“Markus,” I stand in his doorway, at the top of the spiral staircase. He looks up from his papers, a pair of brand new glasses resting on the bridge of his nose.
“Ah, good evening. What brings you here so late?” he asks, leaning back in the old wooden chair. It creaks with the movement.
“You’re avoiding me,” I cut to the chase. Small talk isn’t my forte.
He frowns. “You think I would be so childish?”
< span style=”font-weight: 400″>“I don’t need to think,” I tap my head. “I know.”
His eyes narrow.
“Yeah, it’s no fun annoying me when you have a body again, is it?” I scoff, crossing my arms.
I gasp. “And here I thought I was the mind reader!”
“Selene,” he growls, in his best ‘dad’ tone.
“You should have told me,” I cut him off before he can scold me first. “You could have killed her.”
“I wouldn’t have done it if I thought-”
“You clearly didn’t think!” I snap.
He glares up at me. “I underestimated my brother’s spell.”
“Convenient,” I scoff. “Maybe if you’d stop thinking about him as your brother, and instead treat him like the psychopath he is, you wouldn’t make stupid mistakes like that.”
“He is my brother, no matter what he’s become,” Markus stands slowly from his old chair.
“He clearly doesn’t share that sentiment,” I point out. “Considering how he, y’know, tried to kill you.”
“Yes,” Markus nods, looking down. “He nearly killed himself in the process. The spell left him weakened.”
I sense him make an effort to derail the thoughts that follow, but I catch the gist. “Weakened how?” my chest tightens. He ignores me. I step into the room. “Weakened how?”
“Part of his spirit was trapped with me,” he risks a glance up from the corner of his eye.
I take a ragged breath. “So, by releasing you, we restored him?”
Markus hesitates. “Yes.”
“Fantastic!” I throw up my hands. “Is there anything else you’ve been hiding that we should know?”
“He’s beginning to act on his plans,” Markus scratches his beard.
He picks up the newspaper he’d been reading. “Six people in the last week have gone missing in the Americas alone.”
I take the paper, the headline reading something about a kidnapping. “So? People go missing all the time.”
“They were mages,” he answers, rolling his eyes. “A couple of the Guild’s members have also disappeared.”
I study his tense posture. “So, either he’s killing them… or he’s recruiting.”
Markus nods. “Neither one is good.”
“Add that to the massacre last night…” I toss the paper back on the desk. “It seems he’s moving quick, now that he’s restored.”
“Yes, it would seem so,” he agrees, staring into space.
I tap my fingers on the desk. “So, what’s his next move?”
His bright blue eyes find mine. “I don’t know.”
“Great. Well, while you figure that out, I need to run an errand,” I spin on my heel.
“Selene,” he calls after me. “You can’t leave the Guild now, if Mortecai-”
“Save me the lecture, Markus,” I wave. “What’s he going to do? Send my brother after me?”
“That is one possibility.”
“I hope he does,” I laugh. “I’ve waited a long time to kill Victor.”
Pacing the halls has become a habit since I came here. It’s easier to tune out the voices when I’m moving around, for some reason. I wish I’d met Mordecai more than the one time. I barely got a chance to get a read on him then. Maybe if I’d tried harder, I’d have some idea of what he’s planning now.
“Hey! Selene! Hold up,” Caroline’s voice comes from behind. I pause. What now?
“Yes?” I try not to sound bored already.
“We were thinking, now’s a good time to go get that stuff we left in Africa. Did you wanna come?” she asks, tilting her head a little.
Right, that. “Sure. Lead the way.”
“Oh, great!” she smiles as she pulls her phone out of her back pocket. “We just need to find Nik, Gwen, and Hitomi then. Oh, and didn’t Cliff want to come? I thought someone mentioned him in a message I got,” she ponders aloud.
I catch myself rolling my eyes. “Yes, he invited himself. Why don’t you send him a message? Gwen too. I will contact Nik and Hitomi. Where do you want them to meet us?”
“Well, since we need to travel, we should use the door right?” she looks up.
I smile wryly. “Unless you would like to kill poor Andrei again, or perhaps the other one, yes.”
“Ha… ha…” she laughs sarcastically. “I never thought to ask Ceph. He seems so… unapproachable,” she muses, biting her lip.
I raise an eyebrow, her thoughts trailing in a direction I didn’t expect. “Yes… You should probably keep your distance from him. Although, I suppose since he’s not the slightest bit interested in the female anatomy, you should be safe.”
“What?” she blushes, caught off guard. “Oh… I forgot. Sorry!” she flounders.
I shrug, pulling out my own cell phone. “There’s nothing wrong with a fantasy. Actions, on the other hand…” I open the messenger app. Only one conversation exists. I text him first, before I open a new one to Hitomi, changing the keyboard to Japanese. That one takes a bit longer; I’m a little rusty with Kanji.
“Yeah…” she says with uncertainty. “I know… I shouldn’t. Kaede wouldn’t appreciate it,” her phone dings and she quickly pulls the message up. “Kaede is already there with Hitomi,” she says.
“Great,” I sigh, looking at the nearly finished message. “Well, that was wasted effort. Let’s go then.”
“I wonder if Cliff’s seen the message. I haven’t heard from him yet,” she hums.
“Did you mention I’ll be there?” I ask bitterly.
“Yeah, why?” she turns to me raising her eyebrow.
I sigh. “He’ll be there.”
She narrows her eyes. “How do you know that?”
“He’s infatuated,” I yawn. “It’s pathetic, really.”
< span style=”font-weight: 400″>“What, really? Oh my gosh! Selene! That’s so cute!” Caroline grins like a little girl.
I glare at her, annoyed. “He’s a child. That’s not cute.”
“He’s older than me,” she sniffs.
“And yet, about seventy years younger than me,” I remind her.
“But he’s a nice guy. He’s very thoughtful and helpful. You can’t deny, he’s got a great personality. Bone crushing, really,” she snickers.
“I’ve already tried the nice guy route,” I roll my eyes. “They die of old age the same as not nice guys.”
“So then what ‘is’ your type?” she asks curiously.
I feel the corner of my lip curl. “A little less… mortal.”
“Ahh, so like the rest of us. We’ll just have to find us some more single Guardians,” the corner of her smile lifts mischievously.
“I think I can manage my love life on my own, thanks,” I laugh. She’s so naive.
“Fine. But… it’s fun to share, sometimes,” she mumbles.
“Sometimes,” I nod, as we approach the hall with the doors. The tallest heads swivel in our direction at the same time.
Cliff grins and approaches us, a nervous smile on his face. In his hands, I notice a single flower. Oh God, this is going to be awkward. I glance beyond him, where Nik leans against the wall, stifling a laugh.
“Hi, Selene,” he says with a smile. “I want to apologize for the other day. I hope there are no hard feelings,” he says, holding out the small rose, petals still not fully opened.
I look at the bright red flower and my heart sinks. “Um… You know, I was mostly joking about plotting to kill you..”
“I guessed so, but still. I feel I may have offended you in some way to make you say that. So an apology is necessary,” he explains.
“Not really,” I struggle to smile. “Just banter between friends.”
He heaves a sigh of relief. “I’m glad then,” he extends the flower to me. “For you, as a token of my… friendly affection.”
I can’t help as my eyes drift again. Nik grins wickedly. “If you don’t take it, you’ll hurt his feelings.”
I bite the inside of my lip, frustrated. “If I take it, it will encourage him.”
His eyebrow raises. “Oh dear… What a dilemma.”
“You gonna take it?” Caroline nudges me.
“I hate you,” I grumble, hesitantly reaching to take the flower.
“No you don’t,” Nik chuckles. I glare at him.
Cliff claps my shoulder with a grin. “I’m glad we’re still on good terms. Shall we?”
I look down at the flower. What am I supposed to do with this in the desert? “I’ll just… put this here… ‘Til we come back,” I mumble, placing it on the ledge across from the doors.
“I think I found a location closer to where we left out stuff. Hopefully, it’s still there,” Kaede explains, holding up a map on his phone.
“Should we take horses this time, or walk?” I ask, looking to Gwen. “The quicker we get there, the better.”
“Oh, Yes. Turns out there’s a town next to where we left your luggage. They should have horses available for rent,” she smiles. “But walking is good for the body,” she winks.
I roll my eyes. “We can walk the halls when we get back. Who’s going to open the door?”
Cliff raises his hand, mouth open to speak, but Nik steps in front of him. “I’ll do it. Let me see that map,” he leans over Kaede, his long braid falling over his shoulder. His left shoulder glows through his t-shirt as he grips the handle of the door. I wonder if anyone else has seen his tattoo. I know they haven’t seen mine.
“After you,” Nik bows to the group, winking at me. I narrow my gaze. Is he trying to start a feud?
Gwen goes through first, oblivious to the tension between the two giants. Kaede, Hitomi, and Caroline follow after. I glance between Cliff and Nik, who seem to be staring each other down.
Cliff narrows his eyes, waving for us to go ahead. “I’ll take up the rear.”
Nik sizes him up, eyes tracing over him with amusement. “Alright, boss. Ladies first,” he holds his hand out to me.
I shake my head. “Fine,” I walk past Cliff. Nik rests his hand on my back as I pass, following close behind. I roll my eyes. “You’re an ass.”
“So are you,” he retorts as we step out into the blistering heat.
We stand in a small town, not even large enough to have paved roads. The others gather in the shade of a house, waiting for us. I glance around quickly before I join them.
“So, Gwen. Where can we find those horses?” I ask, squinting in the sun.
She studies the surroundings, pointing to a hut on the edge of town. A row of horses stand under a shambled shelter. “Let me pick them,” she heads across the burning sand.
I don’t really care who picks them, as long as we don’t waste time. I follow her, putting some distance between me and the boys. Gwen goes up to the horses, whispering to each one. I peer into the hut for the owner. A shriveled old man sits on a blanket.
He looks up at me curiously. I decide to skip the chit-chat. I implant the thought that he will rent as many horses we want, for the amount that I choose. He likes to try to upsell foreigners. I’m not in the mood to bargain. I take a wad of cash out of my wallet and hand it to him. He nods and starts to count contently.
When I go back outside, Gwen has selected seven horses, leading them one by one to each of us. “How much did he say for seven?” Gwen asks, leading a brown horse to me.
“We worked out a deal. He’s been paid so we can go,” I smile, taking the reins.
“Did you now?” she raises an eyebrow.
“You doubt my bartering skills?” I retort. “Don’t worry, I didn’t get scammed.”
“That’s good. He drives a tough bargain,” she smiles. I laugh as I move around to mount the horse.
“Umm, Kaede has the map. According to Google, it’s about a twenty-minute ride to the river from here, in that direction,” Caroline points.
“Great,” I call back. “We’ll follow Gwen.”
Nik and Cliff each get the largest horses of the bunch, which makes sense. They take up positions on either side of me. I roll my eyes, glancing back at Gwen. She frowns at the two, who’ve now blocked off the whole road. Fine… I adjust myself and kick the horse in its sides. It cries out, rearing up on its hind legs before taking off.
“Hyah!” Nik yells out, his horse whinnies. Cliff has a bit of a struggle to get his horse going. Cultural differences seem to weigh in Nik’s favor. He pulls up beside me, hair bouncing in the wind. “Didn’t expect you to be a good rider,” he calls out to me.
“I thought if anyone, you’d know,” I smirk, glancing at him from the corner of my eye. He raises an eyebrow and laughs.
Not surprisingly, we reach the river way ahead of the others. The camels are gone, and our stuff is covered in sand. Nik hops off his horse and jogs over, holding his arms out.
“What, now you’re trying to be cute?” I scoff. He grins, sliding his hands around my waist. He doesn’t bother waiting for me to argue. When my feet touch the ground, I look up to scold him, only to be met with his lips instead. He breaks away quickly, glancing over his shoulder.
“We should go riding more often,” he muses. I glance behind him. The others are still a couple minutes behind.
“You’re incorrigible,” I throw up my hands.
He laughs. “Well, yeah. If I wasn’t I’d be another hopeless puppy dog, throwing flowers at you.”
“Not nice,” I lean over, pulling up a piece of a tent.
“When did you start caring?” he challenges.
I glance up at him to see Cliff hopping off his horse. “I don’t care. Doesn’t mean I say things like that out loud.”
“Right,” Nik chuckles, digging around the other end of the collapsed tent, “Saying it in your head is so much better.”
“That would depend on what’s being said,” Cliff interjects. “Sometimes, it’s better left unspoken, but one’s thoughts are their own.”
Nik looks up, brows raised. “One’s thoughts are their own? Have you met Selene?”
“Shut up,” I snap. I don’t know why I’m defending either of them. I should just let them figure it out. It’s not my problem.
“I know you are being sarcastic, but her magic is outside the normal laws of reason. You cannot blame her for her magic,” he argues.
Gwen storms over to us, her horse left with the others. “You’re going to kill the horses running like that in this heat,” Gwen glowers. “Next time you’re walking. Child’s play is for the children.”
I stand up, hands on my hips. “The horses are fine. We’ll be back to town soon, and they’ll forget all about it.”
“That’s beside the point. They offered up their time in the shade to carry you out here and you show them no respect. That is not how you treat a horse,” she glares. “You of all people should know better,” she looks pointedly at me.
“They’re called beasts of burden for a reason,” I narrow my eyes. “I know how to take care of a horse, I’ve been riding them since before your great grandmother could walk.”
“Not in the desert heat you haven’t,” she jambs her hand on her hip.
“Actually, I have. I’ve taken horses through two world wars, and across every land that humans inhabit,” I cross my arms.
“Oh, drop it already,” Caroline whines.
“What she said,” Kaede groans, looking bored.
“You’re worse than children sometimes. Thought you said you were older?” Caroline winks at me.
“I am,” I sneer at her, “and I will not be scolded by some little girl who thinks she’s my better.”
“Guess nobody taught you any manners in all your traveling,” Gwen huffs.
I smirk. “I don’t need manners, I bought the horses. I own them.”
Gwen throws up her hands and grumble. “Disrespectful, ungrateful, thinks she can buy a life…” she storms off.
“That wasn’t very nice of you…” Caroline shakes her head.
“No, this isn’t very nice,” I muse, as Gwen walks into an invisible wall, falling back on her ass. I turn back to the ruined tent, looking for the bags buried underneath.
It takes a few minutes to dig out our belongings. We shake out as much sand as we can before loading up the horses.
“Can’t Nik just wave his hands and make the sand go away?” Kaede complains, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Sorry man,” Nik shrugs. “Sand is kinda tricky.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it… It was worth a try,” he sighs.
“How about we get the hell out of this heat, huh?” I ask, climbing up onto my horse.
“Good plan,” Kaede affirms.
I swallow my pride, looking to Gwen. “We’ll follow you this time,” she meets my gaze with a hard look, nodding once. She steers her horse to turn around, moving ahead.
By Krystyna Yates