EAST – Chapter 17

Chapter 17

 

THE ORBS OF LIGHT ARE distinctively gold in colour. As I watch, half-fascinated and half-terrified, they pulse gently in the shadows, and then begin to glide away from me—I exhale—further into the forest.

 

I hesitate. Follow them… Or run for my life while I still can?

 

“Just do it,” I murmur to myself.

 

Step by step, over leaves and soil and thorny bushes, I move deeper into the forest. I keep one eye on the ground and one eye on the four lights; they’re floating at a relatively moderate speed, so it’s not hard for me to follow them. Ash must be using these to light his way as well, I realize.

 

If only I could do the same. Briefly I wonder if it’s worth slowing down to try, but at that moment, he seems to pick up his pace, and I have to hurry to keep up.

 

Night hasn’t fully fallen. Yet here under the treetops everything is already dark blue and indigo. I’m reminded of the woods back at home, and a feeling of longing—yearning—washes over me, so raw and unexpected that I almost choke on it. Instead I have to raise a sleeve to my mouth, and put all of my effort into holding back a sneeze.

 

“There you are!”

 

I gasp, then slap a palm over my lips when I realize that the words weren’t meant for me. “Ian,” I hear Ash say. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

 

“Well, you know what they say about blind dates,” Ian replies cheerfully, then he adds something in a quieter voice.

 

I strain my eyes, staring at and around the glow of the orbs, but can’t discern any figures in the shadows. “Weird,” I mutter to myself, then tiptoe—as best as I can—closer, using the thick branches as cover. I wince every time one of them shakes too long or too violent at my passing. Stealth was never my strong suit…

 

The two are still speaking. “…it’s just up ahead,” Ian says loudly, suddenly. “Come on.” Their footsteps move off, further away—I rush to follow. The orbs are only two pinpricks by now, off in the distance but they still cast their light over a far area of the forest. Then they wink out.

 

For a second I stand there, petrified.

 

And then, “Crap,” I say loudly.

 

There’s no use staying quiet now. They’re gone. I put an arm out in front of me, holding onto the branch there, and spin in a circle. Nothing. No sign of the orbs, nor any other unnatural colours. There’s nothing but the whooshing wind and faint rays of moonlight.

 

I can’t even see to the edge of these trees. All of a sudden I remember the cloud of red smoke I’d seen billowing out from here, weeks ago. And Ian’s words sound in my mind—No sane person would come near…

 

“Well,” I reason softly to myself. “You’ve been insane from the moment you started believing in all of this lighter stuff. I mean, really. ‘Firelighter.’ ‘Lighter.’ ‘Fire-born.’ They can’t even agree on a name for themselves.

 

“You’re also talking to yourself,” I add.

 

A rustling sound rushes through the trees on my right. I stare in that direction, goose bumps rising all over my arms. But there’s no more movement. Instead, when I turn back to face the branch I’m still holding on to, I see a single yellow orb hanging in the air about twenty feet away. It spins a few times, as if trying to make a decision, and then begins to move.

 

As quickly—and quietly—as possible, I rip off one of the dangling threads on the end of my shirt, and tie it around one of the many-needled branches; and then I follow.

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 

It doesn’t take long to catch up to Ash and Ian. After that, I keep an eye on them, not their fires, as they steadily make their way through the trees. Their conversation is too quiet for me to hear around the singing foliage, and then, after a while, they stop talking altogether.

 

Until Ian says, “Here it is.”

 

Here what is? I peer at them, around them, but all I see are more trees. When I catch a glimpse of Ash’s face as he nods at Ian, I realize I’ve caught up a little too quickly. So I loop around them, ending up somewhere off to their right—and almost step right into the open clearing.

 

It’s obvious that this isn’t natural. A pile of wood has been pushed off to the side, the branches broken off and scattered; everywhere the ground is torn, bare, or…

 

“Burned. All burned.” Ian gives a low whistle. I glance over at them in time to see him raise his hand, allowing his orange orb to illuminate more of the clearing. Quickly I dart back into the trees.

 

“The crime scene…”

 

“You think so?”

 

In my peripheral, I see Ash turning to look at Ian. “Isn’t that what you thought?”

 

“Sure, but I was hoping for a consultation from your gut.”

 

“My ‘gut’ is hardly trustworthy.”

 

“Eh, it’s evidence enough for me.”

 

“If only East would think the same,” Ash says dryly. I barely suppress the urge to peer at his face and see if he’d meant that sincerely, or sarcastically.

 

“Wait here,” he says abruptly, though not in a rude way. “I want to check on something.”

 

Ian waves a careless hand at him and takes up guard by the edge of the clearing. Curious, I try to follow as Ash veers around the edge to another part of the space, then plunges back into the trees.

 

I enter the shadows behind him, but he must’ve extinguished his orbs. This patch of forest is especially dark. There isn’t even the eerie blue sheen of the moon to light up the nooks and crannies of the forest floor. I narrow my eyes, but when I still can’t discern any moving forms, I turn back around to find Ian again.

 

And walk right into Ash.

 

I have to stifle a scream. He stands in the shadows, holding a single pale yellow orb, face utterly expressionless save for a slight weariness in the crease of his eyes. I forget how to breathe—my heart skips a beat, then another, and I sway on my feet.

 

For a second I wonder if I can even gather the energy to run, but then Ash extends his arm. I flinch before realizing he’s only handing me the orb. “Take it,” he says tonelessly. “And stay back here. Don’t let Ian see you.”

 

He doesn’t wait for a response, just lobs the light at me. Only a miraculous, new-found reflex allows me to reach up and catch the orb in my fingers. To my surprise, it’s pleasantly warm, and though the light doesn’t touch my skin I can still feel a smooth, round surface around it.

 

“Stay here. Please,” he says again and then slips away.

 

I almost listen to him—he did say please—but as soon as I hear his voice speaking to Ian beyond the trees, I hurry around back the clearing and then out, following and collecting the trail of fabric I’d left behind. By the time I reach the last of them, I’ve figure out that opening my palm and raising my arm prompts the orb to glow brighter, bright enough that I can see the edge of the trees.

 

I break into a quick jog, jumping over the occasional rock and flower and nearly tripping over a few stray roots. And then finally, finally, I’m out of the forest.

 

I take a deep breath of the night air and realize that I’m shivering. It’s grown so cold since I was in there. But at least now I can see the lights of the house, however dim they are, and there’s no longer a sense of suffocating darkness engulfing me and chilling me to the core.

 

But my heart stops anyway when I hear the sob. It’s quiet, thin and high-pitched. Instantly I know who it is.

 

“Maggie?” I call, glancing around. “Maggie? Is that you? Where are you?”

 

“E-E-E-East?”

 

“I’m right here, Mags!” She’s in the forest. Crap, crap. I hold the orb up higher and head back into the trees, wincing when their shadows swallow me again. “Can you follow the sound of my voice?”

 

A moment later a tiny blur darts out from behind one of the pines and crashes into my waist. “East!” Maggie cries, burying her face into my middle. “I-I was s-s-so s-s-s-s-scared—and n-n-n-ob-body—a-and—”

 

She’s crying so hard she can barely talk, each word interrupted by another hiccupping sob. “Hey, hey,” I try to say, patting her head awkwardly. “I’m here now, I’ve got you. Um.”

 

This older-sibling thing is harder than it looks. “What happened?” I coo. “How did you end up all the way out here?”

 

“P-P-P-Parker—I c-couldn’t—it’s s-so dark—a-a-a-a-and—” More hiccups, tears.

 

“Okay, okay,” I say, a bit panicked now. “Mags, sweetheart, here.” I pick her up with a soft “oompf,” barely hanging on to the orb as I do so. “Let’s get you back to the house, okay? Can you hold on to this for me? It’ll show us the way back.”

 

I don’t think she even notices when I wrap her little hands around the ball of light; she just hides her head in my shoulder and keeps crying. As I carry her out of the forest, I’m trying to shush and soothe her at the same time, rubbing circles on her back, doing my best not to shake her already-trembling body. She feels so tiny and fragile in my arms.

 

“East?”

 

Shit!

 

“Erm…” I turn back around, as slowly as possible. “Oh, hey, Ian. Is that you?”

 

From just outside the trees, Ian raises his eyebrows at me. “Yeah. What are you doing out here on the lawn with… Holy—is that Maggie?” He comes closer, shining his light right at us. “What the hell’s going on?” He demands.

 

“Hey! Easy with the that!” I scold when Maggie yelps loudly, blinking away tears in the glare of Ian’s orb. “I just found her out here—er—she’s been crying, I don’t know how she wandered off.”

 

“Wandered off?” Ash appears, suddenly, at my shoulder. I nearly drop Maggie from fright. “Maggie, where’s Parker?”

 

“I-I-I d-d-d-don’t—d-din’t—”

 

“Maggie.” Ash steps around me, puts his hands on her cheeks. His fingers are so long they nearly wrap around her entire head. “Shh, shh,” he says softly, and to my astonishment, Maggie stops trembling.

 

“Where’s Parker?”

 

Maggie says, thickly, through a sob, “I can’t find him.”

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 

From the moment we enter the house, and tiptoe up the stairs, Maggie shaking silently in my arms, Ian behind us, Ash in front moving slowly but surely and his eyes as darkly focused as I’ve ever seen them; to when we reach the second landing and see the door to Parker’s room ajar, a pulsing red light coming from within; and then to when we pause, and Ash slithers in, and suddenly a spectacular show of gold so strong it pours out into the hallway lights up Parker’s room, and Maggie wiggles out of my arms with a loud cry and darts in after him before I can stop her; and all the way to when I rush in behind her and Ian behind me—and we both stop, barely managing to not crash into Ash; and even when Maggie jumps onto the bed then crawls, still sobbing, into the arms of a very sleepy, very confused Parker, my heart won’t stop pounding, my head won’t stop ringing, and the blood in my ears won’t stop roaring.

 

“Oh,” I say weakly. Beside me, Ian heaves a huge sigh of a relief, then barks out a shaky laugh.

 

Ash remains silent. He’s watching Maggie and Parker, his head tilted as if thinking deeply about something.

 

“I guess she just didn’t see him,” Ian mutters. “Jesus.”

 

Ash makes a noncommittal noise. “But… The red light?” I ask as he ushers us out of the room, though not before making eye contact with Parker to make sure that he would be okay.

 

“It happens sometimes when we dream,” Ian says. “It’s not a big deal.”

 

But Ash throws me a sharp glance. Still, he doesn’t comment, just leads us back downstairs into the kitchen. “I need a drink,” Ian says, going right to the fridge. He comes back with three bottles of beer. “Eh?”

 

He waves them at us, and Ash accepts one wordlessly. I shake my head. I already feel off, uncomfortably cold and hot at the same time, slightly dizzy, slightly nauseous, slightly light-headed. I don’t need to add to that—especially not in front of these two…

 

Ian uncaps his beer, takes a long swig, then another, then another. “Sheesh,” I say when he finally stops. “You drink that like water.”

 

“I need it,” he retorts. Still, he reaches into the dishwasher and comes back with a clean glass. “Water?”

 

“Thanks,” I say, and fill it with water from the tap, and drink and drink and drink.

 

Ash holds his bottle to his lips as well, but only swallows once, twice before putting it back down again. “We’ll talk to him tomorrow and ask him what happened,” Ash says, all business as usual. “Ian, can you keep watch tonight? I’ll take second shift.”

 

“Yeah, of course,” Ian says. “I’ll go set up.” He pauses by the doorway, and says, “Ash.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

Ian’s eyes dart to me, and then back to Ash, and he gives him some sort of look.

 

“I got it,” Ash says.

 

“Got what?” I say slowly as Ian leaves.

 

Ash looks at me. “What were you doing out on the lawn?”

 

“I was, uh—” Something about the way he’d phrased that question makes me pause to peer up carefully at his eyes. Watch your words. “I saw Maggie out there, and she was crying, so I was trying to get her back to the house.”

 

He nods. I wonder if it’s my imagination, or a trick of the dim light here, that there’s a hint of approval in his face. “We’ll talk to her later, too.” Then, a frown. “Are you alright?”

 

“Huh? Uh, yeah?” I put the glass down on the counter, and another wave of dizziness attacks. “Or maybe not. Sorry, I think I caught a ch-chill—achoo!”

 

“You’ve never been sick,” Ash remarks, handing me a tissue.

 

I wipe my nose. “Yeah, well.” My fingers are shaking. I try to curl them around the glass, focusing on the smooth surface of the material, remembering how Ash’s orb of light had felt in my hands. The cold of the water seeps through the glass and into my skin. My hands steady—just a bit.

 

“You should go to bed. Ian and I will take care of things,” Ash says.

“So bossy,” I sigh. He doesn’t say anything, but I think I catch a smile.

 

“Well.” I sniffle. “Uh, thanks. For—out there,” I say more quietly.

 

He gives me a quick nod, and takes another swig of the beer.

 

Why did you cover for me? I want to scream at him. The question hangs between us, and his silence is a challenge for me to ask. It doesn’t add up to any of the rest of his actions. I still don’t know his motive. But I also can’t muster the courage to ask, to dig, to find out…

 

I clear my throat instead. “Is that where you think Russell was killed, then?”

 

Ash takes a few more gulps of his beer; at first, I think he isn’t going to answer. But then he comes to stand by me, beside the counter. “It’s possible.”

 

I take another sip from my own glass. “You should tell Andrew.”

 

“He’d want to see it. I’m not sure if that’s safe—”

 

“The ward isn’t working anymore, Ash,” I say quietly. “And from what I’ve learned, that means that this entire property is pretty defenceless.”

 

“I’m a gold.” He sounds almost a little affronted.

 

I look at him sideways. “Okay…” I say slowly. “So go with h-him—” Another sneeze interrupts me, but I hurry to finish before he can say no again. “—and protect him. I mean, with that exploding fence gone, the safest place for him would be close to you, right?”

 

For a moment I think about the words I’d said. The safest place would be close to Ash. What would that mean for me? That the safest place, the best way to keep myself from getting killed, might be next to the very person who’d started all this in the first place?

 

My mind drifts back to two years ago, to the night of the fire. What could’ve happened if I hadn’t gone into the ocean, if I hadn’t dragged him back? Would anything be different?

 

But you’d still be a lighter, the rational part of my mind reasons. They’d still have brought me here—or would I rather have been killed by my own fire than become a part of this world?

 

Ash sighs, softly. “If I agree to take Andrew out to the clearing, will you go up to bed now?”

 

I crack a grin, turning to face him fully. “Since when did you learn to bargain?”

 

“Whatever it takes.” He holds my gaze.

 

I keep my eyes on his, too, watching his clear-as-water irises as I drink the rest of my water. They’re not open, exactly, but a lot more honest and sincere than I ever thought they could be—than I ever thought I’d see again.

 

I put the glass back down. There’s a muted clink as its edges hit the marble counter. “Fine,” I say, not very reluctantly. As soon as I take a step I have to close my eyes and pause. When I look at the kitchen again, everything seems to be spinning, spinning…

 

“East?” Ash touches my shoulder gently.

 

“Sorry.” I put a hand on the counter, trying not to look like I’m about to fall over any second. “I’m fine,” I add when he tilts his head at me. I make my way out of the kitchen with my head held high, shoulders as straight as possible, focusing hard on putting one foot in front of the other—there—one—two—next—hallway—stairs—bed.