A Close Call for Astrid

Lyra dragged her two best friends through the website, tugging at them when they tried to stop and look at the various pages whizzing past, catching glimpses of their names on some of them.

"Come on," Lyra urged. "You can go around reading everything later, you nerds. Right now I've got something to show you."

"Right now?" Maran asked. He tried to peek into one of the pages again, and managed to read something about "The Suicide Club" before Lyra pulled him away. "But this stuff is about us."

"We already know about us. This is better, trust me."

Maran and Astrid exchanged glances, simultaneously deciding that it really wasn't worth wasting time arguing with their stubborn friend. So they hurried their steps, letting Lyra guide them along at nearly a run. She stopped before a door and gestured grandly to it. "This," she proclaimed in her most important-sounding voice, "is the character breakroom."

"The character... breakroom?" Astrid looked puzzled. "Break from what?"

"I guess all the crap Carson puts us through? Sort of thoughtful, I suppose, but it'd be easier on us if she just let us off easy, don't you think?"

Maran shook his head. "Easy isn't very interesting for readers, though."

"So we get a breakroom...." Astrid looked thoughtful. "What can we do here that we can't in Brightwood?"

"Anything!" Lyra enthused. "Think it, and it's there!" She put her hand of the door to let the three of them into the page, and cast a mischievous glance at her friends that made both of them very nervous. "But even better... we can hang out with characters from other stories!"

"Other stories?" Astrid asked skeptically, "What other stories?"

"Well, I don't know, really. I mean, I've only met one other character here, so far, but she's so cool." Lyra tossed open the door and darted inside. "Come on, I told her I was bringing you two to meet her!"

Astrid glanced at Maran. "Does that sound a bit...ominous to you?"

Maran nodded.

The girl sighed. "Let's get this over with." She went into the room, followed closely by Maran, and looked around. For some reason, they seemed to be in a forest. She touched the nearest tree. It looked real enough.

"Don't move!" a voice yelled.

Astrid started and looked around.

"I said, don't move!"

The voice sounded like it was aways away, and Astrid wasn't entirely sure that not-moving was her best option, here, but in the time she spent deliberating, a knife shot past her ear. She jumped and turned to look where the blade had gone, partly to verify that yes, someone had actually thrown a knife at her. Suddenly, Lyra and Maran were right beside her, Maran putting a comforting arm around her shoulders and Lyra bouncing on her toes and pointing. "Isn't she awesome?" Lyra asked.

Astrid was about to declare that, no, this new friend of Lyra's was anything but awesome, when she saw what Lyra was pointing at. The knife had nailed a snake to a tree, right between the animal's eyes. Its mouth hung open, exposing dripping fangs. Astrid swallowed. "Was that thing about to bite me?" she asked.

Lyra squirmed uncomfortably, "Well, it wasn't about to bite you, about to bite you, it was just sort of... right over your shoulder with its mouth open?"

Astrid shivered.

"You walked right into my target practice," the voice from before said flatly.

The trio turned. Lyra beamed. Maran crossed his arms with a curious tilt of his head, the way he looked at his science experiments when they didn't turn out quite how he expected. Astrid was still skeptical, and pursed her lips a bit as she studied the girl walking towards them. The girl had short, dark red hair and a steady, calculating gaze. Astrid got the impression that she had assessed every detail about the trio before she'd gotten their attention, and was now carefully cataloging their reactions.

"You're using animals for target practice?" Lyra asked abruptly, her expression turning sour.

"Unpredictable targets are better to practice with."

Lyra scowled.

The girl rolled her eyes. "They are digital animals, you realize. Not real ones."

"I guess," Lyra said sulkily.

Astrid waited a beat to see if Lyra was going to introduce them, but no such pleasantries seemed forthcoming, so she stepped forward, holding out her hand. "I'm Astrid."

The girl eyed her for a moment before shaking her hand. "Gwen."

"Maran." The boy also offered his hand and was studied for a moment before it was accepted.

They all stood silently for a moment. Finally, the girl sighed. "Look, if all this friendship nonsense is over, I need to get back to practicing."

Astrid frowned. She didn't think that was very friendly. Even if they weren't all getting off on the right foot, that wasn't any reason to...

"You were going to teach me, weren't you Gwen?"

"I assumed you had lost interest. Come along, then."

"I don't want to aim at animals, though, even if they are digital," Lyra said adamantly.

Gwen snorted. "You wouldn't be able to hit one, anyway." She walked over to the snake and pulled the knife from it. The dead thing fell to the ground, and Gwen cut an X into the tree. "When you can hit this every time, without fail, dead center, we'll talk about moving targets. I'm sure the room can find something suitable for you if we ever get that far." She glanced at Astrid and Maran. "You two want to learn, too?"

"I'm sorry, learn what, exactly?" Astrid asked.

"To throw knives," Gwen said, as if it were quite obvious.

"Thanks, but I'm alright," Astrid said quickly.

"I'm not coordinated enough for that," Maran added. "Maybe in a video game."

"A video game?" Gwen asked.

The pair gaped at her. "What century is your story set in, exactly?"

Gwen frowned. "Well, the current one. It's... well, I don't really keep track, but it was 2013 the last I checked. But I think there's been a winter since then. So it must be... 2014?"

"And you don't know what a video game is?" Maran asked.

Gwen shrugged. "I didn't have what you'd call a normal childhood. I haven't had electricity since I was.... oh, about eight?"

Astrid and Maran simply stared at her, but Gwen just shrugged. "Look, if you're not going to throw with us, I actually brought a companion, as well. He went off that way, saying something about a stream."

"Does he have a name?" Maran asked dryly.

"Seb," said Gwen, and marched off into the forest without a backwards glance. Lyra shrugged at the pair and ran after her.

So Astrid and Maran went looking for Seb, hoping he would be slightly more friendly than his "companion."