Someone has died in these woods. Dread prickles between my shoulder blades.
“Not here. Don’t you dare.” Muttering to yourself makes you look crazy. But I’m not talking to myself. I wish I were.
I hang back as my family continues along the dry, pebbled streambed. The maple leaves are ablaze, the air chilly. This should be an exciting evening. Mom and Dad, everyone rooting for me. I should be able to breathe—not this sipping at the air, spooked by shadows.
Ahead, my family chatters; my sister sings and giggles.
“I’m here to run a race. That’s all. I’m just a girl this weekend.”
The prickling eases.
I sigh in relief, but my attention stays riveted to the ground as I continue slowly along the course. I’m watching for hazards: smooth river stone can twist an ankle; loose sandbank can cost precious seconds; snaking tree roots can take me out of the race altogether.
There it is. The tight curve where last nationals I gave up first place. Someone has removed the partially hidden log. I guess they don’t want another runner out for the season. My left Achilles twangs in reminder.
I squint through the trees into the dying sun. Leaves sift over the arid creek bed, whisper of another loss.
“Uphill, Em! Starts here!” My dad calls out from ahead where the track winds back into the forest. He toes the orange pin flag and pumps his fist into his open hand. His game face is flushed. He always gets embarrassingly enthusiastic about my track meets. And this is nationals. His adrenaline must be popping. Mine is. Just not for the same reason.
He gestures at the hill.
“Got it,” I yell back.
Coach calls this reconnaissance. Usually, I arrive a few hours early to walk the 5K track and get the lay of the land. For nationals, Dad drove us up two days in advance.
Of course, I know this track already. Walking it again only flings the doors open for more accidents. I told my parents that; they said I was being superstitious. But they don’t understand. As long as my mind doesn’t take over, my body knows what to do. It’s what I love most—the way all thought washes away in the heat of pumping blood, pounding feet, oxygen deeper than bone. Wind and earth. Knowing the track too well can make you rely on that knowledge. That’s when you’re in real danger from hazards you don’t know are lying in wait.
As we reach the forest I stay back once more. Yes, here’s the steep incline. The last hill to the finish.
Up ahead, Lillie’s and Mom’s conversation is muffled by trees. Alone, I inhale the sweet, woodsy softness of turned earth and try to feel optimistic. This is paradise compared to being home in Sand Dollar, swamped by the humid fishiness that pervades beachfront Florida. They don’t tell you that in travel brochures.
Come on, Em. You can conquer this track for good.
It’s my chance to overcome the fall that has haunted me every race since.
The forest is hushed. I peel a scab of paper bark from the trunk of a birch tree, close my eyes, and listen to the silence. It’s weird, but it’s almost like the forest is holding its breath. Almost as if it’s been waiting for my return...
No way. I told you, not now.
My eyes flash open and dart between trees, searching through the golden haze of sunset for that familiar watery outline. The first time I ever saw such a thing—against the blacktop of Interstate 95—I thought it was a heat mirage. I quickly learned better.
It’s here. The wind brushes my neck, chilly now. The right kind of chill for autumn, but not the kind I’m looking for.
“Em!” Dad’s disembodied voice comes from over the hill, probably from the lot where we parked. “Emily, you coming?”
Leave it to Dad to utter my name. That bond is strong as eternity. I can only hope it didn’t hear.
Ah ha. So it did.
“That’s me.” I can’t hide the annoyance from my voice. This track meet is supposed to open college doors for me. It’s about me being stronger and faster than last time—and, honestly, a shoe-in for first if I don’t screw it up—and not about releasing some poor, stranded soul back into the beyond.
—Emily. You have to find her.—
Gorgeous. Just effing grand.
On top of everything else, now I have to find some chick, dead or alive, and I’ve got two days to do it.
That’s the thing about being a Ranger: the age-old cliché of unfinished business. And wind, rain, or national cross country meet, when a Ranger meets a Waif in the middle of the forest, she can’t just ignore him. There, by that tree: ghostly, ethereal silver, with the black, marble eyes of the eternally Lost.
Even if it’s not her sector.
Even if she’s been banned from running solo missions.
I grit my teeth. The words of my Praeses thump my conscience: Your job, Ranger, is to be ruthless. Save the Lost; expel what can’t be saved.
A year ago in a training exercise, I hesitated. Because the difference between good and evil? Not a whole heck of a lot. Sure, sometimes it’s cut and dry, but there’s always the possibility a Waif is still fighting the descent into darkness. Looks like Vagari, smells like it. But that soul is still holding on by the barest threads of their will. I’ve read the texts. There are outliers to the Order. You can’t just go destroy someone without taking the time to find out who they really are.
According to my Praeses, taking that time was exactly what got me benched. What, are you Anubis, now, weigher of souls? Is it your duty to judge, Ranger, or only to vanquish the darkness?
I know the answer.
But my Praeses is back in Sand Dollar...
“Ugh.” I’m not just a normal girl. I don’t get to just run a race. I have a duty. No matter how benched I am, I can’t leave him here, haunted and confused.
The Waif’s otherworldly outline gutters in the careless breeze. If I don’t help him, who will?
“All right,” I tell the anxious spirit. “I’ll find her. And then we’ll send you home.”