I gasp as I sit up abruptly while trying to process all the information that ‘Layla’ gave me. None of it seems to make sense and I keep trying to understand what she was saying. I lie back down and groan in aggravation over my situation when I hear a light cough from opposite me.
“Hello?” I ask tentatively. “Is anyone there?”
A shadow detaches itself from the wall and reaches out a hand to help me up. I accept the hand and feel a spark run up my shoulder and into my heart. As I maintain the contact, a feeling of ecstasy overcomes me, the spark seemingly filling me up and connecting me to the man opposite me. I feel the surprise he feels as well as my own and the unexpected joy and hope. His positive feelings fuel my own and I grin widely. My grin must give away the fact that I feel the connection too, because he grins wider in return.
One I’m standing he starts to pull away, but as soon as his hands leave mine so does part of the connection and I gasp at the loss. Through the remaining piece of the bond I feel the restraint he is using not to touch me again. I feel his regret as he thinks about leaving and I immediately grip his arm.
“No,” I gasp. “Don’t leave!” I know I sound desperate but I can’t help it.
He looks surprised at the fact that I picked up on that, but at the moment I don’t care. “I must leave, you know this.”
I don’t know how I know this, but I do.
“Will you at least tell me your name?” I say sadly, looking into his deep green eyes and chestnut brown hair that just begs me to pull him to me.
“You may call me Malachi.” I nod and test out the name in my head.
“I’m Melayna.” He nods in reply and through the connection I can tell that he likes my name. I smile that he likes it and absently wonder if this is what love at first sight feels like. He smiles at that, almost as if he was thinking something similar. His smile falls as we hear heavy footsteps coming in our direction.
“I regret to leave you, Melayna.” I not in acceptance, knowing instinctively it wont be too long until I see him again.
“Until next time, Malachi.” He smiles at me once before disappearing once again into the shadows. I lean against the wall where Malachi was standing a moment ago and take a deep breath to compose myself.
I open my eyes when two forms run into me, and I tighten my arms around Selena and Emily once I recognize them. “Oh my god, I’m so glad you’re okay!” Selena starts to sob on my shoulder and I comfort her, patting her on the back and murmuring words into her ear. Emily pulls back and I pull my sister closer like I’ve done thousands of times before, leaning into her and internally mourning the loss of Malachi. She reciprocates and I can tell her loss echoes mine, knowing she’s lost someone in this cave system. I quietly murmur into her ear ‘name?’ and she replies ‘Faegan’ while I whisper ‘Malachi.’
I know that I’ve only just met Malachi but I feel like I’ve just said goodbye to someone important in my life and as much as Selena might not be a totally open book to everyone, I know her heart is captured easily enough.
“Sounds like you’re hurting more,” she chokes out and I sob into her shoulder as she pulls me close.
I regain my composure and pull away, wiping my face as I pull Emily into a short hug before returning to my sister’s side and grabbing her hand. “SO, Em, did you find a juicy man?” I ask, trying to lighten the mood, knowing she wont question how I already know what happened to Selena.
“Well, I wouldn’t say juicy. He was just annoying. He kept bowing to me and stuff, and his eyes were such an unusual, yet familiar, colour.” Emily huffs, rolling her eyes.
“Em! That’s so romantic!” Selena gushes. “He must be obsessed with you or something. I can see why!” Selena turns her head to the side to inspect Emily, who self-consciously tries to cover her body with her hands as Selena’s overactive imagination leads her into slight hyperactivity.
“Naww, c’mon Em! You have a beautiful body!” Selena proclaims. I smack her on the arm and she mockingly rubs it, glaring at me before bursting out laughing. Soon enough we have all joined in and are wiping tears from our eyes and trying to retain our balance.
“So, Sel, tell us about the guy you met! What happened!” My gushing is mainly for Emily’s sake, knowing she feels she missed out on the private conversation between Selena and me, so we sit there for ages rehashing what happened. I’ve explained about Malachi, without talking about the weird bond and his name, at least three times as Selena keeps sighing.
“That’s so romantic! You guys are going to get married and have three beautiful kids and be amazing! And you’ll live in the house next to me and Faegan and we will go on family vacations together and –“
Selena’s gushing is stopped as I snort out loud, before giggling uncontrollably.
“What?” She frowns at me, and I wipe my eyes, sitting up to lean my head on her shoulder.
“Nothing, but – do you really think a guy like that would be with me? He’s so incredible. He’s flat out gorgeous, but just looking at him I could tell he has a kind soul, such soft eyes. And you don’t get a body like that without doing exercise and he was just so…everything I could’ve ever wanted. Guys like that don’t go for guys like me. There’s no way I could ever get a guy like that.” A single tear drips down my cheek and I wipe it away before Selena or Emily can tell.
“Aw, Lay, no! You’re amazing! Anyone would be lucky to have you.” Selena lifts my face off of her shoulder and turns my head to look into her eyes, looking at me with such warmth I cant help but pull away. Not even Selena knows how empty I feel sometimes; how sometimes not even she can fill the void inside of me.
“So, um, are we going to talk about any of what just…happened? About what the guys said?” Emily’s voice breaks the silence and I glance at both of them, exhaustion settling into my bones at thought of trying to puzzle out what’s going on right now. As much as I love these caves and know them back to front, the thought of sitting her for a few hours and recounting what happened makes me bone tired.
“Ehm…can we do that when we get home and are in pajamas with Mum’s hot chocolate? I don’t feel like a rehash right now…” I shiver involuntarily, looking down at my still-damp sundress plastered to my bikini-clad body. I look over to see Em similarly attired, but Sel wrapped in only her sweater. They both nod at me and we stand up, looking at each other for a few moments.
“So, how do we get out of these caves?”
I grin manically at my sister and best friend and start walking away from them.
“Lay! Where are you going?” Selena shouts as they run to follow behind me.
“Chill, guys. I know these caves back to front.”
“Whaddya mean?” Selena questions, looking curiously at me as we walk.
“I told you that I come here to escape, yeah?” After checking for their nods of affirmation I continue. “Well, sometimes it takes me a little while to…calm down and so I’ve had plenty of time to, for lack of a better word, explore.” I turn briskly down the next cave and start to work my way through to the opening.
I stop dead in my tracks as I see the silhouette of four people in front of me. I silently usher my friends to the wall and am grateful for all the time we’ve spent together as they consequently know to remain silent. I motion for them to stay there and get stern looks from both of them.
I quickly drag them into an adjacent cave, whispering furiously in their ears. “I know these caves. I can get back to you and evade them if it’s bad news. None of you know these caves, I won’t get hurt, I promise.” I silently beg them with my eyes and envelop hem in a hug when they nod in resignation.
I look back at Melayna and watch as her friends envelop her in a hug, feeling envious of her friends and their close proximity to her. I stare at the hand that had touched her skin in amazement, remembering the conitouche that had formed through that moment of contact. I close my eyes and re-enact the whole counter and close my eyes in ecstasy, remembering my name running through her mind. I shake my head and try to remove the traitorous thoughts from my mind. She is not going to want you after she knows her status, I tell myself sternly. And why do you care anyway? She is an assignment. You have never cared before, and with your status you are never going to be able to maintain a relationship anyway. I sadly concede to my thoughts and return to join the others.
“Were you successful?” I say as I approach Faegan and Dudon from behind and acknowledge with something akin to pride that they don’t appear surprised by my sudden entrance.
“In essence.” Faegan replies with a sadness that I identify with completely.
“What, Du? Cat got your tongue?” I say, ignoring Faegan’s comment and the painfully wonderful memories it raises.
“No!” Dudon says defiantly. “She’s as beautiful as we’ve been told.” He says dreamily and I can tell he’s as ensnared as Faegan and I. “And how about you, Mal? You as serious as always?”
I pull my face into a mask of sincerity, having lost myself for a moment in the images of Melayna. “All went as planned.” I say flatly.
“Oh, come on, Mal! Give us some details! We all know she’s the most important!” Faegan says defiantly.
I am just about to refuse when Layla chimes in from behind me, “Yes, Malachi. I am eager to find out about your journey.” The telling tone of Layla’s voice lets me know that she’s aware of what happened and wants me to admit it.
I glare at Faegan and proclaim, “Thank you, Faegan.” The sarcasm is evident in my tone and expression, causing him to grin at me sweetly in reply. “My job wasn’t complicated and, yes, the girl has lots of power; it was palpable in the air.” I close my eyes as I remember the atmosphere crackling with power. “I will admit, I may have broken a rule in the process.”
“You? Break a rule?” The wonder in Dudon’s voice annoys me and incites a snarky reply.
“Yes, actually. Contrary to your idolatry beliefs, I am neither perfect nor a god.”
“Wow, Mal. You’ve sure got a mouth on you! Wonder where that came from,” Faegan proclaims, efficiently shutting my mouth and causing me to scold myself for emotion. No emotion, no emotion!
“Stop your childish fights, boys. Now finish, Malachi. Time is of the essence here. Must I remind you?” Layla looks at us like a stern grandmother and I feel properly scolded.
“No, Madam. From my experience I can tell her power is strong. We must learn to control it soon or else disaster could ensue. She has little control, yet her desire is strong. We can only hope she is not led astray.” Layla makes a noise in her throat, leading me to explain. “She has never opened herself up to unconditional love, so she may be vulnerable to any offers of comfort. She could easily be led to believe that –“ I stop as I feel the tell-tale crackle of power in the air. Having felt this amount of raw power only once before, mere minutes ago, I know that Melayna is listening.
I turn around just in time to see her back fleeing from me. I hear through the conitouche that she overheard part of our conversation. Thoughts of me being a ‘player,’ whatever that is, flits through her mind as she runs away.
“Wait, Melayna!” I can hear the desperation in my voice – the fear that she will run away from me because of some misunderstanding. I feel the instinct rise to protect her from the hurt and betrayal she is feeling, to relieve all her worries, even if I am the cause of them.
I don’t stop to question my thoughts before I’m dashing after her, following the crackle of energy deep into the labyrinth of caves. I shoot ahead, ignoring the stunned people I’m sure I left behind. “Melayna! I can explain!” My breathing is heavy, not from the exertion of running but rather from the pain I feel in my heart that she’s projecting through the conitouche. She shouldn’t have trusted me! I think. I’m only going to cause her grief. I’m not good enough for her. I look down at my feet, ashamed, as I keep running after her. I don’t look up in time to see Melayna standing in a defensive position and run into her instead, knocking her to the ground beneath me. I quickly roll off of her and look up at her as she gets up, staring down at me angrily again.
I wait patiently for her to speak, looking up at her with wide eyes as my elbows remain supporting my back. When I hear the pursuit from the rest of my party, I grab some of the magic crackling in the air and throw up a veil between them and us – a veil somewhere far away from us.
“What do you mean, you’re not good enough for me?” She stares at me as she takes on a hard tone of voice. “You – you – you have no idea what you are! You are beautiful – breathtakingly so. From what I saw, you can run at the speed of light. This – this – bond is amazing and is all you. You, you, you, you, you, you!” She points at me sternly to emphasise her point “And then there’s me. As you said – I haven’t been loved, I’m vulnerable. Destruction will ensue wherever I go and I’m neither perfect nor something else. Those words came out of your mouth, so don’t deny it!”
I’m stunned into silence by how much she heard, and by how wrong her deductions are. I guess it’s true – assume and you make an ass out of you and me.
“And you’re right, I shouldn’t have trusted you. But not because you’re not good enough for me, but because you’re too good for me. Innocent girls like me get drawn into the allure of having someone beautiful love us and our hearts always get broken. I don’t know why I thought it would be different.” She looks at her feet and her arms drop to her side. “I’m not pretty, I’m not rich. There’s nothing here for anyone to love. I was stupid to think I could ever have you.” Her voice is low and she sounds resigned o the fact that she could never have me. Immediately I am by her side, making my own argument.
“You are so – Gah!” I run my hands through my hair in frustration before gripping her shoulders lightly. “What you heard – none of that is true. I said that I was neither perfect nor a god, and you missed giant gaps in the conversation and your deductions – although logical – are ridiculous. And they are not. True.” I’m sure my eyes are wide and I sigh as I see a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
“What – what are you saying?” Her voice quivers as she awaits my response.
“I’m saying – shit!” I let go of her as I feel that Layla has broken through my wall. Oh well, I guess I’ll be breaking all the rules today. But somehow, this girl makes it all worth it, no matter the fallout.
“Do you trust me?” I grip her shoulders impatiently and when I see her internal struggle I soften. “I would never hurt you, I promise.” She looks into my eyes and nods in submission. I sigh in relief and grip her hand, opening up the channel between us. I sigh involuntarily as I feel the release of all the pent up negative emotions and at once feel light as a feather.
The sound of footsteps pulls me back to earth. Using the open channel between us I enhance the magic that she is pulling towards her. I am painfully overwhelmed by the unfamiliar burning nature of the magic. She screams out as my pain transfers to her and I hear the footsteps increase their pace. I grab onto the desperate thought of keeping them out and push all that I have towards it. I just see a flash of blinding green light that surrounds me in a cocoon before and unfamiliar blackness envelops me in its depths.
I catch Malachi as he collapses and place him lightly on the ground.
“Malachi! Malachi, wake up!” I shake him and his head flops backwards lifelessly, his brown hair falling over his eyes. I clear his hair away from his face, sighing at the silky feel of it against my hands. I lean my body over his, straddling him as I place my head on his chest, looking for a heartbeat.
“Please, Malachi!” I choke out through my sobs as I hear a heartbeat. “I trust you! I’m sorry for not believing you.” I pull him closer and cry into his chest. “I don’t know why – or how – but I can’t – I can’t live without you. Please just – just come back to me. You can’t – leave, you – can’t!” I stop attempting to form words and just cry into his chest uncontrollably instead. “Please.” I whisper as my sobs start to slow down.
I raise my head slowly from his chest and see two unfamiliar boys as well as Layla. I growl at Layla and observe as they all walk around in circles among the area we are in, confused expressions on their faces.
“Their trail ends here, I don’t understand.” One of the men says.
I quickly come to my senses and run to be in front of one of the men.
“Quick, you need to help me! My – a boy just collapsed! Can you help me?” I wait for his reaction and shiver when he completely ignores me and actually walks straight through me. I look down at my body and can’t see anything out of place. I scream in hysteria at the man in front of me and try to grip his shoulders. When my contact has no effect on him I just shout and shout at him, following him around like a lost puppy.
“Sel! Em!” I burst into tears and collapse onto the floor, leaning my head back against the wall and my head on my knees, which are pulled up to my chest. I hug my knees to my chest and continue to sob, watching the action unfold in front of me.
“I don’t understand, this can’t be so!” I say as I pace the area that holds the last trace of Malachi and Melayna.
“Anything can be so when she is involved,” Layla placates, still looking graceful as she sits on the dusty floor.
I sigh as I run my hands through my hair in frustration. “I know, but knowing and experiencing are two different things.” I continue to pace the room, only stopping when I nearly bump into Dudon. “Du, did you see…?” I trail off, not knowing how to explain the unusual nature of Malachi’s behavior. Dudon makes a noise of agreement and I continue, “It was just so different, so…emotional.” My voice holds the awe that I’m feeling at seeing Malachi behave with his heart and not his head.
“I must leave,” Layla says abruptly before disappearing into the shadows. I sigh as I realise how normal people disappearing is for us, and smirk as I think occupational hazard: will get used to people disappearing into thin air and wonder how many people would apply if that was added to the job description.
“I have something to say.” Dudon’s comment brings me out of my reverie and I can see from his expression that this thought had been on his mind for a while. “When we were first searching the cave, I thought I could feel a girl’s presence. And then just a little while after I heard a sound. It was so quiet, yet at the same time felt like it was right in front of me.” His hand reaches out unconsciously, as if trying to grip this mysterious voice. “I heard something about ‘a boy,’ it sounded like. Then this shiver ran down my shoulders, as if someone was holding me. The voice got louder after that, it was painful, full of despair.” Dudon shivers and his eyes become less glassy almost immediately. “It sounds stupid.”
“We should worry about that later. Right now, I feel like we need to retrace our steps and focus on finding Mal.” Dudon looks as if he wants to say more, but he doesn’t. I ignore the reaction and look around, trying to decide on a direction to go when I feel Selena approach from behind me. Her gasp confirms my suspicious.
“Fae. What are you doing here?” She looks at me wild-eyed, her hair floating around her face messily and just begging me to smooth it down.
“Uhh…”I stutter helplessly, at a complete loss for words since she walked into the room.
“Lay! Are you okay?” Selena rushes to one end of the cave and crouches down on her knees a few feet form the wall. “Lay, what happened? What boy are you talking about? I can’t see anyone else. Why can’t I touch you? Slow down, Lay. I can’t understand.” I stare in confusion at Selena as she talks to empty air.
“Selena,” I call, drawing her back to me with her voice alone, cautious not to touch her and break the rules.
“Sel,” she says tightly, fisting her hand. “Call me Sel.”
“Oh right, Sel.” I clear my throat before advancing again. “What are you doing? No one is there?”
“Yes, someone is there, my sister. She’s in trouble and I’m not going to leave her there.” I look at Dudon for help but his eyes are completely attached to the other girl in the room.
“Am I the only one who sees empty space there?” I point to the space in front of Selena, addressing the nameless girl in the room, whom I assume is the third of the trio.
The girl shrugs, her blonde hair moving like water over her shoulder as she does so.
“All I see are my two friends, but an unknown presence in this room is making me too uncomfortable to act.” Her voice is kind, but slightly harsh and emotionless. She glares at Dudon behind her who shrinks back to the wall. I wonder what he did to deserve her animosity, but dismiss that thought for a moment and turn back to Selena and the empty air, which she claims is her sister.
“Do either of you see someone else, a man?” I question, hoping that Malachi will be there with this girl, who is almost definitely Melayna.
The both shake their heads and some of the hope leaves me as scenarios of Malachi in pain consume my thought.
“Lay!” The gasp from both women has my attention turning towards the wall, anticipating some big show. “Where are you?” Selena whispers in despair, staring at the wall in sorrow. The blonde girl walks over to Selena and wraps her arms around her in comfort, murmuring softly into her ear. I watch the two girls in fascination of their outward display of affection, wondering if they know that they put their weakness on display so easily.
I helplessly sit against the wall and watch the two girls console each other. I smile sadly at Dudon as his star-struck expression remains on his face. Yikes. He’s got it bad. I think to myself. It must be even worse considering the girl seems to despise him. I am brought out of my tangent by a hand being stuck under my nose. I look up into the eyes of the other girl.
“Hi.” Her voice is strong and powerful, yet musical and soft at the same time. I absently wonder why her voice has less of an effect on me than Selena’s does. “I’m Emily, but you can call me ‘Em.’ I don’t believe we’ve been introduced properly.” She waits for me to repeat the introduction as I studiously avoid her hand, and once I have she retreats to the opposite side of the cave and comforts Selena’s prone form.