Availability: Ӊѻwȴș of Ṩḧḁḋoᾤ can also be found here.
This page is lacking content that has already been written, and needs to be imported from its original source. You can help out by going to the original source that is defined by the link in the info template at the top of the page, and copying the text there into this page. Be sure to format the text in the same way that the policy defines!
Maelstrom rules. Everything. Everyone. There's no escaping them.
They don't infect everyone like you might think, because they only have a small supply of the Maelstrom Core. Instead they snatch you up when you do things wrong, never to be heard of again. It teaches everyone around you pretty fast about what not to do. You are to live your life by their rule. What they have to benefit from us? No one is sure. We don't give them anything. So maybe their leader likes to watch our suffering.
The Nexus Force is gone, and a good thing too. All they caused was war, terrible war….
There's a warm, steamy snort on my shoulder. I know who it is, but my body paralyzes with fear before I can move. Slippery drool runs down my back.
"Been a while, eh? A voice says quietly in my ear, his hot breath descending on me.
"So it has," I respond, only because I know it won't leave me alone until I do. Usually he vanishes quickly, being gone within the second I acknowledge him, but this time, he lingers.
"She," He whispers, his voice dark, quiet, and contained, "will-"
I cut him off in the middle. He seems to only have couple of phrases he will repeat. "She will take the shadows. I know."
"Fine," He says curtly, surely disturbed by me. Several freezing cold claws dash up and down my body, running their sharp blades around my middle, and then heading for the neck. He scrapes off a couple of my long hairs before speaking again. "Have you yet to see me?"
I involuntarily shudder, the memories of every time he has visited me appearing boldly before my eyes. He is altered every time. A gray monster with green eyes and long teeth. A broken hero lying dead at my feet, the eyes glowing. A small orange tabby who transformed into a strange purple beast before my eyes. This time however is different.
His claws slowly slip off of me and he ambles to the side, his form sickening me. I stand before something familiar. All too familiar.
My light, wavy brown hair lay slightly over my shoulders. My sharp, thin nose. My thin mouth, I think it's quivering. My eyes seem sunken back, devoid of all color or emotion. My hands are decorated with claws, not something I really have, but a monster of me he has made.
I stare with horror, taking a few scrambling steps back. He steps forward, forcing himself into my face. I'm gaping at myself, as if in a mirror.
I scream, as I always do in these fits of terror, it's piercing and deafening, but I can't help it. It escapes my lips before I can restrain myself.
The only thing that quiets me is that the copy of me, only inches away from my head, returns the petrifying noise in a shriek.
I walk away, my murky eyes disappearing. I walk straight through the iron bars and I'm gone. The monster of me is gone, that is.
I stand there, my lips stuck together harshly. I'm afraid if I move them I might do something stupid, like cry. I bite my tongue as hot tears spill out; this isn't the place for that kind of pathetic behavior.
I sit down on the cold, stony floor of my own little room. Why does he torment me? And only me? Is it because I'm a thief? I know what I do is terrible, that's the reason I'm here, but it is necessary. Is it because I'm here?
I glance around, taking in the blank objects that crowd me. A bed, the filthy walls, the iron bars hanging in front of me. The air is hushed, but someone, somewhere in another cell, starts to sing. The notes are soft and sad, each section carried out with a quavering voice of trouble. It's a deep tone, but soothing.
"Speak before me, Let yourself fly free, Raise your head to me, And free you shall be."
If only I was free.
Asleep. I know I've been asleep by the effort it takes to open my eyes. How I slept? I have no idea, not with that monster haunting me.
The person isn't singing anymore, merely humming now. The only other sounds are the joyous laughter of the guards on the floor above us. I stand up, brush the air out of my face quickly, and stand closer to the cold, confining bars to try to hear their conversation.
Sighing, I sit back down, only being able to hear loud hoots of laugher and muffled words. They must be celebrating something, but what's to celebrate?
I allow myself to doze off again, unexcited by today's happenings. The only thing that comforts me is that family isn't here with me.
"Hey, you gotta wake up!" Someone says, jolting me upwards. I blink rapidly to clear my vision. Who's there? I almost ask what they want from me, but as I look up, it isn't the guards waiting impatiently outside my cell, but rather it's a boy squatting next to me, fingering my hair.
His dark hair swirls on his forehead, and his grayish green eyes stare into mine intently. Small flecks of light project into his captivating eyes from the candle he's holding beside him. His expression is hard to read, so I try to imagine he's simply confused.
"How did you…?" I gaze off to where the cell door is still completely sealed. Turns out, I'm the one confused.
In reply, he points upwards, to where a large, crackled hole in the ceiling is allowing moonlight to rain in. "Come on, now. You want out, right?"
Of course I do, you fool. But taking a stranger's help? "Okay," I reply cautiously, watching my words before I throw them around. He sets down the candle before helping me.
His strong arms pull me to my feet, but as I'm turning to climb up and out of this horrible prison, I know I can't leave them.
"I have to get them," I say, pulling back.
"Get what?" Ah, that's his face of confusion. So what was it before Determination?
"My knives, the only…weapons I have," I say, almost saying it was my only possession, but that's not true. My family is still out there, braving the world without me. It seems silly to go back for just some knives, but I need them. I can't imagine trying to fight any guards without them.
The boy, probably about sixteen or seventeen, looks back at the hole, but mutters something that could've been an okay. He climbs down, snatching something out of his pocket. He holds up a silver key to the candle light, and strides efficiently to the cell's iron door.
With a clank, it opens something I haven't seen in months. It's almost strange how elating it is to take the few steps away from your prison, the only objects you have seen in a long time disappearing before you.
The hallway is wide, the sides laid with stone, small candles flickering in the damp air. The boy returns the candle he's been holding to an empty socket in the wall and turns to me. His face is, once again, difficult to read.
"Do you know where they are?" His voice is strong, yet calming for some odd reason.
I stare at him for a moment. "Down the hall, they hid my weapons there before they threw me in."
He nods quietly, surveying everything around before continuing on. He wearily creeps past other cells, where people watch him intently, but silently. They don't dare give us away. Even if they're not escaping themselves, they respect us enough to stay quiet.
I follow, wondering who he is, but curiously trusting the boy. Why? I can't think of a good reason other than he is helping me to freedom. I don't even know his name.
"So who are you?" I whisper, trying to keep my voice from echoing.
"Zayle," he responds, obviously more concerned about making sure there are no guards around a corner than asking for my name.
"Zayle? I'm Raylene," I say.
"Yeah, I knew that."
I stop and stare at him. How did he know that?
He looks back at me, grips my shoulders. He sighs as if he had forgotten something. "A guard told me." He sounds unconvincing and instantly I know he's lying. He's terrible at it too.
I push away from him and walk over to a wooden, creaky door. I pull it open with a lurch and peek in. Nine different people sit on chairs in front of me; they are each garbed in a cloak with bulges of thick armor underneath. A pile of weapons lay sprawled before me, swords, sticks, scythes, and my knives. Everything the prisoners were brought in with.
In turn, each and every one of them faces my way. They all stand, fluffing back their long cloaks, and drawing swords of their own.
Zayle clutches my wrist and starts to pull me away from the room. But I stand there, transfixed on my knives, scattered around the room. They are pearly white with emeralds of green encasing the hilt. Six or seven lay only feet away.
The guards stand there, as if unsure whether to make a move or not. "Back to your cells!" One of them commands, surely it is loud enough to wake every guard in the whole prison.
Zayle jerks harder, whispering something in my ear. But those knives…they're one of the only things I didn't have to steal.
I know I'm going to do one of those rash, dumb things, but I can't help it. I leap further into the room, break the grip of Zayle, and take a step forward.
"Raylene!" the boy calls, brandishing some sort of weapon of his own and running in with me.
I'm beaten back in a whirlwind of fury. One of them starts of by charging at me and trying to slash me on the head. I sidestep, still coming the room, heading towards the danger like a fool instead of away.
"Shoo!" One of the other guards yells, kicking wildly and scattering the weapons across the floor. Surely they know what I'm after because someone scoops up several of my daggers.
"Raylene, come on, let's get out of here!" Zayle says. One of his hands has its fingers locked around mine; the other is threateningly holding a thin sword blade. Did he come armed, or did he grab something? I can't remember.
One of the guards scans the area around his feet and picks a broadsword up. He waves it around. "You're way outnumbered. You, back to your cell," He points a grubby finger at Zayle, "And you, back to yours!" He is indicating me now, his finger practically in my face.
I leap at the man, twirling around his weapon and jabbing him quickly in the gut with a fist. With a cough, I knock the air out of him.
The man next to him is holding my knives, so I run after him next. At least I thought there was room to run. By the time I turn around he has already swung a blade at my neck and I'm forced to stop and retreat with a few steps backwards. Zayle charges in, knocking away two men and swiping his sword at the blade next to me. The guard tries to counter, but drops the neat, white knives to the ground.
They fall right into my hands.
With them in my hands, safe, cold, lovely, I dash out the door, only thinking of freedom. But…I can't leave Zayle. "Zayle, come on!" I turn to see him crushed to the floor, a guard sitting on him, his forearm pressed to the boy's throat.
It doesn't register until I see Zayle's panicked face which is starting to change colors….
I snatch up a knife from my bundle and hold it by the tip. Well, here goes. I twist my wrist and the knife flies through the air, brutally striking its target. The guard looks up with a stricken face, eyes staring deeply into me. He glances down at his chest, realizes what I've done, and collapses to the side, falling off of Zayle. His last look disturbs me.
Now I'm not only a thief….
Zayle bounces up, gasping for air, but running towards me before the other guards can gather their wits. He makes it out the door, and slams it behind him. "Let's go!" He grabs my hand and practically drags me away from the site.
I'm down the hall before I can process what happened. The guard is dead; the other eight are still in the room, trying to save their fellow worker, to no avail. Zayle has brought me back to my cell, and is starting to push me out the hole.
But I just stand there.
How could I have done that? I should've just aimed at the guard's hand. He would've let go of Zayle and maintained his life, but now, I've stolen that from him. What if he has a family? The thought frightens me as I think of my own family, how they're waiting at home, still thinking I'll return.
All just for some dumb knives.
The boy gapes at me, sympathy brimming in his eyes. I don't want him to say anything about escaping, and he doesn't. Instead he brushes the hair from my face. "Thank you."
Thank you? For what? Oh. It suddenly clicks, as I've started to forget why I attacked the guard in the first place. I nod, and glance up at our escape route.
Zayle crouches low, and leaps up, clutching the broken roof with his fingertips. He drags himself up, groaning a bit, and then offers a hand to me.
I stand on top of my prison, breathing in the fresh air, and scanning the area around me.
Zayle points of in the distance to a spot where there are some tall trees, they are barely noticeable in the dark moonlight. "We can run across the tops of these roofs, and then climb down the trees. No one will notice us."
I strap the knives to my back with a belt of string the guards never bothered to take away. I count the five daggers I have left and stand up. I lost one on the floor while leaving the room, and I left another in the man's chest. I'm not sure if I want to see it again.
I silently agree and we start to creep across the roofs of the other cells, careful to avoid weak spots in the structure. Surprisingly, there are quite a lot of these. You would think they would maintain the structure that keeps prisoners in, but they don't. At least not well.
The structure is large, containing several floors underground, one on top which housed the building I was stuffed in, and several towers. It must be like a classic cartoon, two escapees sneaking past people in guard towers who are probably asleep.
Zayle holds his sword steadily in front of him, as if expecting someone to jump out at him. He walks ahead, only slightly quicker than me. When we reach the trees, he waits for me to catch up.
"You might have to jump," he states, gazing at the trees which are only five feet away from the building. It's not a leap of faith, but for some reason he must know I'm afraid of heights. Why else would he say that like he knows I won't do it?
"Easy," I falsely boast, my heart drooping as I peek out. We must be twenty feet in the air. What if I miss the tree?
Zayle seems convinced about what I said, and waits for to make the jump.
I carefully position myself by crouching as close to the edge as I dare myself to go. I take several minutes before actually making the leap, concerned about whether I'll live or not once I hit the ground.
Before I even realize my feet are in midair, I land on a thick branch, balance for a second and clutch the thick trunk beside me.
Zayle nods in approval and jumps after me, landing effortlessly on another branch. He points downwards and starts to climb back to earth.
I follow swiftly, making pretty good time considering I'm not allowing myself to let go of the trunk and hop on the branches. Even so, I'm down just a second after Zayle.
"Where to now?" I ask in a quieted whisper.
"Through the forest and away from here as fast as we can. Before they realize we're gone," Zayle says, his face flushed with sweat pouring down from his forehead.
So we walk away from my prison. The forest feels welcoming against my skin; no more cold, dark, cramped spaces. Only the open freedom of the world, the plants brushing against me, the earthy air, the enchanting smell. I almost enjoy it.
"Why did you help me?" I ask, turning to Zayle, who doesn't stop walking.
The moonlight glitters enthrallingly over his eyes as he speaks. "I don't know." He is such a terrible liar. So he knows my name and that I'm afraid of heights, but he doesn't even know his own thoughts about recusing me? Peculiar.
"Okay then. Why me instead of every other person in that prison?"
Zayle abruptly stops and turns to face me. He sighs deeply, his breath unsteady. "I can't." I'm not sure what he can't do, but by the strain in his voice, it tells me not to ask.
Suddenly I'm struck with the fact that I'm not sure who he is. Maybe he's that creature…that haunts me. Makes me feel like someone is protecting me, that I'm free, and then suddenly, both are gone. I can't help but feel that would be a good torture. I gaze over at him.
He stares innocently back. "What?" He blinks a few times, probably confused at why I'm glaring.
"Nothing," I say, continuing forward. Dead, brittle sticks crunch loudly under both our feet as the hushed silence fills our ears.
Zayle starts to hum quietly to fill the air.
His voice seems to bring everything in the forest to life.
"Shh!" I correct, shoving my hand roughly over Zayle's mouth. He stares at me with his piercing inquisitive eyes.
There's a soft growl in response to his unspoken question. It shakes up my spine, and replays again and again in my mind.
Zayle's breath quickens on my hand, and he shudders.
There is a second growl- no; a snarl. It's deeper than the first and it echoes more. The sound resonates around me. I tremor involuntarily, is that monster back? Wait, no, Zayle can hear them too.
The boy pushes my hand away from his face and starts to shout. "Shoo! Go away!" He faces the north, where the sound is penetrating.
"Do you take us for fools?" A bass, snarly voice questions with a tone of disgust. I scramble a few steps backwards from the unearthly noise.
"Running away, eh?" A second voice demands nastily from behind us. Zayle snatches up his sword, and I quickly pull out a single knife. Not that I'm going to kill anyone after attacking that guard, but I'm sure I look more threating with it than without. The boy swings the metal blade around in series of cross like figures to look more intimidating.
Running away would probably be a good option right now. I'm pretty sure I'll be faster….
A black shadow darts across my vision, hiding just enough in the darkness to not be seen. A second one follows it in pursuit, along with a third and fourth.
My heart leaps forward into a mad dash while I try to make sense of it all. Why would they be attacking us? Who are they?
"Just go away! He is going to snatch you right up!" Zayle shouts, not angrily, not cowardly, but bravely.
With a muffled amount of gruff replies and angry frustration, the creatures slink away. "He'll get you too, ya know."
I turn to Zayle, his eyes focused off in the distance, as if he believes they will come back. Who were they! I want to yell. I want to yell it so badly, yet my throat constricts my voice.
The boy turns to me, his captivating eyes penetrating me. His mouth gapes open, an innocent look plastered to his face. I know that look. Wanting to protect me from the truth. But I don't want him to protect me, I want the truth. Great. Now I'm a little kid, all I can say is 'want, want, want!'
He starts to explain, but his voice catches on the first word. He silently shakes his head. "Let's go." He hurries me on through the forest, not even allowing me to give a word of protest.
The sun is rising by the time my feet are begging for a break. Sharp sticks and rough stones have caused a painful mess around my toes and heel. My shoes are so worn that even the slightest poke of a rock shard cuts through and attacks my foot.
"Can we take a rest?" I plead.
"Yeah," Zayle nods, and instantly he plops himself to the ground. He sticks his sword into the earthy ground and spins it a few times.
For the first time I get a good look at him in the morning light, not in a dark prison or a shady night. He has broad shoulders and large hands which are scuffed and scratched. His face has a constant soft expression, which is slightly confusing against his muscular arms and his sword in front of him. He is wearing a dark black shirt with a small hood draped over his back. With seven small sections, shiny silver metal pieces adorn the edges of his shoulders and ring around his neck. He wears a small piece of chain around his wrists and fingers.
"So where are we going?" I sigh, seeing nothing but trees in my view.
"Down east, back to your village. Though you might have to lay low. They didn't send you to prison for no reason, I presume."
"I was caught stealing bread," I admit with a shy smile.
"Ah. Well, if I were a thief, I'd go for something bigger. Like a cake. With strawberries on top," Zayle says, smiling pleasantly at the thought when his face turned hard. "So wait, you were taken by your village, right?"
"Just wondering. I thought the Maelstrom took you."
I stare at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. "Of course not, no one comes back from that. They aren't taken to prison, they're killed." I rub my feet and stand up, looking back down at Zayle to do the same. "I don't wanna be around here. Not with those things." I shudder at the remembrance of the growls. Zayle leaps to his feet and follows me without reluctance.
The town lays sprawled below, surrounded by forests and hills. Stone building and wooden houses stand tall on either side of the village, encased by greenery.
"Cinder," Zayle whispers, reciting the name of the small town as if he's said it a hundred times.
"Cinder," I acknowledge quietly.
Zayle turns to me, the afternoon sun streaming fully on his face. The wind whips through his hair and the green forest is projected in his eyes. "Let us get going, I'm sure your family misses you," his tone is worried.
I almost agree, but the word 'us' stops me. I owe him much, yes. But walking in from escaping prison with a stranger might be…. I'm not sure what it might be, but it just doesn't seem good. I'll let him come anyways, and make him stand outside. "Okay."
Zayle and I drop downhill carefully then proceed to make it to town square where Zayle pulls his hood up and over his face. I stare at him. What did he do to get caught in that prison?
We make it over to a small, wooden building just past several people talking who don't even notice us. Zayle holds my shoulder and directs me carefully to my own doorstep, as if I've never been there before. The house is small, old boards are sliding off the side allow a cool chill at night and while there is a chimney made out of stone, the roof threatens to catch on fire at any moment with even the smallest fire inside.
"Zayle, do you think you can wait outside?" I ask.
He isn't hurt by the notation; instead he steps away, and waits for me to go inside. I creak open the door carefully, incase anyone's asleep, and peek inside. I'm appalled by the state it's in. Chairs lay thrown on the floor, the mats we sleep on are tossed to the side, and the fire is only a wisp of smoke.
No one is home either.
I blink; observing the room until I notice one figure, lying huddled in the corner of the room. She shivers as her hand reaches out to try to catch any of the fire left. The girl then looks up, finally noticing my silent appearance into the room.
A first I'm relieved to have her here, then I take a closer look at her face. I'm horrified, fighting myself to not back out of the house.
My little sister peeks up at me, eyes wide and teary. "Raylene?" Her body is so small stuffed up in the corner, weak, trembling.
I dash to her side, scooting next to her and giving her a quick kiss on her cheek, which is burning to the touch. "Rosabel, yes I'm here." Her face is worn, misused, wrinkled and deathly white. Her long hair drapes in her face, I brush it away.
Rosabel is quieted by my voice, her blue eyes trained on me as I babble false words about how it's alright. Even the words sound hollow to me. "What happened, Rosy?"
"Everyone's out at the market, so they left me here…to clean pots. I was turned around. But they came," she says, her voice devoid of emotion, "I don't know what happened, or who they were." A sound of a whimper creeps into her voice.
"Well, they're not here now." I'm not sure what to do, or what they did to her to make her so sick, but I can tell by the slick shine on her forehead, it was terrible. "What did they say to you?"
She counts something on her fingers before meaningfully staring into me. She speaks slowly, as if living the moment and not trying to miss a single word. The notes are breathy but are carried high.
"Speak before me, Let yourself fly free, Raise your head to me, And free you shall be."
I gulp audibly. "They said that?"
She doesn't say anything, but she nods, her face distracted by something in the distance. Rosabel, my second youngest sibling at the age of nine, whom I swore to protect the day she was born, one of the reasons I am a thief, is lying here next to me, in pain, sick. It makes my heart drop to my stomach that I wasn't here for her. I should've been. It's my fault.
Her eyes flutter, her breaths becoming shallow, yet there's nothing I can do. I don't even know what's wrong with her. There are no cuts, no gashes, nothing but a feeble tremble and a terrible fever. I try to comfort her, staying as close as I can next to her, covering her with a blanket, fetching her water. She isn't crying, but I am.
I pull her head into my lap and finger her hair, when her chest stops rising.
I find myself screaming her name, trying to awaken her. Then I find myself doing something I didn't think I would. Calling for Zayle. "Zayle!" I shriek, whimpering as Rosy doesn't move.
The boy whirls open the door, sword in hand. His eyes follow me to the ground. His weapon clatters as it falls from his hand.
I shake her shoulders, yet I'm trying to cradle her head in my lap too, which doesn't make sense. Nothing makes sense anymore. Who would harm such an innocent girl? Tears drip down my cheeks, rolling to my chin, and tumbling onto Rosabel's forehead. I gently wipe them away.
Zayle grips my hand, but I pull away, he's going to make me leave! He says nothing, but grabs me tighter, and spins me around to look at him. His eyes are cold, calculating, something I've never seen from him. It's strange staring at them, wondering what happened to change his sympathy to this deceiving look.
He's saying something about leaving, but I shake him off and can't help but think of poor Rosy, so sweet, lying there….
"Now!" Zayle yells into my face, pushing me back with a mighty shove and forcing me out the door. He grabs his sword and follows me out.
I face him, dumbly not understanding what's going on. He tightens his handle on the sword, but puts it away instead of attacking. He sighs. "Come on!" He grabs my shoulder roughly and starts to march away from the house. Although I'm kicking at him, yelling and screaming, it doesn't make a difference, he keeps half-dragging, half-carrying me away.
I want to bury Rosabel, I want to see the rest of my family, and I want to warn them, to be in their arms. All I can think of is 'want' again, but it doesn't matter. These are real things.
I'm choking down a sob, still trying to fight Zayle, but my limbs are not cooperating. They flail uselessly in an attempt to free myself.
Zayle pulls me aside, throws me to a sitting position, and pushes my head between my knees. He keeps his hand on the back of my head, petting my hair. The act triggers something in me. Maybe he killed her, pulling me away so I wouldn't find the evidence.
I whirl up in a stand of blind fury, trying to feel for the knives on my back, but Zayle pushes me away, drawing his sword. He swings the bright reflective metal around once, and bangs me in the head with it before I can move to dodge.
I slump down to the weed infested ground, glaring up at him, my fuzzy thoughts swirling mindlessly in my head. He crouches down to me, and holds me into an embrace, of which I don't understand. He whispers something, his eyes warm and friendly as I drift away….
Why did he knock me out?
When I wake, if I do, I'm not sure I have, my head is pounding constantly and Zayle is nowhere to be seen. Maybe that's a good thing. My whole body is stiff, so when I stand to stretch my limbs, I find I'm confined. Horrified at the metal link on my leg, attached to a tree, I try to senselessly scramble away. After a few minutes, I have to conclude I'm stuck.
I almost wonder that if it was all a dream, which I'm still in prison, waiting for an opportunity to escape, but a quick peek around tells me that I'm not correct. Trees sprawl around me, their leaves swathing over my head. My house is nowhere in sight, which means Zayle carried me an awfully long way into the forest.
Although sun is raining down on me, I have no idea of what time of day it could be, all I can think of is Rosy and the remainder of my family.
Suddenly, there's a sharp crack of a twig, and a couple of stomps. Zayle. Or worse. I clumsily snatch a white, pearly knife from my back and hold it by the tip, ready to throw at the slightest aggravation. I feel as if something is stalking me, but we're both afraid to show each other, for surely the other is waiting, weapon in hand, snarl on face.
The tip of a blade twinkles in the sun, I notice, as it veers around a tree. I expect the creature to run full tilt at me, jumping out from behind a clump of vegetation, so my muscles contract on auto pilot, sending the knife twirling through the air at where he was supposed to be. But he doesn't appear; instead he remains behind the plant, my weapon bouncing ineffectively off of it. And now there are only four left.
A foot descends out, then a hand, and an entire cloaked figure follows, his hands spread into the air as a gesture of innocence. I feel the next knife blade in my fingertips.
He lifts his head to look at me, and I see the soft, protective face of Zayle. However, when two hands come up to find his hand, or shoulder, he doesn't even flinch.
"I'm sorry," Zayle starts, but I'm still threating to throw this at him. He did leave me here, attack me, after all. I finger the blade in my hand, pulling my arm back. "Smash me if it makes you feel better. I deserve it, completely and utterly. But don't smash them," He says, gulping. He doesn't move out of my aim, but he pulls a small child aside, and then allows an older one out into my sight.
I drop my weapon, the small tip almost impaling me, but luckily falling to the side.
"Raylene!" The smallest cries, leaping towards me, and swinging herself into my arms. Her eyes are large, blue, and welcoming, similarly to Rosabel's. Her slight frame is just smaller than Rosabel's, but her hair is much darker and a deeper brown.
I grunt when she lands on me, but I stroke her hair gently, and hold her close. "Ruby…" I start to calm before she can be upset about seeing me, but she is already crying.
The other, oldest girl just nods approval, sadly smiling as she watches Ruby sit in my lap. She looks nothing like me, or Rosy, or Ruby. Rima, the eldest of all my sisters, looks just about the opposite. She has dark eyes and curly blonde hair. In fact, she's older and taller than me.
My mother appears next; she glances at me and gives one of her famous dazzling smiles…then slowly frowns.
I know what she's thinking. I know what she had hoped. Just the look of misery and sheer disappointment is threating me to cry again. Rosabel isn't with me.
My mother has to pry Ruby off of me after ten minutes of me trying to comfort her. And she doesn't even know her older sister is dead yet. Though Ruby is only a year younger than Rosabel, she gets overly upset about the smallest of things.
Rima doesn't come over to me, but rather stands next to Zayle, staring him over. For a second I realize I'm doing the same thing, considering I'm still locked here. "Zayle…"
"I've got the key. I just didn't want you to wake up and freak out while I was finding your family," he says promptly, strides over, and pulls out the same key he used for the prison.
"I don't think that one is going to work."
I startle as he grabs my leg to hold it still and pushes the key into the silver lock. It snaps apart and falls to the side. Zayle stands up and backs away, as if cautiously releasing a wild animal.
I stand, ignoring that my head is spinning in wild circles from when he knocked me and force myself to walk straight to my mother. I whisper, to not upset Ruby, as I walk past her, "I'm sorry." She knows exactly why I'm sorry.
I turn to Zayle, who sitting on the ground, elbows on his knees, forehead rested in his palms. "So what's the point of bringing us all out here?" I try to sound threating, but it's hard to when he just brought my family here to me . "It's not safe in Cinder anymore," He says flatly, frowning.
"Then what about every other family living there!" Rima jumps in, seemingly taking the words right from my mouth. Her voice is much smoother than mine. I usually have to force my voice to make a sound.
Zayle bites his lip as if to keep himself from talking. His dark hair glimmers in the light as he shakes his head in disapproval. He stands, and leans over to pick up the knife threw at him, and brings it to me, placing it in my hands.
"Why isn't it safe for us?" Rima insists. "Is it the Maelstrom? We didn't do anything wrong." I can tell by the way she darts her eyes at me she must know that I've escaped prison, that my time isn't over, that I must have caused all this. It's a look that's filled with poison.
"I'll tell you more, later," Zayle says, his eyes twitching off to look in the distance, captivated by something. He frowns.
"What?" Ruby asks innocently, peeking out from being Mother.
Zayle smiles a sad smile before grabbing me by the shoulder, which is starting to get sore, and points into the distance. I blink. There's a floating bundle of water lying rested in the trees, wandering back and forth, snarling lightly. He starts to climb down closer to us.
I hold Ruby close, but as I'm about to speak, Rima sees it too. "Let's get outta here!" She calls.
I scoop up Ruby, knowing she wouldn't run, rather stand paralyzed in fear, and hold my mother's arm. Ruby is very light, probably coming from years of starvation, but at least she is easy to carry.
Zenas is shoving us through the forest then, sword brandished in hand, ready for attack. The creature keeps up our pace, leaping from tree to tree as if it were a monkey. Finally, when it decides it isn't going to come ahead, it leaps down from twenty feet in the air and lands at me feet.
For half a second, I'm frozen, staring down at the creature. It has four legs, dripping with clear blue water, each with a large paw at the end, like a dog's. It has a thin snout, but no eyes, just a watery form. It constantly leaks water, but it doesn't all splash to the ground as you would think. It retains its form and moves as only muscles should. I almost think it can't harm me. It's only water – right? But it opens its mouth in a nasty snarl, its teeth gleaming with sparkles.
With that, I blink, and then turn the other way, running.
With an unnatural guttural sound, the beast takes off in pursuit, paws thundering across the ground. It throws down its head and charges over to Zayle, who stops abruptly to face it. "You have no business here!" he cries, slashing his sword at the brute, who ran straight threw it, his body collapsing around the blade.
The creature turns, and reaches for my leg. Its teeth harden to ice as it latches onto my fleeing limbs, and pulls me to the ground. Ruby tumbles ahead, falling face first into the hard dirt as she gets flung out of my hands.
I incoherently glare at the creature thrashing about as its hard teeth fasten onto me. Ruby falling. Mother screaming. Pain lancing up and down me. Zayle running over. Point and point connect until I'm shrieking too as I try to scramble away. But no, this isn't how the creature wants it to go. He yanks further down on me, the others useless to stop its grip as their blades and fists pass harmlessly through his silvery clear body.
The ice from his ruthless fangs numb my leg as I start to crawl away, dragging the beast with me. I bite my tongue to keep more screams from coming out.
Ruby has grabbed a stick, a huge one, probably big enough to knock her over, and starts to try to bash down on the creature. It passes through again and again, as it did with the others who are now trying to pull me forward away, which is making his teeth cut deeper into me. She attacks again, weakly for her frail frame has almost no strength, but for the first time it smashes into his snout. The icy teeth shatter at the impact, striking a weakness his watery body didn't have.
I have to grit my teeth as he yanks his head away, howling hideously before whimpering as he disappears.
Rima starts to help me grimly to my feet, but it's apparent the creature isn't coming back, and more importantly, my damaged leg won't hold my weight. I grunt, try to stand, fall back down, watch Zayle survey the distance, and watch Mother try to comfort Ruby.
And I'm just a poor girl with no hope for wealth or freedom. Why attack me?
I delicately touch the wounds on my leg and can't help but make a grimace as every brush of my finger brings agony. I prop myself up against a tree.
Rima offered to get some water to wash it out, but I wouldn't let her. How many of those beasts would there be? She argued about how she was older and could do things for herself, but I made my mother agree to go with her, along with Zayle.
Rima may be older, but she doesn't do much. She doesn't seem to notice we are starving to death. I guess the fact that she is lame in one leg would help, but I don't think it excuses it.
Rima limps away with the other two, and I can only hope that Zayle would defend them. He seems bent on protecting me, that's for sure.
I hold Ruby next to me, allowing her not to say anything. Surely she doesn't know Rosabel is gone. She wouldn't be able to handle it. I have a throwing knife in one hand, her arms locked in my other.
Her face is pale and, although I'm worried she is going to faint from today's happenings, the one's she has seen, I get a strange sense that she knows more than she probably should.
Everything is calm around me. Gentle birds chirp their frivolous sounds in melodies I'm not sure how they come up with them, the trees rustle softly in the wind, the sun is warm and refreshing, and Ruby is breathing quietly next to me, her face sad, but welcoming to see. Even then… after about twenty minutes, I begin to worry about the three being gone.
I'm about to call their names when they call mine.
Mother crashes through the forest first, tumbling to the ground after tripping on some plants. I snatch my knife up, just waiting for what's behind her.
Rima appears surprisingly next, hobbling roughly towards me, shrieking my name. "Raylene! Raylene hit him!"
I would, but there isn't much to hit. In fact, there's nothing behind them, not even Zayle. In an eerie silence, everyone stops to listen. Heavy footsteps trod through the greenery, but I'm not going to throw, just in case it's Zayle.
"What is it?" I ask Rima, because my Mother is too much in shock.
Rima doesn't reply, her eyes are fixated in the distance, wide and fearful. "That boy…"
Zayle, as if on cue, stumbles in next, blade in hand, using it as a walking stick. "I say, I picked the wrong spot. We're being hunted," he says, leaning down to me and my deeply wounded leg. It thuds with a dull achy pain, though I'm not sure why, I expected it to be a sharp, acute pain. Something is wrong. I touch it again and it's numb, but not from cold.
I turn, finally realizing that Ruby's face has gone completely white. I hold her hand. "It's not safe is it?"
He shakes his head in dissent. "No, we need to keep moving."
"No," that has got to be his most popular phrase, "the villagers will also hunt us down. We did escape from prison." Oh, is all I can think before he scoops me up, not even going to attempt to make me walk. I don't really want to be held though. If we can get moving, then my family will be safer, but I should be the ones protecting them, not the one being carried around like a doll.
Still I let him, but I hold the hand of Ruby as we walk at a prompt pace. I start to wonder if Zayle is walking, not running, for Rima. Even at our stride she struggles to keep up, though she doesn't show it. She's too hard headed for that.
I don't even dare ask what we're running from, but I can't help the fact that my mind wanders to the beast that haunts me. Taking a new form every time. Whispering disturbing words.
The day passes beneath my notice, as my watchful eye is locked on Ruby, Rima, and Zayle's hands which lay around me. My head is fuzzy, contorted into a useless figure by the means of…of what? What happened?
I have to concentrate for several moments before I remember that the beast bit me. Still...what does that have to do with it? I should be in pain, not disoriented. Did it even really happen? A big watery creature attacked me?
I've gone mad.
I glance around wearily, only to confirm that it really happened, Zayle is carrying me, my family trailing behind. My leg bounces up and down as he walks, numb and completely black. The ashy color surrounds the teeth marks and echoes up my calf, encasing it in a dull gray. I stare at it as if it's going to change colors on me.
Trees start to recede, as if the endless, frightening forest has started to disappear. At the end, the only thing remaining is plants of various colors and sizes, though I'm not trusting my sight anymore, surely it is playing tricks on me. There is a large river opening up in front of us like a gaping mouth, the water leaping through it as if it was alive. Creepy.
Zayle lowers me to the ground gently and ignores the fact that everyone is staring at him, like he couldn't have chosen a worse place. Did that creature…come out of there? I glare at the river and its sparkling goodness.
My mother kneels next to me in the lush plants and gingerly grabs my leg. I want to say it's excruciatingly painful, but it's not. Really when she touches it, all I feel is a faint tingle. She pulls the pants leg up further from where I had it so she can see it, not just me.
For some reason everyone gasps, except Zayle, who stands motionless with a blank expression. It doesn't register until I realize how bad the wound looks. It's black, something I recognized before, but I never really thought about it. I wonder if I'm going to die because of it. But the thought hits me as dull, not a grasping thought. My brain isn't working right.
Zayle raises his eyebrows like he's not sure what to do. It mashes with his thick, dark hair. A moan of helplessness escapes his lips before he is able to control it.
"Eek! What do we do?" Ruby asks, hiding behind Rima, who shoos her away.
My eyes dart about nervously. I'm not really sure what's happening anymore. The world seems like such a dark haze….Water being splashed on my leg to clean and cool it, because apparently only that spot is burning up. Them probing me for an answer on whether it hurts or not as they examine the bite marks. My lips staying sealed because I can't determine what they're asking.
And suddenly, for all the times I am to do this, I drift off into sleep, pulled under by the mysterious workings of the bite that affects my mind.
When I wake, we haven't left the river and deep moonlight flickers off of it and reflects in my eyes. I stare at it for a moment, it's so captivating, the blue wonder lapping over rocks as it rushes away, the white edges swirling.
The forest sprinkled behind us is unnervingly quiet, not even the sound of rustling leaves or the occasional owl hoot disrupts the silence.
My head is somewhat clearer, though I'm not sure what they could have possibly done to obtain that. My mother, Rima, and Ruby are all asleep, laying on each other like puppies. However, Zayle is hunched over, head between his knees, his eyes peering out. How long has he been sitting like that?
"Hello," I say blankly.
My voice alarms him, like he's been distant, in another world. He falls backwards and shakes his head. "Hiya."
"Sorry," I mutter. I'm not quite sure what I mean by it though. About trying to attack him or startling him, maybe even about threating him with that knife. He didn't kill Rosabel. If he did, he wouldn't have brought the rest of my family to me. Surely he knows what I mean.
He brushes my apology off, like he expected me to say it. "Alright."
I rest my head on the soft ground that's jam-packed with leaves and grass. Then I find myself scrambling to a sitting position. Ouch. Moving hurts. I glance down at my leg, only to find it completely normal looking, yet on fire with pain. I liked it better when it was discolored. I grit my teeth and touch it with my fingers. I stop, lean back, and watch Zayle as he stares at me with a sorrowful face, eyes glum with no shine in them. "Did you know that creature?" I ask.
His lips curve upwards into a smile as he speaks. "No, not really. I only knew that it was there. I didn't realize it was hunting us still."
"Still?" I ask, knowing there's more to it. "What do you mean?"
Zayle tilts his head to the side slightly, as if trying to determine how to tell me. "I've seen it before. It's been watching you." Watching me? In prison? Unlikely. How would he know?
He seems to know too much about me. It's getting to be slightly creepy. If knowing I'm afraid of heights and that I was going to apologize wasn't enough, then knowing who was watching me in a jail cell sets me off guard. "If it was there, why didn't I notice?"
Zayle frowns, shakes his head, and then stands up. "I didn't notice either, until late."
Puzzled by what he means by that, I mean to ask more, but my mouth is frozen shut. Good. It would probably come out childish anyways.
"Go back to sleep. Tomorrow isn't going to be any easier," Zayle says, fingering a small blue wildflower and rolling it between his fingers.
"What if it comes back?" I ask, thinking I should stay up and make sure, not that I'd be much use if I had to run on this leg. I can't help imagining the watery beast charging through us, swiping Ruby….
"I'll do what I've been doing. He won't come back." Zayle unsheathes his blade and twirls it in his hands as it twinkles in the dim light. It showers him in reflective white spots before he puts it back on his belt.
I nod and lay back down, letting the night darkness cover me as a protective blanket. It's not until I close my eyes that I realize I really am trusting him.
Birds chirp peacefully by my side, encasing the world in a lovely tune. I roll onto my back, dazed by how bright the sun is. I sit up, glance around, and have to conclude I slept until noon or so.
"Zayle?" I whisper. He's gone. So is the rest of my family. I whirl up to a standing stance, grabbing my knives and holding them up as if to defend myself. Pain lances up my leg and I'm forced to a crouching position. Where could they have gone? My mind screams, but my lips are silent. How could I have slept through them being captured?
I bite my lip to keep myself from yelling their names, crashing through the woods to find them. I collect my stringy, knotted hair in a handful, and tie it up with a long blade of grass. I try to prepare myself for finding them by buttoning my shirt up, trying to soothe the pain in my leg by splashing water onto it, and brushing the dirt from my face. Somehow this makes the situation more manageable.
I stand, grimace, and try to determine which way they went, but there's only one set of footprints. From where Zayle was sitting I can see he got up, and stumbled erratically away, turning in circles several times. But from where my sisters were laying, there are no footprints, expect for the ones they came in on.
I grip my face in frustration and anger. If no one took them, and they didn't leave, how could they be gone? There are no footprints! And Zayle just wandered away? Was he going to leave us all alone anyways? Traitor.
I launch myself into the forest, knife held in one hand, the other clutching trees for support as I limp by. For some reason I have to think that they're in here somewhere.
"Ruby?" I whisper, calling each of their names in turn. I don't really want to yell, that just seems like a dumb idea, even if I don't consider myself to be all that smart. The forest is full of eerie noises. The eerie noise of complete and utter silence. The sounds of my staggering footsteps are the only sounds to be heard in the shady forestry.
I stumble into a big tree, leaning my shoulder against it and taking the weight off my feet for a second. The bark etches imprints in my skin, but I don't particularly care. The tree limbs above are thick and full, surrounded by lush leaves and rough branches. I think about scaling it so I can get a better look around, but I dismiss the idea on the fact my leg wouldn't be able to take it. And alright, why not admit it? The idea scares me.
Suddenly, there's a wild rustle above my head, and I hardly have the time to bring my hand up to throw my knife when something grasps my shoulders in a blur and hauls me into the tree, as simple as if I were a doll. I thrash about, trying to shake whatever it is that is holding me, but it only causes its grip to strengthen.
I stop swinging for a second to hear his voice. I know who it is. The voice, cheery and overly excited to see me, with a touch of a growl engraved into it, would be hard to forget.
"She will take the shadows."
"Okay," I whisper, waiting for him to leave, but again he waits.
"She will take the shadows. Don't be a shadow," He coos, touching my hair. That's new.
"I can't. How would I be a shadow?" I ask, slightly intrigued, but completely mortified that he has me trapped in a tree.
"You just are."
I start to wiggle, knowing what must be next. And I hear those terrible words ring out once again, surrounding me in their horrifying meaning. "Have you yet to see me?" He asks, whispering with a hot breath in my ears.
"Yes, I have! Shoo!" I struggle to escape his grasp, but he holds firm and climbs out in front of me like a monkey. It has a murky black hair in small swirls, silvery eyes with small bits of green, broad shoulders, and strong hands. I don't know what to do about this. Freak out? Maybe. Act like I don't care.
I stare blankly at him, and shrug, like it's nothing. He smiles a pleasant grin and his eyes gleam nicely. Zayle. I can't find what's so scary except that's him, the monster. And the fact that Zayle left me and my family. I almost frown but wrestle mentally to retain my emotionless look.
He shakes his head as Zayle does so often. "It's not safe in Cinder anymore." So? That's something he already said, why would I freak? "Ruby…" He whispers, slinking away back into a branch until he melts into it, and is gone.
Ruby? Cinder? I stare blankly at a small leaf floating down in front of my face. It scrapes past my nose and lands softly in my lap. I pick it up calmly, stare at it for a moment, and rip it to pieces in a sudden burst of anger. "Ruby!" I shriek, leaping down from the tree, ignoring my leg as it screams, and weave towards Cinder.
I burst wildly through the forest, panting, vision going in and out from fatigue and pain. I bat a leaf out of my face. "Ruby?!" I call, wondering what that monster might have done to her. It can't end like Rosabel. I must be there for her.
"Raylene?" A boy asks, wandering on up to me. First I think he's going to warn the villagers of my presence, considering I stole from his dad, but he just shakes his head.
"Yeah, what Vardon? Where's Ruby?" I say, looking up to him. For being two years younger, he sure is tall.
He ruffles his short golden hair and points into the distance. "I think I saw her earlier, but she just wandered past me, walked straight under a tree and sat down." He shrugs indifferently, but since I just got yanked into a tree, this puts me on my guard.
"The apple one?"
I take off at once, thinking to say a thank you, but running off with the words still hanging on my lips. I pass several people who gasp as I almost knock them over, and stumble my way over, finally making it to the towering tree. I fall to my knees and look straight into her eyes.
Ruby is sitting right there, just at the base of the trunk, frowning at me. Her dark hair lies perfectly over her shoulders like it has just been brushed and there's not a single wrinkle in her clothes. "Ruby?" I question and move closer.
Her mouth gapes open blankly, and just as I'm about to say her name again, she utters a cry as something rings around her shoulders. She shrieks my name as she's pulled upwards and into the leaves.
I don't realize that I'm brutally ripping through the tree until a thick branch whacks me in the face. It's not a huge tree; why can't I find her? I slash through several branches with a swipe of my knife, ignoring the crashing sound of apples falling to the ground that could feed several people.
It's not until I've cut down and sawed through most of the branches, aside from the very largest, when I have to conclude she isn't there. I sling myself down from the few remaining branches, tears freely streaming down my cheek, slipping past my chin, and dabbing onto my shirt.
Amidst the fallen leaves and jagged ends of sticks, there's nothing to do but wonder how she could've vaporized into thin air. I never saw her leave. And she can't fly.
"Ruby," I whimper, falling to my knees once again, stabbing them with sharp sticks. This feels so much like when I found Rosabel. Unable to help, despair welling up inside me. Only this time, I can't even hold her hand.
Suddenly, there's a crackle of branches, and whirl up to see who it is. Ruby? Maybe, but the body is too heavy. Mother? Most likely. As I turn I whip out a second knife and don't even hesitate as I leap after him.
How could he leave my family and just wander away into the night? He dodges the first swipe and tumbles backwards, a horrific look plastered to his face. The second one would've hit him across the chest, but he flips to his side and it digs into his arm instead.
He grits his teeth, and stares at me. Zayle's warm eyes go right through me with his sympathetic feel. And I hate it. I hold another knife menacingly at his neck. "Where is she?!" I hiss in his face. No, that monster wasn't trying to frighten me, he was warning me about Zayle. It all makes sense now.
"Who?" He shakes his head in confusion.
His eyes dart nervously around, trying to find a way out. "I don't know."
I'm yelling at him through racking sobs now, and an awful choking noise is coming from my throat. "You left them! You took them! You were watching them in the night! I trusted you!" My voice was supposed to be accusing and strong, but I'm broken and it comes as a whimper of a child.
"Raylene…," He whispers, "I didn't do anything."
"Then why were you gone!" My face flushes with rage, and I know I have to restrain myself from using the weapon in my hands. At least for the moment.
His face tries to puzzle something out, but it's useless. "I wasn't….I…." he stutters. I've gathered a crowd of villagers now, and if the sight of me wasn't enough, then me cutting down their tree and holding a blade to an unfamiliar face must be making them go crazy. One elderly lady, I don't remember her name mostly because I've never cared, starts to pry me off of Zayle, but I resist. It's not until the blacksmith comes up, that Zayle is released.
He crawls backwards, and then stands to his feet, examining the new wound in his arm. He suddenly looks up, and cruelly smiles.
I struggle to squirm out of the man's grasp, but he's got such a good hold and strong, firm hands. There's nothing for me to do but glare at Zayle, the boy I trusted, the boy staring at me with serpent eyes now.
He slowly brushes himself off, and turns to the villagers. "You're just going to stand there? She tried to kill me!" He cradles his hurt arm with his functional one as if to make a point.
Suddenly, the blacksmith- I think his name might be Lucas, but that might be someone else- yanks me up by my shirt so fast, I choke on air and yelp. "What exactly were you trying to do, girl?" He says, the booming voice startling me.
I bite my lip, but everyone loves my sisters, surely they would help. I may be hated; a thief, but Ruby's eyes can convince anyone of anything. "He took Ruby!" Is all I can mutter because my voice is starting to crack and I don't want to be seen crying here.
The villagers at once look deeply into Zayle, considering this outsider for a moment. There are then shouts of agony for the missing girl and fingers pointing blame to both of us. "She's making things up!" or "That boy should be in jail!" cries could be heard.
Just then, as if materializing out of nothing, Zayle appears next to me, placing his fingers gently behind my back. First, I think it's the blacksmith that's touching me, but no, he set me down. It's the boy, standing there tall, with confusion scattering across his face, spreading to his eyes. He gazes forward.
I wonder how he got from in front of me to behind, when I see what he's staring at. He is staring at an exact replica of himself.
Zayle's head swivels to the side as he looks down at himself. His eyes bulge.
My own mind is racing. How is he two? Which is real? One of them has to be a fake. Has to. Either that or I'm highly confused. I look at the Zayle standing before me, with the open wound on his arm, then the one beside me, with his fingers wrapped around me.
A hush of awe sweeps over the crowd, some gasp, and I'm pretty sure two even faint. The blacksmith stumbles blindly away, his eyes trained on both of the same exact boys. Every faint freckle is exactly in place, their same eyes. And even the way they move, eyes darting about instead of slowly moving, the way his frown is slightly tipped when he lowers his head. It's impossible to decipher them.
The Zayle from behind steps forward, tilting his head slightly to the side. He then scowls at the sight. The other returns the exact look with precision.
I remember how that monster was me one time, and I'm quite certain it's him now, but which one? And better, how can everyone else see the monster, not just me?
Zayle, the one closer that was behind me, I think, draws his silver sword and points it at himself. The second cocks his head with a knowing smile and draws his sword also. Even the blades are exactly the same. It's so dizzying, I'm not even sure how to react, in fact, my muscles are holding me in place. If I were attacked at the moment, my chances of living are not high.
The second laughs and slams his sword back into his belt. He shakes his head and stares at me. "Zayle's a shadow. Don't be a shadow, Raylene."
With that, I blink, and he's an entirely new creature. His arms lengthen to flapping waves of…not wings…not arms. His face shrinks, growing an eerie dark, ashen color. It spreads about him in small wisps until he is finished, the only thing left is a dark cloak of torn feathers, and two red sparkling spots that serve as eyes.
His limbs reach towards me. I'm being attacked now. I know it. My chances of living are not high.
Surprisingly my muscles act on instinct before my mind can catch up with what happened. They spring forward, and I feel as if someone else has taken control of me and I'm just following simple orders.
Get another knife out, Raylene. Start to back away into a better stance, Raylene. Throw.
I fling one of my weapons straight into the monster's head. He's been haunting me forever. Time to rid. He doesn't even attempt to avoid or shield himself; the white flash simply disappears through one of his unblinking eyes.
Zayle, I guess the real one, grabs my arm and yanks me to the side. "Get down!" He shouts forcefully, and ducks my head for me. I hear the clunk of my own weapon thump next to me, barely missing my head. I snatch it from the ground, tearing a few clumps of dirt with it, and strap it to my back with two efficient movements. If it passed through him, then it would be no use anyways.
By now, the whole crowd has scattered, leaving just Zayle, the creature, and I. Again, I'm doing one of the rash, dumb things, but I don't care. Zayle is pulling on me to leave but I jerk my arm out of his grasp – knocking him to the ground- and march right up to the creature. "Where is she- Ruby?"
He shrugs, clearly making no attempt to leap after me. "Don't be a shadow. Don't be a Zayle. Maybe you'll find out."
Somewhere in my perplexed, muddled mind, I pick up that he's gone, though I feel faint eyes watching me. I turn to Zayle, who's picking himself up and rubbing his cheek which is stained with red. Must've cut it somewhere.
"Zayle," I whimper.
He gazes at me for a long while before suddenly jerking up and franticly looking about. It suddenly clicks for him. "What do you mean 'Where's Ruby'?"
"She's gone! You were there and then…" I cut myself off and bite my lip. That may not have even been him, this whole time. How accusing that must sound to him.
He sees my distress and rushes to dissolve it. "I know. I left, it was my fault." I can't tell if he's just blaming it on himself to make me feel better, or he truly left my family. Then again…no. I shove that thought from my mind and struggle to think about something else. Anything.
"You've got some explaining," I say, leaving him on the note that I don't want to talk about it now, but not yelling at him yet. Yet. He smiles self-consciously, ducks his head, and nods like he knows all too much.
He then takes a few steps away, gathers my last knife that was still stuck in the tree, and hands it to me. I strap it to my back.
I'm just about to thank him when a group of villagers approach, trembling in their shoes, holding weapons pointed to my face.
I recognize most of them. All merchants from out of town. In fact, I might be giggling at the fact I know the traders more than I know the people who live around here, except for the fact there's a blade digging in the back of my neck.
"You both are working with…with that creature!" They accuse and I feel someone laying a rough hand over my shoulder. Their creased faces and angry remarks make me want to hide. Hide somewhere in a safe hole, carving wood with my beautiful knives, snuggling next to Ruby and Rosabel as they paint each other's faces with sparkling paints….
Zayle squeezes my hand with his, and raises his other hand innocently over his head. "That wasn't our fault. That wasn't us." His voice is calm and sweet, like birds singing in a warm afternoon.
Another cruel round of arguments arises. And the man with the blade behind me starts tremble as Zayle grabs his wrist and jams his shoulder under his elbow. I feel the cold steel give away so I take the silent cue and back off. I can see the man with the weapon clutching his oddly bend arm and decide before he gathers his wits, we should take to the woods.
Zayle seems lost in the distance, so I just yank him ahead a few yards until he finally regains his focus on me. He suddenly pulls away then, like he's never seen my face before, and then quickly tries to act normal without a word. He dashes forward to the trees, cutting a thick trail with his heavy, pounding steps.
We enter the woods, but don't stop; those villagers might just be following us. We're both panting heavily by the time we stop, stumbling through the knotted ground. "What was that about?!" I say, pushing Zayle beside me.
He leans on his knees for a second, but then catches his breath with a single huff. "I don't know. I mean, which part?" His brushes his dark hair out of his eyes and looks up to stare at me.
"How could you see it? The monster."
"It? Him. He chose to make himself visible, but I'm not sure why. It that the first time you've seen him?" He asks, and I gaze at him dumbfounded. Of course not. I shake my head. Zayle lets out a long, breathy 'hmm.' "Don't be a shadow. He said that, right?" He doesn't wait for me to reply, but rather continues on with his explanation. "That's too obvious. You'd think he would come up with a better idea. Shadow, meaning what the Maelstrom calls the rebellious magic users."
"Shadow? No one's ever rebelled, no one who lived anyways."
"Maelstrom tries to keep everyone in order, you're right. But Shadows have been trying to overrule them and have mostly-"
"Wait!" I cry, cutting him off in mid-sentence rudely, but I don't care. "He said don't be a Zayle. Don't be you? What did he mean by that?"
Zyale's mouth hangs open and he gazes at me for an endless amount of time. Those eyes pierce me, but they seem so sincere. He's the boy I met in the prison, but what he says next sounds like from an entirely different person.
"I was a Shadow."
"You were…" My finger slowly comes up, but then drops to my side. I can't help imagining walls of Maelstrom pushing in on Cinder, snatching up innocent people. "You rebelled against the Maelstrom?!"
"Well…in a sense I guess I did but,"
My face breaks out into a huge smile, my questions answered. If the monster was Maelstrom, then he knew I was with Zayle, and if Zayle's a Shadow, no wonder he tried to stop me. Didn't want me to be a Shadow. Then again, why has he been haunting me so long, even before I met Zayle? "Isn't that a good thing?!"
"No, Raylene, you're missing the point!" He's being patient, but a tone of anxiousness creeps slowly into his voice.
"What point?" I ask.
"Shadows don't want to overrule the Maelstrom to just be free. They want the power themselves," Zayle says, shaking his head.