The smell of the dumpster hit Sparrow like a blow, and she almost walked away. But after a moment's thought, hunger won out over disgust and she pushed the dumpster's lid upright. Her arms shook with the effort of lifting it.
She glanced over the top layer of garbage, hoping for an easy meal. No luck. Everything was either made of paper, or covered in flies.
With a quiet curse she grabbed the edge of the dumpster and began climbing. Her arms threatened to give out, but she managed to get a knee under her to balance on.
"You're trespassing on government property," a voice said.
She dropped to the ground and snatched the knife from her belt. With a practiced flick of the wrist she flipped it open and brought it up as she spun. It came to a stop under the man's chin.
The man glanced at the blade. "Put it away Sparrow. I'm not about to hurt you."
Recognition hit her, and she lowered the knife. "What do you want, Miller?"
Miller straightened his uniform before talking. "You're trespassing, again. If anyone else found you, they'd call security."
Sparrow shrugged. "Trash isn't anyone's property once it's been thrown out."
"But the dumpster is on government property. Of all the dumpsters in this city, why do you choose one that could get you arrested?"
"Because you guys are the only ones around here with enough food to throw away."
Miller sighed as she tried to clip the knife back to her belt. Her fingers didn't want to cooperate, and she fumbled for a minute before getting it on.
"When was the last time you ate?" he asked.
She shrugged. "What does it matter?"
He frowned. "Let me buy you dinner."
Sparrow looked up at him uncertainly. She didn't trust government workers, but Miller seemed like a nice person. At least he had turned the other way when he'd caught her trespassing before. And the thought of hot food was too much to pass up. "Alright."
She followed Miller for a few blocks to a small restaurant. He stopped her before they could go in.
"Why not?" The smell of the food was making her stomach hurt. He'd better have a good reason.
He looked in through one of the windows. "Two psychic officers are eating inside."
Sparrow jumped back, her hunger forgotten.
"Don't worry. They don't seem to know you're here. But we should go before they notice you."
Sparrow nodded and backed away, not wanting to take her eyes from the door. The other psychics weren't powerful enough for her to sense, but a fight would surely attract stronger ones.
"I'll see you some other time," She said to Miller as she turned and doubled her pace.
"Sparrow, wait," He said. He jogged to catch up with her. "I can tell you're weak. You haven't eaten in at least two days, maybe three."
She didn't agree, but she didn't argue either. He took it as a sign to go on, "It's supposed to be cold tonight. Are you sure you can even make it to morning without something to eat? Come on, we'll just find some other place."
After a long moment she nodded. He was right, she needed the food.
"This way. There's a little place I know. It's not great, but no one from the government would go within fifty feet of it." He grabbed her arm and led her down a narrow street. After a minute or two, he turned and led her into an old two story building.
"They run a restaurant here?" She asked. "This place looks like it could fall down at any moment."
They had come out into a large, empty room. The windows were broken and the walls were covered in grime and graffiti. Miller turned to her and said, "Trust me."
"Dammit," Sparrow cursed. She should have noticed when he had mentioned the psychic officers. An obvious lie. Her fear had made her careless. She had looked to Miller for help.
There was no way he could have known she was on the run, only that she was a homeless kid who didn't want to be arrested for trespassing. As far as he knew, she had no reason to fear psychics.
He had changed. His face was dead looking, and his eyes were glassy. His mind was being controlled. She turned to the entrance, but the doors had closed behind them. A familiar buzzing came from the walls and ceiling. She felt the floor begin to vibrate.
Sparrow sprinted toward the back of the room. The first door she tried was locked. She moved to the next. It was locked too.
"So, you've been calling yourself Sparrow?" Miller asked. "Fitting for someone so flighty." He laughed. It was cold, far different from Miller's usual laugh. "And soon you'll be a caged bird. How does it feel?"
Sparrow refused to face him. She wouldn't let him see that he was getting to him. The buzzing grew louder. She was out of time. She reached toward the door, drawing on her power. Her blue eyes shined momentarily and the door tore itself off its hinges. She dived through.
A moment later the room behind her began to collapse, torn apart by the vibrations. She heard Miller scream once, and then the awful noise of the destruction drowned him out. Seconds later it stopped, and the door Sparrow had gone through was blocked by stone and wood.
She climbed to her feet, unharmed but feeling more drained than before. She forced herself to keep moving through the dark building. She had to find a way out before it was too late. A buzzing sound came from ahead of her, and she ducked into the nearest doorway. She cursed when she saw it was a storage closet, with no other way out.
Out in the hall, there was an explosion. She could imagine what it looked like. A section of wall was hit with sound waves, causing it to vibrate fast enough to tear itself apart. When the sound stopped, she could imagine him standing there, his sword stretched out to the hole. He would lower it, and call out.
"Oh, Annabel!" His voice formed her name with familiarity. Her skin crawled and she backed further into the closet. It was only a matter of time before Valentine found her.
He was moving through the hall now, opening doors, blasting rubble out of his way. He knew she was here, he had felt her power when she blasted down the door. She knew he could feel her general direction.
A strong hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her back. She was too shocked to fight it. No one had been behind her. She felt herself bump into a stout body. A voice whispered, "Don't make noise or he'll find us. I'm a friend."
Valentine was right outside now. She could feel his power threatening to overwhelm her. As the door opened, she felt a thin cloth being thrown over her. Valentine stepped into the room, staring right at her. She was frozen in fear, waiting for him to attack, or to try to capture her.
A moment later, he turned away and continued down the hall.
"This way. Quietly," the voice whispered as the hands pushed her forward. They went out into the hall, and then turned to walk away from Valentine. Strong arms held her upright, even though she felt like she couldn't take another step. "In here."
They stepped through a door and into a stairwell. The cloth was thrown off them and the door was closed behind her.
"Well, that was fun. I love a good thriller."
Sparrow turned to her savior. He was slightly taller than her, with dark skin and strong arms. He smiled warmly. "Hello Sparrow. The name's Mudd."
She moved to sit on the stairs. "How did you do that?"
Mudd held up the cloth he had covered them with. It was an old sheet. "I gave it the function of Shadows. As long as we keep to the shadows, no one can see us. I use it when I need to go incognito."
"How did you know my name?"
"All stories are written in the book, even yours."
"Yes, the book. It's actually why I'm here." Mudd glanced around before continuing. "And I'm gonna have to cut this Q and A a little short. I'm pressed for time, you see. I need your help."
"My help? Why me?"
"The Book of Stories is being unwritten. Long story short, several universes connected to it are in danger. You'd have to ask Ink for the details. Anyway, we can't go into the book anymore, so we need to send in people to help. I think you can help give meaning to the stories that have grown old and stale. You've certainly giving your own life meaning."
"Yeah, right. My life is real meaningful."
Mudd frowned, glancing around. "I'd love to convince you, but I have to move on to the next world soon. Just trust me, the fact that you refused to accept the status quo makes you powerful. I need that power."
"And why should I help? My life is dangerous enough just trying to take care of myself."
"Because, in the worlds you will be travelling to, Valentine doesn't exist. None of the psychic operations exist."
Sparrow looked up at him, unable to speak. Another world, where Valentine didn't exist? A place she didn't have to worry about the government finding her? It was absurd, there weren't other worlds.
But if it was true?
The doorknob started to rattle. Mudd turned to it. "Looks like the antagonist found us. I locked the door with a function, but it won't hold for long. Time to make a decision. Stay here and deal with him, or trust me."
It wasn't a tough decision. If he was lying, she was dead either way. But if he was telling the truth, then she had a chance. "Send me to the Book." She tried to stand, but lost her balance and fell against the wall.
"Right, almost forgot," Mudd said. He leaned over and touched the knife clipped to her belt. "Fortitude."
A moment later strength flooded through her. She stood straight and tall. She could still feel the pain of hunger, but it wouldn't stop her now.
"Keep that knife with you. It'll give you strength." He pointed up the stairs. "Travel. The stairs will take you where you need to go. Fix something in your mind, and you will be taken to it in the book."
"What do I do when I get there? How do I help the Book?"
Mudd laughed. "I haven't got a clue. Good luck."
The door was beginning to vibrate. The edges were splintering. Sparrow began to climb the stairs. After a few seconds, everything was dark. She couldn't see moonlight through the windows, or the stairs in front of her. She thought of what she needed when she got there, what would be the most useful. "Take me to an ally."
The door shattered and fell inward. Mudd turned and disappeared into the shadows a moment before Valentine stepped through the door. He looked around, a frown on his face. Something was weird. Annabel's power had disappeared completely. It didn't seem possible, but it had happened.
Something caught his attention. In a shadowy corner of the room was a single sheet of paper. It looked fresh and clean. It was completely out of place in this building. He bent down to pick it up. The moment his fingers touched it, the world tipped over and he fell into darkness.