The two headed out into the early morning gloom. As mist began to collect on their faces, Aaron lead them all the way back to the brick building he had carried the boy to hours earlier. (Had it only been a few hours?) This time, he used her hand–her prick of blood–to jump to the Unmarked city and holding on to her, he left the Marked world behind, undetected.
“What are we doing here?” asked Hazel after the effects of the jump wore off. She lifted her jacket above her head and peeked out at the rain pelting down on them. Aaron, shivering in his thin black shirt, surveyed the deserted streets, trying to remember where he went next. Nothing looked familiar. Hours ago, it had been pitch black, but something had caught his attention. Something drew him forward.
Finally, clothes soaked through from the deluge of rain, the top of a streetlight flashed in his mind.
“Come on,” he said and hurried towards the distant light. It was still glowing, beckoning him as it had before. He had to time this just right. If the boy was gone–no. He’d still be there. Memory Erasers take time to ware off. The streetlight soon came into full view and his eyes fell on Oliver, laying exactly where he had left him.
Aaron came to a halt. He heard Hazel’s shoes squelch beneath the wet pavement; felt her body slam into him; knew she didn’t see him. But his eyes held their gaze on Oliver. And then slowly, everything went quiet. The rain, his heartbeat, Hazel, gone. He was floating in a thick silence. As Oliver’s chest rose, so did his.
“Is that him?”
Aaron snapped back into reality. “Keep your voice down,” he said, wiping rain from his eyes and scooting under the overhang.
“Do you think I know where another nine-year old happens to be sleeping out in the rain? Yes, this is him.”
She flung her sopping hair over her shoulder, spraying Aaron with icy drops. “You could have just said yes,” she said, glaring at him.
But Aaron was now thinking two steps ahead. In order for his plan to work he needed Oliver and Hazel’s hands to touch. The intricate curse that wouldkeep Hazel from returning to the Marked world and unable to tell Oliver the truth about his past was complicated and would take almost all of his energy. He needed just a bit left to jump back.
The boy slept soundly on the doorstep. His small tan face and black hair looked undisturbed, a vast contrast to his life to come. Aaron waved Hazel over and bent down next to Oliver.
“What are you doing?” she asked cautiously. “You’re not going to hurt him are you? Why is he even here?”
“I had to do something that would keep him from ever returning to the Marked world–to kill him in one sense without killing him.”
Hazel’s eyebrows formed perfect slants. But she kept quiet.
“I stole his memories you could say, meaning he’ll never remember leaving the Marked world and Declant will never know he’s still alive. I forced that idiot Brent Kimwith a Strategy Mark to concoct it for me.”
Slowly Hazel shook her head, staring from Oliver to Aaron. “No. No, you can’t just leave a kid alone–he’ll die!”
“Or he won’t. If he’s anything like what his mark means, he’ll survive.”
“A mark doesn’t define you. That’s my stupid father’s thinking!” She knelt down beside Oliver. It was the moment Aaron needed. He grabbed her hand and Oliver’s, pressed them together, and repeated as quickly as he could the words he had formed for the curse to take place:
“When two marks unite as one, one must suffer and become undone;
one must find his secret past before returning to us at last.”
Both Hazel’s and Oliver’s marks started to glow.
Hazel yanked her hand away from Aaron. “What did you just do?”
Aaron barely heard her. He felt like he had run twenty miles in the rain. But he had to get up. Now. Leave. Leave now. It’ll be too late otherwise. He noticed Hazel shaking her palm, forcing it to produce results–she wouldn’t be able to. Not for the next hour. She’ll have a decision to make. But he couldn’t think about that now. He needed to move. As he got up, he was kicked in the ankles, sending him toppling back down on the wet ground.
“Tell me what you did! I can’t use my mark!” yelled Hazel, who looked murderously at Aaron. Then as something seemed to slowly dawn on her, “Did you curse me?”
He stood, brushing the dirt from his pants, forcing his aching body to keep moving. “I did what I needed to do. You wanted to see the boy. Here he is. I leave him in your protection.”
“You’re in charge of his fate now. I left him alive. You can keep him alive if you so choose it.”
Hazel shuffled to her feet, standing proudly before Aaron, a whole head shorter. ”Fine. Coward. I’ll bring him back, myself.”
“Ah,” said Aaron, forcing himself not to wobble. “That’s where you’re wrong.”
Hazel lost a little of her proud stance but stood firm.
“The only way you’ll be able to come back is alone.” For a split second, he felt a twinge of recklessness for his decision to curse her. She looked at Oliver for a long time, almost considering the possibility of staying behind. She turned back to Aaron.
“And if I choose to stay?” she asked, her shoulders squared. Aaron expected this.
“You won’t be able to tell him what you know. But you’ll be able to watch him. Tell him and you’ll never be able to return to the Marked world.” He had to dig into her. She had to stay. His ultimate plan depended on it. And if he knew her like he thought he did…
“What are you still waiting here for, then?”
Her predictable answer still crashed down on Aaron, almost envious of her selflessness, and knocked every immediate thought from his mind. Finally finding his voice, “To answer your questions.”
“Well, class dismissed, Mr. Mingus,” she hissed.
Her icy eyes sliced through his gut, injecting him with a bitter chill unfelt by the rain. As he trudged back down the street, his eardrums raw, his body numb, he willed his mind to focus on events to come. Dinner with Declant. Assisting him with political strategies. Eradicating any evidence of his previous jump. He must focus. Or life could end.
Rain pounded against the pavement, against the brick building he left behind, against his face. Back in his apartment, he stripped off his clothes and climbed into bed. Even without her there to manipulate his mind, he was haunted by white wraiths resembling her and the boy as he fell into a restless sleep.