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The woods embraced me. The Indian summer heat warmed my bones and cocooned me in the aroma of sunbaked grass and fallen pine needles. Closing my eyes, my Sense absorbed all the simple, ordinary activities surrounding me. The roots of the old tamarack stretched deep into the earth as they searched for water; small worms and insects worked in the cool soil, feasting on the rich nutrients they found. In an overhanging branch, a spider repaired its web, many of the strands still damp with dew from the night before. The wind gently played through the tamarack, and droplets fell shimmering into the long grasses at its foot. A ladybug dodged around the droplets, narrowly missing their splash, and flew lazily into a small clump of clover. On their way to a nearby stream, a fawn and doe paused to watch.
Experiencing the animals and insects going about their busy lives, I could almost believe in a peaceful existence. I enjoyed the pressing wind, the ants scurrying underfoot, the squirrels taking home their harvest of nuts, the bees rushing to their hives, and even the tall grasses or the granules of the dirt beneath me. In the flow of life past me, nothing demanded my action; nothing threatened to take anything from me.
Here, I could forget that I had lived like an insect trapped in amber for far longer than my unlined blue eyes, fiery-red hair, and fair, freckled face could speak to at first glance.
Adrenaline had carried me through the initial fight with Cythymau; I’d hurled myself forward on nothing more than rage and hate, ignoring the limits of my flesh. But a thousand years strapped down to a stone slab caught up to me fast once my battle rage wore off. I’d felt like a tortoise trapped on my back, unable to move, still trapped inside bonds I couldn’t remove.
It had taken months once I arrived in this Weave for my badly atrophied limbs to actually hold my weight for any longer than a few shaky minutes. I cherished my new ability to walk the forest paths around the cabin, enjoying the freedom and space long denied me. The cabin seemed even smaller, more claustrophobic, now that I could finally be out under the sky.
I started at the sound of the voice, my heart pounding, and fought not to flee immediately. Warily I looked over my shoulder. The tall strawberry-blonde girl called Amy was jogging down the path toward me. I didn’t want to talk with her. I walked farther down the path, trying to look unconcerned. I didn’t have to use my eyes to know as she got closer, her feet displacing dirt on the path, the air rushing through her lungs, and the blood pumping through her muscles as she struggled to reach me.
“Wait up! I want to walk with you. Uh, it’s too hot for running. Isn’t it supposed to be getting cooler as we go into fall? It still feels like July.”
“Uhmm.” I’d found this vocalization very useful since coming back to this Weave. Whoever spoke at me could interpret it to their liking with minimum inconvenience to me. I kept walking, hoping she would take the hint and leave me alone.
Her voice chased me, strident, attempting to change my mind through persistence alone. It triggered a memory somewhere in the back of my brain. Once, I had known a word to describe her behavior. It hovered on the edge of my memory.
“You should tell people before you go out, you know,” she continued. “The woods can be dangerous, and you’re still not really used to being on your own.”
That was false. I glanced at her as she attempted to match her pace to mine, wondering what her angle was. “Many things are dangerous. These trees and small animals aren’t,” I told her.
“Well, something could happen to you, and no one would know. What if you fall down a cliff or something?”
Still a trick question. I cleared my throat and tried to speak more strongly. “There aren’t any cliffs on this trail.”
Amy’s lungs heaved as she blew her breath out through her mouth noisily. “That’s not—you don’t have to take it so literally,” she grumped.
“How else would I take it?”
“I’m just concerned for your wellbeing,” Amy answered. “This Weave has changed a lot since before you—”
I flinched, willing away the memories of what came before.
“Well, before,” Amy finished lamely. She smoothed her hair back from her sweaty forehead before putting out a hand like she expected to stop me. I side-stepped and kept walking.
She still followed. “You could run into authorities, or locals, or something, and don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t know how they’d react to you.” She paused before muttering in a low voice, “Or you to them, for that matter.” Not that I had any chance of missing the exhaled words or the vibrations of her voice in the air when she was standing next to me. “Anyway, try to tell people before you take off, okay? It’s just better.” Again, better for who? Her presence next to me was making me nervous, but she just wouldn’t leave.
Nag. Nagging. That was the word I’d been searching for. Someone who endlessly talked in an effort to get someone else to do her bidding. It suited my interactions with her well. “I’d rather be alone.”
Amy, aka Naggy’s, lips pulled downward, her arms crossing over her chest. “Haven’t you already been alone long enough? I mean, you have people around you now. Let us help you.”
“Why not!? We’re happy to,” she protested hotly. Danger bells went off in my mind, and my heartbeat ratcheted up a notch.
“Don’t want it. Don’t need it.” I tried picking up my pace. She kept right up with me, her skin slick with sweat and her breath coming and going in short bursts. My heart hammered. She needed to go away now. She was too close, too persistent, too demanding.
“You do need help,” she insisted. “But we can’t do much for you if you don’t cooperate with us.” Her breath huffed out in little puffs, but she didn’t show any sign of stopping anytime soon. A thread of panic started curling itself around the base of my neck. Ahead of me, a particularly tall stand of pines offered temporary haven.
“No. Never. You can’t make me.”
“I’m not trying to make you. I’m asking you to just work with me, us, a little here.”
I broke into a run.
I reached the trees’ shady refuge, the forest floor covered in pine needles and crumbled fallen leaves. I immediately started climbing my way up into the nearest one.
Naggy kept up better than expected. I’d only levered myself up onto the third branch before she arrived at the base of the tree. Her face creased in pain, and she put one hand on her hip, doubling over and panting. After catching her breath, she glanced upward and winced.
“Don’t climb up there! Please.”
I quickly pulled myself farther up into the tree.
Trying to calm myself, I concentrated on the feel of the bark under my hands, the sap running through the tree, the bugs burrowing in its cracks and crevices, the squirrels and sparrows sheltering high in its branches. I moved my left foot to another branch, crabbing my way upward. The wind rustled gently through the pine’s branches. I found myself a wide perch with its trunk at my back, and let my legs hang down from about eight or nine feet up.
I was still aware of Naggy at the base of the tree, but she was far enough away for me to concentrate on something else. The wind ruffled my clothes and my hair, carrying with it the scent of the trees and the nearby creek. A hawk circled high in the sky overhead. The activities of the forest crowded my mind, pushing Amy out to the periphery. I leaned into the tree and took a deep breath.
Naggy put her hands on the base of the tree, looking up for several minutes. Finally she moved her hand to the first low-hanging branch and started to scrabble to pull herself up, her sneakers scraping across the bark. The far end of the branch swayed with her awkwardness.
“You and I are going to have a conversation,” she panted, “even if I have to come up there and join you.”
My heart immediately sped back up as I looked down at her clumsy attempt to get to me. She managed to pull herself up enough to hook her foot over the first branch. Reaching for the next branch, her muscles bunched and trembled with her efforts to get to me. I couldn’t stay here, couldn’t stay still.
In one motion, I swung my body over the edge of the branch, letting gravity take hold. Catching the branch in my hands, I arrested my fall as my feet found the limb below. I moved swiftly, avoiding the branch she occupied, and finally swinging down to the ground.
Naggy muttered a swear word and attempted to disentangle herself from the branch she’d claimed.
I reversed directions, walking back the way we’d just come without looking back.
Naggy dropped to the ground at the base of the tree with a grunted exhalation, landing hard on her right ankle. Warily, I braced myself to see what she would do now. She jogged after me, this time with a slight hobble. Of course, she still couldn’t take the hint and leave me be. I let out a nervous sigh of my own.
She reached me, stopping to grab for my arm. Flinching away, I danced out of her grasp, continuing to walk down the path the way we’d come.
“Fine. You win. We won’t talk about this right now. But someday you’re going to actually think about what you want to do. I’ll be waiting for you to be ready.”
She dropped into step beside me, way too close. I lengthened my stride to give myself a bit more space. She tried to match my momentum for a few minutes, but she lagged behind by a foot, and then two, and then three.
Her presence stuck in my head like a sliver, causing constant irritation and worry. She stuck to me like an obnoxious burr, digging in a little further each time. Finally, I spun around, planting my feet in the middle of the road. I took a deep breath and glared in what I hoped was a threatening manner. I really wanted to just bolt farther into the woods.
“Why are you following me?” I demanded. She stopped and threw me a startled look.
“Aren’t you headed back to the cabin?” she asked, pointing up the path the way we were headed. “I was just going back.”
“No.” I veered completely off the trail into the brush beside it. She took a step toward me but I cut her off. “Don’t follow me.”
“Don’t follow me!” I yelled it at the top of my lungs, my heart trying to break through my ribcage, my ears ringing. I headed quickly into the brush, ducking behind the first convenient tree, blocking myself from her sight. I briefly paused there, trying to get my own breathing under control. Then I just started walking. Naggy stood on the road until she was out of my Sense range, but she didn’t come after me. The simple forest creatures and greenery closed in around me, and I hugged their simplicity to my battered psyche, using them to calm my still jangling nerves.
The sun slanted downward through the branches above me, letting me know that sometime during my wanderings, time had progressed from afternoon toward evening. It didn’t concern me. I could use my Sense to navigate these woods, even in pitch black. No doubt, though, staying out past the sun’s expiration would earn me another scolding if I did choose to return. If.
I followed a well-worn deer track down a gentle slope toward the creek. In this area, lacy ferns and shaded mosses grew over old fallen trees and the green canopy grew impossibly high above my head. As I got closer to the creek bed the trees gave way to an inclined bank. I walked closer, anticipating the meandering stream at its bottom.
Instead, the Cornuprocyon bounded out of the woods from the opposite bank. It landed in the creek and rolled around, splashing water in a giant arc around its hulking thirty-foot frame. The sight of his sharp claws, pointed teeth, and barbed coat with its red and orange striped quills sent a shudder of dread through me. This kind of demon was thirty feet of armored killing machine. His chitinous club tail hit the surface of the water, sending up a gout of spray. The other humans called it “Rick” in some strange parody of a cartoon raccoon, but a cute name couldn’t hide its true nature.
The beast finished rolling and dragged himself upright, bits of mud, fern, algae, and the occasional small fish stuck to his quills. My foot dragged itself backwards as I wondered if I’d managed to escape his notice. His tongue lolled out over his teeth in a sharky grin, and he shook himself, sending wet and gooey bits of detritus everywhere. I barely dodged being hit by a speeding glob of murky green fish bits. Spurred into movement anyway, I started backing slowly toward the woods. His head swung around and he stared straight at me. I stared back, wide-eyed.
Robert had tried to tell me this Cornuprocyon wouldn’t hurt anyone. Ha. I’d met far more of these creatures than he had, and they all thought summoners were a tasty treat.
I didn’t feel like becoming demon food today. Carefully, I stepped backward again, trying not to break into a flat-out run. “I’m not easy pickings.”
He snorted, gathering himself for his kinetic leap. My stomach jumped up into my throat. Frantic, I launched one of the wide, fallen tree trunks at him on instinct. Almost casually, the Cornuprocyon aborted his leap, using the generated force to blast the tree into a multitude of splinters instead. A thick, prickly deluge of pulverized wood pelted down. I diverted the flying splinters that came within range of my Sense into a big mound of debris behind me as the Cornuprocyon released another burst of kinetic energy, shielding itself. Tensely, I waited to see what the beast’s next move would be.
I moved a step backward. He didn’t budge. Steeling my nerves, I took another step, then another. I waited. The Cornuprocyon’s eyes watched intently, but his muscles didn’t even twitch. Each step was painfully slow. My heart hammered in my ears, but I finally reached the trees edging the creek. I backed up one final step into them and spun, running for my life. Behind me, the Cornuprocyon released a huffing breath of his own and settled into the creek.
The forest around me no longer felt friendly or peaceful. I fled up the path, trying to reach the cabin and its protection before the Cornuprocyon could change its mind. I reached the cabin door, dashed through it and slammed it behind me.
When I’d first arrived, the cabin had been a simple one-room building with a fireplace. A deathtrap, with all the summoners crowded inside like sardines. I’d refused to enter.
Sleeping outside under the canopy of trees and stars was much more soothing. Yet, these humans always herded me back toward it. Naggy would preach about how it was important to stay hidden, and on and on.
Soon after my arrival, more rooms had started appearing every time I gave in to someone’s incessant bothering and returned to its vicinity. The extra space had been welcome, had even made standing in the cabin’s confines more tolerable—until I realized it meant they expected me to share the space with them. To live here, with them. While they watched me, prodding at me.
Today though, the strong need to hide outweighed all my usual refusals.
In the main room, one of the apprentice summoners looked up from the laptop he had propped up on the coffee table. It wasn’t the skinny, cocky one who had gone into Cythymau’s Weave and brought me back here with more luck than sense. This one’s face showed signs of acne, and his thick, short body looked like someone had accidently compacted down his normal growth spurt. He wasn’t fat, just… solidly built. Of everyone I’d met since I’d come here, he was the only one who spoke as infrequently as me. But I hadn’t bothered to learn what the others called him. Something like Hat or Mat. If I needed to think about him, Stocky was good enough.
He took in my bedraggled appearance and raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment. Naggy came out from the kitchen with a cup of coffee and pointedly looked me over but didn’t offer any remarks either.
“I’m gonna go wash and change,” I mumbled. I fled up the hallway to the room reserved for me and showered, changing into a fresh tee shirt and jeans not covered with tree pitch and pine needles.
I came back out to get food after drying my hair. Outside, I could Sense the Grove director’s purposeful walk to the cabin’s front door. Director Stuffy ostensibly controlled all the summoners here, this place where I’d been brought after the demise of my demon captor. The summoner who’d killed him died; I’d lived, and I wasn’t about to put myself under anyone’s control again. That said, at least Stuffy was very straightforward about what he wanted from me. He desired my knowledge of my previous master’s secrets. His single-minded pursuit of gaining that knowledge for himself was in some ways much easier to handle than Naggy’s unpredictable clinginess.
I stood in the hallway debating whether to just go back and shut the door to my room until Stuffy went away, but I didn’t want to be trapped in the small room I’d just vacated.
Screw it. I’d take my chances outside with the Cornuprocyon.
I crossed the living room, intending to exit through the front door and head back into the woods. Just, not as far this time. I’d stick to where I could possibly still return for backup.
“Andrea.” Stuffy put out a hand as I tried to pass him, trying to grasp my arm. I sidestepped and regarded him with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“I’m glad I caught you inside today.” He pulled a note from his coat pocket and sat down, deliberately blocking the door. We’d done this dance before, and he’d already predicted that my next move would be to get as far away from him and his questions as possible. I could force him out of the way, but since I wasn’t going to answer his inquiries anyway, it seemed like wasted effort. Plus, I wasn’t actually that eager for a rematch with the Cornuprocyon.
Naggy glowered over her coffee and walked back into the kitchen. Stocky sat typing, apparently oblivious. Stuffy smiled at me, but I didn’t trust it. He only showed up to talk to me for one reason.
“I have some questions for you about Cythymau and his Weave.”
Yup. Here we went again.
Falling From Grace will be available February 12, 2016.