I fingered the iris charm hanging off my father's memorial. "I miss you... I love you… and I'm sorry."
I had to apologize. Every time I came here, I felt like I was killing him all over again, but for me it was the only way. I had to let go of pipe dreams if I wanted to hold on to Sage. What-ifs only got in my way; I needed to close off everything but what I knew for certain.
In one fluid motion, I rose, turned away from the gravesite, pulled my camera from its shoulder case, and started shooting. Once I'd have taken my time, lining up every snap for the perfect angle and layout, but now I didn't care – I wanted quantity. This was my fact-gathering; it was how I knew for sure Sage wasn't dead. For weeks now, I'd take pictures every day, and at night I'd download them and scour them for Sage. It always reminded me of the first time I'd discovered him, tucked impossibly into the backgrounds of Rayna's and my vacation snapshots. It terrified me then, even more so when I learned Sage had been lurking in pictures from all parts of my life – the same ageless face, whether I was six or sixteen. Back then I'd thought I was going crazy, and I'd have given anything for the whole thing to go away.
Now I ached for his image. It was the sign of our soul connection, and it wouldn't be there if his soul had been destroyed.
I clicked off countless pictures, turning in a slow circle to get every angle. Not that the view mattered – I could just as effectively have taken a hundred pictures of my shoe. But I felt like I was doing more if I changed the view. I needed to do things to try and find Sage, or I'd start to feel helpless, and I did not do helpless well.
I slipped my camera back into the saddle bag and swung onto the horse… which screamed and bucked under me. "Whoa!" I yelled, "Roosevelt, stop!"
I pulled the reins as Roosevelt's front, then back legs kicked into the air. I had a feeling pulling was the exact opposite of what I was supposed to do, but the reins were the only thing keeping me attached to Roosevelt. I tried to squeeze his flank with my legs, but he was too strong -- each buck flung me higher off the saddle.
"ROOSEVELT!" My screams were as frantic as the horse's, which had grown louder and more shrill. With a final buck, he launched me off his back, then raced into the surrounding woods. My last thought before I thumped to the ground was about my camera. I hoped it wouldn't break, bouncing around like that in the saddle bag.
I landed flat on my rear end. I screamed as the pain shot through me, and every horror story about horse-throwing injuries flashed through my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and took deep breaths, waiting for the worst to pass. "I think we scared your horse," a small voice said. "I'm sorry."
My whole body whipped around to face the voice. Apparently I wasn't damaged from the fall, but what I saw paralyzed me just as effectively: four people, standing just a few feet away. Three adults and a young girl. The adults held themselves upright and motionless, but the girl smiled and waved. All four of them had shockingly blue eyes.
They hadn't been there a minute ago, when I was snapping pictures, and there was no way they could have raced to their current spots without me noticing.
"You're not scared of us though , Clea, Are you?" the girl asked.
"No," I said.
The crazy thing was, it was true. Once I'd have been as terrified as Roosevelt by four people appearing out of nowhere, especially four people with glowing blue eyes, three of whom looked like living statues, and who somehow knew my name. Now I was a veteran of far eerier sights (a decimated mummy rising from the dead and chatting with me? Been there, done that), and I knew better than to think just because something was impossible, it wasn't real.
"Oh, good," the girl said. "My name's Amelia. It's nice to meet you." She seemed about to say more, but the man next to her cleared his throat, and instead she closed her mouth and lowered her head. She kept her eyes on me though, and they danced with excitement.
"You're so sad, Clea," the man said. "Too sad. It weighs on you, I can feel it."
His voice was so deep I felt more than heard it. It was soothing, like sinking into a warm bath. His big voiced matched his size. He was over six feet tall. He looked young: his tan skin was smooth and glowed with health, and his thick, golden-blonde hair fell just above his shoulders. There was a depth and knowledge in his eyes that gave him the gravity of someone older.
"It doesn't have to be this way," he continued. "You can have so much more. You can have peace. True peace. Don't you want that?"
His voice wrapped itself around me, cradling and supporting me. I'd never thought about wanting peace, but hearing him say it…
"Yes," I said, "I do."
"Of course you do," he said. "And you can have it. Let Sage go."
The name jolted me more than my fall. "Sage? Where is he? Do you know?"
"Sage is not your destiny," another voice said. "It's time to move on." This man had white hair and deep wrinkles, but he stood tall and strong.
"Please," I said, "if you know where Sage is, you have to tell me how to find him. He has the dagger; they could kill him. They could destroy his soul!"
It was more than I should have said. I didn't know who these people were – if they were part of the Saviors of Eternal Life, who had taken Sage from me in Japan; or if they were with Cursed Vengeance, the other group out to destroy him. I only knew that for the first time in weeks I was on the verge of real information, and I'd do anything to get every bit of it I could.
"Men," came a sigh. It was from the last member of the group, a chestnut-haired woman who stood on Amelia's other side. She was short, maybe five feet tall, and she had a honey-sweet voice that seemed to smirk even though her mouth did not. "It's all about the ones we can't have, isn't it?"
"Please," I said. "You have to help me find him. Please!"
The girl winced in sympathy, but it was the woman who spoke. "We won't do that. Quite the opposite: we're here to help you break your tie to Sage. For your own good. Think of us as your Guardian Angels. Do you believe in Guardian Angels, Clea?"
"I believe in Sage," I said. "I believe in us together."
My eyes flicked to Amelia, the girl. She'd furrowed her brow. She looked upset. Like she didn't agree with the others? She was the only one who hadn't told me to give up on Sage. Maybe she could help. I'd never spent much time around kids, but I put on a big smile and sweet voice, and did my best to charm her.
"Amelia? Have you ever had a best friend?" I didn't wait for her answer. "Because Sage is my best friend, and it's really, really important that I find him. So if there's anything you know about where he is, can you please tell me?" "You heard Mommy. She said we won't." Amelia's voice was small and meek, but her gaze was steady, and her eyes bore holes in me. She was trying to tell me something, but I didn't know what. I pressed further. "I know what your mommy said, but I don't think she understands. I bet you will though. See, Sage needs my help, and -- "
"We said NO!" Amelia shouted. She gave a tantrummy stomp, but again, her eyes were disconnected from her words and actions. I only got to look at them for a moment before she turned and looked plaintively to the woman next to her. "Mommy, she's not listening."
"She will," the woman said. "Goodbye for now, Clea. We'll talk soon."
And then they were gone. They didn't dissolve or fade away like a special effect in a movie, they were just gone. Blinked away in an instant.
"Wait!" I cried, but I was screaming to the air. I turned, looking everywhere, but I knew it was useless. It's not like they'd ducked behind a rock; they'd vanished right in front of me. Instinctively I reached for my camera case. The people… or whatever they were, seemed to know a lot about me. Were we connected somehow? Was there a chance they'd show up in my pictures?
But of course my camera case was still in Roosevelt's saddle bag. I called out his name and wandered through the woods until I found him, calm now and munching on brush.
"You didn't have to run, you know," I said, patting his neck. "They were perfectly harmless."
Roosevelt blew air through his lips. Apparently, he didn't agree. I wasn't sure I did either, so I couldn't hold it against him. I rescued my camera and took a few test snaps. The bouncing hadn't hurt it at all. I climbed back into the saddle and rode back to the clearing, pausing to click through several more shots I could pore over later, just in case.