Home > Guardian of the Dark Paths (Children of the Ajda #1)

Guardian of the Dark Paths (Children of the Ajda #1)
Author: Susan Trombley




Sarah shivered when she heard the sound of a car door slamming just outside her townhome. She finished stuffing her sweat-soaked bedding into the washing machine, still shaken by the nightmares that had plagued her last night and left her exhausted. A couple of wash pods and some scent boost later and she slammed the washing machine door just in time to hear her doorbell ring.

Before she could even reach the door, a loud banging started. She jerked it open to catch Bethany with her hand up in the air, ready to pound on the door a second time. Matt stood beside her. He was a few years younger than her, at only twenty, and he was an avid gym rat, as his well-toned, muscular body could attest. Still, something was off-putting to her when it came to Matt.

Bethany smiled her Instagram smile. It seemed very fake to Sarah, but she knew that beneath Beth’s obsession with “going viral” and becoming a social media celebrity, she was still the painfully shy girl Sarah had grown up with. She and Beth had suffered through puberty hell together, fast friends who reassured each other that even with braces, bad acne, and baby fat, they were still beautiful and would someday prove to the world how amazing they were.

The social media mask was how Beth dealt with the world and its disappointments. Sarah used escapism with video games and books instead. She hadn’t come out of puberty as a beautiful swan like Beth had.

“I thought you were going to chicken out on us,” Beth said, flipping her long, blond extensions over her shoulder.

Sarah stepped aside and motioned them into the house. “I still think this is a bad idea, but I made you a promise and I intend to keep it.” She gestured to the hallway of the little townhouse. “If you need to use the restroom before we go, it’s down that hall.”

The gesture was meant for Matt, who’d never been to her home, but Beth was the one who answered as Matt glanced around, a sharp look in his blue eyes as they caught on the gaming system set up in her living room.

“Yes, mother,” Beth said with amusement in her voice. “We already went potty and got a drink and washed our hands. We’re all ready for our trip. Now, quit stalling. We’re burning daylight.”

“Sweet system,” Matt said, stepping closer to her living room to get a better look at her gaming rig, the lights on her tower glowing the same color as her headset that was propped on its charger.

Beth caught the back of his shirt, tugging him back through suggestion rather than force, since the muscles exposed by the thin fabric tightening over them wouldn’t have been challenged by Beth’s petite, slender frame.

“We don’t have time for video games,” she snapped, the amused tone from earlier evaporating as she glared at Matt. “You can pester Sarah about her little hobby later. Afterwards.” She put stress on the last word as Matt pulled free of her grasp on his shirt and smoothed his hands down the front of it.

“Fine,” he said with a petulant bite to his tone. He followed that up by lifting a hand to pat at his golden blonde hair, as if to insure that it hadn’t been mussed by the short interaction.

Sarah shook her head at his obvious vanity. He was a social media “rising star” according to Beth, though Sarah had tried to watch one of his videos and found his channel boring and infantile. She never could understand the whole “pranking” videos fad that people seemed to love so much that they went viral all the time. Some of the pranks were just plain cruel, all to get some likes and shares and comments in the hopes of getting internet famous.

Beth ignored his clear irritation, turning her own slight frown on Sarah. “Seriously, girl. It’s time to go. We have a ways to drive and I don’t want to get there too late to really explore.”

Sarah sucked in a deep breath, closing her eyes as she turned her back on them. She released it slowly, trying to push her anxiety out with the air. It never seemed to work the way the meditation books promised. She still felt the nervous energy tightening her muscles until her hand trembled as she reached for her small backpack.

“You got flashlights? And extra batteries?”

Beth rolled her eyes. “Yes, for the last time! And we have our cameras, which have their own lights as well. With extra batteries,” she ground out, waving for Sarah to hurry up. “Let’s go!”

Delaying tactics failing, Sarah followed reluctantly in Matt’s footsteps as he trailed Beth out her front door. He tossed one last, longing glance at her gaming rig before meeting her eyes and giving her a smile he probably thought was charming.

Sarah was unimpressed. She’d seen enough of his fake smile on the one video she’d tried to watch of his. She had no idea why Beth kept hanging around him, though to be fair, Beth’s videos were no more substantive in their content.

Beth was hoping to elevate her profile by doing something more profound and different than she’d been doing. Instead of fashion reviews, makeup tutorials, and unboxing videos to go along with her Instagram modeling profile, she wanted to add some exploration videos, in the hopes of entering a new market that wasn’t oversaturated with beautiful blonde girls.

Sarah really wanted to help Beth follow her dreams and become famous, but she’d been uncertain about her best friend’s current plan since Beth had suggested it. Neither of them knew much about exploring caves in the middle of the Arizona desert. Matt was going along for extra muscle and camera operation, but he wasn’t exactly an expert either.

“We’re not going too deep inside this cave?” Sarah asked, as they arrived at their destination. It was the first time she’d spoken since they’d hopped into Beth’s Jeep. Her mind had been too preoccupied with worry after her nightmares, most of which she’d instantly forgotten upon waking, but the dread had remained.

Beth broke off her conversation with Matt, who was driving her Jeep and rattling on and on about the recent social media convention they’d attended. He’d dropped a ton of names during that conversation that Sarah didn’t even recognize. A few of the video gamer channels registered with her, though she generally preferred to play the games rather than watch others play them in videos.

Matt put the Jeep in park as Beth turned to face Sarah, who sat in the cramped back seat. Her knees felt sore from slamming repeatedly into the back of the driver’s seat as they’d bounced over every bump and dip on the unimproved desert road.

“Sarah, we’ll be fine! I don’t know why you’re worrying so much! I’m trying to get you out of your house so you can have a real adventure instead of just running around in a video game world. This will be fun!” She reached back to pat Sarah’s bruised knee. “You’ll see.”

“It’s just… risky, don’t you think?”

“Come on, Sarah,” Matt said as he threw open his door and climbed out. He popped his head back inside to peer back at Sarah, “don’t be such a coward.”

They had to hike to their destination, and Sarah had to admit she was glad Beth had pushed them to get moving, because even in the early hours of the morning, the desert heat had ratcheted up to over ninety degrees. The scrubby mesquite trees with twisted trunks squatting low to the ground did little to add shade, and the ocotillo stabbed into the sky like thorned pikes left behind on a battlefield after some long distant war, barely casting a decent shadow.

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