I desperately searched among the trees for signs of movement. My lungs seemed to shrink with every breath, and I bent over in a fit of coughing.
“We’ll find her,” Nica wheezed. ”We just have to keep looking.”
I nodded. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. “I just need a second.”
Why wasn’t Emily responding? Why hadn’t we heard her scream?
The sudden sound of branches snapping in the distance sent us stumbling in pursuit.
Dense, shoulder high thickets made it impossible for us to move quickly. Branches whipped at my cheeks and bare legs, but I hardly felt the sting.
Above us, thick canopies blocked out the moon. I couldn’t see a damn thing. Terrified of getting separated, I fumbled for Nica’s hand.
It felt like we’d been running forever when finally, I could see a soft blue light filtering through the trees ahead. A clearing!
We rushed towards it, trying as hard as we could to be quiet. I was about to move into the open when Nica wrenched me back.
Her eyes were wild. With one finger pressed to her lips, she pulled me to stand behind an old spruce tree.
My stomach twisted at the sound of sickening, guttural voices emanating from the field.
It was them. A group of hunched creatures, carrying Emily’s limp body on their backs.
The first thing I noticed was their skin. A sickly shade of green-grey, covered in what I could only assume to be warts. They didn’t seem to have any ears and their faces were mostly flat, like a toads, with two bulbous black eyes.
But more than anything, it was their arms that disturbed me the most; exceedingly thin and disproportionately long in comparison to their short bodies, dragging in the dirt behind them like dead appendages.
And they had my little sister. They were touching her.
The thought made me physically sick. Bile rushed up my throat. I turned away and retched.
Nica rubbed my shoulder. I could hear her sniffling.
“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed. “This is all my fault.”
“Don’t,” I said, my voice brittle.
“They’ve stopped walking.”
I glanced up. The toad-men dropped Emily’s body. I cringed as she hit the dirt with a loud thud.
Oh god. What have they done to her?
They circled around her with arms pointing inwards. All I could see was their backs.
“Are they –?”
Scorching hot wind whipped at my hair. I screamed, feeling my skin blister and crack. I could hear Nica shrieking beside me.
Then, as swiftly as it had started, the wind came to an abrupt stop – and with it, the pain.
I examined my hands and arms for damages. Nothing. It was all in my head.
Nica’s eyes were glued to the field when I turned to check on her. Her skin was abnormally pale, even in the moonlight.
Dread crept up from the pit of my stomach.
I forced myself to look.
It was empty.
“That looked incredibly painful.”
The voice came from right behind me. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Spinning on my toes, I looked up into the face of a young man – and lost my breath.
His eyes were the most startling shade of amber that I had ever seen. The precise color of liquid honey in the sunlight, flecked with gold and alive with light. They locked onto mine, unblinking.
I appraised him, slack-jawed. He looked like he crept straight out of a Jane Austen novel, in a tight-fitting black waistcoat layered over a white ruffle-cuff shirt. All that was missing was the top hat. Instead, his hair flowed freely in shoulder-length waves, as fair as champagne.
Was this guy for real?
I took a step back, bumping into a tree.
“W-who are you?” I sputtered.
“Name’s Jack,” the young man said. He had an unusual accent; Scottish, perhaps. Mixed with something I couldn’t quite place. “And we’re here to help you.”
I blinked at him. “We?”
Jack held up his left hand.
At his signal, a group of people emerged from between the trees. They too were clothed in a similar fashion, only they wore black, floor-length cloaks, hooded to conceal their faces.
“What is this, some kind of cult?” Nica hissed.
Simultaneously, they pulled back their hoods.
None of them looked to be much older than us; early to mid-twenties, I guessed. Yet there was something off about them. Something altogether ominous.
It was the way they carried themselves; poised and unnaturally fluent with their movements.
“Sir,” A man addressed Jack. “We must make haste.”
“Aye.” Jack studied Nica for a moment before his eyes landed back on me. “Would you two like to come with us?”
Nica walked to stand beside me. “Where exactly are you going?”
Jack smirked crookedly at us. “I’m not so sure you’d believe me.”
“We just watched those things disappear into thin air with our sister. I’m feeling pretty open-minded,” she snapped.
His eyes softened. “Ah. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Sir,” pressed the same young man as before.
“Yes, I know,” Jack sighed. “Vevila?”
A petite young woman curtsied then rushed to stand before me. She bared a striking resemblance to Jack, with long, fair hair and striking eyes. Only hers were a lovely violet-blue, much like the petals of an Iris flower, and framed in heavy, dark lashes.
She regarded me, doe-eyed.
“Please don’t be afraid.” Her voice was soft. Melodious. “My name’s Vevila. I’m going to help you.”
She reached into her cloak and pulled out a small, red satin pouch tied with golden thread. She poured the contents into her hand; a vibrant orange powder.
“You mean drug her,” Nica snapped.
“Close your eyes,” Vevila instructed me.
I shook my head.
“Get away from me,” I growled, trying my best to appear tough.
In a blur, Nica tackled Vevila to the ground.
The men behind Jack moved quickly. They lifted Nica’s thrashing body and pinned her to a tree. She screamed at me to run.
Vevila stood, brushed the dirt from her knees and wiped at the blood trailing from her nose with the back of her free hand. Then, with a hushed apology, she tossed the powder at my face.
Engulfed in a neon cloud, I gasped for air.
The breath I sucked in was deep and long, relieving the burning sensation in my chest.
Surprisingly, the air didn’t irritate me at all. It smelled sweet, like lavender and chamomile.
I slid against the bark of the tree until I sat against the roots.
Don’t close your eyes, I commanded myself.
“It’ll be alright.” Though Vevila was crouched just beside me, her voice sounded distant. “Just relax.”
“Mm.” I tried to protest, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate.
Nica’s protests faded into silence as my vision blurred into darkness.ns 18.104.22.168da2