“Hold up.” Dwayne raised a hand to stop them. He sat forward on the chair and rested his elbows on his knees. He pressed his tongue up against his teeth and his eyebrows crinkled together. The expression painful; he rarely looked concerned. “How long has it been since the Council initiated AZ?”
“Since the end of the Second World War,” Series stated from the corner.
“Is that sanitary?” Dwayne mumbled.
“I’ll go blast one out while you drag him in.” Eilene rolled her eyes and stretched. She used her elbow to hit a button on the wall behind her, and the hidden door opened. Her thin form vanished into the dark hallway, and the door melded back into the wall. Luana shuddered at the image of one of the Council members disappearing into the void, but she covered it by pretending to pop her neck and spine.
“Are we going to try and keep him alive?” Series stretched her arms and let her jaw fall open in a wide yawn. They heard her elbows crack under pressure, and she dropped them back to her lap. Scott shook his head as a response, but he looked to Luana for the final say. Her mouth twitched as she lifted her left shoulder into a half shrug.
They had no logical reason to keep Ethan alive.
“I almost feel bad for doing this, but he’s a Rogue.”
Luana pressed her lips into a thin line. “We need to look into why he survived. Any ideas Dwayne? Maybe a bug?”
“You seriously think there’s an elementalist disease that saves people from drinking poison and being shot?” Series’ voice and left eyebrow lilted together.
“It can’t be a disease. The line stops there. Rather than a disease it’s like a cure for Rogue’s—something that makes them a Rogue, but, as a side effect, it creates a race of people who can’t be killed by conventional means.” As the Life elementalist for the Council, Dwayne knew the most about diseases. His element demanded he study medicine. Not a single disease or their symptoms passed by him before like this one. They needed to identify where it came from if, like Dwayne predicted, the mutation became a cure. “The Uns are experimenting lately. Could they have resources to create a cure that malfunctioned?”
“Why would the Uns want to create a cure for Rogue’s?”
“They’ve been restless lately, Luana, haven’t you seen it in the news? Everyone is wondering what we’re going to do about it since we haven’t addressed the issue yet.” Series stood up from her chair and wandered over to the one-way window. “I’m sure a select handful might have the resources. We can’t manage everything that goes in, and we don’t know what the land provides.”
“It can’t possibly provide anything. It’s a desert,” Dwayne argued.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere right now.” Luana held up a hand. “We need to escort Ethan to the cell, and then we can dive into research. We’ll meet in the library after lunch.”
“I hate the library,” Dwayne’s voice lowered several octaves in a groan, and he placed his hands over his face to rub at his temples.
“How do you hate the library? Your room is full of books.” Series turned away from the window. Her eyebrows drew together, and she suppressed a laugh with her hand.
“I like good books, not the history and technical texts we keep in the spider infested shelves.” Dwayne narrowed his eyes. A smile crept onto his face. “Don’t you like books, though? Your name is Series.”
“I thought my name is Junior, coming from you,” she returned softly.
Series’ mother loved books and as a result named her daughter something which didn’t fit with her Puebloan ancestry. Dwayne, a man fond of nicknames for everyone important to him, called her “Junior” ever since she let the tradition slip.
“If my mother named me after her, I would’ve been ‘Junior’ like everyone else.”
“More than half the people on the Rez are named after their parents. It’s easier to call people Junior than by their first name most of the time. If you walk onto the Rez and you don’t know which family your Junior comes from then you’re screwed.”
“Huh.” Dwayne gave her a thoughtful frown. “So, Junior, what’s your favorite pastimes?”
Series glared. “You are not calling me that.”
“Junior?” he called. She jumped, her whole body careened back into the glass, and she rubbed her shoulder to take away the momentary pain. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Sorry, I spaced out for a second.” Her lips curved into a broken smile and bled into her apology.
“Did you see anything?” Luana asked.
Series opened her mouth, closed it, and then opened it again.
“More books,” she lied through her teeth.
“We’ll need all the help we can get.” The taller woman cleared her throat and tugged at her shirt. “Dwayne, go get the thing from the hall.”
“Rogues are ’things’ now?” Dwayne lifted a single eyebrow and stood.
“Dwayne,” Luana’s voice deepened several tones.
The taller man quickened his pace to the door. “I’m going, I’m going, dear kgosi.”
“Stop using Tswana to address me, I don’t know what it means.”
“I will never stop using Tswana, Molelo. Kgosi means king.” The door opened with a quiet thud. He turned into the hallway, and his voice rose several octaves. “You drank the whole bottle?”
“To be fair, it was only three-fourths full when you handed it to me.”
“It’s time for you to come back in.” Dwayne gestured for the younger man to follow him back into the room. Ethan stood and rubbed the palms of his hands against his jeans. Dwayne stood a little taller than him, but Ethan refused to think he hit his height peak yet. He wondered how tall he would be if death didn’t come. He shivered and entered the room in front of Dwayne.
“What are you going to do to me?”
“We’re putting you in a holding cell.” Luana barely glanced at him when he reentered the room.
“So, I get a criminal record, go to jail kind of thing.”
“It’s not jail, it’s a holding cell.”
“It’s not like any of us want to do it.”
“Yet you are. You have to because you can’t kill me.”
“If you can find a way to kill yourself, feel free to.”
“Do you have to handcuff me?”
“Only if you’re planning to run.”
“I don’t have anywhere to run to.”
“Eilene wemt to do some cleaning, Series will take you down.” Luana announced. Series pushed off the window; her bangles jingled on her wrists and ankles when she moved. She ran her fingers back along her jaw and swiped at her dark hair.
“Hi,” she greeted with a large smile.
Ethan examined the way she walked. Her feet barely touched the floor before she moved to the next step. The bangles bounced with each movement, and he wondered if she wore them because of her light movements. Series reminded him of a lazy cat who only looks for food and sleep. Each breath aligned with her steps, and her body rose and fell in a never-ending dance. He let a small smile creep onto his face as she put a hand on his shoulder and guided him over to the open, pitch black doorway.
“How long have you been a member of the Council?” Ethan asked once the wall shut firmly behind them.
“Ever since I finished my training.” Series quieted, and he didn’t dare ask any more questions.
May 13, 2306
Bitter Springs, Arizona, United States of America
Series sat at the rough oak table of the Hopi leader, Tohopka Pecusa. He invited her into the house earlier and fixed drinks before sitting at the table with her. She watched him closely as his hands moved a knife over the small piece of oak in a practiced manner. She loved to watch people carve. It made her wonder what they thought when they let the wood slide through their hands and missed their fingers with the blade by only a hair. Every time Series tried to pick up the hobby, she cut herself. Her fingers covered in small, white, crescent moon scars. The Hopi didn’t often recognize the leader of the tribe as a standing figure; the high school she attended taught their culture as the opposite. White people rumored the Anasazi as reliant on the kikmongwi, despite the true Hopi tribe tradition based around the family.
“This is meant to keep you safe,” the man announced. He pulled several white strings around the circular piece of wood.
Series watched as he gently beaded and threaded the entire work, each piece contained a meaning meant distinctly for her. She swallowed; the kikmongwi never made personalized gifts for his people. His job focused on watching over their group and maintaining their Hopi roots.
“What will it keep me safe from?”
“From anything which may try to harm you, if you let it, it will guide you toward the correct decisions.”
“It’s beautiful, thank you.”
“We will honor having you in our city tonight.”
“Have your parents not told you? You have been accepted to the Academy.”
“The school in the sky where few of our people go.” Tohopka smiled.
Series’ heart pounded. It couldn’t be true. She couldn’t be going there.
“Why don’t you go to your parents for a little while?”
“Yeah, thank you for this.” She held up the dream catcher, gently bowed, and rushed back toward her parents’ house several streets away. Her tennis shoes pounded against the asphalt
“Oh Series, we need your help.” Her mother brushed her dark brown hair out of her eyes. She smiled until she saw her daughter’s frightened look. “What’s wrong darling?”
“Am I really going away, to there?”
“Where did you hear that?” Her father looked up sharply.
“Kikmongwi, he made me this gift and then told me there’s going to be a celebration because I’m leaving soon. Isn’t that something Uncle Hototo should’ve done?”
“We’re not going to let them take you away.” Her father put a warm hand on her shoulder and put a log down on the ground. “You are our daughter, and nothing can take you away from us.”
July 1, 2316
The Academy, Elementōrum Patriam
Ethan ran a hand through his hair, the individual strands stood on end. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and let out a slow breath. The air putrid. It smelled like rot. Ethan pretended it smelled of vegetable rot.
“How about them Yankees?” Ethan volunteered conversation when Series shivered in the cool air.
“What?” She turned on him with a laugh. The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile.
“Have they been doing well in the season so far?”
“Baseball doesn’t start until the fall, good try.”
“I’m not good with sports.”
The pair dropped back into silence. Series peered between every row of new cells to find Eilene. At the end of a long row, the woman stood in front of a closed door. The Native American teen grabbed Ethan’s elbow and directed him down the hall.
“I was thinking,” he started, “if you ever get lonely or something, you could visit.”
“You want me to visit you?” Her eyebrows rose and her melodic steps stuttered across the floor. “That might be fun.”
“Great.” Ethan looked at her, but she moved further down the hall. He obediently followed.
Eilene pushed open the door—a large piece of wood with a small viewing window—and gestured for Ethan to enter. The room free of the “vegetable” smell, and the surfaces glistened with drops of water from recent cleaning. A couple of laundered blankets and a pillow rested on a stone slab against the right wall. The ground made of the same concrete block and no windows occupied the walls. One electric light hung from the ceiling. The suspension chord swung back and forth and made the light patches swing across the walls in uneven patterns. The light cast shadows across Ethan’s face—the look in his eyes amplified by the light; he terrified them.
“Nicer than I expected,” Ethan commented.
“At least you can’t say the Council doesn’t take care of their prisoners.” Eilene kept her gaze away from his eyes.
“Definitely one thing I won’t be telling people.” Ethan stepped inside and turned back around to face the women. “Thank you—for the blankets.”
Luana staggered down the corridor toward her room. She tangled one hand into her hair and pulled at the knots. She needed to talk; the one person she could talk to temporarily worked as a liaison in Russia on her orders. His parents spoke Russian as their first language before their relocation to Elementōrum Patriam—which led to Hans speaking the language fluently. He worked perfectly with the Russian government. Luana wished she never sent him.
She felt the wall in front of her for the hidden button and stepped into the bedroom. The decorations confused her. A bed in the same place as her bedroom, but she didn’t remember choosing green quilts. The room smelled of fresh dust and several day-old cologne. Musk rested over the room with a hint of ryazhenka in the stale air. Luana’s brown eyes took in the pale blue walls and hardwood floor.
Luana stepped slowly to the lamp on the nightstand and clicked it on. The bulb stayed stubbornly off. It burned out. Her mouth curved into a frown. She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked around the space in the dark. She picked up a gold picture frame propped up on the stand and used her phone to illuminate the photo. Luana nearly dropped the fragile object when she saw the people in the picture.
“Hans,” her mouth formed the name before she could stop herself.
The boy in the picture no more than five-years-old. His father had a firm jawline which Hans inherited as he grew older. His mother shorter and plumper; she looked happy. Luana’s fingers traced over the features of Hans’ older siblings, Maxim, and Odessa. They turned Maxim over to the Uns shortly after this photo, and Luana remembered killing Odessa in 2306. She took a slow breath in and replaced the picture on the stand.
Her eyes trailed to the desk on the opposite wall. The chair didn’t sit perfectly in the open space. A red sweater hung over the back, and she recognized it as hers from the night before he left. They spent the night working and she left it in his room on accident. Luana hadn’t bothered to collect it since Hans left.
She leaned back on the bed and let her head hit the pillow. She rolled over so she rested on her left-hand side. Luana ran her fingers over the quilt before she fisted her hand in the fabric. The pillow smelled of kolbasa and dirt. It smelled like Hans. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye and dampened the pillow where her cheek rested.
“How long do you have to detach yourself from people before you stop feeling?” Luana whispered into the sheets. They didn’t answer.
July 3, 2316
Moscow, Russian Federation
Scarlet Lí raised her hands over her head and stretched dramatically. She groaned to add to the movement, and her partner in the workspace turned his head over his shoulder to look at her. Her black hair faded into a balayage of bleached blonde on the lower half. Her pale, soft skin made her look like a Chinese porcelain doll. The light from the lamp on her desk faced toward her and cast her slim shadow across her companion.
“Tired?” Hans Aliyev asked in Russian. His accent grew thicker since the return to his parent’s homeland. He didn’t normally speak the language daily. Scarlet found herself glad she had him by her side. She spoke Russian as a third language, but she still missed things at times and Hans could explain them to her in English, her second language. Hans had no communication skills in Mandarin; he tried once. To help Scarlet build her Russian acquisition, they always spoke it, even in their private hotel room.
“Just a little,” Scarlet’s voice low and rough from little use over the last several hours. Hans stood and drifted over to the window for a break from work. He stared at the sky and the rays of light made his dark hair turn several shades lighter. The stubble across his chin, he didn’t shave for their duration in Russia, glistened blond. For a moment, the image captivated Scarlet. She turned in her chair to look at his desk. On the corner of one of the pages of spare paper, Hans wrote the Council leader’s name in fancy script before he scribbled it out. A frown formed on her lips.
“Do you miss Luana?”
“Do you miss her? This is the longest you’ve been separated since you joined the Council, right?”
“It is hard to separate the Council, of course I miss our leader.”
“That is not what I meant.”
“I don’t know what you mean then.”
“You are such a Russian.”
“Nice stereotyping,” Hans snorted. He moved away from the window and walked into one of the bedrooms connected to the main sitting room. Their hotel room beautiful and colored with pale yellows and creams which made the atmosphere bright and quiet. “When are you ready to return to the meeting?”
“Give me a few minutes to finish this paper and grab my sweater.”
“No problem.” Hans tossed his blue windbreaker onto the arm of the couch and settled into the pillows.
The scratching of Scarlet’s pen continued for a couple minutes. A flash of red light startled her, and she turned to look at Hans’ work desk where his phone flashed with an official Council message. She glanced at the screen to identify the sender.
“Luana messaged you,” Scarlet called to her companion. Hans jumped up and threw his body across the room. He grabbed at the piece of glass sitting on the desk and split the skin on his thumb open when he hit the wood desk corner. Scarlet grinned. “Tell me again how not in love you are with our leader?”
“I’m not in love with Luana.”
“I’m not.” His voice dropped on the last syllable.
Scarlet made a loud click by pressing her tongue against the back of her teeth. The noise annoyed Hans, but she returned to her work. “So, what does lover woman have to say?”
“Luana messaged us to tell us there’s a situation they need help researching. We need to try and clear up the last of our issues today, so we can return to the Academy.”
“Let’s go now. I’ll write in the taxi.” Scarlet pushed all her loose papers into her briefcase and locked it with the latches. She grabbed Hans’ arm and steered him toward the door. He barely managed to remember to grab his jacket off the couch along with their robes at the door.
July 5, 2316
The Academy, Elementōrum Patriam
Luana spent two rough days waiting for Hans to return home with Scarlet. She remained in Hans’ room and curled up with her sweater on top of his covers. On her third night in the room, she fell fitfully into lucid dreams which turned into memories. She stood in the corner of her childhood home living room and watched her five-year-old self run into the room. The TV on and she could faintly hear the whistle intro of a several-hundred-year-old black and white television show called The Andy Griffith Show.
The room smelled like cigarette smoke and young Luana lifted her fingers to pinch her nose. “Daddy?”
“Foolish child, your father shipped out to Kazakhstan yesterday. Surely you remembered that? You saw him off at the airport,” Mrs. Portsmith snapped at her from her relaxed position on the couch. A duster sat on the floor nearby as an attempt to make it look like she did her job. She lifted her hand away from her mouth and let a stream of smoke leave her lips. Luana’s dad didn’t know she smoked. The woman had a talent with getting rid of the smell before he returned home.
“I just—I thought he might—”
“Might choose to return home to you? No one wants to be with a brat like you.”
Luana’s small hands jumped to the dog tags around her neck. One of her dad’s old sets; he helped her glue green, plastic gems to the unmarked side of them. The tags glimmered in the light, and she liked playing with them above her nightlight. Luana felt her body merge with the five-year-old’s, as her younger self backed out of the room. She let herself into the kitchen where she made her own peanut butter sandwich and a large mug of hot chocolate, so she could host a tea party with her stuffed animals.
Luana slipped out of the memory and jolted awake on Hans’ bed. The pillow wet with her tears, and she flipped it over to the dryer side. She rolled over and glanced at the alarm clock to find it showed three in the morning. Annoyed with herself, she pulled the sweater further down her arms to stay warm. It didn’t help. It only took moments for her to drift back into further unsettling dreams.
On their return to the Council quarters, Hans and Scarlet met with the others. Both glad to find none of the Council injured, Eilene whisked Scarlet away to give her a rundown of the situation, but Hans continued to his room.
Hans opened the door to his room and made to call out, he knew Luana would be there, but he stopped when he saw her sleeping on his bed. She kept to the left-hand side, closest to the door, and her brown hair spilled all over the pillow. He took calculated steps across the floor and around to the other side of the bed. Hans sat down and hoped the dip in the bed wouldn’t be enough to wake her. He slipped his shoes off and joined her on top of the covers.
“Lu,” his hand touched her shoulder and gently rolled her toward him. She groaned and tried to turn away from his touch. Her mouth opened in a slow yawn, and her eyes cracked open to take in his prone form.
“Hans,” Luana breathed. She reached out for him and wrapped her arms around his torso. She breathed in his smell and took comfort in the earthy cologne and Russian food. He pulled her tighter to him and took a steadying breath.
“What is going on?”
“It’s this—I don’t even know how to explain it,” she whispered. “It’s an anomaly.”
“Can you show me?”
“Yeah.” She slid from his grip and rolled to the other side of the bed to climb out.
He followed her across the space and noticed her bare feet. “Do you need shoes?”
“No, I’ll be fine. It’s a short trip.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the jail cells,” she replied lowly as they navigated the dark hallways.
“What are you keeping down there?”
“Why are you keeping a Rogue?”
“We aren’t able to kill him.” Luana shrugged.
“Momentary lapse of will?” Hans’ eyebrows pulled to the middle of his forehead.
“We shot him with six bullets, he drank a bottle of poison, I tried to behead him—he’s still alive.” She opened the door to the cell area and led him through the winding paths. “We put him in a cell down here in order to attempt Plan AZ.”
“Are you sure he’s still alive?”
“Yes? What’s with all the questions?”
“I’m trying to know what happened.”
“We’re looking into his case. Research. I needed you here with me.”
Luana kicked the ground with the toe of her shoe. A warm hand landed on her shoulder, and she looked up into Hans’ green eyes. He provided a soft smile which cracked his hard features. For a moment, a giggle bubbled in her chest at the idea of a smiling Russian, but most of the things about Hans went against stereotypes. He hailed from Diana—not a natural born Russian. She placed her left hand on top of his momentarily before turning back to the walls of cells.
They approached one at the end of a hallway, and she called out, “Ethan?”
“Hey, did you know you guys gave me a piece of wood in the blankets on accident?”
“No, I wasn’t aware,” she paused for a moment, “I brought another council member to meet you.”
“I tried to make a shank,” he said at the same time. “Oh, uh, sorry.”
Ethan’s red hair peeked into the view plate of the door, and he stood on his tiptoes to look out of it. Hans took in the Rogue slowly.
“Hey, I’m Ethan Silverspoon.”
“Why’d you make a shank?” Luana asked him.
“I thought I might as well assist you guys. I wondered if I might be able to kill myself with the shank, but I ran into an issue.” He went quiet, and they heard him shuffle around the cell space.
“Which is?” Hans prompted lowly.
“Hold on.” He reappeared in the open hole and held his hands through the space.
In his left hand, a roughed-up piece of wood. Ethan bent his right wrist back, so the main vein stuck out. He stabbed himself with the point. Luana managed to push a short scream down. The shank stuck through from one side to the other, but his arm no longer existed where he stabbed. Gray smoke filled the space, and despite the disconnect between his forearm and hand, he wiggled his fingers.
“It doesn’t do anything.”
Luana cleared her throat. “That’ll give us more information to work with. I came down here to introduce Hans to you since he just got back. Have you met Scarlet?”
“Yeah. She came down with Eilene earlier.”
“Good.” Luana didn’t bother to say anything else before she walked away. Hans followed her obediently.
“You’re going to have to stop asking questions Hans.”
July 15, 2316
Why, Arizona, United States of America
A man stood in front of his green front door, with cream trim, and held his hand on the handle. He felt scared to go in. Without his wife over the last year, he found it tough to raise his daughter. Aideen Rolfe, a five-year-old ball of trouble with the cutest face Kim couldn’t resist. He knew the minute he stepped in his house he would play for the next three hours whether he had the energy or not. He ran a hand through his black hair and momentarily rested his forehead against the door. He recoiled quickly from the hot metal after it basked all day in the sun. Kim took a steadying breath and pushed the door open.
Aideen popped up over the back of the couch along with her nanny, Karin.
“Daddy!” Aideen cried out. She jumped over the couch and threw herself into her father’s stomach.
“Hello cutie.” Kim pressed a kiss to her forehead before he pulled her in for a warm hug.
“Aideen was better today, not as much trouble.” The nanny’s dark red hair shone in the sunlight from the front window.
“That’s a good girl. What would you say if I say we can go out for ice-cream as a celebration?”
“Yes!” Aideen cheered. Her long brunette hair flipped into her father’s smiling mouth as she spun in circles. She threw her arms out and clipped her father’s chin with one of her fingers. Kim spat out her hair and pulled her back against his body to try and contain her energy. “Daddy, you’re not supposed to eat my hair.”
“Then can I eat your tummy?” He pulled up her shirt and blew a raspberry onto her stomach. The child squealed and wiggled away from her father. Her blue eyes sparkled in the filtered sunlight and reminded him of his late wife.
“I’ll be going home then. See you tomorrow at six,” Karin picked up her purse and keys before she stepped out of the house.
“Can, tomorrow, you paint my nails?”
“Of course, I’ll bring all of my colors.” Karin winked and closed the front door behind her.
“Ice-cream?” Kim tossed his head to try and shake back his hair. He failed. Aideen ran to find her shoes so they could leave.
July 20, 2316
The Academy, Elementōrum Patriam
“This is exhausting,” Dwayne’s head hit the table. Several books fell off the end of the desk, and Eilene glared at him. “We’re starving Ethan to death, anyway, does it matter if we figure out what’s going on?”
“Dwayne poses a good question,” Series’ voice muffled from the number of shelves separating her from the rest of the group. The rest of the council previously assumed she fell asleep.
“Junior agrees with me?”
“Don’t call me Junior!” she snapped as a reflex.
“You’re stuck with that one Series, sorry girl.” Eilene pulled a face at the book she held in her hands. The book closed with a snap and an unwarranted cloud of dust. She pushed it back into its place.
“The nicknames aren’t bad,” Dwayne defended. He pulled a ladder into position so he could reach the higher shelves. With most documents moving to digital, they didn’t keep the library large width and length wise, fifty feet by twenty feet. One path cut the room in half with rows of perpendicular shelves lining either side; the shelves rose twenty feet and touched the ceiling.
Scott grunted from his row of books, the darkest row in the room.
“I agree with Scott.” Luana appeared in the doorway of the library with Hans behind her. The two together didn’t surprise the Council. Dwayne shifted his weight on the ladder, so it slid to the end of the row with a snap. He peered around the corner at their leader, a smile plastered on his face.
“I suppose you could come up with better nicknames, Molelo.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
Dwayne rolled his eyes at her. “Because you haven’t tried to learn any other languages. You already know English, so why bother, right?”
Luana opened her mouth to argue, but Hans stopped her by pulling a book off the shelf. He held it out to her, and their leader took it hesitantly. She stared at the cover.
“Tswana to English Dictionary.” She flipped through the pages with greed until she found the word Dwayne kept calling her. “Molelo means fire,” Luana breathed. “That’s actually sweet of you.”
“Idiot,” Hans muttered under his breath. She ignored him. He knew he would be the only one who could get away with the insult.
“As if I’d give any of you truly insulting nicknames. Mosupologo agrees with me.”
Scott walked through the shelves to return several books and collect new ones without replying. Eilene watched him move before her eyes fell back to her next dense text of Elements in the natural world. Luana flipped a few pages in the dictionary.
“You call Scott, Monday?”
“He reminds me of the day, ornery and cold.”
“Since when have I been ornery?”
“Oh, it speaks!” Dwayne pointed at Scott like a specimen in a zoo. “Say something else.”
“Leave him alone,” Series requested from the corner.
“Whatever you wish, Mistress Junior.”
“With this book we could know what month you were born in.” Luana’s expression lit up.
“I am not telling you it again with that book anywhere near you. I don’t like celebrating my birthday.” Dwayne’s jovial smile disappeared. He glared at the Tswana to English dictionary. “What I wouldn’t give to be a Fire elementalist right now. Poof.”
“If Dwayne insists on giving us nicknames, we should give him one.” Eilene placed a book on the table of useful texts before returning to the shelves.
“That is my thing, Dickens.” He used his first two fingers to point at his own eyes before he turned the gesture on the blonde. She snickered.
“Any good books so far?” Luana threw herself down into one of the chairs at the main table where they kept the potentially useful books. She pulled one of the books from the top of the piles. Hans assisted the others in putting away the useless texts. Dwayne held a book out to their leader. The brown cover had letters on the front in gold leaf foil and it looked like a medical instruction.
“This one has some interesting information on curing humans of illnesses we’re immune to.”
“That’s not what we’re looking for.” Luana let her head hit the table and she narrowly missed the corner with her eye. Hans flinched.
“You asked if we found anything good, it is a good read.” Dwayne grinned.
“Scott, please tell me you have something.” She looked toward the back of the library. Scott shook his head and propped a history book onto a stack of other books so he could read.
“Anyone up for ice-cream in London tonight?” Eilene yawned.
“It’s almost nine o’clock there. We’ll never make it in time,” Luana deflected.
“Then let’s plan it for tomorrow night, or over the next couple of days. We have to get out of the library to give our minds a break.”
“We can’t leave Ethan alone.”
Dwayne cleared his throat to break the tension growing between the two women. He scratched his nose. None of them wanted a fight.
“We’re starving him anyway. If we leave for three days, it’s not going to change anything,” Series sighed from her corner. She tipped another book onto the desk next to her. “If you’re absolute about research we can spend some time in the London Library. While our library is extensive, they might have something we don’t that will give us a clue.”
“Alright, but only for a few days,” Luana said.
Ethan sat on the stone slab bed and leaned against the wall. He stared into the dark corner. If he looked at it right, another figure appeared in the space. It looked like his mother.
“When it gets quiet, I wish I had a harmonica. I could play one of the old jazzy songs for prisons.” He bounced his leg against the concrete. “I don’t know how to play, though. You know what I mean, mom?”
The whistle of cold air through the cells responded. The breeze brought the smell of the other cells with it. He coughed at the smell of vegetable rot. He couldn’t tell how many days passed since Hans and Luana visited him. His stomach growled quietly, and he let his body fall against the bed for another nap. Sleep always staved off the hunger a while longer.
He didn’t want to keep holding on any longer. Memories blurred across his eyelids. The first bad decision in Ethan’s dream would be tumbling over the edge of the waterfall. He fell through the air. Lulu reached out from a branch of a tree for him. Her brunette pigtails blew in the wind and floated around her head like a halo. He put out his hand for hers, but his fingers, slippery with water, didn’t hold. He kept falling.
He crashed painfully into the water at the bottom. He writhed in the twisting currents. He couldn’t breathe, but he had no sense of direction. Ethan couldn’t tell where he needed to swim to get air. He couldn’t grab any rocks to pull himself free from the current as the water swallowed his body. The waves spat Ethan onto a sandy shore where seven people sat on a picnic blanket. They appeared all in black and white and wore clothes which reminded him of old 1950s films. The four women sat with their poodle skirts fanned out. The men adjusted their polo shirt collars and flexed their muscles to impose their dominance.
“Ah Ethan, we’ve been expecting you,” Luana said with a smile. She lifted a teacup and took a dainty sip. Ethan glanced back at the waterfall and into the trees which grew at its edge.
“What happened to Lulu?”
“You will see her again if you cooperate.” The group laughed as one. “Answer three of our riddles and you’re free to go to Lulu.”
“What if I don’t want to answer them?”
“Then you’ll never see Lulu again.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind he registered Lulu died—he saw the Orphanage crash into the ocean. At the same time, he didn’t want to take the risk and lose her a second time.
“Here is the first riddle: with thieves I consort, with the vilest, in short. I`m quite at my ease in depravity; Yet all divines use me, and savants cannot lose me. For I am the center of gravity. What am I?”
Ethan’s mind raced as he tried to muddle through the words. Luana repeated it a second time for him when he didn’t reply. Ethan closed his eyes and focused on the words. The second to last line stood out to him. The center of gravity.
“V!” he shouted.
The black and white setting faded along with the Council. Ethan tumbled through the sky. He wanted to scream, but it caught in his throat. I only answered one riddle. He landed on a soft mattress, a large king-sized bed with too many pillows, which bowed under his sudden weight. He rolled over and pushed himself out of the bed. He tore for the door on the far-right wall. When he opened the door, he could hear two female voices call for him.
The hall decorated with gold sconces, crimson curtains, and bloody carpets. Ethan ran after the sound, and he came to a fork in the long hallway. Down the left side stood Lulu and, on the right, his mother. He pivoted between them. They both vanished.
“Choose,” a harsh voice whispered into his ear.
He took the left path. Behind him he heard the scuttling of something with too many legs. He didn’t dare turn around. As he caught up to Lulu’s figure—too attached to the child after five years without her—a large, wet something wrapped around his ankle. He hit the carpet and burned his chin. Ethan twisted around and saw a large centipede like demon reared over him. It’s long snake-like tongue flicked out to him, and the demon hissed. Ethan tried to scramble back, but he couldn’t gain any traction on the carpet, slick with blood.
The demon opened his large jaw and revealed rows of sharp shark-like teeth.
Ethan jolted awake and fell off the stone slab. Pain roared through his bones. He grunted and pulled his hands in front of him, but he had no strength to push himself off the stone floor. Ethan’s chin hit the floor and he sensed liquid running across his chin. Blood. A sarcastic grin settled onto his lips and caused them to crack and bleed too. Ethan found enough energy to reach up for the wood shank. He cracked it weakly against the ground until he had a sharp splinter.
He pressed the splinter into his finger, and he didn’t startle when a red bead formed at the puncture point. Ethan rolled over onto his back and a mirthless laugh burst from his lips.
The Council won.