Chapter 7 — Jen
"What have you got for me?”
“Nothing, sir. We’re still actively pursuing all possible leads.”
“So he's been missing since last night."
"Yes sir, based on the mother's testimony. Adela Svartholm last saw Blake before leaving for work the night before."
"Leaving for work?"
"Graveyard shift nurse, sir."
"Chief, kid's been gone for less than twenty-four hours. Doesn't that mean he's not considered missing yet?"
"He's under eighteen, detective. That rule doesn't apply. Did you get anything useful from the mother?"
“West, do I need to schedule you another sensitivity training?”
"We’re not sure about the mother’s testimony yet, sir. We have another name or two to run down."
"Well, get going, then. Dismissed."
I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. Pancake has cake in the name. It’s close enough. And I haven’t had a really good pancake in a long time.
Matt’s pancakes are amazing. Okay, you might think it’s easy to to make pancakes… and it is. But to make good pancakes, that’s hard. Not everyone’s got that. My brother’s got it; my mom’s got it too. Family secret recipe. One whose ingredients sadly didn’t quite carry over across worlds. Nor did maple syrup.
Pancakes with maple syrup and powdered sugar. That’s been our family “breakfast for dinner” treat for a long time. The sort of special surprise we’d occasionally get when we actually had the chance to sit down together and eat a good meal. Tonight’s feast was better than any meal I could ever remember—and that included several literal feasts. I’m not claiming Matt was some kind of food wizard, mind you. It tasted great, but the meal was so much better because of the company.
Mom was actually awake and laughing, for one. We told the usual inside jokes, teased Matt about his unexpected new love life, and just hung out. It felt like we’d picked right back up where we left off. I felt so comfortable and warm there at our little round table, just the three of us. I felt… normal. Relatively. For the first time, I went for hours without a single wayward thought about Cyraveil. Still the occasional glance out the window to make sure no one was there watching, but without the usual hallucination and flash of terror.
The one spot of real anxiety that cropped up came when Mom asked me about how school was going. I passed it off, or at least I thought I did, but she came back around a few minutes later to pester me again. I knew she was just trying to be the good parent and all, but how the hell was I supposed to answer questions about my classwork from seven years ago?
Matt was no help at all. He’d gotten all moody and withdrawn, when he could have easily deflected Mom onto another subject. It was only through the years of experience dealing with my opposites in the ambassador tent that I could hide my emotions and redirect the conversation back where I wanted it to go. She was doggedly persistent, something Matt obviously got from her. Once they got a task in their minds, they did not give up. Admirable, really, except when I was the target.
I love her to death, don’t get me wrong. And I wanted to tell her everything, but Matt said no. And he was probably right. Better we just keep it secret until everything became clear, and we knew what we were doing, who we could trust.
Yeah, I’m a bit of a hypocrite. Shut up.
Sara is my best friend. And not that sort of best friend where it’s just the person you happen to hang out with the most. I mean someone I trust with everything. She’s the sort of person who’s seen me cry, who knows every secret crush and weird thought that crossed my mind, who I’d keep awake until three in the morning for weeks straight talking about anything and everything in between. I’ve never lied to her about anything.
Okay, that’s a lie too, if you want to get pedantic. But the big stuff. I’ve never lied to Sara about that, and she’s helped me through so much. Like stuff with my father, or when Mom was sick, or stupid school stuff, or my massive identity crisis when I realized what it meant that my last name was different from Matt’s.
(Not adopted, by the way. Full-blooded siblings, it’s complicated. If you ask nicely, I might tell you the story someday.)
Point is, Sara is trustworthy. She’s the best person I know in this world, except maybe my mom. But while my mom has never quite understood discretion, preferring to share everything between the family, Sara would never break a promise to anyone. Maybe Matt didn’t know that yet, or maybe he just overlooked people like Sara when he said we couldn’t tell anyone.
So why didn’t I tell Matt about what I’d done yet? If I had to admit it, I was afraid. Afraid he’d say it was a bad idea. Afraid he’d tell me not to talk to her anymore. Then we’d run into a real problem, because there was no way in hell I could ever agree to that. I didn’t want a fight with my brother. We’d done that before, and it only ended badly. Really badly.
For now, secrecy was the best option. Sara knew just enough to not ask anything yet. That seemed like an okay compromise. Besides, that also kept the rift away from her and Matt.
Yeah, my best friend and my older brother were going on a date, and that was super weird. But they’re only a year apart… now… and I meant what I said. They seemed like a cute couple. I thought they’d be good together. I mean, they’re my two favorite people in the world, and they want to be together. That couldn’t be a bad thing, right?
No, I’m not worried. It’ll be fine.
I was worried about whether or not Matt noticed what I carried in that afternoon. When we’d gotten home from school, I’d run to check the mailbox. Lo and behold, same-day shipping is a miracle of modern technology. I’d rushed the package inside and up to my room before Matt got out to the garage—I hoped. He might have seen me through the window. I dunno. I think I hid it pretty well. He didn’t mention it, anyway.
After dinner, while Mom was helping Matt clean up the kitchen (even as he insisted she go relax and enjoy her unusual day off), I was very quietly and carefully climbing the stairs. Normally, our entire house creaked and groaned everywhere you walked. It was practically impossible to move around without everyone hearing you. I’d learned a lot though about moving quietly, though, and a lot of the concepts still applied. My feet were light and quick, and I still remembered a lot of the specific spots where the old wood made noise. Memories resurfaced, of so many nights with Tethevallen and Naeflin, learning how to move through a forest with only a whisper in my wake, how to avoid rustling the leaves and branches, and how to avoid making any audible footfalls without losing an ounce of momentum. Completely different environment, but I could adapt the basics, and I was a fast learner.
By the time I reached my room, I was practically a ghost rushing above the floor, with nary a thump of a door or a heel striking the floor to be heard.
I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. It wasn’t like my family didn’t know where I was. It just felt natural. Being able to move silently almost anywhere was a skill I’d honed over the years, and it had been incredibly valuable. I didn’t want to let go of it.
Also under the “valuable skills” column was the package I’d ordered that afternoon, using Carl’s phone—a surprisingly short cardboard box I’d slid under the bed. I cracked it open slowly, trying to avoid making too much noise tearing away the tape. Nestled inside was a handsome three-piece maple recurve bow, built to takedown and reassemble easily. A hard leather carrying case with attached quiver accompanied it, along with a set of feathered arrows.
I took the bow out and assembled it, though I didn’t string it right away. I didn’t want to stress the wood, and I didn’t plan on using it any time soon, so there was no reason to bother with it yet. I slid my hand along the sier, feeling the smooth maple wood and the perfect finish. It was perfect. Too perfect. I wished I still had the bow I’d helped craft myself, but I forced that thought away. It was silly. There was no way I could assemble a bow of that quality with the tools and materials I had here. Besides, there were fancier, modern materials to use to replace the traditional wood, and I wasn’t exactly a purist.
Case in point, the limbs on this bow were not made of wood—or any material known in Cyraveil—but black fiberglass, rolling back and upward to create a slender curve, increasing the weight of the draw when strung. I shuddered at what Tethevallen might think about such a thing, but it wasn’t like I could just strengthen the limbs with an etomala here. I’d yet to feel any connection or resurgence in this world, so I had to make do. Fiberglass would work, even if the shiny black was totally at odds with the pleasant swirls of brown along the maplewood.
Satisfied, I disassembled it and placed the three pieces back into their slots in the foam liner of the leather bag. The bag was worn at the waist, and had an attached cylindrical case for the arrows. I tried the getup on, testing it out carefully. After a few adjustments, it flexed with my movements, but it stayed close and firm. It wouldn’t swing around unnecessarily and catch on things or hamper me down. I reached experimentally and found I could grab an arrow, as swift and painlessly as I needed.
I inspected the arrows. They were more expensive than I’d hoped, but they felt solid and smooth, and the fletching was excellent. The tips were broad and they looked like they’d do the job. They’d fly straight, too, even if they used some weird feather colors. I guess solid white and black made them easier to spot when hunting. I packed them away into the bag, not wanting them out in the open in the quiver in case someone went snooping.
Finally, the knife. I had a lot less experience with them, in terms of materials and quality, anyway. I definitely knew how to use one. I looked it over, and it seemed fine. The blade was sharp, and it was long enough for anything I might use it for. I felt satisfied.
The bag went under my bed, concealed under some sheets, and I followed suit and collapsed underneath my own blanket. Every muscle ached from exhaustion. I pulled the blanket tight around me and curled up, waiting for the heat to settle in, wishing I had a fire or anything else since I couldn’t keep myself warm like I usually did.
You can buy a bow online and have it shipped to you within nine hours. How crazy is that?
With that passing thought out of the way, I drifted off only a few moments later. Real sleep had finally arrived, after one harrowing night of insomnia and an exhausting first day back. I was so grateful to finally drift off for real. As I slipped away though, my thoughts were fixated on what I’d just purchased. The weapon.
For the first time since I’d gotten home, I felt safe. That bothered me a lot, but I couldn’t help it. I had no logical reason to expect something, but my brain decided logic could go screw itself. In my hands, that bow was a deadly, swift, virtually silent weapon, and the knife was a great complement. They’d be perfect at putting a swift end to the fight if I were attacked.
What the hell am I thinking? I didn’t want to kill anyone. That’s not me. I didn’t even want to hurt anyone.
So why was I clutching the knife tight under my pillow as I fell asleep?
The next day (Thursday, as I finally learned the names of the days again) was a disaster.
I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course, but I’m pretty sure I ruined everything in one day. Go team Jen.
Let me rewind and explain that a bit, I guess. It started off okay. I woke up the next morning after sleeping something like fifteen hours straight, knife still in hand. I ate breakfast, leftover pancakes from the night before. Matt had set them on a plate in in the refrigerator and left a sticky note with my name on it. Mom was already gone too, so I had the house to myself for a bit. I spent it mostly just staring out the back window while I chewed, at the woods beyond our backyard.
We had a small forest behind our house. It really wasn’t that large, but it was deep enough that you could get a little lost, feel like your sense of direction was totally gone, surrounded by scattered tree trucks and thickets of underbrush. Of course, since we were still pretty close to a few big roads, the faint ambient noise of cars rushing by was inescapable. The woods muffled it, but only so much. Cyraveil Forest was much larger and more difficult to travel through, but it was way on the other side of town, further away from the city.
I had an intense, primal longing for those trees right now. To sit down under the shade of some huge trunk, in the comfortable nook of its thick roots, with scattered sunlight filtering through the layers of leaves above me, feeling the wind rustle through the branches and the layers of ivy and fallen twigs coating the floor, filling my nostrils with the scent of the bark and tree sap and maybe the petrichor from an upcoming downpour.
But I had to go to school.
I packed up my bag and headed out the door. I’d managed to grab a class schedule for myself later in the day (with an assist from Sara), so I actually knew what I had today instead of just blindly hoping my feet took me to the right room. Our school operated on an alternating day schedule, so I had a new set of classes today. Sara had something in the morning on Thursdays too, so I’d be walking to school without her. My other friends were waiting by the gate in the morning though. I said hi, did the usual meet-and-greet, but I avoided conversation the rest of the way. I just let them talk. I really didn’t feel it today, especially with them.
Their conversations seemed so… I dunno. Unimportant, now? I kinda hate myself for thinking that. Does it make me super-arrogant? Naeflin would have a few choice words for it, for sure.
I just couldn’t get into the gossip anymore, especially since I barely remembered half the people we were talking about. Not much in the way of juicy information when names float by as insubstantially as petals in the wind. I knew I’d be regretting not paying attention later, but for now it just seemed like too much effort.
Sorry, back on topic, disaster day. Nothing interesting went down in the morning. I’ll skip ahead to the notable bits. It was during the break between my second and third period when it happened.
I was just standing at my locker in the hall. Nothing special about it. (Thanks, Sara, by the way, for showing me where my locker was with only a few raised eyebrows of pained concern.) I’d been fighting with my bag all day, trying to keep the supplies inside from scattering all over whenever I walked. It made way too much noise. I could tell myself it didn’t matter, but my instincts stubbornly insisted until I gave in. I was separating out everything loose into small bags, and filling them with cotton balls I’d lifted from the art classroom.
I was feeling clever and satisfied, so of course something had to go wrong.
A couple guys were playing catch nearby. Nice guys, actually. I vaguely remembered the far one from a long time ago. I think we were in the same elementary school class, or something like that. I was paying attention to them, in the same way I was always keeping track of every single person within thirty feet or so. But I got distracted, trying to figure out the contents of my locker and what half of the junk stored in there actually was and if I’d really picked out the lame decorations on the door, and I didn’t notice the ball coming until it crashed into the wall in front of my head.
Okay, objects flying at my head wasn’t exactly a new experience. Usually they were more pointy. The similarities were there though. The rush of air in its wake as it rushed past my face, the flash of an object I only caught a glimpse of. Suddenly, my mind slipped away to a wholly different place as I turned—and came face-to-face with a snarling kapavas, charging at me with eyes drenched in hatred and fists raised.
I struck. Hard. He was taller and much larger than me, but he was unarmed. Something quick and direct, something he wouldn’t expect. I targeted his unprotected stomach.
A sharp punch to the lower abdomen, in the unprotected fleshy spot. He started to double over from shock. Now I could use his momentum and weight against him. As I sidestepped, my strong right foot caught his unbalanced left.
He stumbled forward. His head slammed straight into the locker interior. I spun around to follow him. My hand drew the knife from the belt holster at my back. One knee went right into his spine, pressing him into the ground. I grabbed his head and put the blade right to his throat.
I had him at my mercy.
“What the hell?”
The real world snapped back into place. I hadn’t taken down some racist, hate-fuelled warrior—just a guy on the football team. He’d been trying to catch a bad throw from his friend, and he got distracted. Nearly ran right into me.
And I’d drawn a blade on him. Taken him down. I’d nearly killed him.
Sheer, icy horror enveloped every fiber of my being. I scrambled off of him, sliding the knife up into my sleeve—praying to every star I could remember that I’d hidden the blade before anyone else spotted it. I offered my hand to the guy, now thoroughly confused on the floor at my feet, head still jammed into my locker. His friend had rushed over, while a small crowd gathered around us, chattering away excitedly.
Oh man. This is bad.
“Sanan,” I offered awkwardly. “Self defense classes, am I right?”
“Uh huh,” he said slowly, but he took my hand anyway. I pulled him to his feet, relieved at the lack of confrontation. He hadn’t noticed just how close to death he’d been a second ago. Because of me. Because I screwed up.
“Are you okay?” asked his friend, staring at me.
“Is she okay?” the guy shot back.
“Oh get over it, Chris. You weren’t using that head anyway.” I giggled, in spite of myself, and the friend grinned. “How’d you do that, Jenny?”
The brief moment of mirth drained away into the cold ice again. Okay, don’t get me wrong, I dig being the center of attention on a good day, but this sure as hell wasn’t a good day. If I was up to it, I could rock the ‘edgy, mysterious cool girl’ vibe I’d suddenly picked up and ride it all the way to the next dance—but right now? I was in volas us manav mode. I had so much adrenaline in my blood begging me to get away that I couldn’t keep still. My right hand was playing with the hilt of the knife just inside the hem of my sleeve, fidgeting, waiting to strike.
I needed to get out of there. My heart hammered the inside of my skull with blood.
They were still waiting for me to say something. “I eat my veggies,” I said lamely. “Sorry, I gotta run.”
Without looking back, I grabbed my bag and closed the locker. In seconds, I was out of the building entirely.
There was no way I was gonna make it through the rest of the day. I wasn’t gonna see a friendly face the rest of the day, thanks to the class schedule change. I felt so weak. I hated that I needed a support system to get through a single day of high school. I’d never had this problem before. I wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be normal again, but I still felt like a mentally unstable, emotionally broken wreck of a person.
Yeah, I know, I’ve got some kind of PTSD or such and such. That’s obvious. I can even pinpoint where I got it, and it doesn’t do a damn thing for me. Knowing what’s wrong with you and actually being able to do something about it are very, very different things. I was still stuck on step A, and I had no clue how to get to step B.
It terrified the shit out of me.
So I ran. I sprinted through the neighborhood, retreating to the place I felt most comfortable and safe, where I could feel like myself again. Where I felt home. Where nothing bad had ever happened to me, where I’d really figured out who I was and how to actually live in the world.
So, naturally, I found myself deep in the woods behind my house, with the bow and arrows slung over my back and the knife comfortably resting at the small of my back.
Even yesterday, I hadn’t actually planned on using the bow for anything. I’d wanted it like I wanted a security blanket when I was a kid. I just needed it, not because I was actually gonna use it as a blanket, but because it had to be around or things just weren’t right. That bow was gonna sit right in its case, under my bed, unnoticed, and I’d probably never take it out again.
Funny how things can change in a single day, right?
No, it’s not funny at all. It’s fucking terrible. I’ve had way too many ‘single days’ in my life.
But this, right now? Here in the woods all alone? This was good.
I was deep in the forest, as totally immersed as I could get. The noise of the human world was barely audible, muffled to a faint whisper by the undergrowth and the thick branches. There was almost no wind today, which was a bit disappointing, but just being surrounded by lush green, with birds chirping away and even a squirrel darting along a branch nearby, set my mind at ease.
For a long time I just wandered idly, no purpose in mind and no real direction besides away from the noise. Normally, I’d be lounging in a bind, waiting for prey to show itself, but I wasn’t sure there was any worthwhile game in this forest. More to the point, even though I hated that I couldn’t forget it even out here, I was back in the real world. I wasn’t totally clear on what the law said, but I was pretty sure hunting in the woods in a random suburb was probably illegal.
Plus, to be honest, I wasn’t really hungry. I just wanted to feel good at something again. Use the skills I’d obtained for something other than fighting and… you know. The other thing. But if I went hunting on a full stomach and a well-stocked pantry, Tethevallen would be seriously ticked off.
So, yeah. Tethevallen. I know I haven’t brought him up much, and I’m sorry. It’s still painful. He’s the best father I ever had. Okay, the only one, but still.
I found a nice trunk to lean against and sat down. Skyward, the sky peeked through the forest canopy, dotted with nice puffy clouds. I couldn’t see a single star at this hour, obviously, but I knew where Tethevallen’s would be. I offered him a smile and a short prayer as I started to doze off. Not that he was actually there. He’d roll his eyes at the idea whenever some of the younger Sylves brought it up. But I liked it a lot. It comforted me to think some part of his personality and memories had followed his intelligence back up into the sky.
Man, I sound like a nut, don’t I?
I reached into my bag and pulled out a blanket I’d brought with me, wrapping up tight, wishing yet again I could do better than just cloth coverings to warm myself up. I pulled up my hood and covered up, then leaned back against the nook of the tree and let my eyes slide shut. Just listening. Hearing everything in the woods. Letting my mind wander out into the forest.
For a minute, I could almost hear the whispering of the Sylves in nearby trees. My friend Naeflin played her tulavir, and she was begging me to sing along, even though I barely knew any of the songs yet. She’d laugh as I made up the words to her melodies, and we’d trade off playing the tulavir and singing increasingly provocative songs to the more handsome of the dusylfs across the fire, as we downed cup after cup of talverreth. After we were too drunk to keep playing, she’d break out her usual party trick of catching a ball of flame from the sparks of the fire, and making it fly circles around my eyes until I got dizzy and fell over.
All the Sylves would laugh. I’d get embarrassed and snatch the fire right out of the air. I’d multiply it into a dozen licks of flame, and spell out something horribly rude to Naef, which would just get the whole lot of them laughing even harder. None of them could match my etovola for fire, so they got a kick out of my party tricks.
Of course, with the entire group drunk off our asses and already playing with fire, it was only natural we got into a vakakka-measuring contest of etola. Most Sylves preferred the water or the wind when it came to etovola, which meant their drinking games usually involved talverreth and screwing around with the actual liquid. Naef and I were the only two around with any real etolendei of flames, so our fireside contests became legendary in our suunsyl. Dozens of Sylves showed up whenever they heard we were having a gathering, sending Ruvalei scurrying into the shadows in embarrassment over her sister’s antics. They came in droves, eager to see the two masters showing off our skills.
Or maybe they just came out to see two hot chicks playing with fire. I can’t say for sure. I was just twenty, after all, and Naef was only sixty or so (that’s young for a Sylf, all right? She looked and acted basically the same age as me. It’s totally unfair), so we were prime targets for the young guys in the audience. Plenty of them approached Naef, and even a few of the really adventurous dusylfs tried to ask out the strange human girl they’d collectively adopted.
I turned them down.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I was interested. By the stars, some of those guys… I mean. Damn. But I had my reasons.
A branch snapped in half nearby. The sharp crack echoed around the trees. My daydreams burst like a bubble, abrupt and terrifying. I tensed up, my hand already grabbing at my knife. Someone else was crunching through the leaves scattered on the forest floor. They weren’t far away.
I slowly reached for my bow, out of pure instinct, prepared for the worst.
I’m on Earth. If I draw, then I’ll really be in trouble.
I fought the urge away. I was in the suburbs, and nobody was likely to attack me out of the blue. I was safe. Except I still had the knife in my grip, just in case, as I peeked around the edge of the tree trunk toward the source of the sound.
Relief flooded my mind as I recognized the source—followed by a twinge of confusion. I sheathed the knife and stood up to call out.
“Shasalla, Kalleddor. Dov to dou tolal tona vis sylvec?”
Carl froze in place, eyes narrowing. He looked around, and spotted me without too much difficulty. Since, you know, I wasn’t really hiding anymore. Why hide from the guy who saved your life, a couple times over? The only guy in the world who could even understand that sentence?
“The one and only,” I added, as he made his way over to my tree. I winced at every loud, crunching step through the leaves. “Weren’t you way better at this?”
“Shut up,” Carl muttered. He sat down on an overturned trunk that had fallen many years back, while I returned to my comfortable position in the nook of the tree roots. “I’m not used to my old body yet.” He paused. “Did you just call me Kalleddor?”
“Yeah,” I teased. “Did I leave off your title or something?”
“...I dunno. Just sounds cheesy now.” He looked embarrassed.
I grinned. “It always did.”
“Oh god, it did?” His face turned an even brighter shade of red.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure it was just me and Matt who thought that,” I said. “It’s a perfectly good fantasy name.” Carl still looked doubtful, so I changed the subject before he could really start to dig into it. “Anyway, back to the obvious question: why the hell are you out here?”
“I could ask you the same,” Carl shot back, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah, no,” I replied without missing a beat. “This is basically my thing, and we’re near my house. You better not be stalking me,” I added jokingly.
“...I kinda did,” he answered, sheepish. “I saw what you ordered on my phone. I figured you’d go out hunting sooner or later.”
I was genuinely surprised. It took me a moment to figure out how he’d done it. “...Oh, shit. Browser history.”
He nodded. “Yup.”
“Good think I didn’t use Matt’s computer then, I guess.”
“So you just followed me out here to scare away all my prey?” I added, pointedly glancing at his feet.
“I wanted to talk.”
Something in the tone of his voice, or maybe his expression, killed the mood. I’d actually been enjoying myself for once. The conversation wasn’t that different from the ones we’d used to have. Me teasing, him getting teased, good-natured banter. That was our thing. So obviously, it was bound to come to a crashing halt today.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, already dreading the answer.
Carl started to answer, but he faltered, his mouth opening and closing a few times without any sound coming out. I waited patiently. I had no idea where this was going, but it seemed so unlike him. Carl didn’t speak up all that often, but he was never at a loss for words. I really felt worried. Finally, he worked up to a single question.
“You were there, right?”
Well, that was underwhelming. “Uhh?”
“When Blake… When he—” Carl choked up, glancing away awkwardly.
Oh, stars. My heart sank. Carl had finally come around to acceptance. I knew it was coming, but still. How the hell are you supposed to talk to someone about their best friend dying?
“...Yeah,” I said quietly.
“I never found out,” said Carl, his voice a little stronger, his eyes coming back to mine. “He didn’t suffer, right?”
He did… I replied mentally, but I can never tell you that. “He didn’t. It was quick.”
Carl smiled. “Even if that’s bullshit, vannen dou.”
He picked up a small branch from the ground and fiddled with it. I settled back into my tree, picking my blanket back up and wrapping up tight. The day was getting chillier as the clouds moved in and blocked out the sun, and a breeze had finally started to roll through, rustling the branches and leaves. I loved the sound it made. We just sat there, just like old times, Carl sharpening his sword (okay, branch), me watching him and everything else from my spot under the tree. Minutes rolled by, with only the birds to accompany us.
“He loved it there, you know?” Carl said finally. I suppressed a sigh of relief. While I was kinda enjoying the silence, Carl hadn’t been that person in a long time. If it kept stretching out, I’d really start to get worried.
“Blake did?” I prompted.
“Yeah. I mean, he hated the war and all that, but the world. He loved Cyraveil.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what Carl wanted out of this conversation. I resigned myself to just letting him bounce stuff off me. I hoped that was what he needed. Seemed to be working so far, anyway.
“He found a girl, you know? She was beautiful. They were going to get married, start a family. He asked me to be his best man.”
“I thought that wasn’t a thing over there.”
Carl grinned. “We were going to start the tradition ourselves. Blake was such a romantic. Had to have the picturesque wedding.”
“I never knew,” I said. “I didn’t really get to spend a lot of time with him.”
“It’s not your fault. I was kinda busy.”
“Busy being the Maiden of the Sylvandar?” Carl raised an eyebrow, smirking.
My turn to get red-faced. “Vack, that’s so much cheesier. Is that really what they called me in Candir?”
“Well, they had to call you something. You were a legend.”
“Does that come with a shiny hat?”
“More like the undying hatred of the Emperor.”
I snickered. “Now there’s a badge of honor.” Carl laughed. “Undying’s not really right though, huh?”
Oh, vack. Carl’s expression fell, dark as night. I cringed. I hadn’t meant to kill the mood. I’d said exactly the wrong thing.
“It’s okay,” he said, but he glanced away again.
“I shouldn’t have said that. He was your friend.”
“He made mistakes, and he paid for them,” he said. “I can’t say he didn’t deserve it.”
Why, oh why, Carl, do we always have to bounce wildly between joking and teasing, and painful shared memories? Every single damn time. The silence was uncomfortable beyond belief.
Why couldn’t I just keep the awkward bits out and have a nice, normal conversation? Or you know, whatever passed for normal between two casual dimension hoppers like us.
“You know, I meant what I said,” Carl blurted out, looking back at me. “On the phone.”
“I still love you.”
That’s where he decided to take the conversation next?
“Carl…” I started, but he kept talking.
“Even if we’re stuck here, even though everything’s different, I really do love you, Jen.”
I had to stop this confessional before it got way out of hand. “Carl, you don’t.”
“You don’t really know me,” I sighed. “Before we left here, you didn’t even know my name.”
“But, that night—”
Oh stars, not that. “Look, Carl. You’re my friend, and yeah, we went through some ridiculous, life-changing, terrifying things together. I got caught up in the moment, okay?” I shrugged, red-faced. “For a moment, I really needed to be rescued, and you were there. I’ll be grateful to you forever, but that’s all.”
“It was just a kiss, Carl.” My face lit up like someone had just poured boiling water on it. Stupid emotions.
If you’re wondering, I was being honest. I’m gonna be horribly cliché and drop the oldest line in the book, but I only liked Carl as a friend. That night in the inn outside Vennenport was just that—one night where I let my guard down and get swept away by everything else around me. There was nothing romantic going on between us, and even if there was, I had way too much of my own shit to deal with.
And there wasn’t. Seriously. Just two friends who spent a lot of time together and kissed once… or twice.
I didn’t like what I had to do to him though. Carl was my friend, and I was still hurting him right then. Of course, of course, it had to get worse.
“It didn’t seem like that,” he said, confused.
“I don’t know what else to say, Carl.” I sighed. “You met someone, but it wasn’t really me. I’m sorry.”
“You’re wrong.” I raised my eyebrows at his harsh tone. His eyes narrowed, and he tossed the branch aside. “That was you. This?” He leaned in and picked up a little keychain on my bag. A cute plastic squirrel, something I won at the arcade a long time ago, and kept on every backpack I’d had since then. “This isn’t the real you. This is just some façade you’ve put up.” He sat back down again. “I’d bet anything you’re armed right now, yeah?”
I nodded slowly. Ever since we’d started talking, I’d actually let go of the knife, but it was still gently pressing into the small of my back as I leaned against the tree.
“Yeah, because that’s you. You’re still her, not Jenny. You’re Jennifer Demovi-Ralaev.” He said it with awe, almost as a whisper. Like it was something inspirational. “You’re a fucking legend, not some silly high school girl.”
“Seka nara vack do you know my name?” I snarled, shocked. That name was private. Carl couldn’t possibly know it. Only the people in my suunsyl knew that name.
He recoiled in fear at my sudden shift in tone. “I—”
“Talk, masasak-la, or I’m gonna get violent.”
“Reynir told me,” he blurted.
“...And how the hell did Reynir Cellman know?”
Carl looked down at the forest floor. His voice got very quiet. “...Because he tortured it out of a Sylf. Her name was Ruvalei. I think.”
I stood up abruptly. The blanket fell away. My hand went straight to the knife. Not to attack Carl or anything, but I definitely wanted to stab something. “Ruvalei Dusylari?” I asked, forcing the syllables through my teeth. I already knew the answer though. There were very few Sylves that spoke enough Linguen to be worth torturing, and I knew all of them. I’d taught all of them.
“...Yes,” Carl answered nervously. “I’m sorry.”
I started pacing in front of the tree, deliberately crunching the leaves with each step. I needed to express my rage somehow, get some kind of outlet.
I hadn’t known where she went. We never found out what happened to her. Naeflin cried for days straight when she vanished. We both did. Naef’s sister was the kindest, sweetest person in the whole forest. Super timid, but when she came out of her shell, she was an amazing cook and the most beautiful singer you can imagine. She taught me everything about history and culture, especially the music. She wrote her own songs, too, and I’d learned them all.
She went missing not long before the first border raids, when my happy life had finally shattered.
“Did he kill her?” I asked, looking up at the sky, trying desperately to see her star—though I knew it was forever lost to me. It was a whole world away, and she’d died alone in the depths of a dungeon on a torture rack, far from the roots of the world.
“Syldavacka,” I growled. I kicked the tree trunk, though it didn’t make me feel any better. “I’m glad that dektolal kapar-basal is dead. Blake should’ve killed him slower.”
I stopped pacing. I’d just said something I really, really shouldn’t have. I turned in place, very slowly, to look at Carl. His face was an unreadable mask.
Well, guess we both learned something shocking and terrible today.
“Blake was there?” His voice was too calm. Unsettling.
Oh stars, don’t connect the dots. Don’t be logical and smart for once in your life, Carl. “Yeah. Blake and I were both there,” I said cautiously, fighting against my own emotions. I was still roiling from what I’d just learned, even as I tried to hide the secret from Carl.
“But you never made it into the throne room. And Matt should’ve known what was inside…” Carl’s face contorted. I braced myself. He’d figured it out. Matt should have known better. “He sent Blake in there to die.”
“He knew. Matt fucking knew,” Carl muttered. I could hear the iron in his voice, the cold steel of Kalleddor. “Matt fucking sacrificed Blake.”
“We all knew,” I said weakly, but Carl was already up and moving.
“I can’t, Jen.” Carl’s voice was thick and pained, and I felt for him. I felt so much for him I could barely breathe. He turned to leave, and I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. “I just can’t.”
I watched him turn and walk away. I knew he was starting to cry and hiding it, and I could feel tears forming in my own eyes. I’d screwed up badly today. That conversation had gotten way out of control.
I fell back against the tree again and pulled the blanket up tight, ducking into my hood and closing my eyes as tears rolled down my cheeks. Memories of Naeflin, and Tethevallen, and Ruvalei, poor Ruvalei, took over my mind. I let them swallow me up, desperately shutting out the real world to hide in the other, if only for a little bit longer.