Justin closed the book.
It seemed real—like it actually existed. He willed it away and it vanished. No smoke, no flash. It simply stopped existing.
It had been On the Art of War—word for word, just like the one still one his shelf at his home.
Justin was sitting cross-legged in his mind, in the gray mist. His body, he could feel, was sleeping off the effects of Iridess’ healing. But his mind was active.
Daldion was off somewhere else, in his own world. Justin had still not seen it—Daldion, like Buncombe, hid it from his sight. And someone prevented Justin from reaching the end of his own mind and entering Daldion’s. There was so much he didn’t know. So much they weren’t telling him.
Justin stretched. It didn’t really do anything, but it made him feel like he was being active.
Sitting back down again, he closed his eyes. He knew now that he had never known real relaxation. Only here, on the full brink of his mind’s full potential could he do nothing. Simply be.
Someone was approaching. He looked towards the edge of his mind. A bridge, a shaft of white light, was breaking through the mist, burning to reach the gray mist that he could not pass beyond.
A figure, a woman, appeared, walking along it with measured paces. Amber. He didn’t move, waiting for her to approach.
Amber’s gray eyes matched the mist. They seemed blank. Empty. Full of the world. A world within her eyes. She stepped from the bridge and moved towards Justin.
He looked down, not meeting her eye. “So how do you move from place to place within your minds? Why can’t I do it?”
Amber sank down beside him, sinking easily into a cross-legged position. “For one thing, it takes practice and training you don’t have. And…there’s Buncombe.”
The Englishman. The Watcher. The de-facto leader of the Pack. And someone who did not like Justin.
“He’s right, you know. Whether you admit it or not, he’s trying to protect you—and us.” Amber’s eyes seemed to grow deeper. Seeking.
Justin shook his head. “I’m not a threat to anyone. He was one who wanted to leave me to die because we’re not best buddies after a day and half.”
“We all have our place. That is his. To question…to watch. To protect.” She hesitated. “And there what happened before. But I don’t know the whole story.”
Justin turned, meeting her eyes, which had lost their powerful look and seemed normal—like a young woman way out of her league. Like him. But for the woman part.
“Amber,” Justin asked, “how long have you been with the Pack?”
There as a silence, but neither knew how long it lasted. Time didn’t obey the laws it existed by. Not in the Thin Places.
“A year,” she said finally. “I am the newest member of the Pack. It took them a while to find me, and another year to find you. I wasn’t very good at it at first. At Seeking.”
“And how long has Buncombe been a part of the Pack?” Justin was probing. If seniority was an issue perhaps there was a way around it. Maybe pull some sort of ‘can’t teach and old dog new tricks’ deal. Or maybe something that cut deeper. Try to pull the carpet out from beneath Buncombe’s arrogant feet.
All warfare is deception. The book didn’t appear, but the words were so strong they might have been solid steel.
Amber had been silent. “I can hear you.”
Justin closed his eyes. A word came to his mind.
“I heard that too,” Amber said, wincing a little. “Sorry. It’s natural now. It’ll be the same for you eventually. Don’t worry—I won’t tell.” She smiled a bit weakly. “We…noobs… have to stick together. That’s what you hip teens guys call it right? Being the new people?”
“I wasn’t really that much of a ‘hip teen’,” Justin said, suppressing a smile. “But yes, that’s what we would be called. Just how new are we?”
Amber lay back on the misty ground, her hair spreading a bit behind her head. Justin lay back beside her, a bit self-conscious.
“Francisco has been a part of the Pack since at least the 1970s. Maybe earlier. He won’t say exactly, but his abilities as the Warrior and his actions had brought him to the attention of several groups in South America. They were after him and the Pack members of that time offered him a way out. He joined up. Still can’t speak English right.”
Justin tried—he really did. “And that’s ‘cause he’s had to deal with chaps like Buncombe, wot?”
Wincing internally, Justin added ‘Practice English Accent” to his list of growing things to do.
Amber’s lip twitched. “Actually, Buncombe had to put up with him. He was with the Pack before Francisco came.”
Justin smiled, then frowned. “That explains the top hat. But Francisco doesn’t look that old—so they must have found him quite young. If Buncombe was before him, he must be on his last legs.”
Amber sat up, her eyes growing deep and thoughtful again. “Justin…Buncombe has been a part of the Pack for more than a hundred years.”