* * *
This time I awoke to nearly complete darkness. Where was I? Was it a dream? A terrible wonderful dream… No. I knew it wasn’t. I could feel the cot under me and, when I held my breath, I could hear the breathing of those sleeping around me. There were more people in the room than before and, judging by the absence of light coming through the windows, night must have fallen. I glanced around the room and saw the only light was flickering from a candle at the far wall. I stared at it for a moment, before looking toward the blackened, dingy windows. Curiosity suddenly overtook me, and I stood and made my way to the candle. Picking it up and shielding the flame, I walked to the nearest window. Without thinking, I used my free hand to wipe at a pane. All at once, I felt a presence at my side, a puff of air sent the flame flickering, and it was out. Then a pair of hands pulled me away from the glass.
“What are you doing? Trying to make a target of yourself?” Derik whispered harshly in my ear.
I blinked, “Wha – a target? No, I – ”
“That’s exactly what you nearly did.” He gave me the barest of shakes and nodded toward the window. “Go ahead. Look. Tell me what you see.” He loosened his grip.
I tried to make out his face, but my eyes weren’t yet used to being without the candlelight. So, I did as he asked. At first, I couldn’t decipher the dark shapes against the darker ones but, as my eyes adjusted, I began to see what seemed to be movement. “Is—is that someone out there?” I asked, my fingertip pressed against the glass. I looked up at him and could now make out some of his more prominent features.
“Yeah. Someone or something. Depends on your point-of-view really. For some reason, they’re showing a lot more interest in this place tonight. I wonder why?” He looked at me speculatively.
I turned my attention back to the darkness outside but saw nothing this time. “Because of me?”
“That’s the general consensus, yes.”
“How long have they been out there?”
“I saw the first one around dusk, the rest of the watch has been noticing them here and there for the past hour.”
A question came to mind. “How long has it been since dusk?”
I saw one corner of his mouth lift. “About three and a half hours ago.” His eyes shone with something akin to appreciation, which only confused me more.
“Is it something we should worry about?”
“Not at the moment. It’s unusual for there to be this many but we normally will see a few, mostly at night. They like to cause as much trouble as possible but they won’t try anything tonight.” He set the candle in its place.
“Um. How many are there?”
“I’ve counted twenty-six so far,” he said, seriously.
I felt my eyes go wide, was suddenly very conscious of the window now behind me, and moved to follow him. I was almost certain I heard him chuckle.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
The change of subject threw me off, but then again everything about this man did. “Uh… yeah.” And I realized I was indeed hungry. “Very much so.”
“Alright, I’ll walk you down.” The look he gave me was almost warm, as he held the door open for me.
A few candles lit the deserted hall. “We tend to move around upstairs more during the day. At night, we’re more watchful, so people tend to stay in designated areas,” he explained.
“Uh, if you have some place you’re supposed to be or something, you don’t have to walk me. I remember the way.” I said this with my eyes on the floor.
“Would you rather walk alone?” He stopped.
“I – No, I…” I was flabbergasted. I looked at him. “I just meant…” I looked around desperately.
“I was about to turn in. I’m caught up on most of my work, but my sleep schedule is a little off. I don’t normally like to sleep at night…” he hesitated, as he began walking again, “just in case. But I’m not especially worried tonight, like I said. However, you’re obviously worked up about our uninvited guests and wouldn’t want to walk alone… Right?”
“Uh…” was all I got out, when he suddenly stopped again. We were now at the top of the dark stairwell.
“You’re not afraid of me, are you?” His voice hid any emotion. So I had no way of knowing if the thought upset him or if he actually preferred that I be afraid.
I stared into the dark stairway, unexpectedly anxious. He most certainly intimidated me, but was I afraid of him? I think I was more afraid of how he made me feel when I was around him. That, combined with the darkness of my immediate surroundings. Were there no candles on the stairs? Of course I didn’t want to say any of this aloud, so instead I asked, “Should I be?” and finally looked at him.
He stared back for a moment, unflinchingly. “Maybe,” was all he said and continued down the stairs.
Maybe? I stood dumbfounded for a moment, then shrugged it off as his version of a joke, and trustingly followed him into the darkness.
He stopped in the doorway of the cafeteria. “This would be my stop. Can you handle this on your own?” Suddenly, he seemed more himself.
“You’re not eating?” I asked as I glanced nervously around the room. It was nearly as crowded as during the day. I thought I recognized a face or two from earlier but the rest were all new. And one of those new faces was staring back at me, or us. I couldn’t be absolutely sure, but she didn’t look happy. Like nearly all of them, she was tall, with a dark complexion. However, unlike the rest, her hair was cropped short and slicked back somehow. She was striking, might even have been beautiful if not for the expression on her face. She stood by a group of other men and women, a hand on her hip.
“Like I said, I need to get some sleep.” He seemed to catch sight of the young woman across the room. “First, I think I’ll make another round, do another count,” he said, distractedly. He turned abruptly back to the hall. “Make sure someone walks you back.” And he was gone.
He left me standing there feeling like an idiot. Again. Then, laughter from the other side of the room caught my attention. The woman had returned her interest to the group. “Yeah, maybe we should just throw her to them,” she said, and several laughed with her. Others, seeing me standing there, feigned a serious fascination with their meals. Not knowing how to react, I pretended not to hear. Was she talking about me? I mean, who else would she be talking about? I made my way to the food line, acting as normal as a girl can once she’s found herself in a strange world full of the stuff of dreams. And not all the good stuff, either.
Once I had my bowl, I looked around for a place to sit. No one met my eyes, and as I chose an empty spot, the people sitting nearby were puzzlingly finished with their food. I found myself alone at an empty table. So, I sat and began eating. I was hungry but found the food had little flavor. Now, either the food actually had little flavor, or it was just me. I don’t know. I was pondering this quandary when someone near me cleared their throat. I looked up hesitantly.
Before me, stood a young man and woman. How young, I was unsure. They were much smaller than most of the others but still slightly bigger than me. “Hi,” said the young man. “Would you mind if we sat here? With you, I mean?”
I knew my mouth hung open for a moment before I answered. “Uh, no. I mean sure.” I let out a nervous laugh. “Yes. Sit. Please.” The two of them sat across from me, smiles on their faces.
“I’m Merritt,” he said, giving me his hand. “And this is Karroll,” he indicated to the young woman. She gave a small wave.
I smiled and said, “It’s nice to meet you both. Um. My name’s Haylee.”
“We know,” said Karroll, as she scooped food into her mouth.
“You looked like you could use a friend, and,” he paused with a sheepish look, “I admit we were a bit curious.”
“Yeah… I guess you’d have to be…” I said not knowing what else to say. I glanced around again and caught the eyes of the woman across the room. She didn’t look down, which meant I had to. I stared at the table. “Um. Who is she?” nodding in her direction.
Merritt turned, quickly surveying the room. “Oh. You mean Nate. Yeah… she’s been with us for a little while now. What, a couple years?” He glanced at Karroll. She nodded, and he went on. “Yeah. She and Derik are together. Look’s like they’re mates. Like me and Kar, here.” He smiled big. “We’ve known since we were kids,” he said with conviction.
“She – ?” I coughed, nearly choking, and ducked my head, before repeating more quietly, “She’s his mate? You mean they’re getting married or something?” I looked back and forth between the two across from me.
Karroll looked at me quizzically. “Not exactly. I honestly don’t think they are – ”
“No, no,” Merritt took over, the excitement evident in his voice. “They’re meant-to-be. They match, down to their cores. They complete each other.”
I raised my eyebrows at this phrase, managing to hide a smile, but then thought about it, as I stared at my food. “Like soul mates? You said, like you guys are….”
“Yea – ” he began, but Karroll interrupted.
“Not like us,” she said, glancing at him and looking back at me. “We call our mate – our true mate – our Other Half. Many people don’t get the concept. It’s not like it used to be – not like I’ve read in books. It’s not something you choose, it’s chosen, but not by any person. It’s an undeniable attraction, a bond. And it’s different for everyone. Most mates are opposites, so they balance each other out in all aspects of power and personality. Others are drawn together in more subtle ways. Which is the way many think it is for Derik and Nate. But it isn’t.” She looked pointedly at Merritt, who kept quiet. “They have a lot in common, okay. They’re together, sure. But they’re not connected. Not really. Any fool can see what they have is purely physical.”
“Oh, come on now. They’re perfect for each other… Everyone knows it.”
I just watched their exchange. So Derik was seeing someone? Interesting… But why was I shocked? It’s not like I had any reason to care, really. I didn’t care. I was just… curious. That’s it. Just pure curiosity. I found myself looking back across the room. When my eyes found her, I felt an unexplainable sinking feeling in my stomach. She was staring back at me, and I had been wrong earlier. She wasn’t beautiful when she smiled. She was downright scary. Somehow, I could sense everything she felt toward me at that moment in her toothy grin. She hated me and she wanted me to know it. Also, I somehow got the impression she had heard every word we had spoken. I couldn’t look away.
“Haylee.” Karroll touched my hand, and I snapped back to the people in front of me. “Haylee, are you alright?” She leaned toward me, concern on her face.
I shook myself. “Uh, yeah. I’m… fine.” I blinked a few times. “Just tired, I guess.”
“Hey, don’t pay attention to her, okay?” she said. “She’s a little possessive, and you’ve been a bit of a distraction these last few days.” Then she smiled apologetically, “Mostly to Derik.”
“But don’t worry about it,” Merritt rushed in. “Things’ll get back to normal before you know it, and Derik’ll forget about everything, and she’ll leave you alone.” He smiled, reassuringly.
Karroll reached over and laid her hand on mine. “He means well, but sometimes he doesn’t say the right thing,” she said to me, with a penetrating look. I was more curious about the look than her words.
“What do you mean by that?” he asked. “I’m just tryin’ to make the girl feel better. Nate’s obviously overreacting. What’s she expect in this situation? Derik to completely ignore something like this? No offense,” he added to me.
“Merritt.” She looked at him. “Sometimes you amaze me.”
He smiled. “Why, thank you,” he said, dully.
She turned her look of wonder back to me and shook her head.
“Well, break’s over,” he said, standing. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Yeah…” she replied. “Do you need someone to walk you back to the sleeping area?” she asked me.
“Derik said I should have someone… Do you mind?”
“Not at all. It’s on our way, anyway.”
So, we took our bowls to the designated window and left them for whoever was back there to clean them. I tried to sneak a look through but saw no one.
As we made our way out of the room, I noticed something I must have been too distracted to notice before. “What is that?” I indicated above the doorway.
“Secondary security,” Merritt replied.
Karroll explained further. “In case one of them tries to get inside the main door upfront. We’re supposed to gather here, since it’s the only room large enough for all of us. It takes two strong people on either side of the doorway to lower it.” She pointed to the levers and the pulley system attached to them. “It gives an added layer of defense – just in case – especially for those who can’t defend themselves, like the children.”
I gave a small nod, as I studied what appeared to be very heavy wrought iron and hoped it never had to be used during my stay.
As I began to follow them again, I became aware of nearly every pair of eyes weighing on my back. But one stare was stronger than the rest and it was burning a hole right through me. Oh, God, I hoped fire wasn’t Nate’s ability, because, if it was, she’d surely burn me to death right there. And what was her ability, anyway? I was sure to find out, sooner or later.
In silence, the three of us walked down the candlelit hall, Merritt and Karroll on either side of me. “So,” Karroll said, quietly, “you’re not from around here, then?” It was the politest way to simultaneously tell me everyone knew some version of my story and to ask me for the story firsthand.
“Um, not exactly. What have you heard?” I asked.
“Well… several things really. I think I heard someone say you were a plant, sent by the Pale Ones to spy on us,” she said.
“Actually, I think it was Nate who said that,” Merritt broke in.
She shrugged and went on, “Others have said you were found wandering around at night completely nude.” My eyes went wide and I opened my mouth to object, when she held up her hands. “No worries. No one believes that one. At least not many… It was more than likely spread by Ford and Jaxon.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re harmless degenerates, really. Every camp has them. They were actually hanging around Nate in the cafeteria just now.” Then, she went on. “Other than that, the most widely spread rumor is you’re a time traveler and have spoken with Sabella. Which is ridiculous, because no one but a select few ever speaks to the Seer.”
“So, which is it? Plant, nude, or Sabella?” Merrit laughed, as we made it up the last few stairs.
“Uh… I was found at night. Not so much wandering as running for my life and falling unconscious… apparently into Derik’s arms,” I said, sheepishly. “And most certainly fully clothed,” I added quickly in response to their looks of inquiry. “And, uh… I did see Sabella,” I mumbled.
“What?!” they cried in unison, then Karroll placed her hand on Merritt’s arm and we stopped moving. “What?” she asked with much more reserve.
“I met with Sabella,” I repeated. “Earlier today, she asked for me… and Derik. I guess since he’s the one who found me. She let us both in on what’s going on. And somehow it kinda made sense to me,” I said, as I began walking again.
They followed. “What do you mean? What did she say?” she began eagerly but then caught herself. “I am so sorry… this is none of our business. I can’t believe I just did that,” she chastised herself and looked down at the floor, as we walked.
Pausing, I sighed, “No… it’s alright. I think I really like you guys. You’re the first people, besides Glenna really, to be so nice. I think we could be friends. So, I think I want to tell you… but it’s kind of strange. It’s unbelievable really. I’m not sure where to even start.” I blinked and continued walking. The two of them were silent, as they waited for me to go on. I took a deep breath and told them what their seer had said, what I understood of it anyway. By the time I had finished, we had been standing at the door for nearly ten minutes. They were quiet for a little while longer.
Merritt finally said, “Wow,” and rubbed his shaggy head.
Karroll stood with what appeared to be a frown on her face, but I couldn’t tell in the dim lighting. She was deep in thought, then just raised her eyebrows and gave a slight smile. “Well, welcome to the fold,” she said. “I imagine everything will play out as it is meant to.” She glanced at Merritt who still had his hand on his head. “We need to get to work though…” And, as they were leaving, she said to me, “Thank you very much for trusting us with your story. Just look for us if you need anything. Now get some rest… I also imagine you need it.”
“Thank you,” I said, sincerely, and told them goodnight, as I opened the door. Once it was closed behind me, I realized I hadn’t thought to ask what their abilities were. They weren’t big like many others, so they must not be built for fighting. Their capabilities would be very interesting to learn, and I already knew they wouldn’t find it rude of me to ask. I made my way to my cot and noticed someone had relit the candle while I was gone.
In my dreams, I saw the bars of a poorly lit cell and something small scurrying out of sight. Then I dreamed Nate and her group pulled me from the table where I ate and dragged me out a door into the night. They threw me to the ground and, laughing, closed the door behind me. I could feel the Amara closing in, even before their shadows fell upon me.