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.?

  

  

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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 12

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


CHAPTER 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 11

Next: Chapter 13


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 11

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CHAPTER 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiles a little bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dylan pushes another photo across the table to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous: Chapter 10

Next: Chapter 12


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