“Lanorian folklore describes the seven Paragons as protectors of the world and keepers of the gods’ essences. Legends from other countries, including Elderwint and Tumpor, also describe a group of seven intimately linked to the classical planetary bodies. The earliest known myths propose that the gods imbued earthly objects (i.e., the totems) with a taste of their power in order to tantalize humankind.”
—Introduction, A Handbook on Paragonhood
“Look at that handsome devil,” I say.
I swivel Michael’s chair around so he can inspect his new hairdo in the wall mirror—glossy, swept back, and effortlessly tousled, complimenting his rounded features.
“You’re a lifesaver, Randi,” he says. “Thank you.”
“No need to thank me ... the good looks are all yours.” I collect the barber cape from him before brushing stray hairs off his neck and fixing his collar. He smells like my favorite cucumber shampoo.
Michael absently tugs at his cuffs, his brows pinched in a frown. “I’m going to make a fool of myself.”
“You won’t,” I say. “Giselle likes you back ... I’m sure of it.”
“That's even scarier,” he says as he fumbles for his wallet. He pays for the haircut, leaves a generous tip, and trips over himself on his way toward the door of the small salon.
I exchange a worried glance with Daisy, the curvy salon owner sweeping hair off the linoleum floor. I've been apprenticing under her since graduation three months ago.
“I’ll close up today,” she says. “You go on ahead. Make sure he doesn’t fall flat on his face.”
I give her a thankful smile as Michael says, "I heard that.”
Outside, the fall air is crisp. I pull my jacket closed over my flower-print dress and clutch my purse closer as Michael and I walk down the street. I resist the urge to scratch at the spider bite I woke up with. Actually, I'm not convinced it's a spider bite at all, but Mom said not to worry. I'll just pick up some lotion from Howard's on the way home.
I talk Michael through his anxiety, keeping a hand at his back in case he trips on Main Street. It’s really the only road in Lakewing. Past the white bungalow shops to our right, I catch glimpses of the sparkling waters of the lake and the green hills gracing the horizon above it. Birds chirp in the trees among leaves that are just turning orange.
We pass the bakery, the aroma of fresh bread making me salivate. Then comes the florist, the shoemaker, and the farmers in the market putting their wares away.
When we get to the town square, Michael stops. Giselle Thorne stands with hands akimbo while her three younger siblings hang their heads. The middle child, Zachary, wears a tablecloth cape.
“But Eddy told us the story—”
“I don’t care what story Eddy told you,” Giselle says, interrupting her brother. “I already told you not to play Paragons out in the open, or else the hunters will snatch you up.”
A chill run through my bones at the mention of hunters. Legend has it that a group of seven heroes called the Paragons could channel the ancient gods’ powers to protect the world. Many people actually believe the stories and try to find proof that the Paragons exist. Some even want to kill the Paragons to steal their power-granting totems. We call those people hunters, and they’re not to be trifled with. No place is safer than Lakewing, but even here it’s not safe to talk about Paragons where you could be overheard.
The children shuffle their feet, chagrined. By my side, Michael loses his footing and nearly falls.
Giselle turns around as I catch him by the arm. “Michael! Oh my, don’t you look dashing.”
He straightens instantly. I give him a gentle nudge, and he marches toward her like a soldier to the battlefield. “Giselle, I’d like to take you out.”
“Beg your pardon?”
I bite my lips to keep from smiling. After all that worry, he managed to be bold. I inch back, not wanting to ruin the moment. Neither of them takes any notice of me or the three Thorne children gaping at them.
Michael takes Giselle’s hand. “I’d like to take you to dinner.”
“Goodness. I thought you’d never ask.”
I skip onto the train platform and head toward the small brick building by the tracks. The bell on the general store door chimes my entrance.
“Hi, Howard,” I say.
Old Howard Pratt peers up from behind a newspaper. He's been operating the ticket-counter-and-general-store duo since before I was born. Like always, he's dressed in a red plaid shirt with suspenders, his stringy white hair tied back in a ponytail. What I wouldn't give to cut and style that hair.
“Randi, Randi,” he says, setting the paper aside. “What can I do you in for?”
“Just some lotion today.” I pick out my usual brand—a soft shea butter—and maneuver around the four mini-aisles of refreshments, snacks, toiletries, and magazines until I’m at the store counter. “Any news?”
“Always,” he says with a tap on his newspaper, but then his amused expression sobers. “Another group of hunters showed up right here in the store, asking about Paragon this, Paragon that. I had to force them back onto the train.”
I freeze. More hunters?
“I don’t know why they keep showing up in Lakewing. Reckon it’s that storyteller’s fault. Ever since his last visit, it’s been hunters nearly every week.”
I nod while my mind races. I used to listen to the storyteller whenever he came to visit. He’d stay at the Tysons’ bed-and-breakfast, tell Paragon stories in the town square to all the children, and then leave for the next town a day or two later.
When he first started showing up, I wanted the myths to be true. I wanted to believe there were special people with magic powers looking out for us. I even suspected the storyteller was a Paragon himself—he knew the myths well enough, and he had plenty of pockets to hide a power- granting totem. My friends shared my suspicion, and Eddy once asked him how to become a Paragon too. The storyteller just laughed and said, “You don’t need to be a Paragon to have a worthwhile story.”
Our parents would shoo him out of the town square every chance they got, saying he was putting us in danger. “Shame on you for filling their heads with that nonsense. Do you want them to go straight to the hunters? Shame.”
Now that I’m older, I’d hate for the Paragons to be real. The danger. The responsibility. I wouldn’t wish their fate on anyone. It must be torture to be constantly on the run from hunters.
I tune back in to Howard’s rant. “And don’t get me started on Anne and Neil, the poor kids,” he says. “They’re stronger than most, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still carrying the weight of what happened to them to this very day. We all are.
“And you need to be especially careful, eh? A nice girl like you is an easy target. Them hunter folk can be cunning.”
I lower my gaze, a blush blooming on my cheeks.
“But look at me rambling on,” Howard says as he rings me up. “Say hi to your folks for me, will you?”
“For sure, Howard.”
After the train platform, Main Street turns into a dirt road. It’s only a five-minute walk to my house, but the dirt coats my shoes in a layer of dust that I kick clean at my doorstep. I swing open the unlocked front door and head to the kitchen to move a prepared meatloaf from the refrigerator to the oven.
Next stop is my room. “Hi, Barnaby,” I say to the stuffed teddy sitting on my pillow. “Did you have a good day without me?” I hang my purse on the closet handle before picking him up and squeezing him as gently as I can. He’s old and a little shabby. My parents got him for me when I was seven, around the time I started seeing strange shadows at night. It's something I'll never get used to. First there's a moment of stillness in my chest where there should be a heartbeat, followed by a sharp pain. A heaviness descends like a weight on my lungs, and shortly after, no matter where I am, shadows that at first seem normal start to move. They crawl up the walls like creepy lava lamp blobs. Nothing happens when they appear—they don't make noise or cause any harm—but I can't shake the feeling they're just biding their time.
Mom can’t see the shadows, but Dad can, although he doesn’t see as many as I do, and he says the feeling of heaviness is probably just anxiety about seeing them in the first place. We haven’t told anyone else about them because the last thing we need is the small-town rumor mill to start churning. The nights when they appear, snuggling Barnaby is just about the only thing that keeps me from screaming.
“Let's see if anyone answers us today,” I say to Barnaby as I take out my cellphone and check for any missed calls or texts. None. My friends used to call me almost every day at lunchtime or before supper, but for the past month, it's been near silence.
I tap on Kendra's picture in my favorites list and begin pacing the small room. I count ten rings before it cuts to voicemail. Not again. She was the one most likely to answer, too.
I clutch my teddy closer and try Anne with no luck. Neil doesn’t pick up either. At least if I call tomorrow he’ll be sure to pick up then, right? That phone call will be the only way I’ll be able to wish him a happy birthday since they’re all celebrating in Grandin this year.
It all comes down to Eddy, then.
I dial his cell with a hesitant tap. The phone rings. And rings. I jump when his voice comes on. “Hey, this is Eddy. Sorry I couldn’t catch your call.”
The anxiety balloon deflates around my heart. After his voicemail spiel and the beep, I struggle to find words. “Hi, Eddy, it’s—it’s Randi. Just wondering how you are. Oh, I have news about Giselle. I’ll be visiting Brianna tomorrow afternoon, but other than that I’m free, so call me if you have a chance, okay? Talk to you soon.”
I hang up with a sigh. Barnaby’s shiny black eyes are doleful. “They’ll be back soon—don’t worry. They’ll come back.”
I mean, I get why they had to leave. Living in a town like Lakewing, with a population of only 4,000 people, means there’s not much to do. Not that I was ever bored when my friends were around, but I can see why exploring Grandin, the capital of Lanoris, would be more appealing— even if it is a dangerous city. They’re thrill-seekers through and through, even quiet Anne. If only they came home more often or called to check in.
A rumble downstairs tells me my folks are pulling into the garage. I gently set Barnaby back on the pillow and pick up the lotion I bought earlier. In the bathroom across the hall, I strip off my dress, cringing at the sight of the spider bite, now haloed in red. It looks infected and feels hot when I touch it. What if the spider that bit me was venomous?
I peer closer, stretching the skin on my left ribs. The center’s a bit swollen, although it’s not white, which is a good sign. But there’s something strange about the red ring surrounding it. Wait ... no. Not a ring. The red is scratched into my skin in a bunch of tiny lines.
Not a spider bite.
I crane my neck even more, heart hammering as I count seven lines. Seven lines making seven sides.
“Heptagram-shaped ... approximately half the size of one’s pinky fingernail, red-brown in color, hot to the touch.”
My knees give and I barely catch myself on the counter. It can’t be. Those are myths. The marks aren’t real. But what if—
Stop. Calm down. Giselle and Howard both mentioned hunters—that’s why I’m jumping to conclusions. And I wouldn’t even be considering it if it weren’t for that book.
I hurry across the hall to my room. I pull a dozen or so hairstyling magazines off my bookshelf, revealing the worn, leather-bound book tucked behind them. A Handbook on Paragonhood. Eddy lent it to me because I’ve always loved the myths. But that’s all they are. No one takes the stories seriously except hunters.
Even so ...
I hold the volume against the thundering in my chest. The front door creaks open. “We’re home, pumpkin!”
I poke my head into the hallway to make sure the coast is clear. If my folks catch me with this book, they'll make me get rid of it at once, and then I'll have to explain the book's disappearance to Eddy.
After I run back across the hall and lock the bathroom door, Mom calls from downstairs, “Are you coming down for dinner?”
“I will be soon!”
I leaf through the yellowed pages until the drawing of the mark catches my eye. It can’t be the same, right? I hold the leather spine of the book so the pages face the mirror and the image is flush with the spider bite.
A surge of panic shoots up my spine, along with the tingles of an imminent headache. The mark on my skin matches the drawing exactly.
This can’t be happening. It’s not possible to suddenly have the mark of the Paragon. Aren’t you supposed to be born with it?
My eyes slide closed as I rack my brain. People used to believe in the Paragons as much as they did in their deities, but only until science, modernity, and “the one true God” came around. We can't have been wrong to think they were mere myths.
I shake my head. Focus. According to the stories, if I were really a Paragon, I’d have a totem hidden in a keepsake—something I’ve been unusually attached to since birth.
I swallow hard.
I snatch up my dress and the book as I rush back to my room.
“What are you doing up there?” Mom calls.
“Just a minute, sorry!”
I shut the door, toss the dress and the Handbook on the bed, and immediately draw the curtains. I grab Barnaby and squish every inch of him with my hands. He’s soft, with familiar clumps where the stuffing has been worn and compressed over time. A normal stuffed bear. But what else could the keepsake be?
I hurl him onto the bed and step backward until I’m pressed against the closed curtains, clutching the edge of the windowsill. I should feel relieved, but instead I’m plagued with doubts. What if the totem is hidden in one of Barnaby’s seams? What if it’s made of soft material so no one would ever think it was there? There’s one way to find out for sure.
But do I really want to know? They’re just myths! There’s no such thing as Paragons, just like there’s no such thing as elves, unicorns, or fairies.
Even so, I've been hearing so many horror stories from Howard about what's happening all around Lanoris— another child found naked and dead in a gutter, five women with their insides sliced through, a man kidnapped and tortured for publishing an article on the old myths. All that is because of the hunters. Whether or not the Paragons are real, the hunters are.
“We’re waiting for you, pumpkin!”
Dad’s voice brings me back to my senses. I’ve stared at Barnaby long enough, even if I haven’t come to terms with what I’m about to do. I need to know.
I pull scissors out of a desk drawer and kneel before my bed like it's an altar, dragging the teddy toward me across the green duvet. The blades hover above his woolly stomach. “I’ll be gentle,” I croak. I clench my eyes shut, dying a little inside as the blades snip.
I discard the scissors and delve my fingers into the soft puffs now spilling out of his stomach. Nothing suspicious meets my hand—just polyester fluff. I sift through his body until I’m certain there’s nothing there. Nothing in his arms or legs either, not even the seams. That leaves the head.
“I’m so sorry.”
I remind myself to breathe as I flip over Barnaby’s limp body. I use the scissors to snip a small slit between his ears, and then I rummage through his poor teddy head before I can change my mind.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing inside.
I step back to survey the devastation strewn across the duvet—white puffs everywhere and a mangled clump of furry fabric that hardly resembles a teddy.
I press a palm over my mouth to hold back a scream. I butchered Barnaby for no reason.
Footsteps make their way up the stairs. I try my best to compose myself, but my face scrunches up in a sob.
A knock on the door. “Pumpkin,” Mom says. “What’s going on? I'm coming in, okay?”
I hide my face as she enters, unable to watch her eyes rake over the carnage.
“What in the ...? What did you do to Barnaby?” I look up to see her catch sight of the Handbook. “Is that what I think it is? What are you doing with that book?” I don't answer, and she rushes over to grip my arms. “Randi, what did you find?”
I slowly lower my hands from my face. Her gaze locks onto the mark on my ribs. “It’s in the book.”
“Please don’t cry, Mom,” I plead, but it’s no good.
The floodgates open and we weep onto each other’s shoulders.