Chapter 24 - Isolde
I spend a few hours alternating between jogging and walking, and sipping at my huge flask of water. It may seem pretty big now, but I know that my supply will soon be severely depleted – I need to find a water source.
My growing fatigue makes me question where I will sleep. Not ground level; too easy to be found. I don’t really want to burrow into the earth, either. There may be some hidden caves, or some sturdy trees to protect me . . .
Looking closely at the ones around me, I wonder if any would be suitable. My eyes catch on a willow that looks promising. Willows are good; their hanging fronds provide a good means of concealment. But I need to find a thick enough fork for me to lay on.
I tighten the straps of my backpack and start climbing the tree. It’s a bit of a strain to begin with; the branches are quite far apart. But once I’m a few metres up, I’m fine. I continue to ascend the tree, pausing every so often to test my weight on particularly weak looking branches. Luckily, I don’t fall.
After a while, I reach a wide limb for me to settle down. The fork is broad enough for me to feel safe; it’s almost as big as a trunk. All the same, I take some precautions: I put all of the things on the stolen belt into my rucksack, and tie it over me and under the tree branch. Then I slide into the sleeping bag, shifting the belt a little.
If I’m found, my cover story will be that I was chased and lost my bearings – I’m still in the AH uniform, after all. Maybe not the most convincing excuse, but I’ll make do with what I have.
Finding that the sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, I ease my blanket out of my rucksack, hugging the fabric to my chest.
I don’t know what tomorrow will hold, and that scares me. I’m the sort of person who plans properly. Here, I can’t do anything but worry about what might happen.
Staring motionlessly into the leaves in front of me as my chest aches, I wait for sleep to wash over me, and drag me down into oblivion.
In the morning, I am jolted awake by flapping, terrifying close to my ear. I recoil from the alarming movement, as a shrill, frightened scream builds up in my chest. My mouth opens to let it out, but at the last second, I clamp my mouth shut – I do not want to announce my presence to any predators nearby. My body heaves with the shock of the event, screeching at me to get up and face my assailant, but my mind is somewhat saner as I watch the source of the disturbance – a black, medium-sized bird – flutter away.
Just a bird. Just a bird.
This place is making me incredibly paranoid.
I wait in my sleeping bag until I’ve calmed down a bit, then sit up and rub at my eyes, murmuring reassurances to myself.
Right, what to do today. I need to find a river or lake or underground spring. It makes me grimace a bit, thinking about having to wash myself out in the open, but I can’t be picky. I’ve got iodine to purify the water I find, so that’s fine.
To be honest, I want to stay here and go back to sleep, but my bladder says otherwise, and I don’t want to find myself dying of thirst in a few days’ time because of mere laziness.
I undo the belt, shove my sleeping gear into my rucksack, and then place the backpack on my shoulders before climbing down the tree, listening carefully for anyone that may be close.
There’s nothing, luckily. I begin to walk, my compass firmly in my hand, pointing north-east. It’s a smart one that tracks each direction I move in and records it. After I discover a water source, if I want to find my way back to that tree, with a click of a button, instructions will be displayed on the pad underneath.
All the same, I note my surroundings carefully, though there are very few defining landmarks in this forest. I extend a hand to brush a particularly large tree, feeling the smooth texture and committing it to memory. Then I hurry on, trying to be thorough as well as speedy. To be honest, I don’t know why I am so fussed about finding my way back. I suppose it’s because the grand willow tree is the closest thing I have to a place of my own, here in the NS.
My eyes rake across the thick bunch of trees before me, trying to figure out the best way to go beyond them. The sudden grouping in the usually spaced-out flora is unnatural. Though, I suppose everything in the NS screams unnatural. When I first entered, I was too consumed with worry about Mum back home and trying not to run into any Hunters that I didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings.
Now, as I squeeze myself in the narrow gap between two trees, I do.
This is not a normal forest. It should be teeming with wildlife, bright and overcome with the scent of dying flowers. Instead, it is dark, solemn and eerie, animals few to come across and just intimidating trees to bear testimony to the existence of plants. Why is this? The Antithetical – we Antithetical – can’t be so bad that we drive away nature . . . right?
Maybe. Maybe you are.
I shake my head, refusing to question who I am and who I’ve always been. This is quite possibly the worst part of being Antithetical – rediscovering myself. Doubts have crept up on me, plaguing me constantly. But I am beginning to realise that all I need is faith in myself. All I need to do is believe.
My breaths increase as I pick up my pace. I soak in what I’m experiencing – the quick, steady thud, thud, thud of my heart, the woody, musky scent filling my nose, the plants and leaves brushing at my stolen jacket, the menacing trees that loom up and over me, the swish-swish of leaves . . . this is what I’ve chosen. I can’t spend all my time lamenting about my powers. I have to take ownership of what I have, organise and deal with it efficiently. Not struggle and sob as I wish to go back to life before.
I turn my mind back to my quest for water, listening for any sounds of rushing liquid, but I find nothing. Then it hits me, and I’m shocked at how incredibly obvious it is.
I’ve generated water before – though not voluntarily. Why not try now?
A part of my mind immediately screams not to try. After all, I am not supposed to use my powers intentionally; inflict any damage on purpose. But I’m away from society now, so why refrain? Exercising my ability should help me control it, anyway.
Before opening my flask, I cast a wary look around. The AH uniform will not save me if any Hunters stumble upon me, watching as water appears in thin air. There’s nothing I can see nor hear – except for the whisper of the trees – so I stare into the water, made dark by the colour of the container, unsure what to do.
I whisper, “More.”
For a few seconds, nothing happens, but then I see the water rise maybe a centimetre or two. I instruct the liquid to halt its progress, wondering if it will obey me. It does. That was a lot easier than I thought.
I make the water fill all the way to the top, then stop to drink a bit of it, and re-fill again.
Fully hydrated, I stretch out my limbs. What now? I’ve got my water. I brought quite a bit of food, but it won’t last forever. Should I go gathering some stuff to eat?
I take out three slices of bread and chew them. No, today I’ll just begin to familiarise myself with the NS, although the edible plants book I brought along should help with foraging.
I make my way back to the tree I slept in last night, and find what I think is the same fork. Again, I belt myself in, and get out my book. I flick through the pages, noting a few plants that look promising. Lots of them have poisonous doppelgängers, though.
I sigh, and look up from my book into the air around me. Loneliness envelops me so tightly I feel physically weak. But I knew that life here wouldn’t be a big social parade, so I just grit my teeth and bear it.
The days pass mostly uneventfully. There are a few times when I am startled and run somewhere random, but never do I hear another human voice.
I notice that my food is fast running out. By the morning of the fifth day, I only have some trail mix, five slices of bread, a bottle of long-life soya milk, four apples, a wedge of cheese, three cans of spaghetti in tomato sauce, and two cans of peaches in juice. It sounds like a lot, but I very much doubt that it will last me more than three days.
For breakfast, I have two slices of bread. They look and taste a little stale, so I best eat all the bread today, before they get inedible. I put a bit of cheese on the bread and slowly eat, to make the food seem like more. The trick doesn’t work, so I just suck at a handful of sweets I brought along. They keep my mouth moving, so my stomach waits patiently.
The fact that nothing has really happened in the past few days unnerves me. Not that I am ungrateful, but it’s the NS, after all. I thought that I would have to run from some Hunters about every day.
I’m shrugging my rucksack on when I hear the noises. I freeze, listening carefully. No, I didn’t imagine them.
I push down the panic and scan the flora around me, looking for a tree to climb, but I don’t have time to waste, so I just scamper up the closest one, not stopping until I hear voices almost directly underneath me. As I anxiously peer through the fronds, I see a male, a female, and a young boy, talking together. I deduce from their lack of uniform and weaponry that they are all Antithetical. They don’t pose a threat to me in the way Hunters do, but I am still very wary.
Just get down, a part of my mind says. After all, I have powers. But they do too. And I don’t know what abilities they have, so it is best to hide until they pass.
Nothing to see here. Move on, I think desperately.
That is the moment when the male looks at the tree I am in, and seems to stare at me. I hold myself still, not even daring to breathe. I should be hidden by all the leaves and branches. How could he see me?
Answer: he has a power that permits this.
The male points a finger at me, and I nearly drop out of the tree as the youth and the female squint in my direction.
What should I do? Confront them? Or wait for them to make the first move?
I breathe squarely, waiting as the suspense chews away at me.
They walk off after a few minutes, but I stay in the tree for well over an hour before going down. I don’t know why they left, especially since I’m wearing the AH uniform. Wouldn’t they want to attack me? Perhaps they’re like me – trying to cope in a world they didn’t want in the first place.
Still, better safe than sorry. I run away, in the opposite direction of where they went. I won’t feel secure back there anymore – I need to go somewhere else.
A long hour later, I hear the same voices again. Are they stalking me? I don’t think that this is just a coincidence.
I dive into a small, dark cave on my left, the spiked plants hanging over the entrance scratching painfully at my skin. I stumble over some things I can’t see before pressing my back against the cold stone and trying not to hyperventilate, but that fails when one of the Antithetical enters the same cave.
The person shines a torch around, which illuminates my frightened face. My hands, clenched into fists, tremble as I try not to do anything stupid. I don’t think it would be good for anyone if a massive flood took us both out.
“You’re the person in the tree,” a male voice states. It’s calm, just a normal, everyday voice – but sends shivers up my spine.
No, I think.
“I can detect lies, so give that up.”
I stare in the direction of his voice. Can he read my mind, too? This is disconcerting – I’ve never met anyone with powers.
“I’m–I’m not a Hunter,” I say, fighting to keep the stutter out my voice. Appearing weak in an already vulnerable position will not help me in the slightest.
I can’t see his face, but he sounds confused when he murmurs, “No, you’re not . . .”
“I’m an Antithetical.”
The interrogation isn’t comforting, but I feel a little more relaxed. If he really can find out if I’m telling any lies, he’ll know that I don’t mean harm.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“Because I was running from you,” I respond truthfully. This just adds to the elaborate picture of my lack of courage and total defencelessness, but better than lying, I suppose, since this composed stranger seems to be able to pick out false facts before I even voice them.
“Why were you running from us?”
So there are others with him. I suspected as much when I saw them together, and it’s obvious, really, but I’m outnumbered, which makes me all the more apprehensive. “Because I don’t know you.”
He pauses. “You know where the exit is,” he hints heavily.
I stay where I am. There’s no way I’m going to go so close to him, even if that means getting out. For all I know, an ambush outside may be waiting for me. Water may be better in a fight, but I find myself longing for this stranger’s mind-reading ability, now.
“I’ll take that as a no,” he says after a few seconds.
I don’t respond. If this turns to conflict, I should be able to beat the guy – distract him with a sudden tornado of water, perhaps. The Antithetical outside are the ones who worry me. The fear of the unknown.
“Did you take any of our stuff?”
I frown. “What stuff?
He sighs, and another torchlight appears and roams over the floor of the cave. Keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t try anything tricky while I’m occupied, I glance down. Various objects are strewn across the bottom of the cave – those were what I was tripping over.
“Oh,” I say, realisation clear in my voice.
“I just ran in here.”
“Yes or no answers.”
Would it hurt him to say ‘please’? The guy’s not exactly building up the already low trust levels.
“Are you going to leave now?”
“Because I don’t trust you not to follow me. Or kill me,” I answer bluntly.
He laughs humourlessly. “Wise.”
A few seconds of silence pass before I say, “If you and your . . . friends would just move out a bit, then I’ll go.”
“It’s a deal.”
I hear a clicking noise, and the light from the torch disappears. Suspicious, I pull out my own flashlight and shine it around. The person seems to have gone, so I slowly proceed out of the cave. It’s brighter outside, but I still can’t see the sun.
The male is out of sight, and the female. The younger boy, however, is visible, and watches me closely. A messy brown flop of hair reaches below his brows, but I still see the distrust in his dark eyes. Although he’s about my height, he doesn’t look much more than eleven or twelve. His long, gangly limbs look ridiculous below such a face – babyish; teardrop shaped, with red, roundish cheeks and a soft-looking nose.
His eyes though – they’re old. Not wrinkled around the edges, but just too wise for such a young boy. Product of being Antithetical, I suppose. I wonder what his power is . . .
Muffled cussing suddenly erupts from my left. I turn to the sound, and the other two Antithetical emerge. The woman looks in her late twenties and she has a certain feline quality, with her ginger hair and elegant gait. The male, who talked to me, is more my age, probably a couple of years older. His hazel eyes look not quite scared, but very worried.
“Hadyn,” the woman says urgently to the boy. “They’re coming.” She turns to her other companion. “Let’s go, Tristan.”
Suddenly, they are rise a few centimetres into the air, probably product of the woman’s powers. They rapidly travel away, their bodies almost horizontal and arms by their sides to reduce air resistance. Seeing people’s powers visibly at work would interest me – I have never actually seen anyone’s ability except for my own, and I suppose Tristan’s – but I have more pressing issues to address. What caused them so much anxiety . . . ?
The answer smacks me in the face: Antithetical Hunters.
I look wildly around, heart rate spiking intensely. I don’t know what direction my foes are coming from, and I don’t want to bump into them, so I just run where those Antithetical went.
I’m in the AH uniform, but I don’t want to take any chances. The Hunters would ask me questions and find out pretty soon that I’m a fake.
I dodge the trees and bushes, sprinting the behind the silent, flying trio. I can’t hear anything from behind me, but the truth-teller slash mind-reader would probably know better than me.
Tristan notices me rushing through the forest, and turns his head to his right. His lips move; he is saying something to the woman. She replies, and her answer must have upset the others, for their heads shake vehemently. The woman ignores her partners and stops her flight, landing gracefully on the ground fifty metres ahead of me. I brace for attack, but she doesn’t look like she’s about to assault me. When I reach her, she speaks, impatiently.
“Why are you following us?” There’s nothing remarkable about her voice, but for some reason, I stare at her for a few seconds, not answering.
“I don’t know where else to go,” I puff out eventually.
After a hard look, my feet leave the ground. My stomach jolts as I float in mid-air, confusion warring with outrage and fear.
“Come on, then.”
The only thing that keeps me from blasting her with powerful water is the fact that if she wants to harm me, she’d have done so already. The woman is helping me, not holding me captive. So I copy the way she travels, keeping my body as compact as possible. I realise that I’m not actually flying; she is the one moving me; I can only rotate my body.
This concerns me a little . . . I’ve imagined flying as a child often, spreading my arms as I ran along pavements, but this isn’t flying. It’s more like controlled movement.
The woman and I reach the other two. The older guy, Tristan, stares at the red-haired woman in disbelief before giving me a dirty look.
I bite my lip and avoid his eyes, feeling the resentment radiating off him.
“Katarina,” he hisses.
“She’s not looking to hurt us. You know that yourself,” Katarina replies, her voice as low and annoyed.
“What’s your power?” Tristan demands with a glare.
Flinching, I reply. “Water.”
He doesn’t answer, but turns back round, lapsing into silence. Tristan, Hadyn, I and Katarina progress through the forest, in that order. They seem perfectly used to this, but my stomach jolts. The speed is disconcerting. My hair is blown back from my face, whipping at my back. The air resistance created makes my eyes water, but no way am I going to close my eyes. I compromise by squinting them, viewing the world in narrow, hazy slits.
A tree approaches, solid and unmovable. Instinctively, I curve my body to bear to the left, but I have no power over myself right now. I want to turn my head to tell the woman – Katarina, I remind myself – but then I won’t be able to keep my sights on that massive trunk I’m rushing up to.
Disregarding the cold air, my palms moisten as I stare straight in front of me. In just a second, I will slam against the rough bark. The air will be knocked out of me and I will crumple to the ground, pain exploding across my head. Tristan would definitely just leave me there, and Hadyn probably would, too. Katarina would decide that there’s no point risking her safety to save a foolish girl, and I will lie there, prone, waiting for the zap of a stun gun to plunge me into unconsciousness . . .
I cringe, squeezing my eyes shut.
A sudden swerve upsets my stomach.
“Oh!” I gasp, my head immediately whipping back to Katarina.
She places a finger over her lips, her expression furious.
My breathing quietens as the colour leaches out of my cheeks. I look down, not wanting to be met with the irritated glares I’m sure Hadyn and Tristan are directing at me.
I hope that sound wasn’t enough to direct the Hunters to us. If so, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these three Antithetical did their job for them.
But soon, I am released from Katarina’s hold. My feet gratefully touch ground as nausea hits me fully. I suck my cheeks in, inhaling the sharp air through my nose as I will myself not to retch. That, surely, will endanger us all.
The trees to our left rustle louder than usually, as if drawing the Hunters to our position.
“They don’t suspect anything?” I hear Katarina ask Tristan.
He shakes his head, and addresses me, looking at me with sharp, shocking hate. A cold feeling runs through me, stronger than any queasiness.
“Are you going to go now?” he asks, clearly wishing so, but then several bodies burst out of the trees to our left.
Katarina immediately zooms up into the air, Hadyn with her. I dart behind a wide tree next to me, unseen. But before Tristan is raised by Katarina, he is tackled by a huge man with a gun.
My heart jumps as instinct kicks me sharply, telling me to get the hell out of this place. But I can’t leave Tristan, regardless of his antagonism towards me. For one, it’s the moral thing to do. Though I can’t lie that any ethic is my primary incentive. The woman helped me; I should help her friend. Though I must say, her choice in companions is more than questionable. I take a deep breath, wishing that my powers will obey me.
Ice starts to crawl up the AH grappling Tristan, taking over his left leg before progressing onto his right. The second that he takes to glance down at his foot is enough for Tristan; he swiftly flips the AH over, and then crushes his opponent’s fingertips underfoot, rendering the AH helpless. My breath hitches in my throat; will Tristan kill the man? The look is Tristan’s eyes does not contradict my worried thought. But then Tristan rises rapidly into the air, and he is unable to fight more.
I watch as the AH gets to his feet, grimacing from the pain. His allies stand by him, their guns pointed into the air, aimed at the small group hovering above them. Three on three – equal. Except, one side has guns and armour. The other is hovering in the air, with only their bare hands.
Hadyn’s not doing anything – maybe his power is one that can’t be used in a fight, like Tristan’s. I suppose Tristan’s mind-reading could help – he could find out what move his opponent was going to make, just before they actually performed it. In the air, though, it’s useless.
I twist my fingers together. I don’t want to hurt the Hunters, but neither am I going to leave those Antithetical to die.
Four to three, instead, I think.
I stare intently at the guns the Hunters hold. Water appears and washes over them, quickly turning into ice. I repeat this over and over again, quickly, so soon the weapons are covered in a thick layer of the frozen H₂O. The guns eject darts, which don’t penetrate the ice. The Hunters curse, their faces suddenly dominated by fear, but they don’t back away.
An urgent thought by me makes water appear at ground level. It rapidly begins to rise, higher and higher. It steadily covers first their ankles, and begins to grow even quicker, going over their knees, approaching their thighs . . .
“Retreat!” one of the Hunters hollers. “Retreat! Retreat!”
They start to flee, sloshing through the high waters. I press my back against the tree, breathing heavily but still keeping my eyes fixed on the area they disappeared into, in case they make a surprise return, but they don’t. I managed to get them to flee – without hurting anyone.
Katarina, Hadyn and Tristan come over to me. There is no longer disapproval in Hadyn’s eyes – instead, gratitude.
“We thank you for that,” Tristan says. The words should come with warmth, but his voice is cold and fierce hatred still burns in his eyes.
I shrug uncomfortably. “You’re welcome.”
“Do you need anything?” Katarina asks. “We want to make it up to you.”
Anything I need? Let’s see . . . my Mum. My house. Safety. Friends. Absence of supernatural powers.
I shake my head.
“There must be something,” she presses.
“Can you make a fire?” I ask hesitantly. The days and nights are cold, and the last thing I want to do is contract an illness. All I brought along with me was a few basic painkillers.
She grimaces. “Smoke will alert them of our whereabouts.”
I don’t need to ask who she means by ‘them’. “Oh. Right,” I say.
She makes an apologetic face, and I study her eyes. They seem very, very sad.
“How long have you been here?” I ask her.
“A few years.”
This surprises me. How has she survived, away from civilisation for so long? At least I know that staying here for a while shouldn’t be impossible.
“I take that you haven’t been here long?”
“About five days,” I say.
Tristan raises his eyebrows. “How did you get in?”
His words aren’t phrased as a question, but rather a demand.
I suck my cheeks in at the hostility and gesture towards the stolen uniform in answer.
Seeing Hadyn at the corner of my eye, I ask, “What’s your ability?” I nearly spoke to him in that irritating soft voice adults often adopt when talking to children, but I remembered how much that irked me when I was younger.
“Duplication,” he says.
I frown, and suddenly I am facing ten Hadyns, all smiling wryly.
“Who is real?” they chorus, voices quiet and teasing.
My mouth falls open. The copies disappear, leaving the real boy. I remember to shut my mouth, and Hadyn chuckles to himself.
“Well, that would be . . . useful,” I say. “Could you do that to other people?”
“Nope,” he replies with a sigh. “Your water control is more helpful,” he adds, gratitude tinging his voice again. “Useful to have around.” He winks.
I don’t miss the hint, and neither does Katarina.
“Um . . .” Katarina looks at me uncertainly, and it takes a few seconds for me to remember that she doesn’t know my name.
“Isolde,” I supply.
“Isolde. Do you want to join us? Or would you rather go your own way?”
I hesitate. I barely know them. For all I know, this civility could just be an act. There’s also the matter of Tristan . . . On the other hand, I doubt that I will be able to bear solitude for much longer.
“OK,” I say eventually. “I’ll . . . I’ll join you.”