US copyright ©2016 by Mary Fan
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any informational storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher, except for inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
Published in the United States by Glass House Press, LLC, 2016. GLASS HOUSE PRESS and colophon are trademarks of Glass House Press, LLC.
Library Of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication is on file with the publisher.
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A trail of death leads to the river. Flower petals, once brilliant shades of purple, hang shriveled from brittle stems. Blades of grass, once vibrantly green, lie curled and brown and dry. Patches of exposed dirt, usually invisible beneath a lush carpet of flora, gape like open wounds.
And though it should horrify me, I find myself oddly captivated. Nothing like this has ever happened here, within the enchanted bounds of Kristakai. Each felled piece reminds me of a person suffering under the sharpest instruments of torture—a person who has coiled herself into a little ball and wept into her knees before the bliss of death ended the pain forever.
I make a derisive noise at my own thought. Nothing as appalling as that could ever occur in this land of peace and magic, which is guarded by the power of the unicorns. They are the keepers of this domain and ensure that it remains forever safe. Though this place might be more interesting if that weren’t so. I’ve only read of terrors like violence, beings purposely inflicting pain on other beings, in books that detailed the affairs of the human world outside. And as a nymph bound to her homeland, I’ve never so much as set foot in their realm, let alone witnessed the dangers that plague them.
If a human could see me in this moment, staring in astonishment at the sight of the lifeless plants, she’d probably laugh at me. In her world, such things would be commonplace. I almost laugh as well… How tedious a land must I live in if a few dead flowers can shock me?
But they’re a harbinger of something far darker, and knowing that frightens me more than I wish to admit.
Nothing that draws its life from the earth ever dies here. The flowers, the grass, the bushes, the trees—they only sleep. They descend into slumber when winter falls, becoming crisp to the touch and dull in color, but then awaken each spring. They never turn to ash as the ones before me have.
And I know in my heart that the barren sight can only mean one thing: A threat from beyond our borders has infiltrated this protected land.
I rake my fingers through my thick hair, glimpsing flashes of its copper shades in the edges of my vision. Under the sunlight, the strands flicker like the flames I’m so used to casting. But fear trickles down my spine in icy drops, and I can almost hear the specter of danger whispering in my ears. I don’t know whether it’s a curse or a creature or some other force of evil that’s invaded Kristakai, only that it can destroy life.
And if that’s true, what’s to stop it from trying to destroy me?
I clench my fists, reminding myself that should anyone—or anything—threaten me, I can transform into a column of flames and demolish them. The unicorns created each of the nymphs from the element we embody, and I was born from a blaze. In the sixteen years I’ve walked this earth, I’ve never had to face a menace that would merit a fight … but I know I can protect myself if I must.
I am fire, and fire fears nothing.
Yet, I will still expire in my time, and I can still be killed. The spells around Kristakai were supposed to keep out anything that could harm me… But if something can poison the immortal land, then no one is safe anymore.
At least I’m better suited for survival than most others here, I tell myself. This place is so serene—infuriatingly so—that it wouldn’t occur to many to fight back should something attack them. They live in willful ignorance, believing that nothing bad could ever happen as long as they remain here. But I know better, having read much about the human world outside and the kinds of dangers that could exist.
Though I never believed before today that I’d ever face any such threat, I always told myself that if I did, I’d strike back. And if there is truly danger in my land, I mean to do just that.
Before me, the shriveled plants form a morbid path through the otherwise lush riverbank, and I follow it anxiously toward the water, wondering if the source of the death lies beneath the clear ripples. I do not step on the fallen blades and stems, in case some poison lingers on their surfaces. The still-healthy grass feels cool and soft against my bare feet … which makes the cracked and broken flora all the more disconcerting.
Whatever caused this destruction did more than just kill—it sucked the life out of its victims. And I find that both disturbing and fascinating. What must it be like to wield such deadly magic? Whatever did this must be very powerful to have breached the enchantments around Kristakai. Those spells were cast by the unicorns themselves, thousands upon thousands of years ago. And it’s not just any magic they used. Celestial beings, created by the Divinity at the dawn of time to watch over the Terrestrial Realm, the unicorns are immortal and wise—earthbound deities who safeguard the world. Their magic is not easily defeated.
In fact, I do not think it possible for any Terrestrial being to break a spell they cast. Not a nymph like myself, or a fairy whose small stature belies great power, or a sprite whose ethereal appearance disguises mighty abilities. And certainly not a human—even one with magic.
I pause as a dark thought enters my head. Perhaps whoever did this is not Terrestrial… I gasp as a realization hits me.
What if a monster escaped the Infernal Realm?
My heart beats harder at the thought—from both fear and anticipation.
Not long after the Divinity created the world, Her wicked brother, the Fiend, sought to destroy it by unleashing hordes of beasts on the world to ravage the living. Though the Fiend and his minions were ultimately defeated, cast back into Inferno by the Divinity Herself, it’s said that the creatures sometimes manage to escape, beings of shadow and flame that wield the power of the Fiend. They come in many forms, from incorporeal spirits to beasts with sharp teeth and deadly claws. I’ve read about several, but there are too many to name… And the types described in the books are only the ones that left survivors around to write about them.
What if such a creature somehow made it here? And which one could it be?
I yearn to know more, and though the sun shines bright against an azure sky above, I sense an invisible shadow creeping across the world. The thought of an Infernal creature in Kristakai should fill me with horror. It could destroy everything, leeching the life from both the land and those who inhabit it. The kind of pain and suffering the unicorns enchanted our borders to keep out could strike the innocent and unsuspecting… Or maybe it already has, and I simply haven’t heard of it yet. I should be appalled.
Instead, I find it all strangely fascinating. I’ve never encountered anything Infernal before—not in real life, anyway. All I know is what I’ve read, and I’ve only seen the beasts depicted in illustrations.
An odd kind of excitement glitters in my chest as I continue toward the water, hoping that whatever killed the plants left some kind of footprint … an Infernal footprint.
Reaching the riverbank, I crouch by the water. The skirt of my green dress, which is secured by a knot at the nape of my neck and leaves much of my back exposed, pools on the ground and nearly blends into the grass. Anyone—or anything—looking at me now would think me vulnerable, with my girlish appearance and flimsy clothing. An easy target for an attacker.
They’d be so, so wrong.
I take a moment to summon my powers, feeling them spark to life within me, and suddenly invisible flames ripple through my torso and flow into my limbs. Until I call upon them, they will remain within me, and no one looking at me from the outside would suspect that beneath my bronze skin, a conflagration waits. If the mysterious monster is waiting in ambush beneath the water, it won’t know that I, too, am dangerous, until it’s too late. A perverse part of me hopes it is there, and that it will attack, so I can unleash my powers and defeat it. Though I know how foolish the notion is—how could I best a creature that overcame the magic of the unicorns?—I can’t stop myself from thinking it.
Slowly, I peer over the edge and into the water, looking past the white clouds reflected in the shimmering surface and searching the gray rocks below for anything unnatural.
A sudden splash sends my heart leaping, and flames surge instinctively from my hands as I jump back with a gasp. I’m about to release the blaze when my gaze lands on the cause of the disturbance.
A little frog, brilliant blue and speckled with yellow, sits on the riverbank beside me, its two bulbous orange eyes staring up at me. Its type is common along the river, and I close my fists to extinguish the fire. I almost laugh at my own foolishness, though my heart is still racing.
“Silly frog.” I kneel beside it. “You should know better than to startle a fire nymph.”
But it doesn’t react—not even to twitch its little head—and its stillness puzzles me. Discomfort rises in my gut.
Then I spot a stream of red oozing from where its two front legs should be. It takes me a moment to realize what I’m looking at, and when I do, I find myself shocked into motionless silence.
Nothing ever attacks anything here, and yet something has ripped the front limbs from the frog, leaving it bleeding and helpless. The horror that was missing before hits me now with full force, and I scoop the frog up with my hands, shuddering at the slippery feel of blood in my palms. Just then, its back leg twitches, sending a hint of relief through me; as long as a single shred of life remains within its tiny body, the power of the unicorns can heal it. I can’t stand to see it suffer and die like this.
The magic I summoned before still crackles under my skin, but now I direct it toward a different purpose. Like my element, I can travel through air, and I feel my legs dissolving into flames in readiness. Though I blaze bright, I hold the frog tightly to my chest. My fire wouldn’t burn a leaf unless I told it to, which means the frog is safe in my grasp. I must get it to a unicorn, and quickly. A life is depending on me.
I’m about to leap into the air when I realize I have no idea where I’m going. Kristakai is a vast domain, and the unicorns are few. Even in flight, searching for one would be like combing through an enormous pile of black sand in search of a single white grain.
I don’t have time.
So I return to my solid form and throw back my head. “Cyim!” I scream, calling for the one unicorn I know will always hear me—the one whose magic created me. My Terrene Father, whose power flows in my veins, and who is inexorably connected to my very being. “Cyim! I need your help!”
I call again, certain that he’ll materialize before me at any moment and set everything right. Cyim always seems to be hovering nearby, keeping an overprotective eye on me and my sisters—the other nymphs his magic created.
But he doesn’t appear. Where the blazes is he when I need him? I can sense the little life in my hands slipping through my fingers, and frustration grinds my gut. Nymphs possess great powers of destruction, yet not one iota of magic that could heal or create. That’s why the unicorns confined my kind to their realms after the Age of Unicorns—the great era during which enchanted beings roamed the entire world alongside the humans—ended, thousands of years before I was born. Somehow, the plain and vulnerable humans rose to power and sought dominance. Rather than fighting them, the ever-peaceful unicorns divided the land and erected the borders, which keep humans out and nymphs—only nymphs—inside, while other creatures are free to come and go as they please.
For we are the race the humans feared the most … and, if what I’ve read is true, with good reason.
But, though my abilities, by their nature alone, are among the most lethal, I have no desire to kill. And in this moment, I wish I could reverse their impact and have them restore instead. I hate having to stand here, helpless, while an innocent being dies.
“Cyim!” I call yet again.
This time, my cry is rewarded by the sight of golden sparkles materializing before my eyes, dancing over the grass. A second later, they explode into white light. Most would shield their eyes from the blinding glare, but as a being of flames I’m accustomed to such brightness, and I stare directly into them. When the light fades, Cyim stands before me, a majestic presence with a coat so dark it seems to absorb all light. His white mane and tail billow under the gust of lingering magic, in sharp contrast to the rest of him, and his gilded horn gleams above his sharp amber eyes. Though the unicorns have always been equals to each other, the ignorant look upon my Terrene Father and, because of his imposing appearance, assume he’s a king among his kind. He awes most—even those who know him well—but to me, he’s a familiar and safe presence.
Towering over me, he meets my gaze. What distresses you so, Elaia? His deep voice resonates in my head.
I extend my arms, holding the wounded frog toward him. “Can you save her?” I ask desperately.
Cyim glances at the creature in my hands, and understanding dawns in his eyes. Without a word, he bows his head, aligning the tip of his horn with the frog’s now motionless body. A gentle beam of light streams toward my hands, and a comforting warmth envelops them; though the healing spell is meant for the frog, traces of it brush my skin, and each spot it touches sends energy pulsing up my arms and into the rest of me.
I did not need restoring, and yet even that small dusting of magic breathes life into my body—an exhilarating sensation. I watch the frog, whose blue form glows under the spell, expecting to see its lost limbs regrown and its dull eyes spark to life.
Instead, it dissolves into sapphire sparkles, which dance like a thousand tiny fireflies before spilling from my palms in a glittering shower. They vanish as they hit the ground, and the warmth from the magic disappears, leaving me to stare in surprise at my empty hands.
I’m sorry, child. Cyim’s voice rings through my mind. The creature’s life was already lost. There was nothing I could do but to return its body to the earth and air from which it came.
“You mean … something killed her?” A cold fist closes around my heart. Nothing is ever killed in Kristakai… In fact, I never imagined it would be possible. I thought the barriers would keep us safe, or, if something did infiltrate them, that our magic would guard us. But evidently that is not true.
I’d thought finding a creature that had been attacked would be the worst I’d ever encounter … but clearly I was wrong.
Beneath the fear, a barren emptiness sits in my soul, as if a piece of me is now missing. I suppose in a way that’s true, since I’m a part of this land, and it’s a part of me. I don’t know if the void I feel now is because of that connection or because I just watched something die. Or maybe it’s because I should be experiencing some kind of sorrow over the death, but instead feel only shock. “What could have done this?”
I do not know. In my mind, Cyim’s low voice is heavy with grief. But that frog was not the only victim of this new danger. I sense the loss of many others, whose bodies were consumed by the beast. He lowers his head, a pained look in his eyes. There has been a massacre here, and though the frog was the only physical trace it left behind, I feel the loss and devastation. This should never have happened; violence should never have entered this domain. Subtle anger flickers through his tone.
“So it was a beast?” I widen my eyes. A massacre—I wonder how many creatures the monster swallowed whole, leaving not even a drop of blood as evidence they ever lived. And to my surprise, though hearing of so much death should cause me to mourn, all I can think about is the thing that caused it. There’s no time for grieving when the attacker is still here and could strike again at any time. Yes, what happened is horrible—I know that, of course I do—but the need to learn more triumphs over my ability to grieve. “Something from the Infernal Realm?”
Most likely. Cyim’s eyes sweep across the riverbank, taking in the dead plants that first drew me here. Evil has breached our borders. In the nearly seven thousand years that have passed since we built them, such a thing has never occurred. I dread what this means.
I stare at him, the fear tightening its grip, but I find something strangely exciting about the sensation. Up until now, my world has been completely safe—too safe for my liking. But now something new is happening … and I’d rather be afraid than bored. In fact, I wonder if I’ve ever truly been afraid before today. Living in Kristakai is like lying on your back upon the calm surface of a lake, floating serenely under a nourishing sun with only the occasional ripple troubling the water. Every disturbance I’ve felt before has been but a splash to the face.
And now, a great wave is rushing toward me, threatening to crash upon my body and bury me in the depths. It’s frightening, yes. It’s a danger, yes. It could even drown me…
Yet, in the most honest core of my heart, I know I don’t want to stop it. I want to discover what it’s like to be tossed about, to have to fight for something, to unleash my magic for an actual reason, and not just to see what they can do. I find it maddening that I’m unable to use the great power I possess, since everything is so peaceful, and there’s been nothing to fight. I asked Cyim once why the unicorns bothered creating the nymphs at all if we weren’t going to be permitted to live out our full potential. His reply was that part of the unicorns’ duty was to ensure the continued existence of every living race created by the Divinity, and that just because we could do something—like burn trees to the ground—doesn’t mean we should. The wisdom in his words has done little to temper my frustration over the years. But now, because of this monster, I have a chance to be the greatest I can be.
I want this unseen evil to return when I am present so that I might become the blaze I was born from and feel the thrill of triumph.
Cyim’s eyes harden, and a slight twinge runs through me as I realize he might have read my thoughts. Though the unicorns have the ability to probe minds, their pacifist philosophies and moral codes forbid them from doing so except under extreme circumstances. Therefore, they only read thoughts when someone wants them to be read—when they’re sending out a psychic message, as most animals do since they cannot speak. Still, this wouldn’t be the first time I’d accidentally projected what I was thinking.
And it wouldn’t be the first time I’d told him something about myself that I would rather have kept secret.
So what if I did? I straighten my spine. All I wished for was a chance to protect my homeland, to defeat that which would bring my friends and neighbors harm. There’s no crime in that.
I meet Cyim’s gaze and give him a cool look. “What are we going to do about it?”
You will do nothing. Cyim’s tone is stern. I shall convene with the other unicorns to discuss this matter. We will protect Kristakai, as we always have. He turns his face toward the sky, tossing his snowy mane. Hopefully we will discover and eliminate this threat before it causes any further harm.
“That’s not good enough!” I cross my arms, irritated by his lack of anger. I should be accustomed to the fact that, like the other unicorns, he never shows much emotion, but still, how can be so calm? Doesn’t he care? “The unthinkable has happened here, and all you’re going to do is talk?”
Until we know what we are dealing with, there is little action we can take. He turns back toward me. But I promise I will do everything in my power to protect you.
That’s not what’s bothering me. I can protect myself. I grit my teeth, knowing he’d never understand if I unleashed my true feelings. I don’t want to cower and hide and hope that my guardians will take care of me. I want to set something on fire and watch it burn.
Cyim’s gaze bores into mine. As for you, my child, I ask that you remain vigilant and warn everyone you can to do the same. If you spot anything amiss, call me immediately. Do not attempt to engage the danger yourself.
I bite back the desire to tell him that I want to fight. But such contrary talk can only earn me a lecture, and I haven’t the time to listen to one at the moment. So I simply nod in response.
An otherworldly glow envelops Cyim’s obsidian body, until he vanishes within its bright embrace. The light evaporates, and him with it, leaving me alone on the riverbank.
I soar over the colorful treetops, looking down on the land below me. The sun remains high and bright, yet the invisible shadow I sense over Kristakai—the looming danger from an unknown Infernal beast—seems to grow darker with each passing moment. As my eyes scan the woods for signs of the monster, I wonder whether those below can feel it, too, or if they remain ignorant to the threat.
In my flame form I am weightless, a part of the breeze. Glancing back, I glimpse an orange and yellow blaze in place of my legs, wrapping around my hips and fading into my dress. Beyond those flames, the clouds are as white and pure as before, and the forest below no more threatening than yesterday. If the mysterious evil is nearby, I can’t see it.
I face forward again, and my long hair whips against my face, filling my vision with its leaping, gleaming strands; it, too, turns into fire when I fly. Wreathed head-to-toe in flames, I feel powerful—and ready to fight.
But no matter which way I look, I spot nothing out of the ordinary, and I find that more unnerving than if there were an actual shadow—something I could see and track—moving over the land. Yet the beast must be somewhere, and it could strike again at any moment, for all I know. I need to stop it before it does—never mind what Cyim told me.
My plan is simple: Find the monster and burn it to nothing. And the sooner, the better.
Listen well, inhabitants of Kristakai. Cyim’s voice suddenly rings through my head, and I pause mid-air, startled. Where is he, and why would he address me like that? I speak to you on behalf of all the unicorns, with a message of grave importance.
Understanding dawns on me. He’s not talking to me specifically—he’s psychically communicating with everyone. Powerful as he is, I know that’s too great a feat for him to have accomplished on his own; he must have met with the other unicorns already. They must be pooling their magic to amplify his abilities.
An Infernal creature has breached our borders, Cyim continues, his tone grave. We do not yet know what it is or what it is capable of, but I assure you, we are doing everything in our power to stop it. Do what you must to remain safe, and do not attempt to confront it yourselves.
I grimace. I suppose it makes sense to warn everyone about the monster, but his last words irritate me. He—along with the other unicorns—wants everyone to do nothing and let Kristakai’s guardians take care of the problem.
No matter, I tell myself. I ignored him when he told me that by the riverbank, and I shall ignore him now.
Flying forward once more, I turn my gaze downward, scanning the trees for anything amiss. But all I find are the usual laughing greens of the treetops, the smiling purples of the meadows, and the giggling blues of the river, all sprinkled with flashes of colored light from where a fairy or sprite or other enchanted inhabitant has cast a spell. Up close, each of those places would reveal an even greater mix of colors, swirling in harmony upon a bloom’s petal or a pond’s ripples.
As if to complement the vibrant colors, I hear something—beneath the whooshing of the wind and the crackle of my own flames, a sweet melody floats up in lilting soprano notes, accented by a countermelody of rising thirds. The voices are too ethereal to have come from the lips of a creature of flesh… It’s likely the songflowers—the enchanted blossoms that, despite lying scattered across Kristakai, all raise their voices at once when they sense the time is right. Ordinarily, the music pouring from the multicolored bells, which dangle from clear, crystal stems adorned with leaves as delicate as dewdrops, inspires joy or induces serenity.
Today, they carry a mournful tune, one that seeps into my heart and weighs it down, and at last I feel the sorrow for the lost lives by the riverbank. The haunting melody rises and falls like the ragged gasps of a weeping mourner, and I almost weep as well. But there’s a heat beneath, a soft tension expressed through dissonant chords pressing up against the notes. It causes a strange type of discomfort to scratch at my core, telling me that there is more than just sorrow to be felt—there is darkness as well. And that heat causes my sorrow to simmer into anger… No one had the right to take those lives from us. This monster—this invader—must be destroyed, and the longer I dwell on it, the more determined I am to be the one to purge it from my home.
Yet I have no idea where to begin. I don’t even know what I’m looking for, and I hate that I’ve been able to do nothing so far. As far as I can tell, the trail of death I encountered is the only sign that the beast even exists.
Suddenly a new wind brushes against me, and this time it feels different. It’s more than the empty movements of shifting air… I sense life in this breeze. And not just any life—one I’ve come to trust and take comfort in.
“Elaia…” Her voice surrounds me, soft and breathy.
I pause midair, recognizing her at once, though she’s invisible at present. The wind grows stronger for a moment, then dies down as a pale, narrow figure clad in azure materializes before me. Colored wisps extend from her hips in place of legs; like me, she can transform into her element, and has done so to reach me. Silver-white hair, tinted with just the slightest hint of gold, billows across her delicate face, and she brushes it out of her ice blue eyes with slight fingers, revealing slim eyebrows knit with worry.
“Kiri,” I say.
Before I can continue, she throws her slender arms around me, pulling me close. “I was so worried about you.” Her breath sweeps against my ear, and her cool arm presses into my bare back. I return her embrace, though she’s so slight, I almost fear I’ll break her. Or that one of her jutting bones will impale me … which is not a very charitable thought, I know. But holding her is about as pleasant as wrapping one’s arms around a bundle of sticks. She has angles where I have curves, and though her skin is as smooth as my own, it always feels thinner.
Yet I still find her beautiful, and the moment she starts to draw back, I seize her anew and press my lips against hers. It’s a familiar kiss, a quiet kiss. One we’ve shared many times in the past year.
She presses her forehead against mine, one hand still holding my face. “I’m so glad you’re okay. Cyim’s warning made me fear the worst…” She trails off, her expression so brittle, a single cruel word would bring her to tears. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”
I suppress a sigh. Any fool could tell that Kiri is in love with me, despite the fact that I warned her not to be from the beginning. I’ve never had any desire to bond with another nymph, though most claim that such a pairing is the peak of happiness. But just because I don’t want to fall in love doesn’t mean I don’t want a lover—a sure and comforting presence that keeps me warm at night. I enjoy Kiri’s companionship, but her muted sweetness often feels as hollow as the element she embodies. She’s too nice, too gentle, too quiet. Beautiful, but boring. Just like Kristakai… Before today, that is.
Again, not very charitable, I know. Which is why I’ve often wondered whether I should break this courtship. But her attachment to me is the very thing that keeps me from confessing the truth—that I don’t reciprocate her feelings and never will. No one has ever looked at me the way she does, as if I’m the most important person in her life. And if I lost that, who knows how long it would be before I inspired such an emotion in another?
In any case, now is hardly the time to fret about such things—or cause her sorrow. I may not be very kind, but even I know that to break her heart when evil threatens us all would be beyond cruel.
I give her my best, most reassuring smile. “Oh, Kiri. You should know better than to worry about me.”
The corner of her mouth flickers, but her eyes take on a sad tint, and as she drops her hands and draws back, I wonder if my thoughts somehow carried into my tone or expression. She casts her gaze downward and says, “We shouldn’t linger in the sky. For all anyone knows, the monster can fly as well, and there’s no place to hide should it choose to attack.”
“That’s true.” With only air surrounding me, I suddenly feel exposed. It never occurred to me that the beast might be able to fly as well, but given that I know absolutely nothing about it, that’s perfectly possible. It’s equally possible that the Infernal creature cannot fly, which would mean that our ability to soar above the treetops could be our best defense. I consider bringing this up, then realize there’s no point. We can’t stay up here forever, after all. Already, I’m starting to tire from my flight, and the last thing I want is to drain all my energy, then find myself too weary to fight back should I encounter the monster.
So I accept the small hand she extends toward me and let her lead me quickly toward the ground. Soft leaves brush against me as we enter the treetops, weaving around the curving branches. I revert back to my usual form, turning the flames that were my lower body back into legs, and my feet land on a grassy forest floor. Kiri makes her descent beside me, but though she, too, returns to a solid state, she appears just as ethereal as when she was a gust of the wind.
Tall, dignified trees now stand around us, their narrow white and brown trunks draped in blue-green ivy. Though their branches intertwine above, they stand several yards apart from each other, meaning there’s little chance that they’re concealing anything.
Then again, the riverbank offered no cover either, and yet the monster still managed to vanish. Perhaps it truly is invisible.
“What were you doing up there?” Kiri asks.
“What do you think? Searching for the monster so I can set it ablaze before it hurts anyone else.” To emphasize my point, I flick my wrist and conjure a small flame.
She gives me a skeptical look. “You don’t even know if it’s vulnerable to fire.”
“Anything can burn,” I retort.
“Anything Terrestrial. But this creature is Infernal, and we know nothing about its powers or abilities.”
I start to reply, then stop myself as I realize she’s right. Recognizing how foolish it was for me to assume that the rules of the Terrestrial would apply to an Infernal creature, I huff. I suppose I should add a few extra steps to my plan: Find out what this creature is, figure out what it’s vulnerable to, then seek and destroy it.
“Good point,” I say reluctantly. “Have you heard anything? Cyim didn’t seem to know much.”
“I asked Amdyth about it,” she replies, speaking of the unicorn who created her—her Terrene Mother. “All she would say was that something dark is awakening for the first time in generations. I hoped she would elaborate, but she left it there.”
“Naturally.” I suppose even if the unicorns had figured out what the source of the danger was, they’d have no reason to tell us. They are above us in every way—immortal where we are mortal and Celestial where we are Terrestrial, with powers so great that my abilities look like flickers of candlelight in comparison. All my life, I’ve had to listen to Cyim tell me not to worry about matters beyond my day-to-day existence, for they were not my concern. Whatever happens beyond our borders, whatever forces of fate drive the world forward, I have no say and no influence, and therefore my role is to simply stay safe. Since the unicorns are our guardians, they’ll be the ones to handle the danger, while all we may do is wait helplessly for them to save us.
But reason is no match for the disgruntlement in my gut. Though I’ve abided by the unicorns’ rules all my life, things are different now that the Infernal has breached Kristakai’s borders. I have a right to know what’s going on.
“I wish the unicorns wouldn’t hide things from us,” I grumble.
“Amdyth wasn’t hiding anything.” Kiri brushes a strand of long, pale blond hair out of her face. “She simply did not have time to explain to me what she knew. Not that it would have made a difference if she had.”
“I still want to know.” I look Kiri straight in the eye, and I can almost see my brilliant green irises reflected back in her ice blue gaze. “We’ve been taught all our lives to simply listen to them and let them take care of us, but I want to be more than a docile hearth, confined and reliant. I want to be able to make my own decisions and fight my own battles.”
“I understand.” Kiri turns, looking into the distance, her face suddenly creased into a surprisingly fierce frown. “Do you know how often I’ve thought about what it must be like to be human—free to roam, yet constantly under threat? Though now that something wicked stalks these woods, I’m not so sure I want to find out. Living in constant fear… Is this what their lives are like? Would we really want that?”
“If the threat were constant, we’d be prepared,” I reply quickly. “Our ancestors once lived as the humans do now—even back when Infernal creatures prowled the Terrestrial Realm unfettered. They fought alongside the unicorns and humans and dozens of other races to drive back the forces of evil, and if they could do it, so could we.”
She nods, her face hardening with a determination that belies her delicate build. “I believe that. And if I encounter the creature, I won’t run. I’ll blast it so far into the sky, it’ll never come back down.”
I regard her, somewhat surprised. I wouldn’t have expected such words to emerge from her demure, petal pink lips. Yet her statement reminds me of why I was drawn to her in the first place—not just for her beauty, but for that secret strength that dwells beneath her fragile exterior. I’ve grown so accustomed to her presence, I’d forgotten it was there.
And prior to this threat, there was nothing that would prompt her to reveal it. Though she remains untested, like myself, I take a moment to appreciate what she has not done. She has neither trembled nor panicked nor cowered, and when she heard Cyim’s warning, instead of going into hiding, she came looking for me.
Just then, a flickering red light steals my attention from Kiri and I whirl, half expecting to find the beast. Instead, my gaze falls upon a pair of rapidly beating wings, which glow as bright as rubies against the back of a dark-haired fairy, flying several yards away and leading a line of six others, each of whom possesses uniquely colored wings with patterns of silver, copper, or obsidian streaking across turquoise, coral, or ivory-colored gossamer. None of them seem to notice me as they head westward. Though the leader is no taller than my forefinger, I’d be a fool to assume her weak, for I’ve seen what her magic can do. The look on her ebony face is one of hardened resolve, and she sweeps her arm in a wide, beckoning gesture at the six other fairies behind her.
I call out her name. “Naadri!”
Naadri pauses midair, hesitating for a moment, before flying toward me. As she approaches, she twists back to shout, “Continue the journey! I’ll catch up to you shortly!”
I knit my brows. “Journey? Where are you journeying to?”
Naadri hovers before me, tugging nervously at the violet vest she wears over her otherwise plain white outfit. “I’m taking my family away from Kristakai until the monster the unicorns spoke of is dealt with.”
“You’re fleeing?” I give her an incredulous look. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised—Cyim’s message did tell everyone to do whatever they could to remain safe. Still, I’d hoped I wouldn’t be the only one who wanted to fight for our land. “But—”
“My magic is no match for an Infernal creature,” Naadri interrupts, her tone defensive. “I would not be able to protect my family from it, so I’m taking them someplace safe.”
Despite the logic in her words, running still strikes me as cowardice, and it’s all I can do not to scowl. “Where will you go?”
Recognizing the name, I blink in astonishment. “That’s a human city.”
“Exactly.” Naadri purses her lips. “Whatever threatens Kristakai, it must have come because it wants magic. That’s the only explanation for it attacking a unicorn-guarded domain instead of the more vulnerable territories of the humans. If it wants magic, then there’s nothing for it in an unenchanted place.”
Kiri takes a step toward her with an expression that seems to mirror my own surprise. “You really think you’ll be safer among the humans than under the unicorns’ protection?”
“I do not know.” Naadri’s voice is taut. “This monster has already breached the unicorns’ most powerful spells—the ones around Kristakai’s borders. I trust the unicorns, of course, but I will not risk the lives of my children. I cannot allow them to remain here. Many others are leaving as well. You—” She breaks off abruptly.
But I know what she was going to say: You two should leave, too. Except we cannot, and she knows this. Though it was a harmless slip of the tongue, it reminds me that I’m chained to this land, thanks to the actions of those who lived thousands of years before my birth, and my blood burns. Because of them, I—and my kind—will have to stay and face whatever is here.
It makes me even more determined to fight.
“I’m aware that the human world is rife with danger of its own kind,” Naadri continues, as if she hadn’t misspoken. “But at least they are known dangers.” She glances away, in the direction of her departing companions. “I’m afraid I must go. I wish I had more to tell you.”
“Good luck, Naadri.” Kiri gives the fairy a parting smile, and I know I should as well, but I only manage a slight quirk in the corner of my mouth.
Without another word, Naadri flits off, her red wings flashing, and I watch until she vanishes from sight, wishing I could follow. Not to flee the danger, but to escape the imprisonment. Envy pierces me as I recall how she said the human world held “known dangers.” Known to her, perhaps, but to me, they’re only myths. Tales from storybooks and descriptions from motionless tomes. I can read about the world beyond Kristakai as much as I want, but that’s not the same as experiencing it.
“Perhaps we should follow her,” I mutter.
Kiri turns to me in shock. “You know we can’t.”
“Why not?” I lift my chin. “I’ve walked along the borders before—even extended my hand past them. There are no physical barriers keeping us here, only rules.”
“And our lives.” Kiri gives me a stern look. “We wouldn’t last a week.”
I bite my lip, knowing she’s right. I can’t count how many times I’ve stepped right up to Kristakai’s border with Nikhilim, the human kingdom adjacent to this domain, and been tempted to take one step more. But my life force would begin draining the moment I did, leaking from my body like water from a basket.
I’d have mere days before it bled out entirely.
I’ve wondered if it would be worth the risk to leave this land for a day at a time, then return to replenish my strength. There’s nothing stopping me from doing just that … and yet fear always holds me back. Not only fear of the unknown, but fear of angering the unicorns, and having to live the rest of my life as a pariah for my crime.
“No other race must pay for the mistakes of their ancestors.” I grit my teeth. “Yet we are punished for the actions of those who lived so long ago, their names have been lost from history. I call that unfair. Especially now, when our very survival is at risk because we are unable to leave.”
What did my ancestors do that was so terrible that even their descendants had to be confined? As far as I can tell from my readings, the bulk of their crimes involved destroying a few human properties and luring a handful of weak-willed men to their untimely demises. The latter was possible due to a power I possess but cannot use: the power to command human minds. No other race is susceptible to this particular ability, though knowing that hasn’t stopped me from attempting it out of sheer curiosity. Only once or twice, though.
Well, perhaps a bit more than that. Not that it matters, since I never succeeded.
“The humans are too afraid of us.” Kiri’s voice, soft but laced with bitterness, interrupts my thoughts. “They would have waged war had the unicorns refused to keep us away from them. But you’re right—there’s no justice in holding us to an agreement made so long ago.”
I’m once again reminded of her secret strength, and a trace of admiration weaves through me. She and I are alike in many ways, and I wonder how I could have lost sight of that. She’s probably the only nymph in this entire domain who would agree with me instead of lecturing me about obedience—or telling Cyim of my words so he could be the one to do it. When I’m with Kiri, I’m no longer so alone, no longer so different from the others.
I smile, placing my hand on her arm.
But before I can speak, a scream shatters the air. I gasp, whirling toward the sound. That cry—it was so full of pain and anguish. I’ve never heard anything so horrible in my life, and though the sound vanishes, cut off too abruptly, its lingering memory shakes my soul.
“The monster,” I whisper. “It must have claimed another victim.” That’s the only explanation I can think of. Every fiber of my being clamors to learn more about what just transpired, and I’m eager for this chance to confront the evil being, whatever it might be.
I call upon the magic within, aiming to fly toward the sound, but before I transform, a disembodied warmth brushes against my senses, and I know at once what it means. Somewhere in the direction from which the sound came, a fire is burning. I can always detect my element when it is near enough, and as long as I can feel it, I can become a part of it. Which means I can leap from fire to fire at will, moving instantly between blazes. Fast as my flight is, this way is even faster, and I want to be at the scene of the terror now, before the beast has a chance to escape.
In my mind I reach toward that warmth, that distant flame, and then seize it in the invisible grasp of my magic. I feel my body dissolve, once again weightless and unfettered, and suddenly leaping flames surround me in their brilliant yellows, feeling as much a part of me as my skin. The fire I was reaching for—I’m a part of it now. And it’s someone’s hearth—a tame wood fire surrounded by a circle of stone—which I find amusing given what I told Kiri earlier.
I emerge quickly, resuming my ordinary form in my new location, and step onto the stone floor of a cave dwelling, glancing around.
My eyes fall upon a sight so horrific it rips an involuntary scream from my throat, and though I’ve never trembled before in my life, I find myself shaking uncontrollably, despite my best efforts to hold myself steady.
*Look away, Elaia._ [*Cyim’s] voice rings in my head, but I cannot bring myself to listen. I know I’m supposed to be experiencing sheer, unadulterated horror at the carnage before me, yet I _want to keep staring. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I find it disturbing … yet somehow—horribly—mesmerizing.
I don’t know the name of the dead sprite before me, only that he was a husband and father with three young children. I’ve seen them before, going about their day, my eyes drawn to their distinctive magenta hair; they’re one of many sprite families who live in the caves along Kristakai’s northern border.
Now the father lies sprawled on the floor of their home with his lilac-toned skin drained to a dull gray and his shimmering silver wings broken upon his back.
If he were alive and standing, he would probably come up to my shoulder, which is tall for a sprite. Though I know his life is no more or less important than that of the frog that died in my hands, seeing him with his limbs ripped off—an arm torn from its socket, a leg chewed off at the thigh—shakes me far more. His golden eyes remain open but lifeless, frozen in an expression of shock.
Elaia! Cyim’s voice grows louder in my mind, and his hooves suddenly clack against the cave’s stone floor as he approaches. I don’t know if he arrived before or after I did, nor could I count how many moments I spent ogling the scene of death. I seem to be frozen in place, my eyes fixed on that which he does not want me to see. I dare not picture what kind of monstrosity could have caused such horror.
“Where are the others?” I wonder aloud, my voice barely a whisper. A chill streams through me and I cast my eyes around the cave dwelling, hoping to find the rest of the family standing behind me or obscured by a shadow. But all I see are the simple wood furnishings and still-burning torches embedded in the walls.
My gaze falls upon Cyim, who gives me a stern look. You should not be here, he says.
I take a step toward him. “Where’s the rest of the family?”
Cyim lowers his gaze and bows his head, and I sense his profound sorrow as though it had landed in my own heart. Upon realizing the meaning behind that deep well of melancholy, I soon feel it myself. More lives have been ripped out of our homeland, and whatever took them left nothing behind but the torn body by the hearth.
A whole family—gone. I shake my head. Such atrocities belong to the human world; they’re not supposed to be possible here. Nothing bad happens in Kristakai—not ever. Until today.
Fear not, my child. Cyim’s calming voice slips into my consciousness. We will find and destroy the beast.
“Do you know what did this?” I ask.
We cannot yet be certain, he replies.
I bite the inside of my cheek. The unicorns are supposed to be as all-knowing as any creature other than the Divinity Herself can be, and Cyim already convened with the others. If he still doesn’t know what’s attacking our land, that means the beast’s identity does not lie within their collective knowledge.
I wonder abruptly if the centuries they spent safeguarding an already safe domain has made them complacent. They may be immortal, but they are not infallible, and any memory left neglected long enough can wither.
The lack of information makes my mind itch. I want to know more—I want to be able to name this monster and know what it looks like. If it were a thing I could picture instead of a formless shadow in my head, it might not seem so terrifying. The mystery of it, though, looms over my mind like nothing else ever has.
“Perhaps the answer lies outside Kristakai,” I murmur.
That is possible. Cyim gives a slight nod. But you must go from here. This is not a place you ought to be. With his nose, he gives me a slight nudge toward the cave’s round entryway, through which the waning light spills in golden tints.
I grimace. He’s trying to protect me, like he always does. To cover my eyes and tell me not to look because I’m too delicate to handle anything awful. But I’m not a little girl anymore, and I’m stronger than he gives me credit for. I start to say so, then glimpse a spot of pure white, accented by brilliant flashes of silver, approaching through the forest outside. Though distance and the trees obscure her form, it doesn’t take much to recognize Amdyth—the unicorn who created Kiri. Her gleaming mane and tail rival the glory of the moon, and her pristine coat seems to reflect all the light of the stars. No other creature in Kristakai glows as she does.
But the sense of awe I usually experience in her presence is absent as she draws closer. Instead, indignation fills my chest.
“Why must I leave when others are arriving?” I put my hands on my hips. “What could Amdyth offer that you did not already glean? I was the one who discovered the creature’s presence, after all. Perhaps I could help you find a clue to its identity.”
These are matters beyond your knowing. Cyim’s voice in my head carries infinite patience, yet it makes my irritation spark brighter. I’m sick of being coddled and told to let superior beings take care of everything.
“So let me know!” I turn defiantly away from the entryway, catching the sprite’s mangled body in the edge of my vision. The sight casts a net around my gaze and drags it down to the carnage, and I once again find myself unable to look away. Sprites and nymphs are not so different; even our abilities are similar. Like us, sprites draw their power and life forces from nature, and the magic they’re capable of is no weaker than ours.
Without the shock I felt upon arriving, a new realization seizes me in its chilling grasp. “That could have been me.” My body threatens to start trembling again, and I clench my fists tight. “That could have been any of us, and we would not even have known what attacked, nor had any way of defending ourselves.”
Calm yourself. Cyim sounds infuriatingly placid. While these are troubling times, such fear and panic—
“I have the right to panic!” I snap, scowling. “There’s a beast prowling these woods, and I can’t even run away, thanks to laws created millennia before I was born!”
Cyim meets my gaze, and though his amber eyes usually hold the prudence of his many years, all I can see right now is a stifling authority that keeps holding me back. We will protect you, he says, but for the first time, I find no comfort in the power of his kind.
“How?” I demand. “You don’t even know what’s happening! And I don’t want protection—I want answers. I want to know what you know, and I want to be allowed to search for them as you are doing.”
I appreciate your desire to help, but as I said before, this is beyond you. The continued serenity in Cyim’s voice seems condescending, and I feel my scowl deepening. Though I know as well as anyone that the unicorns are greater than the rest of us, with their Celestial nature and years of wisdom, I can no longer accept that they are simply above me. I may be Terrestrial, and the time I’ve spent alive may be but a blink of an eye to an immortal, but I am still an intelligent being in my own right, and I will not be talked down to, even by the one who created me.
Before I can retort, a shrill cry pierces the air. Startled, I whirl to find Kiri standing in the cave’s entryway beside Amdyth, who pauses just outside and turns to face her. Though I cannot hear the psychic words the unicorn is speaking to my lover, the look in her deep violet eyes speak of tranquility, and I can almost hear her telling Kiri to calm down.
Certain that Kiri screamed for the same reason I did when I arrived, I wonder how the blazes anyone is supposed to be calm in a time like this. The unicorns’ eternal placidity once brought me comfort, but now it makes me want to hurl fireballs at the walls. Perhaps then they’d understand that my fury is real—and that I’m no delicate butterfly in need of shielding.
Kiri, on the other hand, seems to be just that. Despite Amdyth’s apparent efforts to calm her, she buries her face in her hands and begins sobbing. Maybe I was wrong about that quiet strength I perceived in her.
For a moment, I simply stand there watching, uncertain about what to do. I’ve never excelled at being kind, though that doesn’t mean I lack sympathy. On the contrary, the sight of Kiri’s tears causes the anger to drain from me, and turns my thoughts toward her and her alone. She’s clearly in great distress, and I feel helpless to do anything about it, despite a deep-seated desire to take away her sorrow.
She shouldn’t be here. Cyim’s voice resonates in my head. Neither should you. Take her and go.
“Where?” I turn to face him. “There’s no place that’s safe, and we’re trapped within these borders.”
I promise, I will not rest until this danger is eliminated, and you are all safe. Though Cyim’s words are strong, they bring me no comfort. Especially since he did not answer my question.
“We should be able to flee Kristakai like everyone else. The unicorns must have the power to break whatever magic binds us here. You should release us, instead of keeping us in a cage with a monster!”
Matters are more complex than you understand. Cyim’s words are stern this time, and I can tell he’s not happy with me for arguing. Now is not the time to discuss them.
I start to respond, then feel a soft hand take mine.
“Please, Elaia.” Kiri looks up at me, her tears making her pale blue eyes gleam like frost. “Let’s not linger in this place of horror.”
Though I want to continue arguing, I realize I’ve run out of things to say. As much as I wish I could, I’m not going to persuade Cyim to lift an enchantment that’s stood for thousands of years. He has no reason to listen to me. Thinking that makes me want to flame bright and set everything around me on fire for no reason other than to prove that I can. And that I’m not helpless, as they would have me believe. But a grounded whisper in my mind tells me that such histrionics will accomplish nothing, and that I should go before I do something I will come to regret.
Also, despite what I told Cyim, I’m not sure if there’s actually anything I could do here to help find the monster. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why I was so intent on staying in the first place, other than because I hated being told that I couldn’t.
My time would be better spent seeking answers, searching for a way to gain knowledge even the unicorns lack.
Another tear escapes Kiri’s eye, and I place my hand on her silky cheek and brush it away. Seeing her so distraught pains me. She’s not as strong as I am, I recall. If the bloody sight in the cave shook me, it must have come close to wrecking her. I may not need protecting, but she does, and she’s such a lovely, sweet girl that I don’t need to be in love with her to think, I’d do anything to end her grief.
So, with that desire in my heart and reason nudging me from within, I let her lead me away in silence. The soft grass coating the forest floor barely rustles as we pad through the forest, though I don’t know where we’re going. There’s no place that’s safe, and we’re trapped within these borders. The thought echoes through my head with each aimless step we take, and it’s soon joined by Kiri’s earlier words: There’s no justice in holding us to an agreement made so long ago.
If ever there were a time to argue that, it’s now, when keeping us in Kristakai means endangering our lives. Yet, instead of voicing the views I know she shares with me, Kiri stood silent, then led me away.
I stop in my tracks and give her hand an abrupt tug, pulling her to face me. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
She knits her slender brows. “What do you mean?”
“When I was telling Cyim that the unicorns should release us from Kristakai, you did nothing, yet I know you feel as I do. Why didn’t you speak up?”
She gives me an arch, knowing look—one that I recognize and find somewhat maddening. “It wouldn’t have made a difference. Especially not now, when they’re focused on the Infernal creature. Arguing would only have distracted them—and accomplished nothing.” She lowers her eyelids, a look of shame crossing her face. “But perhaps you’re right. I should have at least made my views known.”
My irritation fades as I remind myself, again, that Kiri’s a more fragile being than I am. I shake my head. “I suppose one more voice would hardly have swayed Cyim when neither he nor Amdyth nor any of the other unicorns trusts us to make our own decisions.”
Kiri purses her lips. “I want to believe what our guardians have told us. I used to, and I miss that certainty.” Then she brightens abruptly, as though struck by an idea. “If the unicorns won’t tell us what’s going on, perhaps we can find out ourselves.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“The library.” She gestures widely toward the sinking sun, indicating the direction in which the library lies. “Those shelves contain volumes that date back to the Age of Unicorns, to the days before Kristakai’s borders were imposed. They could contain forgotten knowledge.”
I almost laugh at the naiveté of Kiri’s idea. With shelves made from the intertwining branches of sturdy trees and enchantments protecting the tomes from the elements, the library is a vast and ancient place, for sure. It’s one of my favorite places in Kristakai, and I’ve spent countless hours lying on the soft grass that comprises its floor, reading about the human world from pages illuminated by sunlight. But going there now holds little appeal to me, when surely the unicorns will have searched for information there already. And unlike us, they do not need to patiently leaf through books, absorbing words one by one. With their magic, they could, in the time it would take me to read a single page, open their minds and gorge themselves on all the knowledge those volumes contain.
I lift one eyebrow. “If there were anything to be learned from those books, the unicorns must already know it.”
“Then we’ll find what they’re not telling us,” Kiri says. “But even they aren’t omniscient, and there are many, many books. It’s possible that they missed something.”
She has a point about that. Still, the idea of combing through endless pages without really knowing what we’re searching for seems futile. Also, I find it more likely that the answers lie outside Kristakai—in the world I’m forbidden from entering.
Yet there’s nothing actually stopping me from stepping beyond the border…
Surely I could escape my homeland for just a few hours and return before my life force drains. With my ability to travel instantaneously through any fire burning in any place, I could cover many miles in that time. Though there is a limit to my range—it seems to vary depending on how much effort I put into reaching—the human world must be full of hearths and torches and such that I could use to hop from one place to another.
I’ve spent enough time allowing ancient laws to hold me back, I decide. Under normal circumstances, I would have said that the unicorns’ rules had reasons for existing, but I think circumstances are far past normal at this point. The impossible has come to pass, and unbreakable spells have been broken. The laws were created for a time of eternal peace, and this is not that time.
My pulse quickens with excitement. If I dared, I could seek that which lies outside this domain. I could enter any repository of human knowledge I wanted; all libraries must have lanterns. I could discover things that have been lost to Kristakai over the years, and access information beyond even the unicorns’ reach.
Just as I’m starting to believe I could actually make this work, a sobering thought casts a shadow over the idea. It would take me a lifetime to look through the library we have here, though I’m familiar with how its shelves are arranged. Even if the answers I seek sit on a human’s bookshelf, how would I ever find them?
I’d have better luck simply walking up to the first human I saw and asking what they know.
Perhaps I should. The idea kindles my mind, and a new rush of excitement races through me. Though I don’t know where the portal to the Infernal Realm lies, it is most certainly not within Kristakai. That means the monster must have crossed through the human world before arriving here. Its presence cannot have gone unnoticed when it leaves such carnage in its wake. Someone must have seen it…
“Elaia?” Kiri peers at me with a quizzical expression, and I realize I’d gotten so wrapped up in my thoughts, I forgot she was there.
She may not agree with the unicorns keeping us here, but I doubt she would approve of a plan that involves doing the forbidden. Meanwhile, though, the idea digs into my mind like the powerful roots of an oak, and I know I couldn’t shake it if I tried.
I don’t want to try. I want to do it. And I can’t risk Kiri stopping me … or telling the unicorns.
I give her an indulgent smile. “I was just thinking about everything I’ve seen in the library, and you’re right… It’s so vast. Something could easily have been overlooked, and I believe your plan to look through the books is a good one. You should go there and search.”
Kiri tilts her head with a skeptical expression. “What about you?”
My mind races for an excuse to leave her and go off alone, and words spring to my mouth almost before I’ve had a chance to consider them. “I’m going to ask around to see if anyone has seen anything new. Perhaps there are more clues to be gathered.”
Her expression doesn’t change, and I can tell she suspects something.
I push forward with my lie, allowing my enthusiasm for my true intentions to seep into my voice. “Don’t you see? There are two parts to finding the answer: knowledge and evidence. You’re far more familiar with the library than I am, and searching it was your idea, so you should take care of the knowledge. Meanwhile, I’ll gather the evidence, so that once you have a list of possibilities, we can match the reality to what was written and find out just what haunts these woods.” I place my hands on her shoulders. “We’re a team, Kiri. And if we split up, we can work much faster.”
She cocks her head. “Going off alone is a terrible idea. What if the monster attacks one of us? Neither my wind nor your fire would stop it, but together, we might stand a chance.”
“So you’re scared—that’s what this is about?” I huff, both impatient for her to leave and annoyed that she’s right. But I refuse to fear the beast any longer. I am fire, and fire fears nothing, I remind myself. As for Kiri… She is air, and nothing can capture that. If she is attacked, she could transform into a breeze and be gone in a moment; my presence would hardly make a difference. I tell her this, then add, “If you’re truly afraid, you should return to Amdyth for protection. I’m sure she’d be happy to shield her child.”
A hurt look flashes through Kiri’s eyes, and I momentarily regret my mockery. But though I didn’t mean to cause her pain, I wish she weren’t so infuriatingly weak. Not physically—her gales can uproot trees when she unleashes her full power—but in terms of her frustrating timidity and her maddening desire to be “good,” whatever that means anymore.
Still, perhaps snapping at her was a bit harsh. “I’m sorry.” I run my hands down her soft arms, and while her skin is cool, I sense the warmth of her presence beneath. A smile—a real one, this time—curves my lips. “We both know you’re the smarter of us two, so you’re probably right. I should not have spoken to you as I did, but … I want to know what’s threatening us, and every moment could prove crucial. Splitting up is our best hope for swiftness.”
She regards me for a moment, and I can tell she’s searching for the deception in my voice. But this time there is none. She is the smarter one; she’s always been better than me at recalling knowledge and piecing together information. I am by far the braver one, however, and in our current situation, boldness matters more than intelligence. Which is why her notions now slide off me like raindrops from a leaf. There’s a time to listen … and a time to disregard.
I give her upper arms a squeeze. “Trust me. We can accomplish more by separating.”
Kiri bites her lip, then nods reluctantly. “Very well.”
I release her, but before I can leave, she throws her arms around me and presses her lips to mine. Somewhat surprised, I return her embrace and savor the taste of her kiss, the heat of her breath.
She pulls back, blushing. “In case the worst should happen. I … I couldn’t leave without … without…”
She trails off, but I know what she means to say: Without telling you that I love you. I tense, bracing myself for the unwelcome confession, but to my relief, it doesn’t come.
Instead, she steps back and says, “Be safe.”
“You too.” I flash her my best attempt at a reassuring smile, then transform into flame and race off before she can change her mind about those three imbecilic words. Love is a fine notion, but I value my independence, and I don’t want anyone to have that kind of hold over me.
I soar through the forest, weaving between the tree trunks instead of rising above them. It only takes me moments to reach the border, which is all but invisible during the day. There, I revert back to my usual form and suck in a breath. Now that the sun is withdrawing her last rays, a silvery glow brightens the magical wall within the darkening woods, reflecting the starlight above. It’s barely visible, yet it seems as impenetrable as the strongest stone. On the other side lies a world I’ve never seen, much less visited. Though my gaze reaches the trees and plants several yards beyond, nothing that I wouldn’t have known in Kristakai has ever come close enough for me to view. I hold a head full of information about the humans, thanks to the library and stories told by the other creatures, and I’ve even possessed some of their belongings, brought to me by indulgent sprites or fairies. But it’s not the same as actually meeting a human.
It’s time to finally discover what they’re like… And whether the nymphs’ legendary powers of persuasion are as strong as I’ve been told. For that is how I plan to get my answers—by commanding any human I encounter to tell me what I want to know.
I take a step closer to the border, then freeze. I know the spell is meant to keep humans out, not enchanted creatures in, but still, it’s meant the latter to me all my life. No matter how many times I remind myself that other residents of Kristakai pass through it all the time without any consequence, I can’t help fearing that it will burn me or fling me back. As far as I know, no nymph has attempted the crossing before.
None that I’ve heard of, at least. I suppose if one of my kind did go outside without any consequences, the unicorns would not want the rest of us to know.
But I’ve spent much of my sixteen years longing to do what I’m about to attempt, and nothing will stand in my way now. Learning from the humans could be the key to saving Kristakai, and I’m more than ready to see just what I’m capable of. I’m doing this for my homeland, and I’m doing it for myself.
Refusing to restrain myself any longer, I square my shoulders and walk boldly into the gleaming enchantment before me.
Crossing the border proves to be rather anticlimactic. The darkening forest ahead of me looks no different from what I just left, except perhaps that it’s a little duller from the lack of magic. The same tall trees with the same leafy boughs stretch into the distance, surrounded by the same carpet of grass. The air even smells the same—fresh and cool. I don’t feel any sudden weakening from being separated from my homeland. Nor does Cyim appear to berate me for crossing the barrier.
And though this all tells me that I have no reason to be afraid, my muscles remain tense. Out here lie dangers I’ve only read about in books—things I might never have imagined. Gone is the absolute familiarity of Kristakai, the comfort of knowing every rock and tree and stream.
It’s no safer back there, I remind myself. Besides, the nymphs were herded into the unicorn domains not for our security, but to protect the humans from us. Out here, I’m the danger. And I won’t turn back now.
I stride boldly forward, though I don’t know where I’m going. Not that it matters; I won’t be traveling on foot. But the action steels my confidence, and while my chest remains tight, my sense of determination is stronger than my apprehension.
I reach out with my mind, seeking a fire. Somewhere in this wild, unknown world, one burns near enough for me to detect. It tickles the edge of my senses, so distant I can barely reach it, but still within my range. I wonder how many miles away it lies. It was almost certainly lit by a human; most enchanted creatures can cast light and heat spells, and, when traveling, find that easier than kindling a blaze.
Which means that if I travel through this flame, I could emerge to find myself face-to-face with a human.
The thrill of doing something so forbidden outweighs any fear. What could a human do to me, after all? I’m the one with the power, and I can bend not only fire, but a human mind to my will. I’ve never tried the latter, but the prospect fills me with eagerness. The idea of telling someone what to do and having them just do it… It’s exhilarating. In Kristakai, few other than Kiri listen to me, and even she requires convincing. If what I’ve been told is true, I could have total control over a human.
And perhaps they can tell me what it is that’s invading my homeland.
My steps quicken involuntarily, though rushing is unnecessary when I’m about to make an instantaneous journey. But I barely notice my surroundings anymore, for all I can think about is how fascinating it will be to test my powers. In my mind, I wrap my senses around that faraway fire, capturing it with my magic until my body melts around me, becoming one with the blaze.
A heartbeat later, I’m a weightless flame, leaping and crackling in all its golden glory. I’m part of a primitive wood fire, small but brilliant. Impatient, I quickly turn back into myself, once again able to see with eyes instead of senses.
Relishing the heat that wraps around me, I keep to the middle of the blaze, with fire leaping from my hair and melding into my hips. It makes me feel strong, powerful. And certain that I can incinerate any human who threatens me. Yet an unsettling sensation creeps up beneath my confidence, reminding me that whatever monster lies within Kristakai would not be so easily defeated, and that it could claim another victim any moment—possibly even Kiri, alone in the library because I abandoned her.
A newfound urgency grips me at the thought. Casting my gaze around, I search the deepening shadow for the human who set the fire. At first, all I find are more trees.
Then I turn to find myself looking into the face of a man. A human man.
I stare. He appears altogether unremarkable, with his round face, saffron complexion, and stout shape. A black beard frames his mouth, which is slightly lined around the edges, and dark curls spiral from his scalp. His manner of dress is plain—brown trousers and white shirt with some sort of loose-hanging blue garment around his neck. I recall seeing such things depicted in books; I believe it’s meant to keep one’s neck and chest warm.
I knew that humans were dull-looking creatures, with their lack of magic, but I nevertheless find the sight of him to be disappointing. He looks like a faded version of a male sprite, except without the wings. And with two more feet of height. Though he’s taller than me, I feel like the one who’s towering, since I am fire while he … he is feeble flesh and brittle bone and little else. The flames I savor would do him irreparable harm.
From the look on his face, he seems aware of how insignificant he is. He gapes at me, his dark eyes wide. I don’t think he’s moved since I arrived—not even to blink—and his shock is rather amusing. I suppose him seeing a nymph for the first time would be more astonishing than me meeting my first human.
I’ve never had this kind of power over another before, and excitement bubbles up in my chest. The glee creeps onto my lips, curling the corner of my mouth into a smirk.
Curious, I glance past the stunned man to see what kind of place I’ve arrived in. The answer is not so interesting; all I see is a bulky sack made of some kind of rough, brown fabric lying on the ground. This man must be a lone traveler who chose this spot to make camp—something I’ve read about humans doing. Except the travelers in the books always seemed so intrepid and daring, whereas the man before me seems more pathetic with each moment he spends staring at me.
After all that doubt I suffered to bring myself here, this is my reward? A man so weak, my very presence paralyzes him, in the middle of a forest that hardly looks different from the one I left? I twist my mouth in disappointment, and briefly contemplate reaching out with my senses again and traveling through another flame in hopes of discovering something less … boring. But then I recall what I came here to do: find out if the humans know anything about the Infernal creature, learn enough to defeat it, then return before it can claim any more lives. And I don’t know how much time I have before the consequences of leaving my homeland weaken me, so I can’t afford to go exploring right now.
This human may be feeble, but I must hope he holds the knowledge I seek.
I float toward him, deciding that remaining in my flame form is more impressive and therefore more likely to persuade him to do as I say, in case my mind powers prove lacking. But the movement makes the world around me tilt strangely, and my head suddenly feels light. Not wanting to show any sign of weakness, I hold my expression firm. Continuing forward should be effortless, but instead, I feel … heavy, as if I’m carrying a sack of rocks on my back. This is especially odd, since in my flame form, I’ve always felt weightless.
The man, meanwhile, takes a stumbling step backward, and I almost laugh at how stupid he looks.
“Have you seen anything wicked in these parts?” I ask, deciding to get straight to the point. “Or heard any talk of Infernal beasts prowling nearby?”
The man blinks several times, but remains silent.
Annoyed, I cross my arms. “Why don’t you speak?” And why are you not obeying my will? I thought nymphs were supposed to be able to command humans with a single word. My mind powers evidently aren’t working; perhaps it’s because I phrased my demand as a question. Hoping a different approach will work, I say, “Tell me if you’ve seen anything wicked in these parts, or if you’ve heard talk of any Infernal beasts prowling nearby.”
His mouth moves this time, though his wide eyes remain fixed on me. “You… You are the most ravishing creature I’ve ever seen.”
Fool! I scowl. Of course I am beautiful to human eyes—what nymph wouldn’t be, when humans are such unremarkable beings and accustomed only to seeing each other?
I move closer, hoping to intimidate him, but the strange heaviness continues weighing on me, and sudden panic seizes me as I realize the possible cause.
A nymph’s life force begins to drain the moment she leaves her homeland…
Though I manage to hold my commanding expression, I can’t stop the tension from seizing me anew as a disturbing thought enters my head. I have no idea how long I have before I die out here. It could be days, and for all I know, this weariness is all in my head—mere overexcitement. Or it could be hours… Minutes, even, and I could already be toying with death.
Either way, I have no time for this man’s idiocy. “Answer me!”
Instead of obeying, the man’s expression of shock melts into one of admiration. “Long have I heard of the beauty of nymphs … the tales passed down through the generations … and long have I desired to see one of your kind with my own eyes. I never thought my wish would be granted.” He raises one hand slowly, reaching toward my face.
“How dare you?” Flames leap from my skin as I swat his hand away, singeing him. He yelps in pain and jumps back, clutching his injured palm.
“It is true then.” His voice quivers. “You are the embodiments of temptation—lovely, yet untouchable.”
I don’t have time for this! Anger coils in my chest at how petty and imbecilic this man is. I’m seeking to save my homeland from a monster, and instead of answering my questions, all he can do is fixate on my appearance? If all humans are this worthless, perhaps it is a good thing that we nymphs are kept away from them, so that we might be spared their stupidity.
He starts to continue, but I, in no mood to hear more of his whining, yell, “Shut your mouth!”
To my surprise, his jaw snaps closed. And to my greater surprise, I sense something new with my magic. It’s similar to how I feel when I sense a distant flame, but this time, it’s more … alive. Glittering with the energy of life, yet as malleable as wet clay. I soon realize that it’s coming from the human’s direction, and wonder if these are his puppet strings.
Curious, I bore my gaze into his. “Tell me your name.”
“Ronym Kah.” He meets my eyes unblinkingly, all trace of his former admiration gone.
These invisible strings, which I clutch in my invisible hands … they’re his will. That means I can make him do whatever I want. To test this theory, I say, “Stand on one foot.” Speaking those words feels like tugging the strings, and it’s easy… So, so easy.
He obeys, lifting his left boot off the ground. His expression remains blank, as if he’s lost the ability to control it.
A part of me tells me that it’s wrong to manipulate another so completely, but I find I don’t care. No wonder the humans were so afraid of us. My power over this man, this Ronym Kah, is no different from my power over fire. Commanding him is as simple as telling my own flames to burn brighter or to retreat.
Fascinated, I give the strings another yank, this time testing that new theory. “Set your foot back down and tell me what you’re doing out here.”
Ronym complies, saying, “I am a bandit. I prefer to live away from society, but when I need supplies—necessities for survival—I rob traveling caravans.”
Ah, a criminal. I have no reason to feel guilty for controlling him, then. From what I’ve read, criminals are considered the lowest form of human life, for they break laws to enrich themselves, harming others in the process. No one in Kristakai is capable of such misdeeds. I may have broken the laws of my kind by coming here, but unlike him, I am doing it for something greater than myself. I have not acted selfishly. Neither have I harmed anyone, whereas he has just confessed to depriving his fellow humans of items needed for survival. That puts us in entirely different categories, and I have every right to look down at him.
Under different circumstances, I might have taken a moment to revel in my newfound abilities, but I must return to Kristakai as soon as I can. So I repeat my original command, ordering him to tell me if he’s seen or heard of anything Infernal.
“I have heard rumors of an ancient evil emerging from the Infernal Realm for the first time in millennia.” Ronym’s words are stiff, drawn to the surface by my will and not his own. “It is said that the creature has not been seen since the Fiend was banished at the dawn of time.”
He knows of the beast! Perhaps my time here has not been not wasted after all. “Tell me more.”
“The creature is called a thlakeen.” Ronym’s face takes on an expression of fear. “It dwells in the water, but is capable of coming onto land. It feeds on the living, delighting in blood, though magic is what it truly craves. It can suck the life out of anything—plant and animal alike. I first heard of it two weeks ago, when I was traveling through the seaside town of Pirnue. The people spoke of how it took two fishermen in its tentacles and swallowed one whole, but took only one leg from the other. I met that second man; I had no reason to doubt his account. He told me he was grateful to be alive, and that the beast had moved on before it could do more harm. With its power, it could have consumed all of Pirnue.”
That sounds just like the beast that’s been terrorizing my homeland; it’s even causing the same kind of pain. A thlakeen… So the creature has a name after all. Excited, I repeat, “Tell me more.”
The man knits his brows, and I can sense him pulling back, as if he cannot—or will not—obey.
Angered by his defiance, I tighten my mental grip on him. “I said tell me more!”
Sweat beads on the man’s forehead, and through my senses, I can tell he’s wracking his memory. “I never saw the beast myself, but it was described to me thus: the head of a shark, the chest of an ox, the arms of a man, and the multiple, twisting legs of an octopus, though whether there are precisely eight, I do not know.”
I wrinkle my nose as I picture this unholy mess of a monster. It sounds hideous as well as horrible. Then I imagine the powerful shark teeth that likely closed around the sprite’s limbs and ripped them from their sockets, and a shudder runs down my spine. A chill engulfs my whole body as I picture how large this thlakeen must be to grip two humans in its tentacles… Why, it could be taller than the trees.
But then I recall how it first came to my attention—the unfortunate little frog, who suffered injuries similar to the sprite’s. It hardly seems likely that such a large, overwhelming monster would have the dexterity to take part of a being so small and leave the rest.
“There must be more,” I say, clenching mental fists around Ronym’s will. “Tell me.”
The man shakes his head. “That is all I know.”
I narrow my eyes. Since I hold his will, he cannot be lying. And yet, I detect some kind of untruth behind his words. For a moment, I struggle to reconcile this paradox, keeping my grip on him all the while. How is it possible for a person to be both lying and not at once?
Then, it hits me: He might not know that he’s lying. He might believe that this is all he knows, but further information actually lies within his mind, nearly forgotten but still there.
Whatever it is, I need to know. The fate of my homeland depends on it. My fate depends on it.
I yank forcefully with my magic, until I can sense his mental strings stretching to near breaking. I don’t know what will happen if they actually break, and I hope I won’t find out. My heart pounds from the effort, and the unnatural weight within me grows heavier. I can’t tell if it’s from the effort of commanding him or if I’m growing weak from being outside Kristakai.
Either way, I need answers now. “Think harder.”
The man cries out, pain visible on his face. The spell must be causing him some kind of headache, and I suppose I should feel sympathy, but I only wish he’d stop being so feeble and give me what I need.
“I overheard someone say it could shrink or grow at will.” Ronym’s voice is strained. “At the local tavern… It was crowded and noisy, and I was not paying attention, but those are the words I heard.”
No wonder. The monster’s ability to shrink would explain why it can hide so well, yet still be powerful enough to swallow a family of sprites.
If Ronym learned this vital piece of knowledge by accident, barely knowing he’d heard of it, then his mind could hold further information that he’s not aware of. And I will not rest until I’ve uncovered all there is.
I give those mental strings yet another yank, pulling his mind into my own.
An agonized scream escapes his lips, and he clutches his head with both hands. A hint of guilt creeps into my heart, but I push it down with a reminder of all that’s at stake.
I don’t need to speak the command aloud this time; he knows what I want.
“There was talk of fighting back.” He speaks between gritted teeth. “I was not listening, for I planned to be gone before it could strike again.”
“Your ears might still have picked up something.” I bear down toward him, drawing him into me. “Search your memories.”
Yanking, yanking, yanking… I’m sure he’ll break soon if I’m not careful, and I find I don’t care. The life of a lowly criminal is hardly worth risking all of Kristakai for. The heat enveloping me is no longer the comforting touch of flames, but rather the unwelcome sensation of weariness. I worry that I will break before he does, that I’ll collapse from the effort or from my life force being drained. Perhaps I should be satisfied with what I’ve already learned and return to my homeland now.
But when he once again says that this is all he knows, that nagging sense of untruth scratches at my instincts. It tells me that if I keep digging, there’s more treasure to be uncovered. I’ve come so far; it would be a shame to give up now.
Just a little longer…
When I tug this time, he collapses to his knees, clutching his head. Tears of pain stream down his face, and I shake my head in disgust. I’d hoped my first encounter with a human would show me an inspiring example of that fascinating, curious race I’ve read about for so long, and instead, I’m greeted by this coward.
“Someone … spoke … of a weakness!” he cries, as if every word is being forced past unwilling lips. “The thlakeen have not been seen for generations, but their skeletons have lingered—in the workshops of magicians or the palaces of kings or the museums of universities. Someone theorized that, because each skull discovered had its base missing, that this part of its body was weaker than the rest.”
A satisfied smile curves my lips. A weakness… So I can defeat it. Assuming it can burn. Needing one more answer, I give the strings another yank. “Did they mention whether this creature is vulnerable to fire? Answer!”
“Yes!” he exclaims, and this time, his mind does not resist. This memory must be closer to the surface than the last one. “It is a water creature… There was talk of using flaming arrows against it.”
Excellent. I can fight it after all. I have no way of knowing if what Ronym says is true, but he seems to believe it is.
“Please,” he gasps. “I know nothing else, I swear.”
The sense of untruth lingers, but this time I choose not to press on. If I do, his mental strings will surely snap from my grip, and whether that costs him his life or only his sanity, I do not care to find out. Besides, I’m not sure how much longer I will last out here. I feel as if my limbs have turned to stone while my head has filled with bubbles. My body wants to collapse, and I cannot let it, especially in front of this human.
Though I do not have all the information I need, I have enough: a name for the monster, a description, and a possible weakness. The only reasonable course of action is to return to Kristakai.
So I release my mental grip, feeling his will slide from my grasp. The man exhales sharply, as if he hasn’t breathed this entire time. Letting him go does nothing to restore my strength, however; being away from my homeland must be taking its toll.
But I’ll return soon enough. Now that I have what I need, I embrace the flames from the man’s campfire and meld into them, then reach out in search of another fire, one within the borders of Kristakai.
Any trace of the weakness I felt while outside Kristakai is gone now. It lingered for a few minutes after I transported myself back, emerging from a torch burning near a gathering of nymphs, all of whom were cowering in a cave and waiting for the unicorns to tell them what to do. If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have chastised them for their cowardice. Instead, I simply left in silence.
Thankfully, it only took a few minutes for the weariness to vanish. I suppose I wasn’t outside of the borders for very long.
And then I came here, traveling by fire to the heart of Kristakai’s vast library. The lantern’s flames are caged by twisting gold metal, and though it must look elegant ordinarily, being inside it is unnerving. I move to escape, passing through the bars as flames, then transform back into my usual self once I’m outside.
Though I’m fairly certain the information I extracted from the human was correct, I have to make sure. After all, that was my first time using my powers, and, strong and certain as I felt, I was still guessing. The last thing I want is to confront the monster, only to discover too late that the human was wrong about its identity or weakness. But I must be quick; every moment that passes is another chance for it to strike again.
The silver moonlight barely trickles through the library’s ceiling of full-bodied leaves, and most of the light comes from lanterns like the one I traveled through. The rough trunks of thick, towering trees surround me, their branches weaving into natural shelves for the multitudes of tomes. Spines of brown and red and black and green greet me from every direction, adorned with glittering metallic titles.
Most of the library stands haphazardly, with shelves facing every which way—a consequence of letting the trees decide for themselves which branches to lend to storing books. Sometimes, one finds oneself squeezing between shelves so close together, a fairy would find the space claustrophobic. Other times, one finds oneself searching for a title down a particular row, only to end up at a dead end, with the continuation of the alphabet in an altogether random location. Only the trees know precisely where each tome lies, and they’ll only tell you if they’re in the mood—and if you’re attuned enough to hear what they’re saying.
They never speak to me, though. Wood fears fire, and no matter how many times I’ve tried to tell them that I only burn what I wish to—and that I’d never wish to burn them—they remain silent. But they love Kiri; they adore the whispering wind that plays subtly with their softest blossoms. So if there is a book in here that talks about the thlakeen, I need her to ask them to find it. I only hope she’s still here, that she hasn’t gone into hiding … or been attacked while I was away.
Sudden alarm grips me. I hadn’t thought too much about the monster finding her, but now…
“Kiri!” I rush between random shelves, which zig and zag before me. “Where are you?” To help her spot me, I change my hair to its flame form, letting it blaze behind my head. I can sense the trees recoiling, turning their branches away from me best they can without disturbing the shelves. The movements are slight, but I feel it in my bones, and scowl. “Kiri!”
Before I can call a third time, she appears from behind a bookshelf ahead. The lanterns, lit with enchanted fire and suspended in the air by the unicorns’ spells, flood her pale skin and hair with their yellow light, making her look like a golden statue clothed in an odd shade of blue. The book she clutches with both hands looks heavy enough to break her slender arms.
“I’m here!” She approaches, her steps awkward from lugging the large tome.
I exhale, both relieved that she’s all right and glad that I found her so fast.
“Did you learn anything?” she asks.
“Yes.” I rush toward her, breathless with excitement. “The creature is called a thlakeen—have you read anything about that?”
Kiri frowns. “I haven’t, but then again, I’ve barely begun looking.” She nods down at her book. “This bestiary supposedly lists every Infernal beast ever encountered by a Terrestrial being up until the end of the Age of Unicorns. I’d only read the first ten pages when I heard you calling me.”
“Let’s have a look, then. The thlakeen must be in there.” The sooner I can confirm that what the human told me was correct, the sooner I can search for the creature and end it.
Kiri knits her brows. “Elaia, where did you hear of this … thlakeen?”
I hesitate, but the excitement bubbling through my veins demands that I tell someone of my triumph. Besides, I don’t have time to come up with a plausible lie—or think of ways to uphold it if she starts questioning me. Sometimes, the truth is simply faster.
After glancing around to make sure we’re alone, I lean toward her. “I ventured outside Kristakai.” My whisper is so soft, I can barely hear it myself.
Kiri eyes become blue saucers as she stares at me. “You did what?”
“Sh!” I cast my gaze about the shelves, but see only trees and books. Gripping her shoulder, I pull her close. “You can’t tell anyone what I did. Cyim would never understand… This has to be between you and me. Can I trust you to keep a secret?”
She tries to look away, but I follow her gaze with mine, making sure she’ll feel my glare. She purses her lips, then nods. “Of course.”
I smile. One of the best parts about her being in love with me is that she’ll do anything I say. Perhaps this is why I remain by her side, even when I know that this romance will ultimately lead nowhere.
And it’s why I’m not afraid to tell her what happened. “I did something incredible tonight,” I say.
As I recount my brief adventure, Kiri’s expression flickers between fascination and horror. I can tell she disapproves of the way I commanded that man, which I find odd, since Ronym Kah was an inconsequential bandit and my actions yielded the information that could save our home. It frustrates me that she doesn’t seem to understand, and I briefly wonder if I should have lied after all. Will she turn against me because of this? Refuse to help me … or tell the unicorns what I did?
But she says nothing, and even after I finish, she remains silent for several moments.
Slouching over the heavy book, which must be taking its toll, she crinkles her brow. “No wonder the humans fear us so.”
“I thought the same thing,” I reply.
She straightens abruptly, as if struck by the sudden need to run. “We should tell the unicorns what you discovered about the monster.”
“Not yet! I want to be sure first.” Also, I don’t want to tell them how I found this information. They’re not nearly as impressionable as Kiri, and while I do not fear their punishment, I have no desire to face it, either.
And if the thlakeen is mentioned in the book—and not just a human imagining—then it means Cyim and the other unicorns are already aware of its existence. Because they know everything the library contains. And that means they could have figured out that it was a thlakeen that invaded Kristakai based on the same clues I did—and probably other signs they gleaned through their magic. And simply refused to tell me.
Whatever the case, I need to know if this is truly the creature we seek before I go any further. I gesture at the book. “Check the bestiary.”
Kiri gives me a skeptical look, then sets the book on the grassy floor, which is enchanted to be devoid of moisture, yet still lush to the touch. I crouch beside her and look over her shoulder as she leafs through the pages, which lists creatures in alphabetical order. She moves so quickly, both her fingers and the words blur before my eyes, and I wonder how she’s able to read them so rapidly. Still, even though I know she’s moving as fast as she can—faster than I probably could—each second feels like one moment too long.
Finally, she stops on a page near the back of the book and points at a spot halfway down the left page. “Thlakeen—there it is.”
The entry lacks the illustrations that adorn some of the others, which must mean the author didn’t know enough to draw it. The thlakeen is rare, then. The description is only a few lines long, but confirms what Ronym Kah told me—that the creature dwells in the sea but can travel on land, that it can shrink or enlarge itself at will, that it can absorb the life force of another and thrives especially on draining those with magic. It even describes the creature as having the head of a shark and the tentacles of an octopus. If I weren’t looking for these very words, I would have missed this entry entirely; it’s so small, the surrounding paragraphs and illustrations about other monsters nearly swallow it.
“It doesn’t mention the weakness you spoke of,” Kiri says, furrowing her brow. “Though that doesn’t mean the theory’s wrong, only that the humans might have discovered something the unicorns hadn’t seen before.”
I pinch my lips, realizing she’s right. It disturbs me that the unicorns could be ignorant of something the humans encountered. They must be more fallible than I thought, and I wonder how they can continue acting as if they know all when clearly they don’t.
“We should tell them about that weakness.” Kiri closes the book and stands. “When they encounter the thlakeen, such knowledge could be the key to defeating it.”
“Unless I find it and destroy it first.” I get up as well, annoyed that her first thought is to go running to the unicorns.
She gives me a stern look. “The unicorns have a much better chance of finding it than you do, and the fate of Kristakai could depend on them knowing what you learned from the human.”
Her lecturing tone irritates me further, but I realize she’s right. With their greater powers, the unicorns can use magic to find the thlakeen, whereas I have only my eyes.
“Fine,” I grumble. I suppose informing the unicorns is the more prudent thing to do. And while I’m at it, I can also ask them why the blazes none of them told us about the thlakeen’s identity, which they must have known. If we’d encountered it, at least we wouldn’t have been blindsided by a creature we’d never even heard of before. We might have been able to get away from it.
Though I guess it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to my kind, since they’ve trapped us here with the monster and refused to let us go. That they’d rather control us to uphold some ancient agreement than give us a chance to escape like everyone else makes my blood boil.
I’m about to take flame form and fly into the night, furious, when I notice Kiri holding up the book with both hands.
A long, limber branch reaches down from one of the trees and takes it from her.
“Please put this back,” she says.
A warm, inviting sensation fills the air, and I know it’s the tree responding to Kiri’s request. Like all nymphs, I can sense the mood of the nature around me. This current sensation is weak, though; I’m only catching the edges, for the rest is meant for Kiri. She’s a favorite among the flora, while I’m forever shunned. I find that unfair, since with her power, she could transform into a tornado and uproot them all if she wanted. Perhaps they do not realize that. After all, she’s never pushed her powers that far, and, with her shy, serene nature, no one would have any reason to see her as anything but the tender breeze. She belongs here in a way I never have, and I wonder how I’m supposed to remain in Kristakai for the rest of my life when the very land won’t accept me.
Once she’s done, I leap into the air, changing into my flame form, and Kiri follows. I sense the trees’ revulsion as I fly through their branches, and scowl. Fools, I think. If I wanted to burn you, you’d be burned already.
Just another example of how I don’t fit here.
Kiri soars beside me in her wind form as we seek the unicorns below. Since each is surrounded by an enchanted glow, which is overwhelmed by the sun but practically blazes in darkness, they shouldn’t be hard to find now that it’s dark. The treetops, so colorful by day, are black and blue masses under the silvery moonlight, and I comb through the branches with my gaze, hurriedly seeking the unicorns’ light. Armed with the knowledge of the thlakeen’s weakness, they can finally destroy it, ending its terror before it kills anyone else.
I also keep my eyes open for the thlakeen, just in case. If I come across it first, I’m prepared to fight, but that doesn’t stop tension from squeezing my every muscle.
Then I spot a silvery glimmer beneath the dark treetops below and know immediately that it’s due to the presence of unicorns. Cyim’s probably among them; somehow, I can always feel it in the air when he’s nearby. I blow out a breath and rush toward the light, glad that I found him so quickly.
As I descend, my intuition is confirmed. A silvery halo—the Celestial light of the stars glowing within him—surrounds Cyim’s inky form, making him appear brighter at night than by day. His white mane and tail are almost blinding in this moment. He stands by the river alongside Amdyth, whose entire, snowy body gleams just as brightly.
“Cyim!” I land before my Terrene Father, planting my feet firmly into the ground in front of him, and glare into his amber eyes. “I figured out what the Infernal invader is. It’s a thlakeen—and you knew that too, didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have run into it—I deserved to know what I would’ve been facing!”
Elaia, my child. Cyim’s voice in my head carries an exasperated sigh. I promised I’d protect you, as I’ve protected your sisters and predecessors for generations.
I expect him to hurl an accusation disguised as a question—such as, Why do you not listen to me? or Why would you question me?
To my surprise, he says, The last time I encountered a thlakeen, the Age of Unicorns had only begun, and no one has seen the creature since long before our era ended. An entire age has passed since then, and the world is centuries into another. I believed that every last thlakeen had been rendered extinct millennia ago—their bodies destroyed and their spirits driven into the Infernal Realm. I could not be certain that the monster we sought was indeed one of these long-gone creatures.
I blink at the unexpected explanation, then lift my chin. My coming to him with the name of the creature must have shown him that he could not keep such things from me any longer. “Are you certain now?”
He shakes his head. Nothing is certain any longer.
“What does that mean?” Kiri asks, and I realize that Cyim must have expanded his psychic circle to include her in this conversation as well.
Amdyth is the one who answers. Nothing as powerful as a thlakeen has escaped the Infernal Realm for thousands of years, and if one has entered our domain, it means the magic that keeps the Infernal confined is weakening. The beast’s presence is a sign.
“Of what?” I ask impatiently.
Amdyth turns her face toward the stars, a touch of fear in her violet eyes. The Age of Fire.
I shudder at those words. Beside me, Kiri gasps, her hand flying to her mouth.
Like everyone else, we’ve heard tales of the prophesied Age of Fire since we were born. Everyone knows the story of how, in a time so long ago it hardly seems real, Amdyth went to meet the first Sibyl—a woman chosen by the Celestial Realm to see glimpses of the future. The Sibyl told Amdyth that someday the Fiend would rise from his Infernal prison and consume the world. Not just the Terrestrial, but the Celestial as well, defeating the Divinity Herself and bringing about the dreaded Age of Fire, which would last for all eternity. Though I never doubted the account—Amdyth would never have allowed such a wild tale to spread if it weren’t true—the foretold doom always seemed so distant. I imagined I’d be dead for centuries before it came to pass.
But now, I’m not so sure. “Do you really think the Age of Fire is near?”
As I said, nothing is certain. Cyim’s voice is taut—unnervingly so, since he’s usually so calm. This monster could be a new kind of evil manifesting in the Terrestrial Realm—one that imitates a thlakeen. After all, in the past the thlakeen have preferred to attack humans, which are easier targets, to gather strength before attempting to feed on the enchanted. We could be wrong about its identity, which could keep us from defeating it.
“We’re not—this one did attack humans!” The words burst from my mouth before I have a chance to think.
Amdyth snaps her gaze toward me. How do you know?
I pinch my lips together, cursing myself for the slip. But with the eyes of both unicorns fixed on me, I know it’s too late to take them back. Besides, I still need to tell them about the weakness that wasn’t mentioned in the bestiary, so I suppose I would have needed a plausible excuse anyway. “A fairy told me. She’d heard that a thlakeen attacked a small seaside village.” The lie tumbles from my mouth.
A fairy would have informed one of us before coming to you. Amdyth takes a step toward me, her deep gaze unforgiving.
The superiority in her words makes me scowl. “She’d fled Kristakai and only returned briefly to tell someone what she’d learned. I was the first one she encountered.” I speak confidently—so confidently I almost believe my own falsehood. “She trusted me to inform you—which I just did.”
Instead of questioning me further, Amdyth turns to Kiri, who’s been standing in silence. No words float through my head, though, which means Amdyth’s psychic words are not meant for me.
Frustrated, I watch Kiri, whose wide eyes radiate innocence. No one would doubt her, and my heart squeezes. As long as she confirms my tale, I’ll get away with it.
Then Kiri glances at me, guilt written all over her face. I wish I could communicate with her psychically as the unicorns do, so I could say, Don’t you dare betray my secret! Why does it even matter where I got my information when the thlakeen is still out there and could kill again at any moment?
I cross my arms defiantly. “Why are you wasting your time with these petty questions when I’ve just confirmed the identity of an ancient evil?”
To my great annoyance, no one responds.
Amdyth must still be speaking to Kiri, for the air nymph once again turns to face her Terrene Mother. Her long hair swishes by her face as she shakes her head rapidly, and I wonder what she’s responding to.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “I … I can’t lie. It wasn’t a fairy who told Elaia of the thlakeen—it was a human. She traveled outside and used her powers to make him tell her everything he knew.”
Anger explodes in my chest, and I shoot Kiri my deadliest look. “You rat! You swore!”
She glances at me, eyes full of apology. “I’m so sorry. But what you did broke a law set in place to keep the peace between the humans and the enchanted… The consequences could be greater than you thought.”
“It was one bandit!” The look on her face is so pitiful, I want to slap her. Whatever Amdyth said to her must have made her believe that my actions would cause a war or something.
I’m not sure which one of them I’m angrier at.
“What a wonderful friend you are,” I say sarcastically, not caring what the unicorns think of me. They’ve already heard the worst, after all. “You barely kept my secret for three flaps of a bird’s wing. I should have known better than to trust you.” I start to say more, but Cyim’s voice booms through my head.
Elaia! He glares at me. Do not fault Kiri for telling the truth when you would break the laws, then lie to cover your crime.
“My crime brought us answers!” I glare right back. “I did what no one else was willing to do! Do you care at all about what I learned? The beast is a thlakeen! Even the humans think so! That means we can defeat it! And I discovered its weakness! The base of its skull is more fragile than the rest of it—that’s something even you didn’t know!” I put my hands on my hips. “That’s what I came here to tell you. Because while you’re standing here worrying about some ancient laws, I actually want to destroy the monster.”
That’s enough. Cyim’s tone is stern, but he sounds more disappointed than angry. Your information may prove useful, but I cannot condone what you did to obtain it. He glances at Amdyth. I will deal with her later. At the moment, more urgent matters require our attention.
I agree. Amdyth glances at me with a look that clearly communicates her displeasure, but the expected lecture does not come. Instead, she turns back to Cyim. Gather the others. Though the thlakeen can walk on land, it must return to saltwater to survive.
Though I’m still furious at Kiri for spilling my secret—and at the unicorns for keeping me from the outside world in the first place—I push those thoughts to the back of my head. I’m not sure why Cyim and Amdyth are allowing me to hear their conversation, but I’m too curious to question it. At least they’re worrying about the monster again—as they should be. I wonder what they plan to do—and whether they’re going to put the knowledge I brought them to use. I hope they do, so that when this is all over, I’ll have one more argument for lifting the spell that binds us here.
Cyim faces the river, a glimmering black ribbon cutting through the darkness. If this one has already returned to the ocean via the river, then casting a spell on the water can prevent its return. If it has not, then it must eventually—
He breaks off abruptly, tilting his head upward. I follow his gaze, wondering what he’s looking for. Seeing nothing but branches and stars, I realize he is searching with senses other than his eyes. Whatever it is, Amdyth must feel it too, for she also seems to gaze into nothingness.
I nudge Kiri. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice is tight.
Flee, children! Cyim’s voice suddenly rips through my head. Leave this place at once!
Gasping, Kiri seizes my hand. She transforms into the wind and starts to fly away, but instead of following, I yank back. The urgency in Cyim’s voice must mean he senses that danger is near, and I’m done with being told to run and hide, of being sheltered and kept from things I deserve to know and see. After all I’ve witnessed and all I’ve learned about it, I want to face this monster myself.
“Elaia!” Kiri grabs my hand again.
A great roar abruptly shatters the night—a sound more menacing than anything I could have imagined. Loud and coarse and full of wrath—nothing like it has ever struck this place in my memory.
It sends a bolt of fear through my heart, and whatever I was thinking before, fleeing suddenly seems like the only thing to do.
I transform, feeling my legs dissolve into fire. Before I take off, though, the ominous sound of splashing water freezes me in place, and my eyes travel toward the river.
A dark, shadowy figure emerges from the water—barely as tall as me at first, but then rising, rising, rising to a height that towers over the trees. It pulls itself onto the shore with multiple curving legs—or rather, tentacles. They slap the ground as it trundles toward us, shaking the air and causing the earth to quake. Ronym spoke the truth when he described this creature; two thick, muscled arms ending in clenched fists sprout from the broad chest of an ox. Yellow flames spew from the spikes running down its back, illuminating a head that seems to be mostly teeth—rows and rows of sharp, glinting teeth. Red eyes glow above them, fixed on this spot.
My heart hammers as I stare in fear, disbelief, and fascination at the approaching monstrosity. The beast we’ve all been dreading has at last shown its hideous face.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know Cyim is telling me to run. I know Kiri is yanking at my hand, trying to make me flee with her. But all that vanishes behind a strange buzzing in my head as I watch the thlakeen draw closer. The water dripping from its body does nothing to hinder the flames erupting from its back, and the light reflecting off its black scales gives the creature a terrifying glow. A fire just as powerful erupts in my chest as my heart fills with rage.
This is the monster that has terrorized my people. Whatever problems I might have with Kristakai’s laws, this is still my home, and this beast must pay for what it did.
I feel my wrath rush down my arms like two boiling streams, and the fireballs ignite in my hands almost of their own will. They leap and crackle as I channel my powers toward them, building them until they’re each the size of my head.
Somewhere in the distance, someone is telling me to stop—but all I see is the nearing abomination. Blood pounds in my ears, and I’m not sure if the red glow around my vision is from my flaming hair or from the sheer power of my fury.
Snarling, I hurl both fireballs at the thlakeen in quick succession. A feral cry escapes my lips, and it feels good to release it.
My projectiles hit the creature square in the chest, and it lets out another earth-shaking roar. The next thing I know, it’s barreling toward me—far faster than I’d expected. I’d thought its hulking form and slithering movements meant it was a slow, clumsy creature, but I could not have been more wrong. In less than two seconds, I find myself wrapped in one of its cold, slimy tentacles.
I barely have time to gasp before it staggers backward as though struck through the torso by a battering ram, releasing me as it struggles to regain its balance. Wind howls past my ears, yet I feel barely a breeze against my back, and apart from a few flying leaves, there’s no sign that the gust affected anything other than the monster.
There’s only one explanation for such a targeted gale. Whirling, I spot Kiri standing a few feet behind me, her arms outstretched and her eyes narrowed in concentration. I take a moment to marvel at this unexpected display of strength—I thought she would have been long gone by now—then spin to face the monster, channeling my magic into my hands to create another pair of fireballs. But I barely have time to let them spark before an enormous tentacle comes crashing toward me. Startled, I rush out of the way. Even in my hovering flame form, the abrupt movement throws me off balance, and I nearly crash into the ground before catching myself.
A high-pitched scream splits the air, and I look back to see Kiri flying backward through the air, pushed by an enormous tentacle. She slams into a tree, then goes limp and drops to the ground.
“Kiri!” I cry.
The tentacle starts to wrap around her unconscious form, and my rage ignites anew. I aim both hands at that cursed appendage and muster every ounce of strength I have into shooting two swirling columns of flames at it. I feel the strain within me; I’ve never used this much force at once before. But my anger overwhelms all other senses as I unleash my magic without mercy.
I will burn the thlakeen until nothing is left, and I will dance on its ashes.
I’m scarcely aware of my surroundings anymore. There’s only me and the enemy. Me and the fight. Me and the power.
The tentacle shrivels under my fire, and the thlakeen’s agonized cries cause the air to quake. For a brief, euphoric moment, I taste victory.
The feeling soon splinters as a wave of heat blasts toward me, engulfing me in yellow and red. The blaze is so powerful, even I feel its sting upon my skin, like a million tiny needles pressing into me. Were I not fire as well, I would surely have been reduced to a crisp. I glance up to the thlakeen’s rows and rows of teeth, and realize the flames are coming from its mouth.
I turn my hands toward this new threat and thrust the columns of fire at the blaze shooting from the thlakeen’s maw. I’m able to push the monster’s flames off of me, and their absence makes the air suddenly feel cool. But the creature doesn’t draw back, and I soon find myself locked in a contest of strength, with each of us hoping to overpower the other. Magic pulses through my veins as I press on, but I feel my energy diminishing. Though I manage to keep the fire strong, my arms begin to shake from the strain.
Seconds stretch and stretch, each one longer than the last. My very breath trembles from the effort, and yet the monster remains as powerful as ever. I feel as if I’m pushing against a solid rock face, hoping to break it, but am only fracturing my own bones.
Where are the unicorns? Why do they not help me fight this creature, and why didn’t they interfere when it attacked Kiri?
Suddenly, my arms give out. I don’t even have a chance to stop them; they fly back, overwhelmed by the thlakeen’s strength, and a great force strikes my chest, sending me to the ground. The impact ripples through my back, and the next thing I know, I’m lying spread-eagle on the grass, staring up at a pair of menacing red eyes.
Yet the flames have vanished. For some reason, though the thlakeen won our contest, it chose not to try incinerating me. Perhaps it realized that it could not. Whatever the case, I’m not about to wait and see what it will do.
My breath comes in ragged gasps as I scramble to get up, but before I can stand, an enormous hand clasps my middle, thick and rough with scales. An involuntary yelp escapes me as I find myself once again in the thlakeen’s grip. The rank smell of salt and rot rises from the monster’s slimy flesh, and I gag. Panic seizes me as I struggle to escape, but none of my flailing does any good.
The thlakeen lifts me toward its revolting face and opens its mouth, which is as wide as a cave. The stench of its breath is so putrid, my eyes tear up. An ominous red light glows at the back of its black throat, behind the unforgiving teeth.
It suddenly hits me that I’m being an idiot; why the blazes am I still in my solid form when I can transform into flames?
I change at once, feeling my body dissolve into heat and light. Free of physical confines, I pass right through the monster’s fist, scorching it as I flee, and zoom through the air, thinking only to get away from the thing that wants to crush me in its jaws and swallow my life.
“Cyim!” I call, wondering why neither he nor Amdyth has interfered.
Then, to my shock, solid claws close around my body once again, nearly squeezing the breath out of me. Wondering how this is possible when I’m still in my ethereal form, I fight to escape. I flame and flame in every direction, trying to burn my way to freedom. But the thlakeen’s powers are somehow able to grip me even in this state, and whatever vulnerability I exploited when I incinerated its tentacle seems to have vanished.
What monstrous horror is this? What mighty power can grip fire itself and not even flinch at the heat?
I cast fireball after fireball at the fist clutching me, all the while wriggling and twisting in an effort to get out. All logic seems to have vanished from my head; the only thing I know is that I have get out … get out … get out…
The grip around me abruptly vanishes, and I find myself tumbling through the air as the monster roars in fury. I catch myself and hover midair, panting and wondering what just happened.
A shaft of white light catches my eye, and I glimpse Cyim standing before the thlakeen, shooting a beam of magic from his golden horn straight into the monster’s chest. A combination of relief and confusion rattles through my head. Where was he before, when Kiri and I were battling the creature alone? Where is Amdyth?
The latter question is soon answered as my gaze falls upon a soft white glow some distance behind where Cyim stands. But it’s not only Amdyth’s light I see; six other unicorns stand beside her, each a different pastel shade—lavender, rose, peach, canary, and periwinkle—except one, whose coat is twilight blue. Together, they form the colors of the early dawn, pale hues blending into one another until they reach the retreating night. Horns of gold and silver glitter with the spell they’re generating, and I wonder why they do not cast it. The thlakeen is right in front of them—what are they waiting for?
Run, child! Cyim’s voice rings through my head. Yet behind the command, I hear something I’ve never heard before from him: fear.
And despite the terror that just moments ago would have had me obeying all too quickly, I cannot leave him. Though his powers are far greater than mine, this beast has already proven itself a more formidable threat than I could ever have imagined. Now that the immediate danger has shifted away from me, my panic gives way to a fresh wave of rage. This monster has terrorized my people and wounded my lover, and now it seeks to destroy my Terrene Father. I won’t let it win.
Go! Cyim orders, but instead, I wind up for another fireball. I don’t know what the other unicorns are waiting for, but perhaps between the two of us, we can destroy this creature once and for all.
The thlakeen spits a column of fire toward Cyim, but the flames slide harmlessly off the bubble of light surrounding the unicorn. I smirk. An Infernal monster is no match for a Celestial being. It will not drive Cyim into the ground as it did to me, and with it distracted, I can make my move.
The heat of the fight flows through me, and I devote it all to forming the largest, hottest fireball I’ve ever attempted, in hopes that one mighty strike will do what my last few rounds of smaller attacks failed to. The orb of flames I create between my hands is so large that I’m sure if Kiri were to curl up, she’d fit inside. Bright yellows frolic across its surface, popping and hissing. I pour every iota of magic I possess into this one deadly weapon, until it seems as great as the sun itself.
I’m about to unleash it at the monster’s head when it suddenly bears down toward Cyim, bending forward at its torso and shooting its jaws toward his obsidian body. I expect its teeth to shatter against the enchanted shield surrounding him. Instead, they cut right through, sinking into the unicorn’s shoulders.
“No!” I scream. I release the fireball, but the thlakeen dodges, and my projectile only catches its arm.
Its cry of wrath and pain sends an unwelcome tremor through my bones, but at least it had to release Cyim to holler like that. I gasp as he collapses, his four legs folding beneath him and his eyes closing. Stunned, I stare at him, expecting him to spring up in a heartbeat. How could he have fallen? Not far from him, I glimpse Kiri’s prone form against the tree. Ordinarily, the contrast between the two could not be greater—one a powerful immortal, the other a fragile girl. Yet, at the moment, they are equals—both defeated and vulnerable.
But I am still standing.
A flash of red snags my attention, and I realize that with Cyim no longer a threat, the monster is once again focusing on me. Enraged, I start to form yet another fireball. But then I spot its enormous, clawed hand reaching for me again. Knowing what will happen if it catches me, I reach out with my senses for a flame—any flame. The monster’s own fire, still leaping from those spikes on its back, is the first thing I feel, and that’ll do me little good when I’m trying to get away. I reach past it and, feeling something farther away, dive into the other blaze.
I’m not running; I’m dodging the only way I can.
I emerge from the flame of a small torch, one of many scattered around Kristakai to keep the forest from ever falling into total darkness. These flames guide those who move by night, so that no one ever need stumble about blindly. This one stands on a short, thick metal shaft in the middle of a small clearing, enchanted to burn bright without need for fuel.
I glance around to orient myself. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve only traveled a few dozen yards. The thlakeen is visible through the trees, the fire on its back startling against the night. Equally startling is the glow surrounding the seven unicorns, who, as far as I can tell, have yet to act. Logic tells me that they must have a reason for waiting, but the fact that they simply stood by and watched as Kiri and Cyim were hurt infuriates me.
I want to rush back and engage the creature once again, then recall that none of my past efforts have done me much good.
Except right after it struck Kiri… I managed to incinerate its tentacle. The loss of a single appendage hardly seemed to handicap the creature, but still, it was a triumph. Yet none of my other attempts to burn the beast succeeded. That could be due to any number of reasons, and I don’t have time to sift through them right now. If only I knew the cause of that one-time weakness!
Weakness… A memory hits me, and I curse myself for not thinking of it before. It has a weakness! The base of its skull…
I don’t know if the hearsay of the lone criminal I interrogated is accurate, but it’s the best chance I have. Still, I have to get close enough to attempt to exploit this fault. I have to reach the flames on the creature’s own back.
All I need is a weapon, and I cast my gaze around, searching for a rock or a fallen tree branch or some other blunt instrument. My eyes land on the torch from which I emerged. Wondering how difficult it would be to lift, I grab its metal shaft and pull. Though it’s heavy, it offers no resistance.
Newly armed and with a plan in mind, I reach out with my senses once again. This time, I want to emerge from the thlakeen’s own fire. I seek the blaze closest to its head, and seize it with my magic.
An instant later, I’m surrounded by flames and black scales and the stench of salt and rot. To either side, I spot the thlakeen’s gigantic arms, and below, I spy its tangle of tentacles. What looks like a wall of black scales rises above me—the back of its head.
I waste no time in hefting the metal torch in my hands and bringing it smashing down onto my target. The thlakeen throws back its head and lets out a deafening bellow, but I ignore it. Still hovering in flame form, I bring the torch down again, and again, and again, finding great satisfaction in the crunch of breaking bone.
Panting from the effort, I take a moment to check whether any tentacles or clawed hands are reaching for me. The monster makes no move to snatch me, though, so I can only guess that my attack has dazed it. Excitement bursts though me, and I gleefully swing the torch down once more. I will pound this Infernal beast to dust.
Elaia! Amdyth calls to me psychically, her voice startling in its loudness. Clear out at once, or you will be destroyed as well!
I freeze, wondering what she could mean by that.
NOW! Her voice booms through my head.
I’ve never heard anything so commanding in my life, and I find myself obeying before I have a chance to consider it. I soar toward the sky, dropping the torch in my frenzy.
Looking down, I realize that the unicorns no longer stand in a cluster, but surround the thlakeen from all angles. Beams of light shoot from their horns, so dazzling that even I have to shield my eyes. The brilliance is as powerful as the sun, and I’m certain if I looked at it directly, I’d go blind. The air trembles from the sheer force of the unicorns’ combined magic, and I can feel its resonance in my very core.
A moment later, the light fades away. I uncover my face and look down to find a black scorch mark where the thlakeen once stood.
It’s gone; we destroyed it. A mix of relief, satisfaction, and glee pour through me. I dive down and land beside the monster’s remnants, hardly able to believe what I’m seeing. A grin stretches my face, though my heart is still pounding. No longer will this thing torment my people, my home. Justice has been delivered, and I was one of the couriers.
Then I notice the unicorns gathering around Cyim, who remains unconscious several yards away. With their combined power, surely they’ll heal his injuries in a matter of moments. I’ll likely find him towering over me with a stern expression and a tiresome lecture within the next minute.
Kiri, meanwhile, remains motionless but for the subtle rise and fall of her chest. I rush toward her, worry crawling into my mind. But she must be all right; Amdyth would have come to her if she’d sensed that Kiri were in true danger.
Kneeling beside her, I place my hand on her shoulder and give a gentle shake. “Kiri!” When she doesn’t respond, I shake harder and lean down toward her. “Kiri!”
Her eyelids flutter, and she looks up with a puzzled expression. “What… What happened?”
“The monster is defeated!” My face hardly seems wide enough to contain my smile. “Are you all right?”
She sits up with a nod. “My head just hurts a little.”
Delighted and relieved, I press my lips to hers in a triumphant kiss. She seems startled, but soon melts into me. I caress her lips with mine as I pull her close, pressing her cool body against my chest. The monster is gone—thanks in part to me—and my lover is safe in my arms.
In this moment, everything seems right.
But then a sharp noise pulls my attention away, shattering the perfection. I whirl to see the seven unicorns standing over Cyim, who remains unconscious. Their horns meet above him, sparks spewing from the point of the convergence and puncturing the air with their popping sounds.
“Is he all right?” Kiri asks.
“I don’t know.” Concerned, I hurry over to find out what’s going on.
As I approach, a sense of dread envelops my heart—the sense that perhaps my celebration was premature, and that our troubles are not over yet.
I watch in silence as the unicorns continue their spell, and, unpleasant as the noise is, I refrain from covering my ears, since to do so seems disrespectful. I expect my Terrene Father to open his eyes and rise to his feet. I expect the deep puncture wounds on his shoulder, which ooze silver blood, to heal instantly without leaving a scar.
But when the unicorns cease their magic and withdraw from their formation, he remains prone, his injuries still gaping.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask no one in particular.
Amdyth turns her violet eyes toward me, and I can’t tell if they’re heavy with sorrow, weariness, disappointment—or all three. The Infernal power of the thlakeen was too great for our Celestial magic to overcome, even when we combined the power of seven.
“What? Are you saying Infernal magic is greater than Celestial?” It hits me that even the immortal can be killed, and ice seeps into my heart. “Is he alive?”
Yes, and I believe that, with time, he will recover. Amdyth’s tone is gentle. He has always been strong, and this is not the first Infernal wound he has suffered. He will be weak for a while, and it could be months before he is completely restored, but, fortunately, the thlakeen was repelled before it could cause any fatal damage.
I exhale, and some of the tension leaves my body. Of course this wouldn’t be the first time Cyim faced something Infernal… After all, he took part in the great battle at the dawn of time that defeated the Fiend.
As for your first question, Amdyth continues, Only the Divinity Herself knows. Some say the destructive power of the Infernal Realm is stronger than the magic Her Celestial beings wield, but I do not believe that is true.
Beside me, Kiri shifts uncomfortably. “Amdyth … you spoke before of the Age of Fire. Now that you’ve seen the monster and know for sure what it is, do you … do you still think it’s a sign that the prophecy is coming true?”
Unfortunately, it makes me even more certain than before. Amdyth’s tone carries a sigh. We are entering a dangerous era, and I fear even the unicorns will not be able to keep Kristakai safe.
Her words send a wave of apprehension frosting over my skin. With Cyim, whom I once thought to be invincible, lying wounded on the ground, I realize that her fears are well founded. The thlakeen is but one of many beasts that lie within the Infernal Realm, and it managed to bring a great unicorn to his knees. It’s a good thing I was there when it attacked, for without me, the monster would not have released him, and he might have been lost to us entirely.
If one monster can do that to an immortal…
“Why did you not help him in the battle?” I demand, suddenly angry. “How could you stand there and let us face the monster alone?”
You were not meant to face the monster at all. Amdyth’s voice takes a severe turn. We needed time to build the collective spell that ultimately destroyed the thlakeen, but your actions forced Cyim to abandon the effort in order to aid you. Had it not been for you, neither he nor Kiri would have suffered as they did.
“I did not suffer.” Kiri’s voice is quiet but firm. “I chose to fight.”
Amdyth appears to ignore her as she keeps her eyes on me. Your defiance led to grave consequences and is utterly unacceptable.
My jaw drops. “What the blazes are you talking about? I—”
You deliberately broke the laws of Kristakai and disobeyed Cyim’s commands for you to flee. Amdyth’s voice is harsh. Kiri only remained because you did, and Cyim broke away from the other unicorns because he feared for you. Had you not been there, he would have remained under the protection of our collective magic. Not only would we have completed our spell and brought down the thlakeen sooner, but no harm would have come to him. It is fortunate that your actions did not result in tragedy.
I scowl. Is she really trying to blame me for what happened to Cyim? Is she really saying that everything I did was pointless? “I am the reason you were able to defeat the thlakeen! I kept it distracted while you and the others conjured your spell, and I weakened it—enough to turn it into a still target for you! And I only knew how to do that because I ventured outside and commanded a human to tell me. So don’t you dare lecture me when everything I’ve done has led to the monster’s defeat.”
Amdyth shakes her head. You are ruthless, Elaia.
I lift my chin. “You say that like it’s a fault.” A piece of my heart knows that, on some level, I acted recklessly and perhaps wrongly, but another part overwhelms that, and says all that really matters is that what I did resulted in success. “If we are moving into a dangerous time, then perhaps a little more ruthlessness will be needed—if we’re to survive.”
I brace myself for a reprimand, but Amdyth simply gazes at me in silence. Though she doesn’t speak a word, I sense her disappointment rippling all around me. She wants me to be something other than what I am. She wants me to be like Kiri—always kind and sweet and docile.
Lovely, but weak.
Such fragility would do me no good should another threat strike Kristakai, and I refuse to be some decorative little flower. The unicorns want us all to depend on them for protection, but such faith would be misplaced. They failed to keep the thlakeen from entering here in the first place, after all.
I feel the ground shift beneath me and look down to see a pair of deep blue vines burst from the dirt by my feet. Narrow and limber, they wrap around my ankles like a pair of snakes. I yelp in surprise and instinctively try to kick them off, but they hold me tight. So I change instead, blasting them with my flames as my legs turn to fire.
Yet that makes no difference; I am still trapped. Meanwhile, additional vines spring up in a circle around me. Kiri jumps back with a shriek as one nearly knocks into her.
Calm down. Amdyth’s cool voice slips into my head. They will cause you no harm.
“What are they?” Despite her words, I toss a fireball at one of the vines, but the blaze simply dissolves against its winding form.
I am the one creating them, she replies.
I want to ask why, but I’m too busy trying to get out. The vines around my legs anchor me to the ground even though I am in my ethereal form, and those that surround me weave into a wide cage, closing me in. As the final threads stitch together, my lower body abruptly returns to its solid form—without my command. When I try to change back to fire, I find myself unable to. Neither can I muster another fireball; the spark of magic within me is gone.
Without my powers, I’m missing a piece of myself, and I feel like I’m suffocating inside this cursed cage.
Your powers will not work in here. Amdyth’s smooth voice would be calming if she weren’t the cause of this.
I stop struggling, realizing that my magic is useless against that of a unicorn. Glaring, I ask, “Why are you doing this?”
You broke the law. Her stare is harsh. Your confinement here is your punishment.
I start to protest, but Kiri speaks first. “That’s not fair!” she exclaims, marching up to her Terrene Mother. “Elaia was only trying to help!”
Her unwavering loyalty makes me regret all the uncharitable thoughts I’ve had about her lately, and I’m glad I never let them slip onto my tongue.
Rules must be enforced. Amdyth glances at Kiri, then back at me. How long you remain in here will be up to you. She lowers her head and sticks the tip of her horn through the organic cage’s twisting bars. It emits a blinding flash, and when the light clears I find two books sitting on the ground beside my bound ankles. One has an old, beaten leather cover with flecks of gilt lettering embedded across its center. Many of the letters have been worn down, but enough remain for me to make out a title: A Brief History of Nymphs from the Age of Unicorns. The second book is hardly a book at all, for it lacks a cover and appears to be a stack of paper bound together along one edge with a simple piece of twine. A yellow feather pen, its tip black with ink, sits in its center.
As I lean down to examine them, the vines around my legs retreat back into the ground. Though I’m glad to no longer be anchored, the release is little comfort when a prison still surrounds me. “What is this?”
The contents of the first book should be obvious from its title, Amdyth replies. It details encounters between nymphs and humans—and contains accounts of all the damage your kind caused before they retreated into the unicorn domains. You seem to have forgotten that for there to be peace in the Terrestrial Realm, the enchanted must remain as separate from humankind as possible. This volume will serve as a reminder, and you are to copy its words into the second book, which is blank. Once you complete this task, the vines will retreat, and you will once again be free.
Grimacing, I pick up the pen. “What if I run out of ink?”
You will not. The pen is enchanted. A note of irritation colors Amdyth’s tone. She then vanishes in a burst of light, leaving me with no way to argue back.
Though I want to fight for escape, I know I’m well and truly cornered this time. Amdyth already has me snared without my powers, and the only way to get out is to follow her instructions. Furthermore, the weariness of this long, long day seems to have broken past the dam of stubbornness and excitement I’d erected against it. Every part of me is exhausted, and I have no will left to fight a useless battle. I’m just a girl in a cage, forced to complete an inane and pointless task because I dared to defy the authorities. I suspect that if Cyim were awake, he would have agreed with Amdyth’s actions. In fact, he probably would have been the one to imprison me.
I plop down in the grass with a huff.
Kiri, who stands just outside the cage, kneels down to my level. “I am so, so sorry.” Her expression has contrition written all over it, with her tilted eyebrows and downturned lips. “I know I shouldn’t have told them your secret… I wish I could take it back.”
“Too late now,” I grumble. I still want to berate her for cracking so easily under pressure, but I don’t have the energy. Besides, now that I’m stuck here, I’ll need her help. Amdyth didn’t seem too concerned about what I would eat or drink while I’m confined to this tiny scrap of land. I know she’d never let me starve, but I’d much rather ask Kiri to bring me things than have to beg from the one who imprisoned me.
“I’m sure you’ll be out of here soon.” Kiri smiles, but it looks forced. “In the meantime, I’ll remain to keep you company. And I’ll bring you anything you need, I promise.”
“Thank you.” My tone is flat; I can’t bring myself to speak with false brightness.
Her face falls. “You’re still angry with me, aren’t you?” She reaches one delicate hand through the bars. “Please, forgive me. I… I’ll do better next time, I promise.”
There won’t be a next time. I would never trust her with another secret. But I need her to trust me, and pushing away my closest ally will do me no good.
So I accept her hand and move closer, until I’m pressed up against the vines. Meeting her eyes, I say, “I forgive you.” I wish I were telling the truth, and I wish I could forget how her quick betrayal led to the loss of my magic. But I can’t. Even if this state of powerlessness is temporary, I find it unbearable, and I know that it boils down to what she said.
She seems to sense my hesitation, because she says, “Are you sure?”
“Of course.” To convince her, I tighten my fingers around hers, then place my other hand on her cheek, drawing her in. I kiss her hard—harder than I’d intended. A mix of anger and lust compels me, and I have no reason to hold back. The way her lips move against my mouth, even as I crush her, speaks to how desperately she seeks me—and how complete my grasp on her is.
She is mine. Despite her flaws, despite the fact that I don’t love her as she loves me, I can’t let her go. I don’t know why she loves me so, and I don’t care. All that matters is that she does, and because of it, I can make her do anything I say.
She is mine, and in this moment, that’s the only form of power I have.
I must have been convincing, because when I finally release her, she smiles again—and this time, it’s natural. So much joy fills her face, I almost want to slap her—to knock some sense into her. Perhaps she loves me because she only sees the best parts, viewing me through a hazy mist that blurs out my faults. In fact, with few exceptions, that seems to be how she perceives every part of the world.
I, on the other hand, hold no such illusions. Any I might have had died today—the thlakeen’s final victims.
Now that I’ve glimpsed what lies outside Kristakai, I know that many of the anxieties I once held about its dangers are false. Though leaving my homeland weakened me, it also showed me how strong I can be. I’ve seen just how much power I can hold over a human, and I want more of that feeling of total control. The unicorns never told any of us what that was like, and I’m sure there’s far more that they’re keeping secret.
I want to go beyond Kristakai’s bounds—and not just through a brief visit and a single encounter with a human next time. No, I want to explore. And I will find a way. Partly for curiosity’s sake, but also because I do believe that Amdyth is right about the Age of Fire drawing closer. And if the Fiend rises, I want to be prepared. Whatever happens, I will survive, no matter what I have to do.
I suspect that the key to that lies in the vast world forbidden to me.
Spotting a glow in the corner of my eye, I turn to see the sky brightening above the treetops. A red dawn approaches, blotting out the stars with its blaze. Just as the blaze of Inferno could someday blot out the Celestial light.
The Age of Fire is coming, and if the prophecy is true, it will engulf the world in flames. But I refuse to fear it any longer. Inferno may be fire, but so am I.
Right now, with my magic suppressed, I am deprived of a vital part of me. I’m not whole. I feel like a fallen twig—brittle and useless, separated from that which once made it something, and unable to act. That the unicorns did this to me ignites my rage, and I feel it flowing through my veins like lava. Amdyth was the one who cast the spell, but the others, still gathered over Cyim, did not interfere … and therefore tacitly approved.
The unicorns may protect this land, but they expect total, unquestioning obedience in return, and that is something I cannot give. Fury boils in my very soul, for I know now that I cannot trust them, either.
I will never be powerless like this again. Not before the unicorns or anything else.
I swear to the Divinity above and the Fiend below, to the stars and the flames and everything in between, I will never be powerless again.
Light floods my vision, but there’s no warmth in it, and I shut my eyes, wondering where it’s coming from. The darkness returns, and not just the darkness of my vision, but something far deeper, a terrifying abyss that freezes my heart.
The darkness in my mind.
I know I’m lying on a hard surface, and that I woke up here a moment ago, but before that, there’s nothing – nothing. Just a yawning maw of blackness gaping across my thoughts, a monstrous beast that hollowed out my head, leaving emptiness where memories should have been. Coldness wraps my entire being like an icy blanket; even the air in my lungs chills me. Questions assault me, a million flaming arrows aiming for my heart, and one strikes its target with the greatest impact: Where am I?
I sit up and blink, turning my face away from the whiteness that blinded me before. And all I see is ice. Ice and iron. Thick bars stretch up from the ground before me, reaching for the dark ceiling, with frozen water filling the narrow spaces between them. The frosty, pale blue wall glimmers, frightening and mesmerizing at once. It looks so sturdy, it might as well be a mountain, cutting me off from any hope of escape in that direction. Only a small, round window – the source of the light – breaks its otherwise solid form. The cold floor stings my bare feet as I stand and approach it, hoping a glimpse outside might help me figure out where I am. But the window is barely bigger than my hand, and all I see outside is a vast stretch of snow and the pale, empty sky above it. Nothing that tells me anything except this: I don’t belong here.
But where do I belong? I sense a great shadow looming over me, as if an invisible knife hangs over my head, and hug my bare arms. But the gesture brings me no comfort, for these pale, slight limbs look foreign, though they’re parts of me. I realize I haven’t even a memory of my own appearance – whether my legs are long or short, whether my face is heart-shaped or round, whether my eyes are black or blue. Who or even what I am. The very body I inhabit might as well be a stranger, and the unfamiliarity sends a new chill racing down my spine. If I don’t even know what I look like, how can I hope to discover who I am? Where I came from? Or how I ended up in this icy prison?
A shiver runs through me at the thought, giving my whole body a violent shake, and I clench my jaw in an attempt to stop it. There must be a clue around here somewhere, and I might find it if I can just pull myself together long enough to look. Glancing down, I see that I’m wearing a thin, azure dress that barely reaches my knees, with a top that hangs loosely over my torso from a knot at the nape of my neck, leaving my back and shoulders exposed. I inhale, reminding myself that even this detail is something; it tells me that I must have come from someplace much warmer.
I knit my eyebrows, searching for memories – how old I am, who my family is, what skills I’ve learned … a cascade of questions tumbles through my head, each yelling for attention and demanding to be answered. What is this place? And why can’t I remember how I got here?
But though I scour my mind, only an empty void greets me. I don’t even know my own name.
My pulse crescendos with fear, and the shadow of danger grows even darker, closing in around me. I draw a long breath, firmly telling myself to stay calm. I can figure this out if I just focus on one question at a time.
Then something glints at the edge of my vision, and I realize it’s my own hair. I reach behind me and pull forward one long, straight lock. It’s as pale as my hand, tinted with only the faintest hint of gold. Is it almost white because I’m old? I run my fingers across my face, and the smoothness of my skin gives me the answer to that question: I must be young. Narrow nose, high cheeks, slim eyebrows … I trace each contour with my fingertips, and try to envision what I look like. Part of me says that it’s not important – a frivolous detail compared to the larger questions looming over me – but I can’t help fixating on it.
I look down and take in what parts of myself my eyes can reach – slight shoulders, small chest, narrow hips. Twig-like legs. Bony wrists. Long, straight hair that reaches my waist. This is me, and I shouldn’t have to feel strange in my own skin. If I could just find that one thread connecting what I see to what I remember, maybe I could follow it and recover at least one piece of myself.
So I paint a self-portrait, based on what I’ve observed, and concentrate on the image. The face remains a dark shadow, though, and I focus on that. Surely I must have seen my reflection in the past, in a mirror or a window or even a bucket of water. If I could just recall that single moment, I’d have an answer, and maybe that would lead to more.
Because if I can’t even recall this simple detail, what hope do I have of escaping the dreaded shadow?
Closing my eyes, I put all my focus on this one simple task and nothing else, trying to sharpen the self-portrait and fill in the blank face with what I puzzled out by touch. The ache returns, and part of me wants to throw up my hands and yell, “This is hopeless!” But I press on, concentrating so hard that I barely feel the coldness surrounding me anymore. I’m so close …
Suddenly an image flashes through my head: a slender girl with sky blue eyes and long, straight hair. And, most importantly, a face. Perhaps … could it be? Is this skinny, bird-like girl, whose wide eyes seem to radiate naïveté, me?
Please let it be, a desperate voice whispers in my heart. Please say my efforts led to something real …
A great feeling of familiarity strikes me to the core, and a glow begins to enter my mind, as if a crack has appeared in a cloud-covered sky and revealed a ray of light. Yes, it’s me. The knowledge feels as certain as the sun shining outside that tiny window, and sudden relief envelops me as I realize I’m one step closer to being whole again. So I can recover memories after all. Small as this victory is, it tells me there are more triumphs to be had if I work for them.
And I must. I have to know who I am, and where I’ve come from. How I came to be here. How to get out.
But my sense of victory is short-lived, for the invisible knife, the danger I can’t identify but whose presence I feel with every nerve, still hangs over me. If I’m to escape it, I need to uncover more recollections … starting with my name. That could be the next marker in a trail of memories that will lead me home. I know I have one. I feel it in my innermost core – a sense of self whose presence was once as sure as the sun shining outside. But now there’s only hollowness within, as if someone stole a piece of my soul.
Still, there must be something left, and if I defeated the darkness once, I can do it again. I just need to find a thread, like I did with my appearance, that will lead me to what I seek. So I whisper random syllables, hoping the sound or cadence of one will somehow trigger the memory of something more. “Tah … Roh … Kee …”
Sudden white-hot pain fills my head, like a burning blade slicing me, and a million tiny daggers lance through my skull, each stabbing me with such force that I feel as if my whole body might shatter.
I cry out in shock and grab at my hair, as if ripping at it might tear away the pain as well. I claw my scalp, knowing it’s useless, but unable to keep myself from this vain attempt to stop the great fire. Before I can do anything further, my legs buckle beneath me, and I collapse to the ground.
The impact of the hard metal floor shakes the flames away, and I gasp at the abrupt relief. My knees and shoulders ache from the fall, but their throbbing is nothing compared to the agony I just felt.
I breathe hard, and my heart hammers in my chest. What was that?
I look around wildly, wondering if something attacked me, but all I see are the iron bars and the ice between them. Then a thought strikes me: All I see are the bars and the ice, no matter which way I turn. Except for the one small window, there’s no break in the four frozen walls surrounding me.
There’s no way out.
No, that can’t be; I must be missing something. I got in here somehow, didn’t I? Certain I must be wrong, I scramble up to the wall and run my fingers over the hard, freezing mass. Maybe I’m neglecting something with my eyes – maybe there’s a hidden door. I sweep my hands across the cold surface, and the chill bites my skin.
But there’s nothing.
No matter how I feel along the edges of the iron bars or search the ridges in the ice, I can’t find even a single crack. Maybe I can make one, I tell myself in a vain attempt to keep my head steady. Maybe this ice isn’t as thick as it looks, and I can break down this wall. Hoping with all my heart that I’m right, I ball up my fists and pound against it.
The impact sends a bolt of pain shooting up my hand, but the ice doesn’t budge. I hit harder and harder, until I’m sure I’ll shatter my bones and then, realizing these actions are useless, I flatten my palms and push against it, throwing all my weight forward. My fingers go numb, but I ignore them.
Maybe this wall is stronger than the other three. I turn to the next one and pound and push until my hands are so sore and cold, I feel like they might fall off. But nothing I do sends so much as a ripple of vibration through the thick ice. My hands look pathetically small against the great surface they’re fighting, and while part of me yearns to keep trying, I know I’ll break them for real if I do, and still be trapped.
Catching a glimpse of the window, I rush toward it. The wall around the opening is also made of ice – maybe I can widen it. I dig my fingers into its lower edge and tear, desperately using every ounce of strength I have. Though I rip at the ice until my fingers are raw, I can’t scrape off a single shard. My breath quickens, until it becomes ragged gasps, and my heart pounds with increasing panic, filling my ears with its desperate drumming. No matter what I do, though, no matter what I try, I can’t escape.
Exhausted, I collapse against the wall and sink to the ground. My whole body shakes with the cold I can no longer ignore, and I hug my knees to my chest in an effort to warm up. Hot, powerful tears sting my eyes, and dread weighs down with such heaviness that I feel it crushing me. Did someone leave me here to die? Why would they do that? Who could they be?
And who am I?
Just then, a loud clanging noise ripples through the air, and I jump. Realizing that someone else might be outside, and that they might be able to help me, I scramble to my feet and open my mouth to shout.
But then black shadows appear on the other side of the ice, their dark forms vaguely visible through its bluish surface, and my voice dies in my throat. There are at least six or seven figures – tall and shapeless, yet menacing. They draw closer, speaking in low, muffled voices like thunder rumbling in the distance.
Thunder. I remember thunder, roaring in my ears. And lightning, splitting the sky. And rain, both pounding in relentless fury and flurrying in a fine mist. I remember all these elements of the weather – and others, like wind, and fog, and snow … so why can’t I remember my name? How is it that I possess so much knowledge about the world, and yet nothing about myself?
Meanwhile, the shadows continue approaching, until they’re so near that I could touch them if the wall didn’t stand between us. Their looming presence makes me shudder. What are they? What will they do to me?
Then, a deep, commanding voice booms through the barrier: “Wall of ice, open yourself for me.”
Mary Fan is a hopeless dreamer, whose mind insists on spinning tales of “what if.” As a music major in college, she told those stories through compositions. Now she tells them through books—a habit she began as soon as she could pick up a pencil. Flynn Nightsider and the Edge of Evil follows a well-received debut novel, a space opera titled Artificial Absolutes (2013), and is the first in the Flynn Nightsider series. Mary would like to think that there are many other novels in her bag, and hopes to prove that to the world as well.
Mary lives in New Jersey and has a B.A. from Princeton University. When she’s not scheming to create new worlds, she enjoys kickboxing, opera singing, and blogging about everything having to do with books.