LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 17

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CHAPTER 17

When Eilian hears that I spent the afternoon with Gwilim, she gets this look on her face like she’s just short of furious.

“What is going on with him? He’s purposefully avoiding the rest of us, but then he goes off to lunch with you? I don’t understand him at all.”

I’m perched on the armrest of one of the big wingback chairs in the den and Eilian’s sprawled on her stomach on the floor in front of me. When I first came in the room, both she and Dylan had their tablets expanded and were absorbed in their own things, wrapped up in blankets and sipping at cups of hot tea. There was something cozy about them like that, but there’s nothing cozy to the mood now.

In the chair across from me Dylan’s studying my face, kind of pensive and perplexed.

“I wonder what Gwilim’s interest is in you?”

“Oh come on, Dylan. That’s obvious.”

Eilian gestures at me all pointed, in a way that I find kind of embarrassing.

“Actually,” I say, studying the cuticles on my fingernails. “I don’t think he’s too interested in me at all. I mean, he barely talked the whole time we were together.”

Eilian’s not really listening. She’s collapsing her tablet back into her ring and getting to her feet. She stands there for a second and stares all unfocused and stormy at the floor. Then suddenly she thrusts her leg out and kicks the foot of the chair closest to her.

“Why doesn’t he just come home?” she says in this little wail, and goes stomping out of the room.

Dylan’s eyes meet mine and he gives me half a smile. Even though he hides it a whole lot better than Eilian, I’d be willing to bet he’s as bothered by Gwilim’s behavior as she is.

“She’s not upset with you,” he says.

“Oh, I know. She’s mad at Gwilim, and with what I’ve seen of him so far, I’d be surprised if anyone in Daxa wasn’t.”

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

At training that night Dylan teaches me how to make things bigger and smaller. How to look at an object’s particle pattern and duplicate it or subtract from it evenly and in the proper directions. Mostly, we use the clay practice ball, but he also has me try it out on the sphere of light matter that can project out of my phone, and then on an apple and a little kiwi that he swiped from Uncle Wyn’s stash in the kitchen earlier.

Seeing these things expand and shrink right there on the table in front of me—and to be making it happen just with the force of my own mind—I get kind of giddy about it. And when Dylan says I’m doing real well, I can feel the pride spread all conspicuous across my face. He ruins it, though, by adding that my technique, while functional, is lacking in finesse.

My reaction to that must be pretty priceless because he actually laughs out loud, and he says, “You just need more practice. You’re still learning faster than any average Painter would do.”

He picks up the clay ball and tosses it to me.

“Take the practice ball to your room and you can work on it when you have free time. Just don’t do it where anyone can see you.”

“Isn’t this something the other kids at school already know?”

“Probably. But it’ll likely be only a another day before you’re much better at it than they are. Actually,” he stands up, stretching his arms above his head for a second and then walking around the table toward me. “We can probably start on transforming material states tomorrow. Which means you need to focus on learning more particle patterns.”

He slides down onto the arm of my chair and reaches for the handyphone ring on my finger. Every time he does this—getting all into my space so sudden—it gives me a weird sense of panic. I need pretty much all my will power not to react too strong when he takes my hand in his and does that thing where he expands my phone for me.

“I’m downloading an index of particle patterns. You’ll want to look over them, memorize them.”

I’m real aware of his body so close to mine. Of that scent of his that makes my breath come faster. He hands my phone back to me, pointing at the index that’s now showing on the screen.

“It has light matter diagrams for each pattern so you can explore it from any angle.”

I stare at my phone, at the top of the screen where it says that the index has over a million entries. Over a million different particle patterns that Dylan expects me to memorize.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Dylan just laughs.

“The more you know about what you’re seeing, the more powerful your painting will be. And the more finesse you’ll have,” he adds with a little smile. “A good Painter can tell when someone else’s painting isn’t up to scratch. I’m assuming you do want to be a good painter.”

“When you put it that way,” I make a face at him and he smiles again. “But still, you want me to memorize all of these?”

I flick my finger over the screen a couple times, scrolling down the seemingly unending list. I can’t help kind of groaning.

“Well, not all at once, of course. It’s easier than you think, though. Especially with your mind. And it really is necessary. Here, let me show you.”

He turns toward me a little more, which means we’re so close that we might as well be hugging. He wraps his fingers around my hand that’s holding the clay practice ball and this time I have to actually bite my lip when his skin touches mine.

“You know the pattern for an apple now,” he says, as calm as if being this near to me has no effect on him at all. “So to change this ball into an apple, all you have to do is look at its particles and determine what the difference is between the two and what needs to happen for the clay pattern to look like the apple pattern. Then, with your mind, you will that change to happen.”

With my particle sight I see the shift as the pattern changes, as the clay ball turns all subtle into this shining, red little apple in my hand. I obviously know it’s not magic, but it still feels magical, and in a sort of laughing surprise I look straight up into Dylan’s face. Which, it turns out, is kind of a mistake.

The way he’s smiling back down at me—like maybe he finds me a little magical—makes my heart beat as hard as a big bass drum. Sends shivers in a rush all over my body, and for just that one little second while we’re looking at each other like that, I think maybe he’s reacting to me the same way too.

Then his handyphone—on his hand that’s still wrapped around my fingers—vibrates to tell him someone’s calling, and whatever sort of moment we were having is immediately over. He lets go of me real quick, standing up and pressing the button to answer the call.

“Hi Teresa,” he says, with his back toward me now, and as fast as my excitement had rushed in, it rushes right back out again. Replaced with this achey sort of melancholy that I’m kind of surprised comes on so strong. As if hearing him say Teresa’s name like that actually hurts somehow.

Dylan turns back to me. “Sorry,” he mouths, pointing at his handyphone ring, and I know that my training is done.

Standing up, I give him an awkward little wave. Then I book it out of his room so I don’t have to hear him sounding so happy to be on the phone with her. By the time I make it back to my own room, it’s pretty obvious the melancholy’s here to stay.

My plan was to practice a little more this evening—I’ve still got that stupid apple in my hand—but I’m definitely not in the mood for painting. I set the thing on my desk and go into the bathroom to get ready for bed because I can’t see that there’s much use in my staying awake any longer.

When I’m climbing under the covers nearly half an hour later, I’m still feeling pretty sorry for myself. Sorry and lonely and homesick. And pretending real hard that I’m only sad because I miss my friends back in Flemingsburg, and not at all because I’m jealous of the way Dylan feels about Teresa.

The blanket’s already pulled way up to my chin when I remember my parents’ locket, which I stashed in the back of one of the dresser drawers my first night here. Before Dylan melted all my other belongings. I slide back out of the bed and shuffle through the dark over to the dresser, fumbling blind around in all the folded clothes in the drawer until my hand slides over the metal of the necklace’s chain.

The locket itself is still all beat and broken, and the feel of it in my hand brings up the image of Mom standing in our kitchen, passing me that picture of my dad. I see his curly hair and his playful smile, and my heart feels somehow full and empty at the same time.

Taking the locket over to the bed I climb back in again, slipping down under the covers and pressing the necklace one-handed, real tight against my chest. I didn’t realize how much of an emotional response I was going to have to the thing, but suddenly I feel on the verge of crying.

I think about what Dylan told me a long time ago, about a person’s essence moving over to another dimension when they die. It means my dad might still exist somewhere, and as I start to drift off into sleep I wonder if he ever thinks about me.

When something tickles at the back of my consciousness—something deep inside the locket—it’s more on instinct that I reach my mind out to examine it. The sighting it unleashes brings me real shocking and sudden out of sleep, although the state I’m in is not exactly what I would call waking.

There’s a hand around my throat. Crushing me down onto a hard, cold surface as if it’s going to press the air right out of me. I’m struggling against the grip of it, flailing around in a frenzy and trying to make contact with whoever it is who’s got hold of me. I can’t see anything. It’s just pitch blackness all around, but somewhere near I can hear the sounds of someone else in pain. Wheezing breaths that remind me of the death of that taker girl in the forest.

Suddenly, there’s a voice hissing right into my face, his breath full of a weird scent like chemical grass and cucumber.

“Did you really think you were so special?” the hiss is saying, and it feels like a knife thrust straight into my lungs. “Whatever gifts the universe may have supplied to you, it is still your witless brain directing them. Can you hear how your friend suffers for your foolhardiness? You should suffer too, for what you’ve done to him. The universe made a mistake with you, but it’s brought you to me now so that I can fix it, and you’ll never be so foolish again.”

He grips the top of my head with his free hand, his fingers driving hard down into my scalp, pushing my head backward.

“Don’t worry. Though this will hurt quite a lot, you won’t remember any of the pain afterward.”

There’s some thing in my mind now. Something foreign, as if my attacker’s reaching his energy inside me. Pushing his own darkness right into my brain matter.

I’m petrified, trying to pull myself from his grasp but barely able to breathe. And that horrible gasping from the other person—someone dying beside me. A friend, apparently. Their breath is scratching like razorblades at my ears, and the panic’s taking total hold of me. Pounding through my whole body and into the back of my throat, beating at my temples and threatening to overwhelm me.

Just as I’m sure I can’t struggle any longer—that I’m experiencing my own death—the whole scene dissolves. I’m sitting upright in my bed in the Lucases’ home. The lights are out, but moonlight is filling the room. There’s no one there but me.


Previous: Chapter 16

Next: Chapter 18


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 16

Posting for feedback. Thanks for reading!


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


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