AL STONE

CHAPTER ONE

No Retreat

 

CHARLIE KNEW THE RULE: one hit and he was dead.

His wary eyes scanned the surrounding forest, his rifle clasped in a tight grip as he held it at eye level. Although the cold air was fresh and odourless, his nose detected an earthy, musty scent behind his mask. Braced against a tree, the only sounds he could hear were his own breathing, the rush of blood pumping through his veins and the crunch of dead leaves beneath his boots. He saw no one, but his instincts told him they were out there, waiting. He had already defeated two opponents – one target shot in the head, the other in the back –

‘I swear they put ants in my suit,’ a familiar voice interjected.

Lowering his weapon, Charlie lifted his mask onto his head and turned to Richmond, who was scratching behind his left thigh, his rifle on the ground, propped up against the tree. Richmond glanced up at him through his yellow thermal goggles.

Charlie held his arms out to the sides. ‘Seriously?’

‘What? It’s itching,’ Richmond complained.

Shaking his head, Charlie snickered. Even in his camouflage army attire – the same uniform as Charlie’s – Richmond looked anything but the hardened soldier. ‘I’m surprised we aren’t already dead with you dropping your gun every five seconds.’ Turning his back to Richmond, he poked his head out from behind the tree; the coast was still clear. Not far from them, he saw what resembled a car. The only parts remaining of the windowless, rusty blue vehicle were three doors – including the boot – and the bonnet. He glanced back at Richmond. ‘Grab your gun.’

Richmond seized his weapon and joined him on lookout.

‘We’ll get a better view of the flag from the car,’ Charlie said.

‘Can’t be that many of them left, right?’

Charlie returned his gaze to the car, which was a good fifty feet away from them. ‘We’re about to find out.’ His eyes shifted back to Richmond. ‘You ready?’ He saw Richmond’s cheeks lift through his goggles, hinting at a smile.

‘Ready is my middle name, bro.’

‘I thought it was Anthony.’

‘It’s my code name – just get with the programme. You’re not the only one with a secret identity, you know,’ Richmond said, shaking his head.
Charlie grinned. ‘We are so dead.’ He lowered his mask back over his face, and the two of them took off through the oak forest.

Within seconds, a loud cry cut through the silence, followed by the fluttering noise of birds scattering in the canopy of trees. The boys stopped and turned back in the direction they had come from.

‘Was that one of ours?’ Richmond asked.

‘How am I supposed to know?’

‘Do your thing.’

‘No.’

‘Why not? No one will know.’

‘They will if a giant sinkhole opens –’ A shadow flitted at the edge of Charlie’s vision, and he glanced in its direction, a cold shiver running through his body as he held a firmer grip on his rifle.

‘What is it?’ Richmond asked. ‘Did you see something?’

‘Yeah. I mean, maybe. I don’t know.’

‘Well, which is it?’

Charlie didn’t respond. He kept his eyes trained in the direction of the disturbance, his breathing accelerating. Whatever it was he thought he’d seen had moved far too quickly for his comfort. He only knew of one thing that could move that fast – and it wasn’t human.

‘Are we dealing with the normal stuff or the other kind?’

Charlie relaxed his arms and turned to Richmond. Although he couldn’t see his expression, he had heard the panic in his voice. ‘It’s probably nothing.’

‘Probably? And what if it is something? Are you gonna turn it into an avatar?’ Charlie saw Richmond’s shoulders bobbing up and down before he heard his laughter. ‘You know, ’cause of the blue paint and you being –’

‘Yeah, I got it. And quit comparing me to fictional creatures.’

‘They’re called Na’vi.’

Charlie pointed his rifle at Richmond. ‘You wanna become a Na’vi –?’

The sound of footsteps put an end to their conversation. They glanced in the direction they had been heading. Nudging Richmond, Charlie motioned to a tree about twenty feet from the car, which they headed towards.

‘I think now is about the time you use your super senses,’ said Richmond.

‘We need to stop freaking out. God, we are so paranoid.’

‘Gee, I wonder why. It’s not as if there are monsters out there searching for the one thing we just happen to have.’ Richmond didn’t attempt to mask his sarcasm. ‘I bet it’s Candra. She’s probably messing with us again.’

‘Or – and this is just a guess – it could be the other team.’

Richmond lifted his mask onto his head. ‘I’m being serious. Maybe this is one of her tests.’

‘It’s not Candra. She knows what today is. Besides, she wouldn’t risk exposing me.’

Richmond glanced around the forest. ‘Where is backup when you need it?’

‘Look, we can do this. You’re the main target, so I’ll distract them while you take cover –’

The sound of something snapping made Charlie and Richmond look out from behind the tree. Charlie spotted a movement some fifteen feet away from them. ‘Head for the car. Keep your guard up.’ Richmond nodded and lowered his mask back over his face. As he was about to head off, Charlie grabbed his arm and said, ‘Don’t put your gun down.’

He and Richmond took off in opposite directions.

Within seconds, Charlie spotted a figure peeking out from behind a tree a few yards away from him. The enemy released fire, and he took cover. Squatting next to a tree, he combed the area. The person was on the move again. He glanced back at the car and saw Richmond, who raised a gloved hand – his index finger pointing up, signalling one enemy.

Seeing a rock at his feet, Charlie picked it up and threw it away from him. When the enemy fired in the direction of the noise, he ran out from behind the tree, catching a glimpse of the red armband on the camouflage suit, and fired.

The blue paint hit the tree, alerting his opponent, who turned in his direction. Charlie fired again, hitting the target on the forehead of the mask. The enemy staggered backwards and disappeared from sight. Holding his gun firmly at eye level, Charlie made a move in the direction of the wounded enemy. A few seconds later, he found the soldier sitting on the ground, braced against a tree. Lowering his weapon, he said, ‘Not bad, Alex.’

The enemy glanced up at him, a large splat of blue paint on the right side of the mask, including the goggles. ‘I know you didn’t just call me Alex,’ a familiar voice said.

Oh great. Charlie sighed and averted his gaze.

‘You look at this figure and think Alex?’ the enemy said.

‘My mistake.’ Charlie looked back at his rival and saw Rebecca James staring up at him through a wispy, uneven tuft of ginger bangs. ‘You and Alex have the same kind of build or whatever.’

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you asking for a slap?’ She glanced down at the mask in her lap and then looked back at him. ‘Nice shot. You some sort of spy?’

‘Actually, I was aiming lower, but your head got in the way.’

Rebecca frowned. ‘You could have killed me.’

‘Don’t worry, the paint’s not permanent. You’ll live.’ Charlie started to walk off when she called him back.

‘Be a gentleman and help me up,’ she demanded.

‘What’s wrong with your legs?’

‘Just help me up.’

Charlie tilted his head to one side, thinking. He then raised his gun and fired. The blue paint hit the ground a few inches from Rebecca’s feet.

‘Hey, watch it,’ she complained.

Charlie fired two more times, and Rebecca jumped up.

‘You call that helping?’ she snapped, her face flustered.

‘You’re up, aren’t you?’ Charlie hoped she’d heard the amusement in his voice as he turned around and walked off.

Three down and only eight to go, if they weren’t already dead. Heading through the forest, his gaze fixed on the car, he held one hand up: a signal for Richmond to stay put. He scanned the area and spotted the flag perched on a stone base a good distance from where he was. As he turned back around in the direction of the car, he froze.

‘Gotcha!’

A surge of heat rippled through Charlie at the sound of Alex’s voice right before she pulled the trigger.

The slight sting of the paint splattering across Charlie’s chest snapped him out of his reverie, and he glanced down at the red patch. He looked back at Alex, a feeling of shame threatening to overwhelm him. He hadn’t even heard her approach. If this had been a real battle, he’d be dead. ‘Not bad,’ he complimented, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice, ‘for a girl.’ Although he couldn’t see Alex’s face through her mask, he had no doubt she was giving him a hard look, especially after she raised her gun again and fired – one in the stomach, the other on his butt when he turned around to avoid the shot.

‘All right, I’m dead already,’ Charlie cried.

‘Yeah, but you angels don’t stay dead.’

Charlie couldn’t help but laugh. He dropped his rifle and raised his hands in surrender.

‘Lie down,’ Alex commanded, her rifle still aimed at him.

Charlie removed his mask and dropped it on the ground. ‘As tempting as that sounds, I don’t think this is either the place or the time –’

Alex shot him in the leg, and he winced, hopping back on one leg. ‘In your dreams, Charlie Blake.’ He heard the laughter in her voice.

Submitting, he got down and lay on his back.

Alex stood over him. ‘Always keep your guard up. Better luck next time, eh.’

As Charlie lay against the cold, hard ground, a tingling, electric surge of energy rippled through him, and in that moment, every sound came alive. Although the air was calm, carrying only a light breeze, he heard the faint rustling of leaves above him. Muffled voices and the sound of footsteps were like music to his ears. He hadn’t planned to nor did he wish to cheat, but at times, he found he had no say in what he was feeling or doing. It was as if he had become part of the earth. He focused on the light thud approaching and smiled. ‘Yeah,’ he finally said, ‘better luck next time.’

Alex must have heard the sound too, for she spun around abruptly.

‘Gotcha!’ Richmond shot her twice in the chest.

Alex sighed and dropped her gun. Removing her mask, she looked down at Charlie, who patted the ground beside him and said, ‘I saved you a spot.’ She got down and lay beside him. ‘Go get it, Birthday Boy.’ Charlie held his hand up, and Richmond gave him a high five as he ran by.

Charlie and Alex locked eyes, smiling.

‘This was fun,’ Alex said.

‘Yeah. It feels good doing something so …’ Charlie paused as he searched for the right word.

‘Ordinary?’ Alex offered.

‘I’m not familiar with that term.’

Alex grinned. ‘You know, you two would make thee worst spies ever. The aim is to sneak up on your enemy unannounced and take them down. We heard you coming from, like, a mile off.’

‘Blame Rich. His paranoia meter is off the charts.’

‘Oh, really, he’s the paranoid one. Do you want to rethink that? Maybe the paintball fumes are messing with your head. You remember that thing Candra said, don’t you?’

‘Which thing would that be? There are so many –’

Alex nudged him in the side. ‘You’re supposed to be acting normal. You know, draw less attention to yourself.’

Charlie grinned. ‘You saying I’m not normal?’

Alex smiled for a brief moment and then shook her head. ‘Don’t do that.’

‘Don’t do what?’

‘Don’t bat your grey eyes and flash your charming smile. It might work on some girls but not me. And stop changing the subject.’

‘Okay. But just answer this one question.’

‘What?’

‘You really think I have a charming smile?’

Alex rolled her eyes. ‘I think you’re an idiot.’

Charlie laughed. ‘All right, fine. I’ll try to be more normal.’

‘Promise?’

Charlie held one hand up, crossing his middle and index fingers. ‘Cross my heart and hope –’

‘Don’t say that.’ Alex’s soft voice trembled.

Charlie caught a glimpse of sadness in her eyes before she looked away. He stared at her for a moment and then looked up at the canopy.

‘So how’s training going?’ Alex asked, breaking the silence.

Charlie huffed a heavy sigh. ‘Let’s just say I’m more human now than when I started.’

‘If you’re looking for sympathy, Angel Boy, you’re not going to get it.’

‘I’m being serious. I swear, if Candra hadn’t been around my whole life, she’d probably think she got the wrong kid.’

‘You’re being too hard on yourself. You’ve only been training a few months. Give it some time. You’ll get it.’

‘You think so?’

‘I know so,’ Alex said.

Charlie glanced sideways at her. ‘So you’re psychic now. You sure you’re not Arcadian?’

Alex laughed. ‘I just know you, all right. I can’t help it if I’m more attentive than you are.’

Charlie chuckled. ‘Oh, really.’ Alex shrugged. He turned onto his side to face her, propped up on his elbow. ‘Your favourite colour is pink –’

‘Blue,’ Alex interjected.

‘Oh, so you’ve repainted your room.’

Alex’s big brown eyes penetrated his. She bit her bottom lip, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

‘As I was saying,’ Charlie resumed. ‘Your favourite colour is pink, your middle name’s Louisa, you want to be a pilot so you can travel the world, and whenever you’re watching a horror movie and think a scary part’s coming up, you cover your ears because you think it’d be less terrifying, but you still scream.’

‘I so do not cover my ears.’

‘Oh, please, that hair fiddling thing you do is so obvious.’

‘I happen to have a lot of hair on my head, which can be a little obstructing at times –’

‘You have a lot of hair on your head. Really, that’s the excuse you’re gonna go with.’

‘Yeah. You got a problem with that?’

‘Nope. Your secret’s safe with me. But, for the record, I’m very attentive.’

‘Well, I always knew you were one in a million. Yep, definitely one in a million – or should I say seven billion?’

‘Funny. Everyone’s a comedian today.’

A yell of joy reached them, and Charlie looked up and saw Richmond standing on the stone base, waving the flag above his head. Looking back at Alex, he caught her staring at him. ‘So apart from your lame alien jokes, what else do you know about me?’

Alex’s gaze shifted. ‘Hmm … You’re a terrible dancer, an even worse singer –’

‘I wonder what the bad points are.’

‘You don’t like country music,’ Alex went on, as if he hadn’t spoken, ‘you’ve read Peter Pan, like, twenty times since I met you and you love the beach – like, insanely love the beach.’ She regarded him. ‘Who goes to the beach in the winter?’

Charlie hesitated before answering. ‘My mum did.’

Her expression mortified, Alex squeezed her eyes shut, covering her face with her hands. ‘Just pretend I’m not here.’

Charlie took hold of her hands and pulled them away from her face. ‘Not possible.’ Alex opened her eyes and met his gaze. ‘Look, I don’t want to brag, but I clearly won.’ Alex shot him a serene smile, which he returned. His eyes lowered, lingering on her full lips –

Charlie groaned as a sharp pain shot through his right leg. He sat upright and saw red paint where the pain had struck him. Looking up, he met Rebecca’s intense blue eyes.

‘Oops,’ she said, her rifle aimed at him. ‘I thought you were attacking my teammate.’

Charlie narrowed his eyes at her and glanced at Alex, who was also sitting up. ‘Still think she doesn’t hate me?’ he said as he and Alex got to their feet. ‘Can you not point that thing at me?’ he said to Rebecca, indicating at her rifle. ‘The game’s over. You can relax.’

‘Oh, right.’ Rebecca lowered her weapon, a smug grin on her round face.

Hearing a scream of joy, Charlie looked past Rebecca at Carla Shu, who was running towards them. He spotted a few of the other players in the distance.

‘Blue team won!’ Carla exclaimed. As she approached them, Charlie noticed she didn’t have a single paint on her. Removing her mask, she advanced towards him and gave him a hug, a huge grin on her face. ‘Not bad,’ she said as she pulled away. ‘We make a good team.’

‘Yeah, we do,’ Charlie agreed.

Carla eyed him up and down. ‘Wow. Someone wanted to make sure you were dead.’

Charlie looked to his left at Alex and arched his eyebrows.

‘At least we won,’ Carla added.

‘With a team like ours, it was written in the stars.’ Charlie shot Alex a knowing smile.

Alex turned to face him. ‘At least I got to kill you,’ she shot back.

‘Don’t feel bad,’ Charlie said. ‘Winning isn’t for everyone.’

The corners of Alex’s mouth curved into a smile, and she approached him menacingly. ‘Be thankful we’re playing paintball and not archery.’

‘Hey.’ Carla grabbed Charlie’s hand. ‘Let’s go congratulate the birthday boy.’

‘Yeah, let’s do that before I puke.’ Rebecca spoke the words slowly. She approached Carla and linked arms with her, slipping between Charlie and Alex as the two of them headed off in Richmond’s direction.

‘This day just keeps getting better and better.’ Alex smiled, but Charlie saw the fury in her eyes as she bent down to pick up her mask and rifle.

‘Remind me again why Rich invited them?’

Charlie retrieved his gear. ‘You could try talking to them.’

Alex’s gaze shifted to Carla and Rebecca and then to the rifle in her hand. Glancing at Charlie, a grin spreading across her face, she wagged her eyebrows at him.

Charlie snatched the rifle from her hand. ‘Go.’ He gestured with his head in the direction the girls had headed.

‘I was joking.’

Charlie raised his eyebrows at her.

‘Fine,’ Alex said, still grinning as she walked off.

Smiling, Charlie shook his head. He had only taken a few steps when he heard what sounded like a whisper and stopped. He turned around, his eyes sweeping across the forest. The other players were still making their way towards them some distance away. A cool breeze rose up out of nowhere and ruffled his hair. He felt his body stiffen.

‘Charlie.’

He turned back around and saw the girls gawking at him.

‘Everything okay?’ Alex asked him.

Charlie glanced behind him and then looked back at the girls. ‘I thought I heard –’ He caught himself, aware of Alex’s anxious gaze. ‘It’s nothing.’
Richmond’s yelp of joy broke the awkward silence, and Carla and Rebecca continued towards him. Alex gave Charlie a warning look and then turned around and walked off.

Charlie lifted his head back and breathed a sigh before proceeding behind the girls. Seconds later, he heard another soft whisper behind him. His muscles tensed, but he kept walking, shaking his shoulders as if to shake off the crawling sensation moving up his spine. He closed his eyes for a second, inhaling a deep breath. ‘There’s nothing there, there’s nothing –’

‘Help me.’

Charlie’s eyes flashed open, and he whirled around, the rifles and mask falling from his grasp. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if the other players were playing mind tricks.

‘It’s coming.’

Charlie shuddered. He stood in one spot, searching for any sudden movements. Although he could not locate the source of the voice, his accelerating heartbeat and his instinct to run was all the incentive he needed. ‘We have to go,’ he muttered under his breath as he took a few steps backwards. ‘Something’s wrong. Guys’ – he turned back around – ‘we have to go –’

Charlie caught his breath in his throat. He was staring at a company of strangers.

Tripping over his feet, he stumbled and fell onto his back into a bed of high yellow grass. Panicked, he scrambled to his feet. His jaw dropped when he saw the sight before him. He looked up – no canopy – left and right but saw no trees. He was no longer in the forest. He was in a field in the middle of nowhere … and he wasn’t alone.

He spun in a circle. Whichever way he looked, he saw people. Charlie scanned the crowd around him – their pale, half-decomposed faces, dark circles under their lifeless, bloodshot eyes as they stared unblinking at him.

‘Alex.’ Charlie’s voice trembled. The crowd drew closer to him, and he shifted uneasily, turning in all directions. ‘Stay back,’ he cried, clenching his fists.

The crowd suddenly halted.

Charlie stopped moving, his gaze shifting from one face to the next. The fact that they had complied did not lessen his anxiety. ‘What do you want?’ He detected a hint of fear in his voice. He only hoped they hadn’t heard it too, though, from their distant stares, he wondered if they were acknowledging anything.

A petite woman with long greying hair stumbled towards him, a muffled sound escaping her throat. She held her palm up to her mouth and coughed into it. When she lowered her hand, Charlie saw blood trailing down the corners of her mouth. He grimaced and stepped back, colliding into the crowd behind him.

The woman with the bloodstained hands inched closer to him, her movement almost robotic. Slowly, she extended her hands towards him and grabbed hold of his arm. Charlie shrugged his shoulder, tugging his arm as he attempted to break free, but the woman tightened her grip. ‘Stop,’ he pleaded. ‘Please. Derkein!’

‘I can’t breathe,’ the woman said in a small voice.

The crowd grabbed hold of Charlie, yanking at his hair and clothes as they pushed and pulled him in every direction.

‘Let go,’ he yelled. ‘Get off!’

‘It’s coming,’ the crowd chimed.

Charlie managed to break free and charged at the person directly in front of him, and together, he and the man tumbled to the ground. He started to crawl on his hands and knees as he tried to escape, but the crowd were on top of him within seconds. Someone grabbed him from behind while others pinned his legs to the ground, holding him down.

‘Get off me,’ Charlie screamed. ‘Derkein!’

Suddenly, the pressure around his torso loosened, and he puffed out a sharp breath as his back hit the ground. He looked up and saw the people behind him backing away. Feeling the pressure loosen around his legs, he raised his head and saw the rest of the crowd pulling away from him.

Panting deeply, Charlie scrambled to his feet. He remained where he was, his eyes inspecting the many faces in his line of vision. They were many in numbers; it was as if the whole world had gathered before him. The crowd stared at him with something akin to awe, or fear. What he couldn’t understand was how they went from attacking him to looking as though they had encountered a predator.

The ground beneath him shifted, and he swayed a little. As he steadied himself, he felt a pain – so intense it blurred his vision – erupt inside his head, and he cried out, gripping a lock of his hair as he collapsed onto his knees.

Lowering his hands, he hunched forward, clenching his stomach as a biting pain gripped him. He felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of his face as his temperature rose.

‘It’s coming,’ the people chimed.

Charlie glanced up and saw the crowd staring down at him. ‘Why are you doing this?’ he croaked. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘It’s coming,’ the people chanted.

‘I don’t understand,’ Charlie mumbled. ‘What –?’ He broke off in a coughing fit. Holding a hand up to his mouth, he coughed and felt something warm hit his palm. Pulling his hand away, he stared in horror at a blotch of blood. Feeling a scratching sensation in his throat, he coughed again and more blood spewed out of his mouth.

His body was trembling, his heart pulsating. Charlie’s hand flew to his chest as he tried to catch his breath. A bout of giddiness took hold of him, and he felt himself toppling onto his side. Lying on the hard, lumpy ground, he heard muffled sounds around him. Soon, blurry figures appeared over him.

‘Charlie,’ called a voice in the distance. It sounded familiar, but he could not place it. He tried to speak, but his mouth wouldn’t open. The figures standing over him started to fade in and out as he slowly slipped into unconsciousness.

Soon, the world and everything in it disappeared.

‘Charlie!’

Charlie’s eyes flashed open. The first thing he saw was the canopy of trees above him, and then Derkein’s face came into view.

‘Talk to me, Charlie,’ Derkein pleaded, his voice saturated with fear and concern.

Glancing around him, Charlie sat up. He was back in the forest, lying on the ground. He recognised all the faces around him. Although his breathing was back to normal, his body was still trembling.

His eyes fixed on Derkein. ‘Where were you?’ His voice shook, from fear or rage, he could not tell.

‘What do you mean?’ Derkein asked.

‘I called you –’ Charlie stopped talking and looked again at the faces around him. ‘Where did they go?’

‘Where did who go?’

‘The people.’ Charlie looked back at Derkein, who looked as bewildered as he felt. He shifted away from Derkein and staggered to his feet. Spinning in a circle, he took in his surroundings. He couldn’t recall how he got back to the forest.

‘It’s okay, Charlie,’ Derkein said. ‘You’re safe.’

Charlie cradled his head in his hands. His eyes landed on Alex, and he paused. She was kneeling on the ground, clutching her hand to her chest, a distressed look on her face. Rebecca and Carla were crouching beside her, embracing her, their expressions guarded. He glanced around and noticed that the other players seemed cautious, almost hesitant to approach him.

They looked scared.

‘Charlie, I need you to talk to me,’ Derkein said. Charlie looked back at him. ‘Do you know where you are?’

Charlie didn’t know how to respond. He knew where he was. What he didn’t know was where he had vanished to before he had returned to the forest. And how was he going to explain what had just happened to the others? His eyes shifted, and he found Richmond, who averted his gaze from Charlie to Alex, whose eyes were now fixed on the ground.

‘What happened?’ Charlie muttered, more to himself than to anyone else. He raked a hand through his hair, his pulse rising again. He couldn’t take his focus off Alex. Why wouldn’t she look at him? Was she afraid? he wondered. He couldn’t make sense of what was happening. He tried to piece together the past few minutes, but his mind was a jumble of confusion.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ someone asked.

Charlie glanced at Sam Jenkins, Richmond’s classmate, who was shifting his weight from foot to foot. There always seemed a perpetual sense of surprise lurking behind his high-arching eyebrows, but the expression on his chubby, freckled face was one of absolute horror. Charlie couldn’t decide if Sam was preparing to run at him or away from him.

‘Nothing’s wrong with him, Sam,’ Derkein said. ‘He was hallucinating.’

‘But he attacked her,’ Sam barked.

Charlie’s body stiffened. ‘What?’

‘Sam, shut up,’ Richmond snapped.

‘What did you say?’ Charlie looked at Derkein. ‘What is he talking about?’

‘You’re not feeling well, Charlie,’ Derkein said in a calm voice.

‘What does he mean I attacked someone?’ Charlie persisted. ‘I wasn’t even here. What is he talking –?’ He broke off mid-sentence, his gaze flickering to Alex, who raised her head and looked at him, her eyes glistened.

Charlie’s heart sank.

‘It’s okay, Charlie,’ Alex said in a wispy voice. ‘I’m okay.’

Charlie stared at her in shock. Seeing the tracks of tears on her flustered cheeks, he looked away. He wouldn’t hurt her, he told himself. I wasn’t even here. Charlie’s mind was so far away, he hadn’t realised Derkein was talking to him. He stumbled backwards as Derkein drew near to him. ‘Get away from me.’ He turned around and stopped when the other players drifted back.

‘Charlie,’ Derkein said. Charlie turned back around and saw Derkein standing with his arms out to the sides, a friendly and unarmed gesture. ‘It’s okay.’

Charlie’s eyes stung. He glanced over his shoulder at Alex, who was now on her feet, her expression pained. Turning away from her, he took off through the forest.

‘Charlie,’ he heard Derkein call after him.

He kept running.

‘Charlie, stop.’

Glancing behind him, he saw Derkein pursuing him. When he got a good distance away from the group, he slowed his pace and came to a stop beside a tree, burying his face against the rough texture of the bark. A few seconds later, he heard footsteps approaching. With the back of his hand, he wiped away the tears forming at his eyes.

‘I hurt her,’ he said, still facing the tree.

‘It was an accident,’ Derkein said, panting heavily. ‘You weren’t aware of what you were doing.’

Charlie turned to him. ‘How do you know that?’ His tone sounded harsher than he had intended.

‘Because I know you.’ Derkein edged closer to him. Though he stepped with caution, he didn’t appear frightened. ‘This is Alex we’re talking about. You would never harm her intentionally.’

Charlie locked his jaw.

‘Talk to me,’ Derkein said, studying Charlie with concern. ‘What happened back there? What did you mean when you asked me where I was?’

Charlie hesitated, aware of Derkein’s shallow breathing. ‘You weren’t here. I wasn’t here.’

‘I don’t understand. When you say “here”, are you referring to the forest?’

Charlie nodded. ‘I was somewhere else.’ He stepped away from the tree and glanced around the surroundings. ‘None of this was here. I wasn’t here.’

‘Can you tell me where you were?’

Charlie shook his head. ‘I don’t know. I was in a field somewhere. There were all these people and –’ He took a breath and squeezed his eyes shut.

‘And what?’

When Charlie opened his eyes, he saw that Derkein’s expression had turned to alarm. He sighed, not knowing if he should continue, though, seeing the colour slowly draining from Derkein’s face was never a good sign. Right away, he knew what Derkein was thinking, and he didn’t have to tap into his abilities to figure it out. The truth was staring at him through sullen olive-green eyes.

‘It felt real,’ Charlie finally answered, his voice choked. ‘I thought it was real.’

For a moment, neither of them said anything.

‘Say it,’ Charlie urged.

Derkein stepped forward. ‘Charlie –’

‘Don’t patronise me,’ Charlie snapped, backing away from Derkein. ‘Don’t tell me everything is going to be okay. This is not okay.’

‘You’re right.’ Derkein’s shoulders lifted and dropped as he sighed.

‘Say it,’ Charlie repeated. ‘I know you’re thinking it, so just say it.’ He held his breath. He wasn’t quite prepared for what he was about to hear. He knew the truth. He just wasn’t ready to admit it. When Candra had said he was going to experience drastic changes, he hadn’t contemplated this one. He didn’t think it was possible. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. After all, he was wide awake. He wasn’t dreaming.

When Derkein approached him this time, he didn’t back away. He couldn’t move. The moment Derkein rested a hand on his shoulder, Charlie’s heart raced. Every sound faded, and although he couldn’t hear Derkein’s voice, he could still read his lips.

‘I think you had a vision, Charlie.’