Authors: Francesca Haig
Piper and Zoe had paused on the brink of the final island. Piper blocked the way, crouching at the point where the isthmus met the wooded slope.
When I tried to edge past him, he stood and yanked at my sweater, pulling me back. “Wait,” he said.
“What are you doing?” I said, shaking him off.
“Look,” he said, crouching again and peering at the path. I bent to see what he was so intent on.
He pointed out the strand of wire stretched across the width of the path, six inches above the ground. “Stay down,” he said. Zoe, beside him, squatted on her heels. He leaned forward and tugged the wire.
The arrow passed a foot above our heads and disappeared into the sea. Piper stood, grinning. Somewhere on the island ahead of us, a bell was clanging. I looked back to the water. The arrow had not even left a ripple. If we'd been standing, it would have gone straight through us.
“She'll know we're coming, at least,” said Zoe. “But she won't be happy that you wasted an arrow.”
Piper bent and pulled the wire again. Twice slowly, twice quickly, and slowly twice more. Up the hill, the bell sounded out the rhythm.
Three more times, as we crossed the island, Piper or Zoe halted us so that we could step over trip wires. Another time, I felt the trap even before Zoe warned me to step off the path. When I bent to examine the ground, I could sense a kind of insubstantiality to it: a confusion between air and earth. Crouching, I saw the layer of long willow twigs woven together and covered with leaves.
“There's a six-foot drop under there,” Piper said. “Sharpened stakes planted at the bottom, too. Sally made Zoe and me dig it, when we were teenagers. Was a bitch of a job.” He set off ahead of me. “Come on.”
It took us nearly an hour to cross the island, making our way up the forested slope and avoiding the traps. Eventually we ran out of land. The island had climbed to a peak at its southern edge, where a cliff dropped away to the sea in front of us. There was nothing beyond but the waves and the unlikely angles of the submerged city.
“There,” said Piper, pointing through the final trees. “Sally's place.”
I could see nothing but the trees, their pale trunks blotched with brown like an old man's hands. Then I saw the door. It was low, and half-concealed by the boulders that clustered at the cliff's edge. It stood impossibly close to the end of the bluffâit looked like a doorway into nothingness, and was so faded and battered by the coastal winds that the wood was bleached to the same shade as the salt-parched grasses around it. It had been built to take advantage of the cover of the boulders, so that at least half of the building must have hung out over the edge of the cliff itself.
Zoe whistled, the same rhythm that Piper had sounded on the warning bell: two slow notes, two quick, and two slow.
The woman who opened the door was the oldest person I'd ever seen. Her hair was sparse enough that I could see the curve of scalp beneath it. Around her neck, the skin was draped like a cowl. Even her nose looked tired, drooping at the tip like melted candle wax. I was fairly sure that her forehead bore no brand, but it was hard to tell: age had branded her now, her forehead cragged with wrinkles. The loose flesh of her eyelids hung so low over her eyes that I imagined they must disappear altogether when she smiled.
But she wasn't smiling now. She was looking at us.
“I hoped you wouldn't come,” she said.
“Nice to see you, too,” said Zoe.
“I knew you wouldn't come unless you were desperate,” the woman said. She came forward, a lurch in her step. Both legs were twisted, the joints gnarled and fused. She embraced Zoe first, and then Piper. Zoe closed her eyes when Sally held her. I tried to picture Zoe and Piper as they must have been when, ten years old and on the run, they first came to Sally. I wondered how much the old woman had seen them change. The world was a flint on which they had been sharpened.
“This is the seer?” Sally said.
“This is Cass,” said Piper.
“I haven't stayed safe all these years by bringing strangers into my home,” she said.
She had to balance her speech with her breathing, so the words came slowly. Sometimes she paused between each syllable, the noisy breaths taking their time. Each breath a sigh.
“You can trust me,” I said.
She stared at me again. “We'll see.”
We followed her inside the house. When she shut the door behind us, the whole building shook. I thought again of the cliff underneath us, and the sea clawing at the rocks.
“Relax,” said Piper. I hadn't even realized that I was clutching the doorframe. “This place has been here for decades. It's not going down the cliff tonight.”
“Even under the weight of an uninvited guest,” added Sally. She turned away and shuffled into the kitchen. Her footsteps on the floor were hollowâonly wood between her and the cliff's plunge. “Since you're all here, I suppose I'd better get some food ready.”
As she busied herself at the table, I looked at the closed door by the stove. No noise came from within, but I could feel, like a draught on the back of my neck, another presence in the house.
“Who else is here?” I said.
“Xander's resting,” Sally said. “He was up all last night.”
“Xander?” I said.
Sally raised an eyebrow at Piper.
“You didn't tell her about Xander?”
“Not yet.” He turned to me.
“Remember I told you, on the island, that we'd had two other seers? And the younger one had been brought to the island before he was branded?”
“Xander was useful for undercover work,” Piper went on, “but we didn't want to involve him in anything too important.”
“Was he too young?”
“You think we had the luxury of sparing the young ones that kind of responsibility?” He laughed. “Some of our scouts on the mainland were barely in their teens. Noâand it wasn't even that Xander couldn't be trusted, really. We never thought he'd deliberately betray us. But he was always volatile.”
“It got worse, in the last few years,” Zoe said. “But even before that, he was always jumpy. Skittish, like a horse that's seen a snake.”
“It was a shame,” said Piper.
“A shame for him, to be so troubled?” I asked. “Or for you, that you couldn't use him as you'd have liked?”
“Can't it be both?” Piper said. “Anyway, he did what he could for us. We based him on the mainland. Even without his visions, it was useful to have someone unbranded who could pass for an Alpha. And sometimes his visions came in useful, too. But we had to bring him here, in the end. He couldn't work anymore, and Sally said she'd take him.”
“Why do you keep talking about him in the past tense? He's here now, isn't he?”
“You'll see soon enough,” Sally said, hobbling across the kitchen and opening the door to the room beyond.
A boy sat on the bed, his back to us. He had thick dark hair like Piper's, tightly curled, but it was longer, and stood in high tufts, like the peaks of beaten egg whites. The window above the bed looked out over the water, and the boy didn't turn away from it as we entered.
We moved closer. Piper sat next to him on the bed, ushering me to sit beside him.
Xander was perhaps sixteen. His face still had the softness of a child. Like Sally, he was unbranded. When Piper greeted him, he didn't look at us, or respond at all. His eyes darted from side to side, as if following the flight of some invisible insect above our heads.
I wasn't sure whether what I sensed about him was evident to everyone, or whether it was only seers that would feel it. The brokenness inside him. Sally had said that he was resting, but there was no rest here. Only terror. The frantic buzzing of Xander's mind was like a wasp trapped in a jar.
Zoe hung back in the doorway. I saw her mouth tighten as she watched the fidgeting of Xander's long fingers, ceaselessly kneading the air. And I remembered what she'd said to me, about how the visions affected me:
I've seen it happen before.
Piper stilled one of Xander's hands with his own.
“It's good to see you again, Xander.”
The boy opened his mouth, but no words came. In the silence, I could almost hear the discordant jangling of his mind.
“Do you have any news for us?” Piper asked.
Xander leaned forward, until his face was close to Piper's. He spoke in a whisper. “Forever fire. Hot noise. Burning light.” The words chased one another out.
“He's seeing the blast more than ever,” Sally said. “Day and night, now.”
“He never used to be as bad as this,” Piper said. “What's changed?”
“Move over,” I said to Piper.
“Maze of bones,” muttered Xander.
I looked up at Sally. “What does that mean?”
“Search me,” she said. “Sometimes he talks almost normally. Other times, he comes up with stuff like that. The fire, most of the time. Sometimes stuff about bones.”
“Noises in the maze of bones,” Xander said.
His eyes had stilled a little, staring abstractedly at the corner of the ceiling. I placed my hands on the sides of his head, and stared into his eyes.
I didn't want to force myself into his mind. I still remembered how it had felt when the Confessor had tried to probe my thoughts in the Keeping Rooms. After each session with her, my mind had felt like a dollhouse that had been picked up and shaken, everything scattered and rattling. I understood Zoe's fury when she learned that I'd stumbled
into her dreams. But I had to admit that I was also curious about what I might discover from Xander. I was desperate to see if what he saw was the same as what I saw. To confirm, I hoped, that I was not alone in the visions of fire that my mind hurled at me. If I was searching for anything in the jumble of his mind, I suppose it was a glimpse of myself.
His eyes remained blank as I groped toward his thoughts. Occasionally his mouth seemed to be trying to form words, but they didn't take shape. Stillborn, they stayed at his lips, empty shapes incapable of sound.
His mind was burned out. Everything charred and gone, broken down to ashes and dust. This was what remained, after the flames had exploded too many times in his mind: ash, and smoke, and words sheared of their meanings, rattling loose in his head.
“It's the visions of the blast that've done this to him,” I said.
It wasn't the strangeness of his state that unsettled me, but its familiarity. I'd felt it myself, this madness, scratching around the edge of my mind like a rat in the rafters. It was always there. At times, particularly in the Keeping Rooms, or when the blast visions had become more and more frequent, it had been emboldened, almost crept into sight.
“Flash. Fire. Forever fire,” Xander blurted again. He didn't say the wordsâthey uttered him. As each word burst from him, he convulsed. He looked startled at the sounds emerging from his own mouth.
“You know it happens to seers eventually,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. I had lived with that knowledge for as long as I'd known what I was. But encountering the residue of Xander's mind still left me with a chill in my guts, my fists curled so tightly that my nails cut into my palms.
He was rocking backward and forward now, his arms wrapped around his knees. I recognized, in his scrunched body, that futile attempt to hide from the visions, as if making yourself smaller would somehow
spare you. I remembered curling like that myself, as a child, with my head tucked down toward my chest and my eyes clamped closed. It didn't work, of course. Xander was right:
. It would never go away. The blast would haunt all of us seers, always. But why did it burst into our dreams more often now, enough to drive Xander to this?
“Let him rest,” Sally said, stepping forward and cupping Xander's chin in her hand. She lifted the blanket that had fallen from him, and tucked it again around his shoulders.
As we were leaving, he opened his eyes and, for a moment, fixed them on me.
I looked at Piper for an explanation. He'd glanced up at Zoe, but she didn't meet his eyes. She crossed her arms in front of her. Her face shut down.
“Lucia?” said Xander again.
Piper looked up at me. “He must be able to tell you're a seer. Lucia was a seer, too.”
The older seer from the island, branded. She'd drowned, Piper had said. A shipwreck in a storm, on the way to the island.
“Lucia's gone,” Piper said to Xander. “The ship went down more than a year ago. You know that already.” His voice was too brisk, too loud: his attempt to sound casual was jarring.
We left Xander gazing out the window, watching the sea swap its colors with the sky. His hands twitched and twisted constantly. I thought of Leonard's hands on his guitar strings. Xander's hands were kept busy on the unseen instrument of his madness.
“What will you do with him?” I asked Sally, when she'd closed the door to the bedroom.
“Do?” She laughed. “You say it like I have choices. As if there's anything I could do, other than just keep surviving. Keep him safe.”
Even from the next room, I found Xander's presence exhausting. The churning of his mind, from behind the closed door, made me feel seasick. When Sally sent us out to gather firewood and mushrooms, I felt guilty at my own relief.
Piper and I knelt together at the base of one of the trees, where mushrooms clustered thickly. Zoe was gathering wood nearby. Piper spoke quietly, so that she wouldn't hear.
“You've seen Xanderâwhat being a seer has done to him.” He looked up at Zoe, twenty yards away, and dropped his voice even further. “It happened to Lucia, too.” At the mention of the dead seer's name, his voice caught, his eyelids closed. For a single moment I felt as though we were standing on different islands, and the tide had swallowed the neck of land between them. “Toward the end,” he added. Then he looked quickly back at me and went on. “Now you're having more and more visions of the blast, too. So why hasn't it happened to you yet?”