Ma was acting strange.
Chris and CJ shared a look when Rose Ann turned away. She seemed almost fluttery, but managed to maintain a somewhat poised aura around her so that they wouldn't question her wellbeing. Those glances during breakfast made them stop and stare. Rose Ann's gaze seemed to hold conflicting perspectives, but in the end, she never said anything.
It made CJ interested, but mostly worried.
"Come here," Rose Ann said. She gathered both of them in her arms and squeezed them tightly into a hug. From over her head, Chris made a face at Cierra. The latter scrunched her nose. No idea what was going on. "I love you both, you know that, right?"
"Of course," Cierra said as she pulled back. Assessing the small smile on her mother's face, she almost drew her eyebrows into a frown. "Though I still don't understand why you refuse to tell us where you work."
"Knowing you two you'll investigate it yourself to make sure it's to your fit," was Rose Ann's reply. "Sweethearts, there's no need to worry. It's a perfectly respectable job in town."
"So respectable is has to be a secret?" Chris quipped.
Rose Ann merely smiled. "Don't you two have practice?"
They bade goodbye and shoved their lunches into their backpacks as they descended down the front porch. When they were out of their mother's line of vision, Chris turned to her as CJ knew he would. The frown on his face matched her thoughts.
"I'm going to follow her," he said decisively.
"We aren't being too paranoid, are we?" she said lightly, glancing idly at her surroundings.
"Look, we've established the peculiarity of this neighbourhood. I'm not taking any chances, especially where mom's concerned." A pensive look crossed his face. "Have you been to town?"
"No." She looked at him. He really was worried. An old ache in her chest arose and she found herself slowing down. Chris stilled as well, casting her a mystified look. Then she heard herself say, "I'll do it."
Perplexed, he frowned. "Do what?"
The ache grew. She fought to control herself. "Follow Mom. Go to town." She lifted her eyes to meet his astonished ones. "Let's go together." It felt strange, really, instead of the usual detached feeling she got whenever she knew she was hurting her family with her reserve. But now the wall separating her thoughts and feelings were breaking down. She watched the light appear in her brother's eyes as he smiled at her.
"Yes." She smiled back, and the ache disappeared. She felt as if her heart moved in her chest. "Really."
School grounds came into view and they parted. The team was on the track warming up and Cierra nodded at the coach who smiled at her. Dropping her bag, she joined the group with a few of her own stretches. Then her spine straightened when she felt the growing familiarity sensation on her neck. But this time she knew she was being stared at.
"Hannah," she greeted without turning her head. Footsteps stopped behind her and CJ counted silently in her head before straightening from her stretch. It was the three of them again, all with unfriendly expressions on their faces. Not for the first time, Cierra was mystified with their open hostility. Then again, there were a lot of elements concerning this town that mystified her, and high school females were at the bottom of her list.
Instead of the aggression she was expecting – and usually received, so her expectancy was justifiable – they merely assessed her silently, almost calculatingly.
The dark haired girl's face grew grave and almost subtlety, shook her head at Hannah who had looked at her sharply.
Hannah's lips twisted. "Where did you say you were from?"
Cierra merely raised an eyebrow and tightened her ponytail. "Ohio. If you'll excuse me," she said politely and turned towards the track.
A hand gripped her wrist. It felt warm, almost pleasant, but when she turned to look, the dark-haired girl had a look of horror on her face. She cradled her hand to her chest, and upon closer inspection, Cierra saw the burnt skin, revealing the vulnerable flesh underneath. She stared. Then a sick feeling made itself known in her stomach.
"What –" Cierra started to say, but her voice was stuck in her throat. Her eyes were widened, and mutely aghast, she could only stare at Hannah who had no qualms about returning her gaze.
"Shea, take Quinn."
They were alone. The track team wasn't there, and almost helplessly Cierra glanced behind her. When on earth did they leave? Her back straightened, the sick feeling rising to her throat. Nauseous she pressed a hand to her stomach, and then looked at her wrist, unmarred and fair-skinned.
"You have no idea, do you?" Hannah finally asked, but her words weren't with malice. She was simply stating a fact, and without the glare on her face, Cierra noticed the thoughtful look in her eyes.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said honestly, slightly warily. She wanted to find a corner and turn this over in her head. She wanted to dissect what happened. She wanted to cry out and tell Chris and make it all go away. But she beat the pressured feeling away, she focused in on the conversation. "Tell me." The steel in her voice surprised her.
"Hannah," a voice cut in smoothly. Her heart froze and her head whipped towards the source of the voice. It was Lincoln. "You're on thin ice as it is."
The sulky look on her face seemed almost uncharacteristic. She opened her mouth and looked as if she were about to argue, but wisely decided against it. The stony look on Lincoln's face made Cierra tense.
"Quinn's burnt," Hannah reported shortly.
Lincoln shrugged. "Not surprised. Don't mess with the mark."
Hannah looked at her. "So it is true."
"You can sense it," he said flatly, almost disinterestedly. "If you know what's good for you, you won't anger –"
"I know," Hannah spat. "I have enough threats from Timothy."
"Good." His voice was brisk, and to CJ's surprise, he turned to her. The warm smile on his face took her aback, and maybe there was a wary look on her face, but he didn't seem to mind. Instead, he gestured to her arm. "May I?"
Confused, she eyed him but decided that his bipolar tendencies were too much for her in the morning. She had questions, and she figured while Lincoln seemed a little more complex and mysterious than Hannah, he was her best bet. Her mind flashed to Damien, but she quickly dispelled that idea. He was… something else. Different.
"Okay…" she said slowly, and understood his gesture when he gently took her arm and guided her away from the field. Then she remembered. "Wait. I have practice –"
"Not to worry," he said smoothly. "Coach won't penalize you. Trust me."
He said it with such certainty that all she could do was accept his words.
She let him lead her away for a few minutes. Farther away from the track, farther from open areas. Soon she found herself in the parking lot of the school and gestured towards a SUV. But she didn't get in and instead, crossed her arms under her breasts and regarded him thoughtfully.
"I wasn't imagining it," she said with certainty. For a brief moment he looked hesitant, but his face smoothed over. "When her eyes turned black," she added. He said nothing. "Also with Quinn… I somehow burnt her." Her eyes narrowed as she assessed her skin once again.
There was silence.
She looked at him. Then she smiled a wide smile that surprised them both for different reasons. "You're not going to tell me anything, are you?"
His grin was slow. "Not a chance."
"I didn't think so. Were you planning to take me somewhere?"
"I'll have to decline."
He shook his head. "Sorry, straight orders. Your brother will be fine, we have people looking out for him."
She thought it over. There was seemingly nothing about Lincoln that would make her trust him, but at the same time, there wasn't anything that wouldn't make her trust him. She was too careless for her own good, and as long as her family was safe, then she didn't mind as much. Without a word she slipped into the passenger seat and ignored the triumphant smile that crossed Lincoln's face. The sound of the automatic lock of the car made the whole situation a little more daring. She couldn't run now.
"I'm sure you have wild thoughts running through your mind," he said after a few minutes of silence. She caught his glances every now and then but didn't speak. She wasn't too worried; she was interested to know where he was taking her. "Come on now, let's hear them."
"A few," she said easily. "Number one being that you belong to a cult and you're taking me to your leader. I'm – what did they call it – a sacrifice?"
Complete silence. And then Lincoln burst into loud laughter.
Cierra counted silently to twenty, but when his laughter didn't ease up – and the car swerved dangerously a few times – she reached over and slapped his shoulder to gain his attention. "Watch the road," she said firmly.
"I – I'm sorry," he sniggered. "But I wasn't expecting that. You're not a sacrifice, either." The smirk on his face was mischievous. "Now I'm interested. What else is floating around in that head of yours?"
She said nothing, only looked at him.
"That's all you're going to give me? Pity." His grin was cheerful. "Not to worry, though, you'll be able to wonder all you want."
"You're not going to tell me any time soon?" She was rarely confused, but she couldn't get a good reading on him. Then again, everyone was strange. The old man from the clearing popped into her head, even though his words have been turning in her brain for quite a while.
"No. Someone would like to meet you."
Curious. She watched the houses blend as he sped down the road. The spaces between each house began to grow larger, and she straightened when she realized that these houses bore no resemblance to the ones in town. The properties were trimmer, neater, subtlety expensive. The small quaint houses shifted into mansions. Soon the spaces between them were large, with masses of trees obscuring the distance. Cierra watched time pass and she counted ten minutes from the last house she saw to the one Lincoln was steadily approaching.
She stared at the property, completely astonished.
"Scared?" Lincoln practically purred, a cheeky little grin on his boyishly handsome face.
She thought it over. "Not even a little bit."
Large iron gates opened and the speed of the car eased until they came to a complete stop at the front of the house. The double doors were large and maroon, almost intimidating but not quite. Without waiting for him to shut the engine, she opened her door and stepped out. Almost immediately her eyes were drawn to the large vast clearing behind and around the luxurious structure. It was old but taken care of, and a sense of anticipation pulsed through her body at the thought of being able to explore what the trees hid on this property.
"This way." Lincoln opened the doors when she half expected a butler to appear and ask for their bags and coats. His walk was brisk and she didn't have time to admire her surroundings. He led her deeper into the building. Silence stretched between them. She idly observed the back of his head, maybe for something unusual, but CJ was distracted by something peeking from the back of his shirt. It was black, almost like ink –
"After you." He held the door open.
She nodded and stepped past his form. The interior was brightly lit with a golden light and she looked up to see stained glass windows of yellow and orange. It was a majestic swirl, absolutely alluring, that brightened a spiral staircase. She went down the stairs without question, but did cast a rather dry look over her shoulder. His perpetual faint smile pulled into a cheeky grin, as if he knew what she was thinking.
On the landing her eyes met a hallway with stoned walls, the marble on the floor illuminated by the bright light hanging neatly on the ceiling. The hall branched into other halls, each looking like the last. It reminded her of a maze.
"You get used to it," he said when he caught her stare. She could only look at him in disbelief. There were very few fixations in the hallways that would help her find her way back if she ever needed to alone.
"This is like an underground tunnel," she said idly. They made it into a hall with frames hanging against the wall. Her eyes followed a particular casing that held ancient looking scriptures written in a foreign language.
"Oh it is," Lincoln replied nonchalantly. "This house was originally built in the 1600s and then rebuilt later under the guise of a council house for the town. The underground tunnels were abandoned by earlier settlers of the land – perished or decided to relocate – and wasn't found at least a century later. No one knew of this," – he gestured to the hallways – "by then so its secrecy was used in advantage."
"Interesting," CJ murmured.
"Here we are!" He stopped in front of dark brown double doors with modernized, golden handles. Face smoothing over, he rapped the door twice and waited. She didn't hear anything but he seemed to have because he nodded imperceptibly and pushed the door open.
It wasn't what she expected. Cierra expected a dark haunting room with a long rectangular table and hooded figures seated. Stepping in after Lincoln, she couldn't help but drop her jaw in amazement. The ceiling was high considering the fact that they were underground, and the room itself was massive. Squinting she was taken aback to see the ceiling almost move in its inky darkness, but the picture didn't disturb her; instead, she felt an unexplainable feeling of comfort staring into the makeshift dark sky.
She looked around. The walls reminded her of autumn leaves. At least – they looked like walls. Upon closer inspection, she was shocked not to find the corners that were supposed to connect the walls together. The room almost swirled in response to her footsteps after Lincoln.
"Wow," she said, unable to keep the awe from her voice. In a haze, she followed him blindly. In the midst of her captivation, she failed to notice the figures looming at the far end of the large room which reminded her of a cathedral except magical. Much more.
To her further surprise Lincoln bowed his head in a gesture of respect. Cierra stared.
"This is Diaz." His voice was softer now, deeper. Lincoln beckoned her forward and, unsure, she took a step and glanced upward to the elevated panel separating them. She couldn't see his – their – faces. There were three of them, hidden by the shadows – which didn't make sense to her because there were no shadows.
"Step forward, Diaz." The command was steel and she automatically did as she was told, even with her raised eyebrow.
There was silence, and Lincoln, she felt, almost watched with bated breath. She didn't know what was happening, but even so, revelled in the oddity of it all. For the first time in the house, she felt her lips tilt into an amused smile. If Chris were here he'd be blustering and demanding to know what was going on. She was his polar opposite, observant and reckless, where he was demanding yet cautious.
"You've been marked." The statement was cool.
There was a baffled silence, and then, "You know of this?"
A chuckle – at her indifference, she thought, perhaps to the word? "Are you aware by whom?"
She thought it over even when she didn't have to. "No."
"What does it mean?" she said curiously, "To be marked."
Someone else spoke. Her voice was feminine and sure, dripping with good humour. "All in good time, love." And a figure stood, and the shadows disappeared. CJ found herself staring at a familiar face – one she saw on the roof of the school building days ago. She was wearing a black cloak that shimmered when she moved. CJ couldn't help her open stare.
"I'm surprised she's not throwing a fit," another voice drawled. Familiar. Her eyes glanced to the other figure, now visible to her eyes. Timothy with his callous indifference; thinned lips, calculating eyes, tense shoulders. While he wasn't hostile, he was wary and CJ kept an eye on him. Unlike the blonde girl, he was in a simple black shirt that barely covered his bulging muscles.
"She's too curious to throw a fit," Lincoln finally said and stepped up next to her. It was true. CJ drank in the sight of the unknown girl and Timothy, as well as their clashing demeanour at her appearance. Then her eyes landed on the hidden figure who, she felt, was assessing her rather closely. "She is no threat," Lincoln added, almost as if he were reporting to his superior. "She knows nothing."
"But of the mark," the deep voice said. "What else do you know?"
"Nothing," she said with a little shrug. "Except that there's something strange in this town and I intend to find out what it is."
Incredulous silence, she felt, and a slow smile stretched on her lips.
"I was marked," she said, almost as if she were talking about the weather. "Hannah's eyes were dark just before I threw her against the wall. I felt that sensation in my hand," she added airily. "I burnt someone, but that wasn't me. It was the mark." She smiled at Lincoln's awed look. Probably at her daring. "Other than that I'm clueless."
"Very good," he said, and CJ watched the shadows pull away to reveal a grinning man. He was lean but muscular, she could tell, and his eyes were aged. He was older, extremely tanned and exuded much power that CJ understood why Lincoln had paid his respects while addressing him. But why? Cierra peered up at him, pondering his amused expression. His eyes were inscrutable, however, and that made her back straighten. Eyes were the window to your soul. She was able to discern the type of a person was by a look in their eyes, but him… He was mysterious. Different. Reminded her of Damien and his unfathomable gaze.
"I expected more trouble," Timothy said lazily. "Not compliance. Are you suicidal?"
"Do I have a reason to be scared?" she returned. He eyed her but said nothing.
"Now, Marcelo." The stranger smiled pleasantly and stood. The cloak around him shimmered like the blonde's, but his appeared to be more ominous. Maybe because it was he who wore it. "If she's willing to cooperate that is her prerogative. We will not harm you, Diaz. We merely wish to know you."
"Why is that?" she asked.
"All in good time," he repeated the blonde's words, his voice silky. He started his walk around the panel, and the two figures followed. CJ watched him come around and stop before her. Her chin tilted upwards in order to meet his gaze and she saw a biting intelligence and ageless experience swirling in his copper-like eyes. "My name is Klamant. I am very pleased to meet you."
CJ's eyebrows drew together imperceptibly, but she dipped her head in greeting anyway. "CJ," she murmured. "Nice to… meet you as well."
His chuckle was husky. "Do not be afraid. We're here to assist you in your development."
What? Baffled, she could only blink owlishly at him, dozens of questions racing through her mind but her lips remained inactive. For some reason he made himself known to her. He was a complete stranger and yet there was something oddly familiar about him. CJ had the capability to be rash but she wasn't so reckless to agree to some weird offer of assistance. If they were going to be vague then she had every right to make it as hard for them as possible.
There wasn't anything wrong with her life, she thought absent-mindedly, except for those encounters with the girls. And the old man. But they only began when she moved to this town. It was something in this town; it definitely wasn't her.
But even so, he oozed authority. She didn't know what he was capable of, and as long as her family lived on these lands, she didn't want to find out for fear of consequences. Better to be a safe escape than a hasty, provoking one.
"That's very nice of you," she said. "I'll be sure to come to you if I ever need assistance."
"It doesn't work that way," he said just as pleasantly, but this time it seemed as if a genuine smile tilted his lips. "I'll need your full cooperation."
"For what?" she asked politely.
Timothy stepped forward with a growl, "Don't you question –"
"That is all," a fifth voice intercepted, smooth but stony. CJ felt her heart stop, and muscles she didn't even know were tense began to relax at the sound of the voice. Copper eyes moved from her to someone behind her, but she didn't need to turn around to know it was Damien. Sixth sense. She shook the feeling off and turned to face him as well.
His eyes were fixed on the man behind her and almost awkwardly, she stepped out of the way, only to have him flicker his gaze in her direction.
"I'll take you back to school," he said to her. Shrugging a little, she nodded to the three figures and walked towards Damien. She half expected to be stopped, but didn't think much about it as she followed him silently through the maze-like hallway, up the stairs and out the mansion.
"Are you in league with them as well?" she asked casually when he opened the door for her.
He barely glanced at her. "What did they tell you?"
"I have to know what you know," she said without bite, but didn't miss his incredulous expression.
"Lincoln didn't kidnap you," he stated, but his voice was laced with skepticism.
"He said someone wanted to meet me."
"And you agreed?" He sounded almost furious.
"The situation wasn't a normal one," she said dryly, recalling Quinn's burnt skin. Damien's usually neutral and polite face darkened. "I'm quiet but I'm not curious." She regarded him almost earnestly. "Strange things are happening, and I intend to know why. It has something to do with this… place." She looked around, a small frown flickering over her face. "It almost feels alive."
He stopped on his side of the car and observed her from over the roof, almost considering. "Why didn't you ask me?" He sounded curious, gracious even, but there was a darker shade beneath his voice.
CJ smiled silkily. "You made it clear that day on the roof that you're a secretive kind of guy. It would've been pointless and a waste of time." She gestured to the car and slid into her seat without glancing at his expression. "I missed first period. Do you suppose I can get a note?"
But he remained standing. There was an unnatural stillness in his figure and she eyed the bottom half of his body from what she was able to see.
"No need for a note," came his voice.
She watched him slide into his seat and put the car into drive. She didn't care about her shameless stare; she scrutinized his profile, noting his relaxed stance. Too relaxed. He was forcing himself.
"Do you mind?" he said.
"How long am I to pretend that whatever is happening is normal?" she finally asked, this time seriously.
All Damien did was smile rather expectantly, as if he knew exactly what was going to happen if she did finally unravel the town's secrets. "Until you're crying for the truth," he said. She didn't know if he was joking, but knowing the little about him that she did, she doubted he was.
Cierra observed him for a moment longer. "Okay," she said simply, and then finally turned her eyes away. "Except I don't cry."
He continued to smile. "Not with tears, at least."
Despite the warm breeze coming from the windows and the light façade of their conversation, she felt a chill run down her spine.