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The Sect

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chapter one – you get to meet my family (figuratively), and malachai ruminates on cornfields

Around lunchtime, I decided that my parents and I had both had time to cool off, and that if I didn't call them now, I'd be in even more trouble when I decided to return home to them. So, I balled up the wrapper of the hamburger I had absently consumed, tossed it in the restaurant's trashcan, and walked across the street to use the payphone I'd seen just outside of the convenience store.

I thumbed in a few quarters, dialed home, and tried not to wince as I fitted the phone to my ear, attempting not to imagine the kinds of people who might have used the phone before me. Head lice, grease, ear wax—I immediately made my mind stop. I had enough neurotic tendencies as it was, I didn't need to go around wiping off every receiver I used. Actually, that wasn't a bad idea…

My thoughts were interrupted when my mom picked up. She sounded wary and her voice was a little shaky, a sure sign that she'd been crying, and I sighed, resolutely pushing away the tinge of guilt I felt at the sound. "Hello?"

"Hey, Mom, it's me." I could imagine her reaction to that just by hearing the silence on the other end—she was stiffening up, eyes bugging, disbelieving that I'd had the audacity to run away and then call about it!

"Jessica Hart!" I was anticipating the shriek, and at the first syllable, winced and held the phone away from my ear. I had to save my hearing for the future, after all. I could still hear every word of her rant, bright and clear. "Do you have any idea what you've put me through this morning? Waking up to find you gone, no note, calling all of your friends frantically to see if we could find you—"

"I know, Mom," I said, risking putting the phone back to my ear in order to interrupt her. She was running out of examples, anyway, so she quieted. "I'm going to Angeline's." That was my twenty-two year-old only sister, the person I was most envious of—the outgoing, brunette, married sister that worked on a ranch in Wyoming; the one I loved to death. She'd never turn me away.

"What on earth would you want to do that for?" Mom, bless her heart, couldn't quite understand why Angeline and I got along so well. It wasn't that she promoted rivalry between her daughters, but she knew I was envious of my sister and couldn't comprehend that something about Angeline made me put that envy aside so that we could actually be friends. I think she thought it was positively barbaric, two sisters with all the potential for rivalry getting along so well. Mom was weird like that.

"Well, she's the only person I can really talk to right now without wanting to chew glass." Okay, that was a little harsh. But really, they had started it. "I figured I'd stay with her for a week. Maybe more, if I like it there."

Mom's voice changed to cajoling, sensing that my mind was made up. "Sweetheart, you have to come home. You don't have money for this, and you have school at home, and Darren's been hanging around, worried. Jess, you're only seventeen. You can't do this." Yes, this was Mom trying to sweet-talk me. Kind of sad, isn't it? I'm all for respect for the parents, but I also tend to be honest, and Mom had the persuasive powers of post-Watergate Nixon on crack.

"I have money, Mom, enough to get me there, and back if I choose," I said, resisting the urge to beat myself into unconsciousness with the phone. I still didn't know what kind of people had been using it; a chunk of earwax might come loose and lodge in my eye.

"What do you mean, if you choose?" She was getting slightly hysterical. "You're not leaving us?!"

Whoops. That had been the wrong thing for me to say. I winced. It had been on my mind all along to possibly stay with Angie for good, but I shouldn't have mentioned it to Mom. She was the freak-out type. "Mom, please," I said. "I can hear the stress in your voice." The whole county can hear the stress in her voice. "Just relax, okay? Take a deep breath or two. Don't worry. I just need to get away for a while."

"Sweetheart, your father won't have it," she said, after taking my advice and breathing, and as a result sounding a little calmer.

I sighed and switched the receiver to the other ear, figuring that if my ears were going to get infected by some freaky virus, they might as well be evened up. "You let me handle Dad." And the strategy there is ignore, ignore, ignore. Don't acknowledge that he's pissed and maybe he'll calm down. Yeah, like that's ever worked before.

My inner-voice was getting sarcastic. Great. Mom kept on talking. "What about Darren?"

Eesh. Darren was the poster boy for the neighbor-boy-your-parents-want-to-set-you-up-with stereotype. He was blonde, blue-eyed, slim, short, and, to sum it all up, safe. I was all for not getting beaten up by your boyfriend, but in Darren's case, safe equaled boring. I'd never been the slightest bit interested. "Darren and I aren't interested in each other." Well, at least half of that was the truth.

She didn't buy it. "I know he's asked you out."

"And I said no, didn't I?" I was cut off by an automatic voice—Your time has run out. For another five minutes, please insert fifty cents. Sighing, I fished out two more quarters, all the time wondering why I was such a sucker for punishment. Mom was talking when the phone clicked back on line.

"—such a nice boy, and you've never so much as given him a chance! You're not the type to lead a boy on, Jess, so what's going on?"

"Mom, can we please talk about something other than Darren?" I'm seventeen. Not exactly ready to rush off and get married, although I know it would relieve you and Dad very much.

She had one more weapon in the arsenal. "What about your school?" After she fired the question, there was a satisfied sort of silence. Sort of a, 'What are you going to say about that?'

"I'll catch up," I said simply.

She huffed. "I can't let you do that."

"You didn't let me leave last night, either. We all saw how effective that was."

"Young lady." Her tone had turned suddenly frigid. I winced. I was in for it now. "I am your mother. You speak respectfully to me."

"Yes, Ma'am." There wasn't much else to say. I might be rebelling right now, but seventeen years of growing up in a town twenty miles from Dallas had sort of brainwashed me. I was now doomed to be respectful to all adults, and if I wasn't right off, to remedy it immediately.

"Jess, I want you to come home. If you do, I won't tell your father." More cajoling. It had little effect.

"No, Mom. I'm sorry, but I just can't be there right now. I'm seventeen, not twelve."

"You're under our roof!"

"Not anymore." There was some satisfaction in finally saying that, I had to admit. This argument had been boiling for two years now, but had finally erupted last night around eleven, five minutes past my curfew. I felt that they were treating me like a child, not giving me enough freedom. They figured that they were protecting me. Somewhere during the course of the argument, I'd screamed, "I wish all you adults were just gone!"

Immediately, they'd begun picking apart the ridiculousness of that wish. It was frustrating, especially when Dad reverted to his favorite tried-and-true, can't-recover-from argument: "You live under my roof, young lady, so you will obey my rules."

So now I'd left. But Mom wasn't happy about it. "We'll call Angeline up. She won't let you stay with her." She'd been reduced to threats now. I have to say, I was a little disappointed that she'd resorted to that, but I hid it.

"Mom, I'm running out of time on the phone. I'll call y'all when I get to Angie's, all right?"


"Goodbye, Mom." I made a kissing noise into the phone—out of habit, not disrespect, I assure you—and hung up. Sighing loudly, I stepped away from the phone and straightened my shirt—a black, wide-necked thing with three-quarter length sleeves and the word Bowie scrawled across the chest in white, layered over a white camisole top—I liked the extra length. I went to my car and climbed in, ignoring the feeling in the pit of my stomach, the feeling that said that I was in the wrong. I started driving again after making sure my tank was full—I knew that gas stations were few and far between out here, and I didn't want to risk running out.

After that, it was driving and thinking and sometimes singing. I had a decent singing voice and could carry a tune thanks to five years of piano lessons, so I enjoyed singing, whether it was along with my radio or just by myself. I sang to keep myself awake, most of the time. It wasn't a particularly scenic drive, very flat and surrounded by crops.

I had about fifteen minutes until I crossed the Nebraska state line, so as I drove, I reflected on my life in general.

Our family was average, I guess. I had a very domineering father and a very high-strung mother—they fit well together; he took control of stressful situations, which suited her just fine. I can see how, after the previous argument, you could assume that I hated my parents, but the truth was very much the opposite. I loved them with all my heart. I just couldn't stand their rules some of the time, especially now that I was a liberty-thirsty late-teenager.

I had an older sister—Angie, you already heard about her—and an older brother, Timothy. Tim was crazy. At least, that's the only solution I could come up with; crazy or masochistic. Why else would he run around shooting his friends with little balls of paint and letting them do the same to him? They wore masks, but they also came home with ugly bruises, the best of which looked like mere hickeys, and the worst looking like bloody fist-marks.

Yes, dear nineteen-year-old Tim was into paintball. I'd never really gotten into it, but it consumed Tim's life and thoughts, so he wasn't much a help to me whenever I got into a brawl with my parents. The only time he disagreed with them was when they grounded him, preventing him from paintball practice. Then he really raised the roof.

I am nothing special. You might think I'm afflicted by false modesty, but that's not the truth. I really am nothing special. I'm not plain, but neither am I lovely, my features conspiring to prevent either. I guess the best I could say about me is that, if the situation is right, if I got enough sleep the night before and if my complexion was behaving, if my hair was voluminous enough and if I applied makeup carefully, I can be somewhat striking. Otherwise, I'm just normal. Maybe I could be called 'pretty,' since very few people are really plain or ugly, but the word is used lightly in reference to me.

Pale blonde hair the color of cornsilk is maybe the only unusual thing about me—so pale that it was almost white under certain lights. Still, it doesn't combine with the rest of my features—brown eyes, pale skin, a too-sharp chin, sharp cheekbones that can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the lighting, and a thin mouth—to make me eye-catching. I'm average height, 5'6 or 5'7, and of a healthy weight. Dad says that us Texas girls need to be sturdy, but I think that adjective connotes a short, plump, strong girl roping horses. I'm none of those three adjectives.

Today, my hair was tied back out of my face with a black ribbon, allowing me more visibility for the road—not that I needed it. There wasn't much to see; I hadn't passed a car in an hour. Back to the reflection.

I enjoyed Texas. I had friends, family, and all that good stuff there. However, about halfway through my sixteenth year, I'd get these periods when I felt like I was just being stifled. It sucked, to put it mildly. I'd just need to get out.

Those times passed, but it just so happened that, that particular week, I'd been going through another one of those phases. The argument made me snap, so I tossed some belongings in a bag, collected all the money I had, got in my car, and left. Angie would let me stay at her house; I knew she would.

I sighed. Next time I talked to my parents—and I inevitably would; Angie would insist on it before she'd give me permission to stay—Dad was going to raise hell. He wouldn't be able to stand having me strike out for myself.

Deciding to try not to anticipate that, I turned on the radio and then proceeded to keep my mind occupied by tuning it out. In this way, I reached Nebraska. The Corn State, apparently, judging by the cornfields that started up even before I reached the state line and refused to yield to anything else. It was late spring, so the corn would be ready for harvest in a month or so. Quickly, the fields lost my interest, and I just drove.

I couldn't help it—with the monotony of the roads, other than passing a few signs proclaiming nearby towns, I fell into a sort of daze. I wasn't even aware that the radio had gone to static, I just stared ahead.

I wasn't immediately aware, then, when a kid stumbled into the road in front of my car. I was going a good sixty-five, and so there was no chance I could slow down. I swerved, but my bumper still caught her, sending her flying. Adrenaline pumping through my veins, I screeched to a stop and unbuckled my seatbelt, launching myself out of the car and running unsteadily towards the child.

She was flat on her face. I was hyperventilating as I turned her over, but her bloody face and the mangled feel to her body told me all I needed to know. I'd just killed her.

I could barely breathe. I gasped, sitting back, trying to force my body to function properly, when a hand fell on my shoulder and jerked me backward—

And I woke up to a faceful of airbag. My head hurt, and I unbuckled my seat belt, leaning back and shutting my eyes as the results of the dream-caused adrenaline rush left me weak. Quickly, fear and relief—the former because I'd wrecked the car, the latter because the dream was false—rushed in and took its place, and I groped for the door handle, found it, and stumbled out to survey the damage.

I should have known better, I thought, scorning myself, as I looked. I'd managed to find the one part of the road that had a ditch in it and I'd driven straight in—at least, that was what it looked like. It was Sunday afternoon—the time when I was accustomed to having a nap—and the road was more hypnotic than ever because of the lack of… well, anything that really caught attention. I should have known I'd fall asleep, should have pulled over the second I found myself slumping into a daze.

I put my hand to my aching head, and then pulled the neckline of my shirt back a little—there was a welt above my chest left from the seatbelt. I figured it could be much worse, and was thankful that it hadn't been. Surveying the car, I sighed heavily. Looked like my parents were right. I glanced up at the road for some sign of help.

There was a sign there. Gatlin – 1. Hmm. A town, one mile away. I could call from help there. I decided not to try starting the car, as airbag deployment meant that things were pretty serious. I dug my keys out of the ignition and started walking.

I walked on the side of the road, ignoring the sun, which was growing warmer with each minute. I tried not to think about the I-told-you-sos and the fact that I was five hours from any of my family, and just tried to focus on who I'd call and what I'd say. I'd never fallen asleep at the wheel before, but I had no doubt that they wouldn't let me forget it now that I had.

At least no one had been hurt. That dream… it was freaky. And who had grabbed me from behind? I figured it must have been the seatbelt in reality, snapping into place, catching me from an untimely flight through the windshield—or forceful impact with the airbag. Only my head had hit it, but that was enough for me. The ache had only slightly subsided.

It seemed like I walked forever. Finally, though, I began to see the buildings—but it was quickly apparent that something was wrong, or at least different. It didn't take me long to figure out what it was—no cars, and no people. It was a veritable ghost town—but at least it was a change from the cornfields, which were starting to drive me slightly stir-crazy, so I decided to keep going and look for someone. It was a relatively small town; maybe they were all at church or all at someone's house. It was conceivable.

I hadn't been walking for long when I saw someone—a child of about nine, rounding the corner. He stopped stock-still when he saw me.

"Hey," I said, relieved that the town had some occupants. "I was wondering if—"

He turned around and fled without a word. I stared in confusion after him. "Hey!" I called. He didn't as much as glance back, disappearing around the corner. I wasn't that scary, was I?

I stared, perplexed, for a minute, and then shook my head. "Friendly kid," I muttered sarcastically. With nothing else to do, I started walking again.

He remembered a time when he'd been afraid of the cornfields. When he was still just a boy of eight or nine, he'd been scared to venture into them, afraid that, since the corn was so tall, he'd get lost and be unable to escape again, and would die there in that eternal maze.

Things were different now. He looked upon the fields as… well, almost his domain, though that was probably considered blasphemy. Everyone knew who they belonged to. Still, he was most comfortable in the fields, his fiery red hair glinting in the sun between the stalks, maneuvering the maze with ease. He knew the field in and out, each little rabbit path, each unbroken stretch of stalk after stalk.

He walked among the stalks now, his knife at his side, his feet making no noise on the ground. He came out here to think, and he'd been in need of some good thought for a while now. When he came to a small clearing in which the other children had been working, he stopped, scanned it with eyes as blue as the sky, and then dubbed it worthy with a short nod. He stepped into the clearing, lifting his face to the sun, and shut his eyes.

It had been one year since they'd sacrificed the two outlanders to their Lord. Since then, they'd lived relatively undisturbed, working to make the town more subtle to those heading through the land, under Isaac's command. That year was filled with ritual and steady punishment of those who fell short of the Lord's standards. He carried out that punishment cheerfully.

In the past year, there had been three more children that had gone to join God as they reached the age of nineteen. One of them was faith-filled, hardworking Rachel—the others, insignificant. He, at eighteen, would be the next to join their Lord. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about that. He knew that the very thought was blasphemy—he should be joyous, but somehow he felt as if he hadn't had his fill of life. He was willing to give it time, though, expecting that this last year would show him the purpose.

He had grown, he knew that. He was the strongest of all the children, with ample reason to be, and the tallest. He had their fear, and a certain grudging respect—he protected them all from the outside threats. Upon the first sign of trouble, the first thing said was "Get Malachai." They ran to find him, knowing that they'd be relatively safe with him around, as long as they stayed out of his way. In a sense, he thought that this mutation of respect combined with fear was better than the honest respect and hero-worship Isaac was given. He never had to worry about being overthrown, whereas Isaac could get paranoid at times, convinced that someone was ready to kill him.

A rustling of the stalks behind him, as loud as a tornado tearing through them to his ears, made him open his eyes. "Malachai! Malachai!"

They were calling him. He turned to see young Thomas running in his direction. His eyes narrowed, and as the boy reached him, he snatched him up and lifted him up to eye-level, his shoes dangling two feet above the ground. "You'd better have a good reason for disturbing me," he snarled. He knew very well that Thomas did—otherwise he wouldn't have risked bothering him—but he enjoyed seeing the fear in the child's eyes. It was the source of his power.

"Outlander!" squeaked Thomas, almost too terrified to speak. "There's an outlander in the town!"

Malachai stared at him for a second, and then dropped him to the ground, turning away. "Don't fear," he said, well aware of the irony of the statement, since he'd been the cause of the boy's most recent fright. He was actually quite looking forward to this—it had been a long time since any real excitement had occurred. "I'll take care of it."

Very quietly, he left the field. Thomas tagged along behind him, careful not to get too close.

chapter two – running away from tall redheads doesn't work very well if you're me

This was going from odd to just plain scary. Aside from that boy—whom I was beginning to think was a ghost—I hadn't seen a soul, though the occasional noise and the prickle at the back of my neck made me believe that I wasn't quite alone. I'd begun trying the doorknobs to the shops. I found one that was unlocked almost immediately.

There was chaos inside. I guessed it had been some sort of shop, but now it was trashed, with racks everywhere, glass spread across the floor, and dust and dirt everywhere, as well as copious amounts of dried corn husks, some fashioned into weird symbols, some just spread out. I reluctantly picked through it, looking for a phone, but I didn't see one. I sighed. "Great," I muttered. "This really is a ghost town."

Sighing, I went back out to the main street, dusting off my jeans, in case they'd gotten infected by the shop. Really, it was eerie just being inside that place. I kept going, ignoring the heat of the sun on my shirt—I'd just had to wear black, hadn't I?

After a few more minutes, though, I finally saw someone else, emerging from an alley between two stores, about a hundred feet away, and this one turned towards me, walking very purposefully, as if he had expected to see me. Maybe he had.

I quickened my pace, going to meet him. As I drew nearer, I could see that he was my age, or a little older, over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and long hair that was redder than any I'd seen in a while. He was dressed a little oddly, in black and brown, and his face was set grimly. He didn't look friendly. It was perhaps a combination of these things that made me stop about fifteen yards away from him and speak to him from that relaxed distance.

"Hi," I said. He continued to advance. "Look, I've been looking for someone for ages." He kept moving forward. I was getting uncomfortable. "I wrecked my car and I've been looking for a phone… so I… can call…" He was only fifteen feet away by now. "What are you doing?"

I was getting an eerie feeling. I looked him over again, quickly and carefully, and upon this second observation caught sight of a hilt sticking out of his belt—a knife. My heart plummeted into my stomach. Something was very, very wrong here, and my good sense told me I'd be a fool to stick around and figure out what it was.

I finally did the smart thing and turned, running as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I heard his pace quicken behind me; he was running just as fast as I was… no, faster, and I could feel my heartbeat going sixty miles an hour with the combined stress of fear and a sudden jump into a run.

Alas, I was no match for him. Before twenty seconds had passed, he'd caught up with me and grabbed my arm, jerking me to a sudden, painful stop. "Let me go, you jerk!" I yelled, twisting around to hit him with all the force I could muster. He dodged enough so that the blow glanced harmlessly off of his shoulder, reaching to grab my arms, and I twisted away, trying to run again. One of his hands tore through my hair, ripping out the ribbon, but I jerked out of his grasp.

Within a second, though, I felt his arm lock around me, below the chest but above the stomach. It effectively kept me from going anywhere, so naturally, I tried twisting away. His other arm came next, wrapping around my stomach and locking my arms to my side. "Stop it!" I shrieked, sounding a little like my mother. "What do you want?!" I was afraid of the answer.

He didn't seem particularly inclined to give it to me. Next thing I knew, I'd been lifted off of my struggling feet—not very far, but my feet were at least two inches from the ground. His arms dug into my torso like steel, and even as I resumed my struggle to escape, I couldn't help but marvel. I wasn't some tiny little flower-like girl that was easy to carry. He had to be strong to hold on to me as I struggled and offered absolutely no help.

He wasn't quite a god, though, as proved with his first words: "Samuel! Josiah! Come and help me!" His mouth was a little too close to my ear, which gave me a good blast of his voice—other than half deafening me, it rang with power and a strong will, and a hint of something sinister that boded ill for me.

Two kids, maybe fifteen and sixteen, detached themselves from wherever they'd been before—I knew you were hiding from me, you little pissants, I thought viciously as I bent down to bite the redhead's arm. He didn't flinch, but he did lower me so that my feet were once again touching the ground, proceeding to half-drag me. I didn't know why he wanted me, but I wasn't going to make it easy on him. I promptly lifted my feet, making him support all my weight. Maybe if I tired him out—

But then, the others joined us. I used the redhead's support to lash out with my feet at the two of them, but each grabbed one of my legs at the knee and hoisted up, taking the weight of the lower half of my body. They rather effectively rendered me immobile, and the redhead changed his grip, locking both his arms around mine and holding me up.

I was reduced to alternately screaming at them and screaming for help. I insulted their heritage and demanded what was wrong with them, were they insane, would someone please help me? Eventually, the redhead grew tired of it. He reached up with one hand and locked it around my mouth, digging hard into the bones of my face.

"Shut up!" he ordered me.

Ow. His fingers were hurting. I shut up. After a few seconds, he let go of my mouth, and I realized that it was because he was backing up some steps. I twisted my head, looking past his shoulder to see that we were headed into an ancient-looking building.

The second we were under a roof, he unceremoniously dropped me, and the other two boys followed suit. My head didn't thank him for that, and neither did my diaphragm. I glared at him fiercely, trying to convey that I was now fully willing to eat his future children, while I tried to regain my breath.

He ignored me, stepping over me towards the exit. "With me," he snapped, and the boys quickly followed him. I sat up as they left the building—which I could see now was an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse, probably a piece of the town's history, since I'd seen a bigger, more modern school on the way in.

The redhead looked at me for half a second as the two boys flowed past him, and then he reached for the door and shut it. I was cast in darkness.

Malachai closed the door to the schoolhouse, barred it, and then paused for a second to regain his energy. Carrying a full-grown girl a hundred yards wasn't the hardest task he'd ever had, but it still had a diminishing effect on his strength.

As she started to shout incoherently, likely more curses against his ancestry and future progeny, he turned to the two boys who had helped him carry her. "Samuel," he said curtly, speaking to the youngest, "go watch the window. Make sure she doesn't escape." There was a single window, in the back of the schoolhouse—boarded over, but it was still a weak area.

Samuel fled, probably glad to have escaped Malachai without being singed. The redhead turned to the older boy. "Watch the door," he ordered Josiah. "If she gets away, I'll have your blood." His eyes were deadly serious, and he could see the fear in Josiah's gaze as the boy nodded hurriedly.

Malachai then started down the steps. He looked down at his hand, in which he still grasped the black ribbon he'd torn from her head, along with a few strands of her hair. He clenched his fist, holding the ribbon tightly, as he made his way to Isaac's quarters.

He frowned slightly as he walked. There was something that had been gnawing at his mind since Thomas first reported seeing the outlander girl. That little runt, Sarah, and her drawings had always predicted things out of the ordinary, up till now. He wasn't sure what had happened. He didn't rely on her drawings, never had, but the fact that she'd apparently failed to see this coming was… a change. It might be a good change. Maybe Isaac would stop looking at her with those rose-tinted glasses, would stop ignoring her transgressions—hers and those of her little creep of a brother's.

A few of the braver children were coming out of hiding now that the outlander was out of sight, and two of them dared to draw up alongside of him, having to run to keep up with his long-legged strides. "What are you going to do, Malachai?" one demanded eagerly.

"Are we going to offer the outlander to him?" questioned the other.

"I will speak to Isaac about it," Malachai answered shortly, not slowing.

"What do you think he will say?" asked the child on his left.

Irritated with the questioning, Malachai let his hand fly, but the child was experienced in dodging the redhead's absent-minded blows, and he ducked it. "I don't know! Go do something of worth and leave me be!" The two obediently dropped back, and Malachai continued on.

In time, he reached the small house that Isaac had claimed as his own. He went straight to the study—the door of which was closed, as always—and knocked. A second passed, and then came Isaac's voice, muffled through the wood. "Come in." Malachai entered and spotted their spiritual leader, standing at the back of the room, watching him expectantly.

Isaac had changed, too, greatly. Malachai guessed that he was about fourteen now, shooting up awkwardly in height—though he was nowhere near as tall as his redheaded elder—and his voice was changing rapidly. Isaac, of course, handled the growing process with poise. He never seemed fazed by the changes.

Now, Malachai bowed slightly, stiffly, never taking his eyes off of him. Isaac nodded slightly, acknowledging him. The redhead took that as the sign to straighten up and speak. "An outlander has wandered into our midst."

Isaac didn't look surprised; one of the knee-biters had probably come and told him while Malachai was dealing with it. "And have you caught this person?"

"She is locked in the old schoolhouse," Malachai reported. "Samuel and Josiah are making sure that she doesn't escape. I came immediately to you to ask what we should do."

"Very wise," Isaac commented. He thought for a moment, the area between his eyebrows furrowing slowly. "This was not predicted."

"Yes, I know." Malachai was careful to keep his face expressionless.

"We've been keeping a close watch on Sarah," mused Isaac. "She couldn't have produced a picture without us knowing. She must not have seen it."

Malachai took this to mean that Isaac didn't quite know what to do. He'd probably need time to figure it out. The redhead's eyebrows lowered darkly—he didn't like it when things were drawn out; he liked to resolve these affairs quickly.

"How old is the outlander?" Isaac asked suddenly. Malachai looked askance at him, unsure of why that would matter.

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "Young still. Likely under twenty." After a second's thought, he added, "Perhaps my age."

Malachai spotted the brief look on Isaac's face before the boy quickly guarded his expression. It looked… hopeful, like his dreams were on the verge of being realized, but that he didn't dare to be so presumptuous as to expect it. It was almost immediately gone, though, leaving the older boy to wonder if he'd really seen it.

"Forget the outlander, for now," Isaac bade him. "Find Sarah and bring her to me. I want to know why she didn't see this."

"Yes, Isaac," Malachai said, trying to mask his irritation. He hated having to hunt down the runt, as he always had to handle her ubiquitous, foolishly fearless brother, who was constantly near her. He wanted this outlander to be dealt with. But he didn't say any of this. He just nodded and left.

Once outside, he swung with purpose in the direction of the old houses. There was one in particular, a yellow two-story thing, that the two had made their hideout. Everyone knew they were always there, despite it being forbidden—Isaac never applied the usual rules to them. Malachai, though he hated that this was the case, had come to accept it. He never disputed the partiality anymore.

It didn't take him long to reach the house, and he quieted his steps as he entered. He could hear them up there, giggling and laughing to themselves, and he didn't intend that they should know of his presence until he was ready for them to.

Quietly, he stood in the hallway, looking through the cracked door at them. They weren't playing games, at least, and Malachai had managed to destroy their record player earlier that year by 'accident,' so other than being in the old house, they'd committed no other transgression. He watched them with narrowed eyes until it seemed that he was in danger of being discovered, and then he stepped into the room.

Sarah seemed a little frightened, but Job had lost any sense of fear he'd had years ago, and just looked boldly at the older boy. "What do you want?" he asked.

Malachai reached down and jerked him to his feet, not tolerating the disrespect in the boy's voice. Sarah gasped a little. "Not you," the redhead snarled, tossing Job neatly to the side. He crashed into the bed and fell down, and Malachai turned his attention to Sarah, who had stood up. "Come with me," he ordered.

"Leave my sister alone!" Job said, struggling to his feet. In one swift move, Malachai drew his knife and pointed it at the boy menacingly.

"Hold your tongue, Job, or neither Isaac nor He Who Walks Behind the Rows will be able to protect you!" It was time the boy relearned the concept of fear. Job glared, but didn't say anything, so Malachai sheathed the knife and reached towards Sarah. "Let's go."

The little blonde meekly came, and he took her by the shoulder, guiding her out of the room. He was aware that Job would probably follow, but he'd managed to separate brother and sister, for once—it was a start.

He expected the walk back to Isaac's to be silent, but she surprised him by speaking. "Why are you taking me to him?" She was a little out of breath, as he had made no attempt to match his strides to her smaller ones, and so she had to move fast to keep up—but she still spoke steadily, sounding sure of herself.

"Because he asked me to," Malachai said, settling on the simplest answer. Sarah gave a harsh sigh.

"That's not what I meant, Malachai, and you know it! Tell me!"

His eyes narrowed in disbelief. These two children were the only ones he'd ever had trouble with. Their heads had long been swelling with Isaac's inclination towards them, but now it was getting personal. He jerked Sarah to a stop and glared down at her, gripping her shoulders hard with both hands. "Listen to me, you little runt," he sneered. "Isaac may turn a blind eye to your disrespect and betrayal, but if you begin speaking that way to me, I will cut your tongue out! Listen to my warning, little one, for you will not get another."

The threat was effective. Sarah, not as brave than Job in any case, was now shrinking back from him, avoiding his eyes and hunching slightly. Malachai was satisfied, for now, and took a second to let her flounder in her fright before he resumed his walk, even quicker now, jerking her along.

They reached Isaac's home quickly in this way, and Sarah was out of breath and trembling slightly from either exertion or fear as he knocked on the study door. Isaac bade him enter, and he went in, pushing Sarah in front of him, and only once they were both in the room did he let her go, turning to shut the door behind them.

Isaac said nothing, but gestured for Sarah to come to him. She took a deep, trembling breath, squared her shoulders, and stepped forward. "What do you want now?" Doubtless the words were meant to be defiant, but there was a plaintive note to them that betrayed her.

Isaac smiled, clasping his hands in front of him. "There is an outlander here, Sarah," he said gently. "Did you know that?"

Malachai rolled his eyes. He'd never had the patience to deal with children this nicely, but somehow, Isaac got results from even the most suspicious. Sarah sighed, and she sounded a bit less frightened. She looked back at the redhead, and then at Isaac again. "No, I didn't," she said softly.

Isaac's forehead creased. "Sarah, when did you draw your most recent picture?"

Again, she looked back at Malachai. He scowled at her, wondering why she kept glancing in his direction, but she quickly returned her attention to her interrogator. "It was a long time ago."

"How long?"

She paused. "Maybe… two months?"

"Why, Sarah?" asked Isaac kindly. "You love to draw."

She lifted her chin slightly. "I'm getting too old for it."

Isaac smiled thinly, reaching out to caress her hair, almost like a fond father. She didn't flinch, but neither did she appear to enjoy it. "Oh, my child, one never grows too old for such things. You might draw all your life and you'd never be too old."

Her shoulders slumped a little. "I… I haven't felt like drawing."

Isaac watched her downcast face for a long, slow moment, and then gave a short nod. "I understand, Sarah. Thank you; you may go. Malachai, stay." He turned away, and Sarah quickly spun and ran towards the door. Malachai stepped out of her way, and she left as if someone had lit a fire beneath her.

Isaac waited for a few seconds before speaking. "I believe she is losing her gift."

Malachai's eyebrows lifted as Isaac turned towards him. He'd never thought that the proclaimed 'gift' was all that special, but now that there was a fear of losing it… well, he didn't really care. He knew that Isaac depended on it, but as shown earlier today, Malachai didn't function through forewarning. He dealt with things as they came. "What does that mean for us?"

"I don't know," Isaac said with difficulty. Malachai knew he hated having to admit that he was unaware of anything, knew he probably couldn't wait to get rid of him so he could partake of the wisdom of their Lord. "I must pray. Malachai, I wish for you to return to the schoolhouse. Keep a watch on the outlander yourself and make sure she doesn't escape."

Malachai opened his mouth to protest—he didn't want to be stuck watching after the girl. Isaac spoke before he could, though. "This is an important task; one I would only entrust to you. Obey, Malachai."

The redhead closed his mouth, and after a second, nodded begrudgingly. Figuring that that was all he needed to hear, he turned to go, but Isaac's voice stopped him.

"Before you leave, there is something I must tell you." Malachai turned back, silently and attentively. "The Lord has been speaking firmly to me as of late. He has been telling me that our numbers are dwindling, the amount of leaders among us decreasing. He has spoken of granting eternal youth to those worthy of it, faithful enough to lead his followers on. I feel I must tell you, Malachai, that you are one of these that the gift may be granted to."

It took Malachai a second to grasp it, but once he did, he had to work hard to hide the dawning euphoria. He had known he wasn't to die in the next year, had known there was something else that he had to be doing… A small smile slipped past his guarded expression.

"I know that it would be a trial, not having the bliss of meeting the Lord as quickly as the others, but the goal is admirable."

"I would serve him well," Malachai said confidently.

Isaac studied him for a moment, and then smiled slightly. "Very well, Malachai. Remember that nothing is final—but I will say that I believe that you are just as likely to receive the gift as I am."

Malachai nodded. "Thank you, Isaac."

The boy nodded, lifting a hand in dismissal. "Go now. Perform your duties well, and may the Lord be with you."

Malachai bowed in acknowledgement, and then left, his mind filled with the new and wondrous possibility.

chapter three – i lose a fight with a door, and malachai manages to educate me and snub me simultaneously

I screamed at the doorway for an hour before my voice finally gave out. Most people would have given up before then, but I'm a little sister—I'm the expert at latching on to something annoying and performing the offending action until somebody snaps. Unfortunately, my voice isn't the kind meant for shouting. It gives out pretty fast—an hour was actually good time for me. Heaven forbid I ever wander into a rock concert.

By that time, my eyes had long adjusted to the light—or lack thereof—inside. There was a frail, thin stream of light peering between two boards at the back, and that was about it. I could see that I was inside an old-fashioned schoolhouse, although the desks had been shoved to the side, lining the walls, a few haphazardly stacked on top of each other.

I first tried the door. Unlocked, but barred. I stepped back, braced myself, and then threw my shoulder against it. I came away bruised.

Door: 1. Jess: 0.

Rubbing my offended shoulder, I moved carefully through the dark towards the sole source of light. Getting closer, I saw that it was a window. It had been boarded up, with only one paper-thin gap—the source of my little night light. The window was on the inside, on my side. I tried to gauge the thickness of the boards from where I was. If I broke the window, I might be able to kick through the…

Wait. Who was I kidding? If I was lucky, I'd only get a piece of glass in my leg and a stubbed toe. More likely, I'd manage to sever an artery and break my foot on the boards. That way, I could bleed to death locked inside a nineteenth century schoolhouse—just the way I'd always wanted to die.

I sighed and flopped down, settling back against the wall next to the window and sitting cross-legged. Now it was time to try and figure out some of this stuff.

Why the violence? They'd acted like I was a mere annoyance, something to be dealt with. I would guess that they were just delinquents looking for trouble, but there was no way that was right. Judging by the way the little kid tore off combined by the redhead's purposeful arrival a half-hour later, the kid had gone and told him about me. This, and the fact that I'd seen no one but children since I'd reached Gatlin, along with the mechanic coordination of the teens that had captured me made for a very eerie combination.

As with any teenage girl that would find herself in this [very unusual] situation, a small voice in the back of my head suggested rape? I shook off the fear. If that was what they'd planned, they'd have started in right away, not left me and locked me up in here.

Yeah, unless they just went off to get some buddies.

"Shut up," I hoarsely ordered my head. It was silent—for half a second, and then it started up again.

They might be sadists who locked you in here just to leave you to die. I threw my head back in frustration, and then, as it collided with the wall, winced and reached up to touch it. My accident-induced headache hadn't gone anywhere, and now I feared that the added stress was just going to augment it.

I was sitting there, trying to relax so that the tension wouldn't add to the pain, when there was a scraping at the door. I froze, staring, as the grinding continued, and then stopped… and then the door was flung open, and the redhead walked in bearing a torch that lit up the room, followed by the older of the two boys that had helped him get me. The latter was carrying a torch as well.

I stood up, pressing my back against the wall, and stared suspiciously in them—but, for all they acknowledged me, I might as well not have existed. They moved to opposite ends of the room, locking the torches into holders along the wall, and then the redhead nodded at the other boy. The boy turned without a glance at me and left, shutting the door behind him. I didn't hear the scrape of the beam barring the door, so they must have trusted this big lout to keep me inside.

All was still for a minute as we stared at each other. Panic rose swiftly in me—now that he was once again physically in front of me, I was remembering the strength in his arms, again realizing that I would be helpless if he chose to attack. My struggles hadn't even fazed him earlier.

I quickly became aware that both stares had transformed into hostile glares. Neither of us felt friendly towards the other, then. He suddenly snapped, "How old are you, girl?"

I was so startled by the sudden question that I answered honestly. "Seventeen." I recovered quickly, rekindling my glare and adding, "Not that it's any of your business."

He didn't respond. Instead, he turned and loped towards the left wall. He drew out a chair and settled in it, appearing to get comfortable. Sitting there, perfectly at ease despite the situation, strength understated by the languid position, he reminded me oddly of a lion.

When he didn't appear to want to say anything else, I took matters into my own hands. "Why do you have me locked up in here?" I demanded. "What did I do to you?"

"You came into our town." His voice was cold, and he made the statement sound like an accusation. I had the urge to defend myself.

"Yeah, I wrecked my car," I said, spelling it out for him. "I needed to use a phone—jeez, what is your problem?"

"We don't have phones here."

Yeah, no kidding. "So why didn't you just tell me that and send me on my way?"

He stared impartially at me. "You're an outlander."

"Yeah, so?" I wasn't quite sure what they meant by outlander—I lived in the same country as they did, didn't I? It was probably a local term.

He shook his head, looking at me in what appeared to be disbelief. "You don't understand."

"No," I said, frustrated now, "I don't. So why don't you explain things to me?" Please explain things to me. I have a feeling it would help.

He sneered. "Outlanders are profane, unbelievers. You and your kind are not to be tolerated here. The Lord commands it."

Oh. Ohh. Things were suddenly getting much clearer. "A cult?" I murmured out loud.

That was a mistake. The redhead's eyes flashed, and he was up from his chair in an instant, standing tall, fists clenched. "Our belief is the true belief," he ground out angrily. "It is you who are misled, Outlander."

Oh, yeah, it's definitely a cult. I didn't give voice to my thoughts, though. He was already angry, and he still had the knife at his belt—I liked my face the way it was, thank you, not hacked and mangled. "Right," I mumbled. "Sorry."

He looked accusingly at me for a few more seconds, and then slowly sat back down. He was tense now, though, just waiting for me to offend again. Carefully wording my next question, I asked, "So… are the adults involved, too?"

"There are none," he said icily.

I stared at him. "W-what do you mean, there are none?"

"Adults are corrupt," he said emphatically. "They lie and betray God. There are none in our town."

I could feel my knees shaking, so I slowly slid down the wall and landed on the floor with a bump, watched impartially by him. Whether I'd realized it or not, adult intervention had been my hope—that some parent would figure things out and come to help me. Now, if this boy was telling the truth, I had little hope of escape unless I got myself out of this.

"So…" I swallowed with difficulty. "What are you planning to do with me?"

He watched me calculatingly for a moment, and then lifted one shoulder in a partial shrug, turning his attention to the wall across from him as if it was more interesting to him than I was. "Isaac hasn't decided yet."


"He leads us." His tone was disgusted, sort of a 'Do I have to explain everything to you?'

I didn't feel quite ready to upset him any further—I wasn't that brave—so I resolved to shut up… after one more question. "And you… what's your name?"

He swung his head to stare at me again, and I was careful not to flinch. I figured he could probably smell fear… or was I thinking in terms of lions again? Could lions smell fear? It seemed that he stared at me for a long time, but he finally decided that it didn't matter if I knew. "Malachai."

My messenger. I was one for names and their meanings—mine meant God beholds. And then… Isaac, I think, meant He who laughs. Well, that was ominous. I waited to see if he was going to ask my name, but he didn't seem to have the slightest interest in doing so. I guessed 'Outlander' was good enough for him. Still, I didn't much like that word—it sounded almost like a curse, the way he said it. "I'm Jess," I volunteered. He didn't react.

It suddenly occurred to me that I was taking this rather well—being held against my will in a creepy old building, all because I infringed on a cult of kids. Maybe it was because he was there. I had always been a social person, more at ease if someone was around—though, ironically, I hated big crowds.

I scowled. Focus on the big picture, Jess. I'd been kidnapped—I had to remember that. I have to admit, I was a little discouraged. If I was forgetting it so early into the experience, how much likelier was I to completely disregard it later on? Stockholm syndrome flashed through my mind, and I cast a sideways glance at Malachai. He was staring broodingly at the wall, and inwardly, I snorted. Yeah. Not likely.

A few long minutes passed. Though I was burning with curiosity about this cult, this apparent town full of children, Malachai didn't at all seem inclined to converse. So, I tilted my head back and started counting the rafters. There weren't that many, so after I'd counted them about three times and had ascertained that there were twenty-six, I started naming them—in alphabetical order; that way everything would work out.

I'd reached 'Quentin' when a voice at the door drew my attention. I wasn't the only one who'd noticed—Malachai was stiff in his chair, head turned towards the sound. As the noise drew closer, possibly right outside, he flung himself from the chair and strode toward the door—but it flew open before he could reach it.

There were two children there, quite small—one a boy with chin-length brown hair, the other a younger girl, whose hair, in contrast, was long and blonde. They both froze at the sight of Malachai bearing down on them, their voices ceasing, but the boy's eyes darted past the redhead towards me.

"You aren't allowed in here!" Malachai shouted.

"An outlander?" asked the girl, staring at me. She sounded worried.

Malachai got to the children and reached for them, but the boy nimbly slipped past him and ran straight for me. I stared at him confusion, not sure what to expect—a hug or a slap in the face. He caught my hand and held it in a vise-like grip, surprisingly strong for a boy his age. "Help us," he whispered, his eyes looking earnestly into mine. I was too startled to respond.

Malachai had reached him by then, and grabbed him, tearing him away from me roughly. I darted to my feet as he carted him away, hauling him to the front of the building—the girl had disappeared.

I saw the opportunity for escape, if I could only fight back my anger at the violent way Malachai was handling the little boy. I followed as closely as I could without touching him, and as he stepped out the door to fling the kid down the steps and yell something at someone, I tried to slip past.

I wasn't fast enough. He cut himself off mid-shout, twisting and catching my by the arm. I could feel his fingers, long and bony, digging into my flesh, but I still struggled. Impatiently, he jerked me backwards, and then forcefully pushed me back into my prison. I stumbled backwards, trying to keep from falling, as he turned to finish whatever he'd started shouting, and then he turned back and shut the door behind him.

Oh, crap. He looks mad, I thought as he stood, feet slightly apart, arms crossed, and looked at me. "I will not allow you to escape," he said hotly. "Do not insult me by trying!"

"Well, can you blame me?" I snapped in return, cradling the offended arm with the fingers of my opposite hand. He didn't answer, instead moving as if to resume his seat, but I had other ideas. I moved directly into his path. "Who were those kids?"

"Annoyances," he growled, sidestepping me. I moved with him, blocking him with my shoulder.

"Are you sure the whole town's so happy with your religion?" I challenged.

"Those who aren't are fools. They are punished," he said, stopping and looking down at me with cold eyes.

"Yeah, I could see," I said flatly.

"Job and his sister have been a thorn in my side for many years," he fired in return, probably sensing the accusation in my tone. "I would not expect you to understand that, Outlander."

"I've dealt with little kids a lot," I retorted, and I had. In a church full of toddlers and little kids, with few teenagers around, I'd been a sought-after babysitter. I couldn't help but like kids after that. "The reason they give you trouble is because you treat them like that," I asserted confidently, though in reality, I had no idea if that was really the case. They could just be a pair of vindictive little knee-biters with a grudge against him, but I doubted that. I figured my guess was pretty accurate.

"They start it," he argued. At that point, he seemed to realize that he was deigning to fight with me. His eyes flashed again in anger—a dangerous sign, I was beginning to learn—and he grabbed my shoulders. I flinched, but he just moved me out of his way and went back to his seat.

I was both relieved that he hadn't done worse and indignant that I'd been dismissed so easily, and I turned to watch, hands on my hips. He sat down, and I debated running for it. I'd have about a five foot head start. I quickly decided against it—I'd witnessed firsthand how fast he was. He'd catch me before I even reached the door.

So, I slowly wandered over to him. I might as well figure some more of this out while I was stuck in here. Crossing my arms, I said, "So… you have a vendetta with these kids."

He glared. That had been the wrong thing to say. I backpedaled. "So, if there aren't any adults here… where did they go? I mean, kids didn't build this town."

At the question, a smile flickered onto his face—not necessarily pleasant. It was as if he'd been reminded of a private joke. "They're in the cornfield."

My mind moved quickly to figure out what that meant. Adults wouldn't live in a field, wouldn't allow themselves to be driven out by a bunch of kids, so there was really only one other possibility. "They're… buried there?" I asked slowly.

The smile had vanished, but the quick nod he gave me didn't appear remorseful in the least. I exhaled slowly and shakily. "Because they were killed?"

Another nod. My knees felt shaky now, but I was well aware that he was watching me closely, eyes narrowed, waiting for me to freak out. I determined not to give him the satisfaction, but I did lean against the wall for a little support. I wasn't at all the fainting type, but it would be embarrassing if I lost my footing or something like that.

"Okay," I said neutrally. "So how do y'all function? I mean, you need money to live—to eat. Where do you get it?"

"God provides for us," he answered. "There is no money here."

Okay… that didn't really answer my question, but I guess the cornfield should be self-explanatory. I watched him for a second, and then shrugged. "Well, I won't say that it doesn't sound Utopian," I muttered. Except for the killing of adults; that's pretty harsh. That thought brought another to mind, and I inquired, "What happens when children here turn into adults?"

"When one turns nineteen, he goes to be with the Lord," he answered, sounding almost bored with this whole conversation, bored that he had to explain this to a simpleton.

Translation—they're killed too. I swallowed, and yet another thought struck me. "How old are you?"

"I am eighteen."

"So next year you'll be… I mean, you'll go to your god?" He looked at me without expression—other than that, there was no visible response. I shook my head in disbelief. "How do you live with that hanging over your head? Are you glad, or…?"

He spoke suddenly, confidently. "I believe I have a broader purpose. I have been faithful for years, carrying out God's will. I am… indispensable to him."

"You think you'll be allowed to live?" I asked. He said nothing, just smiled a little. I felt a sudden, unexpected flash of pity. I knew how cults worked; the leader controlled its members with the fear of punishment and anticipation of greater power. I knew, though, that only the leader of the cult—in this case, Isaac—had any real power. When his time came, Malachai would be led to the slaughter, just like the rest of them.

This upset me, though I didn't know why. The thought of this boy, though, who I was already beginning to realize was an entity unto himself, being murdered right at the age of potential was… disturbing. What made it worse was that he believed he was special somehow, would be spared.

He could be, prompted a voice in the back of my head. You don't know. He could really be an important pawn in this Isaac boy's game.

I snorted softly. Not likely. Still, this talk of their beliefs was making me uneasy—too much at one time. I was still curious, though, so I figured out a way to combine it with my concern in escaping this prison. "What would happen if I wanted to join in with you?"

"You? Join?" Malachai scoffed. "Such a thing has never happened before, an outlander coming into our midst and adhering to our beliefs."

"Well, use your imagination," I argued. "What if I told you right now that I wanted in on this?"

He stared at me for a long moment, seeming to genuinely consider it for the first time, though his expression changed only minutely. Finally, he said, "Isaac would pray to the Lord to ask if you would be allowed. Most likely, he would refuse and demand you as a sacrifice, but if he consented, there would probably be a ritual of induction."

Okay, the sacrifice part was worrying. I didn't get a chance to react, though, before he reached out quickly and grabbed my hand. At the contact, my heart leapt into my throat. "You would not be allowed," he continued, as if he hadn't noticed my sudden change in breathing. "You do not have the hands for it." He opened up my hand and held it in place with his left, and then stretched his right palm out next to mine, allowing me to compare.

He was right. His were rough and callused—I could both see it and feel it. Mine were softer, unused to any sort of hard labor. I wasn't sure what he did that coarsened his hands like that, but whatever it was, it would butcher mine the first day. "Mine could toughen up," I argued, to distract myself from the oddly disquieting sight of our hands together. He had big hands, long-fingered, very masculine.

He looked up at me disbelievingly. "Are you saying you wish to join us?"

Oops. I just realized what I'd been arguing for. "No," I said, jerking away from him and immediately wishing I hadn't—hormones, this is not the time. You guys are retarded if you think you should start firing off now. …oh, jeez, there's seriously something wrong with me. "I was just curious."

Malachai looked sideways at me, suspiciously, like he knew I wasn't telling him something. I responded with my most innocent expression, and then regretted it—Angie had told me millions of times that it made me look like I was up to something. He apparently decided to let it go, though, tilting his head back against the wall. "It will be getting dark soon."

Wow. It was the first time he'd actually initiated conversation instead of just responding to my questions. "Do you think Isaac will reach a decision by then?"

He lifted his shoulders slightly. "It is never certain how long Isaac will take. He tells me that, though He Who Walks Behind the Rows speaks to him always, it can be difficult to understand him exactly."

"So… we could be stuck here for a while," I translated. He didn't answer, so I sighed and sat down against the wall. "Great," I muttered.

One thing was certain—I wasn't going to sit around waiting for some kid to decide whether to kill me, let me go, induct me into their little society and give me a welcome-to-the-club certificate… I just wasn't willing to bet my future on that.

I bent my thoughts towards escape.

chapter four – hormones make an appearance

Thus far, Malachai's task hadn't been as boring as he'd thought it would be. The outlander girl was surprisingly eager to learn anything and everything she could about their society. At first, he'd debated simply not speaking to her at all, but he decided that if she was talking, she wouldn't be trying to escape. Malachai was not one to take precautions, but he understood very well the consequences if an outlander escaped.

In the beginning, his answers had been brief, to-the-point. After a while, as her interest only seemed to grow, he allowed himself to give freer answers. He'd even touched her of his own volition towards the end of the conversation, reaching out to seize her hand, to let her compare them with his own.

It had felt more comfortable than it should. Unnatural, yes, since he wasn't in the habit of touching girls' hands in general and, when he did, they were as rough as his own from years of working with the corn, but still comfortable. He wasn't worried, though—the memory, the temptation to do it again, would fade, only assisted by the knowledge that she was an outlander. She was damned by He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and if he allowed himself to feel an inclination for her—not that he wanted to—he would be guilty by association.

For a long time, he pretended to ignore her, whilst really studying her. She was a novelty, which intrigued him—that much, he'd admit. It had been a while since outlanders had stumbled upon the town, and those were always adults, dealt with quickly. He never really had time to study the outside world—it had been a long time since he'd lived among them

Part of him, the more adamantly religious, spoke up indignantly. Why should he even want to know? Still, his more inquisitive side suppressed this part—there was no harm in watching and considering it. He didn't miss the life—he'd been one of the most vocal advocates for throwing over the sinful, modernized lifestyle imposed on them by the adults in favor of their simpler, religious existence of today. Despite this, he was beginning to feel curious again. That was all.

She hadn't spoken in a while, staring ahead of her vacantly, lost in thought. He could see from the boarded window that the light had faded; it was probably twilight or a little later. The torches were beginning to burn down—they'd have to replace them soon. He was also feeling a bit drowsy—he'd probably set guards at the doors again so that he could leave and get some sleep soon.

She suddenly turned her head towards him, and seemed to notice for the first time that he'd been watching her. He was unabashed. He was allowed to look wherever he wanted to. "This is going to make you mad," she began. His gaze sharpened. She raised her eyebrows. "I have to go to the bathroom."

He restrained himself from rolling his eyes. He got up, motioning for her to follow as he started for the door. She got to her feet and came with him.

Once they reached the entry, he took her arm as a precaution. He knew he could catch her if she tried to run, but it was getting dark, and, though the mild challenge would be refreshing, Isaac would bite his head off if he heard that Malachai was taking risks like that with an outlander.

He took her to one of the outhouses they'd constructed years ago. She stared at him, and then the small building, with raised eyebrows. After a second, she shook her head. "Whatever," she muttered, and went in.

The second she was out of sight, a few kids came out from hiding, obviously curious. One ran up to him. "What's she like, Malachai?" he whispered. "Is she horribly blasphemous?"

No doubt he'd been listening to some of the older children's stories. Malachai shook his head shortly. "She's an outlander," he answered tersely. "She's ignorant of the truth."

"Will He Who Walks Behind the Rows take her?" asked the boy excitedly. Malachai remembered this boy now—David, a child that seemed particularly gleeful whenever a sacrifice was offered. He smiled thinly.

"Isaac is deciding that now," he said, and swatted at the boy, catching him on the side of the head. "Go, get away from here."

The children were out of sight again by the time she re-emerged, but she looked around suspiciously nonetheless. "Were you talking to someone?"

"Yes," Malachai said, grabbing her arm again. "Come on."

She dragged her feet on the way back, and, to be honest, he didn't blame her for doing so. It was dark by now and had cooled off, and the wind gusting through the corn and embracing the town was refreshing, both to hear and to feel. If he'd had a choice, he would have spent the night outdoors, not keeping watch on an interloper.

When they returned to the house, he let her go and turned to shut the door. After the house was secure, he began to pace in front of the door, just to expel restless energy. She sat down—on the floor again; he wasn't sure why she kept doing that with the chairs all around.

"My parents are going to be freaking out," she said, as though she were musing to herself, thinking out loud. He glanced at her, but her gaze was fixed on the ceiling. "I was supposed to be at Angie's by now. I'm not sure what they'll do." She sighed and turned her head towards him. "I'm starting to regret that argument, now."

He wasn't watching her anymore, but he listened as he moved. Probably believing that he wasn't paying attention, she kept talking after a rueful laugh. "You now, the funny thing is that I actually told them that I wished there were no adults. I guess God heard me." She sighed. He shot a sideways glance at her and kept pacing.

She was silent for a time, and then her forehead furrowed; her eyes narrowed and she said, "Tell me about Isaac."

"What about Isaac?" Malachai asked, taken by surprise and stilling his motion for a moment.

"Well, I mean, how old is he?"

"Thirteen," Malachai answered. "Possibly fourteen, now. We can only guess at Isaac's age—he does not remember much before he came here."

"That's when y'all started believing this?" she questioned. Malachai didn't answer immediately, first searching her words for hidden insult. Eventually, he decided that she was innocent of offense.

"Isaac's coming opened our eyes," he allowed. "He had only been here for several months when we decided to purge the town."

He watched for her reaction, and it was the same as when she'd first discovered the killing of the adults. She grew a shade paler and worried her bottom lip, and a line appeared between her eyebrows as they lowered. He knew that the thought bothered her, and for a moment felt a pang of sympathy for her. She was so ignorant, unenlightened. She didn't understand how glorious this life really was, and how sacrifices had to be made to maintain it.

He tried to voice this thought in a way she'd understand. "We couldn't worship and live in our own way with them bearing down on us. We had to get rid of things that could drag us down to temptation and sin."

"You couldn't just leave?" she asked, sounding upset. "Run away and set up somewhere else?"

"He Who Walks Behind the Rows came to rest here," he answered. "We had to stay where we were."

After a second, she nodded slowly. "I understand why you did it," she said quietly. "That doesn't mean I approve."

He began to pace again, feeling like he'd stood still for too long, but her next question gave him pause again. "What about your parents, Malachai?"

"What about them?" he asked, and his tone was neutral. It had been a long time since he'd really felt anything about or for his parents.

"Did… was it you that killed them?"

"No, I didn't," he responded after a brief pause. "Isaac believed it was best if none of us dealt with our own relatives. For the weaker of faith, partiality might win out." He paused again, and then said, "My parents were killed by a boy named Amos."

"Is he still here?"

"He was taken up a year ago."

She was silent for a second, and then asked, "How did you get through that? I mean, you were fourteen or something… I couldn't imagine living without my parents at that age."

It didn't take him long to answer. "They have the peace in death that they lacked in life," he said. "In a way, it was an act of mercy."

"So there's no afterlife?"

"Not for unbelievers," he said, looking steadily at her. "Simply the peace of death and nothingness, whether or not they deserve it."

She paused. "Still… you must have been a pretty independent child to manage without your parents."

"We are a community," he said. "The older helped the younger. There is no room for irresponsibility."

That seemed to give her enough to think about. She fell silent, and Malachai resumed his pacing.

Night crawled on, and after about an hour, there was a knock on the door. He glanced at Jess, making sure that she wouldn't try to run again, and then opened it, wedging his shoulders in the entryway to eliminate hope of escape. Josiah was there. "What?" Malachai asked.

Josiah craned his neck to try and get a look at the outlander. Annoyed, Malachai hitched his shoulder up to block the boy's view. "What?" he repeated, louder and more irritably.

Josiah's attention snapped to him, sensing the danger in his tone. "Isaac says you may get some sleep and leave her as she was for the first hour," he said, relaying his message dutifully.

Malachai paused, and then nodded. "Come, take one of the torches," he said, opening the door wider to allow him passage. Josiah followed and collected a torch, looking in what he clearly thought was an unobtrusive way at Jess. Malachai rolled his eyes as he got the other torch—the boy had seen her before, after all; there was no need to gawk.

"You're leaving?" she asked. She didn't sound surprised, rather, resigned.

He paused at the doorway, glaring at Josiah to make him hurry and leave. Then, he turned back to her. "Go to sleep," he ordered. "Morning will come quickly enough."

She said nothing, and so he pushed the door shut and watched as Josiah locked the beam across it, securing it for the night. "You have been given orders to watch her?" he inquired of the boy, unwilling to take anything for granted.

"We will move in shifts throughout the night," Josiah said. "She will be watched carefully."

Malachai nodded, but was still cautious. "Do not open the doors. She runs quickly and will try to escape. If there is urgent need to speak to her, come find me immediately. Understood?"

Josiah nodded fervently. Malachai said nothing more to him, just turned away and walked off. He was tired, he realized as he got further away—today had been the source of a lot of excitement. He knew where he could find rest, though. He headed straight for the cornfield, not wanting to deal with their communal huts tonight, as usual.

Once he was far enough in, he stretched out on the ground, shutting his eyes. As soon as the dark came, his mind was flooded with thoughts, but drowsiness soon overwhelmed them. He fell asleep.

I admit it: despite the situation, I was tired, and I went almost directly to sleep when I was left. For a few minutes, I paced around the room, true, but that was because I was a little agitated. Why? I was frustrated with myself, because the second Malachai left, gloom had fallen over me. I told you I was social. Apparently, the company of my kidnapper was better than no company at all.

Soon, though, I was able to sleep, even stretched out on the hard floor without the comfort of a blanket. I'm not sure for how long, but when I woke, there was pale light streaming in through the window. With that sleep came dreams—both good and bad. The first offered a possible solution for my little kidnapping problem. The second alerted me with a jolt to the fact that I was attracted to Malachai.

The first was easier to deal with immediately, and so I decided to try it out. I picked up one of the chairs along the side of the room—heavier than it looked—and took it over to the boarded window. With a loud "Uungh!" I flung it at the window and covered my face with my arms.

The chair hit the window and shattered it, sending glass everywhere in the immediate vicinity. For once I was grateful for shoes as I crunched through the glass and picked up the chair again, using the back to knock out some of the glass along the edges of the window. That done, I made the chair into a makeshift battering ram and began smashing it into the boards blocking escape.

Before long, someone realized what I was doing. I heard a yelp of surprise, and then someone banged on the boards. My strength was giving out quickly, anyway, so I lowered the chair. "Hey!" the boy yelled through the wood. "You'd better stop that!"

"Or else what?" I demanded.

There was a brief pause, and then the boy said, "I'll get Malachai!"

I paused. Was that what I wanted? No, I decided quickly. I don't need to come face to face with him anytime soon. I dropped the chair to the floor and said through the boards, "I'm thirsty."

I was. I was just realizing that I'd had nothing to eat or drink since lunch the day before—probably explained why I didn't need to go to the bathroom again—and I was absolutely parched. Hungry, too, my stomach added with a growl.

There was no response, and I banged on the boards with a fist. "Hey! Anybody out there?"

Sounding a little uncertain, the boy yelled, "You'll have to wait, Outlander!"

I rolled my eyes. "Great," I muttered, and picked my way through the glass, retreating towards safer terrain. I found a spot next to the right wall and leaned back against it and decided that now was as good a time as any to sort through the brand new issue raised by my dream.

"So just what is it that's so magnetic about him?" I muttered to myself. Now that the question was asked aloud, I could start the thought process.

He wasn't particularly physically attractive, per se, at least not at first glance—though the longer I'd spent around him the more that became a concern. His red hair was certainly a focal point, as well as his height and build—and his eyes, when not ice cold with contempt, were actually quite nice. Still, when I first saw him, I hadn't been particularly impressed… so what was it really?

I had to concede to himself that it was his manner. I was a little reluctant to do so, because, frankly, that made me a weirdo and possibly took me into masochistic territory. He hadn't been the least bit courteous, had manhandled me, and appeared to want nothing to do with me. However… yes, that one nagging however…

He was powerful and knew it. Every step he took showed it. He was secure in himself and I could tell that he didn't rely on anyone else to make decisions for him and was under no person's control, despite all this Isaac talk. Even so, his belief in this god of his was genuine. It was puzzling—in my experience, boys like him thought they were invincible and uncontrollable, and they didn't need a deity to make anything smoother for them or to give them orders.

I didn't understand him, and maybe that was part of the draw. Mysteries had always appealed to me. A dangerous mystery—hey, that's even better. Oh, sure, I could get killed trying to figure it out, but hey, it's worth it!

Great. The sarcastic inner-voice was back. I rolled my eyes and stared at the ceiling. It wasn't as if I wanted to think this way. It wasn't my fault. I blamed my stupid age. If I was twenty-five, I'd never be attracted to someone so potentially abusive. Everyone knew that teenagers were stupid.

All right. I had to get out of here as soon as possible, no matter what risks I had to take. I knew that if I saw him again, it would only confirm my stupidity. I got to my feet, went to the smashed window, picked up the chair, and started ramming it into the boards again.

Malachai awoke to clear blue sky, tall corn stalks waving gently in his peripheral vision. The noise must have awoken him—a strong wind whipping through the field, making a rustling racket. For a moment, he stared upwards, and then shut his eyes tightly. He'd been having a good dream…

"Malachai!" The voice was distant, but as the wind died down momentarily, he could hear the racket that whichever child was making coming toward him. He opened his eyes again, this time resignedly. He might as well sign off any chance of getting any more sleep, or returning to his dream, for that matter.

Nimbly, he rolled to his side and stood up. He headed towards the voice, and was soon able to discern David heading his way. The boy stopped as soon as he caught sight of the redhead—a blind mouse would be able to tell that Malachai was irate, and David was no fool. He knew better than to go within arm's length of the older boy when he was mad.

"The outlander's awake," said David breathlessly. "She's making a horrible racket at the back of the schoolhouse, trying to break through the boards. Obadiah told me I should come get you."

Malachai heaved a sigh, and then snapped, "All right. I'm coming." Seeing no need to say more, he started towards town. David turned tail and fled before Malachai could catch up to him and backhand him in passing, or something equally painful.

chapter five – don't try this at home, kids—kissing your kidnapper isn't always the best idea

I'd made very little headway on breaking out. A few times, I'd heard encouraging cracking sounds, but always I'd had to discard the chair soon afterwards in order to rest for the next assault. I fully disregarded the shouts of warning given by whoever was outside, but now I was starting to get worried—all had gone quiet.

Finally, I gave up, at least for the time being. My arms were tired and the palms of my hands were sore from the rough wood of the chair. I dropped it on the floor again and walked away from the window, panting slightly, now thirstier than ever.

No sooner had I reached the center of the room than I heard voices outside. Quickly, I darted to the front, pressing my ear against the door and listening. I couldn't make out any words, only voices, and those were indistinct. One sounded angry, the other a little whiny, the final, smug.

After a few seconds, there was a scraping at the door signifying that the beam was being lifted, and I leapt back, unwilling to be caught eavesdropping. The door opened, and there he was, standing framed in sunlight that made it difficult to see behind him.

Holy hormones, Batman.

I wasn't able to reflect on the irony of this rather godlike presentation of him for long, though, because he moved quickly. As my eyes fell on his face, I saw that he was scowling. I instinctively took a step back. He kept advancing toward me, so I quickly started backing up. Eventually, though, I was bound to run into trouble, and quickly, I did—it took the form of a wall.

He didn't get closer than a foot's distance from me, though, for which I was grateful. Crossing his arms across his chest, he demanded, "What were you doing?"

I jerked a hand towards the window. "Why don't you look for yourself? I'm sure you can figure it out." I tended to be at my most acerbic when scared or threatened. Obviously that side of me had overlooked the initial kidnapping and was deciding to reveal itself now. Lovely.

He reached forward and grabbed my arms, jerking me forward, away from the wall and towards the center of the room. His fingers dug into my sleeves, and from the jolt of pain that my right arm gave when the pressure was applied, I guessed it had been bruised the day before, when he'd caught me trying to escape. Now, my left arm looked likely to join it.

"Didn't I tell you not to try to escape?" he demanded, eyes flashing.

Look for a defense, my mind advised, and I quickly found one. "I was thirsty and hungry!" I retorted, pulling back but unable to evade his grasp. "They wouldn't bring me anything, so I figured I might as well. If I'm going to die, I don't want it to be of something stupid like dehydration!"

His expression changed, slowly and subtly. There was a twitch at the left corner of his mouth, and if I didn't know any better, I'd say that I'd just amused him. Abruptly, he let me go and strode to the open door, where two boys, both strangers, were staring. "You," he said, pointing to the apparent younger of the two. "Bring me some bread and water. Isaiah—" this to the older—"get me a couple of torches to light this place up. I'm taking watch again."

Both of them took off, the younger a little more slowly, and Malachai turned to face me, arms crossed and feet slightly separated, a rather complacent expression on his face. I watched him a little uncertainly, not sure of what to make of this odd gesture of kindness—if that was even what it was.

"Thank you," I said finally, reaching up to push my bangs behind my ears, for lack of anything better to do with my hands.

"Isaac would be angry if you were starved," he said, emotionless once more. So much for the gesture of kindness theory. I sat down on the floor and watched him.

He guarded the door until the other two returned, and then allowed them in to drop off the items they brought. They stared freely—neither of them looked familiar to me—and I ignored them other than an automatic "Thank you," to the one who'd brought the food and water. Malachai cleared his throat impatiently when it became obvious that they were tarrying overlong, and they quickly departed, pushing the door shut after them.

I examined the food I'd been brought. Some kind of odd-looking bread and water. Not exactly rich fare, but better than nothing. I took a long drink of water first, and then started on the bread. It was surprisingly good, obviously made with corn, not the kind of thing you'd imagine to be prison fare.

Eventually, I realized that Malachai wasn't eating anything. I stared at him for a second, and then questioned, "Aren't you hungry?"

He shrugged from where he was leaning against the wall. "No."

So much for that. My appetite was reasonably satisfied, so I pushed the food away, took one more sip of water, and then turned my thoughts to escape again. I'd have to put Malachai out of commission long enough for me to get out and bar the door, and that was assuming that no one was around. It was going to be hard, considering that Malachai looked even stronger than I remembered and I now was harboring a crush on him.

You're pathetic, you know that? Why, thank you, inner-voice. Definitely encouraging. I rolled my eyes and got up, going to lean on the wall a few feet away from him. Maybe inspiration would strike.

"Have you heard from Isaac?" I questioned, trying to prevent him from latching on to the realization that something was up. He studied me, eyes narrowed a little.

"No," he answered. "Nothing other than orders given last night."

"You left me alone," I said, almost accusingly. He blinked in disbelief.

"I am not obligated to stay with you at all times," he said stiffly. "I must sleep sometime."

Ah. So he was human. With the strength and the not-eating, I was beginning to doubt it. "Still," I responded. "I'm by myself here, a prisoner. The least you could do is leave me some light."

"I'll try to remember that next time," he remarked sarcastically, shrugging away from the wall. He started to walk away, probably to distance himself from me. I didn't like it.

"How are Sarah and Job?" I questioned, choosing a topic that I knew would instigate something. It worked. He froze for a second, and then turned back to me, looking mad.

"You are trying to anger me," he accused.

"I asked a question," I said softly. "That's all."

He drew near, backing me into the wall again, this time not distancing himself, coming right into my personal space. His hand hammered into the wall and remained there, and I felt suddenly trapped. "Do not pretend to be innocent," he said, staring down at me.

We weren't quite touching, but he was close enough that I could literally feel his body heat—I'd always thought that was just something that harlequin authors went on about. As I forced myself to look at him, a crazy idea hit me. It was an impulse, a scheme that possibly had a chance of working. Angie always said I was impulsive.

I leaned up and kissed him, directly on the mouth. The idea was that it might stun him long enough for me to tear away and make a break for it, while simultaneously satisfying my crazed hormones.

However, I hadn't considered the fact that Malachai was a teenage boy, probably more hormonal than I was. He went rigid—for an entire second, and then responded with a vengeance. His body pressed hard against mine, pinning me to the wall, and the hand that had been next to my head snarled itself in my hair, tilting my head back further—a fact I barely noticed as his tongue snaked between my lips.

I was slightly stunned, even as my hormones shrieked in triumph. This… hadn't been what I was expecting. Oh, but isn't it better? asked a lustful voice in the back of my mind. An entirely different voice screamed STOP! This is a huge mistake! I pushed all thoughts aside and focused on kissing him back, just as roughly as he seemed to be making it his business to kiss me.

Somewhere along the line, my arms wound around his back and clung to his shoulders. His other hand was pressing slightly into the side of my face, occasionally pushing me this way or pulling me that, and I let him do as he would. I was utterly mesmerized.

Good things, though—and bad things—must come to an end. I'm not sure whether he ripped away first or whether it was me, but I know that suddenly, we were staring at each other, breathing heavily, still close but not quite wound into our death grip of earlier.

He was very, very angry. I realized that almost immediately. For a second, I thought he was going to hit me. "That was foolish, Outlander," he hissed, turning and stalking a few paces away from me.

I reached up to touch my mouth, trying to feel if it was as bruised as it felt. It felt normal, but, judging by the heat, the blood flow had increased and darkened the color of my lips. "Malachai—" I began, lowering my hand.

"Be quiet, Interloper!" he shouted, turning slightly to glare at me out of the corner of his eye before turning his back on me again. I fell silent. What was I going to say, after all? Sorry I kissed you—I was just plotting a half-assed escape and I didn't think you'd actually kiss me back, or that it would be so… hot.

The inner voice was not helping. I moaned softly and plopped down on the floor, burying my head into the nook made between my drawn-up knees and stomach and shielding the sides of my face from view with my arms.

Great job, genius.

I was going to put a hit on my stupid conscience as soon as possible. It was more trouble than it was worth, and I already had more trouble than I could deal with. I could hear him pacing slightly, and I wondered what had been going on when he'd kissed me back. True partiality? Highly unlikely. Teenage hormones, like mine? Yeah, that was more than likely it. Not very flattering, but hey, he was a full-blooded American guy, cultist or no.

Eventually, the sounds of motion from him stopped. I didn't look up until his footsteps started toward me, and by the time I did, he'd reached me and was crouching down, inches away. He was scowling.

I'm not that bad of a kisser, am I?

"Why did you do that?" he hissed at me.

"I don't know," I lied, staring straight ahead to avoid looking at him. He reached over and turned my face toward him, so that I was looking straight into his eyes. Despite his scowl, I realized that they were almost pitifully confused, a fact that helped me to look directly at him.

"Don't lie," he admonished me.

For a minute, I simply continued to stare, and then I took pity on him. "Because I like you," I answered, as honestly as I could. "Don't ask me why; I have no clue."

"I should kill you," he said quietly.

"Why?" I demanded, reaching up and batting his hand away from my face—it wasn't harsh and painful, like before; this time it was just a distraction. "Because I'm an unbeliever? Does your god demand my life for what I just did?"

Malachai rose in a quick, fluid motion, distancing himself from me. "He is a god of war and sacrifice—not kindness or love."

I wasn't having any of it. I stood immediately, perching my hand on my hips—Tim said that that particular pose made me look, at best, bossy, and at worst, demanding. "Then why do you worship him?" I questioned harshly. "Surely that's not all that's in your heart: war and sacrifice!"

"It has been my way of life for four years!" he shouted in response.

"If your god doesn't love his subjects, what's the point of following him?"

"He gives me what I want," he ground out through tightly grit teeth.

"Ah, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?" I asked icily. "It's about what you want." He didn't answer, just stared at me with a look of aggravation on his face. I snorted. "Well, I hope he's giving you everything you've ever wanted, with all he's asking you to do, to give up."

I whirled away, intending to put a few feet between us, to retreat to safer ground, but he quickly caught my wrist and jerked me right back to him. I stumbled and fell into his chest, and one of his arms went around my back, pinning me there. I tilted my head back to glare at him, though more than slightly confused by the sudden proximity.

"He doesn't give me all that I ask," he snarled. "If he did, then—"

I never heard what he was going to say afterward. There was a timid knock on the door, and he bounded away from me as if he'd been burned. I stumbled back slightly, trying to adjust to the sudden deprivation of support. We stared at each other for a second, and then Malachai turned away.

"What?" he called out roughly.

"Isaac says you are to leave the girl under guard and come to see him," said an unfamiliar voice, sounding a little nervous.

Malachai turned to look angrily at me for a moment—as if it were my fault!—and then glanced back at the door. After a second, he said abruptly, "Don't burn this place down," and then left the schoolhouse, violently slamming the door behind him.

"Temper," I muttered sullenly, but honestly, I couldn't blame him. I was frustrated too, mainly because I'd been dying to hear what he was going to say. As I saw it, there were two possibilities that had anything to do with me.

He doesn't give me all that I ask. If he did, then I'd have been allowed to kill you by now.


If he did, then I'd be allowed to have you .

Of course, it could be something like 'he'd have given me a puppy by now,' or, 'I'd be king of the world,' but the former seemed a little unlikely, and the latter had nothing to do with me.

I hoped it was the latter of the two possible options. Well, duh, of course I did. Not only would it be incredibly valuable to have an ally as powerful as Malachai in this place, but my mind was doing cartwheels at the idea that my crush might be reciprocated.

Don't forget, though, that that could be a bad thing, remarked my conscience. It was really starting to get on my nerves, but it had a point. I wasn't sure what Malachai liking me entailed; it could be as bad as it was good.

"Ugh," I growled in frustration, and busied myself by kicking the shattered glass into a pile. Until he got back, I supposed I'd be kept busy by trying to sort out these thoughts.

At least he'd left the torch.

Malachai was furious. He was furious because he was confused, a feeling he despised beyond all others, except helplessness.

He was confused because Jess had kissed him, and he'd enjoyed it. That had cracked his veneer of composure that he'd always more-or-less maintained around the outlander girl. New thoughts and ideas had burst to the surface, and now, he wasn't fully sure what to think.

The part of him that dealt in want and desire was very clear in its demands: he wanted her, damn the consequences. He hadn't thought that something like a simple kiss could shake him up like that—but he'd thought wrong, and he wanted more.

Another part was utterly disgusted. A brief minute of contact tearing down the four years he'd devoted to keeping this village protected from people like her and building up his own influence? No. He'd worked too hard to let that happen.

The two parts were in conflict, where usually they were united. Usually, he was utterly devoted to his Lord—serving him was what he wanted to do. Now, he had a dilemma, and he needed to reach a resolution before he drove himself mad.

Understandably, he was preoccupied as he arrived at Isaac's dwelling. The boy preacher was waiting for him, and gestured him into the study as soon as he saw him with his free hand—he was holding something with the other. Malachai entered and bowed slightly.

"How does the outlander?" Isaac asked by way of greeting.

"She does well," Malachai answered distractedly. He caught Isaac's gaze and realized that the boy wouldn't be satisfied with just that, so he added to it. "She is angry at being held, but I think she is beginning to grasp things. She was full of questions about the Lord last night."

Isaac's gaze sharpened. "Did you answer these?"

Malachai hesitated before answering. Usually, Isaac didn't seem to care what the outlanders knew, as long as they were caught and held. Things seemed to be different with her. Probably because she was only seventeen. Still, he decided that honesty was best. "Yes."

Isaac paused, and then said, "Malachai, you have either caused me a headache or saved me much trouble. I'm unsure of which at this point." Isaac, unsure of something? Well, that was new. The younger of the two sighed and moved to the window, clasping his left hand around his right wrist behind his back. "I summoned you for a reason."

"What did you want, Isaac?" Malachai asked simply. Of course, the boy preacher had chosen the worst of all times to send for him, but he couldn't pretend that it wasn't somewhat of a relief. Trapped in that schoolhouse with Jess, he might do something he'd regret.

Isaac turned slowly back to him, and extended his hand. Malachai saw that what he'd been holding was a piece of paper, rolled into a scroll. The redhead reached out and took it cautiously, and then unrolled it to look.

It was one of Sarah's drawings—he'd confiscated enough of them that he'd recognize her style anywhere. She'd gotten better over the years, adding a little more realism to her drawings—but they were still childish. In this picture there was a background of corn and sky, and something he recognized as a smashed automobile off the side of a road that was at the forefront of the picture. Walking away from the car was a person clearly supposed to be Jess, judging by her hair color and clothing.

Malachai lifted his eyes to see Isaac watching him. After a second's thought, the older boy guessed, "They hid it from us?"

Isaac barely nodded. "It was found rolled up beneath the bed in the room those two so love to play in," he told his confidant. "I believe the two of them are conspiring to hide Sarah's sight from us. I do not blame her… she is easily led by her brother," he continued, turning back to the window. "I think that the entire thing was his idea."

Malachai fought back a smile that was threatening to overtake his face. "Will you punish him?" he wanted to know.

Isaac paused. "In time," he said finally. "He has clearly broken our laws."

"Then he will be offered?" He didn't quite get his hopes up. Job had evaded sacrifice over and over again, why should now be any different?

"You speak too hastily, Malachai," the boy reprimanded.

The redhead scowled. "He is not the one we need! We can do well with only Sarah!" he protested, though he got the feeling—as usual—that he was fighting a losing battle.

"You forget that Sarah relies on her brother," Isaac said, his eyes sharpening into a glare. "He leads her astray, true, but without him I fear she would wane, and we could lose her forever. I will devise an apt punishment, and when the time comes, you will carry it out. Until then, be patient."

"Yes, Isaac," Malachai answered with the outward appearance of obedience, although it killed him to do so. So close.

"At this moment, I have another task for you. I want you to go back to the schoolhouse, get the outlander, and bring her here to me. I wish to speak with her."

Malachai looked strangely at him. This was… odd. Isaac had never before concerned himself with interlopers, nor had he shown anything but a rather cold detachment towards them. He seemed… interested in this one. After a second, he nodded. "All right."

"Good. You may go."

Malachai turned away, leaving Isaac's dwelling behind him and going back to Jess's prison to retrieve her.

chapter six – note to self: creepy preacher boys are more dangerous than first observation would suggest

It wasn't long that I allowed myself to mope. Soon, my bladder caught up to me. "I wonder what they have against indoor plumbing," I muttered as I got up and went to the door. I began to bang on it, knowing that someone would be outside, dutifully guarding me. In hindsight, I realize that I might normally have been embarrassed. The way I saw it then, though, was that there was no use in it—and along the way, maybe I could piss someone off. That was a definite plus in the situation.

There was a quick response. "What?" demanded a mellow voice, sounding close to the door.

"I've got to go to the bathroom!" I exclaimed, along with a few accompanying bangs.

I expected a response akin to "wait for Malachai" or "be quiet, Outlander!" Instead, after a brief pause, the voice said, "All right," and the beam scraped against the door as it was lifted.

Aw, sweet, I can try to escape, I thought as the door swung open. I changed my mind when I saw the boy there. Judging by his face—the slowest part of a boy to grow, I've always noted—he was only about sixteen, but he was tall (though not as tall as a certain redhead) and burly, his strength obvious where Malachai's was understated. If I ran, this guy would reach out and grab me, chew me up, and spit me out.

"Come on," he said, taking the crook of my right elbow and looking around, and I thought that he looked a little nervous. As he led me down the steps, my suspicions were confirmed when he mentioned, "I'm going to get in a lot of trouble for this."

"Why?" I asked, trying to keep up. His strides weren't particularly long, but there were a lot of them.

"Not s'posed to have contact with you," he muttered evasively. "Only Malachai and sometimes some of his helpers can do that. Isaac said."

We reached the outhouse and stopped. "I won't tell," I told him, feeling the need to soothe him. He really did look worried.

"Hurry up," was all he said in response.

I'd already checked the outhouse earlier for any possible ways out. There were none. I just took care of necessary business and exited again as soon as possible. The boy was guarding vigilantly, and took my arm as I came out.

"What's your name?" I wanted to know, dragging my feet a little.

"Isaiah," he answered softly, leading the way back, holding on to me firmly.

"You're not like the rest of them," I guessed. He didn't answer. "You actually show some inclination towards kindness." I shook my head. "What are you doing worshipping a god of war?"

He didn't say anything until we reached the schoolhouse again, and then he stopped and turned to me. "I do not ostracize you for the way you live, Outlander, no matter how things go here. I simply ask that you show the same consideration for me."

After looking at him for a second, I nodded. "Okay… sorry." As he pulled the door open, I paused. "But… if you don't like it here, you don't have to stay."

He just barely nodded, and then pushed me inside. The beam was locked across the door behind me.

I wandered back across the room and just started to pace the perimeter, too energetic to sit down. As the day got hotter, so did the schoolhouse, and the torch wasn't helping matters, so after a minute, I paused and shed the black shirt, stripping to the white camisole beneath. I paused momentarily when I saw the dark imprints on my arms—the marks of Malachai's fingers, blue-brown and quickly on their way to purple—but after a second I decided just to leave it. If he couldn't handle the sight of his own handiwork, maybe he shouldn't be pushing down so hard.

That done, I resumed my pacing, casting the shirt to the side. My mind drifted to my family. By last night, they'd have realized that something had gone wrong. With morning's arrival with no news from me, they'd have called the police. Jess, if you make it through this and get home soon, you'll never be allowed to leave the house again, I thought wryly to myself.

If the cops patrolled the highway, they'd find my car. They'd inevitably end up in Gatlin. I wondered if Malachai and Isaac knew this. Obviously, Gatlin was supposed to be a ghost town—otherwise, it would have been looked into by police or other people. Nobody knew that anybody was living here. I'd make a racket if I heard the police, and I'd screw everything up for Isaac and his dear cult. So what were they going to do with me?

I exhaled forcefully, tired of thinking. I sank down against the wall, and, as always when I was bored, I started to hum, and then sing. My music of choice? Always old hymns. There was something comforting about them, now more than ever.

I went through Father, We Praise Thee Now the Night is Over, All Glory, Laud and Honor, and O Sacred Head. At that point, I heard the beam being lifted, and considered stopping, but decided against it. I was on a roll.

"For the beauty of the earth," I sang softly, turning my head away from the door, "For the glory of the skies, for the sun, which, from our birth, over and around us lies. Lord of all, to Thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise."

"You aren't allowed to do that." His voice cut in before I could start in on the second verse. I stopped and turned my head toward him, my stomach jumping in apprehension. At least he looked much calmer than he had about forty-five minutes ago.

"Do what?"

"Sing. It is forbidden."

"Forbidden," I repeated skeptically. "You live without music?"

"Without all but what glorifies God," he said, walking over to me.

"Your god, you mean," I muttered shortly.

He stopped and stared for a moment. I realized that the camisole was a little lower-cut than the black shirt—it didn't show much, but enough to notice. Aw, man, he's checking me out. Full-blooded American guy, indeed. I blushed slightly. This isn't helping matters any.

"What?" I asked shortly, standing up abruptly.

"Isaac has sent for you," he answered, snapping out of it. His gaze skipped over the rest of me, lingering for a moment on my bruised arms, but otherwise he gave no indication that he'd noticed. "You're to come with me immediately."

Sudden nervousness rose in my stomach. There's nothing to be afraid of, I thought, arguing with the anxiety. He's just a kid. Still, I couldn't stop it. This was the person who'd have a say in what happened to me, and so far, I hadn't had much luck in disputing him.

"Okay," I said lightly, my tone belying my thoughts. "Let's go."

He stepped aside and gestured for me to go. As I passed, he put one hand on my shoulder and followed closely. His hand's so warm, my mind noted stupidly, and then: Well, duh, he's been out in the sun. It was more than a little distracting, making it impossible to plot escape.

I tried to shrug it off, but he just held on tighter, the rough skin of his palm rubbing against my shoulder, so I gave up. We walked through the sunny, dry streets, and I began to get chills down my spine despite the warmth. There was no one in sight. Now that I knew that there were people here, it was even eerier for the streets to be empty.

"Where is everybody?" I muttered. Malachai didn't answer. I hadn't expected a reply, anyway.

Using pressure from his hand to indicate where I should go, he guided me to a building set slightly apart from the others, a house that looked like it had probably also been a business at some time—a diner, maybe, or a post office. It was dark inside, but once my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, I saw that the anteroom we stood in was also adorned with the corn-husk decoration/mess.

Malachai didn't allow me much time to gawk. He stepped in front of me, grasping my hand—oh, crap, he's holding my handand led me to a shut door off to the side of the room. He knocked, and then waited.

"Come in," a deceptively soft voice bade us. I looked uncertainly at Malachai, but his grip on me only tightened and he refused to look at me, pushing on inside.

I don't know what I'd been expecting. An imposing figure, maybe, horned with glowing red eyes. Maybe a dragon-headed being from which the eyes had to be averted, or the retinas would burn out. What I actually saw, though, was a slim fourteen-year-old, about my height, with a snub nose, small mouth, and fawn-colored hair. He looked… gentle. Not at all intimidating. I found it hard to believe that he'd been the one to take these children to crazy territory.

That's how he gets you, my mind spoke up. He doesn't look like a threat. That's why he's dangerous. I suppressed a scoff. Dangerous? I could get this kid in a headlock in seconds. The thought was kind of funny, and I laughed out loud. Malachai had let me go by then, stepping back, and I crossed my arms unconsciously, not remembering at the time that Angie always said it made me look willful.

Isaac tilted his head at me, looking mildly curious. There was another expression there which I wasn't quite able to read… not a pleasant thing, since I disliked being taken off-guard, liked to know what my opponents were thinking. And I got the peculiar feeling that Isaac was very much my opponent.

"Greetings… Outlander," he said deliberately.

"The name's Jess," I said abruptly, and then received a slight shove from behind. I turned to glare at an expressionless Malachai, who had apparently decided that it was his job to make sure I didn't get too cheeky. I looked back at Isaac. He didn't appear amused, but neither did he seem annoyed.

He looked carefully at me, his eyes pausing when he spotted the discolored finger marks on my arms. "Have you been treated well?" the boy wanted to know.

"As well as can be expected for a victim of kidnapping," I said distractedly, taking in the details of the room. There was a Bible on the table in the corner, though I doubted it retained much of its original contents beyond the Old Testament. There were candles positioned in strategic areas around the room, and the corn husk shapings were a little more deliberate here. The others looked purposeful enough, but these were obviously painstakingly made.

I double-took when Isaac gave me a paternal smile. I hadn't thought someone that much younger than I was could have looked so much like a smug father, but I was mistaken. My error extended even further when he spoke: "Oh, my child, the end always justifies the means."

I twisted my head around to stare at Malachai. "Did he just call me his child?" I demanded in disbelief. "How old is he again?" The redhead silently put his hand to my face and pushed it back so that I was once again looking at Isaac—but if I wasn't mistaken, his lip twitched just slightly before my gaze was forced away. So he did have a sense of humor, hidden beneath the assertiveness. If he could just stop taking himself so seriously…

Isaac didn't look quite as complacent. In fact, he looked just a bit angry now. One side of me congratulated myself for working him up, but the other called me a fool. Pissing off the person who would have the final say in what my fate would be was not a wise move. I sobered slightly and resolved to quit being sassy.

"I would not expect you to understand," he said, a little tightly. "I will have you know that it is only by the grace of the Lord that you have not been sacrificed yet."

"Your lord, not mine," I snapped, and then bit my tongue. I just couldn't stop, could I?

His eyes narrowed a bit further, and I regretted my slip even more. He apparently disregarded it, though, continuing as though I hadn't interrupted him. "But I have reason to hope that you are more than the regular outlanders we are called upon to deal with. That is why I summoned you here."

I raised my eyebrows slightly. The way he talked… I'd noticed it with Malachai, but it was more obvious with him. Everything was so clear, concise… unnatural. They sounded as if they were acting out a play. Their speech was correct, but seemed uncomfortable. I didn't comment on it, though. Something told me I was already in deep enough.

"Malachai," Isaac said suddenly. I glanced back; the older boy had looked up attentively. "Leave us."

Malachai looked confused and just slightly alarmed, and I'm sure my face mirrored his as I twisted my head around to stare at the cult leader again. "What?" he asked, as I questioned, "Excuse me?"

"I asked for you to leave us," Isaac repeated patiently. "I wish to speak to her. Alone. Come back in an hour to get her."

Creepy little rapist, my mind accused him. I surveyed the kid carefully. If he is a rapist, which I somehow doubt, I can take him. Hey, with Malachai gone, it'd be easier to beat the life out of him. You know, that could be a good plan—beat the kid unconscious, slip out of a window, and run for it.

There was a short pause. Finally, Malachai said "Yes, Isaac," quietly. Judging from the sound of his footsteps, he left the room, shutting the door behind him.

"So… Isaac, right?" I asked, struggling to keep the insolence out of my voice. "What do you want to talk about?" I glanced over his shoulder at one of the candlesticks. It could be a good potential weapon.

Isaac's smile was a little disturbing, though I'd be hard-pressed to tell you why. "Come here, Jess. I want to show you something."

Malachai left Isaac's home to an onslaught of questions, as usual. He ignored each and every query sent his way, instead warning the children away, and then went into the cornfield to escape inquiring eyes.

He was restless, so instead of sitting or standing still, he walked swiftly through the field. Something had been off, different, in Isaac today. He had calmly endured Jess's open disrespect without even hinting towards losing his temper. Normally, the boy wouldn't put up with insolence. Jess should, by all means, be tied to a cross, awaiting the Lord's punishment.

Instead, Isaac had asked for Malachai to leave her alone with him—a wholly unheard of thing. Isaac didn't personally deal with outlanders. He kept his hands clean. So, obviously, things were about to change, and Malachai was angry that he didn't know how or why.

"What are you doing?" he muttered to the field. The stalks waved violently in a sudden gust of wind, and Malachai tensed, alert. It had occurred to him that the Lord might know exactly what had happened between him and the outlander girl earlier that day, might know of his transgression, and might be angry. If that were the case, then the cornfield wouldn't necessarily be the safest place. However, Malachai was nothing if not brave, sometimes foolishly so, so he stayed where he was, shoulders hitched, fists clenched.

"What are you doing?" he repeated, this time much louder. The wind died down as quickly as it had come, leaving an unnatural silence. He listened, watched for some sign or form of punishment, but none came.

After a moment, he started walking again. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but was certain that it was less than it felt like. How was he supposed to stay away for a full hour? Malachai wasn't used to being denied what he wanted, and right now, he knew that he wanted to know what was going on.

His thoughts and theories chased themselves into circles. This was getting nowhere fast. If he had to listen to his own reflections for a second longer, he would kill himself. So he tried a different approach. He stopped short, spread out his arms, and fell straight back to the ground. Once he was lying flat, he stared at the sky—which was starting to billow with clouds—and focused on blanking his mind.

He'd had to do this every now and then—when he was mad enough to spit nails at Isaac's indulgence of the little runtlings, when the sudden urge to get out from under Isaac's thumb hit him, when Isaac refused to divulge information. Isaac was clearly the source of most of his problems. A quiet thought, making it past his barrier, wondered why he hadn't killed him yet.

Malachai pushed it back and stared at the sky. It got easier every time, and he allowed his senses to take over. In this way, he spent the required hour.

Finally, he deemed that enough time had passed. He got up, shaking the grass and dirt from his hair, and started back towards the town. There was a small crowd outside of Isaac's dwelling, which scattered when he approached. He glared daggers at the kids as he let himself in.

All was quiet. He paused at the door of Isaac's study, listening, but he heard nothing. Finally, he raised his hand and knocked.

There was one more moment of silence, and then came a loud bang. The door opened and Jess staggered out. 'Staggered' was the right phrase; she looked as if a slight breeze might blow her over. She'd gone pale right to her lips, and as she came out, she stumbled and latched onto him. Automatically, he grabbed her, all but holding her up, an expression of bewilderment on his face.

Isaac appeared a second later. The look on his face was stranger than any Malachai had seen—a sort of rapture, mingled with a wildness that might have scared him, had not it been basically impossible for him to be scared by Isaac. He held on to the doorframe and cast a feral glance at Malachai. "Take her," he said, panting. "Take her back to the schoolhouse and don't let her out of your sight."

"Isaac—" Malachai began, entirely uncertain of what to make of this. He looked down at Jess, but her head was turned down, burrowed slightly in his chest, as if she were trying to hide from something. She was holding on to him for dear life. Malachai looked up, a new and unexplained ferocity in his expression. "What happened?"

Isaac, who'd already lost himself in thought, allowed his attention to return to his subordinate. A mysterious look came over his face that the older boy instantly hated. "All in good time, Malachai. For now, just do as I say."

"No." The redhead's temper was starting to flare up. He'd left for an hour, and now Jess was pale, weak, and silent, and Isaac looked as though every bit of knowledge he'd ever desired had been granted to him. Malachai wanted answers. "Why is she like this? What did you do?"

Isaac paused, and then stared at his elder. "I cannot speak freely in front of her as of now, and you must stay with her until it happens. I cannot tell you. You must trust me, Malachai. Trust me when I say that everything you have been wanting will soon be granted to you."

Malachai slowly looked back at Jess, and then again at Isaac. He wasn't satisfied by far, but something about the boy preacher's expression told him that that was as much as he was going to yield. If the redhead disobeyed again, it would be open defiance, and he still wouldn't know what he wanted to.

He allowed himself to growl slightly as he turned away, taking Jess with him. He didn't see the pleased smile that Isaac sent towards his back as he moved swiftly, jerking her along, heading outdoors.

She was very unsteady to begin with, but the further she got from Isaac, the stronger she seemed to grow. Eventually, she loosed her grip on him—though she still held firmly onto his left arm—and straightened up, staring directly ahead. Her color still hadn't returned.

Malachai curbed his curiosity, mindful of listening though unseen ears. He focused on keeping her on her feet and getting her back to her prison. All along the way, he didn't once manage to shake the feeling that things were preparing to take a turn for the worst.

chapter seven – malachai doesn't play fair

Jess let go of Malachai and retreated to the nearest corner the second they reached the schoolhouse, where she haphazardly slid to the floor. Looking exhausted, she shut her eyes. She didn't look prepared to answer the questions he had, so he kept silent, sitting with his back against the door, knees drawn up, watching her. Very slowly, the blood returned to her face, but she was so still that it was worrying.

Yes, he realized, he was worried. More importantly, he was angry. It wasn't really tough to figure out why. Did he love Jess? No. Of course not. But he did care about her, even if it was a purely self-serving interest. The admission was startling, despite how easily it came. Malachai, faithful follower of the Lord, allowing himself to care for an interloper? It had never happened before. Half of him was still repulsed at the thought, but his stronger, more willful half knew what it wanted.

He rested his head against the door, averting his eyes from her and staring across the room. This never would have happened if she hadn't done what she did, kissing him like that. Malachai knew that he was admired from a distance by the girls of Gatlin, but their fear outweighed their attraction. None of them would have ever been brave enough to kiss him of their own volition.

His thoughts were running in circles. He brought his hand meditatively to his mouth, thinking hard. He was remembering the sensation of her mouth on his, that memorable feeling that he badly wanted to pursue. However… his loyalties still lay with God. He wasn't going to do anything else to anger him. But if he could possibly manage both… he would. For now, he decided to wait. Something was going to happen regarding her, he knew it. Perhaps something would come to light concerning her, something that could possibly make it permissible for him to pursue her.

Things could go the other way, though, too. He could be required to kill her. In that case, he resolved to do it without a fuss. He would make it clear where he stood if he had to.

His musings were cut off when she suddenly stood up. He watched in perplexity as she walked over to the broken window, picked up the chair nearby, and began ramming it into the boards.

Malachai was on his feet in a second. "Hey," he snapped, heading towards her, his boots sending the previously shattered glass flying. He grabbed her arms, avoiding the bruised area and gripping her around her elbows instead, and turned her towards him, halting the motion.

"Let me go," she replied angrily, dropping the chair and jerking back. He could feel that she was trembling. He held on to her even tighter, stepping closer.

"What are you doing?" he demanded.

"Malachai!" she said hotly. "Let go of me!"

"Not until you promise to stop trying to break the boards," he conditioned. She stared at him for a long moment. Finally, she gave a short, jerky nod.

"Fine, whatever," she muttered sullenly.

That sounded more like her. Slightly reassured, Malachai released her, and she turned away, running her hands through her pale hair. He expected her to just pace. That was why it took him by surprise when she reached the door, threw it open, and bolted outside.

He was on it instantly. He leapt into a run, catching the door with his shoulder before it shut. He didn't bother with the stairs, leaping from the small porch straight to the ground. Within a second, he spotted her, packing it straight towards the cornfield behind the schoolhouse. Perhaps she thought she could hide there, but she hadn't taken into account that he knew the field better than he did the town, and that he could run faster than she could.

Something was fueling her, though. She was running like the wind, about as fast as he was. He paused a bare second before entering the field, and his hesitance paid off. The stalks parted, offering a path, set at an angle to her route. He took it without pausing.

He followed the path directly, dodging the stalks, twisting to avoid being hindered by the outreaching leaves. He breathed steadily through his nose and moved fast. After running for about a minute, he spotted her again. The path switched so that he was running parallel to her. As soon as he got close enough, he launched himself at her.

He didn't quite take her down. The majority of the force hit her right side and they spun off the path. He was able to catch her by the wrists before either of them regained their balance.

"No—you've got to stop it!" she screamed, lashing out at him. He was able to restrain her so that her blows glanced off of his shoulders and chest, but that didn't keep her from trying.

"Jess—stop it!" he shouted, tightening his grip and exerting his strength to still her. After a second, she obeyed, and as she turned her face towards him, he was taken aback to see that she was crying.

"You have to let me go," she said pleadingly. "You have to. Just turn your head—I swear, I won't tell anyone about all this…"

His curiosity finally overwhelmed him, and, deeming it safe to release her wrists, he asked, "What happened?"

She hesitated. For a second, it looked like she might try to run again, so he reached out and grabbed her shoulder. She stared at him for a second, expressionless despite the tears brimming in her eyes, and then startled him by reaching forward and looping her arms around his neck.

"Please, Malachai," she whispered, turning her face down to hide her tears, as though she were ashamed of them. "Please. You've got to let me get out of here. I can't stay; I can't."

"What happened?" Malachai repeated, reaching up to grab her chin and tilt her face up to him. He wanted her to look at him, thinking maybe he could compel her to answer with his gaze.

The tears were fading. Her expression was somewhere between bewildered and angry. "Do you care?" she asked bitterly and wearily, letting go and turning away. He grabbed her arm and pulled her back to him, feeling his temper flare.

"I asked, didn't I?" he snapped, bending his face closer to hers.

She scowled at the hand that held her in place. "He hurt me, all right? I didn't think it was possible from a little runt like him, but…" The angry look was quickly bleeding away into a hurt confusion. "It wasn't just him. I mean, I got the feeling that he was controlling it, but…"

Malachai understood now. He straightened up, nodding. "It must have been the Lord."

She stared at him, and then pulled free from his loosened grip. "Yeah, except I don't believe in your god."

He snorted. "It doesn't matter whether you believe in him or not," he informed her harshly. "He has real power, power that I'll wager you just felt."

"Okay," she snapped, "let's say I believed this. What would that mean?"

He stopped and stared at her for a moment, his mind working feverishly. "It means he's taken a special interest in you," he said finally.


"And it probably means you're heading to a special death."

"Gee, thanks." He saw instantly that the flippant sarcasm was just a cover for the very real fear in her eyes.

She didn't believe that the Lord was God, he could tell, but there was no hiding her alarm. She'd witnessed his power. She turned her head, staring off into the corn for a moment, and then looked back at him.

"So, what does a special death entail, exactly?"

"It's difficult to say," he said slowly. "Normally by this point you'd be tied to a cross." Why was he telling her this? She didn't need to know it; it would just breed rebellion.

Quickly, irritated at his own indulgence, he reached out and took her arm. "Come. We must return immediately before word of your attempt reaches Isaac."

She came when he pulled, suddenly resignedly submissive. He was suspicious of her new subservience and tightened his grip on her arm, resolving to keep a closer eye on her than ever.

As they battled their way through the corn stalks, she quietly questioned, "What would happen if Isaac found out?"

"He would be displeased," Malachai answered shortly.

"What would happen?"

"Do you ever stop asking questions?" he exploded. He knew exactly why his temper was shorter than usual, and it had to do with the answer to her latest question.

If Isaac was displeased, then there would be a punishment. Malachai, as Isaac's right hand, would be called upon to administer the punishment, and he was aware that, despite his earlier inner avowal that he would even kill her if necessary, he didn't want to do that. He was torn down the middle with regards to her, and this realization annoyed him. He never held back or refrained from exercising his power before. Why should now be any different?

Jess, unaware of what was running through his mind, drew back, looking partially hurt, partially incensed. "I'm sorry," she retorted in a tone that said she was anything but. "It's not my fault I was thrown into this society that I know nothing about."

"Then shut your mouth and open your eyes."

She glared. "Not everything can be seen, Malachai. Like this god of yours. This kid Isaac is leading you on a blind crusade to serve and slaughter for a god that isn't even real—"

Something in him snapped, and one of his conflicting sides gained a moment's dominance. He let his hand fly. It collided hard with the side of her face with a dull thud.

Everything went silent. Even the wind died, the stalks quit rustling. The mark caused by the back of his hand glowed instantly in sharp relief against the side of her face, and his stomach twisted for no reason—at least, no reason that he wanted to face.

Pushing it aside, he spoke quietly. "I have seen him. He is as real as you or I. Do not question him."

She said nothing. The blow had silenced her. Malachai felt that sharp twist again, and realized with a start that he was feeling guilt. He hadn't felt guilty in ages. There was very little to feel guilty about—he supposed that allowing his parents to be killed might be cause for it, but really, he'd felt nothing but relief at their passing. After that, everything he did was sanctioned by the Lord.

Why should a little slap cause him this gut-wrenching pang? It confused him, which, in turn, angered him. He pulled impatiently on her, and she came quietly with him through the field.

The wind picked back up slowly, and the noise resumed. He was relieved. The silence had been starting to feel oppressive. Not only the quiet of their environment, he realized as the lack of noise still continued to bother them, but Jess's silence as well. He'd almost gotten used to her nattering on.

Still, he couldn't very well ask for her to start chatting away again when he'd made such a fuss over her noise, could he? He quickened his pace, making her nearly run to keep up with him. The sooner they reached her prison again, the better.

They emerged from the corn a moment later, only to see Isaiah headed towards them. He almost stopped short when he saw Jess, but after the stunted movement, kept resolutely moving towards them.

"What happened?" he asked.

Malachai, already mad, was only further annoyed by the questioning. "It is none of your affair, Isaiah," he said hotly.

The younger boy's eyes flickered from him to the outlander and he began to scowl. "Why is she marked?"

Malachai glanced back at Jess. The imprint of his hand was there, burning more strongly than ever, as she'd gone pale again after being struck. He turned a glare towards Isaiah. "I have already told you once. Mind your business."

Isaiah was unyielding, jutting out his jaw stubbornly. "He Who Walks Behind the Rows might not be pleased that you have struck her. She is still young, not like the other outlanders."

Malachai had had enough with this insubordinate youngster. He let go of Jess, his hand flying to the knife sheathed in his belt, but her hands caught his wrist before he could draw the blade to award the required cuts.

"Malachai, no!"

He paused, more because she'd finally spoken than because her grasping hands really posed a problem for him. She was looking pleadingly at him, but the second he made eye contact she dropped her gaze to the ground, letting him go. Slowly, he lowered his hand from his belt, and then turned to glower at Isaiah.

The younger boy was cringing back, as though he expected punishment. Malachai pointed towards town, the swift movement of his hand making Isaiah wince. "Go," he said harshly. "Leave us be."

Isaiah, after one further glance at Jess, went. The redhead watched with narrowed eyes. The youth had showed concern for the outlander, and she him. Something was at work between them. He resolved to keep an eye out for mischief.

She'd gone quiet again. He reached out, moving unconsciously for her hand, but she flinched back, and after glaring up at her for a split second, he redirected his grasp for her wrist. He pulled her with him, completing the journey to the schoolhouse and pushing her through the doorway, following her through once more.

Once inside, I retreated to the back left corner of the schoolhouse and slid down the wall, drawing my knees up to my chest and resting my chin on them so I could think.

He'd hit me. I could feel the evidence of that, still warm on my face, and I wasn't sure quite what to think.

Of course, the first few thoughts that had hit me were furious ones. You unholy bastard, wait till I get ahold of something with a sharp tip and then we're gonna go to townand the like. I'd never thought myself the type to take abuse lying down, but at first I'd been too shocked to do much and by the time rebellion suggested itself to me, we were already halfway back and it would have seemed stupid.

However, spending the past twenty-four hours (give or take a few) with him gave me a bit of perspective on him. I'd confused him somehow; I'd seen it in his eyes before he'd lost his temper. He didn't like being confused. I'd seen beforehand that it made him angry. Anger made him fly of the handle, which resulted in the slap.

I'm not justifying him, I told myself fiercely. I didn't like him enough for that. I was just trying to understand.

The whole thing with Isaiah, though, made me think twice. The way he'd let the guy go after I intervened, when previously fully prepared to carve the boy into ribbons, made me feel like he was trying to make up for the slap. Sort of like he was trying to apologize without actually trying to say 'I'm sorry.' Of course, maybe I was wrong—maybe he just wasn't in the mood to draw blood and I'd given him an excuse to let Isaiah go.

Yeah, right. He'd been furious, and I get the feeling that attacking someone was a little bit therapeutic for him.

I turned me head and looked over at him. He'd shut the door and was now leaning back against it, head tilted back and eyes fixed on the ceiling. I couldn't tell what he was thinking or if he was still mad.

I sighed and looked straight ahead again. As though my thoughts weren't conflicted enough, my brain chose that moment to remind me of Isaac and whatever that demented little kid was planning. I almost groaned aloud.

It'd be hard to describe what had happened in that little study of his. I'd come to him as he asked, deciding it would be best to humor him, and then had been knocked flat on my back, though he hadn't even moved.

From that point, incredible pain was all I knew, getting progressively worse with time. To begin with, it felts at though my insides had come alive, turning into writhing snakes, and were proceeding to devour each other. My nose had started to bleed. My body contorted, as though some unseen giant was moving me into a painfully specific pose. All of this was done without Isaac moving a muscle, just watching with a smile that grew more and more deranged.

I'd screamed, but I got the peculiar feeling that no one could hear. I got this feeling because I felt with absolute certainty that if Malachai had heard, he'd have come, and he didn't. He didn't come until I'd been suddenly released from the pain after what felt like hours and staggered to my feet, and then fled to the door. Then, he was there.

Funny how a body can go from feeling complete relief at the sight of a person to confusion and anger in less than an hour's passing.

So, now this Isaac kid had something in store for me. A special death, Malachai said. Well, screw that. I wasn't going to go quietly to die for some demon that they'd mistaken for God. I'd already tried running for it; that obviously hadn't worked. I resolved to try again with the next chance I got, which, with Malachai blocking the door like he was, didn't look as though it would be any time soon.

I tilted my face towards my knees, shutting my eyes, and sent a quick, silent prayer up to God—mine, not theirs. I need your help. I think I might be about to walk to my own death, and I'm scared. I can't do that. Help me to escape this place… and help Malachai, too. He's just misled. He needs help. Grant me an opportunity, Lord, and help me see to take advantage of it. In Christ's name I ask of you.

I lifted my head. "Amen," I said quietly.

"What?" Malachai asked sharply, looking down at me.

"Nothing," I replied, looking ahead.

Still, I'd gotten his attention—something I wasn't exactly trying to do, unless my subconscious had betrayed me. His boots thumped the floor as he walked over, blocking my vision when he stood in front of me, and then he stooped, his face coming into my line of vision.

He looked at me for a second, and I looked back. It would be childish and cowardly to continue to avoid his gaze, no matter what he'd done. I wasn't afraid of him, and I made it clear through my expression.

He seemed to take no notice. He reached out, and I forced myself not to flinch, firmly telling myself that the blow had been an unusual occurrence—at least, I hoped so. His palm cupped the recently injured side of my face, still a little warm from the hit. He tilted his head to the side, looking at it, and I felt his rough thumb rubbing the mark with a gentleness that very unusual for him.

I saw the confusion in his gaze again, and figured that he was about to lose it again. I didn't draw back, though, figuring that doing so would only fuel his temper, and after a second he lowered his hand. He didn't get angry, though the confusion lingered for a few more seconds.

After a moment, he moved, turning and sitting against the wall a few feet away from me, one leg drawn up. I glanced curiously over at him, wondering why he was taking the time to do this when I so obviously annoyed him, and he locked gazes at me.

I wouldn't look away for the same reasons that I wouldn't earlier. He didn't avert his eyes either, and so we sat in silence, staring.

We remained that way, rarely glancing away, until twilight. Then, both our stares were drawn away as someone knocked on the door.

chapter eight – i don't think the boys quite get it

Malachai glanced at me once more, and then got up. I stood as well as he turned and walked to the door, feeling the hour or so of sitting in the same position take its toll. I stretched out, yawning and feeling drowsy. It had been a troublesome day.

Malachai opened the door, and then the noise started.

All I heard was a grinding, high-pitched whine at first, unbearably loud, and I dropped into a crouch again, pushing my hands to my ears. It made little difference. It was then that I realized that there was a deeper undertone to the noise—a voice. Deep. Raspy. It was speaking, but I couldn't make out the words over the whine.

The noise intensified, and I moaned aloud. Malachai, who had been unperturbedly talking to whoever was at the door, turned and looked at me, puzzled. I realized that he wasn't reacting.

"Can you not hear that?" I cried over the noise.

"Hear what?" he replied. His voice was just a faint buzzing compared to the whine; I could barely make out the words. I groaned again and pressed my wrists to my ears, gripping the back of my head hard to try to block out the noise. It didn't work.

The ghastly voice was growing louder against the backdrop of noise, but the words were foreign. Trying to distract myself, I tried to pin them to a language, but I couldn't. They were like nothing I'd ever heard before.

A tug on my wrist alerted me to the fact that Malachai was back—I didn't respond, but a harder tug pulled me to my feet and I raised my eyes to his.

"We're going to meet Isaac," he said, but once more, I could barely hear him over the agonizing cacophony. His forehead furrowed; he seemed bewildered by my reaction to the inaudible (to him) noise.

I didn't fight him as he pulled me from the schoolhouse. My only concern was blocking out the sound. I stumbled along behind him as we turned sharply and headed towards the cornfield, my arms wrapped tightly around my head, though it doubtless was as ineffective as leaving my ears unblocked would be.

The second I set foot in the field, the pain I'd felt during my brief meeting with Isaac returned, the same writhing feeling throughout my torso, though the arms and legs were exempt. I cried out and dropped as my knees buckled, clutching my stomach hard as though it might suppress the pain.

Malachai was clearly perplexed. At first, he jerked on my arm, as though I might be faking it, but I wouldn't move—couldn't. He stood, looking down at me for a moment. I had no idea what he was feeling, as I wasn't exactly studying his face at the time. He could have been annoyed, curious, confused, concerned—anything.

Personally, I lean towards concerned. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but a second later, he reached for me and picked me up, bridal-style. The noise seemed to die down when he did, though the pain stayed the same, and I immediately latched my arms around his neck, holding on tightly and pressing my face into his shoulder.

Somewhere in my mind, it occurred to me that I was more than likely heading to my death. If I had been healthy, I'd doubtless have slipped free and run. However, running was out of the question, with the pain and the noise combined. It could only cling to Malachai like the damsel in distress that I'd hoped never to become—though he was far from a knight in shining armor, carrying me to instead of from my fate.

We moved for a short time—I suppose it could have been longer than I think, but it felt like only a minute or so. Then, instantly, it all stopped. The noise, the pain, everything went still. Curious at the sudden shift, I lifted my head. We'd emerged into a wide clearing, nothing unusual about it, other than Isaac standing in the center.

I was quite ready to stay in Malachai's arms, but I had to acknowledge that I must be getting heavy, so I wriggled a bit and, reading my intention, he let me down. My knees were still shaky when I landed, so I kept a firm hold on his sleeve, looking straight at Isaac, whom I'd learned not to underestimate. Out of the two young men, both of whom I suppose were my enemies, I trusted Malachai far more.

And that's not just because you have a crush on him. He doesn't have that same creepy-vibe that Isaac does.

The boy smiled slowly. "Welcome," he greeted us, and reached out with a hand that had hitherto been behind his back with its fellow, gesturing for us to come closer.

Malachai moved forward immediately. I dragged behind a bit, but since I was holding onto him, I moved as well. We got perhaps a foot away from Isaac, and then he stopped.

The boy was still smiling at us. "Thank you for bringing her, Malachai."

The redhead nodded shortly. I glanced from one to the other, trying to see if Malachai knew what was about to transpire. Though his face was fairly impassive, I finally decided that no, he was as in the dark as I was. Isaac resumed speaking.

"The Lord has a plan," he said quietly. "It has been a long while since he first spoke of this plan to me, but it addresses a problem that I have seen nearly from the start. With more and more growing of age and going to Him, we will be left without capable leaders. This cannot happen, or his society will grow chaotic and eventually vanish.

"The Lord came to me in a dream months ago," he continued, fastening his gaze on me. Malachai, of course, turned to look as well, leaving me feeling exposed. I shrank back, but still held on to Malachai, not trusting my legs to hold me on their own.

"He said to me, 'I will send you one who will seem foreign to you,'" Isaac said steadily. "'This person will be the salvation of your way of life. In her veins will flow the blood of youth. She will be strong, enduring such tests as would kill others, and she will come and join you.' I believe this person is you, Jessica."

I couldn't remember telling him my full name. I didn't think I'd told Malachai, either. What little blood was left in my face drained it, and I took a step back, letting go of the redhead's sleeve.

Malachai turned to Isaac, forehead furrowed in bemusement and annoyance. "What?"

"Surely you have noted her hair, Malachai," the boy said, just a hint of condescension in his tone. "The very color of cornsilk. An unusual, blessed shade." My hand automatically went to my head, as though covering my hair would make it not so. Malachai turned to stare. He couldn't deny it.

"I was nearly certain when I first saw her," Isaac continued, stepping towards me. I warily stepped back. "After she was subjected to tests, I was more so."

"Tests?" I exploded. "You call those tests? Then you're a pretty sadistic little kid!"

He continued as though I had not spoken, a strange smile coming over his face. "The trial would have killed one who was not chosen by He Who Walks Behind the Rows. There is just one final ordeal for her to pass."

Oh snap. Something painful was coming, and I wasn't planning on sitting around and waiting for it to happen. I turned and ran—well, stumbled is more like it. I'd barely made it two feet when I was knocked flat on my back again.

Most people at some point in their life have come across the concept of the rack torture. One is laid down on this notorious rack, their wrists and ankles tied, and then they're stretched until they confess to whatever they've been accused of, or… well, the alternative isn't pleasant.

It felt like I was being racked. I felt the ground fall out from beneath me as I lifted a few feet into the air, but I wasn't paying attention—I was in too much pain. Everything that could be stretched was being stretched—even my fingers and toes felt as though they'd fly free from my hands and feet any second. The wind had been knocked out of me from the fall, and as I got a temporary breath, I let out a scream.

Malachai whirled on Isaac. "What are you doing?" he demanded angrily.

The boy's eyes flashed. "Silence," he snapped. "It is a necessary trial. If she lives, she will be blessed among us, the giver of the youth you so crave, Malachai."

What were they talking about? Through my agony, I could see from Malachai's face that he was torn between desires. Finally, he turned back to me, his face grimly set. I was sure he'd just told himself that he couldn't have helped me if he wanted to, and that was the truth.

The pain was drawn out and lasted for what felt like hours. All of a sudden, though, it was cut off. I was dropped rudely back to the ground and nearly got the wind knocked out of me again; my head, arms, and legs were released. I lay there, dimly aware that I was sobbing and gasping for breath.

I was still alive; I hadn't torn in half or had my shoulders dislocated or anything like that. I couldn't decide whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Because I was alive, I now had to face whatever this task of mine was, assigned to me by some demon that I didn't even worship.

Isaac allowed me a moment or two, and then he stepped forward, his hands clasped behind his back, and bent down. "There, there," he said soothingly. "You should regard this as a blessing. You are now His instrument. There is no greater cause."

I struggled to my feet, dashing the tears from my face and suddenly unwilling to appear weak in front of him. He smiled as if I had pleased him, and then turned to Malachai.

"Your knife, please."

Malachai appeared startled at this request, and looked at Isaac as though asking if the boy was really serious. After a second, it was clear that the demand had been sincere, and I could see Malachai's reluctance as he hesitantly drew the knife from his belt and then slowly offered it to Isaac.

The boy took it by the handle, and then turned away from us both, turning towards the wide expanse of corn and raising the knife. "Oh, Lord," he prayed, "Grant us Your indulgence. Invigorate us; grant us the youth we long for in order to remain pure and serve You—You, and only You. It is for Your glory that we request this gift. Empower her blood, as You promised You would."

The wind picked up, tearing through the corn and making the acres of stalks resemble an ocean in sound. All the light had almost drained from the sky at this point, but there was no mistaking the pleased, almost demented smile on Isaac's face as he turned to us.

"The Lord is pleased," he announced clearly. "It shall be done. Jessica, come to me."

I could run. I could fight, I could refuse to listen. I took one look at Malachai's face, though, and realized that it would be futile. He was watching me tensely, alertly, ready to jump at me if I so much as moved in the wrong direction. He wanted whatever was about to happen as much as Isaac did.

I resigned myself to whatever fate was in store for me, sending up a quick prayer for forgiveness and deliverance, and stepped forward, hesitantly going to Isaac. He held out the hand that wasn't holding the knife.

"Give me your hand," he ordered. Slowly, I lifted my right hand and placed it in his waiting one.

He turned it over. Quickly, before I exactly had time to see what was coming, he lifted the knife, pressed the blade to the wrist, and drew it across. The edge was razor-sharp. It cut into my skin, and my wrist burned as blood welled to the surface.

Isaac bent his head. Anticipating what he was about to do, I jerked my wrist back, but he held on tightly, surprisingly strong for just a kid. He put his mouth to the wound and delicately drank the blood, just a few drops before he lifted his head back up.

I felt sick, but he wasn't through. "Your other hand, please."

Why couldn't he just use the same cut? I didn't want to go through the same thing twice, didn't want to incapacitate both arms. Considerably more reluctantly, I lowered my right hand and replaced it with the left. Once again, he cut across the wrist as I flinched, resignedly awaiting the burn. Then, he turned to Malachai.

"It is your turn," he told the older boy.

Malachai hesitantly drew closer, and Isaac placed my hand, palm up, in his, and then stepped back. The redhead looked at me. I could see an odd mixture of feeling in his expression, eagerness and reluctance, awe and disgust. A small part of him didn't want to go through with it, but it was outweighed by the rest.

"Drink," Isaac said softly.

Malachai bent, pressing his lips against the wound, consuming my blood. Even through my revulsion, I saw the symbolism. The left hand. The hand on which the wedding ring was placed because of the old wives' tale that told of the vein that ran from that ring finger straight to the heart.

Isaac had drunk from the right wrist, and no doubt he felt that it was more powerful. But it wasn't. I knew instinctively that the left had been more potent.

As Malachai drank, only briefly, I felt a surge of energy. The weariness from the state of pain vanished; I straightened up and put my shoulders back. The incredible vigor lingered for a moment, and then faded, but my fatigue had gone. I felt as if I could run the field and still have energy left over.

Malachai lifted his head, wiping the surplus blood on the back of his hand. He locked eyes with me, looking slightly apologetic, but mostly triumphant. He had wanted this, whatever it was.

"It is done," Isaac said softly. "We three are the recipients of eternal youth."

That snapped me out of it, and I turned to stare at him. "Eternal youth? The three of us?"

He looked at me, appearing to be amused. "You are the source of the blood, Jessica. Did you think that you would be exempt from this gift?"

"The name is Jess," I said shortly. "And sorry, but I don't want to be young forever."

Malachai looked at me as though I was crazy, releasing the hand that he'd been holding. "Why not?"

"Because I was kind of looking forward to going through life!" I retorted, gingerly lifting my wrists and glancing down at them. They were dripping blood. I'd accidentally let some smear onto my camisole from the right wrist. The blood looked eerie, starkly standing out against the white.

"Age is a curse," Isaac said dismissively. "Youth is the highest honor. We must thank him." Deliberately, he got onto his knees and shut his eyes, his lips moving inaudibly. Now that he was no longer fixing that eerily intimidating gaze on me, I had to repress the urge to walk over and kick him in the head.

I turned to Malachai, reaching out with my injured hands in a gesture of pleading. "Please don't tell me you're buying into this," I said flatly.

He was looking a bit awed at what had transpired, and also a bit confused by me. I was doing that to him a lot lately, it seemed. At my latest demand, his face changed. Now, he just appeared insulted. "You should be grateful," he said harshly. "This is not a gift to be taken lightly."

"Yeah, I know," I said. "That's kind of why I'm making a big deal. I wasn't exactly consulted, was I?" I looked at Isaac to see if he'd see fit to answer me, but he was still lost in prayer.

"You were chosen," Malachai answered simply. "The Lord knows best."

I held my hand out, gesturing for him to save it. "I think I've heard just enough about this god of yours."

He was incensed, as he always was when I spoke negatively of his god. I knew this, and I had no desire to anger him, but it was getting harder and harder to keep my objectivity as I was drawn further and further into this being's schemes. Why me? Why an outlander, as they'd so tellingly christened me?

Malachai took a threatening step forward. "You'd do best to control your tongue."

I glared up at him, but I listened. I took a few seconds to push back the angry words that threatened to spew from my mouth, and then I said quietly, "How do you know that this gift isn't just a fabrication?"

"Did you not feel it?"

"Feel what?" I asked, but even as I did so, I knew what he was speaking of—that pulse of energy, the sudden liveliness and banishment of pain and weariness. All were feelings associated with youth. It wasn't a coincidence.

He obviously saw from my expression that I knew exactly what he was talking about, and he nodded, seeming a bit calmer. "You know." He took another step towards me, this one fervent, as though he truly wanted me to understand why this was a blessing, not a curse. "Have you never thought that you didn't want to reach adulthood? These are our best years. Beyond this, we are weighed down with responsibilities and burdens that are not in the natural state of things. That is why He Who Walks Behind the Rows takes us at nineteen."

He had a point, but it wasn't strong enough to convince me. "We'll still age," I argued. "Our bodies won't, but our minds will. Problem is, our bodies won't match the age we feel. That's what's not natural. I mean, can we even die?"

Isaac spoke clearly, apparently through with his prayer of thanks. "If you are foolish enough to waste this gift given to you, then I am certain that the Lord will allow you to die. But, if you are careful, I believe it would be possible to live for as long as He reigns, for death of old age is not a concern of ours now."

I paused for a moment to think this over. If this was true, if this wasn't just some elaborate farce… I wouldn't deny that it was appealing in a sense, especially now that I had no choice—to retain the appearance of youth forever. But still, there were things I'd wanted to do, dammit. I couldn't exactly have kids now, since they'd grow up and look my age. I couldn't stay in one place for too long. People would forever be asking me about my parents.

"My parents," I blurted.

Malachai's expression was unreadable. Isaac, though, was the embodiment of pity. "My dear child," he said softly. "Your parents are no longer a concern."

"I'm not going to sit around and watch my entire family die!" Not that I could. They'd certainly notice my appearance of youth.

"Of course you aren't," purred Isaac, attempting to placate me. "You will stay with us."

"What?" I couldn't help it. I'd been thinking as though I'd be free to come and go as I pleased; it hadn't quite occurred to me that I'd be as much of a prisoner after this strange ritual as I had been before.

"You were chosen," Isaac said, looking at me as though it should be obvious. "You must stay. The three of us made a pact, you see, upon entering this clearing. We are here to shepherd His children towards a higher understanding of Him."

"I didn't make a pact," I said. My voice was abominably uncertain, and I strengthened it before continuing. "You have to get permission from those involved, right? I didn't give mine. Pretty much everything that's happened to me here has been by force."

Except for kissing Malachai. You did that of your own volition.

I flushed slightly at the thought, glancing sideways at him. He was standing with his arms crossed, watching us argue, stone-faced. I wasn't going to get much help from him—again, I wondered why I felt so enthralled by him. I'd never met someone so perfectly suited to be my nemesis.

Oh, come on. Have you never picked up a romantic comedy?

This wasn't exactly a comedy. In fact, it was shaping up to look something like a tragedy. I averted my eyes. Those kinds of thoughts weren't exactly helping.

Isaac obviously didn't have much respect for inner reverie. He was talking again, looking at me with a mixture of condescension and amusement that I immediately hated. "Of course. I do not expect you to come to our ways immediately—after all, you are an outlander raised by other unbelievers—but in time, you will see the wisdom in what we do."

I opened my mouth to tell him exactly where he could shove that theory, but he cut me off before I even began. "Malachai. Take her back. She may sleep in the huts tonight. The sooner she gets used to them all, the better."

"She has joined us?" Malachai questioned, uncrossing his arms and stepping forward again. He was now standing next to me, and took my arm almost absently.

Isaac nodded. "She will remain with us from this point on." I didn't agree, but I didn't voice the thought, and he turned away. "Now leave me be. I must pray."

Well, he was nothing if not devoted. Malachai nodded quickly, and then jerked on the crook of my arm, pulling me from the clearing before I could argue. As I glanced down at his hand, I realized with a jolt that the bruises on my arms had healed—the part of my face that had been a little more sensitive after Malachai hit me no longer felt any different from the rest of me. It seemed that all wounds but the cut wrists had been healed.

We headed back towards their small civilization, and the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach made me feel as though the troubles had just begun.

chapter nine – apparently, the idea of youth makes malachai hyper. it's nice when crushes are reciprocated, isn't it?

Malachai was exuberant. He took pains to hide it, of course—he was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, even when it was only with regard to little things. He didn't trust the people around him enough.

He could admit to himself now, in the wake of his relief and gladness, that he'd nearly been torn in half earlier, when forced to carry Jess to her fate. He'd had no knowledge of what awaited her—it could have been death as easily as anything else. He knew that he wouldn't have fought the inevitable, but it would have been difficult to watch all the same.

The Lord had come through, though, as he always did with regard to his children. Instead of slaughter, Jess had found blessing, and Malachai wasn't resentful of the favor shown to her, because he had shared in that blessing.

He could feel the vigor in his limbs—he'd always been strong and energetic, but this was something different, something new. It was the essence of youth now flowing through his veins. He didn't think he'd really grasped the idea when it was first suggested to him, but he was certainly understanding it now.

Even Jess's protestations couldn't put a damper on his attitude for long. Taking long-legged strides through the field, holding her by her elbow to escort her out, he felt a surge of feeling in his chest. It was difficult to properly label it—Malachai clearly wasn't a young man accustomed to examining his own emotions, and this feeling consisted of numerous emotions tied together—the closest he got was euphoria, thankfulness, and a twisted form of love, both for He Who Walks Behind the Rows and Jess, the sources of this new power of his.

He didn't have time to think on it long, though, even if he'd wanted to. They emerged from the field, directly into an unexpected circle of people.

The children and teenagers were standing around quietly, almost reverently, though he could sense an undercurrent of resentment from some of the older ones. After all, it wasn't often that there was a meeting in the clearing to which only Isaac, Malachai, and an outlander—an outlander, of all people—were privy.

He felt Jess tense at his side, straightening up. He recalled that she'd only seen a few of the children up close. They were encouraged to avoid all outside influences—so why the sudden change? He wasn't aware if they'd been notified by Isaac beforehand. He decided to leave it up to the preacher.

He ignored them, pulling Jess forward and through the gathered group. Several hands reached out as they passed, and he watched them alertly, ready to handle it if there was a hint of abuse in the touch, but no, they barely brushed Jess as they passed, focusing on her hair.

Whispers circled the small crowd, and he slowed, trying to catch what they were saying, trying to find something that would help him to understand this sudden shift in attitude. It seemed that most of them had something to do with her hair, the color. It seemed that they'd just drawn the connection between the shade of her hair and the color of the corn silk that covered the sustaining ears.

Jess didn't seem to like the contact. She stepped half behind him, holding onto him with a hand on his upper arm. He turned his head to see that she'd gone pale—but he decided that it had less to do with the children than with the blood dripping freely from both wrists. He frowned. That blood was valuable—he didn't want to take chances.

"Come," he said quietly to her, tugging on her arm. "We will tend to your wounds."

"You sure you want to do that?" she asked softly, though the sarcasm in her voice was still evident. "It might be better if you just let me bleed."

His latent irritation with her resurfaced with a vengeance, and he jerked on her arm, nearly pulling her off her feet as he set a rapid pace away from the group. They were followed at first, but one by one, they realized where he and the outlander were headed and dropped back. He'd counted on that.

Jess was looking over her shoulder. "Why aren't they following?"

"Perhaps they remembered that you aren't of our faith," he replied impassively. He knew that wasn't the reason, but he was too impatient to explain the real cause.

They walked down the road, their footsteps on the asphalt the only noise against the backdrop of wind blowing through the corn, that ocean-like noise that was almost a constant in Gatlin. It was windier than usual tonight, and he could smell humidity in the air. They would have rain in a matter of hours.

He was suddenly aware that she was hiding her face in his shoulder, a move that surprised him. He was fairly sure that his annoyance had been such that she could pick up on it, so why was she suddenly treating him like a refuge? And what was she afraid of?

"What's wrong?" he questioned, more out of curiosity than concern.

She turned her head a little to respond. "The empty buildings," she whispered, casting her gaze towards the dark structures lining the street. "It's kind of an old phobia of mine, though I'm not sure if phobia is the right word. Abandoned buildings, especially at night, make me feel bad. Almost sick."

"Then don't look."

"I wasn't."

He rolled his eyes and continued leading her along. A few turns took them directly to their destination—the old houses. She slowed to a stop at the sight of the tall, dark buildings, illuminated solely by the bright moonlight, and he stopped with her, trying to locate the one he was thinking of. It had been a while since he had been in any of them, save the old yellow house that Sarah and Job were so fond of.

Her grip had tightened on his arm. He was aware that she was probably getting blood from her hands onto his shirt, but he didn't really care. That blood was his salvation, after all, his youth preserved. He wasn't going to resent it anytime soon.

He located the house he was looking for a ways down the street, and pulled on her again. She came, though he noticed that she'd averted her eyes from the houses, looking carefully at her feet.

He led her up the steps to the house. It hadn't been his family's, of course; they hadn't been that well off. This house was one of the more affluent ones in town, three-storied, simple brown in color, once tended to with love. Now, the paint was peeling, the garden was overgrown, and several of the windows were broken. It was as it should be.

However, just because the house was out of use didn't mean that it couldn't be useful to him. He led her inside, noting (not without a certain feeling of gratification) that she pressed closer once they were inside the dark entryway. He supposed it could be a little eerie to someone not accustomed to life without electricity, used to brightly illuminated nights, but he himself felt no fear. He hadn't feared in a long time.

He tightened his grip on her, though now it was more out of a desire to reassure her than out of any violence or annoyance. It was a random need, but one that he indulged. He couldn't see where it could harm. "Come," he said, his voice clear in the darkness, and he led her through the foyer. His eyes had adjusted well enough to see the wrecked furniture in their path, and he steered around it without breaking stride.

They emerged in an open kitchen, which had a wall full of windows behind the table, all facing the full moon, some broken but most in relatively good shape. The light wasn't sufficient to clear away the shadows of the room, but it was enough so that he could see around, see her face and form.

He let go of her and pointed at the sturdy table. "Sit." Its chairs had been shoved away or broken apart, but she moved over nonetheless and sat on the tabletop, legs hanging a few inches above the ground as she bent over to study her wrists.

He turned away, locating a specific cabinet and pulling the door open. There was a small but expansive first aid kit there, one that he'd learned to use. His duties weren't without their risks, as people naturally fought back when set upon, and he was often wounded in carrying them out, usually just nicked or bruised but occasionally injured a bit more seriously.

He took the metal box out of the cabinet, taking it over to the table. He set it down, standing in front of her, and reached out. "Give me your hand," he said.

"Which one?" she asked, her mouth taking an ironic twist, but she held out the right hand first. He took it and looked it over. The blood had dripped down onto her palm and fingers, and in this light the gash on her wrist looked nearly black. The sight didn't bother him. He'd seen plenty in past days.

Holding her hand still, he reached with his free hand into the box, resurfacing with a tube of some sort of salve that he knew would ease the pain after an initial sting upon application and prevent infection. He applied a bit of it to the cut and began to rub it in with his fingertips.

She jerked slightly, hissing softly through her teeth. He glanced briefly up at her. "You could have warned me," she said.

"Now you know." He smeared it around the wound to further insulate it and then reached into the box again, this time coming up with a roll of durable bandage. He began to wrap it around the cut.

As he did so, she tilted her head back, watching the ceiling. "I was thinking—"

"You should be careful. Your brain's not used to it; you may hurt yourself," he said, deadpan.

Startled, she looked back at him. He went on with his task as though they hadn't spoken, though he was aware of a slight tinge of heat in his cheeks and was glad for the relative dark that would render it invisible. When was the last time he'd teased a girl? It had been long enough that he didn't remember, that was for sure.

After another second or two, she laughed. "You made a joke," she said. "The first one I've heard you make. Congratulations."

"I won't make a habit out of it," he replied, holding the bandage where it was once he deemed there were enough layers and reaching for the medical tape. He tore off a strip or two and taped the bandage in place. "Your other hand."

She obliged, handing him the left. He paused momentarily before starting work on it. This was the hand he'd drunk from. It might have been his imagination, but it looked a bit messier than the other cut. He wasn't sure if that was a bad or good sign.

"Anyway. Your name means 'messenger'—did you know that?"

The meaning sparked a dim memory in the back of his mind, but further probing only resulted in fuzzy bits of conversation. His mother. The false preacher. A discussion—he couldn't remember what it was about, other than the fact that it was centered on some of the children and their potential to accomplish a good deal. He was among the named

He didn't respond to the question, instead rubbing in the salve. She didn't react to the pain this time around, seeming not to take offense at the fact that he hadn't answered. "Do you consider yourself Isaac's messenger?"

He paused, considering the question. "I believe I'm more of an enforcer," he said after a moment. "And not for Isaac. I listen to him because he is a mouthpiece for He Who Walks Behind the Rows. That is the only reason."

She raised her eyebrows. "Ooh. I'm telling," she sang, reminiscent of a young child. He figured the blood loss had something to do with it, and laughed shortly.

"Go ahead," he said, working with the bandage. "I think he already knows. But he has nothing to fear from me, as long as he shares the information he has been given. I am content, for now."

"You know, it kind of crossed my mind that you wouldn't be happy with second place," she said slowly. He raised his eyes briefly to her face to gauge her expression before dropping them again, listening. "You don't strike me as the kind of person who submits easily."

Moving quickly in order to take her off guard, he released her hand and curled his fingers around her throat, tightening them into a stern grip—not enough to cut off her oxygen, not even enough to bruise, just enough so that she would know that he meant what he was saying.

"Do you believe that I do not know what you're doing?" he asked her in a harsh whisper. "Do not breed dissent. Isaac has his job and I have mine. Do you really think I could not overthrow him if I wanted to? He still keeps his position. It is because I will it to be so. Understand that, Outlander."

He let her go. He made no move to resume his former task, holding his fists at his sides, waiting for some sign of defiance for her. She moved her right hand to her throat, almost as if shielding it, but the expression on her face wasn't resentful—instead, it showed a cold sort of interest, as though he were a snake she wished to examine but had already been bitten by once.

"I'm not an outlander anymore," she said quietly, bitterness evident in the innocuous statement. She said nothing else. The five words had spoken volumes.

Watching her in the dark, he became suddenly aware of how close they were. He was standing mere inches away, practically between her knees, and her head was tilted up so that she could meet his eyes. All he had to do was bend his head…

Why not? The thought came to him suddenly, but it didn't altogether surprise him. After all, the Lord often gave him what he wanted—why should it be any different now? The impossible had occurred; she, an outlander, had been inducted into their fold. It would be permissible. Some might say expected.

Almost without thinking, he lifted his hands, resting them on her knees, almost as though he were anchoring her in place. She didn't move her eyes from his, but she brought her hands up, grasping his wrists, holding onto them tightly. He took this as permission—not that he felt he needed it—and bent his head.

He kissed her more softly this time, taking his time. Where the last one had been violent, angry, this was slower, more experimental. He felt almost drugged. Her hands moved up his arms, gripping his elbows as though afraid that he might pull away, and he was aware that the blood from the cuts was transferring to his skin and clothing, but he didn't mind.

The crack of thunder, when it came, had no effect on him, but made her start and pull away from him. He let her move back, though not without reluctance, and looked out the window. The wind had picked up, tearing through the corn. No rain was hitting the panes yet, but it wouldn't be long. He knew that they should get back before it started to pour.

Maybe you should put off leaving till it rains, said a sly voice in his head. Then you'd have an excuse to stay here with her.

He considered it, and then shook his head briefly. Isaac would be angry if he found out that they were in one of the old houses, and Malachai still felt enough of the appreciation that had followed tonight's ritual to spare him that annoyance.

He turned back to Jess. Her head was turned down, as though she were lost in thought. She didn't look regretful, though. There was no reason for her to be—she'd initiated their first encounter, after all; she should be happy that he'd reciprocated.

"Come," he said briskly. "Give me your hand again."

The bandage had slipped from her wrist when he'd abruptly let it go to reach for her throat. He thought about bending to retrieve it, but then decided that fresh dressings would be best. The house hadn't been cleaned for four years.

He finished bandaging her wrist in silence, but that didn't necessarily mean that there was no noise. The wind was howling through the corn, punctuated by cracks of thunder every minute or so, following flickers of lightning. After the first loud outbreak of thunder, she didn't jump anymore. She sat steadily, watching him at work.

Once he was done, he tossed the items back into the box and drew her to her feet. "Follow me," he said, taking her back through the kitchen and replacing the first aid kit on the way.

They moved in silence until they were out of the house. The air had grown more humid and the smell of rain was strong. He estimated that they had about five minutes before the rain started falling, about enough time to the get to the huts.

Jess finally spoke as they moved through the streets. "Your religion has a lot of parallels to Christianity. Is that intentional?"

"What parallels?" he asked distractedly, barely glancing back at her. He hadn't exactly paid attention in church as a kid, and after childhood had come Isaac. He hadn't really devoted time to learning Christian theology.

"Well, the most evident symbol is the Trinity. For me, it's the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For everyone here, it's… He Who Walks Behind the Rows, Isaac, and Malachai. You play the same roles. God is the Father to me, and your god is the same for you. Jesus is the Son, the giver of God's word. Isaac plays that part. And the Holy Spirit is, to use your terminology, the enforcer, carrying out the will of the other two. That's you."

"Much of the Bible is flawed," Malachai stated. "Isaac has a corrected version. He Who Walks Behind the Rows is God—and Christ, and the Spirit. Three in one—that is the very definition of trinity, is it not?"

She didn't say anything, but he sensed that there was a torrent of venom just waiting to be unleashed—towards Isaac, towards the Lord, possibly even towards him. He could tell that the only feeling she had with regard to He Who Walks Behind the Rows was scorn.

"You should be careful what you say," he said at length. "The Lord is not a god of forgiveness."

"I didn't say anything."

"You wanted to. I could tell," he said simply. She didn't respond to that.

They'd reached the huts, lit from within by torches, humming with quiet activity. The rest of the children had already retreated there. He paused, his inner reluctance showing through. He didn't like the communal huts. There were few people whose presence he tolerated, and even fewer who he actually liked being around—sleeping in close quarters with them only made things worse.

Jess stood still at his side, watching the carefully structured shelters with misgiving. "We're not going in there, are we?"

"We are expected to," he replied, though he felt a small stirring of amusement.

"I don't feel like being stared at and prodded all night," she said, her voice just on the side of a whine. For some reason, he found himself sympathizing with her instead of being annoyed—he wouldn't like to be in her position either.

He felt a drop or two striking his head and face. "What do you propose to do, then?" he questioned, looking briefly at the sky. "The rain is starting."

"Can we go back to the schoolhouse?" she asked pleadingly. "I like it there—much better than here."

He considered, and after a moment nodded. It would suit him better as well. "Just wait for a moment," he said, holding a hand to signal for her to stay where she was, and then he turned and went into one of the shelters, highly doubting that she would decide to run.

All chatter ceased when he ducked into the hut, and every wide eye was fixed on him. They had twice the reason to stare tonight; not only was his presence here rare, but he'd been guarding the outlander for the past thirty-six hours. If they'd been brave enough, he had no doubt that he'd be facing a torrent of questions.

As it was, their apprehension kept them mute, and he barely glanced at them, seizing a blanket from where it was resting against the wall and tossing it over his shoulder. He left without a glance back.

Jess was still there, as he knew she would be. This was an inopportune time to run. He nodded briefly at her. "Follow me," he said again, and led the way to the schoolhouse.

It was dark inside, and no sooner had they stepped through the threshold than the sky opened and the downpour began. He shut the door against it. It was pitch black inside of the schoolhouse, but he knew that his eyes would adjust enough so that he could move around.

They did. He saw Jess's dark shape, motionless, saw the pushed-aside desks and chairs. He reached out and touched her arm. "Over here."

He moved to the nearest vacant wall, bending to one knee to spread the blanket on the ground, folding it in half. He couldn't see her face in the dark, but she came to stand nearby, not moving any closer, her arms crossed as though she were hesitant. He looked up at her.

"Are you going to sleep, or not?"

For his part, he was tired, and unashamed of it. It had been an eventful day. He stretched out on the blanket, fully dressed, as he figured that she would be intimidated less if he was, and sure enough, she hesitantly came down and laid beside him. He drew the top layer of blanket over them and left his arm where it had dropped, conveniently around her waist.

He'd expected her to be tense, but the second his arm went around her, she relaxed and nestled her back comfortably against his chest, letting out a soft sigh. It wasn't very long before she was asleep.

He stayed awake a few minutes longer, listening as her breathing slowed and lengthened, feeling the rise and fall of her stomach against his wrist. He'd always thought that holding someone like this would be inconvenient, but it was absurdly comfortable.

He laid his head down. He would sleep now, ignoring the howling of the wind and the sound of rain beating against the boarded windows. Morning would no doubt require all of his energies, and he didn't plan on being taken off-guard.

chapter ten – malachai gets bored playing nice for too long; sooner or later he'll revert to being a bully

I was sitting in the cornfield, in the clearing where the ritual of Isaac's had taken place. I was sitting cross-legged, feeling the wind brush through my hair, as though it were playing. I was fashioning something out of cornhusks and cobs. I was content at the moment, but had a feeling of unease.

The feeling proved to be warranted when, just seconds later, a voice reached me. It wasn't the same as the raspy, foreign voice that had plagued me relentlessly earlier, but something told me with certainty that it came from the same entity, an entity that I couldn't see.

"You are happy here." The best word to describe it is mellifluous. It was undoubtedly male, soothing, attractive. Too good to be true.

I lifted my head. "Why can I understand you?" I questioned, neither confirming nor denying the statement. There were pros and cons to Gatlin. I wasn't going to sort them out right now.

"You have learned to listen. Jess, why don't you come to me?" The voice took a persuasive turn. "It would be so simple. Just speak. Come to the fold."

"I don't believe that you are God." I returned my attention to the husks, but the voice continued.

"I have showed you kindness that I have not even given to my own children; I have blessed you greatly. Why do you continue to resist?"

"It feels wrong."

"I know what you want." The voice was a caressing whisper, and, as if bidden, an image of Malachai flashed through my mind. "Do you deny it?"

"No." It was easier to tell the truth than I thought it would be. I could sense that he was pleased.

"I can give it to you." Still just a tantalizing whisper, the voice seemed to encircle me, as though he was prowling around, waiting for the slightest sign of resignation. "The only thing you have to do is renounce your former, false faith. Join him. Depose Isaac—I will speak through you instead. Lead my children. Do not throw away this great honor."

It would work. The thought slid through my mind effortlessly and, fascinated, I let it grow. You could stay with Malachai. You could be powerful. Perhaps you could lead them to some semblance of civilization, eliminate their crueler practices. You could do so much more if you agreed than if you fought to the end.

It was hard to force the idea back. Half of me was ready to agree right then. I spoke with difficulty, a stronger half of me winning out. "How do I know that you won't say the same thing to some other person, years down the road when you get tired of me?"

The sky seemed to grow dark and the wind died down. "Do not question me." The voice was still silky, but now it was considerably dangerous. "I have offered you power that you cannot imagine."

The power to lead a bunch of blind kids in the ways of some demon? I kept the thought quiet, biting my tongue. My sense had returned somewhat as the image of Malachai faded, and, with it, the temptation.

What little light there was glowed red, as though its source was fire. "Do not underestimate me, child," the voice continued softly. "I can give, but I can also take away. If you want him, you must work for him."

"I get it. You can't have your cake and eat it, too," I said bitterly, and then: "What the hell does that phrase even mean?!"

The wind picked up suddenly again, whipping through the corn, brutally lashing against my face, but the voice was as caressing as it had been. "Consider wisely, child. I am not a merciful lord."

I looked down at the object in my hands, finally noticing what I'd been shaping. It was a crucifix. The corn-husk figure attached to it had hair made of corn silk.

I opened my eyes to sunlight, waking from the dream with a start. And it was just that, I told myself firmly after a second, refusing to think to hard about it. A dream. Probably brought on by the influences of blood loss, hunger, and Isaac's ranting.

Either that, or you just made contact with a demon.

The former option was infinitely preferable.

Around that time, I realized that there was an arm around my waist, something solid at my back, and memory rushed back. Malachai. He'd tended my wounds and then kissed me. I couldn't pretend not to be happy about it, despite my decidedly conflicted feelings about him. It was nice to know that he was having similar thoughts.

Carefully, trying not to disturb him, I shifted in his grip, rolling over. His arm tightened as I did so, resulting in me being chest to chest with him. I tilted my head up to look at him.

Even in sleep, he wasn't relaxed. His face was tense, eyebrows drawn nearly together as though his sleep was plagued by something troubling. I wondered for a moment if he suffered from the same sort of dreams that had made an appearance in my mind last night. I hoped not.

And then, suddenly, he was awake, his eyes blazingly blue as the lids swept back from them, and they seemed to lighten in color even further when they came into contact with the dim sunlight. He stared over my head for an instant, and then his gaze shifted downward towards my face. His grip didn't relax in the slightest.

I looked back at him for a minute, and then I said, "I'm hungry." It was true, too. Yesterday had been so eventful that I hadn't even thought about food other than just after waking, and now I was paying for it. My stomach felt as though it might collapse on itself.

I detected a spark of amusement in his expression before he let go of me. "Me too," he said simply, stretching his arms out over his head and yawning as I rolled away a bit. I yawned too—they were contagious, after all—and then sat up to get a better look at him.

Yesterday, he had seemed strained, tense the entire time. A good night's sleep had done him well. He was bright-eyed and I could practically see the energy coiled in his muscles, waiting to be unleashed. A certain tension had disappeared from his shoulders. I wasn't going to go so far as to hope that it was relief that I had been blessed rather than killed. The far more likely reason was that he was utterly relieved at the granted youth, at not facing death in a year.

Youth… the thought still daunted me. True, once I had refused to acknowledge the fact that I would grow older, that I would become an adult some day. But long ago I'd accepted it and looked forward to the different stages life would bring. Eternal youth was pleasant in that one never had to die of old age, but when one had the hope of heaven and little fear of death, as I did—there were far more cons than pros.

I shoved the thought away to deal with it later. I didn't have time now. Malachai sat up, and in the new light I saw the bloodstains on his sleeves and shirt front.

I looked down. There was blood on my shirt as well, dried and darker now, but still standing out against the white. I should probably cover it. I got to my feet and went over to where I'd dropped the black Bowie shirt earlier and pulled it over my head.

Malachai had gotten up, and he gestured as my head emerged from the modest neck of the shirt. "Let's go," he said. I went to him in silence, and we left the schoolhouse.

The tentative sunshine was only a temporary reprieve from the rain, I could tell. There was a dark build of clouds in the west, and the air was heavy. There were puddles on the asphalt from the recent downpour. No one was in sight.

We walked in silence for a minute until a thought struck me. I turned my head to look at the boy walking beside me, tall and quiet, and asked, "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

The question seemed to take him off-guard. He didn't look at me for a minute, and then he grinned, just a quick flash of teeth in his face, a bitter expression. "No. My parents were among the worst of the sinners in this town—they could not get along together, so they decided to have a child. I only made things worse between them. The thought of having another child probably never crossed their minds—they fought constantly and were likely grateful to be sent to—"

He cut himself off abruptly, clenching his jaw, as though he hadn't meant to tell me that much. He might have been right to regret it—it had provided me with some insight into his life and why it had turned out the way it had.

An unwanted child in a pernicious household, growing up to watch his parents snipe at each other every chance they got. It was no wonder that he clung to acceptance and power where he found it, in Isaac's circle; no wonder that war and sacrifice were the norms for him. They were what he had known his entire life.

I wasn't one to let a person's past justify what they'd become, but I'd always acknowledged that environment affected them and their choices. The knowledge of his history made me love him a little bit.

The feeling startled me. Back up just one second! Love? This is from the same girl who, two days ago, was frustrated with her mother for trying to nudge her into some form of meaningful relationship? Give me an H, give me an I, give me a P, give me an O, give me a c-r-i-s-y…

I told myself to calm down and relax a bit. Just because I loved him a little didn't mean that I was in love with him. I just cared for him. It kind of happened when a person spent forty-eight hours with another, provided that they didn't kill one another.

Tell yourself that, sport. It might make you feel a little easier about the whole thing.

Ugh. My thoughts were getting nowhere. To distract myself, I asked him, "Who did you get your hair from?"

He paused, probably deciding whether or not to share. Finally, not breaking stride or looking at me, he said, "My mother."

I nodded. At that moment, I realized that a girl was headed determinedly our way, walking straight for us. She didn't look happy. Her stomach was unnaturally swollen beneath her dress, and after staring for a second, I realized that she must be pregnant. It startled me. We pretty much didn't have teenage mothers in our hometown, and she couldn't have been more than sixteen. The sight was a bit unsettling. Maybe I was just naïve.

I noted that she slowed a bit before she reached us, stopping a safe few feet away and putting her hands to her hips. "Malachai," she snapped.

He dragged an insolent stare up to her face. "Esther," he drawled lazily, taking on a confident, almost presumptuous tone that I hadn't heard before. I could see her veneer of bravery fairly shatter. She was scared of him, I realized. Wasn't he supposed to be the protector of the town? Wasn't I supposed to be the one afraid?

"I-Isaac wanted to know where the two of you were last night," she said, looking uncertainly at me and then back at him.

He shrugged languidly. "I will speak to Isaac in time. It is not your business, Esther. Leave us in peace."

Her lips thinned as she pressed them hard together. After a moment, she said, "I was supposed to find out and tell him."

"I will speak to him," he repeated, sounding a bit more impatient. "You would do best to leave now."

Her eyes narrowed. She was upset, her anger battling with her fear. After a moment, she gave a short nod and turned sharply away. Malachai scoffed softly and started walking again. I kept up, looking curiously at him.

"What was that about?"

"What was what about?" he asked indifferently.

"She was terrified of you. What's the deal?"

"Those who live here do well to be cautious," he said calmly. "They stay out of my way and I leave them alone."

"Yeah, but isn't that sort of… lonely?" I ventured, keeping a close eye on him in case I'd gone too far. He seemed to deliberate on it for a moment, a muscle in his jaw tightening as he thought.

Finally, he said, "I do not need them."

Yeah, right. Spare me the bravado; human babies die without abundant physical contact. People need other people. I didn't speak out loud. I didn't want to make him mad.

We reached the series of little shelters again, and he reached out with a hand, gesturing for me to stop. "Wait here."

He ducked inside one of the buildings again, and I stood waiting, my arms crossed over my stomach. I didn't like the look of those huts. They were too hippie-communal-Manson-family for me. I was glad that I didn't have to deal with them.

He came out in a moment and passed me some of the same bread I'd had the morning before and a cup of water. "Be quick," he advised. "We must go to see Isaac."

I'd always been a relatively fast eater, and the fact that I was starving fueled it. We finished around the same time and then started off towards Isaac's.

I couldn't help feeling a stirring of apprehension. The last time I'd been there, after all, I'd been tormented and 'tested', as Isaac called it. Whatever was commanding them had power, if it was able to contort me, make my blood an elixir of youth, invade my dreams. I was scared of it, but a quick prayer managed to assuage my fears, at least for then.

I was so lost in thought that I almost didn't notice when two children came running to my side—Malachai must have been thinking hard, too, because he didn't react immediately. I looked down to see the same pair of children who had slipped past him into the schoolhouse two days ago. I'd nearly forgotten about them.

The boy spoke quietly. "Are you joining us?" His eyes were terribly sad. It almost hurt to look directly into them.

Malachai noted their presence and with a muffled roar of annoyance, he lunged at them. The girl squeaked and fluttered away, but the boy dodged, running around us. "Job!" Malachai snapped at him. "You would do well to stay away from her!"

"She doesn't belong to you!" Job said defiantly.

Malachai lunged again, and this time he caught the boy before he could run. He lifted him by his vest, taking him off his feet. I sprang into action, as did the boy's little companion, who gave a cry and attacked Malachai's knees.

"Stop it!" I cried, grabbing at his arms and jerking. He stumbled slightly, thrown off balance by our combined efforts, but he shook the girl off with little effort and recovered himself.

"He has been rebellious for long enough," he growled, glaring at the boy. I tugged at his wrist, trying to get him to set Job down.

"He's just a kid," I protested.

"He knows very well what he's doing," Malachai snarled.

"Please. Have mercy on him."

"Mercy!" Malachai scoffed, but his attention had at least been diverted from Job to me. "There is no place for mercy here. He has slipped by for years." He turned back to the boy that he held aloft. Before I could think of how to distract him again, the girl cried out.

"Malachai! No! I've drawn another picture!"

That got his attention. He looked sharply at her, lowering the boy a few inches. "You have?"

I was lost. What did pictures have to do with anything? Why would Malachai be interested in them? Job, however, seemed to be more distressed by this than he was by being held into the air by a boy twice his size. "Sarah, no!" he cried.

"Yes," she said determinedly, ignoring him. "If you put him down, I will show you where it is hidden. You can give it to Isaac."

He seemed indecisive for a minute, glancing between Sarah and Job as I tried to figure out what was going on. Finally, though, he set the boy down hard on his feet. I quickly pulled him to me, holding him close in case Malachai got it into his head to attack again.

"Show me," he demanded.

"Sarah," Job mourned.

"And if I find out that this is just a farce," the redhead continued threateningly, "it will be worse for you both."

"Malachai, don't!" I scolded. My sympathy of earlier had evaporated into agitation. Tormenting kids half your size—you couldn't get much worse than that. He didn't look apologetic, though, all business, reaching out to grab Sarah's shoulder and give her a push.


She'd been pushed into a run, and led us. Malachai followed her closely, a grim set to his mouth, a hand on the handle of his knife. Job and I followed, him holding tightly on to my waist—less for reassurance, I discovered, and more so that he could talk quietly to me without being discovered and thwarted.

"Her pictures show the future," he whispered to me, keeping a wary eye on Malachai's back. My eyes widened and I looked down at him, though my surprise vanished when I thought about it. Weirder things had happened. I had evidence of a few of them.

He turned his face up to look solemnly at me. He really was a cute kid, couldn't have been much older than ten, but there was that element of sadness in his eyes that gave his face an older look. It almost made my heart break to look at him. "Don't slip into this religion," he said quietly. "They won't let you leave it."

He talked like an older person, too. Unable to speak, I squeezed him hard to me, trying to reassure him. After a second, I managed to say, "I won't."

"You've got to get out of here," he whispered.

"I will," I murmured back. "And when I do, I'll take you two with me. I swear."

It occurred to me that the oath might be difficult to uphold, of course, but there was no way I was leaving these two children to Malachai's almost nonexistent mercies. I might like the guy, but that didn't mean that I approved of him.

The look on Job's face then was hard to pin down. He looked hopeful, but also resigned, as though he was willing to accept defeat when it occurred. He looked like he didn't believe me. He looked like he'd heard it all before.

A thought struck me—what if he had? Before I could ask, though, Malachai suddenly turned his head. "Job. I want you in front of me," he snapped. He'd probably realized that we were conversing and that that was a bad thing.

The boy glared at him, but didn't disobey. He let go of me and steered around Malachai, giving the older boy a wide berth, and joined Sarah, putting an arm around her shoulders. I sped up to walk beside Malachai.

"You shouldn't have done that," I reproved him angrily.

"What? They prefer to walk together anyway."

"Not that," I said, annoyed that he'd so deliberately misunderstood me. "Attacked him. He's so much littler than you. You should be ashamed."

He was suddenly on me, turning abruptly and thrusting his shoulders into my personal space, leaning close. "Do not tell me how to do my job, how to deal with children I have known since they were born. I am just. They deserve it."

"They're children," I replied clearly, refusing to be intimidated by him. He sneered and pulled back.

"Keep up," he said, and resumed his swinging, long-legged pace, making me hurry to keep in step beside him.

We went back to that row of houses that we'd gone to the other night. The one Sarah led us to was yellow as opposed to brown, and she and Job climbed the stairs quickly. Malachai pushed me ahead of him. The kids had put him in a bad mood, it seemed, and any progress we'd made had been shoved back.

Upstairs, Sarah ducked into a small room off the hallway. We followed her, and I entered the room to see her rummaging under the bed. As Malachai came in behind me, standing grimly in the doorway with his arms crossed forbiddingly, I admit I held my breath. If she'd made it up, then we'd all be in trouble.

But, no, she emerged with a roll of paper. She stood up, holding it to herself as though reluctant to turn it over. Job watched her resignedly as she stepped towards Malachai and held out the roll.

He snatched it from her hands, and she flinched back, into Job's embrace. As I watched them, I decided that they must be brother and sister. Their body language certainly attested to it.

Malachai unrolled the picture and looked. Out of curiosity, I craned my neck to try and see, but he tilted it up and away from me, shooting me a brief glare as though I were suddenly his enemy. Maybe I was. I'd stuck up for the kids who had apparently plagued him. I was guessing that was a big no-no.

After a second, he rolled up the paper again and nodded stiffly at the two. "Stay away from her," he instructed them, reaching out with his free hand to grab my arm and pull me towards him. "She does not need your influence."

The two were silent. He turned away without further words and pulled me along after him.

I didn't let him drag me after him for long. At the bottom of the stairs, I finally decided that I'd grown sick of it and tore my arm away. He turned to look at me, surprised and annoyed.

"You can quit dragging me around," I said flatly. "I'm not your dog."

His mouth twitched. I had apparently amused him—not my aim. "You don't know where to go otherwise."

"What happened to just following you?"

"You don't respond quickly enough."

"Again—I'm not your dog."

Discovering the picture had apparently put him in a good mood, though, so if I was hoping to pick a fight, those hopes were blighted. He shrugged. "If you don't want to be pulled everywhere, then walk beside me," he said, and turned away. It wasn't an unreasonable demand. I saw little else to do but follow.

We emerged from the house into the open air, which had grown heavier with the absence of the sun—it had disappeared behind some clouds again. "Where are we going now?" I asked, peering up at the sky.

"To see Isaac," he said, and led the way.

chapter eleven – kids can apparently be really innovative when the need arises

Isaac's house wasn't far. We didn't speak on the way. He was lost in thought; I was feeling resentful, and so I sank inside my own mind and ignored him.

I noticed, though, that the streets weren't quite as empty. Now that I'd been announced to the children, they didn't seem to find it so imperative that they stay out of sight and sound. I could hear them, laughing and playing and sounding like ordinary children in any ordinary town. I saw one occasionally, cutting across corners, some serious-faced, some laughing. I found it hard to believe that these kids had killed their parents.

We reached Isaac's place after a few minutes of walking. Malachai pushed the door open and waited for me to precede him—probably so that he could keep an eye on me. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd picked up on my mutinous feelings towards him. I ducked beneath his arm, going in and turning towards Isaac's study. I had a feeling that most of the meetings between the preacher and his subjects took place there.

The door was cracked open, and quiet voices were coming through. I paused and looked uncertainly back at him, but he didn't seem fazed, brushing past me in the narrow corridor to go to the study. I followed.

He knocked on the doorframe, barely waiting to be bidden before he pushed the door the rest of the way open. Esther was there, looking flushed and a bit irritated. Isaac was as eerily calm as always.

Malachai made a slight bow, though I noted that he barely inclined his head. "Isaac. I must speak with you."

"And I with you. Esther." She stepped forward. "Take Jessica. Show her how we live. Teach her."

"I would prefer if she stayed," Malachai interjected, casting a hard, suspicious look at Esther, as though he didn't trust her to do well.

"I'm sure you would. However, she must learn sooner or later, and I wish for it to be sooner. She may then bring glory to God."

That had apparently been a trump card. Malachai's jaw tightened, but he said nothing else, just glanced back briefly at me. Esther passed him, a sort of hard triumph in her face, but he didn't even look at her.

"Come," she said, touching my shoulder—she made no attempt to take my arm, which made me like her a bit better. We must obey."

"For the record, my name is Jess," I informed her, glancing at Isaac to see if he'd taken note. He gave no sign that he'd heard.

"I am pleased to meet you. My name is Esther."

I nodded. "Pleasure's all mine," I said absently, looking at Malachai and deciding that, annoyed with him or not, I wanted to stay with him and see what was going on. However, Isaac wasn't taking what I wanted into account.

"You may go," he said pointedly. Esther nudged me towards the door.

"Let us go."

I went without putting up a fight, glancing once over my shoulder at Malachai. He was looking back at me.

Malachai watched as Jess disappeared through the doorway, and then turned back to Isaac as Esther shut the door behind her. The boy preacher was silent for a moment, his eyes fixed on the wall opposite him, with that distant appearance to them that told Malachai that he was lost in thought.

After a moment, he snapped out of it and looked at the older boy sharply. "What do you wish to say to me?"

Malachai revealed the parchment, handing it to Isaac. "Sarah has produced another drawing. She tried to hide it, but quickly gave it up when her brother was threatened."

Isaac took it, not without a flash of apprehension crossing his expression. He didn't seem particularly disturbed by the implication that Job had been harmed. "Have you looked at it?" he questioned, unrolling the drawing.

Malachai nodded. The boy looked sternly at him. "From now on, refrain from doing so and bring it straight to me," he instructed. The redhead was taken aback and he looked somewhat stung, but after a moment he nodded. Isaac, who had been watching for acquiescence, nodded in reply and turned his attention to the picture.

There were a good number of people in it, obviously in the church, where the more important ceremonies were conducted. A boy who was clearly supposed to be Isaac was at the front of the church, where a boy marked as Malachai by his flaming red hair resided at the back. A punishment was obviously taking place, inflicted by Isaac on a smaller boy with him. Most of the faces looked accepting, even eager, but one in particular stood out as looking horrified—with the white-blonde hair, there was no doubt as to who it was.

Isaac rolled up the picture again slowly. After a moment, he looked up at his enforcer. "I want you to look around—find out who it is that needs to be punished. Bring him to me."

"Does the drawing not bother you?"

"It seems straightforward enough," Isaac said with a shrug. "I am not concerned." Deliberately, he turned to another subject. "I am told that you and Jessica were missing last night. What happened?"

Malachai met his gaze steadily. "She did not want to face the other children. I thought that allowing her some time to adjust might be wise." Isaac didn't reply immediately, and Malachai felt compelled to add, "They would only stare at her, anyway. A few touched her last night." He said this because he, himself wouldn't like that sort of attention.

"Touching is not a crime, Malachai," Isaac said softly. "The sooner she gets used to their presence—and vice versa—the better."

The older boy's mouth tightened slightly, but he gave a short nod. "Very well. It shall be as you say."

Isaac nodded shortly, as though he really hadn't expected anything else. He turned to the window, hands clasped behind his back, but Malachai noticed that he hadn't been dismissed. He debated leaving, but decided that he'd better stay. Isaac's behavior was making him curious.

He didn't have long to wait. After a moment spent lost in thought, the boy preacher spoke to him without turning. "You care for her. Is that true?"

Malachai was slightly stunned. The only real evidence of any inclination towards Jess was found in those secret, stolen moments; well-hidden, he had thought. But then—of course. The Lord knew. The Lord knew most things. He silently cursed himself for forgetting that. He didn't answer Isaac's question. The boy knew already; the inquiry had just been a formality.

Isaac turned to him, looking grimly self-satisfied. "It is as I thought. I must admit, when the Lord whispered it into my ear, I was surprised. I have always thought of you as a strong arm without weakness, Malachai."

The redhead chose his words carefully, aware that his grip on his temper was sliding at the implied disappointment. "I was not aware that liking a person was considered a weakness. My loyalty lies foremost with the Lord; he knows that. I would kill her in an instant if he demanded it."

Isaac studied him for what seemed like a long time, and Malachai kept his face blank, unwilling to show anything that the younger boy might interpret as duplicity. Finally, Isaac nodded. "I believe you. And your affection for her is not entirely condemned."

Malachai arched an eyebrow. "Not entirely?"

Isaac spoke slowly, deliberately. "He Who Walks Between the Rows has seen the two of you, and in part, He approves. However, he wishes for you to avoid her as much as possible until she has seen the truth in our ways."

Malachai, forehead furrowed, opened his mouth to argue, but Isaac cut him off, lifting his hand sharply. "The Lord does not approve of ties between His children and unbelievers. You know this. Jessica has been accepted into our society, but her spirit is still defiant. She does not believe yet."

Malachai was silent, but inwardly, he smoldered. He didn't mind taking orders as long as he'd initially wanted to do the thing required of him, but this was different. He didn't want to stay away from her.

Isaac, perhaps, observed this inward rebellion. His voice gentled. "It will not be permanently, Malachai. Before long, she will see the truth in our ways. I believe that if she is deprived of your company, she will come to God even sooner. Surely you can have no objection."

Somehow, Isaac had turned this into a matter of faith. If Malachai had faith enough, he would abandon Jess until she came to them. If he didn't, then he wouldn't. He had little choice in the matter.

Stiffly, he nodded. "It shall be as the Lord commands."

Isaac was pleased. "Very well. Do not worry about her. She will be well taken care of." Malachai nodded again. He didn't want to talk anymore; he needed to get out of here, to the field, where he could blank his mind and release his anger.

Isaac saw. "You may go," he said briefly. The redhead turned immediately and left the dwelling, disappearing into the cornstalks.

I preceded Esther from Isaac's house, silent. She didn't speak to me for a while, presumably waiting till we were a good distance away before she reached out and took my arm.

"Among some, you may find anger and resentment towards you," she said without preamble. "You must not blame those who show it. Throughout the course of their spiritual lives, they have been taught that outlanders bear God's curse. To have one so easily brought into the fold will be difficult for them to accept."

"And you?" I asked when I judged that she'd finished, watching her face carefully. "How do you feel?"

She raised her eyebrows. "I have no prejudice against you, now that Isaac has declared that you are one of us. If you treat me well, then I will show you the same consideration. Understood?"

"Understood," I answered.

She paused, and then said, "I must confess, I am troubled that you seem to have taken to Malachai so easily. He is a dangerous person for anyone to be around, especially an outlander. Surely he could not have treated you well?"

"He was irate and impatient—no different than any other eighteen-year-old boy forced to spend time with someone he doesn't like," I replied, not entirely truthfully.

She nodded, but her fears didn't seem assuaged, with good reason. "Come," she said. "Walk beside me."

I fell in step beside her—my legs were a little longer than hers, so I shortened my stride so that we stayed even. We were silent for a little while, but her pregnant belly kept drawing my eye. Finally, I decided that she wouldn't resent a bit of curiosity.

"Esther," I began hesitantly, "I don't want to sound rude, but there's a lot I don't know about this place, and I was wondering—"

She smiled slightly and put a hand on her stomach. "You want to know about this. I saw you looking."

I nodded. "I was wondering how it's done here."

"The same way it's done anywhere else, I imagine," she said, a sly look in her eye. I glanced sharply at her, and she laughed. "I couldn't resist. You set yourself up for it."

She sounded like my friend Caitlin back in Texas. I felt a pang of homesickness, but Esther continued before it could settle in.

"We marry," she told me. "His followers cannot die out, after all. If the mother is close to her passage when the child is conceived, then she delays it until the baby is weaned. There are nurses whose duty it is to tend to children whose parents have been taken—you will see them, in time."

I felt slightly sick. Followers can't die out, indeed. This god of theirs was breeding them and then shipping them off to the slaughterhouse. And the babies—the little children who would know nothing else, my heart ached for them as well. I didn't say this to Esther, though.

To distract myself, I asked, "Who are you married to?"

"His name is Isaiah."

"I know him," I said, slightly startled. She looked at me, surprised.

"Do you?"

"Yes. He was kind to me."

Her face glowed slightly. "Isaiah has always been kind to everyone," she said fondly. "Sometimes I believe he is foolish to do so, as he does not separate himself from the interlopers that way, but I cannot pretend that I don't appreciate the quality. He is a good person."

"I think I can agree," I said with a nod.

That seemed to please her. We walked in silence until she suddenly turned a corner and, following, I found myself standing in front of a massive garden, cutting into the cornfield and green with produce.

I was wide-eyed, and Esther craftily looked over her shoulder at me. "Surely you did not think that we only ate corn?"

"I hadn't really thought about it," I admitted.

Man cannot live on corn alone.

Great. Now my inner voice thought it was a comedian.

"Those are tomatoes, broccoli, and beans," Esther recited, pointing out the named crops. "On the far end, we grow cucumber and peppers. These are summer crops, you see; we grow others in the fall. He Who Walks Behind the Rows has made the ground fertile ever since the Purging."

The words fell casually from her mouth, and I felt a chill run down my back. Insight into the slaughter of the adults came rushing to me, though I had no idea how accurate it was.

Parents, even when they try not to, project their own worries onto their children. The ground was infertile. The corn was dying. Perhaps the parents had tried to hide their concern from the kids, but it would have done no good. Children were intuitive; they'd know that something was wrong, would see that the corn was dying and likely would just be frustrated at being kept out of their parents' confidence.

Corn was the livelihood of those people. Doubtless, the children knew this. For as long as they'd lived, corn had equaled life. Disaster in the corn was disaster to them.

Isaac would have come then. Isaac, who could provide a solution to the problem. Though I had little but contempt to spare for the boy, I knew that that was only because I'd been snatched up and shoved into a building within minutes of arriving at town—also because I had a strong Christian upbringing and knew the difference between God and demons.

God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchanging, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

The shorter catechism. I was old enough to make the distinction. If he'd gotten to me when I was younger, though, when I'd never had my belief tested, as he must have gotten to Malachai…

"How long ago was it?" I asked abruptly.


"The Purging."

"Oh. Four years."

Four years. Malachai would have been fourteen. I would have been thirteen, unknowing, perfectly content in my town a dozen miles from Dallas. I felt slightly sick again.

The thought process had only taken a moment. Esther continued, unaware of what I was thinking. "We have some crops stored from this past fall. They are carefully rationed to last us till the next. We have a small field of wheat about a mile away, enough to last us from year to year; the boys work there and in the cornfield."

"Idle hands are rare, I see."

She nodded. The girls work here, tend to the younger children, and cook. The boys also maintain the huts, and we attend Isaac's sermons several times a week."

"You're very industrious." And I meant it. As sick as it made me, they'd organized themselves efficiently with the absence of adults. I had to admire them, if only for that.

Esther nodded, though she seemed pleased that I had the sense to see it. "They're watered around noon, and the girls won't start working to weed and prune until it cools off in the afternoon."

She gestured then. "Come with me. Most of the girls are with the younger children; we can go there now."

I nodded and fell into step beside her and then glanced at her protruding belly. "What do you think it is?"

She rested a hand on her stomach. "I feel that it's a boy. He kicks hard enough, certainly, but Mary was sure that her child would be a boy, for the same reason, and she turned out to be a daughter. It does not matter. Both are equally acceptable to the Lord."

I was quiet, but it didn't last long. Esther wanted to talk. "What have you discovered of Malachai?"

I paused; looked warily at her. "Why?"

She shrugged casually, but curiosity gleamed brightly in her eyes. "He's something of a mystery, that's all. He's always kept to himself, and he's done so more and more as he's gotten older—now, he's close to reclusive. He's spent more time with you over the past few days than he has with anyone this past year, except for Isaac."

That startled me—but then again, he'd been too hostile for me to take note of his social skills. I thought for a second, and then said, "He's loyal, fiercely loyal to his beliefs, almost to a fault. He wants things, but refuses to indulge himself unless it's according to… the will of He Who Walks Behind the Rows." It was the first time I'd said the name aloud. It felt cold and leaden on my tongue.

Esther nodded, satisfied. "It's as it should be, then. I am glad. I had worried that his devotion was only outward."

I snorted softly. "Oh, you don't have to worry about this. It would take a crane to pry him away from this place." I said nothing else, for fear that I might betray something that he might not necessarily want told.

I moved my eyes around the surrounding area. I had to admit, if only to myself, that this life held a certain peace. Back in Texas, I had often been wearied by the technology, the activity, the hyperactivity of the world around me. I could see this as a haven of sorts, if only the adults hadn't been slaughtered to make it so. If only children weren't murdered in their nineteenth year. If only the worship wasn't directed towards a demon. If only.

Esther made an abrupt turn, and I just managed to follow. She led me up the steps to a modern-looking building, pausing at the door and turning to me.

"Normally, we try to avoid the old buildings, except for the church and Isaac's dwelling," she explained. "Sometimes though, we find the structures necessary—in your case, for example, with the old schoolhouse. Here, we tend to the children—it is an old daycare center, put to good use. Come."

She led me inside, where she was immediately swarmed by little children calling her name. She smiled at them all and began talking to them, talking as quickly as they were chattering to her, giving me a chance to look around.

At first glance, everyone looked relatively happy—the children, and there were a good many of them, ranging in age from infants to age eight or somewhere around there, played happily and noisily, and the girls that were their caretakers looked content. Looking closer, though, I saw that a few had spotted me, and they didn't look happy.

One in particular caught my attention. She was dark-haired, olive-complexioned, clad in the simple cotton dress of modest tones that seemed the usual fare for them, her back against the wall and her arms crossed as she glowered at me. We locked eyes for a second, and then I looked away when a little boy crashed into my knees. I reached out instinctively and caught him, kept him from falling.

"Are you okay?" I asked concernedly.

He couldn't have been more than four, dark-haired and chubby. The whole thing seemed like a big joke to him—he gave a bubbly laugh and hugged my knees. "Sorry, sorry, sorry!" he chanted, tilting his head back to look at me. A puzzled look surfaced in his eyes; I could tell that he didn't recognize me, but he still clung cheerfully to my legs.

"Noah!" Esther had disentangled herself from the other children and came to us, looking severe, though her eyes were merry. "Were you being careless again?"

"Umm…" He held on to me still with one arm, bringing the other around to scratch at his curly head.

"Noah," she said warningly, perhaps sensing a lie in the works. I quickly intervened.

"I think I might have hurt him," I said with a slight laugh, looking down at him. "Are you all right?"

He nodded quickly. "I'm fine. Are you the outlander?"

I couldn't help but grin at his bluntness. Esther, though, looked mildly disapproving. "She has come into the fold, Noah," she corrected. "She is no longer an Outlander."

A grin slowly started on his face. "But she used to be," he said.

"Yes. She did." For some reason, this struck him as funny, and he laughed. Esther swatted him on the behind. "Go make yourself useful," she ordered. He darted off. "I apologize for the children," she said in advance. "They have yet to learn subtlety, as you can see."

"It's okay. I was their age once, too."

"As were we all."

I was distracted by a tug at my hand. I looked down to see a little blonde girl of about six with a sweet face. "Yes?" I asked politely.

"Are you the outlander?" she asked curiously, unconsciously repeating her playmate's words of seconds ago.

"She isn't an outlander any longer," Esther said, resignedly, as though she expected to have to say this a good many times before it was over. "She is one of us."

The girl tugged on my hand, and anticipating what she wanted, I went down on one knee to talk to her face to face. Once I was at her level, though, her face changed. No longer a sweet-faced little child, her eyes gleamed with hatred and her face contorted. Before these changes could register, she reached up and abruptly slapped me across the face. It stung, for a strike from a six-year-old.

Esther literally went pale with anger. She grabbed the girl's arm roughly, jerking her away from me. "Ruth!" she snapped. "That was a foul thing to do. You are inviting the wrath of God, raising your hand against one of his children!"

I got to my feet, determinedly not touching my cheek. I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. We'd gained the attention of everyone but the smallest children, though. The dark-haired girl against the wall was laughing quietly.

Ruth, meanwhile, twisted in Esther's grip, scowling. "Let go of me!" she howled. "Outlanders cannot cease to become outlanders! You know this! Why do you accept her?"

Esther's grip only tightened. She hissed, "I accept her because Isaac instructed me to, and Isaac speaks for the Lord. You are a fool if you do not understand that, child or not." She released the girl abruptly and straightened up, looking around. "Does anyone else share Ruth's concerns?"

No one spoke. I wouldn't have, either, if she was glaring at me as fiercely as she was glaring at them. After a moment, she nodded. "Good. We will leave now. I do not want to hear dissent from anyone after this."

She turned, standing tall and terrible, and swept out. I followed in her wake, feeling much less impressive and more than a little embarrassed.

We emerged into the sun and went down the steps before saying anything. Finally, then, I spoke. "Thank you."

"I say what I believe," she said simply.

"Still. It was kind of you." I felt uncomfortable—mostly because I felt that her determination in me was displaced. She expected me to be what they'd been told I was—one of them, a strong believer in their god and a person who wouldn't stir up undue trouble. I didn't want to tell her that she was wrong.

She nodded, but her attention was elsewhere—on the boy coming up to us. I quickly recognized the gentle stance. It was Isaiah, her husband.

Their tentative greeting made me realize that physical closeness—and emotional, too, for that matter—wasn't exactly encouraged in this community. They smiled a bit at each other, but that was the extent of it.

"Isaac wishes to speak to her," Isaiah said, indicating me. I quickly spotted a problem with the scenario.

"Where's Malachai?" I asked quickly, before Esther could reply. Isaiah, however, could only shrug in response.

"Take her," Esther consented. "I must discipline a wayward child, at any rate, and she's had a good deal of excitement already for this morning."

Isaiah nodded. "Come with me," he said, gesturing for me to join him. I looked between him and his wife, and finally nodded.

"I'm coming," I said resignedly, and went to his side. I wasn't at all happy about another tête-à-tête with Isaac, but if nothing else, I might be able to discover where Malachai had gone.

chapter twelve – i'm getting sick of this demon

"I like your wife," I told Isaiah as we walked.

He looked a little startled at this opening. I didn't blame him; I spoke as though we'd been having a conversation, but I figured that breaking the ice via the usual ways would just be a waste of time.

After a moment, he recovered. "I do, too," he replied. I smiled.

"You all have Biblical names," I said next.

He shot me a look. "And you choose very random topics of conversation."

"My mind's been bouncing around ever since I came to this place," I responded. "I'm trying to find out as much as I can—that's why I said that. Either your parents were super devoted or y'all aren't really named what you say you are."

"Some of us did not have the names we have taken on now," he allowed after a moment, though he looked wary. "After the Purging, we took on more godly names. It was for the best."

A thought struck me. "What was Malachai's?"

He looked at me and I caught a glint of amusement in his expression. "You seem very interested in Malachai."

I shrugged. "Any blackmail material will do," I said, attempting to cover my tracks. I got the feeling that Isaiah wouldn't buy it.

He didn't. He gave me a wise look and said, "I don't exactly remember his first name. I wasn't a friend of his before Isaac arrived, and that was when we started calling each other by our names of today."

"I don't suppose it would really matter," I said meditatively. "I get the feeling that he'll always be Malachai, to me and himself. Still, it'd be funny to see his reaction to his original name."

Not funny. Scary. I get the feeling he wouldn't take very kindly to it.

There was sense in the thought, but the practical jokester in me still wanted to try it out. It was probably a good thing I didn't know what he'd been called originally—inevitably, out of a sense of mischief or pure curiosity, I'd end up using his name, and his response probably wouldn't be very pretty.

"What was Isaac's?" I asked after another moment. Isaiah looked at me, amused.

"His name has always been Isaac," he said. "At least, as far as I know. Not much is known about Isaac before he came here. No one has really asked. I think we all know that it's not a subject to be discussed."

I wanted to ask why, but I saw—or sensed, rather—that he wouldn't be able to tell me.

We reached Isaac's house after another minute of walking, and he stopped at the door. "You can go in yourself, can't you?"

"I'm not a toddler, so yeah," I said with a slight smile to ease the sting that the response might cause. Isaiah didn't look offended.

"Good. I will see you soon, I have no doubt."

I didn't ask what he meant. I was sure I'd find out sooner or later. I turned and went into the house, turning towards the study—was Isaac ever in another room of the house? Other than sleeping in a bedroom, I doubted it.

The door was left ajar, but I wasn't going to go barging in. Isaac, though clearly crazy, intimidated me some. Screw that; he intimidated me a lot. Being tortured by a pint-sized boy in preacher attire tends to do that to me, I've found. I knocked instead on the doorframe.

"Enter." Was it just me, or was there a note of satisfaction in his tone, as though a puppy of his had just learned to whine to go outside instead of just going on the floor?

Stop it, Jess. You're just being paranoid.

Was I really? I didn't know him well enough. I decided to quite mulling it over and just go in—all this reverie was getting me nowhere.

He looked over his shoulder at me from where he'd been looking out the window when I entered. "Welcome. I am glad you came so promptly. I half thought you would want to be defiant."

"Nah. Obeying suits me just fine." I hoped that the sarcasm in the words wasn't easily detectable—I didn't want to piss him off, but nor did I want to go placidly along with whatever he said.

If he detected the derision, he said nothing. He gestured to a chair in the corner to my left. "Sit."

"I'd rather stand, honestly," I said cautiously. I didn't want to sit down in his presence—in some irrational way, I felt it might make me vulnerable. He looked at me, his mouth caught in a half-smile, and then shrugged.

"As you wish."

I didn't like taking my eyes off of Isaac for long, but nonetheless, I felt my gaze slip from him, roving around the room as if looking for something—or someone. Where was he?

"You are wondering where Malachai went."

The sudden words caught my attention, and my eyes flew back to him. He had a satisfied light in his eyes, insufferable and a little scary. A smug Isaac didn't bode well for me. And how did he know what I was thinking?

There was little use in denying it. "Uh… I was just wondering… because, you know, he's usually here if he's not with me, and…"

"Since you've been here, yes, he's usually either with you or me," Isaac said patiently. "But recently it has come to my attention that the attitude that the two of you hold towards each other is not appropriate for the current situation. He will therefore be separated from you for a while."

The words were thrown out there so casually. A chill ran down my spine—how did Isaac know what 'attitudes' we had? We'd been pretty private, as far as I knew. Trying to swallow down my apprehension, I asked, "Current situation?"

Isaac's eyebrows lifted delicately, as though he were surprised that he had to explain it to me. I was gripped with the urge to punch him, but I knew I wouldn't. "You are an unbeliever, Jessica. You are blessed, truly, but you cannot expect the Lord to grant you all that you desire when you still insist on denying his existence."

I was really starting to hate this guy. Not Isaac—the Demon, as I had come to know it, though Isaac was a bonus. I crossed my arms tightly and willed him to get out of my head. Having all my private thoughts put on display for his little butt-monkey was driving me insane.

Hah. See how you like that thought, Isaac.

Isaac's expression hadn't changed. "You want Malachai," he said simply. "But it is simply inappropriate for one of God's children to enter into a relationship with an unbeliever."

"So hold on a second," I said, stretching out one hand to stop him. "You're saying that unless I commit to… He Who Walks Behind the Rows, become his child and swear allegiance to him or whatever, I'm not allowed to talk to Malachai?"

"It is more complicated than that. You need to be sincere—you cannot just swear fealty, so to speak, only so you can see him."

"Great. I guess I don't have to worry about crossing paths with murderous redheads anytime soon," I said sardonically, pulling back my hand and crossing my arms again.

"I must ask you, my child—are you any closer to giving in to the Lord?" Isaac had perfected the look of paternal concern. It was spooky on a face as young as his.

"You mean am I ready to acknowledge his existence? Because I know he exists," I said. "I've felt his power… and I think I've heard him." Isaac's face changed subtly. I cocked an eyebrow at him, waiting to see if he was going to say something, but his expression blanked before I could identify his expression and he was silent. I continued, carefully, trying not to paint myself into a corner. "I'm just not sure if I'm ready to accept him as the all-powerful God."

"Oh, but you must." He sounded just as coaxing as ever. "You must leave your past life behind. We are your family now. You have a great gift, Jessica, the gift of eternal youth, which you must use responsibly. You must use it to guide the children here."

I looked at him, trying to conjure up an uncertain look. "Would you mind giving me some time to think about this?"

There was the slightest flicker in his expression, so brief that I wasn't sure what it was—approval, displeasure, contempt? He nodded placidly. "Very well. You may go, but do not wander too far."

I nodded, deciding that I should take what I could get and not screw it up by saying anything else. I turned to go, but he spoke once more, stopping me.

"Do not think that I don't understand." I turned back, cocking a puzzled eyebrow at him and trying to figure out what he meant. He allowed a small smile. "I know that it is difficult for you, Jessica. It was difficult for the others as well, in the beginning—you are being asked to give up a comfortable life, the life that you've known. Be assured, though, that the life you end up in will be infinitely nobler."

I nodded again, not trusting myself to speak. He blinked calmly at me. "You may go now."

I turned and left.

As I stepped out into the again-deserted street, the impulse to run shot through my body. I was entirely alone; unguarded. I could run in the direction I'd come from; my car would be there, and beyond that, more towns. Surely I could keep moving for the few hours it would take to get to real civilization.

Okay, that's a bad idea for two reasons. One, you'd have to either go through the corn or risk the open space to get out. The latter's bad because they'd see you going; the former because you don't know the extent of this thing's power and the cornfield is his domain.

As for the second reason… are you really going to leave Malachai after all this?

I kicked moodily at a cornstalk that had blown against the pavement. I wouldn't leave. Isaac probably knew that, which was why he was letting me wander. I started walking.

The dark clouds had obscured the sun again, and the wind had picked up, tossing my tangled (and doubtless horrific-looking) hair everywhere. I frowned, narrowing my eyes towards the south, where the bad weather seemed to be coming from. I didn't like the look of it. The air had a heavy, ominous feel, and I wondered briefly if someone was trying to tell me something.

On impulse, I turned and walked towards the cornfield, only to stop short a second later. It seemed to me as though the closest stalks had just… waved at me. Against the wind.

I took a cautious step nearer. Nothing. Another step, and then another, until I was standing directly in front of the field. Then, almost deliberately, as if inviting my skepticism, the stalks parted as though making a path for me.

All right, fine. If they're gonna be sassy, I'm gonna be sassy right back.

I stepped deliberately into the field. The stalks continued to part for me, so I kept walking. I wasn't particularly scared of the Demon, since he seemed to want me alive to believe in him, and curiosity won out over apprehension. After all, most cornfields I'd come across didn't move independently.

I walked for a while until I emerged in a small clearing. Then, looking around, I saw… nothing. The corn just waved around me in the wind.

"Well, that was disappointing," I remarked, and plunked down to think.

I wanted Malachai. He was my only friend in this place, if he could even be called that—unless you counted Esther and Isaiah, which I, for one, didn't. I hadn't known them for long enough. I wanted to hang out with Malachai, make him mad, see if I could get him to laugh. He didn't laugh a lot. The only time I'd heard him do so, as a matter of fact, it had been short and full of ridicule. He didn't smile much, either, and when he did it was cynical.

Yes, I wanted him, but the only way I was going to get him would be to express faith in the Demon. One problem with that: my true religion forbade idolatry, the worship of false gods—and this thing was most certainly a false god.

What if you lied, though? Pretended to worship the Demon in order to dismantle his establishment from the bottom up?

The thought was a tempting one. With difficulty, though, I pushed it away. Paying lip service to the Demon would be almost exactly the same as actually worshipping him, the only difference being that I didn't mean it. I didn't think I could do that, however useful it might be. So what was I going to do?

You can still get out. Get out and run for it. Leave Malachai. You're only seventeen; you don't need a guy at this point.

How was it that my conscience had turned against me so quickly? Like was like, love was love (though I'm not sure if I'd go that far in Malachai's case, not yet. I'd only known him for two days). Didn't matter how old you were when you felt it; it didn't lessen the potency of it at all.

Then again, you've been taught that human emotion can get in the way of wise choices. Maybe you should let your logic take the wheel on this one and ignore the way you feel.

A sudden thought struck me before I could respond. What if the Demon was eavesdropping in on my very thoughts? Again, I didn't know how powerful he was, and the cornfield was his realm. Who knew?

I stood up abruptly, whipping around to look accusingly behind me, as though the thing might be there, sharp teeth gleaming with saliva, eyes glowing red. There was nothing.

I turned around again, feeling slightly foolish, and jumped badly when I saw Malachai not two feet from me, having just emerged from the corn rows. The wind had been blowing the stalks so ferociously that I hadn't heard his approach.

He looked surprised to see me as well, though he hid it a little better. We stared at each other for a minute while I tried to slow my heart to a normal pace.

This is the Demon's fault, my mind accused vehemently. He led you here and then probably led Malachai here, too. He wants you to see him, to see the person you want to be with so that you'll be easier to persuade.

Before I could speak, Malachai's shoulders straightened. He nodded stiffly at me, and then turned to walk away.

Oh, yeah, like I'm going to let him wander off when this is probably the only time I'll get to talk to him until I break down and say that this Demon is god.

I moved fast, dodging around him and blocking his path. He blinked as though my sudden appearance in front of him had startled him, and then steadfastly stepped around me. I let him go, but I followed him, close enough so that the cornstalks he batted out of the way didn't hit me on the way back.

"Why are you avoiding me?" I knew the answer. I just wanted it from his perspective.

"I was told to," he answered shortly.

"Oh, by Isaac? That certainly means you should listen," I said sarcastically.

I was following too closely to stop in time when he turned abruptly. I ran straight into him but quickly reeled back, trying to pretend as though I hadn't. I doubt he noticed, though; his eyebrows were drawn together and he was scowling. Oops.

"Watch what you say here, of all places," he hissed. "He hears you. He will not be tolerant for long."

Good, that had gotten a response. I kept going. "Let him come," I said defiantly. "I'm not afraid of—"

His hand was clamped over my mouth in a flash, but before I could bite it or do something to make him let go, I was distracted by the corn. It was waving and tossing fiercely, as thought it were angry. Malachai had noticed, too—he stood up straight, looking around with a scowl (which was directed towards me, I have no doubt). Then, he let me go, strode past me, and grabbed my hand on the way, pulling me back towards Gatlin.

"What are you doing?" I demanded, working to twist my hand away. I didn't want to go back there. If I did, then I wouldn't be able to talk to him.

"Getting you out of here," he said tensely. "You're a fool, and fools shouldn't set foot in the cornfield."

Okay. Ouch. Then again, maybe he was right. Inviting the wrath of a demon wasn't exactly a wise move. I let him drag me along, taking two steps for every one stride of his just to keep up, but I talked at the same time.

"Are you going to ignore me until I profess faith?"

"It is His will."

"That's a yes?" He didn't answer. I restrained myself from rolling my eyes. "What if I told you I was running away from here, then?"

Once again, he stopped abruptly, and once again, I crashed right into him.

You really need to work on your grace.

I stepped back, ignoring the slightly sardonic voice in my head, and waited as he slowly turned around and stared at me. He looked as though he couldn't quite figure out whether I was bluffing (which I was) or not.

After a second, he asked, "Are you serious?"

I lifted one shoulder. "Maybe. If you're not talking to me, there's not much to stay for."

He let go of my hand only to grab the arm above it a split second later. His grasp almost hurt. "You can't go."

"Is that right?"

"Isaac will not permit it. I will not permit it."

"What makes you think you have a say in the matter?" I demanded, jerking back. It probably would have been more effective if I'd actually managed to loose myself from his iron grip.

He didn't seem to see the humor in the situation. "What, do you want to be locked up again?" he demanded.

"Not necessarily," I said. "I'm just telling you the truth."

"Well… don't," he said. In the second before he turned away, I saw his face. I saw what he didn't want me to see, and now it was my turn to reach out and grab his elbow.

"You want out too, don't you?"

"No." He kept his back partially turned to me.

"Yes, you do. You don't want to hear about me leaving because you're afraid it'll make your conscience or inner voice or whatever start nagging at you. Mine does it all the time. It'll start picking at you and then you'll find that you want to come with me and—"

"That's a LIE!" His voice lifted over the whir of the wind, startling me into silence. He turned to glare full-force at me. I fell silent, suddenly realizing how annoying I must sound. It wasn't as though my nagging was going to help him reach a conclusion.

He stared at me for a second as if ascertaining that I was shutting up, and then turned away, grasping my wrist again and pulling me along. I went with him willingly enough, realizing that the cornfield was getting wild. I didn't want to stick around for any longer than I needed to.

chapter thirteen – thirteen isn't a good number, so predictably, here's where some bad stuff comes

No sooner had we crossed from the cornfield into town than Malachai let me go, looking around apprehensively as though he expected a group of kids to pop out of nowhere, pointing accusingly at him. Maybe it wasn't that farfetched an expectation.

We saw no one. They'd all presumably gone in to escape the weather, which was growing rougher by the moment. Even as we stood on the pavement, a spatter of rain out of nowhere hit us and then vanished a second later. I cocked an eyebrow—this was tornado weather.

Malachai, having finished his perusal of the street, turned to me. "You need to get inside," he informed me. He let go, but I caught his hand before he could draw back.

"You do, too. Come with me."

He looked at me, exasperated. "I can't. I've got to stay away from you."


"Je-ess." He mirrored my tone of exasperation so perfectly and so obviously intentionally that I let out a surprised laugh. I clamped down on it quickly, but it was too late. He'd won, and he knew it, removing his wrist from my grasp.

"Go," he said, pointing towards the daycare center. I sighed, but turned and went. He spoke again before I'd gotten four steps off. "There is a meeting at the church tonight. I'm sure you'll be told again in a few moments—you'll be expected to attend."

I turned my head to look warily at him. "Are y'all gonna eat someone's heart?"

He didn't seem to find this funny. "Just come." He turned away, but then looked back. "I'll be at the back of the church."

I lifted my eyebrows and nodded quickly. "Cool."


"I'm going! Sheesh," I said, and turned to run towards the building as a new burst of rain dropped from the clouds onto us.

Malachai was infuriated, but there was a certain resignation to his anger, as though he'd subconsciously expected it for a long while. He'd been angry a lot these past few days.

He knew why, too. It was a strong blend of at least three issues that had risen. First and most importantly (or at least the easiest one to think about) was Jessica. The girl was infuriating. He had no idea why he liked her so much, but he did know that this separation from her, after near-constant contact over the past two days, was grating on his nerves.

The other reasons were a bit more complicated.

He almost didn't want to think about it. It was tempting, as he made his way through the bad weather towards the schoolhouse they'd been staying in, to focus on the numerous other issues presented to him. It was dangerous to think. He'd been happy, and that could change with too much thought.

I'm not happy now.

The thought took him by surprise, but after a second's thought, he supposed he should have been expecting it. He was used to being at least content, but he wasn't even that now.

All right, so let's go through this hypothetically, he thought, too conscious and aware even in the privacy of his own mind to betray his beliefs.

What if the other reasons I'm unhappy were here to begin with, and her arrival just brought them to the surface?

He pushed his way into the schoolhouse and shut the door tightly behind him. It was dark inside, but the wind kept it from being too quiet. His back scraped against the door as he slid down to sit on the floor, knees drawn up. He continued with his train of thought.

Isaac tells me nothing since she got here, does nothing but give me orders. He refuses to let me near her. I'd worry that I was about to be usurped, but there's no one here that's stronger than I am and Isaac knows I could snap him like a twig.

His hand moved up to thoughtfully cover the lower half of his face. His quarrel, for the most part, wasn't with God, he was realizing, and so these thoughts weren't exactly damnable. The Lord had given him a good deal, most recently his youth.

It was Isaac who caused the problems. Malachai was growing more and more certain that the orders he was being given were of Isaac's invention. After all, God was a god of war and violence, bloodshed and sacrifice, the god whose works were evident in the Old Testament. He wouldn't concern himself with the lesser doings of his children, as long as they obeyed his basic laws. Regulating their every action was Isaac's job.

Malachai scowled. He was Isaac's equal in most things, his superior in several more, and his inferior only in that he was unable to hear the voice of the Lord. He shouldn't be submitted to Isaac's petty concerns, not when he was the real holder of the power.

"Fuck, she's right," he muttered quietly beneath his hand. Isaac was disposable. The Lord could always choose another seer. Malachai, though, was irreplaceable. Because of this, he was more powerful than the boy preacher.

I'd bet most of the children would listen to me instead of him, too, he thought forcefully. They were scared of him, true, but their respect would outweigh it, he was certain.

Malachai was an impulsive creature, but even he realized that a plot towards the overthrow of the boy who had led them for the past four years was too drastic to act on immediately.

He needed to think on it. There was too much going on to just spend an hour or two planning it and then acting. He'd be patient for a while, watching and waiting.

Esther took one look at me when I got inside and got this look on her face, like she was trying very hard not to laugh. I looked instinctively around for a mirror, but there wasn't one in sight. Still, I could imagine the source of her amusement. Wind mixed with rain didn't really compliment my hair.

"Go ahead," I said resignedly. She stopped struggling and laughed heartily. She had a nice laugh, not horsey, gasping, or irritating.

"Here," she said after she'd gotten through the attack, reaching into a pocket and coming up with a strip of fabric. "Turn around."

I obliged, and she gathered my hair up, tying it back into a long tail. "We wouldn't be having this problem if Malachai hadn't stolen my ribbon," I grumbled.

"He did what?"

"When he caught me the first day, he pulled the ribbon out of my hair," I clarified. "Never got it back."

"That's a surprise," she murmured sarcastically as she finished. "There. You look much better."

"Thank you," I said gratefully. She waved it off.

"Now. Word has come that we are all expected at the church around twilight," she announced.

I peered out of the window. "How will you be able to tell when twilight's here?" I teased lightly. "It all looks dark to me."

She joined me at the window, and I turned to look at her, worry washing over me. "It looks really bad out there. What would y'all do if, say, a tornado hit?"

"The Lord takes care of us," she said faithfully. "If we are told to, we will retreat to the storm cellars. If we are not, we stay where we are and accept either his mercy or his judgment."

I'd stopped being astonished or annoyed at comments like these a while ago. I stared at the cornfield and the pile of blue-black clouds beyond.

Esther touched my shoulder. "Come," She said. "Get to know the children. Not all of them are like Ruth," she assured me.

"I believe you," I said, remembering Noah, who I couldn't see at the moment. "I'm coming."

The hours passed quickly. I'd always liked kids, and Esther was careful to put me with a group that took no notice of my former status as an outcast.

Before I quite realized what was happening, several hours had gone by and we were suddenly preparing to head to the church. Esther supervised with a slightly anxious expression. "Older children, take charge of the young ones," she instructed. "Stay together and don't wander. The storm, if it comes, will be dangerous. The last thing we need is a toddler stranded in the field when it hits." Her hand went protectively to her own swollen belly as she spoke.

Everything fell into chaos as the group pressed towards the door. I found myself falling to the back of the crowd as all the children were seized by protective older girls and rushed to the front. I got the feeling that they were being escorted away from me. I didn't blame them. I was a bad influence.

It wasn't until I was outside that I realized who I was walking next to. The dark-haired girl of earlier had coolly fallen into step beside me, and though she wasn't looking at me, I had no doubt that her position was contrived. She and I were the only ones without a child or two attached to our hands.

She waited until we were on the move until she looked at me. I'd been avoiding her gaze as studiously as she'd been avoiding mine, but when she spoke, I instinctively turned to look at her face.

"What is your purpose here, Outlander?" Her voice was sweeter than her makeup would suggest, but the bluntness of her words canceled it out. I was slightly startled, but my hackles rose quickly and I looked ahead of me.

"Didn't you hear? I'm not an Outlander anymore. Why don't you ask Isaac about it? I'm sure he'd be delighted to fill you in."

She didn't like that. She was silent for a second, and when she next spoke, her tone was decidedly hostile. "How many bruises has Malachai put upon you?"

"Why?" I countered, evading the question. "Do you like him?"

She snorted. "I have far better ways to occupy my time than pursuing him. He's useful to a point, that's all." She peered at my bandaged wrists. "Did he do that?" she demanded.

"You know, you keep asking questions, but you don't seem to notice that I'm not answering any of them," I replied. "Want to know why?"

She bit. "Why?"

"I'd tell you, but that would be answering a question."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her hand lift, and instinctively flinched to the side. I could have kicked myself a second later when she lowered her arm, looking satisfied.

When she spoke next, her voice was more composed. "I think I can guess why you don't want to talk to me. It's because you don't think I'm being friendly. Well, I'm not. I don't believe in wasting courtesy on a person that I don't like."

"Let me guess, were you raised in Boston?" I muttered. She gave me a blank look. I sighed. "Never mind. How about this: quid pro quo."

"I'm sorry?"

"That's okay," I said generously, hurrying on before she could say anything. "Tit for tat. I answer your questions if you answer mine. Sound fair?"

She made a low sound in her throat that I presumed was a growl. Then, she nodded swiftly and opened her mouth to speak. I held my hand up, cutting her off.

"I think we should go through the motions of an introduction before we start."

She closed her mouth, looked deliberately at me, and then spoke again. "Jael."

"Jail? What about it?" I'd understood her, of course, given their inclination towards biblical names, but something in me was just taking delight in getting under her skin. A flash of annoyance sparked in her eyes.

"No, Jael. My name is Jael."

Figures she'd be named for a women who'd nailed a tent stake through a guy's head. Jael had always been one of my favorite Biblical characters, an acknowledgment that women could be just as lethal as men. Jael hadn't run at Sisera with a peg, though; she'd lured him in, coaxed him into sleeping. Subtle. She fought like a woman, and in her case, that was a compliment.

My thoughts had wandered off on a tangent. I jolted back to the present. "I'm Jessica. Now, go ahead."

"What happened in the cornfield last night?" she asked instantly. I was shaking my head before the question had been fully spoken.

"There are some things that Isaac had better tell you. Ask another question."

She seemed annoyed, but then she tossed her hair over her shoulder. "What will you be doing here in the future?"

"I think Isaac wants me to help lead," I said, and, predictably, an ugly scowl crossed her face.


"Ah, it's my turn to ask a question," I said quickly. Her scowl deepened, but I determinedly pushed forward, acting on impulse. "Did you tell Ruth to slap me this morning?"

"No," she said too quickly, looking away. I scrutinized her.

"You're lying," I decided. "That's a deal-breaker." I steadfastly turned my head forward, but didn't quite manage to ignore her effectively enough, as we'd reached the church.

We filtered in—it wasn't particularly crowded inside; the youngest children made up most of the population. I guess the "be fruitful and multiply" rule applied here even more strongly than in the outside world.

I glanced around, but I didn't have to look for long. Malachai was towering at the back of the church, shoulders tilted back against the back wall, eyes darting around alertly despite the air of laziness that he exuded. His gaze rested briefly on me, and then moved on.

I looked for Esther, but she was busy herding all the young ones into pews. Surely she wouldn't notice if I slipped away…

I made my escape when her back was turned, slipping from the throng of girls and children and heading directly for him. I spotted a shadow of a smile on his face, which had vanished by the time I reached him. I rested against the wall next to him, cupping my elbows in my palms.

"Do you know a girl named Jael?" I asked directly.

Immediately, an unpleasant smirk crossed his face. "What has she been telling you?"

"Not much of anything, really. She's been prying, trying to find out what's going on with Isaac."

"What a surprise," he said, glowering at the back of her dark head. After a second or this, he glanced briefly at me. "She likes Isaac."

"Really?" I blinked in surprise. "You mean, likes him, likes him?"

"Well, as much as Jael can like anybody. She's power-thirsty. She used to be after me, but I rejected her one too many times." He smirked slightly at the memory.

"Oh," I said, and looked at her as well. "Why?"

"Why, what?"

"Why did you turn her down?"

He snorted. "Because I don't like her."

"Oh." I paused. "That works."

I know it makes me sound like a horrible person, and maybe I am, but I couldn't help but feel slightly smug at this. I was rarely one to go on first impressions, but every now and again, a person would crop up who I instinctively just didn't like. Jael was clearly one of them.

"So, wait a second," I said, as something he'd said sank in suddenly. "She likes Isaac?" He nodded once, deliberately. There was a spark of amusement in his expression. I shook my head. "That's just… not right."

Isaac didn't strike me as likeable. At all. Something about him was just too disturbing, and it wasn't even the whole cult-leader thing. And, mind you, this is from the girl who developed a crush on her kidnapper. At least Malachai had some normal teenager characteristics.

"Okay, I'm changing the subject," I announced. "Why are we here today?"

His expression changed subtly. "You will not like it."

Oh, crap. If Malachai sensed that I'd be unhappy with the proceedings, then I was definitely en route to getting pissed off. Before I could demand more information, though, Isaac appeared at the front of the church.

A blanket of quiet fell, aside from the quiet noises typical of infants and the short outbursts of toddlers, quickly stifled by their guardians. I noted the seating arrangement for the first time—girls and children on the left, boys on the right. Malachai and I were the only ones standing, and, other than a few glances in our direction, no one seemed to notice.

Isaac's gaze lingered on us for just a moment. Then, he looked down at the congregation.

"Welcome, my children," he greeted them warmly, a note of approval in his tone. "Let us pray."

Every head simultaneously bowed, every eye closed. Even the toddlers bent their necks obediently. Beside me, Malachai's red hair fell across his face as he lowered his head, and his sharp elbow found my ribs as he cued me to do the same.

I kept my head up, my eyes stubbornly open. I wasn't even going to pretend to pray to the demon. Malachai jabbed me again, this time a bit more insistently. I elbowed him right back. I saw him smile, apparently unable to repress it.

I wish I could say that we settled down and that I paid attention to what was going on. Maybe then I'd have gotten a clue of what was to come. But we didn't. Instead, we got into an elbow war right there in the back of the church, invisible to those whose eyes were devoutly closed in prayer. A few times, I nearly gave it up by laughing aloud, but I managed to control myself. Barely.

Isaac's conclusion of the prayer made us stop acting like kids, at least temporarily. We simultaneously snapped out of it and started paying attention, though Malachai somehow managed to git the last dig. I didn't mind. I was just happy that he wasn't incapable of being distracted and acting like the eighteen-year-old guy that he was. Or eighteen-year-old guy acting like a five-year-old kid, as the case might be.

"I am aware that some of you have expressed concern about the storm," Isaac was saying, looking paternally out over the congregation. "Have faith, my children. The Lord has always protected us. If the storm continues to advance, I encourage you to view it as a trial. However, I believe I know why this tempest is threatening, and how to stop it."

He paused for effect. Normally, I'd probably roll my eyes and dismiss it as melodrama, but Isaac had changed in my perception by now. I was more scared of him than I was of Malachai (and despite my flirting with and yelling at the redhead, I was still relatively intimidated by him). When he paused like that, I felt a chill run down my spine. This wasn't going to be good.

Finally, he resumed speaking. "One among us has been desecrating the corn. It is only by the Lord's mercy that he still lives after showing such disrespect to the domain of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. We have been charged with his punishment."

I heard a soft sob. Quickly looking around for the source, I spotted Sarah, sitting with her brother, her head bent. Little Job had his arm around her. No… he couldn't be—?

Isaac's gaze flitted to her as well, but he continued speaking as a murmur rippled through the congregation. "He will be punished in the usual manner, without his age being taken into account. The Lord hath commanded it." He then nodded to a small group sitting in the front right pew.

"Bring him forward."

Two older boys rose, holding a much younger boy between them, and as they headed to the front of the church I realized that it was worse than I'd thought.

It wasn't Job. It was four-year-old Noah.

chapter fourteen – i do something stupid but totally justified, and malachai is chivalrous in his own way

I shot a quick, disbelieving look towards Malachai but he steadfastly looked towards the front of the church—avoiding my eyes, I was certain.

I looked back again. Noah's face was red and wet with tears, and the sound of his soft crying seemed to echo in the near-silent church.

My stunned state lasted until Isaac pulled a knife out of nowhere and made a careful incision down the toddler's arm. Then, Noah started to bawl, and I snapped out of it. Glancing again quickly at Malachai, I resolved that if he wasn't going to lift a hand to stop this, then I would.

Moving fast so that he wouldn't be able to stop me, I vaulted down the aisle towards the front. Isaac saw me coming, but I doubt that he expected me to crash into him, knocking him to the side. A dangerous move, given that he was holding a knife, but I was too angry to think clearly.

Before he could recover, I'd seized the sobbing Noah, lifting him into my arms. He locked his arms around my neck, and I could feel the blood smearing against me, which only served to make me angrier.

Malachai had caught up by now and he seized my elbow. Isaac, though, had recovered, and by the looks of it, he was enraged.

"You dare to disrupt this ceremony?" he demanded, his voice horrible and screeching with rage.

"Hell, yes, I do!" I bellowed back, refusing to cow in the face of his anger, however scary he was. It wasn't too tough—I was too mad to really be afraid. "He's just a baby! What on earth could he possibly do to warrant this?"

"He has desecrated the corn," spat Isaac. "He must be held responsible for his actions, just like any of us would."

"What did he do, fall into a few stalks, knock them over? Toddlers aren't graceful! I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to do it!"

"He must be taught!" howled Isaac.

"Then spank him, you freakin' barbarians! Don't slice him open! For God's sake, he's just a baby!" I felt tears starting in my eyes, tears of rage and pity for the chubby little boy who was currently sobbing against my neck, but I willed myself not to cry in front of them.

"Be silent!" Isaac thundered. "I have tolerated your childish outbursts for long enough. Now, though, you must be punished. Malachai! Take her to the cornfield. Chastise her."

The redhead nodded shortly. I pulled away from him, hanging onto Noah, but the two boys who had brought him forward tore him forcibly from my arms. I made as though to attack them, to reclaim the boy, but Malachai intercepted me.

I fought. I swiped at his face and managed to scratch it once before he caught my wrists. I then proceeded to kick out at him, but he nearly jerked me off my feet, dragging me down the aisle. Jael was laughing.

Behind me, I heard Isaac say something about the interruption corrupting the service, that it would be resumed tomorrow. At least there was that.

Then we were outside, and the church door closed behind us.

She'd caught him off-guard with that strike, and the four scratch marks burning in his cheek were evidence. He guessed he hadn't really expected her to fight back. Strangely, though, he wasn't mad. It was worth the trouble to see Isaac knocked off his feet like that.

She continued to fight as he dragged her away, towards the cornfield, but her struggles were lessening. They hadn't posed much of a problem to begin with.

Her small huffs of anger became sobs as they crossed into the field. He knew that she was crying, but he didn't bother to turn and look at her. He was too busy trying to decide what to do.

He stopped in a random row—no different than all the others. He then turned to face her, face impassive, arms crossed resolutely over his chest.

She angrily wiped the tears from her face. "What the hell was that?" she demanded.

"I think I should be asking you that," he retorted. "Don't you know better by now?"

"I'm not exactly the type to let child abuse go!"

"It is how we punish those who destroy the corn," he replied resolutely. She leaned towards him, pointing forcefully back towards the church.

"Malachai, he cut that little boy!"

"He wouldn't have really hurt him, Jess."

She stared at him incredulously for a second. "Again, I say, he cut—"

"Look, you can't keep doing this. Stop undermining authority or you're going to get in even bigger trouble than you are now."

"Isaac is not authority," she stated flatly. "Not to me, and not really to you."

"He might not be, but God is."

"He ISN'T God! God isn't measurable or visible, like this demon of yours. He doesn't speak to us anymore except through the Bible. This is a cult. Look at you, Malachai! You're a man, not a child anymore! How long are you going to let this farce blind you?!"

There was tense silence. Malachai waited for the anger to wash over him, waited to lose his temper and haul off and do something he'd regret, but he didn't. He just stared at her, motionless. He didn't trust himself to speak.

He didn't need to, apparently. Her face cleared and she pointed at him. "You know it, don't you? You might think that he's powerful, but he's not all that there is out there. You know it."

"Power is all that matters," he said finally.

"There's nothing else I can say," she answered. "If power is what you want, if it's all you care about, then go for it. But leave me out of it."

"What, you're making me choose?" he demanded forcefully.

"No. If you can figure out a way to get everything you want, then that's fine. All I'm saying is that I'm not putting up for cruelty and stupidity. That's going to cause problems when I get in your way."

"Then I think you should go." The words tumbled out before he really knew that he was saying them. She looked like he'd just hit her again.

"I'm sorry?"

"You should go. Get out of here; go home." The funny thing was that he didn't know if he was being selfish or not in telling her to leave. If she stayed, it was likely that his coup against Isaac wouldn't go so well. The opinion of the children was against her, and he couldn't be seen taking her side when the children would probably demand her blood. However, he didn't want her to go. He'd rather stay under Isaac than see her gone or killed.

Unselfish, then. It had been a long time since he'd done anything altruistic, mainly because he didn't like anyone enough to do them favors. It felt good, for a change, though it was nothing he planned to make a habit out of.

He'd obviously taken her by surprise. She stepped back, blinked once or twice, and then stepped forward again. "Are you serious? You're going to let me go?"

He didn't know exactly why, but that stung. He'd known she wanted to go. Why did her eagerness bother him so much? He pushed it aside, speaking brusquely to cover it up. "It'll be harder than it sounds, but yes." She was silent for what seemed like a long time, resulting in impatience on his part. "Isaac expects me to punish you," he said, his tone annoyed for no particular reason. "If we don't act soon—"

"I… want to take Noah," she interrupted hesitantly.

"No. I won't be able to handle things then. You have to leave by yourself."

She paused for another beat. "What about you?"

"I'll manage."

She looked down at the ground. "Say I plan to come back. Say I plan to bring backup. What would you think then?"

Even as she spoke, his mind worked away, forming a plan. She'd come back, the police on her tail. He could snatch her out from under their noses, and then they could all hide until the police decided that she was just delusional, that Gatlin was just a ghost town, and went home. By then, he'd have taken Isaac down and secured his leadership. Jess would no longer be a liability. She could rejoin them.

He smiled thinly, already anticipating the challenge that newcomers would present. "You would be welcome to," he said clearly.

"And Noah?"

"I'll take care of him."

"You promise?" she asked, looking searchingly up at him.

"Yes." He'd take Isaac out tomorrow. He'd thought about it and reached a decision. The toddler's punishment would be forgotten in the confusion.

"Just so we're clear, 'take care of him' means keeping him whole, sound, and uncut?"

"Yes," he said, a touch impatiently.

She scrutinized him for a second, and then stepped forward and locked her arms around his waist, holding onto him tightly. "I'm going to miss you," she muttered into his shoulder.

"Don't. You're coming back, aren't you?" She pulled back to look up at him, and he laid a hand alongside her face, using his thumb to brush back a few strands of hair that had gone astray from her ponytail.

Her eyes were slightly wary, as though she didn't understand why he wasn't putting up more of a fuss over her plans to lead a host of cops, adults, to his town. He kept his face inscrutable, and she answered, "Yeah. Definitely."

"Then I'll see you again." He pulled away from her and unsheathed his knife.

"Hold up—what are you doing now?"

He paused and watched her for a second, trying to see if she was scared of him. After a moment, he decided that she wasn't. A little nervous, maybe, but she trusted him overall. It was a good feeling.

"I'm going to stab myself," he answered casually.

The look of horror on her face was almost comical. She leapt at him, grabbing his wrist. "Oh, no, you are not!"

He pulled away neatly. "Think, Jess. There has to be evidence of some kind of struggle, or they're going to suspect something."

"Why can't I just hit you in the face?" she demanded. His skeptical, slightly arrogant glance was the only answer required, and she flushed. "Shut up," she mumbled.

"Don't worry, Jess," he said, a tad patronizingly, knowing that his tone would irritate her. Maybe if she was mad, she wouldn't put up such a fuss. "I know how to do it so that I won't bleed as much."

"Yeah, but it'll still cripple you!"

"I recover quickly," he said dismissively.


"Maybe you should leave first. You might not be able to—"

"Nuh-uh. You're not getting rid of me that easily. I'm sticking around in case you… I don't know, sever an artery, or something. You might need my help, not that there's much I'd be able to do in that case."

"Suit yourself," he said with a shrug, and lifted the knife.

"Wait," she said quickly. He lowered the blade again, looking at her in exasperation. She came to him again, putting her arms around his neck and standing on tiptoe to reach his mouth.

He kissed her back, though both of them kept it relatively chaste. To him, it felt like a promise, speaking of things to come.

After a minute, she pulled away. "Just… be careful. Don't kill yourself. Okay?" she whispered.

"I'll be fine. You worry too much," he said. She rolled her eyes at him and stepped back.

"Go ahead," she said.

Malachai would never be accused of cowardice. Sometimes he was stupidly brave, pushing on even when he should have given up long ago. He lifted his knife and plunged it down into his leg.

A searing pain raced up and down his body. He felt the warm spurt of blood as he drew the knife out of the flesh. Jess gasped and stepped forward, but he waved her away, hissing in pain as he tumbled to the ground, clutching his thigh.

"This will do," he growled through grit teeth. "Okay. Stay in the field, parallel to the road, until you're safely out of sight." He grimaced in pain as his leg throbbed and bled. "Then, get out onto the road. Hurry. I'll be all right for about fifteen minutes, but then it will start getting dangerous to just sit here bleeding, and I'll have to go back. People will be sent after you."

He held out the bloody knife. "Here. Take it."

Her hand closed automatically over it, though he doubted that if she'd been paying attention to it, she'd have accepted the bloodstained hilt. "Won't you need it?"

"There are others."

"Will I have to use it?"

"You might."

She paused, and then stooped quickly, brushing a kiss through his hair. "I'm going so you can go back more quickly. Be careful. I'll come back."

He didn't say anything, wincing as he applied more pressure to the wound. She got up, looked at him for one last time, and then turned and fled into the corn.

If I hadn't felt and seen the blood cooling on my hands, transferred from the handle of the knife, I don't think I would have believed that what I'd just seen had actually happened.

Malachai, letting me go? Bidding me to bring the cops back with me? There was something going through his head, something he was planning—he wasn't a selfless being, to say the least. He wouldn't just send me away if he didn't have an ulterior motive.

Well, maybe he would. But he wouldn't let—no, invite me to bring "backup" when I came back. It would tear down their whole society. He'd be blamed for letting me escape. I couldn't see him taking that gracefully.

Argh. I was getting a headache trying to figure out what he had to gain from all this (a headache which the frequent lightning was only exacerbating), and I was already upset at having to leave Sarah, Job, and Noah behind. I could come back for them, though, and when it came to Noah, I trusted Malachai. As far as I knew, he'd never lied to me. If he said he would take care of Noah, then he would.

I ran, careful to keep my balance and to hold the knife blade-downward. I did what Malachai said, running parallel to the road and fighting the corn, which seemed to be closing in front of me.

I prayed as I went. I was still afraid of this demon, afraid I'd be prevented from leaving—but then, he was a physical being, from what I understood, and thus was limited by the laws of the earth. If he was, say, across the cornfield when I started running, he might not be able to make it in time to stop me. That was assuming that he was limited by the cornfield, and that his outside power had to be channeled through someone like Isaac.

It wasn't set in stone, but it was all I had. So I prayed. I prayed for safety, for courage, and as was usual when I prayed, the calm washed over me. I ran faster, feeling more composed. I prayed for Malachai and the little ones left behind. I prayed for Esther and Isaiah, and even for Jael and Isaac—partly because it kept my mind occupied, partly because I felt I should.

When I decided I was far enough away, I braked left onto the paved road. I didn't hear any shouts or footsteps behind me, though the hiss of wind tearing through the corn intensified.

A thought struck me, and I cursed as I ran. Malachai might misjudge his strength and wait too long to return to town. I would rather he got back too early and I was caught than return too late and cause irreparable damage to himself. If he died or couldn't use that leg afterward, I'd never forgive either of us.

I soon realized that if someone was yelling, I wouldn't be able to hear it. The wind was literally howling, and I had to force myself to stay calm and not panic. I was pretty sure that outside wasn't the best place to be when a tornado struck.

What was it that people said a tornado sounded like? A train coming, I thought. It wasn't quite that loud, but it was definitely getting there. I was freaked—getting out of Gatlin was one thing. Escaping a tornado was entirely different.

Suddenly, I saw my car, looming ahead. I breathed a quick sigh of relief and threw on a last burst of energy, which carried me to the wreckage.

I needed a quick breather. I steered around to the driver's side, yanked the door open, and flopped into the seat, breathing heavily. It felt much safer in the car, though I knew very well that cars were just as susceptible to wind and flying shrapnel as human beings.

No sooner had I gotten in, though, than the wind picked up even further. It was too close to the sound of a train. I pulled my legs in and shut the door, leaning forward over the deflated airbag and steering wheel to look up through the windshield, looking for a funnel. The sky was black, but lightning flashed every few seconds. I couldn't determine any particularly funnel-shaped clouds. That didn't mean anything, though—they could be behind or beside me.

I bowed my head over the steering wheel, muttering to myself. At first, it was just something along the lines of "It'll pass. It'll pass. It'll pass," but soon enough, I found myself reciting my sister's favorite psalm.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters; He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake."

I was safe. Nothing could get me. God, the real God, had everything in His control, and if this demon wanted to throw a tornado at me because Noah had crushed some cornstalks and I'd decided to scatter, then he could bring it on.

I opened the door of the car, flinging myself out. I stood up straight, shoulders back, and turned to face the cornfield where the Demon resided. My voice grew steadily more defiant, and rose into a shout so that I could be heard over the wind, if he was listening.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days in my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

The wind rose in a roar that sounded decidedly animalistic. It was deafening. At least now, though, I knew that it was no regular act of nature—it was a pissed-off Demon trying to regain his dignity. At least I wasn't crazy, yelling scripture at a tornado and expecting a miracle. Instead, I was fighting dark forces with light, if that makes sense.

I lifted my voice in a challenge. "Come on, you murdering slime! Let's see how well you face up against the real God!"

It would have been a perfect (and hilarious, now that I think about it) time for some monstrous snake to come creeping out of the cornfield, chase me down, and devour me whole. I was certainly being cocky enough to piss off Satan himself, and I'm not sure how much God likes being spoken for. However, He did promise to protect His children. I was counting on that.

My guardian angel must have had backup. Suddenly, the wind died. Not entirely—that would have been completely eerie, a forerunner for bad things to come. It just lowered to a far more bearable whistle. I didn't know whether the Demon had given up, realized that his power was insufficient (especially outside of the cornfield), or if he'd been forced back. Either way, I got an undeniable sense that the immediate danger was past.

I stared at the cornfield, at the stalks swaying hypnotically in the wind. I couldn't stay for long, though I sensed that the kids wouldn't come as far as the road. I had places to go, people to talk to.

I had one last thing to say to the Demon, though. I spoke clearly, above the wind, making my voice carry. "When it comes down to it, you're just a hack magician with cheap tricks, and soon, someone—maybe me, maybe just God—will take you down."

The wind rose in one last scream, almost a bark, a startling sound in its brevity and power. It nearly knocked me to the side. Then, it faded. Composing myself, feeling my legs shaking—not in fear, but in some nameless emotion… maybe relief?—I turned away.

I had a feeling that I had a long way to walk before I would reach the next town. Despite my shaky legs, I was up to walking it.

I was ready to walk every mile.

chapter fifteen

i'd call this chapter 'helter skelter,' but that's a bit morbid

It felt like a matter of years, rather than just two days, since I had set foot in Gatlin. So much had happened that it seemed like a very long time ago—but I hadn't forgotten a thing. I'd had to tell my story so many times (with limitations—I'll explain in a second) that there was no way I was going to forget a single detail.

I'd gotten to Hemmingford late, late that night, or early the next morning, whichever way you choose to think. Of course, it was the kind of small town whose police station closed at 10:00 PM. I could tell this the moment I'd stumbled upon it, and so instead I went to the closest house and started banging on the door. A very nice family named Mason had had their sleep interrupted that night.

It was tough not to babble to the cop they'd summoned. I wanted to tell someone everything, but I restrained myself. There were conditions I needed fulfilled before I turned Gatlin over to them.

I gave him the bare minimum, but he refused to believe me at first. He said that I was rambling, that I should sleep and talk to him tomorrow. I was annoyed, but I agreed. I wasn't in a tremendous hurry to go straight back to Gatlin, though I was worried about some of the people I'd left behind.

The Masons put me up for the night, which showed some bravery on their part, I think. I could have been a rambling crazy, fully prepared to murder them in their beds.

I slept like the dead and didn't wake till past noon. The fact that no one had woken me exasperated me a bit, but I was distracted by the smell of food.

Under stress, I didn't eat. Therefore, I hadn't noticed that I'd only eaten three times in the last few days, the last time being the afternoon before, with Esther and the kids. Now, though, I remembered, and my stomach gave an almighty growl, grumpy at being ignored for so long. Mrs. Mason turned out to be an excellent cook.

Physical needs attended to, I paid a visit to the cops. Turned out they'd identified me from the driver's license in my pocket (apparently lifted from my unconscious form, which would have made me mad if I didn't need to keep them happy and ready to listen to me) and they'd called my parents, who would be here in an hour.

My family had freaked. Mom had cried inconsolably. Dad nearly crushed me in an overpowering hug and then grounded me for the rest of my life. Tim went pale and almost fainted at the sight of me (which made me laugh, albeit tiredly). I wouldn't let myself hang out with them for long, though—I had business to get to.

I'll save you the long and complicated process that was to follow. It took me another day to convince them that yes, there really was a cult of child killers in Nebraska, no, I hadn't hit my head in the car accident, yes, I'd been held in their company for several days (where did they think the dried blood on my clothes and skin and the bandages on my wrists had come from?!), and no, I wouldn't take them there unless they let me get a few people out first.

Fast-forward to now. I was the first strike. I'd get in, stay undetected, grab a few people, and get out. From a distance, I'd radio the cops, who would descend on the kids, bringing the wrath of God with them. I'd warned them against harming the younger children and pregnant mothers. I didn't want any miscarriages or trauma on my conscience.

If I'd had a choice, I'd have stayed far away from the cornfield. I was no longer truly afraid of the Demon, but it would have been wise to stay away. However, I needed the cover, so into the corn I went.

It was dark, and Gatlin was quiet. I'd counted on most people being asleep or gathered in the huts, and thankfully, I wasn't disappointed. The streets were as empty as ever, so I crept from the field onto the road.

I took my time, moving carefully and quietly. There were only a handful of people that I could encounter without them raising an alarm and giving me away—of course, I could quickly radio for the waiting cops, but things could get very messy very soon. I wanted to do this as neatly as I possibly could.

I had gone about three blocks without incident, working slowly towards the huts, where I might be able to find one of my tentative allies, when I heard someone coming. Whoever it was was just around the corner of a building in front of me, and I barely had time to dive into the long grass between two buildings before he rounded the corner.

I huddled next to the building, using the grass as cover and praying that whoever it was wouldn't look in my direction. He walked as far as the gap between the buildings, and then stopped. My heart pounded as I recognized him.

It was Isaac. He stood perfectly still, not looking either to the left or to the right, though if he'd turned his head slightly, he'd have seen me out of the corner of his eye. I couldn't breathe. Why was he just standing there? Did he know? Was he doing this deliberately, toying around with me?

Slowly, he tilted his head back and looked up at the sky—clear, ever since the danger of a tornado had faded days earlier, and full-mooned, shedding light on everything and making it that much more dangerous for me. Then, he looked straight ahead again and resumed walking. I regained my ability to breathe the second he was out of sight, though I kept a hand pressed over my mouth so that he wouldn't hear me.

Jeez, but that kid was scary. If I had my way, I'd never have to talk to him again.

I waited for a reasonable amount of time, though every second seemed to stretch itself to the limit, and then I got up and poked my head out to see if he was anywhere near. He was out of sight.

What was Isaac doing out in the middle of the night? As far as I knew, he didn't wander around much after dark, and if he did, he'd probably be in the cornfield.

Could he have been discussing something with Malachai? It was possible. I couldn't imagine that Malachai would be in his good books after letting me escape, even with the evidence of the stab wound. The redhead would probably be treated to a large amount of lectures. If I traced Isaac's steps, I might be able to find him. I didn't have much to go on, of course, since I'd just seen him turn a corner, but who knew?

I stepped around the corner of the building, and for some reason, my blood ran cold. Through the alley, the schoolhouse in which I'd been kept was visible. The bar was across the door.

I ran through the alley, stopped to look up and down the street that separated it from the schoolhouse, and when I saw no one, I ran the rest of the way to the schoolhouse. I grabbed the beam, which was heavier than it looked, and hoisted it away from the door.

Upon opening the door, I didn't see much. The moonlight was very bright, but seeing as it could only come in through the doorway, there was a lot of shadow. I stepped in, waiting for my eyes to adjust, and then a movement at the back of the schoolhouse caught my attention.


There was a long pause, and once again, I felt as though I couldn't breathe. Finally, though, I was answered. "What took you so long?"

His voice was raspy, like he'd been deprived of either sleep or water for too long. My heart started beating a little harder at the sound, though I couldn't explain why. "Why are you in here?" I asked, taking a few steps forward into the darkness.

"Did anyone see you?"

"I don't think so."

"Good. You don't have to worry about someone coming up behind you and locking you in here in the dark with me."

I blinked and took a step back, looking instinctively over my shoulder to check for anyone. He was talking strangely, and the fact that I could barely see his shape made me anxious. "Malachai, what's wrong?"

There was a long silence. Finally, he said, "You're going to have to come over here and help me." He sounded as though he had to force the words out.

I was scared for no particular reason, but I went to him. It was pitch black at the back of the schoolhouse, so far away from the light, and I had to feel my way over. When I reached his shape, I went down on one knee and touched him on the shoulder. His arm was bare and his skin was cold.

"What happened to you?" I repeated. It came out in an unintentional whisper.

"Give me your arm," he said.

"No. First, you're going to tell me what's going on. I can't see you and I'm freaked out. Talk to me." My voice was stronger than I thought it could be. It might have startled him, because he was silent again for a little while before he answered.

"My plan backfired."

"What? You—your leg isn't infected, is it?"

"I wouldn't know. That's not the plan I'm talking about."

"Then what plan?" I demanded.

"I was going to take over after you left." He forced a laugh. "I forgot whose cornfield we were in when we arranged for you to escape. Isaac knew. He knew that I'd let you go, and so he turned everyone against me."

"And they locked you up in here."

His head turned towards me, though I couldn't see his face. "You waited till the last possible minute. At dawn, I was to be given to He Who Walks Behind the Rows."

I resisted the urge to make a dig about the Demon, some smarmy comment that would probably hurt more than help. Instead, I asked, "How's your leg?"

"Painful. It hasn't healed very well."

"Come on," I said, turning parallel to him. "Put your arm over my shoulders. I'll help you."

"Are you sure you're strong enough?" He was jabbing at me to lessen the humiliation of being helped by a girl, I was sure of it.

"I'll manage," I said. He put his cold arm behind my head, and grabbing his wrist on the other side, I hoisted him up. I didn't get much help. His leg must have been in pretty bad shape. He was very heavy, but I managed somehow, and once he was on his feet, he was able to support himself a bit better on his normal leg.

"You need to show me where Sarah and Job are, and Noah, too, if you can manage it."

"I can't show you, but I'll tell you."

We'd emerged into the light by then, and, getting a good look at him, I gasped. He looked horrible. He was pale, with deep shadows under his eyes—they looked black, though they were probably gray or purple in normal light. His normally healthily-gleaming hair hung lank across his face. His sleeves had been torn off, and I glanced down to see that they'd been used to bandage his injured leg. The job wasn't a great one; I could see blood through the fabric, the stains black in the moonlight.

He saw me assessing him. "I won't be good for a fast getaway," he told me curtly. "If that was part of the plan, then you should leave me here."

"Stop being so melodramatic," I scolded immediately, though I was worried. He was in no shape to run if we had to. I might have to call the cops in earlier than I wanted to. I should have brought them to begin with, but I didn't want the little ones, Sarah and Job and all those younger than they were, to be treated roughly, like common criminals, in the rush to arrest those who were really responsible. "I'm taking you with me if I have to drag you."

"Are you going to destroy this place?"

"Dismantle it, maybe," I answered absently, working him down the steps. "The cops are here. They're just waiting for my call."

He didn't say anything further on the subject. After a brief pause, he said, "Sarah and Job will be in one of the old houses. The yellow one. It's three houses down from the house I bandaged you in. Noah is in a hut with the other young children—they will probably be unguarded, as the older children stay up later. I can't come with you, though—it will take too long."

I looked around as we crossed the road and reached a decision. "I hid from Isaac earlier, between two buildings. I'll put you there, in the long grass, and then re-bar the schoolhouse door. I'll get the kids and then come back for you."

His chuckle still sounded forced and bitter. "Take your time. I haven't been outside for a while."

Keeping an eye out for anyone who could pose a threat, I did just that. It took me a second to get my bearings, but the town refreshed itself in my memory after I studied the roads for a minute or two, and I set off for the old houses. I would probably have to carry Noah, so it made sense to get the other two first.

The abandoned buildings gave me the chills once more, especially by the light of the moon, but I managed to mostly ignore them. I ran, though, unwilling to spend much time in the presence of the dilapidated building fronts. I reached the old houses quickly.

It took me a minute to find the house that Sarah and Job were supposed to be in, mainly because I didn't immediately recognize the house in which Malachai had attended to my slit wrists. It didn't matter once I entered the yellow home, though, because I heard their quiet voices from the kitchen and went straight to them.

They were startled and scared to see me at first. Sarah recognized me, though, and hurtled herself across the room, locking her arms around my waist. I hugged her back tightly. Job, however, remained aloof.

"Job? What's wrong?" I asked when I noticed.

"You left us," he said accusingly.

"I had to."

"You shouldn't have done it!"

"Job, I didn't have a choice! It was either stay and be carved up or go and come back later with backup! I'm here now. I'm taking y'all away with me. Okay?"

He scrutinized me closely. His eyes were incredibly hard for just a ten-year-old boy. Suspiciously, he asked, "You promise?"

"I promise. Look." I held up the radio hanging from my belt. "All I have to do is yell into this and the cops come running, so even if something screws up, you're still getting out of here. Okay?"

He maintained his stony demeanor for a few more seconds. Then, his shoulders loosened, and he darted across the kitchen to hug me and his sister. His face was working, though he was making a manful effort not to cry.

I hugged the two of them tightly for a minute, and then I loosened my grip. "Okay. We've got to stop by the huts and get Noah—can you two help me with that?—and then swing back and get Malachai so we can leave."

They both made a face—Sarah's of disgust, Job's of outrage. "Malachai?!" he demanded. "What for?"

I looked at him in very mild exasperation. "Job, he let me escape. He stabbed himself in the leg so that I could go. Didn't Isaac tell you?"

"We don't believe what Isaac says," Sarah said quietly.

"Oh." That's smart of them. "Well, it was the truth this time. Malachai's on our side. I wouldn't be surprised if he mellowed out, once he's away from this place."

"I don't think so," Job said with a scowl.

"What's 'mellowed out'?" Sarah asked.

"I'll explain later. Right now, we've got to go. Come on. Be as quiet as you can."

The kids led the way to the huts, taking to their roles with enthusiasm. They seemed confident that there was no way that this would fail, treated it like an elaborate game. They were more convinced than I was.

We came to a stop behind the building nearest the huts, peeking around the corner. No one was wandering around outside, but that could change.

"Okay," I muttered. "Which one are the younger kids in?"

"That one," said Sarah, and of course, she was pointing to the hut in the very center of all the others.

"They keep a close watch on it," Job added. "But don't worry—I'll go get him."

"Job, no!" I protested, grabbing his arm before he could run off. "It's a little dangerous, don't you think?"

"It's more dangerous for you," he pointed out. He had a point. Still, I wasn't going to let the kid get caught doing something so dangerous.

"I don't want you hurt," I persisted.

"Relax. I'll be fine. Plus, Noah knows me better than he knows you," Job said, and then he twisted from my grip and ran before I could argue further.

"Job! Job!" I hissed after him. He ignored me. Sarah touched my arm.

"It's okay," she said comfortingly. "He'll be fine. He and I have been sneaking around and breaking the rules for years." The casual way in which she said this made me double-take.

"You don't get in trouble for it?" I asked doubtfully.

"My pictures keep Isaac happy," she said. "He lets us do pretty much what we want, as long as we're not loud about it, and as long as we… keep up appearances, I guess."

No wonder the two kids pissed Malachai off so much. He was kind of a stickler for rules, unless they breached his own freedom. I snorted softly. "Lucky y'all. How've you managed to live here all these years? I think I would have gone insane after a week."

She looked at me, her eyes sad in the dim light. "We knew everyone here. It was really sad, because a lot of them were good people, but they listened to Isaac and turned bad. Now, no one listens to us anymore." I nodded sympathetically, reaching over to squeeze her shoulder.

"It's going to be all right." We were quiet for a minute.

"I drew another picture," she said suddenly.

"What did it show?" I asked warily. "Does Isaac know about it?"

"No," she said quickly. "We never show him pictures anymore, if we can help it. Malachai finds them most of the time. We really need to find better hiding places." She paused again, and then she said, "It showed you. You and Malachai, and Isaac was standing in front of you. And I don't know what was happening, but you all looked… angry."

A chill shot down my spine. "Sarah," I said carefully, "have any of your pictures ever not come true?"

She shook her head and she looked regretful that she'd mentioned it. I shifted. "I've got to get back to him," I muttered.

"Wait," she urged. "Job will be back in a minute."

"I know, but if Isaac's back there, it's just going to be more dangerous for you three."

"Maybe he won't be. Maybe it's not tonight! Maybe it was a few nights ago, in the church."

"What did the background show?" I demanded.

"I didn't draw one."

"When did you draw it?"

"After Malachai took the last one." She looked at me anxiously. "Please, Jess, wait! Job will only be a minute longer."

"Malachai's hurt. He can't defend himself nearly as well as usual," I muttered, but I settled back down. I couldn't abandon the children to go racing to his defense. He'd probably be offended.

I didn't have long to wait. A small, dark figure emerged from the hut, a big bundle in his arms. He quickly came to us, stumbling once and making me bite back a gasp. He recovered, though, and reached us in seconds.

"He's still asleep," he gasped. "He's heavy."

"He must sleep like the dead. Come on, give him to me," I said, holding out my arms.

As Noah switched from Job's arms to mine, he shifted. Everyone froze as he opened his eyes. His startled gaze landed on my face, and for a second, he just stared. I realized that the only reason he wasn't crying was that he was surprised. That could change at any second.

I quickly started talking. "Noah, it's Jess. Do you remember me? I was here the other night. They took you away from me at the church, do you remember that?"

He said nothing, but reached out, locking his chubby fist around a lock of my hair, which glinted white in the light. I took that to mean that my hair had made an impression.

"Okay, good," I breathed. "Listen, Noah, I want you to stay quiet, okay? We're sort of playing a game."

His wide eyes stayed fixed on my face, and by now his thumb had found its way to his mouth. He nodded once.

"He's not supposed to suck his thumb," Sarah objected. "He's too old."

"Let him. If that's the only problem he's developed during his time here, then he'll be lucky," I said distractedly. "Okay, you two, we need to go. When we get back to Malachai, either I'm going to have to help him or y'all will."

The pair exchanged a quick look and then chorused, "You!"

I smirked. "Saw that one coming. Then you'll have to take Noah. I'll carry him until we get there. Come on."

Maybe it was sheer paranoia, but as we crossed through town again, it seemed far too quiet. Maybe that was the way Gatlin was at night. Noah didn't seem to like it. He buried his head into my shoulder and refused to look up—but then again, he could have just been sleepy.

Not being around Malachai has made you paranoid, my conscience accused me.

Wait, what? How does that even work? The workings of my mind were a mystery even to me. I took that to mean that I'd felt safe enough to let my guard down around him.

However it worked, the silence of Gatlin couldn't be denied. All four of us were as quiet as our surroundings as I led the way to where Malachai was waiting.

He was still there, propped up against the wall where I'd left him, and I breathed a quick sigh of relief before going to him. "We're back," I announced, standing over him with Noah in my arms.

"I can see that." He moved as though he were trying to get up on his own. I put a stop to that quickly.

"Malachai, don't you dare! Job, quick, take Noah," I said rapidly, and passed off the toddler before stooping next to the ornery redhead. "Stop it. Let me help."

The fact that he stopped moving long enough for me to get a hand beneath his arm worried me more than his trying to get up on his own. As I helped him to his feet, he glared around at the little kids. "We'll never get out of here with them in tow."

"So maybe we should leave you," said Job rudely. Malachai instinctively took a threatening step towards him, but had forgotten his leg. He stumbled and would certainly have fallen if he hadn't grabbed my arm roughly for balance.

"Stop it, both of you," I said sharply. "Job, don't be rude. Malachai, Job and Sarah can handle themselves and Noah, if it comes to that."

"Yeah. Especially without you there to hack us down," Sarah said, her usually sweet voice poisonous as she watched him. Malachai glowered at her, jaw clenched.

"Sarah, that's enough," I scolded. She didn't listen.

"He probably didn't tell you about that," she continued. "About how he killed our friend Jacob when he tried to escape last year."

I stared at her, and then swung my head around to look at Malachai. He didn't meet my eyes, instead glaring with an intense hatred at the two of them. If I'd hoped that maybe the three of them would get along tonight, I was going to be disappointed.

I shook my head, shedding the negative thoughts. They wouldn't help me now. "Okay—you know what? We're not going to talk about this. We'll discuss it later."

"Why not discuss it now?" asked someone.

Swiftly, we whirled around. Isaac was standing calmly right behind us.

chapter sixteen

happy (and not so happy) endings

Isaac stood there, flanked by Jael and a tall boy that I didn't know, but that Malachai apparently did, judging by the way he immediately tensed at the sight of him. Jael bore a torch.

Sarah gave a soft cry and Job went pale. The tall boy sneered. "Didn't get far, did you, Malachai?"

"Silence, Solomon," Isaac said calmly as I felt Malachai coil beside me, as though prepared to leap at the boy. I'm sure he would have, too, if his leg hadn't held him back.

Something clicked in my mind and I laughed out loud—somewhere in my head, I knew that it was slight hysteria, but it didn't sound like it. "Oh, crap, you've replaced us. Jael's the new me and Solomon's the new him. Only you picked people physically opposite of us. Hoping for better results this time?"

"Silence, interloper," he said coldly.

"That's okay. I was done anyway." I was rambling, talking foolishly to distract him. Maybe he'd forget that I wasn't supposed to be here.

Not likely. At a look from Isaac, Solomon stepped up and promptly backhanded me across the face, knocking me back a step and making me taste blood. I heard a noise like a growl beside me, and then Malachai sprang, pushing off of his good leg.

The boys went down hard, and Solomon, stunned, allowed himself to get pinned by the redhead. That was a big mistake on his part. Even wounded, Malachai packed a punch, proving it as he used Solomon's face for practice. The boy recovered too late, roaring and lashing out at his opponent's face, but Malachai just slapped his fists away and continued in the ruthless assault.

He wouldn't have the upper hand for long. Sooner or later, Solomon would remember that he was injured and would use that to his advantage. I decided to intervene before then, grabbing Malachai by the shoulders and yanking him away. Caught off-balance, he fell back.

By the time I'd gotten him on his feet, Solomon had gotten up, spitting blood and cursing. He made as though to charge, but Isaac stopped him with one hand on his chest.

"Patience, Solomon," he said softly, his eyes fixed on me. I felt compelled to look away, and my gaze landed on Malachai's leg. The blood had started again and was seeping through the bandage.

"What do you want?" I asked quietly, forcing myself to look at Isaac again.

"I want nothing more than to see your blood run and sanctify this place, joined by theirs," he said smoothly, jerking his head towards Malachai and the children. "I want your mutilated bodies thrown into the corn to appease the Lord."

Well, I'm not much inclined to offer you much help there. I started looking for a way out. It might be possible…

"However… I know that if that happens, this whole society will be torn down. Everything that we've worked so hard for will be destroyed. Not because of any power in or with you, but because of the forces behind you."

Aw, man, he knows about the cops. Well, at least police prevent our mutilated corpses being thrown into the cornfield. "So?" I asked cautiously.

"So," Isaac said softly, looking at me in a way that chilled me to the bone. "I put his curse upon you. May you blight the land on which you walk. May you find ill favor among those you love. May your womb be barren. May you live a long life of misery and die in pain."

I'm not going to pretend that his words didn't freak me out some. Without near constant reminders that God's there and there's nothing to be scared of, we tend to forget it. Still, I managed to summon a brave face. "That's a pretty venomous curse," I said softly, looking him in the eye. "If I actually thought that the Demon had power over God, I might be worried. But he doesn't, and his curses won't work. What now?"

Isaac didn't seem perturbed. "The Lord takes back his gift of youth, since neither of you are able to accept it with grace and gratitude."

Aw, cool. Is this supposed to be a punishment ?

"Anything else?"

"You will not be welcomed back. Malachai, I am most disappointed in you," he said, his eyes suddenly shifting to the tall redhead at my side. "You were the Lord's most loyal follower, but you lost your way. You listened to the interloper. Look at you."

Malachai had a hand on my shoulder for support and had been leaning heavily on me. Now, he straightened up, though doing so caused him pain. He glowered at Isaac and said, "I can see clearly now. If the Lord choose a weakling like you as his mouthpiece, then what sort of god is he?"

"You blaspheme," Isaac said softly. Malachai shrugged. Isaac stared at him for a second longer and then abruptly said, "Go. Immediately, though the cornfield. God will judge you as you pass."

Jael stepped forward, reaching to take Noah, but Job stepped quickly behind me to evade her and I blocked her way. "Looking for something?" I asked softly.

She raised her head and looked me squarely in the eyes. "Get out of my way," she muttered, flourishing her torch.

"Make me."

"Jael. Leave him. God will choose whether to grant mercy on him or not."

It seemed like Isaac was staking a lot on the Demon. It worked for me. "Right. If you'll just move, we're gonna go now…"

They stepped aside, each of the three sets of eyes gleaming with cold satisfaction. I looked warily around at them, unwilling to believe that they were just going to let us go, especially the young ones. They made no moves to stop us.

Malachai's hand tightened on my shoulder and he muttered something in my ear. "The torch. Get the torch."

I understood and reached out, lifting the torch from Jael's hands. She was surprised enough to let me. "I'll just take this," I said cheerfully. "Seeing as it's dark out and all. Thank you."

Jael reached out as though she planned to tear the torch from my hands, but Isaac reached out and pushed her arm down. "Let her," he said softly. She seemed very reluctant, but didn't reach for me again.

"Take Sarah's hand," I muttered to Malachai. He looked blankly at me for a second, as though trying to discern if I were serious or not. I nodded. I didn't trust them not to rip the kids away from us and run for it, leaving me and him unable to do anything. With an expression of mild loathing, he reached out and took Sarah's hand. She looked about as happy as he did.

I reached down and took Job's wrist, and we started walking. All of us looked back over our shoulders, keeping an eye on our oppressors, but none of them moved. We entered the cornfield without incident.

No sooner had we crossed into the field than Malachai let go of Sarah's hand, wiping his own on his pants as though he'd been infected. I shook my head at him. "You're such a kid, Malachai."

"I don't like her and she doesn't like me," he said simply. "That's all there is to the matter."

"Yeah," Sarah agreed, steering around him to stand next to her brother. I rolled my eyes.

"Malachai, what was that all about?" I asked, jerking my head back towards Gatlin as we started to move, albeit slowly. "Why would they just let us go?"

"We're going to run into some trouble," he said quietly. "You might not die, considering that the cops won't ever stop looking for them if you go missing, but if we get killed and you're out there babbling like a maniac, they'll just dismiss it as you being crazy."

"That's comforting."

"That's what the torch is for," he said, taking it from me with the hand that wasn't resting on my shoulder. "Fire against a god isn't exactly a fair fight, but it's what we've got. I don't suppose you brought my knife back to me."

"Sorry, but the cops lifted it off me," I said regretfully. He sighed but didn't seem as though he'd been expecting it in the first place.

"We should move. The sooner we get out of here, the better. We'll leave the same way you did—parallel to the road until we're out of sight. We will deal with He Who Walks Behind the Rows if we see him."

We moved. The going was very slow, considering that Job was lugging along a toddler half his size and I had to help Malachai. I could tell that the redhead was getting annoyed at the slow pace; his jaw would clench in the firelight and every now and again he'd release frustrated breaths, but I ignored him for the most part. Job didn't offer him the same consideration.

"Stop doing that," the ten-year-old said in annoyance.

"Doing what, runt?" Malachai snarled.

"Acting annoyed that we're going so slow. It's your fault anyway. Jess could carry Noah if she didn't have to help you."

"Job!" I snapped. "I'd no sooner leave him behind than you. Now, I understand that the three of you have your minor differences—"

Malachai snorted. Job and Sarah exchanged looks and said "Yeah, right!" Noah writhed in Job's grip.

"Okay, fine. Major differences. But put a lid on it until we get out of here. I don't want to play mediator all night."

Malachai looked as though he wanted to retort, but a sudden rustling behind us cut into the conversation, making us all whip around. Nothing but wind blowing through the stalks, making them wave around gently.

More rustling, behind us again. We all turned. Nothing. Noah picked up on the sudden tense, pervasive anxiety thrumming through each of our bodies and started to fuss. Job tried to calm him, but his face was screwed up and getting red. I knew we only had a moment of peace before it started.

Noah started wailing in a record three seconds. Malachai winced at the noise, and I could tell he was fighting back the urge to tell the toddler to shut up. It wouldn't do any good—it'd probably just scare him further and make him cry more.

Malachai moved even closer to me. "He's coming," he murmured.

I was too freaked out to reply. In fact, after the sound of his voice had faded, the only noise was Noah's crying against the rustling of the cornfield. The effect was eerie, so I felt compelled to speak.

"We've got to keep moving," I said. "Quick, as fast as you can. Move. Move." I wrapped an arm around Malachai's waist and helped him along. He seemed indignant, but I was basically shoving him as we went, so he didn't exactly have time to lash out at me or throw my arm off. Job, Sarah, and the crying Noah followed swiftly.

Again, I prayed. Every few seconds, a bliss of calm would wash over me, the knowledge that what would happen would happen and that I should just leave it in God's hands, but it would fade too quickly, replaced by a rush of panic. I couldn't prevent it.

The wind picked up to a howl, too similar to the night in which I'd escaped. I ignored it, steering the group towards the road—it didn't matter if we were in sight of the town or not, we just needed to get out of this field.

Suddenly, though, Malachai slammed to a stop. I nearly jerked him off his feet, but he managed to stay anchored. I turned swiftly. "What?"

"Shh," he hissed. I listened. Beneath Noah's cries and Job and Sarah's frightened breathing, slightly louder than the wind brushing through the stalk, the sound of something moving was clear. The noise alternated—one second it sounded like a giant serpent rasping against the ground, the next it sounded like something with a dozen feet scurrying around. I was aware that my breathing had picked up. Malachai, though, appeared perfectly composed.

"Give me the torch," he said.

A bit stunned at his self-possession, I handed it over in silence. He pulled away from me, evading my hands as I reached out to steady him, and limped forward with difficulty. The sound of movement paused.

Very deliberately, Malachai reached out with the torch and set the corn in front of him on fire. Methodically and swiftly, he drew a line in the field. The wind made a noise that sounded something like a roar. Malachai stood, straight and still, listening. After another second, he drew back and flung the torch, straight towards the source of the movement and further than I could have managed on my best of days.

No sooner had the torch left his hand than he turned back, limping swiftly towards me. "Come on! Let's go!" he shouted. I caught him beneath the shoulder as Job and Sarah started running and we followed them, a bit slower, but quick enough to evade the growing fire.

"You think it'll stop him?" I demanded as we hobbled along.

"It'll slow him down," he said, voice laced with pain. I realized that he must be suffering, but he made no mention of it, so neither did I.

We burst out onto the road, and I made as though to slow down, but he jerked me along. "No, keep going! We're not safe yet," he said through grit teeth. I picked up the pace again.

We moved for a long time, too long for the struggling Job and the pained Malachai. Finally, we drew to a stop when Job nearly dropped Noah, and instead of recovering, set him down on the ground. Noah was still squalling, terrified at the abrupt movement and the uncomfortable feeling of being carried by a boy who didn't contain the strength required to lug a toddler a mile.

"I can't go any further," gasped Job. Sarah patted his back and turned to look at me.

"We've got to stop," she said. Malachai made no complaint, so I nodded.

He let go of my shoulder and immediately collapsed. I turned immediately to check if he was okay, but he waved me back with a gruff grunt, apparently not wanting to be coddled. I turned and picked Noah up instead.

"Shh. Calm down, baby. We're okay for now, all right? I've got you."

He was still sobbing and didn't seem to want to stop just because I was holding him. At a soft snarl from Malachai I turned. He was bent over his leg, and glanced over at me when I moved.

"I'm bleeding pretty bad," he said weakly. He was so pale that he looked like he might pass out any second.

"Jess. Your radio. Can't you call for help?" Job asked.

I nearly dropped Noah. "Of course! I'm such an idiot," I abused myself, propping Noah on my hip and scrabbling at the radio on my belt with my free hand. Sometimes I was really stupid. Forgetting to radio for help in the middle of a pretty serious situation counts as being stupid, I think.

I flipped it on. "Jones," I said, naming the cop in charge of the operation. "You still there?"

His voice crackled back through, loud and annoyed. "Dammit, Jessica, what took you so long? We were about to storm in."

"Yeah, well, you might want to do that now. It's a go. The people are out, so get in there and don't let them get away."

"Got it."

I stared at the cornfield, which was lit from within by the orange glow of the flames. Against the black sky, it looked hellish. The smell of smoke touched my nostrils. I spoke into the radio again. "You're gonna want to bring an ambulance."

Seven Hours Later

I was alone in the waiting room. Malachai had been rushed to the emergency room for treatment, and the remaining four of us had been taken to the police station for some questioning. We hadn't been privy to the operation; we'd just been picked up by an ambulance and a police car and carted off. I had no idea how things had gone.

After I nagged for long enough, they allowed me to go to the hospital where they were keeping my volatile redhead, though I was warned that I probably wouldn't be able to go in to him for a few hours. They took the three kids from me, but I trusted them. I'd see them again.

I'd been in the waiting room for a long time—I wasn't sure exactly how long. There was no word on his condition. I knew that he probably wouldn't die if he hadn't done so in two days, but there was a huge chance that he'd formed an infection in the two days that I'd been gone and his wound had been largely untreated. That was what scared me to death.

What now?

My brain kept asking that inevitable question. It was hardly as though Malachai and I could buy a house and set up a white picket fence, adopt the three kids and live a normal life. I laughed, softly and cynically, at the thought. He was so far from normal… and I probably would be, too, now.

Could he deal with people? I had the feeling that his contempt of adults hadn't faded all that much; could he live in the real world, work a desk job, live a relatively standard life? Of course he couldn't. Too much had happened already for him to do so.

He'd probably be ordered to attend some sort of therapy. He'd probably earn sympathy for his role in the whole thing from all but those with the strictest morals, who'd insist that despite his age, he was still a killer and should be prosecuted as such. I figured he'd get off fairly clean, though. I'd discussed a plea bargain with Sergeant Jones. He said that it would work.

Still, the questioned remained—could a violently antisocial person like Malachai re-adapt to society after rejecting it years ago?

I knew how it could work. If he was allowed to live more or less away from people, on a big ranch or farm somewhere where he could put his energy into physical labor, I could see him getting on quite well. Maybe something like that could be arranged. The only thing that didn't seem quite feasible was limiting his human contact. Maybe, though, he could learn to like a select group of people. He'd learned to like me.

Ah, yes… I was operating under the assumption that he'd want me in his life after he recovered. I couldn't see why he wouldn't, as heretofore he hadn't showed the slightest hint that his interest in me had lapsed, but it was possible. Maybe his interest had cooled during my absence. Maybe he was only leading me on to gain my assistance in getting out of there, incapacitated as he was by his leg. I didn't see this, though. He had to have been pretty sure to shove a knife into his thigh.

Still, I couldn't help the insecurity. We hadn't exactly talked about it, after all—while in Gatlin, I'd been living the carpe diem philosophy, because there'd been no planning ahead. I didn't know what I was going to be doing five minutes from any given time. Now that we were out, though, things were different.

My musings were interrupted as a brown-uniformed cop stepped into the waiting room and started looking around. I'd shoved myself into a corner and wasn't immediately visible, so I unfolded myself from my chair and stood up. He spotted me and came over quickly. It was Sergeant Jones.

"What's up?" I questioned, feeling my stomach twist and coil with anxiety. What if someone had gotten hurt? Killed? What if they hadn't listened to my warnings about pregnant women?

He nodded in greeting, and hesitated for a moment before answering. Finally, he said, "The town was abandoned."

There was a beat of silence before his words really caught up to me. My eyebrows shot up. "Wait, what? What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. There was no one there. No sign of residence. A few fires, but other than that…"

"Well, did you check the cornfield?!"

"The firemen were there to put out a blaze that got started somehow," he said, looking narrowly at me. "After that, we did a sweep. Nothing. We've got air surveillance looking now, but if there was a group of kids there, then they vanished into thin air."

I was shaking my head. "No… no, y'all didn't look hard enough. They were there. We saw them ten minutes before I called you!"

"Miss Hart," he said coolly, "calm down. My men aren't incompetent. It's not that I don't believe you. You didn't just pluck four people, one of 'em stabbed in the leg, out of thin air. But the fact of the matter is that the kids, if they were even there tonight, got out pretty quick. Is there any reason that they'd know what you were planning?"

I paused a beat, aware that I was about to sound crazy. "When y'all were in the field, did you… feel anything out there? Hear anything?"

"Like what?" he asked, watching me carefully.

"Like… I don't know, a… malevolent presence, I guess. What a demon would feel like."

"Hold up a second. You think that this being they worshiped actually existed?"

"I know it sounds crazy, but there was something out there tonight. That's why Malachai set the field on fire." He was giving me a don't-spook-the-crazy look. He thought it was paranoia. It wasn't, but I didn't argue the point. I just pressed forward. "Look, if they vanished, then he's the reason. I don't know how exactly, or where they are, but they're not just gone. They're still out there, and as long as they are, people aren't safe."

"Okay," he said softly. "We're still searching, Jess. We're not going to give up. If they're anywhere near, they won't get far. But in the meantime…" He hesitated.

"What?" I demanded.

"I think you might be asked to go through therapy, as well as the kids you brought out with you. After traumatic experiences, those involved are often—"

"Awesome." I glanced at the floor. I'd always wanted to be forced to go to a therapy session so I could screw around with the psychiatrist. I wasn't particularly upset, especially if I could do it with Malachai, or Job and Sarah. "No worries."

"Okay." He looked around, uncomfortable. "Well… I think that's all I've got to tell you. How's the kid?"

"Malachai? No idea. They won't let me see him and they're not telling me anything. It's annoying."

Jones chuckled dutifully. "I'm sure it is." He paused for a second, and then said, "I'm gonna go. Are you good here?"

"Fine and dandy."

He seemed a bit unsure, as though he didn't know whether I was being sarcastic or not. Finally, he decided on the latter and nodded. "Bye, then."

Not long after he left, I was approached by a nurse. "Miss Hart. Mr. Boardman is awake. He wants to see you."

Inwardly, I snorted. Boardman? Well, that was something he'd never told me. I guess they'd weaseled it out of him by offering him painkiller in exchange, or something. I'd just torment him with it later. I got up and went to her.

"You understand that this is most irregular," she said as she led me down the corridor, her heels clicking smartly against the floor. "It's only the present… unusual circumstances that make it permissible. Namely, his having no immediate family. Normally, only they would be allowed to see him."

"Well, thanks for making an exception," I said automatically.

She stopped outside a door halfway down the hall. "Don't get him overexcited," she said, peering at me over her glasses as though I might be a Woman of Babylon hiding behind blue jeans and a tank top. "He needs rest."

"Is he okay?" I asked concernedly, stepping towards the door.

"His leg was stitched up neatly enough, but we're afraid of infection. He's on antibiotics and we'll be monitoring his progress for the next week or so. Other than that, he should be fine."

I bestowed a glowing smile of relief at her, though I wasn't exactly glowing at four o'clock in the morning. "Thank you."

She seemed to thaw slightly and nodded. "Yes, well… get along, you."

As she turned and moved away, I opened the door. He was there, sitting up in the hospital bed, and he looked pissed off. He didn't look as bad as he had the night before—he was still pale and there were still shadows under his eyes, but there was a bit more blood in his face and I could see the energy coiled in his shoulders.

His gaze shot towards me the second I stepped in the room. His first words, rapped out in an irate businesslike manner, were, "Tell that nurse that I want to go now."

"She knows. There's no way she'll let you," I said, a note of amusement in my voice as I shut the door behind me. "You look better."

"My brain is fogged up," he announced. "The painkillers aren't letting me think clearly."

"As opposed to your usual state of perfect clarity?" He scowled. I went to sit in the chair next to the bed. "Trust me, you'd rather be groggy than in pain. How's the leg?"

"Probably infected. What's going on out there?" He shifted restlessly in his bed. "Nobody will tell me anything. I had to appeal to that nurse for fifteen minutes before they let you in."

"Imagine that. Settle down. I'll tell you everything, okay? Just don't… get up and tear your leg open again, or anything. Lay back. Then I'll tell you."

Grumpily, he threw himself back against the pillow. That wasn't sulky at all. "I want water."

"Someone was never taught to say please," I muttered, but I got a cup for him at the small sink in the room. He deserved a little coddling after stubbornly refusing to admit pain just hours before. He could use some sleep, I was sure, but I also knew that he didn't plan on sleeping until he knew what was going on.

He drank the whole thing, and then set it down and looked at me expectantly. "Tell me."

"Please?" I prompted him.

"Tell me."

I rolled my eyes, but my tone was somber. "They didn't find anyone. Isaac and his crew just… disappeared."

"What?!" He jerked upright again. "You're joking!" It sounded like an accusation, as though he was wounded that I could tease about that. I shook my head.

"Regretfully, I'm not. They're really gone."

He moved as if to get out of bed, but I was up in a second, my hands planted firmly on his shoulders. "Ah-ah! Get back down! You can't move until you've been cleared by the doctor, got it?"

He seemed annoyed, but then his hands locked around my forearms and he looked up with something akin to mischief. "If you stay here with me, I'll be still. For a while."

"I am here," I said confusedly.

"No." He moved over some and nodded at the bed. "Here."

I flushed a bit. There was no reason to be embarrassed, not really, but the expression of his eyes made me feel self-conscious for reasons that I couldn't explain. I covered it up by rolling my eyes. "Fine."

I slipped onto the bed next to him, on top of the covers. His arm went around my shoulders, and, true to his word, he stopped shifting around. I felt safe enough to rest my head on his shoulder and felt myself immediately slipping towards drowsiness—it had been close to twenty-four hours since I'd slept. It'd be nice to catch up some.

"So," I asked finally, mainly trying to keep myself awake. The heat was pushing out from his body again, unlike the coldness of the night before, and it made me even sleepier. "What now?"

"What do you mean?" The drugs apparently were kicking in again. He sounded as tired as I was.

"You've got a struggle ahead of you. What do you plan on doing?"

"Running away. Finding some isolated place and living there. I plan on taking you with me." He might have been joking, but then again, he might not have. I tapped his side.

"The cops are going to want to talk to you."

"I'll talk to them later," he said, sounding grumpy. "For now, they can wait."

"There's going to be a lot of legal red tape, and then we'll have to figure out where you're going to live now. I mean, you're pretty much legally an adult. Maybe you should join the army."

"Would you shut up?" he mumbled. "I'm trying to sleep."

"You're such a charmer," I said sarcastically. He didn't respond other than by smiling slightly. I didn't say anything else, knowing that he needed sleep even more than I did.

Minutes later, a nurse would come in and nearly go into a paroxysm at our proximity, only stopping when she realized that we were both asleep and that we both needed it rather badly.

Weeks would pass that were packed with police questioning and legal issues, trials, therapy, both public outrage and public support at the story. A handful of radical people would picket against us, me and Noah included, for forsaking the strict and rigorous morals that we were supposed to have. Some would be very outspoken in their sympathetic support.

Months would go by during which the search for Isaac and his band lessened and eventually diminished altogether, though Malachai and I, as well as Sarah and Job, would know that they were out there.

Years would pass in which Malachai and I grew and tested our odd relationship against the world, seeing if it would withstand the trials it had been put through and checking to see if it wasn't a relationship based on hardship, if we could talk about random things and connect on an ordinary level. We would find that we could, and that an isolated farm life suited the two of us just fine.

All of that, though, was in the future. For now, I let myself drift into sleep at his warm side. The future could wait.