The Lost Files: Six's Legacy
(Lorien Legacies – 0.50)
Katarina says there is more than one way to hide.
Before we came down here to Mexico, we lived in a suburb of Denver. My name then was Sheila, a name I hate even more than my current name, Kelly. We lived there for two years, and I wore barrettes in my hair and pink rubber bracelets on my wrists, like all the other girls at my school. I had sleepovers with some of them, the girls I called “my friends.” I went to school during the school year, and in the summer I went to a swimmers’ camp at the YMCA. I liked my friends and the life we had there okay, but I had already been moved around by my Cepan Katarina enough to know that it wasn’t going to be permanent. I knew it wasn’t my real life.
My real life took place in our basement, where Katarina and I did combat training. By day, it was an ordinary suburban rec room, with a big comfy couch and a TV in one corner and a Ping-Pong table in the other. By night, it was a well-stocked combat training gym, with hanging bags, floor mats, weapons, and even a makeshift pommel horse.
In public, Katarina played the part of my mother, claiming that her “husband” and my “father” had been killed in a car accident when I was an infant. Our names, our lives, our stories were all fictions, identities for me and Katarina to hide behind. But those identities allowed us to live out in the open. Acting normal.
Blending in: that was one way of hiding.
But we slipped up. To this day I can remember our conversation as we drove away from Denver, headed to Mexico for no other reason than we’d never been there, both of us trying to figure out how exactly we’d blown our cover. Something I said to my friend Eliza had contradicted something Katarina had said to Eliza’s mother. Before Denver we’d lived in Nova Scotia for a cold, cold winter, but as I remembered it, our story, the lie we’d agreed to tell, was that we’d lived in Boston before Denver. Katarina remembered differently, and claimed Tallahassee as our previous home. Then Eliza told her mother and that’s when people started to get suspicious.
It was hardly a calamitous exposure. We had no immediate reason to believe our slip would raise the kind of suspicion that could attract the Mogadorians to our location. But our life had gone sour there, and Katarina figured we’d been there long enough as it was.
So we moved yet again.
The sun is bright and hard in Puerto Blanco, the air impossibly dry. Katarina and I make no attempt to blend in with the other residents, Mexican farmers and their children. Our only regular contact with the locals is our once-a-week trip into town to buy essentials at the small store. We are the only whites for many miles, and though we both speak good Spanish, there’s no confusing us for natives of the place. To our neighbors, we are the gringas, strange white recluses.
“Sometimes you can hide just as effectively by sticking out,” Katarina says.
She appears to be right. We have been here almost a year and we haven’t been bothered once. We lead a lonely but ordered life in a sprawling, single-level shack tucked between two big patches of farmland. We wake up with the sun, and before eating or showering Katarina has me run drills in the backyard: running up and down a small hill, doing calisthenics, and practicing tai chi. We take advantage of the two relatively cool hours of morning.
Morning drills are followed by a light breakfast, then three hours of studies: languages, world history, and whatever other subjects Katarina can dig up from the internet. She says her teaching method and subject matter are “eclectic.” I don’t know what that word means, but I’m just grateful for the variety. Katarina is a quiet, thoughtful woman, and though she’s the closest thing I have to a mother, she’s very different from me.
Studies are probably the highlight of her day. I prefer drills.
After studies it’s back out into the blazing sun, where the heat makes me dizzy enough that I can almost hallucinate my imagined enemies. I do battle with straw men: shooting them with arrows, stabbing them with knives, or simply pummeling them with my bare fists. But half-blind from the sun, I see them as Mogadorians, and I relish the chance to tear them to pieces. Katarina says even though I am only thirteen years old, I’m so agile and so strong I could easily take down even a well-trained adult.
One of the nice things about living in Puerto Blanco is that I don’t have to hide my skills. Back in Denver, whether swimming at the Y or just playing on the street, I always had to hold back, to keep myself from revealing the superior speed and strength that Katarina’s training regimen has resulted in. We keep to ourselves out here, away from the eyes of others, so I don’t have to hide.
Today is Sunday, so our afternoon drills are short, only an hour. I am shadowboxing with Katarina in the backyard, and I can feel her eagerness to quit: her moves are halfhearted, she’s squinting against the sun, and she looks tired. I love training and could go all day, but out of deference to her I suggest we call it a day.
“Oh, I suppose we could finish early,” she says. I grin privately, allowing her to think I’m the tired one. We go inside and Katarina pours us two tall glasses of agua fresca, our customary Sunday treat. The fan is blowing full force in our humble shack’s living room. Katarina boots up her various computers while I kick off my dirty, sweat-filled fighting boots and collapse to the floor. I stretch my arms to keep them from knotting up, then swing them to the bookshelf in the corner and pull out a tall stack of the board games we keep there. Risk, Stratego, Othello. Katarina has tried to interest me in games like Life and Monopoly, saying it wouldn’t hurt to be “well-rounded.” But those games never held my interest. Katarina got the hint, and now we only play combat and strategy games.
Risk is my favorite, and since we finished early today I think Katarina will agree to playing it even though it’s a longer game than the others.
Katarina is at her desk chair, pivoting from one screen to the next.
“Risk of what?” she asks absently.
I laugh, then shake the box near her head. She doesn’t look up from the screens, but the sound of all those pieces rattling around inside the box is enough for her to get it.
“Oh,” she says. “Sure.”
I set up the board. Without asking, I divvy up the armies into hers and mine, and begin placing them all across the game’s map. We’ve played this game so much I don’t need to ask her which countries she’d like to claim, or which territories she’d like to fortify. She always chooses the U.S. and Asia. I happily place her pieces on those territories, knowing that from my more easily defended territories I will quickly grow armies strong enough to crush hers.
I’m so absorbed in setting up the game I don’t even notice Katarina’s silence, her absorption. It is only when I crack my neck loudly and she neglects to scold me for it-“Please don’t,” she usually says, squeamish about the sound it makes-that I look up and see her, staring openmouthed at one of her monitors.
“Kat?” I ask.
I get up from the floor, stepping across the game board to join her at her desk. It is only then that I see what has so completely captured her attention. A breaking news item about some kind of explosion on a bus in England.
Katarina is always checking the internet and the news for mysterious deaths. Deaths that could be the work of the Mogadorians. Deaths that could mean the second member of the Garde has been defeated. She’s been doing it since we came to Earth, and I’ve grown frustrated with the doom-and-gloom of it.
Besides, it’s not like it did us any good the first time.
I was nine years old, living in Nova Scotia with Katarina. Our training room there was in the attic. Katarina had retired from training for the day, but I still had energy to burn, and was doing moores and spindles on the pommel horse alone when I suddenly felt a blast of scorching pain on my ankle. I lost my balance and came crashing down to the mat, clutching my ankle and screaming in pain.
My first scar. It meant that the Mogadorians had killed Number One, the first of the Garde. And for all of Katarina’s web scouring, it had caught us both completely unaware.
We waited on pins and needles for weeks after, expecting a second death and a second scar to follow in short order. But it didn’t come. I think Katarina is still coiled, anxious, ready to spring. But three years have passed-almost a quarter of my whole life-and it’s just not something I think about much.
I step between her and the monitor. “It’s Sunday. Game time.”
“Please, Kelly.” She says my most recent alias with a certain stiffness. I know I will always be Six to her. In my heart, too. These aliases I use are just shells, they’re not who I really am. I’m sure back on Lorien I had a name, a real name, not just a number. But that’s so far back, and I’ve had so many names since then, that I can’t remember what it was.
Six is my true name. Six is who I am.
Katarina bats me aside, eager to read more details.
We’ve lost so many game days to news alerts like this. And they never turn out to be anything. They’re just ordinary tragedies.
Earth, I’ve come to discover, has no shortage of tragedies.
“Nope. It’s just a bus crash. We’re playing a game.” I pull at her arms, eager for her to relax. She looks so tired and worried, I know she could use the break.
She holds firm. “It’s a bus explosion. And apparently,” she says, pulling away to read from the screen, “the conflict is ongoing.”
“The conflict always is,” I say, rolling my eyes. “Come on.”
She shakes her head, giving one of her frazzled laughs. “Okay,” she says. “Fine.”
Katarina pulls herself away from the monitors, sitting on the floor by the game. It takes all my strength not to lick my chops at her upcoming defeat: I always win at Risk.
I get down beside her, on my knees.
“You’re right, Kelly,” she says, allowing herself to grin. “I needn’t panic over every little thing-”
One of the monitors on Katarina’s desk lets out a sudden ding! One of her alerts. Her computers are programmed to scan for unusual news reports, blog posts, even notable shifts in global weather-all sifting for possible news of the Garde.
“Oh come on,” I say.
But Katarina is already off the floor and back at the desk, scrolling and clicking from link to link once again.
“Fine,” I say, annoyed. “But I’m showing no mercy when the game begins.”
Suddenly Katarina is silent, stopped cold by something she’s found.
I get up off the floor and step over the board, making my way to the monitor.
I look at the screen.
It is not, as I’d imagined, a news report from England. It is a simple, anonymous blog post. Just a few haunting, tantalizing words:
“Nine, now eight. Are the rest of you out there?”
There is a cry in the wilderness, from a member of the Garde. Some girl or boy, the same age as me, looking for us. In an instant I’ve seized the keyboard from Katarina and I hammer out a response in the comments section. “We are here.”
Katarina bats my hand away before I can hit Enter. “Six!”
I pull back, ashamed of my imprudence, my haste.
“We have to be careful. The Mogadorians are on the hunt. They’ve killed One, for all we know they have a path to Two, to Three-”
“But they’re alone!” I say. The words come out before I have a chance to think what I’m saying.
I don’t know how I know this. It’s just a hunch I have. If this member of the Garde has been desperate enough to reach out on the internet, looking for others, his or her Cepan must have been killed. I imagine my fellow Garde’s panic, her fear. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my Katarina, to be alone. To consider all I deal with . . . without Katarina? It’s unimaginable.
“What if it’s Two? What if she’s in England, and the Mogs are after her, and she’s reaching out for help?”
A second ago I was scoffing at Katarina’s absorption in the news. But this is different. This is a link to someone like me. Now I am desperate to help them, to answer their call.
“Maybe it’s time,” I say, balling my fist.
“Time?” Katarina is scared, wearing a baffled expression.
“Time to fight!”
Katarina’s head falls into her hands and she laughs into her palms.
In moments of high stress, Katarina sometimes reacts this way: she laughs when she should be stern, gets serious when she should laugh.
Katarina looks up and I realize she is not laughing at me. She is just nervous, and confused.
“Your Legacies haven’t even developed!” she cries. “How could we possibly start the war now?”
She gets up from the desk, shaking her head.
“No. We are not ready to fight. Until your powers are manifest, we will not start this battle. Until the Garde is ready, we must hide.”
“Then we have to send her a message.”
“Her? You don’t know it’s a she! For all we know, it’s no one. Just some random person using language that accidentally tripped my alert.”
“I know it’s one of us,” I say, fixing Katarina with my eyes. “And you do too.”
Katarina nods, admitting defeat.
“Just one message. To let them know they’re not alone. To give her hope.”
“‘Her’ again,” laughs Katarina, almost sadly.
I think it’s a girl because I imagine whoever wrote the message to be like me. A more scared and more alone version of me-one who’s been deprived of her Cepan.
“Okay,” she says. I step between her and the monitor, my fingers hovering over the keys. I decide the message I’ve already typed-“We are here”-will suffice.
I hit Enter.
Katarina shakes her head, ashamed to have indulged me so recklessly. Within moments she is at the computer, scrubbing any trace of our location from the transmission.
“Feel better?” she asks, turning off the monitor.
I do, a little. To think I’ve given a bit of solace and comfort to one of the Garde makes me feel good, connected to the larger struggle.
Before I can respond I’m electrified by a pain, the likes of which I’ve only known once before; a lava-hot lancet digging through the flesh of my right ankle. My leg shoots out from beneath me, and I scream, attempting to distance myself from the pain by holding my ankle as far from the rest of me as I can. Then I see it: the flesh on my ankle sizzling, popping with smoke. A new scar, my second, snakes its way across my skin.
“Katarina!” I scream, punching the floor with my fists, desperate with pain.
Katarina is frozen in horror, unable to help.
“The second,” she says. “Number Two is dead.”
Katarina rushes to the tap, fills a pitcher, and dumps it across my leg. I am nearly catatonic from the pain, biting my lip so hard it bleeds. I watch the water sizzle as it hits my burned flesh, then it floods the game board, washing the army pieces off onto the floor.
“You win,” I say, making a feeble joke.
Katarina doesn’t acknowledge my attempt at wit. My protector, she has gone into full-on Cepan mode: pulling first-aid supplies out from every corner of our shack. Before I know it she’s applied a cooling salve to my scar and wrapped and taped it with gauze.
“Six,” she says, her eyes moist with fear and pity. I’m taken aback-she only uses my real name in moments of extreme crisis.
But then I realize that’s what this is.
Years had passed since One’s death, without incident. It had gotten easy to imagine it was a fluke. If we were feeling really hopeful, we could imagine One had died in an accident. That the Mogadorians hadn’t caught our scent.
That time is over. We know for sure now. The Mogadorians have found the second member of the Garde, and killed him or her. Two’s message to us, to the world, was the last thing he or she would ever do. Their violent death was now written across my skin.
We know two deaths is no fluke. The countdown has truly begun.
I almost faint, but pull myself to consciousness by biting my lip even harder. “Six,” Katarina says, wiping the blood from my mouth with a cloth. “Relax.”
I shake my head.
No. I can never relax. Not ever.
Katarina is straining to keep her composure. She doesn’t want to frighten me. But she also wants to do the right thing, to honor her responsibilities as a Cepan. I can tell she’s torn between every possible reaction, from outright panic to philosophical cool; whatever is the best for me and for the fate of the Garde.
She cradles my head, wipes the sweat from my brow. The water and the salve have taken the sharpest edge off the pain, but it still hurts as bad as the first time, maybe worse. But I won’t comment on it. I can see that my pain, and this evidence of Two’s passing, is tormenting Katarina enough.
“We’ll be okay,” says Katarina. “There are still many others. . . .”
I know she is speaking carelessly. She doesn’t mean to put the lives of the Garde before me-Three, Four, and Five-ahead of my own. She is just grasping for consolation. But I won’t let it pass.
“Yeah. It’s so great others have to die before me.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I can see my words have upset her.
I sigh, putting my head against her shoulder.
Sometimes, in my heart of hearts, I use a different name for Katarina. Sometimes to me she’s not Katarina or Vicky or Celeste or any of her other aliases. Sometimes-in my mind-I call her “Mom.”
We’re on the road an hour later. Katarina white-knuckles the steering wheel of our truck through country roads, cursing her choice of hideaway. These roads are too rough and dusty to go faster than forty miles per hour, and what we both want is the speed of a highway. Anything to put as much distance as possible between us and our now abandoned shack. Katarina did what she could to scrub our tracks, but if what we imagine is true-the Mogadorians killing Two seconds after we saw her fatal blog post-then they moved fast, and they could be racing towards our abandoned home right now.
As I watch the fields and the hills pass through the passenger window, I realize that they could already be at the shack. In fact, they could already be following us on the road. Feeling like a coward as I do it, I crane my neck and look through the rear window, through the dust trail our truck kicks up in our wake.
No cars trail us.
Not yet, at least.
We packed light. The truck was already loaded with a first-aid kit, a lightweight camping set, bottled water, flashlights, and blankets. Once I was ready to walk again, all I had to do was pick out a few items of clothing for the road and retrieve my Chest from the lockbox under the shack.
The panic of flight gave me little time to feel the searing pain of my second scar, but it returns to me now, lacerating and insistent.
“We shouldn’t have responded,” says Katarina. “I don’t know what we were thinking.”
I look at Katarina for signs of judgment on her face-after all, I’m the one who insisted we write back-and I’m relieved to find none. All I see is her fear, and her determination to get us as far away as possible.
I realize that in the confusion and haste to flee I forgot to notice if we turned north or south at the crossing at the edge of Puerto Blanco.
“U.S.?” I ask.
Katarina nods, pulling our most recent passports from the inside pocket of her army jacket, tossing mine into my lap. I flip it open and peer at my new name.
“Maren Elizabeth,” I say aloud. Katarina puts a lot of time into her forgeries, though I usually complain about the names she chooses for me. When I was eight and we were moving to Nova Scotia, I begged and begged to be named Starla. Katarina vetoed the suggestion. She thought it was too “attention getting,” too exotic. I almost laugh to think about it now. A Katarina in Mexico is about as exotic as you can get. And of course she’s keeping it. Katarina has grown attached to her own name. Sometimes I suspect that Cepans aren’t so different from parents after all.
Maren Elizabeth . . . it’s no Starla, but I like how it sounds.
I reach down and cradle my calf, just above the throbbing scars on my ankle. By squeezing my calf I can muffle the pain of my sizzled flesh.
But as the pain fades, the fear returns. The fear of our present situation, the horror of Two’s death. I decide to let go of my calf, and I let my leg burn.
Katarina refuses to stop the car for anything but gas and pee breaks. It’s a long trip, but we have ways to pass the time. Mostly we play Shadow, a game that Katarina made up during our previous travels, out of our desire to keep training even when we couldn’t do physical drills.
“A Mogadorian scout races at you from two o’clock, wielding a twenty-inch blade in his left arm. He swings.”
“I crouch,” I say. “Dodge left.”
“He swings around, the blade above your head.”
“From the ground, a kick to the groin. A leg sweep, from his right side to his left.”
“On his back, but he grabs your arm.”
“I let him. I use the force of his grip to swing my legs free, up, and then down to his face. Step on his face, pull my hand free.”
It’s a strange game. It forces me to separate the physical from reality, to fight with my brain and not my body. I used to complain about games of Shadow, saying it was all made up, that it wasn’t real. Fighting was fists, and feet, and heads. It wasn’t brains. It wasn’t words.
But the more Shadow we played, the better I got at drills, especially hand-to-hand drills with Katarina. I couldn’t deny that the game made good practice. It made me a better fighter. I have come to love it.
“I run,” I say.
“Too late,” she says. I almost complain, knowing what’s coming. “You forgot about the sword,” she says. “He’s already swung it up and nicked your flank.”
“No he didn’t,” I say. “I froze his sword and shattered it like glass.”
“Oh did you, now?” Katarina is tired, eyes bloodshot from ten straight hours of driving, but I can see I’m amusing her. “I must’ve missed that part.”
“Yeah,” I say, starting to grin myself.
“And how’d you pull off that feat?”
“My Legacy. It just kicked in. Turns out, I can freeze stuff.”
This is make-believe. I have yet to develop my Legacies, and I have no idea what they’ll be when they arrive.
“That’s a good one,” says Katarina.
We crossed the U.S. border hours back, without a hitch. I have never understood how Katarina manages to make such incredible forgeries.
Katarina is pulling us into a dusty pit stop off the highway. There’s a tiny, single-story motel, an old-fashioned and decrepit diner, and a gas station, newer and brighter than the other two buildings.
It is barely dusk when we step out of the truck. The faintest pink of sunrise creeps over the horizon, just enough to add a strange hue to our flesh as we stumble out onto the gravel.
Katarina curses, getting back into the car. “Forgot to get gas,” she says. “Wait here.”
I do as I’m told, watching her pull the truck from the motel parking lot towards one of the pumps. We have agreed to rest up at the motel for a day or two, to recover from our grueling, fifteen-hour drive and the shock of recent events. But even though we’ll be here for some time, the tank must be filled: that’s Katarina’s policy.
“Never leave an empty tank,” she says. I think she says it as much to remind herself as to educate me.
It’s a good policy. You never know when you’ll have to leave in a hurry.
I watch Katarina pull up to the pump and start filling the car.
I examine my surroundings. Through the front window of the diner across the lot, I can see a few grizzled-looking truckers eating. Through the scent of exhaust and the faint odor of gas fumes from the pumps, I can smell breakfast food in the air.
Or maybe I’m just imagining it. I am incredibly hungry. My mouth waters at the thought of breakfast.
I turn my back on the diner, trying not to think about food, and look at the town on the other side of the fence from the pit stop. Houses only a step up from clapboard shacks. A ragged, desolate place.
“Hello, miss.” Startled, I whizz around to see a tall, gray-haired cowboy strutting past. It takes me a second to realize that he’s not starting a conversation, merely being polite as he passes. He gives a little nod of his ten-gallon hat and proceeds past me into the diner.
My heart rate is up.
I had forgotten this aspect of the road. When we’re settled in a place, even a remote one like Puerto Blanco, we get to know the local faces. We know, more or less, who to trust. I’ve never seen a Mogadorian in my life, but Katarina says that most of the Mogadorians look like anyone else. After what happened to One and Two, I feel a deep unease all around me, a new alertness. A roadside rest stop is especially troublesome in that everyone is a stranger to everyone, so no one raises any eyebrows, not really. For us that means anyone could be a threat.
Katarina has parked the car and approaches me with a weary grin.
“Eat or sleep?” she asks. Before I can answer, she’s raised her hand hopefully. “My vote for sleep.”
“My vote is to eat.” Katarina deflates at this. “You know eat beats sleep,” I say. “Always does.” It is one of our rules of the road, and Katarina quickly accepts the verdict.
“Okay, Maren Elizabeth,” she says. “Lead the way.”
The diner is humid with grease. It is barely six a.m. but almost all of the booths are full, mostly with truckers. While I wait for our food I watch these men shovel hearty, well-syruped forksful of breakfast meat-sausage, bacon, scrapple-into their mouths. When my food finally comes I find myself more than holding my own. Three pancakes, four strips of bacon, a side of hash, one tall OJ.
I finish with a rude belch that Katarina is too tired to chastise me for.
“Do you think . . . ?” I ask.
Katarina laughs, anticipating my question. “How is that possible?”
I shrug. She nods, and calls the waitress over. With a guilty grin, I order another stack of pancakes.
“Well,” says the waitress, with a dry smoker’s cackle, “your little girl sure can put it down.” The waitress is an older woman, with a face so lined and haggard you could mistake it for a man’s.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. The waitress leaves.
“Your appetite will never cease to amaze me,” Katarina says. But she knows the reason for it. I train constantly, and though I’m only thirteen years old I already have the tightly muscled body of a gymnast. I need a lot of fuel, and am not ashamed of my appetite.
Another customer enters the crowded diner.
I notice the other men give him a suspicious glance as he makes his way to a booth in the rear. They looked at me and Katarina with similar suspicion when we first entered. I took this place for a way station, filled with strangers, but apparently some strangers are worthy of suspicion and others aren’t. Katarina and I are doing our best, dressed in generic American mall clothes: T-shirts and khaki shorts. I can see why we stand out-apparently they have a different definition of “generic” here in the far reaches of West Texas.
This other stranger is harder to figure, though. He’s dressed the part, more or less: wearing one of those Texas ties, with the dangly strands of black leather. And like the rest of the men here, he’s wearing boots.
But his clothes seem somehow out-of-date, and there’s something creepy about his thin black mustache: it looks straight at first glance, but the more I consider it, something about it just seems crooked.
“It’s impolite to stare.” Katarina, chiding me again.
“I wasn’t staring,” I lie. “I was looking, with interest.”
Katarina laughs. She’s laughed more in the past twenty-four hours than she has in months. This new Katrina is going to take some getting used to.
Not that I mind.
I stretch out luxuriantly on the hotel bed while Katarina showers in the bathroom. The sheets are cheap, polyester or rayon, but I’m so tired from the road they may as well be silk.
When Katarina first pulled the sheets down we found a live earwig under the pillow, which grossed her out but didn’t bother me.
“Kill it,” she begged, covering her eyes.
I refused. “It’s just an insect.”
“Kill it!” she begged.
Instead, I swept it off the bed and hopped into the cool sheets. “Nope,” I said stubbornly.
“Fine,” she said, and went to shower. She turned the faucets on, but stepped out of the bathroom again a moment later. “I worry-” she started.
“About what?” I asked.
“I worry that I haven’t trained you well.”
I rolled my eyes. “’Cause I won’t kill a bug?!”
“Yes. No, I mean, it’s what got me thinking. You need to learn to kill without hesitation. I haven’t even taught you to hunt rodents, let alone Mogadorians . . . you’ve never killed anything-”
Katarina paused, the water still running behind her. Thinking.
I could tell she was tired, lost in a thought. She gets like that sometimes, if we’ve been training too gruelingly. “Kat,” I said. “Go shower.”
She looked up, her reverie broken. She chuckled and closed the door behind her.
Waiting for her to finish, I turned on the TV from the bed. The previous tenant had left it on CNN and I’m greeted with the site of helicopter footage of the “event” in England. I watch only long enough to learn that both the press and English authorities are confused as to what exactly happened yesterday. I’m too tired to think about this; I’ll get the details later.
I shut off the TV and lay back on the bed, eager for sleep to take me.
Katarina steps out of the bathroom moments later, wearing a robe and brushing out her hair. I watch her through half-closed eyes.
There is a knock on the door.
Katarina drops her brush on the bureau.
“Who is it?” she asks.
“Manager, miss. I brought ya some fresh towels.”
I’m so annoyed by the interruption-I want to sleep, and it’s pretty obvious we don’t need fresh towels since we only just got to the room-that I propel myself right off the bed, barely thinking.
“We don’t need any,” I say, already swinging the door open.
I just have time to hear Katarina say, “Don’t-” before I see him, standing before me. The crooked mustache man.
The scream catches in my throat as he enters the room and shuts the door behind him.
I react without thinking, pushing him towards the door, but he flings me back easily, against the bed. I clutch my chest and realize with horror that my pendant is out from under my shirt. In plain view.
“Pretty necklace,” he growls, his eyes flashing with recognition.
If he had any doubt about who I am, it is long gone.
Katarina charges forward but he strikes her hard. She crashes against the TV set, smashing the screen with a bare elbow, and falls to the ground.
He pulls something from his waist-a long, thin blade-and raises it so quickly I don’t even have time to stand. I see only the flash of his blade as he swings it down-straight down, like a railroad spike-into my brain.
My head floods instantly with warmth and light.
This is what death feels like, I think.
But no. The pain doesn’t come.
I look up-how can I see? I think. I’m dead. But I do see, and realize that I’m covered, from head to toe, in hot red blood. The Crooked Mustache Man still has his arm outstretched, his mouth is still frozen in victory, but his skull has been split open, as if by a knife, and his blood is spilling out across my knees.
I hear Katarina wail-it’s such a primal noise that I can’t tell if it’s a cry of grief or a scream of relief-as the man, emptied of blood, turns quickly to dust, collapsing in on himself as an ashy heap.
Before I can take a breath, Katarina is up, shedding her robe and throwing on clothes, grabbing our bags.
“He died,” I say. “I didn’t.”
“Yes,” Katarina replies. She puts on a white blouse, which she instantly ruins with the blood from her elbow, shredded from the TV screen. She throws it out, blots the blood from her elbow with a towel, and puts on another shirt.
I feel like a child, speechless, immobile, covered in blood on the floor.
That was it-the moment I’ve been training for my whole life-and all I managed was a feeble, easily deflected shove before getting tossed aside and stabbed.
“He didn’t know,” I say.
“He didn’t know,” she says.
What he didn’t know is that any harm inflicted on me out of order would instead be inflicted upon my attacker. I was safe from direct attack. I knew it, but I also didn’t really know it. When he stabbed me in the head, I thought I was dead. It took seeing it to believe it.
I reach up and touch my scalp. The flesh there is unbroken, it’s not even damp. . . .
There’s the proof. We are protected by the charm. As long as we stay apart from each other, we can only be killed in the order of our number.
I realize his blood has now turned to dust along with his flesh. I am no longer drenched in it.
“We have to go.” Katarina has shoved my Chest into my arms, her face pressed right up to mine. I realize I’ve spaced out, gone to a place inside my own head, reeling from the shock of what just happened. I can tell from the way she says it that this is the third or fourth time she’s repeated it, though I am only just hearing her.
“Now,” she says.
Katarina drags me by the wrist, her bag slung over her shoulder. The hot asphalt of the parking lot burns the soles of my shoeless feet as we rush outside towards the truck. I carry my Chest, which feels heavy in my arms.
I have been preparing for battle my whole life, and now that it’s come all I want is to sleep. My heels drag, my arms are heavy.
“Faster!” says Katarina, pulling me along. The truck’s unlocked. I get into the passenger seat as Katarina tosses our stuff in the bed of the truck and hops into the driver’s seat. No sooner has she closed her door than I see a man racing towards us.
For a moment I think it’s the motel manager, chasing us for fleeing our bill. But then I recognize him as the cowboy from before, the one who gave me the polite nod of his cowboy hat. There’s nothing polite about the way he’s racing towards us now, his fist upraised.
His hand smashes through the glass of the passenger door and I’m sprayed with glass. His fist closes around the fabric of my shirt and I feel myself lifted out of my seat.
“Hey!” A voice from outside.
My hand scrambles, looking for something, anything to keep me in my seat. It finds only my unbuckled seat belt, which gives easily as the Mog starts pulling me through the window. I feel Katarina’s hand clutching the back of my shirt.
“I’d think twice ’bout that!” I hear a man’s voice shout, and soon I am released, falling back into the seat.
I am breathless, my head spinning.
Outside the truck, a crowd has formed. Truckers and cowboys, ordinary American men. They’ve encircled the Mog. One of them has a shotgun raised, pointed right at him. With a wry, bitter smile, the Mog lifts his arms in surrender.
“The keys.” Katarina is panicking, near tears. “I left them in the room.”
I don’t think, I just move. I don’t know how long the Mog will be contained by the protective mob, our saviors, but I don’t care: I race back to the room, swipe the keys off the night table, and head back out into the heat of the parking lot.
The Mog is kneeling on the ground now, surrounded by angry men.
“We called the cops, miss,” says one of them. I nod, my eyes teary. I’m too keyed-up even to say thanks. It’s strange and wonderful to consider that none of these men know us but they came to our aid, yet frightening that they don’t understand this Mog’s true power, that if he hadn’t been instructed to keep a low profile he’d have torn the skin clean off each of their bodies by now.
I get in the car and hand Katarina the keys. Moments later, we pull out of the lot.
I turn back for one last glance and lock eyes with the Mog. His eyes brim with reptilian hate.
He winks as we pull away.
Katarina was wrong. I have killed before. Years ago, in Nova Scotia.
It was early winter and Katarina had released me from our studies to go play in our snowy backyard. I took to the yard like a demon, running circles in the snow in my baggy clothes, leaping into snowbanks and aiming snowballs at the sun.
I hated my cumbersome jacket and waterproof pants, so once I was sure Katarina had turned from the window I shed them, stripping down to my jeans and T-shirt. It was below freezing outside, but I’ve always been tough about the cold. I continued to play and race when Clifford, the neighbors’ St. Bernard, came bounding over to play with me.
He was a huge dog and I was small then, even for my age. So I climbed on top of him, clutching the warm fur of his flank. “Giddyup!” I squealed and he took off. I rode him like a pony, running laps around the yard.
Katarina had recently told me more about my history, and about my future. I wasn’t old enough to fully understand, but I knew it meant I was a warrior. This sat well with me, because I had always felt like a hero, a champion. I took this ride with Clifford as another practice run. I imagined chasing faceless enemies around the snow, hunting them down and taking them out.
Clifford had just run me to the edge of the woods when he stopped and growled. I looked up and saw a pale brown winter rabbit darting between the trees. Seconds later, I was on my back, tossed off by Clifford.
I picked myself up and dashed after Clifford into the woods. My imaginary chase had become a very real one, as Clifford ran after the darting rabbit and I followed him.
I was delirious, breathless, happy. Or I was, until the chase ended.
Clifford caught the rabbit in his jaws and reversed course, back to his owners’ yard. I was equally dismayed by the end of the pursuit and by the likely end of the rabbit’s life, and I now stalked after Clifford, attempting to command the rabbit’s release.
“Bad dog,” I said. “Very bad dog.”
He was too content with his achievement to pay me any mind. Back in his yard, he happily nuzzled and nipped the damp fur of the rabbit. It took shoving him forcibly from the rabbit’s body for him to give it up, and even then he snapped at me.
I hissed at Clifford, and he grumpily padded off in the snow. I looked down at the rabbit, matted and bloody.
But it wasn’t dead.
All of my hardness gave way as I lifted the light, furry beast to my chest. I felt its tiny heart beating furiously, at the brink of death. Its eyes were glassy, uncomprehending.
I knew what would happen to it. Its wounds were not deep, but it would die of shock. It wasn’t dead now, but it was past life. The only thing this creature had to look forward to was the paralysis of its own fear and a slow, cold death.
I looked to the window. Katarina was out of sight. I turned back to the rabbit, knowing in an instant what the kindest thing to do was.
You are a warrior, Katarina had said.
“I am a warrior.” My words turned to frost in the air before my face. I grabbed the gentle creature’s neck with both hands and gave it a good hard twist.
I buried the rabbit’s corpse deep beneath the snow, where even Clifford couldn’t find it.
Katarina was wrong: I have killed before. Out of mercy.
But not yet out of vengeance.
Katarina pulls the truck off the dirt road and we get out. It’s been a day of straight driving and it’s now three in the morning. We’re in Arkansas, in the Lake Ouachita State Park. The park entrance was closed so Katarina broke through a chain barrier and snuck the truck in, off-roading in the dark of the woods until we came to the main camp road.
We’ve been here before, though I don’t remember it. Katarina says we camped here when I was much younger, and that she had thought it would make a good burial site for my Chest, if it ever came to that.
It has, apparently, come to that.
Outside the truck I can hear the lake lapping weakly at the shore. Katarina and I walk through the trees, following its sound. I carry the Chest in my arms. We’ve decided it’s too cumbersome and too dangerous to hold on to. Katarina says it must not fall into Mogadorian hands.
I don’t press her on this point, though there is a dark implication to this task that haunts me. If Katarina thinks it’s come to the point of burying the Chest to keep it safe, then she must think our capture has become likely. Perhaps inevitable.
I shiver in the cool of the night, while swatting mosquitoes away. There are more of them the closer we get to the water’s edge.
We finally come to the shore. In the middle of the lake, I see a small green island, and I know Katarina well enough to know what she’s thinking.
“I’ll do it,” she says. But she only barely gets the words out. She is exhausted, on the brink of collapse. She hasn’t slept in days. I’ve barely slept either, only a few quick minutes here and there in the car. But that’s more than Katarina’s had, and I know she needs rest.
“Lie down,” I say. “I’ll do it.”
Katarina makes a few weak protests, but before long she’s lying on the ground by the shore. “Rest,” I say. I take the blanket she brought out to use as a towel and instead use it to drape her, to hide her from the mosquitoes.
I strip off my clothes, then grab the Chest tight and step into the water. It’s bracing at first, but once I’m submerged it’s actually fairly warm. I begin an awkward doggy paddle, using one arm to stroke through the water and the other to clutch the Chest.
I’ve never swum at night before, and it takes all of my will not to imagine hands reaching up from the murky depths to grab at my legs and pull me under. I stay focused on my goal.
I arrive at the island after what feels like an hour but is more likely ten minutes. I step out of the water, trembling as the air hits my bare skin, and walk awkwardly over the stones littering the shore. I walk to the center of the small island. It is nearly round, and probably less than an acre, so it doesn’t take long to reach.
I dig a hole three feet deep, which takes considerably longer than the swim out. By the end my hands are bleeding from clawing through the rough dirt, stinging more and more with each barehanded shovel through the soil.
I place the Chest in the hole. I am reluctant to let it go, though I have never seen its contents, never even opened it. I consider saying a prayer over it, the source of so much potential and promise.
I decide against praying. Instead, I just kick dirt into the hole until it’s covered, and smooth over the mound.
I know I may never see my Chest again.
I return to the water and swim back to Katarina.
It’s been a week since we arrived in Upstate New York. We’re at a small motel adjacent to an apple orchard and a neighborhood soccer field. Katarina has been plotting our next move.
There have been no suspicious announcements on the news or on the internet. This gives us some measure of hope for the future of Lorien, and also that the Mogadorians’ trail on us has gone cold.
It’s silly but I feel ready to fight. I may not have been back at the motel, but I am now. I don’t care if I don’t have my Legacies. It is better to fight than to run.
“You don’t mean that,” she says. “We must be prudent.”
So we wait. Katarina’s heart has gone out of training but we still do as best we can, push-ups and shadowboxing in our room during the day, more elaborate drills out in the unlit corners of the soccer field at night.
During the day I’m allowed to wander through the orchards, smelling the sweet rot of fallen apples. Katarina has told me not to play on the soccer field during the day, or talk to the children who practice on it. She wants to continue to keep a low profile.
But I can watch the field from behind a tree at the edge of the orchard. It’s a girls’ team playing today. The girls are all in purple jerseys and bright white shorts. They’re about my age. From beneath the shade of the apple tree I wonder what it would be like to give myself to something as light and inconsequential as a game of soccer. I imagine I’d be good at it: I love being physical, I’m strong and quick. No: I’d be great at it.
But it’s not for me to play games of no value.
I feel envy creep up my throat like bile. It’s a new sensation for me. I am usually resigned to my fate. But something about this time on the road, about the near miss with the Mogadorians, has opened me to hating these girls with their easy lives.
But I choke it down. I need to save my spite for the Mogs.
That night we allow ourselves to watch a little TV before bed. It is a luxury Katarina usually denies me, as she thinks it rots my brain and dulls my senses. But even Katarina softens sometimes.
I curl up next to Katarina on the queen bed. She’s turned the TV to a movie about a woman who lives in New York City and complains about how hard it is to find a good man. My attention wanders quickly away from the screen to Katarina’s face, which has gone soft with attention to the film’s plot. She has succumbed to it.
She catches me looking at her, and turns red in an instant. “I’m allowed to be sappy sometimes.” She turns back to the screen. “I can’t help it. He’s handsome.”
I look back at the TV. The woman is now yelling at the handsome man about how he’s a “sexist pig.” I’ve seen very few movies in my life but I can already guess how this one ends. The man is handsome, I suppose, though I’m not as transfixed by him as Katarina is.
“Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I ask her.
She laughs. “Back on Lorien, yes. I was married.”
My heart seizes, and I blush at my own self-absorption. How could I have never asked her this before? How could I not have known that she had a husband, a family? I hesitate before asking another question, because I can only assume her husband died in the Mogadorian invasion.
My heart breaks for my Katarina.
I change the subject. “But since we’ve been on Earth?”
She laughs again. “You’ve been with me the whole time. I think you’d know if I had!”
I laugh too, though my amusement is mixed with sadness. Katarina couldn’t have had a boyfriend even if she wanted one-and it’s all because of me. Because she’s too busy protecting me.
She raises an eyebrow. “Why so many questions all of a sudden? Do you have a crush? Seen any cute boys out on the soccer field?” She reaches over and pinches my side, tickling me. I squirm away, laughing.
“No,” I say, and it’s the truth. Boys practice out there some days and I watch them, but usually just to measure their athleticism and reflexes and to compare them to my own. I don’t think I could ever like any of them. I don’t think I could love anyone who wasn’t locked into the struggle with me. I could never respect someone who wasn’t part of the war against the Mogs, to save Lorien.
Back on the TV, the woman is standing in the rain, tears streaming down her face, telling the handsome man that she’s changed her mind, that love is all that matters after all.
“Katarina?” I ask. She turns to me. I don’t even have to say it out loud; she knows me well.
She switches the channels until we find an action movie. We watch it together until we fall asleep.
The next day after drills and studies I make it back out to the orchard. It’s a warm day and I dodge from the shade of one tree to another as I stroll. I walk over mushy, sweet-stinking apples, feeling them turn to goop beneath my feet.
Despite the heat of the sun, the air is crisp and pleasant today, not too hot or cold. I feel weirdly happy and hopeful as I tramp around.
Katarina is booking us plane tickets to Australia today. She thinks it’ll make as good a hiding place as any. I’m already excited for the journey.
I turn, ready to walk back to the motel, when a soccer ball comes rolling past me, scudding over broken apples. Without thinking I leap forward and hop on it with one foot, stopping it in its tracks.
“You gonna give that back or what?” Startled, I turn around. A pretty girl with a chestnut ponytail stares at me from the edge of the orchard. She’s dressed in soccer clothes and her mouth is open, smacking on bubble gum.
I step off the ball, pivot around it, and give it a quick kick, right to the girl. I use more strength than I should: when she clutches it with her hands, the force of the impact nearly sends her off her feet.
“Easy!” she yells.
“Sorry,” I say, instantly ashamed.
“Good kick, though,” says the girl, sizing me up. “Damn good kick.”
I am on the field moments later. The girls’ team was short a player for scrimmage and the gum-chewing girl, Tyra, somehow convinced the coach to let me play.
I don’t know the rules of soccer but I pick them up soon enough. I owe Katarina for that, for keeping my brain sharp enough to process rules quickly. The coach, a dour, squat lady with a whistle in her mouth, puts me in as a fullback and I quickly establish myself as a force. The girls on my team catch on fast and soon enough they’re putting up a wall, forcing the other team’s forwards to run past me on the right side of the field.
Not one of them gets through without losing their hold on the ball.
Before I know it I’m covered in sweat, blades of grass sticking to the sweat on my calves-fortunately, I wore high socks today, so no one can see my scars. I’m dizzy and happy from the sun and the appreciative cheers of my teammates.
There’s a reversal to my left. Tyra’s seized the ball from a charging opponent before getting chased by another member of the opposing team. I’m the only free player and she manages to kick the ball right at me.
Suddenly, almost the entire opposing team is on my tail. My teammates chase after them, trying to keep them away from me, as I make a mad dash with the ball towards the goal. I can see the goalie steeling herself, ready for my approach. My opponents break free of my blocking teammates. Even though I am still nearly half the field from the box, I know it’s my only chance.
The ball swings in a long, curving arc, propelled like a jet. I acted too fast, too thoughtlessly, and have aimed right at the goalie’s position. I’m sure she’ll catch it.
She does. But I’ve kicked the ball with such power that it lifts her off her feet and the ball goes out of her hands, spinning against the net behind her.
My teammates cheer. Our opponents join in; this was only a scrimmage, so they can acknowledge my skills without sacrificing too much pride.
Tyra gives me a pat on the shoulder. I can tell she’s excited about having been the one to coax me out of the orchard. The coach pulls me aside and asks where I go to school. She clearly wants me for her team.
“Not from here,” I mumble. “Sorry.” She shrugs and congratulates me on my playing.
I grin and walk away from the field. I can tell the girls are eager for my friendship, standing in a cluster and watching me depart. I imagine a different life for myself, a life like theirs. It has its charms, but I know my place is by Katarina’s side.
I walk back to the motel, doing my best to wipe the grin of victory off my face. I feel a childish urge to blab about the game to Katarina, even though she told me not to play. In spite of myself I find I’m running back to the room, ready to start crowing.
The door’s unlocked and I swing it open, still grinning like an idiot.
The grin doesn’t last long.
There are ten men in the room-Mogadorians. Katarina is tied to the motel’s desk chair, her mouth gagged and her forehead bloody, her eyes filling with tears at the sight of me.
I turn to run, but then I see them. More men, some in cars, some just standing there, all over the parking lot. There must be thirty Mogadorians total.
We’ve been caught.
My hands are cuffed and my legs are bound in rope. Katarina’s are too, though I can’t see her. The Mogadorians threw us in the back of a big rig’s trailer, tied together, so the only proof of Katarina I have is the place where our spines touch.
The trailer bucks wildly and I know we are on the highway, going somewhere fast.
Katarina is still gagged, but they never bothered to gag me. Either they sensed I would stay quiet to keep Katarina safe, or they figured the roar of the road would swallow any sound I made.
I don’t have any idea where we’re being taken or what the Mogadorians plan to do to us once we get there. I assume the worst, but I still murmur soft, soothing things to Katarina in the dark of the trailer. I know she’d be doing the same thing for me if she could.
“It’ll be okay,” I say. “We’ll be okay.”
I know we won’t. I know with sick certainty that this journey will end in our deaths.
Katarina presses her back against mine, in a gesture of love and encouragement. Hands tied and mouth gagged, it’s the only way she can communicate with me.
It’s dark in the trailer save for a small sliver of light shining through a break in the trailer’s aluminum roof. Sunlight dribbles in through the crack. Sitting in the dark, musty chill of the trailer, it is strange to think it’s day outside. Ordinary day.
I’m achy everywhere, sore from sitting and too uncomfortable to sleep. In my exhausted delirium, I have the ridiculous thought that I should’ve stayed behind with the soccer girls. At least long enough to have some of the Gatorade the coach offered me.
Something murmurs inside the trailer. A low, guttural growl.
There is a cage, tucked up against the front of the trailer. I can dimly make out its thick steel bars in the dark.
“What is it?” I ask. Katarina mumbles through her gagged mouth, and I feel bad for asking her a question she can’t possibly answer.
I lean forward, as far as I can, pulling Katarina with me. I can hear Katarina protest from beneath her gag, but curiosity pushes me forward. I stretch into the darkness, bringing my face as close to the steel bars as I can.
Another rustle in the dark.
Another captive? I wonder. Some kind of beast?
My heart fills with pity.
“Hello?” I speak into the void. The person or creature makes low whimpers of distress. “Are you okay?”
Jaws snap with sudden force against the bars of the cage, eyes the size of fists flashing red in the dark. The breath of the beast sends my hair back. I pull away in terror and disgust, the smell so revolting I almost retch.
I try to scoot away, but the huge beast, unappeased, keeps its head pressed to the bars, its red eyes fixed on me. I know that were it not for the bars, I’d be dead already.
This is no captive. No fallen ally. This is a piken. Katarina told me about these beasts before, savage accomplices and hunters for the Mogadorians, but I had taken them for fairy tales.
Katarina helps me nudge us back towards the rear, giving me more space to pull away from the beast. As I back farther away, so does the piken, disappearing into the dark of its cage.
I know I am safe for the moment. But I also know this animal, this foul, fearsome creature, may be pitted against me in the coming days or weeks. My stomach turns in fear and helpless rage: I don’t know whether to vomit or pass out or both.
I nestle my damp head against Katarina’s, wishing this nightmare away.
I fall into an agitated half-sleep, awoken only by Katarina’s voice.
“Six. Wake up. Six.”
I snap to.
“Your gag?” I ask.
“I worked it off. It’s taken this whole time to get it off.”
“Oh,” I say stupidly. I don’t know what else to say, what good it does us to speak. We are caught, without defense.
“They bugged our car. Back in Texas. That’s how they found us.”
How stupid of us, I think. How careless.
“It was my job to think of that,” she says, as if reading my thoughts. “Never mind that. I need you to prepare for what’s coming.”
What’s that? I think. Death?
“They will torture you for information. They will . . . ” I hear Katarina succumb to weeping, but she pulls herself together and resumes. “They will inflict unthinkable torments on you. But you must bear them.”
“I will,” I say, as firmly as I can.
“They will use me to make you bend. You can’t let them . . . no matter what. . . . ”
My heart freezes in my chest. They will kill Katarina in front of me if they think it will make me talk.
“Promise me, Six. Please . . . they can’t know your number. We can’t give them any more power over the others than they already have, or power over you. The less they know about the charm, the better. Promise me. You have to.”
Imagining the horrors to come, I can’t. I know my vow is all Katarina wants to hear, but I just can’t.
I have been in my cell for three days. I have nothing in here with me but a bucket of water, another bucket to use as a toilet, and an empty metal tray from yesterday’s meal.
There is not a speck of food left on the tray: I licked it clean yesterday. When I woke up in my cell three days ago it had been my intention to mount a hunger strike against my captors, to refuse all food and water until they let me see my Katarina. But two days passed with no food or water from them anyway. I had begun to imagine I’d been forgotten in my cell. By the time the food arrived, I was so far out of my mind with hopelessness that I forgot my original plan and wolfed down the slop they shoved through the little slot of my cell door.
The odd thing is that I wasn’t even particularly hungry. My spirits were low but I didn’t feel weak from hunger. My pendant throbbed dully against my chest during my days in the dark, and I began to suspect the charm was keeping me safe from hunger and dehydration. But even though I wasn’t starving, or dehydrated, I’d never gone so long without food or water in my life, and the experience of being deprived drove me to a kind of temporary madness. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty physically, but I was mentally.
The walls are made of heavy, rough stone. It feels less like a prison cell and more like a makeshift burrow. It seems to have been carved out of a natural stone formation instead of built. I take this as a clue that we’re in some natural structure: a cave, or the inside of a mountain.
I know I may never find out the answer.
I have attempted to chip at the walls of my cell, but even I know there is nothing I can do. In my attempts, all I accomplished was to wear my nails down until the tips of my fingers bled.
The only thing left now is to sit in my cell and try to hold on to my sanity.
That is my sole mission: to not let my solitary confinement drive me to madness. I can let it harden me, I can let it toughen me, but I must not let it make me crazy. It’s a strange challenge, staying sane. If you focus too hard on maintaining your sanity, the slipperiness of the task can only make you crazier. On the other hand, if you forget your mission, if you try to maintain your sanity by not thinking about the matter at all, you can find your mind wandering in such dizzying patterns that you wind up, again, at madness. The trick is to forge a middle ground between the two: a detachment, a state of neutrality.
I focus on my breathing. In, out. In, out.
When I’m not stretching or doing push-ups in the corner, this is what I do: just breathe.
In, out. In, out.
Katarina calls this meditating. She used to try to encourage me to do meditation exercises to keep my focus. She felt it would aid me in combat. I never followed her advice. It seemed too boring. But now that I’m in my cell, I find it is a lifeline, the best way for me to keep my sanity.
I am meditating when the door to my cell opens. I turn around, my eyes straining to adjust to the light coming in from the hall. A Mog stands in the light, backed by several others.
I see he’s holding a bucket, and for a second I imagine he’s brought fresh water for me to drink.
Instead, he steps forward and empties the bucket over my head, dousing me in cold water. It is a harsh indignity and I shiver at the cold, but it’s also bracing, restorative. It brings me back to life, back to my pure hatred of these bastard Mogs.
He lifts me off my feet, dripping wet, and wraps a blindfold around my head.
He drops me again and I struggle to stay upright.
“Come,” he says, shoving me out of my cell and into the hall.
The blindfold is thick, so I am walking in total blackness. But my senses are keen and I manage a nearly straight line. I can also sense other Mogs all around me.
As I walk, my feet cold against the rough stone floors, I hear the varied screams and moans of my fellow prisoners. Some are human, some are animal. They must be locked inside cells like mine. I have no idea who they are or what the Mogs want them for. But I am too focused on my survival right now to care: I am deaf to pity.
After a long march, the Mog leading the guard says “Right!” and shoves me to the right. He shoves me hard, and I land on my knees, scraping them against stone.
I struggle to get to my feet, but I am picked up before I can, two Mogs throwing me against a wall. My hands are raised and chained to a steel cord dangling from the ceiling. My torso is stretched, my toes just barely touching the ground.
They remove my blindfold. I’m in another cell; this one is lit, brightly, and my eyes feel like they will burn out adjusting from three days of nearly total darkness. Once they do, I see her.
She is chained to the ceiling, as I am. She looks far worse than me, bloody, bruised, and beaten.
They started with her.
“Katarina,” I whisper. “Are you okay . . . ?”
She looks up at me, her eyes brimming with tears. “Don’t look at me,” she says, her eyes drifting down to the floor.
A new Mog enters the room. He is wearing, of all things, a white polo shirt and a crisp pair of khaki pants. His haircut is short. His shoes-loafers-scuff quietly across the floor. He could be a suburban dad, or the manager of a neighborhood store.
“Howdy,” he says. He grins at me, his hands in his pocket. His teeth are white like in a toothpaste commercial.
“Hope you’re enjoying your stay with us so far.” I notice the bristly hair on his tan arms. He is handsome, in a bland way, with a compact but strong-looking build. “These caves can be awfully drafty, but we try to make it as cozy as possible. I trust you have two buckets in your cell? Wouldn’t want you to go without.”
His hand reaches out so casually that for a second I think he is going to caress my cheek. Instead, he pinches it, hard, giving my flesh a twist. “You are our guests of honor, after all,” he says, the venom at last creeping into his salesman’s voice.
I hate myself for doing it, but I begin to cry. My legs give out entirely, and I dangle hard against my cuffs. I don’t allow myself to sob audibly, though: he can see me cry, but I won’t let him hear it.
“Okay, ladies,” he says, clapping his hands together and approaching a little desk tucked into the corner of the cell. He opens a drawer and pulls out a vinyl case, which he unwraps on the surface of the desk. The ceiling light glints off an array of sharp steel objects. He picks them up, one at a time, so I can see them all. Scalpels, razors, pliers. Blades of every kind. A pocket-size electric drill. He gives it a few nerve-shattering whirs before putting it down.
He strides over to me, putting his face right up in mine. He speaks, and his breath forces its way into my nostrils. I want to retch.
“Do you see all of these?”
I don’t respond. His breath smells like the breath of the beast in the cage. Despite his bland exterior, he’s made of the same foul stuff.
“I intend to use each and every one of them on you and your Cepan, unless you answer every question I ask truthfully. If you don’t, I assure you that both of you will wish you were dead.”
He gives a hateful little grin and walks back over to the desk, picking up a thin-looking razor blade with a thick rubber handle. He returns to me, rubbing the dull side of the blade against my cheek. It’s cold.
“I’ve been hunting you kids for a very long time,” he says. “We’ve killed two of you, and now we have one right here, whatever number you are. As you might imagine, I hope you are Number Three.”
I try to inch away from him, pressing my back hard against the cell wall, wishing I could disappear into the stone. He smiles at me, again pressing the dull side of the razor into my cheek, harder this time.
“Oops,” he says, tauntingly. “That’s not the right side.”
With a single dexterous motion, he reverses the blade in his wrist, the sharp side now facing me. “Let’s try it this way, shall we.”
With reptilian pleasure he brings the blade to the side of my face and swipes hard against my flesh. I feel a familiar warmth, but no pain, and watch with shock as his own cheek begins to bleed instead.
Blood flows from his wound as it splits open like a seam. He drops the blade, clutching his face, and begins stamping around the room in pain and frustration. He kicks over the desk, sending his instruments of torture scattering across the cell, then flees the room. The Mog guards who’d been standing behind him exchange indecipherable glances.
Before I even have a chance to say anything to Katarina, the Mogs move forward, unshackle me, and drag me back to my cell.
Two days pass. In the dark of my cell I now have more than madness and boredom to contend with. I must also work to burn the image of a bloody and broken Katarina from my mind. I want to remember Katrina as I know her: wise and strong.
I continue with my breathing exercises. They help.
But not much.
Eventually the cell door opens, and again I’m doused with cold water, gagged this time, blindfolded, and dragged back to the same cell. Once I’ve been chained to the ceiling, my blindfold is removed.
Katarina is right where I last saw her, as broken and battered as before. I can only hope she’s been let down at some point.
The same Mog as before sits across from us, on the edge of the desk, a bandage across his sliced cheek. I can see he is straining to be as menacing as he was before. But he regards us with a new fear.
I hate him. More than anyone I have ever met. If I could tear him apart with my bare hands I would. If I couldn’t use my hands, I would rip him apart with my teeth.
He sees me looking at him. He leaps forward suddenly, tearing the gag from my mouth. He wields the rubber-handled razor in front of my face again, twisting it, letting the ceiling light dance across its edge.
“I don’t know what number you are . . . ” he says. I cringe involuntarily, expecting him to try and cut me again, but he holds back. Then, with sadistic deliberateness, he crosses over to Katarina, pulling on her hair. Still gagged, she manages only a whimper. “But you’re going to tell me right now.”
“No!” I scream. He grins with satisfaction at my anguish, like he’s been waiting for it. He presses the blade to Katarina’s arm and slides it down her flesh. Her arm opens up, pouring blood. She buckles against her chains, tears flooding her face. I try to scream but my voice gives out: all that comes out is a high, pained gasp.
He makes another cut beside the first, this one even deeper. Katarina succumbs to the pain and goes limp.
With my teeth, I think.
“I can do this all day,” he says. “Do you understand me? You’re going to tell me everything I want to know, starting with what number you are.”
I close my eyes. My heart burns. I feel like a volcano, only there’s no opening, no outlet for the rage filling up inside of me.
When I open my eyes he’s back at the desk, tossing a large blade from his left hand to his right hand and back. Playfully, waiting for my gaze. Now that he’s got it, he holds the blade up so I can see its size.
It begins to glow in his hands, changing colors: violet one second, green the next.
“Now . . . your number. Four? Seven? Are you lucky enough to be Number Nine?”
Katarina, barely conscious, shakes her head. I know she’s signalling me to keep silent. She has kept her silence this long.
I struggle to keep quiet. But I can’t handle it, can’t watch him hurt my Katarina. My Cepan.
He walks over to Katarina, still wielding the blade. Katarina murmurs something beneath her gag. Curious, he lowers it from her mouth.
She spits a thick wad of blood onto the floor by his feet. “Torturing me to get to her?”
He eyes her hatefully, impatient. “Yes, that’s about right.”
Katarina manages a scornful, slow-building laugh. “It took you two whole days to come up with that plan?”
I can see his cheeks turn red at the well-aimed jab. Even Mogadorians have their pride.
“You must be some kind of idiot,” she howls. I thrill at Katarina’s impudence, proud of her defiance but afraid of what the consequence will be.
“I have all the time in the galaxies for this,” he says flatly. “While you are in here with me, we are out there with the rest of you. Don’t think anything has stopped us from moving forward just because we have you. We know more than you think. But we want to know everything.”
He cruelly strikes Katarina with the butt of the knife before she can speak again.
He turns to me.
“If you don’t want to see her sliced into little pieces, then you better start talking, and fast. And every single word that comes out better be true. I will know if you’re lying.”
I know he isn’t playing games, and I can’t bear to see him hurt Katarina again. If I talk, maybe he’ll be merciful. Maybe he’ll leave her alone.
It comes out so fast I barely have time to order my thoughts, so fast I barely know what I’m saying when I say it. I have one intention, but it’s a murky one: to tell him everything I know that he can’t use against me or the other Loriens. I tell him pointless details about my previous journeys with Katarina, our previous identities. I tell him about my Chest, but I don’t give its burial location, claiming it was lost in our journey. Once I start talking I’m afraid to stop. I know that if I pause to measure my words he will smell my deceit.
Then he asks me what number I am.
I know what he wants to hear: that I am number Four. I can’t be Three, or else they would have been able to kill me. But if I’m Four then all he’ll need is to find and kill Three before he can begin his bloody work on me.
“I am Number Eight,” I say finally. I am so scared I say it, with a desperate, cringing sigh, that I know that he’s fooled. His face falls.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” I croak out.
His disappointment is short-lived. He begins to beam, victorious. I may not be the number he wanted, but he got my number out of me. Or what he thinks is my number.
I search out Katarina’s eyes, and though she is barely conscious, I can see the faintest hint of gratitude in her eyes. She is proud of me for giving him the wrong number.
“You really are weak, aren’t you?” He stares at me with contempt. Let him, I think. I feel a surge of superiority over him: he was dumb enough to believe my lie.
“Your relatives on Lorien, as easy as they fell, at least they were fighters. At least they had some bravery and dignity. But you . . .” He shakes his head at me, then spits on the floor. “You have nothing, Number Eight.”
At that, he raises his arm with the blade and thrusts it, deep into Katarina. I hear the sound of bone cracking, of the knife pushing through her sternum, right into her heart.
I scream. My eyes search out Katarina’s. She meets my gaze for one last instant. I will myself past my chains towards her, struggling to be there for her in her last moment.
But her last moment goes fast.
My Katarina is dead.
Weeks turn into months.
Some days they don’t feed me, but my pendant keeps me from dying of thirst or starvation. What’s harder is the absence of sunlight, the endless immersion in darkness. Sometimes I lose track of where my body ends and the darkness begins. I lose sense of my own existence, my own borders. I am a cloud of ink in the night. Black on black.
I feel forgotten. Incarcerated, with no hope of escape, and with no information that can lead them to the others, I am useless to them for now. Until they’ve killed the ones before me, until my extinction date.
The urge to survive has gone dormant in me. I live not because I want to but because I can’t die. Sometimes, I wish I could.
Even so, I force myself to do the work of staying as fit and limber and as ready for combat as I can. Push-ups, situps, games of Shadow.
In these games of Shadow I have learned to play Katarina’s part as well as my own, giving myself instructions, describing my imagined attackers, before I respond with my commands.
I loved this game before, but now I hate it. Still, in Katarina’s honor, I continue to play.
As I was lying to the Mog, I thought I was doing it so he would spare Katarina, let her live. But as soon as I saw his knife pierce her heart I realized what I was really doing: hastening her end. I was giving him everything I knew so he would finish her off, so she wouldn’t have to suffer anymore, so I wouldn’t have to watch her suffer anymore.
I tell myself that was the right thing to do. That it’s what Katarina would’ve wanted. She was in such pain.
But I’ve been without her so long at this point that I would give anything for another moment with her, even if she had to suffer unimaginable torments for it. I want her back.
The Mogadorians continue to test the boundaries of my conditional immortality. These trials take time to plan and construct. But every week or so I am dragged out of my cell and brought to another, jury-rigged for my destruction.
The first week after Katarina’s death I was brought to a small chamber and made to stand on a sharp steel grill several feet off the floor. The door was sealed behind me. I waited for a few minutes as the room filled with noxious-looking gas, curling up from beneath the grill in green tendrils. I covered my mouth, trying not to breathe it, but I could only hold my breath for so long. I gave up, gulping in their poison, only to discover it smelled like the coolest and freshest of mountain breezes to me. Furious Mogs dragged me out of the room minutes later, pushing me quickly back to my cell, but I could see the pile of dust beside the door on the way out. The Mog who had pushed the button releasing the gas had died in my place.
The next week they tried to drown me; the week after, they tried burning me alive. None of these affected me, of course. Last week, they served me food laced so heavily with arsenic I swear I could taste each poison grain. They had brought a cake to my cell. They had no reason to treat me with dessert, and I knew at once that it was their hope to trick me with the cake-and in turn trick the charm. They hoped that if I didn’t know my life was in danger, the charm wouldn’t work.
Of course I suspected them at once.
But I ate the cake anyway. It was delicious.
By eavesdropping against the slot of my cell door, I later learned that not one but three Mogadorians perished from the attempted poisoning.
How many Mogadorians does it take to bake a cake? I asked myself later. Then, with malevolent satisfaction, I answered: Three.
I allow myself to imagine a happy outcome in which the Mogadorians, who seem to place little value even on their own lives, keep trying to kill me and end up dying in the attempt, until there are no Mogadorians left. I know it is just a fantasy, but it’s a happy one.
I have no idea how long I’ve been here. But I have grown so hardened to their execution attempts that I am fearless as they drag me through the halls to yet another. This time I am thrown into a large, drafty space with dim lights, larger than any room I’ve been in so far. I know I am being watched through one-way glass or a video monitor, so I wear my face in a sneer. A sneer that reads: Bring it on.
Then I hear it. A low, guttural moan. It’s so deep I can feel it, rattling through the floor. I whirl around to see, deep in the shadows of the room, a large steel cage. It looks familiar.
I hear jaws snapping hungrily, followed by the sounds of massive lips smacking.
The piken. The beast from our trip out here.
Now I am scared.
There’s a bright flash. Suddenly I’m bathed in strobing red lights, and the steel bars of the cage retract.
Weaponless, I fall back against the opposite corner of the room.
Clever, I think. The Mogs have never pitted me against a living creature before.
The piken steps out. A four-legged monster, it stands like a bulldog the size of a rhino: forelegs bowed, mouth all dripping, sagging jowls. Massive teeth jut from its mouth like tusks. Its skin is a putrid, knobby green. It smells of death.
It roars at me, drenching me in a spittle so thick I fear I will slip on it. Then it charges.
I can’t believe my own body. I’m stiff from solitary confinement, I haven’t practiced combat in months, but instinct and adrenaline kick in, and soon enough I am dodging the beast like a pro, careening off corners, ducking between its legs.
The piken roars, frustrated, getting more and more worked up, battering the walls with its head.
I haven’t had this much fun in years, I think, as I manage to give it a roundhouse kick across the face.
I land on the ground, beaming from my well-placed kick, but I land in one of its spit puddles and my arms and legs give out in the slime. It’s a momentary lapse, but it’s enough: The beast has me in its jaws.
My whole body floods with warmth, and I am sure that this is the end.
But no pain comes. The creature lets out a long whimper and then releases me from its jaws. It’s a five-foot drop from its mouth to the floor and I land on my knee, which hurts worse than the bite.
I turn to see the piken sprawled out, mouth open, chest heaving powerfully. A massive crescent of puncture wounds stud its chest. It took the brunt of its own bite.
It lets out another low, pitiful moan.
Of course, I think. A Mogadorian beast is as much a Mogadorian as any of the rest. It’s susceptible to the charm too.
I whirl around, trying to get the attention of whoever is watching. It is clear to me that the creature, though wounded, will live. Left to their own devices, the Mogs will nurse their beast back to health so it can live to spoil another day.
I stride over to it, remembering the rabbit I killed all those years ago in Nova Scotia. I hear the footsteps of approaching guards and know I must act fast.
A Mog guard bursts into the room. He wields a long blade, and is about to swing at me when he thinks twice, realizing he will only kill himself in the process.
I use his hesitation to my advantage. I leap off the ground and hit him with a high swing kick, his blade clattering to the floor. One more kick to keep him down, and then I swipe the blade from the floor.
I approach the heaving, panting beast as more guards enter the room and I bring the blade straight down, through the piken’s skull.
Dead in an instant.
The guards swarm around me and drag me out of the cell. I am dazed but happy.
I have come to appreciate the tiny differences in the food they serve me. It’s always the same gray slop, some protein and wheat blended into a paste and ladled onto my serving tray. But sometimes it is made with more water and less wheat, more wheat and less protein, etc.
Today is a heavy protein day. I swallow it down without joy but with some gratitude: my muscles still hurt from my battle with the piken and the guard, and I figure the protein will do me good.
I take my last bite and back into the corner.
It is dark in my cell, but there is just enough light from the foodslot that I can see my feet, and my hands, and my food tray.
Except today I can’t see my hand. I can see my left one, but not my right one.
It has taken a long time to hone my vision to this state of sensitivity in the dark, so I’m furious at its failure. I wave my right hand in front of my face, twisting it left and right in my sleeve. But still all I see is darkness. I slap my face, blink, trying to bring my vision back.
But still my right hand is a void.
Finally I reach down and pick up my fork, holding it in front of my face.
I feel a thrill in my stomach as I push it down into my hand. I don’t want any false hope. I know I can’t survive any false hope.
But I can see the fork. And I still can’t see my hand.
At that moment my cell door opens and a lowly Mog enters. He’s come to retrieve my serving tray. All it takes is the light from the hallway flooding the room to confirm my suspicion.
My right hand is invisible.
My first Legacy has arrived.
I gasp. Of all the skills I could develop, this seems like the one-the only one-that might get me out of this prison alive.
The Mog grunts at me suspiciously, and I tuck my hollow-looking sleeve behind my back, hoping he didn’t see. I am dizzy with joy.
He’s a stupid one, and doesn’t notice a thing. He lifts my tray from the floor and exits the room.
I am plunged back into darkness, and wait impatiently for my eyes to adjust to the point where I can see my new ability again. There it is. Hollow sleeve, invisible hand. I roll up my sleeve and look at my arm. My hand is completely invisible, my forearm milky, nearly translucent, but by my elbow I’m fully visible.
I can see I’ll need to practice this skill.
It has taken two days, but I have learned to wield my first Legacy. My control is not perfect yet: sometimes my invisibility stutters, and I panic, struggling to restore it. Turning it off and on is not like turning a light switch up or down; it takes a certain kind of concentration.
Katarina’s breathing exercises have come in handy. When I struggle to control my invisibility, I turn my focus to my breathing-in, out-and then back to the ability. After I’m able to make my hand invisible at will, I start practicing with other parts of my body. It’s like flexing a new muscle-it feels strange at first but quickly feels natural. Next, I let my whole body fade out. It’s no more difficult than making my hand disappear; in fact, it seems to take less precision.
I am ready.
I go fully invisible and wait for the next food drop. It takes some of my energy to maintain the invisibility, energy I wish I could conserve, but I have only that single instant for my snare to work and I can’t risk them seeing me transform.
Finally, a Mog appears. The food slot opens, the tray is tossed in. It shuts.
I worry the snare hasn’t worked. Maybe the Mogs don’t bother to check on me, to look for me in my cell? In which case my power is totally useless-
The slot opens again. Two beady eyes peer into the shadows, squinting.
In, out. Sometimes nerves can send me back into visibility and I can’t spoil this moment. In, out. The worst-case scenario is them discovering my power before I can use it against them.
It is a strange thing, willing someone to see my absence.
The slot closes again. I hear the Mog walk away and my heart plummets. Where’d he go? Didn’t he notice that I’m not here-
The door opens suddenly. Soon, my tiny cell is filled with Mogadorian guards, four in total. I press myself against the far corner, hiding. They are huddled close, conferring about my apparent disappearance. No way out.
One leaves and runs down the hall. His exit creates more space in the room, less chance that someone will stumble onto me, and I breathe easier.
One of them whirls his arm in frustration, and I have to duck as quickly as I can. He barely misses me. Close call.
I dodge, quiet as a cat, into the corner nearest the door. Two of the Mogs stand deep in the cell, but one of them blocks the exit.
Move, I think. Move.
I can hear footsteps, racing towards the cell. More Mogs. I know that all it will take is one Mog brushing my shoulder or sensing my breath for me and my new Legacy to be discovered. The footsteps are getting closer. The Mog by the door steps further into the cell to accommodate those on their way and I lunge out into the hallway.
I nearly fall on the stone floor outside my cell, but I catch my balance just in time. Flesh slapping against stone: I surely would’ve been discovered.
A horde of Mogs is racing down the hall towards my cell from the left. No choice but to run right. I take off, landing as delicately as I can. Quiet as a cat.
It is a long hall. I struggle to maintain quiet, my bare feet making only the faintest of noises as I run and run and run. At first I am scared, but then I can feel it: freedom, up ahead.
I go faster, landing on arched feet to mute the noise. My heart leaps up into my chest as I exit the hall and find myself in the center of the Mogadorian complex, a massive cavern fed by many other tunnels like the one I just came from. Closed-circuit security cameras are everywhere. When I spot them, my chest leaps with fear, but then I remember I am invisible, to cameras as well as to Mogs.
For how long, I don’t know.
A siren is pulled. I should’ve expected that. Flashing security lights go off as the cavern is filled with the alarm’s shriek. The high walls of the cave only amplify it.
I take off again, choosing a tunnel at random.
I pass other cells like mine, then steel doors that probably hold more prisoners.
I wish I had time to help them. But all I can do is run, and keep running, as long as my invisibility will hold.
I dodge left off the tunnel, passing a large, glass-windowed room to my right. It is illuminated by bright fluorescents. Inside hundreds and hundreds of computers in rows hum and sift data, no doubt looking for signs of my fellow Garde. I keep running.
I pass another laboratory, also glass-windowed, this one to my left. Mogadorians in white plastic suits and goggles stand inside. Scientists? Bomb chemists? I am past them before I have a chance to see what they’re doing. I can only assume something awful.
My brain is split by the siren, and I want to close my ears. But I need my hands to keep my balance as I run, to keep my footsteps dainty and soundless. I have the strange thought that for all my bluntness, my tomboyishness, my warrior’s training, I now find myself calling on such a feminine skill-being lightfooted, like a ballerina.
The tunnel feeds into another center, this one even larger than the other. I had assumed that what I saw earlier was the heart of the complex, but this is truly it: a cavernous hall half a mile wide and so dark and murky I can barely see across to the other side.
I am covered in sweat, out of breath. It is hot in here. The walls and ceiling are lined with huge wooden trellises keeping the cave from collapsing in on itself. Narrow ledges chiseled into the rock face connect the tunnels dotting the dark walls. Above me, several long arches have been carved from the mountain itself to bridge the divide from one side to the other.
I catch my breath and wipe my brow, to keep my own sweat from blinding me.
There are so many tunnels, none of them marked. My heart plummets. I realize I could run and run through this complex for days without finding the way out. I imagine myself like a rat in a laboratory maze, scampering and weaving to no avail.
Then I see it: a single pinprick of natural light, up above. There must be a way out up there. It will be a steep climb up these walls, but I can do it. As I grab the trellis to hoist myself up, I hear it.
“She will be found.”
It’s him. Katarina’s executioner.
He is speaking to a few guard Mogs, on a walkway above me. The guards tramp off. My eyes pin to the executioner as he takes a detour back into the complex.
I must choose. Between escape and vengeance. The light above beckons me like water in a desert. I wonder exactly how long it’s been since I last saw sunlight.
But I turn around.
I choose vengeance.
I follow him through the halls on tiptoe, careful to maintain my invisibility-I’ve learned enough about my Legacy by now to know that any surprise or break in concentration can cause me to fade back in.
I watch as he ducks into a cell. I sneak in behind him as the door shuts.
Unaware he has company, he walks to the corner of the room and begins to tidy up. I look down. There is blood on the floor, his weapons are out. He has tortured and killed others.
I have never killed a Mogadorian before. Not counting the Mogadorians who died trying to kill me, I have only in my entire life killed a rabbit, and a piken. To my own shock, I realize I am thirsty for murder.
I grab a razor from his desk and approach him. The blade feels good in my hand. It feels right.
I know better than to give him a chance to beg, or plead, to shake me from my resolve. I clutch him from behind and slit his throat with one clean slice. His mouth gurgles and spews blood across the floor, against my hands. He falls to his knees and then bursts into ash.
I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt.
I open my mouth to speak. That’s for Katarina, I’m about to say. But I don’t.
I don’t speak because I know it’s a lie.
That wasn’t for Katarina. That was for me.
I emerge from the complex an hour later, exhausted and struggling to stay invisible as I climb out to the mountaintop, as I run from the mountain to a hill opposite. I have to stop to rest, to adapt to the blinding midday sun.
My translucent skin bakes beneath the sun. I stare at the mouth of the complex, already hard to make out from this distance. I don’t trust my memory, so I pause to memorize its shape, its precise location.
I am sure Mogs have fanned out through the complex, looking for me. And I’m sure they have crawled out of the exit, and are even right now searching through the trees along these hills.
Let them look.
They’ll never find me.
I run for a few miles through trees, until I come to a road in a small mining town. I’m running barefoot, so the road slaps hard against my feet, killing my joints. I don’t care; I’ll get a pair of sneakers eventually.
I find a truck idling at the town’s only stoplight. I lightly hop into the back of the pickup, letting the truck take me farther and farther away from the Mogadorian complex. When the trucker stops for gas a few hours later, I dash, still invisible, into the cab, rifling through his stuff. I take a handful of quarters, a pen, a couple scraps of paper, and an uneaten bag of barbecue chips.
I run behind the gas station and sit in the shade. I draw a map of the complex’s entrance on one side of the paper, and a diagram of the tunnels inside as best as I can remember. It will be a long time before I put this to use, but I know my memory of their hideaway is the most valuable thing I possess, and it must be preserved.
Once I finish the diagram, I throw my head back. It’s sunset, but I can still feel of the warmth of the sun on my face. I open the bag of chips and eat them in three messy bites. The salty-sweet chips taste delicious, wonderful.
I am in a motel room, at long last. For a full day I wandered, driven by the urge for shelter and rest. There was no way I could afford a room, and in my desperation I began to consider thievery. Pick a few pockets, plunk down the cash I’d need. Using my Legacy, stealing would be a piece of cake.
But then it occurred to me I wouldn’t need to steal, not yet anyway. Instead I went into the lobby of a small motel, went invisible, and snuck into the hotel manager’s office. I lifted the key for room 21 off the hook. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get the floating key past the crowded lobby and I paused for a moment, frozen in the office. But soon the key disappeared too, in my palm.
I’d never made an object disappear before, only myself and my clothes. A hint of my Legacy’s other uses.
I’ve been in the room for a couple hours. So I feel less like I’m thieving, I sleep above the covers, in the chill of the room’s AC.
I catch myself: I’ve been invisible the whole time I’ve been in the room, clenched from the exertion of sustaining it. It’s like holding your breath.
I get up and approach the mirror across the room, letting it go. My body fills in in the mirror, and I see my face for the first time in over seven months.
The girl who stares back at me is almost unrecognizable. I’m hardly even a girl anymore.
I stare at myself for a long time, standing alone in the room, unattended, unaccompanied, aching for Katarina, aching for a worthy tribute to her.
But it’s right there. In the new hardness and definition of my face, in the muscled curve of my arm. I am a woman now, and I am a warrior. Her love and the loss of her is etched forever in the firm set of my jaw.
I am her tribute. Survival is my gift to her.
Satisfied, I return to the motel bed and sleep for days.
Years have passed.
I live an unsettled life, hopping from town to town. I avoid connections or ties, and focus on developing my fighting abilities and developing my Legacies. Invisibility was followed by telekinesis, and in recent months I’ve discovered a new ability: I can control and manipulate the weather.
I use that Legacy sparingly, as it’s an easy way to attract unwanted attention. It manifested months ago, in a small suburb outside Cleveland. I had been following a lead on one of the Garde that didn’t go anywhere and, discouraged, I was ambling back towards my motel, sipping an iced coffee. My leg burst into searing pain, and I dropped my drink on the ground.
My third scar. Three was dead.
I fell to the ground in pain and in rage, and before I knew what was happening the sky above me filled with clouds. A full-on lightning storm followed.
I am in Athens, Georgia, now. It’s a cool little city, one of the best I’ve passed through in the past couple years. College students everywhere. I’ve got a bit of a vagabond roughness to my appearance that stands out in suburban areas, but surrounded by college-age hippies and music nerds and hipsters I don’t look quite so unusual. This makes me feel safe.
All of my leads have gone dead, and I have yet to discover one of my kind. But I know it is coming. Time to assemble the Garde. If my Legacies are developing at this rate, I am certain the same is true of the others like me. There will be signs soon, I can feel it.
I am patient, but excited: I am ready to fight.
I wander the street, sipping the dregs of an iced coffee. It’s become my drink of choice. I have resorted to pickpocketing to finance my appetites, but it’s become so easy that I never have to outright fleece anyone. I just take a few bucks here or there to get by.
I am suddenly knocked by a gust of wind, practically off my feet. For a second I think I’ve lost control, that it’s my own power that caused it. But the wind ends as soon as it began, and I realize it did not come from me. But it has swung the door of another cafe open.
I almost keep walking, but my eye is caught by an open computer terminal at the back of the cafe. I use internet cafes to keep tabs on the news, looking for items that could turn into a lead on my kind. Doing it makes me feel closer to Katarina. I have become my own Cepan.
I chuck my empty cup in the trash outside and step into the air-conditioned chill of the place. I take my seat, and begin scanning the news.
An item from Paradise, Ohio, catches me. A teenager was seen leaping from a burning building. New to town. Named John. The reporter mentioned how hard it was to get solid information on him.
I stand up so quickly I send the chair flying out from under me. I know in an instant he’s one of us, though I don’t know how I know. Something in that gust of wind. Something about the way butterflies are now fluttering in my stomach, brushing my insides with their wings.
Perhaps this recognition is a part of the charm, something that lets us know that a hunch is more than I hunch. I know.
I just know.
My heart races with excitement. He’s out there. One of the Garde.
I run out of the cafe and onto the street. Left, right . . . I’m not sure which way to turn, how to get to Paradise as quickly as I can.
I take a deep breath.
It’s beginning, I think. It’s finally beginning.
I laugh at my own paralysis. I remember that the bus station is a mile down the road. I make a habit of memorizing all transport routes into and out of any town I visit, and the bus route out of Athens returns to my mind. The beginning of a plan to get to Paradise starts to develop.
I turn and begin the walk to the station.
See where it all began . . .