My friends crowd around the bed and listen as I explain everything--from what I know of Ater and Andhakar to the summoning I witnessed from Sandra, and her recent psychic attack. I expect Dace and Zakk to follow Kamiron’s lead, but instead they only nod. I can tell they have reservations, but they keep their minds open. Hamilton is my rock, his unwavering faith my anchor. His hand rests lightly on my shoulder, the warmth of it seeping into my skin, branding me. At intervals, he corroborates my story and provides details that he’s plucked from my mind.
“Then, in a weird way, what I found makes sense now,” Dace voices. He spreads his findings across the bed, smoothing out some creases from the printer paper.
“This brand, there isn’t much on it, but what I did find leads me to believe it’s some heavy shit, guys. There’s mention of it from the Age of Enlightenment, to the Dark Ages, all the way back to prehistoric times. The lore starts with the belief that our world isn’t the only world. Our dimension not the only dimension.”
“Like the multiverse. M-theory?”
“Exactly, Z.” Excitement laces Dace’s voice. I glance at Hamilton. M-theory? I mouth. He shrugs.
“Science and mathematics are just starting to back this up, but even before theories of the multiverse, ancient people believed that there were several different worlds, all linked to ours and accessible by doorways all across Earth. These access points ‘open’ at different times depending on anything from astral alignment to occult rituals.
“One dimension in particular caught my eye.” Dace shuffles through his papers until he finds the one he is looking for. He hands it off to Zakk. “The ancient Romans called it ‘Ater’ which is Latin for ‘dark.’ It’s not a world with a sun, or day and night, or even time as we think of it. But it’s said that Ater is a dimension of depraved creatures who find strength by eating the vitality of any who stumble upon their realm, or any foolish enough to summon them to Earth. There’s even a picture of one such creature, drawn by a mystic in ancient Persia.”
Again Dace rifles through his manila folders and removes a heavily pixelated sketch. My breathing stutters when I realize it’s Andhakar. He straddles a black dragon with a single, massive golden eye and wings like indigo flames.
“I found recurring references to a being whose name changes throughout history. No matter the language, the being’s name usually translates to ‘the Darkness-That-Hunts.’ The lore goes that if summoned, this Darkness-That-Hunts will fulfill a request. Wealth, power, revenge, whatever. In return, you pledge yourself and your soul in fealty to him. To seal the deal, you receive this brand.”
Dace’s finger circles the insignia that Hamilton had drawn.
Silence sits between the four of us.
Zakk clears his throat to dispel the uneasiness. “Were you able to distinguish the locations of these access points between dimensions?”
“No, but they’re believed to lie in the crossings of ley lines.”
“Which would put it right here at Camp Gen.” Again, Zakk paces the linoleum and for the first time I see him agitated. The fingers on his left hand twitch and his shoulders are stiff with tension. “Coupled with the story you told at the bonfire . . .”
“The Legend of Andhakar Lake,” Dace murmurs.
“It’s too precise to be mere coincidence.”
Hamilton folds his arms across his chest. “So what does this Darkness-That-Hunts want?”
Dace shrugs. “Beats me. Maybe Shari would know?”
My heart pounds in my chest, wiggling against my ribs like maggots. While my contact with Andhakar was (blessedly) limited, I still was able to discern some things. “He’s not what he was, I think. He needs power and souls. Dace is right. In Ater, there are all sorts of creatures at his command. It’s fair to assume The Darkness-That-Hunts wants permanent access to Earth but I don’t know what he’s waiting for or why he’s reappeared now.”
I take a deep breath and dig into my pocket. “There is a man, a druid. He would know what Andhakar wants.” I pass the note to Hamilton who gives it to Zakk who then tosses it to Dace. Looking pale, Dace hands it back to me. “I don’t know how to contact him, or what he wants from the three I’m to find, but this medium is supposed to--”
The door swings open and Kamiron pauses, his breathing labored, cheeks flushed and eyes like a grey hurricane. An uncomfortable silence descends. Kamiron slips past Zakk and shuts the door with his heel. His gaze locks on the sketch of the brand and the air rushes out of him, leaving him deflated.
“She has it.”
Zakk reacts first, guiding Kamiron to the chair. Kamiron rests his head in his hands. “It’s right at her hairline. When we first started dating, I asked her about it. She said she got it when she was younger because she thought it looked cool, but afterwards realized it was pretty lame. She keeps her hair long to hide it. I--I never thought . . .” Kamiron’s voice pitters out like a stalled car engine. He takes a deep breath and meets my gaze. “I’m sorry, Shari. What can I do to help?”
The boys wait for my response. I want to trust Kamiron, but can I truly? Does he still belong to Sandra, a spy? Is it worth the risk? At my side, Hamilton shifts, and I don’t have to read minds to know he has reservations. Even Zakk seems uncertain, and Dace is dead to the world. It will be up to me. And I feel . . .
I close my eyes, searching deep inside. I don’t think Kamiron is working for Sandra. It’s a gut feeling and something I can’t explain. I just know. I toss Kamiron the folders and update him on the situation. A nerve below his left eye twitches as he reads Dace’s intel, but I see he’s trying.
“What’s the plan?” he ventures.
“When I first found myself here, I had this.” I hold up Divine’s note. “But then Sandra took it from me. She returned it just before the psychic attack. I’m guessing she was trying to get in my mind to find out what I know.”
“And you repulsed her.” Hamilton beams at me. “No small feat going against a psychic vampire.”
I allow myself a small smile at his praise before continuing. “I’m obviously walking into a trap and I don’t want to risk any of you--”
“But we can’t stay ignorant. We’re too deeply involved,” Zakk summarizes. “Trap or not, we need to contact this druid.”
“I don’t know how.”
“I do.” Kamiron shoots Dace a meaningful glance.
Dace sighs, defeated. “Not here. I’ll have to prepare. Best to do it in Firestarter.”
I frown at the pair. “What’s going on?”
“Do you remember when we first told you what Camp Gen was about--we all demonstrated our primary and secondary abilities?”
I nod at Kamiron.
“Everyone except me,” Dace reminds. “I told you about remote viewing, but not my other ability.”
“A medium,” I guessed.
He gives a reluctant dip of his head. “I don’t mention it because I hate it. I’d prefer something more badass than getting raped by Casper, ya know?”
“It’s possession, Shari,” Zakk chuckles, “Don’t look so horrified.”
Dace continues. “I touch an object and I can contact its maker or whoever handled it. Or I can just reach out to whatever presence is near.”
“You think you can contact Divine?”
“I’m sure he’ll contact me. He already tried when I touched your note.” Dace sighs and I recall his earlier shakiness. He rises and heads for the door. The others rise with him.
“Rest, Shari. They should let you out tomorrow. Come by Firestarter tomorrow night.”
The boys file out of the room while I stare at the soft yellow paper in my lap.
After finding no strange brain tumors or signs of trauma, Doctor Millan discharges me with a clean bill of health. I catch up on my afternoon lessons. For the most part, I find the lessons boring. My “psychic talent” has further been narrowed down--it isn’t precognition or retrocognition, both of which I’ve learned involve the ability to perceive information either before it occurs, or in the past.
Either would be handy to me right now.
Melissa, wearing a cedar-green hoodie that reads “I <3 Iowa,” waits for me outside of the Nina Kulagina building. As I approach, she dabs at her red eyes and nose with the edge of her sleeve. Before I can ask what’s wrong, she just shakes her head. The sun shifts behind the tree line and shadows grow around our blue jeans.
“Buddy system,” she replies, forcing her voice to work though it shakes. “Sandra wants us all taking precautions. I thought, since your attack, it’s best I go with you to Starjungle.”
I can’t help myself. I link my arm in hers and we walk in silence. Around us, campers prepare for the memorial later on in the evening. From what I hear, candles and flowers will be placed on Shizuka Lake, a few words spoken and a moment of silence. We now know the boy’s name. Maxx. Age eighteen. Could communicate with animals. Inside, I ache for Maxx’s friends and family--and I burn with hatred that Sandra took him away.
“Another person was found today and another’s missing,” Melissa shares finally. We stop in our tracks. In preparation for evening, the lamppost above us hums as it switches on, washing out all color and dousing us in fluorescent yellow.
“Oh, no, Mel--someone you know?”
“I know--knew--them both. Twins. They go--went--to high school with me. Back in Iowa.” Her voice cracks and I draw her into a hug. Her sorrow nearly drowns me and I fight to stay on the surface, to ride the cresting wave to the safety of land.
“I just saw them earlier today. Cytheria was so excited about a guy she was dating--Jeno. Dalton, he--he . . . They can’t find him--what if he’s . . .?”
I rub Mel’s back as sobs rake through her; my mind races. What was Sandra up to? Why kill someone else--two people--when Andhakar expressly told her to keep a low profile?
“Do they know how the twins . . .?”
Mel shakes her head, stepping away and rubbing her puffy eyes. “Lieutenant Butler won’t say, but patrol’s been increased. If this keeps up, Shari, they’ll shut down Camp Gen---and if they do that, where will we go? I know this is your first year, but I’ve been coming here since I was eight. It’s the only place most of us have where we can feel normal. Where we fit in.”
“Don’t worry, Mel. Whoever’s doing this will be stopped.”
I’m not sure if it’s my tone or absolute conviction, but Mel looks at me sharply.
“You said ‘whoever.’ Butler said the first guy died from exposure. The twins would have known their way around, so I thought it was an animal attack.” Melissa’s dark brown eyes narrow. “What do you know about all this?”
I hastily backtrack. “I don’t know why I said whoever. I guess I’ve just been listening to Dace’s conspiracy theories too much.” I force myself to take a sudden interest in the surrounding woodlands. Thick clouds blot out the sun, darkening the green pines. Campers dot the trails, some relaxing before dinner, others working on their abilities.
“Really?” Melissa’s voice belays her skepticism.
“It’s just a feeling---er . . . clairvoyance?” I pull the word out of the air. “I’m told it means---”
“The ability to perceive matters beyond the range of ordinary perception.” Despite the sadness rimming her mouth, a bit of the spunky old Melissa peeks at me from beneath thick lashes. “When did you discover it?”
“Just recently---a hunch. I haven’t exactly been tested---”
Mel brushes aside the last of her tears. “I know just who you’ll need to speak to to undergo your trial--all us ‘clair’ people are observed by Doctor Winenheigmer. She’s very pretty---all the guys have a thing for her, but she’s not interested in boys, y’know?”
As if desperate for a distraction from our grim topic, Mel clings to the subject of my budding abilities. A pang of guilt stabs me. I didn’t intend to mislead Mel but I’m glad she isn’t crying anymore. While she briefs me on what to expect in the next few days from the clair-department, my mind wanders to the guys. I know they’ve already set up watches for Sandra, and while I’m grateful for their assistance, worry gnaws at me. Something in Sandra has changed since that night she summoned Andhakar. The attack on me yesterday was her most direct confrontation yet.
No doubt Andhakar’s Steel Fang has something nasty up her sleeves. Is she feeding on campers, building her power for an all out assault?
“Starjungle’s heading to the memorial in an hour.” Mel’s voice as she slides open the door to Starjungle startles me. We file inside to hear girls’ chatter and bickering. “I’m going to try and catch a shower before the hot water’s gone---”
“---Too late, Mel,” one of our cabinmates shouts. Wrapped in a lilac towel, she strolls in from the crowded bathroom and pads towards the room she shares with girls I don’t know. “Akshi’s polished it off.”
Mel rolls her eyes and huffs. She then promises to meet up at Shizuka Lake and trudges into the room she shares with Sandra.
We adhere to the buddy system on the way to the memorial. I keep my eye on Sandra and she takes care to ignore me. Me and security. Due to the nondisclosure agreement, not many parents know about the deaths--yet. It’s only a matter of time before word gets out. I hope to stop Sandra long before then.
I don’t pay much attention to the candlelight vigil. When it’s our turn, Starjungle approaches Shizuka Lake and add our floating candles to the sea of lights. It looks like the stars have touched Earth, bobbing along the gently sloshing waves as the sky turns a dark indigo.
The shrill discord of screams.
The iron stench of coagulated blood.
The acrid flavor of evil on the back of my tongue.
My heart thuds in my chest and I take calming breaths. My flashes of Ater are less vivid than before--I can almost pretend it was just a horrible dream--that is, until I open my eyes and spot the Steel Fang. She hangs on Kamiron’s arm like a deadly ornament. I sigh and turn away from the mix of mourners, curious onlookers, and the indifferent. Ater has desensitized me to torture and suffering as much as any teen who loves first-person shooters and bloody action flicks, but I’m unused to others’ sorrow. To feel in Ater was to die.
The echo of screams comes again followed by crunching noises, chewing, and loud slurping.
“Holdin’ up ok?”
Dace pauses beside me. Despite the faint waver in his voice, he looks as composed as ever, hiding behind a mask of detachment. The candlelight hits his lenses and obscures his blue eyes.
“I’m better, thanks.”
We watch as the candles begin to flicker out in a northwest breeze. Campers turn away and follow their cabin leaders back to their cabins.
“Come when everyone’s asleep. Bring it so I can have a reference.”
Dace turns and strolls away before I can reply.
Of course when I need them to, the girls in my room don’t go to sleep. They stay awake until early in the morning, pillow talk or whatever. I recline against my mattress and think about what they whisper. Who is going to be next? Why can’t we contact our parents--they should be informed, shouldn’t they? Are we safe here? What’s going on?
Sandra props against the wall, listening. Mel perches on the top bunk with me, her feet dangling over the edge. I keep my own counsel. I arrange my expressions and regulate my voice to be invisible and overlooked. It works, except for Sandra who continues to psychically prod me. Buzzing and vibrating with electric energy, her mind stabs mine repeatedly. It takes all my willpower to keep her at bay while simultaneously appearing as if nothing’s wrong.
Gradually, the pressure lessens until Sandra withdraws entirely. I try not to exhale in relief. The Steel Fang straightens and offers us all a sweet smile.
“It’s late, ladies. I’m going to bed, but you keep talking if you want. Remember the buddy system and no one is allowed out at night unless it’s an emergency--and that must be cleared with me or Mel, ’kay?”
As soon as she disappears, Mel turns to me. I still read the grief and worry in her eyes, but her voice comes out even and confident.
“What just happened?”
I blink at her.
She glances at the other girls gearing up for sleep. The bunk rocks as she scoots closer to me. Her voice comes out in a conspiratorial whisper. “You tasted different just now.”
I gulp but keep my composure. “I don’t know what you mean.”
She studies me for an uncomfortable amount of time before she next speaks. “I’ve told you your taste is light, like tropical fruit.”
I nod. Her psychic ability. Clairgustience.
“But for a while there I tasted a taint on you. Food gone bad. Sour citrus. And then Sandra tasted different.”
I shudder. Melissa must have sensed Sandra attacking me. As much as I trust her, I can’t have her involved like the guys. If Sandra suspected anything between Mel and I . . .
“What does Sandra taste like?” The words feel heavy on my tongue. Is this the sensation Melissa feels when she “tastes”?
Before, Melissa ignored my question about Sandra. Again, she studies me--as if looking for some kind of clue. Finally she sighs. “Wrong. She tastes wrong.”
We glance left and right. Some chat still lingers but most girls are beginning to sleep. I slide closer to Mel so that the heat of our bodies mingle. She presses her lips against my ear.
“I feel a defamation and emptiness, as if she has no taste and yet what clings to her is a remembered taint.” Melissa’s soft curls brush my cheeks as she shakes her head. “It’s absurd. She’s the nicest person once you get to know her.” Melissa hops down. “Between us. Night.”
I stretch out on my bed and ponder Melissa’s words while I wait for my bunkmates’ breathing to even out. Springs creak as someone turns over. A sniff there. A snore here. Starjungle settles around me like a mother hen nestling over her clutch.
Defamation. So even Mel senses that Sandra isn’t what she appears. Should I tell Melissa the truth? Is ignorance safer? She shares a room with a psychic vampire and an evil one to boot. Is my silence only endangering her more?
I sigh and the note scrapes the skin between my breasts. I’ll need to leave soon. Hopefully the boys aren’t asleep. My thoughts return to Melissa.
What if Sandra can read her mind? If I told Mel the truth, would Sandra find out? Could Sandra psychically attack Melissa like she attacked me?
It’s a question for Hamilton and Zakk, at the very least.
I wait for fifteen more minutes before I climb out of bed. I slip on a pair of jeans and tennis shoes. Knowing Sandra provided my clothes bothers me. Can she sense me through the clothes? Use my outfits to follow where I go---
Quit it, girl, I chastise myself. First things first---sneaking out of Starjungle. The most direct way is out the front door, but I dare not get close to Sandra and I dare not risk climbing out the window in my room. That leaves the window in the bathroom. High up and narrow, it’d be a tight squeeze, but I’m sure I can make it.
My shoes make little noise as I tiptoe for the bathroom. Starjungle sleeps soundly, oblivious to the viper in its midst---and the psycho black girl creeping about in the dark. I snicker. One of the racist jokes I used to endure was that black people blend in with the night.
At least I’m assured cover.
Getting out of the window isn’t as hard as I had envisioned. The night that greets me is muggy and laden with moisture. I taste rain coming. Plump clouds obscure the moon and a heavy grayness settles around the woods, making the trees inky blots bleached of all color except black and steel gray. I keep close to the trails but not on them. The hiss of wind and the hooting of owls break the silence of the night. Security guards radio to one another as they patrol, scouring the camp for the menace that sleeps in a bed at Starjungle. I steer clear of their curious flashlights and methodical footfalls.
By the time I reach Firestarter, it’s drizzling. Keeping to the shadows, I knock on the window that I know is near Zakk’s bed. Kamiron appears and motions for me to head to the front panel. Zakk slides it open for me and I slip inside.
“Took you long enough,” Dace chides as I shake off water.
“Sorry, everyone stayed awake ’til late.”
Hamilton appears from the back room with a towel. “Don’t mind Dace. He’s a bigger dick than usual when he’s nervous.”
Dace scowls. “Try having your body put through the wringer and we’ll see how cheerful you are.”
We march into the main room and arrange ourselves on the furniture. Dace occupies an armchair. Zakk and Hamilton join me on the couch. Kamiron pulls up a chair.
“Let’s get this over with.”
Keeping my eyes downcast, I reach into my bra and retrieve the letter. Blushing, I pass it to Dace who has difficulty keeping the grin from his lips. He props his glasses on the coffee table between us before closing his eyes. “It’ll take a few minutes.”
Anticipation builds in the room while we wait. A sudden warmth steals into Firestarter. Cloying, it settles around us like a cocoon. Hamilton takes my hand, threading his fingers through mine.
“Something’s here,” he whispers. I glance at Kamiron and Zakk who nod in agreement. Our gaze flickers to Dace. His brows are scrunched and he chews on his bottom lip. The heat increases and a strange presence circles us. I feel it studying us. Its electric heat traces my neck like long fingers. I vaguely become aware of Dace speaking to it.
“I am,” he answers to some question that the rest of us can’t hear. “I offer my body to use to communicate your message if you will leave it as you found it.”
The heat intensifies into a violent flare. I want to beg Kamiron to crack a window but dare not speak for fear of breaking Dace’s concentration or whatever is needed to commune with spirits. The presence circles us again and then slams into Dace’s body. He inhales, chest heaving and gasping before he falls quiet.
Languidly, his eyes flutter open. They are tangerine.“Shari.”