Saria jumped out of bed as if a thousand hot coals were trying to burn through her skin. She had been having a nightmare, again. She had the exact same nightmare every night; at some point anyway. She could not seem to dream of anything else.
The dream always started in a field. A field that looked by the surroundings that it had been untouched by time. She could not see much, of course. Only what was directly in front of her. A small, clear, pool of water. Every thing else was twisted and blurred, surrounded on the edges with a vile, black cloud. She somehow knew that she had to get to that pool, that if she reached it she would be safe from the darkness. Yet, whenever she took one step forward, she became surrounded by that twisted darkness. Somewhere in the darkness, voices were calling to her. Two voices, she was sure. One voice was kind, encouraging, demanding her to take just one step forward. The other was cruel, and utterly cold. Always, it was telling her that she would not, that she could not, even if she did try. Sooner or later, the kind, the cold, cruel one drowned out the encouraging voice. Every time, she tried to do what the kind voice demanded of her, but the steel words of the unseen watcher seemed to weigh her down. If she managed so much will power as to lift her foot off the invisible ground, she was met by an unimaginable pain searing through her, like a punishment for something she did not know she had done. "Why is this happening to me?" she would scream when the voice laughed as if it thought it was all a very entertaining game. Eventually the weight of the voice would force her down onto her knees, and there she would cry, as the pain began to sear through her body without end. As soon as the pain grew unbearable, she would wake screaming and crying; always shaking with cold sweat dripping down her already tear-stained face.
When the nightmare had begun, it became her first ever experience literally "feeling" a dream. She remembered every night's detail as if she were still dreaming, including that horrible, searing pain. In the end she decided that it was a normal problem for someone with her stress level and chose against telling anybody. Though she was not sure whether that was true or not. That maybe she was afraid that if she told anybody, they would think she had finally snapped and would place her in an insane asylum. Not somewhere she wanted to go. Though she thought she might change her mind if the dreams continued to spoil her mind.
Her entire body ached as if she had run twenty miles and did yoga at the end of it. She checked her alarm clock an wondered if the hours she felt when trapped in the dream were real hours. The clock said 5:14. She shivered slightly. It was the same time she awoke every night she had the dream.
Saria decided she did not feel like sleeping anymore and figured she might as well get an early start on the day. Her dreams had also begun to effectively wipe away her appetite. There were plenty of things to do in her room. The walls needed to be scrubbed, the carpet needed a good shampooing and vacuuming… Just about anything to keep her mind distracted from those awful dreams.
She went down stairs to see where the rug cleaner was kept. Saria happened to pass by her foster mother, Joyce. "Joyce, do you know where the rug cleaner is?" Joyce just continued to walk down the hall like she had not heard a word Saria said to her. Saria noticed tears on her face, "Joyce- Mom, what is the matter?"
"Nothing Saria, Happy Birthday…"
Saria stopped in her tracks. She had completely forgotten that it was her birthday in the jumbled mess with her dreams. She was eighteen now, an age she had been dreading ever since she met Joyce. She would have to leave Joyce, along with the only real home she had ever had. She ran down the hall after Joyce and cried "Joyce, I will never leave you! You're the only mother I've ever had! I-!"
"You know you have to."
"I don't understand…"
"Yes you do. You know very well that there will be a new child as soon as you are well off and gone."
Saria was stunned by the sudden cool, griefless tone in Joyce's voice, but she was the only mother she had ever had, so she had to keep trying to reach the part of Joyce that she knew still loved her. "Joyce, why are you saying all this, they can't force me to leave the second I turn eighteen!"
Pack your things Saria, we leave at noon." She began to walk away. Tears had begun to well in Saria's eyes, "But Joyce!"
"No buts Saria," she muttered, then whispered, "No buts…"
"I love you Joyce!" Saria cried desperately as Joyce sobbed and ran away down the hall.
Staring off in the direction Joyce had run down the hall, Saria stood, unbelieving at Joyce's words. She was really leaving. She was really going to leave the house she had lived in since she was only seven. Joyce was really making her leave. Saria chose against further arguments and started off towards her room to pack her things.
Once in her room, Saria sat on her bed to think. She did not understand why everything had to go wrong all of a sudden. Terrible dreams, birthdays- even things that were meant to make a person happy were only causing further complications for her. It was just too much… She felt trapped, like a caged animal. It was almost as if the walls of her room were closing in around her.
Saria decided that she would go outside and get some air. She hopped up and walked through the house to the front door. When she opened it she was met by an enormous gust of wind that very nearly knocked her off her feet. Where the wind failed, the front door succeeded, as it slammed shut in her face, surprising her so much that she really did fall over. Great, now even nature is against me, Saria thought bitterly as she got up and winced when she felt a bloody elbow.
"I'd better just go up and pack my things now," she said to herself absently.
It only took her a few minutes to get everything she rightfully owned packed up. Joyce was not rich, but she had enough to keep herself and Saria alive and happy. She brought everything down and set it by the front door for when they left. Then she walked back down the hallway and paused about halfway.
There was a small table with pictures of her and Joyce. She chose to study one with just her in it. A slim young woman with sea gray eyes and wavy, dark hair stared back at her. The picture was taken just a year ago. She had hardly changed at all. It was surprising, for some reason; she had thought that maybe she would feel different somehow, but she felt as if nothing had changed at all. It had though. Everything was changed now, and she knew that she could do nothing to change it back again. Knowing that only made it worse.
She set the photograph back in its place and chose another. She briefly examined it, then returned with it to her room. Saria poked around in her room until she found some decorative paper and a bow with lace still taped to it. Carefully, she wrapped the delicate photograph in the paper and tied it together with the bow. She wrote a short note to Joyce on spare paper. She left it on the unmade bed because she knew Joyce would come to the room once she was gone.
Saria curled up next to the small parcel and did nothing more but savor her last moments in her room. There she waited until Joyce peeked in and told her to be down stairs and ready to go in five minutes. She did as she was told and they were backing out of the driveway in a good ten minutes. They were headed for an oversized college in the outskirts of a small city in Nevada. Saria had chosen it because not many people lived there, and there was lots of cheap land for when she could afford a house of her own. Until then, she would be living in a college supplied dorm room.
Saria did not speak to Joyce until they reached their destination. Even then, it was merely a curtly spoken "I love you, goodbye." It was almost as if it was the first time they had ever seen each other; like they were both eager to be rid of the other. Saria knew that was not the true case, but she knew that if she spent any more time standing there with Joyce, it would be too hard to part with her.
As she began to walk away, Joyce grabbed her arm to stop her with a meaningful look on her face.
"What is it Joyce?" She said it with as little sarcasm as possible, regarding the sudden change of expression from Joyce.
Joyce said nothing, but pushed a small slip of paper into Saria's hand. Saria opened the hand that Joyce had closed over the paper and couldn't help laughing out loud.
"It's a bus pass."
"Of course it is. Did you really think that I would let you go wandering about the streets without my sharp eye on you? If you start thinking like that, I will just have to teach you a lesson about responsibility!" Her expression had changed from meaningful to the look of a stern mother preparing to ground her child for a month.
Saria leapt forward and hugged the fragile appearing woman as hard as she could, "I love you so much Joyce! Will you keep in touch with me?"
"I will die the day I do not hear your voice."
Saria smiled, unaware of the tears sliding down her face and hugged her even harder, though she could not help wondering if there was a hint of seriousness in what Joyce had said. She washed the idea away and thought only of Joyce, not of what Joyce had said.
As they parted and went their ways, Saria decided that the first thing she ought to do is find her room. As she entered the complex she felt as if someone had slapped her in the face. All of what had just happened was flying around her. She had really left the only real home she had ever known. It wasn't just a bad dream that would go away when she woke. It was real.
Saria walked unsteadily to the nearest chair and fell into it. All of her worries and fears came into sharp focus in her mind. …what if I get lost?…what I have another one of those weird dreams and Joyce won't be there to comfort me?…what if I finally snap?! Even with her worries repeating in head, she had regained enough calm to feel eyes on her.
Saria leaned over as if to retrieve an item from her purse just far enough so that she could see behind her row of seats. There was only one other person nearby as far as she could tell considering the brightly lit complex. He was sitting in a far corner shaded on each side by a pair of decorative silk trees. He really did seem to be reading a book, but she could sense that he was the source of the eyes on her back. She sat up and pretended to put lip-gloss on, then leaned over again to put the imaginary lip-gloss back.
There was something about him though that she could not quite capture. She suddenly realized that she was looking straight into his eyes. Great, now he knows I know he's here. He stood up smoothly and walked away so gracefully that he must have been on wheels rather than taking steps. She was so hypnotized by his rolling gait that he had almost disappeared before she got up to find out where he had taken off to.
When Saria got up to follow she realized how clumsy she-or anyone else for that matter, must look in comparison to him. She started at a slow run to catch sight of him again and to her displeasure discovered that the halls forked in three directions, and her man was nowhere to be found.
How could this be. To get this far ahead of me he must have been running at top speed, but I couldn't even hear one foot fall. I'll just have to find him then. Saria discovered that this new form of self-encouragement was quite effective. She started down the hall that was going in her general direction and resumed her search.
After about the first five minutes of walking, the hall was starting to seem endless. There was still no sign of that strange man, and right when she was starting to feel like the man just wasn't worth her time she heard a soft murmuring not far off down a small hall to her left. To her delight it was the man she was searching for. His new companion was about an entire head shorter than him, and as bald and wrinkled as an animated vulture. Since they were speaking too softly for her too overhear, she had to inch close enough to hear more than just a low buzz and also not be seen unless she wanted to be.
"I just don't know what to do professor. She doesn't look like much trouble. I am sure that she is nothing that I cannot handle personally."
"Looks can be deceiving, Quin. She holds the power to destroy us all. If she discovers the key to unleashing her might, than we, and all of humanity are doomed. . .Perhaps, with our guidance she may learn how to control it so she may fulfill her true destiny."
"You make it sound as if that will be about as possible as me jumping up and flying away."
"Well! If you want to give up that easily than go ahead and write your family a will-oh dear, you don't have one, and even if you did they would not remain on the earth any longer than you would-so what's the p-"
"Silence! I never said I wished to give up. I merely stated that I do not think this will be an easy task. If you did not understand at first, I do hope that you understand now. If you ever cross the delicate boundary of my family again…I will kill you."
Saria leaned heavily on the wall she had used to spy on the professor and Quin. She realized that the voices had stopped. I think it's just about time I found my room. Saria forced herself upright and launched herself down the hall at full speed. A turn… a doorway… anything… help me! She heard no footsteps behind her. It was then that she remembered-his feet never made a sound! Ok Saria. This encouragement thing usually works, so hear goes- RUN FASTER! And just as her legs started to move even faster, someone grabbed her from behind and everything went black.
Joyce never really understood why she had chosen Saria to come and live with her. The girl had been reclusive and secretive since the day they had met. There was just something special about her. There something about Saria that Joyce couldn't even start to describe. She had chosen Saria and hardly even glanced at the others. And until now, she had never regretted her choice. She had never realized how hard it would be to let go of Saria. She is on her own now. I've done my job. That thought did not help Joyce become any less miserable though. As Joyce pulled into the driveway and walked through the front door, she noticed something. Her house felt…empty. It looked the same as it had when Saria still walked around, but it felt so empty. She decided that maybe Saria's room had not yet captured such a hollow feel as the rest of the house. When she entered the small room, it truly did not have the horrible empty feel like the rest of the house. She decided to snoop around-Saria must have left her something!
"Oh, my head…" Saria felt like someone had hit her head with a bat. Maybe somebody had. She decided that maybe a little more sleep would clear away some of the pressure in her head. Then she remembered what happened. Oh, no! I have to tell somebody. There are two nutcases on the loose and they are going to try to force some poor girl to learn a power strong enough to destroy the world! I have to tell somebody! She pushed herself forward as hard as she could…and she could have gotten further if an elephant were sitting on her.
"You had better stay back if you want your head to stop hurting."
"My head doesn't hurt!" Saria's head then chose the next moment to surprise her with a brand new jolt of pain.
"By the look on your face, it probably does, and I suggest you find somebody else to lie to."
"How can you see me? It is pitch dark in here! Who are you? Where are you?!"
"Hmm, I can see you because I am right next to you. Your eyes are covered. This room is in fact brightly lit. My name is Quin, and I have already answered your last question."
"Well, now since I know all that I need to know, I guess I'll be going."
"You can go when we are satisfied. The professor would like a few words with you."
"Nobody is going to have any words with me until this blindfold is removed from my face!"
"As you command." He took it off quickly and grabbed her hair to hold her head back until she was looking directly at him. It hurt her, but she didn't think that struggling would get her anywhere. He picked up a small flashlight from somewhere on the floor beside him and flashed it, for a second, in front of her open eyes. It was so bright that all she could see were fluorescent purple and black dots for the next few minutes. He gave her an unreadable look and finally let go of her.
Saria was really starting to wish that Joyce had just ignored the government and let her get on with the life she was used to. But what were the odds of getting kidnapped on her first day alone? Really! Once Quin had removed the mask, Saria understood that there truly was no way to escape or avoid speaking with the "professor" unless Quin really wanted her to. She was beginning to regret the whole 'follow the mysterious man' thing. She was sitting upright in a large chair. It might even have been comfortable if she hadn't been tied down hand, foot, and waist while trying to stare down Quin-the man made sandpaper seem as smooth as silk.
"Quin? How do you do that?"
"How do you move without making any noise?"
"I will not be telling you any of my secrets until I find out a thing or two about you, Saria."
"Life is so unfair." Saria muttered to herself. "Why can't anything go right for me anymore? First Joyce, then nature, now you! Why won't everybody just leave me ALONE!"
"Well, as for the professor and I, what were we supposed to do? You snuck up on us so unexpectedly, it's just a good thing that I saw your face or I would have just gone ahead and killed you."
"Oh, come on. It's not like I heard anything." Saria did not like to lie, but for some reason, lying to Quin was much more of a challenge than lying to even Joyce.
"I told you not to lie to me. I can see lies no matter how well they are hidden. You may be able to fool your friends, but you cannot fool me. Ah, it is time for the real conversation to begin. I would like you to meet the accomplished Professor Avery."
"Accomplished in what? Attacking and kidnapping poor, innocent girls?"
"Sorry, I am afraid that you are the exception to that rule. Quin sometimes exaggerates my title to see what he can get me to do. I would prefer it if you would just call me Professor."
"Okay, but it won't really matter since once you are through with me, I'll be out of here and doing my best to avoid you nutcases."
"You think we're mad? Why ever would you think that? You could not hear what we were talking about." The professor looked pretty smug on that one. Saria decided it was time to wipe that smile off his face.
"Well, you have to realize. People that suddenly chase and kidnap a girl who just happened to be walking by are sometimes considered by the victim, insane."
That line did not have effect she was going for. If anything, the professor looked even happier.
"Look can we get on with this, I'm tired."
"Tired? Well I can't have that! Quin will escort you to your room."
"Are you kidding me? You're letting me go? Just like that?"
"Of course not. Quin will escort you to your room so that we will know where you are staying when we decide to ask you those questions."
"In that case, I don't need an escort. I am not so tired that I can't walk!"
The professor just looked at her. "So you're saying that as long as you can walk, an escort is not needed?"
"Quin, tie her legs together."
"What?! This is outrageous! You can't possibly think that you can wonder around the campus carrying me while searching for a room even I don't know about yet!"
"Of course not!" Once again the Professor looked ready to burst with laughter. "Quin will carry you over to the nearest helper and you will-he, he- you will politely ask he or she to help the both of you find your ways! HA HA HA HA ha ha he he heee…" He trailed away, still chuckling slightly.
Saria was already agitated and the thought of being carried to the nearest assistant was almost unbearable. "Wait! Quin can be my escort! Just, please let me walk using my own feet."
The professor, who was still snickering faintly, said, "Alright, but I must warn you that trying to run is not advisable."
A few minutes later, Saria and Quin were to be found wandering the labyrinth of hallways that seemed to go on forever. Quin, unfortunately, was just as lost as Saria. Saria's agitation was reaching it's high.
"Who BUILT this school?!", she exploded, breaking the long silence and causing Quin to trip.
"Calm down. Look! There's somebody over there who might be able to help us." Quin may have sounded relieved, but his face was as hard as ever.
"What do you mean, 'might?"' A steaming kettle would be comparable to Saria's present mood.
She looked over to where Quin was pointing. It was a tall woman who looked like she knew where she was going. Saria was leaning hopefully towards the possibility that she was a professor. She and Quin walked over and did not have to pretend to look completely and miserably lost.
"Excuse me, Ma'am? I was wondering if you might be able to help us out a little." Quin spoke smoothly and did not wait for the woman to reply before he continued. "You see, we are quite lost and I need someone to help my cousin find her room."
The woman didn't say anything. Instead she pointed to a sign almost directly above them that said-
"Assistance." Saria gritted her teeth. "We went through all this trouble and you couldn't see an enormous sign just a few feet above us?" "I wasn't looking up." Quin replied. " It had never before occurred to me that finding someone helpful at this place required looking up. My full attention was on finding someone earthbound."
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry Quin."
Ten minutes later, Saria and Quin, both with maps in hand, stepped boldly down the hall. In no time at all, Saria was entering her new home to have a look around. Smugly, Quin had begun to walk away, but Saria still had a question for him.
"Quin, now that you know where I live, will you tell me how you walk without making any noise?"
"Hmm," said Quin considering. "Let me think-no." He continued down the hall.
"That's not very nice!"
Quin laughed as he rounded a corner and disappeared.
The next few days crawled slowly by with no sign at all of Quin or the Professor. Saria had to admit that her short time with those two had been much more eventful than the time she spent with her new teachers. However, that did not stop Saria from being apprehensive about their next meeting. In fact, she did not plan on ever having that meeting. She decided she would leave the next night.
"Okay," she thought aloud to herself. "I need to prepare myself, but make it look like I don't plan on going anywhere any time soon." A precaution she had made in case her room was checked. "I'll pack early in the morning and go to all my classes as normal. On my lunch break, I'll come back and find something to hold food without spoiling it for a while." On a spare sheet of paper, she began to write out her escape plan…
By the time she was finished, and her plan had been drafted so many times that it was memorized, it was late at night and she hastily stuffed her plan in the night stand beside her bed, not even bothering to close the small door before dropping exhaustedly onto her bed.
Although she had stayed up late the night before, Saria stuck tightly to her plan and woke up early in the morning to pack her things. She hid her clothes, neatly folded, and under the sheets of her unmade bed. She hid everything else under the bed and in her closet. By the time she had completed phase one of her memorized plan, class was about to begin and for safety, she needed to bring the written out plan with her. She was in a hurry so she threw open the nightstand door and placed the paper in her backpack. She felt like she was missing something important, but was in too much of a hurry to care.
Her class seemed to be going faster than normal. Saria was so nervous that she couldn't hear a word the professor said. When lunch finally came, Saria was nearly shaking with relief. She hurried back to her room and looked around casually. There was somebody at the end of the hall, but Saria couldn't see the person's face through the shadows.
Uncomfortably, Saria rubbed her eyes and looked again. The person was gone. There was a corner, Saria reassured herself. I'm just scared about what I plan on doing tonight.
The rest of the day seemed to go by in a flash. In what seemed like no time, Saria was wandering the deserted halls. She decided to stop and mentally go through her plan to check for any major flaws in it. There were none that looked like they could cause a problem for her. Only when she continued down the hall and the front door had almost come in to view did it hit her. It was the same uneasy feeling she had had when she was almost ready to go to her first class in the morning. She thought hard about what she had been doing. I had been putting my books and supplies in my backpack…I had to bring my written plan with me, and I got that from the nightstand…Wait. The nightstand! I never closed it when I went to bed, but in the morning, in the morning I had to open it. Oh no. Panicking, Saria tore off her backpack and feverishly fished through it to find the paper she had retrieved from the nightstand. She found it and looked closely at it. It was blank. Saria decided that this would not be a very good night to attempt her escape so she turned sharply around, and found herself face to face with none other than Quin.
"Going somewhere?" He smiled. I can dodge him, Saria thought wildly. Then I can, I can run!
"There's nowhere to run." Saria looked up at him, confused. He looked straight into her eyes, and she started to feel calmer. Everything was calm, and soft. The voices around her were gently whispering in her ears. Everything was so calm. She closed her eyes, and fell into his arms, sound asleep.
I just want you to know that I'm grateful for all that you have done for me and taught me. For the first time in my life, I felt like some one actually cared about me. Thank you so much Joyce.
PS: Please come visit me soon! If you decide not to, I will never forget you.
Joyce lowered the letter Saria had written, her eyes glistening with tears, and looked to the small package Saria had put down for her to find. She began to unravel the paper that was wrapped around it, when the doorbell rang.
Saria opened her eyes wearily, and found herself staring straight into the eyes of Joyce. She was smiling gently. Unable to believe her eyes, Saria looked at her surroundings. She was back in her room. Her old room.
"It was all a dream…" Saria looked up at Joyce and moved her mouth, but she couldn't seem to make a sound come out of it. She just stared silently at Joyce.
After a rather awkward silence, Joyce took the opportunity to speak. " Thank you, Saria, for the letter you wrote me." Saria's eyes widened. " I never wrote a letter to you." Joyce looked confused. " You did write a letter to me. Before you left." She picked up a small slip of paper. " I have it here, if my own word isn't good enough for you. I also thank you for the photograph. I'm glad to know it meant something to you."
Saria, sitting straight up in her bed, backed slowly away until she bumped against the headboard. "That's impossible. It was a dream. You sent me away to a college in Nevada. I can't be in two places at once. You're lying to me. It was all a dream!"
Joyce looked hurt. "How much more proof could you possibly need? I know I sent you to that school. I missed you so much. I don't know how much longer I'd have lasted if your friend, Quin here, hadn't brought you back." She looked towards the open door. "Quin! She's awake now." She turned her gaze back to Saria, gently smiling, and into the room, walked Quin. He took a seat on the floor beside Joyce.
Saria looked from Joyce to Quin, and then back to Joyce, horrified. Saria didn't really know that much about Quin, but she didn't need to know that much to understand how dangerous he could become, to her, and to Joyce. "Joyce, get away from him. Leave this room. Then, leave this house. He and I need to have a talk." Quin smiled at her. Joyce made her way across the room without objection, and when she was almost through the door, Joyce turned back. "Shall I tell the professor to leave as well?" she said giggling. Saria narrowed her eyes at Quin. His smile widened. "No. Tell him to come up as well."
Furious, Saria turned back to Quin. "How dare you!" she spat. "How dare you tell Joyce that we're, that we're connected in any way! How dare you even come in contact with Joyce!" Quin sat there, calm and collected. "Well, what should I have said? It was obviously what the woman wanted to here!" "Well, for your inform- what?" Quin looked surprised that it wasn't completely obvious to her. "Apparently, you have never had any sort of relationship before. And what could be more wonderful than a handsome grown man carrying Joyce's sleeping beauty dramatically in his arms to the entrance of this house?" Saria puffed up indignantly. "So what if I've never had a relationship before! I just don't like being around people all the time, and it is most definitely none of your business to be snooping around in my private life."
The professor poked his head through the door and Quin stood up. Without another word, he walked smoothly out of the room, and dragged the professor along with him.
Saria couldn't have asked for a better opportunity to try out her bus pass. She would use it and get as far away from her house and college as she possibly could.
She waited until she heard the front door close with a squeak and a bang. Then she ran down the stairs to the back door. It was the only door in the house that never made a sound. Strangely enough, it was the only door in the house that had never been replaced. The house itself was in its late fifties, and the backyard garden was very mature. It was also a great place for Saria to sneak out undetected.
Saria headed for a spot on the fence that was especially thick with vines. She shoved the vines out of the way so that she could crawl through the small hole in the bottom that she had used when playing hide and seek with Joyce as a child. When she finally got herself out of the hole, she stood up, facing a long bayou. The bayou was almost overflowing with water. Saria noted to herself that she should watch out for snakes. Cottonmouths are sometimes found around bayous. She worked her way through the untamed weeds and found a bike trail that had been worn down by use and age. Since it was now easier to move, she began to move faster. After about fifteen minutes of walking at the same pace, Saria came to the back of a small shopping strip.
The bike trail must have been a short cut to this place, because she had never seen it before. She walked slowly around to the front of the first shop. It didn't have a name. Saria supposed that this was basically the same store broken into smaller blocks for the convenience of the shoppers. She entered the shop, and found just what she needed on the shelf next to the sales counter. Maps. She flipped through one of them briefly to make sure it showed at least a few of the major bus stops. It did. It was a decently accurate map, and since Saria still had no idea where she was going, she was glad to pay a small amount of the money she would otherwise be using for food. The map had an unnaturally coincidental cost of five dollars and fourteen cents.
Saria stepped out of the small store and sat on a nearby bench to more closely examine the map. When she opened it, the pages almost automatically flipped about uncontrollably. She looked up. The clouds above her were becoming increasingly dark. The place was very windy. She had to hold on to her map tightly, so that it wouldn't blow away and be a waste of her money. The birds around her were singing their mysterious songs back and forth to each other. The squirrels were skittering about in the trees of the empty lot beside the strip mall. The trees practically hid the mall from anybody's view. That must have been the reason that the mall looked almost abandoned. The store with the map, Saria now realized, looking around her, was the only section of the strip mall that was still in business. That was probably because the occasional customer accidentally stumbled upon it, like Saria had.
The dark clouds above had begun to pour heavy rain droplets over the abandoned parking lot. And Saria.
"Great!" Saria thought to herself. "This is just what I needed. More bad luck…"
Instead of intruding on the keeper of the little shop she had gone to before, Saria ran for the tree-filled lot beside the strip mall.
The trees were so thick that even though it was raining very hard, the ground below them was warm and dry. Saria moved among the trees until she found one that looked comfortable enough to lay down on and wait out the storm. The bottom of it was smooth and bare. Someone there before her had torn off the bark so that it wouldn't scratch his back as he rested. Saria suspected that he had been there recently, because their were still flecks of bark on the ground.
As she leaned back against the smooth trunk of the tree, Saria remembered one of her most urgent problems. She had no experience whatsoever living outdoors. Her food and money wouldn't last forever. She didn't know anything about edible plants, or making fire without a match. All she could do was sit and think until the storm ended.
Another of her problems, she thought, as specks of water began to leak through the trees, was how long it would take Quin to track her down.
"You know, Saria. I'd have thought that a little thunder storm wouldn't be enough to slow down someone as stubborn as you have turned out to be."
Saria jumped up and looked quickly around. There was no one in sight.
"Am I really that hard to see? You must know the saying that hints what you're looking for is right above your nose."
Saria's eyes flashed upward, but all she could see were the birds fluttering in the branches of the trees. The birds seemed to all be moving in the same general direction, Saria thought. They were all moving away from a shadow on the center of a particularly large branch. Whatever creature the shadow hid, it was far too small to be a human. Yet, it had spoken in her language.
It moved up the branch a little, and features that were hidden before were bathed in dim light.
It was a large, fierce-eyed bird. Saria had never seen the likes of it before. It had a sharp beak, and powerful talons. Saria didn't blame the smaller birds from trying to get away from it. It sat on the tree, looking to be about a foot and a half tall.
"What are you?" It looked like a mix between a bird and a raptor.
"It's not what am I!" the bird said irritably. "It's who am I! My name is Dart, and I'm your guide eagle so you're going to have to live with my temper. I'll have to deal with yours." He sighed, and looked away.
After she stopped noticing how dangerous he looked, Saria noticed that he was quite beautiful. His sharp, curved beak was a navy blue color with marbled red streaks. His feathers were a silvery color that faded into dark blue at the top. His wings were those colors faded in the opposite direction. His tail feathers were the same silvery color with the random red streaks. He had two, six-inch long feathers that flowed, blood red, from his forehead above his golden eyes, to the end of his neck.
Since Dart appeared lost in his thoughts, Saria took the opportunity to speak. "Dart…if you can speak like me, can you read as well?"
"Read? Of course I can read!"
"Great. Can you read maps? I'm not very good with them and I need to find a bus stop."
"Didn't I say I was a guide? It's one of my obligations to show you your way." He hopped onto a branch that was so low he was eyelevel with Saria. "Show me your excuse for a half-descent map."
Saria unfolded the map that she had been unconsciously crinkling as she thought of her situation and showed it to Dart. He hardly glanced at it and then asked when they would be leaving.
"Aren't you going to actually look at the map?"
"I just did. A blind duck would have been able to tell I examined it thoroughly. You shouldn't question me on the subject of directions. I know where to go." He glared resentfully at her a moment and then looked away again.
"Well, fine then. We'll leave as soon as the storm lets up."
Saria couldn't believe that she had thought of trying to start an argument with an enormous, talking bird. Although, she thought, he could be a little less snappy.
Saria leaned back against her tree and watched the rain, still falling hard, leak slowly through the thick, woody barrier. After a while of silent waiting, the rain slowed to a drizzle and finally stopped.
"Okay, Saria. Your pitiful little storm has ended. Now, we can leave!"
Sighing, Saria heaved herself off of the comfortable tree trunk. She would have to figure out what kind of tree it was someday. She watched Dart take off for a quick warm-up flight and then soar back to begin the journey to the bus stop. He was faster than she expected from such a large bird.
"Just follow me!"
Saria began jogging through the small bunch of trees that separated her from the road. Dart was indeed worthy of his name, Saria thought after a few minutes of trying to keep up with him. She felt relief as her feet hit the smooth road and to her great disappointment, she saw that he was headed for a much larger stretch of forest. Maps were apparently very deceiving objects. Saria thought that the bus stops were only a few miles away. Dart was probably leading her on a shortcut so that she could get there faster.
As Saria neared the trees, she felt a great sense of foreboding seeping from them. They were very dark, even though it was still light enough to travel. The road she was crossing had come to an end and Saria began to shake. She felt as if the trees were trying to frighten her away, but she had made a decision. She was more frightened of running into Quin again than walking through a stupid forest.
"They're just trees," she said to herself reassuringly as she slowly picked her way through the first of the thick trees, the sense of foreboding rising with each step.
After she entered the forest, Saria no longer worried. Her fears were all dissolved away. She didn't really know why. It was the same dark, spooky place she had seen from afar. She concluded that it must be like a ride from a theme park; it looks breathtakingly frightening while you're just looking at it, but once you've tried it you realize that it's really more exciting than scary. She thought no more of her worries and kept to her task of keeping up with Dart, who, she noticed gratefully, had slowed his pace so that she wouldn't tire so easily as she stumbled over roots and rubble.
Nearly an hour had passed when she began to feel something behind her. It made no sound, that she could tell. It was just a feeling, in the back of her head, that there was something there. She told herself not to look behind and get it's attention. Just keep going, she thought. It hadn't bothered her yet. Why give it a reason. It was a familiar feeling to her to have someone watching, even though she wasn't supposed to know. There was always someone watching.
The feeling of something there, she noticed, was gone. Saria idly wondered, as she picked her was carefully onward, how it just disappeared.
It happened all at once. One second, she was navigating her way through the forest, and the next, she was thrown with a crash into a tree. In a daze, she looked up to see a figure in a dark cloak. She couldn't see his face because it was hidden beneath a hood. She crawled backward until she had her back against the tree trunk. He walked slowly forward. Saria looked up to see Dart spiraling towards the man, but with the abrupt swish of a wing, he instead landed comfortably on the man's shoulder.
Saria was so surprised by her sudden betrayal that she jumped to her feet, banging her head painfully into an over hanging branch. "Dart. What's going on?"
Dart's full attention was on the cloaked figure. "I never knew you were such a bully. Can't you see that you're scaring her? Remove your hood and show her your face."
He did as Dart had said, and was, to none of Saria's great surprise, Quin. She couldn't believe how stupid she must be. Even a bird could deceive her. She wanted to strangle the both of them on the spot, but contented herself by simply glaring at them.
Dart spoke up. "Oh, come on. It's not what it looks like."
Saria just continued to glare. "I Think it's exactly what it looks like."
"Look, Saria. I won't lie to you that Dart and I are old acquaintances. He and I are from the same… neighborhood. But Dart is telling you the truth. I didn't tell him I was coming, and he didn't tell me that you were his new partner."
"Well, if you wanted to know, you should have asked. You know very well that I would have been more than happy to lead you to her."
"How was I supposed to know that you even knew she existed? It was better not to share my own secrets."
"Right back at you!"
Saria had had enough. "OK! I'm sick of this. I don't need a partner to get where I'm going, and I definitely don't want a stalker!" She glared at them again. Saria didn't know whether birds could show emotions or not, but Dart looked mortally offended by her words, and Quin almost looked ashamed. Saria wondered if anything ever got past his ears.
"If you had told me you didn't need help," Dart said quietly, sounding genuinely hurt, "I wouldn't have tried." Without another word, he soared, weaving through the branches, into the open sky.
Saria watched him fly further and further away until he was just a dot in the clouds, and then, was gone. She regretted telling him that she didn't need a partner, but she was so angry about Quin's sudden appearance that she hadn't paid attention to what she said. After a few minutes, she turned to see Quin sitting cross-legged on the forest floor. He was still staring at the sky where Dart had disappeared. Saria understood that she was at a complete loss without a guide, so she decided to sit down as well, but a good few yards away from Quin.
"Now you've done it, Saria. He won't come back for at least a few days. You couldn't have said anything more insulting to a guide eagle. Their honor is important to them, and you've put his through the shredder." It was Quin's turn to glare at Saria. She avoided his eyes and stared at the ground, guiltily.
The clouds were beginning to clear above them, and the late afternoon sun shone through the branches. Saria had begun to miss Dart's company, and she scolded herself. He was just a grouchy old bird. All he ever did was snap at her. But then why, she wondered, did she feel so miserably alone.
While she sorted out her feelings, Quin got up and bent down to pick up his cloak. Why he had a cloak was beyond Saria's current train of thought. He looked up at the sky, and started to walk through the forest.
Saria finally noticed and looked up. "Where are you going?"
"Well," he said, still walking away at a deliberately slow pace, "I thought that perhaps you would rather fall asleep on a bus than on the ground. Especially in this forest. It looks like we will have light for about three more hours. I suggest we start now."
She slowly got up on her to her feet. Her legs were very sore from the sudden change of habit. When she lived with Joyce, she liked to stay up in her room and read books. She liked best the books that took her to different worlds and high up into the sky, or deep underwater on fantastic quests. She was not used to so much real traveling.
Saria jogged up behind him and he stopped so quickly that she ran headlong into him. Even the crash hadn't had any effect on his posture. It hadn't even budged him. He took a deep breath and turned quickly around to her so that he was directly facing the sun. Saria gasped. His eyes seemed to soak up every detail of the forest, like a perfect mirror image. For a few moments she could hardly tell whether or not he was alive. For nearly two minutes he didn't move or breathe. As he looked away, the reflection vanished. Saria felt surprisingly relieved that he wasn't dead. She looked to see that reflection in his eyes was really gone. It was, but she still found something very familiar about him. He grabbed her shoulder and turned her in the direction he was standing, and he gave her a mirror that seemed to have come out of nowhere.
"Look towards the sun, and hold the mirror so that you will be able to see your reflection from the corner of your eyes. Don't look directly at the mirror until you turn away from the sun. You can't answer questions if you're dead."
In one shaky hand, Saria held the mirror up as directed by Quin, and looked towards the sun. Just as Quin had said, she could see her face through the reflection in the mirror. She nearly lost her balance at what she saw.
Her eyes were no longer the eyes she saw when she got up in the morning to wash her face. They were filled with colors and shapes. She could see the sky, still somewhat covered by stray gray clouds. Below it, she could see the trees. There were large and small trees, some bursting with life and others dead. Evergreens and fading oaks swayed lightly in the breeze. There was something else. A shadow among the trees. She didn't use her eyes to see it. She just knew it was there.
Saria lowered the mirror and stumbled backwards a few steps.
"Quin, how far away is the bus stop?"
"I'd say, three or four more miles."
"How long will it take us to get there?"
"Well, if you're willing to move quickly, we can be there in a matter of about two hours."
"I'm pretty sure I could run the whole way." Saria wanted to put as many miles between herself and that shadow as she could.
"You saw it too?"
Saria almost fell over. "What?"
"The shadow in the trees. Did you see it?"
"Yes. What is it?"
"Since it would take me forever to explain it, let's just say that it is also from my neighborhood." She and Quin began to walk again.
"Where on earth do you live! 'My neighborhood' is not a very good answer."
"No, it's not. Unfortunately, I cannot answer your question."
"Because it is not the right question."
Saria gave up on her question and jogged past him. He easily caught up with her in a matter of seconds.
"So, what was that? The way your eyes made a reflection of the forest?"
"Why don't you tell me? The last time I saw, your eyes did the exact same thing." Quin made her feel like she knew absolutely nothing about anything. And he enjoyed it.
"Quin, this is getting really old, and I don't think it's funny."
Quin slowed to a stop and turned to face her. She had never seen him so angry. "You're right," he said softly, but dangerously. "It isn't funny. It never crossed my mind as 'funny' when I was forced to go and look for you a year ago. I didn't think it was 'funny' when I discovered that my entire family had died in an accident during their annual get-together. My friends and everyone else I knew soon after died from other 'accidents'. That was not funny. And at last, I finally found you, and I get nothing but hell from you. No, it is not funny." He turned away and started forward again.
Saria was completely taken aback by what he had said to her. But she knew that he had at least partly been lying to her.
"That's not true. Not everyone you ever knew have died. Your old friend, Dart is still here."
"No, he's not. A guide eagle is a spirit. In life, his name was Jamis. He was an old family friend. My best friend. He turned seventeen on a frozen winter night. It was so dark that even I had trouble seeing where I was going. Well, something-perhaps a piece of hail- struck the stables. Jamis' horse, the White Arkonia, was spooked badly and with little effort had dismembered the stall door from it's hinges.
"All of us were in Jamis' parent's house, celebrating. And all of us heard and saw Arkonia neighing shrilly as he thundered past an open window. Jamis did not hesitate before he flew through the door after Arkonia. Someone should have grabbed him.
"It was so dark outside. I couldn't even see ten feet away from me. I could hear, though. As I stood on the doorstep, shaking from the cold, I no longer heard Arkonia's distant cries of terror. I heard Jamis calling for help. I tried to run in the direction that I had heard his voice coming from, but the wind was howling, and kept carrying his voice this way and that. I just kept running in a straight line to where I first heard him, hoping against hope that I was headed in the right direction. I had no idea where I was going, but I kept running. At last, Jamis came into view.
"Jamis seemed to be sitting down. Why was he sitting down, I wondered. He should be trying to get his horse back to safety. It was then, when a slice of moonlight hit the place where Jamis was, that I saw where I had come to. We were at the Koran river. The moonlight also revealed Jamis' situation. He was not sitting. He was desperately grabbing for a handhold in the ice while at the same time, he fought against the river's strong undercurrent. He could not see me, on the edge of the bank, watching helplessly as my friend slowly lost his will to fight back against the current. He still screamed for help though. I called out his name, but he couldn't seem hear me. I called again and again, louder each time, but he could not hear me. As a last resort, I found a long branch, and started moving slowly out to him. He finally saw me coming towards him."
Quin's eyes were distant, seeing something that Saria could not. His face held no emotion, but his voice was beginning to break from the effort of recalling his memory aloud.
"He watched me come cautiously forward on the slippery ice, but he stilled cried out for help. His lips and fingertips were pale blue from the deadly cold of the river. He had stopped moving his legs against the current. I was finally close enough for him to grab hold of the branch. I stretched it outwards as far as my arms would allow so that he would get a good grip. He shook violently as he took one hand from his death grip on the ice and slowly tried to grasp the branch. His fingers just barely brushed the tip of my branch when the current took him. He was swept under the ice before I could blink. They never found his body."
Quin had stopped walking to lean against a tree, not facing Saria. "I'm sorry to hear about that, Quin."
He turned around to glare at her. "I didn't say it so you would feel sorry for me. I said it so you would understand. Jamis died from hypothermia. He wasn't murdered. You can only become a guide eagle if you have died from a cause other than murder. Suicide wasn't counted as any sort murder back then, because suicide was a very unreasonable crime to commit. Everyone in my family would have become a guide eagle. I can't explain that now, because you wouldn't understand. You might even laugh, but that is not the point. Everyone in my family that was still alive when I left is now dead. Why haven't they become guide eagles? Because they were all murdered."
Saria decided that she could have figured that out without his extra help. "How do you know that they haven't become guide eagles?"
"Well, you could say that my family is somewhat…'special'." He started to move once more. She had to take three steps for every stride of his.
"You know, unique, out of the ordinary. Trust me, if they had become guide eagles, I would have known."
"So, if you knew they had been murdered, why didn't you return home to find out who killed them instead of wasting your time looking for me?"
"Simply because finding you was more important. There was nothing to be done for them. They were dead. You, on the other hand, are still alive and well. And, as far as I know, you're to be kept that way." He glared menacingly. "At least for awhile."
Still unable to tell whether Quin was trying to help her or kill her, Saria made herself walk just a bit faster.