Faced with choosing between entering fog that could flay us alive and facing a pack of weapon-wielding opponents, even if they were kids, I picked what I hoped was the better of the two options.
I told Callan, “I’ve never harmed a child and I saved that young girl from the croggle. We’re not this tek-nah-tee thing you keep accusing us of being. A warrior’s word is worth his life. If you give yours that you’re telling the truth, we’ll follow you, but if either Gabby or Tony are harmed you’d better hope I don’t live. Because I will make you pay.”
Callan took my measure with a steady, clear-eyed gaze and said, “I give my word that I speak the truth. If you and your friends remain in line along with the others, the three of you will pass through the fog with no harm.”
The word friends raised something strong within me. A sense of bond I couldn’t assign to the brief relationship I had with Gabby and Tony, but at this point we were in this nightmare together and had to depend on each other. And it wasn’t as though I knew if I had any friends or not.
Could I accept this unknown guy’s word?
Did I have a choice at this point? No. “Thank you.”
He leaned close and added, in a far more menacing tone, “I’ve also given my word to destroy every tek-nah-tee I meet as long as I draw a breath. I swore my life to this vow. Do not test me again.”
I knew when I was butting my head against a rock wall and nodded to Mount Callan to show my acknowledgement. Angling around, I snagged Gabby and Tony’s attention and called back, “They’re going to make a path. Stay exactly behind the person in front of you.”
Gabby paled but her eyes sharpened with determination. She swung around, speaking to Tony, then she and Tony faced forward, both giving me tense nods of understanding.
I hoped I wasn’t leading them to their deaths when I told Callan, “We’re ready.”
The leader gave me another look of promised retribution then turned his back to me and raised his arms. A spear clutched in one hand and the other hand empty. He spoke in a strange language, murmuring until the fog parted, rolling back to the right and left, leaving a three-foot-wide tunnel. Just enough room to move through while still needing to be careful. Then he strode forward.
What had Tony just said a few moments ago? Daa-yum.
I followed, tensing when I felt the cool residue of the fog tingle on my skin, but no burning sensation. Fifty steps ahead the tunnel finally ended at a massive cavern-like space enclosed by the towering fog on all sides, but open overhead. Looking up, the sky reminded me of the striking blue one that had spanned from horizon to horizon back at the Institute, except this one undulated from a deep blue-purple shade to a vibrant red-purple. And that blood-red moon glared down on us.
I didn’t know anything about the school I’d left, but right now I agreed with Gabby about missing that place.
At least the school had made more sense than wherever we were now. Once Gabby, Tony and all the warrior children behind me were inside the misty barrier, the path through the fog closed.
With my group safe for the moment, I turned around and took in the village. Some of the unusual trees and bushes had been cut down, leaving a few trunks high enough to be stools. But those trunks were strange shades, some mustard yellow and others blueish gray. Vines and branches crisscrossed above, stretching from tree to tree and covering an area three times the size of Mr. Suarez’s classroom.
Young children who stood no taller than my waist moved around inside this area, being watched or herded by others who were closer to thirteen or fourteen years old. Some of them sat around a pile of glowing rocks as if hovered over a campfire, but there were no flames. Others pounded what appeared to be plant fibers into cloth. Two little girls stood facing each other, a small orange gourd hovering in the air between them. It was suspended in air. No strings or levers visible. Another little boy with wild cinnamon hair levitated his body a good foot off the ground. Like the two had done while fighting the croggle.
They all paused to take note of Callan’s return and us three strangers among them.
Silence swept around the interior walls of the village that appeared to be made of massive feathers strung on a vine running between trees. The feathers hung vertically side-by-side. All the colors imaginable, but there were more dust-brown feathers with vibrant red or orange streaks than any other.
I didn’t want to know what kind of bird had a feather as tall and wide as my body.
Callan handed his spear off to one of his half-sized soldiers, then turned to me. “You. Come with me.”
“What about my–”
A spear tip nipped me in the back, hard enough to break skin. Again.
I hissed at the new wound but followed the leader through a willowy hallway composed of more feathers. I heard multiple footsteps trailing behind, and could only hope Tony and Gabby were being herded to the same place as me.
I needed them close if the chance to escape presented itself, but I resisted the urge to turn around and earn one more hole in my back. I had enough cuts and bruises for one day, and figured I’d hear something if either of them were harmed.
And for once, I didn’t think Tony would stir up trouble.
But what about this Mathias that I was pretty sure I was about to meet? Would he be as hardheaded as that brute Callan ahead of me?
Hard to imagine, but based on my luck today I wouldn’t be surprised.
At the end of the passageway, I followed Callan into a room about twelve feet square. The corners were rounded where the giant feathers, solid mauve and lavender ones this time, overlapped. Just like the rest of the village I’d seen, this space also had no ceiling, and was open to the sky.
A female teen stood with her back to us while she listened to Etoi who spoke in a low, agitated voice.
“...they pretend to know nothing. One has the mark on his neck and a strange smell, another has some metal device on her leg, and still Callan brings this threat back to our village. Why did he not kill them when he could? You must tell Mathias–”
“Zilya.” Callan announced his presence with a voice sharp as a knife slicing air.
Still standing with her back to us, the other girl, this Zilya I guessed, said, “That will be all, Etoi.”
Color splashed her cheeks, but Etoi donned a calm expression and dipped her blond head at Zilya in a respectful manner then headed out through a different opening. She spared me a terse, just-wait glance on her way out.
I smiled, showing just enough teeth to let her know she need not wait on my account.
A swish of movement drew my eyes back to finally see this Zilya.
She turned around gracefully, looking as though everything about her contained that same graceful quality, and paused. Her attention landed on Callan first, her eyes widening in question. His stern face didn’t budge. Her tunic-style gown was an odd yellowish, almost golden, material, not shiny, but elegant in its simplicity. Strange half-moon designs were sewn in a deeper burnished gold down the front. She stood eye-level to me, but her regal posture gave her the illusion of being taller.
Spikey, white-blond hair haloed over her head, so pale it reflected lavender highlights from the sky, luminous against the bright gold feathers of the wall at her back. She had a smattering of little raised, jewel-like dots, some maybe a sixteenth of an inch thick, and some the size of my smallest fingernail fanning out from her left eye. The dots started as black then shifted to iridescent as they spread across her high cheekbone.
I didn’t think she was beautiful so much as compelling, but I knew Tony would be drooling if he were standing here.
What about Callan? Was he as dazzled by her?
I cut my eyes at him.
His gaze bumped into mine, hung there a second studying me, then he looked away, frowning as if caught.
I turned back to the girl. Zilya took me in with one long, cool appraisal, but her voice lashed out at Callan. “I understand there are two others.”
“Bring them. Mathias will be here in a moment.”
Callan didn’t move.
Zilya’s face softened when she added in a coy tone, “Don’t worry. I’ll be safe.”
That sounded so flirty-sweet it was nauseating. Either she didn’t see me as dangerous or she felt capable of defending herself. I wondered which.
He let out a huff of air. “I’m sure you can take care of yourself. Mathias may want to speak to each one independently.”
Zilya’s mouth tightened as if intolerant of anyone countering her orders. “As I am council to the Governing House, I advise you to bring the other two here for Mathias.”
Some issue played out between them. I didn’t care as long as their friction didn’t have a negative bearing on Gabby, Tony or me.
Callan turned and disappeared through the opening.
I might as well start arguing in the defense of our position now. “You must believe I’m not a threat or you wouldn’t send your. . .your guard away.”
She cocked her head at that, her eyes cold and calculating. “I am hardly defenseless and he is not my guard. I need no guard.”
If she’d seen what I did to that croggle, she might rethink her statement, but pointing that out would work against my goal of convincing someone in this place not to kill us. Before I could say anything else, another guy entered, striding so quickly the gold robe he wore whipped against his legs.
He stopped the minute he saw me. “Who is this?
Zilya answered in a surprisingly humble tone. “One of the three captives, Mathias. I sent Callan for the other two.”
So this was their leader? As tall as Callan, this Mathias might not match Callan in muscle tone, but he carried himself as a king, shoulders back, eyes ahead. He had skin darker than mine. Reminded me of Nicholas from back at school, except Mathias had warm eyes that held a depth of understanding that made him approachable. Strange for me to think that when he was in charge of this group and they had captured us.
His eyes didn’t fit his age. Not that he had lines or wrinkles, but he wore years of living on his face that said he’d seen far more than others with his seventeen or eighteen years. He asked me, “What are you doing here?”
No matter where I went, I was doomed to be asked questions I couldn’t answer. “I don’t know.”
Zilya interjected, “This is yet another tek trick, no doubt.”
Mathias crossed his arms, irritation boiling in his face. “What new challenge have you brought to us?”
“None.” Who did these people think we were? “We’re not who you think we are.”
Zilya answered, “In this sphere, you are either one of us or our enemy. There is no third option. So where does that leave you?”
The enemy. Someone they claimed had killed children.