Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1964715-NIRIAN
by Takari
Rated: 13+ · Draft · Action/Adventure · #1964715
Dystopian, funny, witty, adventure/action. Will be a novel, but a work in progress.
These are the mountains where I live. They are dark, forbidding, and pretty much the last place you would ever want to be. Which, of course, is why I am here. The Variants are coming. Sooner or later, they will find me. And when they do, I've gotta get out of here. Fast. Because if they ever catch me, that will be the end. The end of life, the end of love, and, of course, the end of the world.

Okay, maybe I was being a bit melodramatic. Really, it would only be the end of my world; the rest of the world is a long lost cause. Ever since the Variants' rise to power nearly a hundred years ago, the world has been in ruin. I'm just one kid trying to survive among thousands. The Variants are determined to destroy my life quite a bit more than the others though-- I'm something of a fugitive.

A thunderous roar shakes the dark trees surrounding me. As their leaves float softly to the ground, I freeze. I spread my senses for any sign of life, any slight movements. A twig snaps, and something moves in the trees behind me. I feign obliviousness, moving slowly and casually towards the trees. A bush trembles, a tree sways. It's following me. I continue walking.

And then I run.

I move as fast as I can, sprinting for the trees. I try not to notice the branches and roots scraping at my body. It's as if the whole forest is trying to stop me. If The Variants have completed their latest development, it is a very real possibility. That would not be good.

A growl resonates throughout the wood and I hear trees toppling and bushes shaking. Definitely a Slicer. I was hoping I would have a bit more time before they found me. My powers would be of no use here; I was still drained. I did have one option... No, I can't do that, I chided myself. I vowed the second I heard about it that I would never, ever do it. It's far too dangerous.

I keep pushing forward, the sounds of pursuit increasing in volume. I raise my eyes to find an enormous felled tree blocking my path, and hurriedly leap over. My toe stubs the top of the tree, and for a moment I hang weightless in the air, my balance lost. I land with a thump in a bush. By the way, bushes are not comfy. Not even a little bit.

A heavy weight thuds on my chest. I gasp, my breath leaving me instantly. I slowly raise my eyes upward, already knowing what I am about to see. A giant, hairy, matted head, similar to that of a leopard, with huge slavering teeth and eerie red eyes glares at me. It isn't very pretty.

"Umm, nice kitty..." I say slowly, struggling to get its colossal forelegs off of me. It snarls, its tail lashing back and forth. It rears, suddenly upward, and time slows as my senses sharpen. I reach behind me and feel something round and rough. I grasp it desperately and thrust it over my body as the cat's paws crash violently downward. They hit the stick hard, splintering it instantly. My wrist twists to the side and I cry out, scrambling away from the cat, who's momentum was thrown when the branch broke.

I stumble to my feet, running for my life. Again. The Slicer roars, right on my heels. I know I can't outrun it. I'm beaten, and I have only one option left to me. I stop and clear my mind, blocking out the sound of the Slicer tearing through the forest towards me. Away, I think. I need to get away. I focus all my thoughts on leaving, disappearing without a trace, just as I was taught so long ago.

The trees around me, the Slicer inches away from me, even the sun; they all start fading into an impenetrable misty whiteness. There is no ground beneath my feet, no wind rustling the trees. The world is slipping away from me, and I feel myself losing my grip on consciousness. Just before I submit myself to the never-ending white whirling around me, an image pops into my mind- one I have never seen before, yet it seems to have an aura of safety about it. I am captivated by it, and it is the last thing I see before I lose consciousness completely.

Chapt. 2

I open my eyes and look upward hazily. A canopy of maple leaves are sprouting from thick, strong branches with sunlight filtering through them, dappling my face with patches of light. I sit up, wincing at the soreness that pains my arms as I do so. I notice that they are shaking, and I can't think straight. I groan and fall back onto the ground, suddenly consumed by a vicious headache. My head is pounding, and I feel nauseous. Thick blackness swims at the edge of my vision. I can't think through the thick curtain of my pain, but I remember that I had done something I hadn't meant to, that I was in danger. Pain surges across my shaking limbs like wildfire, and I stop thinking, feeling, even breathing. I lie on the ground, tears streaming down my face and dripping down my chin, until everything fades into a welcome darkness.

? ? ? ? ?

I hold my hands towards the warmth, looking into the burning embers of the dying fire. I estimate it has been about two hours since I first awoke, and I'm still regaining my strength. I have no idea where I am, just that I am in the heart of a large maple forest. I figure the pain from earlier was a consequence of my jumping; I knew it was supposed to hurt, but not as much as that. I stand up and stretch, wrapping a shawl that I had found lying under some leaves near a large tree tightly around my shoulders. I'm going to have to get my hands on some winter clothes soon; the chill is already frosting the mornings and icing my breath. The clothes I'm wearing currently are durable, but not particularly warm.

My plan is to leave the wood at dawn to check out my surroundings. Maybe I am near Kendor, as I have heard it has a forest similar to this. I wrap my shawl closer around my shoulders, shivering and moving closer to the glowing fire. The wind whistles through the trees and their leaves rustle, creating an eerie yet beautiful song. Despite all my troubles, I feel so... peaceful. It has been a while since I've felt so at ease. I lie back and look at the stars, twinkling above me like tiny silver chips of ice.

I slip a small band from my wrist and pin up my long auburn hair. Auburn doesn't really say the color- my hair is a golden-orange that shines in the sun and looks like fall leaves in the shadows. My bright green eyes seem to glow in the darkness. My mom always said it was beautiful- clear and layered, the color of leaves in the sunshine, just after a rainstorm. I feel tears beginning to prick at the edges of my eyes as I remember. It has been seven years since the Variants took my family. My freedom. My life. Memories of that night haunt me constantly, and I am wracked with guilt with each passing. Mom never did anything wrong. It's my fault she was taken. If I didn't have my powers, if I had done something-- anything-- maybe I could have changed what happened. But it's too late now.

I remember that night so vividly now... Sitting on the simple wooden porch, eating soup and staring at the stars, just like I was doing now. Like I had once done every night. Dad would make cheesy jokes, making us laugh as we sat together in the warm summer night. It was a simple life, but we loved it, and cherished each moment. Then everything changed.

"Bedtime, Amarie!" My mom's words echo in my mind, and the flashback surges in, faster than I can stop.

"It's still light outside! Can't daddy just tell one more story?"

My mother heaves a good-natured sigh. "... Alright. Come get in bed first. And only one, Amarie. Your father's leaving tomorrow."

I squeal in delight, giggling and running towards my small bedroom, waving my arms wildly.

"Story time, Daddy! Do the one about the princess! Please?" I careen around the corner into my bedroom, jumping onto the bed with a yelp. The fluffy, cream-colored bed sheets puff up around me, making a little nest. He walks around the corner, a satisfied grin lighting up his bronzed face.

"Well of course we should do the one about the princess! What more fitting for the little princess of my own?" I giggle, twisting in my comfy seat. He walks over and sits on the bed next to me, sending a cloud of dust floating through the air. He takes a deep breath and begins.

"Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lived deep in the heart of an ancient oak, which was so large you could fit a house inside. The oak had been the home of royalty for eons, until one day-"

"This is my favorite part!" I jump up and down in anticipation. He turns to me, smiling warmly.

"If it's your favorite, you'd better not interrupt!" He picks me up and twirls me around in the air. I spread out my arms.

"I'm a bird, daddy!" He laughs and scoops me up, holding me close.

"You're my bird," He says. "And I am never, ever gonna-"his words are cut short by a deafening crash, and the warm smile is instantly gone from his face. Quickly, he sets me down and pulls up a false panel in the floor, lowering me into it before I have a chance to scream. Then he leans down, taking my face in his hands.

"Amarie, you need to be quiet now, okay sweetie? You need to stay here. Promise?"

I nod stiffly, confused.

" Mommy and I love you so much. Don't ever forget that. Don't ever forget me." And then the false panel slides back into place and I am plunged into darkness. I shiver, wrapping my tiny arms around my knees, shuddering violently in the dark. I hear thudding footsteps, and then a voice.

"Where's the child?" A deep male voice booms across the house, and I make myself small, holding my breath.

"Gone," My mother's voice, shaky and thin. "She ran off into the woods. You'll not find her, not ever again." Silence reverberates throughout the house.

"Search the house! We must have the girl," I jump at the man's sudden shout, and I freeze up in terror. I hear boots thudding quickly through the small hut, closer to my room. I suck in air desperately, terrified and confused. The footsteps boom above my head. They stop for a moment, and I hold my breath, shaking. The air trembles with tension.

Thud. I gasp, scrambling as far away from the noise as I can. Thud. I release my breath, my heartbeat returning to normal. The sound of heavy boots, clomping out of the room.

"She's not here," A male voice calls, deep and gruff. Silence for a moment. Then-

"Where is she?" The new voice echoes throughout the house, fiery and demanding. "You, woman. The little girl. You must know where she is."

"Maybe," My mother's voice, shaky but strong. "But I'll not be telling you." I can picture her, strands of red-brown hair dangling from her braid, green eyes hard and defiant.

"Doubtful," the voice replies, arrogant and smooth. Footsteps shift. "Kill the man," He says decisively.

Mom's piercing shriek resounds hauntingly through the house, but it can't drown out the smooth hiss of the sword slicing through the air, or the pained grunt as my father falls to the ground. Tears trickle down my face and I gasp desperately for air, trying not to make noise but unable to breathe through my shock. As the noise dies down, a voice cuts through my moms' cries.

"Take the woman. She'll soon tell us all we need to know," declares the the man. Chains clink and footsteps thud as the men leave, taking my life with them. I sniffle as I stand, pushing aside the floorboard and crumpling to the ground. I sob, shivering as the wind whips my hair. I try to move but I can't, too numb from shock. I stumble blindly across the room, the blunt wood scratching my feet.

"Mom?" I call, my voice thin and wavery. "Daddy? Anyone?" The house is silent. The air smells of ash and night, and I cough weakly. I lift my small hand to my cheek, wiping away a tear. I stagger forward, fear and grief driving me to action. I decide to run, jumping out the window and running into the woods with stiff movements. A tear drips gently down my cheek and I collapse, settling into a pile of leaves. I sniffle, and blackness crowds the edge of my vision. I'm falling, down into the blackness...

Crack. I gasp, jolting out of my dream. My mind is so blurry, filled with whirling images. My mom's smiling face, the stars twinkling while I cuddle in the loving arms of my father, the way his eyes crinkle when he smiles, the love in his eyes as he lowers me into the floorboards, never to see me again. The man's cold voice as he orders his death, the hiss of the sword...

I shake my head violently, my auburn hair whipping my face. It was just a dream, I tell myself as the last streams of memory fade away, slipping into the back of my mind. I pant raggedly, sweat dripping from my forehead. The nightmare has been haunting me as far back as I can remember... since the day he died. I shrug off my small blanket and stand slowly, my legs sore and aching.

Pale smoke wafts upward from the grey ash of the once-fire, spiraling gently into the eggshell blue sky. I breathe in deeply, the sharpness of the cold air rushing through me. The sun filters through the pale green leaves, dappling the forest floor. Birdsong is in the air, echoing throughout the trees in joyous waves, and it smells of earth and sunshine. It lifts my spirits, and I smile as I stamp out the fire and pick up my few belongings. I shoulder my pack full of survival items, and stick my dagger in my boot. A light breeze lifts my hair, and whips it around my face. I begin walking, heading northward in hopes that I reach the edge of the woods. I don't know where I am; Jumping is highly unpredictable.

I stop to lean against a tree, fingering the wet moss clinging to its trunk. This is good; there must be water nearby. I stand up, changing direction to head into a wetter part of the forest. Soon a roaring sound fills my ears, and I pick up my pace, heading for a thicket of leafy vines and bushes, the sound of rushing water continuing to amplify. I shove aside some thin branches, squeezing through the thick underbrush. A twig snaps past my face, slashing my forehead. I cringe and press my fingers to my face, applying pressure to the stinging scratch. I look around, noticing some broad leaves near my foot. I stoop and pluck a few, noticing the faint lines of blood on my hand. I press the leaves to the cut, absorbing the blood.

I stand again and continue forward, a little more carefully this time. The brush clears out ahead, and I pick up my pace, jogging toward the opening. The roar of water pounds against my ears like drums. I press forward, peeling aside a loose branch and emerging into the open. I gasp in amazement as I step into a beautiful gorge, a huge waterfall cascading down the center. The little ravine is made mostly of dark stone, glistening with mist and water. Brightly colored foliage contrasts the shadowy rock, and a stream gurgling away from the waterfall bounces and splashes cheerily across the smooth ground. Small birds sing as they flit in and out of the rainbow steam.

         "This..." I breathe, "is perfect."

Chapt. 3

         The hammock dangles lazily, swaying gently as the mist rises around it. I climb up the slippery rock, the waterfall's rushing pounding in my ears. As I level with the thin fabric, I find a firm hold on the edge of the rock. As slowly as I can, I reach a foot out across the misty chasm, clinging to the mossy stone with one hand. My boot catches the edge, and I grasp the rock more tightly as I lean all the way over, catching the coarse rope in my hand. I tug it sharply, watching the stick I had used to peg one end of the hammock onto the rock. It holds. I take a deep breath, steadying myself. Whoosh. I leap into the air, grasping the rope desperately. My fingers begin to slide as I swing my legs upward, hooking my legs onto the flimsy cloth. I'm panting wildly now, sweat dripping down my forehead. I risk a glance down, starting at the sight. The waterfall gushes rapidly downward, crashing angrily to the ground. Sharp boulders jut out of the water menacingly, and foam writhes wildly around them, forming small whirlpools.

Deep breaths, I think to myself. Just get into the hammock. Everything will be fine. I fumble with the coarse ropes my legs cling to, my head spinning. My limbs ache from clinging to the hammock, and my top half is still dangling upside down by my legs. I wriggle desperately, and begin swaying from side to side. An idea forms as I dip back and forth, undulating like a fish out of water. The rock passes dangerously close to my head on both sides, and my arm bangs against the wall, breaking off a piece of stone. It sails downward, shattering to pieces against the sharp crags.

As I reach the arc of my swing, I tighten my midsection, heaving myself upright. I reach toward the hammock's edge, but as I swing downward I know I'm not going to make it. The violent backward swing shakes my aching legs from their grip, and suddenly I am weightless, with nothing to keep me from dropping to the sure death below.

Something green flashes before my eyes, and I lash outward desperately, skimming something soft and rubbery with my fingertips.  I tighten my grip on the tube-like object and halt abruptly, my arms jolted sharply upward. I sway slowly through the air, clinging to what I have found is one of the many vines hanging over the rocks' slippery edges. My toe bumps against something sharp and rough. I look down, my breath catching in surprise. My feet dangle centimeters from the tallest rock, steam swirling around my ankles.

I exhale a shuddering release of the air I'd been unconsciously holding in. I gaze towards the nearest edge of rock, swaying gently above the mist. It's only about three feet away. Tentatively, I pry one of my shaking hands from the rope, reaching out as far as I dare. My fingertips brush the outermost edge, but I am unable to find purchase on the rock, which is slick with moss and water droplets. I swing the vine forward a little, swaying precariously forward. As the stone ledge draws near, I lunge for it, throwing my arms over the top and tightening my legs around the rock. The vine falls away and I heave myself upward, throwing my legs over the side.

I lean against the rock, taking a few moments to catch my breath and, consequentially, think about how ridiculous the entire situation is. I have enough to deal with already, and here I am, almost dying just trying to get to sleep at night! With a sigh, I heave myself off the rock and begin climbing up the rocky wall until I reach my hammock. I unpin it from the cliff and climb back down to the ledge, too exhausted to make a proper bed on the ground. Using the hammock as a blanket, I curl up against the wall and am asleep before my eyes finish closing.

? ? ? ? ?

I am awakened by the sound of birdsong and rushing water. As my eyes blearily open, droplets of water falling from my lashes, a sparrow flutters to the ground next to me. I sit up, stretching my sore muscles while stifling a yawn. The sparrow eyes me quizzically, chirps loudly, and with a sudden flash of feathers, flies off. I scoot to the edge of my ledge, catching a little water in my palms from the rushing torrent, and splash it across my face. I scoop up my hammock-blanket and sling it over my shoulders, making a bag. After climbing down from the cliff side and tossing my food and few meager belongings into the make-shift bag, I set off in search of the forest's end, and food.

Two hours later, I am still walking, a few blueberries and some random herbs having been added to the bread and dried meat already in my sack. The sun is high in the sky, beating down on my back. I'm hopelessly lost, hot, and grumpy. I'm sick of this forest, and sick of living off of blueberries and weeds. The sooner I get to civilization, the better.

I sigh, moving to continue clomping forward when I hear it. The barely-audible footstep is soft and deliberate, hardly rustling the carpet of leaves on the ground. I freeze, then slowly, very slowly, sink into a crouch. It could be nothing more than a citizen of a small village nearby, out foraging, or perhaps even a deer. But it could just as easily be a Variant patrolman, and I can't take that chance.

After about five minutes, I relax, letting out a soft breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. I stand, reaching down to grab my bag-

Zing! A stream of blue-green light whizzes past my head, brushing my hair. Adrenaline jolts through me, and I go into autopilot, snatching my satchel and leaping over a log and into the open forest. I hear voices, shouting hoarsely behind me. I zigzag, aiming myself behind trees and jumping over rocks and brush as I run. Grass swishes around my ankles, and bushes tear at my legs. I am aware of more bolts of light speeding past, hitting the rocks and trees around me. I dash behind a tree, pulling a dagger from my boot and throwing it behind me in one fluid motion. I hear a cry of pain from behind and allow a quick grin. I'm getting better at my throwing skills.

As another light pops against the rock from which I've just leapt, I twist sideways in the air, confronted with the sight of six men hurtling through the trees after me, guns raised. My boots thud against the forest floor and I fly forward, weaving in between trees and jumping over rocks as the vibrant lights blaze around me.

The ground starts tilting gradually downward, and soon I am running across the side of a steep hill, making my gait uneven and twisting my ankles. I can see a vast tangle of brush dominating the gulley at the bottom from the corner of my vision, and angle myself upward, hoping to get on even ground, but while the hill’s steep slope is sending my pursuers stumbling as well, there’s also less trees and growth, and their shots are becoming increasingly accurate. I leap a bush, and as my feet strike the ground a burst of light hits my thigh with a thud and I go down, my vision spinning as I tumble down the slope, now nearly vertical. Grass whips my face and I cry out as my leg slams against a rock. My sense of direction is completely lost, everything a blur of arms and legs and growth, which pummels me as I crash against it. The heather and stones blend quickly to a blur of small branches and twigs that sting my skin as they whip by me.

Whump! My breath leaves me as my back knocks against the trunk of a small gnarled tree, and my frenzied descent stops abruptly. I gasp for air as I wait for my head to stop spinning, vaguely aware of shouts in the distance, which grow closer as the men carefully make their way down the hill after me. I clutch my bruised arms and try to ignore the sharp pain from my back. It won’t take more than five minutes at the most for the men to reach me, and I’m in no shape to fight them off.

I start to stand, but I can’t feel the leg that was shot and I immediately crumple. Gritting my teeth, I roll onto my stomach and begin dragging myself across the dirt and branches, my left leg dangling uselessly behind.

“Who are you?”

The voice floats softly from a clump of trees to my right and I start, scrambling away from the noise. I squint into the brush until I can make out a pair of clear blue eyes watching me cautiously, peering from a pale, dirty face. A few strands of whispy blonde hair fall across its forehead. I make up my mind to avoid contact and turn to run (well, crawl. Not that it’ll do me much good.) away, but as I do so, it speaks again.

“Wait,” It calls. The voice is gentle and decidedly feminine. I turn back and she hesitates, then suddenly her eyes lock on mine and I gasp, a jolt of energy bolting through my body. Everything I’ve been feeling, my fear, rage, and loss, suddenly surface violently, and I can’t move, all I can see is those eyes, intense and searching, locked on mine. At last, she looks away, and my body relaxes as I sag to the ground.

“I can help you,” she says. “But we need to hurry. Come on, follow me.”

She reaches out to grab my arm, but I jerk it away.

“Are you kidding me?” I growl incredulously, “I don’t know what you just did to me, but there is no way I’m going anywhere with you! Get away from me!” I reach down to grab my knife, then remember I lost it in the chase. The chase… I can hear their voices clearly now, only a few yards from the wood.

“…flew into those trees…no way she can walk…you got her leg, right?...keep the guns out…”

“Look, I’m sorry, but it’s the only way I could trust you,” the girl was saying. “Are you coming or not? ‘Cause you better believe I’m not gonna be sitting here risking my but for you when those men get here. I’ve got a plan, but you’ve gotta trust me.”

I consider my options, but there aren’t really any. If I try to get away, the Variants will undoubtedly catch me. There’s at least four of them on foot, and only one of me, crawling around on the ground. If I go with this girl, assuming she’s not lying, I just might make it out of this one without getting captured or killed. But if she is lying… The Variants have entered the wood now. I have to decide now.

Taking a deep breath, I reach out and grab the girl’s hand, and she pulls me into the bushes and throws my arm over her shoulder, half dragging me over to a small, almost invisible path.

“Alright. Let’s do this,” she says, then glances at me from the corner of her eye. “If we die over this, I am so killing you.”

With that, we hurry deep into the woods, the Variants close behind. Yep, this day is off to an awesome start.


(chapt. 4)

Two hours later, my strange new companion and I come to a breathless halt. In front of us, nearly invisible in all the foliage, lies a sturdy, rounded hut, made of woven branches and mud.

"I'm guessing this is where we stop?"

"Yep," the girl replies. "I think we lost 'em." She looks over at me, standing awkwardly with my still-dead leg. "Well, go on in, then. I'll start a fire once we're inside, and I suppose you can stay the night. After that, though, you're on your own. Got it?"

"Okay," I agree, too tired to argue. I lift a ratty quilt that serves as the door and duck inside. It's dim, so I can't see much, but I figure the girl will light a fire soon. She slips in after me with some dead grass and branches in her hand, which she tosses into a dip in the ground. Then she pulls something shiny and slim from her pocket and kneels next to the little hole, pressing it against the center. There's a little click, and then a flame leaps suddenly upward, illuminating the small room with a warm glow.

"A lighter!" I gasp, looking at the girl with surprise. "How'd someone living in the woods get a hold of that?" Suspicion creeps into my voice, but if she'd wanted to hurt me, surely she would have done so already. She notes my tone, though, and her voice is defensive as replies.

"My dad gave it to me." She opens her mouth, like she was going to say more, then closes it again. An awkward silence hangs heavily between us. I look around the room absently, noting a mound of old quilts that lie slumped in a corner, and a row of herbs and meats that sit neatly organized on the other end of hut.

"So..." I begin, not sure what exactly you say to some random stranger who saved your life for no apparent reason. "What's your name?"

"It's Arisse," she replies lightly, tucking a long blonde strand of hair behind her ears. "Yours?"

I hesitate. "... Kaia." She looks up at me with those piercing eyes, and a shiver runs down my back.

"No," she says bluntly. "It's not."

I start, looking at her in surprise. "... You're right," I admit. "It's... it's Emery. How'd you know?"

"I'm a feeler," she says, her eyes softening a little. She shrugs and adds, "That's what I did back at the edge of the forest. I felt you. I got enough to know that you were in trouble, that you were scared, but most importantly, that I could trust you, at least for a while. Now, let's look at that leg of yours." She gestures to the blankets and I limp over and sit down. She sits next to me and puts her hands on my leg, then closes her eyes. I open my mouth to ask her what she's doing, but she opens her eyes before I can.

"There's some bruising, but not much else. They were using those Hypodermic rays, lucky for you. The feeling should return in a few minutes." She looks up, then adds a little hesitantly, "So... what about you? Where'd you come from?"

I pause, not sure how much to tell her. But then, I've heard of feelers, and she'll probably know if I lie anyway. Besides, she's just saved my life. I at least owe her some answers.

"My name is Emery Winters," I begin. Her eyebrows shoot up at the name.

"I knew that sounded familiar!" She crows. "No wonder the Variants were chasing you. You're that Jumper girl they're always offering money for!" Her blue eyes light up. "Can you really do it? Jump, I mean?"

I grin a little. "Yeah. It's really hard, and I get a massive headache, but it's pretty cool."

"You think? Getting the Jumping Rietae is, like, one in a million!"

I smile at Arisse, offer to continue my story, and she agrees happily.

"I was born in Enduras. It's a small village, tucked inside a valley in the Okias. I lived there with my parents until I was six." I smile sadly at the memories that arise with the sentence. "When they discovered I could jump, they were so happy. They were positive the Variants would value a Jumper, that life would become better for all of us. They were just village folk like most people; they didn't realize just how corrupt the Variant rule had become. Most people don't even realize what freedom was like, back when they had it. That this used to be a prosperous country, not... not the messed up evil it is now. Then one day, they just showed up on our doorstep. They wanted me," I look down. Arisse nods in understanding. "I ran that night, and they just kept chasing. I've been running ever since."

"I'm sorry," Arisse says after a moment.

"Yeah," I mutter. I give a harsh little chuckle, then add, "Me too. So... You got any depressing inner turmoil you feel the need to get off your chest?"

She smiles at that. Her eyes darken for a moment, but she shakes it off.

"Naw," she says offhandedly. "My dad's all high up in the Variant rule. I'm sure he and mom are fine."

"Your dad's a Variant?"

"Mmhm. Brother, too. Just passed initiation."

"Then... what are you doing out here?"

Her eyes get this far off look, and she pauses. "I... I followed my dad to work one day. I was ten; it was only a few years ago. It was pure luck that I got through... I still don't know how I managed to get in there with him. When I caught up with him, he was in a dark room, standing beside a man with a thin face and cold eyes. They were interrogating a woman, I don't know what about. She was crying and pleading, and they... they tortured her." Her voice breaks. "She died, Emery, right there in front of me. And my father never did a thing. I ran crying from that room, and of course they caught me, but dad smoothed things over, and they let it go.

" I'm not sure if he knew what I saw, but that night, I had horrible nightmares. I woke up crying and knew I couldn't live with it any more. I pilfered some stuff from the house, took off, and never looked back. I miss him, sometimes, but then I remember that day. He's not the dad I thought I knew and loved. I couldn't live with that. So I left, and here I am now. I'm sure they looked, but they never did find me. And..." Her voice hardens. "And I'm glad."

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