Wildman set a brutal pace. For such a small, wiry guy, he could really move. I couldn’t go on much longer, and we were already deep in the jungle. “Can we take a break?” I gasped. I stumbled into a tree and stopped, my shoulder throbbing. Without its support, I probably would’ve dropped to my knees.
“We’re exhausted.” Teddy hadn't said anything, but his feet had started dragging, leaving furrows in the thick loam. I hitched him closer to my side; my muscles burned, and my arm felt like it was going to fall off.
I rested my forehead against the tree. “Why not here? How much farther?”
“Spider.” He smacked the top of my head.
“What?” I reeled back, and tripped over a root. Teddy and I feel in a heap and I stared in shock at the fuzzy form on the ground that was bigger than my head. The legs spasmed, then drew in. “Oh my god.”
“More.” Wildman pointed up. “Babies.”
Disgusting. I shuddered. The branches in the tree above us were alive with scuttling bodies as big as my hand. A few dangled on strands of webbing, lowering down.
I found the energy to get me and Teddy up off the ground and away from that tree.
When we stopped, I made sure I looked all around the small clearing Wildman picked out, checking the ground, the trees, and even throwing a rock into a thick patch of bushes. The sun was fully up, and it was sweltering, even in the dim shade.
“Safe.” Wildman just dropped to the ground and curled up, his head in the dirt. His eyes were closed already.
I swept the ground of the larger rocks and tried to make Teddy comfortable on the ground. I arranged his head on his pack, then curled up against his back. “It’ll be okay, Teddy. I’m going to take care of you.” I twined our fingers together and held him close.
It had only been a few hours, but his silence disturbed me. It felt different from his usual fugues. Usually, even though his mind was working on a different wavelength than the rest of us, he’d still been… present. This wasn’t the same.
More than anything else, I needed my Teddy back.
The ground vibrated by my head, and I opened my eyes. Directly in front of me were a pair of boots. A cold blade touched my throat, resting against my Adam’s apple.
“Did you really think you could get away from me, from the king’s justice, after what you did?” Sir Varket sneered. His clothes and hair were disheveled, but he stood behind the guards as if he were in the midst of court, a peacock on display with his loud voice and dramatic gestures.
I didn’t say anything; even swallowing was likely to get my throat cut.
“Get them up.”
Two guards grabbed me by the arms and yanked me to my feet. I stood rigid between them, shaking with fear and anger. Varket moved closer, stepping up to Teddy who hung limp between the guards holding on to him. “You two have made a lot of powerful people really angry.” He trailed a finger across Teddy’s cheek. “Overloaded him, did you? How sweet of you to get him ready for me; I do so enjoy them when they’re in this state… until they come to.”
How could I have believed Wildman this would be safe? We might not have been attacked by animals, but I should’ve known Varket would follow us, even outside the city.
Wait. Two? I tried not to move my head; I didn’t want to be obvious, but when I scanned the clearing, I didn’t see Wildman at all.
Varket turned toward me. “You’re still alive. I’m shocked, after how much power you threw into Schvesla’s machine through your friend. You two are very special. Maybe even special enough to fix the machine.”
“Never.” I finally found my voice, and it didn’t waver. “We’ll die first.”
Smirking, he patted my cheek. “You’ll wish you could, but the king doesn’t believe in beheading traitors any longer. He’s decided to grant you two leniency… a lifetime in the cells with daily visits from his special advisors. One way or the other, you’ll learn your place and do as you’re told.”
I lunged forward, but the guards held my arms too tight. I fought them, but it was no use. They bound my arms behind my back and attached a rope around my neck that was also attached to Teddy’s. If I fought, they let him go, choking us both.
We marched through the jungle, back toward the city. Even if I could use my ability, the guards kept their distance from me, as if I could still supplant their will with mine. That gave me hope that my power would come back and Teddy really would be okay eventually, but that only led to more despair.
How would they use me, use us, once that happened? We were doomed, unless Wildman found a way to help us, but he was one scrawny boy against eight guards. No matter how ferociously he fought, he could not overpower them all, and Teddy and I were less than useless.
The trees were thin enough here to see the sky as the light began to fade. We hadn’t yet reached the city walls, which meant we’d walked a lot farther than I thought before we collapsed from exhaustion earlier in the day. I looked up at the sky, wondering when those giant birds would appear.
The king might not kill us, but if Varket didn’t make camp, it would happen anyway. We were making so much noise, he hadn’t even noticed the way the jungle went still around us, but I did. I didn’t want to die, but I knew they’d make us suffer in unspeakable ways. Teddy would have agreed with me.
I didn’t warn Varket or the guards.
Now on to more flash!