The World Walkers

Rescuing Drake

If it had been anyone else Astra wouldn’t have let it bother her. During her time with the Council she’d come to understand why it was so important to know who was travelling where, and the people who could walk between worlds freely, without the tattoos that everyone else needed, were often dangerous. They had no rules to guide them the way the Walkers had, so they felt they were free to change things that shouldn’t be changed. Logically they should be arrested before they could do any damage. Executing them… well, there wasn’t space to keep them all in the cells. Until Drake was arrested she could easily explain everything to herself. She just couldn’t believe that he would hurt anyone. The two of them had been friends for too long, and she knew him as well as she knew herself.
That was why Astra was walking towards the cells, a hood covering her head, and hoping that everyone else was asleep. They should be, it was well past midnight, but there were plenty of Walkers who suffered from insomnia. She was one of them. Often her dreams were filled with things she felt she could have changed and hadn’t, because the first rule of walking between the worlds was that they shouldn’t get involved. Watching, and recording what their saw, was their job. Nothing more. Pushing away those thoughts she focused on what she was going to need to do. Getting Drake out of the cell was the easy part. A Walker was never going to set him free, because he was something that shouldn’t exist, and even if they did there was no way of getting him out without someone seeing. She walked faster as she got closer to the wing he was being held in, knowing that she only had one chance – it would either work or it wouldn’t, and if it didn’t he’d be executed. Trying to free him would probably lead to her being executed too, but it was worth the risk. She couldn’t just let them kill Drake.
When Astra took the keys off the hook they jingled, and a voice called, “Who’s there?”
Shaking her head Astra looked around to make sure that there were no insomniacs wandering around, before replying, “It’s me.”
“What are you doing?”
“Something I should have done a long time ago.” Drake was in the furthest cell from the door and with every step she took her fear that someone would walk past grew. “I’m getting you out of here.”
“I knew what would happen if I got caught.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s right.”
“You should go back to bed. Forget I’m even here and carry on with your life.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, Drake.”
“Your brother is going to kill me if something happens to you.”
Astra couldn’t help smiling, even though it wasn’t amusing in any way. “If this goes wrong we’ll both be dead, so he’d have great difficulty killing you.”
“Why are you helping me?”
Inside the cell it was dark, and Astra could barely see Drake through the small barred window in the door, but seeing his shadow was enough to give the courage to put the key into the lock. “Executing someone simply because they can do something…” She bit her lip, thinking. “I rationalised it before, but I can’t now. Not when it’s you.”
The light from the window behind her flooded the cell when Astra opened the door. Drake looked so different to the way he had the last time she’d seen him. A week in one of the cells would affect even the strongest person, but she knew he’d been questioned every day by the Walkers. They’d wanted to know everything he knew about the other ‘demons’ he’d met, and what he did every time he’d travelled between worlds. It was what they wanted to know from all of them. She doubted he would have answered any of the questions they had. He breathed deeply, she could see his body shudder, before looking at her.
“Astra, I can’t let you do this. You have you whole life ahead of you, and I know how much becoming a Walker means to you.”
Shrugging, she stepped into the cell. “Do you want to die?”
“No, but…”
“Then stop arguing and follow me.” There was a long silence, Drake stared at her as if trying to convince her mentally to walk away, and Astra knew that someone could walk past at any moment. “Please.”
“Are you sure about this?”
The answer running through Astra’s mind was much more sarcastic, but it wasn’t the time for sarcasm. “Yes, I’m sure,” she said, willing her voice to show exactly how true that was. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t sure.”
Standing up, Drake ran a hand through his hair and winced, before taking two steps towards her. “How do you plan on getting me out of here?”
Biting hard on her lip in order to stop herself from smiling, Astra reached out to take his hand. “Trust me. I know what I’m doing. I’ve been thinking this through since I first heard you were arrested.”
He squeezed her hand. “I’ve always trusted you.”
Neither of them mentioned the times Drake really shouldn’t have trusted Astra, because they’d been children and both of them had convinced the other to do stupid things. Real life had come about faster than she’d expected, and this time she hoped that his trust wasn’t misplaced. All she could do was keep going. Thinking too much about it would make it a hundred times more difficult.
Astra’s tower wasn’t far away from the cells, but at the same time it was too far. Every slight noise had her looking for a Walker entering the corridor. There was every chance she could convince one Walker that Drake was someone she’d brought in for the night, like others did, even though someone looking closely would be able to see who he was. On the day he was arrested his picture had been put everywhere, which was how Astra had known about him, and if they’d somehow managed to miss all of them they’d still be able to tell that he’d been in the cells, simply due to the way he looked. It wasn’t something they could hide.
The broomstick leaning against the wall looked innocuous, as though someone had put it there after using it and had simply forgotten to put it away. Astra breathed a sigh of relief when she saw it, knowing that one of the other Walkers might have returned it to a cupboard somewhere, and if they’d done that she would never be able to find it again. After she’d spent a week putting the enchantment on it it would have been a waste. Fortunately she always had a plan B. Even more fortunately she wasn’t going to see if plan B worked. With her free hand she grabbed it, wishing she had the ability to feel the power she’d used, before stepping towards the wall that surrounded them.
“A broomstick?”
“It will work.”
Drake laughed. “I can’t believe you convinced me to let you do this.”
“Maybe if I’d had more time I would have made it a carpet.” Astra turned to face him. “If you want to go back to waiting for the morning in a cell, knowing that you’ll be dead in the morning, feel free.”
“Astra…”
“Shut up.” She tried to push her anger away, but it was better than feeling scared and her body clung to it. “I am not going to let someone who doesn’t know you end your life just because you were unlucky enough to be born with the ability to walk through the doors between worlds freely.” A tear trickled down her cheek. “You were my best friend, Drake. You convinced me that I had what it took to become a Walker. If it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t even be here. I wouldn’t have been able to help you, but I can and I’m going to.”
“I’m sorry.” Drake squeezed her hand. “It was unexpected.”
“This week has been full of surprises.”
“Are you angry with me for not telling you?”
“No, of course not.”
“I should have.”
“Why? It doesn’t change who you are.”
“I’m a demon.”
“Maybe to them you are, but never to me.” Astra reached out and stroked some strands of hair off Drake’s face. “Nothing will change the way I feel about you.”
Without saying another word Astra turned back to the wall, releasing Drake’s hand and straddling the broom. She gave him a chance to walk away. A part of her thought he would, because not trying was much easier, but after a shorter time than she’d expected she felt his hands on her waist, because he believed in her. Her grip tightened on it, believing with her entire self that the broomstick was going to work. It had to work. She was going to get Drake to safety.
“Do you need me to believe it will work too?” Drake asked, his voice little more than a whisper.
Astra nodded. “That would help.” She swallowed. “Are you ready?”
He laughed. “I’m never going to be ready, but this is the better option, so let’s go.”
With that Astra stepped onto the wall, as she’d practised, even though she hadn’t had the courage then to actually try out the broomstick. She knew, because of the choice she had made, that death was better than the Walker’s Council finding out that she’d betrayed them, so the fear she’d felt had faded into nothing. Either the broom worked or it didn’t. One way or another Drake would be free of the Council, and he wouldn’t be executed. It had taken Drake’s arrest for her to realise that things were black and white, that choices weren’t good or bad, and she wished it had happened sooner. Maybe she would have been able to save another mother’s son, someone’s best friend, someone’s lover, instead of waiting until the person in jail was someone who had mattered to her.
Breathing deeply Astra jumped, wondering if Drake really would jump with her, and told herself once again that the broom was going to work. Of course that was the very moment it flashed through her head again. The dream she’d had every night since she’d made the decision she was going to break Drake out of the Council’s cells. Where the enchantment didn’t work and all they did was fall to the ground. Falling that far would kill them. For longer than she was comfortable with they seemed to just be falling. She kept a tight hold on the broomstick and felt Drake’s hand tighten around her waist, which told her that he was just as terrified as she was. At about the time she started preparing herself for a crash landing she felt the broom start to fly, although it wasn’t going particularly fast.
“It worked,” Drake breathed, right into her ear, and she smiled, hearing the shock in his voice. “You, Astra, are a genius.”
She didn’t reply as she focused on making sure that the broom got them to the nearest door. Maybe she’d even have a chance to get back to the Council building before they realised what had happened, but even if she did she didn’t think she wanted to be a Walker any longer. Taking one hand off the broom Astra rubbed her arm, where her tattoos were, wondering what would happen if she did go through the door with Drake. Unfortunately she didn’t know for certain, because it wasn’t normal for someone to leave the Council without telling them in advance. When they did they became did anything they had to in order to pay off the debt they owed.
After five years as a Walker Astra had no idea how much she might owe the Council. She shivered, and Drake wrapped his arms tighter around her. “What are you thinking about?” She shook her head, not wanting to talk about what she was thinking, but she knew she’d have to in the end. “Sweetheart, come on. You’ve just broken me out of the Council cells. I’m certain you’re worried about what might happen next.”
Sighing, she glanced over her shoulder at him, their eyes meeting for just long enough for her to be able to see the relief in his eyes. “Of course I am, Drake, because I’ve betrayed them. No one knows that I have any connection to you, but if I go back there…” She shook her head again. “They’re going to know it was me. I’m sure of it. Yet I still want to go back and see if I can keep my old life, even though there’s this voice in my head screaming that I’m an idiot. Why do I want to go back to them when I know what they’re capable of?” Astra felt a tear trickle down her cheek. “I always knew what they were capable of, really, it wasn’t until it was you in that cell that I realised how much what we do affects people – everyone the Council has executed has been a person. Their ability to walk the worlds naturally is no reason to execute someone’s son or daughter, someone’s mother or father…” More tears trickled down her cheeks. “How can I be a part of that now?”
“You’ve been a Council Walker for a long time, Astra. This was never an easy decision for you, and I am grateful that you helped me, but you shouldn’t have done it – not when it’s going to destroy the life you worked so hard for.” Drake gently squeezed her waist. “Is it safe for you to go back?”
“That’s a question I wish I knew the answer to, but I don’t.”
“What happens if you walk away from the Council?”
It was a surprise to Astra when she laughed. “I’ve been asking myself that ever since I made the decision to save you. There are records of Walkers who have made that decision, but it doesn’t say what happened to them. After spending hours studying them I learnt nothing useful, unfortunately, although I do know a lot of Walkers have made that decision.”
“They don’t want you to know.”
“Of course they don’t. If we knew it was possible to walk away and get away with it there are more Walkers who would leave once they had their tattoos than there are Walkers who would chose to stay. They don’t want to be told where to go or what to do by the Council, but they wanted to be something more, something different, like the natural Walkers of old. Unfortunately the problem is the only place you can learn about all the worlds is the Council, they make certain that the tattooists don’t give one to anyone who hasn’t gone through the Council first – even if it’s just for travel, and once you’ve signed a contract with the Council it’s pretty much impossible to walk away from.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have convinced you to become a Walker.”
“No, Drake, you did the right thing. I’m glad I had the chance to do what I did, but I’ve realised that the Council aren’t as unbiased as I would like them to be. They do what they believe they have to do, to keep the fae from doing anything stupid, because it’s the fae who want to be in control. Before, when I first started studying, things were different, but now the focus is on stopping the natural Walkers again. I don’t know why.” Astra bit her lip. “We might have had a change of leader, but normally that’s something they announce to all the Walkers who are on Athare at the same time. Hiding it…” She shook her head. “It’s unlikely.”
“So what do you think happened?”
Astra shook her head. “I have no idea. We’ve all been talking about it though, because everyone, even our teachers and mentors have noticed how different things have become.” She thought for a moment, about when things had changed and tried to work things through. “Okay, here’s a theory: our most recent leader has always been more on the side of the fae and the fae have seen something, because I think the Gold family had the ability to see what might happen in the future, which means that they are more uncomfortable with the existence of natural Walkers than they have been since they first made the choice to have them all executed.” She nibbled her bottom lip again. “Walkers have been sent to certain worlds to check up on things more often than normal as well.”
“Have the worlds said anything?”
“Not that I know of, but I don’t think there are any true Walkers working for the Council at the moment.”
Drake’s silence wasn’t worrying, although it was slightly perplexing, and Astra waited until he was ready to speak, because it had been a long time since they last saw each other. “You know about true Walkers?”
That was when she realised how much had changed. “Even though I’m not supposed to I do.” She smiled. “My mentor, I believe, works with the shadow Council, and he let slip a couple of things he knew I shouldn’t know to see what my reaction would be. At least I think that’s why he did it. We had a long chat about what he was doing, why he was doing it, but he told me he wasn’t willing to see me put my life on the line the same way he did as I am much younger than him. He told me he thought I should have a life, the way he had, before doing something so stupid.”
“So you chose to save me instead…”
“Drake…”
He gently squeezed her waist again. “You have to admit it wasn’t the smartest idea you’ve ever had. Even though I didn’t want to die, Astra, I’d prepared myself. Having you come to rescue me wasn’t a part of the plan, but thank you.”