind of chaotic but instead it’s about as subdued as a funeral service. Here and there you can see people gathering in little circles, talking in whispers as if we really are in some sort of a church. A couple times I hear people laughing, but even that sound gets overwhelmed by the quiet fear that seems to hang in the air.

Eilian and I haven’t spoken much since breakfast, though that conversation is still playing pretty vivid in my mind. The video was posted by the Sons of Morning apparently, a recording of their entire ritual as they harvested the energy from the man they’d just killed. We didn’t watch any more of it, but Eilian described it in pretty gory detail.

Any thoughts about my personal haunting have pretty much faded away. There was no chance to talk to Dylan about it, and whatever was in my room last night seems a whole lot less alarming compared to this execution. I mean, it’s kind of hard to think of anything else after hearing that the takers did the killing as a message to the Way Reader. So in other words, a message to me. With part of that message being that more people are going to die as long as I stay in hiding.

Following Eilian through the hallways now, staring down the fear in everyone’s eyes, you can bet I feel the weight of that on my shoulders.

Our class today, which Eilian and I have together, is Introduction to Particular Sciences with a teacher named Eugenius Braun. It’s in a building shaped like an enormous submarine, a made-to-scale WWII replica. The hallway is tiny, but the classroom looks like pretty much any classroom I’ve ever seen. It’s white, and mostly bare, with tables set up in three long rows across the width of it, three chairs to a table.

There are already a few kids in there when we walk in. Two of them are Eilian’s friends. A tall girl named Leti Kjar, who’s blond hair falls down her back so long and shimmery that she looks like some Scandinavian princess or something. And Tua Moeaki, whom I remember Aunt Nia mentioning the other day. The other kid, who introduces himself as Gabriel Lobato, is apparently brand new here, from Brazil. Practically right off the plane, he says, and I wonder what sort of planes fly into a Painter city like Daxa.

He’s almost shockingly good looking, all tan-skinned and dark-curly hair with eyes like Hershey’s syrup. When we touch our hands in pono he flashes me this shy kind of smile, and the fact that a kid with that face also has that smile seems pretty categorically unfair.

Eilian’s friends already know all about me. Or, about as much as Eilian knows. They greet me with hugs and refer to me as her cousin, which Eilian says is a thing Painters do with close family friends.

Tua Moeaki’s real tall and broad shouldered, with a voice so deep you can almost feel it in your bones. He’s wearing a lava-lava printed in some sort of Polynesian-looking modern art pattern, and he’s got an Asian-style lady’s comb perched kind of whimsical in his close-cut afro.

There’s this real grim look on his face as he says his hellos. A look that doesn’t seem to fit right, as if his cheek muscles aren’t all that sure how to express that a sort of emotion.

“Did you see the video?” he asks us, and in response Eilian just gives this short little nod.

We’re standing near the front of the room, between the right-most rows of tables, and Eilian sinks down against the edge of one of them as if she doesn’t even have the energy to stand.

“First thing that came up in my feed this morning,” she says.

All of a sudden, I just want to pretend that the video doesn’t even exist for a while. Like, until I have a moment alone to maybe panic a little, I would like to categorize the video in my mind on the same level as one of Logan’s conspiracies. Something far removed from myself and, probably, not even real. I definitely don’t want to talk about it.

It’s very real for these kids that I’m with, though. You can see in their eyes that its reality is a weight that each of them feels.

“People shouldn’t be sharing it,” Gabriel says. “It’s exactly what the takers want them to do.”

The sound of the classroom door opening makes us all turn toward the back of the room as two kids walk in. There’s a Hispanic looking boy wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a brightly colored plaid vest, and behind him there’s a Black girl who’s so small you could mistake her for a child if it weren’t for her kind of elegant facial features and a totally alpha afro that probably doubles the size of her own head.

“Nando!” Tua exclaims, his face lighting up for second.

He steps forward and grabs the Hispanic kid in this complicated series of handshakes that look like something they’ve been doing for years.

“What’s up, my brother? I didn’t think you were going to be able to make it this term.”

Nando glances kind of uncomfortable at the rest of us and gives this stiff little shrug of his shoulders.

“Academy Admin Center gave me a job last minute. Means half tuition, and money to pay the rest.”

He nods his head toward the Black girl, who’s sort of hovering a few feet away from us all as if she honestly thinks that one of us might bite.

“This is Hina Amura,” Nando says. “Works with me at the Admin Center.”

After Leti and Eilian introduce Gabriel and me, we all exchange pono, and I notice that although Hina does look up as she greets each of us, she never actually focuses on anyone’s face. It’s as if she’d really rather just fade completely from our view, which, for some reason, just manages to make me more curious about her.

When the Nando kid and I exchange pono I’m mostly still watching Hina, and the feeling of a sighting coming on is a total surprise. I have just enough warning to throw my mind kind of desperate into one of the meditation methods that Dylan taught me, and even though it takes pretty much all my will power, I do actually manage to channel the energy of the sighting in some sort of controlled way.

As in, I don’t fall over or anything, but I do react. I go all still and silent, just trying to hold myself together while the thing goes through me. I see Nando in a dark room by himself somewhere, weeping all wild and fierce, grabbing in this sort of unhinged desperation at the skin of his own face.

When I come out of the sighting, I realize I’m just staring at him all blank-faced and startled, our palms still together and his eyebrows raised in a kind of curious concern.

“Still getting used to pono,” I’m quick to say, smiling kind of rueful, as if my behavior just now was simply a reaction to the tiny spark of energy that our hands exchanged.

I think for sure he’s not going to buy it, but he does after all. Gives me his own sympathetic smile and turns his attention back to the rest of the group. Meanwhile, I’m feeling like I just intruded into one of his private moments, like some sort of psychic peeping Tom or something. Like if he knew what it is I’d seen just now he wouldn’t be at all happy about it.

Still, I can’t stop sneaking glances at him. Studying his face and comparing it to my sighting, wondering what event could possibly make him feel that much anguish, and why it is that with everything else going on today that’s the only sighting I’ve been shown.

Some other kids start trickling into the classroom, sitting down in the chairs at the long tables or huddling in their own little conversational groups. Pretty much everyone seems to know Eilian and her friends, but nobody else joins us in our circle, though some of them do seem to be listening in.

Tua brings the conversation back to the video again, as if he just can’t stop himself from thinking about it. He asks, in a general kind of way, if anyone knows anything about the victim, but I notice as he asks the question that his eyes focus mostly on Nando.

“Uncle Wyn says it was one of the partners at the Mountain Vista Realty firm,” Eilian offers, and Tua lets out this little snort.

“Biggy Argyle? Partner at Mountain Vista he may be, but what he’s really known for is an enormous list of shady dealings down in Stranger’s Hollow. Didn’t you read the takers’ written statement underneath the video?”

“I didn’t really want to give them that much of my time,” Eilian says, kind of defensive.

“Why do the takers even care about that place?” Nando cuts in with a bite to his voice that I notice makes Hina glance up at him real quick.

“I doubt they do care about Stranger’s Hollow.” Eilian looks to Tua again. “What are they trying to do this time? Set themselves up as the good guys or something? Some sort of ‘watching out for the downtrodden’ rubbish?”

Leti’s the one that responds to her, speaking in this real measured voice, almost like she’s reciting the words or something.

“They say that Biggy Argyle represents the corruption of ‘the establishment,’ and that the Way Reader will inevitably be part of that establishment too. By killing Argyle, they’re challenging the Way Reader to come out of hiding and prove them wrong.”

Her words make me feel cold all over. Heavy, like maybe I’m slowly turning to stone.

“What’s Stranger’s Hollow?” I ask, trying not to sound like I have any more interest in this conversation than the rest of them. The way they all look at me, though, you’d think I’d just announced the world was flat or something.

“You don’t know?” Tua asks. “Gabriel’s never left Brazil until now and even he knows about Stranger’s Hollow.”

“Give her a break, you guys,” Eilian injects with a lighter tone, half in my defense and half kind of teasing. “She grew up on a minuscule farm in the mountains of Wyoming. Only Painter she’s ever known is her own mum. Of course she’s never heard of Stranger’s Hollow.”

The rest of them kind of laugh at this and I manage to join in, but our laughter’s cut short by the sound of someone real pointedly clearing his throat from the front of the room. The teacher—who apparently came in unnoticed—waits until he’s got our full attention and then looks at the tables around us as if to say that the time for us to sit down was at least three minutes ago.

We all move pretty much on instinct, kind of tumbling into whatever chairs are immediately beside us, which puts me at a table with Nando and Hina, and Eilian and Tua and Leti at the table next to ours. Gabriel takes a second longer to choose an open seat at the next table up. A table at the very front of the room, under the critical eye of our teacher. From where I’m sitting I can see Gabriel give the man a sheepish little smile, but Mr. Braun doesn’t even acknowledge it.

He’s a tall man with a real straight-backed sort of posture and a head so bare that you’d think the few wispy hairs still hanging out around the edges must’ve been left there with a specific purpose. His rectangular glasses are perched half-mast on his nose, adding a good dose of severity to the way he’s glaring out at all of us in the class. I don’t know what I was expecting from a teacher at a Painter school, but this wasn’t really it.

When he starts talking, it’s with a German accent and in a voice so direct you almost feel like you should come to attention.

“The administration would like me to perform some sort of morale-building fluff and getting-to-know-you time wasters. I’m not going to. If you want to get to know each other, do it before or after class. This isn’t some Particle-Blind high school where our main concern is making sure you feel warm fuzzies about yourselves. Your purpose here is to learn, so feel warm fuzzies about that.”

I notice now that there’s a little glint in his eyes as he’s talking, as if deep down he’s having one huge laugh about all this and he’s just waiting for the rest of us to figure it out and join in.

“Let me explain to you how the term is going to work,” he continues. “The first couple hours of class will be devoted to a lecture, given by me. If you’re thinking this is a good time to get your nap in, think again. If you don’t want to learn, go somewhere else not to do it. If I see you sleeping, I will wake you up in a very unpleasant manner. Imagine ice cold water splashing over your face. When you feel you’re growing drowsy, try entertaining yourself by reading these—”

He pulls a tiny glass jar out of his jacket pocket and moves as if he’s flinging its contents up into the air. A bunch of posters materialize on the ceiling, written in real precise script and saying things like, I hope when I die it’s during one of Mr. Braun’s boring lectures because the transition from life to death would be almost imperceptible.

Eilian looks over at me and rolls her eyes, sort of half-smiling.

“The second half of class is practicum, during which time you will demonstrate to me that you have grasped at least some inkling of the principles taught each day. Don’t smile,” he directs his scowl at an Asian girl sitting next to Gabriel. “It isn’t going to be fun. We don’t have fun in this class.”

At this point I’m pretty sure no one in the room is really buying his crotchety act, except for maybe Hina who’s barely taken her eyes off the table in front of us since the moment she sat down.

“Twice during the term you will be required to conduct team projects. That chair you’re sitting in right now? That’s where you’ll be sitting for the rest of the term. Those people you’re sitting by? They’ll be your team. If the person next to you smells badly, just remember that it was you who chose to sit there.”

This all seems so weirdly normal all of a sudden. Everything that’s happened so far this morning—the video, the fear, the sighting—you could believe for a moment that none of it ever happened. We’re just a bunch of normal teenagers with nothing more to worry about than how to navigate life at our new school. Normal except for the whole Painter aspect of it of course, which is only not normal to me.

Mr. Braun launches into a lecture on the “foundational principles of particular sciences.” At the front of the room, he brings up a light-matter model of a plant cell that’s as big as a beach ball. He’s got it floating high above the ground a few feet away from the front tables and he’s walking around it as he describes its various parts. Then, with a quick little twitch of his wrist, a smaller version of the cell model appears without any warning right smack in the air directly in front of each of us.

I’m not the only one that jumps, but I am the only one that’s so startled I make a sound like a squeaky toy being strangled to death.

Mr. Braun directs a glowering look in my direction and says, “No sound effects from the peanut gallery, thank you.”

I can hear a few people snicker, and Tua and Eilian both throw me these appreciative little looks that make me feel just slightly less like I want to sink down under my table.

Most of Mr. Braun’s lecture is pretty basic. Scientific principles that I’ve already learned either from school back in Flemingsburg or from the training with Dylan. But as Mr. Braun has us reach inside our light-matter models and feel the different parts of the cell, I can’t help wondering what Melodie and Sara and Logan would think of all this. I mean, it was a pretty big deal when our high school finally installed whiteboards in the classrooms a few years ago. The technology here in Daxa is way beyond anything anyone in Flemingsburg has probably ever seen.

We explore the insides of cells, of molecules, of atoms. The light matter itself is almost as interesting to me as the models we’re examining. Its particle pattern seems both flexible and kind of tenuous. I don’t know much about this sort of thing yet, but seems to me that if there was a texture that felt like ghost, this would pretty much be it. Which makes me wonder if that thing that visited me last night is made up of particles, and if so, what is its particle pattern like.

After a couple hours of lecturing, Mr. Braun says it’s practicum time. With a snap of his fingers, these silver bowls materialize on top of the tables in front of us, taking shape as if someone were pouring metallic sand into an invisible silicon mold or something. Once the bowls are complete, water slowly fills them up about halfway, and even though I’m watching Mr. Braun real close, I can’t figure out how he’s making it all happen.

“We’ll begin with the basics,” he says, starting to move around the room. “Heating and cooling. First, let’s try bringing the water in your bowls to a soft boil.”

Yesterday, during my first training—which feels now like it must’ve been five years ago—Dylan told me that it was important when I was around other people not to let on how easy everything is for me.

“You won’t be the only girl in Daxa this year who comes from a rural town in the Western United States,” he said. “But if there’s any clue as to how good you are at painting, it won’t be long before the takers realize you’re the only one they need to worry about. Assume they’ve got eyes and ears everywhere.”

Now, for the first time, I’m having to put that advice into practice, and I’m realizing that I don’t really know how. Looking around at everyone else in the room, with their hands on the sides of their bowls getting ready to heat up their water—I mean, I don’t know how hard this stuff is for other Painters. How do I avoid making it look too easy when I don’t actually know what easy is?

I focus on my own bowl and take my mind down into the water particles, trying, at least, just to be extra gentle about it. “Don’t push too hard,” I tell myself over and over again, until several minutes later it slowly dawns on me that Mr. Braun is standing there by my side. Has probably been standing there for a while.

Looking up into his face, I see he’s got one eyebrow raised as if he’s just asked something and he’s waiting for me to answer. For the life of me I can’t find anywhere in my brain where I might’ve registered what he said.

“What I wondered, Miss Warren,” he repeats, sort of gently sarcastic, “is if you’ve not had much time for practice down there on your farm?”

A quick glance around the room shows me thirty or so bowls full of cheerfully boiling water. Nando’s water apparently even boiled so powerfully that half of it spilled out onto our table. My water, on the other hand, is almost as still as ice.

What I’m realizing now—what I should’ve realized immediately—is that all these kids probably became weeks, or even months ago. Probably they’ve had all the time in the world to be practicing these foundational things. Probably none of them were doing this for the first time today, and I didn’t need to try and hide anything.

“Perhaps,” Mr. Braun says, his expression very nearly sympathetic, “Your friend Nando could give you some helpful tips on heating.”

No one tries to stifle their laughter now. Even Hina laughs a little, and it’s clear from everyone’s expressions that Nando and I are meant to be in on the joke. Nando grins over at me and even though I smile too I can feel myself kind of blushing. Eilian gives me one of her affectionate eye-rolls and Gabriel flashes me his drop-dead smile.

We’re barely halfway through the first day and I’ve managed to make myself stand out already, even if it is in the exact opposite way that Dylan feared. I don’t know if I should be worried about it, but looking around the classroom at the way everyone’s smiling at me I get this feeling like everything’s going to be alright. I don’t know exactly what just happened—what it is that they’re all thinking about me now—but weirdly, in this moment, I finally kind of feel like I belong.

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

After another half hour or so of practicum Mr. Braun lets us leave early, grumbling something about it being the first day of term and having better places to be himself. Leti suggests we all go downtown for some hot chocolate, and everyone but Hina agrees. In this quiet little voice she says she has to work soon, and then she slips out of the room as quick as if she were making an escape.

We take something called the Magnix downtown—a sort of subway train that, like the emvees, moves mainly by electromagnetic forces. I’ve never been on any kind of commuter train before and the sheer number of people around us is kind of overwhelming, but I try to act cool about it because even Gabriel seems totally at home right now.

Still, when Eilian takes the window seat, I’m grateful to get the aisle. It’s just nice to know I have the option to bolt toward the doors if I need to. Although, there’s a guy standing in a trench coat over there that kind of weirds me out a little with the way he keeps his fedora pulled low over his face.

Once the train starts moving, almost as silent and smooth as Dylan’s emvee, Nando leans across the aisle to me and brings up Stranger’s Hollow again.

“No one ever answered your question about it,” he explains, and there’s something real sober in the way he says it.

“Eilian mentioned something about the downtrodden?”

“It’s Daxa’s district of vice.”

That look on his face is making me kind of wary, like everything he says is riddled with extra meaning.

“It’s a slum,” his voice comes out with that added bite to it again. “Dark and dirty and dangerous. Full of thieves and murderers and people who have given up on believing that the world can be kind.”

I have no idea how to respond to that. Those words coming from any of the other kids, I might think they were joking or something, but Nando’s eyes are dead serious. That image of him weeping and wild comes into my mind again, and I have to look away for a second for fear that he might actually be able to see that in my face.

Calon tân, Nando,” Eilian says from my other side, half laughing and reaching across me to slap at his arm. “Don’t freak her out. She practically had a hernia the first time she saw a Steel Face. After what you just said, she’ll probably never sleep again.”

It’s my turn to roll my eyes at Eilian. Nando kind of laughs, but I can still see a hint of that dark expression in his eyes. As if he’s got some huge emotional burden that he can’t ever seem to shrug off entirely.

The shop where we go to get our hot chocolates is only a few blocks away from the train station. On the sign it says it’s called “a chocolatier,” which I didn’t even know was a thing. The place looks like something straight out of a child’s dream. Or like, if Willy Wonka married an ice queen, this is how they’d design their home. The walls and ceiling are made out of shimmering, wintery-looking glass that’s filled with rivuleting liquid chocolate in pretty much every color under the sun.

When Leti notices the way I’m staring around the place she kind of raises an eyebrow at me and, trying to be funny, I tell her that I’ve never been to a chocolatier before, as if that’s the aspect of this place that’s blowing my mind.

She only semi-smiles, though, and it’s this real matter-of-fact sort of thing.

“Oh, this is a special occasion for the rest of us too,” she informs me. “Normally when we go out for drinks, we head to a regular café or a neighborhood tea shop or something.”

“Tea shop?” It brings up images of little old British ladies in floral dresses and enormous hats, but here in Daxa I’m guessing the reality of a tea shop is a whole lot crazier. “Never been to one of those either.”

Tua’s been paying attention to our conversation apparently. He gives me this real exaggerated, incredulous sort of look.

“Where do you go out with your friends?”

It seems like an easy enough question, but the truth is my friends and I don’t really go out anywhere. Not in that sense of the word.

“Some of the older kids drive into the city sometimes to hit up the bars,” I offer, and I’m surprised when this makes even Eilian look at me in near shock.

“You don’t drink that stuff, do you?” Nando asks, and suddenly I feel like I’ve stepped onto dangerous ground or something.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It messes with your brain, farm girl,” Tua says, adding emphasis by using both hands to point at his head. “Messes up your painting. Your mom never told you this?”

“It’s not the worst of the drugs,” Eilian breaks in like she’s coming to my rescue a little bit, “but here in Daxa, Stranger’s Hollow is the only place you can get that sort of thing.”

My mind’s working quick on this one, trying to figure out some right way to respond.

“Oh, well, I didn’t say that I go to the bars. Besides,” I sort of shrug my shoulders and try to look real nonchalant like what I’m about to tell them is definitely not being fabricated on the spot, “Mom’s always been kind of weird about Painter stuff. Tells me things on a need-to-know basis, and, well, obviously it’s not as if I was doing a whole lot of painting back at home. So, you know, not a whole lot of need to know.”

To my relief, referencing my screw-up in class earlier makes everyone start to laugh. Tua claps me on the back, saying, “Stick with us, Farm Girl,” in a way that makes me think the name’s probably going to stick. “We’ll teach you all the necessaries.”

After finishing our hot chocolate, we wander around the city for a while, and it’s kind of crazy to me that no one else seems to have the urge to just stop in their tracks and stare up, and up. I mean, walking at the feet of these skyscrapers is a whole different experience than driving by them in the emvee.

The buildings looked big before, but now they seem impossible. They rise up so high that I can’t even pick out the tops of them, and you’d think it’d make me feel as small as an ant or something but instead it’s almost transcendent. It’s this feeling like, if I just reached my hands up high enough, I could actually borrow some of the buildings’ height somehow and stretch myself out as far as the sky.

There are little parks and market places scattered every few blocks or so, most of them heated enough to keep out the winter snow. When we come into one little square where there are a bunch of acrobats performing, this time I’m not the only one who wants to stop and watch.

Nando—who somehow knows a lot about what the acrobats are doing—explains that the reason they’re able to stand in mid-air and fling each other unbelievable heights and distances is because they’re playing with the density in the air particles around them.

Knowing something about how they do it doesn’t stop me from being totally enthralled with every flip or tumble that the acrobats pull off. Apparently I’m a little too enthralled, though, because when the others decide to leave, I don’t even notice until it suddenly dawns on me that I am now very much on my own.

I catch sight of them at the far edge of the park already, fully immersed in their conversations and obviously unaware that they left me behind. I shout out their names, but what with the acrobats’ accompaniment music and the noise of the watching crowd, my friends can’t hear me.

As I start after them, I notice that man with the trench coat again, the fedora still covering most of his face. He’s several feet away from me, hidden partly from view by a group of women who are watching the acrobats. When I start moving so does he, very much as if he’s following me. A glance behind me a few seconds later tells me he’s still on my trail, and that’s when I start to get scared.

I try to remind myself that no one knows I’m the Way Reader and that it would be crazy for the takers to try to grab me in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of this crowd anyway, but the more aware I am that every face around me is the face of a stranger’s the more vulnerable I feel. I hurry faster toward the place where my friends just disappeared, but when the man picks up his own pace to keep up with me, I can feel the beginnings of a panic coming on.

I’m almost to the street corner when I glance back again. This time the man’s head is raised up a little bit and our eyes meet. What I see makes my heart leap up into my throat. He’s got no real eyes at all. Just these oval sockets of cold, slick silver.

The shock of it makes my steps falter, makes me twist around toward him in a mesmerized sort of fear. I’m on the verge of letting out a scream, when someone else grabs me from behind.


Previous: Chapter 13

Next: Chapter 15


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Please let me know what you think, either by commenting below or emailing me here. Tell me if anything stood out to you in a good way. If anything stood out to you as bad. Is there anything in particular that you like about the characters themselves? Anything that bugs you about them? Were there any parts of this chapter that made you happy, scared, excited, sad, etc.?