A Place of Contemplation
The days seemed endless in Underfoot, with no communication from the outside world. No mail, no cell phones, absolutely no word from up top. I got why the Vins had shut themselves off since the Wrathful and their unbreakable magic had proven to be a very real threat, but this was infuriating. As a Cerebral, I was used to looking for signs, but I had nothing to work with. Nothing at all.
As the weeks passed, I became more obsessed with the idea of breaking into the jail to touch one of the Wrathful. The jail currently was housing the leftover bad guys from when Underfoot had been attacked. It was incredible how Wren, with the help of Eyota and Pan, was able to push most of the Wrathful out of the settlement, but we were still stuck with a handful of them, along with quite possibly the most dangerous one of all: Dead Eyes. It was a no-brainer for me. Since I could read minds, it drove me crazy we were wasting an opportunity to learn everything we could about the enemy and maybe even figure out if they had my parents and Bryn, Wren’s aunt. I’d wanted to do it before Tristan and Anik left to look for our lost loved ones, but Abuela flat out forbid it, saying there was no way she would ever allow me to be exposed to an unbreakable spell. I didn’t see what the big deal was. We had Eyota the famous Eradicator. The girl who could break magic. Even if I had some really horrible, unbreakable curse placed on me, Eyota could just break it. She did it before when Abuela was under one of Dead Eyes’s spells, so she could do it again.
I wasn’t the only one who thought my idea made complete sense. Every time I’d touched Tristan before he left, I could see that finding Bryn was the most burning, all-encompassing thought in his mind. Knowing there could possibly be a roadmap straight to his wife was something that haunted him day and night. So much so that, at one point, he even considered taking me to the jail behind Abuela’s back. In the end, he decided not to jeopardize my safety or Abuela’s trust, but I knew it was something he’d struggled with until the very day he left.
Most days like today, when I had a moment to myself, I would wander over to the jail and sit in front of it, brainstorming on how to get inside. I knew all too well that the odds of me breaking inside were basically zero, but going there allowed me to keep up the illusion I had some control in my life. The jail was a strange building with multiple high peaks along the roofline and no windows, or even a door for that matter. Of course, a door was needed to usher the prisoners in, but once they were inside, the door closed upon itself, like a fast-growing scab over a wound, until there was no evidence a door had ever been there at all. The exterior of the building was covered in thick metal infused with armor magic, and it had been reinforced by countless potions and spells. A soft-glowing amber hue surrounded the building and rivaled the magical sun orb that hovered above the building––one of many fake suns that provided light and warmth to the underground community.
The jail was built on a slightly elevated hill in a rather deserted part of Underfoot. Besides the few guards monitoring the place, it seemed like most of the Vins avoided the area like the plague. Even the plants and trees were left to fend for themselves and had withered away from neglect and lack of water. It seemed as though everyone in Underfoot preferred to just pretend the jail and the people inside it didn’t exist at all. Especially the most dangerous prisoner of all: Caterina, the Mother of the Unbreakable. Wren had given her the nickname “Dead Eyes” since she seemed to be devoid of any emotion, and the name stuck with me and my friends. The name Caterina just didn’t seem to do her creepy persona justice.
Everyone in Underfoot was terrified of Dead Eyes, and the settlement couldn’t come to an agreement as to how she should be handled. Some wanted to just throw her and the other prisoners out and then fortify the heck out of the entrances, others believed the jail was the best solution, and there were even a few who believed death was the only credible option. Gwen, the mole who basically ran Underfoot, successfully persuaded most of the settlement that keeping Dead Eyes and her fellow prisoners as a bargaining chip was the way to go. She argued that if we were ever faced with an attack again, we could use the prisoners as leverage. Many in Underfoot thought we were insane to keep Dead Eyes locked up, believing it would only ensure another attack, and I couldn’t argue with their logic. As far as I was concerned, keeping the Mother of the Unbreakable around pretty much ensured the Wrathful wouldn’t stop until they found a way back in, but no one was asking for my opinion. I was an outsider, and even though Wren, Rusty, and I had been down in Underfoot for over a month now, everyone still was leery of us.
“I knew I would find you here,” Rusty said as he approached me with a broad smile on his face. The smile I loved and hated at the same time.
He was being followed by something I hated even more. A group of squealing girls who thought he was the end-all, be-all of the male species. There were many times I came close to telling the gushing herd he wasn’t even a Vin, just an ordinary guy with a magical pair of shoes. But of course, I was never going to actually do that. We would all be kicked out of Underfoot right then and there, and I knew he would be devastated to have his celebrity status ripped out from under him. Even though the whole thing drove me crazy, he deserved his day in the sun after what he’d gone through back in Lewisberry. So, yes, I would never disclose the fact that he was just a Nulvin, but I was tempted on a daily basis.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked him.
“You’re always here, just staring at the jail.” He sat down on the stone wall next to me. “If I didn’t know any better, I would think that you were trying to figure out a way to break in.”
I refused to make eye contact. Was I that easy to read? I was supposed to be the one reading people, not the other way around. Although, Rusty made it a point to never let that happen by avoiding my touch at all costs. In a way, I was thankful. There was a part of me that wanted to know what Rusty thought about me, and another that was pretty terrified by the idea.
“Why would I want to break in there?” I tried to make it sound like that was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. I doubted it worked. I was a terrible liar.
“Because you’re going crazy down here, worrying about your parents,” he paused for a second and searched my face. “Getting in there might make you feel like you’re doing something. Am I right?”
“Aren’t you always?” I replied sarcastically, but of course, he was spot on.
A couple of his fangirls started giggling again, which irritated me beyond belief. I shot them a nasty look. Completely immature and uncalled for, but in the moment, I let my less-admirable qualities take over. They all gasped, huddled, and eventually decided to take their leave, casting a few backward glances on their way. For some reason, Rusty thought it was a good idea to reward them with a wink, resulting in more squeals.
“Seriously?” I shook my head in disbelief.
Rusty smirked. “I don’t know why they bother you so much.”
“I don’t know why they don’t bother you more. I mean, you are literally being followed around by them wherever you go.”
“Kind of sounds like you’re jealous.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” But if I was being honest with myself, I kind of was. More than I cared to admit. “It’s just kind of shocking how amazing they think you are.”
“Hey, if the shoe fits.” He laughed. “Get it? The shoe?” He lifted his feet up in the air and banged his magic boots together. The boots that made him an amazing fighter, with the help of the enchanted spear that had claimed him as its master.
Even though his joke was really stupid, I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh. “Why are you here anyway? This isn’t your usual stomping ground.”
His expression suddenly became serious. “Well … I was looking for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “I found this hanging on a pole outside of the pottery shop.” He unfolded it and handed it to me, careful not to touch my hand.
I took the paper and was horrified to see it was a pamphlet about Wren … and not in a good way.
Beware of the Drainer within our walls. They can never be trusted and must be expelled for the safety of the settlement. He will drain us all. The hunger inside him won’t stop until all the residents of Underfoot will be nothing but ash and dust.
Then there was some cryptic picture of a Drainer from some old publication. It looked like a demonic creature, all hunched over and foreboding. Bodies of its victims were lying at its feet.
“How many is this now?”
“Six,” Rusty sighed. “He still has no idea, right?”
I shook my head. “Not that I can tell.” Although, it was only a matter of time before Wren stumbled upon one of these ghoulish flyers. “God, this makes me so angry! If it wasn’t for Wren, these people would have all been captured and forced to join the Wrathful.”
“People believe what they want to believe,” Rusty said, staring off into the distance.
“Exactly! That’s why we need to get out of here.”
“Seriously, Maria?” Rusty groaned as he dramatically threw his head back. “We’ve been over this. What if Tristan brings your parents back here, and we’re gone?”
I didn’t answer him. I knew he had a point. I just didn’t want to admit it.
“And what about your grandmother?” he continued. “You are never going to convince her to leave with what’s going on up top.”
I rubbed my face in frustration. “I know. It’s just … not knowing what’s going on with Tristan is driving me crazy.”
“Well join the club, Maria! The rest of us have to go through life not knowing a whole bunch of crap. We can’t just cheat and grab onto people and see everything they’re thinking.”
I shrugged. “It really hasn’t done me much good.”
Rusty rolled his eyes. “Give me a break. I am so tired of you acting like you got cheated out of some great power because you’re a Cerebral. Everyone thinks you’re a big deal, and you’re always whining about it. You were the one that figured out Marcus was working with the Wrathful. Not me. Not Wren. You.”
As usual, he really ticked me off. Technically, he didn’t even have any powers. His shoes did, so it seemed completely insane to me he was lecturing me on how I should be dealing with my magical abilities But I pushed those feelings aside and changed the subject, not wanting to start an argument. “Whatever. Let’s focus. What are we going to do about the flyers?”
“I’m going to keep scouring the town so that I can grab them before Wren sees them. But that isn’t going to do anything about the fact that there are people down here who see Wren is a serious threat and are determined to convince everyone else down here that he’s evil.” Rusty took the flyer from me, folded it up, and put it back in his coat pocket.
“If we’re not careful, Wren could end up being locked in there,” I said, pointing toward the glowing prison in front of me.
Rusty stood up and inhaled loudly. “If it comes to that, then I’m all for busting out of here. But for now, you need to relax.”
“Easier said than done.”
“I know,” he paused, “but it’s not like all your worrying is doing any good. I think you can take a break for, like, two seconds.” He bent down a bit so he could get a better view of my downturned face. “Come on, we’re supposed to be getting ready for the festival. Your grandmother sent me to get you.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “But I really don’t feel like celebrating.”
“By the looks of the town, I don’t think you’re going to have a choice.” Rusty took a few steps backward and signaled for me to get up.
I did, and we left the jail behind.
As we got closer to the square, I was blown away by its transformation. There were hanging lanterns everywhere, and the place was literally covered with yarrow. I had no idea what the Festival of Mildred Yorn was about, but one thing was for sure: yarrow was a major part of it. I never thought it was a particularly beautiful plant. As far as I was concerned, it could easily be mistaken for a weed, but having a potion-smith as a grandmother had taught me that yarrow was a serious plant and used in many potions.
“What’s the deal with this stuff?” Rusty plucked a stem of the yarrow, brought the small orange flowers to his nose, and inhaled deeply. “These flowers don’t even smell like anything.”
I tried to explain the importance of the plant to him. “It’s called ‘yarrow,’ and even though it’s not the most beautiful or fragrant flower in the world, it is actually quite powerful. It’s used to ward off evil spirits. Abuela always hung bunches of it above all her doorways that went outside.”
“She actually believes this plant can keep evil spirits away?” As usual, Rusty sounded skeptical.
“Of course she does,” I responded. “She’s a potion-smith. That’s her thing.” I found it so confusing how Rusty was able to accept the validity of some magical concepts but quickly dismissed others. But I kept reminding myself he was still fairly new to this way of thinking, and I should probably give him a pass. “I wonder who this Mildred person is?”
“Whoever she is, she must have done something pretty incredible because they sure are making a big deal about her,” Rusty commented as we walked under a huge banner with her name painted on it in large bold letters.
“Agreed.” It was clear this was a big event for the settlement. Almost every surface had been covered with some form of decoration. The energy in the air actually got me a little excited about the upcoming night, but that was short-lived because as soon as we got back to Tristan’s house, I got an earful from my Abuela. According to her, I had said I would help her prepare all the food she’d signed up to make for the festival.
Honestly, I probably did and totally forgot about it. That was nothing new for me. I hadn’t been myself the past couple of weeks. I not only had to sort out my overcrowded mind on a daily basis––every time I touched someone, I had to deal with what was in their mind as well as my own––but I had also been having intense dreams that left me feeling exhausted. Many mornings, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all.
I tried to make it up to Abuela by jumping in and helping out, but her side glares made it clear the damage had been done. As usual, the disappointment on her face was a punch to the gut. The thing with my grandmother was she tended to have very high expectations of people. It wasn’t like I didn’t feel loved or anything, quite the opposite. I just always felt like I came up short with her. I got the impression my dad had felt the same way from the way he talked about his childhood. There was no doubt in my mind it had an effect on his parenting style with me. My dad was beyond chill as a father and always wanted to talk things out … but that wasn’t the case with Abuela. Honestly, I would have preferred for her to just yell at me and get it over with, but that was never going to happen. She would spend the next several hours, if not days, making sure I knew how much I messed up with a stern coldness that left me feeling inadequate.
Rusty even tried to lighten the mood by arranging the stem of yarrow he’d picked up in Abuela’s hair, but her deadpan expression let him know his charms weren’t going to work. Thankfully, it didn’t look like there was a lot left to do since Wren had pitched in while I was gone. He was a natural in the kitchen. And if we were short on fresh produce, he would just head off to our little garden plot in the crop fields and give whatever it was a little magical nudge, and suddenly, we would have plenty. By the looks of the kitchen, Wren’s abilities were once again utilized for Abuela’s dishes. The lettuce on the counter was double in size, a cucumber was as long as a broom, and the apple on the kitchen table looked more like a small pumpkin. It was pretty clear we wouldn’t ever starve as long as Wren was around.
“There is no point in trying to help now,” Abuela said as she took a hunk of cheese I’d been grating away from me. “Just go get dressed.”
Dressed? I looked down at my oversized overalls and faded, brown T-shirt. I hadn’t planned on changing.
“Well, you can’t wear that.” Abuela waved her hand in my direction. “It’s a special occasion, Maria.”
“Oh … okay,” I mumbled and slowly nodded my head.
Wren looked up from the flans he was arranging on a plate. “What about the dress that Gloria made for you?”
My eyes widened at Wren for making such an unsolicited suggestion. Sure, it had been really sweet of Anik’s girlfriend to bring gifts after the Wrathful attack, but the dress really wasn’t my style. First of all, it was red. And second, it had lace. I don’t do lace.
“Wonderful idea, Wren.” Abuela gave him an approving nod. “It’s practically brand new since you haven’t even worn it yet.”
“I haven’t worn it because there hasn’t been a reason to––” I stopped, quickly realizing there was no reason to finish that sentence.
Abuela’s downturned glare said enough. This was the reason. Obviously.
At this point, I didn’t have a choice. I would be wearing a red dress to the festival. Period.