The race to the passage didn't stop once we were inside. With the hatch closed above us, Xandra's footsteps were as eager as ever, bouncing quickly and lightly down each step. As we descended the winding stairs, flashlights in hands, my heartbeat careened.
Xandra had prepared a backpack equipped with flashlights, water, and notes on Range. She had told me, while we drove to my house -via my mother's magically hijacked vehicle- she'd carried it for the last couple of days, just in case. It had been my idea to take Shannon's car, but I was beginning to regret the decision. What would she think of me? Since the move I had been distant and right as we were starting to get back on track the biggest secret was unveiled and I had fled. Was I alright with my last words exchanged with Shannon when I didn't know when I would next return?
Soon the door was before us.
Xandra glanced over her shoulder. Her eyes met mine and her smile was grand enough to light the passage.
"Go on," she beamed, flashing the light around the door.
She watched curiously, as she had when I had opened the hatch, as I placed my palm against the door. I was again unnerved. The door swung open, revealing the forrest beyond.
Xandra edged around me, her doe eyes wide with wonder.
"It's real," she whispered. She spun, taking in the sky, the foliage, the dirt beneath her. "It's beautiful."
With the sun still visible through the treetops, Xandra's last remark rang true. I took a step, out from under the frame of the door. The land before me was beautiful; bright and luscious and full of sights I could never dream of. As long as the sun shone, my bones were still, but my muscles were ready to jump to action if anything were to occur. I inhaled and exhaled slowly and let my mind wander, trying to match Xandra's joyous outlook. If she knew the truth, the entirety of what had happened when we had first arrived, would she shine as bright?
"It smells like honey." She breathed deeply. "You smell that, right?"
I squinted into our surroundings and quickly found the source.
"They're called Killilies," I said, the pronunciation sliding strangely from my tongue. I pointed to the grouping of trees to our left. The large purple flowers were in full bloom in the sunlight. Did they use their sweet scent to lure prey?
Xandra tightened the straps of her backpack and hopped to me. Her small arms swung around my body and she squeezed tightly. "Thank you."
Trying not to sound anything but enthusiastic I pointed to the path before us. "Let's move while we have light."
With the sunlight and Xandra's jubilance, Range was a different land. It was as if everything good had come out for her. A family of deer followed us for quiet some time. There was something about them, a glow, that made their presence a blessing. Xandra handed them apple slices. She would lay a slice on her flat, out-stretched palm and one by one they would approach to take the slice. They slipped away after Xandra forfeited the last of her snacks.
Our only delay in travel came when we realized the flashlights had no use in Range. With the sun nearly out of sight we went to switch them on with no luck. Xandra had even packed extra batteries. She decided, with a smile, electronics must not work within the boundaries of the land.
The stone bench had barely come into view when we heard it; a heavy clicking against the dirt path grew closer. Soon we heard voices.
Xandra craned her neck as if to see beyond the sharp veer in the path blocking the oncoming voices from view. "Maybe they'll help us?" She suggested.
My stomach was in knots. "No. I don't think we should risk it."
"What do you mean? You said Grayson found you out here. Who's to say they won't be helpful too?"
Something wasn't right. My mother would always talk about how situations felt a certain way or how she would get a vibe from someone. I understood what she meant now. Something unnerving hung in the air. I couldn't shake the feeling that if we remained in sight something would go horribly wrong. As the hooves neared the fork in the road I grabbed Xandra and rushed us from the trail. We kneeled behind deep-green undergrowth beside a thick tree trunk. The bark rubbed into my shoulder. We observed quietly.
They were dressed in gray robes. The clicking sound came from the hooves of the strange creatures they rode. From a distance the creatures appeared kin to horses. When I squinted and edged forward slightly, what I saw confused me. The legs were too long, and middle too thin to be a natural born horse. Nearly right before our hiding place, the leading rider pulled sharply on the reins. The creature let out a cry from the physicality.
The rider turned to his companions. "We should be nearing the passage."
At the word, Xandra peered to me. Her lips were tight as she clasped my hand. I thought back to Grayson's warning: Don't return.
"The boy's lying," another said from the rear of the pack.
"We will see shortly."
Disjointed topics flew through the disquieting group.
"Let's finish this and get out before we run into the forrest patrol."
"You think it's him?" A wiry man questioned.
"If you believe in the rumors," said a hulking body on the far side. His horse looked barely fit to carry his mass.
The leader made a sharp hiss which silenced the others. "Don't take a rumor so lightly. If there is the slightest truth to it-" Suddenly he was peering in our general direction.
It was wild how in a moment everything could change. I wasn't sure if it was one of the deer from earlier, back for more snacks, but either way its suddenly appearance jolted us from secrecy. Xandra squeaked as the deer nudged her shoulder. As she shuffled, the foliage around us didn't help matters; leaves crackled and twigs snapped. The deer ran immediately, as startled as us.
"A deer," someone concluded.
But the leader was already edging his horse closer, curiosity tilting his head. "There was another sound."
My heart raced. "Xandra, we have to run."
She slid her bag from her shoulder.
I pulled at her arm. "Xandra, what are you doing?"
She grabbed my head, one palm flat against my forehead, the other placed firmly at the tip of my spine. She whispered fiercely.
A powerful voice vibrated around us. "Magic. I feel the use of magic!"
Her grip was tight but from my peripheral what I saw made me dizzy. The hulking man was swinging from his horse. Another, a short man, his robes dragging, was nearing the edge of the path.
I tried to say her name, but my vision was faltering. "Xan-"
"In the backpack. We were supposed to find you." Xandra finally whispered. "Thank you and trust me. Everything will be fine."
Xandra let go and, before I collapsed, I watched as she stood, shouting incoherently. She took off running. The hooves of the horses and the shouts of the men faded as they pursued her. I was nauseously dizzy. Whatever she had done to my head made me fall, but impacting with the rough forrest ground rendered me unconscious.
Before anything else I sensed a numbness throughout my body. The sensation of phantom limbs and fuzzy thoughts. I tried speaking, clearing my throat, but the sound was off. It was as if someone muted my voice and held my limbs.
I gasped, finally. The inhale filled my empty body, and I shot from the fetal position. Disoriented, it took several moments for my eyelids to stop their furious blinking. Common sense kept me from making too much noise. I stood quietly and slowly -my legs felt as if they hadn't moved in years. My bare toes sunk into plush white carpet as I pushed myself to standing. I gripped the flower-printed couch for support.
I scanned my surroundings. The sights were disorienting. I was in a house I had no memory of arriving in or ever visiting before. I leaned over the couch and peered down a narrow hall which led to a stained-glass door. There was a small closet near the door, opened, and with coats neatly hung within. I noted my sneakers were neatly placed by other shoes to the side of the door.
I tip-toed away from the couch. It was very still. The only sound came from beyond the opened sliding glass door which I approached with discretion. There was a large porch beyond the glass door, a brilliantly green yard, and a dense forrest with a small winding dirt path disappearing into its foliage.
I heard papers shifting to my right. My breathing became uncontrollably loud as if my body wanted me to hyperventilate and pass-out. My pulse thudded as I neared the sound. My feet left carpet and found hardwood as I went beyond a hollow doorframe.
The kitchen was quaint. It was full of yellows and cabinets of light oak. Chinaware lined the top of shelves. Dishes dried in a rack next to the sink and a tea-kettle rested atop the unlit stove.
The sound of shifting papers stopped and I adjusted my position to find the culprit. He sat at a circular off-white table in front of the bay-window. His gray eyes widened minutely, conveying only the slightest sign he was surprised. He held in both hands multiple loose-leaf papers, giving the impression he'd been shifting quickly through them. He had stilled, though, and his attention was all on me.
I pointed to what leaned against the leg of his chair. "That's-"
"My sisters backpack," he stated plainly. He was studying the contents within.
I spoke the obvious, "You're Dylan." He was the first person I had interacted with in Trenwood. He had given me the origami, setting off all the events to follow.
"Right." He studied me for too long.
"Lacey," I said, embarrassed he'd forgotten.
His calm glare held. "You're the one everyone's fussing over."
"No one is fussing over me."
He rose an eyebrow. "You obviously haven't been awake for long."
"Lacey!" I swiveled to find Bridget descending the stairs at the far side of the kitchen. "I thought you'd never wake. I see you found Dylan." She grabbed my wrist and without missing a stride pulled me along with her. I peered over my shoulder to Dylan as we left the room. He'd already returned to his studies.
"I have so much to tell you." Bridget returned me to the room I had awoken in. I sat cautiously next to her on the floral couch. "When Peter appeared with you he said you were under a spell. We didn't want to alert anyone of the use of such a powerful sort of magic so we may have slipped you some herbal stuff to counteract it." She smiled apologetically.
My mind moved with questions, lingering on the simplest. "Where am I?"
"My home," She said proudly. "Before kindergarten this was all I knew. After school began I visited less and less, but this is my real home."
"I'm in Range."
Brigit nodded. "Did you want to be somewhere else?"
"Peter, found me?" I asked next. "Peter from Grayson's Pub?"
Bridget nodded, "He was on patrol when he found you nearly frozen and unconscious as a stone. Brought you in last night."
My throat felt as if it were going to close up as I thought of my next words. "Xandra. Is she here?"
Bridget's head tilted and I knew the answer in her confused eyes. "Xandra?"
I remembered her large gray eyes. They were clear and determined as she stood. Why had she been so selfless? What right had she to lead them astray, sacrifice her safety for mine?
"Bridget, I don't know what happened. I believe she saved-"
A tall and slender woman strolled in, tray in hand. Bridget jumped up. "This is my mom."
At the sound of Bridget's utter delight I silenced myself. She shone, looking proudly to the blond woman.
She set the tray with glasses and a pitcher of iced-water on the small coffee table beside the couch. I stood as she reached out a hand to shake.
"Claire," She said. The shake was sturdy and trustful. "Welcome to our home. Sorry you had to awake on the floor. We tried repeatedly returning you onto the couch, but you were having none of it."
"I'm sorry," I said automatically.
"No worries." Her smile and the way her eyes lit with it was a welcoming sign. She poured water as she spoke "It was hilarious really. The best moment was when we finally got Dylan to help and he scooped you onto the couch and not a moment later you grumbled something and rolled off." She chuckled lightly. Though I reddened at the idea of Dylan, someone I hardly knew, with his hands all over me, I saw no harm in Claire's giggles. She felt polar opposite of everything I'd grown to learn about her daughter. Bridget came off as hard and distant, but I was slowly coming to the conclusion that perhaps it was all a facade in her quest to get home.
Claire handed me a glass. "Please drink. You're probably dehydrated from your journey and the herbs Grayson mixed most likely took a lot out of you as well."
Out of the corner of my eye I watched Dylan appear. He tried sneaking out the sliding glass door unnoticed. Bridget caught my eye-line.
"Where you off to?"
His lips twitched. "The Safe."
As I rose to follow I found my vision blurring. I had stood too quickly. I rubbed my eyes. I felt as if it'd been hours since my last deep breath. There was no time to breathe when one event after the next was occurring. Not only was I feeling light headed physically but my thoughts were having trouble catching up with my actions. Too much was happening to have the time to comprehend. Put simply, I was disoriented as we left the house through the sliding glass door.
"Bridget," I said as we crossed the small backyard, my toes mingling with the vibrant green grass, "I'm barefoot."
She motioned to her own feet. "As am I. Come on. It's not far."
The trail gave the allusion of abandonment. Dylan, in the lead, helped its' appearance by pulling back branches enough to pass, but not enough so they'd snap. The ground, when I avoided overgrown shrubbery, was smoothly patted down, making our travels quick and effortless. Not five minutes later I saw light peering through the trees. The trail led us along the edge of the woods until Dylan veered onto a second trail.
When I emerged from the trees I looked down upon a large flower filled field. Almost all the flowers looked average -there were daisies, tulips, daffodils, sunflowers- until I had a closer look. As we walked down the grassy hill, I felt my nerves failing. The mixture of colorful flowers looked average until I was on equal ground as them and assessed their height. The flowers ranged from hip height to over my head.
Bridget nudged my shoulder. "Don't worry none of these will eat you. Other than being a little overgrown, they're all mundane." She pushed through the stems.
Near what seemed to be the center of the field, Dylan kneeled and lifted a four by four section of knee high daisies. He vanished from sight as he descended into the hatch. Claire followed close behind.
I hung on to Bridget's arm. "What is going on? What is in there?"
"Do you see a house?" She turned, brushing away my worried grasp, and pointed beyond the hatch. Off in the distance through the trees I could barely make out a desolate structure. A house not only abandoned but shunned by the eye as well. Staring at it for such a period of time made my eyes hurt. It was off limits for my brain. "There's a curse on the house, now. Anyone who looks too long will only be reminded of the treacherous inhabitants. It's practically forgotten, though, because of its location. Either way, people rarely go near it."
"What about the people who live there? How do they feel, living in a cursed house?"
Bridget's expression changed minutely. She stared stubbornly, eyes squinting, at the cursed structure. "They've been dead for eight years."
"Did you know them?"
"I met them when I was young. I barely remember." Her lips twisted. "Xandra and Dylan's parents."
My heart must've skipped a beat because my hand impulsively went to it as if the contact could fix something.
"All this time-" I lingered on my whispered words, "All this time they've been searching for them. What happened?"
"They were murdered by the Authority," she spoke softly, "because they were found as part of the resistance."
I wondered distantly who would tell Xandra of her parent's death. Was it the Authority who held her? Out of all my thoughts the only word to emerge was, "Resistance?"
Bridget made a shushing sound, waving her hands over her own lips. "Don't say it so loud."
"What is the resistance?"
"Lacey, there is so much I have to explain."
"What do you mean?"
"We're at war."
Finally the next chapter! It's been far too long, but there it is! Thank you everyone who is reading and reviewing.