I Am Number Four

Page 45

 

  “My back,” I say.

  He closes his eyes and shakes his head. He reaches into his pocket and removes one of the small round stones I watched him grab from the Loric Chest before we left the home-ec room. His hands are shaking.

  “Open your mouth,” he says. He inserts one of the stones. “Keep it under your tongue. Don’t swallow it. ” He hefts me up with his hands beneath my armpits. I get to my feet and he keeps an arm on me while I regain balance. He turns me around to look at the gash on my back. My face feels warm. A sort of rejuvenation blooms through me from the stone. My limbs still ache with exhaustion, but enough strength has returned so that I’m able to function.

  “What is this?”

  “Loric salt. It’ll slow and numb the dagger’s effects,” he says. “You’ll feel a burst of energy, but it won’t last long and we have to get back to the school as quickly as we can. ”

  The pebble is cold in my mouth, tastes nothing like salt—tastes like nothing at all, actually. I look down and take inventory, and then brush off with my hands the ashen residue left from the fallen beast.

  “Is everyone okay?” I ask.

  “Six has been badly hurt,” he says. “Sam is carrying her back to the truck as we speak; then he is going to drive to the school to pick us up. That’s why we have to get back there. ”

  “Have you seen Sarah?”

  “No. ”

  “Mark James was just here,” I say, and look at him. “I thought you were him. ”

  “I didn’t see him. ”

  I look past Henri at the dog. “Bernie Kosar,” I say. He is still shrinking, the scales fading away—tan, black, and brown hair taking their place—returning to the form in which I have known him most recently: floppy ears, short legs, long body. A beagle with a cold wet nose always ready to run. “He just saved my life. You knew, didn’t you?”

  “Of course I knew. ”

  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Because he watched over you when I couldn’t. ”

  “But how is he here?”

  “He was on the ship with us. ”

  And then I remember what I thought was a stuffed animal that used to play with me. It was really Bernie Kosar I was playing with, though back then his name was Hadley.

  We walk to the dog together. I crouch down and run my hand along Bernie Kosar’s side.

  “We have to hurry,” Henri says again.

  Bernie Kosar isn’t moving. The woods are alive, swarming with shadows that can only mean one thing, but I don’t care. I move my head to the dog’s rib cage. Ever so faintly I hear the th-tump of his beating heart. Some glimmer of life is still left. He is covered in deep cuts and gashes, and blood seems to seep from everywhere. His front leg is twisted at an unnatural angle, broken. But he is still alive. I lift him as gently as I can, cradling him like a child in my arms. Henri helps me up, then reaches into his pocket, grabs another salt pebble, and plops it into his own mouth. It makes me wonder if he was talking about himself when he said there was little time. Both of us are unsteady. And then something catches my eye in Henri’s thigh. A wound glowing navy blue through the gathering blood around it. He’s also been stabbed by a soldier’s knife. I wonder if the salt pebble is the only reason he’s now standing, as it is for me.

  “What about the shotgun?” I ask.

  “I’m out of ammo. ”

  We walk out of the clearing, taking our time. Bernie Kosar doesn’t move in my arms but I can feel that life hasn’t left him. Not yet. We exit the woods, leaving behind us the overhanging branches and bushes and the smell of wet and rotting leaves.

  “Do you think you can run?” Henri asks.

  “No,” I say. “But I’ll run anyway. ”

  Up ahead of us we hear a great commotion, several grunts followed by clanking of chains.

  And then we hear a roar, not quite as sinister as the others, but loud enough so that we know it can only mean one thing: another beast.

  “You’re kidding me,” Henri says.

  Twigs snap behind us, coming from the woods. Henri and I both twist around, but the woods are too dense to see. I snap the light on in my left hand and sweep it through the trees to see. There must be seven or eight soldiers standing at the entrance of the woods, and when my light hits them they all draw their swords, which come alive, glowing their various colors the second they do.

  “No!” Henri yells. “Don’t use your Legacies; it’ll weaken you. ”

  But it’s too late. I snap the light off. Vertigo and weakness return, then the pain. I hold my breath and wait for the soldiers to come charging at us. But they don’t. There follows no sound aside from the obvious struggle happening straight ahead of us. Then an uproar of yells behind us. I turn to look. The glowing swords begin swaggering forward from forty feet away. A confident laugh comes from one of the soldiers. Nine of them armed and full of strength versus three of us broken and battered and armed with nothing more than our valor. The beast one way, the soldiers the other. That is the choice that we now face.

  Henri seems unfazed. He removes two more pebbles from his pocket and hands one to me.

  “The last two,” he says, his voice shaky as though it requires a great effort just to speak.

  I plop the new pebble into my mouth and bury it beneath my tongue despite a small bit of the first still remaining. Renewed strength rushes through me.

  “What do you think?” he asks me.

  We are surrounded. Henri and Bernie Kosar and I are the only three left. Six badly hurt and carried away by Sam. Mark just here but now nowhere to be found. And that leaves Sarah, who I pray is tucked away safely in the school that lies a tenth of a mile ahead of us. I take a deep breath and I accept the inevitable.

  “I don’t think it matters, Henri,” I say, and look at him. “But the school is ahead of us, and that is where Sam will be shortly. ”

  What he does next catches me off guard: he smiles. He reaches his hand out and gives my shoulder a squeeze. His eyes are tired and red but in them I see relief, a sense of serenity as though he knows it’s all about to end.

  “We’ve done all we could. And what’s done is done. But I’m damn proud of you,” he says. “You did amazing today. I always knew you would. There was never a doubt in my mind. ”

  I drop my head. I don’t want him to see me cry. I squeeze the dog. For the first time since I grabbed him he shows a slight sign of life, lifting his head just enough so that he can lick the side of my face. He passes one word to me and one word only, as if that is all his strength will allow. Courage, he says.

  I lift my head. Henri steps forward and hugs me. I close my eyes and bury my face in his neck. He is still shaking, his body frail and weak beneath my grip. I’m sure mine is no stronger. So this is it, I think. With our heads held high we will walk across the field to whatever awaits there. At least there is dignity in that.

  “You did damn good,” he says.

  I open my eyes. From over his shoulder I see the soldiers are near, twenty feet away now. They have stopped walking. One of them is holding a dagger that pulsates silver and gray. The soldier tosses it in the air, catches it, and hurls it at Henri’s back. I lift my hand and deflect it away and it misses by a foot. My strength leaves me almost immediately even though the pebble is only half dissolved.

  Henri takes my free arm and drapes it over his shoulders and places his right arm around my waist. We stagger forward. The beast comes into view, looming just ahead in the center of the football field. The Mogadorians follow behind us. Perhaps they are curious to see the beast in action, to see the beast kill. Each step I take becomes more of an effort than the one that preceded it. My heart thuds in my chest. Death is forthcoming and of that I am terrified. But Henri is here. And so is Bernie Kosar. I’m happy not to have to face it alone. Several soldiers stand on the other side of the beast. Even if we could get past the beast, we would then have to walk straight into the soldiers, who s
tand with drawn swords.

  We have no choice. We reach the field and I expect the beast to pounce at any moment. But nothing happens. When we are within fifteen feet of it we stop. We stand leaning against each other for support.

  The beast is half the size of the other but still big enough to kill us all with no great effort of its own. Pale, almost translucent skin stretched over protruding ribs and knobby joints. Various pinkish scars down its arms and sides. White, sightless eyes. It shifts it weight and lowers itself, then swings its head low over the grass to smell what its eyes fail to see. It can sense us in front of it. It lets out a low groan. I feel none of the rage and malice that the other beasts radiated, no desire for blood and death. There is a sense of fear, a sense of sadness. I open myself to it. I see images of torture and starvation. I see the beast locked up for all its life here on Earth, a damp cave where little light reaches. Shivering through the night to stay warm, always cold and wet. I see the way the Mogadorians pit the beasts against one another, force them to fight in order to train, to toughen them and make them mean.

  Henri lets go of me. I can’t hold Bernie Kosar any longer. I gently place him in the grass at my feet. I haven’t felt him move in minutes and I can’t tell if he’s still alive. I take one step forward and drop to my knees. The soldiers yell around us. I don’t understand their language but I can tell by their tones that they are impatient. One swings his sword and a dagger just misses me, a flash of white that flutters and tears the front of my shirt. I stay on my knees and I look up at the beast hovering over me. Some weapon is fired but it sails over our heads. A warning shot, meant to move the beast to action. The beast quivers. A second dagger darts through the air and hits the beast below the elbow of its left arm. It lifts its head and roars in pain.

  I am sorry, I try to tell it. I am sorry for the life you’ve been forced to live. You’ve been wronged. No living creature deserves such treatment. You’ve been forced to endure hell, plucked from your own planet to fight a war that isn’t yours. Beaten and tortured and starved. The blame for all the pain and agony you’ve experienced lies with them. You and I share a common bond. Both wronged by these monsters.

  I try with everything to pass along my own images, the things that I’ve seen and felt. The beast doesn’t look away. My thoughts, on some level, are reaching it. I show it Lorien, the vast ocean and thick forests and verdant hills teeming with life and vitality. Animals drinking from the cold blue waters. A proud people content to pass the days in harmony. I show it the hell that followed, the slaying of men, women, and children. The Mogadorians. Cold-blooded murderers. Draconian killers destroying all that lies within their path due to their own recklessness and pathetic beliefs. Destroying even their own planet. Where does it end? I show it Sarah, show it every emotion that I’ve ever felt with her. Happiness and bliss, this is how I feel with her. And this is the pain I feel in having to leave her, all because of them. Help me, I say. Help me end this death and slaughter. Let us fight together. I have so little left but if you stand with me, I’ll stand with you.