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Authors: Megan Whitmer

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Between (5 page)

BOOK: Between
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That makes sense. The Mothman doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who plays well with others. Images from this evening play on a loop in my mind—the face in the tree, the Mothman’s black leathery wings, the knife clutched in Mom’s fist. The path levels out again, and I come to a stop.

Seth’s not human. He’s leading me to the mystical realm, where he works for some kind of mythical Mafia. With my mother.

“What about Mom?” I ask. “Is she…”

I can’t even find a way to finish the question.

She went after the Mothman. She didn’t run. She didn’t hide. She didn’t even seem surprised. She and Seth spoke their own language, using words I knew but in a context I’d never heard. She flickered.

The conclusion is obvious, but if Mom’s not human—

My knees turn to water. I reach around until I feel rough bark beneath my hands and press my back against the closest tree. I take a breath, and then another, but nothing seems to make it into my lungs.

The Mothman. The flickering. Two worlds. The Between. Jeravon. And now I don’t know what my own mother is or what it makes me.

“Charlie?”

“Sorry.” My voice shakes. “I need a second. It just,” I take a breath, “sort of snuck up on me.” I feel the tears there, right behind my eyelids, and the more I focus on making them go away, the less control I have over them. A tear slips down my cheek and I swipe it with the back of my hand.

Seth fixes his very serious brown eyes on me. “This isn’t how I’d hoped to tell you all this. It’s a lot to take in all at once, but right now I don’t really have a choice. I want you to know I’m going to make sure you get through this. That’s my job.”

My lower lip trembles, and I clamp my lips together to make it stop. When my face is under my control again, I say, “I thought your job was with the Fellowship.”

“It is.” Seth steps closer and rubs his hand up and down my arm, squeezing. “When we arrive in Ellauria, you and Sam will begin training as Apprentices in the Fellowship. Each Apprentice is assigned an Aegis to serve as a mentor and guardian. I’m your Aegis. That means my primary concern is your safety.” His eyebrows lift. “Understand?”

I sniff. “Aegis? What kind of name is that?”

“Ancient Greek. Used to mean a shield.” He smiles. “For you, it means me.”

He’s my shield. The words bring a strange sort of comfort in the middle of this complete break from reality. I straighten and rest my head against the tree for a moment.

“This will be easier with Adele and Sam,” Seth says. “He’s going through as much of a shock as you are right now. When we get you two together, Adele and I will explain everything.” He’s right. Sam will need me as much as I need him. I pull away from the tree, and more strands of hair fall from my bun. I tuck them behind my ears. “If we’re all going to the same place, why don’t we run into them here?”

Seth tips his head toward the path and steps toward it, slowing his pace to allow me to keep up with him. “The Between is infinite. With so many different gates leading from one realm to the other, the odds we’d run into anyone else here are pretty slim.”

I look around anyway, keeping an eye out for Sam’s curls. Even if we’re not exactly together, knowing we’re in the same space makes me feel stronger.

I smell the hydrangea bush before I see it. Each rounded bloom is made up of several tiny flowers with pale blue centers that grow darker at the edges of the petals. I can’t get over how the flowers look here. Everything seems so much healthier, like each plant was given perfect conditions to thrive. I’m already planning the sketches in my head. One of the large weathered gate. The blossoming honeysuckle. The balls of hydrangea.

Splitting this world into scenes helps me process it. One thing at a time. I can do this. We’ll get to Ellauria and sort this out. Sam will be with me, and Mom’s voice will make it all make sense.

I wish I’d hugged her before she disappeared.

I search my brain for questions I think I can handle. “What do Apprentices do in the Fellowship?”

Please say we stay super far away from all things that might kill us, such as abnormally large bird-man hybrids. And spiders.

“Everyone enters the Fellowship as an Apprentice. That’s when you learn everything about what we do and how we operate, and that typically takes a few years.” Seth glances at me, making sure I’m listening, so I nod. “Afterward,” he continues, “you move into your permanent role in the Fellowship. What that is depends on the strengths you show as an Apprentice.”

Permanent role in the Fellowship.

The words sound so final, like I’m heading into the home stretch of a journey I didn’t even know I was on. The ball of anxiety in my stomach swells. I’m supposed to be an artist. I’ve worked at it for years, ever since I found out I could make a career of it. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. It’s what I’ve dreamed of—my work displayed in galleries for everyone to see. I don’t—

“Watch your step,” Seth says.

Broad, rolling tree roots erupt from the ground and the dirt path disappears. Soaring golden tree trunks mark our trail on each side. The leaves block the sun and cast shadows over us, but the gilded trunks and branches provide a light of their own as we pass.

The adrenaline I’ve been running on is fading, and the bottoms of my feet feel like giant bruises. “How much longer until we reach Ellauria?”

“Not much farther,” he says, his voice bouncing off the trees.

“Why don’t we flicker?”

“Mother Nature created this as a buffer between the mystical and mortal realms. The only way to get in and out of Ellauria is to travel through the Between. You can’t flicker past it.”

It’s the second time he’s mentioned Mother Nature. I’ve never given much thought to Mother Nature as a mythical creature. She’s always seemed abstract, without shape or voice—more of a way of personifying Earth itself rather than having an identity of her own. Seth talks about her like she’s a person instead of a presence, and I have no idea what to make of that.

We reach the end of the tree-lined corridor, and Seth stops in front of a large boulder covered in a jumble of twisted, olive-colored vines. Before I have a chance to enjoy the fact that we’re standing still, Seth’s fingers circle my elbow, digging into my arm, and he pulls me toward the boulder. I squeeze my eyes shut, reasonably certain the introduction of my face to the stone won’t end well for my nose. The air changes—cooler, damper—and I open my eyes.

We’re standing in a rounded tunnel carved from firmly packed ground. It’s lit by glowing lanterns hanging from the walls on either side of us at evenly spaced intervals. I turn around, pressing my hand against the solid rock behind me.

We walked through the boulder.

Through
the boulder.

Holy sheet
.

Seth speaks to me in a slow, even tone. “Listen, you’re basically being thrown into the deep end here, and you have to understand—I’m your lifejacket. I need you to do what I tell you, even if you don’t always understand why. What you’ve learned today is nothing compared with what you need to know.” He leans over, placing his face directly in front of mine. “You’re going to be fine.”

I press my lips together and nod.

Seth nods toward the dark end of the tunnel, pressing us forward. “When we get to Ellauria,” he says, “try not to act too awed by everything. Your tendency to gawk could be a problem.”

Is he seriously criticizing me right now? “I’m not gawking, I’m noticing. I’m studying the details. I’ve always done that. It comes in handy when I put scenes on paper.”

The tunnel grows darker as we get closer to the end. The lanterns gradually become farther and farther apart. I don’t like the darkness. I don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing what might be in the shadows. Seth takes my hand.

“It doesn’t matter why you do it. Pretend you’ve seen these things a million times. It shouldn’t be obvious to everyone that you’re new. You’re not like the other Apprentices. They’ve known about the Fellowship and Ellauria their whole lives.”

“Why wasn’t I raised like that?” My heart races as the darkness grows bigger, and Seth squeezes my fingers.

“It’s a long story,” he replies, “and I swear I will tell you every detail, but for now, trust me when I tell you that, for your safety, you were hidden from the Fellowship and the Fellowship was hidden from you.”

It’s just like him to decide what I need to know and expect me to accept it. Before I have a chance to lay into him, Seth says, “We’ll be in Ellauria in five minutes. We’ll meet up with Adele and Sam, and then Adele and I will tell you everything. Can you wait until we’re all together?”

I take a deep breath.

Listen to Seth
.

“Fine.” I exhale.

But I don’t have to be happy about it.

We walk in silence until we reach the end of the passageway. Blank walls of earth surround us on three sides. I barely see the outline of a rounded door in the wall before me. A tree root has grown down into the cave, twisted around, and dug its way back into the earth, forming a handle. Seth rests his hand on it and says, “After you?”

“Whatever.” My last twists of hair fall loose from my bun and I run my fingers through it.

“Whatever,” Seth repeats, and shakes his head. “We’re going to have to work on your communication skills.”

My
communication skills?

“You’re the one who has no idea how social interaction works.” I take a step back from him and cross my arms over my chest. “You tell me just enough to freak me out without giving me the entire story, and when I ask questions, you brush them off like I’m expecting too much too soon. You keep telling me to trust you, and quite frankly, I’m not even sure what I truly know about you at all anymore.”

“Charlie, take a breath. You know me.” Seth’s shoulders fall and his eyebrows come together over his nose. “I’m the same guy who’s been part of your family for the last five years. What happened today doesn’t affect our history. None of this changes who we are, deep down. You can trust me. You’ve always been able to trust me.”

I want to believe him. I want to be convinced everything that happened before today was real, and that he’s part of my life because he wants to be, not because of a commitment to the Fellowship.

“Hey.” He bends his knees to make me look at him, but I refuse. His eyes distract me. I don’t want to get swept up in them right now. He places his hands on the sides of my face, and I finally meet his gaze. It’s as sincere as always, filled with certainty and confidence, and a soft compassion around the edges. “You are completely capable of handling this. I know you’re overwhelmed, but if you need to find one thing to be sure of, one thing you absolutely know, it’s me. I’m with you, like I’ve always been, and I’m not going anywhere. Okay?”

For the first time since he mentioned realms, my breath reaches all the way down into my lungs. He’s still Seth, and as much as he drives me crazy, I can be sure of him. “Okay.”

Seth grasps the handle again. “Remember, once we go through this door, we’re Aegis and Apprentice. No gawking.”

The reminder gets under my skin because, as Seth is still Seth, I am still me. I smile sweetly. “Whatever. Should I call you Mr. Hewitt?”

He smirks and places his other hand on the body of the door. With a substantial push, the door moans and shakes free from the wall. Seth steps aside and presses his hand against my lower back, nudging me forward as the door swings open.

F
OUR

A
s soon as my eyes adjust to the light, I see butterflies. Everywhere. I go still, sucking in a quick breath. Masses and masses of vibrantly colored wings flit about in all directions—lingering in the shadows between squat stone buildings, hovering above emerald-green grass, and loitering near the arches of wildflowers poised above wide, cobbled paths. The sun hangs low in the sky, and I lose all concept of time. Is this a repeat of today’s sunset, or have I already leaped into tomorrow? “What time is it? Is it still today?”

“Yes. The mystical realm is a little behind.”

I step away from the tunnel, moving slowly down the lush grass toward the broadest of the nearby trails. The trees are enormous, with trunks as wide as the house I grew up in, and heavily leafed limbs stretch high over my head.

Wooden stairs climb all the way up around the trunks of some of the smaller trees, leading to other buildings and balconies balanced high in the branches. A few of the particularly massive trees have steps at their bases that seem to lead directly into the trees themselves. I stare at one such tree nearby on the opposite side of the path, examining its steps, trunk, and the crowds of leaves spouting from its higher limbs.

Suddenly, a well-concealed door swings open from the trunk. “Whoa,” I breathe.

I feel Seth’s eyes on my face as I turn my attention to the woman who is stepping out of the tree. She’s tall, with long platinum hair and twig-like legs. Her green dress flows behind her, and two broad, shimmering wings protrude from her back.

My heart pounds.
That
is a fairy. Right in front of me. A freaking fairy.

“Seth?” I close my fingers around his arm.

“I’m right here,” he whispers. “Take a second, but then we need to keep moving.”

I close my eyes, allowing myself a few seconds to clear my head. A million thoughts flood my brain. Every single urban legend I’ve ever heard. Every tabloid news story. Every fuzzy photograph of a supposedly imaginary creature.

These things cannot be real.

I take a slow, steady breath before opening my eyes again.

The fairy I spotted a moment ago is hovering above the steps of the tree she exited, chatting with another fairy who is dressed in blue. I hear the unmistakable sound of hoofs clopping against the ground, a noise I heard many times back home when our neighbors took their horses for rides along our fence line. The familiarity is only in the memory—the half-horse, half-man hybrids I see trotting down the path are unlike the stallions I’m used to. Centaurs. There are actual centaurs here. And fairies. With the wings. And the flying.

It’s real. It’s all real. As terrifying as it is, at least I’m not losing my mind. Tonight’s events truly happened, and Seth is taking me to Mom and Sam, and we’re going to understand everything.

BOOK: Between
9.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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