* * *
Around dawn, I awoke, a scream catching in my throat, trembling, but I couldn’t remember the cause. I felt a terrible sense of loss and had the incredible urge to curl up into a ball under the blanket and never come out. I resisted that urge. It was time to get up. Time to eat breakfast. Time to go. All of my fears from last night returned, as I threw my feet from the bed and into my sneakers. Today, I was wearing pretty much what I had come here in, minus my favorite t-shirt. I was able to save the image on the front but nothing more. In place of it, I wore a sort of brown smock with my jeans.
Slowly, I made my way down to the cafeteria. Before I had reached it, I saw Derik and Gamut near the main hallway. Were they arguing? Derik stood with his arms crossed over his chest, fists and jaw clenched tight. Gamut was throwing his arms in the air, as he spoke. I wasn’t close enough to hear exactly what was said but as I got nearer, I caught a little.
“…happens, I’ll… personally responsible,” Derik said, fiercely, tapping a finger into Gamut’s chest.
“Fine,” Gamut blurted and stormed off. His storming brought him in my direction, but he veered away before I could speak to him.
I looked back toward Derik and, if I didn’t know better, would have said he looked like he wanted to punch the wall. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, he saw me where I had stopped and moved toward me. “Have you eaten yet?” he asked somewhat gently.
I shook my head and looked back the direction Gamut had gone. “I was on my way when…” I pointed. “What was that about?” I asked, though I had an inkling.
He glanced behind me before answering. “It doesn’t matter,” he sighed. “The issue’s been resolved... for now.” He looked back at me. “Why don’t you go ahead and get some food. We’ll meet here in about an hour, give or take. Okay?”
I nodded, and Derik moved along down the hall.
When I arrived in the cafeteria, I was surprised to see Karroll and Merritt there, waiting for me. Karroll waved me over, once I had my food.
“Hey. We got up early to see you off.” She said, as I sat. Then she leaned forward. “So, how was your dinner last night? I haven’t gotten the chance to talk to Gamut today… So?” She prodded. When I didn’t answer right away, her face fell. “Oh. That bad, huh?” She rested her arms heavily on the table and rolled her eyes. “Great ball of fire… That no good brother of mine. What has he done this time?” She gave me a sympathetic look.
I swallowed the small lump in my throat and glanced around. There weren’t many people around us, so I told them my story, leaving out some of the details I had felt comfortable telling Glenna. Merritt’s eyes went a little wide and he spent the remainder of the conversation staring at the table. Karroll had a somewhat different reaction.
She laughed. “Oh, wow… I’m sorry, hun… My, he deserved that.” She shook her head. “I told you, he’s got it bad. Real bad, apparently. But don’t worry. You’ve just wounded his pride a bit. He’ll come around.”
“Within the next hour or so?” I was skeptical.
“Yes. Before you leave. He’s just a little bit of a baby, that’s all.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes again.
We talked for a while. I couldn’t necessarily say about what, but we talked about general things and nothing in particular. I think Merritt must have been sharing some gossip but I’m not sure. I know I should have been paying more attention to my last conversation with my two friends but I couldn’t. I couldn’t concentrate. I was growing more and more nervous, as the time ticked on. Before I knew it, it had been an hour, and it was time for me to meet the rest of the group. Karroll and Merritt walked me to the hallway.
Derik and the others were gathered just outside the cafeteria. Even Gamut was there. Each of them had a small backpack slung across their backs, and most of them were carrying a weapon of some sort. I wondered if they expected trouble despite the daylight.
Gamut approached us. “Um…” He scratched his head and looked at the floor sheepishly. “Uh, could we talk a minute… alone, Haylee?” He glanced at other two.
I did the same, raising my eyebrows at Karroll. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” I followed Gamut to a corner away from the others.
He seemed tense and kept his back to the group. He sighed. “Oh, he’s watching me like a hawk.” I didn’t need to look to know whom he was talking about. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked back at me. “Haylee… I just – I wanted to say I’m sorry… about how I acted last night. I was way out of line. And I ruined our time together. I just… I can’t seem to control myself sometimes when I’m with you… It’s because… well… You know I love you, right? I mean, really love you. I’m in love with you. That’s what I wanted to say, needed to say.” He looked down at the floor again. “I guess I should’ve said it before, huh?” He rubbed the back of his neck.
“Oh, Gamut…” I shook my head slowly. “I… I don’t…” I lost the words and felt utterly defeated. I looked at him sadly. “I’m so sorry…”
I guess it was the wrong thing to say. “I don’t want you to be sorry… and I don’t want you’re pity – Shit.” He glanced quickly over his shoulder. “I guess I got his attention again… I’m sorry… Maybe I’m overreacting, got a little too excited just now, I don’t know… Or maybe he’s just an asshole,” he mumbled. “Sorry, again.” He said most of this to me, though I was beginning to wonder if some of it wasn’t for Derik’s benefit. He sighed. “Like I said before, I can’t help how I feel. There’s just one thing I want, I would like, before we leave…”
“Anything. What is it?” I almost reached up to touch his shoulder but thought better of it.
“A kiss – just a kiss, I promise. No funny business… Just a goodbye kiss. Something to remember me by.” He looked at me closely now.
I blinked for a moment and, finally, nodded. “Uh, okay,” I said, nearly inaudibly.
I was against the wall, and he was between me and the rest of the world. I couldn’t see if anyone was still watching or not. But anyone who was would see I was nervous. Gamut was my friend, but I wasn’t sure I trusted him with this, anymore. He moved closer, leaning forward, as he cupped my face with one hand, the other at my waist. His touch was gentle and, when our lips met, his kiss was tender. There was no urgency as there had been the night before. Now, he was in control, of himself and not only me. However, it was not a quick kiss. And just when I was beginning to realize just how calculating this kiss had been, we were interrupted.
“S’time to go!” Derik shouted to the group, and anyone else who might be nearby.
I jerked my head back as far as I could, which wasn’t far because Gamut had somehow gotten me backed up all the way against the wall. He didn’t move for several seconds after Derik’s call, as if challenging him. He just stared at me, his hands still in position. The intensity of the look he was giving me had more of an effect on my heart rate than the kiss had. My heart was suddenly racing. Why was that? Was I afraid?
One corner of Gamut’s mouth turned up. “Oh, he’s definitely staring, now.” He laughed a little and moved his hands. “Thank you,” he breathed, before moving away.
For a moment, I couldn’t move but forced myself to swallow and take a deep breath. What had just happened? And who was his little show for? I frowned then. Shaking my head to clear it, I moved toward the group.
I heard Karroll talking to Gamut, as I approached. “You are in so much trouble when you get back,” she was saying. She glanced up at me. “I’m sorry about him… But we’re all going to miss you so much.” She threw her arms around me and held tight. When she withdrew, I saw tears in her eyes. She swiped at them, surreptitiously, and elbowed Merritt.
“Oh, right,” he said and placed his arms around me awkwardly.
The move made me laugh. “Thanks,” I said, when he let go. I looked around me, at all the faces. All were friendly, most were smiling, though a few, like Karroll, had tears in their eyes. I thought about Sabella for a moment, wishing to see her as well, but knowing I had already said that goodbye. Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Glenna stood behind me. “Once more, for old time’s sake,” she joked.
I turned and was in her arms in one fluid motion. Now it was my turn to cry, and I couldn’t hold the tears back.
“Shh… it’s alright. One never truly knows if it is the last time they will see a person. We may meet again, indeed. Who is to say?” Her words put me at ease, or maybe it was just her presence. She smoothed my hair, and I was suddenly calm. She smiled down at me. “Be safe, little sister… until we meet again, then, hm?” She kissed my forehead and released me.
I looked around until I found Derik. He had been watching me. “I’m ready now,” I said to him.
He nodded once. “Alright. Then, it’s time.” He gestured with his arm. “Let’s head out.” The others fell in around us.
In one final defiant move, for all to see, I pulled my claw hairclip from my pocket, twisted my hair up, and clipped it in. At least my friends seemed to understand the gesture. But I noticed Nate eyeing me quizzically.
The heavy doors were opened and light came pouring in around us. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I noticed my escort surrounded me. I felt as though I was being herded out the door. A dull thud behind us signified the doors had been closed again. I glanced around me in order to note who was where. Derik led the group, at the front of the circle, and Nate took up the rear. It made sense, I guess, putting the strongest, most experienced on point and at the back. Still, I wasn’t so sure about Nate having my back. The circle was loose and, though I knew better, everyone appeared at ease. To the onlooker, it might appear as though we were simply going for a walk, except for the weapons they carried. No one said anything for a while, but then I began to realize we weren’t going in exactly the same direction I had before. Gamut was to my right and the closest to me.
“Why are we going this way?” I asked him.
He glanced around before looking my way, quickly. “We’re taking the scenic route,” he said, lightly. “We can’t go the way you did before because it takes us by the well. We’re going around it.”
I frowned. “Why can’t we go by the well?”
He started to answer but Derik interrupted. “You’ve been there before, and we’ve gone back. They know that and expect it. Plus there are fewer trees this way, less cover, more sunlight. It’s just safer.” He didn’t look back but kept his eyes on our surroundings. I didn’t remember him being this diligent on the way back from the well. Then again, I had been kind of out of it.
My thoughts turned back to the well. “If they know we – you’re using the well, won’t they sabotage it?”
I could hear the smile in Derik’s voice. “It’s protected. Don’t worry. Sabella’s taken care of that.”
“Like she will with the portal?”
“Yeah… like that.” His smile was gone.
We walked a while longer in silence, and I was beginning to feel more and more nervous, the closer we got to the portal. I was starting to get jumpy. Why now? I had to assume it was because I didn’t want to go back and was just anxious about the experience in general. What would happen once I stepped through? I had to ask myself this, now that I was thinking about it. I had to distract myself from this feeling. I frowned. Wait a minute… I could feel my pace slow. Distract myself from being nervous about the trip back by thinking about the trip back? That didn’t make any sense. At all. So, what then was it distracting me from?
“Hey, girlie, pick up the pace. We don’t have all day,” Nate said from behind me.
And though my heart did in fact pick up the pace, my feet stopped moving. “Wait,” was all I said.
Derik was the first to stop. He turned around to face me. “We have to keep going, Haylee. We can’t stop, there’s no time. Plus, it’s – What’s wrong?” He frowned at me.
I blinked, trying to think. “I’m not sure… Something’s not right. I can feel it.” I looked up at him.
He stared back for a moment. Then, his eyes trailed away. “I want everyone on guard,” he said, with authority.
Immediately, everyone seemed more alert. The circle tightened around me. Even Nate drew closer. I could feel the tension from each of them. All of them, except Nate, that is. She seemed truly in her element. She was perfectly at ease. Without taking her eyes off of our surroundings, she leaned a little closer to me.
“I’m just curious,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she spoke so lowly to keep others from hearing or not. But maybe volume didn’t really matter, as all the others were completely focused on the tree lines. “How can you still wear that thing? In your hair, I mean?” She glanced at me for my reaction.
The question took me off guard, and I unconsciously reached up and touched the clip. “I guess… because it is just a thing. It’s just an object, it was never really what she wanted me to think it was. I knew that then, deep down, and I know it now. Plus, it’s…”
“A sort of challenge?” It was as if she had read my mind. I couldn’t see her face now, because she had returned her attention back to the job at hand.
“Yeah…” I blinked at her sudden interest in me.
“That’s what I thought,” she said, giving a nod. And I couldn’t make out the tone of her voice. Did she approve? Or disapprove for some reason? I couldn’t be sure. But why ask now, of all times? Was it because she was more comfortable in tense situations?
“I see something!” One of the guards called. Gregor, was it?
I looked around, as the others did. I saw Derik tense up.
“Tighter!” he directed. He backed up so close to me, I could have touched him.
“What’s going on?” another of the guards asked. This one must be Macey. Besides Nate, she was the only female to accompany us. From the looks of her, she was every bit as capable as the men… Maybe more so.
“We’re surrounded.” Derik’s voice did not contain even the slightest tinge of surrender. “Gamut!” He didn’t turn.
“Yeah.” Gamut flinched a little.
“Remember the plan. You know where to go.”
Gamut’s hesitation was minuscule. “Right.” Still, everyone remained in their places.
Craning my neck to see around each of them, I still could not make out any movement at the tree line.
“We’ve got to head back. It’s our only chance. They’re not quite as thick back that way.” Derik backed up, nudging me along. The others followed suit. Nate was now taking point.
“I think we should keep going the way we were, Derik,” she said, as she began moving. “I think they expect us to go back. They’re herding us like cattle, that’s what they’re doing.” She glanced around.
“Haylee’s safety is number one right now, Nate, not your sadistic love for battle. I’m sure you’ll get your chance, either way… but let’s try it my way first, okay?” Derik didn’t let the conversation distract him. I could tell, though he was saying one thing, his mind was on the matter at hand.
“You’re the boss, Love,” she scoffed, but kept on moving.
“They’d come out into the sunlight?” I asked.
“They will. It just isn’t very comfortable for them. But, for the right reasons…” Gamut shrugged a little.
“It’s not very comfortable?”
“Yeah… skin rashes, that kind of thing. Light sensitivity… So, most likely they won’t come out and are just trying to scare us into doing something stupid. Right, Derik?”
It took Derik a moment to reply. “Yeah… right.”
I threw a look over my shoulder. “But?” I asked. “Did I just sense a but?”
Derik met my eyes briefly. “But… there are some who have built up a sort of tolerance… Not many people know about them. They don’t get out much, not in the open anyway. They’re what you might call special ops.”
“Why are they so special – I mean, besides the tolerance to sunlight?” I was now as focused on my surroundings as the rest of them.
“Is this really the place to discuss this?” Phil interceded.
“It’s as good a place as any,” Macey said. “I want to hear about these special forces.”
“They’re really old, more experienced, and have better control over their abilities. It’s a little complicated…” Derik continued. “Let’s just say they are their master’s royal guard, his personal sentry. He doesn’t just send them after anyone.”
“So, if he sends them, you know he means business?” Gamut asked, somewhat nervously.
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Why haven’t you told us about them before now?” Gamut asked, somewhat suspiciously.
“It was never necessary before… I never thought any of you would ever see them. They hardly ever make an appearance.” I could tell Derik was getting a little irritated with the twenty questions.
But I had to ask my own. “And you’re bringing it up now because you think they’re out there?” My nerves had never really settled, but now they kicked up into overdrive.
Derik didn’t answer. When I glanced back at him, his attention was elsewhere.
“I’m not seeing them, anymore,” Gregor said, his voice lower this time. We kept moving.
Though I hadn’t seen them to begin with, I scanned the trees again. Nothing. But taking what Derik had just told us into account, I decided to look elsewhere. My eyes swept the open field in front of us. I stopped moving. “Oh yeah? Then what do you call that?” I pointed. Several figures were blocking our path, where anyone up front could have clearly seen them, if they hadn’t been looking in the usual places.
Derik stopped just before walking into me. I felt him against my back. The others turned their heads to the front. Someone swore. I think it was Macey.
The figures in front of us stood very still. They were so far away, I couldn’t make out their faces but could only identify them by their pale skin.
“How come you didn’t sense those guys there, Derik?” Gamut asked, dubiously.
“Probably the same reason you didn’t feel them staring at us, Gamut,” Nate answered instead. “Sensory overload. There’s simply too many of them.”
My eyes went wide. How many was too many? So many Derik couldn’t sense the ones in front of us? I must have tensed noticeably, because he placed a hand on my arm. He gave it a light squeeze, then moved around me, making sure I was still in the center of the circle.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, alright? We all came into this knowing what might happen. You’ve all trained for this. Whatever happens, you can take it.” He moved up beside Nate. “Let’s see what their demands are,” he joked. And we were moving forward again.
We came to a stop about twenty feet away from the group. I could make out their features now. Their skin was nearly as pale as the others but tougher and smooth, almost like scar tissue. They had the same animal eyes. There were only two major differences. Their clothes were nicer – they were dressed all in white – and their faces were painted. It may have been their version of war paint but, to me, they looked like sadistic clowns. They looked like my worst irrational fear come to life. My mind flashed back to the picture in my old room. Had someone been trying to tell me something, or scare me, when that thing showed up out of nowhere? Their lips were stained a bright, bold red, as if to simulate blood. But the effect wasn’t complete until they smiled at me. Not until they showed me those razor sharp teeth did I truly feel fear. And how did I know those smiles were directed at me, in particular? Oh, you would know.
I took a step back without having any knowledge of doing so. Gamut grabbed my hand. I hadn’t realized he had been standing so close, but I was grateful he had. I think without him to ground me at that moment, I would have made a run for it. Then again, maybe that was their intention. To get me out in the open. He squeezed my hand, and I looked up at him thankfully.
One of them stepped forward, at that moment. He didn’t take his eyes off of me. I shivered, when he spoke. “We jussst want the girrllll…” he nearly crooned. “We, of course, are prepared to take her by force.” He gestured with his arm, gracefully. Despite my fear, I found him fascinating to watch. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Derik took another step forward. “Well. That’s just how it will have to be done, then. Because you’re either leaving here empty handed, or we’ll have to force you to.” I could hear the sneer in his voice.
The Pale One in front of him widened his toothy grin into something so menacing, I would have screamed if I wasn’t already paralyzed with this strange fascination. His slitted eyes slid from me to Derik, now. “Is that sssooo…? Well, then, I’m afraid we have a predicament… do we not?” His smile vanished, as his eyes dropped to the ground. “Very well.” He moved fluidly back to the others in his group and took up with them in whispery tones.
Derik took this moment to talk to us. “Gamut, be ready,” he said, noting our interlocked hands. “Haylee.”
My eyes snapped to his face. Had I been staring at the Pale Ones again?
He came closer to me and touched my face. He looked concerned. “Please, don’t look at them anymore. I don’t know how, but they seem to have a very powerful hold over you. More so than the others. Can you do that? For me?” His eyes were searching.
I blinked several times until I grasped what he was saying. Then I frowned and nodded. “Okay. I can do that… I think. I’ll try?” I was suddenly very worried I might not be able to.
He swallowed hard. “Okay… Good.” He turned then, and said, “Get ready for a fight, everyone. ‘Cause we’re getting one.” He strode to the front of the group again. “Remember. Haylee’s the number one priority. If she doesn’t make it, we’ve failed.”
I was abruptly very aware of what was happening. These people were risking their lives for me. Me? Why? I didn’t like this one bit, but now there was nothing I could do. There was no way they’d let me give myself up in order to save them. Besides, the Pale Ones didn’t seem the trustworthy types. They’d probably accept my surrender and still kill the others. And I most certainly couldn’t live with that.
The Pale Ones stopped talking, all at once, and turned toward us. We tensed as one. It was time, we could feel it. Battle positions, everyone. Gamut dropped my hand but situated himself partly in front of me. Derik and Nate remained where they were. The other three held their weapons at the ready. We were as prepared as we’d ever be. Well, everyone except me, that is.
Then the fighting had begun.