Girl of Nightmares

Page 68


"You said you'd been here before," I say, and her eyes widen innocently. "You said you knew the way."

"I said no such thing. I've been to the Order before, but I don't know exactly how to get there, and certainly not on foot." She tears into a granola bar. The crunching sounds like breaking bones.

I think back. She didn't actually say it. Gideon said she knew the way. But he probably meant because she was told, not because she'd ever done it.

"How can you have been there and not know where it is? Weren't you practically raised there?" I ask.

"I was raised by my parents," she says, giving me the arched eyebrow. "I've been to the compound from time to time. But when I went, it was blindfolded."

Thomas and I look at each other, just to confirm the craziness.

"It's tradition," says Jestine, seeing the look. "Not all of us break with it, you know." I don't have to ask what that's supposed to mean.

"You messed up back at the inn, Jestine."

"Did I? She was dead, and the athame sent her." She shrugs. "It's very simple, really."

"It's not simple," I say. "That ghost probably never harmed a living person in its entire afterlife."

"So? It doesn't belong here. It's dead. And don't look at me like that, like I'm brainwashed. Your morality isn't the only morality in the world. Just because it's yours doesn't mean it's right."

"But don't you wonder about where they might be being sent to?" Thomas asks, in an attempt to keep the conversation reasonable. Because I'm about ready to give her the finger. Or stick my tongue out.

"The athame sends them where they need to be," she replies.

"Who told you that? The Order?"

Jestine and I lock eyes. She's going to look away first. Even if my eyeballs have to completely dry out.

"Wait a minute," Carmel says. "Back on point, are you saying that nobody knows where we're going?" She looks around; our blank faces serve as confirmation. "And we're supposed to leave the groomed and maintained trail to go through unmarked forest?"

"There is a mark," Jestine says calmly.

"What, like a flag or something? Unless there's a string of them leading through the trees, I'm not comforted ." She looks at me. "You saw out your window this morning. These trees go on for miles. And we don't even have a compass. People die this way."

She's right. People die this way. More frequently than we like to think about. But Gideon knows we're coming. If we don't show up on schedule, he'll send someone looking for us. And besides, in my gut I don't believe that we can get lost. Looking at Jestine, I don't think she believes we can either. But how do I explain that to Carmel?

"Thomas, you ever in the Boy Scouts?" I ask, and he squints at me. Of course he wasn't. "Listen, if you want, you can just follow the path back to the inn."

Thomas tenses at the suggestion, but Carmel crosses her arms over her chest. "I'm not going anywhere," she says stubbornly. "I just thought it was worth mentioning that this is stupid and we're probably going to die."

"Noted," I say, and Jestine smiles. The smile puts me at ease. She doesn't hold grudges; you can disagree with her and not become an enemy. I've wanted to strangle her for half the time I've known her, but I like that.

"We should go soon," she says. "So we don't lose the light."

* * *

After another hour and who knows how many more miles, Jestine starts to slow. Every once in a while she stops and looks around the woods in all directions. She thinks we've gone far enough. Now she's getting nervous that the marker won't be there. When she pulls up at the crest of a small hill, we all take our backpacks off and sit down while she stares. Despite good shoes and being in relatively good shape, we're all tired. Carmel is rubbing the backs of her knees while Thomas rubs his shoulder. They're both slightly pale, and clammy.

"There it is," Jestine says, in a tone that implies she always knew it would be. She turns back to us, triumphant, a wicked gleam in her eyes. Down the path in the trees lining the trail I see it: a black ribbon, tied around a trunk, fifteen feet off the ground.

"We leave the trail there," she tells us. "And on the other side is the Order. Gideon said it would only be two hours through the woods. Just a few more miles."


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