Declan is running. Running until his chest burns and his shoulder aches. His breath echoes in his ears, hoarse in the humidity, suffocating. The wind clips his ears as his legs move of their own volition: tree, tree, tree, tree. Ducking under branches, guarding his face with his forearms as the bushes and thorns reach out to claw at him.
He trips over an exposed root and goes flying, tumbling on the forest floor. Springing back to his feet, he risks a glance behind him, searching beyond the shadows lurking in the undergrowth for the footsteps gaining on him. He stumbles and takes off with a slight limp and a sharp pain in his right ankle.
Keep going! He pushes his ankles. HEAL! He scolds them, wills them to drive forward, wills his breath to come, his legs to move. He makes a sharp decision, changes direction and asks the trees to give him a path. Ahead of him, a clearing opens and he dashes through it. Up, down, heart pumping, the clearing approaches, the sunlight beckons. He looks behind him and sees nobody. The pounding of the footsteps behind him, before like a heartbeat, is now scattered, intermittent. He swerves to miss slamming into a tree, and moving too quickly to stop himself from running off a dropoff, he grasps a low-hanging branch, clenches it tightly, and uses it to swing around the tree trunk. He looks down as he swings, sees the jagged cliff face on his side, the equally treacherous one miles across, and the empty abyss between. He dangles his feet above oblivion.
He swings around to the edge of the drop-off, collapses at the base of the trunk and holds his breath, listening. Nothing but his heart slamming in his ears and the distant caw of a hawk across the crevasse. Maybe he lost them. Maybe they gave up. Gulping air, he massages his ankle and assesses the damage: four-inch gash across the ankle bone. Not bad. Easy fix. Declan puts his hands around his ankle and takes a deep breath. It glows golden, and when his hands part, the gash has disappeared, and a four-inch long scar holds its place. He smiles and shakes his head. He’ll never get used to that. He gets up. Listens again. Nothing, still.
Where am I? This part of the forest is more clear–more manicured–than at the edge of the playground where that slimy weasel of a lackey clocked Declan and sent his pets on the chase. Fucking terrorists. He snakes through the trunks. Can’t even have ten damn minutes. How did they even find me? Declan rounds a family of redwoods regally gathered in the typical circle he recognizes from the summers he spent at camp in California when his aunt was feeling overwhelmed by the twin game he and Maeve dealt. He reaches instinctively for the copper chain wrapped thrice around his right wrist and wonders if they’ve already found his sister and where they could possibly be keeping her. Maybe it would be better for both of them if he lets himself be had, then he can actually operate from a place of productivity. Proximity can be useful, after all.
He sees a stone path on his left, and follows it up to a fence. A small crooked house sits on the edge of the bluff: a cottage, misshapen, like in a funhouse mirror, with a bright blue door. There is one visible window from the front, shaped and framed like a star. The shingled roof curves up into a swirly tip.
Whimsical. It reminds him of something. Declan approaches the house, carefully setting his feet upon the moss surrounding the cottage, happy for the relief from nature’s tendrils and traps. The window is dusty, crusted with rain water and spider webs. Peering through the window, on his tiptoes, he sees nothing. Blackness. Dissatisfied, he takes a few steps back and cranes his neck to take in the impressive façade, covered in moss, vines, and growth. It looks ancient. The door, on the other hand, appears untouched. Bright blue. The same blue as the Caribbean sea. Clean. Fresh.
“Peculiar,” Declan whispers.
A twig snaps in the trees behind him. Declan whips his head around and yelps in pain as a small silver object clips his ear and lands neatly tucked into the wooden panel beside the blue door. Touching his hand to his ear, he can feel the warmth of his blood trickling down his earlobe. He looks back at the side panel of the door. A silver star. What the–? Are they fucking ninjas?
Laughter like a hyena echoes through the trees. They’re close now. Declan can see the bodies forming in the shadow. His heart in his throat, he sprints to the door and tries the knob. It turns, but the door does not budge. The bodies gain color now, reaching the sunlight. He hears one calling to another. Their footsteps ever much closer. He jiggles the handle, pushes against the door with his arm. Slams his shoulders repeatedly into the wood. He yanks the silver star out of the door panel and tries to wedge it between the door and its frame. The voices get louder.
“Where is he?”He hears one yell, a voice like a record scratching.
“He went that way!” A woman’s voice, resonant, but he can hear the eagerness. He hopes she’s not pointing in his direction; he can’t see her through the trees yet.
Declan wipes the sweat out of his eyes, still slamming his body against the door, which will not budge.
“Where’s my star? Did you see my star?”
“Do you think he went over the cliff?” one of them asks, leaning on his knees, trying to catch his breath.
“Don’t be daft. He couldn’t have done. Your star, on the other hand…”
“Maybe he’s in a tree?”
“He must have gone through the woods that way.”
Their voices echo. They must have found the clearing next to the crevasse. Too close. He tries the door again.
Motherfucker! Come on, OPEN. The door clicks and swings open with ease. No time for suspicions, he ducks inside; the door shuts itself behind him and clicks again.
Declan blinks his eyes to adjust to the darkness and looks up around him. He curses under his breath and takes a tentative step into the room, his mouth agape. The ceilings are lofted, exposed beams like in a cabin in the mountains. Declan squints up at the ceiling, where the sun filters in through the skylights in the rafters, exposing the dust blanketing the air. The room is expansive, though, so the light doesn’t make it all the way to the ground. He looks down at a tattered, faded rug lying limply below his feet, and follows the path toward bookcases along the walls. There’s a distinct curved gouge in the wood floors below the bookcase. He notices a change in the dust pattern and starts to walk toward it. A chilling voice like icicles crashing in a cave sounds from outside, and he freezes to listen.
“Well, don’t stand there looking like monkeys, scratching your heads at me! Find him and BRING HIM TO ME!” Declan hears the scramble of boots up trunks of trees as they scamper as high as they can to get a better look.
“Declan,” The voice jeers melodically. “Come on out, Declan. It’s just me. It’s just Jax,” Declan stands against the window frame, watching Jax from the within the safety of a shadow. Jax tightens his tie and straightens his cuffs. His three-piece suit looks barely tarnished from the forest. His shoes shine. Declan can feel the heat rise up his neck.
“I know who you fucking are,” Declan hisses with a jagged breath. Jax cocks an ear to the wind, listening to its secrets; Declan desperately attempts to steady his breath. Did Jax hear him? Jax stands tall in the middle of the clearing. His nose, straight and strong, floating in the airs, sniffing, trying to catch a scent. He runs his hands over his bald head, turns in a circle, searching the horizons. He speaks to the skies.
“You cannot run forever. You cannot hide from Us. I know you know that, Declan,” he speaks slowly. Deliberately. “Come on out, Declan. Come on to us. We just want to talk. Come chat with us, mate. Nothing to hide. Nothing to fear.”
His thick northern accent brings a sour taste to Declan’s mouth.
Jax turns in the direction of the cottage. Declan’s breath catches. He tightens his jaw; he dares not blink, breathe, think, as he watches Jax’s eyes pass over the spot where the cottage is. Is that possible? Can he not see him? Is the cottage invisible?
“DECLAN!” Jax rages, his voice cuts through the forest and surrounding cliffs, sending birds out of their nests, shaking the trees, a bolt of lightning terror through Declan’s chest. Jax stands still in the middle of the clearing. Waiting. Perfectly still. Perfectly ready. Declan holds steady. He clenches his fist, pulls in a shaky breath, and fixes his eyes on Jax, who smiles. A sardonic, twisted smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Declan,” he says quietly. “I can feel you, Declan.” A short, cold laugh. “I know you are here. I can feel you.” His words drip like acid. Jax turns slowly in place; he still hasn’t clocked him. His smile disappears, and he takes a deep breath. “We have your sister, Declan. We have Maeve.”
The moment is still. The world stops, teeters on the edge of reality. Declan’s breath burns in his chest. He reaches for the chain on his wrist, and speaks to nobody, “Oh, Maeve. What do I do?”
“DID YOU HEAR ME?” Jax laughs shrilly. “WE HAVE YOUR SISTER, DECLAN. Ever want to see her again? Come out, come out, wherever you are!” He dances on spot, and Declan’s stomach clenches into a fist. “I’ll give you a moment to think about it, kid. I’ll be right here.”
Declan stops. Everything stops. So they do have Maeve. He rubs the chain vigorously, thinking, hoping maybe it’ll warm into a teleport and bring him straight to her. He can’t save her. He can’t leave her alone. Not with them. He relaxes his hands, takes a deep breath, and reaches toward the door knob.
No, Declan. He freezes. He knows that voice anywhere. No. Don’t.
“Maeve?” He whirls around. Nobody is there.
Stay put, Declan. Don’t touch that door.
“Is that–are you in my head? How are you doing this?”
With great difficulty. I only have a moment. Promise me you will not open that door.
“Maeve, where are you?”
Promise me, Declan. You will not go out to him. You cannot go out to him.
“Where are you, Maeve?”
“OK! I promise! Where are you? What do I do?”
The bookcase. There’s a–
“Maeve? There’s a what?” Declan abandons the front door for the bookcase, frees the shelves of dust and cobwebs. “Maeve! In the bookcase, there’s a what?” He run his hands along the books, reading the titles, pulling books off the shelves. “Maeve, can you hear me?”
“Maeve, answer me!”
The rest of Jax’s crew is gathered in the clearing around him; Declan can hear their cackles and hollers, goading him. He keeps pulling books off the shelves, letting them thump to the floor picking up dust, scattered across the old rug and slid underneath the ratty and cracked leather sofas. One falls to his foot, a collection of letters with the old US Air Mail envelopes with blue and red dashes around the edges spill out of a leather-bound journal. He bends to pick it up, runs his finger over the title. Looking down, the curved gouge in the floor catches his eye. It lines up perfectly with the corner of the case. He stuffs the journal and stack of letters under his arm and leans his whole body weight into it, releasing a mechanism. The bookcase swings open, revealing a hobbit-sized wooden archway behind it. With a glance behind him at the front door, he grabs the iron door handle and slams into it. It gives with ease, sending the stack of letters and the journal sprawling ahead of him. He tumbles into darkness.