The Finisher
Author:David Baldacci
    U N U S

    A Place Called Wormwood

    I was dozing when I heard the scream. It pierced my head like a morta round, doing terribly befuddling things to my mind, as loud and terrifying as though it were all hap- pening right there and then.

    After the sound came the vision: the blue, the color blue.

    It was in a mist like a cloud on the ground. It enveloped my mind, pushing out all other thoughts, all memories. When it finally disappeared, my befuddlement cleared as well. Yet I always believed there was something of great importance that had simply not come back to me.

    I suddenly sat up straight on my planks atop my tree, the vision along with my sleepiness struck clean from me. At first light, I was almost always up in my tree — a stonking, straight- to-the-sky poplar with a full towering canopy. Twenty short boards nailed to the trunk was my passage up. Eight wide, splintered boards constituted my floor when I got up there.

    And a stretch of waterproof cloth I had oiled myself draped over branches and tied down tight with scavenged rope rep- resented my roof. But I was not thinking about that, for a scream was ringing in my ears and it wasn’t the scream of the blue mist, which apparently existed only in my mind. This scream was coming from down below.

    I hurtled to the edge of my planks and looked down to the ground from where I heard the scream once more. This cry was now joined by the baying of attack canines. The sounds shattered what had been a peaceful first light.

    Wugmorts did not, as a routine matter, scream at first light or at any other time of the light or night. I scampered down the short boards nailed to the trunk of my tree. My booted feet hit the dirt, and I looked first right and then left.

    It was difficult to tell from where the screams and baying were coming. Amid the trees, sounds bounced and echoed confusedly.

    When I saw what was coming at me, I turned and started running as fast as I could. The attack canine had hurtled from out of a stand of trees, its fangs bared and its hindquarters lathered in sweat, a testament to the effort it was employing.

    I was fleet of foot for a female Wug, but there was no Wug, male or female, who could outrun an attack canine.

    Even as I ran, I braced for the impact of its fangs on my skin and bone. But it flashed past me and redoubled its efforts, soon vanishing from my sight. I was not its prey this light.

    I glanced to the left and saw between two trees a glimpse of black — a black tunic.

    The Council was about. The attack canines must have been unleashed by them.

    But for what reason? The Council, with one exception, was comprised of males, most of them older Wugs, and they kept themselves to themselves. They passed laws and regula- tions and other edicts that all Wugs must obey, but we all lived in peace and freedom, if not in much luxury.

    2 Now they were out in the forest with canines chasing something. Or maybe some Wug? My next thought was that there had been an escape from Valhall, our prison. But no Wug has ever escaped from Valhall. And even if they had, I doubted members of Council would be out trying to round them up. They had other means to collect bad Wugs.

    I kept running, following the baying and the racing footfalls and soon realized that my path was taking me peril- ously close to the Quag. The Quag was an impenetrable barrier that circled Wormwood like a noose. That’s all there was in existence: Wormwood and the Quag. No one had ever gone through the Quag because the terrible beasts in there would murder you within slivers. And since there was nothing beyond the Quag, there had never been visitors to Wormwood.

    I neared the edge of this most terrible place that Wugs were repeatedly warned from the age of a very young to avoid. I slowed and then stopped a few yards from where the Quag began. My heart was pounding and my lungs bursting, not simply from my running but from being this close to a place that held only death for those stupid enough to stray inside.

    The baying had now ceased, as had the sounds of the footfalls. I looked to the left and glimpsed canines and Coun- cil members staring into the depths of the Quag. I could not see their faces, but I imagined them to be as full of fear as was mine. Even attack canines wanted no part of the Quag.

    I let out one more long breath and that’s when a sound to my right reached me. I looked in that direction and in a stun- 3 ning moment realized that I was seeing someone disappearing into the tangled vines and twisted trees that rose up like a barricade around the perimeter of the Quag. And it was a Wug I knew well.

    I looked to my left to see if any of the Council or canines had caught sight of this, but it didn’t appear they had. I turned back, but the image was now gone. I wondered if I had simply imagined it. No Wug would voluntarily venture into that awful place.

    When something touched me on the arm, I nearly screamed. As it was, I just about collapsed to the ground, but the thing, now revealed to be a hand, kept me upright.

    “Vega Jane? It is Vega Jane, isn’t it?” I turned to look up into the blunt features of Jurik Krone.

    He was tall, strong, forty-five sessions old and a fast-rising member of Council.

    “I’m Vega Jane,” I managed to say.

    “What are you doing here?” he asked. His tone was not stern, simply questioning, but there was a certain repressed hostility in his eyes.

    “I was in my tree before going to Stacks. I heard a scream and saw the canines. I saw Wugs in black tunics running, so I . . . I ran too.

    ” Krone nodded at this. “Did you see anything else?” he asked. “Other than the black tunics and canines?” I peered at the spot where I had seen a Wug run into the Quag. “I saw the Quag.

    ” His fingers gripped my shoulder more tightly. “Is that all? Nothing else?” 4 I tried to keep calm. The image of the Wug’s face before he fled into the Quag slammed into me like a spear of sky- light. “That’s all.

    ” His fingers released and he stepped back. I took him in fully. His black tunic rode well on his broad shoulders and thick arms.

    “What were you chasing?” I asked.

    “It’s Council business, Vega,” he replied sharply. “Please be on your way. It is not safe to be this close to the Quag. Head back toward Wormwood. Now. It is for your own good.

    ” He turned and walked off, leaving me breathless and shaking. I took one more look at the Quag and then raced back in the direction of my tree.

    I scampered up the twenty short boards nailed there and settled myself once more on the planks, out of breath and my head filled with the most dreadful thoughts.

    “wo-wo-wotcha, Ve-Ve-Vega Jane?” The voice coming from below belonged to my friend.

    His name was Daniel Delphia, but to me he was simply Delph.

    He always called me Vega Jane, as though both names were my given one. Everyone else simply called me Vega, when they bothered to call me anything at all.

    “Delph?” I said. “Up here.

    ” I heard him scampering up the short boards. I was very nearly twenty yards up. I was also fourteen sessions old, going on a lot older. I was also female.

    Being fourteen and female was frowned on here in Wormwood, the village where we both lived. It’s never been 5 clear to me why. But I liked being young. And I liked being female.

    I was apparently in the minority on that.

    Wormwood was a village full of Wugmorts — Wugs for short. The term village suggested a communal spirit that just wasn’t present here. I tried to lend a helping hand from time to time, but I picked my causes carefully. Some Wugs had neither trust nor compassion. I tried to avoid them. Some- times it was hard, because they had a tendency to get in my face.

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