I had a secret. A secret that no one but my parents and a handful of teachers thought they might know. It is because of my secret that I am dying.
No one else knew what my secret was, but there was something about me that seemed to make all the aberrants dislike me. If they weren’t tripping me down the stairs or ‘accidentally’ tipping me out of a tower window, they would get the haemovores to gang up on me for a ‘drink’ or make elaborate traps that usually near killed me. They never succeeded in actually killing me and the haemovores had discovered that even a sip of my blood made them feel full, but they liked seeing me faint. That way, when I came to, I’d be hoisted high up on a flagpole from the tallest tower by my underwear or tied down to a stake watching a giant boulder falling toward me from a manchicolation.
The aberrant teachers always turned up too late and the normal teachers never seemed to notice anything amiss. My guess is that the illusionists had a hand in keeping the normal teachers and students from becoming traumatised by some of the things that happened around the place. The school building was rumoured to be haunted after all. In any case, I spent a large amount of school time in the sick bay and ended up repeating my final year more than 8 times.
During my last year of school, something happened in the outside world. Aberrants, unlike normal children were not allowed to graduate unless they finished school, because uncontrolled powers can result in all sorts of mishaps out in the real world. Most of those who graduated lived close to the school building – which it turned out, really was a working, defensible castle, not just a castle in name. That was the year the normal humans turned on the aberrants and when the war was over, all the left over aberrants were either killed or locked in the deepest, darkest dungeons of the castle. I was already locked up at the time, for my safety, so the teachers had said.
And so began about a hundred years of tortuous nothingness. I lived in the dark, stuck in a tiny cell with a haemovore called Charlene whose sole amusement was well, me. If we weren’t sleeping, she would be nagging at me for a drink. Even when we were sleeping, we’d both be so plagued by nightmares that we wouldn’t be able to sleep. If I fell asleep and woke up later, I’d usually find Charlene asleep on my neck, her fangs still partially stuck in my jugular.
The only view we had was of the dark, each other and the stones that boxed us in. Not even a glimpse of the sky. How I longed to see the sky and feel a warm breeze. In here, if there was a breeze, it was cold and biting. It often carried a rotting smell or a poisonous, stale taste.
Would it have been better to have been killed in the war? I don’t know. I had often daydreamed of being on a lone island, all by myself. There would be no one to trying to murder me or looking at me askance. Peace and safety with the trees, the animals and the water. Sometimes, I daydreamed of what life would be like as a normal. No more extreme aberrances. Just people living, loving, laughing and then dying. What would it be like for someone to touch me with concern rather than ominous intent? How did it feel for someone to wrap their arms around you and say, ‘it’s all right’? What was it like to have people who actually wanted to be near you?
Hunger made my stomach cramp so hard that it felt like there were stones rattling around in there. Being immortal was a curse. Couldn’t live, couldn’t die and couldn’t even eat or drink anything. What had I done that had made me worthy of being trapped under rock like this? What was wrong with aberrance other than it being abnormal?
Eventually we slipped into a coma-like state, a sort of hibernation if you will and were able to forget for some time that we even existed.
We were woken by our door being kicked in. Charlene squealed like a pig.
“What have we here?” a burly man held up a pine torch, the light making us cover our eyes in pain and look away. “Oh, I remember you kids,” he snorted. It took me a while, but I eventually recognised him as the parent of one of my classmates with super strength. “Come on out. All the locks have finally rusted and it’s about time we got out of here – not you,” he poked me in the shoulder hard enough to knock me back in the cell and slammed the door shut.
The door hinges must’ve been rusty too, because the door fell flat. The man shrugged and walked off with Charlene. Charlene didn’t even look back. Most likely, she was as glad as I was to finally be able to put some distance between us. Having nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, I followed from a distance.
Several broken doors and corridors later, there was a string of people following Mr Strong. Not all the people in their cells had been alive. Some of the doors were opened to skeletons. I was shoved to the back of the line, where one of my old teachers, Mrs Grishwald, now a bent old lady, ignored me. There were thick layers of dust that made us all sneeze and groaning walls that told us that the sooner we got out, the better. Some corridors had already collapsed in and I wondered what happened to the people stuck back there – whether they were crushed to death or merely buried. Either way, I didn’t dare ask. I could only hope they were dead, because to be imprisoned for as long as we had been... Death was preferable.
We had to squeeze through gaps in the rubble and they helped each other climb up more than one tumble-down stair well. I struggled to stay at least a few steps behind them. I was so afraid of getting left behind and being left lost and alone in the dark.
Eventually, we saw the light. There was a pause as everyone let their eyes adjust and then in a rush, they were gone. Maybe my eyes had taken longer to get used to the light than theirs. I’m not sure, but I was the last to stumble out, only to discover that I was alone. I had thought that they’d maybe hang around the castle a little longer, but it was much more likely that they’d gone to see what had happened to their old homes.
I was the only one who got the recessive so-called immortality gene in my family. My parents were dead. I’d seen them die in the war, helping defend the castle. So I knew that I would have no family that might be out there. I made my way out of the ruins to discover the world as I had known it completely changed. Shocked is not the right word to describe my feelings at the time.
Instead of being able to revel at the fact that I could walk or roll more than 2 metres in any direction without running into Charlene or a wall; instead of enjoying the sunshine, grass, trees and the wind breezing through my hair, I could only stare.
I think lost is the right word.
There were hills where there had been no hills and fields where the hills had once been. The stony cliffs to the west had disappeared and in their place were gleaming houses and houses and trees. There hadn’t used to be a forest around the castle, but I was standing in one, hiding under the leafy shadows. Even the colour of the dirt had changed from a deep rich hazel to a sandy yellow. This was not my world.
I wandered back to the castle and explored what was left of the place. Most of the castle’s stones and walls were missing. Maybe people had carted them away or they’d become buried over time. Where the castle wells had once been were now firm ground, covered by long grass and weeds. Old classrooms and towers were empty spaces in the sky, garden patches were strewn with rubble and more weeds. It’s almost as if the normals had smashed the castle after locking us up underground.
I couldn’t stay here, but I didn’t want to go back underground.
My stomach grumbled and I was so thirsty that my tongue felt swollen. I could have eaten grass. I could have drunk a lake. And then just as I’d become suddenly aware of my hunger and thirst, I also felt the need to wash – to wash away the war, the years in the dark cell and myself.
Remembering a stream that used to flow at the rear of the castle at the bottom of the hill, I wove my way around trees, skidded down wet, leafy slopes and fell off unexpected ledges until I found it. Tripping when my foot got stuck in the muddy bank, I fell half into the mud and half into the water.
Often, when people talk about bathing in streams and rivers, they talk about how refreshing it is. They seldom ever mention the fact that it is so cold that it takes your breath away and makes you want to get out as soon as possible… Unless that’s what they meant by refreshing.
Ducks peered out of the reeds and with laughing snickers. As if I cared what they thought.
Seeing as I was half wet and half covered in mud, I wondered whether I may as well finish washing myself and rid myself of the underground dirt and memories of the war at the same time. Except then I’d be completely wet, in wet clothes, in cold wind with a high probability of catching a cold.
But first I had to recover my shoe.
But when I finally pulled it out and washed most of the mud off, I discovered that it had fallen apart and even if I wanted to wear it, it wouldn’t stay on my foot. Taking a step toward the bank, I slipped on a slimy rock, got dunked for my efforts to stay upright and lost my other shoe to the current. I was too tired to go swimming after it. By the state of my clothes, it probably wouldn’t take much for them to fall apart on me either. In fact, I could almost hear some of the threads creaking with the combined weight of the mud and water.
That was when I heard the laughter.
A young lady came out from behind a bush, bent over with one hand over her mouth and a hiking stick in the other.
“Oh, clouds,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t help it. You looked so funny and lost coming down the hill and then falling in the mud. You look like you’ve been through a war.”
Trying to brush mud off myself, I accidentally flicked some on her.
“Oh, sorry,” I made another face and waded out of the water, tripping in the mud again.
“You are a clutz,” she lent me a hand. “You aren’t used to hiking are you?”
She had a strange, drawling accent. It was that lazy drawl us school kids used to use when the teachers weren’t listening and could get us spanked. An improper accent was proof of bad education at the time.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t done much walking for a long time.”
“You new around here then? You’re accent sounds like you’re from elsewhere.”
“I suppose you could say that I just found myself here today. It’s been a while.”
“You used to live around here?”
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s been years. Everything’s changed.”
“I’ll bet it has,” the girl said with a giggle. “Come to think of it, there was a bunch of weird people dressed in old clothes, something like yours earlier. They looked like they’d been living under the ground. All ghostly pale. You aren’t one of them, are you? Because they’re long gone now. I wish some of them had hung around a little longer. They looked like they knew quite a bit about this place and I’d love to know more. I’ve lived here all my life, but no one knows anything about this hill or the ruins.”
“It used to be a school,” I said. “The castle was a school.”
“Castle? I knew it. Nobody would believe me. Cool. I’d loved to have gone to school in a castle.”
“No you wouldn’t,” I said and sneezed three times.
“Oh, clouds, you’d better go home before you catch a cold. I’m Miriam, by the way.”
“Yes,” I said, but just stood there. I didn’t have a home anymore. Plus, I had no shoes.
“Oh, you did say you’d just arrived today, didn’t you?” Miriam asked. “Have you found a place to stay yet?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“Then you’d better come on home with me. We’re about the same size. You can borrow some of my clothes.”
“I don’t –”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. There’s only me there at the moment anyway. My parents moved out with my brothers two years ago, so I’ve got the place to myself. Come on,” and Miriam took my hand. “I can’t leave you here to catch a cold. I should have a spare pair of shoes you can borrow when we get home.”
After a moment’s hesitation, I went with her – mostly because the thought of being dry and having warm clothes outweighed my dread that my presence would attract any of the aberrants in the area to her house.
We were taking what Miriam called her ‘short cut’ through the forest to her house, when we came across a man in a suit. If he were wearing a different suit and a beaver hat, he could have been a man – an immortal legend, I had learnt about in school and who had spoken as a guest in our school assembly. I had never told anyone this, but I had a crush on him - not that he'd ever have the time for me.
“Excuse me,” he said, holding out a hand to Miriam and watching me out the corner of one eye, “but if you see anyone looking like her around, they’re not safe. They’re dangerous. I mean it. I only just heard about it and came right away, but it looks like I may have been too late.”
“You’re talking about all those weird people with pale skin and old fashioned costumes, right?” Miriam asked. “I saw them blinking at the sun. It was weird. None of them said anything and then all of a sudden, they all ran in different directions. Are you a policeman?”
“Of sorts,” said the man. “I mostly keep an eye on the castle.”
“Oh! Then you know all about it,” Miriam said, bouncing on her toes. “I’ve been looking for someone who can tell me about it. No one in town seems to know, not even the librarian. There are no books or documents on it anywhere.”
“No,” said the man, “there wouldn’t be. They were all burnt during the war. Now, please come away from that lady, she’s not safe. Even if she is covered in mud. How did she get all covered in mud, anyway?”
“War? What war? There’s never been a war in these parts. I’m a school teacher, I should know.”
Lady? I stopped listening and looked down at myself while Miriam told him how she’d found me. I guess I was a lady now. I mean, I seemed to have grown parts I hadn’t realised I had. I hadn’t noticed, down in the dark. The girls in school used to always sigh to be grown up. They’d watch the boys and laugh and giggle and flirt. Every now and then famous aberrants would come to the school to guest speak and the girls would gossip about them in loud whispers, wondering what it would be like to be kissed by one of them. I wondered too, but never out loud.
The man in the beaver hat was one of them. He was one of the rare few who like me, had the immortality gene. He’d already lived more than a century and was famous. We had studied all the things he’d said and done around the world. How he’d striven to bring peace wherever he’d gone and brought wars to an end. How he appeared and disappeared like smoke. Made friends everywhere, but then would disappear and never be seen by some again. Everybody loved him, but nobody expected him to stay. They might hope, but then you could never tell whether he’d hang around long enough to see the problem through.
His name was Luke Hamling.
Taking another good hard look at the man, I sneezed and shivered. From the cold… well, and perhaps also the dawning realisation that this was Luke Hamling. Perhaps those years underground had been worth it after all. I wanted to squeal with excitement, but that might scare him off. I don’t think I’d ever been this close to a legend before.
“See? I told you, she’s catching a cold,” Miriam told the man who was now returning my odd gaze.
“You – you’re,” I began, but he put a finger to my lips, making me jump. My lips tingled where he touched.
“I’ve heard of you too,” he said, still not really looking at me, “if you are who I think you are.”
I blinked, tilting my head with a frown. No way.
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Yes. That’s why you got left behind, isn’t it?”
“I guess.” I sneezed again and shrugged. Miriam nudged me to keep walking.
“What are you two talking about?”
“Miriam,” said Luke, keeping in step with furrowed brows, “if you don’t mind, may I tag along to your house, just in case?”
“For your safety.”
“She’s a harmless walking disaster though,” Miriam said.
“Exactly,” Luke said with unexpected feeling. “You have no idea how much.”
“So you know her?”
“By reputation only. I think she recognises me though.”
“I don’t even know who you are or whether you can be trusted,” Miriam said. “I don’t like the idea of letting a strange man into my house.”
“But you’d bring a strange woman into your house?”
“You’re not a policeman. Why should I trust you?”
“I can wait outside the house, if you’d rather.”
“I would rather,” said Miriam.
“Right then,” said Luke, scratching his head and then holding out his hand. “Introductions. My name is Luke Hamling. I suppose you could call me a private investigator.”
“PI Luke,” Miriam said, taking his proffered hand. “No, it doesn’t ring right. I’ll call you Luke. I’m Miriam Lan. Come to think of it,” Miriam nodded at me, a little sheepishly, “I never gave you a chance to introduce yourself. Sorry.”
“Katie Gardener,” I sneezed, “and I’m cold.”
“Katie,” Luke murmured to himself under his breath, with a half-smile.
“Let’s go,” Miriam laughed and nudged Luke. “Come on. Give the girl your coat. She’s cold.”
“But she’s covered in mud,” Luke protested, taking off his coat and placing it around my shoulders. “It’s all right,” he told me, patting my shoulder with a heavy hand. “I don’t mind.”
The shoulder patting was unexpected and I shied away.
“Whoa now,” he said. “It’s all right. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” I sniffed, feeling my nose beginning to run. “You scared me, is all.”
“You stay away from her,” Miriam pushed between us, scowling at Luke.
“It’s all right,” I repeated, this time to Miriam. “I know him.”
“You know him?”
“Well, we haven’t actually met before, but I’ve heard of him. He’s a bit of a legend. Meeting him is like you meeting your favourite celebrity.”
“Oh. Wow. Like if I met Colin Firth or something like that? Is he that famous?”
“Not anymore,” Luke smiled, but his eyes finally met mine and warned me not to say anymore. Miriam probably wouldn’t believe me if I told her who he was and what he could do. Normals had this innate ability to scoff at aberrancy as if there was no such thing. That was, after all, how the war had started. Normals had started separating themselves into little communities, believing that we were demon possessed and then when they found proof, decided we were too dangerous to be left alive. “Favourite celebrity, huh?” he said and smiled a little wider, but the smile seemed to almost sneer at me. It wouldn’t be long now before he started turning on me now. He had touched me which would make him turn faster and I shrunk into myself, preparing for the blow that would come any moment now.
I had the attack of the sneezes and I hunched over from the strength of the sneezes. Snot flew everywhere and Miriam handed me a tissue. I was making a great first impression: bare foot, covered in mud and snot-faced.
“We’re almost there,” Miriam said. “Not long now.”
Luke held out his hand.
“What is it now?” Miriam demanded. “We need to get Katie out of her wet things. She’s already caught a cold. I just hope she doesn’t get a fever as well.”
“There’s somebody out there watching us,” Luke said.
“There’s always people out there,” Miriam said crossly, “but it’s Rasfield. Nothing ever happens here.”
“Until today,” Luke said. “Hush.” Pulling himself straighter, he called out, “Come out. Stop hiding. I know you’re there.”
A handful of haemovores emerged from the trees, their eyes red with hunger.
“We want her,” they pointed at me. “We don’t want to kill anyone.”
“I’ve got a cold,” I sneezed, wondering if it would make a difference to the taste of my blood.
“These young ladies are under my protection,” said Luke.
“We respect you, Luke,” said one of the men, “but we’re desperate. It’s been a century after all. We went into the town, but the smell was all around us and we couldn’t find anything else. Give her to us.”
“No,” Luke said, but I could see beads of sweat covering his nose.
“Let them,” I said to Luke. “At least to tide them over until they find their own source.”
“You could buy some from the butchers,” Luke said, ignoring me.
“It’s not fresh,” one of the women rasped, “and you forget, we have no money.”
“Why are their eyes red?” whispered Miriam. “And why do they want you?”
“They’re hungry,” I told her. “I have something they want.”
“I’ll give you some money,” Luke told the woman.
“Give us a drink first.”
“Let them,” I told Luke more firmly. “It’s not like it’ll kill me. Better now before they go into a rampage. You take Miriam. Make sure she doesn’t see.”
“See what? Who are they? What do they want?” Miriam asked.
“Are you sure?” Luke asked, his eyes full of conflicted concern.
“Yes,” I said. “Go on.”
“Are you a drug dealer?” asked Miriam, hand on hip. “You are, aren’t you? You’re an addict yourself? And I had you pegged as a decent sort.”
“She’s not a drug dealer,” Luke assured Miriam, ushering her away in spite of her protests. “It’s not safe for you to stay here. Come on, we’ll come back for Katie when this is over. She’ll be fine.”
The haemovores waited impatiently for Luke to take Miriam out of sight, jiggling from one foot to the other. They pushed and shoved at each other, crowding around me, too hungry to even talk. I sneezed in one’s face, but he just wiped it off.
“All right,” we heard Luke shout.
I screwed my eyes shut, feeling my heart thumping. It reminded me of the first time I caught a rabbit in a trap and it was still alive. Its little heart had been racing and its breath ragged. It had stared at me with wide eyes and I hadn’t had the heart to kill it. My father had reached past me and I had shut my eyes, not wanting to see what I had seen him do to countless rabbits before. Intellectually I had understood why the rabbit had to die, but I hadn’t been able to bring myself to do the deed.
I yelped when several sets of teeth bit into me – not all of them with good aim. I could hear their breath snarling in their throats and the slurping. And then I felt myself begin to float, the darkness behind my eyelids spun dark blue and all went still.
“Katie, Katie,” Luke patted my cheek.
I groaned. I felt not only bitten, but seriously bruised as well.
“They beat me up afterward, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” Luke said. “It took some doing to drive them off.”
“I hate haemovores,” I said, staring up at the tree branches overhead.
“I can understand that,” Luke acknowledged.
“How come you never had this problem?”
“I taste bad,” Luke said and we both laughed, but I could see in Luke’s eyes that he was confused. Maybe he didn’t know what to make of me. Maybe he too, had felt the urge to join in the attack. It wasn’t unheard of for the nicer aberrants to join in at school when they saw people trying to kill me. I seemed to trigger killer rages in all aberrants.
“How could you?” Miriam was crying and hitting Luke. “How dare you let them attack her when you knew that was what they were going to do?”
“It’s not what you think,” said Luke tiredly, grabbing hold of Miriam’s wrists and pulling her into a tight embrace. “She’s fine.”
“You almost joined in, didn’t you?” I asked him in a whisper.
“Yes,” Luke whispered back, seeming half-afraid. “Almost.”
“I don’t know you people,” Miriam cried, trying to pull away. “I don’t want to know. Let go of me, I’m going home.”
“We’re sorry,” Luke said, picking up his fallen coat. “Go home. Put your feet up, have a cup of hot chocolate and forget about us. It’ll be better that way. I’ll look after Katie.”
“The way you looked after her just now? As if I’m going to leave her in your hands. You’d get her killed. I’ll have the police on you. Legend or not,” Miriam cast a meaningful glance in my direction.
“Do the police know about–?”
“No,” said Luke, before I finished my sentence. “Miriam, you may find that the police will have their hands full at the moment. If you don’t mind, Katie’s going to need our help.”
“Miriam,” I said, “please don’t fuss. It’s nothing that hasn’t happened before. Please.”
“Hasn't happened before - whatever you’re mixed up in,” Miriam told me, “you should get out of it.”
“I would if I could,” I told her.
“There’s always a way out,” Miriam said.
“Yes,” I replied and rubbed my arms. I could feel a sneeze building.
“Oh, clouds,” Miriam pointed at my neck and bare arms. “Are those bite marks? And blood?”
“They’re just marks,” I told Miriam, with a sneeze. “Just a condition I’ve got.”
“Oh, clouds,” Miriam said, close to tears. “Those are bite marks and blood, aren't they? What a day.”
“You should just go home and forget about us,” Luke said. “Seriously. I don’t want you getting into trouble because of us.”
“Are you two involved in anything illegal?”
“No. We’re not.”
“I’m friends with the police, although they’re going to find my theory a little bit wild to take seriously this time, I think. Katie, are you all right?”
“It depends on what your definition of ‘all right’ is, sir,” I said.
“Hey, no ‘sir’-ing. Just call me Luke like everyone else.”
“Can you get up?”
I tried, but I felt like my entire body had grown roots that had gone deep into the ground. Every time I raised my head, it buzzed and the world swirled like a top.
“We need to get her to the hospital,” Miriam said. “She’s been assaulted and unconscious. She's probably lost blood as well. I know that much from my first aid training. What were those people? Vampires? Real life vampires?”
“The hospital might be a good idea,” Luke said, ignoring the questions and pulling out a strange rectangular contraption from his pocket that fit in the palm of his hand and pressing buttons. Then he was talking to someone I couldn’t hear in the box.
“Has he gone mad?” I asked Miriam.
“Thinking that there’s someone in the little box. Is he hearing voices?”
“Have you never seen a mobile phone before?” Miriam raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“What’s a mobile phone?”
“It’s like a phone you can carry in your pocket and can personalise. If you don’t like what you’ve changed, you can reset it to default to factory settings. See?” Miriam showed me her own little box with a colourful square that flashed.
“What’s a phone do?”
“Are you being serious? Oh clouds, you must have been hit on the head pretty hard.”
“It sounds like magic to me.”
“He’s called for an ambulance to bring you to the hospital.”
“If you say so.”
I closed my eyes, knowing that sleep would help me to recover faster, but Miriam wouldn’t let me sleep. She kept shaking or tapping me and talked about everything she could think of, as fast as she could. She told me how her family had moved away, because her brothers’ business had become a success and they’d bought a house by the beach. She talked about her school and the children she taught. She even told me about a boy she was interested in, but didn’t seem to even notice she existed.
Somewhere in between, Luke had finished talking on his mobile phone and had gone down to the road so that the people would be able to find us.
By the time stretcher bearers got to us, I was exhausted and probably knew all there was about Miriam that there was to know, including the fact that her favourite colour was mauve, all her underwear were mauve and that she sometimes fed her goldfish breadcrumbs.
The moment I’d been lifted onto the stretcher and Miriam had stopped talking; I’d had enough of staying awake. It was becoming too effortful. I fell asleep.
“Good morning, Katie,” Luke was opening a cream-coloured window curtain.
“Where am I?” I asked, looking around at the sparse white walls.
“You’re in the hospital – it’s the equivalent to the healing house you probably remember, only much larger.”
“So I’m all better now?” I tried to get up, but it still felt like someone was holding me down.
“No. Normals’ medicine doesn’t work as quickly as aberrant healers. Unfortunately, most aberrants died in the war, including the healers. You’ve been out for a few days,” Luke said with a grimace. “I’ve spent most of the past century tracking down the trouble makers and either relocating them or having them locked away. Normals rule the world now and most of them think that aberrants are made up stories. But now that your lot from the castle escaped, it means there’s going to be a lot more work. Several people in the town died last night and there were several attacks here at the hospital. They had to move you into a private room so that they could keep you safe. I’ve told the police that you’re a distant cousin of mine that came looking for me and the other aberrants are folk that would like to see you dead, because you escaped from a dangerous cult. I’m sorry. I had to make quite a lot of lies up.”
“I’ll leave the talking up to you then,” I said, sniffing and reaching for the tissues. I hate colds.
“That reminds me, the doctor told me to call him when you woke up.”
“Were you in here all night?”
“No, but I was nearby keeping myself busy. I’m glad to see you’re awake now.”
A shaking hand passed me a tissue and I looked into Luke’s face. I forgot all about my self-pity. His hair was messy. He’d obviously been sitting in here, waiting for me to wake up for quite some time. He was struggling to control himself. I had seen it before in my classmates, in other aberrants. They always lost.
“Luke,” I whispered. “You’ve been in here too long. Go. Please go away.”
His eyes were wide and pupils dilated. I couldn’t help noticing that they were blue. The blue of the wide open sky.
“Go,” I said more loudly, my voice shaky. “Get out.”
Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, turned on his heel and left. I didn’t see him again until I was discharged from hospital a few more days later. He had come to pick me up in a growling contraption on wheels.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “about the other day.”
“It’s all right,” I shrugged. “It happens all the time.”
“I don’t know how you survived school.”
“I never graduated, because I was always in the sick bay or in the healing house or failed my exams.”
“What about your parents? Your family?”
“I lived at school.”
“I’m surprised that you’ve survived at all then.”
“What’s that?” I pointed at the painted metal thing on wheels.
“Think of it as a carriage that no longer needs to be pulled by horses. It’s called a car. Come on. You’re staying in my house, but Miriam wants to take you shopping. She left those clothes you’re wearing for you, you know.”
He opened the door for me and showed me how to put on the seatbelt. What a clever idea. Horse drawn carriages used to have us sliding up and down the seats the whole journey. I wondered what pulled the car along.
“Am I going to be safe with you?” I asked, just as a policeman walked up.
“Good question,” the policeman said through the open window, looking at Luke. “We can still organise that security detail.”
“We’ll be fine,” Luke said. “Thanks for the offer.”
“This cult of yours,” said the policeman to me, “they’re causing a lot of trouble.”
I looked at Luke. I didn’t know what to say.
“We know,” Luke said. “Sorry. I’ll get her to another city and tell her how to stay low.”
“Good. Let us know if you need any help.”
“Will do, Tom,” Luke grinned. “Thanks for the help.”
“You’ve done your share for us in the past.”
With a nod, Luke pulled at some levers, pushed pedals with his feet and the car rumbled off.
We met Miriam at the shopping centre. I gazed around in awe at the size of the place and the vast number of shops inside. Miriam took me around to several clothes stores before we settled on buying a knitted blue top with a pair of jeans, that Miriam assured me looked great. I wasn’t sure. Luke couldn’t keep his eyes off me and I drew quite a few stares. Surely something about me looked wrong. Maybe they knew I wasn’t normal.
After that, Luke appeared and disappeared at random, while Miriam treated me to lunch and took me to a few other shops for ‘window shopping’. I had a great time, taking in all the new things. There were a few shocks, like the lingerie store and the toilets, but I managed and Miriam talked me through them with large bouts of merriment.
When Luke finally turned up again after lunch, Miriam started questioning him about the history of Rasfield and the ruined castle. Luke must have done some research about what was out there, because he mostly told her that he wasn’t sure and all he knew was from hear say.
“We need to get going,” Luke told Miriam when he had run out of ways to stall her. “Remember, Katie only just got out of hospital.”
“Oh, clouds. I forgot about that,” Miriam said, kicking herself and then hopping around for a second. “I’m sorry, Katie. You must be tired.”
“It’s all right,” I smiled.
“You keep saying that,” Miriam cocked her head, “and I still can’t tell whether you’re faking it or you mean it.”
I noticed what Luke had seen. Several aberrants, not just haemovores were coming our way. Among them, I saw at least one hypnotist or illusionist and perhaps a hyperaggressor. From another direction, I spotted water and fire manipulators, together with a chronoguard. Haemovores were bad enough, but get an illusionist and a chronoguard together and they can make just one second of your life feel like an hundred years of hell. It would be worse than being stuck with Charlene in a cell. For now, they were too far away to use their abilities and they hadn’t seen us yet or they would be running toward us by now. They knew I was nearby, they just didn’t know where.
“But we should go,” I said.
“Ok,” Miriam said, with a smile. “Let’s go.”
“This way,” said Luke taking us down a service corridor.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to go through here,” Miriam said nervously.
“It’ll be all right,” said Luke. “Right now, getting out of here is more important.”
“Is there something you’re not telling me?” Miriam asked. “Are we about to be attacked again?”
“Yes,” Luke said in a distracted manner. “Make sure Katie keeps up. I have to make sure the way is clear for us.”
Miriam made a squeaky noise in her throat. My breath had already sped up and I felt like I’d already run a mile.
“This way,” Luke pulled Miriam down another corridor, one that ran behind the shops. “It should be clear out here,” he looked both ways and then nodded to us. “If we have to run, try not to get separated. Head for the car if we do.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have offered to go shopping,” Miriam gave a small high pitched laugh.
“I don’t know if any of them have seen you with us yet,” Luke said. “You should be safe enough if you hide in the back of one of those shops,” Luke waved at a clothes store nearby. “We’ll go on. Once we’re gone, you should be safe.”
“All right. Bye Katie.”
“See you,” I said. “Thanks for the clothes and lunch.”
“No worries,” Miriam squeaked and disappeared to hide in a changing room.
“This way,” Luke said, dragging me along by the arm.
“Luke, that hurts. Let go.”
“Then hurry up.”
“Don’t touch me or you’ll change too.”
“Being around you is hard enough.”
“Then don’t be around me. I don’t want you to go berserk too. It’s not like they’ll kill me anyway.”
“I don’t like people getting hurt, not on my watch.”
“Let’s split up. You make sure Miriam is safe.”
I could hear him grinding his teeth. He’d been around me too long already. Pulling away, I ran down the moving stair. Behind me, I heard him shout and then as if I’d received an electric shock, I felt eyes on me; from nearly every direction. Teeth chattering and breath shuddering, I ran looking for an exit, but couldn’t find one. It felt like I’d been running in circles. I kept coming back to the same sport’s store with a yellow and brown striped logo.
Where had all the shoppers gone?
There was silence all around.
One by one, the lights went out.
I ran on, desperate to find an exit and sweating heavily.
They were getting closer.
Oh, God, help me.
One of the shops burst into flames. The tiled floor of the shopping centre became slick with water and before long, I was wading through knee high water. Flames skittered upon the water surface, circling around me, shrinking in. Then I saw them, staring at me from the other side of the wall of fire, grinning like skeletons. They stepped through the fire and I looked up into their crazed eyes, seeing the same need in every one – the need to kill. I could only stare, frozen as the hyperaggressor hefted a large splinter of wood from a shop front and pierced me through with it.
“Katie. Katie, get up. Come on, they’ve seen you,” an arm was pulling me up. Hands slapped both my cheeks. “Katie. Wake up. It’s an illusion.”
I blinked, looked down to where I had seen the piece of wood spear my chest and then up into Luke’s face. The illusion dissipated. His eyes were wild and teeth were gritted. My clothes felt damp. I flopped on the floor.
“Come on,” he pulled me up and away. Shoppers had stopped to stare. “Ignore them,” Luke said. “You were caught in that illusion for a bit there. I had to chase you. We won’t be able to get out, they’ve got all the doors covered and they’ve caught Miriam. I didn’t get back to her in time. We have to save her. Come on.”
We found Miriam on the other side of the shopping centre, wandering between an aisle of blouses and an aisle of coats.
“You have to call her,” Luke said, breathing hard. “I’ll be nearby. Get her to come to you and bring her to the service corridor over there. I’ll have figured a way out by then. I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.”
“All right,” I said, twisting a piece of my new blue shirt around my finger. “It’s all right.”
“Brave girl,” Luke gave me a lop-sided grin and bounded off.
Edging into the store, the store owner gave me an odd look. I pointed to Miriam and the store keeper seemed to shrug, ignoring me.
I took a deep breath and then another. From the looks of things, she’d been hypnotised and it was possible that the hypnotist was also looking through her eyes.
“Miriam,” I stepped into the aisle. “Miriam, come on. Let’s go.”
She looked up at me with dead glass eyes.
“Miriam, here. I want to go now.”
“Yes,” Miriam said in a flat tone. “Let’s go.”
“This way,” I said, taking her by the arm.
Once we were out of the shop, I screwed up my courage and stomped on one of her feet as hard as I could.
Miriam shrieked and then looked at me with panicked eyes.
“They caught me. Oh, clouds, they caught me. Oh, ow, my feet. What did you do? Katie, what are you doing here? Don’t you see I’m the bait?”
“It’s all right, Miriam,” I said. “Come on.”
“Oh no,” Miriam shrilled, “I’m not going anywhere with you anymore, sister. You’re dangerous company.”
“Do you want to get caught again, Miriam? They know you were with us now. They’ll keep using you to bring me back and then they’ll probably kill you.”
“Oh clouds. Thunder and lightning.”
Miriam followed me into the service corridor where upon seeing something I couldn’t, she fainted with a shriek. Luckily, Luke materialised there and picking her up, nodded for me to follow. A few twists and we burst through an emergency fire exit. I helped Luke lay Miriam in the back seat of his car and then buckled myself in just as Luke sped out of the parking space. Looking back, I could see streams of aberrants emerging from all the shopping centre doors I could see. There were more than I’d thought.
“They’re planning to take over the world,” Luke said. “We have to stop them. We won’t survive another war. I haven’t figured out the mastermind yet, but we have to get you out of town. There’s a freight train we’re hitching a ride on. I’m going to leave you in another town – one where you’ll be safe. I’ll take care of Miriam and then I’ll come back for you.”
“What do you mean, ‘why’?”
“Why are you being nice and helping me when like the others, you want to kill me?”
“Being around you makes me feel threatened. I don’t know why,” Luke turned a hard corner and I clutched the door handle to keep balance. “I’m guessing all the aberrants feel that way about you.”
“You said you’d heard of me,” I said. “What have you heard?”
“Mostly that the other students were always trying to kill you. I remember quite clearly, because I’d just given an encouraging speech about peace at school that morning and when I was leaving, I saw you being carried out on a stretcher covered in blood. The teachers said that you’d been used as target practice and knocked off one of the towers again. I was a little shocked at how nonchalant everyone was about it, but then when you were carried past me, I felt a wave of revulsion. I felt those student were justified in the way you’d almost been killed.”
“Where were you during the war? I didn’t see you.”
“I wasn’t in the country when the war happened. I rushed, but I didn’t get back in time and anyway, the aberrants were far overpowered. If I had been there, I would have been killed.”
“You can die? You’re only partially immortal? I’m envious. I’ll only ever die if –”
“DON’T,” Luke shouted and the car swerved violently. “Don’t tell me. Are you an idiot? If you tell me, I will kill you and I don’t want to do that. Being in the same vehicle with you is hard enough.”
“See,” I said, swallowing hard. “Why are you helping me?”
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” said Luke, his face all twisted like he was being pulled in opposite directions. “You’re innocent and sweet. You were selfless with the haemovores when we met in the forest. If you didn’t have whatever ability it is that triggers every aberrant’s instinct to kill you, I’d probably like you more.”
“You’re a bit old for me,” I said.
Luke laughed. It was a free laugh that made me laugh as well.
“See? How often do you get to meet another immortal that hasn’t completely snapped?”
We pulled into a field on the other side of which was an idle train and parked the car under some trees close to the train tracks. Luke carried Miriam. Counting the train carriages, Luke found the one he was looking for and putting Miriam on the ground, got me to help him lift the sliding door up. Boosting me up, he passed Miriam up and then scrambled on himself, closing the door just as the train engine grumbled to life beneath our feet and tooted so loud that my ears rang.
“By the way,” he said, “I’m actually not that much older than you. I asked around at the school. I’ve been a guest speaker quite a few times and you were always there.”
“Are you telling me that I’m more mature than I think?”
“I’m saying that you grew a lot slower than everyone else. I remember that one of the teachers said that you had been in a coma for several decades and had been in a healing house under the care of the normals during that time. You didn’t grow at all then. I dug into the school records and discovered that we’re only 2 years apart.”
“Imagine that,” I said and then frowned. “Does that mean I’m a century older than I think I am? But then, what about my parents?”
“Were they immortals as well?”
“No. We’d had it checked out. I’m the only one in my family with it.”
“You got a recessive gene. Like me,” Luke grinned. “You’re parents must’ve had a longevity gene to have been with you for that long. I’m assuming they died in the war?”
“Yes. They were caught in the explosion that breached the outer wall. The teachers locked us more ‘troublesome’ kids down in the dungeons to keep us safe after that. When the normals had finished outside, they decided to leave us locked up. I don’t know how many of us survived. The man who busted Charlene and me out – she’s the haemovore that was locked up with me, he managed to get maybe twenty of us out.”
“Some went back in later and let more out. I didn’t realise how many of us had the immortality or longevity gene. We thought it was rare, back in those days. Turns out it wasn’t as rare as we thought.”
The train chugged away and sunlight diffused through the chinks in the carriage wall. The walls were so close, that I couldn’t help being reminded of the dark little cell I had shared with Charlene. I remembered the pressure of the dark, the haunting nightmares and Charlene’s incessant bullying. I remembered how the world seemed to have shrunk around me and threatened to squish me like a bug in the dark. I remembered how all I wanted to do was kill Charlene and she, me, but neither of us could be bothered exerting that amount of effort, because even worse than each other’s company was the fear of being left alone.
“You’re shivering,” Luke said, taking off his jacket.
“I don’t think I’ll ever like small spaces again. It’s cramped and small and dark. Like the dungeons.”
“Hold onto me then.”
“Hold onto me. There was no one you could hold onto for comfort in the dungeons was there?”
“Besides a haemovore that just wanted to suck me dry? No.”
“Then hold onto me and it won’t take long. Time will go by a lot faster.”
“Are you sure? You don’t mind?” I guessed he also had chronoguard abilities. How else would he know that time would go by faster if I held onto him? How else was he able to appear and disappear and then re-appear full of information within a short amount of time?
“It won’t be for long. I think I might even be getting used to you,” Luke smiled and stroked my hair. “It’s not so difficult to hold back at the moment.”
I hugged his arm and put my head on his shoulder with a little sigh.
“You don’t know how often I’ve dreamed of doing this.”
“Well, the only people I could ever touch were my parents and the normals,” I said. “Even then, most of the normals couldn’t see me. Mean illusionists. And you know what school was like. I only ever saw my parents during the term holidays and even then, they always paid for me to board with some normals away from home.”
The truth was that I had always dreamed of touching him, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.
“It must have been lonely.”
“It was. I knew they loved me, but I hardly saw them. Every other time, someone was always trying to kill me and the normal teachers who had charge over me, had to fight to keep me safe. My parents would help defend me, but still…” I yawned. “You have a nice arm and a soft shoulder.”
“Are you tired? Close your eyes and have a nap. I don’t mind.”
“Are you sure? You’ll be safe? I mean, I’ll be safe?”
The light seemed to glint in his eyes in a way that made it seem like he was looking at me and crying. Why would he be crying? Or was I maybe just seeing things? Surely any second now, the switch would flip and he'd become an enemy. Right then, I didn't care. I was sitting next to Luke Hamling. I was even touching him. If he wanted to kill me, what better person was there to get the job done?
Trusting him, I closed my eyes and fell into a deep dark well that never seemed to end. From a distance, I heard Luke’s voice say that he’d be back after he’d had Miriam healed and he’d seen her to a safe place, but that I’d be safe here for now. I didn’t believe him. I was still falling down a dark well, after all. Who knew? I might break my neck or drown when I hit the bottom.
Birds chirped and a light breeze rustled overhead leaves.
I opened my eyes to green grass beneath a bushy tree. Just a few feet away were the train tracks. My clothes were damp. Had I slept all night? Luke must have had to carry me down. I wondered how come I hadn’t woken up. Come to think of it, I didn’t really know anything about Luke. I knew about him, but not his actual character – his personality. Why then, did I trust him so much? I doubted he’d be back for me. He wasn’t exactly known for seeing things through to the end after all. Could it be that he had put me to sleep? That he sped time up so that he wouldn’t have to spend so long with me?
Feeling stiff, sore and bruised, I stretched as I got up.
There was a small town on the other side of the green strip. From the looks of things and the semi-abandoned state, it had been a mining town and now it was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. I wandered around, getting to know the place. No wonder Luke thought that I’d be safe here.
I found the mine out to east side of the town. Everything there was in disrepair and dust blew around in swirling eddies that whipped you with sand if you got caught in one. There was one main road straight through the town and only one shop. I hadn’t seen anyone at the counter. Perhaps the shop was closed for the day or customers only came at set times. Being a small town, the shop keeper likely knew everyone’s routines and didn’t bother manning the store at other times.
There were scattered houses, a few sheds that looked like they once may have housed cattle or sheep and a factory like building with holey corrugated iron rusted through in various places. Any windows had been broken long ago and wind moaned through the gaps. Beside it nearer the centre of town was what I reckoned to be the town hall. It appeared to have been patched with bits of corrugated iron, canvas and odd wood ends.
Deciding I’d better choose a place to stay, I checked out the houses that obviously had no one living in them. Some were boarded shut. Some had fallen in a heap. Some were just plain locked. I only found one house that seemed to suit my taste. Its roof was almost gone and the windows were broken so that air flowed through freely. There was a ‘room’, where the roof had collapsed in, making a sort of lean to. Dust and leaves swirled about on the floor, but those could easily be swept out once I acquired a broom.
I might get cold, but at least, I wouldn’t get wet. Now I just needed to find some food and water.
A train rattled past the town with a hoot. The rattle of the train was fading into the distance when I heard the tramp of feet and the sound of voices. Lots of feet and lots of voices.
Peering out a window, I saw cars arriving and people coming from the train tracks where I guessed they had jumped off the train. All of them were aberrants. More aberrants were coming out of the town. Where had they been when I had walked through?
Oh, God. Help.
Luke had said that this town would be safe. He’d promised, but he obviously hadn’t checked it out himself first.
The aberrants were arguing. I ducked down while they walked by.
“It’s a good plan. The normals hunt us down and kill us like animals. We should turn the tables on them. They’re the ones that killed our families.”
“Maybe their ancestors. Most of them don’t even know we exist. We shouldn’t kill the children for the crimes of the parents.”
“The children have inherited their parent’s prejudice. Aberrants have always been the more powerful anyway. We should show the normals we aren’t going to take things lying down. Just what was Luke thinking, calling us a cult? He ought to know better.”
“He does. He knows they won’t understand or be able to accept the truth. He had to tell them something.”
“Except that he forgot to tell them that not everyone was a risk. Hyperaggressives, haemovores and even telepaths, I can accept. They pose a risk for everyone and usually end up with some sort of mental condition, but empaths? What about the working families? The super strength, the agile and the hyper capable? They don’t deserve to be labelled cultists or hunted down.”
“True, but most of their types have blended in. It’s only those of us who have recently escaped from the dungeons. The ones who are obviously not normals. The normals also call some of us monsters.”
“Lycans are monsters.”
“I’d say the haemovores are too.”
“I wonder why they chose this town?”
“It was a ghost town or something. No normals here.”
“Right, I get it. We can plan in secret and come out with a kaboom.”
“Not all of us agree with the plan, you know. We might even try stop it.”
“In which case it’d be war. You do realise what you’re saying, don’t you? I like this plan.”
“We don’t need to kill innocents.”
“No, but we can’t help it if they get in the way.”
“If we kill innocent people, the normals will have the right to call us monsters.”
“Then let them call us monsters, because we are at war.”
“We should avoid war where possible. The last one was bad enough and we even had a castle that time. We won’t survive another war, I’m telling you.”
“And I’m telling you that a pre-emptive strike is better.”
I stared at the weatherworn wood at my feet. This was the last place I wanted to be. Had Luke known? Had he betrayed me? Had he dropped me here on purpose? He must have known. They’d been talking about him just now. Maybe he was already here in town.
“Hey,” an aberrant had sneaked up on me without me hearing. I jumped and hid futilely within my lean-to. “Hey, don’t be scared. We’re all aberrants here, aren’t we?”
“If you’re going to squash me, please get it over and done with,” I said.
“Why would I want to squash you?” the man said, getting down on hands and knees. He was pushed out of the way by a lady with purple hair.
“Shove it Mal, you’re scaring her. Don’t you realise who she is?”
Mal peered in at me for a few long moments and then disappeared with an, “Oh. Luke did say we’d find her here in town.”
“Ugh, I didn’t expect her to have such a strong effect on me either,” said the lady, making a face and swallowing hard. “Hi, Katie, I’m Lavendar.”
“Well, I don’t know anyone else by that name,” the lady said. “Come on out and meet us properly. We should probably get out of the ‘let’s make war’ territory before they realise we were snooping about here.”
I crawled out and peeped out of the lean-to at the group of five who had been the most prominent warriors in the last war.
“You all survived the war?”
“Yep, pretty much.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you all,” I said from inside my lean-to. I hadn’t recognised them as individuals, but seeing them all together, I knew. These were all the superheroes of my childhood. Lavendar Mereweather could manipulate the weather and heal. Mallory Hickory had an affinity with plants. Nissa Firewater played with liquids, fire and explosions. Gallant Strongarm had super strength and super speed. Last, but not least was Santos Shield, the team leader. He was invincible, could defy gravity, had telekinesis, telepathy and a large mix of other abilities. To be in their presence was awesome and scary, because if anyone could kill me, these five should be able to manage it between them. “If you’re here to kill me, please get it over and done with. It’d be an honour to die at your hands, even if you can’t help yourselves.”
“What a morbid girl,” Gallant said.
“Listen up, chicklet,” smiled Lavendar, “we didn’t get to where we are without learning self-control. We may feel like we have to kill you, but we aren’t about to let loose on you. If we feel like we are, we’ll do what Luke did, distance ourselves, until we’re under control again.”
“Where is Luke?”
“He’s gone to deposit your friend Miriam somewhere safe,” Mal waved his arm in a general direction.
“Somewhere safer than here, I hope,” I said. “He told me he’d send me somewhere safe and I end up back in a war.”
“Well, when this is over, you’ll be safe,” Nissa juggled a sphere of ice and a sphere of fire. “At least, we hope so.”
“Come on, kids,” said Santos. “We have to get moving.”
Lavendar reached out to help me up.
“Don’t touch me,” I scooted back and out of her reach.
“All right,” Lavendar said, raising her hands and rolling her eyes at Mal.
“Don’t roll your eyes,” I said. “It’s not nice.”
“Sorry,” Lavendar rolled her eyes at me, grinning through gritted teeth. I could see sweat starting to bead on her forehead and I backed right up as wind began to gust.
“Take point, Lavendar,” Santos ordered.
“On it,” Lavendar left the house in a hurry.
“I have a feeling you’ll be testing all of our resolve today, Katie,” Santos said, beckoning me out. “Come on, it’s not safe here. We won’t touch you. Don’t worry.”
“If you say so,” I said doubtfully. “Why can’t I stay here?”
“You forget that you’re an aberrant magnet, kid,” said Mal. “Most of the warmongers are staying on this side of town, near the old factory. That factory and the town hall are their main meeting places. You stay here, they'll find you.”
“No talking,” said Santos. “We can’t tell if anyone can hear us.”
I followed the five, out. They kept me loosely in the middle of the group and beckoned me from house to house until we had reached the centre of town.
“We’re relatively safe here,” Santos said.
“I need a time out,” Mal put up his hand.
“Go,” said Santos, nodding toward the town hall.
“Katie, yoohoo!” I heard Charlene’s voice. She came running with some friends she’d made, all of them haemovores. “Katie, give us a drink, will you? Just a sip. We need you to tide us over until we can go on our buffet trip with the others. Come on. Please?”
“Stand back,” Gallant stepped in front of her and her friends, his large bulk making them pause and look at my companions properly.
“Whoa,” said Charlene, a flirty tone slipping into her voice. “Are you who I think you are? Gory, look at your muscles.”
“You can’t just go around demanding other aberrants for a drink,” Nissa said, her eyes sparking. “You wouldn’t do that to any other aberrant, would you?”
“No, but… it’s Katie. You know?”
“No, I don’t know,” Nissa smiled, but her eyes remained deadly. Little flames of fire were sprouting from her fingertips. “Go find yourselves some little animals.”
“They’re too hard to catch,” Charlene whined, “and have you had a good look at this God-forsaken place? There’s nothing here.”
“Then take a train and deal with it elsewhere,” Gallant leant forward and turned Charlene around, “and take your little friends with you.”
The haemovores growled, looking between the different team members. I could see Charlene’s right eye starting to turn red.
“Go on, before you go red,” Nissa said, some of her flames leaping forward at the haemovores. They stumbled backward. “The other aberrants won’t forgive you if you go on a rampage here.”
“Fine,” Charlene snarled, stalking off toward the train line. The other haemovores shoved her so that she fell down and ran off without her.
“She was my cell mate,” I told Santos.
“Thank you all for standing up for me.”
“Chicklet,” said Lavendar, “being trapped with her must have been hell.”
“You guys weren’t locked up?”
“No, we ran away when we saw that we’d lost the war. The other aberrants were starting to turn on us, saying it was our fault that we lost. It’s like why Luke went into hiding. Aberrants kept picking fights with us.”
“At least you can fight back,” I said with a sigh.
“Nissa,” Santos saw that Nissa was losing control of her flames and that the wind was picking up around us again, “go take a walk. You too Lavendar. Gallant, you still fine?”
“I need to smash something.”
“Go,” Santos winced when the others walked off.
“You all right, sir?”
“For now,” Santos said. “I don’t think any of us took Luke seriously when he told us that you’d have this effect on us. We’ve never had an aberrant make us feel this way.”
“Why did you really run away from the war?”
“Where were you during the war?” Santos asked, gesturing that we keep walking to the other side of town where most of the fallen down sheds were located.
“I was in the castle, in school. I was considered one of the more ‘troublesome’ children, because wherever I went to help out, people kept turning on me. After the outer wall was breached,” I swallowed, remembering again how the wall had exploded without warning and I had seen the figures of my parents who had been helping stretcher the wounded away become buried in the falling stones. “After the outer wall was breached,” I repeated, “Mrs O’Callough locked me away with Charlene ‘for our own safety’. The normals looked in on us, but they left us there, thinking we’d die of starvation.”
“So you don’t know what happened after that.”
“There was a siege. It went on so long that some of the haemovores went mad and we had to kill them, or be drunk dry. Our people started turning on each other more and more. We were falling apart and becoming the monsters the normals said we were. In the end, we were just tired. We knew we had already lost and our people had started deserting during the night. My team were so tired that we couldn’t see straight, couldn’t walk straight, couldn’t even aim straight. I don’t know how many of our own that we killed by accident. In the end, I decided that it would be safer for us all to get out of there before we finished the normals’ job by accident. We lost a lot of our confidence during that war, but right now we’d all rather die than let another war happen. After we left, we heard that the aberrant defence crumpled and the castle was overrun.”
“Luke said that we wouldn’t survive another war.”
“No. The normals have developed radioactive weapons now. Radioactivity is effective against all aberrants and normals alike, whether or not we have the immortality gene. If we went to war again, aberrants in hiding all over the world would be hunted. Innocent ones who have managed to blend in would be at risk. That’s millions of lives. The world belongs to the normals now. Aberrants should just lie low and bide their time. One day, the normals will be willing to live with us as equals again, just like they did during our time. We just have to be patient and wait.”
“How are we going to stop the war?”
“Shhh,” Santos put a finger to his lips. “Later.”
He led me to an old shed and nodded me inside. I looked in the door, but wouldn’t go in any further.
“Ladies first,” he said.
“It’s dark,” I said. “It’s like a cell.”
“Oh. Right. Stay near here then. Don’t go wandering off again. I’ll be nearby.”
“All right,” I said.
Santos literally took off into the air and I watched him perform some acrobatics and then zoom away into the distance. I sighed.
So much had happened in the last few days. It had only been a week or two ago that I had been freed from the dungeons. There had been people around me all the time since then and with all the chasing, I hadn’t had time to wallow in my feelings. Now, by myself, the feeling of being lost and alone slammed into me. I hadn’t cried this much since the first few weeks of being locked into a dark dungeon with a haemovore that was going insane.
It was like being stuck at the top of a tower with no way down besides falling, helpless against the elements and with no control over anything but whether you’re going to jump or not. All you can see, you cannot touch or reach. All you can hear is the wind rushing by your ear. You’re so afraid of falling that you dare not move, dare not peep over the edge of the tower, because you know that all you’ll see is the dizzying depth to the ground and then you might slip. If you see the ground, you might fall, spinning through the sky until you hit the dirt.
I was afraid of hitting the dirt.
In school, all I had to worry about was getting better and graduating. I hadn’t worried about what I would do after I finished school. I had imagined that I would go to some secluded island and live there on my own for the rest of my life where I wouldn’t have people trying to kill me every day. I don’t know.
Now, I had no goals. I had no one to ask for advice. I had no home, nowhere to go and no money. I didn’t know what all the endless contraptions I had been seeing were or how to use them and people were still trying to kill me. I thought I had left the war behind me and had the void of the rest of my immortal life to fill in, but now with another war looming, I realised that it was likely that I would get locked up by the aberrants again to get me out of the way. I didn’t think I would be able to handle another 100 years in a prison – especially if I was by myself. I’d go mad. I couldn’t even kill myself. I had tried that during school and it hadn’t worked. All that had happened was that the other students had thrown me down the nightsoil shaft and I had been found by the nightsoilman drowning in filth.
What the was the point in continuing to live a life full of nightmares? In the end, whether locked up or not, every day was the same. Locked up, I’d dream the same things that happened to me when I was awake. I would never wake up to the feeling of safety, to a life free of fear. I would never truly be free.
Which brought me to my secret.
My parents warned me never to use it or the aberrants would truly rip me into tiny little pieces and scatter them across the world. I would well and truly die. I wouldn’t wake up again.
And the funny thing is that with wanting to die and being close to death so many times without actually dying, I was actually terrified. I was terrified of waking up to nothing and being no more. I mean, I didn’t know anything other than this life that I was living now. Would death really be the release I’ve been looking for?
Santos and the other members of the team drifted back to the shed with the going down of the sun.
They all ignored me other than the initial ‘hi’. Santos had brought me a sandwich and some water, along with everyone else’s meals, but other than that, they ignored me. Maybe it made it easier for them to handle the feeling of repulsion.
“This is the plan,” Santos said, while everyone was eating. “Open up your minds to me and listen close.”
Although he wasn’t addressing me, I guessed that he was including me in on the telepathic conversation. I didn’t know how to open up my mind exactly, but I did my best.
Me? I thought, starting to panic. Why me?
What can I do? All I can do is to cause a civil war by letting myself be used as target practice. I don’t have any abilities besides my secret.
None of them appeared to be able to hear me. They were assuming that I had some sort of great power that I could target at will. Me? Stop a war? The thought was laughable. What had Luke told them? Although… if I really thought about it, I could use my secret, but I would die. They didn’t know that, did they? Once all the aberrants realised what I had done, especially if I was in the middle of a camp of warmongers, I would be killed dead for sure. Then again, I had never used my gift before and had built such a wall around it that I wasn’t sure I knew how to use it.
I remembered back in school, when Mrs O’Callough had been teaching the special classes for aberrants on self-control and learning to use one’s abilities. For some people the using their abilities came naturally. For others, it was more difficult. And for yet a few more, the ability should never ever be used at all, because they could become possessed by demons, murder thousands or raze the entire town to the ground. For some reason, everyone was afraid for me to use my gift at all and so I had always been stuck in the classes learning to build a wall around my gift so that it would never be used.
But thinking further, there had been times when I was being picked on and could see imminent near-death coming straight at me, that I had felt the prickle and tingle of potential within myself. Potential of what, I was not sure, but it was the potential to do something big. Something that would stop the boulder rolling, the ground from rushing up toward me or the spinning arrow that was about to impale me. That feeling only came on with imminent danger that I knew should kill me.
I didn’t listen to the rest of Santos’s plan. He’d already told me. When he gave the word, it was up to me to do something – something that would stop the war.
My mouth felt dry just thinking about it. My jaw felt sore and I had to consciously, with a bit of effort, prise my jaws open to release the tension. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach and I knew I was not going to be able to sleep that night.
And I was right. I didn’t sleep that night.
Dawn came an eternity later. It was another eternity before we headed out, the rest of the team still steadfastly ignoring me, but keeping a pace that I would be able to keep up with. It was mid-morning when we walked into the centre of town. Raucous sounds came from both the factory building and the town hall. Cheering and chanting.
“This is it,” said Santos, taking a deep breath. He nodded to Lavendar, Gallant and Mal, who slipped into any open doors and windows of the factory to join those inside. “You wait here,” he said to the sky, meaning me, and signalling Nissa to get ready. “Keep your mind open to me. I’ll call you when it’s safe for you to come in.”
He and Nissa strode in the back door. I looked up and saw a window that I could creep in, hopefully unobtrusively. Peering in to the window, I was pleased to find that the place was packed and people were unlikely to see me.
Nissa signalled me to hide in a cubicle and went out.
The noise from the hall ceased. I could faintly hear a thin voice talking. It reminded me of the long classes we girls used to have on social decorum. Sit straight, shoulders back. Hands clasped and placed just so. Walking on lines and curtseying. Greeting acquaintances versus strangers, and then there was the etiquette of dancing, dining and serving. Who would have thought that poker faced Grishwald would become the instigator for war one day? We would have laughed at the thought and said that someone would have to have shoved a poker up her you-know-what first.
It didn’t seem so funny while I was hiding in the toilets, because I also remembered her blowing things up during the war. Anything within her range, all she would do was point and it would explode with a small mushroom of fire. I didn’t like the idea of getting blown up. How did immortality work with getting blown up anyway?
With no especial plan, I ran out of the toilets.
I hadn’t been paying much attention, lost in my thoughts, but I could hear the crowd inside roaring. I was at the side of the hall. They had all their attention focussed on Santos and Nissa being pulled struggling to the front of the crowd. I followed the surge of the crowd, pushing forward against angry elbows and knees until I reached the stage. Mrs Grishwald had her pinched, grim face on – the same look she had given us girls when we had not done something properly or given her some cheek.
Sparks were dancing around Nissa and water was soaking the old stage. Mini explosions went off around Santos and Nissa, spraying water and making them flinch back. Mrs Grishwalds fingers danced as the little explosions continued. The crowd laughed.
I pushed past a hairy, horned man in front of me. He took an exception to my pushing and threw me hard enough to land me at Mrs Grishwald’s feet.
There was a long pause as everyone looked at me. They took in my clothes, the fact that I was a girl and most probably an aberrant, otherwise I wouldn’t be there. And then their faces changed from surprised confusion to the ‘kill Katie’ glares. Mrs Grishwald’s face twisted into a snarl and she raised her finger at me. I threw myself to one side. At the same time, the crowd burst forward, unable to contain themselves and I was lost under a pile of bodies. Various abilities were thrown about through the tight room and the air was filled with smoke, the smell of singed flesh and hair, as well as blood, body parts and screams. Still, people surged forward.
It wasn’t a shout. It was a command.
I looked at Santos to find him trembling and sweating, with his face red. Nissa had burnt them free of their ropes and now, water whipped around her.
“Katie,” he said hoarsely, “I’m losing control. Too many heightened emotions.”
I looked at Mrs Grishwald struggling against Santos’s command, could see her arm rising and finger twitching. I saw a lightning bolt growing above my head, a fireball swirling on the tip of an aberrant’s finger and icy darts in another’s hands. I felt the searching probe of a telepath not as good as Santos trying to find a way to scramble my brain and a wooden javelin in Mr Strong’s hand, ready to let loose on me.
“Santos, Nissa,” I said with what smile I could pull. It probably didn’t look anything like a smile. I was going to die. I wouldn’t be able to escape this many attacks and I knew it, but maybe they would be able to get out of harm’s way in time, “thank you. You can let go and get out of here now, if you want.”
“Just let go, Santos. Take Nissa and run.”
I closed my eyes and heard chaos resume. I felt rather than saw Mrs Grishwald’s arm and finger straighten, pointing straight at me. I felt that tingling of some sort of potential within me and this time, instead of holding onto it and suppressing it like usual, I let it go. A flow of relief followed. I relaxed. Time seemed to slow down. I felt that potential surge up out of me like the silver tinkling of a fountain. Pressure like a built up dam, groaned at an invisible barrier; struggling to be let out and follow the stream that was flowing out of me. When I felt that I couldn’t take the pressure anymore, I felt a snap like a sheet of ice being split in half. The tinkling turned into the roar of a flood and I could see all the abilities, everything that made an aberrant an abnormal not just here in this town, but on the other side of the world as well. Aberrants everywhere snapped their heads up to look for the roar only they could hear.
Can I? May I? the flood asked, knowing that even if I said ‘no’ it wouldn’t have to listen to me. It would do what it was meant to do anyway, because it was too big. I couldn’t control it.
Go ahead, I told it. Go for it.
My silver flood covered the entire earth.
Time had resumed, but I didn’t feel the lightning strike, the wooden javelin piercing my chest or the world explode around me. I didn’t hear or feel anything, but the pain and pressure of the silver tide flowing out of me and the aberrants of the world. I had let it loose and nothing would be able to stop it.
The ripple started with me and grew as it spread around the globe, blowing every aberrant down, as if I were the centre of an explosion. It rebounded on itself, collecting all the aberrant abilities and bringing them back to me. I couldn’t contain all the abilities, of course. I didn’t even try. Instead I redirected all the abilities back to the Creator to redistribute in His own way and at the same time an explosion opened up the town hall like a burst paperbag, knocking down all the buildings within the town. What else could I do with that many abilities? There were too much, too many and no one person would possibly be able to hold them all.
At the same time, I realised that aberrants had been man made. People had tinkered with things they didn’t understand and the Creator had made me the failsafe. I was the reset button that returned everyone back to the default human settings. Now that I have done that, I am dying.
In school, they had always told us that the aberrants were naturally occurring, but they had a starting date for when the aberrants had first emerged. Now that I thought about it, that date coincided with the day humans had re-emerged after a worldwide catastrophe. The aberrants had been the first to come out from the underground safe places and had begun the clean up so that normals would be able to survive above ground again. As the sky had become bluer and bluer, the normals became more numerous, mixing with the aberrants so that all could enjoy the earth together.
The aberrants had almost always enjoyed being different from the normals. Being able to play tricks on them, scare them, in short be more powerful than them. Would all the aberrants be able to adjust to being normals?
I lie here blinking up at the blue sky.
My entire body is numb. I don’t even know if I am still in one piece. I can see the javelin in my chest standing above me like a grave marker, but I don’t really mind. I have done what I was made to do and I had always felt that I would die if I ever revealed my secret anyway. I was dying. I could feel my life ebbing away and creeping from my bones. Weariness is settling in, but I feel that I deserve to rest. To rest completely at peace, in safety for the first time in my life. I have no fear of dying now that I realise that the Creator is real and I will be going back to him, following the abilities that I had just sent his way.
But I am waiting. Just in case.
I can hear people around me groaning. Some of them are getting up. Some of them are crying. Mrs Grishwald is wailing in a foreign language I don’t understand and someone else is screaming their throat hoarse. Other people are throwing up whatever is in their stomachs and others are sitting in stunned silence. There is a low humming noise and the sound of someone rocking back and forth, back and forth on a creaking floorboard.
Still I am waiting. I am holding on to life, just a little bit longer.
A group of five faces hover over me, talking fast. They dart in and out of my view of the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. They are not who I am waiting for. Worried voices and worried hands, trying to save a life that has lived long enough. I’m not planning to stay. I’m so tired, I just want to close my eyes and sleep, but I am waiting. Still waiting. Just in case.
I can hear tears dripping, but I am not closing my eyes. Not yet.
“She’s gone,” says a voice. There are sirens. Wailing sirens. I want to refute that person’s statement, but I can’t. I haven’t gone yet. I’m still here.
Men and women in white walk in and out of my view. I keep my focus on the sky.
“I didn’t realise,” says a familiar voice. “I didn’t realise what her ability was. From what Luke said, I thought it would only be directed at a few people at a time. The repulsion reach was not very far.”
“Oh, but the attraction range was,” replies another. “We were on the complete other side of town remember, before you got the urge to explore the warmonger’s side.”
“It’s a good thing that it was such a shock to everyone or we wouldn’t have been able to find all her pieces.”
“We’re normals. Oh, God, we’re normals now. We can’t do anything. We spent our entire lives honing our abilities and in the end, we’ve got nothing to show for it.”
“No wonder we always had the urge to kill her. She’s effectively killed every single aberrant.”
“Across the entire world, if what the news is saying is correct. God, I don’t even know how to be a normal. How does a normal do things without abilities?”
“Oh, God. We’re going to grow old and die now. We’re mortals.”
Waiting. How long am I going to have to wait?
And then I heard a voice. Wild and full of fear.
“Where is she? Where is she? Is she still alive?”
A face looms into view, blocking out the mesmerising blue of the sky. This view is almost better.
“Katie, Katie. I’m here now. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I said you’d be safe here, but I lied. I knew you had to come here, but I didn’t know that it would happen this way. I’m so sorry.”
His eyes are as blue as the sky and now they are dripping rain onto skin that can no longer feel.
“Oh, God, help me. Don’t die, Katie. Please don’t die. You can’t. Oh God, please don’t let Katie die. Live. You have to live. I need you. I've been looking for someone all my life and then I met you and realised - I love you. Katie.”
I smile and close my eyes.
That is what I’ve been waiting for.
I can feel fire racing through all my blood vessels, tingling and burning. I can feel the wetness on my cheeks and the searing pain within my chest. I can smell blood and smoke and fire and singed hair. I can feel the heaviness of my limbs and pain blossoming everywhere. My consciousness is fading, battered by the pain.
And I am not afraid.
Because I know.
Now I read this again and it sort of makes me cringe. I will leave it though and maybe come back to rewrite it one day.