Gifts and Children

Carey lay in the middle of the paddock, enjoying the feeling of the sun's first rays on her skin. She watched the goats in the field around her, grazing on the hay she'd just scattered for her. One broke away from the mob and edged her way towards Carey, her eyes fixed on the bucket the girl had brought along with her.

"There's no more in there," Carey told the doe, who backed away cautiously at the sound of her voice.  "If you want some go and find where I scattered it."

The animal stared at her blankly, stepping forward once more. Carey smiled slightly, lying back down and closing her heavy eyelids. She knew it was only a matter of time before her brother or father found her slacking off, so she decided to get as much sleep as she could before the inevitable happened.

"Carey?"

She sighed, turning over so she lay on her side. Damn it. He's quick.

"What is it, Wes?" she mumbled.

"Get up," her twin said as he shook her shoulder slightly until she opened one eye, squinting at the light.

"I'm feeding the does," she said, gesturing around her.

Wesley smirked. "I can see that. Your hair must be delicious."

Carey sat up quickly, pulling a lock of her tangled brown hair from the brave doe's mouth.

"I'm not food," she said irritably, but the goat paid her no attention. She simply turned around and wandered back to the rest of the mob, munching on the hay Carey had scattered for them thirty minutes previously.

"I think she likes you," Wesley said, grinning as she scowled at him. "Now come on. The goats are fine."

"Okay, I'm coming."

"Great!" he said as she pulled herself to her feet. Before Carey could say another word her brother lay back against the grass, smiling as the sunlight bathed his body.

"Ah, that's nice," he murmured, his mouth twitching.

She kicked him lightly in the side. "Hey!"

Wesley smirked, rolling over and sighing loudly. "Is that any way to treat your beloved brother?"

Carey nudged him in the side once more, frowning. "Get up!"

He laughed when he saw her light blue eyes, so similar to his, fixing him with an icy glare. "Come on, Carey. Mum specifically asked for your help, and... Tomorrow's Assessment day. She and Dad are already worried enough. You don't want to make it worse, do you?"

"They shouldn't be worried, anyway. Lindsay will be fine, Gifts are rare. They're worrying for nothing. And don't change the subject!"

He sat up slightly, leaning on his elbows. "How can you say that? It's more common than you think. Just because the other seven of us haven't been Gifted so far, doesn't mean Lindsay won't be. We can't be complacent."

Carey bit her lip, chewing on it slowly. 

"Fine, I'll go," she muttered.

"Have fun."

"Yeah right," she mumbled to herself as she trudged back to their small cottage. Why doesn't she just get him to do it? Why does it have to be me?

"There you are," her mother smiled as her eldest daughter entered their home. She had thick, curly blonde hair like Wesley, except hers ended halfway down her back.

"Do you mind taking him outside for me?" she said, nodding toward Carey's youngest brother, Lindsay, who was bundled in her arms. "The other children are trying to sleep."

"Sure," Carey said through gritted teeth. She was not Lindsay's favourite person.

Her mother flashed her a relieved smile. "Thank you."

She handed the baby over. As Carey had expected, Lindsay began to sniffle the minute he was in her arms. She hurried outside.

"Shh," she said as his snivels turned into wails. Carey rocked him gently, but it was no use.

"You're not holding him right."

Wesley grinned as he approached, wiping his boots on the grass. "You need to support his head properly."

"Well, you take him then, if you're such an expert."

She placed Lindsay in his arms. As soon as he was away from her, his crying stopped. The child smiled, giggling when he saw his older brother above him.

"He doesn't like me much, does he?" Carey muttered, clenching her fists. What did Wesley have that she didn't?

"Sure he does," Wesley said as he cradled his brother, stroking the child's forehead. "But you're always so tense when you hold him, that's why he gets upset. If you relax a little he'll be more comfortable."

Carey gave him a small smile. "Thanks, Wesley. I'll try that. Although, it might not matter after tomorrow. This could be his last day with us."

Her brother smirked. "I thought you said you were certain Lindsay won't have a Gift, and therefore won't be taken away."

She scowled at him. "I know. I don't think it's likely. But still…"

Wesley nodded. "I understand. I can't help but worry too."

Assessment day. The day the Gifted search the villages to find the children born in the past year that have powers like them. If Lindsay is found to be Gifted, then they'll take him away to train him to be one of them…

She stared at the baby in Wesley's arms. Like her, he had their father's dark, thin brown hair and tanned skin, instead of thick blonde curls and a pale complexion like their mother and Wesley.

"What if they do take him away?" she heard herself say. "What do we do then?"

Her twin shrugged. "I – I don't know… I guess there isn't much we can do."

He paused, glancing towards her. "I mean, we're powerless, aren't we? If we tried to go after the Assessor they'd just kill us too."

Lindsay sniffled suddenly, drawing their attention. He shuffled in Wesley's arms, waving his hands at him. Wesley smiled, speaking softly to him. Carey stared at her youngest brother, thinking.

If Lindsay does turn out to be Gifted, he'll be taken away and raised as one of them… One day he might be the one taking our children away. And we won't even know that in a different world we were siblings.

She shivered, telling herself not to be silly. After all, the chances of him being Gifted were slim. She knew that Lindsay would probably be nonGifted, like her and the rest of their family. That's right, it's so unlikely… There's no point worrying about it.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Janelle rose early that morning. Although she had been sleeping here for almost two years now, it still felt strange to wake up in this room that was not hers.

Samantha was very kind to let her stay here. Since their training had begun it had been almost impossible for her to continue to support herself on her own. However, sometimes she couldn't help but wish she'd stayed at home.

Her home was a small cottage, much smaller than this one. It had always been so bright, so full of warmth. Her parents had made sure this was the case. It was not really anything they did, it was just their presence. Back then, I had a family. A mother, a father, a grandmother… And a sister. I had a sister too.

Before she knew it she was climbing out of bed, pulling on her warmest clothes. She opened the door and stepped as quietly as she could down the narrow stairs.

She had been here a few times throughout her childhood. Her parents and Samantha's mother had been very good friends, for reasons she had never understood. After all, there had not been many similarities between them. But then she supposed the same could be said about her and Samantha. In fact, Janelle was not even sure if they were friends. Partners, definitely… We both have the same goal, but are we friends? It's so hard to know with Samantha.

Janelle soon found herself opening the front door and trudging through the snow. It snowed for most of the year in their village, aside from a few months in summer. Janelle had never left, and had never known anything else. She had heard that in the South there were villages where it only snowed for a few months during winter. Soon, there will be snow all over the island, no matter where you are. Tomorrow is Assessment Day, after all… The first day of the new year, the first day of winter. And four years since they took her from me.

She continued through the village, savouring the solitude. Most of the villagers were still warm in their beds, enjoying their last few hours of sleep before the sun rose and the day began.

"St - State your business."

Janelle turned around, cursing. She had forgotten that the Gifted patrolled the village at night. A man around her age leant against the wall nearby. His cheeks were pink and his lips blue from cold, but he stared at her with narrowed eyes.

"State your business," he said again. He pulled his grey cloak closer around him, shivering.

"I'm just passing through," Janelle said quickly. Yeah, that was convincing.

"I h - highly doubt it. Tell me why you're here, or I'll t – take you away. F – for questioning."

"I'm going home," she said shortly.

The man raised an eyebrow, snowflakes clinging to his eyelashes. "Let me escort you. I d – d – do not want you to wander off."

Janelle rolled her eyes. "Fine."

She continued on her way, the Gifted man following close behind. Janelle wished he would leave her alone, but she supposed it did not really matter. She really was going home, after all.

"It's here," she said when her small cottage stood in front of her. The man nodded, watching her as she went inside. Janelle took out her rusty old key, which she kept on her even though it had been a long time since she had lived there. She opened the door and entered, sighing with relief when she was alone at last.

Janelle smiled sadly as she looked around her old home. It had been almost a year since she had last visited. The once colourful rugs her mother had draped across the floor had a greyish tinge to them, and the counter where she and her father had laughed and messed around making sandwiches for lunch was covered in a thick layer of dust. Janelle walked over to a small cot in the corner. It was very old, a small rag doll lying on the mattress. She picked it up, staring into the toy's blonde locks and trying to ignore the tears welling in her eyes.

Mum, Dad… I'll get her back, I promise. Your sacrifices won't go to waste.

"You miss it here, don't you?"

Janelle smiled, wiping her eyes quickly. I should have known she'd find me. I wonder how she got past the Gifted. "Samantha. What are you doing here?"

Samantha shrugged, closing the door behind her. "I heard you leaving."

They stood still for a moment. Samantha was a beautiful woman, but in a different way from most – her thick, straight black hair that fell just past her shoulders and stark grey eyes set her apart from most of the mountain villagers. They lived in an isolated community, and most of the residents were fair haired, most often red like Janelle herself, with light eyes and pale skin.

Samantha strode towards her, leaning over Janelle's shoulder and staring into the cot. "Is that where your sister slept?"

Janelle felt her eyes fill with tears again when Samantha mentioned her. "Y – Yes."

"We'll find her. We'll have our revenge."

She sounds so certain, so confident… But how? We're just two girls, two unknown girls from a tiny village in the mountains. How are we supposed to overthrow the Gifted?

2: Journey and Adventure
Journey and Adventure

Janelle and Samantha made their way back to the house and spent the rest of the day deciding what few items they would take on their journey. Although they were very limited in what they could take it was difficult to decide what to bring and what to leave behind. By the time night fell Janelle still had no idea whether they should bother bringing cutlery.

She stood in the kitchen, holding one of the bowls in her hands. If we're on the run, this will just be extra weight… But then, what if we need to store water or something? I don't know, I've never lived in the wilderness before.

"Janelle?"

Janelle gasped, dropping the bowl so it shattered on the ground. She relaxed when she saw Samantha's brother standing in the doorway. He ventured from his room so rarely she often found it hard to remember he even lived with them. All she knew about him was that he was five years older than her and a blacksmith, the only blacksmith in their village now his mother was dead. 

I can't even remember his name… But I can't ask him either, then he'll know I've forgotten.

"You - you scared me..."

"Sorry," he said sheepishly, placing the parcel in his hands on the bench and hurrying over and helping her pick up the pieces. Even though he was five years older than her and Samantha, he did not look it. His hair was red and wavy, and a deeper, more vibrant colour than her own orangey-red curls. Samantha's brother was handsome, but his face was round and boyish. Janelle would never have guessed he was twenty-eight years old if she didn't already know.

"You're leaving tonight, right?" he asked. He did not look at her when he talked, which she found disconcerting.

"Yes," she said, still trying to remember his name.

He nodded, staying silent as he picked up the rest of the pieces. 

"Here," he said eventually, placing his own collection of pieces in her hands, his gloves brushing against her skin.

"Thank you," she said, smiling awkwardly.

He smiled back, looking up at last. "No problem."

They stared at each other for a moment. He had nice eyes, she noticed. They were a light blue colour with a hint of grey, but there was something in them that she could not name.

He cleared his throat. "I – I should go…"

Samantha's brother hurried back up the stairs and out of sight just as Samantha herself entered.

"Are you ready?" she asked.

"Um, yes," Janelle said quickly, dumping the broken pieces on the bench.

"I'll just go and say goodbye to my brother, and then we can go."

Janelle nodded. "Say goodbye to him from me, too."

Samantha raised her eyebrows. "Okay."

She hurried up the stairs and returned about ten minutes later, carrying her bag. Janelle and Samantha stuck to the shadows as they crept through the streets, anxious not to alert the Gifted. Once they reached the outskirts they relaxed, beginning the long climb up the mountain that bordered the deep valley that housed their small village.

It was almost morning when they finally reached the top. Janelle bent over, her breath laboured from the steep climb. Samantha sat down on a rock nearby, not the slightest bit puffed. How is that even possible?

"It looks so small from up here," Janelle said once she had rested for a bit, staring down at the village below. All she could see of it was a cluster of reddish-brown boxes with white dusting on the top. She had never seen it from such a height – although she and Samantha had practiced their sword fighting in the forest around them they had always remained within the valley, never venturing that far up the mountains that enclosed the tiny town and its surroundings in a circle.

Just think, this may be the last time I ever see my home…

"Do you think we can do it?" Janelle muttered.

Samantha shrugged, her dark hair billowing in the wind. "Yes, I do."

She turned around and continued with their journey. Janelle glanced back at the only home she had ever known one last time, a strange ache in her heart.

"Janelle?"

"Coming," she muttered, turning around reluctantly and hurriedly following Samantha. They pushed through the snow, eventually making it to the other side of the hill.

"Wow," Janelle muttered, stopping to look. "Isn't that amazing?"

Samantha nodded. Her grey eyes were wide, and there was a spark in them she'd never seen before. Together they looked out at the world beyond the valley.

The sun was just beginning to rise over the horizon, staining the clouds above a beautiful orange colour. Janelle's eyes swept over the green fields in the distance, the dark forests surrounding the mountains. Her heart began to race, but she wasn't sure if she was nervous or excited.

"Have you ever left the village before?" Janelle asked.

Samantha shook her head, her normally pale cheeks slightly flushed. "Never."

"I haven't either."

"Well, there's always a time to start," Samantha said, smiling.

She took Janelle by the hand, pulling her into the new world before them.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey watched the sun set over the trees in the distance. After finishing their chores in the morning, their parents had allowed her and Wesley to take the rest of the day off. They had met some of their friends from the village by the river, but they had all gone home now.

"We should head back too," Carey said, nodding towards the horizon. "It's nearly dark…"

Wesley shrugged. "It'll be fifteen minutes yet. It's nice out here."

He's right… Carey stared into the depths of the river, remembering the many hours they'd spent swimming and splashing about during the summers of their youth. She looked up, her eyes sweeping over the farmlands surrounding their village. The cows in the distance were munching on grass, moving slowly through the paddock as they did so.

"It must be nice, to be a cow," Carey mused. "Nobody gives them any jobs to do, they can just eat and sleep whenever they want."

"Yeah, and get killed for food."

"Whatever."

Wesley grinned, ruffling her hair and laughing when she scowled at him. He lay down beside her, closing his eyes as Carey continued to watch the farmlands. 

They're so vast... Is there really a world beyond them? It seems impossible, but I know it's true.

"Don't you ever just want to get out of here?" she said quietly, glancing down at her brother. 

Wesley yawned, stretching and sitting up. "What do you mean?"

Carey pointed towards the horizon. "Well, there's so much to see out there… Don't you ever want to run away, and do what we want?"

Wesley shrugged. "Mum and Dad need our help, though. If we leave, then they'll have to manage a farm and six children by themselves."

"Yeah, but…"

"Do you remember that old lady? The one we used to visit?"

Many years ago there had been an old woman who had moved to their village when Carey and Wesley were about five years old, living in a small, run-down cottage on the outskirts of their town. She and Wesley had taken the responsibility of spying on their new neighbour. One cool spring morning she had found them crouched in the dirt under her window. Instead of getting mad, she took them inside and brewed up a pot of tea. As they drank in front of the fire, she told them stories of the life she had led. The old woman had woven incredible tales of adventure, excitement, a life Carey could only dream of.

The woman told them how she moved from sanctuary to sanctuary, places scattered over the island that were free from the rule of the Gifted. There, she was free to do as she pleased, unlike in the villages where most of what they managed to grow or earn was seized by the Gifted in the area.

Of course, she had assured them, it was not as simple as that. The old woman spoke of a time when the Gifted had found the sanctuary she was staying in. Before they had realised what was happening, the whole building went up in flames and the air around them had become toxic as they tried to run. The old woman had begun to shake as she told them this, refusing to say any more on the subject.

However, although she had told them of the danger, Carey couldn't help but dream of having a life like hers. A life with no rules, no responsibilities, a life that she could choose. She and Wesley's games had taken a new turn. They now spent hours pretending to be free and moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, fighting the Gifted and having many adventures.

"Of course I remember her," Carey said after a pause. "How could I forget?"

Wesley took her hand, squeezing it.

"And do you remember what happened to her?" he said quietly.

Carey nodded. The old woman's stories had been popular with the other children as well, although Carey and Wesley were a special favourite of hers. As the rumours of the adventurous life she'd led began to circulate the village, it didn't take long for them to reach the ears of the Gifted. One morning, she and her brother had knocked on the door of the old woman's cottage, but there was no reply. It wasn't hard to guess what had happened to her.

"But wouldn't it be worth it anyway?" Carey said slowly. "I mean, if we left this place we could do anything we wanted! Sure, it would be dangerous, but don't you think it would be so much more exciting?"

Wesley shrugged. "Maybe. But there's plenty of fun things to do around here."

He stood up suddenly, pulling his shirt over his head and running towards the river and diving in, laughing loudly all the while.

"Are you crazy?" Carey yelled as he swam to the surface. "It's almost winter, it must be freezing in there!"

Wesley shook his head, grinning and splashing water towards her. "It's not that cold. It's nice, actually."

"Well, you must have the Gift of Water or something if you think it's nice, idiot. You'll catch a cold."

Wesley laughed and begun to swim in a circle. "I won't be that long. You can go home if you want."

Carey rolled her eyes. "Just don't drown. Mum and Dad will probably blame me if you do."

"I'll try my best," he promised, splashing her one final time before she had the sense to move away. Carey ran back to their cottage, peering inside one of the windows. For once, their crowded home was almost empty, but she could see her parents next to Lindsay's cot. Her mother was leaning over him, speaking softly. Her father was beside her, his hands resting on her tense shoulders. Carey opened the door slowly, careful not to make it creak. She poked her head inside, listening as her father spoke.

"We've gotten through all the others, Amber," he said. He sounded very different from usual, almost vulnerable. "We can get through this one."

"I – I know," she muttered, turning around so they were facing. "But Noah, I... I just have this feeling that this time it's going to be different."

Carey's father smiled, reaching out and tucking a strand of her mother's blonde hair behind her ear and kissing her gently. Carey looked away, screwing her eyes shut and trying to erase the image from her mind.

"I know," he said when he pulled away. "But it really isn't. There's no more chance of Lindsay being Gifted than any of our other children."

"I suppose," she said, sighing as he drew his arms around her and hugged her close. Carey stood, frozen to the spot until her father looked up and noticed she was there.

"Carey?" He let go of her mother and stood up straight as his green eyes surveyed his eldest daughter.

"Hi," she said, waving awkwardly and trying not to look like she'd just been eavesdropping.

"Hi, honey," her mother said, turning away from Lindsay and smiling anxiously at her daughter. "I thought you and Wesley were out for the rest of the day."

Carey shrugged. "I got bored. Where's everyone else?"

"Rebecca and Jack took them to visit the horses."

"Even the little ones?"

Her mother nodded. The three of them stood awkwardly for a few minutes while Lindsay snored softly in the background. 

What should I say? Usually it's so easy to talk to them, but they're both so on edge, I -

"Do you mind drawing some water from the well?" her father asked. "The others will be back soon, and…"

"Sure," Carey said quickly, hurrying away and sighing with relief as she began making her way to the village centre. The sun had set at last, but she knew her way through the village blindfold. Once she reached the well she drew a bucket of water and sat down on the stone ledge, staring into the cobbled road.

Is this what my life will really be like forever? Simply toiling away on this farm, or someone else's?

Carey knew this was the best life she was capable of having. Her parents didn't have enough money to pay for apprenticeships for their children, and least by working on the farm, she was guaranteed a safe, secure form of employment.

And yet, I still dream of a life of adventure…

Carey sighed, telling herself to focus. There was no point thinking like this after all. Her life was the way it was, and there was nothing she could do to change it.

Carefully, she lifted the heavy bucket and stood up. Carey toddled through the village streets, trying her best not to spill any of the water. The dim light of the moon and the cold air gave the usually warm, lively village an eerie feel. The late autumn wind howled, and Carey began to tremble, both from the cold and from fear. She remembered as a toddler she'd once heard the wind howling outside and become convinced a monster was outside to get her. Carey had woken up her parents, asking them to come help her defeat them. They'd laughed, her father taking her by the hand and promising he would do his best.

He had taken her outside, checking all around their small cottage with her. To her surprise, there was nothing to be found, no creatures to be defeated. Her father had knelt down next to her and kissed her on the forehead, saying that the monsters were only inside her head. That night, Carey slept soundly.

"Monsters don't exist, monsters don't exist…"

She whispered the mantra over and over as she walked through the streets. Carey forced herself to look straight ahead, not even glancing at the dark, foreboding shadows that could potentially hide the most dangerous of beasts. 

See, this isn't so bad. You're just being paranoid, nothing's going to –

Cold steel pressed against her neck. Carey opened her mouth to scream, but a dirty hand was thrust against her lips. The bucket fell out of her hands, spilling water over her boots and rolling away.

"Don't make a sound," her attacker hissed, his hot breath in her ear. 

He pulled her around so they were facing, the point of his knife pressing against the underside of her chin. His greasy left hand gripped her wrist painfully, and even though Carey could probably pull her hand free she knew if she did he'd thrust his knife through her neck. Although she couldn't see him very well in the dim moonlight, the whites of his eyes stood out in the darkness, and the stink of someone who hadn't washed themselves in a long time wafted into her nostrils.

I mustn't show fear… Even though she wanted to cower away, Carey gritted her teeth and glared at him defiantly. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing that he'd scared her.

"Don't look at me like that," he demanded, the hand holding the knife shaking. "I'm not going to rape or kill you as long as your parents or husband or whatever pays the ransom. I've lost everything… The Gifted took what little I managed to make, and…"

He stopped for a moment, lowering the knife as the anger in his eyes replaced with confusion. "Hey, where'd you –"

Carey didn't have time to ponder his change, pulling her hand from his grasp and grabbing him by both shoulders. She kneed him in the groin as hard as she could, and the man fell to the ground with a groan. Carey turned around and sprinted as fast as her legs could carry her back through the village streets. As she neared the farm, she saw her brother in the distance. 

"Wesley," she gasped, clutching her side and bending over when she reached him. "I – I'm so glad you're here."

He jumped violently when she spoke, his eyes darting from place to place.

"Carey?" he said in disbelief, still glancing around. "Don't scare me like – Hey, where are you?"

"I'm right here," she said, confused.

Wesley stared right at her.

"I – I don't see you," he stammered. "I can hear your voice, but I – I can't see you."

"Don't play stupid jokes like that. I'm right here, see?"

Carey lifted her arm up to wave in his face, to show him that he was wrong. But even though she knew her arm was there, the only thing she could see was the cobbled path below and her brother standing before her.

"What?" Carey whispered, shaking as she checked herself over. 

Where's my body?

As soon as she thought this, a strange, fuzzy outline appeared where her chest should be. The outline grew stronger, spreading over her torso, travelling down her legs and arms until her whole body was visible again.

She and Wesley's eyes met, and she was sure the terrified expression in his bright blue eyes matched hers perfectly.

3: Secrets and Rumours
Secrets and Rumours

Janelle opened her eyes slowly, blinking as the early morning sun streamed through the trees up above. It had been two days since they had left their village, but the forest surrounding the mountains was vast. As a result they still had yet to reach a road they could follow.

She sat up, yawning. Glancing around, Janelle noticed that Samantha was missing.

"Samantha?" she whispered, her heart beginning to race. They've found us!

"I'm up here."

Janelle looked up. Samantha was sitting in the tree above her, sharpening one of her blades. She always carried two short swords with her, strapped to her back.

"Why are you up there?" she asked, confused.

She shrugged, reaching over her shoulder and sheathing the blade. "It's easier to see if anyone's coming."

Samantha swung down to the ground, her thick black hair bouncing on her shoulders. "Anyway, we should head off now."

Janelle nodded. "Yes, we should."

She watched Samantha as she turned around to pick up the few belongings they had. She'd always found her intriguing, ever since childhood. Samantha was one of those people who seemed to be given a lot in life – she was by far the most beautiful person Janelle had ever seen, and she had been the best in their class at school.

Samantha even had a natural talent for fighting. After her sister was taken away, Janelle had vowed to learn how to fight and get her back. She'd practiced by herself in the forest with sticks, but it made little difference. Six months into her training, she came across Samantha in the woods nearby. Unlike Janelle, Samantha had a real sword, and a talent she could never have. Janelle knew she was lucky to have found her, as Samantha taught her to fight, and together they agreed the only way to get their revenge was to overthrow the Gifted. But why does she want to overthrow the Gifted? She never told me… And who taught her how to use a sword?

"Are you coming?"

Samantha looked at her expectantly.

"Y – Yes, sorry," she stammered, clearing her throat.

However, before they could set off, the sound of laughter echoed through the forest. Samantha and Janelle looked at each other for a moment before they both sprang into action.

Samantha scaled the tree so fast Janelle wondered how it was humanly possible to do so. She had no such talent, running behind the tree and hoping they would not see her.

"Make sure you collect a lot!" a woman yelled in the distance. "Not like last time, we need a supply that will last us before the snow sets in!"

"Yes, mother," a young boy sighed, his footsteps crunching on the forest floor.

He coughed and began to rustle around collecting firewood. Janelle squeezed her eyes shut. Don't come near me, please don't…

"Who are you?"

She cursed under her breath. Janelle opened her eyes once more, smiling at the small, blond haired boy who stood next to her, his arms full of firewood.

"Hello," she said as Samantha jumped down, fixing the boy with a murderous glare. He jumped, stepping backwards a few paces. Janelle shook her head over his shoulder, silently telling Samantha to calm down.

"I'm sorry for scaring you," Janelle said smoothly. "We are merely travellers passing through. But when we heard someone coming we were certain the Gifted had found us. We'll just be on our way."

The boy's fear was replaced by excitement. "Travellers? Maa!"

Janelle's blood ran cold. Surely he's not –

"Maa!" he called again, grinning. "I found some travellers, look!"

"Travellers?" an older woman stepped into view. She had blonde, greying hair and a certain softness to her. A glint formed in her light green eyes as she surveyed the two of them.

"Good job, Harry!" she said to her son, hugging him close. The woman turned to them once more, bowing slightly.

"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," she said, shaking Janelle's hand vigorously.

"Um… I feel the same," she stammered, a bit confused. I don't think she's Gifted, but I don't understand why she's so excited to see us.

"I manage an inn not too far from here," the woman said, grinning. "Please, come and enjoy our hospitality."

Oh, so that's why. Janelle glanced at Samantha, who shook her head. Her eyes were narrowed as she surveyed the woman and her son.

"Thank you for the offer," Janelle said, smiling nervously. "But we're fine. We should really be on –"

"I insist!" the woman said aggressively, linking Janelle's arm in hers and leading her away. "You must be awfully tired from your journey. I'll even throw in a discount!"

"We really shouldn't…" Janelle protested weakly, but her grumbling stomach was beginning to convince her. It's been a few days since we had a proper meal… Perhaps this is for the best.

Janelle let the woman lead her to the small inn, Samantha and the boy following. The woman led them to the bar straight away, yelling at someone to make them breakfast and bustling about to serve the other customers. Eventually she returned with two large plates of eggs and toast.

"Enjoy," the innkeeper said smoothly as she poured them both a glass of water.

Janelle muttered her thanks, her doubt washing away as the delicious smell reached her nostrils. She tucked in enthusiastically, savouring every bite. It's been so long since I had a meal like this… Even back home, she, Samantha and her brother had mostly survived on plain bread and porridge, as none of them knew how to cook and they rarely received delicacies like milk, eggs and meat as part of their rations. Janelle wondered how an inn far away from the farming villages managed to have eggs. She supposed there must have been some sort of black market deal involved.

"I don't like this at all," Samantha said quietly, snapping Janelle out of her daydream. Janelle glanced over at her friend. Samantha's fists were clenched and she stood very straight in her chair. She had barely touched her food.

"Listen…" Janelle said, swallowing and leaning over. "Everyone here has run away from their villages, okay? It's a sanctuary, a place safe from the rule of the Gifted. I've heard rumours of them back home. We're safe here, no one knows who we are."

Samantha turned towards her, scowling. "What about spies? Anyone here could be a spy for the Gifted."

Janelle shrugged. "That's true, but… We haven't done anything that they would care about at the moment. We've just run away from home like most of the people here. There's no reason that the Gifted would target us specifically."

Samantha stared at her for a while longer before turning away.

"I suppose you're right," she muttered, picking at her food again.

"Is it not to your taste?"

They looked up, startled. The innkeeper grinned toothily at them, gesturing at Samantha's almost full plate.

"It's fine, thank you," she said quietly.

"Are you sure? I'll make you something else. Anything you like."

Samantha shook her head, glaring at her. "I said it's fine."

Janelle grinned guiltily, hoping the innkeeper wouldn't take away their discount because of her companion's behaviour. To her relief, the woman simply laughed and pulled up a chair behind the counter.

"So," she said, her eyes glittering. "Did you hear about the two girls from the mountain village just north of here?"

They both stopped eating at once.

"N – No," Janelle lied, smiling nervously. Yeah, that was convincing. "What – what about them?"

"Two girls from the mountain village disappeared two days ago," the woman said, still grinning. "The Gifted in that village are under a lot of pressure to find them. It's a small village, you see. Disappearances like that… They don't go unnoticed, you know?"

"Yeah," Janelle muttered, avoiding her gaze.

"Most think they just got lost somewhere," the innkeeper continued, dropping her voice and leaning closer. "But apparently a few of their clothes and other possessions went missing, so some think that they were kidnapped and murdered by some thief."

The woman paused, taking a long drink from Janelle's glass of water, but she was too distracted to be annoyed.

"Well, what do you think?" Janelle said quietly, her green eyes meeting those of the innkeeper.

"I think they left to do something most of us can only dream of. Overthrow the Gifted."

The woman coughed, reaching into a pocket on her apron and pulling out a small envelope.

"If you two aren't too busy, would you mind doing something for me?" she asked. "On your journey, take a visit to the large village near a lake a short journey south from here. While you're there, visit the town's doctor and give him this. Say it's from Rosa."

She grinned once more. "So, can you do that for me?"

Janelle glanced at Samantha. She was staring into her mostly full plate. She doesn't trust her… But this might be the opportunity we need. I have to go for it.

"Sure we can," Janelle said, smiling nervously.

I hope I didn't just make a really bad decision.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

How did I do that?

She stared at her hand, but it remained stubbornly visible. Maybe it was a trick… But how? It felt so real, it looked so real…

Carey glanced up at Wesley again, silently begging him to say something. He swallowed, avoiding her gaze.

"Um, could it be…"

"What?" Carey said, grabbing him by the shoulders. "What is it?"

"I don't know…" he muttered, shrugging. "Maybe it's a Gift."

"A Gift," she echoed. "But I'm eighteen. Gifts don't manifest when you're eighteen. I couldn't have had it before, or they would have found me as a baby… And besides, invisibility isn't a Gift!"

He shrugged. "But what else could it be? Besides, it could still be a Gift. Obviously not a common one, but then this isn't exactly common, is it?"

Carey considered his theory. But the Gifted have elemental powers… Air, Water, Fire and Earth. I've never heard of a Gift of Invisibility.

"I mean, we don't know anything about the Gifted," her brother continued. "Maybe other Gifts are possible, but elemental powers are the main ones."

He's right… The only explanation is that I'm Gifted. But what will happen now?

"I don't want them to take me away, Wesley," she whispered. "If – if the Gifted find me they'll –"

Wesley hugged her close, cutting her off. "It'll be fine. We'll just – we'll stay away from the house tomorrow. The Assessor will never see you. And we'll avoid coming into contact with the Gifted from now on. Whenever they have inspections, we'll go – we'll go visit the horses, or something."

A niggling voice in her head told her this was too simple, but Carey ignored it. It'll be fine. Wesley's right, as long as I stay away I'll be okay.

"Okay," she heard herself say, finally allowing herself to smile. "If I stay away tomorrow, the Assessor will never know."

She paused, hugging him closer. "Nothing will happen to me, I promise. You can't get rid of me that easily."

Wesley laughed. "That sounds more like you."

She took his hand like they were children again, pulling him towards their home.

Their parents took no notice as they came in, aside from a quick hello. They did not even notice that Carey had forgotten to bring water like she was supposed to do. Her mother sat beside Lindsay's crib the whole night, while their father did his best to make the rest of them go to sleep.

Carey felt like she was watching someone else's life, not her own. Her brothers and sisters laughed and played tricks on each other, like usual. Usually she would have joined in, but that night she remained silent. They're all acting like nothing is happening… Lindsay could be gone tomorrow, and apart from Mum, Dad, Wesley and I none of them seem to notice.

The voice in her head told her that she could be gone, too. Carey tried to ignore it as she lay down to sleep, but it was useless. She tossed and turned all night, and the few hours of sleep she did manage to get were plagued with nightmares.

She and Wesley left early the next morning before any of their siblings had woken up. They took all the produce they were supposed to sell at the village markets and set up their stall, the first people to do so. They stayed there all day, chatting with their friends and selling most of their crops. It's as if nothing happened… Can I really just continue with my life the way it was?

They stayed there past sunset, until theirs was the last stall left open.

"Let's go home, Wesley," Carey said, beginning to pack up the items they had not managed to sell.

He grabbed her arm. "Are you sure? If the Assessor comes…"

"The sun's already set. He must've visited by now."

Wesley still seemed uncertain, but he nodded. "Okay."

Carey smiled. "Stop worrying, it's annoying."

He grinned slightly. "It's a bit hard not to, you know. Even if you're safe, Lindsay…"

"I forgot about that," she admitted, clenching her fists. That's right… Even though I'm probably safe, Lindsay could still be taken away.

They walked back to their home in silence. What will we find when we get there? Will Mum and Dad be crying, or will Lindsay be safe with them?

Carey knocked on the door when they arrived, fidgeting. Her mother opened it soon after, relaxing when she saw them.

"It's just you," she muttered, standing aside and letting them in.

Carey scanned the room quickly, breathing a sigh of relief when she noticed Lindsay bundled in her father's arms.

"He's still here," she said, giving a small laugh. "He – He's still with us!"

Her parents exchanged a glance.

"Carey… The Assessor has not visited yet," her father said sadly. "We still don't know if Lindsay will –"

"Wait, what?" Wesley said quickly, grabbing Carey's arm tight.

"The Assessor has not visited yet," he repeated, his eyebrows knotted. "Wes, what's going –"

"We have to get out of here," Wesley interrupted, turning to Carey. She gulped, nodding.

He's right, I have to get out before they –

A loud tapping noise distracted her. Carey's parents exchanged glances, and her mother strode over to the door. Please, let it be someone else… Maybe we left something at the markets, and someone found it.

"Y – yes?" her mother said as she opened it. Carey closed her eyes, still hoping, but she knew it was useless. The Assessor had found her.

She opened her eyes again, momentarily shocked when she saw her enemy for the first time. He did not look anything like Carey had expected. Instead of the tall, intimidating man she'd been picturing, a young boy stood in front of her. He was small and skinny, his grey uniform hanging loosely off him. The Assessor looked no older than fourteen, his large, dark brown eyes and shaggy black hair giving him a youthful appearance. He knocked… Why did he knock? I thought he'd just barge in.

The boy glanced around the room, his eyes falling on the baby in her father's arms. He strode over, stopping in front of Carey. She could feel Wesley's grip tight on her hand, pulling her slightly, but she stayed where she was.

They stared at each other for a moment. Carey knew she should get out of his way, but it was as if her feet were stuck to the floor.

"Excuse me," he said quietly. Carey was surprised by how deep his voice was. It sounds so weird coming from someone so small… And why hasn't he noticed me?

"S – sorry," she stammered, stepping out of his way at last. Wesley tugged her arm, pulling her into the corner.

"Are you trying to get caught?" he hissed under his breath as the Assessor took Lindsay from their father's arms.

"He didn't notice, Wesley," she whispered. "Maybe it isn't a Gift, maybe it's something else…"

Lindsay began to wail, distracting both of them. The Assessor had all his attention focussed on the child in his arms, the look he gave him so intense that Lindsay only cried louder. After about a minute he looked away, his eyebrows slightly knotted.

"The child is nonGifted," he said, a hint of uncertainty in his voice. The Assessor handed Lindsay back to his parents. They both sighed with relief, hugging the child close and speaking softly to him until his crying subsided.

The Assessor bowed. "I will be leaving now. Thank you for your cooperation."

He still looks uncertain. Carey squeezed Wesley's hand, his fingers beginning to turn purple. The Assessor strode towards the door, glancing at the other children one final time. He stopped suddenly, frowning.

Their parents noticed his odd behaviour, exchanging a glance.

"What is it?" Carey's mother said, stepping and blocking Lindsay from his view.

"There's something…" he muttered, moving closer to the children. Carey gulped, trying not to look guilty and failing miserably.

His dark eyes bore into them, the younger children beginning to cry from the intensity of his gaze. He looked at each of them in turn, his eyes lingering on Carey for much longer. She squeezed her eyes shut.

He's found me… This is it.

"You!" he said, stepping towards them.

"No!" Wesley said angrily, pushing Carey behind him and stepping in front of the Assessor. He took no notice, his gaze still fixed on Carey.

"How old are you?" he asked quietly.

She swallowed, her throat dry. "Eighteen."

They stared at each other for a moment, her family members looking on in shock.

"Carey…" her father began. "What's going on?"

The Assessor glanced at him. "She is Gifted."

He kneed Wesley swiftly in the stomach. Her brother let go of her arm, coughing and bending over. The Assessor grabbed her wrist while he was distracted. Despite his small stature and apparent youth, his grip was strong. I won't be able to break it easily.

"You can't!" she cried, twisting and pulling.

He gave her a sad smile. "I have to."

In front of the shocked faces of the rest of her family, the Assessor dragged her towards the door.

4: Numbers and Names
Numbers and Names

This was going to be harder than he had thought.

They had been told what to expect with Assessments. Each Gifted in their eighteenth year was assigned a particular set of villages. They were to Assess all the children born in the past year, and return to the Council with all those found to be Gifted. 256 had spent the day visiting all the children in his three farming villages. It had been incredibly tiring, and he had gotten lost numerous times. However, he had found nothing, no children to take back to the Council. Finally, he had made it to his last house, only to find this girl. I can't sense her as easily as usual, and she's older… I hope the Council has answers, because I certainly don't know what to think of this.

She struggled fiercely as he dragged her from her home. 256 gritted his teeth and pulled. Another thing he hadn't been expecting – babies could hardly struggle. And worse, he also had to deal with her family coming after her.

"Wesley!" the girl cried as he dragged her towards the door.

The blond haired boy struggled to his feet, grabbing her other arm and pulling. The boy was quite strong, and 256 could feel his own grip on her loosening.

He let go of the girl for a moment, much to the surprise of both of them, and grabbed the boy's arm instead. A small fire sprung up beneath his palms, searing his opponent's skin. The boy yelled, letting go of the Gifted girl, his forearms covered with large red welts. 256 took his chance and dashed outside, dragging the girl with him as the boy whimpered in pain.

She continued to struggle, twisting his arm until he had no choice but to let go. The girl grabbed him by the shoulders, but before she could knee him in the groin, 256 swept his foot under her legs and tripped her over.

The girl's family poured out of their small cottage, running towards the two Gifted. 256 concentrated and a large fire wall sprung up between them, illuminating them in an orange light.

"No!" the girl cried, biting the hand that was holding her down. 256 let go of her momentarily, squeezing his eyes shut at the stinging. She slapped him in the face, pushing him onto the ground. The girl ran towards her family, but she stumbled once she reached the fire wall. 256 gritted his teeth and the fire wall grew in intensity, forcing her to step back further and further away from them.

"No…" she said again, but this time it sounded different. She stared at them through the flames, her fists clenched.

256 scrambled to his feet, running towards her and thrusting his hand against her lips. He blocked her airway and filled her mouth with smoke. The girl coughed and spluttered, but her struggling slowed. She fell against him, the weight of her body almost knocking him over.

Her family was still watching through the fierce fire he had created. 256 stared at them momentarily, and they stared back. The younger ones were crying, the older ones staring at him with more hatred than he had ever seen before. The blond haired boy's stare was the worst of all.

I don't want to accidentally kill them…

He shook his head, telling himself to focus. The Council will be angry if you think like that… You must be merciless. They have likely hidden this girl from us, so it is your duty.

Despite this, he could not bring himself to do it as he dragged the girl into the carriage that would take them back to the Council. He placed her gently on the seat, before turning back and extinguishing the flames surrounding the small farm house.

"Go quickly," he said to the driver as he closed the door behind them.

The Servant nodded silently, and they were off. 256 watched through the window as the girl's family ran after them, but they soon became specks in the distance as the carriage sped away.

Feeling slightly reassured, 256 turned back towards the girl. She was still unconscious, and he took the opportunity to tie her hands and feet. He felt slightly guilty, as she was one of them now, and it was wrong to treat a fellow Gifted person this way.

256 stared at the girl in front of him. Her long brown hair was messy and tangled, partly, he was sure, from their struggle just a short while ago. Her eyes, though closed, were narrowed in a frown, and she looked very pale despite her tanned skin. She's probably so uncomfortable looking because of the smoke… The smoke I forced her to inhale.

However, despite the sickly look on her face, 256 couldn't help but notice that she was quite pretty. The thought made blood rush to his head as he continued to stare, noting her small nose and slightly pink lips. No, you must not think like that. The Council will not like it.

He swallowed and looked away. She was beginning to stir now, retching and vomiting on the floor of the carriage. 256 crinkled his nose at the smell, reaching under the seat and offering her a towel. To his surprise, she shook her head, glaring at him. He found her reaction confusing. They were the Gifted, the lucky ones. The nonGifted can never understand us and our powers… Isn't she glad to finally be able to be with us?

However, this girl did not appear to share his view – she looked at him like he was the vomit on the floor, disgusting and hard to get rid of. 256 tried to ignore her glares as he took a scrubbing brush and began cleaning it up. The smell was so bad he almost vomited himself just looking at it.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked, her light blue eyes narrowed. 256 looked up, surprised she had spoken.

"I'm taking you to the Council," he answered, attempting a smile. It didn't seem to work, as her scowl only worsened. He tried to ignore her as he finished cleaning, but it was difficult.

"You hurt Wesley," she stated, staring at him with accusing eyes.

"It was only a small burn," 256 said quickly. "The fire wasn't very hot. He'll be fully healed soon."

She glared at him. "You still hurt him."

I can't deny that. "It was necessary. You would have gotten away if I hadn't."

He paused, staring down at his feet. "I'm sorry for injuring him."

The girl looked at him like he was from the Other Worlds. "Why do you care? Isn't he beneath you or something?"

I don't know why, really. But I can't tell her that.

"He's just a citizen. I am not supposed to hurt citizens when I take the Assessed away. But he left me with no choice."

The girl opened her mouth to reply, but instead turned green and vomited again. 256 sighed, hoping their journey would be short as the smell reached his nostrils.

The next morning they stopped for half a day to allow the horses to rest. 256 took the girl outside, hoping that the clean air would make her feel better. Despite the ropes binding her hands and feet, she still attempted to escape twice while they were out in the open. After he had caught her for the second time, she gave up, returning to the carriage and sitting sulkily across from him while they waited until the evening.

256's stomach growled, reminding him of how hungry he was. The last meal he had eaten was breakfast on Assessment Day. He'd been so busy he did not have time to eat lunch, and since then there had been no opportunity to even think about it. He reached into one of the bags, pulling out a loaf of bread and some butter. He cut himself a small slice, before cutting a large one for the girl too.

"Here," he said gently, offering it to her. She shook her head, glaring at him.

"I'm not hungry," she said coldly, although the noises from her stomach said otherwise.

"Take it," he insisted, more forceful.

The girl held up her roped hands, shaking them and rolling her eyes at him.

256 bit his lip, considering his options. If I untie her, she could escape… But she's weak, and I don't want her to starve. It'll just be for a short time, and her legs will still be bound.

"Here," he said, untying her hands and offering her the bread once more. She accepted it eagerly, gobbling it up as if she hadn't had food in days, which he supposed was probably true. 256 began to relax a little, sitting back and taking another bite of his own bread. She won't do anything now, she's too busy –

The girl dropped her bread suddenly, aiming a punch at his head. 256 blocked it easily without thinking, but she managed to snatch the butter knife while he was distracted. She waved it in his face, her blue eyes flashing angrily.

"Let me go or I'll stab you through with this," she hissed. Although she sounded quite threatening, 256 could not help but be a little amused at her attempts to overcome him.

"That knife isn't sharp enough to hurt me," he said, smiling slightly.

Her cheeks flushed red, but she held her ground. "If I use enough force it will."

"But your legs are tied. It would be difficult to stab me and untie yourself at the same time, yes?"

"I'll stab you first and untie myself while you're writhing on the floor with pain," she insisted.

"And now you've told me your plan. If I'm expecting it, how can you overcome me?" he said, still smiling.

I've got her there. She considered this for a moment, providing the distraction he needed. 256 wrestled the knife from her, pulling her hands together. The girl was bigger than him but his years of training allowed him to overcome her again quite easily.

"Let go of me, stupid!" she yelled as he retied the rope around his hands.

"Don't call me stupid," 256 said as he secured the knot. She tried to threaten me with a butter knife, but I'm the stupid one?

"Well, what do I call you then?" she asked coldly.

"256."

"That's not a name. What is your name?"

What does she mean? "I don't have a name. Only a number."

She rolled her eyes. "You must have had a name once. What did your parents call you?"

256 shrugged. "I never met them, so I don't know what they called me."

"So you're nameless, then?" she said, thinking. "Oh, I know! You're Nameless! That can be your name."

"No. If you must call me anything, call me 256," he said weakly, but he knew it was no use. She'll call me that just to annoy me now.

"So Nameless, when will we arrive at the Council?" she asked, smirking.

"A few days, probably," he mumbled. "And don't call me that."

The Servant returned shortly after with the horses, and they resumed their journey into the evening. 256 tried to close his eyes and sleep, but it was difficult. She just won't stop staring at me!

He tried to look away, to ignore her and go to sleep, but it was no use. Her sky blue eyes were always there, like a serial killer planning her next kill – him. Gone was the girl who had tried to threaten him with a butter knife; he now felt like he was unwillingly participating in a stare-off with a cold-blooded murderer. The nervousness that came from this seemed to egg her on. After a few too many times of meeting her eyes for a few seconds before quickly turning away, her threatening gaze was soon accompanied by a sly smirk.

"Can you please stop staring at me?" he said nervously.

"Why? Is it making you uncomfortable, Nameless?" she asked coldly, her eyes unblinking.

"Well, yes," 256 admitted. "And don't call me that."

"Then, no," she said, sitting back in her chair, her eyes never leaving his face. Her satisfied smirk returned as he squirmed under her gaze for the rest of the journey.

Although the girl made sure that the next few days were amongst the most uncomfortable in 256's life, he could not help but be curious about her. Aside from patrolling the villages, he had never really been in contact with the nonGifted before. Of course, this girl was not truly one of the nonGifted, but she was the closest he would probably ever get.

What surprised him the most was her apparent anger. He knew that once a Gifted child was taken away from their nonGifted relatives, they were now one of the privileged, the lucky ones. We are better than them, so how can we live among them… Our lives are so much more fulfilling, how can she not see that?

Perhaps given time she would. Still, he wondered what the Council would do. I suppose I'm about to find out.

"We're here," he said, shaking her awake. She scowled at him, but allowed him to lead her from the carriage.

But as she caught a glimpse of the building before them, her menacing glare in her eyes turned into wonder. The Council was the largest manmade structure on the island, a strong, bright white fortress with walls so high the buildings inside were hidden from view. 256 always felt intimidated when he saw it from the outside, and as he watched the girl, he knew she was feeling the same way.

"What are you staring at?" she snapped when she noticed him looking at her.

"N – nothing," he stammered, his cheeks flushing. "Um, come this way."

He led her towards the large gate in the centre of the wall facing them.

"Are you a returning Assessor?" The Gifted on gate duty sounded almost bored, not even looking at them. "You are to report to the records room, where they will –"

"I am a returning Assessor," 256 interrupted. The man looked up, glaring at him. He lifted up his sleeve, the white patterns decorating the material indicating he had the Gift of Air.

"How dare you interrupt your superior," he said coldly. "Know your place, Gift of Fire."

256 bowed low.

"I – I'm sorry for my insolence," he mumbled. "But this is urgent. There has been a problem with my Assessments."

The man finally noticed the girl beside him. "Who is this? Her clothing… Why is she not in uniform?"

She was still wearing the clothes he had found her in, covered in dirt from their scuffle. 256 noticed she was shivering quite violently in the cold winter air. He considered offering her his coat, since he did not need it, but he knew she would refuse it anyway.

Despite her apparent discomfort, the girl stared the Gifted man down as if daring him to say more.

"She's not like us," 256 said quickly, still gripping her arm. "I found her during my Assessments. I don't know how, but she must have evaded us as a baby."

The man's eyes widened, surveying the girl once more. "You must take her to see the Council at once."

He turned to the Servant beside him. "You, take this boy to the Council's chambers. It doesn't matter what they're doing, this is an urgent matter."

The Servant nodded, opening the gate and ushering them through. Inside the great white walls, the buildings were a stony grey.

"Follow," the Servant mumbled, striding over to the main building. 256 hurried after her, still holding the girl.

"You're hurting me," she complained, shaking her arm.

"Sorry," he muttered, trying to calm himself down. He had never visited the Council's chambers before, as their meetings were conducted in total secrecy. He had seen the members around, of course, at the end of his fourteenth year they evaluated all of the Gifted to make sure they were competent enough to leave the Council. At least it's not the courtrooms… You're not in trouble, they can't –

The Servant knocked loudly on the door, distracting him from his worries.

"What?" A Council member snapped as he opened the door. "How dare you interrupt us in the middle of a meeting! You're merely a Servant, how –"

"Please, this is my fault," 256 said quickly. The Gifted man turned his attention to him. "I – I'm sorry for interrupting you, and your meeting, but this is important."

The man's gaze fell on the girl next to him. He took one look at her dirty, nonGifted clothing and nodded.

"Come in," he said, opening the door. 256 hurried inside, gasping in awe when he saw the room before him.

The walls were a deep red, the floor beneath his feet wooden and a dark mahogany. In the centre there was a large table spanning almost the entire length of the room. About twenty people sat at equal spaces along its length, all dressed in the pure white uniform of Council members, differentiating them from the grey clothing 256 and the rest of the Gifted wore. Most of the Council were white or grey haired, but the woman sitting at the head of the table had a full head of dark, reddish brown hair tied back in a tight ponytail. Her uniform had sleeves lined with gold, giving away her position – the Leader of the Gifted and the Council.

"What brings you here?" she said, her eyes fixed on the girl. 256 gripped her arm tight.

"I – I found her on my Assessments," he said, his voice echoing slightly in the silent room. Stay calm…

"Tell us what happened," the Leader said smoothly, as though they were discussing something a lot less important.

He described how he had come to her house and Assessed the child like he was supposed to, but had found her instead.

"Something – Something is odd about this, though," 256 said once he had finished. "Her Gift isn't as noticeable as usual. I – I know you can tell that, but… I almost didn't find her."

The Leader stood up, striding across the room and stopping in front of the girl. Her dark grey eyes bore into her, and she glared back.

"What's your name, girl?" she said quietly.

The girl opened her mouth and waggled her tongue in her face. Everyone in the room, 256 included, gasped in shock. No one disrespects the Leader like that…

Despite the girl's rude behaviour, the Leader chuckled. "You have spirit, I'll give you that. But that won't help you now."

Two of the Council members stood up, seizing the girl by the arm on either side and pushing 256 out of the way.

"What are you doing?" he said as they pulled her towards the door. The girl struggled, yelling and kicking, but it was no use. "Where are you taking her?"

"You sound awfully concerned," the Leader said smoothly. "Have you forgotten what we do to those who form attachments?"

256 shivered. "I - I'm not attached, but I found her. She is my responsibility now, so it is my duty to be concerned for her welfare."

I don't want her to get punished because of me. No – no one deserves that…

The Leader smiled eerily. "Don't worry, we're not punishing her. She will be taken to the Cells and held there until tomorrow morning, when her trial will take place."

She paused. "You can go back to your room. Make sure you get a good night's rest. A Servant will be sent to you tomorrow afternoon and will bring you back here. After hearing your story, and hers, the Council and I will decide her fate."

5: Alliances and Admiration
Alliances and Admiration

"This is it," Janelle said breathlessly as they stood outside the door to the doctor's house.

They had found the village the innkeeper had spoken of quite easily. The large lake at the north end of the town was unlike anything Janelle had ever laid eyes upon – the only body of water she had seen before was a small creek running through the village back home, which was glazed over with ice most of the time anyway. The lake had sparkled in the morning sun, and even though winter air was too cold and she couldn't swim Janelle had been tempted to jump in and join the village children when they had walked past it.

The village itself was unlike anything she had ever seen. It was the first town they had visited since leaving their home. The air above them was thick with smoke billowing from the chimneys of the four factories that employed the vast majority of men in the city - for it really was a city, even though it was known as the Lake Village all over the island. The residential areas consisted of large buildings with that held at least ten families at once, some of whom only had one room to claim their own. Even though it was nearing midday the streets were packed full of women and children, going about their daily business while their husbands and fathers toiled away at twelve hour shifts. Just walking through the town, Janelle was sure she passed more people than she'd known in her entire life.

Janelle and Samantha had experienced some difficulty locating the doctor's home, as even though most of the villagers knew who they were talking about and gave them helpful directions, the vastness of the Lake Village meant they found themselves taking the wrong turn on numerous occasions. After a few hours of searching, they had at last found themselves on the doorstep of a fairly shabby-looking home with an overgrown garden. Janelle looked up at the sign hanging above the door, staring at the medical cross as nerves played havoc with her stomach. She glanced back at Samantha, doing her best to smile.

"Should we go for it?" she asked. Samantha nodded, but she looked uncertain.

Well, we've come this far. Janelle raised her fist and knocked three times on the door. A thin, tall man with messy brown hair and pale skin opened it shortly afterwards. 

"Hello?" he said breathlessly. "I'm sorry, I'm busy with another patient at the moment. Do you mind -"

His voice trailed off as his gaze fell on the sword Janelle was carrying.

"Rosa sent us," she said quietly. The man's brown eyes flickered with understanding.

"Would you mind waiting a moment?" he said.

Janelle nodded. "Sure."

He nodded, ushering them inside.

"Wait here," he said, gesturing to two seats near the entrance. Janelle sat down and watched as he strode over to a man sitting at the dining table. He was rather scruffy looking, his clothes old and a little torn.

"As I was saying," the man said. "My wife's had real bad morning sickness. She can barely get out of bed; she can't eat a single thing without throwing it back up."

The doctor nodded, rummaging through a small drawer.

"Here," he said, presenting his client with a small brown bag. "Stir these herbs into your wife's tea. Make sure she takes them at least twice a day until her symptoms pass. If you need more come and see me."

The patient nodded, taking the herbs. "Thanks, doctor. Here."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a few grubby looking coins. The doctor shook his head, smiling. "Please, it's nothing. These are common herbs, they grow all over the island."

The man nodded, stuffing the coins back into his pocket. He thanked him again before leaving.

"Why did you lie?" Janelle asked once he had closed the door behind the client.

The doctor ignored her question, ushering them into the sparsely furnished living room. "Make yourselves comfortable. Would you like some tea?"

"Um, okay," Janelle said quickly, exchanging a glance with Samantha. She nodded as well, but her eyes were narrowed.

They sat in silence until the man returned, carrying three steaming mugs. He smiled at them as he sat down, taking a sip of his tea.

"So, how did you –"

"Why did you lie?" Janelle interrupted.

He raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Those herbs," she explained. "My – my mother, when she was pregnant with my sister, she had similar symptoms. My father went to the village doctor, and he paid almost an entire month's savings for them. He said they only grow in the south."

The man shrugged, sighing as he took another sip of his drink. "It's better they get better than be too poor to pay for them, isn't it?"

"I know, but don't you need the money?" Janelle pressed.

He smiled, chuckling softly as he placed his cup back on the table that separated them. "If you must know, treating factory injuries is the only work I'm required to do to receive my rations from the Gifted like everyone else. What would I do with that little bit of extra money he could give me? There's nothing I want. Let him spend it on a toy for his child."

"You don't know that's what he'll spend it on though," Janelle pointed out. "He could spend it on moonshine or something."

The doctor shrugged. "Well, that's his choice, not mine. Anyway, you say Rosa sent you?"

Janelle blinked, surprised at the sudden change in the conversation.

"Yes," she said quickly, glancing over her shoulder at Samantha. "You – you still have the letter, right?"

"Yeah," said Samantha quietly, reaching into her bag and pulling out the slightly crumpled envelope. She handed it over. The man gently ripped it open, reading the enclosed letter carefully.

"It's always good to hear from Rosa," he said wistfully as he read. "I should try and see her more often…"

"Is she your wife?" Janelle asked tentatively.

The man shook his head, giving a small laugh. "She's my sister, actually."

He paused, placing the letter on the table. "Anyway, how can I help you two? Rosa hasn't really explained why she sent you in this letter."

Janelle glanced toward Samantha. She did not react, still staring straight ahead. I guess it's okay then…

"We want to overthrow the Gifted," Janelle said hesitantly, almost whispering. "We wound up at Rosa's inn, and she - she seemed to know who we were. We're the two girls who disappeared from the mountain village. I think she guessed why we left, and for some reason thought you could help us."

She said all of this very quickly. The doctor sighed, shaking his head.

"Tell me why you want to overthrow them," he said quietly.

"What do you mean?" Janelle asked, raising an eyebrow.

He shrugged. "You think you're the first to find me? Rosa has sent a lot of people interested in overthrowing the Gifted here, and I've refused all of them."

Janelle bit her lip. "Well, first you should tell us how you can help us. I mean, if you can't add anything to our group then why should we let you join us?"

He laughed. "Good point. As you've probably guessed, I'm not much of a fighter… But I do have a lot of knowledge of the Gifts and Gifted society in general. And I'm interested in overthrowing the regime too."

If he's telling the truth, that could be very useful for us.

"Then why don't you join us?" Janelle suggested. "Samantha and I will fight, and you can provide information. Your medical knowledge will be useful too."

The doctor shrugged. "You still haven't told me why you want to overthrow the Gifted. Before I agree to anything, I need to know why."

Janelle hesitated. She didn't know whether she should trust him or not. Well, it can't hurt to tell him, can it? It won't make much of a difference if he is a Gifted spy or something…

"My – My sister…" Janelle began, glancing toward Samantha again. She'd remained silent the whole time. "Well, she was more than a sister to me. My mother died in childbirth, and my father died shortly after that… I – I raised her by myself for nearly a year, but when Assessment day came, she was taken away. About four years ago."

She paused, clenching her fists in her lap. "I'll do anything to get her back."

The doctor stared at her for a long time, his brown eyes unblinking. "I'm sorry to hear that, and I understand you're passionate about this... But I can't help you."

Janelle looked up. "What?"

"I can't help you," he said, almost apologetically. "If all you want is revenge, then you'll never be able to overthrow the Gifted. There have been hundreds of people like you over the years. They go in swinging their swords and kill as many Gifted as they can until they're killed themselves. "

He paused, smiling sadly. "I am sorry. But this regime has lasted over a thousand years for a reason. I've helped others like you, only for them to be killed as quickly as we started. I can't go through that again."

"It's – it's not just revenge," she said quickly. "I know even if we succeed I may never find my sister. I don't even know what she looks like now, and she could have died in infancy for all I know."

Janelle swallowed. "But I don't want anyone to have to feel the way I did when they took her from me. No one – no one deserves that…"

He still looked unconvinced.

I guess there's not much point continuing. Janelle sighed and stood up. "Anyway, thank you for listening to what I had to say. I'm sorry for wasting your time. Come on, Samantha."

But her companion remained seated, her grey eyes fixed on the doctor.

"It's not just revenge," she said quietly. "I know Janelle. If anyone can do it, she can. She's not like the others."

Janelle glanced at her. She had to admit, she was touched that Samantha claimed to know her well. Even if what she's saying is wrong.

"What about you?" the man said after a pause. "Why are you so determined to overthrow the Gifted?"

"I have my reasons," she said, not breaking his gaze. "But I can assure you, we are serious about this. It's not just a whim. And Janelle can do it. I know she can."

The man stared at her for a while longer, before sighing. "Fine, I'll help you. But be warned, this will not be easy. There's a high chance we will be killed."

"I – I know," Janelle said quickly. "But it'll be worth it. If we manage to build up enough of a support base, our deaths will motivate others."

He smiled slightly. "I'm sorry, I realise we've been talking all this time and I still haven't introduced myself. I'm Marvin."

"I'm Janelle," she said as she shook his hand. "And – and this is Samantha."

He offered her his hand, but she refused to shake it. Janelle glanced nervously at Marvin, but he didn't seem to be put off by her companion's rude behaviour.

"Anyway, let's get to work, shall we?" he said brightly as though nothing had happened. I want to discuss this with Samantha first…

"Do you mind if we get some rest?" Janelle asked. "I mean, I'd like to get started as soon as possible, but we've been travelling non-stop all night…"

Marvin smiled. "Of course. I'll show you to one of the spare rooms."

He led them upstairs, leaving them alone in a small room with two beds. Janelle sat down, fiddling with the thin brown blanket. There's so much space in this house for one person… Perhaps he has overnight patients?

"I don't trust him," Samantha muttered as she sat down opposite. "I mean, where has he gotten this information from?"

Janelle looked up. "But you're the one who convinced him to work with us."

She shrugged, pushing her hair from her face. "I didn't want your efforts to go to waste…"

"Thank you, by the way. For saying those things," Janelle said quickly. Even if they're not true. Samantha's the one who's going to be the key to overthrowing this regime, not me.

Samantha smiled. If it were possible, she looked even more beautiful than usual. "It's fine. I was just speaking the truth, anyway. But still, I think we should be careful. I mean, this information he can supposedly give to us… Where did he get it from? He's up to something, I just know it."

Janelle nodded. "I – I know. But at the moment, he's the best lead we have. Besides, if it came down to it, there's two of us and one of him."

Samantha gave a small laugh. "You're right, I suppose. Anyway, we really should get some sleep."

"Okay… Good – good morning, I guess."

Samantha smirked. "Good morning."

Janelle lay down on the bed, turning so she was facing the wall. Try as she might, she couldn't stop thinking about what had happened. Why did Samantha tell Marvin that I am the only person who can do this? That's not true at all.

She thought of her childhood. Back then, she had been shy and unassuming, so afraid of upsetting people that she never said anything at all.

I was stupid, too. Stupid and naïve, and dumb enough to…

"Samantha," she said suddenly, rolling over. Samantha's back was to her.

"Yes?" To Janelle's surprise, she was still awake.

"Why – why did you agree to work with me?"

Samantha turned around, her head still resting on the pillow. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, why me?" Janelle said quickly. "I know we have the same goal, but… When I met you, you were so skilled, so strong. You could defeat the Gifted without me, easily. Why did you waste time teaching me to fight, and letting me stay in your house? Surely you'd be better off on your own."

You don't need someone like me dragging you down.

Samantha sighed, sitting up. "I don't know…"

She drew her knees to her chest. For the first time, Samantha didn't look sophisticated and mysterious. She seems almost normal…

"I've never had any friends," she said, her voice small. "I'm stronger than most people, yes. I'm not going to pretend I'm not, you don't need my false modesty. But I can't overthrow the Gifted by myself. There's one of me, and thousands of them."

She paused, smiling sadly. "We need followers… Supporters, people who trust us and want to fight for our cause. I'm someone people admire and look up to, but I can't inspire large numbers to follow me. I – I needed someone who's more relatable, more average. And you, you're average. You're not particularly intelligent, or beautiful, or strong… But I don't know. You'll do better getting people to follow us then I ever could."

Janelle didn't know if she should be pleased or insulted. I know she didn't mean it as an insult, but still… I'm not that normal, am I?

Samantha laughed suddenly. "Sorry, I just realised how bad that sounded. See what I mean? I'm just not the sort of person who could get a decent number of followers. I can't even compliment people right!"

"It's okay," Janelle said, smirking slightly. "I am pretty normal. Not like you."

"I don't think you're normal."

"But you just said –"

"I said you're average. But you're not normal. You're special."

"Um… Thanks, I guess," Janelle said, a bit confused.

She lay back down to sleep, her stomach tying itself in knots. Instead of reassuring her, Samantha's words just made her more nervous. I can't fail. I can't make any mistakes, or I'll let her down. If it weren't for her, I'd still be stuck in that village, brooding over the loss of my – my sister… I have to make sure that the girl I used to be is gone for good.

6: Thoughts and Trials
Thoughts and Trials

"Leave me alone!"

Carey kicked and struggled but it was no use, the two Gifted pushing her down the stairs were far too strong. They threw her into a cell, closing the door quickly before she could run past them.

"Let me out!" she yelled, rattling the bars of her cell. The two Gifted dressed in white left immediately, but a man in black stood across from her. He took no notice, his expression completely blank.

"Is anyone human in this place?" she hissed, stomping off to the other side of her cell and sitting on the dingy bed. It was slightly damp and smelled like it had recently been peed on. Carey stood up quickly, deciding that the floor was perhaps a better idea.

She sat down in the corner, drawing her knees to her chin. It was cold in her cell, and she only had a thin layer of clothing. She could hear the person in the cell next to hers muttering to himself, getting louder and louder until a large bang sounded. He yelled, beginning to whimper softly. Carey trembled, both from cold and fear.

I said I wanted adventure… Well, I got it, didn't I? I left our village like I always wished, but now I just want to go home.

Of course, the adventures in her dreams had been much different from this. In them, she had been free.

What if I'm stuck here forever with these people?

Carey gritted her teeth, biting her lip to prevent the tears in her eyes from falling. She would not cry, she would not give them the satisfaction of knowing that they had gotten to her. I can't think like that. I will escape, I will.

But how? She was not even sure if the Gifted would let her live. Maybe I can turn myself invisible and escape if that happens… I did it once, surely I can do it again.

With all her might she concentrated, focussing on her hand. She willed it to disappear, to fade and become nothingness. To her dismay, nothing happened.

What's the point in having these stupid powers if I can't even use them?

Cursing under her breath, Carey lay down on the floor. It was uncomfortable, but she figured it would be best she got some rest before tomorrow afternoon.

It seemed like she had only just fallen asleep when someone began to shake her awake.

"Stop it, Wesley," she mumbled, but the shaking persisted.

Carey opened her eyes wearily. Instead of her warm cottage, where she would awake to the smell of porridge cooking and the noise of her little brothers and sisters, she found herself in the dark, musty cell she'd been thrown into the previous night.

The woman tugged her arm again.

"Okay, I'm getting up," she said irritably, glaring at her. Carey got to her feet, trying to ignore the ache in her back. I must have slept for a long time, if it's the afternoon already… But I'm still so tired.

Two women dressed in black like the man across from her cell pulled her through the dingy corridors, leading her to the room they had visited yesterday. The women dragged her to a seat at the top end of the long table, binding her hands and feet with heavy chains so she could barely move.

Another man dressed in black led the boy from yesterday to the seat opposite from her. He nodded at her, but Carey scowled in response. It was all his fault she was here, after all.

They watched the Council members file in. Carey noticed that most of them had either grey or blue patterns on their sleeves, only two or three had red. I guess the different patterns show the different Gifts… That boy, he used fire powers and he has red. Then blue is probably water, and grey must be air… What about earth?

She looked for a brown or green pattern, colours she imagined could be associated with earth, but none of them seemed to have it.

The door opened for a final time, and the Leader of the Gifted strode to the seat at the head of the table, just beside her and the boy.

"Thank you for attending," the Leader said, nodding at the Council members who were seated further down the table. She turned towards Carey, her dark grey eyes boring into her.

"You are aware why you are here?" she asked, her voice strangely quiet.

Carey rolled her eyes. "Obviously."

The Council members looked outraged. "How dare you –"

"It's fine," the Leader said dismissively. "She's not one of us yet, so she does not know the ways of the Gifted. But this will change, given time."

She paused. "Now, we have some questions for you. Has your family hidden you from birth, and that is why you weren't discovered until now?"

Carey folded her arms, scowling. "Why should I tell you anything? Last I checked, you're the one who sent your goon to kidnap me."

The boy glanced at her, obviously hurt. Carey raised an eyebrow at him, daring him to say something in response.

The Leader smiled, taking a sip from the glass of water that one of the women in black had placed in front of her. "You're under no obligation to tell me anything. But, if you say nothing I will have you and your family killed for hiding a Gifted from us."

Carey sucked in her breath. There's no way I'm getting out of this now… I'll just have to play along and escape later.

"Fine," she hissed, her voice raspy. "My powers only manifested a few days ago. None of my family knew about them, I was the only one trying to hide myself on Assessment day. They weren't involved, so don't hurt them!"

"What sort of powers?" the Leader asked, her voice hitching slightly.

I don't want to tell them, as my power could be my way out of here… But they'll find out quite quickly if I lie. "I turned myself invisible."

The Council member closest to her narrowed his eyes. "Tell the truth, girl. There's no such power -"

"Yes there is," a woman argued, causing a wave of murmurs to sweep over the table. "I read about it during my studies, ages ago... Elemental Gifts have always been the most common, but a long time ago many others were possible as well. Invisibility... It's an ancient Gift, but one that allowed the user to turn invisible. There was little information, but... It had a name. The Gift of Stealth. But it's been gone for over a thousand years, the girl must be lying -"

"I'm not lying!" said Carey angrily. "I turned myself invisible. Why would I bother lying now? You'll kill me if I do!"

"You're just trying to distract from the fact that your family hid you away -"

"Enough."

The table fell silent almost immediately as the Leader stood up, resting her hands on the table

"I will train this girl," she said, her voice dangerously quiet. She surveyed the table, her eyes boring into every one of them as though daring them to contradict her.

The Council members exchanged glances, most nodding submissively. Only one man stood up, although Carey noticed his legs trembled slightly as he did so.

"I respect your decision, ma'am," he said in a deep voice. "But... How will we know if she's telling the truth? The Gift of Stealth, it... it disappeared long ago with the rest of the non-Elemental Gifts."

"I'm aware of that," the Leader said abruptly, her fingers clenching slightly on the table. "It doesn't matter if she's telling the truth - if she's not, she won't be able to fake it. I will train her and it will become apparent, given time, if what she says is true."

"But ma'am, we cannot allow you to put yourself in such danger –"

"Are you saying that I won't be able to overcome her if I need to?" she asked coldly. "An untrained girl like her? In my mind that's an insult."

The Council member cowered away under her stern gaze. "I - N - No, ma'am, of course I wasn't - I apologize for my insolence. You speak the truth, but... how will we know that she has not had this power since birth?"

The Leader considered this, turning to the boy beside her. "Stand."

The boy stood up slowly, glancing over at Carey. She scowled at him, and he looked away.

"State your number, age, and Gift."

"256," he said, his voice a little wobbly but clear. "I am in my eighteenth year, and I possess the Gift of Fire."

That kid's eighteen?

"256, tell me what happened three days ago when you reached village sixteen."

"I Assessed four of the five children in the village with no trouble," he said quickly. "After that I visited a farm on the outskirts of the town to Assess the fifth child. When I entered the house I could sense something, but it was faint. I took the child… I could tell he was nonGifted, but there was something in that house that confused me. Because of that, I took a lot longer than usual to be certain."

He paused, giving a small cough. "I checked over all the other children, and I noticed something was wrong with this girl. I Assessed her and found her to be Gifted. I took her from the house, and brought her here."

"Do you swear that your testimony is correct?" the Leader asked.

"I do."

The Leader nodded. "I believe you. You may sit."

She faced the Council, resting her hands on the desk. "We will search through the records, and find whoever Assessed her as a baby and punish them. Gifts are always present at birth, even if she's telling the truth and it didn't manifest at the ordinary age. Get answers and execute them for this slight. For now, I will train the girl and keep an eye on her."

"But ma'am, you have your duties… Surely you cannot conduct all of the girl's training?"

She considered this, pushing a loose strand of red-brown hair from her eyes. "You're right. 256, as the one who found her, you will carry out her training in physical combat like you would under normal circumstances."

The boy blinked. "I – Of course I will, ma'am… But usually we don't begin training the Assessed for three years, I am unprepared –"

"I trust you will do your best," the Leader interrupted. "Take her down to the records room and get her Numbered, as you would normally. The Council and I will continue to discuss this alone."

The boy stood up, bowing. "Of course, ma'am."

The men and women in black unchained her at last, but as soon as she was free the boy gripped her arm tight again. Carey studied his figure as he led her from the room and through the winding corridors. He was small and slight, with thick, shaggy black hair and deep brown eyes. She still couldn't believe that he was apparently eighteen, like her. He looks like an innocent little boy, but he's not. He's one of them, and they aren't human. At least, not to me.

He led her inside a small room. I thought there were supposed to be records in here. In truth, there were none in sight – the only furniture in the room was a large desk where an older Gifted man sat, sorting through a large pile of papers.

"What can I do for you?" he asked, yawning.

"This girl must be Numbered," the boy said, gesturing towards Carey. The man looked up, his eyes widening as he saw her.

"But she's –"

"I know she is a lot older than usual, but the Leader has authorised it."

The man still looked doubtful, but he opened one of the drawers in his desk and pulled out a large file.

"Very well," he sighed, thumbing through it. "I'll see what's available."

Eventually he found the paper he was looking for, taking it out and closing the file.

"The number 355 became available last month," he said, coughing. "As the Assessor, you need to fill out this form."

The man reached for yet another sheet of paper.

"Which village did you find her at?" he asked, picking up a pen and beginning to write. Why don't they just make him write it himself?

"Sixteen," the boy answered.

"And your number?"

"256. And she'll need a room and uniform."

The man frowned, hesitating. "Of course. A room will be prepared for tomorrow. Now, about clothing…"

He glanced at Carey. She was still wearing her clothes from the village.

"What Gift does she have?"

"Um… The Gift of Stealth."

The man's eyes widened. "We haven't had a Gift of Stealth for centuries. Anyway, we have no uniforms for that Gift prepared. For now she'll have to stay in… that."

He stared at the clothes she was wearing in disapproval. Carey raised an eyebrow, folding her arms.

"That should be all," the man said, coughing and looking away from her. "As I said, her room and temporary clothing will be prepared for tomorrow."

The boy thanked him and bowed, leading Carey through the corridors again.

"This is my room," he said when they stopped.

Carefully he shut the door behind them, locking them in. Locking me in. Carey clenched her fists, but she knew she just had to put up with it. Instead, she looked around. It was a small room, but considering she had shared one room with seven brothers and sisters it seemed an enormous amount of space for one person.

Despite the space, the room was sparsely furnished. There was a bed in the corner with a thin, grey blanket, and a wardrobe on the other side. There were no personal touches - no piles of mess, no books, no toys, nothing that would suggest a living breathing person actually lived there.

He coughed, rushing over to the bed and straightening the pillow and blanket. "I'm sorry it's not very tidy."

Carey raised an eyebrow. This is the tidiest room I've ever been in. But the boy did not seem to notice her doubt as he stood back, gesturing towards the bed.

"Go on," he said as he pulled another thin blanket from the wardrobe. He lay down on the floor, wrapping it around himself. Carey remained standing.

His eyebrows knotted in confusion. "Go on," he repeated.

Carey scowled, striding over to his bed and pulling the blanket off it. She refused to accept his charity, lying down on the floor beside him.

He seemed to realise there was no getting through to her, closing his eyes. Carey did the same, imagining it was Wesley or one of her other brothers and sisters beside her instead of one of them. Will I be forced to stay here forever? No, I won't. I'll – I'll escape. Tonight.

She waited an hour or so, rolling over and checking if the boy was asleep. His mouth was slightly open and his breathing soft and steady.

Satisfied, she pulled the thin blanket off carefully and tiptoed towards the door. Slowly she began to twist the handle.

"There's no point."

Carey swore under her breath. The boy was sitting up, his eyes shining in the darkness.

"What do you mean?" she hissed, her fingers still poised over the handle.

He shrugged, scratching his head. "There's no point trying to leave."

"Why, will you stop me?" she scoffed. "You'll need to sleep eventually. And when you do, I'll be gone."

He smiled. Carey strode over and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him to his feet so his face was inches from hers. He did not resist, even though she knew he could have easily escaped if he wanted to. This only annoyed her even more.

"If you want to overcome me, you should stop telling me your plans," he said, coughing. "It won't work if I'm expecting it."

Carey pushed him back onto the ground.

"What do you know," she grumbled as she strode over to the door again. If he comes after me, I'll fight him… I'll keep fighting until I succeed.

"Really, there's no point. They'll stop you as soon as you enter the corridor."

Carey ignored him, opening the door. Another man in black stood a few feet away, staring at her. She closed it quickly, blushing.

"They always stand outside the rooms," he said, his voice almost inaudible. "The Council doesn't like us wandering around at night."

"Why not?" Carey asked as she sat back down, momentarily forgetting her anger. She had to admit, life with the Gifted was very different than she expected so far. I always thought they lived lives of extravagance, but…

They boy sighed, drawing his knees to his chest. "They don't like us visiting each other," he explained. "And they don't like us just wandering around, either. They like to know where everyone is."

The boy rested his chin on his knees, locks of his dark hair falling in his eyes. Carey watched him, wondering if she should try to comfort him or something.

"How do you know that?" she asked delicately. "Do they tell you?"

The boy mumbled something incoherent, turning away and wrapping his blanket around himself again. Carey stared into the back of his head for a long time.

Maybe life with the Gifted isn't at all like I imagined it to be.

7: Stories and Lessons
Stories and Lessons

256 woke early that morning. His first instinct was to look over and check that the girl was still sleeping beside him – even though he had told her it would be pointless to try and leave, a part of him feared she would attempt to escape anyway.

He reached over and shook her lightly. She jumped up almost immediately, nearly whacking him in the chin.

"Be careful," he said as he jerked away to avoid being hit. She said nothing, only fixing him with an icy glare. 256 crouched next to her, attempting what he hoped was a kind smile.

"Would you like to get some breakfast?" he asked, hoping she would not think he was ordering her.

She shook her head. "No."

"But you haven't eaten in a few days. Aren't you hungry?"

"Nope," she said, crossing her legs and scowling at him.

"But if you don't eat something, you'll collapse… We have a lot of work to do today."

"I won't," she hissed, jerking away from him. "I'm strong."

"But you're still human… Humans need to eat."

256 tried hard to convince her, but it was no use. She was the most stubborn person he'd ever met. He took her down to the cafeteria and placed a variety of food in front of her, but she turned up her nose to every plate, even when her stomach groaned loudly in protest. The girl watched him the whole time while he ate, staring wistfully at the porridge he'd chosen, but nothing he did would convince her.

I just hope she's okay… I don't want to train her until she's in a good physical condition, but the Council will be mad if I don't start straight away.

"Come on then," 256 said, sighing as he finished his meal. "We have to train now."

He took her arm again, leading her to the training room. It was a large space, with smooth wooden floors and walls lined with wooden blades and various other aides. 256 smiled sadly as he remembered his own training with 913.

Even as a child he had been shy and meek, traits he was not supposed to have as a Gifted person. But 913 had never punished him as she was meant to. When he was about four years old, she had given him a wooden sword to practice with for the first time. He remembered how scared he had felt to even hold it, as he had seen the injuries a sword could inflict. 913 had sat him down and told him that a sword was a weapon to protect him and others, not to kill. Killing was just a side effect, she said. Although he had still been reluctant, with her encouragement he had gradually gotten better.

I know it's wrong, but I still miss her... It's my fault –

"Are you just going to stand there?"

256 felt himself flush. "N – No…"

He hurried to the other side of the room, pulling a few mats from a large pile and arranging them on the floor. He stood there for a minute, wondering what to do. Generally a Trainer waited three years after their student's Assessment Day, so 256 was unprepared. I can't remember what I did back then, it was so long ago… Wait, I know. Shoes!

"Take your boots off," he said quickly as he remembered, undoing his own and pulling them off. The girl did as he asked, smirking slightly.

"Um…" he stammered, taking two wooden swords from the wall. "Let's – let's start with defence, okay?"

She nodded, swallowing. 256 passed her a sword, noticing her grip it with her right hand. I should switch hands, she's more likely to fight a right handed person…

He held the wooden sword awkwardly in his right hand, switching to the opposite stance.

"I thought you were supposed to be an expert," the girl said, smirking. 256 noticed her voice was raspy.

"I don't usually use this stance and hand," he mumbled. "Anyway, I'll attack, and you do your best to defend yourself."

He aimed a few strikes at the girl, simple ones that she should be able to block. But he noticed her strength seemed feeble, and she only just managed to fend him off.

"Are you okay?" he asked as she dropped her sword with a clatter.

"I'm fine," she muttered, wiping sweat from her forehead.

"I don't think you are," he said, placing his weapon on the ground. "Here, you should –"

She collapsed against him. 256 staggered backwards, but he managed to stay standing despite the added weight.

He glanced at her face, which was resting on his shoulder. She was pale and clammy looking, and her blue eyes were bloodshot. She's probably dehydrated…

"Here," 256 said quickly, grasping her around the waist and clumsily lead her out of the room into the medical ward nearby.

"This girl is dehydrated and hasn't eaten in a number of days," he said to the attendant. He nodded, hurrying from the room.

256 helped her into one of the spare beds. The room was mostly empty, although there were a few children sporting burns. The Gifts of Fire must be training near here…

The attendant returned with a jug of water and a glass.

"Give this to her first," he instructed. "I'll bring her some food."

256 nodded, pulling up a spare chair and pouring her a glass of water.

"Here," he said gently, offering it to her.

Even in her weak state she refused, scowling at him like usual.

256 sighed in frustration. "Listen, 355, you'll have to eat eventually. You're not invincible."

"Don't call me that," she snapped.

"But that is your number."

"I don't have a number," she insisted. "I only have a name."

"Well, what do I call you then?" he asked, a bit puzzled.

"Nothing."

She jerked away from him, clenching her fists in her lap.

"I'm strong," she muttered. "I don't need anyone's help, especially not from someone like you."

"It – It has nothing to do with strength," 256 said, trying not to provoke her. "I – I know you don't want to be here…"

"Great observation."

"But even so," 256 continued, "starving yourself isn't going to solve anything. If you want to escape you'll need to have your full strength, won't you?"

The girl smirked. "Now you're giving me ideas. How do you know I won't attack you and escape when I have my strength back?"

256 shrugged. "I'll take the risk, if it would make you feel better."

She stared at him for a while, her eyes narrowed. Eventually she reached out and snatched the cup from him, throwing her head back and downing the glass in one. She thrust it back towards him, almost hitting him in the face.

"Be careful," he complained. He poured her another glass, grinning. "And don't drink it too fast, or you'll make yourself sick."

For once she took his advice, sipping it slowly.

"I'm not weak," she muttered, staring at the ceiling.

"I know you're not. But you're still human."

He squeezed her arm lightly, bracing for impact. Surprisingly she didn't try and punch him.

The attendant returned with a bowl of soup, which the girl accepted eagerly.

"I'm sorry, by the way," 256 said quickly as she gulped it down.

The girl swallowed her mouthful. "What are you on about now? There's nothing for you to be sorry for. Well, except for kidnapping me. But I doubt you're apologizing for that."

256 ignored her jab. "I – I'm sorry I made you train when I knew you hadn't eaten in days," he muttered.

"You really are stupid, aren't you?" she said calmly as she filled another spoonful.

"Why am I stupid?"

The girl rolled her eyes. "How could this possibly be your fault? I chose not to eat, you had nothing to do with it. So stop whining."

256 laughed slightly. The girl stared at him, her spoon halfway to her lips.

"What? I insult you, and you laugh? Are all you Gifted this idiotic?"

"No," he said, still grinning. "Just me."

The girl shook her head, raising her bowl to her lips and slurping the rest of her soup noisily. 256 watched her, curious. She was definitely nothing like any Gifted he had ever met. But I suppose she's lived with the nonGifted for so long… How do they live? I know it's not as fulfilling as our lives here, but…

"What's it like to be nonGifted?"

The girl looked up. "What?"

256 swallowed. He wanted to ask, but he knew the Council would not like it. "N – Nothing."

"You're a strange person," she said, lying back against the pillows and closing her eyes.

He smiled. "I suppose I am."

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey woke a few hours later when she heard a door open. The boy jumped up from his seat and bowed, much to Carey's amusement.

"What can I do for you, ma'am?" he mumbled, head low.

The Leader's eyes glittered. "Perhaps you had forgotten, but 355 is supposed to be having a lesson with me right now."

The boy's eyes widened. "I – I'm sorry, ma'am," he mumbled. "355, she – she collapsed from dehydration, so it slipped my mind."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Are you feeling better, 355?"

"I'm fine," she said coldly.

"Well, let's get started then, shall we?" the Leader said smoothly.

Carey nodded, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and standing up. She followed the Leader through the corridors. The ordinary Gifted stopped as she passed, bowing low and muttering under their breath. Eventually they stopped outside a small room, and the Leader let her inside.

"What is this place?" Carey asked, looking around. It was a small room, with a large, mahogany desk in the middle. The walls were white and shelves full of books lined one wall. Carey had never seen so many books in her life – her family only owned a few well-loved storybooks, which she and the rest of her siblings could chant off by heart. She had seen other books at school, of course, but they were thin and tattered compared to the ones in this room. The desk itself had a large fountain pen and ink, as well as many sheets of paper and other writing equipment.

"This is my office," the Leader said, sitting down in a chair on the opposite side of the room. She gestured to another chair across from her. "Sit."

Carey sat down quickly, her stomach tying itself in knots as the Leader's grey eyes bore into her.

"Tell me what happened when your powers manifested," she said eventually, still eyeing her with interest.

Carey coughed. "Um, I was walking through the village, when a man jumped out and attacked me. He said he was going to ask my parents for money to get me back, but he stopped suddenly. I ran back home, and it was only then that I discovered I'd turned myself invisible."

The Leader scratched her chin, watching Carey intently. She drew a fresh sheet of paper from the pile on her desk and began writing on it, her dip pen moving faster than Carey had ever seen someone write before.

"That's normal for someone who hasn't been trained," the Leader said at last. "Many Gifted, even after years of training, still have trouble controlling their powers when they're scared, stressed, or embarrassed…"

"What can I do to get better?" Carey asked, trying to sound innocently curious.

"We'll start with some simple exercises," the Leader said. It's almost impossible to know what she's thinking… But I have to get her to trust me. If she trusts me I can use her knowledge to make myself stronger and escape from this place.

The Leader had her try and turn herself invisible all afternoon. She told her to imagine she was fading into nothingness, becoming one with the earth, the sky, and everything else. However, it wasn't until evening that Carey finally managed to make herself fade a little. She stared at her hand, certain she could see the wooden floorboards through it.

"Good," the Leader said, peering over at her work. "That's enough for today, I think. There's a Servant waiting outside who will show you to your room. You'll find a uniform inside, and I'll expect to see you in it at our next meeting."

Carey nodded, doing her best to smile. "Of course."

The Leader stood up, gesturing for her to do the same.

"It's been a pleasure training you," she said, her eyes shining as she offered Carey her hand.

The instant her fingers brushed over the Leader's, Carey felt her throat tighten, like all of the air surrounding her had been sucked away. She clawed at her throat with her free hand, but it made no difference.

"Do you think I don't know what you're planning?" The Leader said coldly. "I know you're just playing along so I'll teach you the information you need to escape."

She paused, stroking her cheek with her free left hand. Carey flinched away, but the Leader grabbed her chin so she couldn't move.

"I don't appreciate stupid girls like you thinking you can outsmart me," she said quietly. "It's true, your power will be of use to me. But it's not so useful that I can't afford to get rid of you should you betray us."

The Leader let go of her at last, and Carey collapsed onto the ground, coughing violently.

"The Servant will show you out," she said shortly, returning to her desk while Carey stood shakily to her feet, still clutching her neck.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Janelle took the first watch when they settled down that night. It had been two days since they left Marvin's village. They were travelling to the next town over, in the hopes that they would be able to convince some of the villagers to join them.

Janelle glanced over at Marvin, who was sleeping peacefully, his soft snores penetrating the eerie silence of the night. Knowledge of the Gifted… what sort of knowledge does he have? I tried asking him, but he was very vague. But I'm sure it will be useful…

However, as she watched him sleep, she realised he could potentially be more trouble than help. Janelle and Samantha were just two girls from the mountain village. If the woman had told them the truth then the Gifted had tried to find them when they first left, but they had surely given up by now.

We're not that important… But Marvin is the town's doctor, the Gifted will surely pay more attention to his disappearance than ours.

Janelle shivered, not just from the cold but from the fear beginning to bubble inside her. She gritted her teeth and told herself not to be silly – they were in the middle of nowhere, and the thick snow meant it would be difficult for the Gifted to find their position without making enough noise to alert them. Slightly more relaxed, Janelle began to yawn. It had been a long day, and she was so tired. Surely it would not matter if she closed her eyes for a few seconds…

Suddenly she was her seventeen year old self again. She could see that person in the distance, the one she had almost given up her life for. She glanced down, thinking bitterly that she already had. However, she felt the urge to run after them, to beg them to stay…

Janelle wrenched her eyes open. If that was what she was going to dream about, she would rather stay tired. Still, the short dream had shaken her. I'm not that girl, I'm not… She died the day my sister was taken away. Or maybe even before that.

However, despite her determination Janelle couldn't stop her eyelids from drooping once more.

"Don't lose focus."

Marvin smiled at her as he shuffled over. Remember your conversation with Samantha… You can't trust him. Janelle watched him cautiously.

"The Gifted could find us at any time," he said quietly. "If you're tired, I can take over."

"I'm not tired," Janelle lied, doing her best to stifle a yawn. "It's only been an hour or so."

Marvin smirked. "You just fell asleep for ten minutes. I was watching."

Janelle felt herself flush, pushing a strand of curly red hair from her eyes. "No – No I didn't."

She stared straight ahead, waiting for him to contradict her, but he stayed silent. Once she was certain he was not going to say anything, Janelle watched him carefully in the corner of her eye. He looked like someone who could be trusted – he was skinny, older and not at all physically intimidating, plus his eyes were a soft, kind-looking brown. But Janelle knew better than anyone that an honest appearance gave no hints to what someone was like underneath.

"Why do you want to overthrow the regime?" she asked, her eyes narrowed.

He turned towards her. "What?"

"You asked us why we wanted to overthrow the regime, but why do you?"

He shrugged. "I just do."

"That's not fair! You can't insist that we tell you our motivations, and then not share your own. You said you had knowledge on the Gifted… Well, how did you get this knowledge?"

Janelle paused, twisting her body so he could see that her hand was resting on the small dagger she had brought from home. Marvin seemed unfazed by this, his brown eyes meeting hers without a hint of fear.

"Tell me, why should I trust you?" Janelle said quietly. "How do I know that you're not one of them?"

He sighed. "You don't. But I'm not."

"Well, why won't you just tell me then?" she demanded.

Marvin shrugged, glancing at Samantha. "I have my reasons."

Janelle shook her head. "She's different. I know I can trust her, even if she won't tell me why she wants to overthrow the regime. But I don't know if I can –"

The crunching of twigs and the mutter of voices sounded in the distance, distracting her.

"Someone's there," Janelle whispered, her hand resting on the hilt of her sword. "Marvin, you have to go. If it's the Gifted, and they're looking for you…"

He nodded, leaning forward and whispering in her ear. "If it's them, don't let them touch you."

"What?" Janelle muttered in response, but he was already gone. She crawled over to Samantha, shaking her until she woke. Samantha jumped to her feet almost immediately.

"We have to –"

"Why are you here?"

Janelle cursed under her breath.

Two men stood in front of them, wearing the grey uniforms of the Gifted. One had brown patterns on their sleeves, and the other blue.

"Do you have permission to leave your village?" the one with blue patterns said, his eyes narrowed.

"Yes," Janelle lied, but unsurprisingly the Gifted man was not convinced. His gaze fell on the sword she was carrying.

"Civilians are not permitted to carry a weapon for any reason," he said coldly. "Where did you get that?"

Janelle glanced at Samantha. Simultaneously, they turned around and ran into the forest. However, they had barely run a few feet when a giant ice wall appeared in front of them. It was almost as tall as the trees in front of them, radiating cold and making the air ten degrees colder than it was previously.

Janelle turned back, her heart beginning to race as she noticed they were completely surrounded by ice.

The Gifted man was panting slightly, although his companion seemed fine.

"Why are you here, and why are you carrying swords?" he asked again.

Janelle drew her sword, but Samantha got there first. She sliced one blade down towards the Gifted man, swinging around as he blocked it and thrusting the second one towards him. He blocked it with a sheet of ice, kicking her in the stomach and pushing her over. Samantha tucked her arms in and rolled, jumping to her feet and resuming the fight.

She'll be fine. Janelle turned her attention towards the other Gifted. The man held out his sword, swinging it towards Janelle. She raised her own blade to meet it, but the soil underneath her feet suddenly crumbled and she lost her footing. The man swung his blade towards her while she was distracted, but Janelle rolled out of the way and tripped him over with her foot. The Gifted man fell to the ground, knocking his head on a rock and falling unconscious.

Janelle picked herself up off the forest floor, not sure whether to be amused or relieved. It's my first fight with a Gifted, and I didn't even have to kill him because he knocked himself out.

She turned towards Samantha, who was still fighting the other man. Samantha was striking at him repeatedly, but the man met all of her attacks. He seems to be waiting for something…

Janelle remembered Marvin's words. If it's them, don't let them touch you.

"Sam, look out!" Janelle yelled, running towards them. The man grabbed her hand, pulling Samantha towards him and breaking her balance. Before she could retaliate, water began to bubble from her mouth. She choked and gurgled, but it was no use. He was drowning her.

Janelle shoved her blade through his back. He coughed, his grip slackening. She removed her weapon, the cold steel dripping with blood as the man crumpled to the ground. Samantha fell as well, water spilling from her mouth.

"Is he – is he dead?" she said eventually.

Janelle glanced over. His grey clothing was stained with red, and dark, wet blood still oozed from his mouth. He's the first person I killed…

"I – I think so," she muttered.

Samantha nodded. "Thank you. For saving my life."

"It's fine. You would have done the same."

A loud groan caught both their attention. Samantha strode over to the other Gifted, drawing her own sword and stabbing him through the belly before he woke up.

"Let's go," she said as she turned away.

"Are we just going to leave them here?" Janelle whispered, a little shocked by her lack of reaction.

Samantha shrugged. "There's nowhere to bury them. We should go before the rest of the Gifted notice the ice wall."

Janelle nodded. Together they managed to scramble up the ice wall, using the trees around them to help.

"Marvin?" Janelle whispered as they reached the other side.

"He's probably a long way off now."

A rustling noise from nearby distracted them. Janelle and Samantha raised their swords almost simultaneously.

"Marvin, it's just you," Janelle said, sighing with relief when they saw it was him running towards them.

He smiled weakly. "I heard noise and I thought – You idiots!"

He gestured towards their bloody swords.

"Why did you kill them?" he said furiously. "Don't you think they'll be a bit suspicious when they find some of their members dead in the woods?"

"Well, they'll find it even more suspicious when they go back and tell them we were here, won't they?" Janelle pointed out. "Besides, they were going to kill us!"

He still looked mad. "Come on. They'll come looking for them soon, and the ice wall is a dead giveaway."

Marvin turned around and stomped back through the forest. Janelle and Samantha followed.

"Why can't they touch us, anyway?" Janelle asked, hurrying to catch up with him.

He shrugged. "It's one of their limitations. The Gifted can set fire around you, or build an ice prison so you're trapped… They can even fill a whole room with water so that you drown. But they can't directly harm you without physical contact."

"I didn't know that," Janelle admitted. "I thought all it took was one look and you'd be choking, or in flames."

"Of course you wouldn't," Marvin said, smiling. "They don't want you to know that their powers aren't invincible. If that were common knowledge, more might try and oppose them."

"That's good then," Janelle said excitably. "We can tell people that and get them –"

"But how do you know that?" Samantha interrupted, her grey eyes narrowed.

Marvin shrugged. "Heard it somewhere, I guess."

He strode ahead again, leaving the two women behind.

"At least there's two of us," Janelle said quietly so he could not hear. "If he betrays us we should be able to overcome him easily."

Samantha shrugged. "I hope so."

She stopped, grabbing Janelle's arm. "Why don't we just leave him now? He's obviously not telling us something… We could kill him and run."

"No, we can't do that," she said quickly. "We have to give him a chance. And if he really is telling the truth, then the information he has could really help us. Plus he's a doctor, so…"

"Are you coming?"

Marvin had turned around, waiting for them to catch up.

"Sorry," Janelle muttered, hurrying after him. As they continued their journey through the forest, she wondered if he would be one of the many they would have to kill before achieving their goal.

8: Inspiration and Dreams
Inspiration and Dreams

Carey stared, breathless as she gazed upon the small farming cottage in the distance. She was home, at last, after all these months. A grin stretched across her lips and the sun shone high above as she ran down the cobblestone road that led to her front door. Nearby birds were chirping merrily, and their song brightening as Carey got closer and closer to the home she had missed.

A tall, gangly blond haired boy stood outside the front door. His blue eyes lit up when he saw her running towards him.

"Wesley!" Carey cried, throwing her arms around him. "I've missed you!"

Her eyes welled with tears as he hugged her tightly.

"I missed you too," he replied, his voice breaking. He let her go and smiled, his happiness filling her with the warmth she’d missed for so long. He took her hand and opened the door to their small home. Carey entered quickly, brimming with anticipation. She could sense it – the crackling fire, the smell of cooking, the noise of her brothers and sisters. But as she rushed through the door, she found herself face to face with the Leader. Her grey eyes smiled wickedly, and behind her were the bodies of her mother, her father, her sisters, her brothers. They stared at her vacantly, their skin as pale and grey as ash, blood staining their clothes and dribbling from their mouths.

"No!" Carey cried, trying to run to them, but her legs were cemented to the floor.

The Leader's smile grew wide. She stepped forward and Carey felt her throat compress, choking her.

"St – stop…" Carey gasped, her hands clutching at her neck. The Leader’s lips tightened menacingly, sending a sharp stabbing pain through Carey’s chest.

"Carey!"

She glanced over her shoulder. Wesley stood in the doorway, his bright blue eyes wide and his mouth open slightly as he stared at her and their dead family.

"W – Wesley run!" she managed to spit out. "She's going to –"

Her brother took a step forward, but just before he reached his sister a sword stabbed through his belly from behind. Wesley's eyes bulged as he glanced down at his abdomen. A long, sharp blade dripping with his bright red blood poked through. Carey watched helplessly as his face drained of its colour, as his breathing became shorter, sharper; more desperate. The weapon was drawn quickly out of him, but it was no use. He was already dead.

Carey's vision began to fade as she saw him topple to the floor. As her brother fell, his killer wiped the blade casually on his sleeve the stain blending in perfectly with the red patterns decorating the grey material.

"W – Why?" Carey choked. She fell to her knees.

The killer sheathed his sword, avoiding her gaze.

"I had to," 256 said quietly, his dark eyes emotionless. Flames began to encircle Carey and she felt their searing touch right before her world faded to black.

"No!" Carey yelled, bolting up. She gulped, gasping for air and clutching her throat. She glanced around, but her family were gone. Her home was gone. In its place was the small room she’d been assigned at the Council.

Carey leaned back against the headboard, closing her eyes. Her throat still ached as though she’d really been choked.

It was just a dream. They’re far away, you know that. They’re not dead, they’re just… They’re not with me.

Carey sniffed, tears welling beneath her eyelids. Her fists clenched around the think grey blanket she’d been given, but she willed herself not to lose control.

I have to calm down… If I don't get up soon, I'll be late for training.

It had been a little over two weeks since she had arrived at the Council. The dreams had started the night the Leader choked her, when she had slept in this room for the first time. They were always the same – she’d finally manage to escape from this place, only to find her whole family dead and herself right back in the Gifted’s clutches.

Carey sighed, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and plodding over to wardrobe on the other side of the room. She dressed quickly, pulling on the grey, patternless uniform she’d been given. Originally, she’d worn a spare Gift of Air uniform, but a week prior she’d returned to her room after dinner to find her wardrobe full of new, plain grey clothing. Carey buttoned up the collar and reached for a brush. It took her ten whole minutes to tame her tangled hair into a neat ponytail. She placed the brush down and stared at her reflection in the full length mirror beside the wardrobe.

My uniform might be slightly different than theirs, but… When I’m wearing it with my hair tied back like this, I might as well be one of them. Maybe Carey is gone, and all that's left it 355.

Carey shook her head vigorously and squeezed her eyes shut, but her reflection was replaced with the image of Wesley's dead body, skewered with the sword of the very boy she was supposed to be training with that day.

Why am I like this? I know it’s just a dream, so why can’t I put it behind me? I can’t let him see me like this, I… I have to get over it.

She opened her eyes again, biting her lip hard in an attempt to distract herself. She couldn’t let anyone see her so upset if she was going to escape.

I can’t go to training today. But I know what I have to do instead.

Carey sniffed, opening the wardrobe and scrambling through the draws at the bottom, emerging with paper she’d stolen from the Leader’s office clutched in her hands.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

"Listen."

A middle-aged man with thinning grey hair looked up from his table. "Can I help you?" he asked, his voice quavering slightly.

"Um… I notice you haven't sold a lot today," Janelle said, gesturing to the numerous rugs still on display in his stall. The markets were closing and most of the other sellers were packing up the rest of their hand-made crafts, but few had as much left as the man she’d decided to target.

The man nodded, smiling glumly. "Today just wasn't my day. Are you interested in buying something?"

Janelle tried to ignore the hopeful look he was giving her. "No, sorry… but –"

She leaned forward, glancing around to make sure there were no Gifted nearby.

"What are you doing?" he asked nervously, leaning back.

"Aren't you annoyed that the rations you get from doing all those long shifts at the factory aren’t enough to feed your whole family?” she whispered, gesturing to the small pile of coins in his collection box. “That’s why you’re here, right? To earn a little extra

"Um, no…" he said, pushing his chair away from the table as if she was infectious. “We get enough, don’t – it’s just – my little granddaughter’s got a chill and she’s not doing so well so I thought… Maybe I’ll buy some more grains to get her strength up, that’s – tell the Gifted I’m not complaining. They’re generous enough already, I...”

 Janelle cursed under her breath as the man continued to ramble. Why am I no good at this? He thinks I’m working for them! But despite his less than favourable reaction, she knew she had to persist.

"Well, don't you wish someone would overthrow them?" she said quietly.

The man jumped, edging even further away. "I – What? Of course I don’t! What makes you think I’d –“

"That's what I'm trying to do," she whispered, grabbing his sleeve. "But I need people to help me. Will you help us?"

The man snatched his arm away, his face draining of colour. "Um, no, leave me alone."

He packed up his rugs quickly and scurried away, not looking back once.

Janelle sighed, groaning under her breath. They had been doing this for nearly two weeks now, but they still did not have a single recruit.

We can't overthrow the Gifted with three people… We might even need the entire nonGifted population behind us!

They had travelled to many different villages, speaking to individuals and trying to convince them. But most were uninterested or scared, like that man had been. Janelle turned around and trudged back to their camp in the woods with a heavy heart. I never thought this would be so hard… The Gifted regime affects everyone, why aren't they flocking to us?

"Any luck?" Marvin asked as she approached.

"Nothing," Janelle sighed, sitting down beside him. Marvin smiled slightly, patting her on the shoulder.

"Don't be disheartened," he said reasonably. "Even if no one is joining us, we're still raising awareness."

"Awareness isn't enough. We need more followers. The Gifted already have magical powers that we don’t have. We can’t let them have the advantage of numbers too.”

"Give it time," he said. "They'll come around eventually, I promise."

I don't want your promises. I want more followers. Surely we'd at least have a few by now…

"I'll take the first watch," Janelle said robotically. I need time to think. "You two go to sleep."

Marvin and Samantha exchanged a glance.

"Are you sure?" Marvin asked slowly. “I can do it, if you like. You look like you could do with a good rest.”

"It's fine,” said Janelle dully. Before either of them could argue she sat down and drew her sword, beginning to sharpen it. She kept doing it until she heard the breathing of her two companions slow down.

She had considered a million possibilities when she chose to start this quest. But this had never been one of them. She never thought they would have to give up before they even started because the people they were trying to liberate refused to follow them.

Janelle shivered, drawing her coat closer around her. Worse still, their lack of followers wasn’t the biggest problem they were facing. Only two weeks had gone by and they were already running low on resources. Janelle, Samantha and Marvin had all brought a small supply of money with them, but in two weeks they’d spent over half of it, and it was too cold to hunt or forage for food. Perhaps their mission would end before it even began because they couldn't fulfil their basic human needs.

She sighed, pulling her knees close to her chest in an attempt to stay warm. Her lips were blue and chapped, but she willed herself to keep going.

"You look cold."

Samantha draped a blanket around her shoulders, before clearing a patch of snow with her gloved hand and sitting down beside her.

"I'm okay," Janelle insisted, even though she was shivering violently. "And d – don't you need it?"

Samantha shrugged. "I'm okay. You need it more than I do."

It was only a thin blanket, but it provided an extra layer to protect her from the cold wind.

"Thank you," she muttered. "We should share it."

Samantha nodded, shuffling closer and resting her head on Janelle's shoulder while she pulled the blanket around both of them. Together they sat, significantly warmer than they had been previously.

"Do you…" Janelle began, hesitant.

"What?"

"Do you think we should give up?"

Samantha stood up suddenly, tearing the blanket away and leaving Janelle cold once more.

"What?" she repeated, much more sinister sounding this time.

"Well, what's the point?" Janelle muttered, rubbing her forehead. "We're doing nothing but freezing to death out here. We don't have a real plan, we don't have any supporters… We’re just going nowhere!"

Samantha shook her head. "No. We can't just go back. We made a decision to leave, and that decision was final. We'll achieve our goal, or die trying."

She paused, giving time for her words to sink in. Janelle scrambled to her feet, but Samantha towered over her as they faced each other.

"I thought you knew that," Samantha said quietly. "I thought you knew the commitment we made… I know we haven't had any success so far, and that's frustrating for you. It's frustrating for me too, but I'm not going to give up."

"I know that," Janelle argued. "I don't want to give up, but… It's hard to stay motivated when we don't even have a real plan."

"Then think of one," Samantha snapped, turning around and stomping through the forest. Janelle watched her go, her heart clenching slightly.

It's easy to say that… It's much harder to actually do it.

Tears filled Janelle's eyes as she turned around and walked in the opposite direction, away from Marvin and Samantha. I hate feeling so helpless… It's as if I'm that young girl again, the girl who trusted the wrong person and paid the price… or the girl who let the only family she had left be taken away from her.

The night her sister was taken had been the night she changed from that sad, helpless little girl into a person – no, a woman determined to change the world and get her revenge. But now that it really mattered, she felt as if she had reverted back into the person she thought she had left behind all those years ago.

After thirty minutes of walking, Janelle could see village she visited earlier that day. She sat down cross-legged in the snow, watching the town in the distance. It was mostly dark, but a few windows were lit by candlelight.

There's so many people I want to protect there…But they won't let me. They don't even consider placing their trust in me.

She supposed it was a lot to ask from them. After all, to join their group would be risking their lives. At least under the Gifted, they were safe. What they needed were people like them – people who weren’t afraid of defying the Gifted, who were already on the outskirts of society.

"The sanctuaries!" Janelle said loudly, startling an owl in a nearby tree. It hooted loudly, but she was too preoccupied to notice.

Those who visit sanctuaries are breaking the rules just by being there… They’re already disillusioned with society, so we should ask them first.

She ran back to their camp as fast as she could. The sun had already risen by the time she got close. Please don't let them have left without me!

"Wait!" she shouted as she approached. They were already awake, packing up the few possessions they still had. Janelle hunched over, she had run an incredibly long way.

"You weren't going to leave without me, were you?" she said between breaths.

Samantha shook her head. "Of course not. We were just getting ready so we could leave when you came back."

She still sounded rather distant. Janelle hugged her, much to the other woman's surprise.

"You were right," she admitted. "I know we made a commitment, and I'm sorry for forgetting about it."

Janelle released her, leaving Samantha with a rather baffled expression before turning her attention to Marvin. "Have you considered visiting your sister lately?"

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

256 held a wooden sword in his left hand, a half decapitated training dummy as his enemy. It had been a long time since he had used his full strength, as he was busy training the girl. But today he had woken up early to get some practice of his own.

He swung his sword towards it, a few neat strikes all it took for the dummy to no longer be half decapitated. 256 stood back, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his shirt. Sure, he used some of his strength when training her – to demonstrate, or to spar – but it was not enough to satisfy his restless energy.

"Impressive work."

256 bowed low when he saw the Leader standing in the doorway.

"How can I help you, ma'am?" he said quickly.

She smiled. "I'd like to know how 355's training is progressing."

"She – she is doing well, sir. She learns quickly, and seems eager. I think she will be able to catch up to the rest of us some day."

The Leader nodded, still watching him with interest.

"Is – is there anything else I can do for you?" 256 muttered, staring at his feet.

"Nothing, thank you," she said, but she didn’t leave. Tentatively, 256 resumed his practice, but his strikes were mistimed and sloppy now he knew the Leader was watching his every move.

"You can't trust her,” the Leader said quietly. 256 jumped, almost dropping his sword.

"I – I know ma'am,” he said quickly, nodding his head. “I don't."

"Are you sure?" said the Leader, raising her eyebrows. "She may look like us, talk like us, and have powers like us, but she will never truly be one of us. She’s been raised by them, never forget that. You must be on your guard at all times."

"I know," 256 said. "I am, don't worry."

The Leader stared at him for a little longer than he would have liked. Without saying another word, she strode from the room.

256 watched her go, crouching to the ground and picking up his fallen sword. He knew the Leader was right. The girl was not truly one of them, not yet. She could betray them at any moment.

It’s my duty to make sure she doesn’t. I can’t forget that.

256 sighed, rubbing his eyes. It was only then that he realised that the girl was supposed to have met him for training half an hour ago.

Although he had expected her to avoid practice, she had actually never missed a day in the past two weeks, and even seemed eager to learn.

I have to go look for her. What if something’s gone wrong?

256 left the training room quickly, making his way through the winding corridors and passages until he reached her room. He knocked lightly, but there was no answer. However, the door was slightly ajar, so he pushed it open.

Hello?" he said nervously.

She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, her head bent over a piece of paper. The girl looked up as he entered, her light blue eyes glistening with tears.

"Go away," she hissed, glaring furiously at him.

"Y – Yes, sorry," he stammered, closing the door behind him. 256 leaned against the door, wondering what to do next.

"Are – Are you alright?" he asked, trying to ignore the curious gaze of a Servant standing nearby.

His question was met with silence. 256 sighed, weighing up his options. He wanted to help her, but he knew the Leader would be angry if she found out. After all, just fifteen minutes ago she’d told 256 that he could not trust her. He knew the Leader was right, but that did not change the fact that he wanted to trust her.

Isn't that my duty? To trust her, and have her trust me? Only then can we both benefit the most from our lessons, and therefore do our best for the Gifted.

256 knew in his heart that he was merely grasping at straws, but for once he didn't care. Taking a deep breath, he re-entered the room quietly, listening to her small sniffles and the scratch of her fountain pen.

"Are you okay?" he asked tentatively, crouching down beside her. She avoided his gaze, still writing.

"I'm fine."

"That's good, then," he mumbled, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder but then deciding better of it. His hand hung awkwardly in the air as he contemplated his next move.

I should go for it. Sometimes a pat can be helpful. That’s what he’d always…

256 shivered, his stomach tightening painfully. He took a sharp breath, squeezing his eyes shut so hard it hurt.

I don’t remember. I don’t. I can’t.

“Um…” he stammered, willing himself to focus on the task at hand. “Er… whatever it is, don't be sad.”

Shakily he reached out and allowed himself to pat her on the shoulder. He withdrew his hand quickly, fearing retaliation, but she just sniffed.

"Really, I'm fine," she said quietly, sounding hesitant. "It's just… I miss my family."

"Oh," he said hurriedly. "I – I'm sorry you feel that way."

256 paused, attempting a small smile that he hoped was reassuring.

"Your parents are probably glad you've left," he said, tentatively taking her hand and squeezing it. The girl jerked away like his touch was poisonous.

"What?" she said, her voice dangerously cold.

256 blinked, his eyebrows furrowing. What did I do wrong? Maybe she just doesn’t understand. That must be it.

"The nonGifted can never truly understand us," he explained. "Although they often resist when we're taken away, after a while they'll be glad that such a burden was taken away from them."

She raised her eyebrows. "Firstly, there is no 'us'. Secondly, what kind of idiot believes that?"

“Well… I do,” he admitted. “I’m not an idiot, it’s the truth. The Gifted are chosen above the rest, so it’s only natural our parents grow to be grateful. They know they could never live up to the task of raising a Gifted child. Besides, they… the nonGifted are jealous of our powers. They resent us and if a Gifted child was left with their parents they’d abandon them eventually anyway. Once the initial shock wears off, your parents will be glad, so don’t worry.”

The girl stared at him for a few moments before rolling her eyes and looked away, staring down at the words she’d written. She clutched her fingers around the fountain pen, her hand shaking slightly.

"Do they… Do they really tell young children that their parents don't care about them anymore?" she muttered, her head bent like she was avoiding making eye contact.

256 rubbed the back of his neck, nodding. "Of course they do. It’s the truth.”

“What about your parents?” she said, looking up at him at last. “What do you think of them?”

“I…” 256 hesitated. “I… I guess when I was younger, I wondered about them… I – I never wanted to meet them, nothing like that, I – Just sometimes, I wondered who they are, but… I know better now.  My parents are pleased to be rid of such a troublesome son. Just like yours will be."

The girl shivered. "This place is horrible."

"No it's not.”

She shook her head slowly, fiddling with a strand of her hair. "Yes it is. It's horrible because you actually believe that."

256 stared at her, unsure how to respond. "Well…" he began, pausing. He knew the Council was right about his family, but he supposed it couldn't hurt to hear her views. "What does happen, then?”

The girl shrugged. "My friend from back home’s little brother was taken around ten years back. She and her parents never really got over it. Her parents work on the farm next to ours, and… Sometimes I see them out in the field and they look really sad and I just know what they’re thinking about. They keep going, they treasure their daughter, but they still miss their son.”

256 swallowed, glancing down at the scuffed floorboards. She's wrong… Your parents are happy to be rid of you. Thoughts like this will just get you punished. Even though he knew that, he almost couldn't help himself. There was so much he was curious about.

"Um, what's it like to –" he stammered, feeling himself flush. "What's it like to live with the nonGifted?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Why do you want to know?"

"I – I want to understand," he said hastily. "I mean, if I knew what it was like, then I might be able to help you feel better."

The girl pursed her lips slightly, but even so she answered him. "I… I don't know. It's very different, that's for sure."

"Okay," he said, sitting down on the floor and crossing his legs. "How is it different?"

"I don't really know how to explain it… I mean, here, you live alone in a small room, and your food is made for you. There you can live alone if you want or you can live with other people, and usually you make your own food."

"Wow," he muttered. He’d guessed enough from his visits to the villages over the years, but even so it was different hearing the information from someone who’d actually experienced that lifestyle. "What – what's it like to have a family?"

She shrugged. "It's different for everyone. I have a mother, a father, seven brothers and sisters. We all live together. But you knew that. You saw us."

The girl turned away from 256 so her back was facing him. "I – I had a bad dream last night. Actually, I've been having the same dream for a while now."

"What's it about?" he asked.

"I just keep dreaming I'm back home, but when I get inside they're all, um, dead."

"Oh," 256 said. "Well, um, it's just a dream, right? So it can't come true."

"Maybe," she replied dully. The girl bit her lip, picking up her fountain pen and readjusting her paper before continuing to write. 256 peered over her shoulder curiously.

"Don't look over my shoulder," she snapped when she noticed him looking. "It's private."

"I wasn't," he said hastily, shaking his hands. "I mean, I was, but I – I can't read, so it doesn't matter."

The girl frowned. “Really?"

"Yeah." The Gifted had no need for such skills, after all, not when there were Servants to do it for them. The girl watched him closely for a few moments before turning away, picking up the paper again and staring at it.

"I was just writing a letter to Wesley," she mumbled. "My twin. I know I can't send it, but – I don't know, I just needed to."

256 nodded, frowning slightly. "But where did you get the paper?"

"I, um…" she said, glancing at him and grinning guiltily. "I took some while I was in the Leader's office the other day."

256 laughed before he could stop himself. He had to admit, he admired her courage. He would never dare take something from the Leader's office, even if it was just a few sheets of paper.

The girl smirked when she noticed his awed expression.

"You idiot," she laughed.

"I'm not an idiot," he protested.

"Yes you are," she said firmly, as if that settled it. 256 smiled slightly, knowing better than to argue further.

“Fine, I’m an idiot,” he said, pushing his fringe from his eyes. “But really, we need to get going.”

The girl’s smirk faded. She clenched the papers, her blue eyes narrowing slightly. “I’m not going.”

"355 –"

"Don't call me that," she said sharply.

"Well, what do you want me to call you then?" he asked, fiddling with his collar. “That’s your number, I’m – I have to call you that. And we really need to go.”

The girl shrugged, still working on her letter. She was writing so hard she appeared to be making holes in the paper.

256 sighed. "Please come," he said, defeated. "If you don't the Leader will be angry at both of us. I know you don't care, but I do."

He stood up and made for the door, hoping she would follow him, but knowing she probably wouldn't.

"Carey."

256 looked over his shoulder. The girl's head was still bent over her paper. "What?"

"My name is Carey." She looked up, her blue eyes meeting his. Slowly, she stood up, lifting the mattress off her bed and hiding the pen and paper underneath it.

"If you want to call me something, call me that," she mumbled.

256 smiled. Carey… That's a nice name. Not that I know any names, but it sounds like it's a nice one.

"Okay. Let's go then, Carey," he said, opening the door.

She rolled her eyes, storming past him and stomping down the corridor.

You cannot trust her.

256 knew the Leader was right, but that could not stop the feeling he had in his heart.

9: Speeches and Supporters
Speeches and Supporters

"It's there!" Janelle said, pointing at the yellow lights shining in the distance. "We made it!"

It was a cold winter's night and the ground was thick with snow, but Janelle broke into a sprint. She almost tripped a few times as she ran, but eventually she reached the small, cosy inn she and Samantha had visited a little over three weeks ago.

"Why did we have to run?" Marvin complained, bending over. "I'm not as young and fit as you are…"

Janelle rolled her eyes, grinning. "It's good for you, so stop whining. Anyway, let's go inside!"

She pushed through the door, Marvin and Samantha following close behind. The inn was packed with people, most talking and laughing loudly. The woman who Marvin claimed was his sister stood behind the crowded bar, laughing along with her customers and serving them food and drinks.

"What now?" he said, still a little puffed from their run through the snow.

Janelle pointed behind the bar, where Rosa was now wiping glasses. "You go and talk to her."

"But it's your plan," he pointed out.

"Don't you want to talk to your sister?"

He cleared his throat. "I do, but Rosa can be…"

Janelle rolled her eyes, giving him a little push. "Go on. She'll be much happier to see you than me."

Defeated, he walked briskly toward the bar, Janelle and Samantha following close behind.

"Rosa, it's me," Marvin said, smiling nervously.

The woman nearly dropped the glass she was holding when she saw him.

"Patrick!" she cried, enveloping him in a bone-crushing hug. "It's so good to see you!"

He coughed, struggling to escape from her embrace.

"It's Marvin, actually," he mumbled as she released him, glancing guiltily at Samantha and Janelle.

Rosa tutted, hitting him lightly on the shoulder. "Goodness, you change it so often it's hard to keep up."

She shook her head fondly, before turning her attention to the two women. "It's nice to see you two again. So you found my brother, obviously."

"Y – Yes, we did," Janelle said quickly. "Thanks for helping us."

Rosa smiled. "It's my pleasure. I've been trying to get Pat – er, Marvin to accept help for years, but he's a stubborn one. I'm glad you two finally convinced him to team up with someone."

Marvin rolled his eyes, but smiled fondly. Rosa glanced at the clock on the wall.

"I should go back to work," she said. "Harry's upstairs, he'll be happy to see you."

She went back to wiping glasses, oblivious to the scrutiny her brother was now under.

"Just who are you?" Janelle demanded. Beside her, Samantha glared at him murderously.

Marvin glanced nervously at the inn's customers. Most were immersed in their own conversations, but a few were looking on curiously.

"Do we have to do this here?" he hissed. "Anyone could be listening!"

Janelle bit her lip. He has a point. "Fine, but this isn't over."

She turned around and stared at the customers, wondering what to do next. How are we going to get these people to join us?

"You should talk to them," Samantha said, gesturing towards the crowd.

"Why – why me?" Janelle stammered, glancing around the room. It was full of people from all walks of life. Some were men, some were women, some old, some young. Most were laughing, immersed in their own conversations with a pint of beer in hand. Why would they want to listen to a normal girl from a mountain village? "Aren't you more –"

"Samantha's right," Marvin interrupted. "It was your idea to come here, so it's your duty."

He paused, smiling and patting her shoulder. "Besides, you're our leader, aren't you?"

"Huh?" said Janelle gormlessly. She was hardly leadership material.

"Yes, you are," Samantha said, taking her hand and squeezing it. "I believe in you."

"I…" Janelle glanced at her feet, her heart sinking to her stomach. She knew she wasn't fit to lead them. She'd made far too many mistakes with her own life. Who knew what could happen if she was put in charge of so many others? Janelle wanted to refuse, but Samantha was looking at her with so much faith and trust.

I can't let her down.

Janelle swallowed, breathing in deeply. "O – Okay. I'll do it."

She turned towards the crowd. The inn's occupants were immersed in their own conversations, not paying her any attention.

I'll just have to try. In the long run, we'll be better of if Samantha leads us, but... Right now, I have to try it.

"Um, there's something I'd like to say," she stammered, her voice barely audible over the din. Janelle glanced over to Samantha. She nodded, her lips stretched in a smile. Gritting her teeth, Janelle strode over to the bar, pushing her way through the crowd and ignoring the many angry looks thrown in her direction. She clambered up onto the bench, muttering an apology to Rosa as she did so. The room was still as noisy as ever, although a few people turned to look at her.

"Get down from there, sweetheart," an old man sitting at the bar said as he stared into his beer. "You don't want to fall off."

Janelle ignored him, clearing her throat. "Hey!" she yelled.

The noise in the room vanished almost instantly, and almost all faces turned towards her. Janelle squirmed uncomfortably as everyone stared, but she stood her ground. You have to do this, Marvin and Samantha are –

"I think someone's had a bit too much to drink," one voice rang out, a ripple of laughter radiating through the crowd.

"I – I'm not drunk," she stammered, blushing. "I – I just want to ask…"

Her voice trailed off as she searched for Marvin and Samantha in the crowd. They both grinned at her, but Samantha's smile was wider. She nodded, mouthing what Janelle hoped was 'you can do it'.

"Um, what I'd like to say is," she began, stammering a little, "I know that a lot of you, well, a lot of you are here because you hate the Gifted. Well, I – I'd like to invite you to join us –" she gestured to Marvin and Samantha in the crowd –"because we're going to bring them down."

Janelle said all of this very quickly and in a single breath. She looked around hopefully as a soft murmur echoed through the room.

"As if!" one woman called out, and the inn filled with laughter once more. Janelle swore under her breath, having lost their attention.

"Please, just listen," she said, crestfallen, but she could not be heard above the din. "If you'd just listen, I could –"

"Dream on, sweetheart," the old man said glumly, still staring into his cup. "People ain't gonna help someone with an impossible mission like that."

Janelle stared at him, clenching her fists. "We'll see."

She took a deep breath, stamping her foot as hard as she could on the counter. "Shut up!" she yelled, quickly muttering an apology to Rosa again.

Thankfully, this had the desired effect – the entire room fell silent once more, and all eyes were on her.

"I know you all think it can't be done," she said, quietly at first but gaining momentum. "And you're right. It can't be, if we all sit around and do nothing like you're doing now."

She paused for dramatic effect, noting with satisfaction that everyone stayed silent. "You all whine and complain about the Gifted regime, and you try to escape it by coming here. You think you're being rebellious, but really you're just as cowardly as the villagers. Can't you see? If we stay separate we're nothing, just a tiny nuisance to them. If we work together we could actually become a threat."

Marvin pushed his way through the crowd until he was standing directly in front of her. "It'll be dangerous, but worth it. Only join us if you're willing to risk your life."

A low murmur swept through the crowd.

"How can we trust you?" a woman jeered. "For all we know you could be Gifted in disguise."

"We could be," Janelle admitted, staring at her feet. "But we're not. And so could you, or anyone."

She cleared her throat, forcing herself to look up again. "Um, anyway, if you think you'd be willing to join us, um…"

"Come downstairs," Marvin offered. "Meet us in the basement."

Janelle smiled gratefully. "Yes, meet us in the basement. And the rest of you… don't tell them."

Carefully, she stepped down from the bench as the room filled with chatter and talk again.

"I'm really sorry about that," she muttered to Rosa.

To her surprise, the innkeeper just grinned. "That bench has seen far worse than your feet, don't worry. Now go. They're waiting for you."

Janelle nodded. She found Samantha and Marvin, and together they descended the steps into the basement below. To her disappointment, the space was empty aside from a few dusty chairs and boxes of moonshine. Janelle turned back to face her friends, trying not to look as crushed as she felt.

"Come on," she said half-heartedly. "No one wants to –"

Before she could finish her sentence, the thud of footsteps descending the stairs interrupted her. Four people were making their way into the basement. One of them walked straight up to Janelle, Samantha and Marvin, his grin wide. He was a young man, probably a few years older than Janelle herself, ruggedly handsome with shaggy blonde hair that fell in his eyes.

"So," he said. "What's the plan?"

"Yes, tell us," a woman piped up. She had a kind-looking face, with long, thick dirty blonde hair that reached her waist. She stood close to a man with a similar gentle demeanour. He took her hand and nodded, smiling at Janelle. She smiled nervously back, surveying their new comrades. They're not really what I imagined, but they're better than nothing.

"Um," she began, hesitant. "I –"

"So sorry I'm late!"

Rosa bustled down the steps. "So what's happening? Hello!"

She waved at the four new recruits.

"Hey," the young man said, grinning and turning to Janelle. "So, what's the plan?"

"What – what do you mean?" Janelle asked, baffled.

"You know, the plan," he said, shaking his head and sighing at her. "We're gonna take them down, aren't we? So where do we start?"

"We – we can't rush into it," Janelle stammered, uncertain. "I mean… Do any of you know how to fight?"

The man stood proudly, holding his hand over his heart. "I don't. I'm a musician!"

"Um, that's nice, I guess," said Janelle awkwardly, not sure what she was supposed to do with this information. She glanced at Marvin, silently begging him for help. He cleared his throat and stepped forward.

"Why don't we start with names?" he suggested. "I'm Marvin."

Janelle nodded, following his lead. "I'm Janelle, and this is Samantha. It's nice to meet all of you."

She shook hands with the four of them in turn.

"I'm Will," the older man said, "and this is my wife, Anna."

He gestured to the woman beside him. She waved shyly, beaming.

"I'm James," the younger man said, still grinning.

"Well, you all know I'm Rosa," she said, winking. "But I must say, I've never met you before, young lady."

She was addressing the final member of the four, a small, dark haired girl who looked like she was of a similar age to Janelle. She blinked, glancing at the others nervously.

James smiled kindly at her. "And who are you?"

"Emma," she mumbled, staring at the ground. Janelle watched her for a moment before glancing back at her other new allies. None of them looked like natural fighters, but then she hadn't been either when Samantha started teaching her how to use a sword. With a bit of training, they'll be competent enough.

"Okay then," she said, hesitant. "Now that's settled, are you sure you want to join us? It won't be easy, and we could all die…"

"No we won't!" James declared. "We're gonna win!"

Anna nodded. "That's right. We have to be optimistic."

"Being too optimistic can have consequences," Marvin warned. "We'll try our best, but we have to be realistic."

"Well, at least you have a base," said Rosa, smiling. "Feel free to stay here for as long as you like. I'll even give you a discount."

She laughed at their faces. "Just kidding. You can stay for free. Although James, I expect you to earn your keep. A little music is good for the business."

"I can do that," he said, grinning and giving her a short bow.

Janelle stepped forward, smiling nervously. "Um, now we know each other's names, there's a few more things we need to clarify… None of you know how to use a sword, right?"

"I don't," Will admitted. Behind him, the others nodded in agreement. Janelle bit her lip, wondering what to do. Samantha and I can train them, easy... What about weapons though? I guess we will need Samantha's brother after all. 

Janelle rubbed her neck and looked up at Samantha. "Hey, d'you - d'you think your brother can make some swords for us?"

Samantha nodded briskly. "Yes. He told me when we found a safe location and some followers, he'd join us. He doesn't know how to fight, so he thought that was a better plan than coming with us straight away. Besides, our village is just a few days' trip from here."

"Great," Janelle said, smiling. "I'll come with you."

Marvin tapped her on the shoulder, shaking his head when she looked up at him. "No, Janelle. You have to stay here and train our new recruits. I know I can't do it."

"But –"

"A good leader always stays with her subordinates." Janelle looked up, frowning at the sound of a new voice. The man who had scoffed at her at the bar was standing at the top of the steps. He climbed down slowly, nodding at her.

"Sorry I'm late," he said briskly. "I'm Richard. Anyway, you have to stay. I'm sure this young lady can manage by herself."

Samantha nodded, tucking a lock of her thick black hair behind her ear. "I'll be fine by myself, don't worry."

Janelle swallowed. She didn't like leaving Samantha to go on a journey by herself, but a part of her knew she had no choice. 

"O – Okay…" she said, still uncertain. She cleared her throat and turned back to face their new recruits. "But before you all go back up there, I... I really meant what I said before. If you want to join us, you have to know of the risk we're facing… It won't be easy to overthrow the Gifted. Before the year is over, we could all be dead."

Emma, Will and Anna nodded solemnly. James, however, grinned.

"Not very cheerful, are you?"

Janelle glared at him. "This isn't something you can be cheerful about."

James rolled his eyes. "Look, I know what you mean, okay? There's a lot of danger, blah, blah, blah, and you want to warn us. But it's like you said during your speech. If we're alone, we're nothing, if we band together we might stand a chance. I'm not going to stop being optimistic, because if we don't believe we can do it then we can't."

"The boy is right," Richard said, and James nodded knowingly. "You're our leader, so you need to believe we can do it… If you don't, then the rest of us won't either. Are you willing to take that responsibility?"

His words were like an icy blast through her chest. Am I really the person to lead us? I made such horrible decisions… Surely Samantha, or even Marvin, is a better choice.

Janelle knew that the naïve girl who had made such mistakes in the past was still a large part of herself. That girl was not fit to lead a revolution. Janelle knew she should not do it, but as she looked into the faces of her comrades, old and new, she knew she had no choice. They were all looking at her with such hope, such trust that she would be the one able to do this. Even James and Richard were looking at her like they believed in her.

"I'll – I'll do my best," she said quietly. "And I won't let you down, I promise."

Richard nodded. "Good."

After deciding to regroup the next morning, Janelle wandered upstairs into the room Rosa had assigned her. She sat down on the bed, her stomach tying itself in knots. Can I really do this? I'm not... I'm not right for this, why can't they - 

Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud knock on the door. "Janelle?"

"Come in," she said quickly. Samantha shuffled inside, a travel bag thrown over her shoulder.

"I wanted to say goodbye," she said. "I thought it was best I left as soon as possible, so…"

Janelle nodded, shifting her feet. She was too numb to stand up. "Yes, well… Good luck. I'll see you when you get back, I guess."

She waved half-heartedly. Samantha waved back, before running her hand through her hair and clearing her throat.

"Are you okay?" she asked, shuffling over and perching on the bed beside Janelle. Janelle shrugged, scratching the back of her head.

"I... I'll get over it," she muttered. "I've just gotta get used to this whole leadership thing. I'll be fine, don't worry."

She paused, a small smile stretching across her lips. "I'll miss you though.. And not just because you're the best fighter, either. I'll miss your company."

"I'll miss you too," Samantha said, almost breathlessly. Her cheeks were slightly pink. "And not just because you're the leader. You're the first friend I've ever had, aside from my family."

"We're friends?" Janelle blurted out, clasping her hand over her mouth when she realised what she'd said. "Um, I'm sorry… Of course we're friends. I knew that."

Samantha smiled, shifting her feet slightly. "I - It's fine. I know I'm no good at expressing it, but... I consider you a friend, Janelle. My best friend."

With that she cleared her throat and stood up. She grabbed her bag and mumbled a final goodbye, closing the door behind her as she left. Janelle stared at the space she'd vacated for a few moments, rather surprised. 

So we are friends... Samantha was always so distant, but... I guess she really does trust me. Because of that, she's the one I really can't let down. No matter what.

10: Missions and Memories
Missions and Memories

“Try again,” 256 instructed, assembling into a fighting stance.

Carey gritted her teeth, sprinting towards him and swinging her sword towards his shoulder. 256 dodged her easily, pivoting to the side and poking her lightly in the side with his wooden blade.

“Now you’re dead,” he said, grinning slightly. Although he was far more skilled than she was, having trained most of his life, he still felt a sense of victory whenever he beat her.

“What do you expect me to do?” she demanded, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“You’re too predictable,” he explained. “You always go for the same place when we spar. You need to vary it up a bit, and keep your guard up. Even if I block one of your strikes, you need to think ahead and plan your next move so you’ll hit me where I’m not expecting it.”

He gestured to his sword, which was still pressed into her ribs. “See, if you were paying attention you could have known I was going for your side when I stepped around you and dropped my shoulder. If you’d taken just one step to the other side, my back would have been wide open.”

Carey rolled her eyes. “How am I supposed to remember that? Won’t I be more concerned with trying not to die?”

“But remembering this will help you not to die,” he insisted, before pausing. “Although, you don’t have to worry about that yet. You won’t be expected to leave the Council for at least another year, I’d say.”

“Unless you decide to try and kill me,” she retorted, wiggling her eyebrows at him.

“Why – why would I do that?” 256 said nervously, not sure if she was joking or not. “You’re one of us now…”

Carey smirked. “I was kidding.”

“I knew that,” he mumbled, holding up his wooden sword. “Um, strike me again.”

He watched her carefully as she raised her own sword. To his surprise, she ran towards him and struck her sword down at his shoulder again, even though he just told her not to. 256 swung to the side once more, avoiding her strike.

“I told you –“

His voice trailed off when he noticed that she had turned herself invisible.  Before he could do anything, he was struck hard in the belly. 256 fell to the ground, groaning as the wind was knocked out of him.

“There. You’re dead.” Carey stood over him, her wooden sword pointing in his direction. She grinned triumphantly.

“That’s cheating,” he coughed.

“It worked, didn’t it?”

256 rolled onto his side and groaned loudly, clutching his stomach. “Still, you should be able to defend yourself without relying on your Gift. And that really hurt!”

“Well, in the real world they won’t hold back, will they?” she pointed out. “And they won’t have a wooden sword, either! I’m doing you a favour.”

He coughed, sitting up slightly. “I guess you’re right…”                                

Carey was looking at him strangely, her expression changing.

“Here,” she muttered, offering him her hand.

He blinked. “No, it’s –“

“Just take it,” she snapped. 256 did as she asked, and she pulled him to his feet.

“Do you want to take a break now?” he asked weakly, hoping she would say yes.

Carey smirked. “In other words, you need a break.”

256 collapsed onto one of the benches at the far end of the room. Soon he found a glass of water thrust in his face. Carey stood next to him, looking slightly guilty.

“Thank you,” he said, smiling as he took it. He drank half of it in one swig, glancing at the clock on the wall.

“It’s nearly one o’clock. You should go, the Leader will be waiting.”

She shrugged. “I guess. Um… I hope you feel better, 256.”

He smiled when she said his number. “Thank you. See you tomorrow, Carey.”

I like saying her name. It’s the only name I know, so it’s special. I wonder how many they are, and what makes a name a name…

“Are you 256 and 355?”

A Servant stood at the door, fidgeting.

“Yes,” 256 said, puzzled.

“The Leader has summoned both of you to her office.”

“M – Me too?” he asked, astonished.

The man looked at him as if he were an idiot. “Yes.”

256 glanced at Carey, but she seemed unconcerned. Doesn’t she understand? The Leader never summons lowly Gifted like me to her office. I – We must have done something wrong…

They followed the Servant through the corridors. Once they reached her office the Servant let them inside, and they sat down in two chairs close to the door.

256 fidgeted nervously as he and Carey waited for the Leader to return. Before today he had never set foot in the Leader’s office in his life. Meanwhile Carey sat beside him, calm and relaxed, in complete contrast to his own behaviour. He wondered how she managed to stay so collected.

The Leader strode into her office, nodding curtly at Carey and 256 before talking a seat at the desk in front of them. 256 stood up quickly and bowed, blushing when he noticed Carey staring at him with raised eyebrows. Opposite, the Leader crossed her arms and smiled.

“How is your training going, 355?” she asked.

“She – she is going well, ma'am,” 256 stammered. “She learns quickly.”

“That’s good,” she said, his coy smile unnerving him. “But I believe I was asking the girl herself. How is your training going, 355?”

“I’m sorry for my rudeness,” 256 mumbled, staring down at the floor. I’m such an idiot, disrespecting the Leader like that…

However, his shame was soon forgotten when Carey at last opened her mouth to speak.

“I’m enjoying it,” she said smoothly. “He’s a good teacher.”

I am? Most of the time she laughs at me…

The Leader nodded. “I’m glad you’re settling in. I have a mission for you –“

“What?” 256 interrupted, flushing when he realised what he had done. “I – I apologise for my rudeness again, ma'am… But I don’t think –“

“You said yourself that her training is going well,” she said, a hint of amusement in her voice.

“Well, yes, she learns fast. But –“

“Then there shouldn’t be a problem.”

256 steadied himself, taking a few deep breaths.

“Forgive me, ma'am,” he began, his voice much clearer. “But although Car – um, 355’s training is progressing faster than I expected, she is still nowhere near ready to participate in a mission.”

256 tried not to cower under the Leader’s gaze. What I’m saying is the truth, I’m not being disrespectful… If we run into any serious danger, she could be killed.

“I understand it will be difficult,” the Leader said smoothly. “But you have no choice. This is an order.”

256 bit his lip, tasting blood. What can I do? I can’t disobey a direct order from the Leader herself… I can’t face that again.

“I understand,” he mumbled. “What does this mission involve?”

The Leader smiled, but her eyes were dark. “There are rumours of a rebellion in the North. Just over a month ago, a prominent figure in the Lake Village disappeared, and our allies have been unable to find him. The rumour is that he’s started a rebellion movement up there. We need to increase our presence in the Lake Village before the rebellion spreads.”

“I – I see,” 256 muttered. There are so many Gifted in the Council, why send us specifically? It’s like she wants Carey to get killed, but why? She’s one of us now. “When will we leave?”

“Tomorrow,” the Leader said, still smiling. “Pack enough supplies for a two week journey. You’ll have to go on foot, I’m afraid. We can’t risk the rebels finding out about the increased number of Gifted in the area.”

She paused, his gaze shifting to the girl beside 256. She had been so quiet while the Leader had told them of their mission that 256 had nearly forgotten she was there.

“Is that okay with you, 355?”

Carey stared straight into the Leader’s cold grey eyes, not a hint of fear on her face. 256 couldn’t help but be impressed. He knew he would never be able to stare at the Leader like that. Even though he did not really understand why she felt the need to defy the Leader, he couldn’t help but admire her courage.

“Yes,” she said, a strange spark in her eye. “That sounds great.”

She stood up, attempting a small bow while 256 did the same. As they filed from the room and made their way to the kitchens to pack food, 256 wondered what it was the Leader had said to make her seem so determined.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Okay guys, that’s it for this morning,” Janelle said as she lowered the stick she had been using in practice. “Go and get some lunch and take a break, and we’ll continue this afternoon.”

In the two weeks since her initial speech at the inn, five more people had heard of their group and joined. However, they still did not have proper swords, so they had been forced to use sticks for the time being. Samantha still had yet to return, with or without her brother.

Will he even want to join us? Samantha said he would, but…

Even though they had lived in the same village all their lives, Janelle barely remembered anything about Samantha’s brother. He had always been reclusive, and during the brief period of time they were in school together she did not remember seeing him socialise with the other children once. Janelle had never even heard him speak until she came to live with him and his sister. Would he really agree to help them?

Samantha’s his sister. He’ll want to help her. That’s right, I need to stop worrying about it, and focus on training our new allies.

None of them were natural fighters, although they were eager to learn. However, they had improved greatly in their first few lessons, but in the past week their progress had begun to slow. Janelle had them train all morning and afternoon, so she did not understand why this was so. I guess I’ll just have to keep going… They’re still improving, even if it’s not by as much as before.

Janelle collected up their sticks as the recruits left the basement one by one. They were all panting heavily, their shoulders drooping as they shuffled up the steps. Janelle watched them go, dumping the sticks in a corner and sitting down on the floor.

I know I’m probably working them too hard, but I have no choice. If we’re going to defeat the Gifted, they need to be superb fighters. We’re already at such a disadvantage…

“Hey.”

Janelle looked up. James stood in front of her, his blond hair unruly and his breath heavy.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“The roof,” Janelle said shortly. He’s always mucking around in practice, and never listens to what I say. He’s probably improved the least, actually.

“Very original,” James said sarcastically.

Janelle rolled her eyes. “Well, what do you want?”

He shrugged. “Are you gonna come with us or not? Let’s get lunch.”

Why would I come with you? “I’m not hungry. Go ahead without me, I might join you in a bit.”

“Um… Please come with us.”

Janelle noticed Emma standing to her left, watching her anxiously. She was a small girl, and not very strong, but she worked hard. Not like James.

“We’re – um…” she said, her voice little more than a squeak. “We’re worried about you.”

“But you don’t know me,” Janelle said, confused. “Not well, anyway. So why would you worry about me? And I’m fine, anyway.”

“We’re your friends, aren’t we?” James said breezily.

“But we’ve barely spoken to each other,” Janelle argued, beginning to get annoyed. He barely tries during practice, and never listens at all… And yet he thinks he’s my friend.

“Well, whose fault is that?” he pointed out. “You never talk to us apart from training, you just stay shut up in your room. How old are you, anyway?”

Janelle gritted her teeth. It was true, she hadn’t been very social. But then, she wasn’t supposed to make friends with her recruits. I have to be their leader, someone they can look up to and want to follow. I have to separate myself, so they won’t know how unsure I am. And what does my age have to do with anything?

“I – I’m twenty-three,” she muttered. “Why does it matter?”

“Because you’re really uptight,” James declared. “You’re twenty-three, but all you think about it work and training and stuff.”

“Don’t say that,” Emma whispered.

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

“It’s – it’s rude…”

Janelle stood up suddenly, pushing her way past both of them. She didn’t want them to see how his words had hurt her. “Leave me alone. I don’t care if you think I’m uptight or not. Go and eat lunch, so you’re strong for this afternoon’s training. We need to work hard if we’re going to –“

“That’s my point,” he interrupted, rushing around her and climbing the stairs so he blocked her exit.

“Get out of my way,” Janelle said through gritted teeth. “Don’t make me push you.”

“There’s no way you could get through me.”

“Oh yeah? Want to test that theory?”

“Um, you shouldn’t fight,” Emma said nervously, standing between them. “But… I – I think he’s right, Janelle. I’m sorry, it’s very rude, but…”

“You need to relax,” James finished, nodding enthusiastically at Emma. “I know you want to save the world and all that, I want to as well. But come on, you’re still young. You talk about our mission all the time, but don’t you ever do anything else?”

“Of course I do,” Janelle insisted. “I – I have lots of hobbies.”

He shrugged. “Well, I’ve never seen any of them.”

“You don’t know me.”

“Then give me an example, if you’re so sure.”

“Why should I do that when you’re being so annoying?”

“Please,” Emma said quickly as James opened his mouth to retort. “Please, Janelle, just give an example.”

Janelle thought for a while, fiddling with the end of her shirt. “I – when I was younger, I… I used to enjoy sewing and knitting. My – my mother taught me how. We used to sell her creations on market days. But when she died, I guess I lost interest.”

She remembered those days, as clear as when they had happened. She and her mother would sit together for hours, making beanies and scarves and quilts for the winter months. Their creations had been quite popular, but it had been a long time since Janelle had made anything.

That was before my parents died, before I realised that I couldn’t be that person anymore.

“You should come with us,” James said, his voice strangely gentle. “Rosa wants me to perform for the guests this afternoon, because it’s good for business. You should join us, it’ll be fun.”

“I don’t have time,” Janelle muttered. “And neither do you. We have training this afternoon, weren’t you listening?”

“Well, I’m not going,” he said casually. “Sorry. Rosa asked me, and she’s the landlady. We should help her as much as we can, don’t you think?”

“She’ll understand, this is very –“

“Well, this is important too, he said, shrugging. “Unlike you, I have a life outside of training. I’m a musician, performing is in my blood.”

He paused, shaking his head. “Anyway, I give up. You’re a lost cause, Janelle.”

James left before she could protest, running upstairs to the main room of the inn. Janelle sighed, sitting down again.

“Why are you still here?” she asked Emma, who still hovered over her. “Are you here to annoy me as well? I know you’re only here because he asked you.”

She blushed. “N – no… I mean, I am only here because he asked, but I want to help you. I mean, he’s right, really. You’re so young, but you act like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.”

“It sort of is,” she said glumly. “I’m trying to change our world, aren’t I? And to lead you, I have to be strong, I can’t - I can’t be young and carefree. Anyway, stop trying to help me, because I don’t need it.”

She paused, standing up and brushing herself off. “Tell the others I expect to see them for training in half an hour, no matter what James is planning.”

Janelle strode away and climbed the stairs, determined not to look back. Her stomach groaned loudly. Maybe I should get some lunch…

She went to the kitchen, nodding to Rosa on her way in.

“Hello sweetie,” Rosa said cheerfully, contrasting with Janelle’s sullen look. “Would you like me to make you something?”

Janelle gave a small smile. “No, it’s okay. You stay with your guests, I’ll make it myself.”

She rolled up her sleeves and began making a sandwich. A sudden memory came to her as she sliced up the bread, perhaps because of the conversation she had just had.

Dad and I used to make sandwiches together all the time… Mum would stay up late making scarves and things to sell at the market, and we would make us lunch to take with us the next day.

Tears began to roll down her cheeks as she remembered the way he would hum to himself as he chopped, sometimes he would even sing. He’d take her hands and dance around the room while her mother laughed at them. Janelle wiped her eyes quickly, glad nobody was there to see her cry. After all, a strong leader would not cry.

Those simple, happy days can never return now. And it’s all my fault.

11: Swords and Snow
Swords and Snow

This is the perfect opportunity. The Leader may be too stupid to realise it, but now that I’m away from the prying eyes of the Gifted and the Council I can finally make my escape.

They left the next morning, travelling through the forest surrounding the Council for the next day. It was bitterly cold outside and the snow went up to their knees, but 256 used his Gift to clear a path for them. Carey watched him as they walked, beginning to form a plan.

I know I’ve gained this boy’s trust. He doesn’t even look behind to make sure I’m following. When he’s asleep, I’ll go.

They walked for the whole day until the sun set in the early evening and the temperature dropped significantly.

“We should shelter under those trees over there tonight,” 256 said, gesturing.

Carey stood and shivered as he cleared a patch of snow, gathering twigs and setting fire to them.

“There,” he said, leaning against one of the trees. As he rummaged in one of their bags for food, Carey sat down. She drew her knees close to her chest and sat as close to the fire as she dared, but she was still freezing. She took the food he offered her, but it was too cold for her to enjoy it. I have to eat it though. I’ll need all my strength to make my escape…

“Here,” he said when she’d finished. He leant against the tree, holding out his arm. “Come and sit close to me.”

Carey raised an eyebrow.

256 turned slightly pink. “I – nothing like that… It’s just, my fire powers…”

Tentatively she leant against him, resting her shoulder against his chest. He’s right, he is nice and warm… That’s so unfair.

“I – I’m sorry I can’t make it any warmer,” he stammered, shifting slightly beneath her. “If I make myself any hotter, I might set my clothes on fire…”

“It’s fine,” Carey said quietly. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” he muttered, avoiding her gaze.

Carey closed her eyes, taking care to gradually slow her breathing so he would think she was falling asleep. However, this soon became unnecessary – 256 fell asleep much quicker than she thought he would.

I suppose he must trust me more than I thought.

She turned around as much as she dared, so their faces were inches from each other. His mouth was open slightly, making him look even younger and more innocent than usual. It did not help that his skin was smooth like a child’s, aside from a small scar above his left eyebrow.

If I leave him here, will that mean I was using him and his trust in me?

Carey stood up, careful not to wake him as she did so. She covered him up with a blanket, wishing she did not feel so guilty.

I can’t think like this. He’ll understand why I have to do this, eventually.

She gathered up one of their bags and began filling it with supplies, taking care to leave him with a decent amount so he would not starve. Eventually she swung the back over her shoulder, hoping that a wooden sword and a small knife would be enough for her to make it home alive.

She glanced over at 256 for a final time, a strange ache in her heart. Carey wanted to go home more than anything, but she didn’t want to leave him like this without even saying goodbye. Briefly she considered leaving him a note, but then she remembered he said he could not read.

He’ll understand.

At last Carey turned around, forcing herself not to look back as she made her way through the trees around them. She began to run, doing her best not to trip as she ran through the forest. This was a difficult task – the moon was covered by heavy clouds, thus there was almost no light and the forest floor was covered with snow.

Eventually she stopped to catch her breath. Which way do I go now? I can’t see a thing, and I don’t know where I am… Maybe this was a bad idea.

Carey had never lived by herself in the wilderness before, let alone had to navigate her way home. She had no idea where she was, or how to get back to their farm from the Council.

If I stay out here, I’ll freeze to death. I don’t have much food, I have no idea where to go.

Carey glanced around, desperate for something, anything to provide her with an answer. But the only thing she could make out were her own tracks through the snow.

If I go back, and make it to the Lake Village… Surely the Gifted have maps, if I find one while I’m there and figure out a proper plan, I’ll definitely make it home alive.

Carey gritted her teeth. It would be difficult to get all of the other Gifted’s trust. But in a way she had no choice. Either she left now and died before she ever made it home, or she went to the Lake Village and had a chance to survive, even if escaping would be more difficult.

“I guess there’s no choice,” Carey muttered as she turned around and followed her tracks through the snow.

. . . . . . . . . . .

  Janelle woke up very early the next morning, blinking as the sun shone through her window. After her conversation with James and Emma she tossed and turned all night, only managing to fall asleep well after midnight.

She climbed out of bed and put on her coat and boots, eventually making her way outside. Although it was the middle of winter, the morning sun shone high in the sky and adding a bit of warmth to the cool air.

Janelle pushed her way through the snow towards a small stone well about ten feet away from the back door of the inn. Rosa insisted that they were guests, and nothing less, but Janelle still tried to help as much as possible. She’s so kind to let us stay here for free, the least I can do is draw water, collect firewood and do other chores.

Janelle lifted a bucket of water from the well. She stared into the clear liquid, and her glum face stared back at her. She was not a beautiful woman, in fact saying she was plain was a bit of a stretch. It didn’t help that she had the typical frizzy red hair and pale, freckly skin of the mountain villagers. Mum and Dad had our village’s look too…

She sighed. Why had James and Emma reminded her of her parents, and her life before everything had happened? She was not the same person she had been then. Or rather, she could not be that person anymore. That girl had no place leading a revolution, or even just taking part in one. I thought she died the night my sister was taken away… But now I think maybe she’s still here.

Janelle shook the bucket, the water rippling and destroying her reflection. I have to try harder. I can’t be that girl anymore. Remember, if you hadn’t been so stupid none of this would have happened. It was your fault, everything… They can’t know. If they know, they’ll never trust me to lead them again.

“Janelle?”

Samantha stood a few feet away, her brother trailing behind her. Janelle nearly dropped her bucket as she ran over to greet them, liquid spilling over the sides.

“Samantha,” she said breathlessly, nodding at her brother. He smiled, looking happier than Janelle had ever seen him the few times they had met. However, he still avoided looking her in the eye. “You’re back. And you brought…”

“He’s going inside,” Samantha interrupted, pushing him away. Her brother looked rather startled, his smile fading. “Go and talk to the woman behind the bar. She’ll find you a room, and tell you where the forge is. I’ll come and see you later.”

“Okay,” he said quietly, shuffling towards the inn. Janelle watched him, confused. Like Janelle, he had red hair like the rest of the mountain villagers, although his was less frizzy and more wavy. From what she remembered of Samantha’s mother, she also had wavy red hair and pale skin, with the same grey-blue eyes as her son.

Samantha, however, had thick, straight back hair and a slightly darker skin tone. Janelle supposed she must look like her father, but she had never heard her mention him. He had probably died when she was a baby, or before she was born. Death was common in their village, and most people were missing a parent or sibling. The cold climate meant that many suffered from the flu, and some people simply never came home before they were found later, frozen to death.  When Janelle was growing up, she had been very unusual as she had both parents and a grandmother still alive.

Now I have no one… At least I have Samantha as a friend. But not even she can know what I did.

“So how was the journey?” Janelle asked as Samantha drew another bucket of water from the well.

Samantha smiled, lifting it up. “It was okay. I didn’t run into any Gifted, and I managed to make it back to our house without being seen.”

“That’s good,” Janelle said, sitting down on the stone edge of the well. It was quite cold, but she felt no need to rush back to the inn. The air was crisp and the forest quiet, and for once she felt rather peaceful.

“How are the recruits?” Samantha asked, perching on the wall beside her.

“They’re – they’re going okay,” Janelle muttered. “They’ve improved a lot, and most are eager to learn.”

“That’s good.”

Janelle fiddled with the corner of her shirt. “But sometimes, they can be. You know that guy James?”

“Yes, I remember him.”

“Well, yesterday, he… he and Emma, the shy girl, they approached me after practice and asked me some really strange questions. And then he called me uptight.”

Samantha laughed. “Don’t worry, you’re not uptight. That’s not the right word.”

Janelle raised an eyebrow, her moment of peace gone. “What do you mean by that?”

“I…” she said, hesitant. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“But I want to know. What did you mean?”

“It’s nothing bad,” Samantha said, fidgeting. “It’s just… sometimes you keep things to yourself, and that makes you lose sight of what’s important. That’s probably what they –“

“That’s a bit rich, coming from you,” Janelle said shortly, standing up and knocking over her bucket in the process. “I don’t seem to remember you telling me anything, ever. You said I’m your only friend, but you don’t treat me like one.”

“I –“

“You know what? I don’t want to hear it. Marvin was right. He asked me why I trusted you, but not him. I told him I just did, but now I’m not so sure. I don’t have to tell anyone anything if I don’t want to, because it’s none of their business.”

Samantha was looking at her strangely.

“Are you okay?” she muttered. “You’re – you’re not acting like yourself…”

“I am acting like myself,” Janelle said coldly. “You don’t know me at all. And obviously I don’t know you.”

I know I’ve gone too far, but I can’t stop. I can’t lose focus, I can’t… deal with her anymore. I have to focus on leading these people.

Janelle stalked off, her eyes stinging. I mustn’t cry… It was bad enough that I cried last night, even though I was alone.

If the recruits saw her crying, how could they trust her to lead them anymore?

Janelle entered the main room, glancing over at the bar. Marvin was sitting there, laughing with Rosa about something. Samantha’s brother stood next to them, picking at his gloves. Janelle noticed he did not look them in the eye either.

“Janelle,” Marvin said, smiling as she sat down next to him. Rosa waved and Samantha’s brother mumbled. “How did you sleep?”

“Fine,” she muttered.

Rosa and Marvin exchanged a glance.

“Come,” she said, smiling at the young man beside her. “I’ll show you the forge.”

She grabbed him by the arm and led him away. Marvin took a sip of his water. “What’s up, Janelle?”

“I – I wanted to ask you… There’s something I’ve been thinking about, that I wanted to run past you.”

“Well, what is it?” he asked, taking another sip.

“I’m thinking of starting a rebellion in the Lake Village,” she said.

Marvin choked, water spilling down his chin. “What?”

“We have to do something,” she insisted.We need people to know we’re here! This is the best way to do that. There’s only ever a couple of Gifted patrolling each village. I know the Lake Village is large, but still, there will be at most fifteen. I thought, maybe in two months or so, we could sneak down there with the recruits we think are ready and try to get the people behind us!”

I need a plan, something to make them think I know what I’m doing. It’s the only way to get the recruits to believe I’m a good leader.

Marvin shook his head. “No, it’s too dangerous. Even in a few months’ time, our allies will nowhere near be –“

“I know it’s risky,” Janelle interrupted. “But we need to do something. We only have ten recruits, and… We need a lot more. This might get us noticed.”

Marvin sighed. “Have you asked Samantha what she thinks?”

“No,” Janelle said shortly. “I’m asking you.”

“I don’t know… I suppose it could work, if they train hard.”

She nodded enthusiastically, happy that she had managed to change his mind.

“Well…” Marvin began, hesitating. “I suppose I’ll do what I can to help. You should know what you’re up against, after all.”

But before he could go on a young woman stumbled down the steps, rubbing her eyes and yawning. A few others followed her soon after.

“Can we talk somewhere more private?” he muttered, nodding towards them. They moved to the basement, which was the closest thing they had to a headquarters.

“What is it?” Janelle asked, sitting down on the steps. Marvin sat beside her, running his hands through his messy brown hair.

“Well, if you’re going to insist on fighting them you should know what their powers are,” he said. Janelle ignored the uncertainty in his voice.

“I know what their powers are. Earth, Water, Air and Fire, everyone knows that.”

Marvin smiled. “Yes, but you don’t know what they can actually do with them. It’s not exactly straightforward like you’d think.”

He cleared his throat before continuing. “Okay, Gifts of Air are the most prestigious power. I don’t really know why, but the Gifted do have a sort of hierarchy among the powers. Obviously, they can manipulate the wind, which means they can even make themselves fly if they stir up enough force underneath them. But they also have control of the composition of gases in the air. You have to be careful when you’re fighting them, because they can make the air in your lungs toxic. You’ll die pretty quickly if that happens, but it requires prolonged contact so tell the recruits to make sure they get away quickly.”

Janelle stared at him, open-mouthed. “How do you know all that?”

She did not really understand what he meant about different gases, as their school only taught them how to read, write and do simple arithmetic.

“That’s not important,” he said, avoiding her gaze. “Um, anyway, next is the Gift of Water. They can control water, obviously, and that means all forms of it. So they can use the water in the air and convert it to liquid, or ice if they want to. Like that man in the woods. But again, if they touch you they can turn the water in your blood to ice or fill your lungs with water, so make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He took a deep breath. “The next one is the Gift of Fire, which is more like a Gift of Heat. It’s the most destructive. And it’s also the most dangerous to the user, as when they’re injured or sick they lose control of their own body temperature, and often overheat themselves. The Gifted see them as unstable, so they're not very well respected.

"but the Gift with the least respect is Earth. It’s probably not as dangerous as the other three, as they have no means of using their Gift to directly hurt you... Aside from manipulating earth, they only other power they have is changing the form of carbon. I guess because of that they're the bottom of the Gifted’s hierarchy. There's never been a Gift of Earth in  a position of power. As far as I know, anyway."

Janelle was speechless. How does he know all this?

“It’s – it’s weird enough that you know about their powers in such detail,” she said slowly. “But… How can you know about the hierarchy? Unless…”

She scrambled to her feet, drawing her sword and pointing it at his head.

“Unless you’re Gifted,” she finished. “You’ve been spying on us the whole time, haven’t you? I’m so stupid, how could I –“

“I’m not.”

“Why should I believe you?” she demanded. “You refused to tell me anything about your past. You’ve been conspiring against us, I should have realised!”

Marvin sighed. “I suppose there’s no way I can prove it. But I’m not, okay? I know a lot about the Gifted because… I used to live with them.”

He held his hands together, his eyes sad. “The Gifted aren't the only ones living in the Council. There's a group of nonGifted who's sole purpose in life is to serve them. They don't have numbers or names, they're just called Servants. Most of them are children of the Gifted. The Gifted aren’t meant to have relationships, it’s discouraged. Some take it very seriously, but most don't. The Council doesn’t really care what they do as long as they don’t… form attachments."

Marvin paused, rubbing the back of his neck and sighing. “ I was a Servant. Our main purpose was to cook and clean, but some of us were selected for alternate positions. When we were five years old they made us take aptitude tests, and apparently I showed potential, so they decided to train me to become a doctor. While I was there my main job was to look after the injured Gifted, so that’s how I know so much about their powers.”

“But… isn’t Rosa your sister?” Janelle asked.

Marvin smiled. “Adoptive sister. I escaped when I was fifteen.”

“How?”

“It's not important,” he said quietly. “But I’m not a spy, okay? If I was, don’t you think I would have stopped you already?”

“I…”

I suppose that’s true. It would be wiser for him to have killed us when it was just Samantha and I, so… he mustn’t be working for them.

“I guess you’re right,” Janelle admitted. “Um… Thanks. For the information. It’ll be very helpful.”

“No problem.”

They began to discuss their first mission, and how they would attack the Gifted in the Lake Village. Janelle tried to focus on their plans, but she could not help but notice the worry lines etched on Marvin’s forehead.

12: Duty and Honour
Duty and Honour

256 rubbed his eyes and looked down at the large, sprawling town just fifty feet from where they stood. Even from this distance, he could see the narrow streets of the Lake Village were bustling. Three large factories were visible, clustered in the centre and giving off tendrils of dark smoke. 256 sighed with relief as he and Carey trudged towards the village. He'd been to the Lake Village once before, the first time he'd left the Council in his fifteenth year. I was so shocked to see what life in the villages was actually like... Before that, the Council and the Gifted were my whole life. They still are, but...

He shook his head, glancing at Carey. She was staring at the approaching village with awe in her eyes, which he supposed made sense. After all, the industrial zone of the island was very different to the spacious agricultural land she'd grown up in.

"What?"

256 blinked in surprise. He looked away quickly when he saw Carey watching him with raised eyebrows.

“Um, we need to go this way,” he stammered, flushing and gesturing towards one of the busy streets. She nodded, still not saying a word. In fact, she had been strangely quiet for the whole journey.

She followed him as he set off in the direction he had indicated. Even though the streets were so full there was barely room to move, 256 found it easy to navigate through the village. The minute the townspeople saw two Gifted coming they ducked out of the way. Some muttered apologies under their breath, some glared with contempt or indifference.

"Are they always like this?" Carey muttered. 256 looked over his shoulder to see her staring at the cobbled road beneath them, her knees held close together as she walked. He stopped and turned around, but she didn't notice and crashed right into him.

“Hey,” she complained, fixing him with her best glare.

“Sorry,” he said meekly. “But… It’s always like this. Don’t – don’t take it personally.”

He reached out to pat her awkwardly on the shoulder, but she brushed him off.

“I’m fine,” she said shortly, striding off ahead. 256 bit his lip and hurried off after her. It took them an hour to find the village centre, which held not only the factories but the Gifted headquarters. It was a large building, smaller than the factories surrounding them but larger than the cottages and other houses. However, it was quite run-down, with a few broken windows and a ragged garden.

256 knocked on the door, which was soon opened by a tall, older woman with frizzy grey hair. The blue patterns on her sleeves indicated that she had the Gift of Water.

“Did the Council send you?” she said briskly.

“Yes,” 256 said. “I am 256, and she is 355.”

The woman nodded, her eyes darting to Carey's plain sleeves.

“You are the girl with the strange Gift,” she said, her eyes narrowed.

Carey nodded, folding her arms. “Yes, I am.”

The woman nodded. “I heard a rumour, but I - Anyway, you should come inside.”

256 and Carey trudged in behind her. The house was even shabbier inside, with scuffed floorboards, peeling wallpaper, and a layer of dust covering almost everything. The woman closed the door and walked part them, inviting them to follow.

“I am 1719,” the woman said as she led them through the corridors.  “I will send word to the Council that you have arrived safely. I will also ask them for even more Gifted – we need all the numbers they can spare at the moment.”

She stopped outside the door, her eyes falling on 256. “Anyway, there are about twenty of us now. We were just about to do our daily duties, but I’ll introduce you first.”

She opened the door and led them inside. As she had said, there were about twenty Gifted inside. There were only a few dusty, worn-down chairs in the room, so most stood instead of sitting. They were of a variety of Gifts, ages and genders, but only one of them caught 256’s attention. He was boy in the same year, with curly, dirty blonde hair, tanned skin and narrowed brown eyes that made him look mischievous.

No. It can’t be him. The Council would never – It can’t be… It’s been six years, I must be -

“256!” the boy turned around, grinning widely at him. He could feel his heart sinking. You can’t be afraid, you can’t… You deserved it, remember that.

“You look exactly the same,” he said, still smiling. “Did you even grow at all?”

“Not much,” he admitted, ignoring Carey’s questioning stare. 256 gritted his teeth and smiled as convincingly as he could, staring at the boy’s chin. “Hello 440. How have you been?”

Control it, control it! You have to forget, you can’t remember or you’ll –

“As you can see, more reinforcements have arrived,” 1719 said briskly, providing 256 with a welcome distraction.

The other Gifted nodded, most staring at Carey. Their faces were a mix of realisation and confusion as they noticed her patternless sleeves. A few began to whisper, no doubt discussing the truth behind the rumour of the Gifted girl with the strange power who had somehow escaped as a baby.

1719 cleared her throat loudly. “Today we will be inspecting the northern section of the village. There’s over twenty of us, so it won’t take long at all. Each pair will only have to do a few streets each.”

She glanced at Carey. “355, you’ve never been on patrol before, have you? No matter, you can come with me.”

“No,” 256 said quickly, stepping in front of Carey. 1719 glanced between them, her eyebrows raised. 256 blushed with embarrassment, but he stood his ground.

“I am her trainer,” he said firmly. “She is my responsibility. I can show her what to do.”

1719 stared at him for longer than he would have liked. “Very well. But stay here while I show the others where to go, I’ll need to speak to you later.”

She instructed each pair, telling them which streets they were to inspect. Eventually only 256, Carey, 1719 and her partner were left. She told Carey and her own partner to wait outside while she and 256 sorted out who was going where.

“Inspect these streets,” she said, pointing to the highlighted lanes on the map. “And bring your findings back here, we’ll put them on the train tomorrow with this week’s collection.”

256 nodded, taking the map from her and stowing it inside his bag. “Of course. Thank you.”

He turned to leave, but she grabbed his arm, her grip surprisingly tight.

“That hurts…”

“You need to be careful,” she said, her voice almost inaudible. “You know what she is, don’t you?”

“I know,” he mumbled, trying to wriggle free.

She watched him. “256… You seem a little attached to her. You know the Council does not approve of such things.”

“I know,” he said quickly. “Believe me, 1719, I know… Thank you for your concern, but I’m not attached to her.”

Finally, he managed to pull free of her grasp.

“Thank you for the map,” he said as he ran from the room. He found Carey waiting outside, leaning suspiciously against the wall. She jumped up as she approached, grinning guiltily. It doesn’t seem like she actually managed to hear anything… If she did she’d be looking at me a lot differently, that’s for sure.

He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her from the house.

“Hey,” she complained. “I can walk, you know.”

“Sorry,” he muttered, letting go. They walked in silence through the village streets, each lost in their own thoughts.

I’m not attached. You know that. You’re not careless enough to let that happen.

Still, there were things he couldn’t control, no matter how hard he tried. His dreams, for one. 256 had of course had those sort of dreams before, but they were usually not about a specific person, and never the same person more than once. The Council disapproved of such thoughts, but he had never really been bothered that much by them regardless. After all, they could not expect him to control his dreams, surely. But, while they had been travelling here, he had dreamt of her a few times.

It’s only natural… You had to sleep close, for warmth, if it had been anyone else the same thing would have happened. It doesn’t mean anything.

“It doesn’t,” he muttered under his breath.

“What?” Carey asked.

He blushed. “N – Nothing. We’re – we’re here anyway.”

256 opened the small gate and lead her up the steps before stopping outside the door.

“For this one you can just watch,” he said, smiling nervously. “But after I’ll need you to help, okay?”

She nodded, her skin strangely pale.

“Are you feeling alright?” he asked, tilting his head.

Carey swallowed and nodded again, the determined look in her eyes telling him that there was no point in arguing further. 256 sighed, knocking briskly on the door.

A young woman answered it, her eyes round and fearful as she stared at the two of them.

“Excuse me,” he said, stepping around her.

“S – sorry,” she stammered, moving out of the way. She stood next to a man and a young boy, the only three occupants in the house. The boy in particular looked terrified, but 256 was used to it so it did not bother him.

“What’s your occupation?” he asked.

“I’m – I’m a factory worker,” the man muttered.

“And how much have you earned this past week?”

He told him, refusing to look 256 in the eye.

“You are aware that we will seize half of what you earn for the wellbeing of the island?”

He glanced at his wife. “Yes.”

“And you know that if you are found to be lying during the monthly search that you and your family will be punished?”

The woman nodded, patting her son’s head as he clung onto her skirts.

“Good,” 256 said, relieved that this had been a simple inspection. Sometimes they took a long time because the residents argued back, or refused to answer the questions. If that happened, 256 and the other Gifted simply had to inspect the house by force. However, most villagers seemed to know that it didn’t really help to argue and just went along with it, like this couple.

Without saying a word, they gathered up their earnings and handed it to him. 256 shoved it into the collecting bag he’d brought.

“Thank you for your co-operation,” he said, bowing slightly.

He turned around, expecting to see Carey waiting for him. However, she was nowhere to be found. She followed me inside, didn’t she?

256 ran outside, his heart racing. He calmed down when he saw her sitting at the bottom of the steps, her long brown hair loose and tumbling down her shoulders.

“Why are you out here?” he asked.

“No reason.”

256 sat down beside her, shifting awkwardly. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” she hissed, but they both knew she was lying.

“If you’re feeling unwell, we can go back,” 256 offered. “The others can finish these streets for us, and tomorrow when you’re feeling better I can show –“

“I don’t want to know what to do!”

Her voice broke a little when she said this, twisting her neck away from him. 256 ducked to avoid getting hit by her hair.

“But –“

“You’re just so – so casual about it! You’re stealing their hard-earned money, and it doesn’t even bother you. It bothers me, and I’m not even the one doing it!”

Carey whipped around, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him towards her.

“But you don’t care, do you?” she snarled. “Just like when you took me away, you didn’t care, Wesley and my family were trying to stop you, but you just kept going. You probably enjoyed watching us suffer, because we’re so beneath you or whatever it is you tell yourself to make you feel better. Well you know what? None of you are anything compared to us!”

She glared at him, her lip quivering slightly.

“Well, say something!” she snapped.

“I…”

256 sighed. What is there to say?

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said quietly. “It’s just what I have to do. I am one of the Gifted, and this is part of my duty to them. My own… personal feelings don’t matter, can’t you see?”

Gently, he placed his hand over hers and pulled it from his collar.

“But why?” she muttered.

“They are all I have.”

Carey shook her head. “256, you have a family. You just don’t know who they are.”

“I told you, they don’t care for me anymore. And that’s okay, because the Gifted are better than a family.”

“You don’t know that,” she argued. “If you’ve never had a family, then how can you know that being with the Gifted is better?”

256 shrugged. It was just something he had learned to accept, ever since he was a child. The Council members would visit them in the nursery each week and tell them how they were chosen, above all the other people in this world and the Others. Not even the greatest scientists and historians from the Other Worlds could explain how or what their powers were.

Whether I want to or not, this is my destiny… But Carey will never understand.

“I just know,” he said quietly.

“Gee, you’re gullible, aren’t you?” she said, her tone slightly less hostile.

256 smiled slightly. “I guess I am.”

“You’re just agreeing so I’ll shut up now, aren’t you?”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

256 stood up, offering her his hand. She rolled her eyes, but she let him pull her to her feet.

“We need to go to the next house, okay?” he said gently, doing his best not to provoke her.

“I’m not going.”

“Listen, Carey,” 256 said, staring her straight in the eye. “You’re going to have to do this eventually, you know.”

“No I don’t.”

“Please, listen,” he said, more urgent this time. “You’re one of us now, whether you want to be or not. But don’t you see? They’ll – they’ll punish you if you don’t obey.”

He paused, swallowing. “You don’t want that, do you?”

She did not answer, watching him carefully. 256 patted her on the shoulder, smiling nervously.

“Carey, I won’t make you do it if you don’t want to. But… Will you at least watch me, so if you ever have to do this with anyone else, you’ll know what to do? I don’t want you to get hurt…”

Carey mumbled something under her breath, turning away and striding ahead. 256 hurried after her. Surprisingly, she did as he asked, and listened while he carried out their duties. 256 wondered what it was he had said that made her change her mind.

They returned to the Gifted house that afternoon, much later than any of the others.

“You took your time,” 440 said as they finally arrived back. He was sitting on the steps of the entrance hall, his hands resting on his knees.

“Where is 1719?” 256 asked.

440 tutted. “How rude of you. You don’t even say hello.”

“Um, hello,” he said quickly. “Where is 1719?”

The other boy shrugged. “She’s gone to the markets. Apparently there was some incident. Anyway, she told me to stay behind and fill you in on what’s happening here.”

He paused. “So what did the Leader tell you?”

“What do you mean?” 256 mumbled, staring at his feet.

“About the mission,” 440 said, smirking.

“Oh… He told us that a prominent figure from the Lake Village had disappeared, and there were whispers of a rebellion.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it. 1719 told me to take you to the man’s house, that’s where we’re going to go now. He was the village’s doctor. We’ve all had a look, but she said fresh eyes never hurt.”

 440 strode over, grinning. “So it looks like we’ll be spending some time together. Just like old times, huh?”

“Yes,” 256 muttered. Carey looked at him quizzically, but said nothing.

440 reached out his arm to tap 256 on the shoulder, something he’d done often when they were young, but he quickly moved out of the way. Raising his eyebrows, 440 moved past him and held his hand out to Carey. She stared at it for a few seconds before taking it, glancing once more at 256.

“Nice to meet you,” he said brightly as he shook her hand vigorously.

“You too,” she replied, eyes narrowed.

They followed him through the village, stopping outside a large, unkempt building. The garden was overgrown and the curtains blowing in the wind, as though they had left quickly.

256 pushed the wooden door open. Inside it was quite sparsely furnished, a layer of dust covering everything in sight.

“We’ve left everything exactly the way it was,” 440 said, leaning against the door as Carey and 256 walked into the kitchen.

“Look,” he said, pointing at a small mortar on the counter. A few dried up leaves were inside, partly crushed.

“It looks like he was using some sort of fresh herbs before he left,” he said, picking the pestle up and inspecting it.

Carey peered over his shoulder. “He's a doctor, isn't he? It’s probably some sort of medicine.”

He nodded, wandering into the living room. There were three teacups on the table, two of which still had liquid in them.

“They must have left in a hurry,” 256 muttered, crouching next to the table.

“That’s what we thought.” 440 grinned, his eyes glittering as he strode over to them. “Do you want to look upstairs?”

256 shook his head. “N – No, I want to go back. We won’t be able to find anything else.”

The other boy shrugged. “Fine, I don’t care. What about you?”

He stared at Carey, a strange smile on his face.

“Yes, let’s go,” she said, her voice oddly cold.

Carey strode outside, leaving them alone. 256 hurried to follow her, but 440 grabbed his arm.

“Let go of me,” he muttered, trembling slightly. You deserved it, remember… You can’t act like this, you deserved it!

“I’ll let go if you look me in the eye.”

256 gritted his teeth, forcing his head upwards so their eyes met for the first time in years. He looked away as quickly as possible, fighting to keep his memories at bay. I don’t remember, I don’t remember…

440 laughed, shaking his head. “You still haven’t gotten over it, have you?”

256 swallowed. “Y – Yes I have.”

“Oh yeah? Keep telling yourself that.”

He let go at last, pushing through the door. 256 followed, smiling at Carey as they began the journey back to the Gifted house. They walked in silence for a while, but eventually she tapped him on the shoulder.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she said quietly, her voice softer than he had ever heard it. Her eyes flickered to 440, who was a few steps ahead of them. "You're not... yourself."

256 forced himself to smile. “I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”

Carey did not look convinced, but she fell silent once more. I have to work harder… Those memories have to stay hidden, no matter what.

13: Songs and Hearts
Songs and Hearts

“Here you go, sweetie. Just as you like it.”

Rosa placed a large bowl of soup in front of her, grinning toothily. Janelle thanked her, taking a sip and instantly burning her tongue. She looked up from her bowl, noticing Samantha and Marvin talking a few seats away. She discussed her plan with Marvin almost every night, but he was always distant, not willing to engage her properly. I guess that means he must think my plan is okay… But I’d feel a lot better if he would just tell me. Or if Samantha…

She watched them as they spoke, a strange feeling in her heart. She and Samantha had not spoken since their fight, aside from short exchanges of words at training.

Samantha looked up, noticing Janelle’s eyes on her. She stared straight back, her grey eyes cold and unforgiving.

I’m the one who should be unforgiving… She’s the one who insulted me, she – so why do I feel –

“Are you okay, honey?”

Rosa stood above her, giving her a warm smile. Her son stood beside her, clinging to his mother’s skirts.

“I’m fine,” Janelle said quickly, taking another sip. “The soup’s great. Thanks again.”

“You look sad,” the boy said, his light blue eyes surveying her with interest.

“I’m fine,” she repeated, but her smile was strained. Eventually they left her alone to her own thoughts.

A month ago she had told their recruits the plan, and they had been training as hard as possible since then. Tonight was their last night in the inn. It’ll take us a few days to get to the village… It’s been nearly two months since I became the leader of this rebellion, but this my first real test. If I fail, then…

Janelle swallowed, her tomato soup suddenly turning the colour of blood.

“Are you alright?” James slid into the chair beside her, leaning his elbows on the counter and raising his eyebrows.

“I’m fine,” she muttered, edging away from him. I wonder how many people will ask me that before they learn to leave me alone.

“That’s great,” he said, smiling slyly. “Then you won’t object to singing with me.”

Before she could do anything, he grabbed her arm and pulled her through the crowd.

“James, I –“

“Where’s your creative spirit? Come on, Janelle.”

She rolled her eyes as he forced her onto the stage. The crowd started clapping as he picked up his lute. James grinned, bowing low as he gestured for Janelle to do the same.

“James, I – I can’t sing…” she muttered, blushing as everyone stared at her. She noticed Samantha’s eyes on her in the distance.

“Fine, but at least let me sing to you,” he said, still smiling. His blue eyes shone as he lifted his instrument, strumming at the strings.

Janelle sat and listened, not wanting to embarrass him in front of all these people. He had a nice voice, low and smooth. The song was about a man who loved a woman, only she couldn’t see it. The melody was a fast one, and the audience began to clap along.

James let go of his lute, running over to Janelle and pulling her too her feet. She laughed a little as he danced with her, the crowd singing along and tapping their feet.

“Isn’t this fun?” he said breathlessly once he had finished.

“I – I guess,” she admitted, smiling slightly.

“See? I told you it’ll do you some good to let loose once in a while. Now come on. I want to give you something.”

He led her upstairs before she could say anything in response, ignoring the protests of the crowd who wanted him to continue.

“What do you want to give me?” she stammered, her good mood beginning to fade. Instead, her heart began to beat faster, but not in a good way. Calm down, there’s no –

“Just something special,” he said vaguely, pulling her into his room. Janelle perched on the end of his bed, glancing around. It was a small room, but messy. A few clothes were spread on the floor, and a few bags were in the corner. James rummaged in one of them.

“What’s wrong?” he asked when he noticed how nervous she was.

Janelle clenched her fists. There’s no need to get so panicked. You’re being stupid, you’re – you’re not the same person you were.

“Look, James, this is very nice of you, and I appreciate it. But I – I’m not interested, okay?” Janelle gabbled all in one breath.

James laughed and shook his head as he sat down, a small parcel in his hand. “Janelle, I’m not trying to seduce you. You’re not my type. I mean, you’re really not my type.”

Janelle raised an eyebrow, rather hurt. “That’s not very nice.”

“No, I meant – Um, never mind. I just want you to feel better, you know?”

He paused, smiling. “Anyway, here. But wait before you open it, I've gotta go get Emma. She wanted to be here, too.”

He rushed away returning a minute later with Emma. She smiled nervously at Janelle, sitting on the bed beside her.

“Okay, you can open it now,” James said proudly, standing in front of the two of them with his arms folded across his chest.

Janelle sighed and tore off the paper. Inside was a simple necklace, with a tiny red heart on a silver chain.

“I’m sorry it’s not very good,” Emma said hurriedly. “I – I made jewellery, back home… But I didn’t really have any good materials, so I –“

“It’s perfect,” Janelle said quickly, blushing. “Why – why did you do this? You didn’t have to…”

“We thought you seemed lonely,” she said. “Your plan is good, Janelle… You just need some confidence.”

“She’s right,” James declared, nodding enthusiastically. “You’re like… You’re like the heart of this revolution, Janelle. If you’re not confident, none of us will be.”

“I am confident,” she said, even though she knew it was not true. “We’ve been training really hard… We’ll be okay.”

She avoided their eyes as she put the necklace on. It fitted perfectly.

“Thanks, you guys,” she said. “I – it’s really nice of you, to say those things.”

Even though they’re not true. I’m not fit to lead us, and I’ll never be… But they can’t know that.

“It’s fine. We’re friends, aren’t we?” James said breezily.

But we aren’t friends. Until today, all we ever did was argue…

“I - I guess.”

“You know what friends do? They talk. So let’s talk.”

“Well…” Janelle said hesitantly. “Well, what do you want to talk about?”

James shrugged. “I don’t know. Tell me why you wanted to go on this mission.”

“You shouldn’t ask that,” Emma said hurriedly, glancing at Janelle. “It’s – It’s personal… Besides, she already told us before.”

“Yeah, but I forgot,” James said breezily, but Janelle’s gut told her he was lying. Still, she decided to humour him.

“It’s fine, Emma. A little over four years ago, my little sister was taken away. And I – I really want to get her back.”

James considered her answer, and it was almost as if Janelle could see the cogs turning in his head. “That’s a big age difference.”

“Huh?”

James raised his eyebrows at her. “You’re twenty-three, right? So if your sister was taken four years ago, that makes you about nineteen when she was born.”

“Well, actually I was eighteen… She was nearly a year old when she was taken,” Janelle said hurriedly. “So it's not that bad."

“One year less? That's still a pretty large gap to me.”

Janelle opened her mouth to retort, but she could not get any words out. James cleared his throat, sitting down beside her and staring up at the ceiling.

"Do you wanna hear about why I joined?" he said, almost gently.

She nodded, glad for the change of subject. James grinned, pushing his blond hair from his eyes before continuing.

"I joined for adventure," he declared. "I’m from one of the industrial towns, so we were told when we left school we’d just go and toil in the factories all our lives. But I didn’t want any of that, so I ran away from home. I travelled around, finding places like this and sharing my music.”

He glanced at her. “And when you came along, I thought, you know what? That’s something I could do if I tried. I guess I didn’t want to just drift anymore, you know?”

Emma nodded. “I understand.”

“How about you?” James asked Emma. “What’s your story?”

She blushed. “I – I’m not sure… I just heard you speak that day, Janelle, and I thought… I thought that I should help you. And I kept thinking of my parents back home, who struggled so hard to make enough money for me and my brothers… I guess I just realized that if we don’t take that first step, we’ll be stuck in this endless cycle forever, you know?”

“Yeah,” Janelle said. “I guess… I guess we’ll just have to do the best we can.”

She stood up again, smiling slightly. “Thanks for the necklace. I – I really appreciate it, but I’m pretty tired.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow!” James said, giving her a small wave.

Janelle mumbled something in return, running upstairs to her own room. She flopped onto the bed, trying to calm the thoughts and doubts running through her head.

You have a plan, you’re doing something… They trust you; you’re their leader, so stop worrying!

Janelle fingered the necklace, her fingers tracing the small red heart. She knew they were only trying to make her feel better, but in a way she just felt worse.

They’re all counting on me… But if I let them down, what will they do?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey sat in the training room, waiting for 256 to return for their evening practice.

They had been at the Lake Village for almost a month now. Carey’s escape plan was nearly ready – she had managed to obtain a map of the island, and practiced her invisibility every day. She had even managed to stay calm and dutiful, and most of the Gifted seemed to trust her.

But none of them trust me more than him. 256 and a few other Gifted had gone to the village, to load the train back to the Council with supplies. Carey had never seen a train before in her life until she came here. They were unlike anything she had ever come across, and the first time she helped the others load supplies onto the village train she had been in awe. She had not even known that a thing like that existed, and yet here it was, moving everything for them.

“What are you doing in here?”

Carey jumped, standing up quickly. 440 stood in the doorway, his dark brown eyes surveying her closely.

“I’m waiting for my training to begin,” she said briskly, recovering from her shock.

He nodded, moving closer to her. His dirty blond hair was unruly, giving him a slightly unhinged look as he stared at her.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she said, raising an eyebrow.

"I just don't get it," 440 said, his dark eyes flashing. What does he see in you? You're nothing special."

"Who?" asked Carey, confused.

"Never mind."

440 shook his head, muttering something. Carey watched him carefully, a little unnerved.

“Why won’t 256 look at you?” she asked, her eyes narrowed.

“What, you think I did something to him?” he said, his voice suddenly cold.

I didn’t then, but now you’ve said that I do.

“Well, obviously,” Carey said, folding her arms. “Like I said, he won’t even look at you.”

440 shook his head. “No, I didn’t do anything to him. You can ask him yourself, if you want.”

He turned around and strode away, muttering under his breath. Carey shivered, watching him leave. There’s something about his eyes…

“Carey? Why was…”

256 stood in the doorway, fiddling with his red sleeves and avoiding her gaze. What’s up with him?

“Do you want to start our training?” he asked. “I – I know it’s a bit late, but…”

“Um…” Carey began, not really listening. “Do we have to?”

He still would not look at her. “I guess not. You’ve been doing really well in the past month, so I suppose one day off isn’t too bad. Anyway, I think I’ll go to bed.”

He said this all very quickly before turning to leave. However, Carey reached out and grabbed his sleeve, pulling him back towards her.

“256, why don’t you stay?” she heard herself say. “We don’t have to train, but we can talk.”

He bit his lip, but nodded. They sat down on the floor and leant against the wall.

Normally, he would have insisted we train... He always takes it so seriously, so what’s wrong? Maybe 440 has something to do with it.

“What… How do you…”

Carey had to admit she was curious, but in a way she knew she shouldn’t ask. Whatever happened between them, it’s their business… It’s got nothing to do with me, but…

“What happened with you and 440?” she asked, unable to stop herself.

256 stiffened as she mentioned him, clenching his fists so hard that his nails dug into his palms.

 “N – nothing, I don’t know him, nothing happened,” he mumbled in one breath. “You’re the one who knows him, he was just here with you, I saw.”

See, you shouldn’t have done that… Why can’t I ever think before I speak?

“I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

256 looked up suddenly. “No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I’m overreacting.”

He turned away from her, so she could not see his face. Carey watched him, a strange feeling stirring in her heart. Why do I feel so guilty? He’s the one who took me away… I don’t owe him anything.

She watched him from the corner of her eye. He was sitting quite stiffly, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Are you lonely?” she asked, so quietly that her voice was almost inaudible. Still, she knew he had heard her.

“What do you mean?”

Carey swallowed, staring down at her fingers. “I don’t know. You just… You seem really lonely.”

256 ran his hands through his hair, edging away from her slightly. “I – thank you for worrying about me, but I’m fine. I have the Gifted, they are all I need.”

He was nodding as he said it, almost as if he was trying to reassure himself that the words he spoke were the truth.

He’s lying. He may not know it, but he is. A life like that, it must be a lonely one. And when I leave, he’s going to be alone again…

Carey sat there, thinking. She wanted to go home more than anything. As she closed her eyes, she imagined it, as clear as the room in front of her. She was running through her village with Wesley, swimming in the river with their friends… She was sleeping among the goats, laughing with her parents as she helped them work on the farm.

But was it really like that? Back then I thought that life was boring, and I wanted adventure… But now I have adventure, all I want is to go back to that life. Even so, I don’t want to leave him alone… He may be too stupid to realise it, but he’s just as trapped as I am, really.

“Do you ever think about running away?” she said.

“What do you mean?”

Carey swore under her breath. Why did I say that? He may be an idiot, but he’s still Gifted…

“N – Nothing.”

Thankfully, he did not appear to question her, a comfortable silence forming between them. Carey relaxed, leaning against him slightly so her head was resting on his shoulder.

“Why are you doing that?” he stammered, moving away.

“I don’t know. I mean, we’re –“

She stopped herself. Are we friends? He’s Gifted, the one who took me away. I have to remember that, always… The Gifted are my enemies. But still, he’s been so kind to me. I thought I’d blown my cover that first day, but he always made sure we were paired when we had to do our duties.

Carey relaxed again, moving her head onto his shoulder again. This time he didn’t object, although he seemed tense. However, slowly he relaxed, leaning against her too.

I know he trusts me… Even though I don’t deserve it, he still trusts me. But I can’t think like that. I have to escape, no matter what.

She closed her eyes and fell asleep, dreaming of being back in her village. However, she was woken up later that night by a loud noise coming from the window. Why is someone shouting? It’s the middle of the night…

 She sat up straight, nudging 256. He woke with a start, rubbing his eyes and edging away from her.

“Look,” Carey said, pointing out the window. About twenty people stood outside, a few holding torches.

What are they doing?

14: Falls and Fire
Falls and Fire

What are they doing?

“Who are they?” Carey said slowly. 256 watched over her shoulder, his dark brown eyes wide. The sun was only just beginning to rise over the horizon, but despite the low light it was easy to see a large crowd beneath the window.

“They’re rebels,” he muttered.

"Rebels..." Carey said slowly. "Will we... Will we have to fight them?"

I don't want to fight... We're on the same side.

"We don't have a choice," he said.

Carey bit her lip, reaching for the wooden sword she carried. He's right, although he didn't mean it the way I do. I have no choice, or the Gifted will kill me instead. I'll just have to do my best.

256 watched her finger the handle of her blade. He unclipped his sword from his belt and offered it to her. “Here, take this.”

“That’s yours,” Carey said, swatting it away. “Why – why would I need it anyway? I have my own.”

She gestured to her practice sword. 256 stared at it, swallowing.

“Carey, we really are going to have to fight them.”

“I know that," she muttered.

“Then take it," he said, a strange urgency in tone. "Please... we don’t really know what we’re facing, but if they’re properly armed, a wooden sword won’t be much use against them. You need it more than I do.”

Carey raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I – I didn’t mean it like that,” he muttered, chewing his lip. “I just meant… Carey, I’ve been training since I was a toddler. You haven’t, and you’re – it’s not that you’re not good, but if these people are experienced, you’ll be in far greater danger.”

He paused, giving her a small smile. “I have my Gift, I’ll be fine without it. Besides, I like hand-to-hand combat better anyway.”

Carey smirked. “But you’re so small. Aren’t hand-to-hand supposed to be tall and muscular?”

“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “Will you take it?”

"Fine." She sighed, taking the sword and clipping it on her belt. She took the wooden one off and offered it to him, but he shook his hands, so she placed it on the ground.

"Thanks," Carey mumbled.

She patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. He smiled, his cheeks reddening. “But – But only use it if you have to. If it comes to a fight, you should turn invisible and run away. The rest of us will be fine.”

“But I don’t want –“

Carey stopped as the sound of thumps and footsteps came from upstairs. She and 256’s eyes met, and they hurried into the corridor. None of the Gifted seemed to notice that they had not been upstairs with the others.

“Okay,” 1719 said when they settled. Her voice was smooth and calm, as though rebels attacked the Gifted every other day. “There seems to be quite a lot of them, so we’ll need everyone to come outside and fight. Don’t waste your time, just kill them. We can’t let the nonGifted think we’re soft.”

Carey swallowed, beginning to feel nauseous. Her entire body was numb as she shuffled along with the rest of the Gifted towards the door.

“Are you okay?”

She jumped as she felt 256’s hand on her shoulder. His dark brown eyes watched her anxiously.

Carey swallowed again, trying not to throw up when she opened her mouth. “I’m fine.”

“You’ll be fine, Carey. Just turn invisible and run away, like I told you.”

She nodded, trying to ignore the lump in her throat. “256…”

“What?”

“Good luck.”

Before he could say anything in return, 1719 opened the door and the Gifted shuffled outside. Carey blinked from the sun shining in her eyes, her nose crinkling as the smell of smoke reached her nostrils. The rebels had set fire to the building, but 1719 simply doused it with water.

“Nice try,” she said coldly. “Now, are you going to leave or do we have to remove you?”

A young woman with thick, curly red hair stood at the front of the group. She looked rather nervous, but her eyebrows were furrowed defiantly.

“We will not,” she declared. “We’re not afraid of you, and we’re going to stand up for what’s right! T-Too long have you ruled over us, stealing our children! You will be the first to fall to us and send the Council a message!”

1719 chuckled. “As you wish.”

In one swift movement she drew her sword and ran towards the woman. The rebel quickly drew her own sword, but taller, beautiful woman raised her weapon to reach 1719’s instead. She and the red-haired girl exchanged a glance, and she continued to fight 1719 while the rest of the Gifted rushed forward.

Carey, however, stood frozen to the ground as the scene unfolded in front of her. Swords were flying everywhere, and it was difficult to see from the smoke of the Gifts of Fire and the dust clouds rolling through as the Gifts of Air attacked. The cacophony of clanging metal rang through the early morning air, but Carey could do nothing but watch.

I’m just a girl from a farming village, how am I supposed to -

“Carey, run!” 256 hissed in her ear before running of to join the other Gifted.

Carey blinked, snapping out of her daze. He’s right, I have to –

“Where do you think you’re going?” the red-haired woman threatened when Carey turned around to run.

She drew 256’s sword clumsily, waving it in the woman’s face as she stepped back slowly. The girl ran towards her, jumping up and swinging her sword toward Carey’s left arm. She managed to block it just in time, bending her hand backwards in the process. The woman continued to attack her, and although Carey managed to block her strikes she knew it was only a matter of time before the rebel managed to land one. However, there was no way of running, no way out. This woman was stronger and faster than Carey and knew it.

Use your Gift, you idiot!

Carey cursed under her breath, hardly believing she had forgotten such an important detail. With all her strength she imagined herself fading into the surroundings, unseen even by herself. I  am the sky, the ground, the air… I am nothing.

However, before she managed to turn herself invisible the woman aimed another strike at her right arm. Carey pulled back, but it was too late – the woman’s sword sliced through the skin on her forearm. If I’d moved any later, she would have taken my arm clean off…

Carey gritted her teeth and ignored the pain, defending a few more of the woman’s strikes. Her own attacks were getting weaker and weaker, but her opponent was gaining momentum. She tried to remember her training, pivoting around the woman so she was facing her back. But the rebel was too good for that to work, and she tripped her over with her foot as she passed by. Carey fell to the floor, banging her head on the ground.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

After successfully knocking her opponent down, Janelle raised her sword to finish her off. She’s much less skilled than I thought the Gifted would be.

“No!”

Before Janelle could react, one of the other Gifted had rammed into her, pushing her off her feet. She scrambled back up, but the boy soon kicked her in the stomach once more, knocking the wind out of her. Janelle coughed, clutching her abdomen with her left hand, but she didn’t let it sway her. Raising her sword she aimed a strike at his chest, but he was too fast and dodged it with ease. She tried again, but he dodged her just as easily as before and aimed a left hook at her face. Janelle swerved to avoid it, cursing.

The only person Janelle had ever sparred against properly had been Samantha, who was a good head taller than her. But this boy was short and she couldn’t use her small stature to her advantage like she usually did. Instead, he could use it against her – he ducked under her strikes with ease.

Janelle shivered when she saw the look he was giving her. In her twenty-three years, she had never seen anyone look so furious. His dark brown eyes almost seemed to glow as the air surrounding them began to grow hotter in spite of the cool morning air. Panicking, she checked herself over. You heard what Marvin said. He can’t set you on fire…

Janelle soon realized that although he may not be able to set her alight, but he could do it to himself. His leather boots became engulfed in flame, taking her by surprise. The boy took advantage of her hesitation, ramming his foot into her stomach and knocking her over. The flames seared her skin, and she had to bite her tongue to stop her from crying out in pain.

Trying to ignore the stinging, Janelle jumped back onto her feet and grabbed the boy by the collar, thrusting her sword towards him. Before it could make contact he pulled himself from her clutches and crouched to the ground, missing her swing and positioning himself to push her upwards, flipping her over and slamming her head first into the ground.

Janelle tucked her chin in and spread her arms, letting her shoulders take most of the impact of the fall. Although this allowed her to protect her head, it left her in a vulnerable position, which he took advantage of. The boy clambered on top of her, his fist connecting with her cheek.

Come on, you’re better than this! He raised his arm to punch her again, but Janelle was too quick and rolled over, taking him with her. She pinned him to the ground. He struggled underneath her, doing his best to lift her off. But it was no use, Janelle was far too heavy. Keeping him pinned with her left arm, she reached into her belt for her dagger.

But she had forgotten Marvin’s words. The boy managed to free his own arms, grabbing the arm holding him down. This time, Janelle cried out in pain as she flames burnt her skin, and he managed to push her off him as she tore her arm away.

Cursing once more, Janelle scrambled over to where she had dropped her sword, raising it quickly to block another flaming kick from her opponent. The metal glowed red as it came in contact with the fire, but luckily it maintained its shape.

If this scrawny-looking boy’s giving me trouble, than the others…

Her panic rising, Janelle managed to deflect him long enough to glance around at the others. As she thought, all of them bar Samantha were struggling just as much as the girl she had fought before had been. Two were even on the ground, one screaming in agony as he succumbed to the flames, the other’s head smashed in from a diamond club. But all Janelle could do was watch helplessly as she tried to deflect the boy’s punches.

In the corner of her eye, she saw Emma doing her best to defend herself from one of the other Gifted. The boy deflected Emma’s strikes in an almost lazy manner, his dark brown eyes shining wickedly as he waited for the right moment. Emma jabbed her blade at the boy’s shoulder carelessly, leaving her back completely open. He sidestepped her easily, drawing his own sword and thrusting it into the back of her neck. The force was so strong that the tip of the steel poked out of her throat.

Janelle could do nothing but watch as Emma fell to the floor, blood spurting from the wound and her mouth as she lay on the ground. She coughed violently one last time before going still.

“No,” Janelle whispered, almost dropping her sword.

James ran towards the man who had killed Emma, aiming a kick to his shin. In his grief he hadn’t even drawn his sword, just kicking and punching in random directions. The man soon overpowered him, grabbing him by the neck. James’ face began to turn purple as the Gifted boy stopped his breathing while he clasped at his throat helplessly with his hands. It took only a few minutes before the man cast him aside, throwing his body beside Emma’s.

“James, no!” she yelled, startling her opponent. She took the opportunity to knee him swiftly between the legs. Janelle pushed him over as he groaned, running towards her friends. They can’t be dead, they have to –

“No,” she whispered as she kneeled beside them. Their eyes were wide open, glassy and lifeless. Janelle reached out and shook James’ shoulder, but it did not make a difference. He’s dead… They’re both dead and it’s all your fault…

“Get out of here!” she screamed over the chaos. The fighters who’d remained - Richard, Will, Anna and the fifteen or so others - sprinted off in different directions, pursued by various Gifted.

Janelle got shakily to her feet and ran with all her might, glancing over her shoulder. Their fighters had scattered, pursued by their enemies. All she could see were a few of the Gifted and the dead bodies of Emma, James, and about five others. Janelle squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to cry.

This was not her smartest move, and she soon found herself colliding head first with another person. Panicking, Janelle drew her sword and pointed it at them, her balance completely off.

“It’s just me!” Samantha cried, scrambling to her feet and pulling Janelle up as well. “We’ve got to go, they’re after us!”

Together they ran back through the streets, pursued by one of the older Gifted, who Janelle recognized as the one who put out the fire at the beginning. She was gaining on them fast, but they kept running out of the town and into the surrounding forest.

Thankfully the winter snow had finally melted, but the early morning wind was still treacherously cold. The foliage was dense and the trees numerous, but they managed to dodge around them and keep moving. Janelle’s throat felt like it was on fire, and each icy cold blast of wind to the face made it harder and harder to keep going.

She gritted her teeth and kept running, tripping over twigs and forcing her way through the various shrubs and grass trees. Soon it began to rain, splashing on her face and blurring her vision.

“Janelle, watch out!”

Before she could react she tripped over a large boulder, her ankle giving way with a sickening crack. Janelle tumbled down the hill, crashing against a tree and squashing her arm underneath her.

“Janelle, are you alright?” she could hear Samantha‘s panicked voice, but it sounded like it was far away.

Her arm and ankle throbbed painfully, and so did her head when she tried to stand.

“No, don’t get up,” Samantha said, sounding more scared than Janelle thought she was capable of. “Here, I’ll –“

Samantha’s voice trailed off as the sound of heavy footsteps distracted them both. She stood up, drawing her sword to face the Gifted woman.

In one swift movement, Samantha kicked their pursuer neatly in the stomach, pushing her against a tree. She shoved her blade through the woman’s heart, impaling her. Samantha turned back to Janelle, as if she had politely asked the Gifted woman to leave.

“Shit,” she swore when she saw Janelle’s condition. Samantha bent down and untied the laces of her boot, forcing it off. Her ankle was swelling before their eyes, as was her arm.

“I think they’re broken. We have to get you back… I – I think Marvin will know what to do.”

She sounds like she’s going to cry… I never thought Samantha could sound like that, and it’s all my fault. Janelle noted the many scratches covering her friend’s face and the bruises forming on her arms. I did that… All of it.

Before she could stop them big, fat tears streamed down her face.

“Are you alright? Does it hurt?”

But Janelle was crying for a completely different reason.

15: Guilt and Desire
Guilt and Desire

256 opened his eyes slowly, groaning. Just moments ago the air had been filled with the sound of clashing steel and cries of pain, but now the only noises were the occasional shout from far away.

Carey…

She was lying three feet away from him. He crawled through the dust towards her, willing his own pain to go away.

“Are you alright?” he said, feeling the back of her head. There doesn’t seem to be any blood at least. But there’s definitely a lump…

She began to stir, wincing as he prodded her head lightly and opening her eyes.

“Ow…” she murmured, squinting as the early morning sun shone in her face. “256, is that you?”

 “Yes, it’s me.”

“You’re blurry…”

She’s probably got concussion.

“Don’t move, okay? Just stay still for a bit.”

She nodded, closing her eyes once more. 256 checked her over, noticing a long gash on her right arm that was crusted over with blood.

“Here,” he said as he grabbed his fallen blade and ripped off a large part of his sleeve. He tied the fabric around her arm, careful not to cut off her circulation.

I’ve got to move her, but I can’t carry her on my own. She’s much bigger than me…

256 glanced up, shocked when he saw the scene in front of him. A few Gifted were still around, although most had run off after the survivors. However, about seven rebels lay in the dust, already dead or dying. A few feet away from him one of them began to stir, but they quickly found a sword shoved through their throat.

256 looked away, squeezing his eyes shut as he heard them cough and splutter. It was not the first time he had seen someone die. When they were children the Gifted were often made to sit in on executions of traitors. Still, that’s nothing like this.

256 opened his eyes again. 440 stood over the rebel’s body, wiping his blade on his already blood-stained uniform. He grinned when he saw 256 looking.

“You think I shouldn’t have killed him?” he said, kicking the man’s body aside. “They’re rebels. We must make an example of them.”

“They - They could have told us something,” 256 muttered, his eyes focused on Carey.

“What? Where they’re hiding? They say torture is never actually that successful, you know. Often they’ll just say anything to get you to stop, or clam up completely.”

He heard the crunch of 440’s footprints as he moved closer. 256 stared determinately at Carey, and eventually he laughed and walked away. Sighing with relief, 256 wondered what he should do now. I know she probably shouldn’t be moved, but that wound needs to be treated or it could get infected.

“Will you help me move her?” he asked one of the other Gifted.

The woman nodded. Together they pulled Carey to her feet and helped her inside. Together he and the Gifted woman carefully lay her down on one of the beds in the small medical room.

“Thank you,” he said. The woman nodded and hurried back outside. There’s probably some cleaning up to do… At least seven rebels are dead, who knows how many have been killed as they ran.

256 rootled through the medicine cabinet until he found some bandages and other medical supplies.

Carefully, he unwound his torn sleeve from her wound. The bleeding had nearly stopped, but the fabric was sticky and he had to tug a little to get it off. Carey winced as she did so, jerking her arm away.

“Sorry,” he said, trying to sound soothing. “But it’s got to come off, it’s very dirty and the wound must be cleaned or you’ll get an infection.”

Carefully, he poured a small amount of phenol onto a clean cloth and dabbed it onto her wound. Carey frowned as he did so, jerking her arm away.

“I know it hurts,” he said quietly, grabbing her arm tighter. “You’ll – you’ll probably get some irritation from this, but at least it’ll be clean…”

256 took a fresh bandage and carefully wound it around Carey’s arm, fixing it with a small metal clasp.

“There,” he said, quite proud of himself. He only had basic training in first aid, but it seemed to be effective so far.

“You just rest now, okay?” he said, reaching over to fix up her pillows.

She nodded, closing her eyes and lying back down, her tangled brown hair spread out around her. 256 watched her for a while, a small smile stretching across his lips.

I'm so glad she's... Wait, what am I doing? I can't stay, I...

“I should go and help the others,” he mumbled, standing up quickly and clearing his throat. However, before he could move Carey grabbed his arm, her grip surprisingly tight.

“Stay with me,” she said softly, her eyes still closed.

256 could feel himself turning red. He shifted his feet, glancing at the doorway. “I – I can't. I have to -"

“Please. I don’t want to be alone…”

“Um…” He glanced towards the doorway again, biting his lip. He supposed there wasn't any reason to leave, in a way. Any rebels who hadn't died in the fight would be too far away for him to be of any assistance, even if he left right that moment.

“Okay, I’ll stay,” he mumbled, perching on the edge of the chair. He watched her as her breathing began to slow. 256 let himself smile, tentatively reaching out and taking her hand. Her calloused fingers were cool against his. He glanced up, waiting for her reaction, but she didn't stir. Instead she was snoring slightly, her mouth slightly open. 256 looked away for a moment, blushing, but something made him look up again. 

She really is pretty... Her hair looks so long and soft, her lips... Stop it!

He pushed his chair away from her quickly, the wooden legs scraping on the floor loudly. 256 bit the inside of his cheek hard, his heart racing beneath his chest. 

Why am I thinking like this? I know I... It's wrong. I - 

“What are you doing?”

256 jumped up, banging his knee on the chair and kicking it over accidentally. He scrambled to pick it up, wincing at the pain in his knee. “N – Nothing…”

440 smirked, clearly amused at his clumsiness. “Are you worried you’re getting too attached? I suppose given what happened last time that’s only natural.”

256 shook his head, feeling a blush creep up his neck. “I... I’m not attached. I - I'm not.”

The other boy laughed, his dark eyes shining slightly. “Of course you are. Everyone can see it, 256, especially me. I know you, remember?”

256 gritted his teeth, his fists clenching at his sides. “You haven’t seen me for over six years. I’m different now than I was then. I’m not – I’m not careless enough to let that happen.”

440 raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? Because it seems to me that you’re exactly the same as you were. You can’t even learn from your mistakes, like I did.”

“We deserved it. I know we deserved it.”

“Yeah, but you’re still too afraid to look at me.”

“N – No I’m not.”

“Really?” 440 said coldly, his footsteps getting closer. “Prove it.”

He’s standing right in front of you. Just do it.

256 gritted his teeth and willed himself to look up, but he could not summon the courage to do it.

Why can’t I get over it? I have no reason to be afraid… I know I deserved it, but I’m still so -

“And you’re so caught up in ‘doing your duty’ and being a good little boy. Even now, you still won’t take what you want.”

256 frowned, his eyebrows knotting. “What do you mean?”

In the corner of his eye he saw 440 gesture toward Carey, who was still unconscious. “What, you never considered it?”

“What?”

440 chuckled. “Oh come on. Even you’re not that naïve.”

256 blushed and looked away, dragging the chair he’d knocked over back toward Carey’s bedside. He sat down in it, his stomach squeezing painfully. The other boy followed him, leaning over 256 and grinning.

Why can't he just leave me alone? I don't -

“I know you think about it,” 440 said, a strange glint in his dark brown eyes. “I’ve seen the way you look at her, but you’re too gutless to do anything about it. Eighteen and a virgin, that’s just pathetic. Have you ever even kissed before? Probably not.”

He leaned over further so his lips were inches from 256’s ear. “You don’t have to stay that way…  This is a perfect opportunity for you. She’s right there. Don’t you want to know what it's like?"

“Shut up,” 256 muttered, his face hotter than he thought possible. “I haven’t – I don’t…”

440 laughed, standing up straight and shaking his head. “Fine, be that way. You’re such a little kid. I can do it for you, if you like. It’s not like she can resist me right now, and she’s a pretty girl, I’d be happy to –“

256 grabbed 440’s wrist with his right hand, starting a small fire underneath his fingertips. 440 yelped in pain as 256 pushed him up against the wall, his left hand clasped around his throat.

“Don’t…” His voice sounded a lot deeper than normal, and strangely threatening. “Don’t you dare suggest doing that.”

440 coughed, reaching up and attempting to pry 256’s fingers away without much success. He was still grinning, his eyes flashing almost manically.

“Have I made you angry?” he wheezed, his lips still stretched in a grin. “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. I didn't know you had it in you.”

“I’m not the same as I was.”

440 gave a strangled laugh. “Yes, you are. You didn’t even learn from your mistakes. I did, you know. You're nothing to me anymore. But you, you're the same. If you're not careful you'll end up right back there. Don't you remember what it was -"

“Shut up!”

I don’t want to remember, I can’t remember or I’ll –

He let go, sinking to the floor and holding his hands over his ears. 440 knelt in front of him and wrenched his arms apart.

“I'm trying to warn you!” said 440 shakily, gripping 256's wrists so tightly it hurt. "Don't you see? If you don't change, you'll be..."

His voice trailed off. His dark brown eyes watered slightly, his forehead creasing like he was genuinely concerned for 256's safety. However, it only lasted for a moment before his eyes narrowed again and he pushed 256 back forcefully. 440 stood up, shaking his head and muttering to himself as he left the room. 256 swallowed, watching the doorway for a few moments before shakily getting to his feet. He sighed, taking a few deep breaths until he had calmed down enough to quietly pick up his chair and sit next to Carey’s bedside once more. She was sleeping peacefully, completely oblivious to what had just happened.

It’s nice when she’s not scowling…

Tentatively he reached out, clasping her hand in his again. It felt so warm, so familiar, even though it was wrong.

 I know I shouldn’t be doing this. 440's right, I - I haven't changed at all, but… I don’t care.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Janelle stared out the window, watching the snow fall on to the ground. It was peaceful and quiet, but in the distance she swore she could hear the screams of their dying comrades.

“You should get some rest,” Marvin said gently as he finished binding her ankle. “In about six weeks you’ll be back on your feet, don’t worry.”

He smiled at her, reaching out and patting her on the head. Janelle’s lip wobbled as she felt tears building up behind her eyes.

Why won’t he just say what he’s thinking? Why won’t he yell and scream and say they never should have chosen me for a leader?

Marvin watched her worriedly. “Janelle, there’s no way you could have known.”

She did not answer, biting her lip so hard that blood dribbled down her chin. Marvin quickly reached inside his back and took out a tissue, pressing it against her face.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he said quietly.

She swallowed, taking the tissue from him.

“Please, can you just leave?” she asked, her voice trembling.

Marvin nodded, squeezing her hand. “Call me if you need anything.”

He gathered up his supplies and left. Janelle lay back onto her pillows staring at the cracks in the ceiling up above.

Why didn’t they leave me there to die like the others? I’m obviously not fit to lead us… I was right all along, Samantha would have been a much better choice.

Janelle closed her eyes again, but that just made it worse. She saw Emma with a sword in her throat, coughing and spluttering. She saw James’s face turning blue as the air was sucked from his lungs.

They died because of my stupidity. Them, and all the others. I didn’t even know their names. Marvin’s wrong, I should have known. If I were a bit smarter I might have. But I -

“Janelle?”

Samantha stood in the door way. A large bandage covered her left eyebrow and her left arm was badly bruised, but aside from that she looked perfectly healthy. She hurried inside and sat down on the end of Janelle’s bed, tucking her shoulder length black hair behind her ears.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, patting her arm.

“I’m okay,” Janelle muttered. “My ankle and arm hurt a bit, but Marvin said they’re going to –“

“That’s not what I meant,” Samantha interrupted, edging closer. Janelle wriggled away, avoiding her gaze.

“I – I feel fine. You don’t have to check up on me. Can you go now? I want – I want to go to sleep.”

Samantha shook her head. “I’m not leaving.”

“Why not?” Janelle said, her voice sharper as she turned to face her. “It’s not like you need me. I just got half of our recruits slaughtered, remember?”

She paused, breathing deeply. “P – Please, just go.”

“I won’t leave.”

Samantha gave her a gentle smile, her grey eyes strangely calm.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said, just like Marvin. “We all made the decision to do this. Emma and James knew –“

“How does that make it okay? So what if they knew there was a chance they’d die!” Janelle demanded. “I still led them to a slaughter.”

She exhaled loudly, her tears finally winning the battle. They ran down her cheeks, the salty taste of them filling her mouth.

“They died, Samantha,” Janelle whispered, her voice breaking. “They died, and it was my stupid decision that made it happen. Just like my parents… Their deaths were my fault.”

Samantha said nothing, squeezing Janelle’s hand.

“And my – my sister… I’ll never be able to get her back. I don’t know why I ever thought I could find her.”

She tucked a strand of her curly red hair behind her ear, her lips wobbling as she felt her friend’s eyes on her. She’s going to -

“Janelle… I know your secret.”

Janelle turned around, avoiding her friend’s gaze. Samantha edged closer, patting Janelle’s arm.

“Janelle, she –“

“Don’t say it. Please don’t say it, I can’t –“

Janelle swallowed, shaking her head as Samantha squeezed her arm.

“I have to say it. She wasn’t your sister, was she?”

Janelle began to cry harder, burying her face in the pillow. Slowly, she shook her head.

“She was my baby,” she sobbed, covering her face with her hands. “She – she was my baby, Samantha. And they took her from me!”

Samantha hugged her close, stroking her tangled red curls.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said quietly.

“What was I supposed to tell you?” Janelle whispered. “I - I never told anyone…”

“But why? Janelle, you don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

“What don’t I have to be ashamed of? You know how it is. I wasn’t married, and I was so stupid.

She swung her legs of the bed, clenching the blankets in her fists. “We were never friends back then. I - I was so naïve, I was one of those girls… who had this idea of what life was meant to be like, that someday I’d meet someone, and we’d fall in love, and then my life would be easy.

“When I met him, I thought that was my chance, you know? He was so kind, and handsome. I was just an ordinary girl, not pretty, not smart… I knew his reputation in the village, but I convinced myself that he had chosen me because I was special. He asked me to do things...Things I wasn’t ready for, but I wanted him to love me so badly.

Janelle wanted to stop, but the words kept spilling out. “When I told him that I was pregnant, I thought he would agree to help me. I – I thought he loved me, but he didn’t. He just looked me in the eye and told me I was a slut. He said I couldn’t prove the baby was his, so he had no reason to stay. I ran after him, crying and begging him to help me, but he pushed me to the ground and told me it was my problem.”

It’s so embarrassing, so cliché… And yet, that’s not even the worst part!

“It was all my fault,” she whispered. “My parents, they were so kind. I was afraid to tell them, but when I eventually did they just hugged me and told me everything would be okay. We told everyone that my mother was pregnant, and I was staying home to help her because she was feeling sick. But the night I went into labour… The baby was early so we weren’t prepared, plus it was in the middle of a snowstorm. My grandmother stayed with me, and I didn’t even notice they were gone until it was over… But they –“

She trembled, digging her fingernails into her palms as her sobs grew louder. “They were trying to help me. They left to find a doctor, but it was so bad…”

Samantha hugged her close, stroking her hair. “Keep going. You shouldn’t bottle it up.”

Janelle breathed deeply, nodding. “After that, I devoted myself to her. My grandmother died a few months later, so she was the only family I had left. I didn’t think I’d be able to love her after what happened, but I did. I loved her more than I’ve ever loved anyone. But they tool her away, and I couldn’t do anything. It was my duty to protect her, but I failed. And – and I feel like, if I don’t get her back, my parents died for nothing. Just like James and Emma and the others.”

“Janelle –“

“I didn’t even know most of their names! It was my fault they died, but they were no-one to me. James and Emma… They were always so kind, and I brushed them off. They gave me a necklace and said that I was the heart of the revolution, but all I did was get them killed. I thought I’d never be so naïve again, but I guess I was wrong, wasn’t I?”

She laughed bitterly. “I don’t think I can be the leader anymore. I’m obviously not fit, I proved that all too well. You should do it, Samantha. You’re smart, you won’t make stupid, rash decisions. I just… I hope you’ll let me help you.”

 “Janelle, what –“

“I’ve made up my mind already.”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” she finished, squeezing her shoulder.

“What?” Janelle said, confused. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Samantha shrugged. “What was it?”

“Her – her name was Amy. Why does it matter?”

The other woman smiled, tucking her dark hair behind her ear once more. “Listen, Janelle. I can’t lead this rebellion. You are a good leader, you just - You think too much. But when you stood up at the inn that day, that speech you made… It inspired me. And the others, that’s why they joined us! Everyone makes mistakes, you just need to learn from them. Please, don’t give up now. If not for me, for Amy. She needs you.”

She paused, her cheeks turning slightly pink. “And so do I.”

Janelle shook her head, staring into her hands. “You think you do, but you don’t. You’ll be better off without me.”

“But –“

“I don’t want to hear it. I’ll help you, but I can’t be our leader anymore. Please, just leave. I want to be alone.”

Janelle lay back against the pillows and pulled one of the pillows over her head. She squeezed her eyes shut and waited. To her relief, when she looked up again Samantha was gone.

 What can I say? I realize now we’ll be outnumbered no matter what we try. It might make their sacrifices worthless, but it’s better than everyone dying for an impossible goal. Isn’t it?

16: Endings and Beginnings
Endings and Beginnings

Carey’s eyelids felt like they were made of lead but eventually she managed to open them. She shifted, wincing as her head throbbed with pain. She tried to sit up, but the weight of 256's body prevented her from doing so. He was sitting next to her bed, his head and shoulders resting on her lap as he slept. The Gifted boy snored softly, his fingers clenching on the blanket. There were large bags under his eyes and his dark hair was covered with dust and debris. His uniform was even dirtier, the right sleeve ripped and torn.

He looks so tired. How long has he been here?

He frowned as Carey shifted beneath him, his eyes opening slowly. He bolted upright when he saw her looking at him, his cheeks flushing.

“C - Carey," he blurted out, running a hand through his hair. "You're awake."

She smirked, nodding. “Obviously.”

256 grinned, reaching down and picking up a bag of ice that lay at his feet. He pressed it against the back of her head, but it did little to dampen her headache. “How are you feeling? You hit your head pretty hard.”

"I'm okay. How long have I been asleep?”

“Since yesterday morning. Do you remember?”

“I remember seeing the rebels in the window and going downstairs," she said slowly, thinking. "Did - did we fight them?”

He swallowed, waiting a few seconds before replying. “Yes.”

“Well…” Carey said uncertainly, put off by his hesitation. “What happened?”

256 sighed, picking at his dirty fingernails. "1719 is dead. They found her body in the forest. But nine rebels were killed, and 2405 managed to catch one. They – they took them back to the Council. For – for questioning.”

“I - I'm sorry she's dead,” she said awkwardly, fiddling with a strand of her dusty hair. She hadn't really known 1719, but it was shocking that someone so competent had been killed by the rebels. “Um… Did you –“

“No,” he said quickly. “I – I didn’t kill anyone…”

256 hesitated and looked down at his hands, which were resting on the bed beside her.

“Anyway, I’m sorry about your arm,” he mumbled. “I did as best as I could, but it’ll probably be itchy.”

It will now you’ve mentioned it. Carey had not even noticed the bandage on her arm until now.

“Is it bad?”

He pursed his lips. “It’ll heal fine, but you’ll probably get a scar.”

Carey nodded, grimacing. She had other scars, or course, but this scar was different. This scar was a battle scar.

256 patted her on the arm, his eyebrows knotted. “Don’t worry about it. It will heal just fine. I’ve got heaps of scars, look.”

He rolled up his grey sleeve, revealing a surprisingly muscular arm. A long, slightly raised scar lined his shoulder, with a few circular shaped ones dotted over his hands and lower arms.

“How did you get that?” she asked, pointing at the long one.

He glanced at it, shrugging. “The first time I ever sparred with a real sword the girl missed and hit me. But it’s okay, it wasn’t deep or anything. The other ones are mostly burns. You know, from my Gift.”

Carey raised her eyebrows. "Don’t you have immunity to fire or something?”

He sat up slightly, running his hand through his tangled black hair. “Some. But when I was younger and untrained it was a real problem. I knew a girl who actually lost a finger because of her Gift. Now I could light myself on fire and probably be okay if it was for a short period of time, unless I was injured somehow.”

He pulled his sleeve down again, oblivious to Carey’s discomfort.

His casual tone bothers me…Will I end up like that if I stay here?

Carey hoped that she would not be here long enough to find out. She had a map prepared, and now the rebels had been defeated they could be sent back to the Council at any time.

If I want to escape, it will have to be soon. When I’m healed, I’ll go.

She watched 256 carefully as he tried to stifle a yawn.

“You can go sleep, if you want,” she muttered, looking away. “I’ll be fine by myself.”

“Would you – would you like me to get something for you before I go? Some food, or water…”

She shook her head. “No. Thanks, but I’m fine.”

256 smiled, patting her on the arm. “Well… I hope you feel better, Carey.”

He nodded at her for a final time before hurrying out of the room.

Carey sighed, lying back on her pillows. Just a few more days… I just need a few more days, and then I’ll be gone. For good this time.

It was not long before she fell asleep again, dreaming of the looks on her family’s faces when she opened the door to their small cottage.

 . . . .

Carey climbed out of bed as quietly as she could and began dressing herself in her grey everyday clothes. It had been three days since the rebels had attacked, and the swelling on her head had finally subsided.

Once she was dressed she began to pack her small bag with some spare food she had nabbed the previous night, a map of the island she found lying around the house, and the small blankets she and 256 had used when they were travelling here.

When she was ready Carey closed her eyes, concentrating.

I am the sky, the air, the ground… I am nothing. I am the sky, the air, the ground… I am nothing.

Carey opened her eyes, grinning when she saw it had worked. She still struggled to stay invisible for long periods of time, but as long as she managed to get out of the Gifted building without anyone spotting her she could escape.

She stood up and crept toward the door, opening it slowly in the hope that it would not creak and wake the other Gifted women up.

When none of them stirred she breathed a sigh of relief, and shuffled across the corridor. However when she reached the top of the stairs she stopped, her heart beginning to race.

440 was sitting in a chair beside the front door, his hands clasped in his lap. His brow was furrowed and he sat very still, his breathing slow and heavy.

Carey swore under her breath. I should’ve known they’d have someone watching… After all, most of them still don’t trust me.

There was no way she would be able to make it through the front door with him there.

The windows in the other rooms are my best bet. Do they even open? They must.

Carey began her descent, moving slowly and carefully in case any of the worn-down steps creaked. She smiled slightly, increasing her pace as her confidence grew.

However, she soon began to notice that something was wrong. She was breathing, but her lungs began to ache and a strange pain began in her chest. Before she could run back up to safety, Carey coughed loudly, reappearing as she took a step back up.

440 jumped to his feet almost instantly, his dark eyes glittering as he grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her down the stairs. His other hand grasped her collar as the air went back to normal around them, but now Carey’s lungs themselves struggled for oxygen.

“Do you think I’m really that stupid?” he hissed, his hot breath in her face as he pushed her onto the floor and climbed on top of her. Carey beat his chest feebly with her free hand, but it made no difference.

"We're not all sweet and innocent like your trainer," he said as she choked. "He may not have the guts to do this, even though I know he wants to. He might not know it, but he does… For the life of me, I can't think why. But that doesn't matter. I'm not going to let him."

He paused, grinning as she struggled against him. "Instead, I'll take you first."

He dug his fingernails deep into her shoulders. Shooting pains shot up her neck and she struggled to stop her eyes from watering. I can’t let this happen, I -

“I’m not going to do it enough to kill you at first,” he said, an unhinged gleam in his dark brown eyes. “Where’s the fun in that? No, I’ll just restrict your air supply enough that you can’t scream or struggle. It’s a shame, but I’ll have to make do. I can't have anyone waking up and finding out about this..."

He grinned, cocking his head to one side. “So this will be our little secret, okay?”

Carey tried to reply, but her lungs were still heaving for air. Her heart was racing, but she stared straight into his eyes, throwing him the most menacing look she could. I can’t let him see how -

“That’s not going to work on me, you know,” he said, laughing again as his hand slipped underneath her shirt, pushing her back against the floor. Grinning manically, he leant down and pressed his mouth over hers, grabbing her chin to stop her from moving. Carey squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating as hard as she could as he forced his tongue through her lips.

You are the sky, the air, the ground, you are nothing…

She willed herself to forget about her surroundings and into a strangely calm frame of mind. She was not here, about to be raped by a mentally unhinged Gifted boy. She was truly a part of the surroundings.

Carey opened her eyes again in time to see her hands fade slowly, followed by the rest of her body. 440 let go of her momentarily, his eyebrows furrowed.  Carey took advantage of his confusion, lifting her hips up and unbalancing him enough so she could push him off her. She kicked him twice, once in the stomach and in the groin. He groaned, coughing and curling up into a ball.

“I guess it did work on you,” she said coldly as the air in her lungs returned.

He looked up at her, his dark eyes almost glowing as the air around her began to swirl, lifting her off her feet towards the ceiling. Carey managed to maintain her invisibility as he threw her to the ground, her left wrist twisting underneath her as she thrust her hands out to save herself. 440 scrambled to his feet and grabbed her by the wrist once more, panting heavily. Carey twisted around and elbowed him in the face, grabbing him around the neck and kneeing him in the stomach before pushing him onto the ground.

She knew she had to act quickly as she ran into the next room, spotting a small window just large enough for her to squeeze through.  She tried her best to pull it open, but it was being more stubborn than she anticipated. The other Gifted had no doubt woken up after the noise from her and 440’s struggle, so she kept going.

At last she managed to force it open, climbing on top of a nearby armchair and hooking her leg over the window sill. She forced her other leg through, grabbing the ledge and pushing the rest of her body outside just as the thumping of footsteps began to sound in the distance.

Carey fell to the ground, scraping her knees badly on the cobbled road. She heard a loud bang as the front door opened, the yells of the Gifted reaching her ears.

She struggled to her feet, trying to ignore the pain in her knees. Still invisible, she ran through the streets, not daring to look behind to see if they were following.

 At least they can’t see me. But most of them know this area much better than I do, and I dropped my bag when 440 attacked me.

Finally she looked back, her stomach tying itself in knots when she saw a few Gifted still running in her direction. The rest seemed to have split off into different directions, and although these Gifted probably did not know for certain that she was there, she was beginning to tire.

Carey knew she would only be able to stay invisible for so long, so she ducked into an alleyway and reappeared. She hoped the shadows would conceal her appearance while she recovered. The other Gifted ran past, and the village became eerily silent aside from the occasional shout from far away.

Carey stayed there for a while, wondering what to do. I guess I’ll just have to keep going… I know they’ll still be looking for me, but where did they all go?

Having regained a little energy, she turned herself invisible once more. The narrow village streets were completely deserted, but it did not reassure her. They’ll have some sort of plan to lure me out… I have to be careful. But as long as I make it out of the village I’ll probably be fine.

With that in mind, Carey ran towards the trees on the horizon, doing her best to conceal her heavy breathing. The houses around her became less frequent as she got closer and closer to the edge of the town. Carey was tiring rapidly but she forced herself to continue, her feet becoming shakier with every step.

You have to keep going… Just a little more, and you’ll be –

Slowly her hands began to reappear, closely followed by the rest of her body. Carey swore under her breath, trying to turn herself invisible again but failing.

“I guess you chose my exit.”

A large fire wall encircled her suddenly, closing her off. Carey turned around, her heart sinking when she saw 256 standing behind her. His grey uniform was covered in dust, his black hair disheveled. But his eyes were what got to her the most – they were empty, emotionless, nothing like the kind boy she had come to know.

He’s Gifted, remember… He’s one of them, no matter what. And he’s going to kill you.

“We’re stationed at most of the exits from this town,” he explained, avoiding her gaze. “How lucky I am…”

“Don’t do this,” she said, sweating as the temperature increased around them.

He smiled, but it was a sad smile, not a happy one.

“I have to,” he said quietly, like he had when they first met.

Carey drew her wooden sword, pointing it at him. He had not raised his weapon, instead assembling a fighting stance, right foot forward.

She gritted her teeth and lunged at him, running behind him and striking her sword down on his head. He ducked under her with ease, grabbing her around the waist and flipping her over onto the ground. She struggled to her feet, but he knocked her down once more with a well-aimed back kick. Before she could get up again, he clambered on top of her, trapping her between his legs, his hands clutched around her throat.

Carey kept struggling, not ready to give up yet. But it made no difference – he was far too strong, and she was already so tired.

Maybe this is it.

She could feel tears building up behind her closed eyelids, but she refused to let them fall. If I’m going to die, I’ll die with dignity. Opening her eyes once more, she stared at him defiantly, her blue eyes meeting his brown.

“Make it quick,” she snapped.

He said nothing, staring at her for a long period of time. Eventually he swallowed, shaking his head.

“Hit me,” he said, his grip around her throat loosening.

“What?” Carey watched as tears spilled from his eyes, falling onto her shirt and soaking through to her skin.

“H – hit me,” he said again. “Quickly, before they get here. They’ll have seen the smoke, so they won’t be far away now.”

“But why?” she muttered.

“I can’t do it,” he admitted. “I should be able to, but I - I just can’t. Please, just overcome me and go.”

256 wiped his tears away, standing up and nodding at her. Carey got to her feet as well, biting her lip to prevent herself from crying.

“You – you should come with me,” she said tentatively.

256 swallowed, shaking his head. "I - I can't go. I don’t belong out there, with the nonGifted. Or with you. This is the only life I’ve ever known, Carey. I can’t abandon it so easily.”

“But they’ll kill you, if they find out you let me go.”

He smiled bravely. “No they won’t. They’ll punish me, but they won’t kill me. They’ll kill you, though, if they find you.”

256 paused, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Just promise me that I’ll never see you again.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve only got three chances, two of them are gone. If I see you again, I’ll have to kill you… And if I can’t, they’ll kill me.”

“So if we meet each other, one of us will have to die,” Carey said slowly. He nodded, and their eyes met briefly. She saw her own distress reflected in his.

“I – I promise,” Carey muttered.

He smiled. “Thank you. Now, hit me. Before they find us.”

She gritted her teeth, willing herself to kick him to punch him, to push him over, but her arms refused to do as they were told. Eventually she shook her head, swallowing.

“I don’t want to hurt you. You’re my friend,” she said, her voice breaking.

“Not anymore. We’re enemies, now. Although I suppose we always were, really.”

He nodded slightly, closing his eyes and waiting.

I’ve got to do it.

With all her might she punched him in the belly, sending him staggering backwards. However, it was not enough to knock him over. Swiftly, she slid her left foot behind her right and aimed a side kick into his stomach, well and truly winding him. 256 fell to the ground, coughing violently. The fire wall surrounding them extinguished as he curled up into a ball, groaning.

“Carey, go!” he wheezed when she did not move.

That’s right, I…

Carey turned herself invisible again and ran toward out of the village, forcing herself not to look back. Now that she was finally alone, she let herself cry.

17: Hope and Survival
Hope and Survival

They’re coming for me.

256 could hear footsteps in the distance, and with each new thud hitting the ground his trembling worsened.

He knew he did not have much of a chance of talking himself out of it. There was no way that the Gifted would believe that Carey had beaten a trained Gifted like himself in combat. Still, in his heart he felt like he had done the right thing, even though by doing so he had betrayed his own people.

I deserve everything that’s coming for me… I can’t forget that.

He repeated the mantra over and over in his head.

You deserve it, you deserve it, you deserve it…

Even so he continued to tremble over what he knew was coming as the footsteps came closer.

“256? We saw the flames, what happened?”

He coughed, rolling over so that he was facing the group of ten or so Gifted. All of their eyes were focussed on him. Some were angry, others confused.

“She – she got past me,” he lied. “I’m sorry, I tried, but I – well, she escaped.”

The other Gifted exchanged glances, most shaking their heads. 256 squeezed his eyes shut as one of the women, 2405, stepped forward.

“How could you let 355 get past you?” he heard her say, the suspicion evident in her voice. “She is far less skilled than you are… Plus you’re her teacher, so you helped shape what little style she does have. And unlike 440, with your Gift you should have been able to stop her from leaving even if she turned herself invisible.”

256 opened his eyes again, pushing himself up of the ground until he was leaning on his knees.

“I – I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I tried to kill her, I really did. But I…”

I couldn’t do it. His unspoken words hung in the air, as clear as if he had truly said them out loud.

2405 sighed, shaking her head. “Since 1719 died, I’m the most senior here. 5243, 998, 2857, sedate him please.”

“No,” 256 stammered, scrambling to his feet and backing away from the group. The three other Gifted surrounded him, grabbing his arms and forcing them behind his back. He struggled, trying to start a fire on their skin, but it was no use – 2405 had chosen the other Gifts of Fire to restrain him, and they counteracted his efforts easily.

“Sedate him please,” she said coldly.

“Please don’t do this!” he begged, ducking out of the way to avoid having their hands placed over his mouth. “I – I know I’ve done the wrong thing… But I can’t face that again, please don’t make me –“

“You brought this on yourself,” 2405 interrupted. “We’ve all seen the way you act around her… You’re attached, plain and simple. I was hoping you would have the sense to put your duty before your attachments, but I suppose I was wrong.”

She paused, her green eyes falling on him. For a moment something that looked like pity flashed across her face. “I am sorry, 256. But we have no choice. They’ll punish us too if we don’t.”

256 scanned the Gifted as he continued to struggle. 440 stood amongst them. Their eyes met briefly before he averted his gaze, his hands clenched in fists by his sides.

I have to try…

“440, stop them!” he begged. “You – you know what it’s like… You can’t let them do this to me, you have to stop them!”

The other boy just stared at the dust beneath his feet. Slowly, he shook his head, his lips pursed and his dark brown eyes watering.

“Please…” 256 tried again. “Please, 440.”

“It’s your fault this is happening,” he muttered, shaking slightly. “I won’t – I can’t stop them.”

440 looked up and their eyes met for a moment. 256 opened his mouth to beg him again, but 998 at last managed to force his hand over his lips. Smoke began to fill his airways, and although 256 tried to counteract this with his own Gift he was unsuccessful. He choked, coughing violently as his vision began to spot over.

I guess I can’t stop it… I always knew that, really.

256’s head began to spin as he felt himself slip away.

I deserve this… I mustn’t forget that.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey collapsed under a large tree, panting heavily. She had been running almost non-stop since she had escaped from the Lake Village.

The Gifted will definitely come looking for me… When I’ve caught my breath I have to keep going.

Once her breathing slowed once more she struggled to her feet again. However, she had only taken a few steps before her head began to spin. Carey grabbed a nearby tree branch to stop herself from falling over.

I’m so hungry…

It had been a few days at least since she had left the village. Carey had never hunted in her life. Her father had never even let her kill any of the animals on their farm when the time had come. She had no knowledge of forest plants and shrubs, so it would not be a good idea to try and eat any of them. Knowing her luck, she would poison herself just days after she finally managed to escape from the Gifted.

It had rained a few times over the past few days, and she had managed to collect a small pool of water in her hands each time and drunken a few drops. But it was nowhere near enough to satisfy her thirst after running so far and for so long. Carey had yet to come across a river or some other body of water. In her heart she knew that she would not be able to survive much longer if she did not manage to find a reliable source of food and drink.

Carey gritted her teeth, forcing herself to keep moving forward. Twigs cracked under her boots as she walked, but no matter how hard she tried she could not make herself quieter.

If the Gifted are looking for me, they’ll find me in no time while I’m like this… I got lucky before. If I’d chosen any other exit… If it had been any other person, I would have been killed.

What would the other Gifted do to him? 256 had said that they would not kill him, but Carey did not know whether she could believe him or not. After all, he had no way of knowing that for sure.

It’s stupid of you to think like this. The Gifted are the ones you are running from, and he is one of them. Why can’t you remember that?

Carey felt a small tear trickle down her cheek. In her heart she knew she could not hate him, even if she should. He had been her friend, despite the strange circumstances.

He was always so kind to me… And he saved my life! I don’t want him to die because of something I did.

Carey swallowed, pushing thoughts of him from her mind as she forced herself to keep walking for the next few hours. Eventually darkness cloaked the forest as the sun set, the air becoming ten times colder in a very short space of time. Carey gritted her teeth, deciding she should try and rest for the night.

She cleared a small space underneath the tree, pushing her knees as far as possible into her chest. The snow had long since melted, but it was still nearly zero degrees at night time.

If only I had the Gift of Fire, I could warm myself up. If only…

Carey’s eyes filled with tears again as she lay down. However, a bright light shone in the distance, making its way through her eyelids and disrupting her sleep.

Carey opened her eyes, sitting up. In the distance there were a few shining lights, and if Carey strained her eyes she swore she could hear voices.

She got to her feet, edging closer. That’s a building!

Even though she was so tired Carey broke into a sprint, a grin spreading across her lips. It’s not a town, but it will do.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Hello?”

Janelle frowned, rolling over. Why won’t they just leave me alone already? It had been over a week since their failed rebellion, and she had not left this bed since aside from brief trips to the bathroom.

“Who is it?” she said, rubbing her eyes as she sat up. She turned around to face the speaker, gasping at what she saw.

A small, red-headed girl stood in the doorway, fiddling with the end of her grey sleeve. Her eyes were a deep blue and her cheeks spattered with freckles, just like her father’s had been.

“Amy…” Janelle whispered, jumping out of bed and kneeling down in front of the small, five year old girl. She reached out and hugged her to her chest, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“Oh, Amy…” she said, choking on her tears. She let go of the child, holding her at arm’s length. “I –“

“Are you my Momma?” the girl interrupted.

Janelle laughed, smiling. “I am.”

The child blinked, shaking her head. “No, you’re not.”

“I am your mother,” Janelle insisted, confused. “I – You’ve been raised by the Gifted, but I’m –“

“No, you can’t be. My Momma wouldn’t get her friends killed,” the girl said simply. Amy pulled away, her red curls bouncing on her shoulders as she ran back through the doorway.

“Wait!” Janelle yelled, running after her. But when she turned the corner, her daughter had disappeared again. Janelle ran through the empty house, searching frantically but she was nowhere to be seen. Eventually she sunk to her knees in the middle of a deserted room, sobbing uncontrollably.

Amy… Why were you taken from me? And why couldn’t I -

“Janelle, are you awake?”

She sat up frantically, but to her disappointment it was only Marvin who stood in her doorway. He frowned slightly as he approached her bed, a fresh bandage in his hand.

Marvin and Samantha had visited multiple times since the fight at the Lake Village, but he had stopped coming for the past few days unless she required medical attention.

“It’s time to change your bandages,” he said, his eyebrows knotted.

Janelle nodded, still shaken from her dream.

She lifted her shirt up clumsily with her left arm and unwound the bandage around her abdomen. The burns she had received had not been very severe, but due to the large area they covered they were taking quite a long time to heal.

Marvin inspected the damage. “A couple more days, I think. You’ll have a few scars, but they’ll fade eventually.”

She nodded once more, but Janelle was not listening. She was trying to picture the girl from her dream, but her face was rapidly fading. Janelle knew it was silly to try and hold onto her, when she really had no idea what Amy looked like, but she almost could not help herself. She did not even notice as Marvin wound another bandage around her abdomen, securing it with a small metal clasp.

“I found some crutches in the attic,” he said gently as she pulled her shirt back down. “If you want we can bind your arm up properly and you can probably use them. A few of our allies have come back in the past few days, and they really want to see you.”

She hated me… She didn’t want me for a mother when she knew what I’d done. I’m useless. I always knew it but it’s clear now. I’m a horrible mother, and leader. I don’t know why I ever let them –

“Well?” Marvin said, shaking her shoulder lightly. Janelle blinked, glancing at him.

“I’m fine here,” she said, shaking her head.

Marvin sighed. “If that’s what you want. Can I at least tell them they can come up to see you? They were asking Samantha and I where you were yesterday. It would really raise morale, you know? Even if it was just for a little while…”

Janelle shook her head. She knew she could not face them after what she had done. I killed our friends, our allies… They may not blame me now, but they will.

Marvin pursed his lips, watching her. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, grasping his hands together.

“Janelle, they really want to see you,” he said eventually. “They need to –“

“I told you and Samantha already,” she interrupted. “I’m not the leader anymore. Samantha’s a much better choice.”

“I agree.”

Janelle blinked. “What?”

“I agree,” he repeated, his brown eyes suddenly unforgiving and cold. “If you’re going to act like this, then perhaps Samantha is the better choice.”

Janelle swallowed, clenching her fists. “Well… At least we agree on something, then.”

Marvin stared at her for a while longer, his bottom lip quivering. Eventually he sighed, exhaling loudly.

“Fine,” he said, standing up and turning towards the door. “If that’s how you want it, then that’s the way it will be.”

He paused, glancing over his shoulder. “At least Samantha isn’t acting like a child about this.”

“I’m not acting like a child. It was my fault they died, I made stupid decisions, so I’m not fit –“

“You’re just running away!”

Janelle was momentarily stunned. I’ve never heard him raise his voice before…

Marvin glared at her, his hands clasped so hard around the handle of his medical case so hard that his fingers were beginning to turn white.

“I understand you’re upset, but are you really going to throw away everything we’ve worked for because of one setback?” he demanded. “Is that what Emma and James and the others would have wanted? They sacrificed their lives for this rebel group, and you’re just throwing it away!”

“I –“

“Don’t even try to justify it,” he said, shaking his head. “Look, I know you feel responsible, and that you’re not good enough to be our leader. We did kind of throw it at you, so that’s understandable. But can’t you see what you’re doing is just making everything worse? What did you think was going to happen, Janelle? Did you think it would take just one act of rebellion to change this country? If that were true, the Gifted would have been overthrown a long time ago. When you and Samantha came to my house, I thought you both knew what this would take and what the costs would be. That’s why I agreed to help you, because I thought you both knew the extent you’d have to go. But I suppose I was wrong about that, wasn’t I?”

Janelle swallowed, tears building up behind her eyelids when she closed them. “I – you don’t understand. I knew there’d be a chance I’d die… But that’s different from being the direct cause of so many deaths. I – I don’t think that’s a burden I can carry, I’m struggling enough and we’ve barely started! If that’s what being a leader means, then I just – I can’t do it.”

Marvin sighed once more, sitting down on the end of her bed.

“I know you’re scared,” he said, his voice suddenly gentle again. “You’re right, being our leader is a lot of pressure. But ask yourself – would you really be okay with someone else taking over? You were the one who went looking for me, it was your idea to come to this in… And when you spoke to that crowd in the inn, you inspired them, Janelle. In your heart, you know Samantha could never lead us. She’s strong, sure, and smart, but she can’t inspire people like you did. Samantha knows that, so even if you ask her to take over she will refuse. So would I, by the way. Aside from us, is there anyone else you can trust to take over?”

Janelle considered his question. To be honest, there really was no one else she could trust with this rebel group.

Could I place my daughter’s life in someone else’s hands? I don’t think I could. This has been my goal for so long now… I want to get her back, and I want to be the one to do it. But it’s more than that. No one deserves to go through what I went through. No one deserves to have their child ripped from them like Amy was from me.

Marvin smiled, patting her arm. “I thought so. But Janelle, I won’t let you be our leader again unless you change. You have to start trusting your judgement. You’ll make mistakes, and you can’t change that. You just have to learn from them.”

He paused, staring her straight in the eye. “Do you think you can do that?”

“I…”

Do I really think I can change? The girl I was, the girl I am… I still don’t think she’s the right person to lead a possible revolution. But I think I want her to be.

“I’ll do my best,” she heard herself say, a slight tremble in her voice.

“Good,” Marvin said, smiling. “You have the ability and drive to be a good leader, even if you don’t believe it. You just need some confidence. Now, can the others come and see you?”

“I – I can go down to them.”

“Good,” he said. “I’ll get those crutches.”

He hurried out of the room. Janelle pulled the blankets back and swung her legs over the side of the bed, shaking slightly.

I have to be brave. I have to do this, no matter what. When I find Amy, I don’t want her to think her mother is a coward. It’s bad enough that she’ll think I’m a monster for killing my friends.

Self-doubt began to swirl through her head once more. Janelle gritted her teeth, willing it to go away.

So many of them died… But aside from Emma and James I didn’t know any of their names. But I’m going to do things differently this time. I will know the name of every person who fights for me, starting today.

“How many came back?” she asked Marvin when he returned, carrying a set of old crutches.

“About five,” he said as he helped her stand up. “Will, Anna, Richard, Sophie and Leonard. They’re going to be so happy to see you.”

Janelle nodded, swallowing. She began to hobble towards the door, but she soon found her way blocked.

“Marvin!” Anna said breathlessly, glancing at Janelle, her eyes wide. “J – Janelle…”

She did her best attempt at a smile. “I’m sorry for being… What’s wrong?”

Her eyes… They’re full of fear.

Anna swallowed, and Janelle felt her heart begin to race as the other woman’s fear became more and more evident. “It’s Samantha.”

18: Truth and Lies
Truth and Lies

Carey pushed the door of the building open, grinning widely. Finally she was free of the Gifted, and back in the civilization where she truly belonged. It was only a matter of time before she managed to find her way back to the village.

However when she entered the inn, brimming with anticipation, she was met with frightened white faces and cold stares. She took a step forward into the crowd. The parted for her, just as the townspeople had at the Lake Village.

Of course… My uniform, how could I forget?

Carey hung her head low as she made her way to the bar, each step she took heavy. The way they cowered away from her hurt more than she would ever admit to anyone.

Maybe this wasn’t my best idea… I’m Gifted now, after all. And the nonGifted hate the Gifted.

Still, there was no alternative. No matter where she went the nonGifted would judge her. It was inevitable while she wore this uniform. Even though she knew this Carey couldn’t help but feel disheartened as they backed away from her, fear flickering in their eyes.

I want to tell them that I am one of them… But am I really? I have powers they can never have, just like the rest of those people.

She made her way to the bar, looking around hopefully, but every single stool and most of the spaces in between them were taken up.

“H – Here.”

Carey blinked, glancing toward the voice. A man had jumped up from his seat, backing away from her as though she were poisonous.

“Have – have my seat,” he said hurriedly.

“No, it’s –“

Carey cursed under her breath as he turned around and disappeared into the crowd. Rolling her eyes, she took his vacated seat, grateful that she could sit down at last. Carey looked around. It was a small inn, but shelves above the bench were full of cups, glasses, and various barrels of alcoholic substances. Carey’s stomach began to rumble loudly as she noticed a large, salted piece of beef in the landlady’s hand. She handed it to her customer, and he tucked in immediately. Behind her the room was packed full of people talking, laughing, some even dancing to a tune played by a man with a violin. Carey had heard of places like this, even though she had never actually been inside one.

It’s a sanctuary, like the one that old woman from our village spoke of… A place free from the rule of the Gifted. I guess I can understand why they’re so afraid… If the Gifted find out about places like this they’re destroyed instantly.

Carey had always wanted to visit a sanctuary, but preferably not in this situation. As the two people on either side of her vacated their seats, she felt even lonelier than she had in her five months at the Council. Her loneliness turned into guilt as she remembered how she had managed to escape, but she pushed thoughts of 256 from her mind. There was nothing she could do to help him, after all.

Will I ever be one of the nonGifted again? Wesley, will he… Does he think I’m a monster, like they do? And my parents, will they still call me their daughter?

She gritted her teeth, shaking her head. Wesley was her brother, her twin. If he didn’t accept her, than no-one ever would. And her parents were just that, her parents. They’re my family… They wouldn’t care about something like me being Gifted. Wouldn’t they?

“May I help you?”

Carey looked up, rubbing her eyes quickly. The innkeeper stood in front of her, her arms folded across her chest and an anxious expression on her face.

“Hello,” Carey said, her voice raspy as she sat up properly. “I was wondering if I could just have a drink of water?”

“Certainly,” the woman said, breaking into a warm smile. She poured Carey a glass, her hand was shaking slightly. “Is there anything else you’d like?”

“I – I don’t have enough money,” Carey stammered. “I was wondering, do you know anyone who-“

“I’ll pay for you.”

Carey glanced over her shoulder. Behind her was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, although in a different way from most. She was quite masculine looking, with broad shoulders and a squarer jaw than most women, but it only enhanced her beauty rather than detracting from it. Thick, glossy black hair fell just past her shoulders, framing her face and complementing her stark grey eyes. Carey stared at her, dumbfounded as this strange yet glamorous woman took the seat next her.

“The usual for both of us,” she said to the innkeeper. “And a beer. Would you like anything to drink?”

“I…” Carey stammered, fidgeting. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

Her companion nodded at the innkeeper, staring at her for a second. The older woman nodded poured her a drink before walking away, leaving Carey and this stranger alone.

“Er, you don’t have to pay for me,” Carey said hurriedly. “I – I can pay for it myself…”

“Do you have any money?” she said calmly as she took a sip of her drink.

“No,” Carey admitted, shifting her feet.

The woman laughed, shrugging. “Then it’s settled.”

Carey bit her lip. She hated being in debt to people, but she had the feeling this woman would refuse anything she offered. Flushing slightly, she raised her cup to her lips and gulped down a few mouthfuls of water, the cool liquid soothing her sore throat.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked, taking Carey by surprise.

“It’s…” Carey began, hesitating. I can’t tell her my real one… The only one who knew my name was 256, but if they – if they torture him, he might… “It’s Amber. Um, what about you?”

“Michelle,” she said, offering her hand. Carey shook it, wondering what to do as the woman let go and took another sip of her drink.

“So what brings you this far north, Amber?” she asked.

“I live near here,” Carey lied, cursing internally. Way to build a convincing story, Carey.

“You have the tanned, rough skin of the farming villages,” Michelle said, cocking her head to one side. “So… I don’t think you live up here. But then, you don’t live down there either, do you? You’re Gifted, after all.”

Carey inhaled her water, coughing and spluttering as it dripped from her mouth and nose onto the counter. She wiped it away quickly, trying to ignore the fearful glances of those around them.

“I’m not G – Gifted,” she stammered.

Michelle raised an eyebrow. “Your uniform says otherwise.”

She gestured to the tattered, dust covered grey clothing that Carey wore.

Damn it, I completely forgot again… I’m such an idiot!

Michelle leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. Even though it was rowdy inside the inn, Carey could hear her words as clearly as if they were completely alone.

“But you’re no ordinary Gifted, are you?”

“What… what makes you say that?” she muttered. This is heading in the right direction, I think… I need to convince her I’m not one of them, and then she might be able to help me. Her skin’s kind of tanned too, so she might be from one of the farms. Maybe she can help me find my way –

“Your uniform is dirty, there’s no pattern on your sleeves, and you’re alone,” Michelle said, that coy smile still etched on her lips.

Carey gritted her teeth. She did not like the way this woman was looking at her. She looks so confident, so controlled… I don’t get what her motive is here.

“Besides…” Michelle said as she drank the last dregs of her beer. “One rogue Gifted always knows another.”

“What?” Carey blurted out, attracting the attention of the innkeeper and the surrounding row of people. She blushed, hanging her head.

“What?” she whispered again when they all went back to their own conversations.

“I’m Gifted,” she said, as though it were obvious.

Is she lying? She looks like she has nothing to hide, but… Why would she tell me?

“You’re not Gifted,” Carey said slowly, shaking her head. “You – you told me your name was Michelle. The Gifted don’t have names. And if you were Gifted, you’d know that.”

“Well, if you’re not Gifted then how do you know that?” Michelle pointed out. “Therefore, you must be Gifted as well, and yet you just told me your name is Amber. It’s easy to create a fake name, so how can I trust that just because you say you have a name really means you have one?”

“Well, how can I trust you?” Carey shot back. “For all I know you’re just trying to get me to trust you so you can kill me.”

Michelle laughed, shaking her head. “I’m not doing anything like that, don’t worry. I merely saw you, and felt a sense of… Companionship, I suppose. We’re the same after all, aren’t we? Not really Gifted, but not really nonGifted either.”

Carey bit her lip, contemplating her next move. The trouble was, she had no way of knowing whether Michelle was lying or not – she had never learnt how to sense other Gifted, so the only thing she had was this woman’s word and her own deductive skills.

I have to listen to what she says… And if she says something that reveals her true self, then I’ll decide whether or not to trust her. There has to be a catch, something only a Gifted person would do or know. And I’ll find it.

“Do you want to hear my story?”

Michelle smiled, her grey eyes fixed on Carey. She stared straight back, narrowing her eyes and refusing to waver.

“I’d be very interested,” she said, trying to make her voice sound firm yet innocently curious.

“Here you go, dears,” the innkeeper trilled as she placed two large sandwiches in front of them. Carey tucked in, momentarily forgetting her mind game as her hunger got the best of her.

Damn it, what if they’ve poisoned it or something?

She stopped, swallowing her mouthful and staring at the half-eaten sandwich in her hands. It looked perfectly normal, and smelled alright.

There was no weird taste or anything… I think it’s fine. Michelle, she… She wouldn’t be bothering with this if she wanted to kill me that way. And I’m so hungry…

She went back to her sandwich, more cautious this time.

“You can tell me the story now,” she mumbled between bites.

The older woman nodded, her own meal had yet to be touched. “I suppose it starts with my mother. She was only nineteen when I was born. She raised me by herself. My father left her shortly after my birth, you see.”

She paused, a flash of anger showing on her face. “But when Assessment Day came, the Assessor found me to be Gifted and he took me away from her.”

Michelle tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, giving Carey a sad smile. “My mother ran after him, as most do when their children are taken. She pleaded with him. She begged him to let her keep me. I was all she had, after all. The Assessor is supposed to ignore the family of the Gifted child they are taking, but… This man was different, I suppose. He listened to her pleas. Perhaps he was too kind, or simply swayed by her compassion. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that he handed me back to my mother and left our village with no Gifted child to take back to the Council.”

Michelle stared into her food, a strange look in her stark grey eyes.

She looks so… And that story was so detailed. There was no hesitancy, no obvious mistakes… I’m not sure, but… I think it might be the truth. At least part of it has to be.

“But… what about your powers?” Carey asked, trying to process her thoughts. “Even if you were taken away, your – your powers would have manifested.”

Michelle smiled, back to the coy, calm demeanour she had maintained for most of the short time they had known each other. “I have them, but I can’t control them. Whenever I get too upset, or angry, my hands catch fire. I’ve given myself quite a number of burns doing that.”

She rolled up her sleeve, showing Carey a series of small, ragged burn scars on the underside of her wrists.

“That proves it,” Carey muttered to herself. 256, he showed me scars similar to those… The Leader told me that untrained Gifted can lose control of their powers. This is the piece I need to be certain that her story is true. Plus her story was so elaborate, surely it can’t be a lie.

“Do you – do you know how to get to the Southern villages?” Carey asked hopefully, her heart beginning to race.

Michelle nodded, tilting her head to the side so her thick black hair fell to the front and framed her chin. “Of course. I grew up in a farming town, after all.”

“Was it near village sixteen?” Carey asked, sitting up straighter. I can go home… I’ll see Wesley and the rest of my family again!

“I think it was,” said Michelle thoughtfully. “I was just about to make my way back there anyway, so I’d be happy to let you keep me company. There’s safety in numbers, after all.”

She stood up, her plate still completely full. Carey gulped down the rest of her sandwich and followed her as she made her way through the crowd.

“I’m in one of the downstairs rooms,” Michelle said over her shoulder. “I don’t have a spare bed, but I have some blankets if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor.”

Carey shook her head, too excited to care as she followed Michelle to a door that had ‘Stairs’ written on it in block letters. “When will we leave?”

“Tomorrow morning, perhaps,” her companion said airily, opening the door and gesturing for Carey to go inside.

She hurried down the stairs, but to her surprise she found herself in a basement, not another corridor. Two people, a man and a woman, were holding swords and pointing them at her with a deep fear in their eyes. No, it can’t be… I was so sure she –

Carey gasped as something sharp was pressed into her neck. She could feel the warm body of her captor behind her, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out who they were.

“If you move or use your Gift in any way, I won’t hesitate to kill you,” Michelle breathed in her ear. “And if you manage to get past me, these two will kill you instead.”

Carey swore under her breath. How did I let her fool me? That story was so detailed, so accurate, I was sure it must be –

“Will, get me some rope,” Michelle said to the man, pushing Carey toward a small chair in the corner. “Anna, you go get Marvin.”

Her companions both nodded fearfully, doing the jobs she had assigned for them.

“Let me go!” Carey yelled as Michelle tied the rope around her feet. The other woman ignored her struggles, tying her hands next.

“It will be less painful if you don’t move,” she said as she wound a long piece of rope around the whole chair, pushing Carey against it. “You’ll only get rope burns if you keep struggling.”

“Because you’re just so concerned for my welfare,” Carey said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She continued to struggle, nearly knocking the chair over before Michelle steadied it.

The older woman shrugged. “Your choice.”

Carey muttered every bad word she knew under her breath, still kicking herself for her mistake.

“I suppose your name’s not really Michelle, is it?” she said bitterly.

“No, it’s not,” the black-haired woman said. “It’s Samantha. I suppose yours probably isn’t Amber, either. I can tell you that now I know you’re not a threat.”

“As if I care what your name is,” Carey shot back angrily. “And I could be a threat. I could be a spy sent from the Gifted, or I could have some huge power that I can use to kill you so quickly you’ll have no time to respond!”

“Well, if you’re a spy you’re a pretty bad one,” Samantha said, a coy smirk on her lips. Having finished tying Carey up at last, she stepped back, stowing the dagger that until recently had been pressed against Carey’s neck away into a small pouch on her belt.

 “Where’d you get that?” she asked, staring at where the knife used to be. “That doesn’t look like –“

“None of your business,” Samantha said coldly before turning to her male companion. “You can go. Marvin will be here soon, we’ll deal with this.”

He nodded and hurried out of the room as Samantha sat down on the steps.

“Was it all lies?” Carey asked, watching the older woman very carefully.

She nodded, avoiding Carey’s curious gaze.

“Yes,” Samantha said, clenching her fists slightly.

Out of everything she’s said to me today, that’s the only one I’m sure is a lie.

19: Questions and Answers
Questions and Answers

Janelle hurried downstairs as fast as she could, which wasn’t very fast considering she was on crutches. Marvin followed her, much calmer than she was.

“What did Anna mean when she said Samantha has captured a Gifted girl?” Janelle said over her shoulder as they pushed through the crowd in the main room of the inn.

Marvin shrugged. “I wasn’t there, I don’t know any better than you do. But I suppose she means just that.”

But how? The Gifted are so… If they found this place, they’d destroy it. How did Samantha manage to capture one?

Janelle opened the door to the basement and she and Marvin hurried inside. Samantha was sitting at the bottom of the steps, but she stood up quickly when she saw them, her smile wide.

“Janelle,” she said, running up a few steps and hugging her, almost knocking her off her feet. Janelle steadied herself with her crutches, allowing herself to smile and pat her on the back.

“I was starting to think you’d never…”

“I’m here now,” Janelle interrupted. “So what have you done? Anna said you’d…”

Her voice trailed off as she caught sight of the room over her best friend’s shoulder. A girl, probably a few years younger than Janelle herself, was sitting in the middle of the room tied to a chair. She had long, dark brown hair, thoroughly tangled and dirty. The girl was quite pretty, with an oval-shaped face and small nose, but her face was smudged with soil and her light blue eyes were narrowed as she scowled. Janelle had never seen anyone glare as intensely as this girl was now. But she looks so familiar…

“Why didn’t you get any of us to help you before you tried to capture her?” Janelle asked, trying to remember where she had seen the girl before. “I mean… She’s Gifted, you could have –“

“When I saw her, I thought something was up,” Samantha interrupted. “She was dirty, undignified, nothing like the rest of them. If the Gifted found this place they’d destroy it right away, but she marched straight up to Rosa and ordered something to drink. She’s wearing the uniform, so she must be Gifted, but... She’s definitely not normal. So I took a risk and it paid off.”

Janelle pursed her lips slightly, still a little doubtful. “I suppose…”

“She’s obviously far less intelligent than the rest of them too,” Samantha continued, shooting a glare at the girl. “She believed my story pretty easily.”

“I am not stupid!” the girl said angrily, struggling and nearly knocking her chair over in the process. “That story was very convincing, there’s no way you made it all –“

“See what I mean?” Janelle’s friend said airily, gesturing at their captive. “She’s not acting like the rest of them would. An ordinary Gifted would never fall for what I told her.”

 “Stop acting like I’m the idiot here!” the girl hissed, glaring at Samantha. “You’re the one who told me that story, you can’t act like I’m mentally challenged for believing it when it’s obviously at least partly true!”

Samantha just raised her eyebrows and sighed. Janelle watched the girl as she screamed abuse at them, still doubtful.

What Samantha’s saying makes sense, but is it really that simple? I mean, this girl could still be a threat -

“Janelle, why don’t you say something to her?”

The girl stopped shouting. All three of them turned to stare at Marvin, who had been quiet the whole time. He was leaning against the wall, his arms folded as he stared straight at Janelle. His face was stern, but his eyes were soft.

“I want to see you question her,” he said quietly, striding over and squeezing her shoulder lightly. “Samantha, thank you for capturing her, but insulting our hostage isn’t going to help. Janelle is our leader, so she should ask the questions.”

Janelle swallowed. “I only just –“

“You’ll be fine,” he said, smiling warmly at her. “We chose you for a reason, Janelle.”

He patted her shoulder for a final time, before nodding to Samantha. She sighed, taking out her dagger and holding it against the girl’s neck.

I guess I’ll have to interrogate her… If I seem strong and uncompromising, surely she’ll be intimidated and answer my questions.

“Um… what’s your name?” Janelle demanded, trying not to let her fear show on her face.

To her dismay, the girl smirked despite the sharp weapon held to her throat. I’m not intimidating her at all. “The Gifted don’t have names. Only numbers.”

Janelle glanced at Marvin for conformation. He nodded.

“She probably does have a name though,” Samantha interjected, her grip around the handle of her knife tightening. “She told me a fake one, and she’s obviously not a normal Gifted, so…”

Janelle nodded. “Okay. Then tell me why you came here! Did the Gifted send you here, or did you come here out of your own free will?”

She tried to make her voice as harsh and strong as possible, but the girl still refused to answer her. Instead she was watching Janelle very closely, her light blue eyes narrowed.

“Wait…” she said slowly. “I know you! You’re the one who gave me a concussion at the Lake Village!”

Janelle swore under her breath as she remembered. Damn, that’s definitely not going to help me... But I remember thinking at the time that she wasn’t as well trained as the rest of the Gifted. Does that mean Samantha’s right? Something’s up with this girl, I can feel it. But I can’t get side tracked.

“Answer my question,” Janelle said, deciding it was best to just ignore it. “Or – or Samantha will slit your throat.”

As if to demonstrate, Samantha pulled the girl’s head back and pushed the knife harder against her neck.

The girl coughed, grinning. “As if she’s going to do that! I’m your only hostage, aren’t I? I can’t help you if you kill me. But I might feel like answering if you confirm my suspicions.”

“Fine, it was me," Janelle said through gritted teeth. "Happy now? And I would have killed you too, but one of the other Gifted attacked me before I could.”

“What did they look like?” the girl questioned.

“Small, dark hair. I don’t remember, really. I was busy at the time so I can’t say I analysed their appearance in great detail.”

The expression on her face softened suddenly. For a second Janelle thought she might burst into tears.

“What’s wrong?” Janelle asked, her eyebrows raised.

The girl shook her head, gritting her teeth and glaring at Janelle again as if nothing had happened. “Nothing.”

“Well….” Janelle began, unsure how to respond. “I’ll – I’ll ask you again. Why did you come here?”

The girl yawned loudly. “I’m tired. I might answer you after I have a nap, but until then…”

“If you answer my questions, I might let you have some food and rest. It’ll be easier for you if you –“

“I came here out of my own free will, okay?” the girl snapped. “I’m just passing through, and I’m obviously not going to help you and your quest for revenge or whatever it is you’re doing here. Just let me go and I’ll leave you alone, I promise.”

“She said she was going to the farming villages,” Samantha interrupted, her knife still held against the girl’s throat. “Village sixteen, I think.”

“The farming villages,” Janelle echoed. “Well, they’re nowhere near here…”

“I know that!” the girl said irritably. “I was trying to find someone who knew, so they could –“

“Janelle?”

The four of them looked up in surprise. Rosa stood at the top of the stairway, a slightly anxious expression on her face.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, moving down a few steps. “But there’s a man at the counter asking to speak with you. I told him you were busy, but he’s being very persistent…”

“How does he know who I am?” she asked, her eyebrows knotted.

“Well, he’s asking for the leader of the rebellion.”

“I…”

Janelle glanced back at their prisoner. Maybe if I leave for a while, and come up with a better plan… Interrogating her isn’t working like I hoped it would. She’s not going to help us if we continue like that.

“I’ll see him,” she said, her mind made up. “Samantha, can you mind her for me?”

The other woman nodded, although she looked a little confused. “Of course.”

“Thanks,” Janelle said over her shoulder as she followed Rosa up the stairs, struggling a little with her ankle.

“He’s just by the bar,” the older woman said, pointing to a tall, slightly gangly looking man sitting on a stool. Janelle pushed her way through the crowd.

“Hello,” she said when she got close to him, waving awkwardly. He turned around at the sound of her voice, his hazel eyes lighting up when he saw her standing before him. The man broke into a grin so wide she wondered if it made his cheeks hurt.

“It’s an honour to meet you,” he said breathlessly as he grabbed her right hand and shook it vigorously. “You’re Janelle, right? This wonderful woman pointed you out and said you were the leader of the rebellion here. From the rumours I’ve heard back in my village… I must say I pictured you older, and a lot less pretty.”

“Um…” Janelle said, unsure how to respond. She was many things, but pretty was certainly not one of them. “Very funny.”

She forced herself to laugh. The man continued to smile, shaking his head.

“I’m being serious,” he said, his hazel eyes glittering.

“Er… Okay. Thanks, I guess. What do you want from me?”

He shrugged, leaning closer. “I want to join you, of course. There have been rumours all over my village of a rebel group in these parts. They’ve been talking of how you took on the Gifted in the Lake Village… It’s so admirable that you’re standing up to them. Anyway when I heard the rumours, I knew I couldn’t just stand around and do nothing. I had to come and join the resistance! I had to –“

“I see,” Janelle interrupted, stepping back a little. “I’m very grateful that you were taken by our efforts, but I’m not sure if you’re –“

He clasped her un-bandaged hand suddenly, his hazel eyes staring directly into hers.

“Please, let me join you,” he said quietly.

“I…” Janelle began, apprehensive. Come on… Even if he seems annoying, there’s no reason why he can’t join us. I mean, at least he’s enthusiastic, right?

“Sure,” she concluded, still a little reluctant. She grinned awkwardly at him, and he beamed back.

“Thank you!” he said, throwing his arms around her neck. Janelle hauled him off her, a very difficult task considering he was a lot heavier than her, she was on crutches, and one of her arms was broken.

“Do you have any skills in fighting?” she muttered.

“No.”

“That’s okay, you can join our training. We – we have a blacksmith, so he can make you a sword… In the meantime, ask Rosa to show you around and find you a room.”

The man grinned, grasping her hand again. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Janelle mumbled in response as she pulled away from him. “If you’ll excuse me, I was in the middle of something…”

She dashed through the crowd without saying another word. However, she only got a short distance before remembering she hadn’t asked for his name.

I promised myself I would know the name of everyone who is fighting for me… While our numbers are low, I have no excuse.

Janelle pushed back through to where he was sitting. He had not moved at all, almost as though he had expected her to come back.

“What’s your name?” she mumbled, hoping he wouldn’t feel the need to hug her again.

Luckily he simply beamed once more, raising his right hand in a semi-salute. “It’s Reagan. Like I said, it’s been an honour.”

Janelle smiled awkwardly and thanked him again before leaving. She pushed through the crowd again, lost in thought. I guess I should go and tell Samantha’s brother about the new sword… She’s busy, so I’ll have to do it.

Even though he had been making swords for their group for months now, Janelle often found it difficult to remember he was here. He rarely ventured from his room, and if he did he usually had only Samantha for company. Even before they had left their village, Samantha had always acted as a mediator between them.

The only time I ever really spoke to him was just before we left… He wouldn’t even look at me properly.

Janelle climbed the stairs slowly. She found his room quite easily and knocked on the door.

“Sam?”

She cleared her throat. “It’s Janelle, actually. There’s – there’s something I need to ask you.”

Shuffling noises came from within.

“What is it?” he asked as he opened the door, hiding behind it a little. It was strange how little he looked like Samantha. In Janelle’s opinion he looked more like he was her own brother, as they both had the curly red hair, light coloured eyes, and freckles common in the mountain village they grew up in. However, unlike Janelle his skin was slightly pinched and sickly looking, detracting from his otherwise handsome features. I wonder why -

“What is it?” he said again, still not looking at her as he stepped out from behind the door and held his gloved hands behind his back.

“Um, I just wanted to tell you that we’ve got a new recruit,” she said quickly.

He nodded and started closing the door. “I’ll make them a new sword right away.”

“Wait!” Janelle grabbed the door and pulled it fully open again. “Why don’t you come out here? There’s something else…”

He stepped outside, keeping one hand on the handle. Janelle noticed that two of his fingers stuck out awkwardly, not curving around the metal with the others. That’s hardly natural… Maybe it’s just a habit?

“Um… I just wanted to thank you,” she said, still staring at his hand. “I know I’ve never thanked you before, and that – that was really wrong of me. You’ve done so much for us… If you hadn’t made Samantha and I swords, I don’t think we’d ever have left our village.”

 “Don’t worry about it,” he said, looking up so that their eyes met at last. “I’m – I’m glad to be here. I want to help.”

He smiled at her, and Janelle began to feel ashamed. Without him none of our recruits would have weapons either… And I don’t even know his name!

“What’s your name?” she mumbled, avoiding his gaze.

“What?”
“I – I’m really sorry… I forgot what your name is. I’ve been trying to remember, but I…”

To her great surprise he laughed, shaking his head so his red curls bounced around. “It’s okay. It’s Thomas, for future reference.”

Janelle nodded, holding out her hand. He shook it, two of his fingers still sticking out awkwardly. Thomas snatched his hand away when he saw her looking, hiding it behind his back.

“I should probably go back now,” Janelle said hurriedly, trying not to act like she’d noticed his odd fingers. Thomas nodded, stepping back inside his room and avoiding her gaze again.

“Thanks for letting me know about the sword,” he said as he closed the door.

Janelle stood outside his room for a while before remembering that she was supposed to be questioning the Gifted girl downstairs. Interrogating her in the way she had been obviously wasn’t working, but Janelle was not sure what to do now. Could she even trust what she had told them?

Is she really just trying to go home? I mean, she doesn’t seem like an ordinary Gifted, so…. I thought that when I met her before, so it’s not likely she’s just putting it on now. If she is telling the truth, I need to gain her trust instead of alienating her like I have been. That way she’ll tell me more about the Gifted themselves.

Her mind made up, Janelle hurried back to the basement as fast as she could. Marvin and Samantha were both still inside, waiting for her.

“You can let go of her now,” she said to Samantha. Her friend looked reluctant, but she stuffed her dagger back in its pouch and stepped away.

Janelle approached the girl, smiling as best she could. “Hello.”

The girl scowled in response as she pulled another chair over. Janelle sighed in relief as she sat down; her ankle was throbbing rather painfully from all the stair climbing and walking she had been doing.

“I’m sorry,” she said when she was settled in front of the girl. “I realised I forgot to tell you exactly what we’re doing here, and why we captured you. Our group is trying to overthrow the Gifted.”

The girl rolled her eyes. “I gathered that.”

“I thought you might have,” Janelle mumbled, her confidence fading a little. “Um… Anyway, anything you tell us will be helpful. If you’re telling the truth and you aren’t really one of the Gifted, then don’t you want to see them defeated?”

“I don’t really care,” the girl muttered, clenching her fists.

“Then what do you care about?”

The girl looked up, her light blue eyes flashing angrily. “Why does it matter to you?”

Janelle shrugged. “I don’t know. I just thought you might care, considering you’ve obviously been mistreated by them.”

“I don’t want to get involved in all this politics and stuff!” the girl shouted, struggling again. “I hate the Gifted, I hate everything about them! I never wanted to have this stupid power, I just – I just want things to go back to normal!”

Her voice cracked, tears appearing in her eyes. “I – I just want to go home. I want things to be easy again!”

The girl tried to bend her head and wipe her tears on her shoulder, but she failed miserably. Her skin was flushed under the dirt smudges covering her face.

“Stop looking at me!” she said angrily as more tears streaked down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Janelle said quickly, averting her gaze. “But you do realise…”

“What?” the girl snapped.

“If you’ve escaped from the Gifted, which I guess you must have if you’re telling the truth, then it’s not going to be easy. The Gifted aren’t just going to leave you alone. They’re probably watching your house and family, if they haven’t taken them into custody.”

“What do you mean?’ the girl said slowly. It was almost as if Janelle could see the cogs turning in her head.

“It’s not going to be as simple as you seem to think,” she said as gently as she could. “You can’t just wander back into your village and expect everything to go back to normal. The Gifted will probably be watching it, and if you go back you’ll be caught.”

Janelle pushed herself onto her crutches, deciding to leave the girl to think about what she said. “Anyway, I’ll have Rosa bring you some food. Samantha will untie your hands while you eat. After that, I suggest you get some rest.”

She hobbled over to the stairs, Marvin following close behind her. He did not say anything, but she could tell by the look in his eyes that she had finally done something right.

20: Rebels and Knives
Rebels and Knives

Carey’s first night at the inn was spent lost in thought rather than sleeping.

If I go home, will I be putting my family in danger? Wesley, Mum, Dad, and the others… Will they be killed because I escaped?

Yet more tears began to build up behind her eyelids, but she gulped them down. Ever since she had been taken away, Carey had one goal: her plan to escape from the Gifted’s clutches and go home. It had kept her going for four months, but only now did she see the flaws in her plan.

Janelle’s right. The Gifted won’t just let me go… I was naïve to think that. I should have known all along they wouldn’t.

She sat up as best she could, her muscles aching. It was difficult to tell what the time was since there were no windows in the stuffy basement. It felt like she had been tied to this chair for a very long time.

Carey twisted her neck to look over her shoulder. Samantha was still there standing guard, her grey eyes narrowed and cold. She shivered, wondering if she had been staring at her like that the whole night.

How much longer will it be until they let me go? Will they ever let me leave, or -

The door to the basement creaked as it opened. The clunking noise of someone on crutches told her it was probably Janelle. Carey sat forward and watched as she descended slowly, wincing after nearly every step.

“Hello,” Janelle said when she had at last reached the bottom. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, it was amazing,” said Carey sarcastically. “I always sleep magnificently when tied to a chair. You should try it sometime.”

“I brought you some breakfast,” Janelle continued as though Carey’s answer had been much more civil. She nodded at the full tray balanced on her unbroken arm. Carey opened her mouth, determined to refuse, but a loud growl from her stomach forced her to reconsider. Taking her silence as consent, Janelle nodded at Samantha to untie her hands.

“You can leave us,” she said firmly after Samantha had thrust the tray so hard onto Carey’s lap she felt slightly winded. The other woman scowled, but did not argue as she swept from the room.

Carey ate quickly, shooting Janelle dirty looks at every opportunity. Sadly, she seemed unaffected by Carey’s attempts to make her uncomfortable, simply dragging a chair over from the other side of the room and sitting directly in front of her.

“Do you ever wish your life could be better?” she asked.

Carey rolled her eyes, swallowing her mouthful of scrambled eggs. “Of course I do. I’m tied to a chair and being held hostage by a bunch of crazy people who think they stand a chance against the Gifted.”

Janelle’s cheeks flushed slightly, but she stood her ground. “I – I didn’t mean right now. I’m talking about your life in your village. Didn’t it annoy you when they took away your earnings? If you have siblings, I’m sure you were frightened on their Assessment Days… Aren’t you angry that our world is like this?”

“I…” Carey gulped, refusing to look her in the eye. “Of course it annoys me. But that’s the way things are, we can’t change them. I – I’ve seen what the Gifted are like, they’re - Do you really think your group has even the slightest chance against them? 2 – Er, one of the other Gifted told me that nearly half of your group died at the Lake Village!”

Janelle shrugged, her face suddenly draining of colour.

“We don’t have much of a chance,” she said softly, crossing her fingers tightly in her lap. “I know that. But if we don’t do anything, things will never change. So even if the odds are never in our favour, we have to try. I have to try, I just…”

She leaned forward, her curly red hair falling across her face. “My sister… No. She was my daughter. She was taken by the Gifted when she was only ten months old. My parents were dead, her father left me when I was pregnant… Amy was all I had, and they took her from me.”

Carey squirmed slightly, nearly knocking over her chair as she tried to lean away. “That’s – that’s very sad. But –“

“I want you to know,” Janelle said quietly, placing her hand on Carey’s shoulder. “You need to understand how much this mission means to people like me. If you have information about the Gifted, you could help us. And – and if you tell us something, I’ll let you go. I’ll even find someone to take you to the Southern Villages. Surely there’s at least one person in this place who knows how to get to your village.”

Carey blinked. “Wait… If I tell you stuff, you’ll set me free?”

“Yes,” Janelle said, nodding as if to further drive in her point.

“But aren’t you afraid I’m a spy or something?” she asked, her eyebrows knotting slightly. “I thought you didn’t trust me.”

The older woman shrugged, pushing a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I don’t know. I think I can trust you. When I met you at the Lake Village, I thought you weren’t like an ordinary Gifted. And Samantha’s right, you just don’t act like they do. Sure, it could be part of some plan of theirs, but… I don’t think the Gifted work like that. Sanctuaries like this are illegal anyway; if they knew we were here they’d just kill us, not send in a spy. We’re such a small group, they would crush us instantly if they were in the position too.”

She looked away from Carey, her eyes falling onto the spare chairs and tables that lined the left wall of the basement. Carey watched her closely, a strange swooping feeling in her stomach.

“I… It was about four months ago,” she heard herself say, staring at the thick ropes tied around her waist. “I was just an ordinary villager back then, I wasn’t – I was nonGifted, like you. But the night before Assessment Day I was getting some water, and a man jumped out of the shadows and attacked me. I was so frightened, and - and somehow I turned myself invisible.”

A soft thumping noise sounded from the far left corner of the basement, startling both of them. Carey looked over nervously. It was empty, but for some reason she noticed there almost seemed to be a blue tinge to that part of the wall, even though the rest of the room was painted a dull grey colour. 

“Anyway…” she continued, still staring at the corner. “Um, my brother was due to be Assessed the next day. I tried to keep away from the house, but I didn’t stay out for long enough. The Assessor, he – he found me, and took me back to the Council. They trained me to be one of them and I’ve been there ever since. But I managed to escape, obviously.”

Janelle’s cheeks were pale as she processed this information. “In – Invisible?”

Carey nodded, smiling ruefully as she demonstrated, the ropes around her appearing to float in mid-air as her body disappeared.

“They said it’s called the Gift of Stealth.”

“The Gift of Stealth,” Janelle echoed, her eyes narrowed in thought. “I didn’t think there were any more Gifts other than the elemental ones…”

Carey did her best to shrug despite the ropes around her chest restricting movement. “Neither did I.”

“There’s so much we still don’t…” Janelle’s voice trailed off, and she continued to mutter to herself for some time. “Um... Is there anything you can tell us about the Gifted and the Council? Do they have any weaknesses?”

Weaknesses… The Gifted are so powerful, I don’t think they have any. I only escaped from them because –

“They do have one weakness,” Carey said slowly, clenching her fists so hard the tips of her fingers began to turn white. “Underneath it all, they’re still human.”

Janelle opened her mouth, her eyebrows knotted, but she closed it again when she saw Carey’s sullen expression.

“Thanks for your help,” she said eventually. “Is there –“

“Janelle?”

She turned around, her red curls nearly hitting Carey in the face as she did so. “Samantha. What is it?”

The other woman descended the steps into the basement, gesturing to the long, thin package she was carrying. “My brother finished making the new recruit’s sword.”

“Really?” Janelle said doubtfully. “I only told him last night.”

“He said he had nothing else to do, so he pulled an all-nighter.”

Samantha strode past her, glaring at Carey as though she were infected with a contagious disease. “Have you gotten anything out of her yet?”

“Yes,” Janelle replied, mouthing the word ‘sorry’ to Carey over her friend’s shoulder. “She’s been very helpful.”

No I haven’t. I only told her one useless thing…

 “I’ll be back in a bit,” Janelle continued, oblivious to Carey’s doubt. “If you have anything else that you think could be useful, I’d – I’d really appreciate if you told us.”

Carey shook her head glumly. “No. There’s nothing.”

“Okay,” the older woman said, surprising Carey with her lack of resistance. “Samantha, untie her and let her go. I’ll find someone to take you back to the south. I don’t think it’ll be that simple for you to go home, but… I promised.”

She smiled one more time before making her way slowly up the stairs on her crutches. Carey stared at her retreating back, biting her lip. I know she’s right. The Gifted are probably watching them…

“Wait,” she blurted out, leaning forward. The legs of her chair scraped loudly along the floor as she did so.

Janelle turned around, wobbling dangerously on the step. “What?”

Carey swallowed, staring at her clenched fists. “I – I want to join you. You’re right, they’ll be watching my family… The only way I can go home is if they’re defeated. I don’t think you have much of a chance, but a little is better than none, so I’ll help you.”

Janelle grinned broadly, even triumphantly. Any good feelings Carey had for her after their interaction that morning vanished in an instant. She was planning this all along, wasn’t she? And I fell for it. Again. She’s more cunning than I thought… But that doesn’t change the fact this may be my only chance to go home.

“There’s no choice,” she said, her teeth gritted. “Can you set me free now?”

“Certainly,” Janelle said, still grinning. Her smugness only infuriated Carey further, but she held her tongue even though she felt like screaming abuse at her smirking face. “Samantha, you can untie her now. Come and find me upstairs when you’re done, I’ll introduce you to everyone.”

She hobbled back up the stairs and disappeared into the main room of the inn while Samantha set Carey free.

“Thanks,” she muttered as she stood up at last, stretching and stifling a yawn. She made to leave but Samantha grabbed her arm, her grip so tight she Carey was certain she was cutting off her circulation.

“What?” she asked, giving the older woman the best glare she could manage. Samantha smiled, her grey eyes shining almost wickedly.

“I thought you might want to change out of that uniform,” she said smoothly. “There are spare clothes in here, somewhere… I don’t think Rosa’s customers will be very happy to see a Gifted among them.”

“Plenty of them saw me before,” Carey pointed out, but she helped Samantha rummage through the storage boxes until they found an ugly, musty smelling brown dress. She changed into it, rejoicing the feeling of wearing ordinary clothes again even though the dress was a little tight.

“Let’s go,” she said happily, running up the stairs to the ground floor. She watched the inn’s customers with glee as they talked and laughed loudly, most with a drink in hand. Carey closed her eyes and flooded her mind with memories of the hours she and Wesley had spent playing, pretending to be people like the ones who stood before her now. They were looked down on by the villagers as immature daredevils, but in her mind there was only one that mattered: they were free.

Do I really want things to go back to normal?

Carey shivered slightly at the thought. She knew it was wrong to think like that, but there was no denying that in the past four months her life had changed radically. She had a purpose now, a goal in life: to get away from the Gifted and go home. There were escapes to plan, people to fool, skills to learn - every day had been a challenge. Back at home, her days were mostly the same: chores in the morning, muck around with Wesley, help her parents with the children…

Do I really want to go back to that life?

No matter how much she had hated being held captive by the Gifted, life had certainly been more exciting since she had left home.

Carey shivered slightly, still watching the inn’s activity. It seemed distant, far away. A life she wasn’t supposed to have.

If I were still at home, my parents would expect me to be married within the next year. I’m nearly nineteen, that’s almost an old age to start looking for a husband.

Carey grimaced, a burning feeling in her chest. That was the life she was supposed to have – she was meant to find a man, preferably one who was set to inherit a farm. When they were married she would be expected to live on his farm and have his children. Carey screwed up her nose at the thought. She and babies had never been a good mix. It wasn’t that she disliked children, but children certainly didn’t like her – her younger brothers and sisters were a prime example of that. She had always dreaded the day when she would be expected to leave home and have a family of her own.

A hand slid onto her shoulder. Carey jumped violently, turning around to see Samantha standing behind her.

“Janelle’s over there,” she said, pointing. Carey scanned the crowd, locating her bright red hair among the masses. Janelle was standing next to a tall, gangly looking man with the tanned skin of the farming villages. She presented him with the long, thin package, and he responded enthusiastically by enveloping her in a suffocating hug.

Samantha steered Carey through the crowd while Janelle attempted to haul him off.

“Reagan, I told you to stop doing that,” she said when she at last got him off her.

“Sorry,” he said, his hazel eyes twinkling. “I just –“

“Hello,” Samantha interrupted stiffly. Janelle, on the other hand, almost glowed when she noticed Carey.  

“I should introduce you to everyone,” she said brightly. “This is Reagan. He only joined us yesterday.”

She gestured at the man beside her. He shook her hand with the same enthusiasm he had shown when hugging Janelle, but Carey noticed he would not look her in the eye.

“It’s an honour to meet you! Your name is…?”

“Carey,” she said as he nearly tore her arm off.

He met her gaze at last, smiling nervously. Janelle took her by the arm and led her off to meet someone else, but Carey kept her eyes fixed on Reagan. There was something about him that seemed off, something she couldn’t quite figure out.

 “There’s only two more now,” Janelle said over her shoulder after introducing Carey to about five others. Her heart sank a little as they approached the bar again. Ten people… If you could Janelle, Samantha, Reagan, those five and the other two that’s all they have. There’s no way I’m ever going to go home.

“Marvin, this is Carey,” Janelle said in the same proud voice as they approached a man at the counter. He was fairly tall, with soft brown hair and a lined face. Carey put his age at around forty. He grinned warmly at her, which brought a small smile to her lips. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt like his was the only genuine smile she had received all morning.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand. “I didn’t get to introduce myself before, in the basement. I’m Marvin.”

“Nice to meet you,” Carey repeated.

He gestured to the blonde woman behind the bar, who bowed her head. “This is my sister, Rosa.”

“Adoptive sister,” Janelle chimed in. Marvin glared at her while Rosa chuckled, shaking her head. “That’s payback. Maybe you should think about that before you doubt me the next time, huh? I got her to join us! Admit it. I’m a little competent.”

Marvin rolled his eyes, but he kept smiling all the same. “Fine, you’re a little competent.”

They both burst out laughing. Carey shuffled her feet awkwardly, grabbing her left wrist and squeezing it hard.

“Where’s my room?” she said hoarsely.

“Um…” Janelle began, glancing round at her again. “I’ll show you in a second, I just – Marvin, there’s something I need to ask you. Do you – do you think we should move somewhere else? I mean, Rosa’s inn has been great, but I’m worried about the Gifted -”

“I agree,” he interrupted, patting her on the shoulder. “I’m worried too. Especially since the Lake Village… For all we know, one of our allies was taken hostage rather than killed.”

Janelle gulped. “O – Okay. So should we move? Now?”

“What about when your ankle’s better?” he suggested, glancing at Carey. “Anyway, we can discuss this later. You should show Carey her –“

“I’ll show her,” Samantha said aggressively. Before Janelle and Marvin could react she grabbed Carey by the arm and dragged her through the crowd to the staircase.

“I can walk myself,” she complained, pulling her wrist away as they made their way up the stairs. Samantha scowled, stomping up the steps to the first floor landing.

“This is it,” she said gruffly as she opened a door right at the end of the corridor.

It was a small room, but was cozy and welcoming compared to her cold, draughty room at the Council. There was a small, single bed in the far right corner with a simple mahogany blanket covering it. Next to it was a beside table with a number of different coloured candles perched on top. There was even a large wardrobe leaning against the opposite wall. Carey opened it to find several spare blankets and old coats inside.

“Thanks,” she said as she closed the wardrobe door, her gaze falling on the bed. It was still quite early in the morning but she had never seen a bed look so inviting. Just think, when I wake up I can eat good food, not the bland stuff from the Council… I can get up whenever I want to, and do whatever I want. It’s a start of a brand new adventure in a way.

Carey took a step toward the bed, eager for the adventure to begin. Before she could get any further Samantha stepped in front of her, pressing the same unusual dagger she had used the previous morning against her belly.

“We’re on the same side,” Carey said angrily as she slid the blade along her dress, tearing it. “Why are you –“

“We’re not on the same side,” Samantha said coldly, reaching forward with her left hand and grabbing Carey’s neck. Carey coughed as she was pushed into the wardrobe, but she kept her gaze firm and defiant.

“If you tell anyone about that story I will kill you without question,” she said, so quietly Carey almost couldn’t hear. “It was foolish of me to tell it, I should have – it doesn’t matter. If you tell anyone, especially Janelle, I will kill you. Is that clear?”

She nodded, unable to speak. Samantha released her and stowed the knife away on her belt before storming from the room without another word. 

21: Love and Loyalty
Love and Loyalty

256 had to run a little to keep up with the older man, whose steps were equal to about three of his own. He sniffed loudly, wiping his nose as he hurried along behind him.

I miss her so much…They said I’d never see her again. But how long does that mean? Is it really forever?

“Stop crying,” the man said over his shoulder. 256 swallowed and tried to gulp back his tears, but these stern words from his senior Gifted only made it worse. His steps slowed to a stop and he sunk to the floor, sobbing.

“P – Please, let me see her,” he begged. “I’ll be good, I won’t –“

His senior knelt down before him and took his hand. 256 fell to his knees, coughing violently as his mouth filled with water. His chest heaved painfully as he tried to expel the water from his throat and lungs.

“I told you to stop,” the man said coldly as he let go, pulling out a small rag and wiping the little boy’s face once all the water had dribbled from his mouth. 256 nodded, biting the inside of his cheek to stop himself from crying again.

“You should be grateful,” the older Gifted said as they continued to make their way through the winding corridors of the Council. “It’s better for you that they found out about this sooner rather than later. Seven is too young to be punished.”

“But I –“

“If you’d been discovered in a few years you’d both be in the Cells right now,” the man continued as though 256 had not spoken. “So count yourself lucky.”

256 swallowed, clenching his small fists. He knew his senior was right, but try as he might he could not help but picture 913’s face when she had been in the Chamber. His year had been made to watch. Of course, he had watched many punishments before but this time was different – it was someone he knew, and it was his fault she was there.

“We’re here,” the man said quietly as he stopped outside one of the many doors in the east wing of the Council. He grabbed 256 by the shoulders and steered him inside.

A young boy and a woman were training with wooden swords in the middle of the room. 256 recognised the boy; they slept in the same dormitory and were both in their seventh year.

“Yes?” his new trainer said when she noticed 256 and his senior enter. She lowered her wooden sword and ordered the boy to do the same. He did as she asked, but his eyes were fixed on 256.

“I’ve brought you the boy,” the Gifted man said, giving 256 a slight push so he was forced to step forward. “You’ll be training him from now on, as their Gift educations don’t clash. We’ve got a shortage of trainers in their year group, and this boy’s trainer was deemed unsuitable so you’ll be taking over.”

913… She wasn’t unsuitable, she was –

“What’s your number?”

256 quickly wiped his nose as the older woman approached him. “2 – 256.”

“I’m 5491,” his new trainer said, her lips slightly pursed. “For today, you’ll be joining 440’s training. Starting tomorrow you’ll be in the afternoon.”

256 nodded, gulping. In the distance, the boy’s dark gaze was still fixed on him.

“Be careful with this one,” his senior said as he made to leave. “Make sure he doesn’t cry.”

5491 nodded, turning around and picking up her wooden sword. She gave it to 256, her gaze so stern he almost burst into tears again.

“Generally you don’t get to spar with each other until your tenth year,” his trainer said airily. “You two are lucky, I suppose.”

I would have preferred to stay with 913… He couldn’t hold it in any longer and tears spilled from his eyes as he remembered the sounds of her screams and yells as she was punished. 256 had tried to clamp his hands over his ears and shut his eyes, but they had forced his arms behind his back and pushed his eyelids open. It’s my fault… Why did I go running to her after that scary dream? I’m in my seventh year, I should be brave enough to cope with nightmares!

“256, draw your sword,” 5491 said, frowning at him.

He sniffed, wiping his nose and holding his wooden sword shakily out in front of him. He pointed it at the other boy, who was still watching him very closely.

“Okay. 440, you go first. 256, do your best to defend yourself.”

256 pushed thoughts of 913 from his mind. However, before he could concentrate and get himself properly in position 440 had dived at him, hitting him repeatedly over the head.

“Hey,” 256 stammered, dropping his sword with a loud thud and holding his hands over his head. He stepped back a few paces but 440 was faster, his blows only increasing in strength.

“St – stop it, please!” he begged as a strike sent him falling to the floor. 440 ignored him, instead taking the opportunity to whack him on the nose. Blood streamed down his face and onto his uniform.

“440, stop,” 5491 said quietly, putting her hand on his shoulder. He did as his trainer asked, hitting 256 one last time on the back. By this stage he was howling, his tears mixing with the blood from his nose.

“Get up.”

256 shook his head, still sobbing. He didn’t want to get up, he didn’t want to keep training… All he wanted was 913. She was his trainer, not this woman. But 5491 took no notice, striding over and grabbing him by the collar so tightly he felt like he was going to choke. She dragged him to his feet.

“Out there you won’t have someone to tell your attacker to stop,” she said coldly. “If you curl up in a ball and cry, they’ll kill you. I don’t know what method your old trainer used, but she was wrong. She’s turned you into a weakling.”

She pushed the little boy back onto the ground and strode away, snatching up both of the wooden swords. “440, take him to the medical ward. I have more important things to deal with than crying children… 256, I shall see you tomorrow afternoon. If you’re still crying by then I will show no mercy.”

She stashed the wooden swords back in the supplies box and strode from the room.

“Come on,” 440 muttered, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him to his feet. He dragged 256 through the corridors until they reached another small room. However, instead of an empty floor with various training implements lined up on the walls, this room had a number of small, unoccupied beds on either side.

A medical Servant jumped to attention when the two boys entered, quickly bandaging 256’s head where one of 440’s strikes had drawn blood and giving him a large rag to hold under his nose. The Servant led him to one of the beds and made him lie down before hurrying off to get him some water.

“I’m sorry for making you bleed,” 440 said sheepishly as he perched on the end of the bed. “I… Well, you saw what she’s like.”

256 sniffed, pressing the rag further against his nose. “It’s okay. I d – deserve it.”

440 tilted his head slightly so his unruly, dirty blonde hair fell to the side. “Why are you so sad?”

“N – no reason.”

440 grinned, shuffling up the bed and tapping him lightly on the shoulder. “You’re a crybaby.”

“No I’m not!” 256 insisted. “I’m crying because… My trainer…”

He couldn’t finish, tears spilling from his eyes again.

“That woman we watched the other day,” 440 said, fiddling with his sleeve. “Was that her?”

256 swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut as he nodded. “They say I have to have a new trainer. B – But I don’t want a new one, I want her!”

The other boy reached out and patted him on the back gently. Even though they were almost strangers, 256 found the gesture very comforting. “5491 isn’t so bad if you do what she asks. At least you didn’t get punished.”

He paused, his lips stretching into a grin. “What’s your Gift, anyway?”

256 blushed. “Um… Fire. I only got it a month ago.”

“Poor you,” 440 said, slapping him on the back so hard he coughed. “Mine’s Air. It appeared nearly a year ago now.”

“Lucky,” 256 said wistfully. He wished he had gotten something cool like Air or Water. Instead he was stuck with Fire, which meant he was considered unstable and dangerous.

“Hey, yours isn’t that bad. At least you didn’t get Earth.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. Everyone knows Earth powers are the stupid ones.

“I’m cool and powerful,” said 440 proudly. “You’re just unstable.”

"I’m not unstable. You’re unstable!”

440 grinned, a wicked glint in his dark eyes. “You’re just saying that so you feel better.”

He snatched the rag from under 256’s nose before he could argue further.

“Hey, that’s mine!”

“It’s stopped bleeding now. But your face is all covered in it, here.”

440 wiped the other boy’s face, scrubbing the dried blood of his chin and lips. 256 reached up and touched his nose when he had finished.

“Thank you,” he said, smiling happily as he felt his clean face.

Friends.

440 blushed, looking away from him in embarrassment. “It’s – it’s nothing. I’d better go. Air training starts soon.”

Friends... We were friends, that's all. There was nothing we did, it was what we were.

“Okay,” 256 said, still smiling. “See you later.”

440 grinned toothily as he jumped to his feet. He scratched the back of his head and waved shyly. “See you later.”

Why did I make friends? Why didn’t I learn from my mistakes? And now we’ve both been punished for it…

256 opened his eyes slowly. He was no longer in the small medical ward on the eastern side of the Council. Instead he was lying on the floor of a dark, damp Cell located deep below the building.

He was not quite sure how long he had been in here. There was no light in his Cell, so it was almost impossible to tell what time of day it was or how many had passed.

256 shivered, both from the cold and the memories plaguing him. It had been a long time since he had thought of those days. After their punishment, he had done his best to suppress his memories of the time they had spent together. Remembering them had only brought him pain. But since he had been in this Cell the memories kept coming back with increasing clarity.

Last time, that’s how I coped. I forced myself to forget huge chunks of my childhood. Even though they’re happy memories, after we were punished they became unbearable. 440… He was my friend. My only friend, and yet I – he hates me now. And Carey…

256 pushed himself off the ground into a sitting position. He covered his face with his hands, tears dripping between his fingers. A dull pain from his abdomen reminded him of the punishment he had endured over the past few weeks because of his attachment to her. He knew what he had to do – he had to forget about her so he could continue to do his duty to the Gifted. But the horrible, selfish part of his heart was unwilling to obey. It wanted him to remember not just Carey, but 440 and 913 as well.

Why do I feel this way? It’s wrong, it’s – I have to forget. Punishment was supposed to make me forget, but I -

A sudden loud noise sent his senses into overdrive. 256 scrambled into the back corner of his Cell, hiding his head in his hands.

Not again, I thought it was over, I thought I was safe!

“Leave me alone,” he stammered as his door began to open. “I’ve been good, I – I’ve learnt my lesson. You don’t need to –“

“Relax.” He heard footsteps approaching; suddenly there were hands around his wrists, prising them apart. 256 glanced up, terrified. Instead of the Servants who had come to collect him each day, a tall man wearing the standard Gifted uniform was crouched in front of him.

“It’s over,” the man said quietly. He reached under 256’s armpits and hauled him to his feet, supporting his weight as he led him from his Cell.

“Take him to be treated,” the man instructed the three Servants outside his door. “Bring him to recovery room four. The Leader and I will be waiting in there.”

The Leader… Panic rose within him as the Servants took him away. They washed and dressed him in a fresh uniform before tending to his wounds, placing bandages where they were needed and applying phenol to the large gash on his stomach. However, 256 barely noticed the pain as the alcohol seared his open flesh. It felt like he would never feel anything again.

Once he was patched up the Servants took him to the recovery room the Gifted man had specified. They brought him food, but 256 was too distracted to eat. It was only after the Servants forced some into his mouth and massaged his throat until he swallowed that he became more compliant. He ate the rest of the meal by himself while he waited for the Leader to arrive.

What could they want from me? Maybe they are going to kill me. Carey’s power was something the Gifted hadn’t seen for centuries… And I let her go, I let her power slip through the fingers of the Council.

His less rational side, the side he should really have learnt to ignore by now, told him he had done the right thing. If I had just let her die, I would never have been able to live with myself… I did the right thing, I’m sure of it. But I betrayed my people doing it.

256 rubbed his forehead, trying his best to make these thoughts disappear. He was supposed to have learnt his lesson, to have forgotten and moved on… But the two sides of his mind were waging a bloody war, and he was caught in the crossfire. Being punished was supposed to set him back on the right track, but it had just left him as confused as ever.

I said I wanted to do my duty. Well, I failed at that, didn’t I? I made mistakes in the past with 440 and 913, sure… But I never openly defied the Gifted, I never let a prisoner escape!

“Good afternoon,” the Leader said breezily as she strode through the door, the Gifted man from earlier close behind. 256 jumped violently when she spoke, knocking his tray of food from his lap. The Leader acted as if nothing had happened, perching in the chair across from his bed as though it were a throne.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, crossing her legs.

256 blinked, glancing at the man. He was leaning against the wall, his grey eyes fixed on the Leader. “I’m – I’m better, I guess. Thank you for asking.”

The Leader nodded, leaning forward slightly. The indifference in her eyes suddenly turned into contempt.

“You do realise the severity of what you’ve done?” she said coldly, her voice dangerously quiet.

“I –“

“If it were up to me, you would have been killed immediately. But the Council believes that we must give second chances, or even thirds.”

She sighed, swishing her long, reddish-brown ponytail over her shoulder. “Admittedly, I can see their point. There are only so many Gifted born each year; we can’t afford to kill them after disobeying us once. Our numbers would be even lower than they are now.”

The Leader stood up suddenly, striding over to his bed and grabbing his chin between her fingers. She pulled his head toward her, forcing him to stare into her cold grey eyes.

“Rest assured, you will be killed if you fail again.”

“Yes, ma’am,” 256 stammered. She smiled, her teeth surprisingly white. The Leader pushed him back against his pillows before moving to the end of his bed. She rested her hands on the rail, her fingers turning white.

“This rebellion in the north…” she began, her voice eerily quiet. “It has given people courage. A strange… belief that they can defy us without consequences. We’re closing in on the group themselves, but there have been a few more uprisings, a few more… Well, 805 here will fill you in on the details.”

256 glanced up at the Gifted man. He bowed his head slightly, his eyes still fixed on the Leader.

“As soon as you’re fit, you will be leaving with him,” she continued. “805 is one of our next candidates to join the Council, so he is more than capable of being your supervisor. You will be accompanying him on a mission that will take you far from the Council.”

She paused, and for a moment 256 thought he saw something like pity etched in her eyes. “I just hope you can remember who raised you, 256. Without the Gifted, you are nothing. You will be killed if you forget that again.”

She let go of the rail and muttered something to the Gifted man. He nodded and she left, leaving the two of them alone.

256 watched his new supervisor nervously. If he had to describe him in one word, intimidating was the first thing that came to mind. The man was very tall, standing at what must have been at least six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and a strong build to match. His forehead had a few deep wrinkles and his hair, though thick and dark, was dusted with grey. Because of this 256 reasoned he was probably in his late forties.

“My number is 805,” his supervisor said, holding out his hand.

“I’m 256,” he said hoarsely as he shook the older man’s hand, noting the brown colour of his sleeves. A Gift of Earth… I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Council member being a Gift of Earth before. He must be a superb fighter to have gotten so far even with that Gift. But it’s more than that. I bet he’s never formed any attachments when he shouldn’t have... And here I am, in my eighteenth year -

“Are you coming?” 805 was waiting at the door expectantly.

“Yes,” 256 said quickly as he slid his legs out of bed. His legs wobbled when he tried to stand and an aching pain shot up from his abdomen. He gritted his teeth, determined not to embarrass himself in front of this senior Gifted, but he collapsed after only a few steps.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, clutching his stomach. “I’ll be up in a…”

His voice trailed off as 805 strode over and picked him up so that his face was squashed into his chest.

“H – Hey…”

 805 hitched him up further. “The carriage is waiting for us. I know you’re not very strong at the moment… We’ll be travelling for a few days, so please use the time to eat and build up your strength. This mission is very important, I can’t waste time waiting for you to get better.”

With that he strode off, carrying 256 out of the recovery room and through the winding corridors of the Council. 256 could feel himself going red as they passed other Gifted, most of whom looked like they were going to burst out laughing when they saw the two of them.

This is so embarrassing… And why am I going with him anyway if this mission is so important? Aren’t I just a liability to him?

“They’re testing you,” 805 said suddenly, almost as though he had read his mind. “Actually, it’s more like they’re testing me. The Council probably wants you to get killed in an accident, since you’re a liability alive. But they also want to test me, to see how I deal with you if you break the rules again. If I do what they want they’ll probably promote me.”

He stopped in the middle of the hall, much to the annoyance of all the Gifted and Servants hurrying along behind them. His stark grey eyes were fixed on 256, who suddenly realised he had never spoken to a Gift of Earth like this since his childhood. They tended to keep to themselves to avoid ridicule from the rest of the Gifted.

“You - you don’t have to carry me…”

“Listen to me,” 805 continued quietly as though he had not spoken. “I know what you’ve done, and I don’t care.”

He lowered 256 to the ground gently, keeping a firm grip on his shoulders so he stayed upright. Even though there were still Gifted and Servants hurrying in both directions along the small, dusty corridor, 256 felt like they were completely alone.

“Do you understand?” 805 asked.

“No,” he admitted.

“If you make a mistake, I will deal with it accordingly. But I’m not going to kill you for the smallest slip-up, like the Leader wants me to. I’ll kill you if you break the rules as severely as you have previously, but not for anything less than that. So please, just act normally around me. If you’re cautious and afraid, you won’t be of any use for me on this mission. Is that clear?”

“Um… Yes,” 256 lied, still confused. He’s nothing like the members of the Council. Is he really their next choice?

“I have no interest in joining the Council,” 805 said as he began leading 256 away. “If the Leader wishes me to join, I will… But the politics of it doesn’t interest me. I just want to do my duty.”

They walked through the corridors and out the front doors in silence. I suppose in a way, he is like me. We both want to do our duty. But he was successful… And I wasn’t.

256 climbed inside the carriage, closing his tired eyes as they set off into the world beyond the Council. He knew what he had to do. He had to forget about them, even Carey.

I was foolish. I can never be someone’s son, someone's brother, someone’s friend, someone’s lover… My loyalty is the only thing that matters, the only thing that makes me who I am.

“Without it, I am nothing,” he muttered under his breath.

22: Compassion and Ruthlessness
Compassion and Ruthlessness

256 woke up, stretching and yawning. He opened his eyes warily to find himself back in his cell.

“No…” he whispered, pushing himself into the far wall. Dark shapes hovered outside, pushing their way through the bars as though they were nothing and diving towards him.

The cell dissolved and he was back in that room again, bound down by ropes. Figures stood above him, their knives gliding through the air and slicing his flesh, over and over…

“No!” he yelled, the ropes falling off him as he bolted upright. He glanced around, panicking, but the room was gone. It’s over… You’re okay, you’re safe, you’re…

“Are you alright?”

He glanced upwards, his lungs heaving. 805 sat on the bench across from him, watching him intently.

“I’m – I’m fine,” 256 muttered, attempting a smile. 805 nodded, leaning back against the wall of the carriage and rummaging in the bulging drawstring bag on the seat beside him. He pulled out two flasks, offering 256 the larger one.

“Thanks,” he mumbled as he accepted it. He took a sip, the cool water sliding down his sore throat with ease. Once 805 saw he had taken a drink, he raised his own flask to his lips and took a long swig. They had barely spoken in the few days since leaving the Council. I don’t even know what our mission is yet...

But he knew he could not ask. I have to be on my best behaviour, I have to –

“I meant what I said before.”

256 jumped, spilling the remaining contents of his flask all over himself and the floor.

“I’m sorry,” he stammered. He groped inside his own bag for a cloth and began to clean it up, his hands shaking.

 “I meant what I said before,” 805 repeated as 256 stuffed the rag away, still muttering his apologies. “Just act normally around me.”

256 nodded, gulping. He desperately wanted to ask why, if 805 was so concerned with doing his duty to the Council, he would not act on their wishes and kill him the minute he showed weakness.

I can’t… For all I know, this is just a test, and he really will kill me if I make a mistake. But I…

 “I…” 256 began, clenching his fists. He knew it was reckless, but he couldn’t resist. “If – If you want to do your duty to the Leader and the Council, why won’t you – why won’t you do what they want and kill me when I slip up?”

805 shrugged, staring out the window at the trees whizzing past. “I don’t always agree with the Council’s methods. Most of the time I’ll obey anyway even if I don’t like what I’ve been asked to do, but this is something I won’t budge on.”

256 nodded, even though he didn’t really understand. 805 smiled slightly, looking away from the window at last and fixing his gaze on 256. His eyes were a stark, weary grey. 256 got the feeling he had seen a lot in his lifetime, things 256 couldn’t even begin to understand.

“Both your punishments were for getting attached to someone, weren’t they?”

“Um… Yes. But the second one was more than that. I let a prisoner escape, because I… I tried, but I couldn’t…”

His voice trailed off. 256 grabbed hold of the end of the bench, gripping it tightly. “I know I deserved it. Attachments are… They’re a weakness. I knew that, and yet I still let myself form them. But I’ve learnt my lesson. All I want now is to do my duty.”

He said the last part very quickly. 805 sighed, looking away from him and staring out of the window again.

“I agree,” he said, almost wistfully. “Attachments are a weakness. But they’re just a part of human nature. We can try all we want to resist it, but we’ll always crave the company of others… The love of others.”

256 gave a sharp intake of breath. That word was rarely uttered amongst the Gifted, and hearing it from the mouth of a senior Gifted like 805 was almost unheard of.

“If we take this into consideration, how can we punish people for something so natural?” he continued, seemingly oblivious to 256’s shock. “Anyway, that’s why I won’t punish you for the slightest mistake. I believe you only should have been punished for letting a prisoner go.”

He took another swig from his flask, exhaling loudly as he lowered it. 256 was left wondering how a man with these views had become such a senior member of the Gifted community. And why is he –

“I’m telling you this because you remind me of myself when I was your age,” he said, almost as if he’d read his mind.

256 knotted his eyebrows. How can he possibly see himself in me? After all, they were nearly opposites – 805 was tall, strong, and respected in the Gifted community. Obviously he had never formed any attachments or shown any weakness of any kind. In comparison 256 was a small, relatively feeble eighteen year-old who had already been punished twice for getting attached.

They travelled for the rest of the day without sharing another word until the sun set and the carriage slowed to a stop. 805 stood up and grabbed his bag, bowing his head due to the low ceiling.

“We’re continuing the rest of the journey on foot,” he said, offering his hand. “Are you okay to walk?”

256 nodded, taking his hand and letting 805 pull him to his feet. He tried to lift up his own bag, dropping it almost instantly.

“Where are we going?” he asked, gritting his teeth and attempting to lift it again.

805 ignored his question, taking 256’s bag after he had dropped it for the third time and slinging it over his shoulder as he left the carriage. 256 followed as quickly as he could, beginning to think that 805 just liked being mysterious.

They were standing in the middle of a long, dusty road, surrounded by a dark forest on either side. 256 hoped 805 knew where they were, as he certainly didn’t have a clue.

805 crouched on the ground as the carriage set off without them, rummaging through his bag again. He pulled out a crumpled-looking map, holding it up to the moonlight and squinting at it. After a minute or so he stuffed it in his pocket and strode off into the forest. 256 limped after him, trying not to trip over bushes and twigs in the dark.

They walked for about an hour. By the time they stopped to rest 256’s legs were burning and he was bright red in the face from exhaustion. He sat down on a fallen tree trunk, panting and clutching his side.

“I’m sorry for slowing you down,” he managed between breaths. 805 did not reply, his grey eyes fixed on something in the distance.

“There’s someone out there,” he said, his voice barely audible.

A small figure was hurrying through the forest in the distance. Their bright mass of red hair made them easy to spot.

“Follow me,” he said quietly, reaching into a small pouch on his belt. He grabbed a handful of a lumpy grey material, clasping his hands around it tightly. When he opened them a beautiful diamond knife sat in his palm. He grasped the handle and broke into a sprint, diving over bushes and dodging trees. 256 followed as best he could, even though his lungs were screaming for relief.

As they got closer he saw that the figure was a young woman hurrying through the forest. She was clutching something to her chest and kept looked nervously over her shoulder, but she did not notice the two Gifted making their way toward her.

805 stopped behind a large tree, glancing around at her. He knelt to the ground and placed his free hand on the forest floor. The earth began to move beneath his palm, uprooting shrubbery as it snaked its way between the trees, making its way toward the young traveller. She stumbled when the soil crumbled beneath her, dropping the small bag she had been clutching so tightly. The woman cried out, scrambling toward the bag even though it was almost impossible for her to keep her footing.

As soon as 805’s palm left the ground the earth stopped moving. He sprinted toward the woman, grabbing her by the collar and pinning her to the ground, pressing his diamond knife to her throat before she could get up.

“Do you have permission to leave your village?” he asked quietly as she struggled beneath him. 256 shifted; the defiant look in her bright blue eyes reminded him uncomfortably of Carey.

“Yes,” the woman said simply.

“Who gave it to you?” he asked. “If you really have permission they would’ve given you a letter with a seal from the Council.”

“I must have lost it,” she snapped, spitting in his face.

“Lying won’t help you,” he said coldly, not even bothering to wipe it away. He pressed the dagger further against her neck. Small beads of blood began to pool on the blade.

“No!” she yelled, kneeing him in the belly. He grunted as she frantically got to her feet, tearing off into the surrounding forest with the bag clutched close to her chest. 805 threw his hand onto the ground and the soil crumbled beneath her again. He grabbed her as she lost her footing, pressing her against a nearby tree with the tip of his knife positioned under her chin.

“If you resist, it will be more painful,” he said, gripping the handle tightly.

The woman looked frightened now. “Please… My – my baby, he’s very ill, he’s – the only chance I have to cure him is to give him medicine made from these herbs. You – you can’t get them in my village, I had no –“

“It doesn’t matter. You broke the rules.”

805 positioned himself to slice her throat.

“Please!” she begged, tears rolling down her cheeks as she tried to pull away without any success. “Please, I’ll do anything… Anything you want, just – just let me go. He needs me, he – please! Don’t you have any compassion?”

805 stared into her blue eyes, his hand shaking. For a second 256 thought he was going to let her go, but he squeezed his eyes shut and swept the blade across her neck. The woman coughed, dropping her bag at last as blood bubbled from her throat, spraying all over his face and uniform.

“No, I don’t,” 805 muttered, letting her go. The woman crumpled to the floor beside her bag, her once lively blue eyes vacant, unseeing.

256’s stomach swooped as he watched the older man transform the dagger back into graphite and stow it away.

So that’s how he got into his position, even though he’s a Gift of Earth… He’s ruthless.

805 wiped the blood from his face and continued their walk through the forest as though nothing had happened. 256 followed him quickly, resolving never to question him again.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Marvin unwrapped the bandage around Janelle’s arm. He ran his hands along the side of her elbow, nodding in satisfaction.

“Take it easy, okay?” he said as she lifted her arm up, stretching it. He began taking the bandage off her ankle. “You don’t want to be fighting while they’re still fragile.”

Janelle nodded, but she was not really listening. Her thoughts were with Samantha, Will, and Anna, who she had sent out to find their group a new sanctuary to stay in. It had been nearly two weeks since she had sent them, but they had yet to return.

Marvin smiled as he turned her ankle to the side, rolling it around and checking for swelling. “Don’t worry about them. They’ll be fine.”

“How can you be sure?” Janelle muttered as she stuffed her feet back into her dusty black boots.

“You know how people are about this,” he said, placing his hand on her shoulder and squeezing it. “Even though sanctuaries are where people go to escape the Gifted, it’s still difficult for them to risk their lives for a rebellion.”

“I know,” Janelle admitted as she stood up, flexing her fingers. “But we’re risking our lives by staying here. It’s been nearly five weeks now since we attacked the Lake Village, if they do have a hostage they’ve probably told them our location by now…”

He smiled again, leading her toward the door. “I know. But there’s nothing we can do until they come back. Besides, we’ve got about twenty recruits now. At least the Lake Village didn’t set us back too badly.”

In the three weeks since Carey had joined them, a number of people had come to the inn and expressed interest in their rebellion. They had brought stories of uprisings in many of the northern villages, all in retaliation of the Lake Village slaughter.

Even though we failed so badly, the nonGifted think of us as martyrs… They haven’t realised it was our bad planning that led to the death of over half of this group. Janelle sighed, rubbing her forehead as she and Marvin made their way into the crowded ground floor of the inn. She didn’t like being hailed a hero for something that had led to the death of her friends.

“Janelle!”

Before she could even open her mouth to reply she found herself trapped in a suffocating hug.

“Hello Reagan,” she said dully, her voice muffled as her face was squished into his chest. “What do you want?”

Reagan let go of her and beamed, completely unphased by her lack of enthusiasm. “Everyone wants to know if we’ll have training today, now Marvin’s fixed you up.”

“Er… Yes. Probably in an hour or so.”

He nodded, still smiling as he ran back to where their group were huddled. Janelle watched him, gritting her teeth. Although she felt mean for saying so, she had to admit that she found him very annoying. He would follow her around, asking endless questions and just wasting her time in general. His behaviour reminded her uncomfortably of Emma and James, although at least they had their limits. Still, she had to admit his constant light-hearted attitude had a certain charm to it. The rest of their group seemed to like him, anyway.

Janelle coughed and looked away from him at last, deciding to go and talk to Rosa. However, as her eyes swept across the bar she noticed Carey sitting alone, far apart from the rest of the rebels. Her eyes were focussed on the bowl in front of her, but her spoon was poised in mid-air. Janelle hurried over.

“Hello,” she said as she slid into the seat beside her.

Carey looked up, bewildered. “Um…”

“How are you?” Janelle asked, smiling. Carey shifted, moving as far away from her as she could without falling off her stool.

“I’m alright,” she muttered, dipping her spoon into her soup. She did not drink it, simply sifting the utensil up and watching as the thick liquid dripped over the sides.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” Janelle asked, her confidence fading. I knew she hasn’t really got any friends yet among the other rebels, but…

Carey shrugged. “I –“

A loud bang distracted both of them as the door to the inn flung open. Everywhere around them customers recoiled in fright, thinking, like Janelle did, that the Gifted had found them. However, her fear faded almost instantly when she saw Samantha, Will, and Anna enter the inn.

“Come on,” Janelle said breathlessly, grabbing Carey’s hand and pulling her from the stool. “Let’s go talk to them.”
“Why me?”

Janelle stopped for a moment. “You’re one of my deputies, aren’t you?”

“But I’ve only been here for three weeks.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Janelle said as she continued to make her way through the crowd, pulling Carey along behind her. “You’re much more experienced than the rest and you’ve told us lots of useful information.”

It had taken some persuasion, but Janelle had managed to get a little out of her about the Gifted and the Council. Carey had been reluctant, insisting she knew nothing, but she had eventually told her a few things when she persisted. Although they apparently led structured lives like she had thought, she had been surprised to learn that their lives were relatively devoid of luxuries.

I always thought they were the elite, living lives of extravagance… I suppose I was wrong, but why?

Janelle pushed these thoughts from her mind as she told the rest of their group to wait in the basement. She then took Carey’s hand and approached Samantha, Will, and Anna; who were sitting at the bar chatting with Rosa and Marvin.

“Samantha,” she said, hugging her friend close. Samantha patted her on the back, pushing her away and avoiding her gaze. Beside her, Carey was biting her lip, her nose crinkled.  Why are they acting so strangely? Did I do something wrong?

“We found somewhere,” Will piped up. Beside him, Anna nodded, but she looked anxious.

“It’s – it’s not ideal, but it’ll do for now,” she said, smiling as Will put his arm around her.

“Why not?”

Will sighed, squeezing his wife’s shoulder. “There’s nothing wrong with the place, it’s just - it’s a brothel. Apparently, the Gifted sometimes pass through to, well… you know. Still if we’re careful, it should be okay. The manager said there’s space in the back for us to use and plenty of bedrooms upstairs. There’s even a forge.”

Janelle nodded, wondering why a brothel would have a forge. “How far away is it?”

“A little less than a week’s journey,” Will said. “It’s on the east side of the island.”

They discussed a few more details before exiting the main room of the inn and entering the basement below. The recruits stopped muttering instantly; some nervous, some excited.

“Okay,” Janelle said loudly, clearing her throat as they settled down. “We’ve decided to move on to a new location. It’s no longer safe here, so… it’s for the best. We’ll leave in three groups, led by Anna, Will and Samantha.”
They obediently split themselves into three. Janelle stepped forward, considering the best fighters.

“Samantha, your group will leave last,” she said, thinking. “Your brother can leave with the first –“

“He’ll want to leave with me,” Samantha interrupted. Janelle bit her lip, but she was not in the mood to argue.

“Okay,” she said quickly. “Um, Richard, you go with Anna’s group. You’ll leave first. Carey, you’re with Will.”

The rebels shifted around. Janelle surveyed the results, wondering which group she should be in.

“Janelle, you should leave with us,” Marvin said firmly, gesturing to Anna’s group.

“Why?” she said, her eyebrows knotted.

“You’re the leader, so you’ll need to talk to the manager when we arrive.”

“Oh yes,” she said quickly, a little embarrassed that she had not figured that out herself. “We’ll leave tonight then. Anna’s group, pack a bag and meet me by the bar after sunset. Samantha, Carey, you wait, but everyone else can leave.”

Chatter filled the silence as the rebels began shuffling out. Once they were completely alone Janelle approached her two friends, smiling nervously.

“Carey, your group can leave about three days after us.”

Carey nodded, paling. She turned to leave, but Janelle grabbed her elbow.

“I know I’m asking a lot of you,” she said quietly. “But… You’re probably the best fighter in that group. Look after them, won’t you?”

Carey bit her lip, a small trickle of blood dribbling down her chin. “O – Okay.”

She ran up the stairs without another word. Janelle watched after her worriedly. I hope she’ll be okay…

“What about my group?” Samantha asked.

“Um…” Janelle said, looking away. “You can leave in about a week’s time. I think that’ll be alright…”

She coughed. “Anyway, be – be careful, okay?”

Samantha smiled briefly, a distant look in her grey eyes. “See you in a few weeks then.”

“Bye,” Janelle muttered as her friend swept past her. She sat down on the bottom step, rubbing her forehead. Something’s troubling her… I want to help, but I – what can I do, if she doesn’t tell me anything? Same with Carey…

Janelle sighed, shaking her head. Come on, there’s no point whining about it. I’ve got a group to lead.

She spent the rest of the day packing up weapons, food, blankets, anything she could think of that would help on their journey. Once the sun had set she joined Marvin at the bar and waited for the rest of their group to appear.

“Hello!”

Janelle groaned internally as she felt Reagan’s arms close around her.

“Can you stop?” she said irritably as she pushed him off her yet again. “It’s really annoying.”

“Sure,” he said cheerily.

Janelle blinked, surprised it had been that easy. Although his ever-present sunny smile was plastered on his face, his eyes were more subdued, even a little narrowed.

Maybe he does know when to be serious…

Once everyone arrived they set off, Anna leaving the way. They did not speak, the only sound as they trudged through the forest the occasional hoot of an owl.

Just one more week… Please, let us go one more week without the Gifted finding us. Then we’ll be gone.

23: Earth and Invisibility
Earth and Invisibility

They kept walking through the forest until well past midnight. 256’s muscles screamed for relief, but he forced himself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. After all, he did not want 805 to think he was a liability.

He really is ruthless. But I wonder why he hesitated like that. For a moment I thought he wasn’t going to kill –

“Do you mind if we stop for a moment?” 805 said, turning around so suddenly that 256 crashed right into him. “I need to change my clothes…”

He gestured to his blood stained grey jacket.

“That’s fine,” 256 said quickly, wondering why he wanted to change his clothes now after hours of walking with them still on. He grabbed hold of his wrist and stood awkwardly as 805 rummaged through his bag and pulled out a spare set of clothing. He pulled off his grey jacket, sighing when he saw that the blood had soaked through to his deep brown undershirt.

“We might as well rest for a while,” 805 said as he pulled the shirt over his head. He took out his flask, poured a bit of water on his hand and washed the dried blood off his abdomen before donning a fresh shirt. “You look tired.”

“Thank you,” 256 said between breaths. He sat down carefully on the ground, leaning against a large tree and closing his eyes. Every muscle in his body throbbed painfully, like he’d run for miles instead of walking through the forest for a few hours.

“You’re bleeding.”

256 opened his eyes. 805 stood before him, nodding toward the red stain spreading across his grey uniform. He blushed, trying to cover it up with his hands.

“It’s nothing, it’s –“

805 shook his head. “Take off your shirt. I’ll fix it up.”

256 did as he asked, watching him nervously as 805 surveyed the many small, half-healed cuts all over his body. He shook his head, sighing as he bent down and unwound the soiled bandage around 256’s abdomen. 805 had to tug a little to separate the fabric from the sticky blood oozing from the large gash underneath. He then unscrewed a bottle of phenol and dabbed at the bleeding wound carefully. 256 tried his best not to react as the alcohol seared his skin.

At least I’m beginning to feel something again, even if it’s pain…

“It’s nasty stuff they give you, isn’t it?” 805 said quietly as he wound a new bandage around his waist. He fastened it with a metal clasp and handed 256 a fresh set of clothing.

“What do you mean?” 256 asked as he pulled the red undershirt over his head.

“The drugs. It’s been a few days since they last dosed you, right? And you can still barely walk.”

256’s heart thumped painfully beneath his chest as he fumbled with the buttons of his jacket. What should I say? I don’t want him to think I’m questioning the rules or anything… I know the drugs are necessary, so I should say that. “It – it is pretty nasty, but… It’s needed. We’re the ones who’ve done wrong, so we d - deserve it. But I’m getting better now anyway.”

He nodded vigorously to drive in his point. That’s right, I – I can’t show weakness. I have to be strong, or he’ll kill me like I killed that woman.

“Are you afraid of me now?” the older man asked, his stark grey eyes boring into him.

“No,” 256 said quickly, but he knew 805 was not convinced in the slightest.

As if to prove his point 805 sat down in front of him, crossing his legs and sighing. “You want to do your duty, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Like it or not, killing rule-breakers like her is a part of our duty. They can’t be tolerated, no matter what the circumstances are.”

“I know that,” 256 muttered, clenching his fists in his lap. “But I…”

805 smiled slightly, reaching out and patting him lightly on the head. 256 blinked, surprised by the strange gesture.

“You’ve never killed anyone before, have you?” 805 asked.

“No,” he admitted. “I’ve – I’ve never been in the position to…”

The moment the words came out of his mouth he knew they were a lie. He had been in the position twice. I should have killed Carey, but I let her escape… It’s not just her, though. Back in the Lake Village, when I fought that red-haired woman. I could’ve killed her too, but I didn’t.

“I…” he heard himself say, fiddling with the laces of his left boot. “If – If I were… I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

805 nodded, picking up a handful of dirt and letting it flow through his fingers. “I thought so. It’s something a lot of Gifted struggle with. Once you’ve killed the first person though it just gets easier and easier.”

“Did you struggle with it?” 256 mumbled, rocking back and forth as he pushed his dark hair from his eyes.

“No,” 805 said shortly, the last of the dirt falling to the ground. Something flashed across his eyes, something dangerous. “I never had trouble.”

He coughed, sitting back and staring off into the forest surrounding them. 256 watched as a small rabbit hopped out of a nearby bush, its nose twitching as it sniffed the cool night air. When it noticed the two humans sitting just a few feet away it scurried into a nearby shrub. 256 stated at the spot where it had been, still thinking.

“805…”

“Yes?”

256 swallowed, turning back so they were facing. I know it’s risky, but I have to know. “If you hate rule-breakers, why won’t you kill me like you’re meant to? I broke the rules.”

805 shrugged, sliding his fingers over each other. “I don’t hate rule-breakers. They have their reasons, I’m sure. The Council wants me to punish them so I will, but…”

He paused, his grey eyes sweeping over the forest before them. “You let that girl escape because you were attached to her, didn’t you? That doesn’t make your actions inexcusable, but… they’re understandable.”

“But that woman… She said she was getting medicine for her son. Doesn’t that mean she broke the rules because of her attachment to him?”

805 looked thoughtful for a moment, his fingers resting on his chin. “True. But she is nonGifted. The standards are different for her. They’re not limited like the Gifted so death is the only way to deal with them. At least, that’s what the Council thinks, and they’re set in their ways. It doesn’t matter what I want, or what I do… This is the way the world is, and I can’t change it.”

He paused, a bitter smile spreading across his lips. “Really, all I am is a hypocrite. A ruthless, selfish hypocrite, and I’m too far gone to change. But at least I admit it. That’s better than most people.”

With that he pushed himself off the ground and picked up their bags, offering his free hand to 256.

“I – I still don’t understand,” 256 said as the older man pulled him to his feet. “Why are you telling me this? Won’t you get in trouble if the Council finds out how you feel?”

“Yes, probably. But you’re a young eighteen year old who’s been punished twice. I have a lot more influence with them than you do. They’ll never believe your truths over my lies, so it doesn’t matter if you tell anyone. Besides, you wouldn’t tell anyway, would you?”

“No,” he admitted. “But I’d say that even if I was going to.”

805 shrugged. “Even if you did tell them and they believed you, I don’t really care what the Council does to me. There’s only one person who can hurt me now, and he’s already done so a thousand, no, a million times.”

“Who?” 256 asked, his eyebrows knotted in confusion.  The older man just smiled and stepped over a log before continuing their journey through the forest.

“Come on. We’re almost there,” he called over his shoulder.

But where are we going?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey sat at the bar, staring across the room at the huddle of rebels talking and laughing together. She had been there for nearly three weeks, but the majority of them still refused to talk to her. Carey tried to tell herself she didn’t care, but in her heart she knew it wasn’t true.

Can’t they see I’m one of them? I may have this power, but I’m not one of the Gifted. Not really.

Carey looked away from them at last, instead focussing her attention on the glasses on the shelf above her head. Never in her life had she felt so alone. She and Wesley had spent their childhood together, surrounded by their younger siblings and their friends from the village. Even when she had first arrived at the Council, 256 had soon become a friend, a constant companion. But he was gone now too. Carey swallowed, her eyes watering as she wondered what they had done to him. He must have been punished harshly for letting me go… He probably hates me now. I guess he should.

“Are you okay?”

Carey looked up, hastily wiping her eyes. Rosa smiled down at her, taking out a bottle and pouring a glass of water. She pushed it towards her, leaning on the counter. Her son stood next to her, hiding behind his mother and smiling shyly at her.

“I know it must be hard,” Rosa said, nodding towards the other rebels. “Don’t worry, they’ll come around eventually. It won’t be that long before they realise you’re not an enemy.”

Carey gave a small grimace as she picked up her glass and took a sip. “Maybe I am an enemy. For all you know tonight might be the night I kill you all in your sleep.”

Rosa laughed, putting her arms around her son and hugging him close. “Well, you’re not a very good one if you are. If you tell me your plans I can stop you.”

Carey managed to smile, even though a lump formed in her throat at the memory of 256 saying something similar to her all those months ago. “Yeah, that’s –“

The door of the inn burst open with a loud bang, eliciting screams and cries of shock from most of the residents. Carey’s stomach dropped to her feet as about fifteen Gifted sauntered inside, most of whom she recognised from the Lake Village.

“Turn invisible.” Carey jumped violently as Samantha appeared behind her and breathed in her ear. “If they see you…”

Carey bit her lip, nodding. I am the sky, the air, the ground… I am nothing. She disappeared slowly into the surroundings, much to the shock of the customers around her. Luckily, the Gifted did not see her fade away as the majority positioned themselves around the edges of the room, while two made their way to the counter. Rosa stood stiffly as the approached, pushing her son away when he tried to cling to her.

“Are you the owner of this place?” one of the Gifted men drawled, sauntering up to the bar and leaning his elbows on the counter. Rosa nodded and smiled, a small bead of sweat dripping down her forehead.

“Yes I am,” she said smoothly, taking a shaky step forward. “Is there anything I can get for you?”

The man grinned slyly like a cat and leaned closer. He was clearly enjoying the effect their presence had on the inn’s occupants. “You see, we have evidence that this inn is being used as a hideout by a group of rebels. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“I don’t,” Rosa said stiffly.

The man pouted, even as the Gifted woman beside him nudged his ribs furiously and whispered something that sounded to Carey like, ‘stop making a show of it’. “You can tell us where they are, and we won’t burn this place to the ground. Sanctuaries like this are illegal anyway, so we won’t hesitate to do so.”

Rosa raised an eyebrow, her lip wobbling slightly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  There are no rebels in my inn.”

The Gifted man grabbed her by the collar, pulling her towards him. “Don’t play games with me, woman!” he demanded. “Tell us where they are!”

“I don’t know,” she said coldly. “I suggest you try somewhere –“

Rosa’s words turned into screams as the Gifted man grabbed her wrist and her body went up in flames. Her eyes popped and the skin on her face melted as she screamed in agony, dropping to the floor on the far side of the counter. She rolled over and over but it was no use, the fire had already consumed her. Carey peered over the bar and stared down at her blackened, twisted body. Hot tears dribbled down her cheeks, but she bit her cheek hard to stop herself from sobbing and giving her position away.

“No…” Rosa’s son moaned, sobbing as he kneeled beside his dead mother. The Gifted man grinned as he leant over the counter, the silver blade of his knife flashing in the light of the fire still flickering on Rosa’s body. Carey leapt toward him but she was too late – he reached down and slit the boy’s throat before she could snatch the weapon off him. Blood spurted from the boy’s neck as he fell beside his mother, his chocolate brown eyes wide and lifeless. Carey stared at the two of them, her outstretched arm trembling as the man reached back over the other side of the counter and brandished his bloodied knife for all to see.

“Does anyone else wish to oppose us?” he said coldly, his voice slightly deeper than before. A low murmur swept over the crowd, many shaking their heads frantically.

“I didn’t think so,” the man said, sounding rather pleased with himself. “If anyone has information about these rebels, please come forward or you’ll all be –“

“I have information.”

Carey’s gasp was drowned out by the cries of customers around her. Samantha stood directly in front of the man, her grey eyes narrowed slightly and her black hair swept back in a ponytail. The Gifted woman grabbed her arm, holding her slightly back from him.

“What can you tell us?” the man asked, his eyes widening slightly as he looked her up and down. Carey had noticed that men often looked at Samantha, but this man’s gaze was different. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, his eyebrows slightly knotted as he stared at her. Samantha did not seem to notice, her gaze flickering to Rosa and her son’s dead bodies on the other side of the counter.

“Well?” the woman holding her said, almost uncertainly. Samantha’s eyes darted back to the man before her. In one swift movement she grabbed his sword with her free arm and shoved it in the belly of the Gifted woman. She withdrew it quickly and kicked the man in the abdomen before slicing the blade through his shoulder.

“Get out!” she yelled at the top of her lungs as the two Gifted fell to the ground, blood spilling from them at a rapid pace. The inn’s residents didn’t need to be told twice and chaos took over as they ran in different directions. The temperature of the air around them increased steadily, flames spreading across the crowded floor as the Gifts of Fire lining the walls set to work. Carey soon found herself shoved to the floor by fleeing residents. She reappeared, her entire body paralysed as she watched the scene before her in horror.

“We’re going to die,” she whispered as the smell of smoke reached her nostrils, choking her.

“Carey!” Samantha yelled over the scuffle and screams. She ran to her side, grabbing Carey’s shoulder and shaking it lightly. “Carey, we still need you. Come on!”

Samantha took her hand and pulled her through the crowd, pushing aside fleeing residents in her rush to get to the backdoor. She kept a tight grip on Carey’s hand, pulling her up so she didn’t accidently get trampled in the mad rush to escape. The fire was spreading and the other Gifted had set to work, taking out their swords and using their powers to murder as many people as they could. By some miracle Carey, Samantha and a few other rebels managed to make it through the door before the Gifted slammed it shut and locked it. They ran as fast as they could through the dark forest, only stopping to catch their breath when they were a decent way back from the inn.

Carey coughed violently, falling to her knees while rebels around her did the same. Eventually she sat up, focussing her weary eyes on the burning building in the distance. Her stomach swooped slightly as she watched, thinking of all the people still inside, still burning… 

“Wait.”

Carey looked over her shoulder in surprise. Samantha was looking around frantically, peering at each of the few rebels with them. Her black hair was plastered to her face and her eyes were wide with panic.

“Thomas…” she whispered, her calloused fingers scraping at her cheeks. “I – I thought he was following me, he’s – he’s – I have to save him!”

“Sam –“

Samantha took off, jumping over bushes and hurtling around trees as she made her way back to the burning inn.

“Wait!” Carey yelled, her words echoed by the other rebels around her. “You’re going to get yourself killed!”

Samantha did not return. Carey bit her lip, checking to make sure she had her sword before tearing off after her.

“Carey –“

“Go on ahead,” she shouted over her shoulder to the other rebels as she hurtled through the dark forest, scratching her legs on prickly bushes as she did so. “We’ll meet you there!”

She sprinted toward the inn, which was almost completely ablaze. Samantha stood outside, trembling as she watched the tavern burn before her.

“Sam!” Carey gasped, doubling over to catch her breath. “Samantha, what –“

“Thomas…” she whispered, tears trickling down her cheeks. Carey wiped her mouth with her sleeve, taking the older woman’s hand and squeezing it lightly.

“What does he look like?” she asked as she pulled Samantha toward the building.

Samantha’s grey eyes were wide with shock as she opened and closed her mouth. “Why – What are you doing here?”

Carey shrugged in an effort to seem cool and calm even though her stomach was doing backflips. Who is this Thomas? Her boyfriend, maybe? “I’m here to help you find him. What does he look like?”

“He’s tall, curly red hair, pale skin…”

They ran toward the building hand in hand. Carey kicked the now feeble back door open, stepping to the side so they weren’t run over by the crowd of people trying to get out. They forced their way inside the smoky building. It was a shadow of what it had once been – soot fell from the ceiling, the wood beneath their feet had been burnt away in some places, and aside from the bodies on the floor it was almost completely empty.

“Let’s split up,” Carey said, coughing violently.

Samantha nodded, tears still spilling down her cheeks. She hurried away, shrieking Thomas’s name between coughing fits. Carey gritted her teeth, untying her long hair and holding it across her nose and mouth as she stepped around trampled and burned bodies. It was difficult to see more than three feet in front of her due to all the smoke, but she turned herself invisible in case the Gifted still roamed around.

“Thomas?” she whispered, looking around for someone fitting Samantha’s description. A bit of burned, ruined floor gave way beneath her as she took a step forward. She screamed as her foot fell through onto the dirt below.

“Who’s there?”

Carey gasped, inhaling a mouthful of smoke when she heard the voice of the boy who had nearly raped her. 440 stood to her right, his dark brown eyes narrowed as he looked in her direction. She held her hand over her mouth as tightly as she dared to prevent herself from coughing and giving herself away. Carey concentrated hard, managing to stay invisible even though her eyes were watering painfully and her vision was spotting over. He stared right at her for a moment longer before moving on, kicking aside bodies and shoving his sword through the throats of any who still held on to life.

Why isn’t he affected by the smoke? Does his Gift allow him to clear his lungs or something? I guess it must…

Once he was gone she climbed out of the hole carefully, letting go of her mouth and gasping for what little oxygen was available on all fours. She sat up properly, her eyes darting around her as her heart pounded loudly in her ears. If Thomas is still alive and 440 gets there first, he’ll –

It was then she spotted a tall, red-haired man standing at the foot of the nearby staircase. He stared at the scene in front of him, the smoke and flames reflected in his grey-blue eyes as he watched in horror.

“Sam…” he whispered, nearly tripping over as he stepped back up the staircase a few paces. When he grabbed hold of the bannister to support himself his hand set on fire.  The flames burned through the glove he wore, revealing a badly scarred hand with two missing fingers.

“Hey.”

Carey’s heart stopped for a moment when she heard that voice again. 440 stood just a few feet away from Thomas, a manic glint in his eye as he surveyed the man in front of him.

“Thomas, get away from him!” Carey yelled. As she struggled to her feet Thomas startled, glancing in her direction. 440 took advantage of his distraction and grabbed Thomas around the neck, pulling the taller man down to his level and pushing him against the wall. He pressed his body up against Thomas’s, their faces inches from each other.

“Gift of Fire, huh?” he breathed as Thomas choked, a crooked smile spreading across his face. “Well, this is how a Gift of Air –“

Carey ran towards them and grabbed Thomas by the arm, yanking him away with all her might. To her surprise his entire limb disappeared, followed by the rest of his body.

“I can turn others invisible?” she whispered, letting go and stepping back a few paces, her hand over her mouth. “I – I never knew I could –“

“Thomas!” Samantha’s yell rang through the room, distracting her. 440 had raised his sword behind Thomas when he reappeared, his blade poised and ready to slash his back open. Samantha ran toward the Gifted boy, quickly drawing her own sword. She swung it through the air and sliced the blade through 440’s upper right arm. The ripping of flesh and crunch of bone rang through the air as his severed limb fell to the ground. 440 stood, bug eyed, watching his arm roll away in disbelief before an agonising cry left his lips. He staggered backwards, clutching his stump and slamming into the burning wall behind him, still screaming in pain. Carey gulped, grabbing Samantha and Thomas and turning them invisible. She pulled them toward the exit, trying to ignore the Gifted boy’s strangled yells as they ran. Despite what he’d done, she couldn’t help but feel guilty. There’s nothing I can do for him, and we’ve got to get out of here.

Carey’s vision began to blur as they ran out of the inn and through the surrounding forest. She kept going until she could run no longer, her legs wobbling like jelly with every step she took.

“Is this far enough?” Carey gasped as she reappeared. She fell to her knees, fainting before she could hear their answer.

24: Mercy and Forgiveness
Mercy and Forgiveness

When Carey opened her eyes, she found herself lying on her back in a forest.

“Where am I?” she mumbled as she sat up on her elbows, rubbing her forehead in an attempt to sooth her throbbing headache. Bright moonlight shone in her face through the trees up above.

A flask was pressed into her hands. “You’re in the forest. We carried you away from the tavern in case there were any Gifted hanging around.”

“What happened?”  Carey asked as she opened the bottle and gulped down a few mouthfuls. The water was cool and slid down her throat with ease.

“You passed out,” Samantha’s voice rang through the air. Carey glanced to her left and saw the older woman kneeling beside her. Her dark hair was matted, covered with ash and bits of debris, but otherwise she was unscathed. “At first I thought you’d inhaled too much smoke, but it’s been half an hour and you’ve only just woken up.”

Carey coughed, wiping her mouth as she sat up shakily. “I - I guess I must have exhausted myself…”

She surveyed the forest around them warily. They were the only humans she could see; the rest had either escaped or perished in the inn that was now a smoking ruin in the distance.

“I think the fire’s almost stopped.” Carey jumped at the sound of Thomas’s voice. He was hurrying towards the two of them, his curly red hair dishevelled and so covered in ash that it looked like he had gone prematurely grey. Samantha stood up, smiling as she flung her arms around his neck.

“Thanks for helping me save him,” she said, her voice muffled as she hugged him tightly. She released him and turned to look at Carey, tears shining in her eyes.

“It’s fine,” Carey muttered, wondering how they had met and fallen in love, but she felt it was not her place to ask. Samantha opened and closed her mouth a few times, but before she could say anything else Thomas stepped forward. He held his hands behind his back and smiled nervously at Carey.

“Should we go and see if there’s any survivors?” he asked, his blue-grey eyes darting between the two of them. Samantha sniffed, wiping her eyes and nodding. She walked off ahead, Thomas and Carey following her. They did not speak as they walked, and Thomas kept his hands hidden behind his back.

“You don’t have to hide your hands,” Carey said awkwardly as they got closer to the smouldering building. “I mean, I already saw them.”

He coughed, shaking his head slightly so some of the ash fell out and coated his shoulders. “I know, but… It’s habit, I guess.”

He withdrew them and held them awkwardly by his sides as they approached the back doorway of the inn. Carey stared at them, biting her lip. The skin covering both of his hands was pale and ragged, like it had been burned and healed hundreds of times. He was missing two fingers on his right hand and one and a half on his left. When he noticed her looking he stuffed them into his pockets.

“Come on. Sam’s already inside.”

They hurried over to the broken back door and peered into the smouldering tavern. Samantha was standing right in the middle of the room, her grey eyes shining in the dark as she turned around to see them.

“It’s pretty dangerous in here,” she said quietly. “We can try and save as many as we can, but… Be careful.”

Carey and Thomas stepped through the empty doorway. The air was still thick with smoke, but it had dissipated enough that they were able to walk around without having a lot of coughing fits. Carey took Samantha’s words to heart as she wandered through the debris, taking care not to step on any singed wood in case her foot fell through as it had before.

She knew after only a few glances that they were not going to be very successful. Almost everyone who had been trapped in the inn was dead or close to dying. Still, Carey, Thomas and Samantha did their best to help as many as they could.

“I think that’s nearly all of them,” Samantha said after half an hour, wiping her brow in the warm inn air. She took Thomas’s hand and made for the door, leaving Carey alone with the dead bodies. She bit her lip, looking around the inn for a final time.

All these people… Most of them weren’t rebels, or Gifted, and yet they’ve been caught in the crossfire. I guess that’s only going to happen more often from now on.

 

Sighing, she turned to leave. However, before she could take a step there was a small tug on the hem of her pants. Carey yelped out loud, whipping around in panic.

“440?” she said in disbelief, her eyes widening when she saw the state of him. His still attached left arm weakly grasped the cloth of her trousers. Carey gagged when she saw the bloody remains of his right. Almost his entire limb had been severed, aside from a small stump that continued just past his shoulder. He had managed to tie what remained of his uniform over the open flesh, but it was doing a poor job of stopping the blood flow. His torso and legs were covered in red raw burns. Sweat dripped down his ashen forehead as he pulled himself closer, gasping with each inch he managed to cover.

“Are – are you going to tell me you’re sorry?” Carey asked, trying her best to sound harsh. However, despite what he had done, she found it difficult to feel anything but pity for him as he lay in this bloody, burned state.

I don’t know how he managed to survive this long, but… He’s dying for sure.

Carey bit her lip, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment as she crouched down next to him. Reluctantly she reached out and pressed her hand against his wound, swallowing hard to avoid vomiting all over him. In her heart she knew it wasn’t much use trying to help him, but she had to try.

“Forgive me,” he said weakly, his dark brown eyes bloodshot as he stared up at her.

Carey coughed as she swallowed a large amount of smoke. After what he did, can he really think I’ll forgive him? How can he even ask –

“Please,” he moaned, tears spilling down his cheeks, leaving tracks on his face. “Please… Forgive me… 256… Please.”

What? Carey ground her teeth as she ripped off a part of her sleeve and pressed it against his wound, wondering what to say.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I’m not –“

“Please,” he begged again, his fingers still grasping the hem of her trousers. His grip was weak and she knew she could walk away easily, but something kept Carey rooted to the spot. “Please, 256… I – I –“

He coughed, spitting blood onto the floor. “I was never strong enough. You – you were strong, you coped… You didn’t let them break you. Not like I did. And – and I was so angry at you for that. You know what I was like before, I was –“

He gave a sharp intake of breath, his chest heaving. He pushed himself upwards so his dark brown eyes were fixed on hers. “Please, forgive me…”

“I…” Carey muttered, flushing slightly. “440, I’m…”

I’m not him. She tried to say the words, but the sight of fresh tears dribbling down his cheeks stopped her in her tracks. Sighing, Carey reached down and stroked her fingers over his, gently lifting his hand from her trousers and holding it in her own. She sat down properly beside him, squeezing it lightly as he continued.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “It – it was my fault, what they did to you… I was supposed to protect you. I tried to hold it in, but – but they saw how I felt, they – they wouldn’t have punished us if I hadn’t – When I had to watch them do that to you, it was a thousand times worse than what they did to me. A thousand times.”

He hung his head, sobbing quietly as Carey glanced at the bloody remains of his right arm. She knew there was nothing she could do for him. The wound was slowly bleeding out; even if he survived the blood loss it was bound to get infected. He’s going to die, and slowly. There’s no denying that.

In a way, she felt he deserved it. This was the boy who had nearly raped and murdered her, and possibly countless others. But even so, did anyone truly deserve to die in such a painful way? Carey was not sure.

“Please…” 440 murmured again. “Please, forgive me…”

Carey knew she could never forgive him. But it was not her forgiveness he was asking for. 256 would forgive him. He would be merciful.

She sighed, squeezing his hand tightly and stroking his fingers. “I forgive you.”

440 made a strangled noise halfway between a sob and a laugh.

“Thank you… Thank you,” he murmured, his hand slipping from hers and falling to the ground. He rolled onto his front, his chest heaving as tears still trailed down his cheeks.

I have to do it.

Carey drew her sword, holding it shakily above his chest. She squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as she could before thrusting it down. He gave one more cough as her blade pierced his flesh and tore through to his heart. It was a strangled, dying noise.

Carey slowly pulled her sword upwards and opened her eyes. She cried out when she saw the blood dripping from the end, scrambling away from his body. She dropped her weapon with a clatter and stared at the dead boy in front of her, her fingernails scraping into her cheeks. Blood still bubbled from the gaping hole in his chest, seeping through the grey of the tattered uniform covering him. 440’s head was turned towards her. His mouth was slightly open, a trickle of blood dribbling down his chin. Carey trembled as she stared into his vacant dark brown eyes.

I killed him. I killed another person.

She clapped her hand over her mouth but it was too late, vomit spewed from her lips and through the gaps of her fingers. She doubled over, retching continuously until the acidic taste of bile filled her mouth.

“Carey?”

She trembled as a hand was placed on her shoulder. Samantha was crouched next to her, rubbing her back gently as she continued to throw up.

“I killed him,” Carey gasped when her retching had subsided, pointing with a shaky hand. Samantha glanced at 440’s dead body, her grey eyes widening in recognition.

“It’s okay,” she said quietly, reaching over to close his glassy eyes. “I killed him, not you. You did the right thing by ending his suffering.”

She stood up slowly, offering Carey her hand. Carey let herself be pulled to her feet, leaning against Samantha. She feared if she let go she might never stand up again.

“Come on. Thomas is waiting for us.”

Carey let the older woman steer her outside, still trembling.

It doesn’t matter who he was, or what condition he was in… I’m a murderer now, and there’s no going back from that.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Do you think the others will be okay?” Janelle asked as she, Marvin and the rest of their group trudged through the shrubbery on their way to the new sanctuary.

Marvin smiled, ducking to avoid a low hanging tree branch. “I’m sure they’ll be fine. Samantha knows what she’s doing.”

“I know, but…”

“You’re worried, I get it. But there’s nothing we can do for them now.”

Janelle sighed and nodded. She knew she could not afford to dwell on them much. According to Will they were only an hour or so away.

As if on cue, he appeared beside her and tapped her on the shoulder, pointing at a plume of smoke rising from the chimney of a large building just visible above the treetops.

“It’s just there.”

Once they reached the sanctuary Janelle took a step forward, breathing deeply before knocking three times on the door. A few shouts came from inside before the door was opened by a tall woman with thick, greying dark hair and beautiful blue eyes. Her face was fairly lined but otherwise she had a certain glamour to her that was hard to define.

“Hello,” Janelle said, waving awkwardly. “We’re –“

“The rebel group?” The woman’s eyes lit up. “Please, come in.”

She stepped back and allowed them to file inside. The entrance hall was spacious and dimly lit, but otherwise well cared for. There were about ten or so young women milling around, as well as a few men. They all smiled and nodded as the group entered.

“I’m Theresa,” the woman said as she offered her hand for Janelle to shake. “I’m the manager of this place.”

“Janelle,” she said, smiling nervously. “I’m… the leader.”

Theresa smiled in return, her eyes twinkling. “Really, it’s a pleasure to have you. We all want to see the Gifted overthrown, so this is our way of making that dream happen. Speaking of the Gifted, they often pass through here, so you’ll need to be careful. But if everything goes to plan they’ll never know you’re here. We have a backroom you can use as a general meeting area, and there’s plenty of rooms upstairs. I’ll show you where you’ll be staying.”

Theresa led them through a door on the other side of the entrance hall and into a narrow corridor. She pointed out the dining room and kitchen before hurrying through another door at the opposite end.

“So this is the backroom,” she said, gesturing around the room. It was a cosy-looking space with a large fireplace and several old, faded red lounges and armchairs. “The basement’s just over there, if you want a space to train… There’s a few old boxes and stools and things down there, but you can just push them to the side. And over here’s the –“

She stopped suddenly, her eyes widening with shock as she stared at the group of rebels behind Janelle.

“Reagan?” Theresa whispered, her hand over her mouth. “R – Reagan… Is that really you?”

Janelle and the others all turned and stared at him. He looked as baffled as she felt. “Who –“

Before he could answer the older woman flung her arms around his neck.

“I’m sorry?” he mumbled as she hugged him close. Theresa stepped back, laughing slightly and wiping her eyes.

“Don’t you remember me?” she asked, her lip wobbling. “I suppose you might not… I was a good friend of your mother’s. We worked together, back when… Sometimes she’d even get me to babysit you on my night off when she was working.”

She sniffed, holding him at arm’s length. “I can’t believe you… You’re all grown up now. How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” he answered. He was smiling like usual, but it was strange – his eyes were too bright, his lips stretched so far it looked like he was in pain. Theresa seemed to notice this too, her eyes crinkling slightly as she squeezed his shoulder.

“I was so upset when I heard what happened,” she said quietly. “Really, if there’s anything I can do…”

“It’s fine,” Reagan muttered. “It - it was a long time ago… Fourteen years.”

He cleared his throat loudly. Theresa took the hint and turned her attention back to Janelle and the rest of the group.

Janelle coughed awkwardly. “Um, there’s still two more groups of this size coming. So if they turn up, you can just direct them here, I suppose…”

“Of course,” Theresa said quickly.

Janelle thanked her, a strange swooping feeling in her stomach as she thought of her friends.

What if the Gifted found them before they left?

She shook her head, telling herself not to be silly as Theresa led them upstairs. They’ll be alright. They have to be.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thick foliage and tall trees were replaced by sprawling paddocks as 256 and 805 at last made it out of the forest and into the farmlands of the south. 256 followed the older man down a small dirt path and watched the livestock grazing on fresh green grass in interest. He had seen these farm animals before, but no one had ever sat down and told him what they were called. Is it a ship? I think I heard someone say that once -

“The village is up ahead,” 805 said, pointing at a small cluster of cottages in the distance as he turned around to make sure 256 was following.

So it’s a farming town… Like the one I found Carey in.

A lump formed in his throat as he remembered that day. He recalled how he had gotten lost on his way to village 16, and thus had been running behind on his Assessments when he had found Carey.

She was like no Gifted I’ve ever met… Both her powers, and –

“Stop it,” he muttered under his breath. He knew he had to forget about her. After all, no matter how happy he had felt in her company, that happiness, that attachment, was the reason he had gotten punished.

If I’d never met her, I never would have been punished for a second time… I have to remember that, I have to. And I have to forget her.

256’s memories of her were intermixed with the memories of the pain, of the knives slicing his flesh, of the air being sucked from his lungs repeatedly… That was the idea of punishment, to make the Gifted in question associate their attachment with pain. But even though it hurt to remember her, he still found himself still cherishing the days they had spent together.

Why can’t I forget? I locked away my memories of 440 so easily, and yet I can’t forget about her… And if I don’t forget, how will I cope? Will I go insane like -

“Are you alright?” 805 asked, looking over his shoulder. 256 said nothing, shivering slightly even though he could not feel cold.

“I’m – I’m fine,” he said eventually, his voice hoarse.

805 turned around properly, placing his hand on 256’s shoulder and squeezing it.

“Sometimes, it’s better to remember,” he said quietly as he steered 256 towards the village in the distance. “If you confront the pain head on, you may be able to get past it. If you try and run from it you’ll never be able to move on.”

How would he know? He’s never been punished… 256 had tried last time to accept what had happened to him and move on, but the pain of it had been too much for him to bear. It’s so much easier to forget… Accepting it doesn’t work, so forgetting is the only way I can keep doing my duty to the Gifted.

But in his heart, he knew he didn’t want to forget about her. He wasn’t sure what it was he felt, but he knew that.

Five minutes later they reached the outskirts of the small town.

“Now, where is this house…” 805 muttered, surveying the village before them thoughtfully.

“Don’t you have a map?” 256 asked, shifting his feet.

805 shrugged. “I lost it. I held it up for a better look before, but then I dropped it and it flew away in the wind.”

“When - when did that happen?” 256 asked incredulously. They had only been travelling together for a week, but he found it hard to believe that the older man could be so clumsy.

“A while ago,” 805 said airily. “It’s okay. We’ll just have to ask someone for directions.”

256 knotted his eyebrows as he hurried to follow 805 through the village streets. He’s acting so weird… It’s only just later than dawn, no one’s going to be awake. And even if they are, they’re not going to help two Gifted.

“There’s someone,” 805 said suddenly, pointing. A young girl of about eight was standing by the village well. She was tugging so hard on the rope that her face was purple with concentration. Eventually she managed to pull a large bucket over the edge of the well, water splashing over the sides. Looking rather proud of herself, the girl set off, her little hands both grasping the handle as she held it an inch above the ground. However, the moment she laid eye on the two Gifted she gave a small yell and dropped her bucket. Water spilled all over the ground as the little girl backed away, grasping the stone wall of the well for support.

“It’s alright,” 805 said in a voice so gentle 256 wondered if it even belonged to the same person. He strode over to the girl and knelt in front of her, smiling a very uncharacteristic smile before turning his attention to 256.

“Can you refill her bucket, please?” he asked as the girl gave a squeak of terror.

“Sure,” 256 said quickly. He hurried over to the bucket and attached it to the rope once more, making sure to watch discreetly as he set about his task.

“Do you know how to get to the Gifted building from here?” 805 asked. The little girl trembled, her deep brown eyes wide as she watched him fearfully. 805 patted her head, ruffling her blonde curls.

“You’re not in any danger from me,” he reassured her. “There’s no need to worry, I won’t hurt you. We just need your help.”

She gulped, but her trembling softened slightly as she pointed a shaky finger at a nearby street. “It’s – it’s down that road there. The big white house next to the town square.”

“Thank you.” He took the bucket from 256, gesturing at it with his free hand. “I can carry this home for you, if you’d like. It must be very heavy.”

She shook her head vigorously, biting her fingernails and glancing at 256 before her eyes flickered back to 805. “It’s – it’s okay, Mister Gifted. I can carry it myself. I’m strong, see.”

805 nodded. “I’m sure you are.”

He placed the bucket on the ground and reached into his pocket, extracting a few gold coins and pressing them into the girl’s palm.

“For your family,” he said, enclosing her fingers around them. “Thanks again.”

The girl gave a small squeak, picking up her bucket and waddling away as fast as she could. 805 stood up slowly, brushing himself off and stretching.

“What?” he said when he saw 256’s mouth hanging open.

“N – Nothing,” he mumbled. 805 raised his eyebrows and strode on ahead. 256 made sure he wasn’t looking before digging around in his bag, extracting the flask 805 had been drinking from earlier. 256 popped it open and sniffed, his nose crinkling slightly. So that’s why…

He stowed the bottle away and hurried after the older man as they made their way down the street the girl had indicated. They found the town square easily, and it was immediately obvious which house they were looking for. Not only was it far bigger than the small cottages that made up the rest of the village, the Gifted building was a startling white colour, similar to the Council itself.

805 knocked on the door. It was opened a few seconds later by a small, disgruntled looking woman.

“Who are you?” she asked, her eyes narrowing when she noticed the colour of his sleeves. “Don’t tell me you’re the one I have to take orders from.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” he said in a voice so pleasant it made 256 very uncomfortable. “I’m 805. I’m guessing you’re 3349?”

She nodded, scowling as she opened the door for them.

“Where are the other two?” 805 asked as he wandered into the worn-down hall.

“They’re asleep. They should be awake soon to do the daily duties.”

“You mean… We’re not doing our usual jobs?” 256 blurted out.

He blushed as 3349 swung her light brown hair over her shoulders, glaring at him and crinkling her nose as though he smelled horrible. “Who is this? Don’t tell me he’s coming along too.”

“He is,” 805 said, smirking slightly.

3349 raised her eyebrows. “He looks far too young to be on a mission as important as this one. What is the Council thinking, sending someone in their fifteenth year?”

“I’m in my eighteenth year, actually,” 256 offered, but 3349 dismissed this with a wave of her hand.

“It doesn’t make a difference,” she said coldly. “You’re so small and weak you’ll be more of a hindrance –“

“We have more important matters to discuss at the moment,” 805 interrupted.

3349 scowled, folding her arms. “And what are these important matters? The Council wouldn’t tell me what we’re doing.”

805 took a deep breath, his bottom lip wobbling slightly. For the first time since 256 had met him, he seemed almost afraid.

“Murder.”

25: Right and Wrong
Right and Wrong

Carey’s entire body was numb as Samantha led her away.

She wondered what 440 had thought when he woke up that morning. He would have had no idea that this day would be his last; that he’d never wake after sleep again. She began to shiver as she walked. One day, she, and everyone she loved, would die too. It could be tomorrow, next week or in fifty years, but it would happen. Even though that was something she’d known all her life, it was as if she were only truly realising it for the first time.

“Carey?” Samantha said, her hand still resting on Carey’s shoulder. “Can you help these people while Thomas and I drag out all the bodies?”

“Sure,” she muttered. Around her were the injured they had managed to drag from the burning building. Some were recovering, having simply inhaled too much smoke, others were sporting burns and other wounds. Carey reached into their bags and pulled out a medical kit, applying phenol to the deep cuts and wrapping bandages when required.

It took about an hour for Samantha and Thomas to drag as many bodies as they could from the wreckage. By that time Carey had almost finished patching everyone up, but some had injuries beyond her ability to treat. She stood back as Thomas and Samantha did their best to help those she couldn’t.

 “Why don’t you go find a shovel?” Samantha said over her shoulder, pointing her chin towards a small shed just behind the inn. It seemed to have avoided the worst of the fire. Carey nodded blankly as her feet mindlessly began to carry her towards the shed. When she opened the door a huge cloud of smoke billowed out in her face, but she did not care. In fact, it hardly seemed to affect her anymore.

What would 256 think if he found out what she’d done? He had never gone into detail about his relationship with 440 to her – in fact, given his behaviour, Carey had assumed 440 had traumatized him somehow. She still thought that could be true, but 440 did seem to genuinely care about him. Maybe they were friends at some point… They must have been, I think. He was 256’s friend, and I…

Carey knew that 256 would understand that 440 had been dying, but a small part of her heart couldn’t help but worry.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m probably never going to see him again anyway, after all.

She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to focus on the task set to her. She resumed her searched of the cluttered room, eventually locating three spades covered in spider webs propped up against the wall behind an old mattress. She pulled the sticky webs off and dragged the shovels outside, handing one to Thomas and another to Samantha.

They had managed to drag about thirty bodies in total from the wreckage. Carey noticed that 440 and the two Gifted Samantha had killed were lying a small distance from the rest of the dead. She stared at them, her legs wobbling so badly she feared she might fall over. She forced herself to walk towards them, kneeling beside 440. He looked the same as he had when she killed him, except his skin was even more ashen.

“I want to bury him myself,” she said hoarsely. “I killed him, so…”

Thomas and Samantha exchanged a glance.

“Call us if you need help,” Samantha said quietly. She and Thomas started on the first body while Carey picked up a shovel and began to dig. She dug deep into the ground, sweat dripping down her forehead in warm spring air. She kept shovelling for over half an hour until the sun had risen above the treetops and the hole went up to her waist.

Wiping her forehead and dropping the spade, Carey reached down and attempted pick up 440’s body. She managed to lift him a little way of the ground before she dropped him on her feet. She bit her lip, wondering what to do next as he rolled away. She had no choice but to grasp him under the armpits and drag him into the grave, bending his legs slightly so he would fit.

Carey climbed out of the pit and stared down at the boy she had killed. His slightly curly blonde hair reminded her of Wesley. Her chest tightened as she thought of her brother. What was he doing now? Did he miss her?

What would he do if he think if he knew I’d killed someone? Mum and Dad, what would they think?

Her father had never allowed her and Wesley to kill the animals on their farm when the time came. He would always be the one to chop of the heads of their chickens, or to brace the goats between his legs and slit their throats. She knew it broke his heart to do it, but if he didn’t kill them their family would not eat. Her father had killed hundreds, maybe even thousands of animals for food over the years. But he never killed a human.

Carey gritted her teeth and shovelled dirt over his body until he was completely covered. She found a small rock and borrowed Samantha’s knife to scratch ‘440’ on the stone. She did not know what else to write, so she left it at that. In a way she thought he didn’t deserve much more, not from her anyway. She placed the stone at the head of the grave and sat down on the dirt. She stared at the small rock, her vision blurring.

“Carey?” Samantha crouched down next to her.

Carey sniffed, wiping her eyes as tears began to trail down her cheeks. There was no stopping once she’d started, and soon she found herself sobbing into her hands. She was not crying for 440 – he did not deserve her tears. She was crying for herself.

“I’m a murderer,” she moaned as Samantha drew her arms around her and hugged her tightly.

“You’re not,” Samantha said quietly. “I killed him, not you.”

Carey shook her head, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “You – you didn’t… I stabbed him in the heart. It was me.”

Samantha shook her head, shrugging. “Maybe you did, but it doesn’t make a difference. He would have died from the injuries I gave him anyway. You showed him mercy and ended his suffering, that’s all.”

She let go of her and leant back, her hands still resting on Carey’s shoulders. “It’s tough, I know, but… That’s the way the world is. If I hadn’t stopped him, Thomas would be dead. If you hadn’t stabbed him, he would have died in pain. Sometimes we have to make these choices, even though they’re difficult. We’ll never know if they were right or wrong, but… We just have to choose.”

She coughed, glancing at the grave beside them. “Did you know him, Carey? Is that why you’re so upset?”

“What? No, he wasn’t…” Carey cleared her throat. “Actually, he tried to rape and kill me. Just before I escaped from the Gifted.”

Samantha leaned back slightly, her eyes narrowing. “Wait. He tried to rape you?”

“Yeah…”

“Then why are you so upset over him dying?” she asked, tilting her head to the side. “Surely the world’s better off without him...”

Carey shrugged. “I don’t know… I’m not – I’m not sad about his death on a personal level, I just… He was a person, you know? There were people who cared for him, and – and I killed him. I never thought I’d kill anybody, and yet I…”

She stood up slowly, her legs wobbling slightly but she managed to stay upright. “Anyway, I’m – I’m okay now. Should we go?”

Carey grabbed her shovel and stomped off towards the remaining bodies before Samantha could say another word.

They continued to dig until well after midday. By then every muscle in Carey’s body was aching and her rough skin was very tanned from the sun exposure. Once all the bodies were buried she, Samantha and Thomas left their medical supplies with the survivors and began to make their way to the new sanctuary. Carey felt slightly guilty about leaving them, but Samantha insisted they left as soon as possible.

“When Anna and the others get to the sanctuary they’ll tell Janelle what happened,” she said as they set off. “We need to get back quickly. I don’t want her to worry.”

However, by the time the sun had set they were all about to keel over from exhaustion. It had been an incredibly long day and even Samantha had to admit they needed to rest for the night.

They settled in a small clearing beside a stream. It was a beautiful little spot – the grass and shrubbery around them was lush and green, the trees tall and leafy, the water clear. Thomas set about collecting twigs and leaves, pulling out some grass and setting a small ring of stones on the exposed dirt in a circle to make a campfire. When Samantha wasn’t looking he reached out and touched the wood with his scarred right hand. Flames burst from his fingertips, lighting the twigs and bathing them with warmth.

However, as Thomas pulled his hand away the fire on his fingers did not go out. He scrambled to his feet and ran over to the stream, shoving his hand straight into the water. He breathed a sigh of relief and grinned guiltily at Samantha as she scowled at him.

“I told you to stop doing that,” she said crossly.

“My hands are already ruined,” he pointed out, shrugging nonchalantly. “Do a few more burns really matter?”

“Of course they do. If you’re not careful, you’ll lose your whole hand…”

Samantha’s lip wobbled slightly and her grey eyes glistened in the moonlight. Thomas pulled her into a hug, patting her gently on the back.

“You don’t always have to protect me,” he said quietly. “I’m not a fighter like you, but I can look after myself.”

“I know that,” Samantha muttered, but she gave him a quick squeeze in return. Carey shifted awkwardly where she sat. She felt like she was intruding on a private moment.

“So, um… how did you two meet?” she asked in a bad attempt to make conversation. Samantha and Thomas looked at each other for a moment before they burst out laughing.

“He’s my brother, not my boyfriend,” Samantha said eventually, still giggling.

Carey raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Wait, what? You don’t look anything alike!”

“We have the same mother,” Thomas explained. “We have different fathers though. So we’re only half-siblings, I suppose.”

“Oh,” Carey said, scratching her head. “I… I guess that makes sense, then.”

She coughed, her gaze falling on Thomas’s hands. They were pale, almost white in some places, and the skin was wrinkled like they belonged to a man much older than he.

“How – how did Thomas not get… noticed?” Carey blurted out before she could stop herself. “I mean, if you don’t mind telling me…”

Samantha’s jaw clenched as she glanced up at her brother. He shrugged and nodded, saying something in a low voice that Carey couldn’t quite make out.

“The story I told you,” Samantha began, her shoulders tensing slightly. “It – it was a true story, but… it wasn’t mine. It was Tom’s. He’s Gifted, but the Assessor refused to take him away.”

“Why?”

Thomas shrugged. “I don’t know. Mum only told me what happened when I was older. She said he Assessed me and took me from the house. She followed, begging him to let her keep me… My father had left her a few months before, so I was her only family. Anyway, I guess the Assessor was swayed by her compassion, because he placed me back in her arms and told her never to tell anyone about my Gift.”

He sighed, pushing his red hair back and smiling reassuringly at his sister. “She never even told me. When I was young I never questioned why she made me stay inside, or why she always told me to run and hide in the basement when the Gifted came to visit. But she couldn’t hide it forever. When I was five, my powers manifested. It was only a couple of weeks before Sam was born, so Mum was tired and irritable and had been for some time. I felt like she never paid attention to me anymore. That day, she – she was annoyed at me and told me to go to my room, and I was furious. I yelled at her. I said she loved the new baby more than me, all the stupid things kids say... And my fingers just caught fire. I didn’t really know much about Gifts at that stage, which only made it worse. Mum tried to calm me down but I burnt her and myself badly that night.

“Since then, I’ve tried to control my emotions and stay away from others. I only left the house to go to school, and Mum taught me her trade after I finished. But I still slipped up. I burnt her and Sam more than a few times. As for myself…”

His voice trailed off as the three of them looked down at his scarred fingers. He shrugged, reaching into his bag and pulling out a fresh set of gloves. Carey watched him put them on, still confused. How can siblings look so different? I don’t understand it…

“Are you sure you’re related?” she blurted out.

Thomas laughed, patting Samantha on the shoulder. “Yes, we are. I remember our mother being pregnant, I remember the day she was born… She’s my sister, all right.”

Samantha cleared her throat, her mouth stretched in a smile so thin her mouth was nearly invisible.

“When I asked my mother why I look different she told me that I look like my father,” she said stiffly, clenching her fists tightly as though she might punch someone. “That’s why Thomas and I don’t look alike. He looks like her, and I look like him.”

She looked up, a sudden darkness flashing in her grey eyes. “That bastard... I don’t care about finding him, but if I ever do I’ll kill him for what he did to her.”

“Isn’t that a little extreme?” Thomas asked, voicing Carey’s thoughts on the matter. “My father left her too, and you don’t see me threatening to kill him.”

“That’s different,” Samantha spat, shooting him an icy glare. “He left her, but he still stayed in the village… He still gave her money to look after you until he died. Mine dumped her with two children to raise and not a lot of money to do it. Not that he cared, though. I bet he moved on when he got bored with her and ran off to find the next beautiful woman he could. I’ve probably got a dozen half-siblings running around the place.”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “You’ve got no evidence of that.”

“I don’t need evidence,” she hissed under her breath, folding her arms tightly across her chest. Thomas grinned, ruffling her hair.

“There’s no point ever trying to change her mind, Carey,” he said, laughing as Samantha shot him an icy glare. “Once Sam sets her mind to something, it’s impossible –“

His sister punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Glad to know you have so much faith in me.”

“But it’s true.”

Carey’s heart ached as she watched them. She missed Wesley more than ever at that moment.

“I’m going to sleep,” she announced, surprising them both. Before they could say anything more she took a blanket from their bag and wandered a short while away from the campfire, suddenly anxious to be alone.

Will they hate me? Wesley, 256, Mum and Dad, everyone… If they find out what I’ve done, will they see me as a murderer?

Carey’s heart twisted painfully as she lay down on the ground and covered herself with the blanket.

They will. Today was the first step. I know what I’m becoming… And I hate it.

26: Weapons and Worlds
Weapons and Worlds

“Murder…” 256 said slowly. “We’re – we’re going to murder someone? Who?”

805 shook his head, a grim smile stretched across his face. “No, we’re not. We’re investigating a murder. Two weeks ago, the Gifted staying in this village were killed.”

“Was it rebels?” said 3349 sharply, stepping forward and clenching her fists at her sides.

805 shrugged. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”

He strode off down the hall, beckoning 3349 and 256 to follow. He stopped outside a door right at the end of the corridor, resting his fingers on the handle.

“This may be confronting,” the older man said, his grey eyes fixed on 256. He nodded, his stomach doing flips as 805 opened the door and exposed what was inside.

The floor was wet and slippery from the large blocks of ice that lined the wall. 256 shivered at the cold as they stepped into the room, crinkling his nose as the smell of reached his nostrils. Vomit climbed up his throat but he swallowed it down, determined not to show himself up in front of these senior Gifted.

Before him, lying on a table in the middle of the room to avoid the melting ice, were the bodies of two people. They were Gifted, he could tell from their torn uniforms, but other than that they were unrecognisable. They were grey and bloated in death, the weeks since they had died taking their toll. However, what was most confronting was the state the bodies were in – as if the numerous wounds weren’t enough, someone had mutilated their faces so they were barely recognisable. Their eyes had been gouged from their sockets, their noses ripped off and various slits covered the rest of their faces. Dried blood formed a crust on the edges of their wounds. Chunks of hair had been torn out, and they were missing various body parts. The male was missing his fingers on his left hand, a foot and his genitals. The female’s entire right leg looked like it had been torn from her body, the ragged and bloody edges suggesting it had been done by strength alone. 256 gulped as he stared at them, closing his eyes and willing the images to go away.

“You can step outside if you like,” 805 said quietly as he bent over the bodies, examining them carefully. “We won’t think any less of you.”

3349 laughed cruelly, brushing a strand of hair from her eyes and grinning when 256 blushed. “Well, he won’t. I will.”

256 swallowed, digging his fingernails into the palm of his hands. I have to be brave… If I want to be part of the Gifted again, I have to face this with dignity.

“I’ll stay,” he said, his voice shaky but strong. Tentatively he peered over their bodies as 805 had, frowning and almost forgetting his nausea when he saw numerous circular, puckered wounds scattered over their torsos. The weapons responsible for them lay neatly in a row beside the bodies. 256 stared at them, resisting the urge to pick one up and turn it over in his hands. They were not a weapon he recognised. He did not see how a long, pointed wooden stick with a sharpened end and a strange, blue triangular thing on the other end could possibly make wounds that deep.

“What are these, anyway?” 256 muttered, glancing up at 805. The older man shrugged, picking one up and examining it closely.

“The other Gifted said they’d sent one to the Council for examination right after the murders,” 3349 said, watching 805 curiously. “The messenger should be back soon, I think.”

“Good,” 805 said, placing the weapon down on the table. He crouched next to the bodies, gently turning the woman onto her side. Whatever they were, the strange sticks had penetrated right through her in some places. “There’s not much we can do until we know more about them, really.”

He glanced out the window. “256, we should get some rest until then. Wake us up if the messenger returns.”

256 followed 805 through the hall and up the stairs, trailing along the corridor until they reached the men’s bedroom. It had three beds evenly spaced along the back wall, and they were all unoccupied. 256 sat down tentatively on the far left bed, rearranging the pillows before lying down awkwardly on top of the covers.

256 stared up at the ceiling for at least an hour as 805’s soft snores gradually filled the room. His eyelids were heavy and his whole body ached, but he could not sleep. When he closed his eyes he saw the mutilated bodies again and a fresh wave of fear bubbled through him.

Those Gifted… They must’ve had no idea what those weapons were… How can we fight weapons we don’t know?

It was another hour before he finally managed to drift off, dreaming of these new weapons. He dreamt of Carey, covered with similar wounds, her face mutilated to the point where she was almost unrecognisable. It was almost a relief when he found himself being violently awake.

“Get up,” 3349’s voice drifted through his subconscious. He sat up and opened his eyes slowly, shivering from the memory of his dream. When he looked up he noticed 805 sitting up and rubbing his eyes. He muttered something under his breath.

“What was that?” 256 said tentatively. 805 looked up, his stark grey eyes boring into 256 for a few seconds before he looked away, sliding off his bed and striding to the door. 256 followed him, wondering if he had bad dreams too.

“Where’s the message?” 805 asked 3349, who was leaning on the wall outside their room. She passed him an envelope, scowling. 805 opened it carefully, pulling out a sheet of paper and holding it up to the light. He squinted at it, his brow furrowed as he focussed on the words.

“Ot… her. Other,” he murmured, mouthing the words as he read.

It took him quite a long time to reach the end of the note. Eventually he lowered it, clearing his throat and addressing them once more. “Forgive me for taking a long time. The Council has only just taught me to read.”

“It’s okay,” 256 said quickly. “I can’t read at all, so…”

He glanced a 3349, who shrugged. “Neither can I,” she admitted. “So, what’s it say?”

“It says these weapons are from the Other Worlds,” 805 said, staring at the paper in his hands.

“The Other Worlds…” 256 repeated slowly, his eyes widening.

“The Other Worlds are the worlds across the sea.”

“I know that,” he muttered, flushing. “But I thought they feared the Gifted and would never invade us because of that…”

805 shrugged. “That’s true. But in the past, Gifts were a lot more powerful than they are now. They say in the Old Days it only took one Gifted to destroy a town – Gifts used far less energy back then than they do now. Plus there were a lot more, instead of the four elemental Gifts we have now. Although, some say there are five. But that’s just a legend, of course.”

He gave 256 a pointed look. He smiled nervously, hoping 3349 wouldn’t notice. I guess the Leader must have told him everything…

“Anyway, the point is that the Other Worlds don’t know the Gifted have lost much of their power, and the Council would prefer that it stays this way.”

“But are we being invaded?” 3349 said sharply. “Have they found out, is that why –“

“No,” 805 said, shaking his head and frowning. “No, I don’t think this is an invasion. This is the work of rebels.”

3349 raised her eyebrows. “Seriously? Rebels? These weapons –“

“Are from the Other Worlds, yes. But I think rebels were the ones who killed these Gifted. I don’t know how they got their hands on them, but… Why would assassins from across the sea go for this village? It’s a small town, there’s not even an important factory here. If the Other Worlds were invading they’d go straight for the Council, surely, or at least a major town like the Lake Village. The mutilation, the overkill… That’s anger. Home-grown rebels have far more reason to be angry at the Gifted than trained soldiers from the Other Words. So yes, I believe this is the work of a rebel group.”

He pointed to a drawing of the weapon on the paper. There was another sketch next to it of a strange, semi-circular like object.

“The pointed stick is called an arrow. Apparently you use some other contraption called a bow to propel it through the air over long distances.”

He paused, frowning down at the arrow in his hands. “We need to warn the surrounding villages. The rebels are probably still in the area.”

805 glanced over his shoulder. Two Servants stood behind him, cowering slightly under the older man’s stern gaze as he turned to face them.

“I need you to carry a message to the surrounding villages. Tell the Gifted what happened here, and show them this weapon.”

The Servants said nothing, their heads bowing even further.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” he said quietly. “Tell them you’re under 805’s orders if any of them threaten you. I’ll deal with them if they do, and I will take over your duties here while you’re gone. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” the Servants mumbled. He handed them the knife, thanking them as they hurried down the stairs and out the door.

“They’ll be okay,” 256 said uncertainly as 805 watched them go, worry lines etched in his forehead.

3349 rolled her eyes. “Does it matter? They’re just Servants. Besides, it’s us we should worry about. They’re killing Gifted, remember?”

She glared at them both before stalking off. 805 sighed, shaking his head and heading back into the bedroom.

“I’m going back to sleep,” he said over his shoulder. 256 nodded, deciding he should probably try and get some more rest too. He was still shaky after his dream, so he just lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, but the image of Carey, mutilated like those Gifted had been, was burned into his brain.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Good job, guys,” Janelle said breathlessly, wiping the sweat from her forehead. Summer was only a few weeks away, and even though it was almost evening by the time she’d finished training her recruits for the day it was still incredibly hot and stuffy in the basement. She felt guilty about making them train in such hot weather, but she couldn’t afford to not train them as hard as she had when the weather was cooler.

Janelle thanked each of them in turn as they filed out, nodding weakly in response and eagerly accepting the water she offered them.

Reagan was the last one to leave. Janelle gritted her teeth, stepping back slightly in case he got any ideas about hugging her.

“Thanks for working hard,” she said, bracing herself for impact. Surprisingly he did not try and hug her, instead reaching out and patting her on the shoulder. She wondered if he was finally learning.

“Thanks for training us,” he said, smiling warmly like he always did. Janelle mumbled in response as she handed him a glass of water, which he accepted and downed in one.

He’s so energetic… I know he’s always like that, but still. The rest of the recruits are breathless and red in the face, but he’s –

“Would you like to get dinner with me?” he asked, his hazel eyes twinkling as he leaned against the wall. Janelle rolled her eyes and shook her head, surprised by his boldness.

“Um… Thanks, but I’m supposed to be meeting someone. Maybe after,” she said in one breath, grabbing her bag and pushing past him. She hurried into the back room and flopped onto the couch, hoping he wouldn’t follow her and find out she was lying.

Why is he always so interested in me? He barely knows me, I… I don’t understand. He seems like a nice person, but something feels wrong.

She couldn’t deny he was a good recruit, though. After less than a month of training he already rivalled Will, Anna and Richard with his sword swills. Reagan seemed to have strength and stamina the other recruits lacked. He learned quickly and kept up with her much better than the rest of them, although he was still clumsy with a sword. She was glad in a way since they desperately needed talented recruits, but his skills seemed almost too good to be true.

I know I’m being irrational… He must have done physical work before, that’s all. I don’t think he’s a spy or anything. I can tell he’s not a trained swordsman, so that’s unlikely.

She kept reassuring herself, but she could not deny that there was definitely something he was hiding behind those smiles. Her thoughts turned to Theresa, and the way he had reacted when she recognised him. She had to admit she was very curious, but was it really any of her business? She barely knew the man, after all.

Janelle sighed, leaning back on the chair and closing her eyes. She was considering getting up and going to dinner when the door opened noisily. She sat up quickly, thinking it was Reagan again, but this time it was Will, breathless and wide-eyed.

“They’re back, aren’t they?” she said quickly. He nodded, swallowing. Janelle’s heart began to race as he led her through to the dining room. She knew she should be excited, happy, but something in his face told her it wasn’t all good news.

A small group of rebels stood at the front of the room, their clothes dirty and torn. Janelle looked to the floor, clenching her fists when she noticed Carey and Samantha were not among them.

“They found us, didn’t they?” she said hoarsely, swallowing her tears.

Anna nodded as her husband hugged her close.

“It all happened so fast…” she said, her soft brown eyes watering over Will’s shoulder. “I – I don’t know who escaped and who didn’t. They killed Rosa, though. And her son, they… Marvin, I’m so sorry…”

Janelle glanced at Marvin, her heart breaking when she saw the pained expression on her friend’s face as he told Anna not to worry about him. She knew she should comfort him, but she had to know more first.

“What about Samantha?” Janelle asked. “And Carey, what about her?”

Anna hesitated, shattering her hopes. “They - they went back inside… They escaped with us, but Samantha kept yelling about someone named Thomas, and – and she and Carey went to save him.”

Of course… He’s her brother, so she…

Janelle breathed in deeply, a lump forming in her throat. She – she can’t be dead. She’s my best friend, she’s – If she’s dead, and I –

“Thanks for coming back,” Janelle managed to choke out, her legs shaking slightly. “I – I’m sorry for what you went through, I – thanks.”

She kept thanking them as she led the group upstairs and showed them their rooms. Once they were settled she ran back to her own room and flopped on the bed, squeezing her eyes shut to stop her tears. 

Sam… Without her, I’d never have left my village. I’d still be that helpless girl who couldn’t do anything as her own child was taken from her. I told her about that, but… She was always so secretive, she never told me anything about herself. And – and now she might never…

Janelle’s thoughts turned to Rosa, who had put her own life on the line to help their rebel group. She had always been so selfless, so kind, so accepting. And now she was gone, dead because of the very rebel group she had been so generous to.

Finally, Janelle thought of Carey. In truth, she did not know the Gifted girl well at all, and felt more guilt rather than sadness at her possible death. I convinced her to join us, so… if she’s dead, it’s my fault. Rosa, Emma, James… Their deaths were my fault. And Samantha…

Janelle reached up and rubbed her eyes, opening them and struggling to hold it in. I can’t break down again, I promised Marvin I wouldn’t, I have to be -

A loud knock at her door sounded and Janelle almost jumped out of her skin. She sat up, wiping her eyes quickly on her sleeve.

“Yes?” she croaked.

“It’s me.”

Janelle hissed under her breath. Why is he here? Can’t he leave me alone just once!

Before she could tell him to go away Reagan opened the door and he shuffled inside. He perched on the end of her bed, running his hand through his hair.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his usual grin rather awkward.

Of course I’m not okay, you idiot. “I’m fine.”

He pursed his lips. “You don’t have to lie.”

Janelle gritted her teeth. “I’m not.”

“But your eyes are all red,” he pointed out. “And you ran up here –“

“Of course I’m not fine!” she exploded as her temper boiled over. “My friends are dead, half our group’s gone again… Why can’t you just leave me alone, I don’t want you here! Can’t you see I’d rather be alone? I don’t even like you!”

Reagan shrugged, completely unphased by her outburst. “Well, I like you. And I thought you could use someone to cheer you up. So if it cheers you up to keep yelling at me, then keep doing it.”

Janelle stared at him, slightly dumbfounded. A part of her wanted to keep yelling, but it seemed a lot less appealing when she knew he would just sit there and take it. She opened her mouth and closed it a few times, trying to think of something to say.

“It’s – it’s…” she began hesitantly. What am I doing? I shouldn’t…

She took a deep breath, shuddering a little. “I… Everything keeps going wrong. Everyone’s dying, and – and we’re supposed to be a rebel group, but they keep beating us. And Samantha… she’s – she’s my best friend, and she might be…”

A tear rolled down her cheek as she clenched her fists in her lap. Reagan placed his hand on her shoulder. Janelle knew she should tell him to stop, lest he get the wrong idea, but as he pulled her into a hug the warm comfort of his body felt too good to resist. She sniffed, her tears turning into sobs as he relaxed and drew her closer to him. She wept into his chest, clenching his shirt tightly between her fists. He rubbed her back and stroked her hair until she exhausted herself and fell asleep in his arms.

Janelle woke up early the next morning, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. Reagan had gone, but she was lying back on her bed with a blanket pulled over her. She blushed, her cheeks heating up when the full gravity of what she’d done hit her.

I can’t believe I – How could I let myself do something – how am I supposed to face him after that? It’s so embarrassing… He’s not even someone I’m close to, and I clung to him like a child. What if he tells everyone?

Janelle swung her legs over the side of the bed and hurried downstairs, not even bothering to change her clothes. She hesitated outside the door to the dining room, taking a deep breath and calming herself before she pushed it open and went inside. About half of her recruits were inside eating breakfast, but Reagan was not among them. They smiled and said hello as she entered. Janelle did her best to act normal, greeting them and waving awkwardly as she made her way to the kitchen. She leant against the bench, her stomach tying itself in knots.

Marvin’s not there either... I hope he’s okay. I’ll give him some more time, I think.

She hurried past the recruits once more and ran upstairs to his room, hovering outside for a moment before she plucked up the courage to knock. Reagan answered almost straight away, startling her.

“Hello, Jan,” he said cheerfully, his smile as broad as ever. “Do you want to get breakfast together? We could…”

Janelle stood there, slightly dumbfounded as he rambled about some nice spot he’d found outside where they could eat. He’s acting like nothing happened… Did I dream it? No, he’s just –

“Jan, what’s wrong?” he asked, stepping forward slightly.

Janelle cleared her throat. I have to focus. I need to set things straight.

“Um…” she began, holding her hands behind her back. “Um… Firstly, don’t call me that. And about – about last night…”

She blushed bright red. “Don’t – don’t tell anyone about that, okay? I don’t – I mean, I’m not usually that needy.”

Reagan nodded. “I know. I wasn’t going to tell anyone, don’t worry. Now, will you join me?”

Janelle blinked, her eyes widening. “You mean you don’t think less of me?”

“No,” he said, patting her on the shoulder again. “Even the strongest people cry sometimes. Samantha and Carey and the others will be okay, don’t worry. They’re strong too.”

He smiled at her, but it was so subdued and warm and genuine that Janelle found herself smiling back for the first time. She had to admit, even though his excitable nature annoyed her, he could be charming when he wanted to be.

Wait… Did I really just think that? What about –

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” she said hurriedly. “I don’t like you, I mean, not like that. Last night, I… I just needed someone. It could have been anyone. So thanks for being there but I –“

“I understand,” he interrupted, laughing. “Don’t worry. I know I’m annoying. Anyway, let’s go.”

Janelle raised her eyebrows, surprised he had admitted it so openly. Should I correct him? He is pretty annoying, but… It’s kind of sad if he thinks he is.

As if to demonstrate he grabbed her hand and began pulling her along behind him. Janelle quickly snatched her arm away and he smiled apologetically.

“Sorry. Bad habit.”

He slowed down and waited for her so they could walk down the stairs together. True to his word, he did not mention anything about the previous night as they joined the other recruits for breakfast.

Janelle listened as the rebels chatted around her, but she could not bring herself to join in. Her thoughts were still with Samantha, Carey, Thomas, Rosa and the rest of the recruits who had not returned with Anna’s group.

Please, let them be safe…

27: Idealism and Cynicism
Idealism and Cynicism

Janelle knocked on the door. “Marvin?”

It was two days since they had found out about Rosa’s death, and she had not seen him since. I hope he’s okay… I mean, I know he’s not, but…

“Marvin?” she repeated, leaning forward so her cheek was nearly resting on the wood. Shuffling sounds came from within and the door was opened a moment later, causing her to fall forward.

“What are you doing here, Janelle?” Marvin asked as she straightened up. Janelle shrugged, biting her lip when she saw him. His kind brown eyes were sunken and light brown stubble lined his jaw. She had never seen him look so unkempt.

“I… I thought you might like some company, that’s all,” she said awkwardly.

He smiled, but it was strained. “You don’t have to do that. I’m fine, really. Well, I’m not, but I will be.”

He turned around and made to close the door, but she pushed through it.

“Please,” she said quickly. “I… I’d like to help.”

Marvin looked apprehensive, but he nodded and let her inside. Janelle perched on the end of his unmade bed, watching as he closed the door and sat down beside her.

“So… do you want to talk about it?” she asked tentatively.

He shrugged, sitting forward and leaning on his elbows. “Not really. It’s not going to bring her back.”

His voice caught as he spoke. Marvin sighed, rubbing his eyes and resting his hand on his forehead

“Well, I think it could –I think talking about it could help,” Janelle said, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Tell me about her.”

“I don’t know, Janelle…”

“You don’t have to,” she said. “I just… I thought it might be helpful.”

Marvin watched her for a few moments, his brown eyes surveying her closely. Eventually he sighed, shaking his head and staring up at the ceiling.

“She saved my life,” he began quietly. “I… When I escaped from the Council, the Gifted chasing me caught up and stabbed me in the belly. He left me to die, but I…”

He swallowed, closing his eyes. “When I woke up, she was there. I was terrified – I didn’t understand where I was, or what was happening. I was only fifteen when I left the Council, and... I was terrified. Rosa reassured me. She told me how she’d found me dying in the forest near her parents’ inn. She’d taken me back and tended to my wounds, and by some miracle I’d survived.

“It took me a long time to get used to life with the nonGifted. Servants have no names, no ambitions… Our purpose is to serve the Gifted. We don’t have choices, we don’t… I didn’t know what to do with myself. But Rosa helped me. She gave me my first name, although I was never attached to any of them. I owe so much to her, and I…”

His voice trailed off, and he swallowed and looked away. Janelle patted his shoulder gently, her stomach sinking as she thought of how kind Rosa had been to her.

“Why did you run away?” she asked quietly.

Marvin gave a strained laugh, wiping his eyes. “I guess the one thing they couldn’t stamp out of me was my curiousity. Even when I was a child, I always had to know things… Because of that, I was chosen to study medicine while the rest of the Servant children were raised to clean and cook. I was trained in the library, but… They have so many books in there, I just couldn’t help myself. One day when my supervisor had stepped out for awhile, I started reading a book about the world. He caught me, and... And I was afraid of being punished, so I ran.”

They continued talking about Rosa, Samantha and even Carey for the hour that followed. Eventually Janelle left him alone, confident that he would be alright given time to mourn.

What about me? Will I be alright? I don’t even know if Samantha and the others are still alive…

She sighed, rubbing her eyes and trudging down into the basement. Training will get my mind off them. I hope it will, anyway.

However, as she descended the steps she discovered she wasn’t the only one with this idea. Reagan stood in the middle of the room, practicing his strikes and blocks.

“Reagan…” she said, averting her eyes from his and tucking a red curl behind her ear. She was still rather embarrassed after her behaviour the previous day, although he had not mentioned it.

“Hi!” he said brightly, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a towel.

Janelle couldn’t help but smile, stepping down from the last step onto the floor. “What are you doing here?”

“Training,” he said with a shrug. “I thought it’d take my mind off things.”

“Me too,” she admitted, holding her hands behind her back.

Reagan sat down on the bench, beckoning her over. Janelle hesitated, but eventually she shuffled over and perched on the seat beside him.

“Wanna spar with me?” he asked, his hazel eyes watching her intently.

“Um…” Janelle said, rubbing the back of her neck. I suppose it’s a good idea. I need to spar with other people, not just Samantha. That’s what got me into trouble at the Lake Village, since that boy had a completely different fighting style and body shape. She figured someone like Reagan would be a good start. He was as tall as Samantha but far more lanky.

Her decision made, she gave him her answer, smiling nervously. “Sure."

Reagan grinned, standing up and grabbing a wooden sword from the side of the room. He threw it to Janelle, who caught it adeptly as he picked another for himself. He stepped towards her and held it out in front of him, grinning.  

“You first,” she said, raising her eyebrows and toying with the weapon in her hand.

Reagan smiled and dove towards her, striking down hard. She blocked him easily with her sword, spinning around and kicking him in the stomach. He coughed, but remained standing. She bounced up and down on her feet, waiting for him to make a move. He did the same, winking at her.

“Fine, be that way,” Janelle said, running toward him and aiming for his head. As he raised his sword to block it, she changed her swing, soaring around his outstretched arms and whacking him in the side.

He’s stronger than me, but I’m faster.

With this in mind she kept dodging under his strikes, running around him and sending little jabs of her own when the moment felt right. It wasn’t long before he began to tire, his strikes becoming slower, clumsier. He aimed his sword at her head but she ducked past it, grabbing onto his arm and sweeping her foot under his leg, knocking him to the ground but holding him up by his arm. She kept a hold of his arm and clambered on top of him, pinning him to the ground. He tried to get up, but her weight combined with his tiredness meant he could not.

“There,” Janelle said breathlessly when he stopped struggling, her hands resting lightly on his throat. “I win.”

Reagan coughed, but he still managed to grin. “Fine, you do. You could have been a little lighter with the hits though.”

“Sorry,” she said, letting go of his neck and moving her hands to his chest so he was still pinned down. She felt the thump of his heart as his thorax moved up and down.

“And this fight was a little unbalanced, wasn’t it?” he continued, raising his eyebrows at her. “You’ve been training a lot longer than I have.”

“Stop being a sore loser,” she said, smirking.

“I’m not. I’m just making an observation.”

Reagan coughed, and the movement of his abdomen beneath her legs made her suddenly aware of the position they were in.

“I – I’m sorry,” she stammered, her face reddening. She tried to move, but her legs suddenly felt like lead. “I –“

“It’s fine,” he interrupted, his fingers resting on her arm. He squeezed her wrist, his touch sending a wave of butterflies through her stomach. She sat perfectly still as he reached up and touched her cheek, sliding his finger down her face to cup her chin. His eyes fixed on hers, sat up as best he could, his hands moving from her face and coming to a rest on the small of her back. She watched him, almost mesmerised as he leaned in closer, so his breath tickled her

He’s going to kiss me… He’s going to - No, I have to stop it!

Janelle pulled away, her cheeks reddening.

“See you,” she gabbled, jumping off him. She ran up the stairs, sprinting through the corridors and up another flight of stairs until she reached her room. Janelle climbed onto her bed, leaning against the headboard and holding her hand to her lips.

I can’t believe I – How can I be having these thoughts? How can I have nearly let him do that? I know what happened last time…

Janelle rubbed her eyes, sniffing. She felt like she was sixteen again, when they boy she’d liked since childhood had finally started to pay attention to her. She covered her face with her hands as she remembered those early days of their relationship and the way her heart had raced when he’d so much as spoke to her. When he kissed her for the first time she had been dizzy and breathless from excitement, like she might die of happiness.

And look what happened after that. I got pregnant, and he dumped both of us. That’s the way these things go, I know that. It never ends happily.

Janelle sighed. She knew she was getting ahead of herself. After all, anyone would be flustered if they’d been in that situation. It didn’t mean she had feelings for him, or he for her. Sure, for a second she’d thought he was going to kiss her, but maybe he hadn’t been. And she certainly hadn’t wanted to, had she?

Oh come on, I can’t lie to myself. If he’d kissed me I wouldn’t have pulled away, I know that. I was flirting with him the whole time, and I certainly wasn’t complaining when we were so close. But I have to – I must – resist. I can’t let myself get in that position again.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

256 found himself incredibly bored for the rest of the week. They had nothing to do but wait until the Servants returned from spreading word to the surrounding villages, since they had no leads whatsoever on who killed the two Gifted.

805 busied himself with performing the Servant’s duties, like he’d promised. He spent hours each day dusting, sweeping, and cleaning, and he did it all in a surprisingly serious manner. 256 had offered to help, but 805 refused, insisting he do it himself. As a result 256 had little to do but lie on his bed and stare up at the ceiling, occasionally playing with his powers to amuse himself. That afternoon was no exception, and he wiled the hours away making fireballs and smoke rings in special shapes to amuse himself.

When I was younger, I used to make them for 440… He’d sneak over to my bed in the dormitory and I’d make us shapes.

He swallowed; the memory of 440 was like a stab to his heart. He rubbed his hands together and made 440’s favourite smoke ring shape, a little sparrow, before letting his hands fall to his sides and watching it disperse.

It was my fault… Everything that happened, it… He was punished because of me. He became what he is now because I couldn’t – does he blame me for it? He must…

“You shouldn’t do that.”

256 sat up quickly, flinging his legs over the side of the bed and standing up. He flushed bright red when he saw 3349 standing in the doorway, smirking at him.

“We don’t want you setting the house on fire, do we?” she said in a false, smooth voice, her hazel eyes glittering. “Although I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll just fix it.”

She pursed her lips and doused him in water. 256 spluttered, pushing his wet fringe from his eyes and immediately wrapping his arms around himself. Quickly he raised the temperature in the room and dried himself off somewhat, although his clothes were still slightly damp. 256 sighed with relief. He had hated water ever since his Gift manifested.

“Cheater,” said 3349, pouting. “Anyway, 805 says he’s making dinner for us.”

“How does he know how to cook?” 256 asked, his eyebrows knotting. For the past few days they had lived off cold food, usually as snacks rather than three meals a day.

“Don’t ask me,” she said, shrugging. “But apparently he can, so… He’s making dinner for us.”

256 was still confused, but he followed 3349 to the kitchen where 805 was indeed standing over the fire, stirring something with a wooden spoon. 805 looked over his shoulder as they entered, greeting them with a short nod of his head. 256 mumbled in response, sitting down at the small dining table as 3349 did the same. He watched 805 cook in silence, sniffing the air and hoping whatever he was making would taste better than it smelled.

“You two are so dull,” 3349 complained suddenly, leaning forward so her light brown hair framed her face. “And you’re not even anything good to look at. Well, you are, 805, you’re very handsome. But you’re so old and –“

“Don’t call me handsome,” 805 interrupted.

3349 raised her eyebrows. “What, are you too modest or something? That’s so fake. I’m sure you don’t complain when the women you take to bed call you handsome.”

805 just kept stirring the pot, but 256 could feel himself turning red. “You can’t say something like –“

“Yes I can,” 3349 said, rolling her eyes at him. “Just because you’re an innocent little fairy doesn’t mean the rest of us are. So, what’s your answer 805?”

He ignored her, but his fingers clenched around the spoon so hard they began to turn white. 3349 sighed, muttering under her breath as she turned her attention to 256. “And as for you, with that face and height you look like a twelve year old girl. You’ve got pretty brown eyes though, I’ll give you that. I bet all the little boys fawn over you.”

“Um… okay,” 256 said, scratching the back of his head in his uncertainty. “I – I have grown a bit though. Just so you know.”

In the past few weeks he had noticed his grey uniform had been a little short around his ankles. 256 had hopes that he was finally getting his long-awaited growth spurt, but he didn’t dare dream too big.

3349 snickered. “Even if you grow half a foot, you’ll still be short. What are you now, four feet? Three, maybe?”

“Five,” he said, pushing his fringe from his eyes and smiling nervously. “I – last time I measured, I was almost five feet… But I don’t care. I know I’ll always be short.”

“Oh, sure you don’t –“

“Enough.”

They both looked up to see 805 fixing them with an icy glare. 256 grinned sheepishly, but 3349 rolled her eyes and tossed her hair back.

“I was just playing around,” she said irritably.

“We don’t have time for games,” 805 said coldly as he placed bowls of a strange-smelling stew in front of them. “Whoever killed those Gifted isn’t finished. They’ll try to kill even more of us, and our position puts the three of us high on their priority list.”

805 handed them a spoon each and sat next to 256. He tucked in while 256 stared apprehensively at the food in front of him, trying not to crinkle his nose at the burnt and salty smell wafting into his nostrils. He didn’t particularly want to try it, but not only was he very hungry he didn’t want 805’s efforts to go to waste. With this in mind he filled up a spoonful and raised it to his lips, clamping his mouth around it before he could change his mind.  He almost gagged at the taste, but forced it down and shakily reached for another spoonful. 3349 only managed one mouthful before spitting it out, coughing and wiping her lips with the back of her sleeve.

“Ugh, I’d rather go hungry,” she said, pushing her chair back and standing up. “If I haven’t died from food poisoning I’ll see you in the morning.”

She stormed from the room, slamming the door shut on her way out. 805 shook his head, smiling slightly as he ate some more.

“You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to,” he said, twirling his cutlery in the bowl. “I know I’m a bad cook.”

“No, I like it,” 256 said hurriedly, forcing himself to eat another spoonful and giving a strained smile.

“No you don’t.”

“I do,” he insisted, pausing. “Besides, you – you went to all this effort to make us dinner, so it would be a shame to waste it. And I’m hungry anyway.”

805 smiled slightly, but his eyes were sad. He reached into a bag beside his chair, rummaging through it until he found a flask. “Here. Use this to wash it down.”

256 took the bottle tentatively, trying to casually sniff at the opening without drawing much attention to himself.

He realised his efforts were wasted when 805 laughed, shaking his head. “What, you think I spiked it? As if I’d give you alcohol. You don’t look like someone who can hold their liquor.”

“I’m not that small,” said 256 defensively. “B – Besides… What about you, 805?”

805 raised his eyebrows, his spoon poised in mid-air. 256 did his best to stare back, even as he felt a blush creeping up his neck. A minute or so 805 looked away, shaking his head and giving a bitter laugh.

“What, are you going to turn me in?” he said dryly. “I only drink occasionally, and when I do I don’t get drunk, so what’s the harm in it?”

256 bit his lip, thinking of the many times he’d seen 805 drinking from that flask over their short time together. He didn’t say anything but 805 sighed and shook his head again, staring out the window before them as if there were something only he could see outside.

“You don’t understand,” he said quietly after a minute or so.

“I’d like to understand,” 256 said, leaning back and glancing over his shoulder to make sure 3349 wasn’t there. “I mean, I… I want to help you.”

805 turned his head and gave him a small smile. “I don’t need help.”

“Well… Maybe you do, and you just don’t know it,” 256 suggested. 805 raised his eyebrows, sighing.

 “It’s the pressure I’m under,” he said eventually, picking at his food. “That’s why I drink, I just can’t… Sometimes, I can’t deal with it. I have to be ruthless, I have to be unforgiving… I have to be 805, the powerful Gift of Earth.”

“But that is who you are,” 256 said, slightly confused. Once again, he got the impression that 805 just liked to be cryptic and mysterious. “Isn’t it?”

805 smiled slightly. “Yes. Yes, it is. But I never used to be this way. I was so – so naïve, and… stupid, I suppose. But there’s no point being that way anymore. I can be as idealistic as I want, I can wish for change… But all I really am is powerless. If I do join the Council, I can try to suggest changes, but they won’t listen. They’ll throw me out or kill me if I step too far, so I’ll be in no better position than I am now.”

He paused, gripping his spoon so hard his fingers turned white. “So what’s the point in trying? The world won’t change, no matter what I or anyone else does. I might as well just stay with the Gifted and do my duty, even if I don’t agree with it. Without them, I am nothing. We’re all nothing.”

That’s right, I’m nothing. I know I’m nothing without the Gifted, so I need to forget about her. Because if I remember then I can’t be one of them anymore.

256 forced himself to eat another spoonful, gulping it down and squeezing his eyes shut. The image of Carey only grew stronger, and he found his heart aching at the thought of her. He wasn’t sure what he felt, but he knew it was something.  I have to forget. I’ll never see her again, and… That’s good. I shouldn’t see her. I shouldn’t… But I want to, so badly. Carey…

He gave up all resistance and pictured her standing before him. She grinned at him, fiddling with a lock of her hair. She had been his friend, but… she had never felt the same for him as he felt for her. He’d known that all along, so why did it upset him so much? Even now, when he’d been punished and was supposed to have forgotten her completely?

Why can’t I forget?

“Because you don’t want to.”

256 jumped, blushing as he realised he’d spoken out loud.

“I – I’m sorry,” he stammered, running his hand through his thick black hair. “I – I should have learned – I mean, I have learned – I’m not –“

“I told you,” 805 interrupted. “You shouldn’t try to forget, because you never will. Not really. Confront your pain and you can move on, otherwise it’ll always be simmering under the surface, and you’ll become someone you don’t recognise. Someone you hate.”

The darkness in his eyes discouraged 256 from speaking further, so they finished their meals in silence. This took considerable effort as 256 struggled not to gag with every bite.

“Good job,” 805 said, patting him on the back as he forced the last spoonful down his throat.

“How – where did you learn to cook, anyway?” he asked weakly, wiping his mouth.

805 shrugged nonchalantly. “I taught myself, I suppose. I when I was in my twenties, I worked at this tiny little village up north. They didn’t bother sending a Servant up there, so I cooked for us.”

“Interesting,” 256 said conversationally. “So you didn’t have anyone to train, then?”

805’s eyes narrowed suddenly. “What?”

“Um…” 256 stammered, leaning backwards in his chair. He shocked by the sudden malice in 805’s voice. “I – I just meant… If you were in a village, you mustn’t have had a child to train, so your – was your year short?”

805 relaxed, nodding and staring out of the window again. “Yes, you’re right. There was a shortage in my year, so I never had to train anyone individually. I trained the Gifts of Earth for a few years following, but… After a while they put me back out in the field again. You’ll probably do the same after this mission, except for the Gifts of Fire, of course.”

He paused, looking back to 256. “That reminds me. You need to be careful.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, yawning. “Don’t we all have to be careful?”

“Yes, but you in particular,” 805 said. “It’s these new weapons. 3349 and I have some protection against them – she can create a wall of ice, and I can lift up a wall of earth. But you… These arrows will shoot straight through fire. If we come across them again, you must run away.”

“I can’t just –“

“You will run away and leave us alone,” he said firmly. “You have no way to protect yourself, and these are weapons we have no experience with. You’re no use to us dead, 256.”

“But I –“

“No buts,” said 805 sternly. “Forgive me, but I’m your supervisor and you’ll do as I say.”

256 sucked the inside of his cheek. Try as he might, he didn’t like the idea of running away like a coward whilst the others fought.

But he’s right… He’s my supervisor, I have no choice.

“Fine,” 256 muttered. 805 reached over and patted him on the head, a gesture he found rather odd.

“Thank you,” 805 said quietly. “It’s for the best. 3349 and I can’t fight properly if we’re worried about you.”

I don’t think 3349 would ever worry about me. 256 stood up, thanking 805 for the meal and hurrying upstairs to the men’s room. He lay down on his bed, thinking about what the older man had said.

Those arrows surely move fast… 3349 can raise an ice wall almost instantly, but it would take 805 some time to raise the earth. Surely he’s in almost as much danger as I am, but he doesn’t seem to care.

He yawned, closing his eyes and relaxing against the pillow. There’s no way he’d look past it. He must know how dangerous it is for him, but he doesn’t care. Perhaps he even welcomes it.

28: Trust and Action
Trust and Action

Carey yawned, rubbing her eyes as she trudged behind Samantha and Thomas on their way to the new sanctuary. She’d barely slept since they left the ruins of the inn. Every time she closed her eyes she imagined she was back at 440’s grave. Her family surrounded her, blocking the outside world as they yelled ‘Murderer’ over and over again. Wesley’s voice was the loudest.

“It’s there,” Samantha said suddenly, pointing. Carey looked up, her heart racing when she saw tendrils of smoke rising above the treetops into the bright blue sky.

“So it is,” said Thomas sullenly. Samantha glanced at him, her eyebrows knotted, but he had already looked away and was staring at the grass beneath their feet.

Although it had only been a week since they’d run from the inn, Thomas’s appearance had changed greatly. The short time out in the sun and fresh air had erased the sickly paleness of his skin, and a fresh batch of freckles had blossomed over his cheeks and nose. His red, curly hair had brightened in the sun, giving him a certain liveliness he didn’t have before.

Thomas is actually really handsome. He doesn’t look it when he’s forced to stay inside all the time, but just a couple of days inside has made him change this much… I wonder if Samantha will want him to go back to being a recluse when we get to this new place.

“Come on,” Samantha said grumpily, turning around and glaring at Carey. She blinked, quickening her pace so she caught up with the two of them.

“You shouldn’t get on Sam’s bad side, Carey,” Thomas said, grinning while his sister scowled. “She’ll kill you if you don’t watch out.”

“I will not,” said Samantha defensively, slapping him lightly on the shoulder as he laughed. Carey watched them, her heart clenching as she did so. She missed Wesley more than ever in that moment.

“What’s wrong?”

Carey blinked, hastily wiping her eyes when she saw Thomas looking back at her. “N – nothing, Thomas. I just – I miss my brother.”

He smiled, dropping back so he was walking beside her. “Don’t call me Thomas. Tom is fine. Anyway, you have a brother?”

Carey smiled slightly, stepping over a large log. “I have five brothers, actually. And two sisters. But Wesley’s my twin, and… I guess I miss him the most.”

Thomas asked her a dozen more questions about her family as they continued trudging towards the sanctuary. Carey was surprised at how easy he was to talk to, considering he’d spent most of his life as a recluse.

He reminds me so much of Wesley… Wes always knew how to cheer me up.

Before long they reached the brothel where they’d at last meet up with the rest of the group. Carey watched Thomas carefully as Samantha stepped up and knocked three times on the door, but his face was expressionless.

Does she expect him to go back to the way he used to be? Living alone in his room, talking only to her and maybe me? She seems to expect him to, but –

The door opened slightly with a loud creak. A beautiful woman stood before them, with long, greying deep brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. She wore simple clothing that accentuated her curvy figure. Even though she had to be in her early forties at least, she was the most glamorous woman Carey had ever seen, although not the most beautiful – Samantha, with her mysterious and striking looks, claimed that title.

“Good afternoon,” the woman said smoothly. “What can I do for you?”

“We’re here for the rebel group,” Samantha said, lowering her voice to a whisper and peering over the woman’s shoulder.

The older woman nodded, a smile spreading across her face. “I see. Come in, they’ve been waiting for you.”

She let them inside, hurrying though the entrance hall to another door in the corner. She opened it and led them through a long corridor right to the end, through another door and into a small, cozy room with several faded red lounges and a fireplace. Carey smiled when she saw about ten familiar faces. Reagan sat with three other recruits, grinning and saying something that made them laugh. Janelle sat a few feet away, bent over a notebook of some kind, but Carey saw her smile to herself at what he’d said.

Theresa cleared her throat and almost all of the rebels turned to look. The noise died down instantly. Janelle’s eyes widened as she threw her book down and rushed over to them.

“Samantha,” she said in a choked voice, throwing her arms around the tall woman. Samantha’s cheeks flushed.

“Janelle, I –“

“I thought you’d died,” she whispered, her green eyes welling with tears.

Samantha smiled, patting her gently on the back. “I’m too tough for that.”

Janelle gave a shaky laugh, releasing her and turning to Carey and Thomas and giving them a brief hug each. In the corner of her eyes she saw Reagan watching Janelle from the crowd of rebels. He nodded at and smiled like usual when he saw her looking, but there was something in his eyes that Carey couldn’t quite name.

“It’s nice to see you both,” Janelle said. Carey tore her eyes from Reagan just in time to see Janelle gasp and glance up at Thomas, her eyes wide and her skin pale.

“Your hands,” she said in a hushed tone. “What - What happened? Did you get caught in the fire? I’m so sorry…”

“I…” He glanced at Samantha, who widened her eyes and shook her head. “No I didn’t. Listen, Janelle, can we go somewhere private?”

“Tom –“

“It’s okay, Sam,” he said sharply, turning back to Janelle. “Is that alright?”

“Um…” she said, glancing between Samantha and the other rebels. “Sure.”

Janelle led them up the stairs and through another corridor. She stopped at a small, sparsely furnished bedroom. The grey blanket and lack of personal touches starkly reminded Carey of the rooms in the Council.

“What is it?” Janelle said nervously, sitting down on the bed.

Thomas cleared his throat, staring straight at her. “There’s something I need to tell you. I’m sorry, I should have mentioned this before, but… I didn’t burn my hands when the inn was burning down. My hands are the way they are because I’m Gifted. I have the Gift of Fire.”

Carey sucked in her breath, impressed by his boldness. Janelle’s eyes widened in shock as Samantha grabbed his sleeve and tugged on his arm. When she spoke her voice was high and panicked. “Tom, you can’t – I told you not to tell anyone –“

“You told Carey that, not me,” he interrupted, glancing at her. “This is my life, Sam. I’ll tell who I want.”

“But –“

“Janelle is your friend. She’s my friend too, and… I trust her. She won’t hate me just because I’m Gifted.”

He paused, glancing over at Janelle, who was still staring at him like he’d grown an extra head. “Won’t you?”

“I…” Janelle closed her mouth, swallowing and shaking her head. “I… Of course I won’t hate you. I – I’m surprised, but…”

She gave him a shaky smile, rubbing the back of her neck. “My – my daughter’s Gifted. No matter what, that’ll always be a part of her. If I hated you for your Gift, then… I’d have to hate her as well.”

Janelle’s words rang in the air for a few moments, until Samantha opened her mouth to speak again.

“Telling – telling Janelle doesn’t mean you should tell everyone,” she muttered, clenching her fists. “You have to stay safe, Tom. I promised Mum I’d –“

“It won’t make any difference anymore, Sam,” he interrupted. “Mum didn’t know we would leave home and get involved with a rebel group. There’s no need to hide anymore. Even though I have powers like they do, I’m still a rebel. I’m too old for the Gifted to get me on their side, so if they find me, they’ll kill me. But they’ll kill us all for being rebels so what difference does it make right now? That boy at the inn realised I was Gifted, but he would’ve killed me if you and Carey hadn’t stopped him. Just like he would’ve killed you, if he’d had the chance.”

He hesitated, tilting his head slightly to the side. “Listen, I know you and Mum were just trying to protect me. It was necessary back home, but… I was suffocating, Sam. I don’t need to live that way anymore, and I don’t want to.”

Samantha sniffed, wiping her eyes.

“It’s… it’s not the Gifted I’m worried about,” she said in a choked voice. “J – Janelle’s different, the others… The rest of the group might not be so tolerant.”

Thomas smiled, reaching out and squeezing her shoulder. “Look, I’m not going to tell everyone, okay? They can’t sense me like the Gifted can so they’ll never find out. So stop worrying so much.”

“I can’t,” Samantha muttered. Thomas gave a small laugh, turning to Janelle once more.

“Sorry again for keeping this from you for so long,” he said, smiling sheepishly.

“I – it’s fine…” Janelle said distractedly, her eyes focused on Samantha. She reached out and gave her friend a tentative hug. “Sam… I mean, Samantha… I understand why you didn’t tell me. I know what people can be like.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t trust you,” Samantha whispered, her voice so soft Carey almost didn’t hear it.

Janelle gave a nervous laugh and released her. “It’s fine. I – Like I said, I can’t blame you.”

She coughed awkwardly, and the two women stared at each other for a minute before Thomas broke the silence.

“So, can you show me where I’ll be working, Janelle?” he said.

“Um…” Janelle blinked, tearing her eyes away from Samantha. “Sure. We’ll have to ask Theresa, but she said there was a forge here.”

Why is there a forge in a brothel? Carey pondered this as she watched two of her friends leave.  I guess this building must’ve been used for something else –

“It’s strange…”

Carey looked up in surprise, glancing at Samantha. “What’s strange?”

“I thought I… Since Mum died I always thought I was doing the right thing. I pushed people away… I was distant from them all the time so they wouldn’t find out.”

Her grey eyes glistened with tears. “Part of the reason I left my village was so he could be free, but… I was the one who stopped him from being free. I – I was suffocating him, and I didn’t even… I’m the one who’s continually taken his freedom away, not the Gifted.”

Her voice broke on the last sentence. “I – I’m just a hypocrite. That’s all I am.”

She sat down on the bed, covering her face with her hands. Carey bit her lip, wondering what she should say. I’m no good at comforting people… maybe I should just be blunt.

“Don’t be stupid.”

Samantha looked up, her eyebrows knotted. “Wh – what?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Carey repeated. “Maybe you were suffocating him, but as he said it was necessary back then. You were just a little slow to realise you didn’t need to anymore. So stop whining about it, it’s annoying.

Samantha stood up quickly, the water in her eyes replaced by fire. She folded her arms and fixed Carey with a glare that could only be described as murderous. “Actually, I take that back. I’m not the hypocrite, you are. I’m sick of you angsting about that Gifted boy. He was dying anyway, and he tried to rape you. I know you’re upset that you killed someone for the first time, but… It’s been a week, Carey. Like it or not, if you want to be a part of this rebel group or any other you will have to kill people. If you can’t accept that you might as well go home now.”

“I can’t go home,” Carey snapped, glaring straight back. “After I escaped the Gifted will be watching my family. They might have even taken them prisoner, or – or killed them.”

Her voice shuddered on the last line, but she kept going. “I didn’t want to join this group. I had to, because – because it’s the only way I might ever see them again.”

Carey bit her lip hard, focusing all her strength on resisting the tears prickling in her eyes. She managed to fight them down, but Samantha seemed to sense her internal battle regardless. The older woman’s features softened as she looked away, clearing her throat.

“I can’t go home either,” Samantha said quietly. “But… My mother’s dead, and Thomas and Janelle are here with me. Carey, I… I’m sure your family’s still alive. The Gifted wouldn’t kill them, otherwise they’d lose their farm.”

“I – I know, but…” Carey sniffed, taking a deep breath before continuing. “What if I meet them again, and they don’t want anything to do with me? What if they think I’ve gone too far, k – killing that boy… If this keeps going I might become a person they don’t recognise. The little ones won’t even remember who I was to begin with, and my brother… We’re twins, but he might not -”

“Carey, you haven’t changed that much,” Samantha said. “Well, I suppose I don’t know you that well, but… You’re still you, even after what you’ve been through. Of course your family will still love you. My mother and brother always loved me, no matter how much trouble I got into. If they can accept me, yours will definitely accept you.”

She paused, tilting her head to the side so her thick black hair fell just across her shoulder. “So are you okay now?”

Carey swallowed, nodding. “I – I think I am. Or I will be.”

She hesitated, shifting her weight from one foot to another. “Thanks.”

Samantha shrugged, taking a step towards the door. “No problem. I should be saying that to you.”

She gave Carey a short nod before leaving the room.

I’m so tired… I never realised it before, but I am. Carey sat down on the end of the bed, flopping onto it and closing her eyes. For the first time since the fire, her sleep was peaceful.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Janelle opened the backdoor and stepped back inside the inn after showing Thomas the forge, itching to train again. She had asked him what happened to the rest of their group after the fire, and he’d replied he didn’t know.

Looks like we’ve lost a third of our fighters again… We can’t keep going like this, people won’t join us. And honestly, I can’t blame them.

Janelle ran down the steps to the basement, her heart sinking when she saw it was empty.

Come on, what was I expecting? As if he’d be here. Besides, I… I have to stay away from him. I can’t let myself be vulnerable again.

She sighed, assembling a fighting stance and punching the air. Her skills with a sword were decent, but she rarely practiced her hand-to-hand combat so she was rather dismal at it. Janelle tried a vast array of punches and kicks, trying to remember what Samantha had taught her over a year previously, when they were still training in the mountains together.

It seems so long ago… Back then, leaving our village was just a mad dream we shared. Now we’ve left, and started a rebel group, but… If things keep going the way they have, it’ll dissolve.

“Something has to change,” she muttered to herself as the sound of footsteps caught her attention. She watched the entrance until she saw Samantha appear at the bottom of the stairs.

“Here you are,” she said, sitting down on the steps and wiping her forehead. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

Janelle grinned, grabbing a cup of water from the bucket sitting in the corner and hurrying over. Samantha scooted along to the edge of the step and made room for her.

“I missed you,” Janelle said, taking a long sip. “I didn’t say that before, but – I did. And I’m so glad you’re okay, I… I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Samantha blushed deeply, ducking her head so her dark hair concealed her face from Janelle. “I – thanks, I – I missed you too. I’m sorry I couldn’t save anyone else.”

“It’s okay,” Janelle said, cracking a smile. “We’ll – we’ll mourn them and build up our numbers again… There’s nothing else we can do.”

Samantha looked up, her grey eyes shining beneath her fringe.

“Something’s troubling you,” she stated, tucking a lock of her black hair behind her ear.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Janelle said half-heartedly. “Well, nothing – nothing we can’t cope with, anyway.”

Samantha raised her eyebrows. “Janelle… I know there’s something else.”

“I –“ Janelle sighed, shaking her head. Come on, I can’t lie to her. She is my deputy, after all.

“I don’t know how much longer we can continue like this,” she confessed. “I – I mean… we recruit all these members, and train them as best we can, but – As soon as we meet the Gifted, either by accident or on a mission, we lose half our fighters and have to start again. How can we overthrow them if we’re always two steps behind?”

“We… We just have to keep trying. That’s all we can do.”

“I know, but…”

If we keep going like this, we’ll just be wasting lives for no reason. But if we don’t do anything, there’s no motivation. We need a plan, a good one, where we’ve assessed all the risks and prevent as many people from dying as possible.

“What if… what if we go to another village again?” she heard herself say.

Samantha raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “Janelle –“

“It won’t be like last time,” Janelle said quickly. “We’ll plan properly and won’t rush. It’ll be a small village, far away from here so it’ll have less Gifted. And it won’t be everyone, just the best people – you, me, Will, Anna, Carey and –“ Janelle hesitated, blushing. “And Reagan. He should come too.”

Samantha blinked, her eyebrows creasing slightly as she stared at Janelle with her mouth open. She looked away, narrowing her eyes before continuing. “Why – why would we bring him along? He only joined us a month ago.”

“He’s a good fighter,” Janelle said hastily, tucking her hair behind her ears. “He’s got a natural talent, and… he’s better than Will and Anna already.”

 “And what, you don’t think that’s suspicious?” Samantha demanded, her voice breaking slightly.

Why is she acting this way? “I don’t know. Not really. I mean, you already knew how to fight before we met that night in the woods.”

She flushed. “That’s different, I –“

“I heard you were back.”

Both women looked up in surprise to see Marvin standing at the entrance to the stairs. He gave them a short nod, trudging down and sitting on a step just above theirs. He looked even more dishevelled than the last time Janelle spoke to him.

“Marvin…” Samantha began, glancing at Janelle. She gave a short nod. “I’m – I’m sorry… I wish I could’ve saved her, but –“

“It’s alright,” Marvin interrupted in a voice that made it clear he’d rather not talk about it. “Anyway, I heard what you said, Janelle. If we’re going to another village, we need to have a goal. Going there just to stir up rebellion won’t be worth the risk.”

“I know,” Janelle admitted. “But I don’t know what else there is to do.”

Marvin rubbed his eyes, his lips pursed in thought. “We could attack one of the industrial towns. Most of them are in the east or west of the island, so I guess we should go east if we want to avoid meeting a lot of Gifted. There’s a lot of factories there that make weapons, and… We’ll need more if we want our group to grow any more. Samantha’s brother won’t be able to handle it all on his own anymore, and there’s only so many blacksmiths around the place.”

Janelle watched him, considering what he’d said. I’m really glad we found him… I honestly don’t know what I’d do without his counsel.

“It – that sounds like a good plan to me,” she said, glancing at Samantha, who nodded. “But – but first, we need to properly prepare and recruit more followers. We’ve got about twenty now, I want at least fifty by the time we go. So I’ll… I’ll visit the sanctuaries in this area and try and recruit more followers.”

Marvin gave her a fractured smile, patting her on the back. “Good idea. We’ll do that first, and plan this properly so we’ve got a good chance of success.”

Janelle nodded, smiling to herself as the three of them sat together on the steps, discussing which sanctuaries were in the area and who should go.

We’ve come so far since it was just the three of us, hiding in the forest… If we pull this off, we can go even further.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“805, are you okay?” 256 asked nervously as he watched him clean the windowsills for the fourth time that day.

“I’m fine,” the older man said stiffly, holding up his rag and wiping the non-existent dust away. “I promised the Servants I’d keep this place clean, and I will.”

Yes, but this is a bit excessive… 256 swallowed, sitting back down in his chair and closing his eyes. It had been a week and the Servants hadn’t returned.

He must be worried… That’s why he’s cleaning so much, to distract himself.

256 stood up, wandering over to the window as 805 moved onto dusting the cabinets. He stared outside, noting that the sun was beginning to set.

I’m worried too… And not just for the Servants. The others should have returned by now.

An additional two Gifted women were living in the house, performing the daily duties so 805, 3349 and 256 could remain hidden from the villager’s eyes. I’m – maybe I’m just worrying too much. They’ll be back soon. They have to be.

A frantic knock at the door silenced his thoughts. 805 looked up from his work, his grey eyes widening.

“Open the door!” the woman’s voice was high and panicked.

The older man dropped his rag and the two of them bolted into the hall. 805 opened the door to find the Gifted woman standing on the top step. Her chest was heaving and her uniform splattered in blood.

“They found us,” she gasped. “They – they killed her, and now they’re after –“

She stopped abruptly as a whooshing noise rang through the air. She gave a sharp breath as an arrow tore through her abdomen. The pointed end stuck out at the front, dripping with bright red blood. The Gifted woman collapsed and tumbled down the steps, coming to a rest on the ground before the small staircase. Behind her stood four rebels, each with a bow.

805 reached into a pouch on his belt, rubbing his hands together so a diamond knife formed in his palm. He cocked his shoulder and threw it before the rebels could react. The knife spun through the air, landing squarely in the eye of the closest rebel. He gave a howl of pain as 805 reached into his pouch and created another two daggers. A second rebel toppled as a knife tore through his belly while another cried out in agony as the blade embedded in her shoulder. The remaining rebel rushed to his fallen comrades as 805 reached into his pouch once more, cursing when he found no more graphite. The rebel looked up at the two of them, his face contorted with anger.

“You’ll pay for this!” the rebel choked as tears welled in his eyes. He drew his weapon, fumbling with his arrows in his grief.

“805, move!” 256 yelled, grabbing his arm and unsuccessfully trying to pull him away.

“What’s going on?” 3349 said as she rushed down the steps, her hair disheveled. Her eyes widened when she saw the rebels outside. She thrust her arms forward, a thick wall of ice appeared in the doorway a second after the rebel fired. It trapped the arrow when it was mere inches from 805’s chest.

“Why didn’t you get out of the way?” she gasped, which mirrored 256’s thoughts exactly.

“Come on,” 805 said, ignoring her question. For someone who’d almost lost their life, he was remarkably calm. “There’s no point staying now they know we’re here.”

They rushed to the backdoor, but when they opened it they discovered even more rebels outside. 256 peered through the window, his heart beginning to race.

“We’re surrounded,” he said, his voice shaking.

805 nodded, ducking into the next room and opening the chest of drawers. He found a bag of graphite and began creating a variety of diamond weapons.

“We’ll have to fight our way out,” he said, handing 3349 a shield. She took it, her skin oddly pale and her usual smug expression replaced by fear. 805 created another shield and gave it to 256 before placing his hand on his shoulder, gripping it tightly.

“You’re hurting –“

“Remember what I told you,” 805 said hoarsely. “You’re in the most danger out of all of us. Let 3349 and I protect you and run as soon as you can.”

“I –“

“Just do it. I’m you’re supervisor, you must –“

His words were drowned out as the rebels began banging on the windows and shouting. 256 shivered, gripping his shield tightly and drawing his sword with his other hand.

It won’t be long before they break in… If only one of us was a Gift of Air, then we could fly out of this house. But none of our Gifts can –

256 gasped, staring at the brown patterns on 805’s uniform. Wait… We can’t go up, so we have to go down.

“Stand back,” he said in his most commanding voice, which still wasn’t very intimidating. 805 raised his eyebrows and 3349 looked confused, but they both stepped away as he crouched down to the ground. Fire spread from his fingertips and ignited the wooden floorboards.

“Good thinking,” 805 said, patting him on the shoulder. 256 smiled briefly at him before returning to his work. “3349, go upstairs and collect as much supplies as possible.”

3349 nodded and rushed out of the room as 256 increased the heat as much as he dared, sighing with relief when he at last began to burn through the floor boards. He made a large hole and pushed aside the ash, his heart sinking when he saw a layer of stone directly underneath the wood.

Of course there’s stone. What did I think there would be, straight earth? And now we’re -

“It’s alright,” 805 said, crouching next to him and placing his palm on the rock. “I do stone as well.”

A loud crack sounded through the air as the stone broke apart into pieces less than an inch in diameter. 805 placed another hand on the ground. Broken stone and earth poured over the floorboards on either side as a large hole formed in the ground.

“Get in,” he said. 256 gulped and carefully climbed inside. 3349 returned a few moments later with three bags. She jumped into the hole as a loud crash sounded through the air, indicating the rebels had broken a window. 805 touched the walls of the pit and sealed the hole with stone and earth, plunging them into darkness. 256 quickly lit a ball of flame, bathing them in an orangey glow. Both 805 and 3349 smiled at him gratefully, although sweat had begun to drip down 805’s forehead. He held his arms above his head, his face contorted with the effort required to maintain the cavern.

“We have to run,” he said hoarsely between breaths as his arms wobbled. “I – I don’t know how long I can keep this up, and we’re running out of air…”

The three of them broke into a sprint. 805 cleared the earth in front of them and restored the earth behind them as they went, maintaining the cavern as best he could. 256 kept the flame flickering between his fingers, his heart beating faster than it ever had before as they ran through the earth to what he hoped was safety.

29: Threats and Memories
Threats and Memories

They ran through the earth as fast as possible. 256 kept the fire burning between his fingers as he went, trying not to trip on any rocks and dodging around tree roots. He almost stumbled a few times but overall managed to remain upright, much to his relief.

There were so many of them…

He swallowed, coughing as he ran. He wondered if the rebels had found the burnt hole in the floorboards and realized what it meant. Surely they’ve figured out how we escaped… They won’t know what direction we went in though. I don’t even think we know.

He looked up, watching 805 before him in the flickering firelight. He’d slowed from a sprint to a jog, and his arms trembled under the weight of the cavern.

He must be in so much pain… Doing this for so long, with so little air…

805 stopped abruptly, leaning over and violently coughing. The walls of the cavern shook as he did so, coating them with a thin layer of earth. 256 bit his lip, realising that lighting a fire hadn’t been his best idea.

“805…” 3349 said, her voice high and panicked.

“I’m sorry,” the older man said hoarsely, stumbling slightly as he took another step forward. He turned back to face them, sweat dripping down his forehead and soaking the collar of his uniform. “I… We’ll have to stop here, I can’t... It’s not far enough, but…”

“Never mind, just get us out of here,” 3349 said shakily, her shoulders trembling.

805 gave a short nod, the walls shuddering once more as he slowly drew the earth closer to them. Soon they were standing in a column that grew taller and taller as they watched.

“Stay close to me,” he said through gritted teeth. 3349 and 256 pressed up against his sides as the cavern burst through to the outside world. 805 gave one last shuddering breath, his eyes rolling backwards as he crumpled against them. 3349 hauled him up so he was leaning against her, motioning for 256 to take his other arm. She pursed her lips and the cavern began to slowly fill with water, trickling in from all sides so they were standing in a pool of mud. The water level rose slowly and so did they, gripping the walls of earth for support. 256 shivered, very aware that he was surrounded by water on all sides, but he did not complain.

When they at last reached the surface he grabbed 805 under his left armpit while 3349 did the same with his right. Together they dragged him out of the hole and onto the grass. The evening sun shone down from above, lighting 805’s face. 256 gasped loudly when he saw how pale and sickly he looked.

“805,” he gasped, shaking the older man’s shoulders violently. “You – 3349, he’s –“

“Shut up,” 3349 hissed, grabbing 256’s arm and wrenching him back. “He’ll be fine, he’s just exhausted his Gift making that tunnel. Worry about us instead - We’ve got to get somewhere more sheltered.”

256 looked up, his heart racing when he saw a herd of cows grazing on the other side of the large paddock they sat in. We’re still in the farmlands… I can even see the village in the distance. If we don’t hide, they’ll –

“Come on,” 3349 muttered, nodding at a shaded area of trees in the corner of the field closest to them. 256 gulped, and together they dragged 805 to shelter.

“At least we’re not in the open now,” 3349 said when they were under the trees, wiping her forehead. “If we stay quiet we might be alright…”

She glared at 256 as though he’d been making a lot of noise. He smiled meekly, bending over 805 and examining him again. I know she’s probably right, but… He looks so ill, surely he’s –

3349 gave an angry sigh, reaching over and wrenching him back for the second time.

“Seriously just leave him alone,” she said, pushing him to the side. 256 winced as he fell and scraped his right hand on a small rock. “The best thing for him is to get some rest and if you keep badgering him like that, he won’t.”

“I wasn’t –“

“You were,” she said firmly, shaking her head at him. 256 sighed, examining his grazed palm while 3349 laid out their supplies, swearing when she saw that everything was soaked and muddy. She touched them and sucked the water away, but a thin layer of mud still covered everything.

“That’ll have to do,” she muttered, folding her arms tightly across her chest. “And I suppose we’ll have to stay here until this idiot –“ she jerked her head at 805, “ – gets better. If it were anyone else I’d leave them behind so the two of us could survive, but… The Council will blame me if he dies. They love him too much. For the life of me, I can’t think why. Earth powers are… They’re just weak. Why the Leader wants a Gift of Earth on the Council itself is beyond me.”

“Well…” 256 began, shifting slightly. He decided it was best not to bring up how frightened 3349 had been in the cabin as a defense. “He - He killed those rebels with his powers, and he saved us using them too. So they can’t be that weak. Or at least, he isn’t.”

3349 snickered. “He could have killed them with regular daggers, and a Gift of Air could’ve flown us out without wasting so much energy and nearly killing us in the process.”

256 shrugged. “Maybe, but… he still saved us.”

The older woman rolled her eyes, standing up and stretching. “Please, you’re just as useless as he is. You’re only standing up for him because you’re a Gift of Fire. Fire is so easily defeated.”

She paused, raising her nose into the warm evening air. “Anyway, there’s a stream nearby. I can sense it. I’m going to wash all this mud off. You should come too unless you want your clothes to go all stiff later.”

When he didn’t answer 3349 turned to look at him, smirking at his expression. “All girls together. No? Just wash in a different area of the stream than me, idiot. Logic obviously isn’t one of your strong points. Not that you have any of those to begin with.”

“I – shouldn’t someone stay with him?” 256 stammered gesturing at 805.

She considered this. “He’ll be fine. We won’t be gone for long. But stay if you want, I don’t care.”

256 stayed, sitting down cross-legged in the dirt next to 805 while 3349 trudged off. He pressed his hand against the older man’s forehead, closing his eyes and sensing the temperature beneath his fingertips.

He’s got a fever… Not a huge one, though. I think he’ll be okay, but… He looks so ill.

256 gulped, shivering in his wet clothes. He folded his arms across his chest and tried radiating heat from his body to dry himself, but it just made the mud stickier. He shivered, pulling his knees to his chest and trying not to think too much about the water clinging to his body and clothes. 256 had hated water ever since his Gift manifested, just like every other Gift of Fire he knew. During his childhood he’d always kept himself very clean – his bed in the dormitory was always made, his clothes folded, even before the Servants came in to do those jobs for them. However, the idea of taking a bath had become terrifying to him as soon as he reached his seventh year.

256 gritted his teeth and drew his knees closer as he remembered the first time he’d been required to take a bath after his Gift manifested. He’d hidden under the covers of his bed, but the Servants found him and dragged him off to the washroom as he cried. They’d forced him underwater, scrubbing him and holding him down as he struggled. After that he’d been a lot more compliant, but he still hated washing himself and tried to be as quick and efficient as possible.

256 sighed, shifting his feet and stealing a glance at 805. He stirred suddenly, rolling onto his side and mumbling under his breath.

“Michelle,” he whispered, his voice croaky and his fists clenching slightly at his sides. “Michelle… Don’t be… I have to…”

He rolled over, his voice dropping so low 256 could no longer hear. 256 leaned back, shifting slightly so he was sitting cross-legged.

Michelle… I’ve never heard that word before. What could it mean?

The snap of a twig behind him drew his attention quickly. He glanced over his shoulder, relaxing when he saw 3349 striding through the trees towards him. Her clothes were wet, but mud-free.

“3349, what’s a michelle?” he asked, as she sat down on the grass beside him.

She shrugged, her lips coiling into a frown. “Don’t know. What makes you ask?”

“N – Nothing,” he muttered, glancing at 805.

She raised her eyebrows. “Interesting. Now, do you want to keep watch or should I?”

“I can do it,” he said quickly. “I… I’m not that tired.”

3349 nodded and sat down, lying against the grass and closing her eyes. 256 shivered, drawing his knees close to his chest as he sat in his wet clothes. The small patch of trees was silent except for the occasional hoot of an owl and rustle of leaves.

It’s so quiet and open… We really are exposed out here. How long will it be before the rebels find us? They…

He gulped, thinking of the mutilated bodies back at the village. He wondered if they were doing the same to the two Gifted women they’d killed just an hour earlier. A chill ran through his body as he realized the three of them could very well be next.

“They can’t have gotten far.”

256 stifled a gasp, reaching over and shaking 3349 awake. She saw the look in his eyes and understood, creating a spear of ice between her fingers. She crept towards a tree on the edge of their patch of forest, motioning at 256 to do the same.

Three rebels were trudging through the field before them, eying the herd of cows on the other side of the paddock warily.

“They could be anywhere,” one rebel, a woman, argued. Another woman rolled her eyes, pointing in the direction of the hole they’d climbed out of.

“I already told you,” she said irritably. “They can’t have gotten far – you know how much energy the Earth one must’ve used? We’ve got to get them before he recovers.”

“But…” the male rebel interrupted, continuing their argument. 256 peered around the tree, swallowing as he noted the weapons strapped to their backs. He glanced at 3349. She was sitting with her spear poised, waiting for her target to get closer so she could aim.

“Don’t,” 256 whispered urgently, putting a hand on her arm. She jerked away from him, scowling.

“What?” she hissed, gesturing at the three rebels. “They’re the enemy, 256. We have to –“

“We shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves,” 256 said in a low voice. “805 can’t fight –“

“So what? We can. And we can’t let them get away, they’re rebels.”

“But he’s our –“

“Friend?” 3349 said coldly, adjusting her ice spear. “We don’t have any friends here, 256. You of all people should know that by now.”

256 gave a sharp intake of breath. How does she know about that? I… No, she must mean something else. “I – I was going to say he’s our leader. If we attack the rebels and they kill him, the Council won’t be happy. They’ll - they’ll punish us.”

They’ll kill me, though.

3349 scowled, pursing her lips. “You know what? I don’t care. If he dies I’ll say he was killed when we were outnumbered ten to one. The Council can’t punish us for that, can they?”

Of course they can. And they will, but… I guess she’s just focusing on right now.

When he didn’t answer 3349 rolled her eyes and pushed him away, aiming her spear and throwing it expertly through the air towards the male rebel. It tore straight through his abdomen. He coughed and toppled over as 3349 ran out towards them, fashioning another spear between her palms. She threw it at the next rebel, who raised their bow and blocked it just in time, showering herself with ice chips. She quickly drew an arrow and fired, but 3349 ducked to the ground as it whizzed over her head. The Gifted woman then jumped to her feet and created another spear, thrusting it towards her opponent again.

While 3349 and the second rebel fought, 256 watched as the third rebel edged away from the two of them, holding an arrow in 3349’s direction. She swore loudly, unable to focus her aim as the Gifted woman ducked and dived around the second rebel’s strikes. She looked around, narrowing her eyes when she saw something in the distance. 256 followed her gaze and gasped when he saw 805 sitting up and rubbing his eyes, his back to the rebel. She’s going to –

256 scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could towards the rebel woman as she trained her arrow on 805’s back. He tackled her to the ground, sending her arrow whizzing through the air in another direction. The woman swore and pushed him off, standing up as quickly as she could and staring at him in disbelief.

“You’re just a kid,” she said as he stood up slowly, wincing as he assembled the southpaw fighting stance. That’s one advantage of my height, at least… They always underestimate me.

The rebel woman watched him for a few moments, before tightening her grip on her bow and pointing it towards him. “No, you’re still Gifted. You deserve to die.”

256 stayed still as she readied her arrow, ducking when he saw her pulling her arm back. She let go and the arrow missed his head by a wide margin, embedding in a large tree. As she stopped to reload her weapon 256 sprang to his feet and ran forward, grabbing her by the shoulder and sweeping her leg with his own so she fell to the ground. She coughed, struggling to her feet and staggering backwards, her arrows spilling onto the ground.

“You’re – you’re strong,” she gasped as he ran towards her again, jumping in the air and delivering a side kick into her belly, before twisting around and hitting her with a spinning back kick. She grabbed one of her arrows from the ground and quickly shot an arrow in his direction, which he ducked to the ground to avoid.

She can shoot, but… She doesn’t know how to fight without her arrows.

Heat coursed through his veins as he ran towards her, ducking under her feeble punches and rising as he thrust his left fist into her chin. She spat as her tooth dislodged, blood dribbling down her lip from where she’d bitten her tongue. While she was distracted 256 grabbed her arm, starting a small fire beneath his fingertips. She yelped, pulling her arm away from him and allowing him to wrench the bow from her hands. He set it on fire and threw it away, sweeping her leg again so she fell to the dirt floor, narrowly missing another tree. 256 clambered on top of her and trapped her with his body, lying as close to her as he could and locking her legs with his feet so she couldn’t escape. He managed to wrap his hands over her throat as she struggled.

What do I do now?

A rush of cold coursed through his body, his hands holding her neck loosely. His legs felt like lead and he began to shake, stumped at what to do next.

Kill her. That’s what I’m supposed to do. She’s here, she’s – she’s at my mercy, but I can’t – I can’t just sit here, I’ve got to set her on fire or something –

“Make it quick.”

His breath caught as he heard that voice. It can’t be… She’s so far away, I’m just imagining it. I know that, but…

“Carey…” he whispered. She lay beneath him, her long brown hair spread all around her and her clothes crumpled, covered with dust and debris.

“Just do it,” she said, scowling. Her blue eyes were ice and she looked up at him with a hatred that tore him apart. “Why can’t you do it, 256? It’ll only take a couple of seconds. I’m waiting.”

256’s grip slackened even further. Come on… I – I’m Gifted, she’s a rebel, I have to do it. It’s my duty to be ruthless… Why can’t I… Carey…

At last she managed to free her arms, ramming her hands into his elbows so he fell on top of her. She grabbed him around the throat and rolled the two of them over, pressing her forearm into his neck. He struggled for breath as she pushed her whole weight into his neck.

Carey gasped suddenly, and for a moment his heart stopped, but it was the rebel woman who fell against him with a diamond knife stuck in her back. He scrambled out from under her and watched, shivering as blood pooled across her brown shirt.

“I – thank you,” he croaked, massaging his neck. He glanced over at 805, who stood a few feet away, panting and leaning against a tree. He gave 256 a weak smile, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“I should be the one thanking you,” he said gruffly, limping over and offering him a hand. 256 took it, letting the older man pull him to his feet. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll be okay,” 256 muttered. 805 opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could 3349 stormed over and grabbed 256 by the collar, pulling him away and slamming him against a tree with her sword pressed against his throat. 256 coughed, glancing over at the rebel she’d been fighting. She was lying on the ground, her abdomen ripped open so her internal organs spilled onto the forest floor.

“What were you thinking?” she shouted.

“I – I don’t know…”

“You’re weak,” she spat, holding him up so high his legs didn’t quite touch the ground.

She’s right, I am… I should’ve been able to kill that woman, but I –

“Do that again and I’ll kill you myself,” she said, her hands shaking with fury. “The Council will thank me for it. They’re just looking for a reason to kill you!”

“I – What do you mean?” he asked, eying her sword nervously. She can’t know… The Council wouldn’t have told her. She didn’t even know 805 was a Gift of Earth when they met, surely –

She laughed, shaking her head. “Do you think I’m stupid?” she hissed. “The Council wouldn’t send a scrawny, useless little boy like you on a mission as important as this one without a good reason. You’ve been punished and 805 is your supervisor, isn’t he? You’re so idiotic you’ve probably used up both of your chances… He’s meant to kill you if you step out of line again. He won’t, though. He acts tough but his heart’s as soft as yours.”

3349 paused, cocking her head to the side. “I think this counts as stepping out of line, don’t you think? Let’s see what 805’ll do now.”

She glanced over her shoulder, slapping 256 in the face with her ponytail when she turned. 805 limped towards them, his fingers clasped around the handle of another knife.

“Come on then,” she said as he approached, smirking. “Are you too soft, or will you –“

She gasped as he grabbed her by the collar and pulled her back. Her sword fell to the ground with a clatter and 256 rubbed his neck, shaking. 805 pressed her against his body and held the knife to her throat. Two beads of blood appeared on the blade, running down to the edge and dripping onto the grass beneath them.

“So I’m too soft, am I?” 805’s voice was dangerously quiet. His skin was still a sickly, pale colour, but his grey eyes were dark and narrow. “I’m his supervisor, not you. I’m the one who decides if he’s stepped out of line. And in my opinion, he hasn’t. Threaten him, or me, again and I’ll be the one killing you.”

He let her go, his posture sinking a little as he dropped the knife to the ground. 3349 stepped away from him, her blue eyes flashing angrily. She rubbed her neck, smearing the drops of blood across her skin.

“You won’t get away with this,” she said angrily. “The Council won’t –“

805 raised his eyebrows. “The Council will believe what I say. I think you’ll find I have more… influence, I suppose, than you do. If someone tells them lies about us, I’ll have to correct them… And you’ll be the one who’s punished.”

3349’s left fist clenched at her side as she picked up her sword, sheathing it and glaring at him.

“Bastard,” she spat, turning around and stomping off through the forest.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” 805 said quietly, crouching to the ground and turning his dagger back into graphite. 256 swallowed, watching as 3349 packed up their supplies with a sour look in her eyes.

“She is right,” he said slowly, glancing at 805. “I… You should kill me. You’re supposed to.”

805 shrugged, rubbing his forehead. “Maybe I should, but… You saved my life. Twice.”

“Twice?”

He nodded. “It was your idea to tunnel out of the house. And that rebel would’ve killed me if you hadn’t tackled her.”

“But –“

“I’ve saved you twice now too,” he continued. “Once from the rebel, once from 3349. So we’re even.”

805 turned away, sitting down on the forest floor. He leant against the tree, closing his eyes wearily. 256 kneeled next to him, his legs wobbling slightly.

“805…”

“Yes?”

“I – Does this mean if I make a mistake again, you’ll kill me?”

805 opened his eyes, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yes,” he said after a pause. “I’ll have no choice.”

256 looked away, his fingers clenching against the dirt floor. “I – I understand. I won’t stuff up again, I… I promise.”

The older man gave him a curt nod, shifting his legs and closing his eyes again. 256 watched him, suddenly remembering the words he’d whispered to himself when passed out.

“What’s a michelle?” he asked curiously.

805’s eyes snapped open.

“What do you mean?” he said hoarsely, sitting up straight.

“You said it,” said 256 quickly. “Before, when you were asleep…”

“I…” 805 sighed, running a hand through his hair. He shook his head, standing up jerking his head towards 3349. “I was delirious, 256. I would’ve said anything. Now come on. We need to move before more rebels search this area.”

30: Past and Present
Past and Present

Janelle sighed as she thought hard about her new plan. Theresa, the manager of the brothel, had given her a map of the country, which helpfully showed all of the towns, villages and sanctuaries. She and Marvin had decided on the village they’d attack. It was a small village, with only one factory, located in the South-East of the island. Despite its size it produced a large number of weapons for the Gifted to use, and thus it was a good target. Not only will we gain a large amount of weapons, we’ll be taking some away from our enemies…

But she knew she had to be careful. A repeat of the Lake Village would be devastating for them, and she wasn’t sure if they’d be able to bounce back from another loss like that. If we can’t pull this off, our rebellion is as good as finished. But if we pull it off… Even more people will be inclined to join us.

Janelle sighed, rubbing her eyes. Her stomach rumbled loudly as she realised it was nearly morning already.

She crept down the stairs, trying not to wake anyone. They had about thirty recruits now, still far from the number she wanted to have before they attempted to attack the village. Janelle only planned on taking twenty or so with them, but she wanted to have a large number to stay here, so they’d have something to work with if they did fail. She didn’t know if it would make a difference or not, as she was certain they’d probably all leave if they failed again. But she could not afford to take that chance, and thus they needed as many recruits as they could find before they could attack.

Janelle soon reached the kitchen, her stomach rumbling even louder. However, she stopped in her tracks when she heard voices from within.

“So, how have you been?”

That’s Theresa’s voice…

“I’ve been fine.”

Her eyes widened as she heard Reagan speak, suddenly remembering the day they’d first arrived here. That’s right, she recognised him…

His voice sounded different than usual. I think he’s crying…

“Reagan, it’s been fourteen years… What have you been doing since then, all on your own?”

Janelle noticed there was a peephole in the door. She peered into it, watching the two of them inside. Reagan stood, tall and stiff, while the older woman had her hand on his shoulder. He looked very uncomfortable, his trademark smile gone and his eyes watering.

He shrugged, trembling slightly. “I don’t know. Wandering around, moving from sanctuary to sanctuary. That’s what people like me do, don’t they? I got by, so don’t worry about me.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to bring up any bad memories,” she said quickly, hugging him. He was tense at first, but soon softened and hugged her back.

“How did you survive?” she whispered as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I don’t know… I really don’t, I just did, okay?” he said, his voice muffled. “I don’t really remember, honestly… I blocked a lot of it out.”

She squeezed him tighter. “Again, I’m sorry for bringing up old wounds. I just – I thought everyone died! You were my family for so long, and I then moved away… A month later I hear the Gifted flooded the place, and everyone inside perished, I – I never thought –“

She began to cry harder. He patted her on the head, stroking her hair with his fingers.

“I’m so glad you’re alive,” she whispered. “Your mother, she was like a sister to me. I know how much she loved you, she never shut up about her son… You’re so grown up. If she could see you now, I’m sure she’d be very proud.”
“P – Please,” Reagan said, his voice breaking. “Don’t talk about her, I –“

“I’m sorry,” Theresa said quickly. “I should’ve known. Still, I see you again after all these years and find you’ve joined a rebel group!”

She held him at arm’s length, smiling through her tears. “How did that happen, huh?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know… I just ended up here, I guess. I only joined them about a month ago.”

He smiled slightly, but his eyes didn’t twinkle like usual. “I should get some breakfast, anyway. I have to be strong for today’s training.”

“Of course, don’t let me stop you,” she said quickly, gesturing towards the food available. Janelle waited a minute or so before entering.

“Good morning,” she said, smiling and trying not to look like she’d just overheard everything they’d said.

Theresa smiled at her, while Reagan suddenly stopped what he was doing. She noticed him grasping his plate so hard that his fingers began to turn white.

“Janelle, you’re up early,” she said, quickly wiping away her tears, but Janelle had already seen them.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she muttered, picking up her own plate and taking some bread. She’d lost much of her appetite when she’d seen his reaction. He knows I heard…

Reagan left quickly, and she followed him out the door. To her surprise he didn’t eat at the table, instead choosing to go upstairs, not even glancing back at her.

“R – Reagan…”

But he was already gone. Janelle grasped her plate, guilt beginning to wash over her. I – I shouldn’t have listened, it was his business…

She shook her head, trying to clear it from her mind. Janelle had more important things to worry about now, she had a rebellion to plan, after all. She ate her breakfast as quickly as she could, waiting for the rest of their recruits to start trickling in. Today’s the day I tell them our plan… At least, part of it. She decided not to tell them everything at this moment in time, as she didn’t want to pressure them. Janelle was simply going to announce that she and a few others were heading to another sanctuary to recruit new members, while Samantha would stay behind and look after them.

The recruits eventually gathered in the dining room, all thirty or so of them. Marvin and Samantha stood with her. She noticed Carey entering, standing with Thomas at the back. She noticed Reagan was not among them, which worried her. I hope he isn’t too mad at me.

Just as she was thinking this she saw him enter, cheery as usual. He smiled widely at her, winking, as though nothing had happened. Janelle was more than a little confused, but she had more important things to do.

She cleared her throat, and the room went silent.

“Thank you for all being here today,” she said, raising her voice so even those at the back could hear her. “I have decided that we need to increase our numbers. There are thirty of us, but my aim is to have at least fifty by the end of this mission. Samantha will be in charge until I get back.”

She paused, glancing at Marvin. He smiled, nodding. “Marvin will be coming with me. And…”

Janelle glanced through the crowd. “And Carey, you will be coming with us.”

There was a murmur through the crowd. The other rebels all turned to stare at her. She glanced nervously at Thomas, who shrugged.

“O – Okay,” she muttered, walking through the crowd and standing awkwardly at the front with the rest of them.

Janelle reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “Thank you for co-operating.”

She knew Carey had not had an easy time with them. Most of the recruits knew Carey was Gifted, although they didn’t know what powers she had. The only people who knew were her, Marvin, Samantha and Thomas. As a result, most regarded her with a certain hostility, and she could tell the young girl was lonely. Janelle wanted to help her, but she simply didn’t have time. At least Thomas and Samantha have befriended her… She spends most of her time with him, and with Samantha when she’s not busy. Anyway, hopefully this will help her win some favour with the other recruits.

“That is all,” Janelle said, nodding at the crowd. “Thank you again for being here.”

The rebels dispersed. Janelle turned to discuss what they were going to do with her companions, but Reagan tapped her on the shoulder.

“What is it?” she said, beginning to turn red.

“Can I talk to you?” he said, grinning like usual.

She nodded, avoiding the curious gazes of the others. He led her to the kitchen, shutting the door behind them.

“Reagan, I –“

“Can I come with you?” he interrupted, his hazel eyes twinkling.

“What?” Janelle said, taken aback.

“Can I come with you?” he repeated. He’s acting as though nothing happened…

Still, she had overheard his private conversation… I should give him what he wants, it’s the least I can do. “Um, okay,” she said. “Sure, you can come. The more the better, I guess.”

He hugged her, much to her embarrassment. “I am truly grateful.”

He took her hand, leading her through the door. Marvin, Samantha and Carey were waiting. Samantha looked suspicious, and the other two looked confused. She saw the other woman’s eyes dart to their intertwined hands. Janelle pulled her arm away quickly, blushing.

“Um, Reagan will be coming with us,” she said hurriedly.

Marvin raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Sure. It doesn’t really matter, he can come if he wants.”

Samantha glared at him, and he stared calmly back.

“I’ll go instead,” she said, her eyes narrowed.

“No, I need you to stay,” Janelle said. “You’re my deputy, Samantha, you have to look after everyone while I’m gone.”

“But –“

“No,” she said, standing her ground.

Samantha’s grey eyes bore into hers. “Fine,” she snapped, turning around and walking off. Janelle watched her leave, feeling slightly guilty. I’m sorry…

Reagan reached out and squeezed her shoulder, much to her surprise. “What’s the plan, anyway?”

“Well, we’ll pack today and leave tonight,” Janelle said quickly, ignoring Marvin’s suspicious gaze. Carey didn’t seem as concerned, she was staring at her feet, her tangled brown hair falling in her face.

“Here, you two gather up some supplies,” she said to Marvin and Reagan. “I want to talk to Carey for a bit.”

They did as she asked, leaving the two women alone in the room. “Thank you again,” she said, smiling awkwardly. Janelle got the impression that Carey didn’t like her very much.

“It’s fine,” she muttered, avoiding her gaze, walking off before Janelle could say another word. She sighed, sitting down at the table and holding her head in her hands. Will I ever manage to connect with her? Her powers would be very useful, but I don’t feel right asking her to use them until she trusts me and believes in our mission.

She sighed, lying down and resting on the table. Reagan, Carey and Samantha are all acting weird… What do I do now?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey felt guilty for running out on Janelle like that, but she just didn’t know what to do. Do I really belong here? Do I belong anywhere, anymore?

At least she had Thomas and Samantha. She spent most of her free time chatting to Tom in his room while he worked. Samantha would occasionally join them. Although she enjoyed their company, she always felt like a child with them. Samantha was twenty-four and Tom twenty-nine, while Carey had only turned nineteen a week ago. Still, they were good friends, the only friends she had in this place.

Carey spent the rest of the day packing up the few clothes she had before helping Marvin and Reagan pack them some food for the journey. They both went back to their rooms, leaving Carey with nothing to do.

I should see how Samantha is, actually… I wonder why she was so upset this morning.

She found her sitting on the steps of the training room, staring stonily at the now decapitated practice dummy. Her chest heaved as she caught her breath, reaching up and letting her long, thick black hair loose. She barely reacted as Carey entered.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, slightly nervous as she sat down beside her. Samantha didn’t respond, clutching her sword so hard that her palm began to bleed as the blade dug into her.

“Don’t do that,” she said quickly, pulling her hand away, examining the thin cut on her skin. Samantha wrenched it from her grasp, wiping the blood on her shirt.

“What do you want?” she asked, her voice dangerously quiet.

“Well, we’re friends, aren’t we?” Carey said, raising an eyebrow. “I just want to know why you’re upset.”

The older woman sighed, her black hair falling in her face and obscuring her eyes. “It’s nothing. I’m sorry for being… Well, the way I am.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, no sound except their breathing.

“I just… I don’t understand women, sometimes. I really don’t.”

Carey decided it was best not to point out that Samantha was a woman herself.

“Why not?” she asked, humouring her.

Samantha looked up, her grey eyes meeting hers. “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. A few weeks ago she couldn’t stand him, now she’s almost fawning over him.”

Carey felt she was missing something. “Who?”

The older woman rolled her eyes. “Janelle, of course. She, of all people, should know to be careful.”

“Okay…” Carey said slowly, still confused. “Wait, who’s Janelle fawning over?”

Samantha sighed. “Reagan, you idiot. Didn’t you see the way she was acting earlier? She’s all blushing and shy and ugh. I don’t understand why, doesn’t she remembered what happened to her last time?”

Carey shrugged. She didn’t really know any details, other than that Janelle had a daughter out of wedlock. “What happened?”

The older woman pursed her lips. “I can’t tell you that… It’s Janelle’s business.”

“I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

Samantha’s grey eyes bore into hers, but Carey stood her ground, staring defiantly back. She could see that the older woman wanted to tell her, all she needed was a little persuasion.

“Fine,” she sighed, giving in quicker than Carey anticipated. “It’s not that exciting, anyway. Janelle and I grew up in the same village, we were even in the same year at school… We weren’t really friends until we met in the woods about five years ago, both of us determined to overthrow the Gifted. I didn’t really talk to any of the other children, honestly. The mountain villages are very secluded, everyone resembles each other… Except me. I always felt like an outsider, not only because of my appearance but because, well, they were very different from me.”

She clutched the handle of her sword again, her grey eyes narrowed. “Anyway, Janelle herself was different from the way she is now. She was quiet, soft-spoken. My mother and her parents were friends, but they hardly saw each other aside from market day as we rarely left our house to protect Tom. I asked her once how they’d met, and she smiled and told me that they’d helped her when she was in trouble once. Tom later told me that they’d helped her the day I was born. She’d knocked on every door in the village asking for help, but because she was unmarried she didn’t have the best reputation in the village and most turned her away. Janelle’s parents were the first to agree to help her.”

She paused. “Anyway, I’m getting off track. My mother wouldn’t usually let me and Tom come with her to sell her products. Tom didn’t really mind, he was content to stay and practice his blacksmithing skills. However, she did occasionally let me go with her, although she kept a close watch on me. I don’t really know why, honestly, but she was very protective. Anyway, Janelle and her parents were almost always there. You could tell how much they loved each other… I think that was the problem, in a way. She was so sheltered, so unaware of the hardships of life. Because of that she knew nothing of how people could be. Anyway, they always came up to say hello to us. But Janelle was shy, she hung back while our parents talked.”

She sighed again, fiddling with a lock of her black hair. “When we were about seventeen everything went wrong for her. There was this boy, a couple of years older than us… His name was Alexander, and he was infamous in our village. But Janelle, she loved him. By that time my mother was very ill, so I had to sell what Tom made at the markets by myself. I saw her there once with her parents, like usual, and they came to speak to me. I chatted with them, told them how my mother was, asked them to come and visit… But in the corner of my eye, I saw Janelle and Alexander talking. He approached her and whispered something in her ear. She looked uncertain, but she nodded, and together they left.”

“Anyway, about six months later she and her mother disappeared. Her father came to the markets alone, and told everyone that Amelia, his wife, was pregnant, and their daughter was staying at home to help her. But rumours had already begun to swirl through the village, and almost everyone knew what was really going on. The next time I saw her, both her parents and my mother were dead. We met at the markets again, and she held what she told me was her newborn sister in her arms. I humoured her, but I always knew she was her daughter. When I told her I knew a few months ago, I pretended I’d only just figured it out. Truthfully, she’s never fooled me.”

“So… you think that Janelle should be more careful because of what happened with Alexander?” Carey said, shuffling her feet slightly.

Samantha nodded. “Yes. I don’t understand why she’s being so careless, when he was so cruel to her… I saw him around the village a couple of times after that. I saw them talking once, a few months after her daughter was born. She was nearly crying, but he smirked and shoved her away. How can she trust anyone after what happened? How can she let herself feel that way again?”

She gritted her teeth. “I just don’t understand. My mother was the same way, even though Tom’s father left her she still let herself be vulnerable again… And look where that got her, alone with two children to raise and not a lot of money to do it. I – I just don’t want Janelle to make the same mistake…”

Her voice trailed off, she almost looked like she was about to cry.

Carey didn’t know what to say. She’d never been in love, so she didn’t really know how it affected people’s decision making. When she was about fifteen she’d had a crush on a boy in her village, and they’d shared a few awkward kisses. But once their excitement had faded they’d gone their separate ways, and she wasn’t sure if that was even close to resembling love. However, despite her inexperience, Carey got the feeling that Samantha was being too negative about this.

“I don’t know. I think you should leave her alone, honestly.”

Samantha stared at her. “How can I leave this alone?”

“You have no reason to believe Reagan will do the same thing. And sure, maybe she has a crush on him, but she might not even do anything about it. I guess I just think you should wait a bit before jumping to conclusions.”

Samantha laughed. “I don’t need any reasons. I know how these things go.”

Carey shrugged. “But they don’t always go that way… I mean, yeah, what happened to your mother and Janelle was bad. But it doesn’t happen to everyone. My – my parents have been married for a long time, they have eight children… Sure, they have their fights, but they always make up.”

She felt tears build up in her eyes as she thought of her own mother and father, who she hadn’t seen in so long, but she resisted them. It won’t do me any good to get upset… I must stay strong if I ever want to see them again, although I doubt that will happen.

“So, anyway, I think you should leave them alone,” Carey said hurriedly, shuffling her feet. “At least for now.”

“Well, I have no choice, do I?” Samantha said, sighing. “I’m staying behind, while you’re all going to recruit new members.”

She grasped Carey’s hand suddenly, her grey eyes meeting hers. “Look after her, won’t you Carey? You’ll – you’ll keep an eye on him, won’t you?”

Carey had never seen Samantha look so desperate. “O – Okay. I’ll do it, I promise.”

She smiled, reaching out and patting the younger girl on the head. “Thank you.”

She stood off, tying her long black hair back up again. Her grey eyes narrowed, that murderous glare appearing again. “And if he dares to try anything, I’ll kill him.”

Carey burst out laughing, much to Samantha’s surprise.

“Why are you laughing?” she said, her eyebrows knotted. “I’m serious.”

“I – I know, that’s why it’s funny,” Carey giggled, wiping a tear from her eye.

Samantha rolled her eyes, but she smiled slightly. “I'm glad I amuse you."

“It’s just so extreme,” she said, still giggling. "Reagan may be suspicious, but killing him? You know, you could give people a chance sometimes.”

Samantha shrugged. “If I assume the worst in people, then I’m never disappointed if they live up to my expectations. And if they don’t, then I’m pleasantly surprised.”

She considered this. “That actually does make sense,” Carey admitted, smirking.

Samantha grinned. “See, I’m not that crazy.”

She offered Carey her hand, pulling the young girl to her feet. “Come on, you’ll be leaving soon. I want to say good bye to Janelle and Marvin.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

They walked in silence through the corridors. Samantha seemed to be lost in thought.

“You know, you can call me Sam,” she said suddenly.

“What?” Carey said, slightly confused.

Samantha shuffled her feet, almost looking nervous. “You can call me Sam. You know, as a nickname…”

“Um, okay,” Carey said, pausing. “Sam.”

The older woman smiled as they walked into the main room of the brothel. Marvin, Reagan and Janelle were all waiting for her.

“Samantha!” Janelle ran over and hugged her tightly, but she seemed nervous.

“See you when we get back,” she said, watching her carefully.

The other woman hugged her back, and Janelle relaxed. “I’ll look after everyone, I promise. Don’t worry.”

She paused. “You can call me Sam, you know. As a nickname.”

Janelle looked as confused as Carey had felt. “Sure,” she said, smiling slightly.

Sam let go of her, patting her on the shoulder. “Stay safe, okay?”

The other woman nodded. “Of course.”

They hugged each other one final time before separating. Samantha said a quick goodbye to Marvin and shot a murderous glare in Reagan’s direction before leaving the four of them alone.

The older woman coughed. “Okay, should we go?”

“Of course,” Reagan said, smiling, apparently unaffected by Samantha’s attempts to intimidate him.

Janelle blushed slightly as she took out their map, leading them from the room.

“We go down this path,” she said, gesturing in the direction. “It should take us a day, I think, to walk there.”

The three of them began their journey, Carey following close behind. She watched them talking, a strange feeling beginning to overcome her. She hadn’t realised how different she’d felt for the past few weeks, when she, Tom and Sam had been travelling together… They were my friends, and I wasn’t as lonely with them like I was before. But now she felt similar to the way she had when she’d first joined the rebels as she watched the three of them walking ahead of her – like an outsider.

31: Gifts and Curses
Gifts and Curses

They travelled for a few hours before deciding it was best to rest for the night. Janelle sighed as she unpacked some of their supplies, collecting enough twigs and logs to make a fire that would last them for until morning. She found two sharp stones and used them to start the flames, taking a few goes but eventually getting it.

“Thanks,” Reagan said, smiling and sitting down next to her. She shuffled away from him slightly, still a little nervous. He hasn’t said anything about this morning… I feel like I should do something, but what?

Carey sat down opposite them. She was staring at them strangely, her blue eyes slightly narrowed, as though she was concentrating hard. Janelle shuffled even further away, not wanting her to get the wrong idea. She was not the sort of person to lie to herself about such things, particularly after what happened last time. I know how I feel… But I have to resist, I can’t let myself get into that situation again. I just can’t.

“So, what’s the plan, anyway?” he asked, smiling at her. Even though she tried not to, she couldn’t help but be happy when he smiled, which was often.

“I’m not sure,” she muttered, trying to ignore Carey’s stares. “We’ll go to the inn, talk to people… I’ll come up with something to say, don’t worry. You three are just there to back me up.”

Reagan glanced around. “Where is Marvin, anyway?”

Janelle shrugged. “I don’t know. He said he’d be back in a bit…”

Although she didn’t want to say, she felt worried for him. It had been nearly two weeks since they’d found out Rosa died, and he was still fairly solitary, not speaking to Janelle about her since that first evening.

“I can go look for him, if you like,” he said, patting her on the arm.

“Um, okay… You can if you want,” she said hurriedly, sneaking a glance at Carey, who frowned. “He probably wants to be alone though.”

Reagan shrugged. “I find that people who want to be alone are often the ones most in need of company.”

Her mind immediately flashed back to that day, when she’d been upset over Samantha and the others… I told him I wanted to be alone, but he came anyway.

A blush crept up her neck as she remembered, and he didn’t really help when he leaned over so his lips were nearly touching her ear.

“I’ll go find him, and you talk to Carey,” he breathed, almost inaudible. “She needs some company, too.”

“I’ll talk to him, don’t worry,” Reagan said louder, leaning closer and hugging her. Presumably this was to hide his intentions from the girl sitting across the fire. “You should get some sleep, Janelle. You’ll need your energy for tomorrow.”

She hugged him back. “Okay, thank you.”

Reagan stood up slowly, brushing himself off. He nodded at Carey, smiling, before leaving them alone.

Janelle turned her attention back to the girl sitting across from her.

She’s probably lonely… After all, she doesn’t really know any of us that well, and Thomas and Samantha aren’t here.

She watched her fiddling with a stick, poking at the flames with it. A sour look decorated her face. Janelle watched her, beginning to feel slightly guilty. She hadn’t spoken to Carey much since she’d joined them, even less since she, Samantha and Thomas had returned. I’ve put a lot of pressure on her, and her power could be very valuable to us. But I’ve barely even taken the effort to get to know her.

Her mind made up, Janelle dug inside her bag, finding some bread and bringing it with her.

“Um, hi,” Janelle said as she approached the young girl, giving a small wave.

“What?” Carey asked, the contempt quite prominent in her voice. Well she’s in a bad mood today…

“I brought you some food,” she said, offering it to her.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Well… If you’re ever hungry, feel free to take some,” she muttered, standing up and sitting next to her, clenching her fists in her lap. Janelle stared into the flames, noticing the other girl’s eyes on her.

“What do you want?” Carey asked, her eyes narrowed.

“I just want to know… how you’re feeling,” she said, cursing internally. Out of all the things she could’ve said, she had to pick the most generic thing ever.

“I’m fine,” she said, poking the fire again.

“That’s good,” Janelle said, nodding slightly. “So, um, are you excited? For our mission, I mean.”

“Not really,” she said. “It’s not like I’m going to do anything.”

She paused, pushing a lock of her long, dark hair past her ear. “Why did you ask me to come, anyway?”

“I wanted you to take a more active role in our cause,” she answered. “I mean, your powers… They could be vital in helping us overthrow the Gifted. So I guess I just wanted you to come along so you could… feel more like a part of the group, I guess.”

She took the girl’s hand and squeezed it. Carey raised an eyebrow as she did so, but Janelle stood her ground. She stared her straight in the eye, unblinking. “I know that the others don’t treat you very well. Don’t let them worry you, Carey. They’re just ignorant, once they see you playing an important role in our cause they’ll warm up to you. After all, you’re not really one of the Gifted at all, you just… have something that makes you a bit different.”

Carey shrugged. “I don’t care what they think.”

“I know you’re lying. Nobody likes to be isolated.”

She bit her lip. “Fine, maybe it does bother me a bit. But still, they have a point… I’m technically Gifted, but I’ll never be one of them… Just like I’ll never be one of the nonGifted, either. Not anymore.”

Her voice broke slightly when she said this, but she stared straight ahead, a determined look in her eyes. Janelle had the feeling that nothing she could say would convince her otherwise.

“Well… I hope you’ll feel more like one of us, anyway, after we’ve finished this mission,” she muttered. “After this, we’ll hopefully have a lot more supporters. Once we’ve figured out a proper plan and have enough supporters, we’ll attack a village in the South-East. The village we’re planning on attacking makes a lot of weapons for the Gifted, so we’ll be one step closer to overthrowing them if we’re successful.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, the only sound the crackling of the fire.

“What are you going to do after, though?” Carey said suddenly, avoiding the older woman’s gaze. “Did you ever think of that?”

“What do you mean?” Janelle asked, taken aback.

“I mean, you talk about overthrowing the Gifted… But how will that help anything? I mean, they may be the enemy but they still keep order on this island. It may be an unfair system, but people aren’t going to give up their stable lives unless they know they’ll be safe under a new one.”

She paused, her blue eyes meeting Janelle’s green. “So I guess I’m just wondering what you plan on doing after you’ve overthrown them. Maybe if you actually had a clear idea, people like me who are uncertain of your chances might be more willing to follow you.”

“I…” Janelle had to admit, she hadn’t really considered what she was going to do after. She has a point… We’ll all suffer if there isn’t a secure plan, plus it’ll be difficult to achieve… If we overthrow the Gifted, without knowing what to do, they’ll just gain power again quickly and destroy us. It’ll just leave everyone worse off than before…

The problem was, Janelle didn’t know anything about government. None of the nonGifted did. There were no history books, nothing that told them what life was like on the island before the Gifts appeared, or if they’d simply existed from the beginning.

“It’s okay, Janelle.”

Marvin sat down next to her, smiling slightly. He reached out and patted her on the shoulder. I didn’t realise my distress showed…

“I’m fine,” she muttered. “Where’s Reagan, anyway? He said he was going to find you…”
The older man shrugged. “Well, obviously he didn’t find me. I came back by myself. He’ll realise I’m not there and return eventually, so I wouldn’t worry about him.”

He paused. “Anyway, there’s a whole library in the Council, with many books that detail the history of the island and the Other Worlds. They might be able to give us an idea on what to do next. When the time comes we can sneak in there and find them using Carey’s powers, if she’s willing.”

“What are the Other Worlds?” Janelle asked, sneaking a glance at Carey who shrugged.

“They are worlds separate from ours, across the sea. I don’t know much about them, even the Gifted don’t, unless they’re in a high position. Anyway, you should focus on what you’re doing now, Janelle. We’ll figure out what to do once we’ve completed this mission. Quite frankly, we still have a long way to go before we even have a chance of overthrowing the Gifted. So we should probably have a few more supplies and supporters before we worry about such things.”

“But how do we get into the Council? I mean, Carey’s powers aren’t that… good.”

“Thanks,” Carey said sarcastically, scowling at her. “I’d like to see you try. It’s much harder than it looks, you know.”

“Well, it’s true! Samantha told me you collapsed after a few seconds of turning someone else invisible!” she said, instantly regretting her outburst. “Actually, Carey, I’m –“

“That can be next on our agenda,” Marvin interrupted, glaring at both of them. “Carey can practice her powers, if she wishes to be of help in that mission… Even for this one, you should practice. You never know when invisibility will come in handy.”

“Sorry,” Janelle mumbled, a little ashamed. “I shouldn’t be so rash… Your powers will be very useful, Carey. Thank you for helping us.”

“I can turn myself invisible quite easily right now,” she said, shooting Janelle another glare. The older woman raised an eyebrow.

“I was just trying to apologize,” Janelle said, glaring right back. I try to be nice to her, but she’s so…

Carey shrugged. “Well, you shouldn’t have insulted me in the first place. Then you’d have nothing to apologize for.”

She gritted her teeth, resisting the urge to throttle her. It was strange, just before they’d left she’d acted shy and rather… Well, she wasn’t exactly friendly, but she was a lot more pleasant than this.

“I can sometimes turn off the sound I make too,” Carey continued as if nothing had happened. “It’s difficult, though. And I haven’t been able to turn anyone else invisible since I helped Samantha and Thomas escape. Plus I can’t see myself, so it’s hard to fight when using it.”

“Gifts take a while to master. I don’t know anything about the Gift of Stealth, sadly. But I do know the Gifted normally get their powers in their sixth or seventh year, and they continue their training until they reach their fifteenth year. But because they’re children, they don’t have as much self-control as adults, plus they generally have much shorter attention spans. Self-control and concentration are vital when using a Gift, so it shouldn’t take you as long to master your Gift as it takes them. Although, they are trained, but we don’t have anyone who knows anything about your powers, so that could be a problem…”

“Do – do you think there are any books on the Gift of Stealth?” she asked.

Marvin shrugged. “I have no idea. If there are any, though, the Council Library is the most likely place they’d be.”

She nodded, a small smile on her face.

Why is it that he so easily makes her smile, and yet I struggle? Janelle gave a sigh of frustration, clenching her fists. I – I want her to trust me, I want her to believe in our mission… But I just don’t know what to say to her.

“Marvin, there you are!”

Reagan had returned, his hands full. “I couldn’t find him, so I picked some berries for us,” he said, grinning.

“How do you know those are edible?” Marvin asked, raising an eyebrow. ‘We don’t want to poison ourselves…”

Reagan shrugged. “I know they’re not, don’t worry. Here, I’ll eat one, and when I don’t die you should eat some too.”

He did as he suggested. Marvin still looked confused, but he took one once it appeared they had no ill effects.

“Thanks,” Janelle said quickly, taking one. Carey took one too, muttering her thanks as well. Oh, now she’s hungry… Why doesn’t she like me?

“We should get some sleep, anyway,” Marvin said after a while. “We’ve still got at least a day’s worth of travelling left until we reach the inn we’re going to, so…”

“Good idea,” Janelle said, taking out the blankets they’d brought with them. However, she found herself unable to sleep as she wondered if she’d ever manage to gain Carey’s trust.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

They travelled for another day, significantly slower than when it had just been the two of them. 805 was still very weak from overusing his Gift, and thus they had to stop to let him rest numerous times.

“We’ve probably gone on for long enough now anyway,” 3349 grumbled when she noticed the older man slowing down again. “Surely the rebels would’ve given up by now, especially when they see what we did to their allies… They won’t dare come after us.”

Won’t they be more inclined to come after us when they see what we killed their friends? He and 805 exchanged a glance, but neither commented.

“Anyway, we should stay here for the night. The old geezer needs his beauty sleep,” 3349 continued, shooting a glare at 805, who rolled his eyes in response.

 However, he seemed relieved as he sat down again, wiping the sweat from his brow. 256 sat down next to him, fishing in his bag. He handed him a flask of water, which he accepted gratefully. 3349 glared at them both before stomping off, muttering something beneath her breath.

“Shouldn’t we go after her?” 256 said, a little uncertain.

The older man shrugged. “She’ll come back eventually. She knows what will happen to her if the Council finds out she abandoned us.”

He took a long drink from his flask, his other hand resting on the ground. A small patch of grass sprung to life beneath his palm, the fresh green plant standing out against the dark forest floor.

“805, what are you doing?” he asked, staring at his hand.

He raised an eyebrow. “What?”

256 pointed at it. “What is that?”

“Oh,” he said, pulling his hand away quickly. For some reason, he looked almost little embarrassed. “Forgive me, sometimes I do not have full control over my Gift… It happens as you get older, unfortunately. Plus I’m weak already, which doesn’t really help…”

His voice trailed off and he cleared his throat slightly, ignoring the younger boy’s stare.

“I didn’t know you could do that. Make plants grow, I mean.”

805 shrugged. “It is not a well-known power of the Gift of Earth. We’re already ridiculed enough, so most like to pretend they don’t have the power to give life, even if it’s just to plants. Which is stupid, really. All humans have the capacity to give life.”

He picked a blade of the grass he’d grown, examining it in his palm. “But even so… it is not a power that is celebrated, and that’s why you don’t know about it. Personally I think it’s useful. I never run out of food if I’m careful enough with it.”

He twirled the grass between his fingers, eventually blowing it away. “But it’s not just us with this sort of power. The other Gifts may not be as blatant, but think about it – Air is what we breathe, Water is needed for survival… Even Fire can provide warmth when there’s no other source.”

256 felt his cheeks turn pink as he remembered those nights he’d spent with Carey in the snow. Even though he’d been the one providing her with warmth, at the same time, he’d –

805 laughed when he saw his red face, it was a very uncharacteristic sound for him. “You know, your Gift really doesn’t fit you at all. You’d expect Gifts of Fire to be unstable, capable of mass destruction… However you can’t even kill a person you don’t know. But then, maybe that’s a good thing.”

He paused, his grey eyes meeting his. “And yet, in a strange way it also suits you…”

“What do you mean?” he asked, a little lost.

The older man shrugged. “Forgive me, I was just thinking out loud. Mine doesn’t suit me, that’s for sure. I may be capable of giving life, but all I’ve ever done is destroy it.”

He sighed, standing up slowly. 256 noticed him wince slightly as he did so, it was taking him a lot longer than he would’ve thought to gain his strength back. I suppose, even though he’s so strong, he’s still human… And humans age, they begin to slow down eventually.

“805…” he said, rather hesitant.

“Yes?”

“Why do you create knives? With diamond, I mean. Lots of the Gifts of Earth I’ve met create clubs and other blunt objects with their powers. I've met some that make knives and swords, but still..."

He shrugged. “Knives are much more useful over long distances… They allow me to throw, with accuracy, which gives me long range advantage. I’ve already got close combat skills, so what’s the point of using a club? Plus I've already got a metal sword, and knives are much more versatile.”

“Why else?” 256 asked, gulping slightly as the older man’s grey eyes bore into him. He raised an eyebrow, but 256 forced himself not to look away.

“I don’t know,” he said eventually, sighing. “My job is to kill, not to cruelly beat to death. It may be pointless as the victims die either way, but I know I’d much prefer a quick, easy slit to the throat or stab to the heart instead of being bludgeoned by a club.”

805 smiled, reaching out and patting him on the head. It was a strange gesture, and 256 wasn’t really sure the meaning behind it.

“Is there anything else you’d like to ask me? You may as well go ahead while I’m in a good mood, and I can tell there’s something…”

He hesitated, shuffling his feet. There were a lot of things he wished to know, a lot of things he wanted to understand… But for now, he would only ask one thing. It was something he’d been wondering for a long time, ever since he’d found Carey in that farming village and seen how she’d reacted to becoming one of them. “Why is it that…”

“Yes?” 805 said, his voice gentle. 256 took a deep breath and finished his question.

“Why is it that we are called ‘Gifted’?”

805 shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t come up with it, obviously. I suppose it is as they tell us – we are given these powers, they are something that sets us apart from the rest of the island… From the rest of the world. We are chosen, out of everyone, to carry this responsibility. Therefore, we are Gifted. We’re lucky, I suppose.”

He laughed again, but this laugh was different. This laugh had a bitter tone to it.

“Come on. I suppose we should go after her. She’s less likely to kill us in our sleep if we do.”

256 nodded, following 805 through the forest. Even though it was wrong, he still found himself thinking of the name ‘Gifted’. Gifted should be something happy, something that everyone wants to be… And yet, the nonGifted dread their children being one of us. To them, aren’t their children ‘Cursed’?

He knew he should be grateful for his power. It was something given to him, something for him to have responsibility over… Something to use to destroy… That is what we are told, to use our Gifts to destroy and keep order. But then, as 805 said, my Gift can also bring warmth to people.

He shook his head, telling himself not to be silly. There is no point thinking like this. Without your Gift, you are nothing. My parents would have forgotten about me long ago… They were probably glad to have such a troublesome child taken away.

He’d never really given his parents much thought before. They surely existed, somewhere, unless they’d died in the seventeen or eighteen years since he’d been born. Family is only a hindrance, not a necessity. That’s what we’re taught… But Carey, she missed her family dearly. That boy, he tried his hardest to stop me from taking her away. But then, they grew up together, it’s different. I highly doubt my parents still think of someone lost to them long ago. But… what if they still do?

“Stop it,” he whispered to himself, quietly so 805 couldn’t hear him. “There is no point thinking like this… You don’t know who they are, you don’t know where they live… They don’t care about you anymore, anyway. The nonGifted are jealous of our powers, they would have…”

His voice trailed off. 256 clenched his fists, trying to make these thoughts go away but failing miserably. But… if they ever think of me, do they think I’m better off, like we are taught to believe? Or do they think my Gift was actually a Curse?

32: Words and Leaders
Words and Leaders

They returned to the village after three days of travelling. To 256’s surprise, the small farming town was swarming with Gifted. He’d never seen so many of them in the same place, other than at the Council. The nonGifted still went about their daily business, but he noticed there were a lot less of them wandering around the village than there had been before.

One of the other Gifted saw them, rushing over. He stared with relief at 805, completely ignoring his companions. I guess it makes sense… Compared to him, our lives mean nothing to the Council.

“You’ve returned! We were about to send a message to the Council saying you were probably dead…” they said breathlessly.

“Didn’t you see where we’d escaped? There’s a large pile of dirt in there.”

“We – we did, so we were hopeful… But still, when you didn’t return for a few days, we were afraid you’d buried yourself underground, or been killed by the rebels…”

“Did you manage to find any of them?” 805 asked.

They began to walk again, heading for the Gifted house.

“No…” he stammered, running his hand through his hair. “We did find… Well, you’ll see when we get there.”

The two Gifted women that the rebels had killed before they’d escaped had been left inside, their bodies mutilated similar to the first two they’d been sent to investigate. This time the other Gifted had left them precisely where they’d found them, hung by their necks from a rope tied to the balcony of the stairwell above. A small pool of blood had dried underneath their feet, and this time the rebels had left the arrows stuck in their bodies. 256 didn’t find their remains as confronting as he’d found the first, although he still crinkled his nose at the smell. I suppose I’m getting used to it… I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, though.

Still, he couldn’t help but wonder. If that woman had killed me back in the forest, would they have done the same thing to me? Maybe I deserve it… It’s not like anyone would mourn him, anyway. 913, 440, Carey… I’ve lost them all, and my family never knew me in the first place. That thought made him more upset than the thought of dying.

“There’s more,” the other Gifted said, his teeth gritted slightly.

“Show me,” 805 said, his voice strangely calm.

He nodded, gulping, leading the three of them into a room. The two Servants 805 had sent to warn the other Gifted in the area were in there, the arrows still embedded in their chests. The level of mutilation wasn’t as bad as that of the Gifted, but the rebels had gouged their eyes out. 256 watched the older man carefully. His grey eyes bore into their bodies, his bottom lip quivering slightly. He promised them no harm would come to them…

 “They are just Servants,” 3349 said, raising an eyebrow at the older man’s reaction. “Their lives mean nothing. Does it really matter that the rebels killed them?”

“Yes, it does,” 805 said quietly. “Their deaths were a direct attack on us, therefore it matters.”

He paused slightly, 256 noticed he was avoiding looking at their bodies. “Anyway, we should leave right away. The rebels must be staying in a sanctuary nearby, and it is our duty to find them and kill them for what they’ve done. 3349, can you pack us some supplies?”

 She nodded, rolling her eyes and leaving with the other Gifted man.

805 knelt down next to the bodies again, still shaking slightly although his features were emotionless.

256 reached out and patted him on the shoulder, rather tentative. It’s strange, he’ll kill the nonGifted like that woman for the smallest of rule-breaks, and yet he’s reacting like this…

“805…” he began, a little hesitant. He didn’t object, so he decided to continue. “They probably would have killed the Servants even if you hadn’t sent them to tell the others.”

“I know that,” he said quietly. “Even so, they were under my protection… And I failed them.”

He looked over their bodies once more, his grey eyes narrowing slightly. “Wait, what’s that?”

Through the torn sleeves of the female servant, 256 noticed a strange pattern carved into her arm.

“Those are letters, aren’t they?” although he could not read them, some of the scratches looked familiar.

805 nodded. “Looks like it…”

The older man pulled the woman’s torn sleeve back gently and read whatever it was the rebels had carved there. His eyes widened as he did so, dropping her arm and scrambling away.

“805, what’s wrong?” 256 said, rushing to his side.

“They can’t,” he muttered under his breath, his grey eyes wide and fearful as he held his head between his hands. “They – they can’t know, nobody knows… I was careful, there’s no way anyone could find out.”

“Know what?” 256 said, a little tentative. He – He seems like a completely different person…

He jumped, as if he’d forgotten 256 was even there.

“Nothing,” he said, returning to his usual calm persona. “Forgive me, I’m overreacting… You should go too, 256.”

805 exhaled deeply as he crouched down next to her body once more. His hands shook as he lifted her arm gently, reading the message again. 256 really wanted to know what it said, but he decided it was best he didn’t ask. The words… What could the rebels have written to make him react like that?

“Go,’ 805 repeated, his voice dangerously quiet.

256 shook his head, gulping slightly. 805’s grey eyes bore into him, but he stood his ground. I have to be brave…

“I won’t. We – we have to tell the Council about this. 805… What if someone else notices the words, and they send someone here who can read?”

805’s features softened a little, reaching out and squeezing his shoulder. “You’re right. I will tell them what it says.”

But 256 knew he was lying. He supposed it didn’t matter, as long as he told them something was written there and gave a plausible message, none of the Gifted here would know any different.

“I – I won’t tell anyone about this, I promise,” he muttered.

“There’s nothing to tell,”805 said shortly, but he reached out and patted him on the head again, ruffling his shaggy black hair. “You need to cut your hair, you know. Doesn’t it annoy you when it falls in your eyes like that?”

“Er, not really,” he muttered, taken aback by the sudden change of topic.

“I can cut it for you later, if you like.”

“It’s fine, really,” he said quickly, more than a little confused by his strange behaviour.

805 squeezed his shoulder lightly, 256 found the gesture oddly comforting.

“Anyway, come. We have work to do. Those rebels… They will pay for what they’ve done.”

His grey eyes narrowed again as he strode from the room, 256 following. 805 stopped to talk to the other Gifted, muttering something before joining 3349 to pack some supplies.

I wonder what it said, to make him react like that. And more importantly, I wonder what he’ll do if we find the rebels who wrote it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

It took another day of travelling, but they soon arrived at their destination. It was a small inn, smaller than Rosa’s, but the windows were bright and plenty of noise came from within.

Carey followed the others through the door, staring stonily into the backs of their heads. Why am I even here… There’s no point whatsoever, but Janelle made me come.

It was as crowded as she’d expected inside, and they had to push through the crowds of people until they reached a secluded corner at the back of the room.

“Okay, we should rest for tonight,” Janelle said, fiddling with the corner of her sleeve. “Tomorrow evening, I’ll talk to everyone…”

“Do you know what you’re going to say?” Marvin asked.

She nodded, although she gulped slightly. “Y – Yes.”

“You’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

The older man yawned. “Anyway, I’ll go get some rooms for us… Would two double rooms be okay? I don’t think we can afford four singles.”

Janelle nodded. “Yes, that’s fine. Carey and I can share one, and you and Reagan the other.”

Reagan shrugged, grinning. “That’s fine with me. Anyway, I’ll come with you!”

Carey saw him and Janelle exchange a glance, rolling her eyes as they did so. Yay, more bonding time with Janelle… Do they think I haven’t noticed how they always make sure we’re alone together?

She noticed the older woman smiling slightly as she watched him leave. True to her word, Carey had kept an eye on him like Samantha had asked her to. Although she’d told Samantha she thought she was jumping to conclusions about Janelle and Reagan, she’d quickly changed her mind over this journey. There’s just something about him… I can’t even tell if it’s good or bad, but there’s definitely something he’s hiding. Samantha’s definitely right to suspect something.

“So, um, are you excited? About our mission, I mean.”

Carey rolled her eyes. She asks me that every time.

“Not really,” she answered, not bothering to hide her disinterest. “I’m not really going to be doing anything… Shouldn’t you be practicing your speech, or something?”

She shrugged. “I know what I’m going to say. I think if I practice too much that’ll just make me more nervous.”

She fidgeted awkwardly, clearing her throat. Carey noticed her watching Reagan again, who was now talking to the man behind the counter. It’s funny, before I never noticed… But now Samantha’s mentioned it, I see her looking at him all the time.

“Janelle, don’t you think you should be more careful?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“About what?”

Carey nodded in Reagan’s direction.

Janelle bit her lip when she saw who Carey was referring to. “Wh – why should I be more careful? I haven’t done anything.”

“Reagan… Samantha doesn’t trust him. I told her I thought she was overreacting, but there’s something about him… I don’t know what it is, but he’s hiding something.”

Janelle sucked in her breath slightly, avoiding her gaze. “You think I haven’t realised that? We all have secrets, things we’d rather not have others know… Are you going to condemn him based on just a hunch?”

“She’s worried about you,” Carey said. “She told me what happened with Alexander –“

Janelle flinched when she said his name. “Oh, so she told you? What else did she tell you about me, huh?”

“She didn’t –“

 “Well, Samantha doesn’t know anything about what happened with him! You know, we only spoke about twenty words to each other before we met in the mountains? To be honest, Samantha’s opinions about Reagan and especially Alex mean nothing to me. And when we get back, you can tell her that I don’t appreciate her telling everyone about my private business!”

Carey blinked, beginning to feel slightly guilty. “It wasn’t like that, I asked -“
“Oh, so that makes it okay? That she betrays my trust and tells everyone what an idiot I was; a naïve, stupid girl who let some bad boy knock her up? Tell me, Carey, if you had a friend with a secret they were ashamed of, would you tell the first person who asks?!”

“I –“

“Well I haven’t done anything wrong! Not all of us can be cool and above such things, like Samantha apparently thinks she is. Maybe I should tell you something about her, huh? You know, she always looked down on the rest of us. She was above all us normal mountain villagers, with her exotic beauty and apparently exotic brains too, way beyond crushes and boys like the rest of us stupid girls. You think I haven’t realised what I did was stupid? My - My parents died because of my actions! Anyway, if you really want to know, yes, I do like him. I’m not going to pretend I don’t, at least, not to you. But for your information, I’m not going to do anything about it, because even a naïve idiot like me isn’t that dim-witted!”

“Janelle –“

She ran upstairs, leaving Carey alone. She bit her lip hard, drawing blood.

I – I didn’t mean to make her so upset… Why must I be so insensitive? I should have known this would be a touchy subject for her.

She sighed, holding her head in her hands, letting her long brown hair flow through her fingers. In truth, she hadn’t really had a high opinion of Janelle when she first joined the rebels. After all, she had essentially manipulated Carey into joining. Still, I was rude to her, and I dismissed her attempts to be friendly with me mostly out of spite…

If she was being honest, Carey had to admit she had looked down upon her. Even though she was the leader of the group, there were vital things she seemed to miss… She’d wondered why Samantha wasn’t their leader instead, as she was much more calculating, powerful and overall she was more what Carey would’ve pictured if she’d thought of a rebel leader.

“Carey?” Marvin had approached her, holding the keys to one room in his hand.

“Hi,” she muttered. “Where’s Reagan?”

“He went to give Janelle her room key… We just saw Janelle storming out of here, what happened?”

“I – I think I might have shattered her confidence…” she admitted.

Marvin tutted. “Well, that wasn’t very smart, was it? She’s spent all these months building it up…”

“You don’t seem very worried.”

He shrugged. “She’ll bounce back. Janelle knows what she has to do, so she’ll put on a happy face and do it, no matter what you said to her. You know, after the fight at the Lake Village she was completely inconsolable. It was her first true act as a leader, and she failed miserably… It took a little pushing, but she got back on track.”

“But still… Why did you pick her as a leader in the first place? Why not Samantha, isn’t she more suitable?”

He smiled, patting her on the shoulder. “Samantha… she may be the more obvious choice, but there’s something she lacks – empathy. Not that she doesn’t have empathy at all, but she’s just not the sort of person ordinary people can relate to. She’s someone to be admired, certainly, but she just doesn’t have that extra quality a good leader needs.”

“And what, you think Janelle… has it?” she asked, a little confused as to what he meant.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s passionate, driven to her cause…  Why do you think she’s trying so hard to get you to trust her? Plus she’s gaining more confidence every day, too. She’s made some mistakes, obviously, but she’s learnt from them. And most importantly, Janelle knows how the people feel. She knows what it’s like to have a child taken from her, to live under Gifted control in a poor village… Her passion inspires people, and that’s why people joined us in the first place. Anyway, because of that Samantha and I decided she would be the one to lead us.”

He paused. “What did you say to her, anyway?”

Carey bit her lip. “I – I told her she should be careful. About Reagan, I mean. Samantha doesn’t trust him, and she thinks Janelle has a crush on him...”

He smirked. “Samantha doesn’t trust anyone.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t know, there’s just something about him that’s off…”

Marvin shrugged. “You can’t condemn him just because he might be hiding something. We’ve all got secrets… You know, I was raised in the Council.”

“Wait, what?” Carey said, taken aback. “You mean you’re –“

He shook his head, cutting her off. “No, but my parents were. I was a Servant, and they trained me as a doctor. Marvin isn’t even my real name… Well, I don’t have a name at all, actually. I’ve changed it quite a few times over the years. I don’t have a number, either, we aren’t even allowed that. I escaped when I was fifteen…”

He grimaced as he said this, for some reason he looked very upset. “Anyway, there’s a whole variety of reasons why he could be hiding something. I’m not saying don’t keep an eye on him, because to be honest, I find him rather suspicious too. But still, Janelle is an adult. She can make her own decisions, and decide whether she wants to trust him or not.”

“Well… What should I do? Should I go talk to her?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I think you should. But that’s your decision, not mine.”

He doesn’t know what else I said, though, about Alexander… Carey knew she should apologize for her tactless behaviour, but she’d never been very good at it. Apologizing and admitting she’d done wrong was not something she had much practice in. No matter what, I shouldn’t have brought him up.

“Hello.”

Reagan had returned. He smiled at them like usual, but his smile was strained.

“Did you give her the key?” Marvin asked.

“I did. I showed her where her room was, too…” he said, strangely quiet and sincere. “She seems very upset. I tried to comfort her, but she just kind of flopped onto the bed and went to sleep. Or she was faking sleep, or something. Anyway, even I could tell I wasn’t wanted.”

Marvin shrugged. “That’s probably best. She’ll be okay after she’s slept for a bit. She’s probably very tired, anyway.”

He sighed, leading them upstairs.

“Here’s your room, Carey,” he said, squeezing her shoulder lightly before he and Reagan left to find their own room.

She stood outside the door for a bit, her fingers poised on the handle.

Taking a deep breath, she opened it. Janelle was already inside, as Reagan had said. She was under the covers, her red hair spread out over the pillow. Carey climbed into the double bed next to her, not sure what to do.

I suppose I should just go to sleep…

But it seemed her mind had different ideas, as she couldn’t go to sleep no matter how hard she tried.

33: Confidence and Bravery
Confidence and Bravery

At some point, Carey managed to drift off to sleep. She woke when the sun began to shine through the window, spattering her pillow with light. Carey blinked and sat up, noticing she was alone. Janelle already left…

She sighed, holding her face in her hands. What do I do? How will she be able to give a speech now?

Carey got dressed quickly and moved downstairs. She found Janelle sitting at the bar, although it was empty as no one else was up yet.

“Um, hello,” she said as she sat next to her. There were large bags under her eyes, her red hair tousled.

“Hi,” Janelle said, clearing her throat slightly.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Carey fidgeting awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” they said together, both surprised when they realised what had happened.

“W – What?” Carey stammered. “Why are you sorry? I –“

“I overreacted,” she interrupted. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that…”

“Well, I shouldn’t have poked my nose into your business,” she said quickly. “I guess we’re even, then. You – you shouldn’t be mad at Samantha, either… She didn’t mean to hurt you, she’s just worried, I guess.”

Janelle sighed. “I know… I just wish she’d tell me things, instead of just assume I’m going to do something stupid.”

She fiddled with a lock of her red hair. “Anyway, I have to go prepare my speech. Excuse me…”

She got up quickly, turning to leave.

“Janelle…”

“Yes?” she asked, not looking back.

“You’re not a naïve idiot,” she stammered, remembering what Janelle had said the day before. “And Samantha and I don’t think you are one because of what happened to you…”

She turned so they were facing again, giving her a strained smile. “I – I know you don’t. As I said, I was overreacting.”

“Hi!”

Reagan had come down the stairs, his usual cheery expression plastered on his face.

“Hello,” Janelle mumbled before running off.

He watched her leave, biting his lip. “Is she still upset?”

Carey shrugged. “I – I guess so…”

He sat down beside her, for once not saying anything. He fiddled with his fingernails, still smiling but it seemed strained.

Carey stared at him in the corner of her eye. Reagan was quite a handsome man, not particularly good-looking but his smile and charm helped to place him on the good side of average. His skin was tanned like he’d spent a lot of time outside, similar to her own. Maybe he’s from a farming village, too…

She watched him as he reached out and ran his fingers through his short, fair hair that had a bit of curl to it, for once he seemed rather sullen.

Reagan noticed her looking at him, raising an eyebrow.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Carey said, still staring.

There’s just something… I don’t know what it is, but there’s something not right about him!

It was beginning to bug her, honestly. Carey couldn’t figure out why she got this strange vibe from him, it was different from anything she’d ever felt before.

“Why are you staring at me like that?” he said, his eyebrows knotting in confusion.

“No reason,” she muttered, averting her gaze.

I have to say something, or he’ll realise I’m suspicious…

“So, um, what made you decide to want to join the rebels?” she blurted out, cursing herself for saying something so lame.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. It was just something I wanted to do, I guess.”

“So, um… do you have a wife? Or a lover, or something?” she asked, trying not to look suspicious and failing miserably.

He laughed slightly. “No, no. Most people find me annoying, so…”

She was surprised he was so open about it.

“Why do you smile all the time, anyway?” she asked, her blue eyes meeting his.

Reagan shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a habit.”

She noticed him tense slightly as he said this.

“Anyway, enough about me,” Reagan patted her on the back, grinning again. “What about you, huh? Why did you want to join the rebels?”

She shrugged. “Why should I tell you? You didn’t tell me.”

He laughed. “That’s true.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Carey noticed him watching her, for once he seemed almost nervous.

“Carey…” he began.

“What?” she said.

He opened his mouth to say something, but apparently thought better of it. He looked away quickly, standing up. “It’s – It’s nothing. I should go…”

Reagan walked away just as others began to head into the main room of the inn, leaving Carey alone once more. She watched him leave, more than a little confused. I wonder what he wanted to ask me…

 

Carey didn’t see Reagan or Janelle until that evening, when it was time for Janelle’s speech. To her surprise, they arrived separately, as she’d assumed they’d been together. In fact, Janelle almost seemed to be avoiding looking at him, a stark contrast from before.

Carey began to feel a little guilty as she saw her brush off his attempts at a greeting. I really should have just left her alone… At least she seems to be okay now, so what I said won’t affect her speech.

“Okay, I’m ready,” Janelle said, fidgeting, her eyes focussed on Marvin and Carey only.

“Good luck,” Marvin told her, patting her on the shoulder.

Janelle smiled slightly. “It’s okay. I know what I’m doing.”

She made her way to the bar, having a short talk with the bartender. They seemed reluctant to listen to what she had to say at first, but eventually they sighed and appeared to agree. Janelle climbed onto the bar, stamping her foot until she got everyone’s attention.

“Good evening,” she began, her voice carrying through to the back of the room where Carey, Marvin and Reagan were standing.

Whispers began to build up, many people looking up and shaking their heads at this apparently crazy person.

“I came here today to talk to you about the Gifted,” she said before the whispers got too loud. “As you all know, they rule over us with an iron grip, they steal our produce and earnings and take them for themselves… But most importantly, they take our children from us. Many of you, including myself, have had children taken away from you. But we have decided that this must end, the sooner the better.”

Carey glanced at Reagan, noticing his eyes widen as Janelle mentioned her child. I guess he must not have known about that…

She took a deep breath before continuing, her green eyes surveying the crowd. “About a two day’s trip from here, there is a sanctuary… We have a group of about thirty rebels there, and I’d like to ask you to join us in overthrowing the Gifted.”

“What makes you think you’ve got a chance?” one voice called out, accompanied by laughter. Janelle raised an eyebrow.

“I am aware that our chances are low. But they’ll be even lower if we don’t try at all,” she said shortly, and the laughter stopped. “In a few months’ time, we plan on attacking a village in the South-East. It is an important industrial centre for the Gifted, the factory there makes a large number of weapons for their use… I would like to have at least fifty followers before then. Of course, if you join us now you will not be expected to fight in that particular mission, but you will provide a strong base for us to fall back on if our attack is unsuccessful.”

She paused, letting her words ring through the crowd. “Obviously, this is not without risk… If you join us, you will be risking your life. So I’d like to ask you to think it over, and decide whether this is something you’d be willing to die for. If you decide you’d like to join us, speak to either myself or the three people at the back.”

She gestured to Marvin, Carey and Reagan, all heads turning towards them.

“We will be here for the next few days. Feel free to talk to any one of us about this. Thank you for listening to me, I appreciate it.”

Someone in the crowd began to clap, slowly at first but gaining momentum as others joined in. Janelle looked baffled as they did so, glancing at Marvin, who shrugged. He was watching her closely, a small smile on his face.

“Are you proud of her?” Carey asked, smirking and nudging him in the side.

“Huh?” he said, flushing slightly. “Well, yeah. She’s come a long way since she and Samantha convinced me to join them…”

He cleared his throat, looking away and smiling as Janelle climbed down from the counter, three people approaching her almost immediately. She spoke to them rather enthusiastically, before running to the three of them and throwing her arms around Marvin. He seemed rather taken aback, glancing at Carey as he patted her on the back awkwardly.

“I did it!” she said, her voice muffled.

“I know you did,” he said, smiling as she released him. “I was listening.”

Janelle laughed, turning to Carey. “What did you think, Carey?”

She bit her lip. I’ve got to say it…

“You know, I think you might have a bit of a chance,” she admitted, clearing her throat.

The older woman looked surprised for a moment before breaking out into a grin. “Oh, really?”

“Just a little one,” she muttered, smirking.

“Well, that’s better than nothing,” Janelle said. “Come on, we have to go talk to people.”

She grasped the younger girl around the shoulders, leading her into the crowd. Carey glanced over her shoulder, noticing Reagan was watching them. He seemed upset, probably because she’d completely ignored him. But as she kept watching him, Carey realised there was something else in his eyes... For some reason, he looked incredibly guilty.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“There’s one!” 3349 said, pointing. “Up ahead, look.”

Sure enough, 256 could see the tendrils of smoke making their way through the air, the sign of life hard to miss. They’d been searching for a few days for sanctuaries in the area, but this was the first they’d come across.

“Do you think they’re in there?” he asked, beginning to feel a little nervous.

805 shrugged. “Perhaps. Some of them may be, anyway.”

They kept going, the small inn getting closer and closer.

3349 nudged him. “Go on, 256. You have to destroy it.”

“B – But we don’t know if they’re actually in there.”

The older woman raised an eyebrow. “It doesn’t matter if they’re actually in there or not. Sanctuaries are banned, we must destroy it regardless of whether the rebels are there or not. As a Gift of Fire, it is your duty to do so.”

Her blue eyes bore into his, her eyes narrowed. “What, you won’t do it? Weakling…”

“Quiet,” 805 said suddenly, his grey eyes fixed on the inn in front of them.

A small group of rebels were coming out, each carrying a bow. They were talking loudly, laughing at something one of them had said. A female rebel glanced towards where they were standing, her eyes widening as she saw them.

805 pulled them behind a tree, but it was too late. The rebels ran to them, drawing their weapons. One of them seemed to direct the others, telling them to surround the tree they were hiding behind.

“Kill the other two,” he said, smirking slightly. “Leave the target alive…”

His companions nodded, drawing their weapons. 805 grabbed 256’s hand and ran, pushing through them as 3349 blocked an arrow with ice.

“Stop it,” he said, pulling his hand away and giving his best glare to the older man, which wasn’t particularly intimidating. “I’m not useless, I know how to –“

“256, no!”

Before he could react he’d been shoved onto the ground, falling awkwardly on his side. An arrow whizzed past where his head had just been.

256’s wrist ached where he’d fallen on it, but he was sure it wasn’t broken. He tried to get up, but someone was lying on top of him.

“805?!”

The older man cursed as he sat up slowly, feeling his right arm. Blood dripped through his fingers, the skin on the edge of his upper arm torn where a large chunk of flesh had been ripped off by the arrow.

“Are you alright?” he gasped, crawling through the dirt towards him.

“I’m fine,” he muttered, jerking away from him. He lowered his left hand, smeared with his blood, and reached into the pouch on his belt.

“You have to run, 256,” he said, creating a dagger from the lumpy grey material. “You are in danger…”

He shook his head, his brown eyes meeting 805’s grey. “So are you. And I’m not leaving you.”

805 smiled slightly, reaching out and patting him on the head, ruffling his black hair. “I had a feeling you’d say that… Promise me you’ll stay close.”

He nodded, gulping slightly. “I – I will.”

805 stood up, holding his dagger in his uninjured left arm. He ran towards the rebels. 3349 had killed three of them already, spears of ice shoved through their hearts or abdomens. The man who had told the other rebels what to do was still alive, and he smiled strangely when he saw 805 and 256 approaching.

“That man… He’s their leader. We have to go after him,” the older man said, raising his dagger again.

The rebel saw 805 staring at him, running back towards the inn. 805 took off after him, 256 following. He threw a couple of daggers at the rebels around them, managing to kill two of them despite the confusion.

There were people everywhere, running in random directions as they vacated the inn. None of them had weapons, they were just ordinary people… 256 felt a strange stab in his heart as he watched them. I – I hope no one innocent gets killed…

By the time they reached the inn, it was almost empty. The man they’d followed was waiting for them, his bow slung over his back. He grinned, which sent a shiver down 256’s spine.

“805… I’ve been waiting for you.”

“How do you know my number?” he said, stowing away his knife and pushing 256 back as he tried to help. “Stay out of this, 256…”

He sighed in frustration, but did as 805 asked. I’m a trained soldier too… He didn’t like being treated like some little kid who couldn’t look after himself, but as he watched the scene unfold before him he forgot his annoyance.

256 glanced between them, more than a little confused as they stared each other down. Why hasn’t he run? Or at least, why doesn’t he have his weapon drawn?

The man shrugged. “Why would I tell you that? We’ve been watching you for a long time…”

He ran towards the older man, assembling a fighting stance. The rebel raised his right knee, aiming a front kick into his groin. 805 blocked it easily, pivoting around him and kicking him in the chin, surprisingly flexible for someone his age. The man spat as one of his teeth dislodged, distracted, and 805 swept his foot behind his knees and knocked him to the floor. He grasped the rebel around the throat and pulled him to his feet, twisting his arms behind his back as he pushed him against the wall, his injured arm pressed against the man’s throat.

256 watched as they stood, facing each other. 805’s forehead was plastered with sweat, blood still dripping from his wound. He must be in pain, but he’s ignoring it.

“So you’ve overcome me,” the rebel wheezed. “I guess that’s to be expected, really…”

There’s something wrong about this… It’s too easy. He must have something else up his sleeve. He knew 805 had told him not to interfere, but he had to do something.

“Don’t,” 805 said before he even moved. “This is my fight…”

He bit his lip. I guess I just have to trust him… 805 is far more skilled than this rebel, he’ll be fine. Even so, he couldn’t help but feel nervous.

 “Are you the leader of this rebellion?” 805 asked, his voice cold.

He laughed. “Did you really think it would be that easy?” the rebel breathed, blood dribbling down his lip. “We’ve been watching you since we realised you were the one heading this little team of investigators. Back when you escaped from the village, I was so afraid some of the others would kill you by mistake. Not all of them knew what you looked like, you see. I guess it was lucky in a way that you and your companions managed to kill the ones who found you..."

He paused, grinning. "Did you see the little message we sent you?”

805’s grip tightened, but he said nothing.

“Don’t try and hide, I know you saw it. I bet you thought you’d kept it hidden, what you did… and what you did was disgusting.”

He still stayed silent, the rebel choking as he squeezed harder.

“Hey, don’t get mad at me,” he wheezed. “You’re the one who defiled her, with your filthy desire... You Gifted are so depraved, so perverse. Tell me, did she even want you? Of course she didn’t. You must’ve forced yourself on her, why else would she sleep with such a vile creature? You’re not even human. None of you are.”

The rebel managed to free one of his arms as he said this, pulling a knife from his belt. He raised the weapon behind his back, ready to strike.

“805!” 256 yelled, but the older man had already reacted. He kneed him in the belly, knocking him to the floor and locking his head between his arms. He grabbed the man’s right arm with his legs, bending it the wrong way until a sickening crack filled the air. The man yelled in pain, but for some reason he grinned even though his arm was now limp and useless.

“What, you won’t kill me? You’re soft… You know, I don’t usually hurt the nonGifted, unless they are stupid and loyal to the Gifted like those Servants of yours. But she’s been tainted by you, so I might make an exception. “

He pushed himself up with his left arm. “If you don’t cooperate with us, we’ll kill her. And that’s not all. Out of the goodness of my heart I’d like to try and get rid of some of the dirt you left behind. If I’m not around I’m sure the others would be happy to oblige…"

The rebel paused, grinning. "And don't even get me started on what I'm going to do to your -”

“Tell me,” 805’s voice was deeper than usual, his left hand grasped around the man’s throat as he interrupted him. “What was her name?”

The rebel didn’t answer, coughing as 805 pushed his palm further into his neck.

“What, you don’t know?” he said, his grey eyes narrowed. “You’re trying to threaten me, threaten her, and yet you’re too careless to even do the research required. I’ll admit, when I first saw that message I was afraid for a moment… And in truth, I have to commend you for figuring it out just from my behaviour. But still, you didn’t even mention her name, which leads me to believe you are acting on deduction only. As for why I haven’t killed you yet… Well, I had to prove my theory. And I think I’ve done that now, haven’t I?”

He smiled slightly, the sight of it sending a shiver down 256’s spine. “Nice try, but it’ll take a lot more than that to intimidate me. Even so, you will pay for daring to threaten her…”

The man clawed at his throat as 805 pressed harder, his face turning a sickly pale colour as he struggled for air.

“Do you still think I’m too soft?” he murmured as the rebel choked. “You’re going to die, but you’re going to die slowly…”

“805…”

256 placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder. He barely reacted.

“This man must suffer,” he said, releasing him slightly so he could get a few breaths of air before pressing against his windpipe again.

“But – but you’re going to kill him anyway…” 256 stammered. “Why can’t you just –“

“Tell me, if someone threatened the only person you ever cared about, what would you do?” he said, letting go as the man lost consciousness. His grey eyes bore into him, his body almost shaking from anger. So that’s what this is… But 805’s never been punished, how could he have been attached? Although, I suppose you can’t get punished if you don’t get caught. He must not have been caught, like I was.

“I – I don’t know,” he muttered, gritting his teeth and staring straight back. “I wouldn’t cruelly torture them… You have to be stronger than him, 805. Otherwise he’s beaten you.”

He laughed. “You have a funny idea of strength. Do you think I don’t know what I am? I’m a hypocritical and ruthless, and I’ll never be anything else.”

“You’re not. You’re a good person, inside…”

He smiled slightly. “You’re just conditioned to see the best in people. That idealistic naivety will get you into trouble, you know. Not everyone can be a hero, especially not me. So stop trying to make me into something I’m not.”

256 shook his head. “I – I know you’re a good person. You try and hide it, but you are. Don’t resort to this.”

He sighed. “Thank you… But you’re wrong about me. I know what I’ve become, and I can’t change.”

The rebel coughed slightly as he began to wake up, and 805 reached out grabbed his neck between his hands. He twisted until a sickening crack filled the air.

“Stay here,” he said as he threw the rebel’s body aside. “There may still be others in the area… I will go and take care of them.”

“I’ll help –“

“Stay here,” he repeated, and something in his eyes told him there was no point arguing. “I am your supervisor, and you must do as I say.”

256 bit his lip. “Fine,” he lied. “I’ll stay here.”

805 stared at him for a little longer, but he nodded. “Good. I’ll return in a while.”

He waited for about ten minutes before moving. The inn was completely deserted now, he was alone aside from the body of the dead rebel. 256 sighed as he stood next to the back door, opening it slightly I’m sorry, 805… But I can’t just stand around while you and 3349 do all the work. I’m Gifted too. Although at times like this I feel more Cursed than ever.

“D - Don’t move, Gifted!”

He glanced over his shoulder. A boy about his age stood just behind him, an arrow trained on his head. He was tall, with curly blonde hair that almost reached his shoulders, his arms wobbling slightly as he held the heavy bow. There was something about him that seemed incredibly familiar.

“You!” the boy said, his blue eyes widening as he got a good look at 256’s face.

I - I know those eyes…

34: Redemption and Death
Redemption and Death

Those eyes… They’re Carey's. They are, so... this boy is -

“You,” the boy repeated slowly as 256 turned around further so his face was completely revealed to his attacker. “You’re the one who…”

His voice trailed off. Neither boy moved as the reality of their situation hit them.

It wasn’t long before the shock in the boy’s blue eyes was replaced by a hatred for him that 256 had only seen once before in his life. The look in Carey’s eyes when he’d first taken her away.

He – He’s her brother, the one who tried to stop me from taking Carey away…

256 glanced at his arm, noting the faint white marks on his lower forearm. Burn scars… That’s right, I burned him when he tried to pull Carey back into the house.

Carey’s brother looked very different from when 256 had last seen him. His curly blonde hair was matted, far darker than it had been when they’d met, and had grown so much it nearly reached his shoulders. A light stubble covered his chin, making him look a lot older than he actually was. Her brother was far from the tall, skinny boy 256 had managed to overcome with ease despite his small body. His build was now far more muscular and powerful-looking, so unlike 256's petite frame.

The boy edged closer to him, so they were within a metre of each other. 256 tried to move away, to run through the door and never look back, but he couldn’t. It was as if someone had glued his feet to the floor, he could do nothing but watch as Carey’s brother held his weapon to his head.

“What, don’t you remember me?” the boy said, his voice cold as his grip around the bow tightened. “I suppose you wouldn’t, would you? I’m just some insignificant, minor annoyance, I guess.”

“I remember you,” he said quickly, instantly regretting it as his eyes narrowed even further.

“Oh, I’m so privileged!” Carey’s brother said, his voice dripping with contempt. “How lucky am I, the Gifted boy remembers me… Don’t tell me he knows my name too. Or has he forgotten that insignificant detail?”

He gave a harsh laugh as 256 stayed silent, trying to remember the boy’s name but finding himself unable to. “It’s Wesley, by the way. In case you were wondering.”

That’s right… Wesley, how could I forget? 256 was unused to referring to people by names, and thus he had little chance of remembering, particularly when he’d only heard his name a few times.

“I –“

Wesley lowered his arms suddenly, grasping his weapon with both hands. He slammed his bow into his nose, taking him by surprise and knocking him over. 256’s eyes filled with tears as pain exploded on his face, and he immediately reached up to inspect the damage. His nose throbbed as he touched it, blood streaming from his nostrils. Before he could do anything else the boy clambered on top of him, punching him again, this time aiming for his left eye. He managed to block it quickly, but his hands were shaky and his nose screamed with pain. I can’t cry, I can’t show weakness… But he couldn’t help it, and tears began to stream down his cheeks as the pain intensified.

The boy grabbed him by the collar, pulling him up so their faces were inches apart. His bow lay on the ground, forgotten.

“Where is she!?” he screamed in his face, pushing him up against the wall.

“I –“

Carey’s brother slammed his fist into his temple, which 256 didn’t even try to block. He threw him to the ground again, climbing on top of him and clasping his hands around his throat, his grip loose.

“You bastard! I - I bet you killed her, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t kill –“

“Then where is she? I’ve – I’ve been searching for her all this time, tell me where she is or I’ll kill you!”

256 grasped him around the shoulders, rolling him over. He let him go, sitting up against the wall and holding his head in his hands.

“I don’t know where she is,” he said, his voice breaking. “She escaped, okay? Carey escaped!”

“How do you know her name? Carey would never tell anyone that, she’d – she’d never give in to someone like you! What, did you force it out of her?”

He looked up momentarily. Carey’s brother had picked up his bow and had another arrow trained on his head, his blue eyes filled with tears. He’s angry… He’s angry, which means he’s sloppy, and I could defeat him in a few seconds. But I won’t.

“She told me her name,” he said quietly. “She told me to call her that. So I did.”

“You’re lying!”

“I’m not. She was my friend…”

Wesley’s eyes narrowed, watching 256 closely. Their eyes met, and Carey’s brother laughed, grinning and shaking his head. He moved closer, his weapon still ready to strike. “I see how it is now. You have some pathetic lust for her. Carey’s smart, she would’ve used it to her advantage…  You probably have all these disgusting fantasies, don’t you? You kidnap a girl and then you have some sick desire for her. Ugh, it makes me shiver just thinking about it.”

“I – It’s not like that, it’s not!”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure. As if Carey would ever be friends with the person who kidnapped her. You took away her freedom, why would she want to be friends with you?”

“I… She was Gifted, she was better off with us… I did what I thought…”

His voice trailed off. His nose still throbbed from the pain, but his tears had stopped.

“How could she ever like you? She was using you to get away, and you were stupid enough to believe she shared your sick desires.”

“I – I knew she didn’t feel –“

“Oh, but you still imagined it, didn’t you? In your dreams, she probably –“

“Shut up!”

256 scrambled to his feet, running towards him and jumping as high as he could. Even though he was more than a foot shorter than his opponent, his jump gave him enough momentum and he was flexible enough to slam his boot into his chin, flipping over as he did so. 256 landed neatly on his feet as Wesley cried out, clutching his jaw. He sunk to the ground, holding his cheeks in his hands and spending a minute or so trying to click the bones back into place.

256 knew he should run over and finish him off while he was distracted, like the ruthless person he was supposed to be. But just like before, he couldn’t do it, no matter how hard he tried to force himself to do so. Wesley’s words rang through his head, haunting him.

I – I knew she didn’t feel for me the same way I did… His legs gave way beneath him once more, and he slumped to the ground. Tears dripped from his eyes as he shook, holding his legs to his chest and rocking back and forth. Was – was she really using me? Was I just too stupid to realise it?

“I’m sorry…” he whispered. “I should have left her in that village, I should have…”

His voice trailed off. I – I caused her so much pain, so much suffering… No wonder she never –

“What, am I supposed to feel bad for you?” he heard Wesley say, his voice cold and his breathing hitched slightly. “Do you think crying about it will make what you did go away? Do you think it will make me, or Carey for that matter, forgive you? You don’t deserve our forgiveness!”

“I know I don't…”

He barely even reacted as the other boy ran to him, pinning him to the floor and clasping his hands around his throat. This time, his grip was tight and 256 could feel his vision fading as he gasped for air. His entire body felt numb, but he didn’t even try to struggle as the other boy choked him.

He – he’s right, you deserve this… You deserve to die.

Suddenly the hands around his neck loosened. He gasped for air, coughing violently. He felt a tear splash on his face, but it wasn’t his own.

“Why won’t you resist?” Wesley asked. His blue eyes were wide with fear and his arms trembled. “I – I will kill you!”

256 didn’t answer, his dark eyes staring into his.

“I – I’ve never…”

He looked away quickly, biting his lip. “N – No, I will do it. I will avenge her! Carey – she would want me to do it. She’d want me to kill the boy who took away her freedom.”

That’s right, she would… He closed his eyes, waiting for his death to come. He repeated the mantra over and over in his head, trying to stop himself from trembling. You deserve this, you deserve to die…. You deserve this, you deserve to die!

Wesley punched him again, jarring his nose even further and sending another stab of pain through his body. He kept hitting him, but his strikes became weaker and weaker.

“What are you, suicidal?” he hissed. “Why won’t you fight back? Answer me!”

256 opened his left eye, his right too swollen. He felt strangely calm, like he’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. “You want to kill me, don’t you? Then do it. I won’t resist.”

“Are you bluffing?” Wesley asked, he seemed almost a little tentative. “Do you think I’m weak? That I won’t do it? Because I will!”

“I – I deserve to die. I’ve wronged you, Carey… So many people… The world will be better off if you kill me.”

All I’ve ever done is cause pain for people… 913, 440… They were both punished for getting close to me. Carey, she would have been better off if we’d never met. I’ve caused her so much pain, I can’t blame her if she was using me. If I die here, will anyone really care? My parents, whoever they are… They would have forgotten about me long ago, how can they love a son they never knew? As the Gifted say, they probably would have been glad to be rid of such a troublesome child. To them, my Gift was never a Curse. Or maybe it was, once, but now…

“Please, just do it,” he said, closing his left eye one more and waiting for Wesley to end his life. The other boy grasped his arms around his neck again, more tears dripping onto his face. Slowly his vision began to fade once more as his breathing was restricted. Even though his lungs screamed for air, 256 barely felt any pain as Wesley ended his life.

“256, no…”

Those words echoed through the fog of his brain. 805… Why is he here? Am I imagining his voice?

He didn’t think he could be, as his voice sounded different than he’d ever heard it before. He sounded almost vulnerable, about twenty years younger than its owner really was.  He felt the hands around his throat loosen suddenly as Wesley scrambled off him. Another pair of hands lifted him slightly off the ground, gently turning him over onto his side. 256 tried to open his eyes, but found himself unable to do so as he coughed and spluttered for air.

“You’re alive...” 805 sounded relieved, and he felt someone patting his head, stroking his forehead slightly. He tried to speak, to say something to him, but he couldn’t form words.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the relief in the man’s voice disappeared, replaced with the cold, ruthless voice he knew well. Wesley… He’s in danger…

256 managed to open his left eye, blinking as his vision returned slowly. 805 was crouched next to him, holding him onto his side. But his attention was focussed on Wesley, who’d picked up his bow and had it pointed at the older man’s heart.

“You – you are Gifted,” he said. “Therefore, you must die. Both of you!”

805 laughed, but it was a harsh one. “I’d like to see you try.”

He laid 256 on his back again, reaching for his sword. 256 was surprised, he’d never seen him use his sword before. He must have run out of graphite…

Wesley shot an arrow at him, but his hands were trembling and he missed by a long way. He’s going to die… 805’s going to kill him, I can’t let this happen.

“N – No …”

He reached out, and with all the energy he had left he started a fire beneath his fingers. It wormed its way across the floor, building momentum until he’d trapped the older man in a ring of flames just as he lunged at Wesley. 805 was taken aback as the fire sprung up around him, his eyes widening when he saw his outstretched arms and the fire that extended from it.

“2 – 256, what are you…” he stammered, sweat beginning to drip down his forehead.

“I’m sorry, 805…” 256 said as the older man began to cough from the smoke, dropping his sword on the ground.

 “Go,” he said to Wesley. Gulping, Carey’s brother nodded, and the last thing 256 saw before his vision faded was him running out the door with a final glance at the boy who’d taken his sister from him.

35: Smiles and Tears
Smiles and Tears

Janelle breathed in deeply, enjoying the evening summer sun on her face as she watched the small stream in front of her. It’s nice to just relax… I never get to do that anymore, really.

 Ten new recruits had joined them after her speech at the first inn they’d come to. Ten… That’s double the amount that joined us at Rosa’s inn initially.

Marvin had volunteered to take them back to the brothel where Samantha and the others were waiting, while she, Carey and Reagan had moved on to the next inn. She’d given another speech last night, and already five people had approached her asking to join them. If this keeps up, we’ll reach our target of fifty recruits overall.

The thought brought a smile to her face. But despite her success at getting new followers, Janelle knew there was a lot riding on this mission. If we fail again, most of our recruits will probably leave us. I can’t let that happen, no matter what.

It was strange, really. In the months following the rebellion at the Lake Village, Janelle had slowly forgotten why she’d been so nervous to be the leader of their group in the first place. I guess I just realised it was something I have to do, no matter what… But still, was I really the right choice? Samantha… She’s far more calculating and intelligent than I am, maybe she really would’ve been a better leader than I am. I’m the one who was stupid enough to let Alex use me like he did… I just wanted him to love me, but I suppose that was too much to ask for.

She sighed, resting her head on her knees. All it had taken was a few words from Carey, and she found herself swimming in doubt again, although she’d tried her best not to let it affect her work. A girl like me should not be leading a revolution… And yet I’m trying to.

Janelle sighed, rubbing her eyes. Even though she had more important things to worry about at this present moment, she found herself constantly dwelling on her past.

“Hello.”

She looked over her shoulder, noticing Reagan behind her. His fair hair was dishevelled, large bags under his hazel eyes, although he still had his trademark smile plastered on his face despite his apparent tiredness. Janelle squirmed as approached. She’d been avoiding him all week.

“What is it?” she said, struggling to remain emotionless.

He shrugged. “Is something bothering you?”

Janelle shook her head. “No, there’s nothing…”

Reagan sat down next to her, drawing his knees to his chest and fiddling with his fingernails. Janelle stared straight ahead, but watched him in the corner of her eye. She waited for him to demand to know why she’d been avoiding him, but he didn’t.

“Why are you here?” she blurted out after a few minutes of awkward silence.

He shrugged again. “I don’t know. I just thought something might be wrong, that’s all.”

“I’m fine,” she muttered.

Reagan stared at her, and she squirmed under his gaze. She found his behaviour rather odd. He almost seemed reserved, quiet, far different from his usual exuberance.

“So you’re doing this because you want to get your daughter back?” he asked suddenly.

“Huh?” Janelle said, taken aback. “How - How do you know about that?”

He shrugged. “You said so. During your speeches…”

“Oh, yeah,” she muttered. “Well, yes, I am.”

Reagan nodded, still smiling. A small part of her wondered if he thought she was ruined. It made her more upset than she cared to admit. No, it doesn’t matter what he thinks… You can’t let yourself think like this, you can’t let yourself be vulnerable again. Look where that got you last time.

He was still watching her closely.

“Janelle, you overheard me and Theresa’s conversation the other day, didn’t you?”

“Er…”

“I know you did. Well, as I’m sure you probably gathered from that, my mother was a prostitute. So tell me, why would I of all people care that you had sex outside of marriage?”

“Well, I thought she might’ve been, but I wasn’t – I wasn’t sure…” she admitted. “And besides, you  - you’ve never mentioned her to me, so for all I knew you were ashamed of her…”

Reagan shook his head. “No, no, I’m not ashamed of her… The reason I don’t like talking about her because she’s dead. She died when I was eight years old.”

His lips quivered as he said this, but he kept his usual smile on his face. Why does he always do that, even when he’s talking about something so sad?

“How – how did she die? If you don’t mind me asking…”

He smiled even wider, it was a very strange expression. “It’s fine. I don’t mind. She was killed by the Gifted.”

Reagan sighed, nibbling on his nails again. “The Gifted… We had a lot of Gifted passing through. I saw them often. Most of them were actually pretty good about it, they’d come, get what they wanted, pay and leave. Some… some used their skills as leverage, instead threatening the workers that they’d kill them if they didn’t let them have it for free.”

His voice broke slightly. “Anyway, when I was eight years old, there was a group of men… They threatened one woman, and she refused to give them what they wanted. Most of the others would just do as they ask, but not her. It was very brave of her to stand up to them, but it didn’t matter. They got very angry, and they decided – they decided to teach us a lesson.”

“They – They killed everyone, Janelle… They locked the doors, killing everyone they could. I was in my room at the time when I heard screams and shouts from downstairs. My mother burst in a few moments after it began. She took my hand and told me we had to run away as fast as we could. We ran downstairs into the kitchen, there were so many dead bodies… She led me to a small window in there that was open, but it – it was too narrow for her to go through. She told me to climb through it just as a Gifted man appeared.”

Tears spilled from his eyes, although he kept that grin plastered to his face even though it must’ve physically hurt to do so. He wiped them away quickly, flushing slightly.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Janelle shrugged, tentatively putting her arm around him. “Even the strongest people cry sometimes.”

He gave a small laugh. “Don’t steal my lines. Think of your own.”

She shrugged again, but her thoughts were elsewhere. How did he survive? I mean, the Gifted… It would’ve taken him some time to climb through the window, and I highly doubt they would have just left him there… As he sobbed quietly, she knew she couldn’t ask him. I guess he must’ve climbed out while they killed his mother.

“After they flooded the place… one of them used their water powers to flood the entire building. I had escaped by then, and I was watching from a distance… My home was destroyed, and everyone I loved had been killed by them. And it – it was all my fault…”

“How?” she asked.

“What?” he said, confused by her question.

“How is that your fault?”

He shrugged, avoiding her gaze. “Because I survived and they didn’t.”

It didn’t make much sense to Janelle, but she supposed things like this never made much sense. Still, it’s not like it was with my parents… Their deaths were my fault, if I hadn’t made those decisions… If I’d never been stupid enough to believe that dream was real, they’d still be alive.

It hit her suddenly. If her parents had never died, if she’d never had her daughter… Then she never would have even been here. Janelle would be back in her village right now, still that shy, dreamy girl. She’d probably be married, maybe she’d even have other children. Would I have still had a child taken away? Or was that the world’s way of punishing me for my failures?

Samantha… I never would have met her, not properly, anyway. They would still be two village girls with no connection other than the odd friendship between their parents. Would she have left the village without me? And if she did, what would she have done?

A million ‘what ifs’ swirled through her head, each more far-fetched than the last.

“What’s wrong?” asked Reagan, still smiling. She found his expression rather eerie, considering what they’d been discussing. But she was beginning to understand why he smiled so much, even during the most inappropriate of moments.

“Nothing,” Janelle said quickly. She reached out and squeezed his hand, rather tentative. “You know, you don’t have to smile all the time… You can be sad about things.”

He shrugged, trembling slightly. “I am sad about things. But don’t you see? If I don’t smile, I - You wouldn’t understand.”

But I want to understand. Janelle realised that she did want to understand him, she wanted to know why he acted the way he did… No, I can’t, I can’t… Alex was nice to me, he seemed to like me even though I was so shy and plain… I can’t take that risk!

The words echoed through her mind, but her body moved on its own accord. She leaned forward and pressed her lips against his gently. Reagan seemed tense at first, but he softened after a few seconds and drew her closer, pressing her body against his. she opened her mouth slightly, allowing him to deepen the kiss.

“Jan, I…” he murmured as he pulled away, panting slightly. His eyes... They're such a beautiful hazel. “I -”

“I’m sorry,” she interrupted, her mind winning the war at last. “I – I shouldn’t have done that, I… See you later.”

She got up quickly, running back and forcing herself not to look back. Her lips still tingled from where they’d touched his, but she tried her best to ignore the feelings coursing through her body. I’m an idiot, the biggest idiot… I knew I couldn’t take the risk, and yet I did anyway.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey drew her sword, clumsily aiming at a tree in front of her. It was difficult to aim when she couldn’t see it, couldn’t see herself, but she managed to scratch the side of it. However, as she pivoted around for the second strike, her feet twisted under a tree root and she slammed onto the ground. Carey gritted her teeth and pulled herself up again, trying to ignore the stinging of her various scrapes and bruises.

Janelle and Marvin had both told her to practice her invisibility, saying it could be a vital asset for their mission now and missions to come. Carey had done as they asked. After all, their goals were the only chance she had of seeing Wesley and the rest of her family ever again. But she found herself increasingly frustrated by the limits of her powers.

No matter how hard she concentrated, Carey just couldn’t see herself when she was invisible. She knew basically where her body was, but she still found herself rather disorientated. When she was simply running or walking, her body managed that fine despite this, as it was something she did all the time without thinking. But Carey found it almost impossible to fight while invisible. She often tripped over her own feet accidently, like she just had, and her aim was always horrible.

Carey sighed in frustration as she tripped over again, skinning her knees on the forest floor. What’s the point of invisibility if you can’t even do anything while invisible? Sure I can walk and run a bit… But when it comes to more coordinated movement, it’s hopeless.

Carey noticed the evening sun sinking beyond the treetops. I suppose I should head back… She’d taken to training in the forest surrounding the inn they were currently visiting. After all, she couldn’t risk one of the inn’s occupants stumbling into the basement while she was practicing and finding out about her powers. To most of the nonGifted, I am the enemy… Whether I want to be or not.

She sighed, reappearing. No matter what she did, no matter whether they succeeded or not, she’d never truly be one of the nonGifted again. Back home, do they wonder where I went? My family knows, but what about everyone else? Isabelle, Timothy, Harriet, Fred, Caitlyn… All my friends, do they think I’m the enemy now? Wesley, does he think I’m the enemy?

She shook her head, telling herself not to be stupid. She had no idea what her old friends thought of her now, but Wesley surely still thought of her as his twin, his ally. They’d grown up together, they’d found out about her power at the same time, he’d done his best to stop 256 from taking her away… Even though she knew this, the less rational side of her imagined her finding her way home only to have Wesley reject her at the door. Carey shook her head, telling herself not to think such thoughts. You’re just being silly.

She began the long walk back to the inn, limping slightly from her injuries. It wasn’t long before she heard voices close by.

Is that Janelle?

She crept closer, turning herself invisible once more. Gritting her teeth and concentrating, Carey made herself silent. She moved slowly, knowing if she lost concentration for a second she’d lose it.

Carey’s eyes widened as she saw Janelle and Reagan sitting by the stream, their arms wrapped around each other as they kissed. She could feel herself turning red, although not even she could see the evidence of it.

I wish they'd close their mouths...

Carey had to admit, she was beginning to understand why Samantha often found herself exasperated with the behaviour of other women, even though she was one herself. But then, she supposed she didn’t exactly have much experience in these matters. Who knows, maybe I’d act the same if I was in her position…

Janelle scrambled to her feet a few minutes later, running right past Carey. She moved out of the way to avoid being hit, the last thing she wanted was to be discovered.

Carey turned her attention back to Reagan. I have to fulfil my promise to Samantha, after all. With that in mind she crept closer, taking care to make sure she remained silent. Even though she didn’t have the best control over that aspect of her powers, Carey was relieved to discover it worked.

He sat there for a few minutes, holding his head in his hands. She could hear him muttering something, although she couldn’t quite make out the words. Eventually he stood up, brushing himself off and trudging back in the direction of the inn.

Reagan stopped in his tracks suddenly, staring straight at her. Carey panicked, checking herself over. Sure enough, her body was nowhere to be seen, not even by herself. I – I’m definitely still invisible… So why is he –

Reagan strolled past her like nothing had happened, hurrying back to the inn. Carey stayed rooted to the spot, shivering slightly. Maybe there was a rabbit or something behind me… Maybe he just heard a noise and thought it was someone coming. But I didn’t hear anything…

A million different possibilities ran through her head. Each of them was likely, plausible, even… But Carey couldn’t help but feel like he’d known she was there.

36: Stealth and Flames
Stealth and Flames

Am I dead? This feels real…

He was lying in a forest somewhere, every inch of his body aching. 256 sat up slowly, wincing as he did so. His right eye still wouldn’t open properly, but through his left he could see 805 sitting a little way away.

“You’re awake,” the older man said, his back to him.

256 nodded, before remembering he couldn’t see him from his position.

 “Yes, I guess I am,” he said, his voice raspy.

His nose throbbed still, and as he reached up to inspect the damage he noticed it was almost double its normal size.

“I did as best as I could,” 805 said as he stirred something over the fire. “But I am no doctor… Once the swelling’s gone down, your nose will probably be crooked.”

256 shrugged. Although it did upset him, he supposed he’d never really been handsome anyway. A broken nose might make him look a bit older, so perhaps it was a good thing.

He watched 805 as he worked, noticing the stiffness of his movements. His right sleeve was rolled up almost to his shoulder, a bandage wrapped around his arm and neatly tied where the arrow had ripped off his flesh. A small patch of blood spread from the wound, growing bigger before his eyes.

“You – You should change that bandage,” 256 said, a little hesitant given his behaviour.

“Here,” he said shortly, apparently ignoring his concerns.

 805 thrust a bowl full of broth into his hands, nearly spilling it all over him in the process.

“Thanks,” he said quickly, grasping it before it fell to the floor. It was only then when he caught a glimpse of his face.

“805, what happened?” he said, his eyes widening as he saw the blisters covering the right side of his face, continuing down his neck. 256 glanced at his right hand, noticing it had its fair share of red welts too. That’s why he’s moving so stiffly…

“Nothing,” he muttered. “It’s not important.”

How did he – 256 gasped as he realised he’d left 805 trapped in a ring of fire before fainting. “I – I’m so sorry…”

“It’s okay, you didn’t mean to,” he said quietly, reaching out and patting him on the head. “They’ll heal. I probably won’t even get any scars. At least, not permanent ones. It was only for a moment, when I jumped through…”

“So you’re not mad at me?” he said, doubtful.

805 ignored his question, pulling a new bandage out from one of the bags and unwrapping the one around his arm. “Here, can you put this on for me?”

He passed him a small bottle. 256 accepted it, standing up quickly and dabbing his wound. 805 barely reacted as the alcohol seared his flesh, wrapping it up with the clean bandage as soon as he’d finished.
“Thank you,” he said as he rolled his sleeve down again. He turned around once more, reaching into his bag and pulling out a flask. 256 forced himself to eat a spoonful of the food he’d made, watching him carefully as he took a long sip. Something tells me that’s not water…

“Are you mad?” he blurted out again.

“I’m not.”
“I – I’m sorry for injuring you, I -”

“It’s fine,” he said, much more aggressive this time. “Just leave it, okay?”

256 gulped, nodding and turning his attention back to his food. Why won’t he just say he’s angry?

He was staring into his flask like it had personally wronged him, his grey eyes narrowed and cold.

“It’s just… 256, you are a trained soldier. You may not look like one, but you are.”

“I know that,” he muttered.

“Then why did you let that boy almost kill you?” he demanded.

“I –“

“He wasn’t even that skilled! Once you’d disarmed him, you should have been able to defeat him easily. I know he was bigger than you, but you’re still a soldier. I know you know how to use your short stature and lack of strength to your advantage… But no, instead you let him beat you up! You could’ve at least knocked him out if you didn’t want to kill him. When I came back, and I saw you there…”

His voice broke slightly as he said this.

“I – I thought you were, dead, 256…” 805 said, his voice almost inaudible as he stared into the depths of his flask. “I saw you there, his hands around your neck, you weren’t breathing...”

He trembled slightly, biting his lip in a very uncharacteristic way.

“I – I’m sorry for worrying you…”

“I wasn’t worried,” he muttered, but 256 knew it was a lie. “Just tell me, why did you let that boy almost kill you?”

“I wronged him, in the past… I deserve to die for what I’ve done.”

The older man watched him, his expression softening slightly. “Why?”

“I – I don’t know if I can tell you…”

He shrugged. “If it’s about the girl you found and her power, I already know about that. The Leader told me when he said I had to supervise you. So you can tell me, if you’d like.”

256 knew he shouldn’t, but the words just began to spill out. “He was her brother… He wanted to kill me for what I’d done. I – I thought what I did was right, at the time. She was better off with us, with the Gifted, where she could belong. But she was never happy here. I knew that, but still I pretended I’d done the right thing. I think she probably wishes she’d never met me.”

805 said nothing, encouraging him to continue.

“He – he told me that she was probably using me… I knew she didn’t like me, but I – I liked her, a lot. It was wrong of me, I shouldn’t have let myself feel that way, but I almost couldn’t help myself. Anyway, I thought, if she was using me could I blame her? I caused her so much pain. It’s my fault this happened to her, all my fault… I deserve to die, he should’ve killed me!”

All I’ve ever done is hurt people… 913, 440, they cared for me, and look what happened to them. I’m Gifted, but I can’t be ruthless and strong like I’m supposed to be. I don’t even know what I am, really.

“You don't deserve to die, 256."

"Why not?" he asked. “You should have killed me ages ago anyway, isn’t that your duty? That’s what the Council, what the Leader wants you to do, so why won’t you do it?”

“256…” the older man said, hesitating slightly. “Don’t say that. I’m not going to kill you.”

But why not? He didn't say it out loud, but 805 seemed to understand. He sighed, pulling back the sleeve covering his left arm. Two long, thin scars spanned the underside of his wrist. 256 stared at them, his eyes widening. “You mean you –“

“You’re not the only one who thinks like this,” he said quietly, pulling his sleeve back over the scars. “Many times, I’ve wanted to die… Many times, I’ve deserved to die. 256, the thoughts you’re having… They will pass, eventually, I promise you.”

256 stared at his now covered wrist, his shock momentarily distracting him. “But… how did you survive? Wouldn’t the Council have punished you if they’d found out?”

He laughed, a bitter sound. “Trust me, there are many things I’ve done that the Council would punish me for if they knew about them. In fact, they’d probably skip punishment and just kill me.”

“I – I want to know. I want to understand…”

805 sighed, patting him on the head. “I’m not really sure, honestly. I was in my eighteenth year. I was feeling sort of like you are now, useless as a member of the Gifted, like I didn’t belong anywhere. So I did it, I used one of my knives to slit my wrist.”

“When I woke up I found myself in a bed, my wrist bandaged up. The other Gifted at the village I was staying in scolded me for being so careless. She said that the Servant had found me bleeding to death after I’d dropped a bowl and cut myself. Later when she’d left, I confronted the Servant about it. I asked him why he’d saved me, when I didn’t want to be saved, but he didn’t reply. Instead of letting me bleed to death like he should have he patched me up and fabricated some evidence so the Gifted wouldn’t know what I’d done…”

805’s lip quivered slightly. “I never found out why he did it. I was Gifted, one of the ones oppressing him, and yet he risked his life to save mine. The Council would’ve killed him for lying to his superiors if they’d found out what he’d done, and yet...”

His voice trailed off. “Anyway, the things you’re feeling right now… They will pass, 256. I can promise you that.”

He forced himself to smile. “Okay. Thank you, 805.”

In his heart, he knew the older man was wrong. There is no way to repent for what I’ve done… I ruined Carey, 440, 913, Wesley and even my parents’ lives. I deserve to die for what I’ve done, but I’m too cowardly to do it myself.

However, he knew there was no point discussing it further. 805 was watching him carefully, and 256 kept smiling until he finally looked away.

“You should get some rest, 256,” he said after a pause.

“I’m okay,” he said, reaching up and touching his nose again. Pain shot through to the back of his head as he prodded it, tears welling in his eyes once more. Who knew a broken nose could hurt this much…

It was only then that he realised who was missing.

 “Where’s 3349?” he asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

805 cleared his throat. “Don’t worry, she’s fine. She’ll be back soon. She, er… she noticed there was a brothel nearby, so she thought she’d pay a visit. To relieve some stress, you know.”

“Oh,” 256 said hurriedly. “I’m sorry for keeping you here. You can leave me alone if you want go too. You’re probably stressed as well…”

“Um, I’m fine. I don’t really make a habit of such things…”

805 shuffled uncomfortably, running his hands through his greying hair as he avoided 256's gaze. 256 watched him, remembering what the rebel had said to him right before his death. I wonder if it bothers him, what the rebel accused him of… But I suppose he knows the truth, so it doesn’t matter what they think.

“What happened with the rebels, anyway?” he asked.

805 returned to normal, his grey eyes narrowing once more. “We killed as many as we could… Some escaped, though. I highly doubt that was all of them, however. There are more, I’m sure of it. Which means there will be more attempted killings, although the Gifted are starting to catch on to what is happening, so hopefully most will be able to defend themselves. But there’s already been another murder. That’s where we’re heading now, once you’ve recovered a bit.”

“How – How did they know who you were?” he asked. “The rebels, I mean…”

805 shrugged. “I don’t know. I doubt they were singling me out specifically. They probably have a list of all the high-profile Gifted like me. They knew the Council would send out at least one of us to investigate the killings, and that person just happened to be me.”

He gave a harsh laugh. “They probably thought they could blackmail me into helping them gain classified information about the Council… Maybe if they’d been a bit smarter, they could have.”

Something flickered in his grey eyes, something dark. “Still, I will hunt down every single one of them for what they did…”

256 knew there was no point arguing with him when he looked like that. He shivered as he remembered watching him choke the rebel, snapping his neck as though it were nothing.

 805 laughed suddenly, reaching out and ruffling his hair again. “Are you still afraid of me?” he asked, the darkness in his eyes gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Why does he keep doing that?  “Yes,” he admitted, smiling slightly. “You’re pretty scary, 805.”

He shrugged. “I know.”

 “What – what was her name, anyway? The woman you were attached to, I mean?”

“You’re bold today, aren’t you?” he said. “I can’t really tell you that, can I? You could go running to the Council.”

256 shrugged. “I could, but they’d never believe me, right?”

“True. They’d believe my lies over yours. But still, does it really matter? You don’t even know who she is.”

“She’s important to you, isn’t she?” he said. “Therefore, I’d – I’d like to know. If that’s okay.”

805 shrugged, patting him on the shoulder.

“Her name was Michelle,” he said quietly, smiling as he said her name.

“So that’s what that was…”

805 gave a small laugh. “Well, obviously. I was surprised you didn’t figure it out immediately, honestly. What about you? What was the name of the girl you loved?”

“L – loved?” he spluttered, feeling himself turn bright red. “I – I didn’t love her, I – I don’t even know what that means, really.”

The older man shrugged. “It’s not that hard to figure out.”

Did he love her? To be honest, 256 didn’t really know what that really meant. Love was not something the Gifted discussed.

“Her – her name was Carey,” he muttered. I don’t really know what it was I felt for her, though. Especially now…

He bit his lip as he remembered what Wesley had said to him.

Was she using me? I have no way of knowing… It’s not like I can ask her, I told her I would never see her again.

“I doubt she was using you, 256,” 805 said suddenly as if he’d read his mind. “Most eighteen year olds aren’t smart enough to do that, if she did notice how you felt… And if she didn’t, then she wouldn’t have thought to do so in the first place.”

There was some truth in 805’s words, but they weren’t particularly reassuring. Wesley’s her brother, he knows her better than anyone… better than me. Maybe the Carey I knew isn’t the real Carey at all.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

 “So what happened, anyway?” Samantha asked over the clanging of metal. Another twelve rebels had joined them after the second inn they’d visited, and Carey, Janelle and Reagan had finally returned to the brothel where the majority of the rebels were staying. Carey had watched them both like a hawk after she’d seen them kissing. They both seemed to be pretending nothing had happened, barely even exchanging a glance the whole time.

“N – Nothing,” Carey said hurriedly, hearing Thomas laugh at her response in the background. He was incredibly busy, having over twenty new swords to make and not much time to do it. If we manage to steal enough weapons, it'll be much easier for him.

“That means something happened, doesn’t it?” he said, grinning as he brandished a half-finished weapon. Unlike Carey and Samantha, who were both sweating, he seemed unaffected by the heat in the room. She supposed it must be a perk of his Gift.

Carey bit her lip. Should I tell them? It’s Janelle’s business… Carey knew she couldn’t tell them about that, but there was something else she could tell them about.

She’d experimented many times after she’d thought Reagan had been able to see her. First she’d turned herself invisible when neither of her companions were looking. Carey had then waved her hands in his face, done silly dances in front of him, essentially trying to elicit some kind of reaction from him… But he never even flinched, giving no indication that he was able to see her.

“There was a time...” she began, a little hesitant. “I was training in the forest, trying to use my invisibility, you know. Anyway, I was still invisible when I ran into Reagan. I swear, for a moment he stopped, like he’d seen me.”

Thomas stopped what he was doing and they both stared at her, an eerie silence hanging in the air.

“What do you mean?” Samantha said slowly, still processing the information.

“It was probably a false alarm,” Carey reassured them. “I – I tried to get a reaction from him a few times after that, and he never gave any indication that he could see me. I mean, how could he? It’s impossible…”

Samantha nodded. “Yes, it’s impossible…”

But her grey eyes were narrowed. “What was he doing, alone in the forest, anyway?”

Carey shrugged, biting her lip.

“I don’t know,” she lied. “Maybe he just… went for a walk, or something.”

Samantha raised an eyebrow, but she didn’t comment. Carey gave a sigh of relief, although she watched the older woman cautiously.

“I just don’t understand Janelle…” she muttered under her breath, clenching her hands into fists. “How can she trust him, after what happened to her?”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Leave her alone, Sam. Not everyone is deceitful…”

She shot him a dirty look. “Well, Mum probably thought like that. And look what happened to her.”

He shrugged, grinning despite the murderous look in his sister’s eyes. “Yes, but if mum hadn’t done what she did, you wouldn’t have even been born. Therefore you can’t complain that much.”

She punched him lightly in the shoulder, smirking. “Shut up.”

Carey felt a familiar ache as she watched them. Even though they were technically five years apart and only half-siblings, Thomas did not act much like a twenty-nine year old he really was and thus it was easy for Carey to see them as twins like she and Wesley were. She missed him more than ever whenever she saw them teasing or laughing with each other, like she and her own brother had done on many occasions.

“Carey, what is it?” Thomas asked, putting his arm around her and squeezing her shoulder. She smiled at the gesture, but it only made her feel worse.

“I’m okay,” she said, biting her lip to stop her smile from wobbling.

He even has blue eyes, like Wesley, although his are a different shade…

Samantha and Thomas exchanged a glance.

“You’ll see them again, Carey,” Samantha said quietly. “Don’t worry. We’ll find a way to make sure you do.”

She nodded, gulping, although she didn’t quite believe her. “Th – thanks…”

A knock sounded at the door, distracting them.

“Yes?” Samantha said.

Janelle opened the door, smiling at them as she entered. Reagan followed close behind.

 “Hi,” she said, looking a little hesitant. Carey noticed how she stood about a few steps away from him, constantly checking over her shoulder to make sure he wasn’t close. However, this time he was also avoiding looking at her, staring down at his feet instead.

The day they’d returned, Janelle had told the rebels who’d be coming with them and what was going to happen. They were to leave tomorrow, in two separate groups, sneaking into two safe houses Janelle had sent Will and Anna to find inside the village itself. The first, which Carey and Reagan were a part of, would visit the factory and steal a large amount of weapons. The second only consisted of four people – Janelle, Samantha, Will and Anna, who were to infiltrate the Gifted house and keep them occupied while they took as much as possible.

“I need to ask you and Tom something,” she said to Carey, glancing at Samantha. The other woman was glaring at Reagan, but he didn’t seem to notice, grinning as he always did.

“Me?” Thomas said, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. “Why me?”

“Would you like me to leave?” the other woman asked.

“Yeah, am I really needed either?” Reagan said, nodding at Samantha who scowled.

“No, you can both stay,” she said. “Reagan, this plan involves you too. And Samantha, you’re my deputy. You need to know about my plans, don’t you?”

Samantha grinned slightly, momentarily tearing her eyes away from him. “Okay, if you say so.”

Janelle nodded, but she seemed nervous. “I need to know how much control you have over your powers. Both of you.”

“I thought I wasn’t coming…”

“I need you to be there, Tom. Is that okay?”

He nodded, gulping slightly. “Sure…”

“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” she said hurriedly. “I know you’re not really a fighter…”

“It’s fine. I want to help. Honestly, I have little control. I can use my power willingly, but it’s hard, and I often hurt people in the process.”

He fiddled with his gloves as he said that, exposing some of the withered skin underneath.

“What about you, Carey?”

She shrugged. “I can turn myself invisible okay. I struggle to fight while I’m invisible, but I can walk. I can also turn off the sound I make, and I’m getting better at turning others.”

Janelle grinned. “That’s okay. In fact that’s perfect. Thanks for helping us, you two. Your powers will be of great use to us in this mission.”

Carey felt her stomach tie in knots as Janelle told the four of them her plan. So much is riding on me for this mission… Will I be able to use my powers properly, or will they fail me when I need them most?

37: Nerves and Anxiety
Nerves and Anxiety

There was a small knock on her door. “Are you ready?”        

Carey pulled on her shirt, tying up the laces and adjusting her belt. “Nearly. You can come in.”

Janelle peered around the door. She’d been very nervous all week, and Carey had to admit she felt the same. She’d practiced her invisibility whenever she could as they travelled to the industrial village that Marvin and Janelle had decided to attack. However, despite her efforts she still found herself unable to coordinate herself very well when she was invisible and fighting. Walking and running were easy, but anything more and she found herself tripping over her own feet.

“So, you know what you have to do?” she asked as Carey tied up her hair, pulling the long brown strands into a single, messy ponytail.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes. I’m to go to the Gifted house, assess how many there are, what powers they have, what they’re doing… I’m just gathering some information on them, right?”

“Y – Yes. Then you come back and tell us what you found.”

She nodded, gulping slightly. Everyone is counting on me… What if I stuff it all up?

Janelle smiled at her. “You must be nervous. I would have thought you’d say, ‘duh, I know that.’”

Carey rolled her eyes again, saying nothing as she pulled on her boots and began to tie them up.

The older woman patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t be afraid. You’ll be fine, Carey. I believe in you. I can’t thank you and Thomas enough for this.”

He’d also been practicing his powers all week, earning himself a few more burns in the process, although he’d managed to keep what remained of his fingers.

If I’m nervous, imagine how he must feel… In a week he’s had to try and learn to use the Gift he’s avoided all his life.

“Is he still practicing?” she asked.

Janelle nodded, biting her lip. “Y – Yes. Sam’s with him. We both told him she shouldn’t waste his energy, but he’s – he’s very determined to get it right.”

She shuffled her feet awkwardly. “Anyway, Good luck. Like I said, I can’t thank you enough for doing this, Carey. I know I kind of forced you to join us, but… I hope one day we can help you go home.”

Carey opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out. The truth is… Do I really want to go home, anymore?

When she was younger, Carey had always wanted to find a way out of her village. She’d always felt like a life toiling away on the farm, marrying someone and starting a family would be suffocating.

What could she do? Even if the Gifted weren’t watching her town, the very idea of going home and returning to that life left her with a strange sinking feeling in her stomach. Would she go back to the farm, and live out her days forever there?

 In her heart, she knew that life could never be hers again, no matter how hard she tried. But at the same time, she wondered if she even wanted that to be her life again. Carey had always dreamed of a life of adventure, a life of freedom, where she was free to do as she pleased.

Now she realised that life could never truly exist. Not in this world, or maybe not in any world. Besides, even if Janelle succeeded in overthrowing them, there would still be responsibilities. I guess that’s just part of being an adult… Even so, it could still be a life I chose. That’s better than nothing.

“It’s okay,” she heard herself say. “I want to do this, I want to help… This is my mission too.”

I can’t go back to that life… I want to go back to my village and see my family again, but I – I can’t stay there forever. It’s just not me anymore. Perhaps it never was.

 “R – really?” Janelle said.

She smirked. “I just said that, didn’t I?”

Carey strode away before she could reply, strapping her sword onto her belt and taking a dagger for good measure. She took the supplies Janelle had packed for her, which included a rope and a few other things Janelle had thought might be useful. Once she was ready she took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

I am the sky, I am the earth… The fire, the water.  I am nothing.

And soon she was.

 

Carey crept through the deserted streets, looking over her shoulder nervously even though she knew no one could see or hear her. She was surprised just how deserted they were – this village was larger than hers, and there had generally been at least one Gifted patrolling the streets at night. But as she made her way through the various roads and alleyways, she was surprised to find no signs of life at all aside from the occasional hoot of an owl.

Where is the Gifted house, anyway…

She cursed in her mind, annoyed that she’d forgotten such an important detail. Well, this mission’s off to a great start… We won’t get anywhere because I forgot where I was supposed to go.

She trudged through the village roads, aware she was wasting time they couldn’t afford to spare. She knew the Gifted houses were usually near the village centre, at least it had been in her village and the Lake Village. She picked up her pace, trying to run without tripping over her feet.

Carey slipped into an alleyway to reorientate herself. She reappeared, cursing her disorganisation. Seriously, why didn’t I check before?

It was then she felt it – a strange, yet familiar presence hung in the air. Her eyes settled on a fairly large, worn down house on the other side of the street. She wondered how she hadn’t noticed it before, it was almost exactly the same as the one she’d stayed in while they were in the Lake Village, although this one was smaller. She turned herself invisible again and crept closer, the presence growing stronger.

Am I sensing their Gifts? I guess I must be…

Although there was no other explanation for it, Carey found it strange. But how can I feel it over such a long distance? 256, he… when he Assessed my brother, he had to focus hard. And when he found me, he could feel something but he wasn’t certain until he focussed on it. Is that the same as what I’m feeling now? But the Leader said my Gift is different from the others, so perhaps the normal ones are easier to sense.? Maybe it’s stronger in adults, and there’s probably more than one. If he was here, I could ask him, but he’s – he’s probably dead…

She pushed thoughts of 256 from her mind. Alive or not, he’s not here. You have more important things to do right now.

Carey moved closer, wondering how she could get in. She noticed a dim light in one of the upstairs windows, which surprised her. It was quite late at night, but it seemed at least one of the Gifted was awake. She supposed one must stay awake in case something happened within the village, like 440 had the night she’d escaped. Although, I think that was more to stop me from escaping, more than anything else.

She crept around the side of the house, trying to find an open window, or anything that might get her inside. She could hardly believe her luck when she saw a small window towards the back of the house, slightly ajar. It would be difficult, but Carey was certain she could squeeze through.

Her next problem was getting up there. Carey was quite tall for her age, but nowhere near tall enough to reach. She reappeared, contemplating her next move. That’s right, I have that rope…

She grabbed the rope Janelle had given her, thankful that she’d thought to pack her one. Carey tied the end in a small loop, doing as best she could to throw it around the small hook of the window. After about twenty tries, she managed to get it where she wanted. Carey pulled on the rope, biting her lip. It wasn’t very stable, but it was the best she had.

She climbed up the wall, praying it wouldn’t break. Luckily it didn’t, but her hands slipped a few times, giving her some nasty rope burns as a result.

 Once she’d climbed far enough she pushed the window open ,forcing her legs through the small hole. She sucked in her stomach and pushed her waist through, still grasping the outside of the window. Carey lost her balance suddenly as she pushed further, slipping down and twisting her wrist painfully as she dangled on the inside of the room.

Carey held her breath and waited for the sound of footsteps, but no one came. What could they be doing?

She dropped to the ground, examining her wrist. It throbbed a little, but she didn’t think she’d sprained it. Carey turned herself invisible once more, stopping her footsteps from making sound. Because of this she was able to walk freely through the corridors, completely unseen and silent. However, as she scanned the first floor, she found her powers almost unnecessary. Where are they?

Soft voices came from upstairs, drawing her attention. Her heart rate began to increase as she climbed the stairs, peering into the dormitories. No one was inside, which she found odd. She’d expect at least some of the Gifted to be asleep at this time of night. Once she was certain the rest of the floor was empty, Carey made her way to the room where the voices were coming from.

What is that smell…

 She slipped through the door, unnoticed by the Gifted. Three, there’s three. I thought there’d be more -

It was then she saw something that shocked her to her core.

 Lying in the middle of the room were three more people, well, what used to be people. Someone had mutilated them, various limbs were missing, almost as if they’d been ripped off. Dried blood caked their wounds, their grey uniforms stained red and covered with various puncture holes. The worst part was their faces, which had no noses, no eyes, just gaping holes where these things should have been.  Carey gagged at the sight of them, quickly steadying herself before she reappeared in front of the three Gifted.

“Do you know when 805 will get here?” one of them said, kneeling next to a body and crinkling his nose. “It’s been almost two weeks since we sent the message! I don’t think we can keep these bodies for much longer… Does he really need to see them, he already knows what the rebels have done to the others.”

His companion shrugged.  “He might see something we’ve missed. Like on the last set of bodies, they said someone had written something on them… We have to wait for him and the others. The Council will be angry if we don’t.”

“Well, I wish they’d hurry up,” the third Gifted muttered.

“Maybe they got held up. After all, there’s a lot of rebels in the area at the moment.”

Rebels.

Carey’s heart almost jumped out of her chest as she heard them mention the rebels. How could they know? The last the Gifted heard, we were still in the north…

She glanced at the bodies. Janelle didn’t ask someone to do that, surely… No, that’s not like her. Besides, it would just jeopardize this mission. Is there another group of rebels in the area? I suppose it was silly to believe we were the only ones…

Although she could understand their hatred, as Carey stared at the mutilated remains of the Gifted she wondered if anyone really deserved to die that way. They are still people, after all. I think doing that to them is pretty extreme, isn’t it? I wonder who would have -

Carey shook her head, telling herself to focus. There are three of them, two men, one woman…

She glanced at the patterns on their sleeves. Two had white patterns, while the third had brown. Two Gifts of Air and one Gift of Earth.

She left as silently and unseen as she’d entered while the Gifted continued to mutter about the bodies. Once she was downstairs again Carey managed to move a small table underneath the open window, allowing her to climb through with far more ease than before. She had to admit, she was rather pleased with herself as she jumped onto the ground, landing neatly on her feet.

“I did it,” she muttered to herself as she ran back through the streets, still invisible. “I – I actually did it!”

The thought brought a smile to her face. I guess I can’t be that bad, I managed to get in and out of the Gifted House undetected. The first part of the mission’s done… Now it’s Thomas’ turn.

 

She ran back to the house Janelle, Thomas, Samantha, Will and Anna were staying in. Carey knocked quietly on the door, which opened almost immediately.

“You’re here!” Janelle said breathlessly, breaking out into a grin. “Carey, you did it!”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” she said, smirking.

The older woman squeezed her shoulder, leading her to where the others were waiting. She glanced at Thomas. He was smiling at her, like the rest of them, but he seemed nervous.

“What did you find?” Samantha asked, her voice quite cold. She had a tight grip on Thomas’ arm, so tight it must have been hurting him although he didn’t comment.

“There were three of them,” she said. “Two Gifts of Air and one Gift of Earth…”

“Only three?” Janelle queried. “I thought there’d be at least five.”

“There – there were,” Carey admitted. “There were six in total… But three were already dead.”

“What do you mean?”

“I – I went in there, and three were lying dead on the floor. They were mutilated, and the Gifted were saying something about rebels… I think there’s another rebel group in the area, and they’ve been killing the Gifted.”

Her words were followed by silence. The occupants of the room all glanced at each other, each lost for words.

 “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised,” Samantha said eventually, still gripping her brother’s arm. “I mean, we can’t be the only ones who’ve decided to try and overthrow them.”

“But mutilating them is a bit extreme, isn’t it?” Will muttered, Anna nodding beside him.

“That’s irrelevant at the moment,” Janelle said, standing up. “We have a mission to complete. Carey, do you know where to go?”

She nodded, gulping. Now that her solo part of the mission was over, Carey was to join Reagan and the rest of the rebels in stealing as much as they could from the factory at the other end of town.

Janelle smiled. “Good. Remember to wait for the signal. We want to keep the Gifted away from you as long as possible.”

The rest of the group stood up. Thomas, who’d stayed silent for the whole time they’d been talking, looked like he might throw up any minute. Carey ran over to him and hugged him, almost knocking him over in his surprise even though he was a good head taller than her.

 “You’ll be fine,” she said, giving him a quick squeeze. “I believe in you. If I can do it, so can you.”

“I – Thank you,” he muttered, his voice quite raspy.

Samantha hugged him as well after Carey let go, looking like she might cry.

“Don’t look at me like that, Sam,” he said, giving her a small, if not slightly strained, smile. “I want to do this, I want to help… You don’t have to protect me all the time. I’m your older brother, that’s my job.”

She gave a small laugh. “I’d like to see you try.”

They spilled onto the village streets, her five companions heading in the direction of the Gifted house while Carey sprinted through the alleyways to where Reagan and the rest of their group were waiting.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“How many are dead this time?” 3349 asked as they trudged through the forest towards the village where more Gifted had been murdered. 256 wondered if this was how their mission would be from now on, simply wandering from body to body. No, if this goes on for much longer, the Council will have to do something about it…

805 shrugged. “Three, I think. The messenger wasn’t that specific.”

“Is there really any point in doing this?” she muttered, shooting them both angry glares as if it was all their fault.

He shrugged again. “We must do as the Council instructs. If you’d like to, you can leave at anytime. I’m sure the Council will be overjoyed to hear how you left us.”

She glared at him again, mumbling something underneath her breath as she stalked off ahead. 805 laughed slightly, shaking his head at her retreating back.

“You shouldn’t wind her up like that,” 256 muttered. “Who knows, she might really tell the Council about you not killing me like you’re supposed to. Or about… You know. Who knows, the rebels figured it out, maybe she has too…”

His voice trailed off. 805 smirked again, patting him on the head. “Please, she’d never figure it out.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because it’s been a very long time, and the Council and the rest of the Gifted haven’t worked it out yet.  Why would she? And even if she did tell them, they probably wouldn’t believe her.”

“But what if they do?” he insisted. “What if she has, and they do believe her? What will you do then?”

He shrugged. “They’ll punish me. They’ll never find her, though. The only person who knows who she was is me. Even you only know her name.”

“You shouldn’t speak of punishment so casually. I – I’ve been punished twice, 805… You – you don’t want it to happen to you, trust me…”

He shivered slightly as he remembered, willing the memories to go away. You deserved it, you deserved it…

256 rubbed his eyes, glancing up at the sky.

Wait, what’s that?

He tugged on the older man’s sleeve. “Look.”

“What is it, 256?” 805 said, his eyes following his gaze.

“That.”

He pointed at the small, shining light on the horizon. I know that shape, I know that look… That’s a ball of fire.

38: Beginnings and Endings
Beginnings and Endings

The five of them crept through the deserted village. Three of them… It seems almost too easy, like they knew we were coming and want to trick us.

Janelle knew it was highly unlikely they’d known, but she decided it was best that she kept her guard up. There may be less enemies than I thought, but they’re still Gifted. They still have the power to kill us all easily, if they want to.

“I think it was down here,” she whispered, pointing at one of the streets.

Samantha nodded, still holding Thomas tightly by the arm. He didn’t complain, his expression almost unreadable as he let her lead him through the streets.

“Are you ready?” she asked him when they hid in a small alleyway, the Gifted house in sight.

He gulped, shaking his sister off him. “Y – yes.”

Janelle smiled. “Thank you. And good luck.”

Thomas mumbled something in response and walked out into the main road, his body slightly illuminated by the moonlight. Samantha followed him, her hand resting on his shoulder.

“Step away, Sam,” he said, gritting his teeth and unwrapping the bandages around his ruined hands. They fell to the floor, some slightly stained from the burns he’d acquired practicing.

“I –“

“Step away,” he said, more aggressive this time. “I – I don’t want to hurt you… Not again.”

He reached out and traced a few small burns on her arms, before gently pushing her away. Janelle glanced at Samantha, who remained speechless as her brother gritted his teeth and concentrated.

A small flame started in his palm, a small, flickering light in the darkness. She watched as the fire burned, holding her breath. His eyebrows knotted with concentration as the flames gained momentum, building and building until a small sphere of light sat in the palm of his hand. She breathed a sigh of relief. At least he’s managed this part without anything going wrong…

Janelle noticed Samantha tense beside her as she watched her brother carefully. His forehead was plastered with sweat from the effort, but he was only halfway there. Thomas began to separate the flames from his hand, pushing the sphere up into the night sky. It wobbled in mid-air for a while, before continuing its ascent into the stars.

“Is that high enough?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“That’s – that’s great,” Janelle said as it shone up above. “The others won’t be able to miss it…”

She patted him on the shoulder, but he barely seemed to notice as he lowered the sphere slowly to the ground. He stamped on the fire quickly, putting it out.

“You did it,” Samantha said, hugging him tightly when he’d finished. However, Janelle noticed that many of the old wounds on his right hand had reopened. One finger in particular was caked in blood, twisted and grotesque looking. Thomas hid it behind his back so his sister couldn’t see it.

Thomas gave a strained smile, exchanging a glance with Janelle when he saw her staring at his bleeding fingers. “You can congratulate me later. Hurry up and go inside, you’re supposed to be distracting them.”

“You need to run,” Janelle said quickly as they turned towards the Gifted house. “Go back to where Marvin is waiting…”

He nodded. “I will.”

“Thanks for your help,” she said.

“No problem.”

He hugged Samantha one final time before disappearing into the village. Marvin will fix him up.

“He’ll be fine,” she said, patting her friend on the shoulder.

“I know,” she muttered, before turning to their companions. “Will, Anna, Janelle, come on. We’ve got a job to do.”

Janelle glanced up and saw one of the Gifted staring at them through the window. They know we’re here… We have to go now.

With that she kicked open the door, and they rushed inside.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Carey knocked on the door quietly. “It’s me,” she said as it opened slightly.

“Come in,” Marvin muttered. It was incredibly crowded inside, about thirty rebels were squashed into the small room. However, despite the large number of bodies it was almost completely silent, as no one dared to make a sound in fear of being discovered.

“Where’s Reagan?” she asked.

“He’s over there, near the window.”

She pushed through the crowd towards him.

“Hey,” he said as she approached. For once, he wasn’t smiling, simply staring out into the night sky.

“How long do you think they’ll be?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Don’t know. Probably not long now you’ve gotten here.”

She gulped slightly. Her first part of the mission had gone successfully, but there was still a long way to go. While Janelle and the others distracted the Gifted, it was their job to lead the rebels to the factory and steal as many weapons as possible.

 “There it is,” Reagan said suddenly.

Sure enough, a small, shining sphere had appeared over the rooftops, bright against the dark night sky. Carey took a deep breath, trying to subdue her racing heart.

“Okay, let’s go,” she muttered.

He nodded, standing up. Together they led the rebels from the house to the factory nearby. Carey noticed a few villagers leaving their houses to watch the commotion. Some looked on fearfully, some shook their heads in disbelief, others seemed almost impressed.

Reagan threw a rock through one of the windows of the factory, shattering it immediately. He climbed through, gritting his teeth as the glass cut his hands, but he didn’t complain. Reagan opened the front doors of the building from the inside and their group shuffled in.

“Grab as much as you can carry,” Carey said, glancing at Reagan who nodded. “There should be a storage room at the back or something. After that, run to the inn we stayed in a few days ago. We’ll meet the rest there and go back to the other sanctuary together.”

They stood outside the doors as the rebels ran in. It was surprisingly easy for them to do so. Carey shivered as she realised how lucky they were that those Gifted had been killed before they’d arrived. If the Gifted had their usual number here, they’d surely have someone guarding the factory at night… Particularly when it makes weapons like this.

She and Reagan stood outside the door as the rebels searched the factory. Some had left already, their arms filled with swords, daggers, sheaths and a variety of other tools and supplies. Carey had grown up in a farming village, and she’d never seen anything like this in her whole life. She was surprised that such a small factory could supply almost the whole town with jobs, let alone supply a decent chunk of the Gifted with weapons.

Eventually the crowd of rebels thinned until only five were left. She glanced around, well aware that they’d attracted quite a crowd of curious villagers.

“G – good job, you guys,” Carey said, Reagan nodding beside her. “Now –“

“Stop!”

Carey whipped around, her heart leaping out of her chest as she saw a Gifted man running towards them. He swiped his sword through the crowd of onlookers as he made his way towards them, killing more than a few of the villagers who stood in his way. The rest backed away quickly, running in all directions. Carey gulped. We didn’t mean to get them killed…

Carey recognised him from her trip to the Gifted house. He must have gotten past Janelle and the others… Does that mean they’re -

She shook her head, telling herself not to be silly. He’d probably just gotten past them. They can’t be dead, surely…

“What are you doing here?” he demanded. A few of the other rebels turned around, their arms still full of weapons. They froze in their tracks, shooting fearful glances at their two leaders.

“Tell them to go,” Reagan muttered, drawing his sword. “I’ll take care of him.”

“I –“

But before she could protest he’d ran towards the Gifted man, swinging around in the air and aiming his sword right into the man’s neck. He barely had time to react, just managing to draw his weapon in time to block her companion’s strike. Carey gulped, momentarily stunned. His hazel eyes were narrowed as he continued to fight, his movements swift and coordinated.

She shook her head, telling herself to focus. These people are counting on me.

“Go!” she commanded, remembering what Janelle had told her. “Go to the inn I told you about before. Make sure you stick to the defined paths through the forest and you’ll find it easily. Stay there, and we’ll join you as soon as we can.”

 The few left nodded, some shooting glances at Reagan, who was currently attempting to throttle the other man as he kept him captive in mid-air. Eventually the rebels dispersed, each one with their arms full of stolen weapons. Carey grinned at her success, turning her attention back to her final companion.

The Gifted man managed to overcome him, throwing him to the ground. Reagan did a back-flip in mid-air, landing on his feet neatly. However, the force of his fall was too great and his ankle buckled underneath him with a loud snapping sound. He cursed loudly as his opponent lowered himself carefully, smirking as he groaned. He’ll kill him if I don’t -

Carey drew her own sword, running to help. She didn’t dare turn herself invisible as she thrust her sword towards the Gifted man, who blocked her strikes easily. Carey bit her lip, contemplating her next move as she felt the air around her begin to swirl. She knew she’d have no chance if he lifted them both of the ground.

Carey turned herself invisible, catching him off guard momentarily.

“Wait, you’re…” he began, the disbelief evident in his voice. The air became still has he lost his concentration. “But how did you -”

However, before she  do anything a sword was swiped across his neck, so fast Carey barely had any time to process what was happening. The Gifted man fell to the ground, blood squirting from his wound and spraying onto his killer.

 Reagan had struggled to his feet, apparently using the man’s distraction as an opportunity to finish him off. Carey reappeared, gulping as she saw the man fall to the ground. Blood continued to bubble from his wound and mouth, his brown eyes widening as the life left them. He gave a final few coughs before going still.

 Carey stared down at his corpse, her entire body numb. He didn’t even hesitate. Not even a little bit…

“Come on,” he said, his voice raspy and lower than usual as he wiped the man’s blood from his face and rubbed it onto his shirt. “Janelle and the others need our help.”

His leg wobbled underneath him.

“You can’t go anywhere like that,” Carey said, helping him sit down on the floor again. He leant over and pulled his boot off slowly, biting his cheek as he did so. Reagan managed to force the shoe off after some effort, his foot swelling before their eyes.

“I’ll go by myself,” Carey said, gesturing towards his fat ankle. “You’ll barely be able to walk with that, let alone fight.”

“I –“

“Stay,” Carey commanded. She had to admit, she was enjoying bossing people around.

Reagan managed to stand up again, but he could barely put weight on his ankle.

“Come on, I’ll take you back to where Marvin is waiting,” she muttered, and together they hobbled through the streets. “He should be able to fix you up a bit…. We’ll be back later, and then we can all go to the inn where the others are.”

She could tell Reagan wasn’t happy, but even he had to admit defeat as he hobbled beside her.

 “Will you be okay by yourself?” he asked, gritting his teeth as they took a few more steps.

She shrugged. “I’ll be alright. I can turn myself invisible, after all, so I can always run away if I need to.”

He considered this. “Okay, I’ll go.”

She nodded. “Good.”

They walked as fast as he could. I hope Samantha and the others are okay… I’m sure that man probably just got past them, but… What if he – he killed them?

“I can go by myself from here,” Reagan said suddenly.

“Are you sure?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

He smiled again, more like his usual self. “I’m slowing you down. Janelle… And the others too, they need your help. Go quickly, I’ll be fine.”

“O – Okay,” she said, nodding. “I’ll – I’ll see you later, I guess.”

He nodded, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“Carey…” he said suddenly, avoiding her gaze.

“What is it?” she asked.

 “Just… make sure Janelle’s okay, will you?” he mumbled.

“I – I promise,” she said quickly. He nodded slightly, turning and limping away.

Carey watched him go, her eyes fixed on his back.

He doesn’t seem affected at all… He just killed someone, and he doesn’t even care…

Carey knew some people simply weren’t as affected by such things. But the way he’d done it – swiping the blade across his throat, simply wiping the man’s blood away from his eyes without a single tremor… The mere memory of it sent a shiver down her spine.

She recalled his movements, so swift, so coordinated. There’s no way he could fight like that if he’d only picked up a sword a few months ago… I’ve been training for longer than he has, and I can’t fight that fluently.

Carey knew some people had a natural talent for fighting that she did not, but it still made her more suspicious of him than ever. I’ll investigate him some more later… Right now I’ve got more important things to do.

She turned herself invisible again and ran towards the Gifted house. Even more of the villagers had spilled onto the streets, but she slipped in between them and managed to pass without anyone noticing. As she got further and further from the factory, the crowds thinned until the village was just as deserted as it had been before.

Carey kept running, her destination in sight. She picked up her pace, her heart racing as she heard shouts coming from inside. Samantha and Janelle and the others… They’re in trouble, I have to –

However, before Carey could bound up the steps and run to their aid, she was thrown to the ground as she crashed into someone.

Ouch… Carey had reappeared when she’d fallen over, which she supposed was for the best, her knees were bloody where she’d skinned them. Carey squeezed her eyes shut as she pulled herself to her feet, trying to ignore the stinging.

 “I’m sorry,” she said, turning around. “I wasn’t looking where I was –“

But her voice trailed off when she saw who it was.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“What was that?” 3349 said as she rushed back towards them, her eyes widening as she watched the light shine in the night sky.

805 shrugged. “I don’t know…”

“It looks like a Gift of Fire to me,” 256 said quickly.

3349 rolled her eyes. “I gathered that, believe it or not.”

805 watched the sphere with interest as it was lowered beneath the houses in the distance.

“There are no Gifts of Fire staying in this village at the moment,” he said quietly. “We should keep our guard up.”

He unsheathed his sword, holding it uncomfortably in his left hand.

“I wish I had some graphite,” he muttered under his breath as 3349 unsheathed her own weapon.

“Sorry,” 256 mumbled, glancing guiltily at his injured right arm. His right hand was covered with small burns in various stages of healing, the skin peeling on that side of his face and neck. First, he took that arrow for me, and then I burnt him… Plus he’s not using his preferred weapon. I just hope we don’t have to fight while he’s like this.

805 shook his head. “It’s fine. You should draw your sword, 256.”

“I don’t need it. You like knives, I like hand-to-hand combat.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re not really the right build for a hand-to-hand fighter, you know.”

256 shrugged, smiling slightly. “I know. That’s why I use it, so people will underestimate me.”

In his heart, he knew that was not the only reason he preferred not to use his sword. 256 had a feeling 805 knew the real reason too, but he didn’t question it as they ran towards the village.

“I will go to the Gifted house,” 805 said once they’d reached the outskirts of the small town. “You two search the village. Our first priority is to find who cast that fire.”

“But you’re injured,” 256 blurted out, glancing nervously at 3349. “What if –“

He smiled slightly, patting him on the head. “I’m fine, 256. I’ve had far worse injuries than this, and I’m more than capable of looking after myself in this condition, don’t worry. Besides, the Gifted staying in this village can help me if I need them.”

“But –“

“I’m fine. I’m sorry, 256, but I am your supervisor, and you must do as I tell you. Go and search the village.”

256 bit his lip, but he knew there was no point arguing further. “Fine.”

3349 rolled her eyes. “Now you’ve got that sorted out, can we decide what we’re actually going to do?”

“Um, sure,” he said quickly. “What do you want to do?”

“I’ll search the east side of the village. You can do the west.”

They split up, 256 trudging through the streets of his assigned part of the village. He gave a sigh of frustration when he searched and searched, but found no one. The streets were almost completely deserted, although he did see the occasional villager running around. He wondered what they were doing up so late at night, but most saw him and ran in the other direction before he could ask.

 I knew it would be like this. It’s been about fifteen minutes since we saw the fire… Whoever cast it, they’re probably far gone by now. Or they’ve attacked the Gifted staying in the village.

He couldn’t stop thinking about 805. Even though the older man had insisted he was fine, 256 knew better. He’d been a lot slower in the two weeks since he’d acquired those injuries, and he’d noticed he avoided using his right arm for even the simplest of tasks. Even someone like him is affected badly by injuries like those ones… And his age certainly doesn’t help.

“I have to go back and help him,” 256 muttered to himself.

He’d searched almost the entire of the west side of the village now. Was there really any point in continuing? 256 knew if the Council found out he’d directly disobeyed his superior, he’d be in trouble. But then, he’d done a lot of things in the past few months that Council would punish him for, or even kill him for. It was strange, but the thought of punishment and death didn’t even bother him anymore. He’ll be mad at first, but I don’t care. It’s better than him dying…

 His mind made up, 256 turned around and sprinted towards the Gifted house. He slowed down a little as he approached it, hearing shouts coming from inside.

“805,” he muttered, rushing towards the house. But before he could reach the front door he crashed into someone.

“What was that? 256 rubbed his head and slowly pulled himself to his feet. They just came out of nowhere…

“I’m sorry, I –“

I know that voice… He looked up and saw her standing before him, the shocked expression on her face surely matching his.

“Carey...”

39: Fights and Feelings
Fights and Feelings

Janelle hurried inside the building, Will, Anna and Samantha following close behind. There were a lot of shuffling noises and shouts coming from upstairs.

“Will, Anna, you go left, Sam and I will go right,” Janelle yelled, running up the stairs.

They entered the Gifted’s dormitory. One woman was inside, the brown patterns on her sleeve indicating she had a Gift of Earth.

 Janelle bit her lip. There was only one person here, which meant it was likely that Will and Anna were up against the two other Gifted. On second thought, I shouldn’t have left them alone. Neither of them are particularly good fighters, although they’re the best after Sam, Reagan, Carey and I. They won’t have much of a chance against the trained Gifted…

“Sam, you help the others,” she said. “I’ll take care of this.”

She swung her sword at the Gifted woman before she could properly react, and she only just managed to dodge it. She reached into a pouch on her belt, clasping her hands together and creating a club made of a strange substance Marvin had called diamond. Janelle bit her lip, remembering what he’d told her. He said it’s the hardest substance in the world… My sword might not stand that much of a chance against it.

She knew she had to use her speed to her advantage, as wielding a heavy weapon like that meant the woman’s movements would be slow. As she’d predicted, although her skill and strength far surpassed Janelle’s she didn’t have the speed necessary to pull her moves off.

The woman swung her club towards Janelle’s head. She ducked underneath her, driving her sword upwards into her ribcage.

“I’m sorry,” she said as the woman coughed, blood seeping from her mouth. “But I have no choice…”

She knew it was pointless to say such things when the woman was dying anyway, but in a way she felt it was necessary. After all, if she just killed her for no reason she’d simply be a murderer.

She pulled her weapon from her and the woman fell to the ground, her eyes lifeless. Janelle leaned down and closed them, wiping her blade gently on the woman’s uniform.

She kept her sword drawn, the house eerily quiet as she peered around the door.

“Sam?” she said, shuffling across the hall. She entered a room on the right, gasping when she saw what was inside.

“Will, Anna…”

They were lying on the floor, both with large wounds in their stomachs. Their eyes were wide, lifeless. It was my fault they died… I shouldn’t have sent them out on their own, even for a little while…

“I’m sorry,” she said, gulping. They joined us right at the beginning. James, Emma, Will, Anna… Only Richard is left from the original five. He stayed behind with the new recruits.

Her eyes flickered across the rest of the room, gasping when she saw what was there.

So that’s what Carey was talking about…

Three Gifted were lying on the other side of the room, their bodies mutilated and littered with numerous puncture wounds. What weapon made those, I wonder... And who did it?

Janelle supposed she couldn’t blame people for being angry at the Gifted. After all, she was often angry at them too. But she thought that killing them in such a brutal way was a bit much. That makes us no better than them… If we killed people like that, we wouldn’t be revolutionists. We’d just be murderers.

A loud thumping noise nearby told her someone was coming towards her. Please let that be Samantha…

“Sam?” she said, turning around. Her heart plummeted when she saw a Gifted man standing behind her. His grey eyes flickered to the three Gifted in the corner before settling on her. She gulped under his stern gaze, a shiver going down her spine. Something told her he wouldn’t be an easy opponent.

“Why are you here?” he said, his voice dangerously quiet. Janelle drew her own sword, her green eyes meeting the grey of her opponent. She stared at him, assessing his abilities as best she could. His physical strength likely surpasses mine, as does his skill… But he’s older, which means less stamina, and I’m smaller and faster. Brown patterns… That means he’s a Gift of Earth, I think.

But that didn’t make sense. Carey had said there was only one Gift of Earth out of the three Gifted here, and the woman she’d just killed had had it. Maybe she got mixed up… She must have.

Janelle focussed on him again. He’s holding his sword in his left hand… Is that his dominant hand? No, his right arm’s injured…

She could tell from the way he held his sword that it was not his natural position, while the red welts on his right hand and the right side of his face only strengthened her hypothesis. I’m lucky… He seems strong, and if he was using his dominant hand I wouldn’t stand a chance. Even now, I…

“Tell me why you’re here,” he said again. “I will show no mercy if you don’t.”

Janelle didn’t reply, simply lunging towards him and swinging her sword. He blocked her strike easily, sweeping his foot under her legs as she jumped and knocking her to the ground. Damn, he foresaw my counter attack… His strategy is better than I thought.

Janelle rolled to the side as he swung his sword down where her head had been just seconds ago. She jumped up immediately, aiming a kick into his stomach. He caught it with his right hand, pulling her to the ground again. She banged her head as she fell, cursing. She kicked him with her other leg, but it was quite feeble and didn’t seem to have much impact. What do I do now? He’s far better than me…

An idea began to form in her head. She swung at him again, which he met with ease. However, before he could push her over Janelle grabbed his right arm and twisted. He yelled with pain, dropping his weapon. She picked it up and threw it across the room, out of his reach.

He dove towards a small chest of drawers on the other side of the room while Janelle was distracted. The man rootled through the compartments, smiling when he seemed to find what he wanted.

Janelle ran towards him, aiming another strike towards his head. He rolled out of the way, sweeping his legs underneath her feet again so she fell. He reached into the bag he’d found, which contained a strange blackish-looking material that Janelle could not name. Clasping his hands around a small lump of it, he created a very strange looking dagger. It’s the same substance as that woman was using before, diamond…

He quickly made three more, each the same as the last. She only just managed to duck as he threw one at her, the blade embedding in the wall where her head had been three seconds earlier.

She gulped as she stared at it, a shiver going down her spine. Janelle knew he was way out of her league, but she had no choice. I can’t let him find the others… Sam, please get here soon. I need you.

“Tell me why you’re here,” he said, a second dagger ready in his hand.

“I won’t,” she said, swinging her sword at him. He dodged it easily, grabbing her around the waist and throwing her onto the ground. He trapped her head between his arms, her back pressed against his chest. Janelle leant against his right arm, rolling over until she had it squashed between her and the ground.

 He hissed as she pressed onto his wound, blood seeping through and staining the grey of his uniform. Janelle clambered on top of him, trapping him beneath her. However, he was far stronger than she was, even with his injury. Soon he had flipped her over, pinning her to the ground with his left arm while he pressed a dagger to her throat with his right.

“Why are you here?” he asked, his grey eyes boring into her. Those eyes… They’re so familiar…

“Janelle!”

“S –  Sam…” she managed to spit out. “Sam, help –“

 “Get away from her,” Samantha said, her voice eerily quiet.  Janelle watched her assemble a fighting stance in the corner of her eye, her grey eyes fixed on the Gifted man.

 “One step closer and she dies,” he said, not even glancing over his shoulder. “You, tell me why you came here or I will kill your friend.”

“D – don’t do it,” Janelle coughed, but he pressed the blade harder, further obstructing her windpipe.

The man looked away from her for a second, glancing over to where Samantha was standing.

Her hand rested on the handle of her sword, but she didn’t draw her weapon. Her grey eyes flickered between the two of them, finally resting on the dagger pressed against Janelle’s throat. She stared at it for a long time, her eyes narrowing even further. What is she doing?

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, her voice quite raspy. “What did you say to her?”

The man raised an eyebrow. “Why are you here?” he repeated, glancing down at Janelle again. Is she trying to stall him?

“What did you say to her, to convince her that you did the right thing?”

He said nothing, his grey eyes boring into hers. Janelle was suddenly struck by how alike they were – they had the same thick, dark hair, although the Gifted man’s was dusted with grey. They were both exceptionally tall for their respective genders, with broad shoulders and strong builds. But it was their eyes that were most similar, a hard, cold grey that gave away little to what they were truly feeling.

Samantha smirked when she had his attention, reaching into her belt and pulling out a small, beautiful dagger identical to the one he had pressed against her neck. The man stiffened as he saw it.

“Where did you get that?” he asked, a slight tremor in his voice as his grip slackened even further.

“I think you know,” she said coldly, twirling it between her fingers.

“I’m –“

Janelle pushed him off her before he could say anything, running over to her sword and striking at him while he was incapacitated. But Samantha pushed her out of the way before her weapon could make contact. Janelle fell to the ground from the force of their collision, her shoulder throbbing where she fell on it.

“Sam –“

She pushed the man up against the wall, the dagger pressed against his throat. He barely even reacted, although Janelle was quite certain he could have escaped if he wanted to.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” she spat. “You – you left her all alone in that village. She loved you, you know! You don’t deserve her love at all, you’re a despicable, putrid excuse for a human! In fact, you’re not human at all, you’re just a self-centred bastard who used her for your own sick fantasies.”

She pushed further, her hand shaking slightly. Janelle had never seen her lose control like this, her usual cold, calm demeanour had vanished in the blink of an eye. She felt she should get up and do something, anything, but she found herself frozen to the floor while she watched the scene unfold before her.

“See, you’re not even denying it,” she hissed. “What did you say, when she told you about me? Did you tell her you had no choice but to go? Did you tell her you loved her? You and I both know that was a lie.”

The man said nothing, his grey eyes shining with tears. Even though he’d just tried to kill her, Janelle couldn’t help but feel a little sympathy for him.

“Well, say something!” Samantha demanded.

“I – I’m sorry…” his voice was hoarse. “I - I didn’t know…”

“Oh, well that makes it all better, doesn’t it?”

Her hands shook as she held the dagger to his neck.

 “Sam…” Janelle began, staring at the two of them. She had to admit, she was surprised, but in a way it made sense. Samantha never did look like the other mountain villagers… And the only people who move between villages are the Gifted. I’m surprised I didn’t guess that before, honestly.

“What?” she snapped, tearing her gaze away from him for a second. Her grey eyes were filled with tears.

“Don’t –“

Before Janelle could finish the Gifted man took his chance, kneeing Samantha in the stomach and wrestling the knife from her. He dropped it on the floor as he ran.

Samantha recovered quickly, picking it up and tearing off after him. Janelle bit her lip and followed. She’ll get herself killed when she’s like this…

 “Come back, you coward!” she yelled as she burst through the door after him.

“Sam, wait!” Janelle shouted as she ran. She chased her through the village streets, which were significantly more crowded than previously.

Janelle sighed with frustration, having lost sight of them. What do I do now?

There had only been three Gifted, Carey had said. The one she’d killed, this man, that left one more. Samantha probably killed them after they murdered Will and Anna… So there’s probably none left.

Carey and Reagan would be finished by now, and were heading for the Gifted house as she’d instructed them to. If there’s any Gifted left, they’ll take care of them. Right now, Samantha needs me. After all, it’s not every day that someone meets the father that abandoned them.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Carey…” 256 said, his dark brown eyes meeting hers. They both stood completely still, staring at each other in disbelief. It’s him… It’s really him. He looks so different.

It wasn’t just the swollen noise and various bruises mottled across his face – his shaggy black hair was pushed back out of his eyes, making him look much closer to his true age. His large, dark brown eyes still gave him a rather innocent appearance, but his features were sharper, more defined. Now he looked like he might be fifteen instead of twelve. It didn’t hurt that he’d grown a few inches and become a little broader in the shoulders, although he was still only a little more than five feet tall. It had only been about three months since she’d last seen him, and yet he seemed to have aged a few years in that short space of time.

“I thought they’d kill you,” she said, swallowing.

He shook his head, his dark eyes still fixed on her. “They didn’t. Obviously. But they…”

His voice trailed off, averting his gaze. Carey cleared her throat, the awkward silence between them a little unnerving. He seems almost hesitant to talk to me… Why? I know he’s been through a lot, but it seems like more than that…

“What happened to your nose?” she blurted out.

He reached up and touched it. “It – it got broken…”

256 grabbed her by the shoulder suddenly, giving her a small smile. “Carey… I saw your brother. He’s alive.”

“Wait, what?” she said slowly, his words taking a little time to sink in.

“He’s been searching for you all this time,” he said.

“Wh – when did you see him?” she asked, trying to remain composed but unable to keep the grin off her face. Wesley… We will meet again someday, I’ll make sure of it!

He shrugged. “About two weeks ago.”

256 coughed, reaching up and touching his nose again.

“He broke your nose, didn’t he?” Carey muttered. She had to admit she was pleased Wesley had defended her, but at the same time she knew he’d probably been a lot harsher than necessary. But then, Wesley doesn’t know he helped me escape… He doesn’t know he was the only friend I had while I was trapped in the Council.

“Um, yeah,” he mumbled. “I – I deserved it, I know…”

He let my brother beat him up, even though he could’ve easily killed him if he wanted to… And yet I –

“256…” she began, gulping slightly. “I – I –“

Her voice trailed off. I killed your friend… I killed 440.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” she muttered, pulling away from him. He’ll understand… Still, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him. He didn’t seem to notice her guilt, biting his lip slightly.

“C – Carey…”

“What is it?”

“Were you…”

He hesitated, running his hand through his hair. “Were you, um… Were you okay?”

“When?” she said, more than a little confused.

“After – after you escaped.”

She smiled. “I was fine. I am fine.”

He grinned, turning slightly pink. “I’m glad.”

Tentatively he reached out for her hand and squeezed it. Carey raised an eyebrow, but she didn’t comment. Instead she patted him on the head, smirking.

“You grew taller.”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” he mumbled, avoiding her gaze.

They stood in silence for a while again, the only sounds the various shouts and bangs from the house behind them. But Carey found herself ignoring them, her attention focussed on the boy in front of her. He still held her hand, his fingers strangely warm. She wondered if that was a side effect of his Gift.

“Why are you here?” he asked her, his brown eyes staring into her. “I mean, you were going into the Gifted house… It’s dangerous, if they figure out what you are.”

“Oh, um…” How do I phrase this, exactly?

“I – I joined a rebel group,” she admitted, avoiding his gaze. What will he think of that?

“You – you joined a rebel group?” 256 said slowly, his brown eyes wide. “The one that we’ve been… You’ve been killing us –“

“Oh,” she said quickly. “Not that group, no… Another one. The one we fought back at the Lake Village, remember? Just before, I, um, escaped.”

He nodded, clearing his throat slightly. Carey scratched her head, unsure what to do next. That’s right…

“Thank you,” she said suddenly.

“For what?”

“For letting me escape. I – I didn’t say so at the time… But thanks. You – you saved my life. Twice.”

And all I did was get you punished for helping me.

He smiled slightly, shaking his head. “You don’t need to thank me. After all, if I hadn’t taken you away, you never would have needed to escape in the first place.”

Carey sighed, biting her lip. “256… You know I don’t really blame you for that?”

“You should,” he muttered.

She smirked, hitting him lightly on the shoulder. “Yes, maybe I should. It was your fault, after all… But if it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else. And that someone else might have killed Wesley for coming after me, or killed me instead of helping me escape. In my mind, that means we’re even.”

256 gave her a small grin. “That’s not very like you, Carey. I thought you’d hold a grudge against me until the day I die. And I still think you should, by the way.”

She shrugged. “Well, maybe I’ve matured a bit since then.”

A shout from upstairs reminded her of what she was supposed to be doing. He’s Gifted… We’re supposed to be enemies, we’re supposed to be fighting.

“What do we do now?” she muttered. “I don’t want to fight you…”

“Neither do I,” 256 admitted, shuffling his feet slightly.

His eyes lit up suddenly, like he’d had an idea. “Hey, turn yourself invisible.”

Carey raised an eyebrow, but she did as he asked.

“See, now I can’t see you,” he said. “I can’t fight someone I haven’t seen, even if they’re a rebel.”

“That’s the dumbest excuse I’ve ever heard.”

“No one’s here. They’ll never know. We’ll – we’ll just continue as if we never saw each other. At least, for now.”

Carey opened her mouth to respond, but she stopped as she heard footsteps coming from inside.

“Someone’s coming,” she whispered. Quickly, she grabbed his hand and turned them both invisible just as the door burst open.

“805?” she heard 256 whisper as the Gifted man caught his breath on the steps for a second. He looks so familiar…

They both stood rooted to the spot as he glanced back inside, standing up straight suddenly and sprinting into the village.

“Come back, you coward!”

Samantha burst through the door and ran after the Gifted man, her sword drawn and her long black hair spread all around her. Janelle followed her soon after, yelling at Samantha to stop.

They reappeared as Carey lost her concentration, staring after the man in disbelief. Don’t tell me he’s – no, he must be… Why else would she act like that?

“805… I have to help him,” 256 let go of her hand finally, staring after them.

“256, don’t,” she said quickly. “I know Samantha, and she’s – you don’t want to get in her way.”

He shook his head. “I have to.”

Carey bit her lip. She knew there was no point arguing when he looked so determined. She reached out and hugged him close. “Promise me you won’t die.”

“I promise,” he said, his voice muffled. “Promise me you won’t either.”

She smirked. “I won’t.”

She paused, releasing him. For some reason, his face was bright red.

“C – Carey , I –“ he stammered, swallowing. He avoided her gaze, his mop of black hair falling in his eyes again.

“What?” she asked. Why is he acting so weird?

“I – I really like –“

“Like what?”

He turned even redder, if such a thing were possible.

“Shoes,” he mumbled, staring down at his own. “I really like shoes.”

“That’s nice to know,” Carey said, smirking. She glanced towards the Gifted house. Will and Anna are inside all alone… I should help them.

“I’d better go,” she said.

“Yeah, me too…”

“See you later,” Carey said, waving awkwardly.

“See you,” he mumbled, before turning and running after them.

She watched him leave, a sinking feeling in her stomach. He promised… I have to help the others, Janelle and Samantha have left them all alone in there.

With that in mind, she turned herself invisible once more and ascended the steps into the Gifted house.

“Will, Anna?” she said as she opened the door, but there was no reply.

She crept inside, taking care not to knock anything as she wandered through the house, invisible.

She gasped as she found the dead body of a Gift of Air in one of the rooms of the first floor. They were slumped to the ground, their neck split open. Carey gulped, turning away. Samantha or Janelle must have killed them, I guess…

She hurried to the second floor, entering the room she’d found the Gifted in earlier that day.

“Will, Anna, no…”

The bodies of their fallen comrades were lying on the floor, large wounds decorating their abdomens. A stab went through her heart, even though they’d never really spoken to her. They both seemed like good people… I – I guess the Gifted must have killed them before Sam and Janelle could stop them.

She supposed there was nothing she could do. The house appeared to be empty, and Samantha and Janelle had gone chasing after the Gifted man.

I should go back to where Marvin and the others are waiting…

Carey turned herself visible again, running down the steps and into the main corridor.

“Who are you?”

A Gifted woman stood in the doorway, her blue eyes narrowed as she stared at the girl in front of her. She held her hands out, a spear of ice forming between them. Carey stood completely still, her feet frozen to the floor.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” the woman said, cocking her arm back. “I’ll just have to kill you instead.”

40: Love and Hate
Love and Hate

A note: I have added a short sequence to the end of the previous chapter. To understand what’s happening in this chapter and the next, you should probably go back and read it :-)

Janelle pushed through the crowds, straining her neck to see over the villagers. Most appeared to be heading for the other side of the village, where the factory was. Reagan and Carey must have caused quite a commotion… I – I hope they’re okay.

She bit her lip. They hadn’t meant to start a riot, but she supposed she should have seen it coming. After all, two of the Gifted guarding the village were dead and the third was currently being chased by a long-lost relative, meaning there was no one to keep order. But when the Gifted send reinforcements, this village will be under scrutiny. Have – have I just condemned all its residents?

“No,” she muttered to herself. Surely the Gifted wouldn’t destroy the whole town. They’d increase security, surely, but killing all of the residents would just disadvantage them. Those that disobeyed, though… They’ll be killed for sure if they can’t get away.

 She’d instructed Reagan and Carey to supervise their other allies, and then go back to the Gifted house to help her, Samantha, Will and Anna defend them from the Gifted. But when they arrived, if they arrived, they’d find the dead bodies of Will, Anna and the two Gifted Janelle and Samantha had killed. She knew this was a bad idea, she and Samantha really needed to be there to meet them and explain what had happened.

I guess I have no choice… There’s nothing I could have done to stop her from chasing after him. Once she sets her mind to something, there’s no changing it.

Janelle continued to run through the village, almost tripping over a strange patch of grass in the middle of the road. She stared at it for a moment, confused. Why was there a large patch of grass growing in the crack in the pavement? Still, she didn’t have time to ponder it, continuing her search.

It’s a good thing they’re so tall… That’ll make them easier to spot, but where would they have gone?

She wondered what Samantha would do if she caught up to him. Would she really kill her own father, or at least try to, as she highly doubted it would be an easy task? Janelle had a feeling that if she did kill him, she’d end up regretting it later.

She pushed her way through the crowds, eventually making it to the outskirts of the village. A large forest surrounded them, completely silent compared to the noise of the town behind them. Would they have left, or would he have tried to stay in the village?

“Janelle.”

She turned around quickly. Samantha sitting a few yards away, leaning against the wall of one of the cottages. She smiled slightly at her, but it was a sad smile.

Janelle ran over to her, relieved that she was safe.

“Sam, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she muttered, her long black hair falling in her face and concealing her eyes, which were slightly red.

Janelle squeezed her shoulder lightly. “You lost him?”

She swallowed, nodding.

“That’s – that’s probably for the best…”

“I suppose,” she said, her bottom lip quivering. “I – I’m sorry for running off and jeopardising our mission like that. I should've known better...”

“It’s okay, I understand. He’s the last Gifted left, anyway.”

She nodded, swallowing. “Should we go back to the others? I – I want to see if Tom’s okay…”

“Marvin’s with them,” she said quickly. When she gets back and realises Tom’s injured, she’ll just feel even worse… “He’ll be fine. We can stay here for a while, if you like. There’s no rush.”

She nodded, her long black hair falling in her eyes again. Janelle cleared her throat, wondering what to do. There wasn’t much she could say, really.

You know what the worst part is?” Samantha said, her voice cracking slightly.

Janelle sat down next to her, hugging her close. “What?”

Samantha swallowed, pushing her hair behind her ears. Janelle could see the tears welling in her eyes again, she seemed almost vulnerable. It was a stark contrast from her usual self.

“I – when I was young, all I wanted was for him to be there. I – I wanted to have a dad, like everyone else… I asked my mother about him, and she told me that he loved me very much and wished he could be here. And for those few years, I believed her.”

“But when I was older, I realised the truth. He didn’t love me, he didn’t love her. My mother only told me that so I’d feel better about being dumped by my own father.”

“Sam, you don’t –“

“If Amy ever asked you about her dad, what would you tell her?” she interrupted, tears spilling down her cheeks.

Janelle hugged her closer, stroking her hair softly. “I’d – I’d tell her that her that he loved her.”

“Even if it were a lie?”

Janelle nodded. “Of course. It’s better than her knowing the truth. That he dumped me and her because he didn’t care about either of us.”

She paused, sighing. “That’s what a parent does. They put on a happy face even if they’re hurting inside. I’m sure that’s what your mother did too. But you heard him, Sam. He said he didn’t know about you.”

“Well, obviously he was lying,” she said bitterly. “Why wouldn’t Mum have told him? He was just trying to save himself.”

“He seemed pretty serious to me. And you never know, she might not have known about you when he left. And if she did, well…”

Janelle didn’t want to point out the obvious, but it had to be done. “He’s Gifted, Sam.”

“I did notice that, believe it or not.”

“But can’t you see how that complicates things?”

“Why should it?” she said, pulling away from her and raising an eyebrow as if daring Janelle to contradict her.

Janelle resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She’s just being stubborn now.

Samantha watched her carefully.

“Why are you defending him anyway?” she demanded. “He tried to kill you before!”

“Well, yeah,” Janelle admitted. “But to be fair, I would have killed him too if I’d had the chance.”

Why am I defending him? Janelle didn’t know why, really. After what had happened to her, shouldn’t she be more cynical?

 No, I’m the opposite of cynical… I have to believe that not everyone is like Alex. Otherwise, I’ll be lost.

“I – I just think you should listen to him before you judge him completely,” she heard herself saying.

She gave a harsh laugh. “Well, I can’t do that, can I? He ran away. What a coward…”

Samantha stood up suddenly, pushing Janelle over as she did so. She re-sheathed her sword, running her hands through her thick hair. “Let’s go back now. My brother is the only real family I have left, and I want to see if he’s okay.”

She strode back towards the village, Janelle following close behind. She hoped Samantha wouldn’t freak out too much when she saw her brother was injured. Janelle remembered the sight of his finger after he’d used his powers – it was twisted, grotesque looking, and covered in his blood. She’s not going to be happy if Marvin had to amputate it…

Her thoughts turned to Reagan and Carey. Had they been successful? After all, the whole reason they’d come to this village in the first place was to steal those weapons. Janelle hoped they’d made it back to Marvin safely. They – they shouldn’t have run into any Gifted… They’ll be fine.

However, even though she continued to reassure herself that they were alright, her heart became heavier and heavier with every step she took.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

256 ran through the village, soon losing sight of the two women and 805 as they ran through the crowd. He cursed his short stature, it was almost impossible to see anything over the crowd when nearly everyone was about a head taller than him.

What do I do now?

He stopped for a moment, staring down at his feet as he pondered what to do next. However, he soon discovered this probably wasn’t his best idea. 256 found himself reminded of his recent embarrassing behaviour.

Shoes… Really, shoes?

He groaned, holding his head in his hands. I’m so uncool…

Still, at least he’d managed to stop himself before blurting it out. He’d been so nervous, so caught up in the moment, he’d nearly ruined everything. When she’d hugged him, his heart had felt like it was going to leap out of his chest.

I’m Gifted, I shouldn’t be thinking like this… I have to forget how I feel, that is the only way I can do my duty. I don’t care, I don’t care at all…

But he was slowly realising that excuse wasn’t working for him anymore. Without the Gifted, he was nothing, like they’d always told him… But still, she had said she didn’t blame him for what had happened. If Carey thought of him as a friend, didn’t that make him someone beyond his Gift?

“Shut up,” he muttered to himself. “I have to find 805, I need to help him…”

256 wondered why he’d run away like that. He’d only seen him for a brief moment, but when he’d looked back inside he’d seemed almost frightened, like a completely different person. 805 isn’t the type to run away from a fight… What could have happened to make him react that way?

256 ran through the village streets, pushing his way through the crowds. It was strange, before he’d struggled to find anyone when searching the town just half an hour before, but now people were everywhere – running in all directions, shouting, screaming… It was total chaos.

How am I going to find him like this?

It was then he spotted it – a small patch of grass, growing in the middle of the crowded street before his eyes. 256 pushed his way towards it, crouching down and examining the small circle of plants. It grew quickly, the blades almost reaching his ankles.

256 frowned as he stared at it. How could it still be growing, when 805 wasn’t there? He picked a blade, almost dropping it when he noticed that the roots where stained with red.

Blood… That’s his blood!

He stood up quickly, noticing another patch a few feet away. 256 hurried to it, following the small patches through the crowd. He found himself being pushed and shoved, people yelling out rude things to him as he passed.

One man grabbed him by the wrist, twisting his arm behind his back.

“Let go of me, please,” 256 said, pulling away, but the man’s grip was strong. I don’t want to hurt him, but…

He forced 256’s hands behind his back, pulling him over to a group of men. 256 struggled against him, but he was reluctant to fight. Something tells me I need to save my strength…

He gulped as the three men stared at him, their eyes narrowed and cold.

“Should we kill him to make a statement?” one said, his blue eyes icy as he surveyed the Gifted boy.

His companions exchanged glances. “He’s only a young one…”

“Does it matter?” he argued. “You know what he’ll be like when he’s –“

I guess I have no choice… 256 took his chance while they were distracted, starting a small fire on the man’s hand. He yelped, letting go, allowing him the chance to knee him swiftly between the legs. He ran while his attacker fell to the floor, groaning.

256 continued on his way, hurrying through the crowds. It’s dangerous for me to be out here. Even with my Gift and training, if there had been any more of them they could’ve killed me, or worse…

But he knew he had to find 805 first. 256 began following the patches again until he could see no more. Biting his lip, he wondered what to do next. He must be somewhere nearby…

He glanced around. He knew 805 would probably have kept out of sight. The two women were nowhere to be seen, meaning he’d either escaped or they’d killed him and left him to die. No, he can’t be dead. 805’s too strong for that.

As if to prove his point, he finally spotted someone standing in an alleyway nearby, their face hidden by shadow. But even from this distance 256 could see a large patch of grass growing beneath their feet.

He crept closer so he could see them better. 805 was leaning against the wall and breathing heavily, like he’d been running, blood dripping from his right arm. His wound, it reopened….

He twirled one of his knifes in his left hand, pressing it into his palm so hard it drew blood.

“805!” he ran to him, wrenching the knife away from him. 805 tensed as he did so, his right hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

“It’s just you,” he said, relaxing. However, his eyebrows were knotted and his grey eyes had a slight redness to them, like he’d been crying.

“Are you okay?” he asked, a little hesitant.

“I’m fine,” he said quietly, but they both knew it was a lie.

Should I ask him what happened? Probably not, when he looks like that…

“What do you want, 256?”

“I wanted to see if you were okay. Those women were chasing you, and…”

His voice trailed off.

“I – I should dress that wound for you,” he muttered, gesturing to the large patch of blood spreading across his right shoulder. As the liquid dripped down his arm and onto the ground, the grass grew higher, almost reaching his knees.

“It’s fine,” 805 said again, jerking away from him as he reached to roll up his sleeve.

“But it’ll get infected if you don’t.”

“I’ll fix it up myself later. I don’t need your help.”

805 walked away, peeking around the corner of the alleyway and stepping out into the street.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered.

“But you can’t leave now!” 256 said, incredulous. “We have a mission, 805. You’re our leader, you can’t just leave. The Gifted, they’ll punish you. Kill you, even.”

He snorted. “I’d like to see them try. And I don’t care, anyway.”

805 pushed him aside, almost knocking him over and continuing on his way. 256 steadied himself, pushing through the crowds towards his retreating back.

I have to stop him!

“Wait!” he said, grabbing his arm.

“Let go,” 805 said, his grey eyes cold. “There is somewhere I must go, and you can’t stop me. I will use force if I have to.”

“At – at least tell me where you’re going,” he muttered.

He sighed. “It’s best you don’t know, 256.”

“You’re – you’re going to find her, aren’t you?” he asked, shuffling his feet. They’d attracted a crowd of villagers, probably wondering why two Gifted were standing in a crowd of an unsettled village without doing anything to stop them.

“Come here,” 805 muttered, pulling him back into the alleyway. He looked around, making sure it was empty before continuing.

“Yes, I am,” he said quietly. “I am sorry, 256… But this is something I must do.”

“But why now? You haven’t seen her for a long time, so why are you going now?”

 “Because it is something I must do.”

“That’s not a –“

“I have to go. I just have to."

805 fidgeted, picking at his fingernails. What's wrong with him? Why is he acting so...

"You - you still can't go," 256 said.

“And you can’t stop me," he said quietly.

 I have to do something…

 Gritting his teeth, he swung his left arm back and punched 805 square in the jaw with all his strength, almost knocking him off his feet as he was caught off guard.

“Wh – what was that for?” he complained, staggering back and massaging his jaw while 256 tried to ignore the throbbing pain in his knuckles.

“Pull yourself together,” he demanded. “We’ve got a job to do, 805. You can’t just leave because you feel like it. At least help us here, then you can leave if you want. I won’t even try to stop you. But the other Gifted need our help, and it is our duty to do so!”

He bit his lip and stared straight into 805’s eyes, doing his best to seem intimidating, even though it was almost useless considering his size and childlike appearance. 805 stared straight back, his lips slowly curving into a smile. He laughed suddenly, reaching out to pat him on the head.

“I’m sorry, but if you’re trying to intimidate me it isn’t working,” he said, ruffling his hair.

256 moved out of the way, still glaring as best he could.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why you’re acting like this, but… You can’t just stop, that won’t solve anything. There are still people who need you. The other Gifted, they need you. You’re the strongest of all of us, and the most experienced.”

He shook his head. “No, there is nothing we can do here. The other Gifted are dead, I saw them before. 256, you need to find 3349 and head back to the Council. They will want to know what happened here, and you will need to tell them. Tell them that I died, or that the rebels took me captive.”

805 paused, shifting his feet. “Please, don’t tell them that I left. They may not know who she is, or where she is… But there are things I’ve done that they can find out about, if they search through the Council records and do a bit of investigating. And those things might lead them to her.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” 256 said. “But I still think –“

“You won’t change my mind. You and 3349 will probably get in a lot of trouble for this, but I can’t stay here.”

He swallowed, pushing his own hair back and out of his face. “I am sorry, 256. Just... promise me you won’t die."

“I – I promise,” 256 muttered. I know I've been defeated... “Good luck, 805.”

805 opened his mouth to say something, but he soon closed it once more. With one final nod at him, he slipped outside of the alleyway and out of site.

256 followed him outside, walking through the crowds in the opposite direction with a heavy heart. He hoped 3349 was nearby, he wasn’t in the mood to search all over the village for her, especially when it was full of people who probably wanted to kill them.

Although he was used to the nonGifted looking at him like this, the sheer number of them made him slightly melancholy. Some yelled at him, some pushed him, others just stared at him with more hate than he’d ever seen before. 256’s whole body felt numb as he mindlessly put one foot in front of the other and made his way through the village.

However, as he got closer to the Gifted house he found a lot of the nonGifted were turning around, running back in the direction he’d just came from, their yells and shouts filling the air. A low rumbling sound began to grow with intensity, finally capturing his attention.

What’s that?

He looked up, beginning to focus again. 256 could see the house up ahead, but something was wrong.

“Carey,” he muttered, breaking into a sprint. She was going in there before, wasn’t she? 3349’s found her, she’s going to –

 Water burst through one of the windows, but 256 gritted his teeth and ran forward until the flood crashed on top of him.

41: Fire and Water
Fire and Water

“I’ll just have to kill you instead.”

The woman threw her spear towards her. Instincts kicking in, she dropped to the ground, rolling away just as the weapon flew through the air where her head had been seconds previously.

The spear fell with a clatter to the ground. Carey ran to it, picking it up and brandishing it at the woman. Her hands ached as the ice stuck to her skin, but she held it out defiantly.

The woman laughed, another weapon appearing between her fingers. “You think you stand a chance against me? With my own weapon?”

Carey lunged towards her, flipping the spear over in her hands and defending a strike from her. Shards of ice flew through the air as the blades collided. Carey couldn’t hold onto the spear any longer, her finger turning blue from the cold weapon. She dropped it quickly and clumsily drew her sword.

The woman laughed slightly as Carey sent her the best death glare she could manage, pointing the blade in her direction.

“You have spirit, I’ll give you that,” she said, her voice calm, almost playful. Her cocky attitude just irritated Carey even further. “But do you really think that you can defeat me? You have no power, no Gift… You were not chosen, like I was. I don’t understand why you rebel against us. We are the rightful leaders –“

Carey stopped listening about halfway through her rant, focusing on one fact in particular. No Gift… Can’t she sense my power?

She remembered what the Leader had told her, on her very first day at the Council. He had said that the trace was often faint in those with the Gift of Stealth… Maybe it disappears completely after a while?

Before she could ponder this further the woman had lunged at her. Carey defended herself quickly before running into the room where she’d entered through the window just hours previously. She scrambled on top of the table below it and prepared herself to climb through.

However, before she could do so the room’s temperature dropped several degrees, and the window became glazed with ice. It filled the gap, sealing Carey off from the outside world. Damn it, I’m trapped…

“You still think you’ll make it out of this alive?” the woman said, another spear appearing between her hands as the doorway behind her glazed over. Ice spread from her feet, coating the floor. Carey struggled to stay upright as her boots gave way over the slippery surface.

But despite her unstable footing, Carey brandished her sword, her blue eyes narrowed defiantly.

“Of course I will,” she declared, an idea forming in her mind. The woman laughed again, lunging at her and swinging her spear through the air. Carey raised her sword to defend herself, and the ice shattered as it came into contact with the metal blade.

She turned herself invisible just as the woman landed next to her, swinging her broken weapon around for a second attack.

“Wait, where –“

Carey kicked her hard in the stomach, much to her opponent’s surprise. They both fell backwards, the Gifted woman from the force of her attack and Carey from slipping on the ice beneath her feet. She threw her hands out to save herself, shivering as her skin came into contact with the cold substance.

“But, how did you –“

The woman watched Carey as she reappeared in disbelief. “H – how?”

Her eyes widened suddenly, as if she’d remembered something. “That’s right… I – I heard the rumours, but – I never believed them.”

Fear flickered across her eyes momentarily, and Carey nodded in satisfaction. However, it disappeared quickly.

“You think you can scare me with that?” she hissed, her blue eyes flashing angrily. “You may be able to turn yourself invisible, but that won’t help you…”

She stood very still suddenly, her eyebrows knotting as she concentrated. Carey reached around for her sword, picking it up. She tried to stand up, but her feet kept slipping beneath the ice.

She could do nothing but watch as the room began to fill with water, coating her ankles, then her knees. Carey finally managed to stand up, fear rising within her as the water made its way up to her waist.

“What are you doing?” she said in her panic, turning herself invisible again. But it was no use, the water parted where her body was, giving away her location.

“Drowning you,” she said, her voice eerily calm.

Blood streamed from her nostrils as she continued to fill the room with water. Carey silently thanked her parents for teaching her to swim so she and Wesley could play in the river near their farm back home.

She began to tread water as it became too high for her to stand. Carey couldn’t see the woman anymore, although she could see a small patch of blood spreading from where she had been standing.

Carey took a deep breath and dived underneath. She was still there, a small patch of air surrounding her body. The woman coughed suddenly, spitting up blood, but her blue eyes shone icily as she continued to raise the water level.

Carey’s lungs began to hurt as she swam to the top, taking a deep breath. Her legs and arms were beginning to tire, and there was only half a foot between the top of the water and the ceiling.

The window…

She dived underneath as the room filled completely. Her eyes stung, but she knew she had to keep them open.

The window was still covered in a thin layer of ice, but the water was warm and she could see it slowly melting. Carey pressed against it with all the strength she could muster. She continued to push, and thankfully it started to crack slightly.

Just a little bit more, come on… But she was tired, so tired, and her limbs grew heavier with every movement.

I have to keep going... Her lungs screamed for air, and she opened her mouth instinctively to take a breath. Water filled her chest, and she could feel her heart racing painfully as she drowned.

Carey began to convulse, her body feeling like it was being stabbed by a million tiny knives. She closed her eyes, her consciousness slipping as her body was starved from air. A strange calmness began to fill her body. The pain was still there, but it was dull, like it was happening to someone else.

The window… She opened her weary eyes, somewhere in her foggy brain registering that the ice covering the window was cracked and becoming thinner every second.

Just one more…

Her vision began to blur as she mustered up all the strength left in her tired body, pushing as hard as she could against the thin layer between her and the outside world.

Her hand broke through as the ice finally shattered. Carey pushed through the window, falling to the ground with along with a wave of water. She coughed violently, water pouring from her mouth and onto the dirt outside.

“Carey, are you alright?” someone had their hand on her back, rubbing it as she retched. She couldn’t tell who it was at first, as her hearing was muffled and her vision cloudy. She limbs felt like jelly as she leant against them.

 Finally, she noticed it was 256 kneeling beside her. How did he get here? He was running after that man before…

“Are you alright?” he said again, his voice becoming clearer and more recognisable.

 “I’m okay,” she said finally, her voice hoarse.

 His large brown eyes met hers, and he gave her a small smile.

“Oh, Carey, I thought –“

256 hugged her close to him, his hands clasped in her hair. Carey reached out and patted him on the back as he trembled, her hand heavy.

“I thought she’d kill you,” he said, his voice breaking

“You don’t have much faith in me, do you?” Carey said, smirking as he spluttered in response. “I can look after myself sometimes, believe it or not. You’ve already saved my life twice. Sometimes a girl’s got to save herself, you know. It’s only fair.”

He laughed at that, hugging her so tight her face was squashed into his chest.

“Hey,” she complained. “I just survived one shortage of air, don’t make me go through another one.”

256 released her suddenly, his cheeks pink. “I’m sorry, I –“

He paused, clearing his throat.

You’re – you’re all wet,” he muttered, as if he’d just noticed.

“So are you,” she pointed out. His usual loose clothing was clinging tightly to his body, and she was sure hers was doing the same.

He mumbled something in response. “Here, I’ll make it better.”

The temperature rose around them, drying them both off somewhat. Carey smirked at the relieved smile on his face.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of water,” she said, still coughing slightly.

He avoided her gaze, blushing again. Carey rolled her eyes, but she smiled. Gritting her teeth, she used all of the strength she could muster to stand up, but her legs gave way beneath her.

“Stay here for a while,” 256 said, grasping her around the waist and softening her fall. He lowered her gently to the ground, and Carey was so dizzy she couldn’t muster up the energy to complain. “I’ll go and –“

“256, what are you doing?”

He stiffened suddenly, his smile vanishing.

The Gifted woman had emerged from the house, her eyes flashing angrily when she saw the two of them on the ground. A small trail of blood still flowed from her nostrils and she was panting heavily, but otherwise she looked no worse for wear.

“3349…” he said, hastily letting go of her and standing up. He stood completely still as she came closer, another spear poised between her hands.

“You were helping her?” she accused, shooting him an icy glare.

“I –“

“I knew you were soft-hearted, but helping her? Do you know what she is?”

“She’s –“

“She’s a rebel, 256. She’s the girl with the mysterious power that everyone was talking about last Assessment day. I didn’t believe the rumours, but –“

Her eyes widened as if she’d just thought of something. “Wait… She escaped from the Council. You were punished a few months ago, am I correct? 805 is supervising you for a reason… She is the reason, isn’t she?”

The woman laughed suddenly when she saw his face. “Gosh, you’re pathetic. Sorry, 256, but she’s a little out of your league, don’t you think?”

He said nothing, his expression almost unreadable. His eyes darted between the two of them, lingering on Carey for a moment longer. She stared back, gulping.

“This is the choice you have to make, isn’t it?” she said, her voice dangerously low. “The choice between the Gifted, your people… Or her, some girl who dumped you at her first chance to escape. You will never belong out there, 256. Without the Gifted, you are nothing.”

Carey watched him, biting her lip. What will he do?

Although she hated to admit it, Carey was in no position to defend herself from the Gifted woman at this present moment in time. She could barely stand, let alone turn herself invisible and run away.

I don’t want him to have to make that decision. If he chooses me, he’ll be abandoned by his own people… And if he chooses them, he’ll have to live with the guilt of my death for the rest of his days.

With all the strength she could muster, she began to crawl through the dirt. I have to run away, I have to.

“Stay with them, 256,” she said through gritted teeth, working her tired limbs as hard as she could. “It’s the right choice…”

“But then you’ll die,” he said, his voice breaking.

“No I won’t,” she lied. “She’ll have to find me first.”

She struggled to her feet, her limbs screaming beneath her. Carey ignored the pain, forcing one foot in front of the other. However, she only made it a few steps before her legs gave way beneath her again. He rushed over to catch her as she fell, but she shook him off, standing up once more.

“Carey, stop it,” he said. “You – you need to rest…”

“I can’t rest right now. I have to keep fighting. You’re not going to die because of me, and I don’t want you to have to make that decision…”

Carey stared back at him defiantly, daring him to contradict her.

“I’ve already made it,” he said quietly, reaching out and hugging her close. Carey stared at the Gifted woman over his head. She was watching them closely, an amused smirk decorating her face.

“I – I’m sorry for this,” he mumbled.

“What do you –“

256 pushed her suddenly, catching her off guard and knocking her off her feet. A giant wall of fire sprang up between them, closing her off from the two Gifted. Carey scrambled to her feet once more, but it was pointless. The fire was so thick she couldn’t even see through it, let alone pass through without getting severely burnt.

What do I do now?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

256 turned back to face 3349, satisfied that the fire ring would stop her from getting to Carey before she had a chance to escape. She’s used up a lot of her power already, with all that water… She’s not stupid enough to waste another load of energy to extinguish this, at least not while I’m around to keep it going.

“Run away, Carey,” he muttered under his breath. “This is my decision…”

“You know what this means, don’t you?” 3349 said, her voice surprisingly soft as she stared him down. “Without the Gifted, you are nothing.”

He nodded, turning to face her once more and assembling a fighting stance. “I know. But being nothing is better than being Cursed.”

She lunged towards him, swinging her spear through the air. 256 raised the temperature around them, and the blade melted before it could make contact.

She glared at him, reaching to her belt and whipping out her sword. I just have to delay her long enough for Carey to recover and escape…

“Why are you doing this?” she hissed. “I don’t understand you and 805. Why do you both insist on breaking the rules?”

She lunged at him again, but 256 managed to catch her sword between his fingers before it could go through his skull. His palms bled a little as the blade dug into him, but he soon kicked her in the stomach and pulled it from her, throwing it aside with a clatter.

She bent over, coughing. He stared into the fire wall he’d made while she was distracted, willing Carey to run away, to leave him alone… Even though he’d disarmed her, 3349 still had her Gift and could easily kill her in her weak state.

3349 stood up eventually, smirking slightly. “You just wasted an opportunity. Don’t you know you’re supposed to kill your opponent when they’re down? Oh wait, I forgot. You’re too weak to kill anyone.”

“I don’t want to kill you,” he said, his heart beginning to race. That’s right, if I – if I just manage to stall her long enough, Carey can get away… Besides, his words were the truth. “You’re – you’re a person, 3349. I’m sorry for the way we’ve treated you.”

Her eyebrows knotted. “I still don’t understand you… You’re apologizing to me, and yet at the same time you’re going to disobey the Gifted? You realise that if I leave you alone, if I don’t kill you, or her, you’re condemning me as well?”

“No, I’m not. I’m the only person who’ll know. Please, don’t kill her. Just let her escape, no one has to find out…”

“How can I trust you? You’re a traitor, and I don’t want to disobey the Gifted. I will kill you both, because that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

She paused, her bottom lip wobbling slightly.

“I don’t want to be nothing,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “Without the Gifted, we are nothing.  My trainer told me that every day, whenever I couldn’t do what he asked… He told me I was weak, that I wasn’t worth anything to anyone. And yet, all I ever wanted was to…”

Her voice trailed off. 256 walked towards her, reaching out and patting her on the shoulder. She looked at him for a moment, her blue eyes filled with tears.

“You’re not nothing, 3349,” he said. “You’re someone, I – I believe you’re someone.”

Her eyes hardened once more, as though the tears had never even been there. “Yes, I am someone. I am someone because of the Gifted. And this is my duty!”

3349 pushed him backwards, a spear of ice forming in between her hands. She thrust it towards him, but he melted it quickly like before.

“You think your fire can defeat me?” she hissed. “Water beats fire, remember?”

He rammed his foot into her stomach, catching his boot on fire as he did so. She staggered backwards, yelling out as the flames seared her skin.

“But fire beats ice,” he said as he scrambled on top of her, trapping her underneath him. He grasped around her throat. A niggling voice in the back of his mind told him it was too easy, but he ignored it. She had no weapon, and she couldn’t use her Gift to kill him directly as she didn’t have enough power left. Still, even if she doesn’t kill me, she could easily knock me out and use an ice weapon to kill Carey anyway…

“I have a duty too,” 256 said, his voice breaking as she struggled. “And that duty is to protect those I love… And – and Carey is the one I love.”

His words were more for himself than her. I do love her… I have to save her. And to save her, I have to kill 3349.

 He willed himself to choke her, to set her on fire, to do something.

Do it, 256, do it. If you don’t she’ll go back and kill Carey…

3349 laughed slightly. “Oh, 256… You should have killed me while you had the chance.”

She smiled as his grip slackened even further. “You know, you’re very easy to read. I knew you wouldn’t be able to kill me, like you didn’t kill that woman in the forest… 805 isn’t around to protect you this time, you know. And now, I have you exactly where I need you.”

“You - you have no weapon,” 256 said, sweat dripping down his forehead as he tried to make himself set her alight. He’d been in this position so many times now.

Just do it! She’ll kill Carey if you don’t! She’ll kill –

Pain shot through his abdomen.

- you, too…

256 glanced down, his eyes bulging as he saw a small knife protruding from his stomach. She pulled the dagger out and stabbed him again, a red, sticky substance spreading from it and staining the grey of his uniform.

 “And you’re naïve to think that I don’t carry two weapons with me,” she said quietly, twisting the knife further as he fell against her, his entire body numb. “I guess water does beat fire.”

It was only then he realised how much he didn’t want to die.

42: Gifted and nonGifted
Gifted and nonGifted

I guess I’ll have to try it…

“Thanks for the help,” Carey said, grinning guiltily at the villager she’d coerced into helping her. He nodded, before running away with a final glance at her sword. She felt bad for threatening him, but Carey had no choice. In her current condition she simply wasn’t strong enough to draw some water from the village well, which thankfully had only been short walk from the Gifted house.

Carey grabbed one of the buckets, struggling to lift it up and throwing it on the fire. The water steamed over, not even making a dent in the wall.

At least if the fire’s still blazing this strongly, that means he must be well enough to cast it.

Annoyance rose within her as she stood in front of the wall, contemplating her next move. Why was he like this? Carey had mostly recovered from her injuries now, although her limbs still ached and her strength hadn’t fully returned. But she was able to stand up and stay standing, at least. She could’ve helped him if he’d waited awhile, but instead he’d chosen to cut her out. He's to damn chivalrous for his own good...

 Suddenly, the fire began to dwindle. No… He – he’s probably just defeated her, that’s all…

She threw the second bucket on the fire, which managed to tame the flames long enough for her to hopefully jump through unharmed.

Gritting her teeth, Carey leapt through the hole she’d made, falling to the ground with a thud. She checked herself over quickly, breathing a sigh of relief when she discovered none of her body parts were burning.

“And you’re naïve to think that I don’t carry two weapons with me. I guess water does beat fire.”

“No…” she whispered when she saw them.

 256 was sitting on top of her, his hands clasped around her throat. But his brown eyes were bulging as the woman pulled a knife from his stomach, pushing him over onto his back and pressing the blade against his throat to finish him off.

“No!” Carey yelled, running towards her and throwing her off him. The woman rolled over, climbing to her feet quickly.

“Are you angry at me now?” she taunted, another spear appearing in her hands.

Carey didn’t reply, turning herself invisible and drawing her sword. Her limbs still ached and her headache only worsened as she used her power, but she didn’t care.

Carey ran towards her, brandishing her invisible weapon. This time it was different, this time she wasn’t tripping over her own feet. She knew exactly where she wanted her blade to be, and her lack of coordination wasn’t going to stop her from putting it there.

Carey raised her sword, shoving it through the woman’s heart without a second thought.  Her eyes bulged as the blade went through her chest, almost as if couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Carey twisted the sword further, the light leaving her eyes almost immediately as she toppled to the ground.

Carey dropped her blood-stained weapon to the floor with a clatter, reappearing and running to her friend’s side.

“No,” she said, her voice breaking when she saw him. A small trickle of blood dribbled from his mouth, his skin sickly pale.

She pressed her hand on his wound, shivering as she felt his hot, wet blood beneath her fingertips.

256 frowned, opening his eyes as she did so. His bloodshot brown eyes filled with tears when he saw her.

“Carey,” he breathed, his lips stretched in a small smile. “You’re alive… I – I’m glad…”

He coughed, more blood dribbling down his lip.

“You’re going to be okay,” she said, her voice breaking. “You can’t die, I won’t let you!”

She ripped off a part of her sleeve frantically, pressing it onto the wound. But it was no use, the blood soaked straight through. Still she kept it there, pushing harder.

“Help!” she yelled. “S – Somebody, please! He’s – he’s –“

People were running past, yelling, pulling children along behind them… But no one paid attention to her, no one stopped to help her save her friend. He was still awake, his breathing getting shorter and shorter.

“No,” she stammered as his blood continued to stain her hands.

She took his hand and placed it on the small bundle of cloth pressed against his abdomen. He held onto it, but he was far too weak to keep the pressure there while she ran off to find Marvin.

“Somebody,” she yelled, tears streaming down her cheeks, but no one paid her any attention. Most simply looked down at him again, shaking their heads. Because he’s Gifted, they won’t help him… If he wasn’t wearing that uniform, they would in a heartbeat, but…

“Here,” someone placed a hand on her shoulder.

She looked up for a moment, her vision blurry from her tears. He gave her a small smile, taking the cloth from her and pressing it against his wound. “G - Go find a doctor. I’ll stay with him.”

It’s him…

She’d only seen him for a second, but it was obvious. He was the man she’d seen Samantha chasing before. Carey watched him, momentarily dumbfounded.

“Who are you?” she asked, even though she knew the answer. He’s Sam’s father, the one who abandoned her. He must’ve seen the smoke and run over…

The man ignored her question, staring at the woman she’d just killed.

“Did you do that?” he asked.

Carey nodded, biting her lip. She opened her mouth to explain what happen, but no words came out. However, it didn’t matter. The man sighed, shaking his head as he lifted her friend’s legs onto his lap.

“I told him his naivety would get him into trouble,” he said quietly. “I suppose I was right, wasn’t I?”

He pressed his spare palm onto 256’s wound, muttering under his breath. Carey reached out to help, but he shook his head, his grey eyes boring into her.

“Carey, go find a doctor. You know where one is, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, his words seeping through the fog that was her brain. “But how do you know my name?”

“That’s not important,” he said, gesturing to 256. “Go and find a doctor. Otherwise, he’ll die for sure. I’ll look after him, I promise.”

Carey nodded, gulping. Although she was reluctant, she supposed she had no choice but to trust him. If I don’t do anything, 256 will die… With that in mind, she sprinted off to where Marvin was waiting.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Janelle took a deep breath and opened the door. She and Samantha had walked in silence until they’d reached the house they’d hidden in before their mission began. Janelle watched her in the corner of her eye, gulping. She’s already had a lot to deal with today, when she finds out Thomas is injured she’ll be devastated.

“You’re back,” Reagan said as he opened the door, his hazel eyes fixed on Janelle. He smiled at her, ignoring the death glare Samantha shot his way.

“Reagan,” Janelle said, relief washing over her. “You’re – wait, what happened?”

She grabbed his hands, which were covered in blood. She noticed his ankle was bandaged as well, as if he’d broken it.

“It’s not my blood,” he muttered, exchanging a glance with Samantha. She stiffened, pushing past them both and running inside.

“Is he okay?” she asked, still holding his hands.

“He’s alive,” Reagan said. “But Marvin said there was no choice but to amputate. We only – we only just finished then, that’s why my hands are still…”

Janelle nodded, gulping. She helped him as they made their way over to the other room, neither saying a word.

Samantha was sitting at Thomas’ bed side, squeezing his bandaged but still whole left hand. He didn’t react, mumbling under his breath as he slept. Janelle bit her lip when she saw his right arm – the bandages covered it completely, ending in a stump. His whole hand… I knew his finger was destroyed, but the whole thing…

“I fixed him up as best I could,” Marvin said quietly. He was still packing up his tools. “But His right hand… I couldn’t save it, it’s too badly damaged.”

He paused. “I gave him something to dull the pain. I don’t have a large supply with me, though, and what I do have isn’t very effective.”

“I – I shouldn’t have let him do this…”

“It was his choice, Sam. You wouldn’t have been able to stop him.”

She shook her head, tears dribbling down her cheeks. “I – I should have gone back with him. I should have been here, he’s – he’s my brother.”

“Come on,” Janelle muttered, motioning to Reagan and Marvin. “Let’s leave them alone.”

He thrust a flask into Reagan’s hands once they’d closed the door behind them. “Thanks a lot for the help."

“It’s fine,” Reagan muttered. He accepted the flask, going outside to clean the blood off. Janelle followed him, and he seemed almost dazed as he poured the water into a bucket and began scrubbing.

“Are you okay?” Janelle asked. She knew it was a dumb question, as he clearly was not okay with the fact he’d just helped to amputate someone’s hand.

“I – I’m okay. Just a little shaken, I guess. We didn’t have anything to sedate him very effectively with, so I – I had to hold him down while Marvin…”

He shivered as he dried his now clean hands.

Janelle reached out and squeezed his shoulder lightly. “You did what you had to do.”

“I know… But it’s going to be hard to get that out of my head for a while, you know?”

“Yeah. Still, I’m glad you’re okay,” Janelle muttered.

“I’m glad you’re okay too. You’ve been gone for ages, so I thought…”

He cleared his throat, avoiding her gaze.

“What happened to your ankle?”

“It’s not broken,” he said. “Marvin says he thinks I tore a ligament, whatever that is. I just nodded and went along with it. Is Carey with you?”

“No, she’s not.”

“After we left the factory and killed the Gifted there, we split up. She was going to go and help you, but I could barely walk so I came back here.”

“We must have missed her,” Janelle said, pausing. “Wait… You ran into the Gifted?”

He nodded, confused. “Yeah. Just one man, though. I assumed he’d gotten past you. I killed him, so he won’t be troubling us.”

Janelle nodded, gulping. She knew it was unlikely given the timing, but it was the last bit of hope she had.

“Were they tall and handsome with dark hair? Probably in their mid to late forties?”

He raised an eyebrow at her fairly detailed description. “No… “

“Damn it,” she muttered.

How could she be so careless? I should have realised that there was more than Carey thought when there were two Gifts of Earth instead of one… As if it would be that easy.

“I have to go,” she said quickly. “Carey, she’s in danger.”

“Jan –“

“I can’t leave her! She’s all alone, Reagan. What if there’s more than one, and she’s outnumbered?”

He smirked slightly. “I know that. I was going to say good luck.”

“Oh.”

“Well, good luck then.”

“Thanks,” she muttered, grinning.

He smiled down at her, running his hands through his fair hair. Janelle could feel herself flushing as she remembered that moment a few weeks ago, when they’d been alone in the forest. She could tell he was thinking of it too, as his face was as red as hers felt.

“Jan –“

“I should go,” she stammered, turning away.

 She soon forgot her embarrassment when she saw Carey running towards them, her long brown hair tangled and damp-looking. But what disturbed Janelle most was that her hands were covered in blood.

“Janelle!” she shouted as she approached, grabbing her arm and pulling her towards the house.

“Car –“

“You – you have to help me. Where’s Marvin? Something’s happened, I –“

“Carey, what is it?” she asked, grabbing the young girl by the shoulders.

“I –“ she swallowed, her eyes filling with tears. “Someone’s hurt. I – I promised I’d find a doctor…”

Janelle nodded. “We’ll help, don’t worry.”

 I wonder who’s hurt…

“I’ll go find him,” Carey said, rushing inside the house and dragging Marvin outside.

“What do you want?” he complained, shaking her off. “I shouldn’t leave here, Thomas –“

“There’s no time to explain,” she said hurriedly, grabbing him by the hand and pulling him through the village streets. Janelle muttered an apology to Reagan before running off after them.

Who could it be? All of their group were accounted for, and it had to be someone she knew for her to react that way. Maybe this is her home village… But then, isn’t Carey from one of the farming towns? Besides, she probably would have mentioned it.

She didn’t have to wait long to find out – Carey led them back towards the Gifted house, pushing through the crowds of villagers.

“He’s over there,” she said, her hand trembling slightly as she pointed. Janelle’s eyes fell on the boy lying on the ground. His skin was sickly pale and his dark hair plastered to his forehead. Is he even still alive?

Finally she noticed his uniform.

Gifted, he’s Gifted…

Janelle hung back as Marvin and Carey rushed to the boy’s side. He cursed rather loudly when he saw the state of him.

“Is he still breathing?” Carey stammered, crouching down next to the boy.

“Just.”

Janelle snapped out of her daze, her eyes falling on the speaker.

“You!” she blurted out, wondering how she hadn’t noticed him before. Samantha’s father almost jumped out of his skin when he heard her voice, nearly knocking Marvin over in the process as he was inspecting the boy’s wound.

“Hey,” Marvin complained, glaring at him. “Do you want him to live or not?”

“Forgive me,” the man muttered, glancing over at Janelle briefly. He almost seemed relieved as he looked away, probably because Samantha was not present.

“Janelle, can you go back to the house and get my tools?” Marvin asked, glancing over his shoulder. “Carey didn’t exactly give me much notice…”

Janelle nodded, gulping. She ran back towards the house. Should we really help him? He’s the enemy…

She knew it was a horrible thing to say, but it was true. The Gifted had killed so many of them at the Lake Village, they’d killed Will and Anna just hours ago.

This boy wasn’t like Carey, like Thomas. He didn’t just have the powers, like they did. He wore the uniform, he was one of them.  But still, her mind flashed back to him lying on the ground, his skin sickly pale and his abdomen stained red with his own blood. If that were someone I knew, if it were someone who was nonGifted, I would help them in a heartbeat. If I treat this boy any differently, then what does that make me? A hypocrite, that’s all.

Despite this, Janelle still felt uncertain. She didn’t like the idea of leaving this poor boy to die, but at the same time she couldn’t forget that he was one of them, one of the Gifted. What should I do?

Suddenly her mind flashed to Carey. She’d looked so upset, so frightened for the boy’s life… Janelle had never seen her like that before. He was obviously someone special to her. Carey is my friend, and he is someone she cares for… Even if he is Gifted, I have to help him.

She pushed through the crowds as fast as she could, her mind firmly made up.

43: Friends and Family
Friends and Family

Carey fidgeted uncomfortably, staring into her hands and trying to ignore the tension in the room.

Will he be okay?

They’d taken 256 back to the house once Marvin had deemed him stable enough. Now that he was safe and inside, the doctor had forbidden Carey and the Gifted man from helping as he continued to work on him. Instead Janelle and Reagan were to be his assistants. Carey supposed it made sense, in a way. After all, we’re the ones who know him… If – If things start to go wrong, we’ll just be in the way.

Even so, she wished she could be there. Not only because she wanted to help, Carey honestly just wished she could just get out of this room.

Poor Thomas…

He was lying in a bed on the other side of the room, his red hair bright against the pillows. He muttered under his breath occasionally, but at least he didn’t seem to be in as much pain as he had when they’d first arrived back at the house. Samantha sat beside him, stroking his left hand and determinately avoiding the gaze of the Gifted man sitting beside Carey. She had been less than pleased when he’d come back with them, but so far she’d held her tongue, which Carey was grateful for.

Still, she squirmed uncomfortably at the awkward silence in the room. In the corner of her eye, she watched the Gifted man. He was staring at Thomas, a strange look on his face.

“What’s your number?” she blurted out. Anything’s better than this silence…

“It’s 805,” the man said after a pause, glancing at Samantha briefly. She avoided his gaze, turning back to face her brother.

Carey nodded. “That’s a nice… number.”

805 shrugged, giving her a small smile before continuing to stare at Thomas. He was beginning to stir, frowning and fidgeting.

“Ugh…”

“Tom?” Samantha said, tears spilling from her eyes as her brother shifted underneath his blankets. He woke slowly, smiling when he saw his sister staring at him.

 “Sam… Don’t cry,” he said through gritted teeth, raising his right arm slowly to presumably wipe her tears again. It was only then that noticed what was missing.

“My hand…” he said as he stared at where his fingers should be.

“I – I’m sorry, Tom…” Samantha said, squeezing his other hand. “Marvin said it was necessary. Do you – do you remember anything?”

He smiled weakly at her, but it seemed like a grimace. “I remember nothing.”

Thomas coughed, sitting back on his pillows. He closed his eyes, screwing them shut as Samantha turned around to pour him a flask of water. He opened them quickly and did his best attempt at a smile as she faced him again, holding the cup to his lips. Carey watched them, trying not to cry.

“Marvin said you have to drink as much as you can,” she said quietly, pouring a little into his mouth. He swallowed it, nodding. “You – you lost a lot of blood…”

He patted her on the back with his left arm, taking the flask from her and drinking the rest himself. Samantha trembled slightly, clenching her fists in her lap.

“I’m sorry. I – I shouldn’t have let you –“

“It was my choice, Sam,” he interrupted. “It was going to happen eventually, anyway…”

He tore his eyes away from his sister, finally noticing the other two people in the room. His eyes lingered on 805 for a moment before he smiled at Carey.

 “I’m sorry Carey. I don’t think I’ll be making you a new sword anytime soon…”

He nodded towards her empty belt. Carey had almost forgotten she’d left her sword behind with the woman she’d killed. “It’s – it’s okay… We stole all those weapons anyway. I can just use one of those.”

He nodded, staring at 805 again. The older man coughed slightly, clearing his throat.

“I’m sorry about your hand,” he muttered. “I should have…”

His voice trailed off, fidgeting uncomfortably.

“So you’re the one, huh?” Thomas said. All three of them turned to look at him.

“You remember me?” 805 asked, glancing at Samantha who scowled. “How?”

Thomas shrugged. “No, I don’t. But you look so much like her –“ he nodded towards Samantha, “ – who else could you be?”

He paused. “Besides, I figured you were Gifted.”

“You could have told me that,” Samantha muttered.

Thomas shrugged. “I thought it was obvious. You don’t look like any of the other mountain villagers, Sam. The Gifted are the only people who really move between the villages. Still, it was only after Mum told me about the Assessor that didn’t take me away that I was certain. That was you, I assume?”

805 stared at his hands. “Yes it was.”              

“Thank you,” Thomas said, smiling at him. He mumbled in response.

“Why did you do it?” Samantha asked, her eyes narrowed.

He shifted uncomfortably. “I have my reasons.”

Carey raised her eyebrows, wondering why he wouldn’t just say what his reasons were, given the circumstances. She opened her mouth to question him further, but Samantha spoke before she had the chance.

“So was it some elaborate scheme of yours?" she said harshly. "Our mother was a beautiful woman, after all.”

805's eyebrows narrowed, and for the first time, he sounded defensive. “I don’t choose where the Gifted send me,” he said. “What, you think I was somehow able to predict that the mother of the child I was supposed to take away would be beautiful?”

“No, I’m saying you used the situation given to you for your advantage. When you returned you pretended to be this troubled bad boy with a hidden heart, and when she gave you what you wanted you left.”

Carey hissed under her breath, trying to maintain her temper. She glanced at Thomas, who was staring at his stump, prodding it with his thumb. Thomas just lost his hand, 256 is possibly dying, but they’re just…

805 shrugged, leaning back and folding his arms. “You can think that if you want. I don’t really care.”               

“Well, if you loved her, then why did you leave?” she demanded, her fist shaking. “Why did you –“

“Can you both shut up?” Carey snapped, her rational side finally losing the battle.

They stopped, momentarily speechless as they turned to stare at her. Carey fixed them with the best glare she could muster.

“If you’re going to argue, do it somewhere else,” she said coldly. “I – I don’t want to hear it, I – He’s dying.”

A lump began to form in her throat, but she clenched her fists and forced it down.

“Forgive me,” 805 muttered, averting his gaze. “You’re right, I’m sorry. Besides, I... I should leave now. It's been long enough as it is."

“Don’t you – don’t you want to see if 256 is okay?” Carey asked.

He sighed. “I do, but I can’t. Even if he’s survived his initial blood loss, it’ll be days, no, weeks before we know for certain he’s not going to die. And if I don’t leave soon, the Council will be suspicious.”

“You’re going back there?” she asked.

“Yes, I am. 256 was right, they need me. It was silly of me to try to…”

He stopped, clearing his throat. “Anyway, without the Gifted, I am nothing. That will never change.”

805 stood up again, adjusting his sword. He glanced over at Samantha again, but she had her back to him as she poured some more water for Thomas.

“Look after him, Carey,” he said quietly, patting her on the shoulder. “If he lives, will you do that for me?”

“Um… Okay,” she muttered, glancing at Samantha. She still had her back turned.

“Thank you.”

He left soon after, disappearing into the distance. Thomas, Samantha and Carey sat in silence again.

Carey stared at her hands, her thoughts once again turning to 256. Please, please let him be okay…

A few minutes later, the sound of footsteps filled the cottage. Carey, Samantha and Thomas all looked up as Janelle appeared in the doorway, Reagan close behind her.

“Thomas,” she said, smiling nervously. “You’re awake. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” he muttered, giving her a strained smile.

“How is he?” Carey blurted out as she scrambled to her feet.

“He’s – he’s still alive,” she reassured her.

Carey pushed past them, running up the stairs and bursting into his room.

“Carey…” Marvin said, holding a blood-stained cloth.

“Janelle said he’s alive,” she said breathlessly, her heart racing.

“Carey –“

She glanced over to where he was lying. He still looked quite ill, but she supposed that was natural given the amount of blood he’d lost.

“So he’s okay?” she said, grinning widely. “He’s going to wake up and be fine?”

“We don’t know that yet, it’s still too early.”

 “But he’s survived, hasn’t he? Won’t he just heal and –“

“Carey, it’s hard to say.”

Her smile faded when she saw the look on his face. Marvin sighed, giving her a sad smile. “You’re right. He’s survived this far, which is a good sign. But he has sustained quite serious organ damage, you must understand that. There’s nothing more I can do, he’ll either heal on his own or he won’t. Even if he lives, he’ll have to take precautions with his life.”

He paused, squeezing her shoulder lightly. “Carey, I know he’s your friend… But don’t get your hopes up too high. He’s survived the initial blood loss but that’s really only the first hurdle. There’s still infection, for one, and Gifts of Fire have a tendency to overheat themselves when their bodies are stressed. We can keep him dry and clean, but there’s not much else we can do.”

“No. He’ll live, I know he will. He – he has to live.”

If he dies, it’s my fault…

“Can you – can you leave us alone?” she asked, biting her lip and trying to stop the tears she felt building up from falling.

Marvin nodded. “Of course. If you need anything, just call.”

Carey waited until he was gone before pulling up a chair and sitting beside him.

“Hi,” she said, realising how stupid she sounded. He made no indication that he’d heard her, no sign of life at all aside from the slow rise and fall of his chest. At least it’s better than nothing…

She hated the way he looked. His skin was pale and ghostly looking, as though it had already given up on its owner. Even the clothes he was wearing looked weird on him.

Marvin appeared to have found some new, clean clothes for him to wear in one of the closets. Carey had never seen him wearing anything other than his uniform. Now she thought about it, he’d probably never worn anything different in his life. When she’d been in the Council she’d noticed they all wore the exact same uniform, even the children.

In fact, she realised she knew almost nothing about his childhood. He’d never spoken about it when she’d been at the Council. He’s my friend, and I know so little about his life before I knew him… But then, I haven’t told him much about my life either. One day I’ll – I’ll ask him. That’s right, she had to do things like that. She had to make plans, otherwise she’d given up.

His right hand peeked out from under the covers, limp and lifeless. She reached out and squeezed it gently. To her dismay, he showed no reaction.

His hand’s so warm… It’s much warmer than before, is he overheating himself already?

Carey shook her head. No, he wouldn’t die. He couldn’t die. She had to keep believing, even if everyone else had given up.

Her thoughts turned to the woman she’d killed. Carey shivered as she remembered, hardly believing it had been her who had killed her. When she’d killed 440, she’d been consumed with guilt for weeks, even though he’d been dying anyway. But up until now she’d felt nothing, no remorse, no pity… I didn’t even hesitate… I just shoved my sword straight through her heart without a second thought!

At the time, she’d simply wanted revenge. She was becoming a killer, and the worst part was that she didn’t even care.

I just want him to wake up…

“Please,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Please, will you do that for me? Will you wake up?”

Even though she knew he wouldn’t, Carey could feel the tears building up in her eyelids as his body remained still. He didn’t even twitch…

"I'm sorry," she said, stroking his lifeless fingers. "It's m - my fault you're like this... I couldn't save you. You saved me, twice, even... B - but when you needed to be saved, I wasn't there."

She knew she had to keep believing, she couldn’t give up. But as Carey laid her head down on the bed and closed her tired eyes to stop her tears from falling, she knew that was easier said than done.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Janelle went to sleep almost immediately that night, exhausted from the fighting and surgery helping she’d done. She, Reagan, and Marvin had no choice but to share the last and largest bed left in the house, as the Gifted boy and Thomas were currently occupying the other two while Carey and Samantha refused to leave them alone.

She woke early the next morning as the sun shone through the window. To her surprise there was still a decent amount of noise coming from outside. It won’t be long before the Gifted arrive… I guess they’re just enjoying freedom while they can.

Still, Janelle was worried. The Gifted were sure to arrive with reinforcements, and anyone engaging in unlawful behaviour were likely to be punished harshly. Did we just condemn this entire village? I hope not…

She slid out of bed, careful not to wake her companions. Janelle plodded along the hallway, deciding to visit the Gifted boy. Although she hadn’t really thought of it at the time, she’d realised how much help the boy could be to them if he lived. I – I don’t want to force him to tell us anything, but… Will it be necessary for our cause? Probably… 

Janelle opened the door to his room as quietly as she could. To her surprise, Carey was still inside, her head resting on the bed beside him. One of her hands was on top of his, curled around his fingers. She really does care about him… It’s strange, she’s never mentioned any friends she made in the Council.

Janelle sat down next to the boy, watching him carefully. Marvin had fixed him up the best he could, but there was only so far his medicine could go. Is his body strong enough to heal on his own?

Although he was rather petite, the boy was sufficiently muscular and didn’t seem frail despite his small stature. Janelle hoped that meant he was strong enough to pull through. After all, he wouldn’t be much use to them if he died. However, his skin was gaunt and pasty looking, the only sign of life the shallow rise and fall of his chest. Janelle knew it was best not to get her hopes up, really.

It was strange. She’d always seen the Gifted as these overbearing, intimidating enforcers of the law. But this boy looked barely over fifteen, or even younger, and not particularly intimidating. In fact, Janelle had a feeling she’d seen him somewhere before, although she couldn’t remember where.

What was strangest was how human he looked. Without his uniform, he looked no different from any of them. There was no way of knowing he had powers they didn’t. Janelle had to admit, she felt sorry for him. Carey had told her what had happened, or at least part of it. He was stabbed by his own people… I wonder why? What could he have done to make them betray him?

Her thoughts turned to her daughter. She wondered, as she often did, where she was. Janelle supposed she must be at the Council. She knew almost nothing about her, really, not even what she looked like. When she’d been a baby she’d had big blue eyes and tufts of red hair. I wonder if she looks like me or Alex… She had his eyes, but he was blonde.

Janelle didn’t even know what Gift she had. Perhaps she didn’t even know herself. She’d be a little over five years old, the age that Thomas’ Gift appeared. Maybe hers hasn’t appeared yet. Or maybe it has, who knows.

She wondered how it was possible to miss someone she didn’t know so much. Janelle had thought of her every day since she’d been taken away, wondering if she was okay. For all she knew, she could’ve died in infancy.

But although she thought of her so often, Janelle knew Amy probably never thought of her at all. She had no idea who she was, after all. She wouldn’t even know her name... She isn’t Amy anymore, she’ll have a number like the rest of them.

Did this boy ever think of his parents? Did he ever wonder where he’d come from? For all Janelle knew, the Gifted were told that they’d been given up willingly. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise her at all. If he lives, I’ll ask him.

There was a lot he could tell them, a lot he could contribute to their cause… But did he want to? The Gifted were his people, after all. They were the only life he’d ever known. If I find my daughter, will she even want to meet me? I don’t know…

Carey began to stir, distracting her. She sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes and stretching. She noticed Janelle staring at her from across his bed.

“What are you doing here?”

Janelle shrugged. “I thought I should come visit him. I mean, if he lives –“

“He will live.”

“Fine. When he wakes up, he could tell us a lot about the Gifted, you know?”

Carey gritted her teeth. “He’s not just someone who can help you with the revolution. He’s a person. What if he doesn’t want to help?”

Janelle raised an eyebrow. “Carey… I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but he is essentially our hostage. It might be morally wrong, but I can’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers.”

She crossed her hands in her lap. “We don’t have a choice. If we play nice forever, we’ll never manage to achieve our goal.”

“So what? You’ll just force information out of him?” she demanded, her eyes narrowed.

“No… I don’t know,” Janelle muttered. “I’ll think of something. But we won’t be cruel, I promise. I wouldn’t stoop that low.”

A loud shout from outside distracted them, both their heads turning towards the window. Janelle waked over to it and looked out, watching the villagers outside. After all that had happened, she’d almost forgotten why they came to this village in the first place – to steal weapons. That part of the mission had been successful, although their allies were still waiting for them at the sanctuary just outside the village.  Tomorrow I’ll have to send a few people to take them back to the brothel… It would be best if I could send Samantha, Reagan, and Carey, but they probably won’t want to go.

In her heart Janelle knew she’d have to send all three of them whether they liked it or not. The fewer that stayed here, the better. As she and Marvin had no choice but to remain, Janelle had to make them all go. She already had no idea how they were going to hide this boy and Thomas from the Gifted when they inevitably came to restore order in this village, and she needed them to be safe in case something went wrong. They’ll be annoyed at me, sure, but it’s my job. I’m the leader, and I have to do what’s best for the revolution. Even if my friends resent me for it.

She watched Carey as she stared out the window into the village below.

“I didn’t mean to start a riot,” Janelle said sheepishly. “I should have thought of that…”

Carey shrugged, avoiding her gaze. “Who knows, perhaps they’ll want to join us.”

Janelle nodded, ignoring the sarcasm in the girl’s voice. “Perhaps they will.”

Carey scowled at her, sitting back down next to the Gifted boy and taking his hand again. Janelle sat down on the opposite side, watching her carefully as she stroked his fingers. They sat in silence for a while, both lost in their own thoughts.

“Anyway, what are we going to do now?” Carey muttered. “The Gifted will be here soon…”

Janelle smiled. It was simple, really.

“We’ll keep on fighting.”

 

A Note: Thanks to everyone who read right to the end of this story! I hope it was enjoyable! :) I have now posted the sequel, Cursed, if anyone is interested in reading it :)