I found my clothes stacked by my cot, folded and clean, and changed into them before breakfast. In the cafeteria, I ate in a state of near gloom, paying little attention to the goings-on around me. Afterward, I walked slowly to the room where I was to meet with Derik. He wasn’t there. I waited for twenty minutes or so, though it felt longer, before leaving the room to find him. The halls were as busy as usual, everyone making their way toward whatever jobs they were assigned. For a moment, I thought about following suit and finding something to do with myself, but changed my mind when I saw Derik moving toward the main doors. I followed.
Once he reached the guards there, I could make out only some of his words. “… send someone for me when they get back…” was all I could catch, before he turned. He saw me in that instant and froze. “Haylee.” He started walking toward me, then stiffly by me. “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to postpone our next session… I’ve got too much on my plate today.”
I jogged to catch up. “What’s going on? How long has the, uh…” I searched for a word, “crew, or whatever you wanna call them, been out?”
He heaved a sigh. “Not long.”
“Not long? Then why do you seem so worried?” I stopped and frowned.
He kept moving. “Never mind. I’ve got a lot to do…” He finally slowed and turned toward me. “Why don’t you go ahead and use the training room… go over what I taught you without me. We’ll figure out another time to work together, or something,” he added brusquely and disappeared around the corner.
He wanted me to practice self-defense by myself? “Uh… Okaaay…” And I tried, I really did. Well, for about ten minutes. “This is not working,” I told myself aloud. I had the room to myself but practicing the escapes without the holds seemed pointless. He seemed angry with me. Why? What the hell was his problem?! “I give up!” I said, flinging myself to the floor, my arms over my face in exasperation. “This is ridiculous.”
I resolved not to think about Derik for the rest of the day, which proved easy for a little while. I did what I could to keep myself busy until Gamut’s shift started. When I arrived, several other people were there, and the apprehension seemed to ooze from them. I approached Gamut cautiously. “What’s going on?”
“The group hasn’t returned yet. Everyone’s getting nervous.” He stood tensely, his eyes the only indication of emotion. The look there was a mix of anxiety and sympathy. “I’m sorry… but some people seem to be blaming you.”
I frowned. “Huh?” This statement had taken me aback. I was speechless.
He closed his eyes briefly. “It’s not just because they’re suspicious of newcomers… it’s because Derik told them about your well. They went looking specifically for it. So, uh… they think that, um… well.” He didn’t go on.
I chanced a look at the people gathered. Some of them stared back at me, a few with looks of distaste or all-out antagonism. I fixed my gaze on Gamut instead. “What? What do they think?” I asked him.
The look of sympathy intensified. “They—they think you sent them on a wild-goose chase. They don’t believe the well is actually there. Haylee, I—”
“They think I lied.” I stared in shock. After a moment, I made myself focus on Gamut. “Do you think that? That I lied?”
“No,” he said, quietly. “No, I believe you. It was there in your time and might still be there. It’s possible they just ran into trouble. It’s bound to happen. It does, quite often, really. These idiots know that… To tell you the truth, I don’t know what’s come over them.” He looked as confused as me for a moment. “Just stick close to me today… alright?” he said, giving the group a sidelong glance.
I nodded. I wasn’t sure I actually heard exactly what he had said, since I was still fixated on them thinking I had lied. All I wanted to do was help these people, and this had been the best way I could think of. Is this why Derik had treated me so gruffly earlier? Did he think I had lied as well? With that thought, my resolution went right out the door. My knees shook as understanding dawned, and I felt queasy.
“Haylee? Are you alright?” The worry was evident in Gamut’s voice. “Here, you should sit down.” He led me to the trophy case and helped me up onto the ledge. “Shh, now… calm down. Take slow, even breaths, okay?” He placed his hands on either side of my face.
I tried to do as he said and felt myself calming down a bit.
“There. Is that better?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
He laughed a little. “You’re sorry. You nearly pass out, because everyone’s overreacting, and you’re sorry?” He smiled at me and kissed my forehead. “You’re adorable, you know that? Why everyone else can’t see you as I do… I don’t know.” He shook his head. Suddenly, he stiffened, and his smile was gone. “Derik,” was all he said.
I looked over his shoulder to see him standing across the hall, his hands on his hips, staring directly at us. I felt my face drain of color.
“Haylee, remember what I said. Breathe.” Gamut’s voice and a gentle shake brought me back. “Just lean back for a while, okay? I should get back to my post.” He indicated over his shoulder. “I’ll be right over here, if you need me,” he said, with a significant look.
Once again, I did as he asked. I couldn’t remember ever being so shaken. I’d obviously been more afraid for my life but never before in such shock. Gamut couldn’t have known it wasn’t that no one but him believed me but that Derik, of all people, didn’t. Why did that bother me most of all? And why did I have to keep asking myself that question? Wasn’t it obvious by now? I was falling for him, maybe had fallen for him. Which was ridiculous in and of itself. How could I fall for someone so distant, so confusing, and so irritating? But I had, nonetheless. I did my best to push all of these thoughts and fears from my head, but it wasn’t easy. I leaned back and focused on thinking of nothing, like I had practiced with Sabella.
I must have been doing a pretty good job, because the next thing I knew the doors were being thrown open, and the gathered group was helping the lost party into the entry hall. So much light poured in, I could just make out the shapes of people.
“Oh no!” I heard someone gasp. And another hissed, “I knew it!” Then, everyone was talking at once.
I heard Derik’s voice above them all. “What happened? Where’s Ferris?”
Someone spoke up. “We lost him. We were attacked.”
My eyes began to adjust, and I was able to make out a few of their faces. Derik stood tall, in the midst of the group. After I took in his position, I noted the condition of those who had just arrived. They were all battered and bruised, and several were wounded in varying degrees, a few only standing with the support of those around them. My eyes must have been wide enough to pop out of my head. They felt it.
Then, I heard someone breach the dreaded topic. “The bottles are empty. You didn’t find the well?”
Someone answered, “No. We searched for it longer than we should have. But we didn’t find any well.” The reply sounded accusatory.
“Let’s get them to the infirmary,” Derik interrupted the dangerous conversation. He placed his arm around one of the more seriously wounded men and turned back down the hall. As he did so, he passed by me. “I’ll speak with you later,” he said under his breath, and the look in his eye sent a shiver down my spine. And not the good kind, either. If my eyes could have gone wider they would have.
Gamut was a little ways behind the group, walking along with them. He stopped for a moment. “Maybe you should hide out for a bit, stay low, you know?” He gave me a little smile and moved ahead with the group.
An image of the dusty piano room quickly flashed through my mind, but something inexplicable happened before that idea could stick. If Gamut’s back hadn’t been to the door, he would’ve had it well within his view, but his attention was on the group moving away down the hall. My gaze wandered to the abandoned bags of bottles near the door, and I scooted down off my perch. My body seemed to be moving of its own volition, as I walked toward the bottles. No one was watching the doors. Even the two men left with the responsibility of closing the heavy doors were intently focused on their work. So, I moved with more purpose, grabbed the nearest cloth sack and, without hesitation, slipped through the doors just before they closed. It seemed a miracle no one had noticed me slip out. That, or dumb luck. Whether my luck was good or bad was a completely different discussion, but suddenly I was doubting my decision. What had I done? I let myself freak for only half a second, then squared my shoulders and got my bearings. I looked toward where home should be and started walking. As I got several feet away from the building, I remembered the guards on the roof. What was I thinking, thinking I could get away with this?! And I froze. When no one called out, I took a step and then another until I was walking at a regular pace. I could find that well. That’s why I was doing this. Of course, eventually someone would notice I was gone. And I expected it to be pretty quickly. But if I could find the water, maybe they would believe in me. Maybe he would believe in me. Though he’d probably just think I was stupid or crazy for doing something so stupid and crazy. And who was I to argue with that logic? Really. I might not make it back, once I found the water. If I found the water… Wait. I might not make it back?
I slowed my pace a bit and studied the shadows around me. I saw no movement there. Nothing out of the ordinary. From what I had learned, if I stuck to the sunlight, I would be fine. So that’s what I did. I stayed away from the shadows, which wasn’t as hard as you might think. There were still plenty of clearings, places the trees hadn’t yet reclaimed and maybe never would. Maybe these clearings had always been here. I couldn’t know that but it made sense. I filled my head with thoughts such as this, as I went along. Because these thoughts were much more conducive than thoughts of my imminent death. I was amazed by the utter naturalness of my surroundings. Nothing but the school building had survived all these years. And how long had it been exactly? I still didn’t know and probably would never find out.
Though I had no real way of keeping track of the time, it seemed as though nearly forty-five minutes must have passed. I felt like I should be getting close by now. This would have been the Logan’s property, I was sure of it. So where was the well?
“It should be here.” I squinted my eyes against the sun as I turned, looking. I was about to give up, when I noticed a shape across the clearing. I moved closer. “Eureka,” I said under my breath. Of course, as I was moving closer, I realized something was different. What must have been the well was completely covered by undergrowth, which had been able to flourish out of the direct light of the sun. Which meant the well was now engulfed in shadows, sheltered by the encroaching forest.
I stopped moving and swallowed hard. “Shit,” I said softly and felt guilty immediately because I had always been taught not to use such language. But, hell, did it apply. Taking in my surroundings with great effort, I searched for any sign of the Pale Ones. Nothing. Could I feel if one was near? I wasn’t sure. Sabella had not yet taught me to do so. Was it possible? I could try. Keeping my eyes open, I tried reaching out with my mind, searching as I had just previously done with my eyes. Still nothing, so I pushed out a little harder, which seemed to be the extent of my capabilities, as my breathing was on the verge of becoming labored. I tried to reign myself in slowly but my control was not quite there yet and I came back to myself with a snap. If my eyes had been closed, they most certainly would have jerked open. As far as I could tell, I was alone. Which, in a way, was strange, because I thought someone would definitely have come looking for me by now. Well, maybe it was for the best. I could get the water and head back, none the wiser. So, I took a deep breath and pushed on.
I paused for a moment at the edge of the shadows, then stepped over the threshold. The air felt heavier somehow. Was that possible? It must have been my imagination. At least I was no longer in direct sunlight. I would most definitely be using a little of that aloe ointment when I got back.
When I reached the jumble of undergrowth, I sat the cloth sack down on the ground and studied the work ahead. I didn’t have any means of cutting through the foliage and no way of protecting my hands as I tore through it. And once I did get through it, how was I going to fill those bottles? I sighed. I’d just have to figure that out when I got to it. Anyway, I had no way of knowing whether there was actually any water in this well. Maybe it had dried up by now. Oh, I hoped not. I really hoped not. Then, all of this would have been for nothing. But I had to try.
I looked down at the cloth sack once more and got an idea. Grabbing it up, I shook all of the empty bottles from it, pleasantly surprised when a large ball of heavy twine fell out among them. I placed one hand inside the cloth and set to work. Though the bag was more than large enough to accommodate both hands, I thought that might be awkward. Luckily, I only needed one hand to do the bulk of the work, so the other was safe enough. My makeshift glove was adequate in protecting my hand from the majority of thorns and whatever else I might not want to touch directly. It wasn’t long before I could make out the cracking and slightly crumbling stone of the well. However much time had passed, it seemed to have held up well. Of course, the forest had most likely saved it. But did it still contain water? Now was the time to find out. Exactly how was I going to go about that?
I looked around me, silently wishing for a bucket to magically appear but knowing that wouldn’t happen. I glanced at the bottles strewn across the ground behind me. One of them caught my eye. It was bigger and had a wider mouth than many of the others. Directly below its mouth was a short, wide neck. I looked at the twine and back to the bottle. Maybe, just maybe, it could work. I picked up the bottle and one end of the twine, tying it around the neck. I didn’t know much about knots, but I tied it as securely as possible. I unscrewed the lid and was about to throw the bottle in, when I realized it would just float. I cast my eyes around for something, anything small but heavy enough and rested them on a piece of crumbling stone from the well. Picking it up, I studied it. It was dry and clean. To be sure, I wiped it on my pant leg a few times to remove any dust or loose rock fragments, then dropped it into the bottle and lowered it into the well. I prayed the twine was long enough.
When I had nearly reached the end of it, I decided to pull it back up and nearly did a jig, when I was met with some resistance. The bottle was heavier! I let out a little yelp and pulled with more zeal. When it reached the top, I grabbed for it and studied its contents. I wrinkled my nose a little at its slightly cloudy color and sniffed at it. It smelled okay, I guess. Not that I was an expert. There was supposed to be a naturally occurring spring feeding the well. I just hoped it was clean. I picked up one of the bottles and filled it up. I was able to fill up two of the smaller bottles with the water from the bigger one. I dropped the bottle into the well several more times, smiling as I filled up nearly all of the bottles and placed them back into the cloth sack.
I was filling up the last few bottles, when I heard a twig snap. I froze and, for a moment, could hear only my own breathing. In my absolute stillness, I felt a presence to my right. Without moving my head, my eyes slid in that direction, but I couldn’t see anything. So, bracing myself, I stood slowly, the bottles still in my hands. It was very possible someone from the safe house had come looking for me. I hoped that was the case but wasn’t convinced.
When I looked up, I saw him. Between the open field and me, stood the Pale One, a silhouette against the sunlight.