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1: The Very, Very Unpleasant Boy
I can’t stop looking at him. I should, but I can’t stop.
We both look away.
I wait a few seconds before looking at him again.
I can’t help myself. The boy in the blue hoodie is like me, and it’s so very rare to see someone like me.
I wonder if he knows it.
I bring my hand to my right earlobe. A small glowing orb of turquoise radiates from the skin there and pulses at my touch. It isn’t a tattoo or a piercing; it’s proof of what I am. The boy in the blue hoodie has a matching one.
For now, my light is dim. His is dimmer. Does it mean he hasn’t awakened yet?
Only one way to find out.
“Ahhh. I’m stuffed!” I kick my legs from the booth and stretch. The booth makes a squeaky protest at the release of my weight. The boy in the blue hoodie looks up from a fry coated in ranch dressing.
“Hey, Moll,” I call to the sole waitress. “Can you run my card?”
The Café on Grand is less crowded than usual. I only ever go there alone. To think or to plan. Moll hurries over to clear my plate and take the debit card marked with a fake name: ‘Amanda Robertson.’ That’s what I’ve been going by lately. Completely inconspicuous.
Only those in the coterie know my true name.
Moll returns my card, with receipt, and I leave her the sort of tip an Amanda would leave. Not too big, not too small. Then, I make my way for the boy in blue – whose glow is only slightly visible, though it’s definitely there, tucked behind his hood.
As I pass him, the receipt from Moll is loose between my fingers. Just loose enough that–
–it ‘accidentally’ drops into the puddle of ranch on the hooded boy’s plate.
A half-bitten fry falls from his mouth as he gapes down at the receipt in dismay. By the looks of it, ranch dressing is very, very important to him.
There are worse things. At least it isn’t mustard. Shudder.
“Oh wow! So sorry about that!” Eyes locked on the stranger, I pluck the wet receipt from his plate. “Hey, Moll! Can we get another side of ranch over here? I believe I’ve just committed lunch murder in the third-degree.”
“It’s okay,” the boy starts, appearing somewhat put-off that a random girl has just dug around in his food, “I was just about fini–”
“Nonsense!” I fan at him. “Condiments are important. Very much so.” I lean in with cupped mouth: “It’s the little things.”
The boy is now even more put-off.
If only I were good at flirting, I might be able to approach this in a different way. Alas, charm and coyness aren’t my strongest of suits.
Welp, I’ve gone this far–
I plop down in the booth opposite him, in response to which he stiffens against the vinyl of the cushion, shocked apparently. “Sure,” he says under his breath, “go right ahead and have a seat.” He doesn’t bother to lower his hood.
His earlobe hasn’t changed. Not even with me this close to him. Mine, on the other hand, is glowing obnoxiously. He doesn’t take notice.
It can only mean one thing:
He’s still dormant.
“Hmm. I’ve never activated anyone before . . .” I mutter to myself, chin in hand.
The boy’s left eyebrow twitches with something between confusion and annoyance. “Excuse me?”
Right. I probably seem like a crazy person.
“My name is Amanda,” I lie, sticking out my hand. “I come here all the time, but I’ve never seen you before. Come here often? Sorry about the ranch.”
“I told you, it’s fin–”
“There you go!” With ninja stealth, Moll is at the side of the table, delivering a fresh cup of dressing.
My hand is still hanging awkwardly over the table. He never took it. It doesn’t look like he intends to, either. I inch it a bit closer to him, and he backs further into the booth seat. “How old are you?” I ask. “Middle school?”
My question triggers something. The boy’s already unenthusiastic expression transforms into one of utter foulness. “I’m seventeen.”
“What!? No way! You look quite young!”
He stares down his nose at my outstretched hand. “Quite?” He sneers. “And what about you? How old are YOU supposed to be?”
Snarky little fella, isn’t he? Wasn’t expecting that.
“T-twenty-one,” I say, taken aback.
“Ah.” He says, pushing my hand aside with the prongs of his fork. “Did you want to buy me booze, then, or–?”
“Of course not!” I spout. “We don’t drink! It dulls our lightborne sense!”
I cup my mouth.
“Lightborne sense?” The boy’s demeanor is indifferent. “Look, I saw you staring at me before. What is it you want from me, old lady?” His mouth turns haughty. “I know I’m hard to resist and all, but–”
“Old lady?” I repeat through my teeth.
This encounter isn’t anything like how I expected. This ‘boy’ is more of a ‘guy.’ And an unpleasant one, at that!
“Listen, you baby-faced runt!” I counter. “I was going to let you in on something really amazing, but now I’ve deemed you unworthy. So there!”
Silence follows my proclamation.
“So, what,” he says, after a moment, “it’s something like . . . drugs?”
With a sigh, I peel myself from the sticky covering of the booth. My sweaty thigh seems to have formed a glue-like bond with the vinyl. My skin makes a sickly ripping noise as I stand.
The unpleasant boy wrinkles his face in disgust.
“Shut up,” I tell him.
He folds his arms. “I didn’t say anything.”
With that, I march away from him, flustered enough that Moll notices. She calls something to me, but I ignore it.
What a shame. The boy had such potential, too. It’s rare to come across one of us, as it is, but to find someone turquoise like me . . .
We are a dying bloodline.
I move to the door marked by a bell. And that’s the end of it.
Or so I think.
Just as I make a motion to push at the door. A certain discourteous boy in a certain stupid blue hoodie pushes past me rudely–
And inadvertently brushes his hand against my wrist in the process.
Skin contact is made. The turquoise light streaming from the boy’s right earlobe flares blindingly bright, and he stumbles against the café door, which retaliates in disrupted bell clamor. In the aftermath, he is wide-eyed, gaping at the brightness on my ear that matches his own.
Not only that, a thin turquoise string of light now connects us, from his wrist to mine. Something only the two of us can see. Realization hits me–
I’ve unwittingly just activated my first lightborne ward. And he’s possibly the worst human I’ve ever met.
2: A Rude Awakening
“What’s with your ear?!”
I pull the newly awakened lightborne away from the café. He’s like a baby. A baby-faced baby lightborne.
As I draw him down an alley strewn with cardboard boxes, he puts up a protest: “Why is your ear glowing like that?! FREAK.”
“For the record, YOUR ear is glowing just the same as mine,” I tell him. “Don’t worry, though, normal humans can’t see it.”
This only sets him off. “Normal humans? Meaning there are abnormal ones, also?!” He begins to flail, of all things.
“Stop it,” I bark. “If you don’t, someone will notice and think I’m abducting you.”
His face reaches new levels of desert-like dryness. “Aren’t you? And what the heck is this thing?” He gives his wrist a shake, where the thin string of light connects us. It runs from his wrist to mine, like yarn.
“It’s our lightstream. It allows us to share power.”
He roots himself to the cobble of the alley. “Power?”
This isn’t going over well.
I try to remember back to when Aiden gave me ‘the talk.’ How did he put it?
“You are a special, glowing person. Like a princess. One seeded with the light of the Maker’s breath. Chosen, over everyone else, to protect the–”
I stop myself. I was five when Aiden gave me the talk. It won’t work on this guy.
Indeed, his lip is curled with disgust. “A princess?”
“O-or a prince? Ugh. Never mind. It’s too much to explain right now. The sun is almost at highpoint, and they’ll be coming soon. Anyway, what’s your name?”
The boy rips his wrist away from me, and the light chain shakes in retaliation. “Wait a minute, I know what this is! You’re a cougar. AND you roofied me. That’s why I’m seeing weird things.” He sneers to himself smugly. “Gotcha.”
Is he serious!? Four years isn’t that great of an age difference!
I glance at the sky because the sun is moving into position. Normally it would be fine, but with a newborn on my hands . . .
“First of all, I’m not a cougar,” I say, rushed. “Second of all, any seventeen-year-old boy should be happy to have the attention of a hot older woman. Thirdly, when would I have roofied you!? Did you even eat anything around me?”
“Well, no, but–”
“Plus, I’m far too cute to be your standard abductor.”
He rolls his eyes. “As cute as you are humble.”
“Good, now that that’s settled–” I snatch his sleeve and tug him down the alley. “I don’t like you, and I didn’t mean to awaken you, but it happened, and it’s probably for the best, being that you’re turquoise and we need as many people as we can get. Now that IT’s happened, I figure I need to keep you alive at least until sundown, so I’m going to need you to do exactly as I say until we get back to the coterie. There, Aiden and the others can help me figure out what to do with you.”
The boy looks like he wants to protest, but he doesn’t get the chance. The sun is at highpoint, and it’s time to do what I do best. I begin to sprint, and I’m sure he notices that it’s quicker than an average human. It’s enough to distract him.
At least until we reach the end of the alley.
There lies an open stretch of sunny street. The sort of place darklings like to dwell. The very place I was supposed to be guarding, before being distracted by the boy in the blue hoodie.
Any moment now–
“Ho! What is THAT?” the boy squawks.
Right on schedule. There, on a stretch of pavement, heavily occupied by humans, a shadow passes, blacker than any black the boy has ever seen. He clings to me.
“You can feel it, right?” I say. “Not only see it, but feel the darkness?”
He doesn’t answer, just watches as the shadow swims over the pavement, beneath the feet of unsuspecting humans.
“The funny thing is, you expect dark things to hide in the night, but actually–” I bring my hand to my glowing earlobe and give it a pinch. “Only in the brightest sunlight, do the darkest shadows show themselves. Our job is to drown them.”
“Nope. Nope, nope, nope.” The newborn lightborne covers his ears and turns his back to the shadowy beast. “It’s not real. It’s the roofie.”
Guess denial is to be expected.
I spin him around. “Just watch.”
Watch and learn.
It’s my turn to be smug. He’s about to be impressed. I concentrate my turquoise power from my ear and into my fingertips. In response, my fingers pulse with the magick of the earth. My veins are now one with the veins of the tree of light. Yggdrasil’s power courses through me. I channel it into action.
“Yah!” With a cry, I sprint into the open street.
Normal humans don’t notice. They can see it, but it doesn’t register with them. They don’t think anything out of sorts about the girl dashing quicker than a person should be able to dash.
The shadow below is still circling, looking for its next victim. Its sights are set on a woman with red shoes, shouting into her cellphone. Something about her cable fees doubling. Bright colors are appealing to the darklings. That’s why I most always wear black.
As the woman’s scarlet feet become encompassed in darkness that only I and the boy waiting in the alley can see, I run at her, dragging my lighted fingers along the ground as I come. A strip of turquoise light glows along the coarse street where I’ve drawn it. I’m creating a passage of light between the earth and the mortal world. A vein.
Even the woman doesn’t notice me as I dart at her. She can’t see the glow on my ear, she can’t see the line of light drawn along the ground, and she can’t see the chain of turquoise that connects me with the boy in the alley. She’s busy taking out her frustrations on the customer service representative on the other end of the line – a person who probably has no control over the red-shoed woman’s cable fees.
By the sound of it, the woman is one of those people that deserves to be eaten by the darklings.
But it’s my job to save even the horrible ones.
I don’t dare touch the shadow directly. Instead, I circle it – and the red-shoed woman – creating a ring of turquoise glow around them. For the lesser darklings, this is all it takes. Yggdrasil, tree of light, will do the rest.
Once the circle of glow is completed, I take my fingers from the pavement and dart back to where I started the line of light. I bring my hand again to my right earlobe to replenish the power in my fingertips, before placing a spread-fingered hand against the ground, at the start of the light line.
I give a glance over my shoulder to make sure the baby-faced baby is watching. He is. He’s crouched, but he’s watching. Good. With a grin, I draw my breath and channel the power of the earth into the line of light. It sears in response.
Like a lit fuse, power courses down the line of light until reaching the red-shoed woman where she stands.
Teeth-gritted, I push everything I have into the spell. “TAKE THAT, YOU FIEND!” The world lights blindingly bright with turquoise power. There is a pop! And a hiss! And once the world becomes visible again, the shadow beneath the woman is gone. All that remains is her own huffy one as it storms down the road, still ranting at the poor representative on the other end of the phone.
The line of light is gone. My fingers have returned to normal, and even though I can’t see my own earlobe, it’s dimmer than before. I feel it. I’ve exerted a fair amount of power today.
The rest of the world carries on their way, returning to work from lunch, or scurrying about on their errands. Only the boy in blue knows what’s happened.
He’s crouched against the ground, muttering under his breath like a foaming raccoon.
I brush off my hands and return to his side, following the chain of light that connects us. “Well, what did you think, runt? Preeeetty sweet, am I right?”
He says nothing that amounts to words. He just continues to mutter and stare at the space where the darkling formerly was. He’s caught in the sort of disbelief that can only be eased, in my experience, by one thing:
“Let’s go for bubble tea!”
Expression vacant, the boy slurps another boba up the straw. He hasn’t said a word since the alley. Maybe I broke him. Whoops.
The day is bright and warm. I keep a keen eye out for any other darklings that might be forming over the ground. My mission was to watch that open stretch of street only, but if any others happen upon us, I’ll have no choice but to act – with a ka-pow! And a hi-yah!
“What the actual hell?”
The boy is watching me, as I’ve been unconsciously making karate motions with my hands.
“H-hey, good job!” I divert. “You said something. And they were actual words, too! Does that mean you’re ready to tell me your name? I can’t keep calling you ‘the boy,’ you know.”
He rolls his eyes, as he’s prone to doing. “You haven’t once called me ‘the boy.’”
“Maybe not out loud.”
The boy lets out a sigh, and stares into the center of his straw. “You can do . . . magic. Like a wizard.”
“Not a wizard,” I correct. “But yes, magick. Light magick. You can too.”
He halts in the middle of the sidewalk and chews his lip a moment. “You fight . . . shadows?”
“Darklings,” I say. “Among other things. To be honest, lesser darklings like these are a walk in the park compared to what’s out there.”
He chews his mouth a moment more, and then– “Teach me.” His eyes are set on mine, stern almost.
“That IS the idea.” I take a final slurp of my tea before tossing it into a can at the corner of the walk. “Whenever we meet a new lightborne that hasn’t been activated, we’re supposed to activate them. TBH, you’re my first, though, so I want to ask Aiden how to deal with you.”
“My waker,” I explain. “The one who showed me what I am.”
The boy eyes me up and down with apparent dislike. “That means that you’re MY waker? Great.”
I flick him in the nose. “Try not to be too excited about it. Little asshole. I’m actually pretty awesome, you know.”
“I’m not little,” he grumbles.
“Suuure.” But I feel bad for him . . . a little. I haven’t been ‘normal’ for a very long time, so I can’t really relate. As we cut through the cemetery at the edge of the city, I think about how to be tactful. “Look, I know it’s a lot,” I tell him without meeting his eye. “I’ve seen others right after they awaken. It’s tough. You’ll feel better when we get to the coterie. There’s a whole group of us. People that are better at this sort of thing than I am.”
He squeezes the empty plastic cup in his hand. “Can you at least give me a rundown of who you people are?” He swallows at the cup and his voice becomes squeaky: “Aliens?”
I wish! But a rundown? That’s a tall order.
“I can try?” I say, equally squeaky. “But first you have to tell me your name.”
“I don’t . . .” he stalls.
I turn back to him and his forehead is furrowed.
Of course. How could I have forgotten? Now that he’s awakened, he probably can’t remember his old name. After all, I can’t remember what I was called before I was five. He probably has an ID in his wallet that shows the name his parents gave him. It won’t do any good in our world, though, so it’s better not to remind him now. That’s not the name I want to hear, anyway.
“You’re going to have many names in the future,” I tell him. “Right now, I’m Amanda Robertson. But my true name, my lightborne name, is something deeper than a name. It’s something that’s been with me forever, in my blood. You don’t have to remember your human name right now, but try to recall your lightborne name. Even if you don’t think you know it, you do. Here–” I take the destroyed cup from his hand. “Bring your hand to your ear. That’s our link to the earth. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. It probably sounds like weird spiritual crap, but trust me. Your earlobe is a connection between the mortal world and the world of light. Touch it. Concentrate.”
He looks reluctant, skeptical, and like he wants to murder me.
I lean against a polished tombstone. A large one in the shape of a Celtic cross. “Just do it.”
He does so with the utmost disinclination. With eyes locked deadly-like on mine, he brings a twitching hand to his earlobe. Upon touching his skin there, though, something happens. A sizzle shoots up his body. I see it run from his feet the top of his hair – not that there’s much space to cover on a shorty like him. “Pidd,” he says automatically, and the light chain between us pulses.
“Did you say Pit?” I tease.
“PIDD,” he says again, this time stronger. Bolder. The chain pulses again. Good, he’s telling the truth. “It’s weird,” he says. “I can’t feel it or hear it, but I KNOW it.”
I nod. “Sounds about right.”
He turns to me expectantly. “Your turn.”
“Hm?” I raise a brow at him.
“Your true name,” he says.
From some far off part of the city a jackhammer starts.
“Oh,” I say absentmindedly. “It’s Pauline.”
“Liar,” he shoots.
“Ah, you can tell.” I grin at him. “See? It means we’re connected, waker and ward. Lucky you.”
“What is your real name?” he demands, arms crossed foully. “I told you, didn’t I?”
I stand from the tombstone and kick at the weeds that have overrun the grass. “That’s true,” I sigh. “And I suppose you’ll need to know sooner or later . . .”
He waits, browline darkening by the second.
“Jeanine,” I say.
“Felicia,” I say.
“Ugh! Just tell me, would you?!”
Heh. It’s somewhat satisfying to torment him.
All the same . . .
“My true name,” I say, “is Bexley.” The turquoise chain running between our wrists flares.
“Bexley?” He cocks his head. “Yeah, you seem like a ‘Bexley.’”
I don’t want to know if it’s a good or a bad thing.
“Anyways,” I say, moving around the cross-like tombstone. “Let’s get back to the coterie. There’s actually kind of a lot going on in our world right now, so the sooner we get there, the bett–”
“But I have to go home.” Pidd roots his shoes to the ground. There’s probably a dead body under there. Shudder. “You can’t just expect me to go with you to your magical cult or whatever it is,” he says.
“Pidd . . .” Now I feel more than a little bad. “Do you . . . have anywhere else to go?”
“Of course I do!” He reels backwards in offense. “My HOME, idiot.”
“But . . .” I hide my eyes in the weeds around our feet. “Do you remember where it is?”
He takes a moment to answer. “I . . .”
“How about a family? Do you remember your family? Or friends? Or anyone?”
I wait for something more, but he’s quiet. Truth is settling on him and it’s a heavy truth to bear. “Do you remember anything but your name?” I ask softly.
“I remember . . . I like taking pictures. That’s all.” He is horrified by the discovery.
“You remember other things, I’m sure,” I say, fanning at him. “It’s just hard being put on the spot.”
He meets my gaze, with eyes that are sharp and cold. Until they aren’t. For all of my earlier staring, I haven’t really gotten a good look at him yet. Not a true look.
His eyelashes are dark. So are his eyes. It was hard to see before, but . . .
More than angry, more than defiant, his eyes are afraid.
It was a long time ago, but I understand. It can be frightening to forget your old self so suddenly and without remorse.
I put a hand to his shoulder. “Come with me, Pidd. I’ll keep you safe until you can keep yourself safe. You didn’t choose this, but your old self is gone. For a while, it will bother you. I used to strain my memory for a face. Any face to connect me to the mortal world. But new faces will begin to fill your life, and then it won’t bother you anymore. Mine’s the first.”
The world seems to pause. The air around us is still, but it’s an alive stillness – as if the air is clashing against itself so ferociously that it has no choice but to cancel itself out.
As the world around us clashes, Pidd stares at me. He slowly lifts his hands to the edges of his hood and drops it for the first time.
I suddenly feel embarrassed for how I’ve been treating him.
“Y-you’re seventeen?” I say.
His hair is blond and reaches below his ear to the base of his jaw – which is more defined now that it’s out in the open. He may be baby-faced, but there’s something about his jaw and his adam’s apple that makes me realize:
Pidd isn’t a boy, at all. He’s a guy. One normal girls probably find attractive.
“I’ll be eighteen next month,” he says with a haughty swish of his hair.
“H-hey! You remembered something else! Anyway–” I awkwardly remove my hand from his shoulder. “I promise everything will feel better once we get to the coterie. All of this magick stuff? Pretty badass. There’s so much more to it, too!” I box at him. “So stick in there, runt!”
For some reason, it feels weird to call him that now, though.
“You realize we’re the same height, right?” he says dryly.
Are we? I eye at the top of his head. Aiden is a lot taller than him, but then . . . Aiden’s also a lot taller than me.
“Oh my gawd.” I feel my eyes widen. “Maybe I’m a runt too.”
He snorts, for the first time looking amused by the situation – though he’s quick to revert. “Ah, this is all a lot, Bexley.” He scratches at his hair vigorously. “Argh! Aren’t people going to look for me if I just disappear? What if there were people that cared about me? I mean, I’m SURE I must have had a girlfriend.”
“Maybe you had a boyfriend.” I shrug. “That would explain why you weren’t susceptible to my sexiness.”
“Ha! Sexiness, right.”
“I’m kidding.” I shield my eyes from the falling sun. “But for real, don’t worry about any of that. You’ve disappeared from the memory of anyone that used to know you, just like they’ve disappeared from your memory. Even if there’s a you-shaped hole in their life, their logic will twist around it. People have an uncanny way of overlooking things they can’t understand.” I halt abruptly enough to startle him. “Besides, Pidd, normal humans can’t follow us where we’re going.”
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