A week long journey wasn’t enough
To know where it’s going to end
But girl, you’re headed home
To a place that knows no bounds
Between the shores of your soul
(‘A song for Sarina’ by Jasper Davis, 2012)
On a freeway through Austria – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. 08:05 AM.
Sarina had never been fond of long car rides. They were a waste of time. Travelling marked a period in which nothing important got done; everyone involved just sat around waiting with too much time to think.
The thinking was the worst part. It took her back to places she’d left, to poor decisions and lost opportunities.
Things had been different when Jasper was still around. Sarina had enjoyed the peaceful moments they’d shared, the wordless bliss of listening to music together, feeling no need to talk. They’d just… understood one another.
But Jasper was gone, and every minute Sarina spent listening to his song on her music player reminded her of his absence. Turning the player off was no help. Even without the music to fill the void in her chest, the quiet hum of the truck’s motors pulled her mind back to the long hours they’d travelled together, shoulder to shoulder, humming along to the beats.
Strangely enough, she didn’t feel that he was gone. Her head told her that he was, but whenever she drifted off into a brief fitful sleep, her heart reached out to him as if he was right next to her. Then the next bump in the road startled her awake, and she found herself alone in the cramped darkness of the cargo van’s rear section, surrounded by stacks of plastic-wrapped yarn – and the kids.
I’m coming for you, she thought, her fingers tightening around the grip of Ace’s gun that was holstered at her waist. And I’m going to find the ones responsible for this. Don’t you doubt it for a second.
There was a saying that taking a life changes you forever, and maybe the obliteration of Raven’s mercenary gang would change her for multiple eternities, but she was beyond caring about the sanctity of her soul. She had tasted a power so immense, so intoxicating and thoroughly overwhelming that it challenged her belief in the existence of the Divine.
Now that even her parents were gone, the small group of companions she’d assumed responsibility for was all she had. She was prepared to do anything it took to keep them safe. Anything it took to free Jasper from Gentleman’s clutches.
She had shed the doubts and fears that used to plague her, and her power came to her as easily as breathing. She could feel it stir at the edge of her consciousness whenever her mood shifted from melancholic to furious, though she did her best to keep her power contained. Any change she made to the environment would draw unnecessary attention, and she had no delusions about immortality. A sniper bullet could kill her as quickly and easily as it did anyone else.
While Sarina was brooding, Emily stirred on her lap. It was too dark to see her face, But Sarina felt a small hand clasp her forearm, squeezing her gently as if to make sure she was still there.
“Hey,” Sarina whispered. “Everything okay? Do we need to find a bathroom again?”
“No,” Emily whispered back. “But I’m real hungry.”
“Me too,” Patrick’s voice came from a little further ahead. He had volunteered for the scout’s position, and Sarina could make out his bleary-eyed face next to the tarp at the very back, illuminated by a thin strip of morning light.
“Hungry,” Snow echoed, almost too quiet to hear. The white haired girl had been silent since the four of them had snuck aboard the cargo van to ride across the Slovakian border. Sarina couldn’t tell whether Snow had been sleeping or dwelling in her own world of thought, but it was reassuring to hear her voice now.
“How far are we?” Sarina asked.
“Well past Vienna,” Patrick reported. He had pulled back the tarp by a finger’s breadth, just far enough to peek at the outside world. “Not sure where we are exactly, but that big river’s right next to us. Whatever it’s called.”
“It’s the Danube,” Sarina said. “I’ll come take a look.”
She shifted as carefully as she could manage, allowing Emily to rest her head on a packet of yarn instead of Sarina’s lap. But the little Empath maintained her grip on Sarina’s arm.
“Is something the matter?” Sarina whispered to Emily, blinking the wetness from her eyes before anyone could see her face.
“He really misses you too,” Emily whispered in a drowsy, absentminded voice.
Sarina froze, momentarily paralyzed by the emotions that flooded through her. She couldn’t hold back anymore. A trickle of tears ran down her cheek.
“Sorry,” Emily murmured softly. “I know we said no talking about him. But you wanted to hear that.”
“I did,” Sarina replied. She gently squeezed Emily’s arm, though the gesture wasn’t only meant for the girl. It kept Sarina’s feelings from boiling over and her powers from seeping through the cracks in her resolve.
They had agreed not to talk about Jasper so Emily didn’t feel obliged to check on him. She was just a little girl, and she shouldn’t have to witness whatever it was the villains did to Jasper to make him cooperate. It was one of the things none of them wanted to think about.
Emily said nothing, but she let go of Sarina’s arm and sat up to allow passage. Patrick either hadn’t heard their quiet conversation or pretended not to. He kept peering beyond the tarp, his face impassive and unreadable. Only a faint rustle of cloth came from Snow’s direction.
“Let’s pick a city we see in passing,” Sarina suggested to brighten the mood. “I’ll take us there. Then we can take a look around, go shopping and eat. How’s that sound?”
Patrick didn’t flash the boyish grin she’d hoped to see, but he turned his head to look at her at least. Losing Ace and Tess had hit him the hardest, but considering his young age, he held himself together quite well. The streak of light that fell across his face illuminated his freckles, making them stand out against his pale Irish skin.
“Shopping?” He asked. “Sure, whatever. But we don’t have any money left, do we?”
“We’ll do it your way,” Sarina said, surprised that she could suggest theft without even an iota of shame.
“My way? You mean like back when Ace and I…” he cut himself off, and Sarina saw his face fall before he turned his back to her.
She kept quiet and let him have his moment of reminiscence. Thinking about Ace and Tess provoked her own memories, bringing her back to the moment she’d boiled with rage and channeled her full power potential, unleashing it onto the city of Bratislava as a means of sending a message to the one person responsible.
And she’d be damned if it hadn’t felt good. It had been so much better than curling up in a little ball to shed crybaby tears. Sarina was done getting pushed around and used in other people’s schemes. The next time she encountered the villain – and she would – she wasn’t just going to push back. She was going to knock him into the moon.
“Stealing is wrong,” Emily piped up. “But I’m gonna save the world, so it’s okay if I take what I need. Aaaaand I can distribute rations to my sidekicks.”
“We’re your sidekicks? When did that happen?” Sarina asked, allowing herself a small grin.
“When I decided to join you, duh!” Emily declared as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“But you haven’t let us in on your world saving scheme,” Sarina pointed out.
“I can’t. If I tell you, it’s not gonna work.”
This doesn’t seriously have anything to do with me, does it? Sarina paused to consider, then dropped the idea. Emily clearly wasn’t going to tell her, and there was nothing to read from her face right that moment. The darkness was working in the little Empath’s favor.
“Alright, then,” Sarina said. “We’ll help you save the world, but our first stop is Paris. That isn’t going to change. You know why.”
“Clear as eggs is eggs,” Emily said earnestly. “It’s a good idea, too. We don’t even have to talk to the Sun King. I just gotta see him.”
“Good girl,” Sarina said. She reached out to where she suspected the girl’s face, found a soft cheek, and gently traced it with a thumb.
The girl grumbled in protest, but didn’t resist. “Ew. I already got a Mom. She’s just somewhere else.”
“But I’m taking care of you right now,” Sarina said.
She pulled her hand back to feel out the stacks of plastic-wrapped cargo instead. Even though she had vanished some of them to make room for her quartet of refugees, they were still everywhere, making movement difficult. She scrambled her way to Patrick’s faintly illuminated shape by the tarp, careful not to disturb that other girl who was frighteningly easy to overlook.
Snow, she reminded herself. Her name is Snow.
Sarina made her way to the cramped space where Patrick sat, his face now scrunched up sullenly. “What if the Sun King doesn’t know anything?” he asked, looking up at her. “Where are we going then? Everyone’s looking for us..”
“Did you hear that on the radio?” Sarina asked.
“Yeah,” Patrick said. “Or television. Couldn’t understand most of it, but it’s all over the news.”
Nothing new there, Sarina thought. After everything she’d experienced over the past few days, she didn’t even care enough to be mad about it. The only people whose opinion mattered were either gone or right here with her.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do in that case,” she admitted. “But if the Sun King doesn’t know where Gentleman is, we’ll figure something out.”
“Okay,” Patrick replied. She waited for more – some kind of argument, maybe – but nothing came. He just shuffled back against the side of the truck to make room for her, looking anywhere but in her direction.
She opened her mouth to tell him she understood his feelings, but something in his eyes told her that she should leave him alone. She leaned over him and tugged at the tarp, pulling it back just enough to see what was outside.
The sudden influx of sunlight dazzled her. She blinked until she could make out the six-lane freeway they were on, the long tail of vehicles following behind them, and the landscape that extended beyond the traffic barrier bordering the freeway.
As Patrick had told her, the road followed the shoreline of the Danube River. Having never seen it with her own eyes before, it was wider than she’d expected – a couple hundred meters at least – and flowed with majestic ease, barely seeming to move at all. Beyond it was a small town, dominated by an ancient looking structure with high-peaked twin towers and a dome-shaped building. It reminded Sarina of one of the cathedrals she’d seen in Paris. Venerable architecture, built to last for eternity.
“Is it pretty?” Emily’s voice piped up from behind.
“Yes,” Sarina replied, still blinking at the sunbathed landscape. “Why don’t you take a look for yourself?”
“I’m gonna see it in a minute,” Emily replied. “You’ve already decided we’re going there. And we want to eat, sooooo…”
Sarina raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. “Figured me out. Get ready, I’m taking us across the river.”
Sarina didn’t know the town’s name, and she didn’t think it mattered. They were ghosts here, just drifting through on the way to Paris. The townspeople couldn’t see or hear them. The locals went about their daily business without as much as a glance in the direction of the strange group that was strolling through their town.
Without the cover of Patrick’s powers, the Nameless would have stood out like a sore thumb. And if anyone recognized Sarina in particular, well… there could have been a mass panic. But Sarina trusted Patrick and wasn’t even trying to conceal her face. She wore an oversize shirt that fell loosely to her thighs and did a decent enough job at hiding the gun holster that rode on her hip. All of her modest belongings were stashed away in a small rucksack, and her winged dancing shoes now adorned her feet instead of taking up bag space.
She was still as fond of those shoes as she had always been, though now the shoes reminded her of the weak, naïve little girl that had died alongside Ace and Tess in Bratislava. She never wanted to be that girl again. Wearing the shoes, seeing them on her feet, kept her from falling back into old patterns.
Snow pattered along in the same alabaster doll’s dress she’d worn when Sarina first met her. Even after all this time, it was still impossibly clean, as striking as the tresses of long white hair that tumbled over her shoulders.
Emily was comparatively inconspicuous, though an attentive observer might have been puzzled by the oversized boy’s clothes she’d borrowed from Patrick. The shirt hung to her knees, and the pant legs had been rolled up several times. Only Patrick with his freckles and his dirty-blonde hair would have fit right in without drawing the attention of the locals.
Sarina might have envied the townspeople for the mundaneness of their lives if they had seemed relaxed and peaceful, but that wasn’t the case. The people here were afraid. There were barely any pedestrians outside and hardly any traffic on the roads. Sarina spotted anxious faces behind closed windows. It looked like mass exodus to escape a war that hadn’t begun yet.
Considering that Bratislava was less than a hundred miles away, and that Belarus had declared martial law in response to the recent surge in villain activity, maybe that idea wasn’t too far off.
Finding a place to stop for breakfast and some travel rations proved to be a challenge. The first two grocery stores they passed were closed with no clear indication of when they would open back up, and while no one complained, Sarina could tell from the weary faces around her that they needed more than just food. They hadn’t rested comfortably in days.
The town itself was as lovely as Sarina had expected after seeing it from a distance. Much of its architecture was a remnant from the medieval period, with many fountains, carved stone effigies and quiet, open spaces interspersed by greenery. None of it could distract her from her grumbling stomach, though. Or from the interceptor aircrafts that soared overhead, leaving long white trails in their wake.
They’re headed northeast to deal with the villains in Russia, Sarina assumed as she gazed up at the sky. Or maybe they’re looking for me.
As if he had read her mind, Patrick gently nudged her arm. “Hey, Sarina. Let’s keep avoiding cameras, okay? I don’t understand all the German gibberish, but a lot of people have their radios on. And, um, your name comes up pretty often.”
“Sure,” she replied, trying to sound like she didn’t care. “But I don’t think this town has video surveillance except maybe on parking lots. Austria and Switzerland are both pretty strict about protection of privacy.”
Patrick shrugged and continued down the sidewalk, hands jammed into his pockets. “Okay. We should get caught up on the news, though. I can’t tell what’s going on with all the German talk. I’ll fill you in if anyone tunes in to BBC.”
A gentle pressure on Sarina’s hand reminded her of the white-haired girl who was walking alongside her, fingers laced together with hers. The multi-layered white dress flowed about her legs with each small, pattering step.
For once, Snow’s face was alert, and her eyes rose to meet Sarina’s. “No listen if news bad,” she said in her heavily accented, broken English. “Sometimes better forget. I forget. Make bad go away.”
“Hey, Snow White woke up!” Emily’s voice chimed brightly. “Aaaand Prince Patrick didn’t even have to kiss her.”
“What?” Patrick protested, sounding so defensive that Sarina couldn’t help but smirk.
Snow paid the banter no mind. Her attention had already drifted elsewhere, her almond shaped eyes fixated on something ahead of them. Her lips moved to shape a single word.
“Food,” she said.
Following her glance, Sarina scanned the small square ahead of them. It was surrounded by a number of tidy cafés and stores, none of which seemed to have any visitors. All of the pedestrian traffic centered around a two story Art Nouveau building whose white and green logo identified it as a department store.
The store wasn’t just open, it was the scene of a full-fledged panic buying spree. Many of the people coming through the main entrance were loaded with enough groceries to keep a family fed for weeks.
Sarina stopped at the edge of the square, a good distance from the confluence of the crowd. It was hard not to keep walking. The scent of freshly baked pretzels wafted from the store, making her mouth water.
Snow let go of Sarina’s hand to clutch the sides of her dress instead. Her eyes, still fixated on the store’s automatic glass doors, became vacant again.
“It’s a bad idea,” Patrick said sullenly. “But damn, I want some pretzels. With salted butter. Or ham and cheese. Or… something.”
“Um, they probably have cameras in there,” Emily said, using one hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “But there’s a lot of people. Do you think anyone would pay attention to us if we don’t look too weird?”
“We can go if no one recognizes me,” Sarina said. “But Snow, you have to wait outside. If anyone sees you on camera, you’ll stand out.”
“Yeah,” Patrick said, not so subtly squinting at Snow’s dress. “We’ll bring you pretzels, or whatever you want.”
“A new dress!” Emily suggested. “Sara could do her hair and make her look like an Austrian Princess. She’d be really pretty.”
Snow blinked, a ripple of confusion passing over her face before she turned to Emily. “No,” she said in the firmest tone Sarina had ever heard from her. “No dress.”
So much for not standing out if we do get caught on camera, Sarina thought. She wanted to trust Snow’s ability to keep herself hidden even without Patrick’s powers, but they had never been able to make the cell phone camera test with Snow. The white-haired Revoker hadn’t been aware or responsive when they’d tried.
“Would you mind waiting for a few minutes, Snow?” Sarina asked, speaking slowly for the Asian girl’s sake. “We’ll be quick, I promise. Or maybe Patrick or Emily could wait with you?”
“No way I’m staying here when there’s food in that place,” Patrick protested. “She’ll be fine. As long as she doesn’t wander off, I’ve got the range to cover her.”
“I stay,” Snow said quietly.
She gathered the silky spill of her dress and raised it to her ankles, then made five small, dainty steps towards one of the chestnut trees that lined the circular expanse of the cobble-stoned square. There she sat, the white silk fanning out around her like the petals of a flower. With her straight-backed posture and her teardrop-tattooed face raised towards the sun, she could have passed for a fairytale princess straight out of a storybook.
She’s so pretty and I don’t know anything about her, Sarina thought. Emily hadn’t commented on their absentminded companion, and Sarina never thought to ask. As intriguing and mysterious as Snow was, she kept on slipping from Sarina’s mind as if…
“I could stay, but I think you’re gonna need me in there, maybe,” Emily said, derailing Sarina’s train of thought. A moment later, the thought was gone from her mind.
Sarina didn’t question the Empath. “Come on, then,” she said, already on the way to a small clothier’s shop that was situated on the eastern side of the plaza. The store itself didn’t interest her, but there was a rack of colorful scarves outside, protected from the weather by a bright orange awning.
“That one’s closed,” Patrick called behind her.
“I know,” Sarina replied. She plucked a random scarf from the rack and continued on towards the department store, wrapping her hair into a small bun as she went.
None of her companions commented on the missed payment. Patrick and Emily caught up before Sarina reached the store’s glass sliding door, taking position behind her. Once she had finished tying the scarf about the twist of her hair, she waited for a lull in the steady stream of panic shoppers before entering the store.
A small entry hall with a polished marble floor and fancy white and green columns opened up in front of her. At the center of the hall was a two-way moving staircase leading up and down, and Sarina could tell from the sheer amount of people emerging from below that most of the foodstuffs was being sold there. On the ground level, the entry hall led to a number of small, sectioned off stores. Mannequins and display goods behind shop windows indicated the purpose of each: electronics, shoes and women’s fashion.
Having no interest in any of these, Sarina turned her attention to the source of the delicious smell: a small mobile sales stand that had been set up right next to the main entrance. It was stocked with pretzels of varying size and composition, all of which looked equally delicious. The man behind the stand was looking straight through her as if she wasn’t there. She couldn’t assume that he’d fail to notice disappearing pretzels, though.
Patrick couldn’t resist. He started forward almost immediately, but Sarina managed to grab his shoulder before he’d moved more than two steps. He came to a sudden stop and turned, shooting her a death glare. “Let go!” he protested. “We’re here for food, and I’m going to get stuffed.”
“Not yet,” she said. “We can’t pay, and someone’s going to notice. Keep moving.” She pushed him in the direction of the moving stairway. He resisted for a second before moving along.
“Can we take some when we leave?” Emily asked with a hopeful expression.
“Maybe,” Sarina said. “For now, let’s just try to look normal while we take what we need downstairs.”
As she stepped onto the moving stairway and began her descent, a flicker of images from the electronics store drew her attention. Every single one of the television screens in the display window showed the same scene: camera footage from Bratislava. Sarina couldn’t understand the commentary over the department store music that trickled from nearby loudspeakers, but she could read the German taglines that scrolled at bottom of each screen.
Part of her wanted to look away. But another part of her, a stronger part, felt a tingle of excitement at the realization that she’d succeeded in spreading her message to Gentleman. It put a faint smile on her lips as she rode the stairway down to the basement floor.
“What did the tagline say?” Patrick asked behind her, sounding needlessly concerned.
“It said, the Antithesis leaves Bratislava. Current location unknown,” Sarina translated for him.
“I hope you feel bad about it,” Emily said, pinching Sarina’s hip.
Sarina didn’t respond. There was no way she’d fool the Empath, and Emily had already made her disapproval clear. That pinch actually hurt.
“Come on,” she said instead. “Let’s go shopping.”