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They found her.

Sophia had been hiding for so long, she didn’t quite believe it at first. How did they find her? She was the best at hiding.

But when she heard the man’s voice, she knew it was him. It had been, what, two years? Sophia had started to think they had given up. No one could hide like Sophia, and after two years they must have realized there was no way to track her down.

For fuck’s sake, she was practically invisible!

But here he was. She couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, but she knew he was talking to the lawyer. He was giving Madelyn a false story, one that would draw the woman in. She would find herself interested despite her own cynicism.

Sophia wanted to shout at Madelyn to hold on to her anger, her bitterness. It was the only weapon the older woman had against the man. But she stayed silent, stayed hidden. Madelyn would have to resist the man on her own, but Sophia knew it was a lost cause.

Now that he was here, it was only a matter of time before he gained Madelyn’s trust. And then he’d have the run of the house.

How long before he found her, down here in the basement? It was the obvious hiding spot, really. Except she never expected them to track her down to the lawyer’s house. Sophia’s trail had been hidden so well.

What had given her away?

She contemplated sneaking out and running while the man was talking to Madelyn, but she knew they were out there, surrounding the house, waiting for her to emerge. It was the middle of the day, the hardest time to hide from watching eyes. She could do it if the person wasn’t looking for her directly.

But these people knew she was here. And she couldn’t wait for darkness. The man would have Madelyn under his control within the hour. They would bring in the hounds, and there was never any hiding from them.

There were other gifts Sophia could employ, of course. They hadn’t taught her only to hide. But she remembered the pain that came with opening herself up to the other abilities.

If I use them, I can escape!

But it didn’t matter what she told herself. She couldn’t do it. It hurt too much. The pain would weaken her and then they would close in with their hounds and their ragged, black chains that burned her flesh.

Madelyn let out a laugh, short and sharp, more of a bark than anything with humor in it. The sound gave Sophia hope—it was the laugh that Madelyn used when she thought the other person was being ridiculous. Maybe she could resist him. Maybe the lawyer had no hope left for him to use against her.

Despite all that had happened to her, Sophia had never let go of her own hope, and that was the weakness the man had used to control her for so long.

The man kept talking and Sophia understood he was still working on Madelyn. The woman wouldn’t tell him anything—she didn’t know anything. Sophia had never revealed herself to the owner of this house, had kept herself hidden even from the woman whose home she had invaded weeks ago. It was safer that way, saying hidden even from those who, unwittingly, protected you.

What had Sophia done? She must have made a mistake somewhere, or the man and his followers wouldn’t be here. She rarely left the house, only when she had to replenish her supplies of beeswax and butterfly wings. And she always did that at night, when it was nearly impossible for anyone to see her.

Madelyn laughed again, and this time it was different. The abruptness was gone from her voice. She…she was actually laughing this time.

Sophia knew the man was distracted right now. He was working on Madelyn, gaining her trust, pushing toward the point where she would decide to leave the house but let him stay while she was gone. It would be the most natural thought, when she had it. He wouldn’t even suggest it—she would come up with the idea all on her own.

And then she’d forget all about the man. By the time Madelyn returned home, there would be no sign of the man, or of Sophia. The lawyer would never know what terrible acts had occurred in her absence.

The man wouldn’t just drag Sophia back this time. No, he had to make an example of her. Once she was chained, severed from her gifts, he would draw that red blade from the pocket inside his jacket. The blade would glow with a dull, hellish light that would throb in time with Sophia’s beating heart.

And once the man had plunged the dagger into Sophia’s chest, it would drink up her blood and leave a withered husk of a corpse on the floor of the basement. He would bring her body back to the others and they would see the proof of his success. And all those who were just learning their gifts would see that there was no escape.

Not even Sophia, who had been the best at hiding there ever was, could hide from the man forever.

But now, while the man was distracted, Sophia knew he was vulnerable. She couldn’t use her gifts to get away, but maybe she could use them long enough to get near to the man.

No, don’t even think it, she warned herself.

The thought was already there, hovering around on the edge of her mind, a shadowy thing that was as good at hiding as Sophia had ever been.

There was one gift she had only ever used once, and the pain of it had nearly killed her. It was anathema to her very being, though it had been extremely effective. The life she had taken was not an innocent one—she knew that—and yet the pain was nearly too much to bear.

Sophia didn’t want to consider it, but she knew it was possible. She could kill the man as he sat in a chair in Madelyn’s living room above her head. She would need to get close, but her other gifts would allow her to do that. And then she could take his life.

She would be helpless afterward. The others who followed him could still capture her. But without the man to give them orders, would they hold off? Would they wait long enough for her to recover?

What would Madelyn do, seeing a young woman appear in her living room and end the life of the charming man who had been calmly conversing with her? Sophia would be at Madelyn’s mercy, and she knew from living here the woman didn’t have much mercy. Would the woman pull out the gun she kept in her purse and shoot Sophia, thinking it was self-defence?

Sophia didn’t know, but ultimately it didn’t really matter. If she did nothing, she would die today before night could fall. If she killed the man first, though, others who wanted to escape would have a chance. No one was better at finding runners than this man. With him gone…

Her stomach heaved at the thought of taking a life, even one as filled with evil as his. It was what had made her such a failure in the eyes of the people who ran the institution.

They had told her that she shouldn’t experience pain when using her other gifts. It was all in her head, they said. But what was in her head could be made real, and that was what happened. She knew what the other gifts were for, what they were supposed to help her do. And she rejected it with every fiber of her being.

And now, she was considering killing someone. Seriously, actually thinking about it. Of all the things they had taught her, was this lesson the most dangerous of all? That when you were in a corner, and had nothing left to lose, even the thought of taking a life became just another option.

If she did kill the man, would it mean they had won? Would she have become the weapon they had tried to make of her all along?

Would using her gifts to kill damn her forever?

Even as she asked herself the question, she realized that it didn’t have to be like that. She didn’t need to kill the man with her gifts. She already knew of another option, but it hadn’t occurred to her to use it.

Did it make a difference, though? It was the killing that mattered, not the tool used to accomplish it.

But deep down, Sophia knew it did matter. The gifts weren’t just another tool. They were part of her essence, part of her soul, if such a thing existed. Using her soul to kill someone was an act that would taint her irrevocably. She could never escape from the repercussions of that act.

The gun in Madelyn’s purse, however, changed the situation. If Sophia used that on the man instead, she would still be a killer. But, she realized, she could live with that. It would be something she had done, but it would not truly be a part of her.

Am I fooling myself? Am I just trying to justify my act so that I can do it and then live with myself afterward?

Perhaps she was. Perhaps it would haunt her, torture her for the rest of her life.

Was the act of removing such evil from the world balanced against the evil of the act itself?

Sophia couldn’t wait any longer. She could hear Madelyn talking to man, and the woman sounded, for the first time in Sophia’s experience, happy. She would be leaving shortly, and then it would be too late. The man was almost finished with Madelyn.

She moved to the stairs leading up to the ground floor, and silently drifted up to the door. She would need to go through without being seen, and she knew the man would have a view of the hallway from where he was sitting in the living room. She could remain hidden from his gaze while he was distracted with Madelyn, but if she opened the door, it would be obvious.

As she concentrated, it felt like poison began to flow through her arms and legs, tightening the muscles, clogging her veins and arteries. But she focused and held on through the pain, and then stepped forward. The door flowed around her as she moved through its surface, and then she was past it and she let the power go.

She nearly cried out as the pain released, but she still needed to hold onto her other gift to keep her hidden.

A small shadow in the corner where a plant sat against the wall was all she needed, and her body folded and shifted as she ducked into the tiny space. She could see the man’s face from her vantage, and he hadn’t registered her presence.

Madelyn’s purse was on a small side table near the sofa where she sat. It was about eight feet from Sophia’s hiding place, well within range. She reached out with her arm and compressed the distance between the purse and her fingertips. The pain surged upward from her belly into her chest and she had to force herself to breath normally.

She fumbled with the latch on the purse and the pressure in her chest continued to grow. It was too much, and she knew she couldn’t remain hidden and reach the purse at the same time.

Taking a last, deep breath, she let go of her hiding place and lunged for the purse with her other hand. The man’s eyes snapped over to her as she ripped the purse open and grabbed the gun. She yanked it out of the purse and aimed it at his face.

“Ah, Sophia,” he said. “We were just talking about the dangers of the inner city and the plight of the homeless. You must have seen some terrible things firsthand when you left us and went on the run. What was the scariest moment for you?”

Madelyn looked at Sophia as if her sudden appearance was the most natural thing in the world. And why wouldn’t it be? She was now part of this interesting conversation with this nice man.

“I hid in a building that was filled with drug dealers and thugs,” Sophia answered. “There were children there, and they were being used to transport drugs and as lookouts when someone was going to be killed. I wanted to rescue them, and I almost revealed myself when I…”

With a surge of adrenaline, Sophia realized she had moved over to sit beside Madelyn and the gun was now on the coffee table in front of her. The man was on his feet and lunging toward her and his fingers had become wicked claws that were aimed for her face.

Without thinking, Sophia dove to the side and an instant later was hiding under the coffee table, completely hidden from his sight. The man hit the couch where she had been sitting, and as he tried to turn around, Sophia let go from her hiding place, stood up from under the table and grabbed the gun.

She raised it as he faced her, and for an instant, their gazes locked. In that instant, Sophia realized that he had charmed her so easily that she hadn’t even realized what had been about to happen. But something had freed her from his control for just a second, and it had been enough.

And in that instant, she saw the man’s realization that he had failed, and that he was about to die. She saw the fear blossom in his eyes as he tried to stand, still off balance from his missed attack.

Sophia pulled the trigger.

*                 *                 *

Two nights later, Sophia crouched in the shadow of a billboard on the roof of a building beside the highway. The others were near, down in the streets below, still hunting her. She knew, however, they wouldn’t find her tonight. Without the man, they were like children fumbling in the dark.

Sophia had barely managed to escape after she shot the man. He had died instantly, his head snapping back as he toppled onto the couch beside Madelyn, who had screamed as she was released from his control.

Not sure what to do, or if it was even possible to explain what was really going on to the woman in whose house Sophia had secretly lived for all these weeks, she chose the path that was most comfortable to her.

She hid.

To Madelyn, it appeared as if Sophia simply disappeared. But the dead man on her couch couldn’t be ignored and she screamed again.

Sophia had been sure the others were going to converge on the house at that point. They must have heard the gunshot. But without orders from the man, some signal to come in, they had hesitated.

Madelyn had grabbed her phone and dialed 911. In this neighborhood, the police responded with alacrity, and within two minutes the first patrol car showed up.

Those two minutes had been an eternity for Sophia. She watched the front door, expecting it to burst inward as the others came for her.

But they didn’t come.

She imagined them out there, surrounding the house in their own hidden spots, whispering to each other and debating what they should do. Was the man in danger? Was that even possible, with his abilities?

Then the two minutes were past, and the police showed up. Sophia easily hid from them in the house, and the dead man on the sofa brought in more police, the coroner, and others. The house remained occupied until after sunset, and once the shadows had grown to an appropriate length, Sophia abandoned the house and snuck past her hunters who remained oblivious to her presence.

Sophia didn’t know what would happen to Madelyn. The truth was too strange for anyone to accept, but the physical evidence would point to the fact that she was sitting on the sofa when the man was shot beside her. She would likely escape prosecution for the man’s murder.

That’s what it was. Sophia didn’t try to deceive herself about what she had done. She had killed the man with full knowledge of what she was going to do. She would have to live with that for the rest of her life.

For now, it was time to move on to another city. Perhaps she would even leave the continent. She watched the cars passing on the freeway and waited for one that felt right to her. She spotted it, a minivan with a lone man driving.

Pain blossomed in her belly and chest as she reached out across the space between the building and the highway and grabbed one of the door handles as the minivan passed. She pulled herself through the intervening space in a heartbeat and hid in the wheel well behind the spinning rear tire.

No one would see her as the driver traveled through the night, heading in a direction that Sophia knew would bring her farther and farther from her pursuers. For now, she was safe once again.

No one could hide as well as Sophia.

© 2016 Andrew J. Luther

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