Read the opening of Sally Green's Half Lost, the third book in her bestselling YA series, plus an exclusive excerpt of the second chapter
Read the opening of Sally Green's Half Lost, the third book in her bestselling YA series, plus an exclusive excerpt of the second chapter
‘We should agree on some passwords.’
‘Because one day you’re going to go off on one of your trips and get killed, and then one of the Hunters with the Gift of disguise will pretend to be you, come back here to camp and kill me.’
‘More likely they’d find the camp, kill you and wait for me to come innocently whistling home.’
‘That is also a possibility, though I can’t imagine the whistling element.’
‘So, what’s the password?’
‘Not just one word but a phrase. I say a certain thing and you answer in the right way.’
‘Oh, right. So I say “I’m whistling because I’ve killed ten Hunters” and you reply “But I’d rather be climbing the Eiger”.’
‘I was thinking of a question I might really ask.’
‘You’ve been away a long time. Were you lost?’
‘And what’s my answer?’
‘I was wounded, not lost.’
‘I don’t think I’d ever say that.’
‘Still . . . You want to practise? Make sure you get it right?’
In the year that my father turned twenty-eight he killed thirty-two people. Celia used to make me learn facts about Marcus. That’s one of them. It was the most he killed in any one year before the war between Soul’s Council and the Alliance of Free Witches. I used to think that thirty-two was a lot.
In the year Marcus turned seventeen, the year of his Giving, he killed just four people. I’m still only seventeen. Before the Battle of Bialowieza – the day my father died, the day almost half of the Alliance died, the day now referred to as ‘BB’ by anyone who dares refer to it at all – anyway, before that day I’d killed twenty-three people.
BB was months ago and now I’ve passed fifty kills.
I’ve killed fifty-two people to be precise.
It’s important to be precise about these things. I don’t include Pilot – she was dying anyway; and Sameen isn’t in the count – what I did for her was a mercy. The Hunters killed Sameen. Shot her in the back as we fled from the battle. And Marcus I definitely don’t include in the fifty-two. I didn’t kill him. She killed him.
Her name makes me want to spew. Everything about her makes me want to spew: her blonde hair, her blue eyes, her golden skin. Everything about her is disgusting, false. She said she loved me. And I said I loved her but I meant it. I did love her. What a stupid idiot! Falling for her, an O’Brien. She said I was her hero, her prince and, like the dumb, thick mug that I am, I wanted to believe her. I did believe her.
And now all I want is to kill her. To cut her open and rip screams out of her. But even that isn’t enough; that won’t come close to it. I’d have to make her know how hard it is to do what I did. I’d have to make her cut off her own hand and eat it, or cut out her own eyes and eat them, and still that’d be easier than what I did.
I’ve killed fifty-two people. But really all I want is to get my hands on her. I’d be happy with fifty-three. Just one more and I’ll be satisfied.
But I’ve scoured every inch of the battlefield and the old camp. I’ve killed all the Hunters I’ve come across: some who were clearing up the mess after the battle, some who I’ve tracked since. But I’ve not seen her. Not a sign! Days and weeks following every track, every trail, every hint of a footprint and nothing leads me to her.
I look up at the sound and listen. It’s silent.
The noise was me, I think, talking to myself again.
Annalise! She does this to me.
‘Well, fuck her.’ I lift my head to look around me and shout at the treetops. ‘Fuck her!’
And then quietly to the stones I say, ‘I just want her dead. Obliterated. I want her soul to stop existing. I want her gone from this world. Forever. That’s all. Then I’ll stop.’
And I pick up a little stone and tell it, ‘Or maybe not. Maybe not.’
Marcus wanted me to kill them all. Maybe I can do that. I think he knew I could or he wouldn’t have said it.
I push my stones into a small pile. Fifty-two of them. It sounds a lot, fifty-two, but it’s nothing really. Nothing to how many my father would have me kill. Nothing to how many have died because of Annalise. Over a hundred at BB. I’ve really got to up my game if I’m going to compete with her level of carnage. Because of her, the Alliance is virtually destroyed. Because of her, Marcus is dead – the one person who could have held the Hunters back when they attacked, the one person who could have defeated them. But instead, because of her, because she shot him, the Alliance were almost obliterated. And there’s that niggling thought as well that all along she’s been a spy for Soul. Soul is her uncle after all. Gabriel has never trusted Annalise and always said she could have been the one who told the Hunters where to find Mercury’s apartment in Geneva. I never believed that but maybe he’s right.
There’s a movement in the trees and Gabriel appears. He’s been collecting firewood. He’s heard me shouting, I guess. And now he comes up, pretending as if he was coming back anyway, and drops the wood, and stands by my stones.
I’ve not told Gabriel what the stones are and he doesn’t ask, but I guess he knows. I pick one up. It’s small, the size of my fingernail. They’re only little but each one is quite individual. One for each person I’ve killed. I used to know who each stone represented, not names or anything like that, most of the Hunters are just Hunters, but I used them to help me remember incidents and fights and how they died. I’ve forgotten the individual fights now; they’ve all blurred into one never-ending pageant of blood, but I’ve got fifty-two little stones in my pile.
Gabriel’s boots turn ninety degrees and stay still for a second or so before he says, ‘We need more wood. Are you coming to help?’
‘In a bit.’
His boots stay there for a few seconds more, then turn another forty-five degrees and stay there for four, five, six, seven seconds and then they make their way back into the trees.
I get out the white stone from my pocket. It’s oval-shaped, pure white: quartz. Smooth but not shiny. It’s Annalise’s stone. I found it by a stream one day when I was searching for her. I thought it was a good sign. I was sure I’d find her trail that day. I didn’t but I will, one day. When I kill her I won’t add it to the pile but I’ll throw it away. It’ll be gone. Like her.
Maybe then the dreams will stop. I doubt it but you never know. I dream of Annalise a lot. Sometimes the dreams even start sort of nice but that doesn’t last long. Sometimes she shoots my father and it’s exactly like it was at BB. If I’m lucky I wake up before then, but sometimes it carries on and it’s as if I’m living it all again.
I wish I’d dream of Gabriel. Those would be good dreams. I’d dream of us climbing together like we used to and we’d be friends, like the old days. We’re friends now; we’ll always be friends, but it’s different. We don’t talk much. Sometimes he talks about his family or things he did years ago, before all this, or he talks about climbing or a book he’s read or . . . I don’t know . . . stuff he likes. He’s good at talking, but I’m crap at listening.
The other day he was telling me some story about a climb he did in France. It was high above this river and very beautiful. I’m listening and imagining the woods he walked through to get there, and he describes the ravine and the river and then I’m not thinking about that at all but of Annalise being free. And when I notice that a part of me says, Listen to Gabriel! Listen to his story! But another part of me wants to think about Annalise and it says, While he’s talking, Annalise is somewhere out there, free. And my father’s dead and I don’t know where his body is, except, of course, some of it is in me because I ate his heart and that has to be the sickest thing ever, and here I am, this person, this kid who has eaten his father, and I’m sitting next to Gabriel, who’s talking about a fucking climb and how he waded across the river to get to the start of it, and I’m thinking that I’ve eaten my own father and held him as he died and Annalise is wandering around free, and Gabriel is still talking about climbing, and how can that be normal and OK? And so I say to him as calmly as I can, ‘Gabriel, can you shut up about your fucking climb?’ I say it really quietly because otherwise I’ll scream.
And he pauses and then says, ‘Of course. And do you think you can say a sentence without swearing?’ He’s teasing, trying to keep it light, and I know he’s doing that but somehow that pisses me off even more, so I tell him to fuck off. Only I don’t just say the F-word but other words too and then I can hardly stop myself, well, I can’t stop myself at all, and I’m swearing at him again and again and he tries to hold me, to take my arm and I push him away and tell him he should go or I’ll hurt him and he goes then. I calm down after he’s walked away. And then I feel a huge wave of relief because I’m alone and I can breathe better when I’m alone. I’m OK for a bit and then when I’m properly calm I hate myself because I want him to touch my arm and I want to hear his story. I want him to talk to me and be normal and I want to be normal. But I’m not normal. I can’t be normal and it’s all because of her.
We’re sitting together looking at the fire. I’ve told myself that I’ve got to try harder and talk to Gabriel. Talk, like a normal person. And listen too. But I can’t think of anything to say. Gabriel hasn’t said much either. I think he’s annoyed about the stones. I haven’t told him about the two extra stones I added yesterday. I don’t want to tell him about that . . . about them. I scrape round my tin bowl even though I’ve scraped round it already and there’s nothing left. We’ve had cheese and soup from a packet; it was watery soup but better than nothing. I’m still hungry and I know Gabriel is too. He’s looking dead thin. Gaunt, that’s the word. Someone said I looked gaunt once. I remember I was really hungry then too.
I say, ‘We need meat.’
‘Yes, that would make a nice change.’
‘I’ll put out some rabbit traps tomorrow.’
‘Do you want me to help?’
He says nothing but pokes at the fire.
‘I’m faster on my own,’ I say.
‘Yes, I know.’
Gabriel pokes the fire again and I scrape out my bowl again.
It was Trev who said I was gaunt. I try to remember when but it’s not coming back. I can remember him walking up the road in Liverpool, carrying a plastic bag. Then I remember the fain girl who was there too, and her gang, and the Hunters who were chasing us, and it seems like a different world and a different lifetime.
I tell Gabriel, ‘There was this girl I met in Liverpool. A fain. She was tough. She had a brother and he had a gun . . . and dogs. Or maybe that wasn’t her brother. No, it was someone else with the dogs. Her brother had a gun. She told me that, but I never saw him. Anyway, I went to Liverpool to meet Trev. He was a strange bloke. Tall and . . . I don’t know . . . quiet and walked as if he was gliding along. White Witch. Good, though. He’d taken samples from my tattoo, the one on my ankle. Blood, skin and bone. He was trying to work out what the tattoos did. Anyway, Hunters came and we ran off but I dropped the plastic bag that the samples were in and had to go back and this fain girl had found them. She gave them me back and I burned them after.’
Gabriel looks at me, as if he’s waiting for the rest of the story. I’m not sure what the rest of the story is but then I remember.
‘There were two Hunters. They nearly caught us, me and Trev. But the girl, the one with the brother, she was part of this fain gang. They caught the Hunters instead. I left. I don’t know what they did to them.’ I look at Gabriel and say, ‘It never crossed my mind to kill the Hunters. Now it wouldn’t cross my mind not to.’
Gabriel says, ‘We’re in a war now. It’s different.’
‘Yeah. It sure is different.’ And then I add, ‘I was the gaunt one then, and now you are.’
And I realize I’ve not told him why I started the story and actually we’re both gaunt and anyway I can’t be bothered to explain, so I say, ‘It doesn’t matter.’
We sit looking at the fire. The only bit of brightness for miles. The sky’s overcast. There’s no moon. And I wonder where Trev is now and his mate Jim. And then I remember it wasn’t Trev who called me gaunt; it was Jim.
Gabriel says, ‘I went to see Greatorex.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ He came back with packets of soup and the cheese.
It’s about an hour each way to Greatorex. Gabriel must have gone when I was counting the stones and then he collected the wood. I must have been counting for hours.
‘Nothing much to report,’ he says. And I know that too.
The members of the Alliance who survived the battle are living in seven remote camps spread across Europe. We’re with Greatorex’s camp, a small group in Poland. Only we’re not with them. I stay out of everyone’s way. I have my own camp here. All the camps have numbers. Greatorex’s is Camp Three. So I guess that makes mine Camp Three B or Camp Three and a Half. Anyway, Greatorex is in charge of the camp and communication with Camp One, Celia’s camp, but there isn’t much to communicate as far as I can tell. All Greatorex can do is train the young witches who have survived with her in the hope that someday the training can be used.
I watched the trainees last time I was at Camp Three. I like Greatorex but not the trainees. The trainees don’t look at me, not when I’m looking at them. When I’m not looking I feel eyes all over me but whenever I glance at them suddenly they find the ground dead interesting.
I think it was like that for my father. No one wanted to meet his eye either. But it didn’t used to be like that for me. Before BB I was part of the team, the team of fighters when me and Nesbitt were partnered up and Gabriel was with Sameen and we used to train with Greatorex and the others. We were a good team. We laughed and messed around and fought and ate and talked together. I miss that feeling: it’s gone and I know it’ll never come back. But still Greatorex is great with her team.
‘She’s good at training them,’ I say.
‘Do you mean Greatorex?’
‘That’s who we’re talking about, isn’t it?’ And I don’t know why I snap at him.
‘You should come into camp with me. Greatorex would like to see you.’
‘Yeah. Maybe.’ But we both know that means no.
It’s been weeks since I’ve seen Greatorex, or anyone apart from Gabriel. In fact, the last people I saw apart from Gabriel were those two Hunters and I killed them. Now I think about it, I generally kill the people that I meet. Greatorex should be grateful that I keep away.
‘She wants to show off her trainees to you. They’ve improved a lot.’
And I don’t know what to say to that. What should I say? ‘Oh?’ ‘Good.’ Or ‘Who the fuck cares cos it won’t make any difference to anything?’
I really don’t know what to say.
Then I think of something and I ask, ‘What day is it?’
Gabriel says, ‘You asked me that yesterday.’
‘I don’t know. I was going to ask Greatorex but I forgot.’ He turns to me, asking, ‘Does it matter?’
I shake my head. It doesn’t matter at all what day it is except I’m trying to keep things clear in my head but each day seems like every other, and weeks have gone by but it could be months, and everything is merging in my memory. I need to concentrate and not lose track of things. I killed the two Hunters yesterday. Then I came back here, but already it feels like longer ago. I have to go back and check on the bodies. More Hunters will come looking for their pals. Maybe I’ll get a chance to catch one, question them. Maybe they’ll know something about Annalise. If she is a spy she’ll have gone back to Soul; maybe the Hunters will have seen her.
I lie back and put my arm over my face.
I’ve not told Gabriel about the two Hunters because he’ll tell Greatorex and she’ll move the camp and I need to check on the Hunters before then. But first I need to sleep. Since Marcus died I’ve not slept much. I need sleep, then I can go and check on the Hunters. Or maybe leave it another day. Tomorrow I can scout to the south. Check if there’s any sign of Annalise there, then come back here, then go to the Hunter bodies. I need to get some more food as well. So, south and rabbit traps tomorrow, and dead Hunters and hopefully some live ones too the day after.
I realize I’m staring at my arm; I’ve still got my eyes open. I have to remember to close my eyes. I’ve got to sleep.
We’re sitting close together, legs dangling over the outcrop. Leaves flutter down. Annalise’s tanned leg is close to mine. She reaches out for a falling leaf, grabbing it and my sleeve at the same time. She turns back to me, holding the leaf in front of my face, getting my attention, and she taps my nose with the leaf. Her eyes sparkle, the silver glints twisting quickly. Her skin is smooth and velvety and I want to touch her. I try to lean forward but I can’t move and I’m tied down on a bench and Wallend is standing over me, saying, ‘This may feel a little strange,’ and he puts the metal against my neck, and then I’m kneeling in the forest and my father is on the ground in front of me bleeding out from his stomach. I’m holding the Fairborn and feeling it vibrate in my hand as if it’s alive and desperate to get on with the job. My right hand is holding Marcus’s shoulder, feeling his jacket. And my father says, ‘You can do it.’ And we begin. The first cut is through his shirt and his flesh in one long stroke and then we cut across that, deeper. Then a third cut, deeper still, slicing through the ribs as if they’re paper. The blood covers Marcus’s skin and my hands, hot but cooling quickly. I put my fingers round his heart, and feel its beat as I lean forward. Bite. Blood spurts into my mouth. I’m gagging but I swallow. And I take another bite and look into my father’s eyes and he’s staring back at me as his blood fills my mouth.
I wake up coughing and puking and sweating. Gabriel shuffles over and holds me. And I hold on to him. And he doesn’t say anything, just holds me, and that’s good. We stay like that for a long time and eventually he says, ‘Can you tell me what happens in your dream?’
But I don’t want to think about it. And no way am I going to talk about it. Gabriel knows what I did, what I had to do to take my father’s Gifts. Gabriel saw me afterwards covered in blood, but at least he didn’t see me do it. He thinks that if I talk about it I might feel better but talking about it isn’t going to change a thing about what I did and all that will happen is he’ll know how disgusting it was and –
‘Nathan, talk to me, please.’
And then he says, ‘It was a dream, wasn’t it? You would tell me if you’d had another vision, wouldn’t you?’
I push him away. I wish I hadn’t told him I’ve started having visions.
It’s morning. I’m running back to my camp. I’m not feeling too bad now. I’ve done a long run: a few hours in the dark straight after I woke from the dream and Gabriel started pestering me about visions. Running helps me. When I run I can concentrate on the forest, the trees, the ground and I can think better. And I can practise my Gifts.
I go invisible. I’m best at that now, but I’ve had to work at it. I have to think of being transparent, of being air. Breathe in and let myself become like air. And once I’m invisible I can stay like that if I concentrate on my breathing.
I can shoot out lightning from my hands too. For that I need to clap my hands together, as if I’m striking stones together to create a spark. The first time that’s all it was, but now I can make long bolts of lightning that stretch for ten metres.
Sending flames from my mouth is the one I’ve learnt most recently. I have to unfurl my tongue and let out a breath. It’s not a deadly weapon and I can’t do flames while I’m thinking about air and being invisible. But it’s still a good Gift to have.
I practise my new Gifts every day and every day I try to find the other Gifts my father had. He could move objects by the power of thought, change his appearance like Gabriel can, make plants grow or die, heal others, contort metal objects and he could make cuts. All great Gifts but the best one was that he could stop time. I’m sure that I have all those Gifts too now. It makes sense that if I’ve got one from him then I’ve got them all, but I’ve not been able to work out how to access all of them. I saw how my father stopped time before he died and I’ve worked on that more than on the others but I’ve not been able to do it at all. That’s the Gift I want most. What I’d do with that Gift! But, of course, I haven’t been able to find it, and the Gift I don’t want, the Gift of visions of the future, is the one that comes anyway, whether I like it or not.
Having visions is more of a curse than a Gift. Visions screwed up my life. Screwed up my relationship with my father, screwed up everything. I wonder how my life would have been different if he hadn’t had the vision that I’d kill him. I mean, it ended up coming true even though he avoided me for the first seventeen years of my life. So all that meant was that I spent my childhood without him, not knowing him, a prisoner of White Witches. Then when I escaped, when we were finally united, within months the vision came true. Without the vision I don’t think my father would have left me with Gran; he’d have wanted me with him. So, seventeen years of misery because of a vision. And weirder than that is the fact that I don’t think I could have done what I did if I didn’t know about the vision, if my father hadn’t told me he’d seen that I would eat his heart and take his Gifts.
Visions aren’t like dreams. For a start they only happen when I’m awake, and they come like a cloud moving overhead, bringing a chill feeling and turning things duller, and even though I know what’s going to happen and that the vision is coming and I don’t want it, I’ve got about as much chance of stopping it as I have of stopping the cloud from blocking out the sun.
And, of course, once you’ve seen a vision you can’t unsee it, can’t forget it.
I’ve had my vision six or seven times now and there’s a bit more detail each time. In it I’m standing on the edge of a wood, trees behind me and a rolling meadow in front and the sun is low in the sky. The light is golden and it’s all beautiful and peaceful and I turn to see Gabriel standing in the trees. He waves at me to come to him and I look back at the meadow one final time and then turn back to Gabriel and then I’m flying backwards through the air.
That’s all I saw the first time I had the vision and I told Gabriel about it. But since then I’ve seen more. There’s a dark figure walking away through the trees. And Gabriel has a gun in his hand. I fly backwards through the air and it feels like I’m flying but then I land on my back, looking at sky and treetops, and the pain in my stomach hits me and I know I’ve been shot and then it goes black. And that’s the end of the vision.
I reckon it lasts about two minutes, tops, and I end up sweating and my stomach burning and cramping for real. I know the vision is important, otherwise I wouldn’t be having it, and, let’s face it, being shot is never a good thing, but I don’t understand it. Why is Gabriel beckoning me towards someone who is going to shoot me? And then comes the worst question of all, the one I try not to think about. Is it Gabriel who shoots me? But I know he wouldn’t ever do that – I know he loves me – so that shows you how fucked up visions are. You start believing them instead of what you know.
I arrive back in camp and drop down by the fire. I’m not sure why I’ve come back. I was going to run to the south and set traps for rabbits, but it’s only now I’m back at camp I remember that.
‘You’ve been gone a long time. Were you lost?’ Gabriel says, coming over to me.
Him and his bloody passwords.
I say, ‘You’ve got it wrong. You’re supposed to say, “You’ve been away a long time,” and I’ve only been away a few hours so the whole thing is stupid.’
‘I’m trying to keep to the spirit of it rather than word for word.’
‘If I was a Hunter you’d be dead now anyway.’
‘And you’re doing your best to make that seem preferable.’
I swear at him.
He shuffles his feet, scuffing the dirt up a little. I get out the Fairborn and my sharpening stone out and set to work on it.
Gabriel crouches besides me and says, ‘Are you doing that for a reason?’
‘Thought I’d take a look around. Check on stuff.’
‘I thought you were going to set rabbit traps today.’
I look at him. ‘I’m feeling lucky. Might find some Hunters too.’
I know I said I’d do rabbits today and I was going to check on the Hunters tomorrow but I’ve changed my mind. I want to get back to the Hunters and see if more have turned up.
‘We need food. You said you’d do the traps.’
‘I’ll do them too.’
‘Yes? Really? Or will you go off for days and leave me not knowing if you’re alive or dead?’
I carry on with the knife.
Gabriel reaches out to touch my arm. ‘Talk to me, Nathan. Please.’
I stop sharpening the knife and turn to look him in the eyes. ‘I told you. I’ll do both.’
Gabriel shakes his head at me. ‘Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?’
‘You know what’s going on, Gabriel. I’m trying to find the witch that killed my father. Though somehow she’s disappeared. The good thing is that, in my search for her, I’m finding Hunters. There’s a lot of them around. It’s a big country but I’m finding them and killing them.’
‘Do you really think you can kill them all?’
It’s a genuine question, but I think it’s more to test my sanity rather than my ability.
I smile at him and try to look as mad as possible. ‘My father seemed to think I could.’
Gabriel shakes his head and turns away from me, saying, ‘Sometimes I think you’ve got a death wish.’
Sometimes I wonder that too, but it’s when I’m fighting that I’m absolutely sure I don’t. It’s then that I’m sure I’m desperate to stay alive.
Gabriel continues. ‘You risk your life with each attack. They can kill you, Nathan.’
‘I go invisible. They don’t know I’m there until it’s too late.’
‘You can still get hit. With bullets flying all over the place it’s a miracle that hasn’t happened. You nearly died from a Hunter bullet in Geneva. The poison nearly killed you. A wound –’
‘I’m careful. And I’m better than them. Lots better.’
‘They can become invisible too. They can still –’
‘I told you I’m careful.’
Gabriel frowns. ‘It’s not just about you. Your attacks bring more Hunters our way, lead them closer to us and to Greatorex, bringing more danger for everyone.’
‘Greatorex and her gang are training for that day, though as I recall the last two times we moved camp there was no confrontation and it’s just me who’s done any killing, just me who’s got blood on his hands. It’s as if that lot only want to train and hide away and –’
‘You know that’s not true.’
‘And it’s not true for me either.’
I run my finger along the Fairborn’s blade, drawing blood. I suck my finger and then heal the cut before I put the sharpening stone in my rucksack and the Fairborn in its sheath.
‘Nathan, another few Hunters dead won’t change the war. It won’t change anything.’
‘Tell that to them as I slice their guts open.’
‘You know as well as I do that most of them are kids. They’re manipulated into believing in Soul’s cause. The war isn’t against them; it’s against Soul. He runs the Council of White Witches; he employs Wallend to come up with his perverted magic. They are the people you should be fighting. They are the ones who started the war. And it’s only by killing them that it’ll end.’
‘Well, I’ll get round to them soon enough. Think of these attacks as practice. When I’ve mastered all my father’s Gifts, then I’ll be ready to go against Soul.’
‘And in the meantime you practise by killing kids.’
I go invisible, take the Fairborn from its sheath and reappear with the tip of the knife at Gabriel’s throat.
‘They’re Hunters, Gabriel. They’re working with Soul to hunt and kill us, but I intend to hunt and kill them. All of them if I have to. Young or old. New recruits or hardened veterans. They joined up. They made their choice and I’m making mine.’
Gabriel swipes at my arm, knocking the Fairborn away.
‘Don’t point that thing at me. I’m not your enemy, Nathan.’
I swear at him.
‘Is that all you’re good for?’ Gabriel takes a step back on to the pile of fifty-two stones. ‘Swearing and killing?’ He looks down at them, saying, ‘How many stones do you want in that pile, Nathan? You want a mountain of them?’ Gabriel kicks at the stones with the side of his foot. ‘Will it make you feel better? Will it help you sleep at night?’
‘Knowing there are a few less Hunters makes me feel better than knowing there are a few more. And as for helping me sleep at night, let’s face it, it can’t make it any worse.’ I make sure I throw in every swear word I can come up with as well.
I pick up my rucksack and Gabriel reaches out to hold my arm but I shake him off and head out of the camp at a fast jog. I don’t look back.
This time while I’m running I think of Annalise. I imagine I’m chasing after her, close on her tail. I can run for hours without stopping anyway but when I’m thinking of her time passes even faster. But I can’t think of Annalise too much. I’ve got to be strict with myself: I’ve got to concentrate on hunting Hunters. Gabriel’s right about one thing: it is dangerous and however good I am they could still get lucky. To keep luck on my side I have to keep improving. I’ve got to get even better, even faster, even stronger. I’ve got to work out where I’m weak. Celia taught me that. Learn from your mistakes but expect your enemies to learn from theirs. So every time I attack a group of Hunters I’m learning, improving the control of my new Gifts.
I have to keep practising and I do that now as I run: going invisible; sending lightning from my left hand and then from my right; sending a plume of fire from my mouth. Up to now the only Gift from my father that I’ve used in a fight with the Hunters is invisibility but, even so, last time I was grazed by a bullet – I’ve not told Gabriel that. It took a few hours for me to drive out the poison from where it broke my skin. But I learnt from the experience so Celia would be pleased. I was too slow. I stayed in the same place half a second too long. That won’t happen again. And now I’m ready to try using lightning while I’m invisible so I don’t have to get so close. It will give my position away so I must shoot it out and move away. I send out a flash from my left hand and then dive and roll to the right, sending out another flash from my right hand as I go.
Then I do it again. Faster and stronger.
I keep moving until it’s dark and then I camp by a stream, which means I stop and lie down. I’m hungry. I puked up the soup and cheese from last night and haven’t had anything else since. But before I can think about food I need to do one more thing: try stopping time again. I go over it in my head, remembering Marcus and how he moved his hands in a circle, palms together. I try the same technique and I think of slowing things around me, think of everything coming to a stop. The forest is still and I hold my breath wondering if I’ve done it but I know I haven’t; the quality of stillness when time stops is different. I wish I could ask my father how to access this Gift. I wish I could ask him so many things. More than anything I wish we had had more time together.
The gold ring my father gave me is on my finger and I put it to my lips and kiss it. The time we had was amazing. I learnt by copying my father. I transformed into an eagle and we flew together, hunted together. Those few days were precious. Being with him, sitting quietly with him, I felt like I knew him and he knew me.
I try once more to stop time, but it doesn’t work and I need to eat. I need to transform, go animal. At least that Gift, my own Gift, really does come naturally now, though I don’t use it often. I’m not afraid of it like I used to be, but I know it takes me to a different place. The animal doesn’t care about human stuff, about Annalise or even my father. I remember when I was first learning transforming and I shouted at the animal, expecting him to listen, expecting him to understand. Really I needed to listen to him, needed to understand him. Now I respect him, my animal, my other me. He’s brutal and fast and wild, but he’s at peace with that, with the world.
I don’t need to strip off before I change, I stand, take a breath, imagine wolf and
We – my animal me – caught a badger. A good meal. I’ve had maybe four hours’ solid sleep. No dreams. And now I’m yomping along as a human, practising my Gifts again, feeling good, feeling fast. It’s afternoon by the time I reach the place where I killed the two Hunters. I slow as I approach the clearing and skirt round it slowly.
The land is flat here. The trees are mature and the earth under them bare. The clearing is natural; a big tree has fallen and taken another couple with it so that three large tree trunks lie across the ground. They must have come down in the autumn and now it’s winter the area feels open and light but colder somehow too. The bodies of the Hunters are gone.
I don’t go into the clearing yet. I make my way round it, sticking to the edge, keeping a tree between me and the open, just in case. I carry on round the clearing and find nothing. I’m sure I’m alone here. Fairly sure. Ninety-five per cent sure.
Now I move slowly forward, keeping low and quiet, to where the bodies were. There are a lot of footmarks, and not from the dead Hunters but from live ones I think, and they lead north out of the clearing. They’ve taken the bodies. Looking at the tracks I think there are more than two Hunters and less than eight, which means four or six as they only ever work in pairs. But really I don’t read tracks well, so it’s a guess. And I’m certainly not good enough to say how old the tracks are, but the Hunters have only been dead three days so I think their bodies were taken recently. Very recently.
I try to follow the trail but I lose it and have to go back on myself and try again. This time I spot another footprint lying over one of the boot prints. This is different: something like a trainer, definitely not a Hunter’s boot, and my heart rate jumps.
That’s a stupid idea. Why would she be here? The chances of it being her are miniscule.
But, still, miniscule is more than zero.
I follow the Hunter tracks, scanning further into the forest and after a short distance I see the trainer prints again. I follow them but it’s a slow process. I can’t do it quickly in case I miss something, and there’s no obvious path. Unlikely as it seems, I wish I had Nesbitt with me. He’s the best tracker the Alliance has, but he’s never around when I need him.
I follow the trail through the forest and through the afternoon, until the sun is low in the sky. It’s too dark to see footprints now, but I don’t need to. From the top of a gentle slope looking down into the next valley I see something better: a thin line of smoke coming through the treetops.
They must be relaxed to light a fire.
Or it’s a trap.
Celia’s voice in my head says, Hunters wouldn’t give themselves away so close to where they’d lost two of their own.
I’m not sure how many of them there are. And they can go invisible, thanks to Wallend and his magic. They used their invisibility at BB, and many Hunters I’ve caught since had the ability. But I’ve got it too. And I want to get into the camp. There’s someone with them. I’m convinced of that. And it may be Annalise. There’s probably no more than six of them. Six I can take.
Six plus Annalise. If they’ve found her they’ll take her back a prisoner. Or maybe not. Maybe she’d be a hero to them: she shot Marcus, and perhaps Gabriel’s right and she was a spy for them all along. Perhaps it was her who told the Hunters about the apartment in Geneva and the cut that led to Mercury’s cottage
I need to take a closer look.
I’m weaving slowly and silently down the valley through the trees. The ground is bare in places but in others the trees thin and brambles block my path. It’s dark by the time I work my way through, and the distant hissing in my head from mobile phones is louder, so I go invisible and move silently on.
Then I see the first Hunter, a guard. I watch her for a minute or two. She stays in her position looking out to the forest and to me.
If there are six Hunters, I’m guessing there will be two guards and the other Hunters are resting, eating or perhaps already sleeping.
I move back and circle round to find the other guard. She’s at the edge of a small clearing. So two guards, as I thought. I’m making my way round to the first guard again when I pick up the hissing sound of a mobile phone. A third guard! But I can’t see her. She’s invisible.
So, three guards. But I’ve not been right round the camp so I do that now and, guess what, I pick up another hissing sound, another invisible guard. Four.
I go past her and back to the first Hunter, one of the visible ones. I watch and listen. After an hour or so, I hear footsteps – a fifth Hunter, coming up behind the first. This one is older. She walks up to the first Hunter and says a few words. The younger woman nods and goes back into the camp. I can’t see flames or smoke from the fire but I reckon it’s only thirty metres or so further on. The older Hunter looks relaxed but not lazy, like she’s done this a thousand times before. It’s the middle of the night and she’s probably dog tired but she casts her gaze around, seems to look at me, and my heart races, adrenaline kicking in. Has she spotted me?
I stay still. I don’t think she’s seen me. I’ve done nothing to give myself away. I’ve been sitting here well back, well hidden, though not invisible. I need to stay put. Any movement will alert her. Even going invisible now may change a shadow or a shape.
My breathing seems loud and I force it to calm.
And she looks away. She’s continuing to scan the area slowly and carefully but she hasn’t seen me. It was chance that she looked my way.
I need to work out what to do. There’s four guards. Four guards means at least six Hunters in total but probably more. They know someone killed their two friends. From my tracks they’ll know the killer was alone, that he killed with a knife. Will they know it’s me? I’m sure Celia would be smacking her forehead at this point, telling me, Of course they know it was you!
And that means they’ll be hoping I will come back. And so this is a trap. And again in my head I can see Celia saying, Are you stupid?! Two visible, two invisible. They want you to think they’re a smaller party than they are.
It’s a pretty basic trap, but it’s a trap for sure. The one thing I think they haven’t realized about me is that I can sense their mobile phones.
What do they know about me? They know I’ve eaten my father’s heart; they have his body so they’ll have worked that out. So they know I’ve got his Gifts. They know what his Gifts were but they won’t know which ones I’ve mastered yet. They probably know I won’t have mastered them all. They probably think I will, given time, so catching me sooner is better than later. Obviously they’d rather kill than catch me. This is definitely a trap.
And the other person in there? Could it be Annalise? They might know I want her. They might think I’ll want to rescue her. They might have caught her after the battle.
If it’s a trap, I should leave. But if that is Annalise . . .
I’ve searched for her for weeks and months. I can’t miss this chance.
So my options . . .
Option one: leave. Go back and tell Greatorex and get her little team out here to put their training to good use for once. They’d take two days to get here if we went at it hard. It’s a possibility. But then there’s also a possibility that the Hunters will have left and Annalise, if it’s her, will have gone too. And Greatorex might not agree to come at all. She’ll probably say it’s not worth the risk and move camp instead.
Option two: scout out the camp but don’t attack. Check if it’s Annalise in there. This is a good option. I can stay invisible long enough to get past the guards and into the camp and out again if I have to. If it’s not Annalise I can go and get Greatorex. Or just go. If it is Annalise . . .
Option three: attack. I’ve never attacked more than four Hunters in a group. They’ll be able to go invisible but they don’t like to do that in close fighting, in case they shoot each other. I can always kill a few and escape. If there are too many I can run, let them hunt me and pick them off one by one. There was only ever that one fast girl who could keep up with me. But if this is a trap then these Hunters will probably have been chosen because they have powerful Gifts that can be used against me, and I’ve no way of knowing what they are. The Gift I fear most is the one Celia has: the deafening, high-pitched noise. It incapacitates me, makes me vulnerable, and I’m not sure I could stay invisible if I got hit by something like that.
So: attacking is madness; scouting is risky; leaving is the sensible option.
That’s that then. Decision made. I attack.
I may be mad but I’m not suicidal: my attack has to be in the darkest, coldest part of the night, guerrilla style rather than all-out battle mode. I wait a few hours, but my hands are stiff, almost numb, which isn’t good, and I move back through the trees and run for ten minutes, getting myself warmed up, getting myself in the zone. I know what I have to do: remove the guards one by one, silently but quickly. Difficult, because two of them are invisible, but then who wants easy? Once I’ve finished with the guards, I can go into the camp and deal with whoever’s in there. I have to move fast but calmly. Be professional and keep thinking, Celia would say. Kill them quick, I say.
Back at my spot in the trees I look down at the first guard. She’s the old hand; she’ll be a good fighter. I mustn’t give her a chance to fight.
I take a deep breath, think of cool air, check I’m invisible, and then walk down to her, careful not to make any sound. Close now. The Fairborn in my hand. The Hunter is right in front of me, staring through me. I take one more step and slice across her throat, grabbing her body with my free hand. She tries to hit me, her lips moving, but instead of words blood comes out of her mouth.
I lower her to the ground as carefully as I would a sleeping baby, listening all the time. I can’t hear anything, so I run to the trees and on to the next guard, the first invisible one, slowing as I hear the hiss of her mobile. It’s loud but it gives me no sense of where she really is. I stop and listen for another noise, anything: her breath, a movement. But I get nothing, only the loud hiss of her phone.
I edge forward. It’s dark but now I see the trampled bracken and her footprints. I take another small step, arms outstretched. And the Fairborn helps me now. It senses her. It wants her blood.
I let it lead my hand. The Fairborn is straining and I know I’m only millimetres away from her. So I let the Fairborn loose, thrust fast into the air at chest level. It’s so sharp that her jacket, skin, even bone, hardly slow it and I feel warm blood on my fingers, and my right hand finds the Hunter’s mouth as she grunts loud and I pull the Fairborn down, ripping material and flesh. Hot, slippery guts spill over my left hand and a wet whimper escapes over my right. The Hunter is visible now, writhing on the ground, and I’m kneeling over her, holding her jaw closed, muffling her mouth. She’s another young woman, maybe in her mid twenties.
I wipe my hand on her clothes, and I clean the Fairborn too, risking going visible for a second or two, but I have to move much faster now. That was too slow and she made a noise, not a big one but enough to alert the other guards, if they’re good. I can’t risk the guards waking the others.
I have to get into the camp.
I go as fast and quiet as I can. The fire is low but bright and I can make out the shapes of three people lying near it. Further away, by a large tree, is another Hunter and near her, chained to the tree, is a hooded prisoner, a female prisoner, petite and slim. I need to concentrate. So, four Hunters here, two keeping guard, and the prisoner.
I slit the throat of the nearest sleeping Hunter but she kicks and jerks and I have to move to the next one fast. I don’t need to worry about being silent now. I need to be quick; the sleepers are waking but still don’t know what’s happening. The next Hunter is getting up but I push her down and stab her throat and take a step towards the third, but the second one isn’t giving in without a fight and she gets hold of my leg, clinging on, bleeding out. Somehow she has her gun in her hand and shoots. I’m still invisible but off balance and the bullet misses me and I kick her in the face and roll away.
That’s four Hunters dead, four still alive and it’s chaos now. The Hunter by the prisoner has gone invisible but is shouting for the guards. The Hunter by the campfire has got her gun. Fairborn in sheath, I send lightning out from each hand in the direction of both Hunters. Smoke and a scream comes from the one by the fire and I leap at her, falling on to her, and the Fairborn back in my hand knows where to drive itself: into her stomach and then ripping upwards. She screams again and the Fairborn slashes across and the Hunter goes silent. Then there’s shooting and I push away from the dead Hunter and roll away still further.
That’s five down and I’m crouched. The sixth Hunter, who was by the prisoner is now invisible and moving. She’s shooting all over the place but I can’t get an exact position on her. I throw myself flat to the ground and wait.
The shooting stops. My hands are slick with blood but the Fairborn is happy. I feel its vibration, its desire to do more work. There’s still three Hunters alive. And the prisoner. I look over to her. She’s still there, now lying curled up on the ground. Then I realize I’m not invisible any more! Fuck! Concentrate! Breathe. Think air! I check my hand and I’m invisible again. I was lucky they didn’t see me but it’s dark and I’m flat on the ground and anyway I’m invisible again.
Then a shout – ‘Lady two!’ – and whoever said it is moving fast to my right. It’s code for something, something that they’ve planned. I need to get out!
I run to my left as fast and silent as I can but only get three paces before my muscles cramp up: first my legs and then my arms and my stomach. I drop to my knees. Head on the ground. Trying to breathe quietly. Wanting to vomit. It’s some kind of magic. Bad, but not as bad as Celia’s noise. I can fight it if I heal.
I get a buzz from the healing and then run for the trees. I’ve almost reached them when the cramp hits me again. I’m on my knees and the shooting starts again and I roll over and over and send lightning out of my hands. And I hit a tree trunk and I heal again and get to my feet and the shooting is mad and there’s shouting and I dive to the side and throw lightning bolts, as many as I can, as far as I can. I’m buzzing from healing and somehow that seems to help me and I’m pissed off and terrified too. And I run around the clearing, sending lightning and flames and there’s a scream and more shots, but no more cramping. That has stopped.
I scan the clearing and the edge of the trees. I’m still, my breath coming hard, panicked. I have to calm it. Have to stay invisible too. I think I got the one who can do the cramp thing, but only because she’s not doing it any more. Then I see her, surprisingly close, lying half hidden by a tree, her arm outstretched to me, her eyes open.
So that means there’s two Hunters left.
I hear a sound to my right. I send lightning there. The biggest bolt I can make. And I run a few steps through the trees. The shooting starts again. I drop to the ground and lie flat.
It goes quiet.
If they’re dead they’re visible. I raise my head to look.
Nothing . . . or maybe something. Smoke. And then I see the seventh Hunter. She’s not dead but kneeling on the ground, blackened. Her jacket smoking. Her right arm limp at her side and her left hand holding her gun loosely. She’s looking around. Dazed.
And then the final Hunter becomes visible behind her. Somehow I got her too, even though she’s further away. I can’t see her face. She’s lying on the ground.
I have to concentrate hard on staying invisible – breathe slowly, think air – and then I move to look at the girl on the ground. Her face is burnt and blackened. Her eyes open. She’s definitely not faking it. I allow myself to become visible.
The kneeling Hunter is breathing hard. I step towards her so she can see me and she tries to raise her gun. The Fairborn slits her throat. More blood on my hand. Another body lying on the ground.
The prisoner is still curled up on the ground. Ankles chained to the tree. Hands zip-tied in front. A canvas hood covers her head, tied round her neck where strands of her blonde hair stick out.
I’m shaking. I take a breath and another and some more.
My hands are sticky with blood. I grip the Fairborn tighter and grab the prisoner by the shoulder. She jolts back but is silent. I cut at the string that ties the hood, careless of the point of the Fairborn as it nicks her neck. That’s the least of what Annalise deserves. I pull off the hood.
Blonde hair tumbles out and half covers her face. Annalise’s hair?
It’s hard to see in the dark.
She shakes her head back. She’s gagged but her eyes are staring at me. Blue eyes full of fear, full of silver. White Witch eyes.
My hands are shaking harder now, shaking with rage and fury, and the Fairborn is buzzing in my grip and I drive it into the ground and walk away.
Want a break from reality? We don't have a magic wand, but these fantasy fiction series – from Terry's Pratchett's Discworld to Katherine Arden's take on medieval Russia – will transport you to faraway lands.
The YA author discusses the influences behind her Half Bad trilogy and how she draws on formidable characters for her fantasy worlds