Apr 12

The Arcane | Chapter Five: The Face Wearer

Eleven days.
    It took eleven long, silent, rather grueling days to walk from Bluewhen’s cottage to the feet of the West Fang. I’d successfully found a way to the mammoth mountain, avoiding cliffs and beast dens along the way. I’d barely talked to Miles the entire time.
    Each night I ate dinner in silence, while Miles left to hunt his own meal. I’d be in my hammock, pretending to sleep or actually out by the time he returned. In the morning I dashed breakfast and didn’t wait for him to follow before striking out, ever closer to the mountain. And now, finally, the West Fang loomed at my back as I ate lunch, its summit lost to the dark of the Shadowvale.
    Miles floated down to alight on the stone beside me. He wrapped his arms around his knees, claws uncomfortably close to my elbow. “Bluewhen told you I asked for your name,” he said, voice jarring in the silence of the morning. “Didn’t she.”
    I ripped a piece of jerky in half. “Yes, she did.”
    “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
    “I don’t want you to say anything,” I snapped. “I want to kill the dragon and go home and get you out of my life.”
    Miles frowned at his boots. “I’m sorry.”
    I chewed the jerky. I didn’t think he’d ever apologized to me before. “Bully for you.”
    “I don’t really know why I asked her.”
    I glared at him, anger surging to the surface. “I think it’s obvious. You’re a monster who preys on human minds. I’m a human. It’s only natural.”
    “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I don’t like being a monster.”
    I breathed out a lungful of air. “How unfortunate.”
    “I didn’t mean to-”
    I growled in his face. “Oh, you didn’t mean to ask her. It just fell out of your mouth, unbidden. Of course.” I stood, my fingernails biting into my palms. “And just what were you not going to mean to do, if she told you my name? Would you have taken my mind right then and there, while I was asleep? Or would you have waited until I was awake?”
    He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just wanted to know who you are. I don’t think- I wouldn’t have hurt you. I promise.”
    “Oh, right. Of course. Because stealing someone’s mind doesn’t hurt at all. It’s just a violation of their privacy, their trust, their being.”
    He stood too. “I meant I wouldn’t have taken your mind. I wanted… I wanted to prove to myself that I could know your name and not hurt you. That I wasn’t a monster.”
    I shook my head in rage. “Don’t lie to me. And to think I trusted you. I actually started thinking of you as another person, as a friend. I liked you!”
    He stared at me in shock. “You really thought all that? Of me?” I said nothing, just began repacking my bag. He crouched beside me. “Minnow, please. What can I do to regain your trust?”
    “You can do this:” I swung my bag onto my back, “stay away from me. Or I’ll stick my knife up-”
    His hand clapped over my mouth, shutting me up. I was about to bite his palm when I saw his face, his black eyes huge. He stood frozen, staring into the trees. Then his arms wrapped around me and we were flying, landing among the boughs of a large pine.
    Sap stuck against my fingers. “Is it a pookha again?” I whispered.
    He shook his head. “No. I’m not sure-”
    Something moved down on the rocks. A large shadow broke off from the murk of the trees and slid silently over the stones, pausing where I’d eaten lunch. A strange, horrible noise reached my ears. A whispery, rasping sound- it was smelling the spot. Then it turned and crawled with jerking movements over the rocks toward our tree.
    As it got closer, I began to make out its shape. It had a humanoid body, but the limbs were too long, splayed over the ground. One of its hands passed over a pale rock, and I counted three long, thin fingers. It sniffed again, and raised its head.
    It was looking right at us.
    And then it spoke.
    Its voice was child-like whispers I couldn’t comprehend, but my stomach understood enough. I had to swallow multiple times to keep from hurling. Then its voice changed.
    “I’ve been looking everywhere. How’d you climb all the way up there?”
    Why did I feel sick? I must be hungry.
    “I’ve been calling. Lunch is ready; there’s strawberries and ham sandwiches. Your sister suggested a picnic.”
    That sounded wonderful. I tried to climb down, but two arms locked around my waist.
    “Who is that with you? He can come too, if he wants.”
    I turned to him, ready to ask if he wanted to come to lunch. His eyes were so black. I think I was angry at him, but I couldn’t be sure why. Who was he?
    “Minnow, my love. I’ve missed you. Why did you leave us?”
    I went to the Shadowvale to find magic. I’m tired of being just a farmer’s daughter. And once I find my power, I’m going to kill the dragon and stop the Shadow and save you. I opened my mouth. “Mum,” I called. “I love you.”
    “Minnow,” the boy behind me whispered. “That is not your mother. Don’t listen to it.”
    How did he know? Of course it was her.
    “I love you too,” she said. “Please, come down. Lizzie’s waiting.”
    My sister was here too. I struggled against the arms pinning me. “Minnow, listen to me-”
    “Let go. You can come too.”
    “Yes,” my mother assured him. “We’ll all go. It will be wonderful.”
    Clawed hands pressed over my ears. I tried to shake them off, but they held firm. My mother came to the base of the tree. I could hear the edges of her voice, but not her words. Why wouldn’t he let go?
    Oh, good. She was climbing up. Maybe she could help me get this boy to come down.
    Suddenly the hands released my head. There was a whisper of metal as the boy pulled a sword from the sheath on his back. What was he doing? “Mum!” I called. “Look out!”
    The boy jumped down, landing on my mother’s shoulders. I cried out as she screamed. As the sword swung an arc down to her head, I pulled out my knife and threw it at the boy’s neck. He screeched, ripping the blade from his throat, and threw the knife to the ground. His sword raised, and he was about to attack my mother again when she grabbed him by the neck. She slammed him into the trunk. When had she gotten so strong?
    “My love, light the tree on fire,” she called.
    I dutifully pulled my lamp, tipping the oil over the needles around me. Then I lit a match. “Minnow!” the boy shouted. “Don’t!”
    I dropped the flame.
    The oil caught fast. Instinct compelled me to climb down the branches, where my mother reached out. She grabbed my arm and pulled me to the ground, her grip strange. Then she picked up the boy’s sword and stabbed it through his heart, pinning him to the tree.
    He gasped, grasping for the hilt, but she twisted his arm until it broke, then pinned his other hand to the pine with my knife. Above us, the fire had spread. A flaming branch broke, lighting the boughs right above us. “He won’t break free in time,” my mother said. “He will die.”
    That didn’t sit well. But I trusted her.
    “Minnow!” the boy called. I looked to him and watched two tears slip from his black, black eyes. “My name is Miles. Remember? You gave me that name so you’d have something to call me. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I betrayed you.” He coughed from the smoke. “You’re in the Shadowvale, looking for magic and seeking to save your family and your people. Your real mother needs you. You can’t die here.”
    “He’s insane,” my mother whispered. “Come. We should go.” She tugged at my arm.
    The Shadowvale. That’s where I was, wasn’t it? “How did you find me?” I asked my mother. “How did you get into the Vale?”
    She was very still. “That doesn’t matter.”
    “Tell me.” I stepped backward, looking at her arms. They seemed too long in the firelight. “Who are you?”
    A hand that was not my mother’s gripped my wrist. I shrieked and yanked against its iron grip, scratching with my nails. I could practically hear its mouth open as I lunged toward the tree, my hand wrapping around the hilt of the sword embedded in Miles’ chest. The tree held the blade tight, but just as I felt the thing’s teeth break the skin of my arm, I ripped the blade free and slashed at its head.
    Something rolled. The body fell, unmoving.
    A scream cut the air. It was Miles; flaming pine needles had fallen and now the fire burned against his throat. His broken arm hung useless as he tried to free himself from the knife. I ran over and pulled the dagger out, tugging him away from the burning tree.
    I flicked the flaming needles away and slapped at his burning collar, opening my waterskin and dousing the flames licking his skin. He sank to the ground, gasping as the wounds on his hand and chest closed, his arm setting itself. But the burn remained on his neck, a blistered swath on his near-black skin.
    “Miles,” I said, crouching before him. “Are you okay?”
    He touched the burn, wincing as it slowly began to heal. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine.”
    “What was that?” I whispered, looking at the shadowed body. Thank God I couldn’t see more than the faint outline of its hand and arm.
    “A Face Wearer,” he said. “They can look into your mind and pretend to be anyone close to you.”
    “And they eat humans.”
    He nodded, gasping slightly as the burn pulled. “How’d you know?”
    I laughed weakly, and the sound seemed to dispel some of the horror caused by the monster. I inspected Miles’ burn. “Why is it taking so long to heal?”
    “In the forms we take, we can be killed like the creature we’re impersonating,” he said. “But in our true forms we may only be slain by fire.”
    “Oh. How long will it take?”
    “It’s almost healed.” As I watched, the last of the blisters faded away until only perfect skin remained.
    “Wow,” I whispered. “I wish I could do that.”
    “It’s quite useful.” He tipped his head, peering at my forearm. “Did it bite you?”
    I held my arm out, displaying the half moon of bloody punctures. “Only a little.”
    He grimaced. “We should probably clean that. Who knows where its mouth has been.”
    I peered suspiciously at the dead Face Wearer. “Let’s get out of here first.”
    “Spectacular idea.”
    We began climbing the mountain. There was no path to follow, but the ground was open and stony and the trees were sparse. We stopped about a half hour later, resting uphill of an enormous rock. The hope was that we’d be shielded from any eyes that came to investigate the fire.
    I watched silently as Miles used the fresh water in my waterskin to clean the cuts on my arm. He covered them with a bandage, explaining that while they weren’t nearly deep enough to warrant a wrapping, it was a good idea to keep dirt off and blood hidden. I agreed.
    We stared at the black sky above us. It seemed oddly low, as if the entire Vale was shadowed in a black fog. “Miles?” I ventured.
    “Mmm?”
    “Thanks for saving my life.”
    He turned his head to look at me. “I think you’ve got it the wrong way around.”
    “But before I pulled you from the tree. You talked me out of the Face Wearer’s spell.”
    “Oh, right. Yes, I did.” He paused, then added, “You’re welcome.”
    I nodded, twisting my shirt between my hands. “You apologized. And it really sounded like you didn’t want me to die. And you saved me from a rather disgusting fate. So I’m thinking-” I let out a breath, “-well, maybe I was wrong about you. You’re not a mean monster.”
    He was silent, so I looked over. In the gloom I could just barely make out his smile. “I’m glad you think I’m a nice one.”
    “You look like a cat, but you’re a person inside,” I added.
    He laughed. “A cat? Are you saying I have some kinship to Caligro?”
    “I was thinking more the sleek, agile one.”
    “Did you just call me sleek?”
    I shoved him, embarrassed. “Shut up.”
    “I personally like to think of myself as slender and streamlined.”
    Rolling my eyes, I told him, “Your vanity is disgusting.”
    “I know, I know- oop-” he glanced over the rock as something crashed, “-there goes the tree.”
    I thumped my head against some moss. “I probably just started a forest fire, didn’t I.”
    Miles shook his head. “Fire doesn’t do well in the Shadowvale,” he reassured me. “Look- it’s already going out.”
    I joined him in peering over the giant rock. The fire was indeed much smaller than it should’ve been, and as I watched some of the flames died out as if the wood was soaked. “Freaky,” I whispered.
    Miles lifted away from the boulder and turned to gaze up the slope. “C’mon,” he said. “We have a mountain to climb.”