Katarina bats my hand away before I can hit Enter. “Six!”
I pull back, ashamed of my imprudence, my haste.
“We have to be careful. The Mogadorians are on the hunt. They’ve killed One, for all we know they have a path to Two, to Three—”
“But they’re alone!” I say. The words come out before I have a chance to think what I’m saying.
I don’t know how I know this. It’s just a hunch I have. If this member of the Garde has been desperate enough to reach out on the internet, looking for others, his or her Cêpan must have been killed. I imagine my fellow Garde’s panic, her fear. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my Katarina, to be alone. To consider all I deal with . . . without Katarina? It’s unimaginable.
“What if it’s Two? What if she’s in England, and the Mogs are after her, and she’s reaching out for help?”
A second ago I was scoffing at Katarina’s absorption in the news. But this is different. This is a link to someone like me. Now I am desperate to help them, to answer their call.
“Maybe it’s time,” I say, balling my fist.
“Time?” Katarina is scared, wearing a baffled expression.
“Time to fight!”
Katarina’s head falls into her hands and she laughs into her palms.
In moments of high stress, Katarina sometimes reacts this way: she laughs when she should be stern, gets serious when she should laugh.
Katarina looks up and I realize she is not laughing at me. She is just nervous, and confused.
“Your Legacies haven’t even developed!” she cries. “How could we possibly start the war now?”
She gets up from the desk, shaking her head.
“No. We are not ready to fight. Until your powers are manifest, we will not start this battle. Until the Garde is ready, we must hide.”
“Then we have to send her a message.”
“Her? You don’t know it’s a she! For all we know, it’s no one. Just some random person using language that accidentally tripped my alert.”
“I know it’s one of us,” I say, fixing Katarina with my eyes. “And you do too.”
Katarina nods, admitting defeat.
“Just one message. To let them know they’re not alone. To give her hope.”
“‘Her’ again,” laughs Katarina, almost sadly.
I think it’s a girl because I imagine whoever wrote the message to be like me. A more scared and more alone version of me—one who’s been deprived of her Cêpan.
“Okay,” she says. I step between her and the monitor, my fingers hovering over the keys. I decide the message I’ve already typed—“We are here”—will suffice.
I hit Enter.
Katarina shakes her head, ashamed to have indulged me so recklessly. Within moments she is at the computer, scrubbing any trace of our location from the transmission.
“Feel better?” she asks, turning off the monitor.
I do, a little. To think I’ve given a bit of solace and comfort to one of the Garde makes me feel good, connected to the larger struggle.
Before I can respond I’m electrified by a pain, the likes of which I’ve only known once before; a lava-hot lancet digging through the flesh of my right ankle. My leg shoots out from beneath me, and I scream, attempting to distance myself from the pain by holding my ankle as far from the rest of me as I can. Then I see it: the flesh on my ankle sizzling, popping with smoke. A new scar, my second, snakes its way across my skin.
“Katarina!” I scream, punching the floor with my fists, desperate with pain.
Katarina is frozen in horror, unable to help.
“The second,” she says. “Number Two is dead.”
Katarina rushes to the tap, fills a pitcher, and dumps it across my leg. I am nearly catatonic from the pain, biting my lip so hard it bleeds. I watch the water sizzle as it hits my burned flesh, then it floods the game board, washing the army pieces off onto the floor.
“You win,” I say, making a feeble joke.
Katarina doesn’t acknowledge my attempt at wit. My protector, she has gone into full-on Cêpan mode: pulling first-aid supplies out from every corner of our shack. Before I know it she’s applied a cooling salve to my scar and wrapped and taped it with gauze.
“Six,” she says, her eyes moist with fear and pity. I’m taken aback—she only uses my real name in moments of extreme crisis.
But then I realize that’s what this is.
Years had passed since One’s death, without incident. It had gotten easy to imagine it was a fluke. If we were feeling really hopeful, we could imagine One had died in an accident. That the Mogadorians hadn’t caught our scent.
That time is over. We know for sure now. The Mogadorians have found the second member of the Garde, and killed him or her. Two’s message to us, to the world, was the last thing he or she would ever do. Their violent death was now written across my skin.
We know two deaths is no fluke. The countdown has truly begun.
I almost faint, but pull myself to consciousness by biting my lip even harder. “Six,” Katarina says, wiping the blood from my mouth with a cloth. “Relax.”
I shake my head.
No. I can never relax. Not ever.
Katarina is straining to keep her composure. She doesn’t want to frighten me. But she also wants to do the right thing, to honor her responsibilities as a Cêpan. I can tell she’s torn between every possible reaction, from outright panic to philosophical cool; whatever is the best for me and for the fate of the Garde.
She cradles my head, wipes the sweat from my brow. The water and the salve have taken the sharpest edge off the pain, but it still hurts as bad as the first time, maybe worse. But I won’t comment on it. I can see that my pain, and this evidence of Two’s passing, is tormenting Katarina enough.
“We’ll be okay,” says Katarina. “There are still many others. . . .”
I know she is speaking carelessly. She doesn’t mean to put the lives of the Garde before me—Three, Four, and Five—ahead of my own. She is just grasping for consolation. But I won’t let it pass.
“Yeah. It’s so great others have to die before me.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I can see my words have upset her.
I sigh, putting my head against her shoulder.
Sometimes, in my heart of hearts, I use a different name for Katarina. Sometimes to me she’s not Katarina or Vicky or Celeste or any of her other aliases. Sometimes—in my mind—I call her “Mom.”
We’re on the road an hour later. Katarina white-knuckles the steering wheel of our truck through country roads, cursing her choice of hideaway. These roads are too rough and dusty to go faster than forty miles per hour, and what we both want is the speed of a highway. Anything to put as much distance as possible between us and our now abandoned shack. Katarina did what she could to scrub our tracks, but if what we imagine is true—the Mogadorians killing Two seconds after we saw her fatal blog post—then they moved fast, and they could be racing towards our abandoned home right now.
As I watch the fields and the hills pass through the passenger window, I realize that they could already be at the shack. In fact, they could already be following us on the road. Feeling like a coward as I do it, I crane my neck and look through the rear window, through the dust trail our truck kicks up in our wake.
No cars trail us.
Not yet, at least.
We packed light. The truck was already loaded with a first-aid kit, a lightweight camping set, bottled water, flashlights, and blankets. Once I was ready to walk again, all I had to do was pick out a few items of clothing for the road and retrieve my Chest from the lockbox under the shack.
The panic of flight gave me little time to feel the searing pain of my second scar, but it returns to me now, lacerating and insistent.
“We shouldn’t have responded,” says Katarina. “I don’t know what we were thinking.”
I look at Katarina for signs of judgment on her face—after all, I’m the one who insisted we write back—and I’m relieved to find none. All I see is her fear, and her determination to get us as far away as possible.
I realize that in the confusion and haste to flee I forgot to notice if we turned north or south at the crossing at the edge of Puerto Blanco.
“U.S.?” I ask.
Katarina nods, pulling our most recent passports from the inside pocket of her army jacket, tossing mine into my lap. I flip it open and peer at my new name.
“Maren Elizabeth,” I say aloud. Katarina puts a lot of time into her forgeries, though I usually complain about the names she chooses for me. When I was eight and we were moving to Nova Scotia, I begged and begged to be named Starla. Katarina vetoed the suggestion. She thought it was too “attention getting,” too exotic. I almost laugh to think about it now. A Katarina in Mexico is about as exotic as you can get. And of course she’s keeping it. Katarina has grown attached to her own name. Sometimes I suspect that Cêpans aren’t so different from parents after all.
Maren Elizabeth . . . it’s no Starla, but I like how it sounds.
I reach down and cradle my calf, just above the throbbing scars on my ankle. By squeezing my calf I can muffle the pain of my sizzled flesh.
But as the pain fades, the fear returns. The fear of our present situation, the horror of Two’s death. I decide to let go of my calf, and I let my leg burn.
Katarina refuses to stop the car for anything but gas and pee breaks. It’s a long trip, but we have ways to pass the time. Mostly we play Shadow, a game that Katarina made up during our previous travels, out of our desire to keep training even when we couldn’t do physical drills.
“A Mogadorian scout races at you from two o’clock, wielding a twenty-inch blade in his left arm. He swings.”
“I crouch,” I say. “Dodge left.”
“He swings around, the blade above your head.”
“From the ground, a kick to the groin. A leg sweep, from his right side to his left.”
“On his back, but he grabs your arm.”
“I let him. I use the force of his grip to swing my legs free, up, and then down to his face. Step on his face, pull my hand free.”
It’s a strange game. It forces me to separate the physical from reality, to fight with my brain and not my body. I used to complain about games of Shadow, saying it was all made up, that it wasn’t real. Fighting was fists, and feet, and heads. It wasn’t brains. It wasn’t words.
But the more Shadow we played, the better I got at drills, especially hand-to-hand drills with Katarina. I couldn’t deny that the game made good practice. It made me a better fighter. I have come to love it.
“I run,” I say.
“Too late,” she says. I almost complain, knowing what’s coming. “You forgot about the sword,” she says. “He’s already swung it up and nicked your flank.”
“No he didn’t,” I say. “I froze his sword and shattered it like glass.”
“Oh did you, now?” Katarina is tired, eyes bloodshot from ten straight hours of driving, but I can see I’m amusing her. “I must’ve missed that part.”