We walked for hours. I was too shocked and miserable to do more than stare at the heels of Kevin’s shoes as he tramped through the grasses. We left the freeway behind, angling straight across the plains.
They stopped being plains after a while, more rolling hills. Then there were a few scrubby trees. The sun had dipped below the horizon in front of us when I stumbled to a halt.
“I can’t,” I gasped, doubling over. We were nearly climbing, the hills had gotten so steep. The trees were thick and made it hard to see in the gathering darkness. “Can’t we sleep here?”
Kevin shrugged. “Good as any place.” He poked around until he found a level bit and waved for me to sit. I did, wiping sweat from my face before I could get chilled.
I watched as Kevin set up camp. He tugged my backpack from my shoulders and stuck his arm inside, rummaging around. He pulled the tent out and shook it free of its bag. With a sharp word, it sprang up, swaying a little from the speed of its travel.
I carefully kept my face blank. Every time he did magic was as amazing and frightening as the first. Would I ever get used to it? To him? If I just looked at him, I would have never guessed he had the sort of power he’d displayed today.
He looked just like any other college guy, jeans and t-shirt. Dirty after a day hiking in dry weather, but just a normal guy.
I flinched as a fire sprang out of the ground.
As usual he ignored my negative and pressed a bowl of something stew-like into my hand. I nibbled at it. The more I ate, the hungrier I was.
I gulped, scalding the roof of my mouth. “Yeah?”
He was squatting across the fire from me, resting on his heels. His face was sharply defined in the light, his eyes glowing. I shivered and stared into my stew.
“You and I need to have a talk.”
He didn’t answer right away. I stuffed a spoonful of stew into my mouth to delay him asking questions. He frowned suddenly.
“How is it that you can’t be hurt, but you have to eat?”
I nearly choked, swallowing hastily. “What?”
He peered at me. “If your body can’t be hurt, why is it you have to eat, nourish yourself? Shouldn’t you be able to exist as you are? And why do you have to breathe?”
“Trust me, I have to breathe,” I said. “Once I almost drowned in my cousin’s pool.”
He rubbed his face. “Did you really, though?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you really drown, or did it just feel like you were drowning?”
I shivered, the memory of struggling under the water, the hot, burning itch of the chlorinated water biting deep into my chest.
He went on slowly. “If you just let it happen, would you have to breathe? If you were resuscitated, would you just wake up again?”
I licked a bit of gravy from my finger. “I don’t think it works like that.”
He said nothing, which I took to mean I should keep explaining. I took a deep breathe, wondering why I had never wondered about this before.
“I can be hurt,” I said. I held out my bloodstained hands as proof. “I just heal.”
“But the PFNF machine…” Kevin scowled. “That should have crushed you. You would have died before you could have healed. Traumatic blood loss, brain damage. Would you heal after you were dead?”
I shuddered. That sounded like the most horrible existence I could imagine. Going through the pain of death, but always forced to come back.
“Here.” Kevin was suddenly at my side.
“Ow!” I snatched my hand back, staring at the thin red line he’d scratched across it with a knife.
“You can be injured,” he mused softly. “And you heal quickly, nearly at once for minor injuries.” Sure enough, I wiped the blood away and the skin was intact underneath.
I stared at my palm. “That’s faster than before, I think.”
He nodded. “But the PFNF…”
He stood and before I could do more than flinch his sword flared in his hand as he slashed for my face.
There was a sharp ring, like glass on metal. Kevin staggered back, crying out in pain. I jumped up and ran to where he had fallen. He lurched up, coming to his knees. He was cradling his hand. Even in the firelight I could see an angry mark across it, not bleeding. Like a burn.
He hissed as I knelt next to him and examined it.
“Can you move your fingers?”
“I’ll be fine,” he growled. He looked across the clearing. I followed his gaze. His sword had embedded itself in a tree. The bark was already smoking, the wound around the blade smoldering a deep red.
He muttered under his breath and the sword winked out of existence, leaving behind a black scar and smoke curls.
“So,” he said, getting to his feet and crossing back to the fire. “Something about the force of the attack. The stronger the blow, the more protection you have.” He sank to the ground, cross-legged. “You have to eat, you have to breathe. Will you age?”
I had never considered that. Would I? I had grown into an adult. But what about past that? I sat down next to him, shivering.
“What does it mean?” I asked, barely more than a whisper. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“I don’t know,” he said heavily. I felt him take a deep breath, his shoulder moving against mine. “But Becca?”
“You’re not a meta-healer.”
“But, I am! Dr. Mule said-”
“He was wrong.” Kevin made a disgusted noise as I protested. “No, not wrong. Just not informed. Not enough evidence. Did he ever try to kill you?”
I was appalled. “Of course not!”
“And that time you nearly drowned? Did you actually lose consciousness?”
“No, mom pulled me out.”
He dug in a pack and pulled out a first aid kit. He cracked an icepack and bound it to his hand with an ace wrap. “You’re not a meta-healer, Becca.”
“Then what am I?”
He didn’t look over. “Cursed.”
“But I was supposed to die-”
“I know.” He tied off his dressing and sat staring at it. “And you didn’t. So something is stopping you. Something is keeping you here when you should be dead. Something is forcing you to stay alive.”
I licked my dry lips. “How?”
“That’s what we need to find out.” He said. “And at what cost.”
Kevin grimaced. “Necromancy is-”
“Necromancy?” I shrieked.
He grunted. “It’s one of the forbidden practices. People caught meddling with it are put to death.” He sent me a quick look. “Those books Strenton gave you…”
I felt sick. “But, he wouldn’t do something like that! W-would he?”
Kevin shrugged. “Most highly gifted Practicors study it, if nothing else. To at least know how to fight it, to counter it. And it draws a certain type of man, power over death.”
“But I’m not dead!” A horrible, terrifying thought struck me. “Am I?”
“No,” he said swiftly. “You’re not now nor have you ever been dead.”
“How can you tell?”
Even in the darkness his expression sent chills down my spine. “I can.”
“You’ve seen a…a zombie?”
He shook his head. “They’re not like zombies you see on TV. They…” He cast wary looks at the woods around us. “You can just see it, feel it. Sometimes they can hide for years, blending in. But to exist, they have to draw life from outside them, unable to make it themselves. People near them feel weak. If you spend too much time with one, you fall ill, a wasting disease. There is nothing you can do to fight it or block it. They can never get enough. You have to destroy them to end it.”
“What…” I had to clear my throat. “What does that have to do with me?”
He shifted and caught my eyes. I couldn't look away, mesmerized he called it. “Something is keeping you alive, Rebecca. The cost must be paid, either by you or something else. Meta-healers feed themselves, their bodies able to produce the extra energy needed. You are not a meta-healer. Every time you are hurt, every time you have to heal, you must draw power from somewhere else, something else.”
My nightmares. “Everything dead,” I whispered. “Kevin, everything is going to die.”
“There’s no way to know-”
“Everything. Everyone. Except me.”
Except me. Left alone. Alive. Unable to die.
I squeezed my eyes shut, tears burning down my face, growing cold as they reached my chin and dripped onto my hands.
Kevin’s arm was strong around my shoulder. I turned into his chest and sobbed.
He drew me to my feet. I stumbled after him into the tent. He pressed my sleeping bag into my arms. I kicked off my shoes, still crying helplessly. I was helpless. I was useless, I was pointless. I should have died a year ago and it was all my fault, everything was dead because of me.
“Try to get some rest,” Kevin said softly. Outside the fire winked out. “It’s been a long day.”
I lay shivering until he stretched out next to me. I didn’t care that he would take it the wrong way. I pressed against him and cried myself to sleep.