“Selene!” a shrill voice calls after me. I keep running, the damp grass squishing between my toes. The sun rises in a clear sky, the first in over a week. Footsteps splash along behind me, into the trees that line our village.
My lungs burn but I don’t care. I’m so relieved to be out of the house. Away from the needlework and the gossiping women. I love these old woods, the whispering wind, and the ancient trees. The grown-ups tell us not to wander too far, that the fairies will steal us away. Those stories only fool the little kids.
“It’s your turn to be it!” one of the boys yells as we weave through branches and over roots.
“Not a chance!” I laugh back. I keep going, further into the woods than usual. They’re hot on my heels, but I won’t give up so easily.
Up ahead, a flash of light catches my eye. It floats between a pair of trees before it darts into a bush. I don’t know why I feel the need to follow it, but I change course and barrel into the bush. I barely manage to skid to a stop at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean. Pebbles roll off the edge with the momentum as I wave my arms to keep my balance. I steady myself, panting to catch my breath. My heart pounds in my ears.
“Caught you!” a voice startles me. “You have nowhere to run now! It’s your turn.” I recognize the voice of my big brother and roll my eyes.
I turn, a witty remark on my lips, when I feel the ground move. I freeze, but it doesn’t help. The dirt crumbles away under my feet, and I topple backward. I feel weightless, a strange tickle in my stomach and the cold hand of fear in my chest. The face of my brother shrinks and the cliff grows. The wind rushes by my ears, louder than I could imagine.
The impact knocks the air from my lungs. My ears pop, and the world goes silent before I lose the rest of my senses.
When I come to, I find myself floating in the dark. There’s no water. There’s no anything for a while until a figure seems to materialize in front of me. It’s a man, with a long face, a large nose, pale skin, and thinning hair. He wears fancy black clothes, but somehow he seems to be visible in the darkness.
“Hello, Selene,” his voice rings through this place. It sounds so… familiar.
“I know you,” I answer. “Why do I know you?”
“We’ve met before,” he smiles; a thin line on thin lips. “Many times.”
Images flash through my mind. A hundred, a thousand, I lose count. All of them of me, all of them, dead.
I remember now, where I was.
“You’re Death,” I state, as I realise it.
“Yes,” he nods once. “At least, what you perceive me to be.”
“Is this it? Is this how it finally ends?” I ask.
His charcoal eyes bore into me, not a hint of emotion on his aged face. “That, my dear, is up to you,” he extends a bony hand palm up. “Are you ready for the end?”
The answer catches in my throat. For years, I’ve waited for this moment. I always thought, no matter what, given the chance, I would say yes. I thought, there’s nothing worth staying in this backward, broken world for. I’d seen all I wanted to see, and there was nothing left for me. Death is nothing to fear, I thought.
I only need to reach out and take his hand to be free. A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
The faces of the other Guardians flash through my mind. My… friends. Would they be able to stop Mortecai without me? Can I really leave them now, with so much at stake?
“No,” I whisper with a trembling lip. Death raises an eyebrow. “I’m not ready.”
The corner of his mouth twists up, and he chuckles. “I see. Perhaps next time then.”
He withdraws his hand and turns away. I’m thrust backward before I have a chance to speak. I hit the ground.
My eyes snap open and I take a deep breath. It feels like I’ve been holding my breath for hours. My body aches and my shoulder stings. I look to see my shirt is gone, and there’s still a bullet hole. What the hell?
“Welcome back,” a familiar pair of deepest brown eyes come into focus above me. He smiles, but it’s strained. “You gave us a bit of a scare.”
Where are we? I look past him. The sky, or the roof, is multicoloured. Some sort of cloth maybe? Other faces come into view as I try to find my bearings. The blonde, biting her lip, eyes, swollen red. Those strange amber eyes and unnaturally red hair. The pair of boys, seated behind their respective counterparts.
But there’s one more. The figure has their back to me, their clothing as colourful and patchy as the tent above us. When they turn around I see the olive toned face of a woman, a flat nose and her hair wrapped under yet another colourful cloth.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, alive,” she smiles broadly, her words thick with an African accent.
“I wish I could say it’s nice to be alive,” my voice cracks. Talking is a lot of effort.
“Life is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It gives and takes and all this makes everything so beautiful. You should be happy to be alive with your friends. They worried for you greatly,” she nods to Kaede. He moves away, shuffling behind them. “You must be thirsty. The desert is a dry place. Please, drink.”
I stare into her odd green eyes. I guess the idea that I chose to stay hasn’t occurred to her. I look at my shoulder, still oozing slightly. I guess I’ll just have to do it myself.
She takes a cup from Kaede and holds it out to me. “I brewed this for you. It will strengthen your spirit and your body so that your wound will heal.”
A tea… right. I study the energy of the others. Most of them are low, fighting off their own wounds. The strongest seems to be Nik. I reach my hand up for him to take.
“Would you mind?” I manage a small smile.
He chuckles. “Not at all,” my slender hand is swallowed in his thick palm. I focus, careful to draw out the spirit slowly. I’m always wary not to take more than I need.
The pain in my shoulder begins to fade, the more energy I draw into myself. I control the healing, starting deeper inside the wound, pushing the bullet back out through the hole slowly. Once free, it rolls over my skin onto the blanket below me.
The African woman frowns at me disapprovingly. “You don’t need others to heal yourself. That’s what the plants are here for. I gave you the tea that would do just that,” she turns to Nik, her frown deepening. “You, boy. Move away now. You’ve done enough,” she stares at the tea, waiting for me to drink it. “Are you going to wait ’till the sun goes down, or will I have to make you drink it?” she huffs.
I raise an eyebrow. “Seems a little redundant now, but alright. I’ll drink your… tea,” I sniff the steaming cup, pushing myself to sit up.
“My remedies are never redundant,” she scoffs as I sip the remedy. It tastes like bitter mango. I scrunch my nose at it.
“Go on,” she insists again. “Sniffing it won’t make you any better,” she chuckles to herself.
“Yes, I heard you the first time,” I grumble. “You’ve wasted enough time with me. Tend to them,” I wave at Kaitlyn and Caroline. Their auras are tainted with black splotches. I can even see strange black lines peeking out from under Kaitlyn’s shirt.
“Don’t tell a Shaman how to do her job. You’re friends already insisted I treat you first and now that you are treated I will do my work with them. Besides, they have already drunk my tea. Hmm?” she looks to each of them with a raised eyebrow, waiting for a nod of agreement.
“Come, come. Let me see this strange magic you have,” she shuffles on her knees to face Kaitlyn first, gesturing for her to lift her shirt. “If you want, I can send the boys out. Either way, I have to see it.”
“That’s ok,” Kaitlyn shrugs, peeling off her sweater. She’s wearing a tight-fitting tank underneath. The vile spiderweb pattern spreads across her chest, from shoulder to shoulder, cleavage to neck. Even for me, it’s a little disturbing.
“Geez. What the heck happened?” Nik whispers, worried.
Andrei answers. “Samantha used a strange dark magic on both of them. It was so strong it pulled them out of full elemental form and left this mark on them. Apparently, it hurts and regular magic healing won’t get rid of it.” He explains.
“Interesting,” I muse, taking another small sip. “She’s picked up some new tricks, clearly.”
“A lot of new tricks,” he adds. “Do you want me to run through them?” Caroline glances at him worriedly. Kaitlyn looks at him, nervously. The way he speaks about this other girl worries her.
“Perhaps later,” I answer, watching Kaitlyn. She’s suffering enough with that wound.
The African woman hovers her hands over the wound. She seems to be reading the magic. She closes her eyes. “This is a deep magic. It brings death and corruption. To remove this wound I will have to make a special poultice,” she turns to Caroline. “You too have this wound?”
Caroline nods, hesitantly lifting the side of her shirt up to reveal her side.
“Hmm. I see I see. Give me one hour and I will have you healed. Please wait for me,” she nods to herself. She twists around to a basket behind her, digging through it for herbs or something.
Kaitlyn watches this strange girl work. I raise an eyebrow at her. “Are you pleased now, that the woman showed up? Or do you still wish for him to come?” I ask, glancing around at the group. Her eyes grow wide, her cheeks turn bright red. She seems to feel somewhat betrayed that I would say so out loud. She should learn that confrontation is not always the answer.
Caroline glares at me. “We have to do something. If we can find this last artifact, maybe then we can get some answers from the Founder. Don’t lose hope yet,” she says with confidence, though her face is painted with worry.
“We did scare her off,” Andrei points out. “We were too many to handle, and if you and Nik had also been able to fight, we would have probably handled her easily,” he pauses a moment in thought as Kaede folds his arms.
“She was your ex. Did you not know she had this kind of magic?” he asks somewhat accusatory.
Andrei glares back. “She’d didn’t seem to have any magic. She never told me about any, as far as I can remember.”
“Does it matter?” Kaitlyn snaps, her gaze fixed on the floor. “What difference does it make what he knew or didn’t know before?”
“Cause if he knew, he should have told us, and then none of you would be hurt like this,” Kaede raises his voice.
“Stop it,” Caroline whispers softly.
“SORR – RY if I didn’t tell you everything about my terrible love life. I’m pretty sure if I knew something I would have told you about it,” Andrei says bitterly.
Kaitlyn covers her ears with both hands, jaw clenched. I sigh. “Children, cut it out. This argument is pointless, and you’re only upsetting the ladies.”
“Children?” Andrei and Kaede turn to face me in unison.
“ENOUGH!” The shaman woman shouts. She is suddenly standing and her long arm is pointing out the tent. “Out! If you aren’t injured I want you out! You are ruining the spell with all your negative energy and chattering,” she glares hard at the boys. They seem to tremble under her imposing figure and do as she says, bending low and exiting the tent.
Nik pats Kaitlyn’s shoulder. “I’ll talk to them, don’t worry,” he smiles before stepping outside.
Kaitlyn relaxes, looking out the flap sadly. With all my experience, in times like this, I still have no idea what one would say to make her feel better. So I sit silently, waiting.
“I hate to raise my voice but it is true, it was disturbing the magic and the plants. They were not happy,” she turns back to her plants and begins humming to them as she works.
“It’s okay,” Kaitlyn mumbles.
When she’s done she holds a wooden bowl in her hand with a green paste that seems to glow with a golden colour. “I’m done. Please remove your shirts and lay down next to your friend. It is better if you are resting,” she instructs.
The girls exchange a look before they follow the instructions.
“Now, it might sting a little, but you must leave it on for half an hour for it to heal the spreading infection completely. Understand?” They each nod, looking quite nervous. “Alright! Let the healing being!” She sings. She scoops the glowing green paste with her fingers generously and slathers it over the entire surface area of the spider web marking on Kaitlyn first. Kaitlyn shudders, inhaling sharply. Her fists clench and she closes her eyes, trying to hold still.
“There, there. It will stop in twenty seconds. Then you’ll feel warm like a freshly baked bread,” the woman smiles. “Your turn!” she turns to Caroline. Caroline eyes her suspiciously before complying. The paste goes on and Caroline’s face twists painfully.
“Alright. How is everyone feeling?” she asks after the paste has been sitting for a while.
Kaitlyn opens her eyes, looking down at herself. “Better, I think. It looks like it’s gone.”
“Hmm,” the woman hums, placing her hands over her wound. She closes her eyes again, reading her for other wounds. “You both seem well. You should take better care of yourself,” she smiles excitedly.
She turns to Caroline. “And how about you?”
Caroline nods. “I feel much better, thank you.”
“Wait… what?” Kaitlyn frowns. “Why did you say both, then ask her again?”
A thought passes through the strange girl’s mind. I choke on a mouthful of tea. Oh dear…
By Krystyna Yates