I realize his blood has now turned to dust along with his flesh. I am no longer drenched in it.
“We have to go.” Katarina has shoved my Chest into my arms, her face pressed right up to mine. I realize I’ve spaced out, gone to a place inside my own head, reeling from the shock of what just happened. I can tell from the way she says it that this is the third or fourth time she’s repeated it, though I am only just hearing her.
“Now,” she says.
Katarina drags me by the wrist, her bag slung over her shoulder. The hot asphalt of the parking lot burns the soles of my shoeless feet as we rush outside towards the truck. I carry my Chest, which feels heavy in my arms.
I have been preparing for battle my whole life, and now that it’s come all I want is to sleep. My heels drag, my arms are heavy.
“Faster!” says Katarina, pulling me along. The truck’s unlocked. I get into the passenger seat as Katarina tosses our stuff in the bed of the truck and hops into the driver’s seat. No sooner has she closed her door than I see a man racing towards us.
For a moment I think it’s the motel manager, chasing us for fleeing our bill. But then I recognize him as the cowboy from before, the one who gave me the polite nod of his cowboy hat. There’s nothing polite about the way he’s racing towards us now, his fist upraised.
His hand smashes through the glass of the passenger door and I’m sprayed with glass. His fist closes around the fabric of my shirt and I feel myself lifted out of my seat.
“Hey!” A voice from outside.
My hand scrambles, looking for something, anything to keep me in my seat. It finds only my unbuckled seat belt, which gives easily as the Mog starts pulling me through the window. I feel Katarina’s hand clutching the back of my shirt.
“I’d think twice ’bout that!” I hear a man’s voice shout, and soon I am released, falling back into the seat.
I am breathless, my head spinning.
Outside the truck, a crowd has formed. Truckers and cowboys, ordinary American men. They’ve encircled the Mog. One of them has a shotgun raised, pointed right at him. With a wry, bitter smile, the Mog lifts his arms in surrender.
“The keys.” Katarina is panicking, near tears. “I left them in the room.”
I don’t think, I just move. I don’t know how long the Mog will be contained by the protective mob, our saviors, but I don’t care: I race back to the room, swipe the keys off the night table, and head back out into the heat of the parking lot.
The Mog is kneeling on the ground now, surrounded by angry men.
“We called the cops, miss,” says one of them. I nod, my eyes teary. I’m too keyed-up even to say thanks. It’s strange and wonderful to consider that none of these men know us but they came to our aid, yet frightening that they don’t understand this Mog’s true power, that if he hadn’t been instructed to keep a low profile he’d have torn the skin clean off each of their bodies by now.
I get in the car and hand Katarina the keys. Moments later, we pull out of the lot.
I turn back for one last glance and lock eyes with the Mog. His eyes brim with reptilian hate.
He winks as we pull away.
Katarina was wrong. I have killed before. Years ago, in Nova Scotia.
It was early winter and Katarina had released me from our studies to go play in our snowy backyard. I took to the yard like a demon, running circles in the snow in my baggy clothes, leaping into snowbanks and aiming snowballs at the sun.
I hated my cumbersome jacket and waterproof pants, so once I was sure Katarina had turned from the window I shed them, stripping down to my jeans and T-shirt. It was below freezing outside, but I’ve always been tough about the cold. I continued to play and race when Clifford, the neighbors’ St. Bernard, came bounding over to play with me.
He was a huge dog and I was small then, even for my age. So I climbed on top of him, clutching the warm fur of his flank. “Giddyup!” I squealed and he took off. I rode him like a pony, running laps around the yard.
Katarina had recently told me more about my history, and about my future. I wasn’t old enough to fully understand, but I knew it meant I was a warrior. This sat well with me, because I had always felt like a hero, a champion. I took this ride with Clifford as another practice run. I imagined chasing faceless enemies around the snow, hunting them down and taking them out.
Clifford had just run me to the edge of the woods when he stopped and growled. I looked up and saw a pale brown winter rabbit darting between the trees. Seconds later, I was on my back, tossed off by Clifford.
I picked myself up and dashed after Clifford into the woods. My imaginary chase had become a very real one, as Clifford ran after the darting rabbit and I followed him.
I was delirious, breathless, happy. Or I was, until the chase ended.
Clifford caught the rabbit in his jaws and reversed course, back to his owners’ yard. I was equally dismayed by the end of the pursuit and by the likely end of the rabbit’s life, and I now stalked after Clifford, attempting to command the rabbit’s release.
“Bad dog,” I said. “Very bad dog.”
He was too content with his achievement to pay me any mind. Back in his yard, he happily nuzzled and nipped the damp fur of the rabbit. It took shoving him forcibly from the rabbit’s body for him to give it up, and even then he snapped at me.
I hissed at Clifford, and he grumpily padded off in the snow. I looked down at the rabbit, matted and bloody.
But it wasn’t dead.
All of my hardness gave way as I lifted the light, furry beast to my chest. I felt its tiny heart beating furiously, at the brink of death. Its eyes were glassy, uncomprehending.
I knew what would happen to it. Its wounds were not deep, but it would die of shock. It wasn’t dead now, but it was past life. The only thing this creature had to look forward to was the paralysis of its own fear and a slow, cold death.
I looked to the window. Katarina was out of sight. I turned back to the rabbit, knowing in an instant what the kindest thing to do was.
You are a warrior, Katarina had said.
“I am a warrior.” My words turned to frost in the air before my face. I grabbed the gentle creature’s neck with both hands and gave it a good hard twist.
I buried the rabbit’s corpse deep beneath the snow, where even Clifford couldn’t find it.
Katarina was wrong: I have killed before. Out of mercy.
But not yet out of vengeance.
Katarina pulls the truck off the dirt road and we get out. It’s been a day of straight driving and it’s now three in the morning. We’re in Arkansas, in the Lake Ouachita State Park. The park entrance was closed so Katarina broke through a chain barrier and snuck the truck in, off-roading in the dark of the woods until we came to the main camp road.
We’ve been here before, though I don’t remember it. Katarina says we camped here when I was much younger, and that she had thought it would make a good burial site for my Chest, if it ever came to that.
It has, apparently, come to that.
Outside the truck I can hear the lake lapping weakly at the shore. Katarina and I walk through the trees, following its sound. I carry the Chest in my arms. We’ve decided it’s too cumbersome and too dangerous to hold on to. Katarina says it must not fall into Mogadorian hands.
I don’t press her on this point, though there is a dark implication to this task that haunts me. If Katarina thinks it’s come to the point of burying the Chest to keep it safe, then she must think our capture has become likely. Perhaps inevitable.
I shiver in the cool of the night, while swatting mosquitoes away. There are more of them the closer we get to the water’s edge.
We finally come to the shore. In the middle of the lake, I see a small green island, and I know Katarina well enough to know what she’s thinking.
“I’ll do it,” she says. But she only barely gets the words out. She is exhausted, on the brink of collapse. She hasn’t slept in days. I’ve barely slept either, only a few quick minutes here and there in the car. But that’s more than Katarina’s had, and I know she needs rest.
“Lie down,” I say. “I’ll do it.”
Katarina makes a few weak protests, but before long she’s lying on the ground by the shore. “Rest,” I say. I take the blanket she brought out to use as a towel and instead use it to drape her, to hide her from the mosquitoes.
I strip off my clothes, then grab the Chest tight and step into the water. It’s bracing at first, but once I’m submerged it’s actually fairly warm. I begin an awkward doggy paddle, using one arm to stroke through the water and the other to clutch the Chest.
I’ve never swum at night before, and it takes all of my will not to imagine hands reaching up from the murky depths to grab at my legs and pull me under. I stay focused on my goal.
I arrive at the island after what feels like an hour but is more likely ten minutes. I step out of the water, trembling as the air hits my bare skin, and walk awkwardly over the stones littering the shore. I walk to the center of the small island. It is nearly round, and probably less than an acre, so it doesn’t take long to reach.
I dig a hole three feet deep, which takes considerably longer than the swim out. By the end my hands are bleeding from clawing through the rough dirt, stinging more and more with each barehanded shovel through the soil.
I place the Chest in the hole. I am reluctant to let it go, though I have never seen its contents, never even opened it. I consider saying a prayer over it, the source of so much potential and promise.
I decide against praying. Instead, I just kick dirt into the hole until it’s covered, and smooth over the mound.
I know I may never see my Chest again.
I return to the water and swim back to Katarina.
It’s been a week since we arrived in Upstate New York. We’re at a small motel adjacent to an apple orchard and a neighborhood soccer field. Katarina has been plotting our next move.
There have been no suspicious announcements on the news or on the internet. This gives us some measure of hope for the future of Lorien, and also that the Mogadorians’ trail on us has gone cold.
It’s silly but I feel ready to fight. I may not have been back at the motel, but I am now. I don’t care if I don’t have my Legacies. It is better to fight than to run.
“You don’t mean that,” she says. “We must be prudent.”
So we wait. Katarina’s heart has gone out of training but we still do as best we can, push-ups and shadowboxing in our room during the day, more elaborate drills out in the unlit corners of the soccer field at night.
During the day I’m allowed to wander through the orchards, smelling the sweet rot of fallen apples. Katarina has told me not to play on the soccer field during the day, or talk to the children who practice on it. She wants to continue to keep a low profile.
But I can watch the field from behind a tree at the edge of the orchard. It’s a girls’ team playing today. The girls are all in purple jerseys and bright white shorts. They’re about my age. From beneath the shade of the apple tree I wonder what it would be like to give myself to something as light and inconsequential as a game of soccer. I imagine I’d be good at it: I love being physical, I’m strong and quick. No: I’d be great at it.