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A Number's Game

By Breelin

Romance / Adventure

Chapter 1

I've always been a rather shy person, granted. I never liked too much attention, and I've never been that great in social situations. I have to wonder if living at the convent my entire life had been detrimental to my already dicey social skills. Maybe if I were to have moved around a lot like the others I could be as courageous as Six or as outgoing as John. Even Ella, who's still just a kid, has a naturally friendly spirit that others just adore.

That's not to say I don't think I have good attributes. My own personality notwithstanding, I've never needed great social skills to be able to bond with the rest of the remaining Garde. It's never been awkward (maybe at certain times) and we've always gotten along (more or less) and we've always been able to share everything with each other (pretty much). It's a thing we'd have, you know? The last of the Loric race should be able to speak freely and not be afraid.

But for the first time since the day I met Six, I'm scared of them.

I know Six is doing everything in her power to navigate us through the Everglades as quickly and stealthily as possible, but a fan boat isn't exactly ideal for a good getaway. I'm on my knees, and feeling every bump along the way as we twist our way through rocks and trees. My hair and clothes are practically molded to my skin with sweat—and don't get me started on what's going on under my arms.

Lying on his back in front of me is Nine, one leg bent at a strange angle although he doesn't seem to notice or care. He hasn't spoken a word since we got on the boat, not even an ouch as Six slammed him down on the deck of the boat and dashed for the boat's controls.

My hands shake as I reach out and place them on Nine's chest, careful not to move him too much. Although I know I can heal it, I've been told that it's bad to move someone with a spinal cord injury. Instantly I feel the iciness of my healing legacy taking an effect, and for a moment I relish in the fact that I just developed a new one. From now on I don't just have to be Marina the healer, I can actually fight. I've always had to rely on my almost non-existent combat ability, but now I won't have to. In any other situation, I'd think we would be celebrating. But now…

I feel Nine's eyes rake over me and out of instinct I glance at the sky. The dark vapor from Six's storm is just beginning to fade away revealing the true blue sky, and fortunately there doesn't seem to be anyone pursuing us. In any case, though, I'm glad we don't stop moving.

In my peripheral vision I see Nine close his eyes, and I take the opportunity to lower my gaze back to my hands. Like I said, I'm terrified right now, for more than one reason.

I'm absolutely terrified to look into his eyes.

I'm scared of what I might see... or maybe what I won't. Remorse, sorrow, grief? All possible, but Nine has always struck me as the loose cannon type. I don't know what I'll see if our eyes meet, but I know that whatever it is will send everything rushing back.

No. I refuse—can't be mad at him. We can't afford to lose Nine because the rest of us are angry with him. Especially after… after… I don't even think I can comprehend it.

For some reason the world is beginning to look a little fuzzy, and I can't help but feel even more hot despite the coolness of my Legacy at work. I feel like I can hear someone whispering my name, but I can see Nine's lips firmly pressed together and Six doesn't seem to be making any attempt at contact as she focuses on steering. It must be the wind from the fan playing tricks on me. Regardless of that, I feel dizzy enough to retract my hands from Nine's torso as I try to regain my focus.

"Marina?" He croaks. He doesn't sound like himself. Damaged is the first word that comes to mind.

I swallow, faking a smile. "Just a sec, need a break." I all but whisper, putting one leg underneath me and clamoring to my feet. I'm barely standing before I can feel my knees weakening and I fall against the guard rail. I clutch onto it with both hands as my head begins to spin.

"Marina?" This time it's definitely Six yelling over the wind, but the roar of the fan doesn't stop so I assume she's still at the helm of the boat.

I want to tell them I'm fine, not to worry especially after so much has already happened, but I can't seem to form the words in my mouth. I press my weight against the railing, my head sagging over the side like I'm about to puke. The air around me is starting to turn gold, which can't be right. Air isn't gold. Six is yelling my name and so is Nine, but now I can directly pick out the sound of another girl calling my name. She sounds so calm as she chants it over and over that I lull my neck down.

The world turns from gold to black as my shoulders give away my weight and I go toppling over the side of the fan boat. I'm plunged into the warm brown water, my body beginning to sink to the bottom as the air dispels from my lungs. My instincts are urging me to swim, but my mind is too far gone.

I'm lying on my side as I jump back into consciousness. My eyes pop open as suck in a strangled breath, my hands going to my throat. I immediately feel stupid for doing so, I mean, I can breathe underwater. But still, I feel a little… odd. My energy feels completely zapped, and I let my hands fall to my sides as my eyes flutter closed. I don't want to move, neither do I feel like I can.

It was late afternoon by the time we had arrived at the everglades, but for some reason the sun feels even hotter. I run my tongue over my lips; it feels like running plywood over sandpaper. I need to get some water, get back to the rest of the Garde, but my skin feels tight and my muscles weak. Heat exhaustion something says in the back of my mind.

"Six?" I rasp, my voice barely audible over the sound of running water. Running water. My brain is barely working, but I can understand as much that this water source must be behind me. Using all my power I flip myself over, turning onto my other side to face a crystalline river. It's rapid but the water looks clean, overriding any hesitancy I might have had had I more sense.

I try to drag myself to the bank but my hands shake and I can barely use my legs to kick myself along. The river sprays as it hits the rocks on the side, but it's just out of my range. Only a few more feet…

In the background I hear a dog barking, followed by a high pitched gasp. I try not to panic as I hear a girl yell: "Get her away from the water! Quickly!"

The next thing I know something strong has clamped down on the collar of my shirt and begins to drag me away from the river. I try to kick but I can barely manage it, and soon a pair of warm hands have caught my under the arms and are lifting me farther away.

I try to yell for help but I've already done too much and I black out again.

This time I wake up on my back. I open my eyes to see a fading blue sky, the sun nowhere in sight. The air is reasonably cooler now. It must be around dusk, which has me concerned for how long I was out for.

Wanting to ready myself for whatever is going on, I force myself to sit up. It's a bit of a head rush so I plant my hands in the grass to steady myself, but other than that I feel fine (and in-tact). The river is out of sight, and to my left is a little homemade fire still in its adolescence. Everywhere else… I don't even know where to begin. I suddenly feel very, very awake. This place is most definitely not the Everglades.

This new environment is lush, but not in the tropical way the Everglades were. It's rich with tall, green trees and large plants sporting all kinds of flowers. In fact, there are flowers everywhere—in the trees, on the ground and in every nook and cranny, making the entire forest look like a brightly coloured rainbow. Everything is so overgrown, but not in a way that looks unattended.

I seem to be sitting in a small clearing all by myself, with a fire I most definitely didn't make. The forest around me is silent, but I don't suppose it will stay that way for very long as the sky above me is quickly turning black.

Worse yet there's no sign of Six or Nine (or how exactly I got here) which has me wondering what's really going on. My mind jumps to Ella telling me about the dreams that were attacking her at night. Could this be a mind assault from Setrakus Ra? What could possibly be the purpose of this?

"Oh! You're awake!" My head whips to the side, where to my relief (or horror, not sure yet) I see Sarah standing on the edge of the undergrowth. She smiles at me; her hair in perfect ringlets, infused with all kinds of flowers to the point it appears she's growing them from her scalp. She steps out from the greenery to reveal a long green gown with flowers sewn into the fabric. Now I know for sure I'm out of my mind.

From behind Sarah's skirt I see Bernie Kosar poke his head out, cocking his head to the side in a curious look.

"Sarah, what's going on?" I'm glad to hear my voice has at least returned to me. "Where are we? Where are the others?"

She doesn't answer, but instead approaches me cautiously. Bernie Kosar seems to lose interest in watching me from afar and walks right around Sarah to lie down by my side. I rub his head absentmindedly before I realize that this is no time for petting and retract my hand.

Sarah seats herself on the other side of the fire before she finally lowers her arms as if relinquishing her last line of self defense. What was she expecting me to do, exactly?

"What's your name?" She finally asks me.

"What? Do you not remember me? What's—"

"What's your name?"

"I'm Marina, but Sarah, you know that!"

"Marina, you have to listen to what I have to say." She says firmly, although I can tell that she's done this kind of thing before from the tone of her voice. I'm almost convinced that I've lost my mind, but I nod anyways.

She smiles slightly before beginning to speak. I let my hand wander back to Bernie Kosar's scruffy back for comfort. "You are correct in knowing my name is Sarah, I am the Witch of Paradise." She motions towards our surroundings. "But more particularly the Paradise River."

She could have put a sack on her head and told me her name was Cream of Wheat, it all spoke the same message: One way or another I've lost control of my mind. This can't be a vision of the future—I don't think there's ever going to be a future where Sarah is a witch of a river.

"Sarah… we wouldn't happen to be on Lorien, would we?" I ask, although I know I'm already grasping at straws.

"Please allow me to finish, but no, this is not Lorien. My river, the Paradise River, leads to one place, and that is to me in Paradise. When you fell into the river, you were swept up by my river's waters and brought here. This world is like none other than I'm sure you've seen—The River has brought you to the land of Oz."

She sounds like she's off her speech as she glances down at her feet. "It's my job, you see, to guide the people who wash up in Paradise. Lately I haven't really been able to do such a great job, and I'm very sorry you were lying out for so long." She looks back up at me. "But I must say, compared to others you are taking this quite well, Marina."

My eyes prick, and I begin blinking rapidly to hold back tears. Tears. I'm such an idiot. If this were to happen to Six she wouldn't cry, neither would Nine or John or Eigh— "But why me?" I ask, although I'm just talking for the sake of keeping myself intact.

"Why does anything happen at all?" Sarah shrugs, laughing quietly. "The River chooses people who need help. You are here for a reason, Marina."

"But is there any way back?" I feel like I'm choking on my words.

Sarah smiles faintly, but she has a hollow look in her eyes that gives me the sense she's had to deliver these same bad news multiple times, and each time it's never gone over so well. "I'm sorry… no."

I just lost it. I won't try and dress it up, I completely lost it. Sarah's come around the fire and I feel her place a hand on my back, trying to soothe me, but I felt much too far past the point of return. I squeeze my eyes shut and just let the hot tears leak down my face. At first I can feel Sarah trying to catch them, but they soon become too many and they fall to the sand. In seconds it feels like I full-blown waterfall.

I just let myself go at it for a while, crying and moaning and trying to let Sarah's comforting words affect my mood. But it feels good just to cry, like I'm letting out all of the emotions I've pent up since the beginning of all of this.

Adelina, Hector, Crayton and now Eight, the newest addition to my starting lineup of heartbreaks, maybe the worst yet. I can't even wrap my head around it—that his smile and his laugh and his ever-positive attitude have been snatched up and tossed out. To think that I once thought we may have had a chance to be happy…

And now Five's betrayal, and Ella and John back in Chicago in a comatose state, Nine incapacitated and Six all alone to fight off possible pursuers. The Garde, the resistance, Lorien's only hope is falling apart and they need me, and I can't be there because I'm here. Stuck in my own mind.

"Come on now, be strong." Sarah whispers to me.

"I don't know how!" I sob, burying my face in my hands. "I c-couldn't even s-save him! I couldn't do anything to stop it!" I knew that this was going to hit me hard, but now I wonder if I would have ever been able to prepare myself for this.

She's silent for a moment, letting me soak in my own tears. "I no longer have the power to send you back. They were stolen by another witch long ago." She says back to me. "But there may be someone else who could help you go back home. First, you're going to have to pull yourself together. You're not helping anyone like this."

I nod, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. Leave it to Sarah to use logic against my silly actions. I try to control my breathing but it's still coming in gasps. My throat still feels like it's slowly closing up, suffocating me.

"Calm down." She says steadily, continuing to rub my back in circles. It takes a few minutes of hiccuping and coughing, but soon enough I've caught my breath. Bernie Kosar climbs into my lap and rests his head on my thigh, his warmth becoming a source of comfort.

"They call him the Wizard of Oz, the most powerful wizard in, well, Oz. They say he can perform even the hardest of spells."

The notion of a 'wizard' performing 'spells' sounds even silly to me, but by the serious look on her face I can tell that this guy must be legit. "Where can I find him?"

"He lives in the Emerald City." She looks over at the horizon as if this Emerald City were to be sitting right there, but all I see are rolling green hills. "I would guide you, but it is my duty to watch over the river in case anyone else comes."

Bernie Kosar barks, and Sarah gives him a thoughtful glance. "I suppose my dog could guide you, he is very affluent in knowledge of Oz."

I pat BK's head. "I would very much appreciate that, Sarah." I sniffle once before grabbing Bernie Kosar in my arms. "Right now… that means a lot more to me than you know."

Sarah smiles at me warmly, but she looks sad. "I suppose you'll be leaving now." She says, and then adds in: "No one ever stays with me."

My stomach growls, it must have been a day or so since I… arrived here. And quite a while since I last ate. I know I should be getting on my way, but alternative universe Sarah already helped me a lot, and I'm about to walk away with what appears to be her only companion. "I suppose I could stay for the night… do you have anything to eat?"

Her face instantly brightens with an almost childlike glee. "Absolutely! There is a winkipple plant over the way, and a larigold patch not far from there. Do you have those on Lorien? They're very good." She asks, turning and motioning for me to follow her into the brush.

I hold onto BK as I get to my feet. "I'm sure they have something like that," I say, following her.

What in the world have I gotten myself into?

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