“Hold my hand,” she whispered, reaching back.
“Why, are you scared?” He teased as he grabbed her hand. She did not reply.
He glanced at the dark sky with a frown. It was midday, and yet the clouds were so thick that it seemed like night. He shivered and clenched her hand tighter.
“It’s cold,” he muttered when she glanced at him. Her lips curled upwards and she cocked a brow. He flushed.
They kept moving at her insistence. Their feet crunched withered leaves and their breaths leapt from their mouths in brief, ethereal designs.
“What’s going on, anyway? Where did everyone else go?” He stumbled over a root but ignored her sharp tsk. “Why didn’t you follow the others? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay together?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I couldn’t let you go all by yourself.”
“Hey, I’m trying to help.”
“You don’t even know what I plan on doing.”
“That’s because you won’t tell me.” He hadn’t meant to sound so whiny. “Why don’t we go back? I’m sure it’s not too late to catch up with the others.”
“They’ll be long gone by now. If they made it at all.”
“What do you mean by that?” His voice wavered.
“If they made it out of the school alive, then they’ve probably been taken to a shelter. So I’m sure they’re fine.”
For a while neither of them spoke. The wind was growing stronger and the air seemed thicker somehow. Even the sound of their steps was muffled. He wondered if his ears were plugged.
“So the accident-”
“Why?” He continued as if she had not interrupted. “Why the school? It’s not like we’ve done anything.”
“Doesn’t matter. It was never about us. It was about what is underneath the school.”
“Underneath? Like, some kind of monster hiding below?”
She shot him a funny look. “The well of power. Though I guess you wouldn’t know about it. They were aiming for the – energy, I suppose you could call it.”
The ground trembled and he nearly fell, only managing to balance by leaning on a nearby tree. The air trembled and for a moment it was filled with… something. Something that felt almost viscous in his lungs. He could not breathe.
She patted his back and he coughed heavily, relief slumping his shoulders as his lungs expanded.
“Looks like they broke through the protective barriers,” she said as she stared behind them. “We have to hurry.”
Never letting go of his hand, she broke into a run. He followed quickly, unable to shake the chill that had gripped his spine.
The land began to climb and his lungs burned but he did not stop because she was still running ahead of him. He almost collided with her when she stopped at the top of the hill. Then he clapped his hand over his mouth and fought sudden nausea.
It was not so much what he saw that repulsed him. In fact, it looked almost ordinary. A black stone, about half his size, lay in the centre of a large crater. It was smoking slightly, and looking closer he could see deeper shadows writhing within flat walls and sharp angles.
The air around it was what made him gag. It was putrid. It stank of something had never encountered, but knew so intrinsically that he instinctively took a step back, because it was twisted into something unnatural and forced upon a world that was not meant to hold such an abomination.
“Why did you bring me here,” his voice cracked.
“I told you not to follow me, but you didn’t listen. Now it’s too late. You’re safer here than you are back there. Its attention has been drawn away, and it has grown careless in its victory.”
She opened her backpack and pulled out a chain. It should have been too heavy for her to lift, but she coiled it around her shoulders as one would a scarf. It made no noise, and though it had looked at first like metal, he felt foolish for thinking it could ever be made of such a weak material. Symbols glowed along each link as it shifted and then settled like a snake coiled in anticipation.
“Stay here,” she said as she placed her bag at the base of a large tree. “If anything happens, run,” she pointed away from the school and stone and herself, “North.”
She couched down and removed her shoes, placing them next to her bag. Her feet wiggled in the loose dirt. And when she stood, she seemed different. Her eyes held a glow that repelled the dark stench in the air. He had not realized how bad it was until he met her gaze.
Questions nagged his tongue. What are you? He wanted to ask. No, he wanted to shout. But he didn’t. Instead, he ignored them and crossed his arms. “Then who would guard your shoes?” He said instead, a smile finding its way onto his face, despite his low shivers and tense muscles.
It took a moment, then her eyes softened and something sparkled deep within them. She stepped forward and kissed his cheek, a mere whisper of lips upon his skin. Then she was gone, flying over the edge and towards the perversion.
His hand reached up and touched his cheek. His heart thumped loudly in his ears. And for a moment he forgot his fear.