Zave began to suspect that Fey had lied to him when he watched her and Clueless get on the bus. For a bus with no vacant seats, there seemed to be a lot of them that weren’t being used.
His suspicions were confirmed when he boarded his own bus, four hours later, and it immediately set off in the opposite direction than Fey and Clueless had gone.
That filthy little… he thought, face turning red with anger. How dare she trick him like this? As if he didn’t have a right to help escort his own dog to safety.
He was about to jump up and demand the driver let him off, but something about what had just passed through his head made him pause halfway out of his seat.
…to escort his own dog to safety.
He sat back down, shame welling up in his chest. Clueless wasn’t his own dog anymore, was she? She wasn’t a dog at all. In terms of sentience, despite the obvious difficulties she was facing, she was practically human. And yet, whenever he thought of her, he couldn’t help but think of her as his own dog.
Maybe it’s better this way, he thought, staring blankly at the back of the seat in front of him. As big of a jerk as Fey had been, she did know more about skinwalkers than Zave ever would. Maybe she knew that Zave wouldn’t have been able to shed his mindset of Clueless being his pet in a couple of measly days—maybe not ever. Maybe she’d known that the best thing for Clueless was to get him away from her quickly, like ripping off a bandaid. And could he really argue with that? He was, after all, the one who had named the poor girl Clueless.
Besides, what was he supposed to do? Fey had never told him what their destination was. Probably to keep him from following them just like he was considering doing. Feeling like his insides were being coated in cold, heavy mud, he sat back in his seat and just let the bus take him wherever it was going. Where was he going? He hadn’t even looked at his destination before climbing onboard. Hopefully it wasn’t too far from home.
And then what? Go back to his normal, everyday life? Get up every morning and go to work, just to come home and be greeted by an empty house? He wasn’t sure if he could, not after everything he’d seen. Most of it had been bad, true, but at the same time there had been this sense of…rightness. A feeling of belonging that, despite Fey’s constant bad attitude, made him feel more at home than when he was at home.
He sighed. The feeling would have to pass. If it didn’t, he was going to be miserable for the rest of his life. Maybe he could start over, adopt a new—the sharp pain in his chest stopped that thought in its tracks. No. No more dogs. As lonely as he might be, he knew that if he got another dog, all he would ever see was Clueless. All he would ever feel was that cold, biting sense of loss.
Zave glanced out the window, and was surprised to see that the sun was setting. He must have been lost in his self-pity for hours! A moment of panic struck him, but then he realized there was an overhead light above his seat. Flipping it on, he sat back again, sighing in relief. At least he wouldn’t have to go through this in the—
“Lovely weather we’re having.”
Zave jumped, and was stunned to see the smiling man sitting next to him. His unnatural grin, his black marble-like eyes, his papery skin, everything was exactly the same as Zave remembered from…had it really only been a day ago?
“How are you today?” he asked in his odd way, like a parrot repeating phrases it didn’t understand.
“I’d be a lot better if you stopped doing that!” Zave looked around, but there were only two other passengers besides him and the smiling man, and they were both at the front of the bus. Neither looked back to see what the commotion was.
“You made the smart decision,” said the smiling man.
Zave snorted. “It wasn’t my decision. Fey tricked me. It doesn’t matter now, though. Clueless will be better off if she never sees me again.”
With a sigh, Zave looked down at his feet. Every minute he spent without Clueless was like a minute missing a hand.
“I am confused,” said the smiling man.
“What’s there to be confused about? Fey will take Clueless to join her pack, and she’ll be able to live with her own kind. She won’t have to be a pet anymore. If I was there, things would just be harder for her.”
“No,” said the smiling man, “the dog is going to die.”
Zave sat up in alert. “What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Those who are hunting your dog will not stop until she is dead.” Still grinning, the man cocked his head. “Is that not why you abandoned her? To save yourself from them?”
Zave blinked. That hadn’t even occurred to him. He and Fey both knew that those monsters were still out there, but for some reason he had become convinced that letting Clueless join Fey’s pack would make the problem go away. Now, faced with the smiling man’s cold logic, he realized how naive that assumption had been.
But the part about them not chasing him anymore? That hadn’t even crossed his mind.
“As I said, it was a wise decision.,” said the smiling man. “A small sacrifice to keep them from targeting you.”
Zave looked at him, confused. “Why would they target me? Fey says they’re after skinwalkers.”
“They are after skinwalkers now,” the smiling man corrected him. “But that would change if they discovered the truth about you.”
“What…” Zave couldn’t help but shiver. “What truth is that?”
The smiling man didn’t answer.
Zave scowled. “Fine, be that way! How can I save Clueless?”
“A sacrifice must be made either way. Either the dog will die to save you…or you will die to save the dog.”
“But the cost for saving the dog will be higher than you think. Far higher than you could ever imagine.”
Zave let those words sink in. Higher than he could imagine? He’d already told Zave that he would die. How much higher could the cost be than that?
“I don’t even know where they went, though,” he said after a minute.
The smiling man hesitated, a flicker of…something…passing behind his shiny black eyes.
“Are you determined to walk this path to the end?”
“Yes,” said Zave. “I have to help Clueless.”
The smiling man closed his eyes and let out a sigh. It was the most human sound Zave had heard out of him. “A million times, and a million times more, I have watched the people of this world. Rarely does history take the same path twice. But you…”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Zave demanded.
“But you, I have kept a special eye on. In every timeline, I have tried to guide you to safety. And every time, you make the same decision to save your dog.”
He opened his eyes again, and goosebumps rose on Zave’s arms.
“I will not stop you, just as I have not stopped you in the past. There will be more Xavier Thendreds for me to watch. But I will warn you: the darkness you will unleash, that you have unleashed innumerable times before, will affect far more than just you and your dog. The world itself will feel the consequences of your decision for thousands of years to come.”
He leaned forward.
“Now, are you sure that this is what you want?”
Zave hesitated, then nodded.
“Then look to the light for answers.”
Before Zave could ask what he meant, he raised a long, slender finger and pointed at Zave’s overhead light. Zave looked up at it, confused but not knowing what else to do. What was he supposed to be looking for? Was there a clue somewhere in…
His head began to pound. Zave grunted, but didn’t look away. Was he coming down with a migraine? He had never had a migraine before, but what else could it be?
Suddenly, the light grew brighter, brighter, until it blinded Zave to everything except for its brilliant shine—and yet, it didn’t hurt his eyes. He stared into it, entranced. That light…it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes on! He never wanted to look away from it. While bathed in its radiance, all his troubles felt like they were melting away. Even Fey and Clueless—
The moment those names passed through his mind, something took shape within the light. It was…a bus? Not just any bus, he realized, but Fey and Clueless’ bus! It was driving down a heavily forested road. And there, on the side of the road, was a sign. It was only visible for a split second, but its words were burned into Zave’s memory all the same.
Welcome to Spokena, Illinois!
Just as suddenly as it had come, the light faded and Zave found himself sitting on the bus again. The smiling man was gone. Without a moment’s hesitation, Zave leaped out of his seat.
“Stop the bus!”