Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Mercuriel--Aubrey Rising Book 3

 
h1=.

MERCURIEL

 

 

 

AUBREY RISING BOOK 3

 

By Devlin Richards

h1=.

Mercuriel

Aubrey Rising Book 3

Devlin Richards

 

Copyright © 2015 by Devlin Richards

[email protected]

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photo-copy, recording, or any other—except brief quotations in reviews, without the prior permission of the author or publisher.

 

First publication 2015

  • Table of Contents *

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 42

CHAPTER 43

CHAPTER 44

CHAPTER 45

CHAPTER 46

CHAPTER 1

I can feel Mackenna’s sadness like a living thing.

Even a month after the funeral, after her boyfriend Ryan was killed, she is still broken. She’s fixing herself, struggling to put her life back together, but for now she’s still shattered. She can’t sleep, and she’s quiet and still. She misses Ryan. She will always miss Ryan. The sadness will always be a part of her, will always leave her changed.

I feel especially bad about it because I know her sadness is all my fault. That knowledge aches through me, makes a wound in my heart that I can never really heal. If it weren’t for me, Mackenna and Ryan would still be together. Mackenna will probably never trust me again. Not really.

Zephyra captured Ryan, Min, Mackenna, and me, and forced me to choose one of us to die. I chose Ryan, rather than either of my two best friends. Rather than myself. That is a burden I will always carry with me. I’m sleeping as little as Mackenna is. Nightmares haunt me, nightmares where I am killing the people I love and there is nothing I can do to stop. Nightmares where I am a monster, leaving death and destruction in my wake.

Even the fact that I am now officially dating Min cannot lift the heavy cloud of depression that I seem to be suffocating under, although it does help a little. I made us sit down and define the relationship one day, when I desperately wanted one solid thing in my life. It was awkward, but we made it through. Now we’re going out. I mean, we kind of were before, but now it’s official. Min is my boyfriend.

We’ve agreed that we don’t need to really feel obligation to take each other on dates yet, not while the war is going on. If we’re still alive by the end, and we’re still together, we’ll figure it out from there. For now, it’s just too complicated. So to be honest, dating him is not that different from just being really good friends, except with more kissing and holding hands.

Liz, my adoptive mother, is afraid. I can see it in her every movement, all the time. It never leaves her. She’s worried for all of us. She just wants to be able to protect her children. It’s not her fault ‘her children’ encompasses everyone in the School. Now another one of has died, and I can see that it’s taking almost as much of a toll on her as it is on me. She is jumpy, constantly on edge, and I know that she is waking up from nightmares almost as often as I am.

What we really need to do is end this war. If we can end this war, that will make all that we have given up worth it, right? But the end of the war seems impossibly far away, something so unachievable that it doesn’t feel like it’s worth dreaming about. I know that Arden, my dragon, and I need to go to the pointy rock and bring my mother back if we want to win the war. That’s basically our only plan of action right now, in terms of the war. If that doesn’t work, or if we can’t do it, we don’t exactly have a backup.

Our quest to find the pointy rock with the shrine at the top is not exactly going well. Our search was at a standstill for months, since, you know, there just wasn’t anything for us to find. A month ago, when I battled with Zephyra in her library, I found a book with a picture of the rock on the cover. But there’s one catch. We still have no idea where the pointy rock is. The book is in another language. Elvish, Liz is pretty sure. Nobody we know can read elvish. There’s actually not really anyone who can read elvish, as far as we know, aside from the actual elves.

At least there’s one bright side. As long as we don’t know where the pointy rock is, probably Mercuriel, the last of the three sisters, almost infinitely powerful, can’t know either.

Aside from the hopeless search for the Queen’s shrine, the rest of the war isn’t really going well either. We know Mercuriel has a huge army, but we’re not even sure where it is. And Mercuriel has Zephyra’s power now too, and the other half of Tempeste’s power. She’s as powerful as three people combined into one. Without bringing the Queen back, we have next to no chance of defeating her.

Liz has started up some group thing, like a Board of Teachers with all the other magic schools. They are trying to come up with solutions, and making sure everything is coordinated and everyone has help if they need it. It’s a pretty good idea, I’m honestly not sure why we didn’t have something like this before. This way, wherever we know Mercuriel has soldiers, we have soldiers too. If we find out a place that is about to be attacked, all of the schools together can rally around that place. And of course it is [_much _]easier to share information like this. I know a lot of the other members want me to join, as the Princess of the Wilderness and pretty much the key to this whole thing, but Liz won’t let me. I have enough on my plate without being part of it, so I’m glad she’s looking out for me.

I’m staying at Liz’s house for the first time in at least a month. Rowan and Storm are with us too. Liz wants everyone to have a house they can stay at in case of emergency, not just the School. That way if we are attacked we’re not just sitting ducks, tied to the School because we have literally nowhere else to go.

I’m a little mad because Liz won’t let Min stay over now that we’re dating, even though it’s his best option and he’s stayed over before. But I guess I get it, I mean it is Liz’s job to act like a parent, even if sometimes the stuff she does makes me a tiny bit angry. Min is with Marco, staying at his family’s house.

Mackenna is with her father, obviously, and the other two boys, Drew and Seth, are staying at Jessie’s house. Jessie was Ryan’s sister, and I think her family is just trying to fill the empty space that Ryan left. But based on the dark circles under Jessie’s eyes every day when I see her in class, it’s not really working.

There’s dinner on the table, but nobody is eating it. Well, nobody except Paige. I can tell she’s starving, but she keeps pausing and looking around uncomfortably at the rest of us. Storm looks small and scared, but I can tell she kind of wants to start eating too. Rowan seems like she’s about to fall asleep, and isn’t even a little focused on the food. Liz is staring off anxiously into the distance. Lily is too perceptive of the general atmosphere to eat, even though she’s so young. I’m sick with constant fear, and the guilt of killing Ryan has kept me from eating almost anything in the past few weeks.

I’m almost zoning out when all of a sudden Liz looks up. “Elves,” she blurts out.

She looks around the table like she’s expecting us to break into applause. I don’t know how to respond. Storm and Paige exchange glances. Rowan nods, but clearly doesn’t understand any better than I do. Lily just looks confused.

“That’s it!” she gasps. “I can’t believe I never thought of it before.”

Then she gets up from the table and runs into another room without explaining herself. The rest of us try to wait for her, but she takes too long. Eventually, we decide to clear the table. We settle down to watch TV, but Rowan can’t really enjoy TV because she can’t see the screen, and then Paige decides it’s time to put Lily to bed anyway. It’s just me and Storm now.

“So…” she begins, “You and Min?”

For the past week or two, Min and I have been a favorite topic of conversation. For some reason people think we’re unusually adorable together, and it’s easier to talk about us then to talk about Ryan, or the war, or anything else. Storm and I have talked about it before, but I don’t mind. I mean, I like talking about Min too.

“Yup,” I say. “Me and Min.”

There’s a moment of calculating silence. “Is it better?” she asks suddenly.

I’m a little confused. Because up until now, all of these conversations have gone more or less the same. But there’s a seriousness to Storm’s voice, an edge of melancholy, that makes me sit up and listen.

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

“Is it better to be this? Or was it better to be friends? Do you ever miss how it was before?”

I blink, start to say something, stop. Nobody has ever asked me this before. Nobody but maybe Mackenna would care, I thought. “It’s complicated,” I say. “But this is better.”

“Why?”

I hesitate. “It just is.”

“That’s not a good enough answer.”

I try to put the concept into words. “Because…I love him, and it hurts not to be with him. And before, when we were just friends, something about us felt…unfinished. Like we were a loose end that was threatening to unravel my entire life, like I could never be with anyone else because in the back of my mind I would always be thinking about him. So this is better, I guess.”

Storm looks satisfied. “So it was worth it?”

“Yeah. I mean, I think so. What’s with all the questions?”

She sighs. “I like someone. I might even love them. But I want to make sure it’s absolutely worth it before I do anything. I mean, before I even think about doing anything. I still might not do anything.” She sounds a little nervous to be talking to me, like she’s afraid I’m going to burst out laughing even though that’s something I would never do.

I smile encouragingly at her. Mackenna’s lost love life has been taking over everything, almost overwhelming even my own. I’ve been hearing about it a lot. I’m not complaining, but it’s nice to talk about something a little happier for a change.

“Who?” I ask.

“Marco.” She laughs a little, nervously. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

She doesn’t need to explain the irony to me. Marco’s older sister and Storm’s older brother were in love, despite being on opposite sides of the war. They both ended up dead, killed by Tempeste. I decide not to comment.

“Well, good luck with it,” I say, and I mean it. I don’t know Marco quite as well as I know some of the other kids my age, but still, as a class we’ve spent a lot of time together. I can picture him with Storm. They would be cute.

Storm starts to say something, but then Paige comes back in from putting Lily to bed.

“What did I miss?”

Nobody fills her in, but I don’t think she expected anyone to. The conversation is over. Now that I’m not distracted, my mind is whirling with Mackenna’s pain again. Storm and Paige start talking, but I can’t listen. Eventually I go up to bed, my head physically hurting with the guilt and grief I don’t know how to show.

CHAPTER 2

The next morning during breakfast, Liz makes an announcement.

“We need to send a mission to go find the elves,” she says.

I nod, not looking up from my cereal. I know other schools have sent people to the elves, and no one has been able to find them. Even so, it’s still something Liz would want to try.

I don’t know much about the elves. All I really know is that they’re pretty powerful, and that they wrote a book. And on the cover of that book is a picture of that pointy rock with the shrine at the top. Honestly, when people first started talking about them, I thought they were kidding. I mean, I know that dragons and stuff like that are real, but elves? Most stories like that are based in truth, but for some reason I find elves the hardest to believe.

Although, really, we don’t know for sure that they do exist. They could have gone extinct a long time ago for all the contact that we’ve had with them.

Liz continues. “I think it should just be you, Min, and Mackenna.”

My glass of orange juice slips out of my hand and goes everywhere. “Excuse me?” I can’t keep the edge out of my voice. Min, Mackenna, and I are not nearly experienced enough to take on such a complex and important mission by ourselves.

Liz looks a little defensive, like she was expecting me to be happy. And maybe in the past I would have been. I just feel too beaten down lately, and the idea of taking on any sort of mission myself feels overwhelming.

“If it’s only the three of you, I think they’ll be more likely to show themselves. The other missions have all contained only adults, but I think they’ll feel less threatened by you since you’re younger. And you’re the Daughter of the Wilderness. You should be their natural ally. They’ll want to show themselves to you. I…I think.”

“But…we can’t. We don’t even know where they are.”

“Yes we do. And that part doesn’t matter as much anyway. If they want you to find them, you’ll find them.”

“Mackenna will never agree.”

“She already has. I talked to her father last night.”

“Min won’t agree then.”

She just looks at me. She doesn’t need to say anything. We both know it’s a lie. Of course Min will agree. Min is literally up for anything, especially if it is of the important and potentially dangerous variety.

“Why are you fighting this?” Liz asks me desperately.

I take a deep breath, preparing to argue, then pause. Why am I fighting this? The honest, deep down truth is that I have no idea. It’s just that I’m tired. I’m tired, and this is just another thing resting on my shoulders. I’m too tired for this, for any of it. I want off. I don’t want this life anymore.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll do it.” Because honestly, I’m too tired to argue too. I just want this all to be over.

Liz brightens quickly. “Great. There will probably be a few weeks of preparation before you guys can go. You can just relax today, and I’ll put some stuff together and brief all three of you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, okay.” I wander away, completely lost in thought. Then I come back. “Can you take me over to the School? I want to talk to Min and Mackenna.”

“Mackenna’s not at the School. She’s at her father’s house. You know that.”

And now I have to choose. Because they’re not in the same place, and I can’t see both of them today. I hesitate.

“Can you take me to Mackenna’s house, then?” I finally say. Because right now Mackenna needs me more than Min does. Also, I need her loyalty, her simplicity. My friendship with Mackenna is far from uncomplicated, but it is still easier than my relationship with Min. We hurt each other, we forgive each other, and we move past it, because we are strong, and united, and fiercely loyal. Even though she is the one in pain right now, I need her just as much as she needs me.

Liz drives me over to Mackenna’s house. I don’t bother knocking. I know she’s home and that I’m always welcome. Her father tells me she’s in her bedroom.

I remember when I visited her about a week after the funeral. Mackenna’s bedroom was destroyed, ripped apart by a storm of grief. Clothes and things were strewn across the floor, the curtains were closed and everything was slightly singed. It looked like the room of a highly depressed pyro.

Now, three weeks after that, the room is transformed. It’s spotless. Nothing is out of place, or dirty, or dusty, or rumpled. Not only is nothing out of place, but there’s nothing there. Aside from the bare essentials, bed, lamp, dresser, the room is empty. All the little special details that made it Mackenna’s are gone.

Mackenna herself is busy vacuuming an already spotless floor. Going back and forth, doing the same spot over and over and over.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hi.” She looks up from her vacuuming, but her smile doesn’t touch her eyes.

“How have you been?” I saw her about three days ago, but that was a school day so we didn’t really get a chance to talk. I was over here a week after the funeral, but Mackenna was too much of a mess to have a real conversation. I guess the last time we actually talked was the day of the funeral, when I told her I was the one who killed Ryan.

“How are you really doing?”

She sits down in the middle of her perfectly spotless room. “I really am better.” She says it desperately, like she’s trying to convince herself of it as much as me. “I keep going. It’s not so hard during the day, as long as I stay busy. That’s why I did this….” She gestures sweepingly at her room. “But at night I can’t believe it’s real. Still. And it hurts so badly that I curl into a ball so I won’t fly into a million pieces. And I feel happy sometimes, and that’s really the hardest. I feel so guilty. How can I be happy when he’s not here? Why do I have the right to be happy when he’s dead and I’m still alive?”

There are tears welling up in my eyes. Simultaneously, there is a horrible sort of panic welling up in me. I want to be there for Mackenna, but I actually don’t want to talk about this anymore. I don’t want to take the blame for this, but at the same time it feels almost worse to ignore it. I feel like I can’t quite breathe properly.

“I don’t know,” I finally gasp. I know it’s not the right answer, not a good enough answer. It’s not fair how some people go their whole lives with barely a brush with death, and some people have its whole force thrust upon their shoulders, especially so young. “It’s not fair. But nobody said it would be fair. It’ll be okay.”

She sniffs, but looks maybe a little brighter. My chest still feels tight. We are together, but both of us are so, so alone. “So…why are you here?” she asks.

“Can’t I visit my best friend without a reason?” But then I remember that I actually do have a reason, and I tell her everything Liz told me.

Her father had told her some of it, but not the whole thing. “Alone?” she whispers desperately when I’m done.

I nod.

She looks concerned. “I don’t know if we can do it. I mean, what if something goes wrong? We would be alone.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” I say. I don’t know why I’m comforting her, considering I don’t think it’s a great idea either. But Mackenna is still weak, so I know need to be strong. I need to reassure her. It will all be okay. Maybe.

 

The next morning, Liz gathers Min, Mackenna, and I all up into her office. Min is all business, which is slightly annoying, because I want him to be holding my hand or something at least.

“I assume Aubrey has told both of you what I told her?”

Min shakes his head, looking over at me. “No. She didn’t.”

“I didn’t see you! I didn’t know what to say! I didn’t….”

He raises his eyebrows. “It’s fine. I just want to know what’s going on.”

Liz starts to answer, but I cut across her. For some reason, I still want to be the one to tell Min about the mission. “Liz wants us to go on a mission to find the elves.”

He doesn’t say anything, just nods. He looks unconcerned.

“Alone.”

I’m expecting a bigger reaction, but he still doesn’t look worried. “Cool,” he says.

“Cool? That’s all you have to say is cool?”

“Aubrey!” Liz is trying not to smile. “Focus. This is about the mission right now, not your boyfriend.”

I blush from the tips of my ears all the way down to my neck. Why does Liz have to be so embarrassing? It does force me to focus though.

“You can leave in about a week. You will be driven to the edge of the the elves’ forest. Then there will be a hike of about another week, maybe more. At some point during the week you will pass into the elves’ valley, which is a place set aside by magic, similar to the place where the dragons were. There is a field with a tree in the middle. If you make it that far, the elves will sense your presence. They will either make an appearance or they won’t. If they don’t, you can return the same way you came. If they do, it will be up to you three, especially Aubrey, to convince them to join the war.”

“How?” I interrupt.

“It should be fairly easy. If they reveal themselves to you, it means they are already at least considering your plan.”

Min is thinking about more practical concerns. “How will we carry enough food and water for that long? Not to mention supplies, weapons, and everything else?”

“You will have to carry any supplies and weapons you may want, in addition to your magic. But the three of you should be able to hunt and find edible plants, and there should always be fresh water nearby. You won’t have to carry much food.”

I search frantically for another problem, another reason we shouldn’t do it. But I can’t think of anything. I don’t even know why I’m so opposed to the whole idea of the mission. It’s just a vague sense of foreboding I feel, not defined enough to be a vision, but sharp enough that I still think I may be perceiving.

Liz is rummaging through her desk. “Here, I have maps and plans, it really shouldn’t take too long to get this all set up.”

I bite my lip. I wish there was some way to delay this, put a stop to it. But Mackenna and Min both seem excited. And I have no evidence that it’s the wrong decision, except for the terrible foreboding.

“You guys can leave now, I guess. That’s really all I have to tell you so far.”

We walk out. Min pulls ahead, not paying attention to me. I want to call out to him, but hesitate. Is he just walking normally, or is he ignoring me for some reason? If I call out to him, will I seem weird and clingy? When I finally get up the courage to call after him, he’s turned the corner.

For some reason, Mackenna completely misses this whole thing. “Aubrey,” she asks, “if there are only two tents, you won’t make me sleep alone, will you?”

“Oh, Mackenna,” I whisper. “No, no. You’re my best friend. I promise you won’t be forgotten. We would never make you sleep alone. If anyone has to sleep in a different tent, it will be him.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

She smiles. “Thanks.”

That night, we sleep together in our room at the School for the first time since Ryan’s death.

CHAPTER 3

The next day, Min and I don’t talk. The problem is that I’m honestly not sure if it’s intentional or not. We don’t see each other at all. I know we see each other almost every day, but I can’t remember if we try or it just happens like that. Do I normally have to go to him in order to ensure we see each other? I consider looking for him, but something stops me.

That night I work myself into a state. I convince myself that he’s ignoring me, that he’s mad at me, that it’s all my fault. I’m freaking out a little bit now. But I don’t want to seem desperate, and if he needs some space I don’t want to push him. I decide I won’t talk to him either. I’ll avoid him on purpose if I need to.

Min and I have classes together the next day. He comes into the room and starts toward me, but I don’t greet him as I normally do. It takes me about three seconds to realize that if he was coming toward me, obviously he wasn’t ignoring me. I start to go toward him, to say something to fix it, but now he thinks I’m mad at him and he really is ignoring me. We are distant and cool to each other for the rest of the day.

Liz wants me to stay with her that night, so I don’t even have Mackenna to talk to about it. I consider asking one of the other girls, but decide not to. I end up going to bed early, but tossing and turning, not sure what’s going on or how to make it better. And for the first time I find myself thinking longingly of when we were just friends, when we were either mad or not mad, and nothing was ever this complicated.

I can’t even express how terrified I am to go on a mission while still being mad at Min. I need to be able to trust him, to rely on him. I need this all to be better before we leave. But I’m not sure how. And I’m not brave enough anyway.

We’re leaving in two days and I still haven’t talked to Min. I’m not even sure if we’re actually fighting or not. But still, I miss him so much it hurts to breathe. I’m all prepared for the mission, but it’s funny the way that doesn’t seem to matter right now.

Mackenna and I are both staying at the School until we leave, but right now I’m alone in our room. She’s in the School somewhere though, getting a snack or something. A knock at the door startles me.

I open the door and Min is standing there. He looks awkward, but sort of in an adorable way. It makes my heart pound, and heat rush to my face. I lean against the door frame and try to act casual.

“Um, hi,” I say.

“Yeah. Hi. Well, um…we were leaving for the elves tomorrow and I’m not sure how much time we’ll have to do like, fun things, so I was wondering if…you wanted to go on a date.”

I blink. The words seem to stick in my mind. I can’t make sense of them. It’s almost like when you say a word over and over again until it loses all meaning, but I’ve never heard this word, at least not in relation to me. A date. Min wants to go on a date.

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah. A date.”

And then all of a sudden it clicks. Min wants to go on a [_date. _]He wants to do something romantic, just the two of us. A date. Right.

I must look really stupid, standing there with my mouth open. Sometimes, he makes my brain sharper, quick and clear and bright. But other times, like now, he makes me slow and hot and fuzzy. And it’s funny that he doesn’t even have to use magic to do it. Or maybe this is a kind of magic too.

“Yes!” I say, more enthusiastically. “Yes. I want to go on a date. Tonight?”

“Yeah. Since we’re leaving tomorrow….” He looks relieved. Every new step in our relationship, so awkward, so unknown for both of us. It wasn’t like this before.

“Okay. Great!”

I wait for him to announce what our date is going to be. He doesn’t. He looks at me out of the corners of his eyes.

“Um, did you have any ideas?”

I sigh. “Let’s go to the beach,” I say without really thinking.

“Alright,” he says. The way he says it makes it clear he’s trying to please me, that literally anything I had suggested would be what we did.

“Wait. I mean, that’s kind of a dumb idea, isn’t it? It’s December and it’s cold out.”

He smiles at me, and in that smile none of the awkwardness matters. Because I do love him, and even though we’re both new at this, we make each other happy.

“I think the beach would be fun. It hasn’t snowed yet, and it’s actually not that cold for December. Meet me at the car in fifteen minutes.”

“Um, what car?”

He grins again, somehow reminding me of a puppy. “Liz already said we could borrow her car.”

“Oh she did, did she?” I try to raise one eyebrow, but it doesn’t work and we both end up laughing. “Alright. I’ll meet you down there in fifteen minutes.”

Finding an outfit for an outside date in December poses a problem. I stand in front of my closet, holding up clothes and wishing I had all the stuff I had at Liz’s house. I’m starting to get frustrated, because I want to impress Min and it’s too cold for the beach and I don’t have anything to wear.

Mackenna bursts into the room.

“Oh hi,” I say, relieved. “Will you help me? Min asked me on a date, and I don’t have anything to wear.”

She pauses for a beat, looking stricken. She has always been the one to go on dates. She and Ryan were like a power couple, constantly doing fun things with each other. I remember, right after Min and I got together, her talking about how excited she would be to double date. That will never happen now. I immediately try to backpedal. “No. I’m sorry. I mean, never mind. Just….”

I meet her eyes. She takes a deep breath.

“No, it’s fine,” she says with forced calm. Then, with a real smile, “Where are you going?”

“The beach,” I laugh, because it’s so ridiculous.

“It’s actually not that cold out. You should be okay with just jeans and a sweater.”

“All my sweaters are at Liz’s house.”

“Here. You can borrow one of mine.” She throws something grey and soft at me. I pull it on over a tank top. It’s shorter and tighter on me than it is on Mackenna, but it still looks pretty good. I smile, examining myself from different angles in the mirror.

“Are you sure you want me to wear this?” I ask Mackenna.

She nods. But I can still see the sadness haunting her eyes and mouth. She starts to say something, but stops. “Just…have fun.”

I hug her. She is too good for me. Because I can see in her eyes that she is truly happy for me. And I know in my heart that if our positions were reversed, it wouldn’t be the same. I would be jealous, hurt, bitter. But she loves me unconditionally, even though I’m not worth that.

Min is waiting at the car. He has a bag, with food in it I’m guessing. He’s wearing a grey sweater too, and I start laughing, because of course that’s the sort of ridiculous thing that would happen on our first date, we would be matching.

He opens the car door for me. We’re only sixteen and our lives are kind of screwed up right now, but this still feels romantic. It works for me.

The seacoast is about forty-five minutes away. We talk and laugh on the way there, and listen to the radio. Some of my self-consciousness melts away.

We arrive at the beach just in time to see the sun set. It looks almost too perfect, like a painting of an imagined sunset. Like someone swirled paint strokes of orange and pink and purple across the horizon. There are bands of different colors, intermingled with streaks of tinted clouds. The sun is hanging only halfway above the horizon, and the way it reflects against the water makes it look like it’s melting into the ocean.

We sit on the beach and watch it, right on the sand even though it’s freezing. I take off my shoes and dig my toes in it.

Min’s hand finds mine. My chest seems to be doing something funny. There’s a strange emotion coursing through me. I realize, after a few seconds, that it’s happiness.

Min has done what so many others have failed to do. He has, despite everything, managed to make me happy.

CHAPTER 4

Min and I are silent, both wrapped up in our own thoughts and separated by them too. Both watching the sunset, together, alone. Both almost painfully conscious of the other’s presence, but neither daring to break the moment.

The sun dips below the line where the ocean meets the sky. It’s still giving off light, but not warmth. I shiver in Mackenna’s sweater. It’s warm for December, but that’s not saying much. I have a jacket in the car, but I’m reluctant to get it.

Min puts his arm around me. He does it hesitatingly, even though we’ve sat like this several times before. But those times were after the passion of our first kiss, or in life or death situations. Not so sweetly and gently. Not while we’re on a date.

I don’t say anything, just lean into him. We stay like that as the sky fades to purple, then black, while the ocean waves lap lower on the beach, as the stars come out one by one like holes in a velvet blanket.

Min is the first to move.

“We should eat,” he says. “I have a picnic.”

He stands gracefully, perfectly.

“Will you get my jacket?” I call out. It’s dark out, there’s no moon, and I can’t see if he responds. But a minute later it’s being thrown heavily at me, a blanket is being spread out between us. He has food, simple food, but lots of it. I’m reminded of the picnic we had at my room in the School, only a few days after our first kiss. I don’t feel like our relationship has progressed that much since then, but I guess that’s understandable since we haven’t been working on it. And half the time since then we’ve been in life or death situations. And I already loved him then anyway.

It’s soothing to eat on the beach. I like the ocean, the way it’s in constant motion. The way it’s so big and indifferent but sort of feels personal too. The music of the waves echoes through me until I can’t really hear it anymore, but I can feel it, pulsing alongside my heart beat.

“What are you thinking about?” Min asks me. I realize I was staring into space.

“Nothing,” I say.

He does a slightly cruel but accurate impression of me staring glassy-eyed into the distance. I punch his shoulder and he punches me back. Then I leap up and start running down the beach, kicking up sand and laughing like a maniac.

He chases after me. We’re both fast, but I know he’s faster. He’s pulling back, keeping our game going. He play-growls behind me, and then all of a sudden he runs at me, tackling me. I scream with laughter.

We scuffle in the sand for a few moments, until we’re both laughing so hard we can barely breathe. Then I lie on my back, giggling up at the moon Min turns into a wolf and lies all the way across me.

“Min, get off,” I laugh. “You’re heavy like this.”

In response, he turns his head and licks the side of my face. I turn into a jaguar and flip him off. I pin him with my superior weight.

All of a sudden, I’m acutely aware that I’m on top of him, and that even though our bodies aren’t human, they’re still touching. I scramble off him and turn back to human. I can’t play anymore. What I feel in this moment is too raw, too real and too powerful, to be play. I want something that I can’t have right now, that I’m not ready for. I’m not sure how to handle myself, so I get up and walk toward the car.

After a minute I hear Min get up and trot after me. I ignore him. He whines slightly, and I turn. I’m embarrassed now. It’s not his fault our game had to end, it’s mine. For not knowing how to handle myself around a boy.

“Oh Min,” I whisper.

He pads over to me, his footfalls soft on the sand. I sink down next to him and bury my face in the fur at his neck. The back of my eyes prickle like I’m about to cry, which is dumb. I’ve been crying a lot lately, and tonight I’m actually having a good time. It’s just that what I felt was so foreign, so thick and hot. So confusing.

“I’m sorry,” I say, still buried in his fur. I stroke his soft ears, his warm back. For a few moments, I can just take comfort in the presence of another living creature, not really aware that this is still Min.

After a while, he changes back into human and holds me against him. Then he rises to his feet, leaving me kneeling in the sand. I don’t look up.

All of a sudden soft music starts to play from the car radio. Min grabs my hands. Without either of us saying a word, I rise to my feet. I smile at him. The awkwardness of a moment ago is all but forgotten.

“May I have this dance?” he whispers. It would be cheesy, but something in the way he says it, so serious and sincere, makes it…not.

“It would be my pleasure,” I whisper back.

Somehow, we’re closer together. The music fills me up, not just the music from the car radio, but the music of the ocean and the earth spinning under our feet, and Min. We’re wrapped up in the music of each other.

I don’t remember a single song that plays during the whole dance. I remember Min twirling me, holding me, leading me. I remember the moon shining down on me like a spotlight.

We roll up the bottoms of our jeans, and I use magic to heat up the water. Then we dance through the shallows, splashing and turning, both of us graceful and perfect.

We are beautiful. We are together. I’ve never felt so lost, but for the first time I am also completely found.

I don’t remember a single song that played. But it doesn’t matter. Because I remember that I had the time of my life.

That night, lying in my bed, struggling to fall asleep, I’m still happy. Content. I can’t wait to see Mackenna tomorrow, and I will tell her about the date, even knowing it will hurt her and make her happy at the same time.

I can still feel the rhythm of the music flowing through me. I can still feel the way we were twirling, closer and farther. Always touching, whether it was just by the tips of our fingers or our whole bodies. Even though our date is over, my body still wants to dance.

It’s a bit like our relationship, I decide. Always moving and changing, sometimes closer, sometimes farther apart. Neither part can be all the time or it wouldn’t matter. It’s different pieces of a whole, different songs in one long dance. I used to hope we would never fight, but now I know that that’s not how it works. The far apart parts are important too, that’s the only way to really change our position, to move farther down the beach. And even during the harder bits, we’re still alive, at least, still together. Still dancing.

 

The next morning, Liz wakes me up at some God-awful hour, and tells me to get ready. I drag on hiking clothes that I had picked out the night before, boots and leggings and layers of tops. Then I stumble down the stairs.

Everyone is waiting for me. I reel back, a little startled, overwhelmed by the crowd. But it’s not really a lot of people. Just my classmates, all the magic kids who are my age. Rowan, Storm, Paige, Jessie, Seth, Marco, Drew. Here to see us off.

The fact that they actually woke up early for us is shockingly touching. They gave up their [_sleep, _]the most precious thing we have, to see us off.

There’s a chorus of “good luck,” and “see you soon,” and “stay safe.” And then the three of us, guided by a much more awake Liz, are sweeping out the door.

Once I’m settled in the car, I sleep for a long time. Actually, it ends up being most of the drive out to the elves’ forest. I didn’t think I was that short on sleep, but apparently I was. I don’t wake up for at least five hours, which is weird because Min and Mackenna are talking and playing music.

When I do wake up, the landscape has changed. I think we’re in Maine, on one side is a thick pine forest and on the other side are rocky cliffs leading down to the pounding ocean. I’m reminded of last night, and I feel my face grow warm. I hope I won’t always be this embarrassed. It’s a little inconvenient to be blushing at the slightest reminder of Min.

I watch the pine forest go by until finally we pull into a parking lot.

“There’s a parking lot that leads the elves’ forest?” Min says skeptically.

Liz nods. “The elves don’t want to be completely inaccessible, and they try to keep up with modern times. It’s not used very often though. The elves don’t exactly get a lot of visitors.”

Liz gets out of the car first, which gives the three of us a few seconds alone.

“Hey,” Mackenna whispers, I think so just I can hear, “how was your date?”

“Didn’t you ask Min about it?”

She sighs, and I can see I’m reopening an old argument. “I did. He said he would let you tell me.”

I glare at him. “Oh. It was, um, nice. Really nice actually. We went to the beach.”

I think Mackenna is about to say something else, but she is interrupted by Liz. “Are you guys coming?”

“Oh, yeah.”

All three of us get out of the car and follow Liz around to the trunk. There are bags and bags of stuff, all neatly packed and easy to carry.

“Wow,” I say. “Did you do all this packing yourself?”

She shakes her head. “No. Mackenna helped me last night.”

I blush guiltily and start unloading bags without saying anything else.

There’s not a lot of stuff considering it’s all we’ll have for a couple weeks, but it still looks overwhelming to carry. We each have a large backpack, like a frame pack. We have a tent, sleeping bags, some cooking supplies, weapons, a first-aid kit. We also each have a few changes of clothes, but I think we’ll mostly be adding and removing layers. I test out my pack. It’s heavy, but bearable.

Liz fusses over us for as long as she can. She recites the plan over and over, adjusts our packs, freaks out when there’s nothing left to do. But eventually she knows it’s time for her to leave. We walk to the edge of the forest, and I turn and wave. Then we start walking. I don’t look back, but I know she will wait for us until she can’t see us anymore. Until we disappear, swallowed by the mystical woods.

 

CHAPTER 5

At first, the three of us are laughing and joking as we walk. It’s freezing, and our breath makes puffs of air every time we breathe out. The going is relatively easy, flat, without many rocks or tree roots to trip over. It’s fun, surprisingly, like a giant camping trip.

But after only about an hour, the landscape changes. We start walking up a gradual hill, which quickly gets steeper. Soon we’re panting so hard we can’t talk. I have sweat dripping down my face. I struggle to roll up my sleeves without slowing down.

“Let’s stop for lunch,” I finally pant. The other two look relieved. We sit down on a sort of flat rock.

Min has all the food we brought in his bag. It’s not much, a few granola bars, beef jerky, trail mix, and some protein powder that I think Liz expects us to mix with water. Snack food. We’re supposed to find food for our meals.

I can see that Mackenna has reached the same conclusion I did. “Should we…hunt?”

Liz told us to hunt. We need to find food. It wouldn’t even be hard. I can see birds and squirrels in the trees, and even if I couldn’t see anything I could still use my magic to find them.

But I don’t want to hunt. It’s kind of stupid, I know. I’ve killed humans, but I won’t kill animals for food. I even like meat. But I can’t bring myself to do it. At least, not yet. I’m not hungry enough.

Instead, I extend my consciousness to the area around us. There are winterberries, only a few paces away. I hop down from the rock and pick as many as I can.

“At some point, we are going to have to hunt. You know that, right?” Min says.

“Yes,” I whisper. “I know. But not yet.”

He nods once. We eat the berries and half a granola bar each. It’s not enough, not really.

We go slower after lunch, because we’re all still hungry. My stomach feels hollow. I’m also hot and panting from hiking for so long, even in the cold.

After a while, it starts to snow. Soon there’s a light dusting on the ground. It swirls through the air, blowing on the slightest breezes and obscuring the darkening sky. I’m a strange combination of warm and cold, numb with snow on the outside but burning with exertion through my limbs and chest.

Since the sky is so overcast, it’s hard to tell when night really falls. We mostly figure it out by Mackenna, who starts constantly tripping over things once she can’t see anymore. Min and I both have night vision that switches on automatically when it gets dark enough. I hadn’t even noticed how late it had gotten.

There’s a clearing just a little ways behind us that we could have pitched our tent in. We backtrack to it and set the tent up without saying a word. I don’t know if everyone feels it, but to me the woods seem more ominous at night. I don’t want to talk and draw attention to ourselves.

We do end up having only one tent, so Mackenna doesn’t need to worry about being left alone. A singular tent is better than two for two reasons. First, it’s easier to carry, and conserves some of our precious backpack space. Also, when it’s freezing cold outside, having one smaller tent will help to conserve our body heat.

The three of us curl up in the tent and try to go to sleep. It’s hard. The tent is tiny and cramped and still freezing. Eventually our combined body heat warms it up a little bit, but we still don’t have any more space.

Min curls himself into a tiny ball almost like a dog and falls asleep quickly. Mackenna falls asleep quickly too, which is normal for her. But normally she’s a fairly compact sleeper, and today she spreads out, throwing out her arms and legs and squishing me into Min. Trapped uncomfortably between them, it takes me hours to fall asleep.

The next morning I wake up starving. I hadn’t thought about it last night, but we didn’t have dinner. Min and I look at each other, and I know we are both thinking the same thing.

“We are going to have to hunt.”

“I know.”

“I’ll do it.”

I hesitate. “Okay,” I finally whisper. He starts softly out of the tent.

“Wait,” I call out. “Aren’t you going to take anything? A knife?”

“No. I’ll hunt better as a wolf.”

“Right,” I say, more to myself than to him. “A wolf.” I force myself not to picture it.

I could hunt as a jaguar. I know I could. I would be good at it. I have sharp senses, powerful muscles, razor claws. But I remember the blood soaking my hands after my first kill. That boy was innocent, with frightened deer eyes. I have killed others since then, but as I imagine ending the life of an animal, he is the one I picture. I cannot hunt.

Min comes back not too long later with a rabbit. He skins it, and then Mackenna flash cooks it and we eat it while it’s still warm. It’s delicious. I try not to think about it.

That day is similar to the last. It doesn’t snow, but the snow on the ground also doesn’t melt. It’s still cold out, and we’re still stumbling uphill. We set out our tent once it is too dark for Mackenna to see, and I sleep a bit better now that I’m used to being in the woods.

The next day starts out the same too. Min catches a squirrel, and it’s still cold. The only good thing is that the ground has finally leveled out.

It’s past lunch time and starting toward evening, when I hear a noise in the woods off to my left. Min hears it too. Both of us stand, facing warily toward the direction of the sound. Mackenna looks between us, confused.

“What?” she asks. “Did you guys hear something?”

Min quiets her. We both stay completely still, listening carefully, braced for anything.

There’s another rustle. Min changes smoothly into a wolf, lowering himself to the ground and snarling. Mackenna has no idea what’s going on, but she still slides a knife from her boot and makes a ball of fire on her hand. Instead of preparing to fight, I extend my consciousness, trying to figure out who or what is waiting for us in the bushes.

“Oh,” I stumble backward. “Oh! Run!”

Min and Mackenna turn and unhesitatingly sprint in the direction I indicated. I run after them, my boots crunching in the snow. The thing in the bushes is a person, quickly identifiable as one of Mercuriel’s soldiers. And behind him, waiting for his command to attack, is an entire army.

“There’s an army,” I pant. “They must be looking for us. I don’t know how soon they’ll attack.”

As soon as the words leave my lips, there’s a yell and the army reveals itself. All three of us whirl around. It’s not a full army, I realize, maybe twenty soldiers. I’m sure I felt more than that. Are there still some in hiding? But why?

I don’t have time to think about it anymore. The soldiers run at us, brandishing their swords. I wasn’t expecting to be attacked, so my sword is buried in my backpack. But the woods are my element. I can manipulate the snow as easily as water, and the trees and plants bend to my will.

I throw huge balls of snow at a few of them, knocking them over. Once upon a time, I would have used plants to bind them, but those days are over. Instead, I use plants to snap their necks. I wince at how hard my heart has had to become.

Mackenna is fighting with fire and her knife, and Min is fighting both as a wolf and a human, changing fluidly between them. They both look okay so far, but we are very outnumbered. I don’t think we can win against twenty people.

Someone comes toward me, holding a spear. I don’t really know how to defend against a spear, especially without a weapon of my own. I grab a stick off the ground and use it to block the spear. Then I blast the man back with magic. He falls over and slips backward down the hill.

I keep the stick in my hand, even though it’s covered with snow and almost burns my hand with cold. I’m panting, less with the effort of fighting and more with the effort of maneuvering uphill and in the deep snow.

I take down another soldier using my stick. I watch as Min leaps into the air, snarling, about to attack. Then there’s another yelled command, and all the soldiers back up as one. Min lands abruptly on the ground. The soldier he was going to attack is already retreating into the woods.

In a few more seconds, the soldiers have melted away into the shadows. And just like that, they’re gone. I can feel their consciousnesses retreating silently. They don’t attack us again.

There are maybe eight bodies on the ground, all either dead or too injured to move. Blood stains the snow. I wonder if it would be more humane to kill the injured ones instead of leaving them to bleed out. The decision ends up being made for me though, because I think if I had to kill the injured soldiers I would throw up. I can’t do it.

Min changes back into a human and stands up. He looks a little unbalanced by the soldiers sudden retreat. He blinks in confusion.

“What just happened?” Mackenna asks.

“I…I don’t know.”

Min is still spinning around, trying to figure out where the army has gone. But I can find their consciousnesses, and I know they are already far away.

“Are they leaving?” Mackenna asks, sounding afraid.

“Yeah. They…they’re already pretty far away again. I…I think we’re safe for now.”

“But what if they come back?

“I don’t know.”

There’s a long few moments of silence. All three of us are shocked, processing the new fear of attack in our own way. This was supposed to be a safe trip. It didn’t have guaranteed success, but that is far different from having any fear of attack. Now it’s not just a matter of whether we’ll come back with the elves on our side. It’s also a matter of whether or not we’ll even come back alive.

“We need to keep moving,” Min finally says, and straightens up. He starts walking in the direction we were going originally, and Mackenna and I follow him.

We camp early that night, and for the first time we set a watch. None of us had expected to be attacked. We’re not qualified for this. We can’t do this. But we don’t really have a choice. It’s too late to go back now.

 

CHAPTER 6

Mackenna has first watch, and I have second.

“Goodnight,” she whispers to me as I’m falling asleep. “I’ll wake you up at one.”

I fall asleep quickly. That’s actually something I’m pretty good at, making myself fall asleep when I know I’ll be woken up later. I don’t even dream, which is unusual.

It feels like I’ve only been asleep for a second when Mackenna is shaking me awake. “Aubrey wake up. It’s time for your watch. I’m about to fall asleep. Just wake up!”

I blink my eyes open. Mackenna actually does look like she’s about to fall asleep, her blinks are slow and long. I sit up, trying to shatter sleep’s connection to me. I’m still tired, but I hope the cold air will wake me up.

The cold air does wake me up fast, but it quickly becomes unbearable. I decide that second watch is the worst. I don’t ever get more than three hours in a row of sleep. Tomorrow I’ll be the most exhausted.

Not to mention the fact that it’s freezing at this time of night. It’s so cold my teeth are chattering. I shiver and wrap my arms around myself. I wish I had Mackenna’s fire power. Or a coat. Or even a cup of hot chocolate. I try to look on the bright side. At least it’s so cold that at this point, there’s no risk of me falling asleep.

Eventually I can’t stand it anymore. The moon is so low that it’s not like I can see anything anyways. I crawl back inside the tent, changing into a jaguar so I’ll still be able to hear anything that approaches.

I curl my tail around my paws and sit. Mackenna is already asleep, as I expected. Her brownish-auburn hair is all spread out on the pillow. She sleeps on her stomach with her head buried, which I find funny since I can only sleep on my side.

Min sleeps on his side too. His black hair is tangled and mussed with sleep. I used to think he looked younger when he was asleep, and I still do, but now I can see the difference more clearly. When he’s asleep he looks…peaceful. He looks so burdened when he’s awake, and I find myself wishing I could protect him so he was that peaceful all the time. I love him. I want to save him from pain.

My watch is uneventful, but I hate to wake Min up at the end of it. It’s not totally for selfless reasons. Out of the three of us, Min is the worst at functioning on low amounts of sleep.

I do finally have to shake him awake, though. He blinks confusedly for a second, then quickly gets up without a word. I go back to sleep, and I am peaceful too, knowing that he is watching me.

 

The next day we are attacked again. It’s as sudden as it was yesterday.

Min is a little ways ahead of Mackenna and me. All of a sudden, he pauses. “Something’s coming,” he whispers, and then soldiers are bursting out of the bushes.

I’m so startled that I actually scream, which is ridiculous. But then my training kicks in, and I’m grabbing for my knife. It’s more accessible this time. I pull snow up from the ground with magic, and then I’m lunging forward, both weapons in hand.

I clash with a single soldier twice, but then they retreat even faster than last time. I lurch backward.

“They’re gone again,” Mackenna gasps. “Where are they going?”

That’s the million dollar question. Where are the soldiers going? Why are they attacking us and leaving so quickly? Are they just trying to scare us? Or is it something worse?

We aren’t attacked again for four more days. For those four days, we don’t see a single soldier. The days pass uneventfully. We still set out a watch at night, and Min has to keep hunting. It doesn’t snow again, but the snow stays on the ground. It’s freezing out.

On the fourth day, we have a little warning before the soldiers are attacking. I’ve taken to shuffling the consciousnesses around me every few minutes for anything unusual. I feel the mass off to my left, following us but still a good distance away.

I nudge Mackenna. “Soldiers,” I whisper to her. She nods and tells Min. Then we find the highest ground we can and stop.

“What direction are they coming from?” Min asks. I point, and we all face that way. We pull out weapons. And we wait.

This time there are more soldiers. Many more. Maybe fifty. I’m not as afraid as I should be though, probably because I fully expect that the soldiers will attack, then retreat. They won’t actually hurt us. Right?

I lunge forward with a knife, but I’m kind of just going through the motions. But the soldier attacks back with a surprising ferocity. He knocks me backward. Then, before I have time to react, he has my arm and he’s twisting it up behind my back.

For a split second I’m too surprised to react. The last two times the soldiers attacked, they didn’t really attempt to hurt me. But now my eyes are watering from the pain of my shoulder.

I kick the man holding me, hard enough that he lets go. I drop to my knees for a second, but then I’m up, spinning around, trying to push my shoulder back into place.

The soldier runs at me and I use a root to trip him. It’s a low, easy trick, but one that works only in a forest.

“Aubrey, duck!” Min yells. I do it without thinking, and a sword whistles overhead, where my torso was a second ago. Before I stand up, Min leaps over me as a wolf and knocks the soldier to the ground.

“Thanks,” I whisper, and we exchange quick smiles. And then we’re fighting again, weaving in and out of soldiers like some sort of deadly dance. I take a sword from a fallen man and start using that along with my magic and my knife. The fight is long this time, long enough that my sword arm starts to get tired. Eventually I change into a jaguar and fight like that. I’m not as fluid at changing back and forth in the middle of the battle as Min is, so I try to stay as a jaguar for as long as I can.

I’m afraid the soldiers are actually going to kill me this time. We’re outnumbered, if they decided that they really were trying to kill us, they could. Easily.

I start to panic, my heart thrumming against my ribs. I force myself to take deep breaths and calm down. Panicking during a battle is a good way to get killed. I know better.

I keep going, still trying to contain the panic. I realize suddenly that I might be perceiving. Somewhere in the back of my mind I might know something bad is going to happen, and that’s why I’m frightened. I look at Min, desperately seeking comfort from him. But his back is turned and he doesn’t see me.

He bends over, and I’m suddenly terribly sure that he’s been stabbed, that he’s dying. I’m so afraid that I feel sick. But then he straightens up, and I realize that he’s fine. I still can’t calm my heartbeat though.

But then, just like all the times before, the soldiers leave. And we’re left behind, even more confused, even more alone. Mackenna spins around, still holding a ball of fire.

“Where did they go?”

“I don’t know.”

We look at each other. Min is still scanning the forest, looking for movement.

“I think they’re following us,” he says carefully. “I think they’re hoping that if they scare us, we’ll lead them to the elves.”

“Oh. That makes sense. But then why wouldn’t they just stay hidden?”

“Probably by scaring us they’re making us move faster.”

I agree with Min. That makes sense. But a prickle of fear is working its way up my spine, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I feel like something’s happening, or about to happen, and I can’t explain it but I know it’s not good. Even a few minutes after the battle ended, my heart is still pounding so fast and hard that it hurts. My breathing feels tight.

“I’m going to get some water,” I say, turning and walking toward our abandoned bags. I kneel down, unscrewing the water bottle, starting to raise it to my lips.

There’s a sound from behind me, heavy rustling mixed with a scream. I whip around, still on my knees. Everything is moving too fast, I can’t seem to separate what’s going on. The single scream rings in my ears.

Mackenna is frozen, Min is sprinting but I can’t tell why, and something slender and brown is flying through the air, coming straight toward me. I start to stagger upward, but I won’t be fast enough, there’s no way I can make it.

Min launches himself into the air, turning into a wolf, making a graceful, flying arc. But then the slender piece of wood collides with him, and he’s thrown violently to the ground. He lies there, crumpled and still. I still can’t seem to process what’s going on.

The water bottle drops limply from my hand and I’m up and running, slipping through the snow, dropping to my knees by his side. Mackenna is next to me, her face white with fear.

For a second I think Min is already dead, and my heart almost stops. There’s blood, so much blood. It’s all I can see, I’m drowning in it, I think. It makes my hands sticky, stains the snow red.

The spear ripped through his upper arm, leaving a huge wound. The spear is gone now, lying several feet away. It doesn’t matter. He’s dead, probably. There’s so much blood, too much blood. Blood, blood, blood.

I feel for a pulse at his wrist. There isn’t one. My heart feels like it’s exploding out of my chest. I can’t seem to get a deep breath. I feel at his neck. Nothing. But I’m desperate. And desperate people will keep on hoping long after a normal person would stop. I slam on his chest, pressing down and releasing. It’s not really CPR, it’s more wild than that.

“You’re hurting him!” Mackenna screams, dragging me away.

“He’s already dead!” And as I say that something inside me snaps and I’m crying, almost hysterically. I lean down, not really sure what I’m going to do, and then I’m shaking him. Hard. “Min! Min!” I yell, my voice raw and harsh with pain. My hands are stained red. I keep screaming, hoping desperately that he’ll hear me, that he’ll wake up, that he’ll be okay.

But he doesn’t. He just lies on the snow, limp and still, as my world crumples around me.

And now I’m the one screaming.

CHAPTER 7

“Aubrey!” Mackenna grabs me before I can shake him again. “Stop! Wait!”

She pulls me away. I scramble to get back to him, clawing at her wrists. She thrusts me bodily into the snow, so I go sprawling. “Stay there for a second,” she almost screams, her voice high and afraid.

She bends down and feels for a pulse. For a second her face is panicked, and I am afraid. Does she not feel anything? Is he dead? But then she relaxes.

“He’s alive,” she breathes. Then her face creases. “He’s dying. We have to help him.”

I’m frozen, numb with shock and relief. I can’t seem to think. I know there are ways to stop bleeding, but I can’t remember any of them. My eyes are wide, all I can see is Min, pale and bloody and dying.

Mackenna grabs my shoulders and forces me to look her in the eye. “Aubrey, stay with me. Focus. Get bandages. We need to wrap Min’s arm.”

I start digging through our backpacks. I pull out a worn first-aid kit, but there are no bandages in it.

“There’s no bandages!” I scream. This is the end of the world. Our lack of bandages could be killing Min. We need to stop the bleeding, and I don’t know how. There are no bandages.

“Get me a shirt or something.”

Oh, right. I throw one at her.

“Wait, water. We should clean it out first,” she says.

“He’s bleeding too badly.” My voice is breaking. Blood is spreading through the snow, leaving a circle of red around us.

Mackenna wraps the shirt around the wound as tightly as she can, but it’s almost instantly soaked. Min is shaking and ashen. I am desperately afraid for him.

“We need to bring him…somewhere. Somewhere safe,” Mackenna says.

I can find a safe place. It can be my contribution, something I can do that doesn’t involve blood and pain and panic. It can be something that will help save Min’s life.

I’m searching for shelter, a pile of rocks, a smaller clearing, something like that. I can’t feel anything great, but there is a river running fast not to far from our left. It’s cutting a deep curve through the forest with steep, cliff-like banks. There’s a cave hidden along one of the sides. You could walk right above it and not even know it’s there. I explain it to Mackenna, and we agree to try to take Min there.

We carry him awkwardly between us, trying not to further injure his arm. By the time we get to the river, we’re both exhausted and covered with blood. We carefully lower Min down into the cave, which is a good size, dry and sandy.

We lay out all our supplies, water bottles, food, and some limited medical stuff. It’s not much. It’s not enough. But it’s all we have.

I hear a groan from behind me. I turn around and Min is awake. Pale and sick-looking, but conscious.

“What happened?” he whispers.

“You jumped…the spear…don’t you remember anything?”

His eyes aren’t really focused on me. He lies back against the cave floor.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. You’re okay. How do you feel?”

He doesn’t answer me. He moves his shoulder slightly and winces. His bandages are soaked through with blood. Even though he’s awake, it doesn’t mean he’s out of danger yet. He could still die of blood loss, or poison, or infection, or pain, or…no. I’m not going to think about that. I’m going to focus on what I can do right now to help him.

“I’m going to add more bandages. And you need to drink water. Do you think you can drink water?”

I start wrapping more cloth around his arm while he manages to drink a few sips of water. Then he falls back asleep. I keep watching him, worry twisting in my heart.

“We need to keep moving,” Mackenna says after a while.

“Not tonight. It’s too late.”

“Not tonight,” Mackenna agrees. “But tomorrow. And we’re not strong enough to carry him. He needs to be strong enough to walk.”

“Why do we have to go tomorrow? Why can’t we give him longer to recover?”

“We’re only alive because Mercuriel thinks we’ll lead her army to the elves. If we’re not going fast enough, if they think we won’t make it there anymore, they’ll just kill us.”

“But what if he’s not better?”

“Then it’s even more important. Because Aubrey, if he doesn’t get better there’s nothing else we can do. The elves will be the only ones who can help him.”

I look at him and try to picture him walking tomorrow. I can’t. Something is bothering me. In my mind’s eye I keep seeing the spear coming toward me, Min leaping, the spear throwing him to the ground…. My eyes fly open. The spear wasn’t thrown anywhere near Min. It was coming toward me. Min wasn’t hit with a spear, he jumped in front of it to save my life.

That thought sends a stab through my heart, doubles me over in pain. If Min hadn’t jumped in front of the spear, I would be the one lying injured in the sand. And Min didn’t just save my life, he sacrificed his life for mine. I owe my life to Min now. I cannot let him die.

Mackenna is supposed to be the one keeping watch, but I end up keeping watch too, looking at Min through tired, slitted eyes. He looks young, like he usually does when he’s asleep. His face is pale though, and drawn with pain. It breaks my heart.

Eventually I get tired of pretending to be asleep. I offer to take over the watch, and Mackenna gratefully accepts. I lean out of the cave, feeling a cool breeze after the stifling heat. The river below me is silver in the moonlight.

I look up at the stars, set like pieces of glitter in the night sky. They are comfortingly indifferent, not caring about my troubles or pain, the pain of the world. If we were to lose the war, I were to die, the human race become enslaved, the world would go on turning. The stars would continue to twinkle above it, even if everything else was gone. The thought that was comforting a moment ago is now depressing.

Nothing happens during the watch. After a while the stillness and peace of the river and stars makes me tired. I wake Mackenna a few hours after midnight, and I sleep until morning.

Mackenna wakes me up just after dawn. We pack up camp, letting Min sleep as long as possible. I hate to wake him up, but Mackenna was right. We don’t have a choice.

Min doesn’t say anything when we wake him, just pulls himself unsteadily to his feet.

“Are you okay?” I gasp.

“Yes. I can do this.”

He holds himself up on the wall, careful not to move his injured arm. I wince in sympathy and help him as much as I can, but carrying all our supplies I can’t do much. Obviously Min can’t carry anything, so everything that he had is now in my backpack. His backpack we just have to abandon inside the cave. We have no more use for it now.

It’s not warm outside, and the wind is bitter and cuts through my thin T-shirt. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but we cut up my warmer jacket to make Min’s bandages. Now I have nothing, and to me the cold is biting.

I move to support Min, but he waves me off. “I’m fine. Just…let’s go.”

We walk for hours. I’m actually starting to wish we could rest. I’m freezing, and I got only a few hours of sleep last night. But Min is continuing on without complaining, so I don’t say anything either.

I’m worried about Min. His face is set and he continues to doggedly limp forward. But I can see the lines of pain in every step he takes.

I look down at my feet, forcing myself to take one step, then another. I’m not even watching Min, I’m too focused on myself, trying to keep going.

Suddenly I sense more than see that Min is no longer next to me. I whip around. He’s several steps behind, swaying where he stands. Mackenna is faster than I am, lunging backward. Min sits down on the ground abruptly, as if his legs can no longer hold him up.

“I’m okay,” he gasps. “I just need to rest for a little while.” He lies back against the snow. It gets in his hair, and I resist the urge to brush it out. We let him rest until we can’t anymore.

“We have to go now,” Mackenna says after a while.

“I know.” He staggers to his feet, panting slightly. He’s gray with exhaustion, but his expression is grimly determined.

I’m watching him carefully now. He will keep pushing himself and pushing himself, even if it kills him. If he gets any worse I’ll have to make him stop. Even if we’re not to the elves yet, we can’t risk Min’s life. Not when he saved mine.

There’s something about Min that looks a little off to me, but I can’t quite place it. He’s not limping, at least not any worse than before, and his color actually looks better. Then I realize what it is. It’s that his eyes are bright and glassy, not focusing on anything. They are the eyes of a very sick person.

He’s lucky I’ve already noticed this, because just then his knees buckle. I manage to catch him and slow him as he sinks to the ground. His eyes roll up in his head.

“Min, Min!” I shake him gently. His eyes open, then close to slits. I grab his wrist to try to pull him to his feet, but his skin is almost painfully hot. I realize his face is flushed not with health but with fever.

Mackenna crouches next to me. She hands him water, but he’s only semi-conscious, not even strong enough to hold the bottle.

“We have to stop here,” I say. “He’s too weak to go any farther.”

“We have to go on. We’re still too far from the elves. We don’t have enough time left. We need to walk for another hour at least.”

I stand angrily, gesturing at Min, who is lying limply at my feet. “Look at him! We can’t keep going.”

I see something that makes my heart constrict. Below the bandages, there are swollen red streaks on his arm. Mackenna sees it at the same time I do.

“Is it infected?”

“No. I…I think it’s poison.”

I can tell it’s poison, but it feels wrong somehow. I dip down into the other dimension where I can thorn, but it only confirms what I had already suspected.

“I can’t touch the poison,” I say. “It’s too strong. And it’s not like anything I’ve ever felt before. I don’t know what it is, but there’s nothing I can do. And we have to stop here. It’s going to kill him!”

“That’s why we have to keep going! The only ones who can heal him are the elves.”

[_The only ones who can heal him are the elves. _]It’s true now, no matter how much I don’t want it to be. There’s nothing else that Mackenna and I can do. We have to keep going forward if we want Min to survive.

CHAPTER 8

I crouch down next to him. “Min, listen to me. We have to keep going. I’m going to help you as much as I can, okay? But I can’t carry you, so you’re going to have to wake up.”

He opens his eyes. “I’m awake.” He gets to his feet. Takes one step, then another, then staggers and almost falls. I hold onto him, he puts his good arm around my shoulders and I wrap my arms around his waist. He’s taking as much of his weight as he can, but he’s still leaning heavily on me.

I realize I’m no longer cold at all. Min’s fever is keeping me warm.

I have no idea how long we walk for. I’m half-carrying him, my left side pressed against him and burning, my right side open and numb. I can feel him trembling lightly against me. His breathing is harsh and ragged.

I try to walk as evenly as I can, because I can tell he’s having a hard time. He’s stumbling, barely able to stay on his feet. But he doesn’t complain or say anything. And I am worried for him, but it is also mixed with pride. Of course Min wouldn’t complain. He is strong, like me. We have to be strong for each other.

It gets dark, and we have to stop. I’m exhausted from supporting so much of Min’s weight. I’m also starving. I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. Somehow I find the energy to make a shelter out of young, slender trees, and camouflage it as best I can.

Min is reeling against me. I help him inside the shelter, where he collapses. He’s white and shaking, and I’m very afraid for him.

I try again with the poison, reaching into the place where I can feel it. I can touch it, I can sense it ravaging Min’s body, but it doesn’t follow my fingers. I can’t make it do anything.

Mackenna makes a fire, and we move Min as close to it as we dare. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re supposed to do for fevered people, but it seems to make him more comfortable and stops the shivering.

Min is sinking into a dizzy unconsciousness. I can see the poison spreading up and down his arm, and the actual wound is swollen mostly shut, seeping blood. He’s in bad shape. I’m not sure, but I think he might be dying.

Mackenna and I agree to both stay up all night. In order to do that, I need food. I take a few granola bars from the backpack, but as I start to eat them I realize I’m not really hungry. I’m much too worried to be hungry.

We watch him for hours. We watch him stop trembling and go very, very still. His face is shockingly pale, almost as white as the snow. It would be startling on anyone, but it’s even more striking on Min because his skin is naturally so dark. It looks like he’s been bleached.

We try to get him to drink water, but it doesn’t really work. He’s out cold, he can’t really swallow. I’m not sure what to do about it, I’m sure he’s really dehydrated. But at this point that’s the least of our problems.

After what seems like ages, the edge of the sky starts to turn pink. I crouch at the entrance to the shelter to watch the sun rise. I’m desperately starved for beauty, and watching the sunrise feels peaceful and normal. Mackenna joins me for a few minutes until we have to tend to Min again.

I’m so tired I find myself slipping, leaning against the side of the shelter. Falling asleep in the snow. Almost accidentally, my consciousness spreads out and senses what’s around me. I’m too tired to notice much though, except Mackenna’s exhausted consciousness and Min’s flickering, fading one.

Wait. There is something else. A mass of consciousnesses, so big I almost didn’t notice it, the way you can get used to a mountain or ocean if you see it enough.

It’s Mercuriel’s army. It’s huge, a thousand times larger than I thought it was. What attacked us was only a tiny fraction of it. It’s enough, possibly, to overwhelm even the elves.

And they’re closer than I expected too, only maybe ten miles away. I can sense the feeling of the group, a longing for battle, for destruction. We have led them too close to the elves. We have put the elves in danger. And now, if the army finds us, they’ll kill us too.

I come back to myself with a gasp. “We need to go,” I say. “Right now.”

Mackenna looks a little taken aback. This whole time, she has been the one trying to get us to move forward. I have been trying to hold us back, to take care of Min. To keep the journey from killing him.

“Why?” she asks. I’m already packing our bags, throwing everything anywhere it will fit.

“They’re coming,” I say simply.

Everything is packed in only moments. Min gives us a pause. He’s completely unconscious, and I don’t think he’ll be waking up any time soon. If we carry him, it will slow us down significantly and we risk damaging his arm. But what other choice do we have?

“We have to go faster,” Mackenna says. “We have to warn the elves. We brought this danger directly to them. They might not be able to help us now. And then we have no chance of defeating Mercuriel. We have to get there first.”

We both look at Min, and I know we’re thinking the same thing. Min is dying, we have to warn the elves, and we could travel so much faster without him. Isn’t that the selfless thing to do? It’s what he would want. And we could even leave him somewhere safe, and come back for him once we have the elves on our side. If he was still alive by then.

We should do it. We should leave him behind. Then Mackenna and I together could run the rest of the way, be there in only a few hours, probably. I don’t know if Min could survive that long. But I don’t know if his survival is affected by being with us anymore. It’s not like there’s anything we can do for him.

“It’s not an option,” I say out loud. Mackenna will know what I’m talking about. Maybe I’m selfish, or maybe I’m right, but either way it doesn’t matter. We are not leaving Min behind. I don’t care how much sense it makes, I don’t care if it would help the elves. I couldn’t live with myself if we did.

Mackenna and I each lift one of his arms over our shoulders. I think I can feel the scab on his upper arm cracking. But it’s too late to stop and tie his bandages any tighter. We have to go now.

[]We’re almost running, but not quite. It’s hard to navigate through the snowy forest, especially carrying Min. But we can’t go slower, not even for a second. We have to go faster.

I keep the army’s presence in the back of my mind at all times. I think it might even be bigger than I originally thought, but it’s more spread out. They must have had to scatter once they entered the forest. Keeping them in my mind is giving me a headache.

According to Liz’s map, there are only about three more miles to go. But that’s assuming that we can even find the clearing she was talking about. And that the elves will even help us. And that Min survives that long.

He’s looking very bad. His eyes are white strips in his pale face, flushed with two spots of fever. His breathing is fast and shallow, and it keeps catching. His heartbeat is slow, like it‘s getting tired of pumping blood to his failing body.

The poison is doing its work. It worries me that I can’t touch it, it makes it seem more sinister. But even if I could remove it, I’m not sure it would make a difference. The spear wound might be killing him anyway.

I feel like this is my fault, because, I guess in a way, it is. Min had to take the spear to save my life. He sacrificed his life for mine, without even thinking. I might not even get a chance to thank him.

For the first time, I actually imagine what it would be like if Min died. I would never again get to hear him laugh, or see his caramel eyes. Feel his lips on mine. He would die without seeing peace, without seeing his cousin Tala again. Part of him would die with me.

And I would fall in love with someone else, with some faceless boy. But how could I ever trust him the way I trust Min? How could he do what Min does for me? What if that spear was coming toward me and the faceless boy didn’t jump in front of it? He would cry and hug me as I died. But in the end, I would still be dead.

And I know something, suddenly, with absolute certainty. No one could ever replace Min. I will never love anyone else the way I love him. And if we both make it through this I will absolutely love him for the rest of my life.

I’m afraid we’re going to have to stop. I can actually feel Min’s consciousness fading. The poison is ravaging his body. He has only moments left. I feel like I’m on the final mile of a marathon. I can keep pushing and pushing, but really at this point I can’t affect it either way. Min will die or he won’t. Either way, this ends now.

I’m so focused on Min, on his faint heartbeat and ragged breathing, that I don’t even notice when we’re in the clearing. But Mackenna stops, and I realize we’ve made it. I drop to my knees. I’m too tired to stand.

I wait for the elves. Liz was very, very clear on this point, we would arrive in the clearing and the elves would either come, or more likely, not. There is nothing we can do to influence them either. All we can do is wait.

I kneel next to Min, feel his fluttering heartbeat. I pray for the elves to see us and come. Min doesn’t have much time left.

I scan the forest, searching for any movement, any signs that the elves could be watching us. I extend my consciousness outward, and am startled. There are no elves that I can sense, but part of the huge army has broken off, they are coming.

They are here. It takes them only about thirty seconds to reach us. I can feel them just inside the boundaries of the forest, jostling and eager. They are ready, but they are waiting. I’m not sure for what. Maybe for Min’s heart to finally stop beating.

A man steps out. He’s large, clothed all in black, with a wickedly sharp sword and a bow strapped across his back. “Surrender,” he says, and his voice booms out across the meadow. “Lay down your arms. You are outnumbered, and your friend is injured. Give up now, and we will show you mercy. Surrender, and you will not be harmed.”

CHAPTER 9

I’m about to refuse, but Mackenna beats me to it. She spits out the words, and her eyes seem to glow with flames. “Mercy? You expect me to believe that? I have been the victim of your kind of mercy before, and I will not be again. Tell Mercuriel she can….” Mackenna says some words that make me bite my tongue in sympathy. I’m not sure where she learned them. I’m not even sure what a lot of them mean, but the message is clear.

The man gives me a signal, and the enemy soldiers pour out of the forest. I start dragging Min backward, and Mackenna follows me. There’s a tree in the center of the clearing, and for some reason I desperately want to reach it. Maybe it’s that I want to have something solid up against my back as I die.

Maybe it’s that it reminds me of my mother. Maybe it’s just that I like trees. But either way, I push myself as hard as I can to get there before lying back against it, panting.

One of the soldiers comes at me and I lunge at him, turning into a jaguar mid-leap. I bowl him over, landing hard on his chest. I dig my claws into him and roar in his face. This could be the person who hurt Min. I have to use all my self-control not to rip him into shreds.

He uses all his strength to stand, and I stagger backward off him. I roll a few yards to catch my balance, and end up pressed against the huge tree. I use it to pull myself upright. Soldiers are approaching from all directions. Too many to fight off.

“Aubrey, duck!” Mackenna screams. I instinctively flinch against the tree trunk, shielding Min with my body. There’s a flash of bright light.

I look up. Mackenna has created an eight-foot-tall ring of fire around the tree, with me and Min at the center.

For a few moments, no soldiers can get through to us. I pant, trying to catch my breath. I check Min’s pulse, faint but still there. I try to prop him up higher on the tree. I even take a handful of seconds to brush his sweaty hair away from his face. I have a sudden sharp wish that he was awake and fighting by my side.

Someone from outside the fiery ring puts down a plank of flat wood. It makes a brief break in the fire, and he walks through the gap.

He thrusts a sword at me and I dodge, but not before he opens a long shallow cut just below my ribs. I wince. It’s not deep or life-threatening, but it burns like a giant paper cut. It makes it hard to move.

Without even looking at the soldier, I use grass to throw that man and another into the fire. By this time, Mackenna has repaired the breach in her wall. For another moment we are relatively safe.

“Aubrey!” Mackenna screams. “Go to Min. I’ll protect you.”

As soon as I see Min, everything else ceases to matter. He is so very still, his face pale as paper, not even trembling anymore, not seeming to breathe. The battle still rages around me, but I am deaf to it. I cradle his head in my lap. His eyes slide open.

“Min,” I say. “I just wanted you to know that I love you. And always will.”

He doesn’t have the strength to form words, but he smiles.

“Stay with me,” I whisper, but my voice cracks. My tears fall onto his cheeks.

“Of course,” he whispers, surprising me. Then he closes his eyes.

I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. But one second there is Min, living and breathing in my arms, and the next he is gone. No last words. Just emptiness, and pain. And disbelief. And loneliness.

I scream. There’s no words to it. I’m not even crying. But the sound is high and long, filled with all the emotions I don’t dare put a name to. I can feel the earth thrumming with my pain, the rocks and trees crying out too. If I was anyone else, I might think it was my imagination. But I know. My mother is sharing in my pain. The whole world is screaming.

Mackenna hears me and knows instantly what it means. She stumbles, and the fire flickers out for a few seconds. She manages to bring it back, but only barely. I can see that it is costing her.

I can’t seem to draw in a breath. I bite down on my sleeve to keep from screaming again. Raw, hysterical sobs tear their way out of my throat. My own pain is choking me.

Min is still. Min is gone. I have nothing left.

No, no, no. This is not happening. There’s still time, I can still save him. I’m sure of it. Anything else is…inconceivable, impossible. He’s fine, just asleep. Just unconscious. Just not breathing anymore.

I gently grab his shoulders and shake him a little bit. I am so, so sure that he will wake up. He’s just faking. He’s not really dead. “Min,” I whisper, my voice quiet and scared. “Min. You’re in there, right? I know you’re going to be okay. Just please…please wake up.” My voice breaks. I can’t breathe or see or exist anymore. “Please don’t be dead.”

He stays limp and still. I feel for his pulse, even already knowing what I’ll find. There’s nothing. I can’t feel it in his wrist, his chest, or the side of his neck. His heart does not beat.

He can’t be gone yet, though. He [_can’t _]be gone. This is Min we’re talking about, who has survived so many impossible situations, injuries and poisoning and so many battles. He can’t be dead. Not Min, with his laughing, caramel eyes, his graceful hands, his soft wolf fur. His kindness, his caring, that determined, rebellious streak that is always getting him in trouble. He is not dead. He can’t be. Please, no, take me instead.

I put my hands on his chest, both of them, so he’s lying back in the snow. Gently I start to push some of my energy into him, hoping that will be enough to revive him. He glows faintly, but it fades too fast. My energy doesn’t stick. There is nothing for it to stick to. He’s gone.

I slam him against my chest, feeling limpness where there once was life. I breathe in the scent of him, like pine needles. I hold him against me, even though it’s over. Even though he’s dead, I’m never letting go.

Suddenly, everything freezes. Literally. Mackenna’s fire dies as abruptly as if it had never been. Each soldier is completely still, frozen in random positions, only their eyes moving.

I’m not stuck. I could move, if I wanted to. But I don’t. I don’t care. I don’t care if someone just froze the attacking army. All that matters is Min, and the pain that is blinding me, and the emotions building in my chest.

A calm, feminine voice rings out across the clearing. “I will give you the same choice you gave our friends here.”

I realize she’s talking about us. She’s calling us friends. That makes me look up, even though I don’t let go of Min.

Up until this point, I had had no idea what the elves would look like. But the person speaking is clearly one. She looks so…elven.

More elves pour out of the forest. They don’t all look the same, exactly, but there are certain similarities between all of them. They have different hair, but almost identical features. Perfect and beautiful, but in a distant, cold way. They’re almost expressionless as they gather behind the elf who originally spoke.

“Surrender,” she says, her voice high and clear. “And you will not be harmed. Probably.” Now her voice has a teasing lilt to it.

“Never,” the spokesman for Mercuriel’s army says. Apparently his mouth can move too.

“Very well.” The elven woman shrugs, and the spell holding everyone in place falls away.

The elves spring forward, light and fast as cheetahs. They attack in one motion. I didn’t notice any weapons, but they each have several concealed on their bodies.

The elves are clearly the better fighters. They move with more grace and power than I could ever imagine in a human. Even though they are outnumbered, I am pretty sure they will win the battle.

I look down at Min. The elves are helping us, but at what cost?

Why does nothing they’re doing seem to matter anymore?

 

CHAPTER 10

My vision is blurring with tears, so I miss a large chunk of the fight. Then someone touches Min, tugging him gently away from me. I react instinctively, turning into a jaguar and lunging, pushing my attacker to the ground. I snarl.

A ripple of light energy pulses through me, rolling me to the ground. A young male elf is standing over me. There’s something that separates him from the other elves, something I can’t quite place. His face has the same handsome, ageless quality, but his dark hair is adorned with beads and feathers. He has a strong aura of magic around him, and it is zapping me like static electricity. He kneels next to me.

“You are hurting,” he says. “That is why the trees cry out.”

“Get away from me,” I spit. “Leave me alone.” I cradle Min against me.

“Your friend. Let me see him.”

I start to say something, but my voice catches. My face screws up, and I can feel a sob building in my throat. I swallow it back down. I will not cry in front of this elf. I will stay strong for Min.

“Your friend. There is still hope for him, but we must act quickly. Let me see him.”

“Stop. Just stop,” I say. I can’t do this anymore. My heart is being dashed against the stones again and again and again. I just want everyone to leave me alone. Let me mourn in peace.

“It’s part of the poison. It stopped his heart. But he is not dead. Not yet. We have a few moments left.”

A tiny glimmer of hope rises in my chest. It’s like a flame, small and weak as a candle. I don’t blow on it, I don’t want to make it bigger, but I do shield it. I don’t want it snuffed out either.

“You’re not kidding me, right? Because I don’t think I could handle that. You really do think there’s hope?”

He gazes at me with dark, intense, eyes. “I do. If we move quickly. Let me see him.”

I slowly relax, lowering Min onto the snow. My bare arms are cold without him.

“He’s still warm!” I gasp, startled. I hadn’t realized it until he was gone, until my chest was left freezing and exposed without him.

“He is still fighting. Do not give up yet.”

The elf leans down, listens for a heartbeat, for any sign of a breath. He hears nothing, just as I did. But it doesn’t stop him.

“Can I have some of your energy?” he asks.

“My…energy?” My voice is still raw from crying. I’m not sure I quite understand what he means.

“Yes. Your light energy.”

“Um…why?”

“You can give energy to him, can’t you?”

“Yeah, but I already tried that. He’s too far gone.”

He just stares at me, and how can I say no? He’s trying to save Min, doing what I’ve already given up on. I don’t really get it, but I conjure up a small ball of energy and roll it to him. He looks at it disdainfully.

“Not like that. A part of you. The part of you where he is.”

I close my eyes, and this time I see Min. Not lying before me as he is now, but a thousand other ways. I see him laughing at some joke we share, see his caramel eyes meeting mine. I see him fighting with all the grace and power of a wolf. I see him soaked with rain, kissing me. I see him jumping in front of the spear. Saving my life.

This time when I make a ball of energy, it’s full of my swirling emotions. And not just sadness. Now it’s a bittersweet mix of love, pride, and grief. The elf takes it. I feel spent afterward, hollow. I’m almost numb as I stare down at Min’s still, pale, face.

The elf holds the energy suspended between his palms. Gently he lifts it, pushes it, molds it until it floats in the air by itself. It drifts toward Min, slow at first then faster, until it finally melts into his chest. His whole body glows golden for a few seconds. Nothing else happens.

I’m screaming out to my mother, wishing she were here for me, wishing for her touch. Then I’m screaming out to God, help me, help me. I’m praying, and crying. Please bring Min back to me. Please, please, please.

His features blur through my tears of desperation. Nothing is happening. I want to shake him, but I don’t. Instead I hold my breath, biting the inside of my cheek to stop the crying. I count to three. One, two, three. I am done with the hysterics.

Suddenly Min gasps, drawing breath like a swimmer just barely saved from drowning. I didn’t want to believe he was dead, but now I’m hesitant to believe he’s really back. I tentatively touch his neck, feel his pulse beat strong under my fingers. I watch his chest rise and fall with a sort of elated fascination.

“He’s alive,” I say, almost numbly. “It worked.”

I throw my head back and laugh, feeling Min’s warm, alive body under my fingers. Somehow, despite being in the middle of the battle, Mackenna hears me, or at least senses my shift in emotion. Anyway, her eyes meet mine. Her mouth drops open in shock at the sight of my laughter. Then she smiles in semi-hysteric relief.

She runs to me, and kneels next to me. I hug her. I’m almost infectiously happy. Min is back. Min is safe. I have Min.

The battle rages on around me. But I’m on an island of glowing joy, and it shields me. Mackenna rises to rejoin the battle, but I keep kneeling by Min’s side. I smile tenderly down at him. I want to be the first face he sees when he wakes up.

I wait patiently for a while, content to watch his chest rise and fall, the color slowly return to his face. But after some time has passed, I start to get concerned. He still hasn’t woken.

“Why isn’t he awake yet?” I ask the male elf.

“He is tired. He will wake when he’s ready.”

I watch him for a while. “Do you think he’ll be ready soon?”

“His body and spirit are exhausted. We will bring him back to the palace. He can sleep and recover there.”

The word sleep triggers something inside me. I realize I desperately need rest too. It’s been days since I’ve had a full night’s sleep.

The elf bends down and picks up Min in his arms. He looks very small and limp. But I realize with a pang that even when he’s asleep, he no longer looks young. His face has changed, and so much pain and hardship has washed over it that not even sleep can erase it.

“I can carry him,” I say drowsily.

The elf actually laughs, the first sign of real emotion I’ve seen from him. “I have him.”

“Right.” My legs buckle, and I fall lightly against him.

“I can’t carry both of you,” he says. “We need to get back to the palace.”

I nod and follow after him. I remember suddenly that Min really is alive, and that gives me the energy to go on. I walk after them as if I am being drawn toward a magnet. Min is the moon and I am the sea and I will follow him until my legs give out beneath me.

We walk through the woods until the sounds of battle have faded behind us. Before long, all we can hear is the crunching of our footsteps on the snow. Then that disappears too. The snow is gone, and I can hear birds chirping in the trees. The air is warm and thick against my skin, and for the first time in days I’m not cold without my jacket. Everywhere, everything is green.

We arrive in a clearing and I gasp. The elf smiles.

“Welcome,” he says, “to the summer palace.”

It’s less of a palace really, and more of a huge cabin. It’s so big I can’t see everywhere it extends to, but I can tell there’s only one story. The whole structure is open and woven with green branches and flowers. It feels very peaceful, very alive. Sunlight streams through the trees overhead, giving everything an afternoon glow. I sigh with pleasure.

The elf leads me into an open hallway. Other elves surround us. He mumbles a few words to one of them, and she approaches me.

“You need to sleep, too. We will take care of your friend.”

I trail mindlessly after her for a few moments before stopping. Min and the male elf are no longer with us. I should really find them and make sure Min is okay before I sleep.

“I need to find Min,” I say to the elf leading me. “You can wait here.”

“No. You need to sleep first.”

I start to stumble off in the direction I last saw Min, but the elf grabs my shoulders. I wobble, and am too off-balance to right myself. I collapse at her feet and am asleep before I can draw another breath.

 

CHAPTER 11

When I wake up, sunlight is still streaming through the high windows in my room. Or maybe it was night, and now this is the next day or the day after. I’m not very good at judging time in a place like this, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been asleep for a while.

Mackenna is leaning over me. I blink up at her, trying to bring her face into focus. I have one of those pulsing headaches that comes from sleeping too long.

“Aubrey, are you okay? How do you feel?”

I sit bolt upright. “Min,” I gasp. “Where is he? Is he alright?”

“Still sleeping. And for the record, I’m alright too. Thanks for asking. I stayed and fought after you guys left.” I can tell from her voice she’s not really angry, just happy all three of us are okay.

“Can I see him?”

She nods. “Yeah. I’ve been with him most of the time since I got back. He’s not very interesting to watch, but you can still visit him if you want.”

She shows me where his room is. It’s almost identical to mine, with a small bed, tables and chairs, and an open window.

Min is lying limply on the bed. He is healthy-looking, his color is normal and his breathing is deep and even. He looks peaceful, and I finally allow myself to relax. Min is okay. He will be fine.

I don’t realize someone has come in behind me until I turn around to go back to my room. One is the dark-haired elf who helped me save Min, and I recognize the other elf as the one who was leading the battle.

“Princess.” She bows respectfully, and the other elf inclines his head too. “We trust you have slept long enough?”

I nod. “Yeah. And you can call me Aubrey, by the way.”

She smiles. “My name is Day, and this is my brother, Night. We are the heirs to the throne.”

“Cool.” I’m thinking, what throne? But I don’t say it. I wonder if I should bow or something. The elves seem very formal, but I think they might actually consider me a higher rank than them. Or whatever they call it. I don’t really understand elf etiquette.

“My friend Min,” I gesture to him, “when will he wake up? Is he okay?”

Night nods. “He is stable, and getting stronger all the time. But he was very nearly dead before I got to him. He could….”

Day silences him with a look. “What?” I ask, but they refuse to say anymore.

“You and your friend can relax and recover today. You will have clothes and food brought to your rooms, and someone will arrive to show you around if you wish. Tomorrow we will council with our father. You will want to attend.”

I take one last look at Min. Then I can’t help it, I have to brush his hair off his face. He stirs slightly in his sleep. I don’t want to leave him, but even I have to acknowledge that I need to change. I also realize I’m starving. I’ve barely eaten in days.

When I get back to my room, there’s already food there. I greedily eat the pale loaves of bread and fresh vegetables, sitting cross-legged on the bed.

Once I’m full, a pretty elf comes to show me around. She shows me the kitchens and the gardens, both with many elves working in them. There’s an open field where they train for battle. She shows me the currently unoccupied hall where the elves will hold council tomorrow. I let all the things she shows me wash over me, but I don’t really take any of it in. All I can think about is Min. I saw him, and he did look better, but I still have the prickling feeling that the worst is not yet over.

The tour ends, and I wander back to my room. I lie on the bed, staring up at the ceiling and trying to think of nothing. It only sort of works.

I should be feeling…something. Relieved, awed, I don’t know. Even afraid would be better than this weird aching numbness. We did it, we succeeded. We found the elves. They’re willing to help us, or at least, they’re willing to consider it. I’m literally inside the elves’ palace. So why do I still feel so…wrong?

I end up crying, and I suddenly wish more than almost anything that Mackenna was here with me. She would listen, she would understand, and I want her to come and comfort me because I need it. But that’s not really fair of me to want, is it? Because when her boyfriend died I was barely there to comfort her, and I was the one who killed him, too. Maybe that’s why she’s not here now. I don’t deserve her love, I don’t deserve her at all. She is too good for me, and so is Min, and Liz, and everybody. I’m not good enough. It’s not enough.

Later that night, Day comes into my room. “Your friend is waking up,” she whispers. “Night is with him.”

I follow her down the silent hallways. The moonlight slants through the window, casting shadows on the floor. There is no sound, the silence is a tangible thing, I am choking on it.

Min is stirring. I lean over him. I suddenly have a desperate desire to be the first person he sees when he wakes up. I think that if someone else were to get in my way I would push them out of his immediate line of vision. I’m trembling lightly. I’ll have Min again. Please, please, let this work out okay.

His eyes crack open and the moon washes them a flat silver. They glide over my face, turning to focus on Night. He flinches. Doesn’t say anything.

“Min!” I gasp. Until I saw him moving, until I saw his eyes, I honestly didn’t quite believe he was alive. “You’re okay. How do you feel?”

He stares at me, through me, almost, but still he doesn’t speak. There’s something…wrong with his face, I realize. Something is not right here. This is not Min.

“Where am I?” he says. Okay. This is…better. In movies, when people first wake up they always ask where they are. If there’s only one thing I’ve learned this whole time, it’s that movies aren’t always right, but they have to be right sometimes, I think. So this is good. Min is being like in the movies, so at least I have something to compare to.

“You’re with the elves,” I start to say, but Night holds up a hand to silence me.

“What is the last thing you remember?” he asks Min. Something in his voice alerts me to the fact that I might not be the only one who thinks something is wrong. There’s a little catch in it, a little piece of fear, only partially disguised.

“I was at the camp, preparing to fight.”

Okay, okay. This is good. He remembers mostly everything. We were making camp only a little bit before he was hit by a spear, right? Except…we weren’t. That didn’t happen. We never made camp and prepared to fight, did we? So is Min remembering wrong, or is it something else?

“And then what happened?” Night asks him. His voice is gentle, but his eyes demand an answer.

“I don’t remember. I guess one of the three children must have attacked me, and then you must have captured me. Then I was here.”

This takes me one long minute to comprehend. He was preparing to attack, and then one of the three children injured him, he was captured by the elves…. I know this story doesn’t add up with the one I remember, but I can’t figure out how. Why doesn’t Min remember the way I do?

And then my stomach drops out, and I get it. Min doesn’t remember what really happened because this is not Min. This is someone else, a soldier of Mercuriel’s, who is trapped in his body, stealing it from me.

Min turns to me then, and his eyes harden. And it is not Min, it can’t be, because Min would never, ever look at me like that. But if this person lying here with Min’s hair and Min’s eyes and Min’s smile isn’t my Min, then where is my Min?

“Aubrey?” he says. His voice isn’t quite right, close enough. For one hopeless, torn-up second I’m sure it’s him, and I gasp and start crying and kind of smile.

“Yes. It’s me, Min. I’m here.”

He snaps upward, lunging at me so fast I almost can’t see. He’s just a brown blur, and I move instinctively to block his arm. He twists his hand in one smooth motion, locking onto my wrist. And his eyes are a wolf’s eyes, boring into me. And I realize that he is Mercuriel’s now, his mission is to kill me and that is what he intends to do.

His fingers are cold. I wrench my wrist away and reel backward. I hit the wall and lean on it, because my legs are shaking so hard I can’t stand. Min lunges at me, and I’m too frightened and hurt to even move. His forearm presses into my neck.

A scream bubbles up in my throat. I don’t let it out, I can’t. There’s too much pressure on my throat. I make a little whimpering sound. I can’t escape his grip. I don’t want to. I want to stare into his eyes until I find the Min who must be lost in there somewhere. But that won’t work, because he’s going to kill me first. I can’t push him away.

Day has no such feelings. She grabs him roughly, pulling him backward and throwing him down on the bed. He struggles violently under her hands. He snarls, his eyes rolling back in his head like a wild animal’s.

“Aubrey,” he growls, his voice rough. “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you.”

My heart breaks. It’s physical pain, a sharp stabbing, twisting its way through my chest. I look down. It hurts so badly that people must be able to see it. If my insides are screaming in pain, why aren’t I bleeding? Why isn’t my heart melting out of my chest, spreading in a puddle over the floor?

I’m crying. Not a lot, just a steady, semi-hysterical waterfall of tears slipping down my cheeks. I’m making little gasping sounds in the back of my throat. My legs finally give way, and I sink down the wall.

“Aubrey, get out of here,” Night says harshly. But my eyes are fixed on Min, thrashing on the bed, looking at me with a mixture of hate and fear and something else.

“Aubrey!” Night hisses. Then he grabs me and hauls me to my feet, practically tossing me out of the room. “I’ll be out in a minute. Wait here.”

I don’t wait for him to come out. I just pick myself up, turn, and run. If I run fast enough, maybe I can escape. Maybe I can forget.

Somehow I end up in the training field, my sweat drying in the cool night air, my breath comes in gasps. It is silent, but there is a row of practice dummies, and a box of swords. I pick up a sword and start hacking a dummy to pieces.

Min is gone.

All of a sudden I scream. It’s not a scream of frustration or sadness or even anger. It is a scream of absolute despair. How could this be happening? After everything, all we’ve been through, how could this be happening?

Min is gone.

I picture the Min with the frightened eyes, lunging at me. That’s not Min. How could that be Min? How could that be the same boy who sacrificed his life for me? Who held my back in battle, and taught me how to shift, and took me to the beach in December, and kissed me in the rain? They can’t be the same.

Min is gone.

Something is building in my chest. It is an emotion I have held off for so long, despite everything. Hopelessness. I used to have hope. Hope that we would all get through this okay, that maybe it would all be alright. But now there is an empty spot in my chest where hope should be, where Min should be. But now my hope has disappeared, and what do I have without hope?

What is there without Min?

Min is gone.

CHAPTER 12

I remember walking numbly back into my room. I remember Mackenna asking me what’s wrong, and I remember not responding. I remember gasping at the thick, vicious pain in my chest. I remember falling….

I wake up. For a few seconds I don’t remember anything from last night. Then I feel the tear tracks on my face, the tightness in my throat. I keep my eyes closed for a minute, and it seems like an impossible amount of effort to open them.

But I do. It’s harder than I expect, physically. My eyelashes are matted together with all the tears I shed last night, and I have to peel them apart. I rub them, trying to get the dried tears off so I can see.

Mackenna is sitting in a chair near my bed. I start to say her name, then realize she’s asleep. Her head rests on her chest, and I can hear her light, steady breathing. Does she know what happened last night? She must, if she’s here instead of in her own room. I hope she does. Honestly, if she doesn’t I’m not going to tell her. I’ll make someone else do it. I don’t know how. I don’t want to say any of the words, because saying them aloud makes them real and that is not something that I can do.

I also don’t know how to be alone. “Mackenna,” I whisper. I wouldn’t consider her a light sleeper, but I’m still hoping my quiet voice will wake her. My throat is raw, and I’m not sure if I could talk louder if I tried. “Mackenna.”

She starts awake, and I see by the sadness marking her face that she does know what has happened. Her gaze is holding onto me, like I’m a lifeline on a boat except really I’m sinking too. Her lip trembles a little bit, and I’m pretty sure she’s about to start crying.

I have the sudden, irrational thought that she doesn’t have the right to cry for him. He was mine before all this, and now he is mine to mourn. But then I realize that’s not true, Min wasn’t mine, he was his own, and he let me into his life and now he’s gone. But he was never mine, I had no ownership of him, no monopoly on grief.

He was Mackenna’s too, just in a different way. I just have to look at Mackenna to know that friendship is as important as love, that it is love. Mackenna and Min have mourned me together, so it is only fitting that Mackenna and I should be the ones to mourn him. Mackenna was his friend, and I was his girlfriend, and now we can cry for him together because there’s no one else here who really understands.

We start talking a little bit, using soft tired voices. I want to tell her everything, even though she already knows. But almost as soon as we say something, Night comes in, so fast I wonder if he was listening for our voices outside. Another elf follows him.

“Glad to see you two awake.” His eyes hold sympathy. “Day and I need to be at a meeting with our father. You’ll need to come too, but you have about an hour to get cleaned up first.”

“Is the meeting about Min?” I ask.

Night looks at me, and even on his elven features his expression is recognizable. I just said something dumb. “No,” he says slowly. “It’s about our involvement in the war.”

“Oh, right.” I blush. It’s hard to remember that even when my entire world revolves around something, it doesn’t mean everyone else’s does.

Night glances out the window as if he were glancing at a clock. He can probably tell the time just from the sun.

“I need to go,” he says. “This is Saibren.” He gestures at the elf behind me. “She will help you get ready.”

Night gets up and swiftly exits the room. Saibren smiles at us shyly. Then she wrinkles her brow.

“You had better clean up if you expect to make an audience with the king. Come on, I’ll show you two to a bath.”

We walk down the hallway. We have to pass Min’s room to get to the baths, which makes all my barely covered pain well up inside me. I bite my lip. I’m on fire.

At the end of the hallway there are five or six doors that each lead to a small, dark room. I can’t see into them, but I hear the sound of bubbling water, like a stream, or a fountain. These must be where the elves bathe. Mackenna and I go into separate ones, and I strip off my clothes in the strange echoing silence.

The bath is warm and I relax into it, letting the water cushion my body. But then I remember that I’m probably gross and I should be washing more aggressively. I feel around in the darkness for a bottle of soap or something. I find a little bottle that smells like lavender, figure that must be what the elves intend us to wash with. I rub it all over my skin and hair. It’s the first time I’ve cleaned myself since we started on the mission.

I’m kind of sad to climb out of the pool. It’s nice to be alone, where I don’t have to put on a show for anybody or worry about anybody’s grief but my own. But I still get out, because I can’t hide in the darkness forever.

I wring my hair out with one had and then stand there, naked and dripping, while I look for my clothes. I accidentally kick them with my foot, and then grab them.

I hadn’t realized how disgusting they are until the rest of me is clean. They’re covered with blood, literally stiff with it, and I’m not sure if I could get them back on if I tried. They smell too, and I really, really don’t want them to touch my body.

I keep poking around until I finally find something that I’m pretty sure is a towel. I wrap it around myself and go outside. I just leave my old clothes on the floor, which I’m not sure is really right, but I can’t carry them and hold up the towel at the same time.

Mackenna is waiting in the hallway already, her long hair drying in ropes down her back. She put her old clothes back on, but they’re not quite as crusted with blood as mine were. Saibren leads us back to our rooms. I can hear Min moving when I walk by his room, and my heart twists.

I go into my room and see that Saibren has laid out a dress on my bed. It is simple and white, with a gold belt, and, to my surprise, what looks like a crown.

The crown is made of a neat, multi-strand braid of what looks like thin strands of actual gold, with a large white stone in the center. I put it on my head. I am a princess, I guess, but I never really thought about myself like that. All the princesses I can think of are beautiful, and live a life of luxury. They don’t have near-death experiences, or no mother, or nightmares every night. They don’t have a boyfriend with amnesia who wants to kill her.

Mackenna looks at me funny when she sees my crown. “Why are you wearing that?”

“Well, I am a princess,” I say. For some reason it comes out more sassy than I expected. Mackenna stares at me, clearly not sure how to react.

“You are more than that,” Saibren says. “In your mother’s absence, you are queen.”

I kind of gasp. I had certainly never thought of it that way before. I am not just a Princess, I am the Queen of the Wilderness, the heir to the throne. I have no idea how to feel about that. It’s good though, I guess. In the elves’ courts, the Queen of the Wilderness might have some real influence.

Mackenna just keeps staring at me. She’s obviously startled, so much so that she attempts an awkward bow.

“No,” I say, suddenly frightened. “No. Don’t you ever bow to me. Don’t you dare.”

She straightens up, flashing me a quick, almost strained smile. But I see her underneath, and I think it will be okay. She will not scare me like that again. We won’t always be the same, but we will always be friends, always be equals.

I can hold onto that.

We pause outside the throne room and Saibren gives us some quick instructions. “The king is often away, defending the border of the elves’ kingdom. He returned recently, so he won’t have heard much about you yet, only that you’re here and you need help. He probably won’t want to endanger the kingdom by sending the elves to war, so it will be hard to convince him. Be patient, and speak politely. Don’t lose your tempers. Go ahead now.” She pushes us into the throne room.

My head is still buzzing as I try to sort through the information I’ve been given. It’s then that I get my first sight of the throne room. It’s all sunlight and glass and elaborate designs. The back wall has huge floor to ceiling windows that give a panoramic forest view. The ceiling has several skylights that illuminate the whole room evenly. In between the windows, and along the other walls are elaborate carvings featuring plants and birds.

The king sits in between two tall windows on a wooden throne. I don’t really see him, just get a blurred impression of strong cheekbones, elegant features, dark hair. And then Saibren is behind me guiding me to the side with a hand on my elbow.

Night is sitting in another throne, a smaller one. I am struck again by how strange, almost un-elf-like, he looks. He has his father’s dark hair, striking features, but not the same ageless expressionlessness about him.

His sister looks nothing like the king, and she doesn’t look much like the other elves either. She is up and pacing the room, her hair flowing out behind her, looking uncomfortable in a long green dress. Even though she’s not talking, I feel her intensity, drawing all the energy in the room to her.

I curtsy to the king, because Saibren said to be polite, and that feels like the right thing to do. He acknowledges me with a nod. That’s it.

“I’m Aubrey,” I say, since no one seems to be introducing me and I feel uncomfortable saying nothing.

“I know who you are.” He doesn’t say anything else to me. Apparently, Day was talking before I entered the room, and she begins again, right from where she left off.

“We have to fight with the mortals. If we do not, the elves will completely die off. Not immediately, but eventually. If the mortals do not win, you don’t think Mercuriel would ignore us, do you? No. We would be the first place she marches on. We are tied too closely with nature, with the Queen.”

“Hundreds of elves will die if I lead them into battle,” the king says.

“If the enemy marches on our lands, we will all die. For the survival of our race, we must fight,” she says with the sort of conviction that can only come with absolutely believing in herself. I realize suddenly that I like Day. I wish I were more like her.

“I agree with Day,” Night says unexpectedly. I had thought of him as the more conservative of the two, the less likely to want to leave the safety of their lands and pick up arms with us. “We could tip the balance of the war. We owe it to our Queen to fight for her homeland.”

“Mortal,” the king says. It takes me a second to realize he’s addressing me. “Is the battle really so desperate that you will fall without our assistance?”

“Yeah. I mean, I think so. A lot of people are dying. We’re losing and we really need help.”

There is silence for a few minutes. This is not how I was expecting the meeting to go. I wonder if I should say something else. I start a few times, stop. Wish Min was here. And then realize it’s probably good that he’s not, because he has the undeniable ability to piss off people in power.

“No,” the king says suddenly, startling me. “We will not fight with you. Not if you are fighting a losing battle anyway. We will not sacrifice the entire race to a cause that is already lost.”

“No,” Mackenna gasps, but no one is paying attention to her.

I realize Night and his father are sharing a look. I think that maybe Night is speaking into his mind, like I sometimes do with Mackenna, but then I realize that’s not it. It’s a reminding look, Night is trying to get his father to understand something, something he doesn’t want to say in front of everyone else, something he wants his father to take into account.

Whatever it is, his father gets it. He gives one slow nod. “We will fight with you.” Glances backward, a you-owe-me look, one that I have shared many times with Mackenna.

And then what he said sinks in. He will help us fight. I feel like cheering, or jumping in the air. But I don’t do any of that.

“Thank you,” I say inclining my head. I don’t know if I should say something else, but I don’t want to mess up, so I stay silent, awaiting further instruction.

“Leave now,” the kings says. For some reason this doesn’t compute, and I just stand there staring stupidly at him. But Mackenna has my back, as usual, and she grabs me and drags me out behind her.

In the hall, I just stand there. I’m having one of those moments where it suddenly hits me that this is all actually happening. We found the elves, Min is gone, they’re helping us fight but what does that matter now? It all seems strange and distant, like I’m watching a movie about someone else’s life. This can’t really be happening. Not really. Not to me.

I’m suddenly sure that everything, everything since I’ve discovered I had magic, is a dream. Because this can’t be real. In what sort of crazy world would a girl grow up not knowing either of her parents, and then become Queen? In what sort of world would children fight, get hurt and die before they even reach their eighteenth birthday? In what sort of world would someone have to go without the person they love because he has been replaced with an enemy trapped in his body?

I lean against the wall, and then slide down so I’m sitting. I cry, mostly because I’m exhausted. I’m mean, I’m not going to fall asleep, I don’t need sleep. It’s the other kind of exhausted, where it seems impossible to stop worrying enough to rest for an entire night, but at the same time you could sleep for a thousand years.

I want to sleep for a thousand years and never wake up.

CHAPTER 13

The hardest part about the next few days is that I’m not allowed to see Min. Mackenna and I think Night is working on him, trying to figure out if he remembers anything, if there’s any of my Min left. So far I think not, but it’s hard for me to really tell, because I can’t see him.

This is because he wants to kill me. His memories are those of one of Mercuriel’s soldiers, and I am their greatest enemy. They have been trained to hate my face, to kill on sight. And so now that is Min. He wants me dead, and if he sees me he will try to attack. He is like a wild animal now, except worse, because he wears the face of a friend.

The fact that I want to be helping Min more than anything and am not even allowed to see him is only one of my problems. The other one is that there’s not really much to do here. I can’t help Min, I can’t do anything for the war, I can’t even clean my room or anything, which is normally my last resort when I’m bored. I want to help, the desire is stronger than anything. And since I can’t do that, I honestly can’t do anything.

I want to run. I want to sleep. I want to help. I want Min.

Two days after he wakes up, I go in to see him. Or at least, I try. I walk into the room, not quite meeting his eyes, trying to act casual. I have a hood up and makeup on and stuff, so although I might look pretty weird, at least I won’t be instantly recognizable.

“Hey,” he says. It’s an innocent enough phrase, but even in that I can hear the difference. This isn’t my Min. The inflections are different.

I don’t want to respond, because I’m sure my voice will give me away. But I can’t just not say anything to him, not when he spoke directly to me for the first time in days. I mean to say something else casual, but it doesn’t work.

“Min,” I gasp. My voice sounds strangled, all cracked and shoved back down my throat.

Immediately, his pupils dilate. His face goes all stiff, emotionless almost. He rises off the bed he was sitting on. For a second he is still, painfully still. In that second, I see a shadow of the old Min, the careful grace etched in all his movements. And then he strikes.

The movement is so fast and unexpected that it knocks me to the floor. Pain from a punch explodes across my jaw. For a split second I see stars, but I recover quickly. I kick out, and a heavy thump tells me he’s on the floor now too.

We scramble toward each other. I claw at him, punch him. He gets on top of me, and I writhe trying to get free. I hate to admit it, but having this much of him touching me is making it hard for me to fight.

Then one of his forearms is pressed against my neck. My head is slammed backward into the floor. I gasp. But he didn’t pin my hands down. I could punch him, probably knock him out. Except I can’t, because he is wearing Min’s body and I just don’t think I can hurt him.

I turn into a jaguar and heave myself to my feet. I’m hoping he’ll turn into a wolf, because I’ll still be stronger but there’ll be less chance for me to damage him. But he doesn’t. So I just pin him down, trying to be careful with my claws. He squirms under me, and despite everything a few beads of blood appear on his chest where I scratched him. I still don’t let him go. Guilt aches through me, and I bite my lip.

He snarls as if he is a wolf, but he’s not. He just twists under me, trying to get free, not able to. Luckily, it makes enough sound that some random elves come in, and they pull me off him and hold him down. I turn back into human, and I feel the lump in my throat but am too worn out to cry.

One of them who I don’t know leads me away. The next day when I peek in at him, he’s chained to the bed.

I’m not one of those girls who’s impossibly wrapped up in her boyfriend, who loses all her identity without him. I’m not one of those girls who thinks it’s romantic to stop eating and waste away once he’s not there anymore. That’s not helpful, and it’s not me. Except despite my best intentions, despite everything, I’m wasting away anyways.

It’s not just Min. It’s…everything, I guess. This stupid war, and being without any familiar faces except Mackenna’s for too long. It’s the burden that can barely fit on my shoulders, the fact that I simply don’t have enough people to support me.

I haven’t done any exercise since I came to the elves. But I also haven’t gained any weight, because I am not really eating either. Not my fault. I’m not doing it as a labor of love, or anything like that. Food just simply doesn’t taste good anymore.

For some reason, Min is not sensitive to Mackenna’s presence. He doesn’t remember her, he doesn’t like seeing her, but he doesn’t go crazy when she’s around. That’s just reserved for me. But anyways, that means that Mackenna is able to talk to him a little bit. She can have actual conversations with him, and start to figure out where he’s coming from.

“I talked to him today,” she says, sitting on my bed. “I mean really talked. For like an hour.”

I swallow down the painful jealousy in my throat. “You did? How…how did it go?”

She bites her lip, which means whatever she says is going to be a lie. She always bites her lip when she’s lying. “Good,” she says, and my heart sinks.

“You’re biting your lip,” I say, and she immediately covers it with her hand. “Tell me the truth.”

“Honestly it went better than expected. Well, kind of. He didn’t try to attack me or anything. So that was something.”

“What did you guys talk about?”

“Just about, you know, stuff. I told him his memories were fake. That he was really someone else.”

“You did?” I gasp. “Did the elves tell you to say that? Did he…remember?”

I know that if that had happened she would have already told me. But still, I can’t stop the hope from rising up in my chest, choking me. I know my voice sounds strangled and I honestly can’t help it.

She shakes her head. “No. He didn’t remember. And he didn’t fully believe me. But I could tell I got to him, at least a little bit. He has all those other memories, from another life. A life where he was one of Mercuriel’s soldiers. He remembers that his goal was to kill you, no matter the cost. He remembers fighting. But the memories aren’t…complete, I guess. I mean, they were just made by the poison, so I wouldn’t expect them to be perfect. They’re not, and even he can tell that. I think I kind of scared him. He could remember the big stuff, but then he started really thinking, and he couldn’t remember the little stuff. Like what his parents looked like or his favorite color or…if he had a girlfriend or not. I guess the poison couldn’t create an alternate life in that much detail.”

“But does he at least kind of believe you? Maybe I can visit him tomorrow. Maybe he won’t want to kill me.”

Mackenna looks skeptical. “I wouldn’t go that fast. Let me talk to him tomorrow again. I’ll see if he’s thought anymore on what I said.”

Tomorrow can’t come fast enough. And then, once it does, it can’t be over soon enough. I just want to move on to the next thing, to check off the next step in this process.

Mackenna goes to talk to the sort-of Min early. And when she’s in there, I can’t sit still. At first I pace the hallways, anxious and alone. I seek out Night, because he has shown me kindness and he is the least intimidating of all the elves, I think. But all I find is Day.

She comes across me restlessly wandering the halls, trying to stay as far from Min’s room as I can in a building I don’t really know my way around. I run into Day when she appears to be doing more or less the same thing. Well, not trying to stay away from Min’s room, but still looking stir-crazy, restless, and lost.

“Hey,” I say, because she looks like she’s in her own world and I’m not even sure she sees me. Immediately after the words leave my mouth I wish I could snatch them back. I’m not sure I want Day’s company right now. To be honest, she kind of scares me.

She turns to me, her eyes hard and intense, like chips of sapphire. For a second she doesn’t seem to recognize me, and I think she’s about to snap at me. But then she sees my face. “Aubrey,” she says, and her voice is surprisingly soft, almost sad. “What are you doing here?”

“Mackenna is talking to Min. I can’t go in there. He’ll try to kill me.”

“How is he?” she asks. She sounds genuinely curious. “I know Night has been working with him, but….” She shrugs. “We haven’t had much time to talk.”

“He’s…better.” That’s a lie. There’s been no change. But I suddenly don’t want to talk about Min anymore.

“So…you and Night are siblings right?” I don’t know why I asked this. Obviously they are, since both of them are children of the king. “Do you get along? Which one of you is older?” I don’t really care so much as just want something to talk about.

But Day seems to be taking the question seriously. “Yes. We get along, most of the time. We both have our distinct roles, and as long as those roles do not cross we have no problems. I am the fighter, the leader of our armies. He is the healer, and he is stronger in magic than I am. We both know our place, and when our father is gone we will lead the kingdom together. He is older too, by about thirty years.”

I stare at her. “Thirty years?” I don’t think he looks like he could be much older than thirty, let alone thirty years older than Day.

“Approximately. I do not remember exactly how old he is. We don’t celebrate birthdays anymore.”

“How old are you?”

She thinks about this for a second. “Seven hundred and sixty-eight.”

I blink. “You’re seven hundred and sixty-seven? For real?”

“Eight.”

“What?”

“I’m seven hundred and sixty-eight. Since May. So I guess that means he’s almost eight hundred.”

“Wow. Just…wow. That’s really old. Like really old.” I can’t even imagine how old that makes their father, who is actually starting to show signs of age. I don’t dare ask.

She gives me a wry smile. “It’s not that old. Not compared to some of the others here. And we keep up with the times.”

I can’t quite conceptualize being that old. Even the three sisters, who were immortal, weren’t older than two hundred or so. More than five hundred years younger than the two elves.

Then I realize I have heard of someone else that old, older even. My mother.

“Did you ever meet the Queen?” I ask her. I don’t know why, but I desperately want the answer to be yes. I’ve never talked to someone who’s actually met her before. Not once in my entire life.

“Yes,” Day says. “Many times.

“What…what was she like?”

“Your mother? She was kind, and perceptive and intelligent. She was bright, I guess, in the sense that she…glowed. There was a certain energy about her, that I don’t know how to explain.”

“Am…am I like her at all?” Immediately after saying it, I wish I hadn’t. I’m not sure I want to know the answer. Any trait I had that was like my mother would be purely an accident. She didn’t raise me, I’ve never even met her in real life. I didn’t grow up with her influence. By all rights, I should have nothing of hers.

“Yes,” Day says, surprising me. “You glow the same way she did.”

CHAPTER 14

A week passes. Days are hard, nights are harder. Min is still hovering in the balance. He sort of, kind of believes that what Mackenna’s saying is true, that he is not who his memories tell him he is. But he doesn’t believe it enough, and he still can’t control himself around me. And so after a week, when the elves decide there is nothing else they can do for him, when mobilizing for the war is more important than trying to save the life of one frightened teen, it is time for us to go home.

Really home. Home to Liz, home to the School and to my friends and to everything. And I can’t help but be excited, because at the School there will be more people to support me, people who care about me, people who know how much I’m dying inside. People who were friends with Min, like Marco, Drew, and Seth, and the girls Rowan, Paige, Jessie, and Storm. They will be able to help me, because they will actually understand in a way that no elf ever could.

A few of the elves will escort us on our journey back to the School, and stay with us there, I guess. The rest are preparing for the upcoming battle. Moving themselves to…wherever the battle is going to be, and gathering up weapons and stuff. This includes Day, but not Night. He will be coming back with us to the School.

Getting back to the School will probably be more dangerous than our journey to the elves, if that’s possible. The elves are stronger than Mercuriel thought, and after that first day she wouldn’t dare attack them directly. But once it’s just the three of us and a small group of elves, all bets are off. I’m sure there are still soldiers in the forest, just waiting for us to emerge.

While traveling, Min will be the wild card. Nobody is exactly sure how…stable he is. Sometimes, at least according to Mackenna, he seems almost normal. Well, normal like a normal person, not normal like normal Min. He still has no memories at all, which has severely altered his personality. But other times, every time I’ve seen him, he is crazy. Like actually insane, half-morphed into a wolf, not able to speak in complete sentences. The trip might push him either way, but who knows. We have no way of predicting how he will respond to it.

The morning we intend to leave, I wake early. Mackenna comes into my room, and I see my fear reflected in her eyes. She grabs my hands.

“It will be okay, I’m sure of it,” she says, but she’s biting her lip.

The jeans and t-shirt I came here in are long gone, but I can’t wear the dress I’ve been wearing with the elves any longer either. I end up with a pair of brown pants, a long shirt, and sturdy boots. From what I can see of myself, I look sort of beautiful. I wish Min could see me like this. The real Min.

Day comes to say goodbye to me. I’ve talked to her several times since that day in the hallway, and I’m sad to say goodbye to her. Maybe part of it is that I’ve had too many goodbyes lately, but I start sniffling and have to wipe my eyes on my sleeve.

I hug her, and she stiffens. She seems startled, like she’s not sure what to do, and I guess elves don’t hug a lot. But she sort of wraps her arms around me, and that’s enough.

“Good luck, Princess.”

“Yeah. You too.”

The rest of us leave. There’s Mackenna and me, and five other elves. Min has his wrists tied behind his back, and a rope connecting him to Night.

As soon as we leave the elves’ territory, Min goes wild. He thrashes and snarls, fighting to escape the ropes.

One of the elves stabs him with some sort of needle. Instantly, all the fight goes out of him. His eyelids drop. For a second I think he’ll just stay like that, docile and exhausted, but then he slumps to the ground.

Two elves catch him and carry him between them. I stay still, waiting for them to catch up to me. It’s the first time I’ve seen Min sleeping since he lost his memory. I’m startled by his…sameness. The wild struggling Min is not my Min. But this Min could still belong to me. There’s no evidence to the contrary.

But I tear myself away, because he is not my Min, and just wishing he was won’t change that. Even when he’s sleeping, he is still not my Min. I can pretend, and I can almost believe. He has the same expression, the same handsome features and silky black hair. But none of that matters, because none of that was really why I was in love with him in the first place.

Mackenna reads my sadness. She starts talking mindlessly, telling me stories from her past, our pasts together. At first I find it a welcome distraction, but then I just stop listening. I let her words flow over me.

We hike long into the night, and by the time we make camp I’m exhausted. Min has been unconscious the whole day. Mackenna has been next to me, and Night just a little bit in front. The exertion is a distraction, and any distraction is welcome. Now that I am not being chased by soldiers I can truly appreciate how beautiful the elves’ forest is, all green and sunlight, warmth where it should be winter.

But as soon as we come to a stop, I just flop down. I don’t want to help actually set up camp. I just want to sleep, and forget. I can’t seem to keep my eyes open. I can’t seem to breathe right.

I remember a time a little over a year ago now, when I was still praying that Min would notice me. When I was already desperately in love with him and he didn’t feel that way about me. I was strong then. I had to be strong, because somewhere in the twisted logic of my mind I told myself that it would make him love me back. If I kept pushing myself, if everything I did was done to the maximum, eventually he would figure out he felt the same way about me that I did about him. And it helped block out the pain. The pain of being with him and not being with him.

Later, when we were in love together, it was easier. He gave me strength, and I could be anything. He was my motivation and my determination and my final reward. And I was the same for him.

But now that is gone. He is gone. He has no strength to give me, and I have no strength to give myself. Because no matter how hard I work, it is over. I can’t tell myself that pushing myself harder will make him love me again. I can no longer bask in our combined glory. I am all alone.

In the beginning I was strong for him. And later I was strong with him. But now I have to learn how to be strong all on my own. And it is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

 

The next day I struggle to find some sort of motivation without Min. I can find my mother, maybe I can save the world. But I’ll probably die in the process anyway, so what does it matter? And what do I have to hope for once it’s all over?

I realize all of a sudden that I’m crying, and I angrily dash away my tears and then trip over a rock. For some reason, that feels like the last straw. This is all so unfair. Why does everything have to go wrong?

Night calls for a halt. He hesitates behind me, not sure what to say to comfort me. Mackenna comes over too.

“How did you do it?” I gasp.

“Do what?”

“Anything!” I want to know how she could even function after her boyfriend died.

“What are you talking about?” She wants to help me, but I’m not making sense.

“After Ryan died!” I scream, and she flinches as if I’ve struck her. Normally, no one would dare to bring it up so bluntly. “How did you survive? I…I just want to understand.”

She looks at me with a mixture of pity and her own reopened sadness. “I can’t help you,” she says.

“Why? Please, Mackenna, just tell me what you did. Just tell me what you did.”

“I didn’t love him,” she whispers. “You know that. We knew that. I liked him, more than I’ve ever liked anyone before and probably more than I’ll like anyone again for a long time. But I didn’t love him. We were just dating, we never thought we were going to grow up and get married or anything. Everyone knew that. When he died it was terrible, but I could recover because I knew it wasn’t the end.

“But you and Min aren’t like that. I don’t know if you would have gotten married, but I…I wouldn’t have been surprised. I used to think you were lucky to find true love at sixteen, but now…. I’m just not sure how to help you.” She’s crying with me now. “I miss Min too.”

Nobody really noticed, but Min has woken up while we were talking. He’s sitting up, blinking dazedly. His hands are tied in front of him. My Min would have turned into a wolf to escape the bonds, but this Min doesn’t. I’m not even sure he can.

Our eyes meet. And I realize that to both of us, our eye contact is some sort of challenge, a test of strength. His are stiff and cold, but mine are too intense. He has to look away first. I feel a moment of broken triumph. That’s the first time he’s really looked at me since he woke up.

The next days are like that, more or less, except I don’t break down again. I won’t. Something has changed inside me. Min fell in love with me because I was strong, and so strong I will be. But it’s not just that. It’s also that I’ve kind of…given up hope. And in a way, that is sort of a relief. So I walk, and I pretend to be strong but really I’m numb. I walk and I don’t feel anything.

It took us over a week to get from the edge of the woods to the elves, but it takes us only five days to get back, probably because we aren’t interrupted by soldiers who attack us and injure one of us with a spear. In fact, we don’t see any soldiers. I can’t imagine that they’re gone, so I guess they’re choosing not to attack us. Maybe we look too strong, with all those elves with us.

I breathe a sigh of relief when we finally leave the elves’ part of the forest. We’re still in the forest, but at least now it’s a normal forest instead of a magical one. I feel like I can take a deep breath for the first time in days. I always feel weird when I’m in a place completely set aside by magic like this one, especially for such a long period of time. It’s nice to be back in my own world.

Now that they’re not in the world they belong in, the elves look…different. I can’t quite put my finger on it. They look not smaller, but…less somehow. That scares me. I had thought of the elves as all-powerful. But they’re not, not really. They are powerful, certainly, but not invincible. And in the end, I don’t think anyone can ever really be powerful enough.

Not to save us.

CHAPTER 15

Once we’re not in the elves’ forest anymore, there’s no reason we should walk. I mean, we have to walk back to civilization, but after that we decide to get a rental car. Only problem is, none of us are really proficient drivers. The elves seem to know a little bit about, well, everything, even things it seems like they would have never encountered. So they know a little bit about how cars work, but not really enough to actually drive. Mackenna got about halfway through Driver’s Ed before everything became too much for her to continue, and I never even started. Honestly, the best driver among us was Min, but that’s not really an option anymore.

We end up walking to an airport over the course of a few more days. I’m reminded of right after we went on the mission to find Arden, when we walked for fifteen hours straight to avoid being attacked by Zephyra and Mercuriel. Min wasn’t with us that time, and he’s not really with us now.

The elves use magic to get us good seats on a flight to New Hampshire in two hours. I’m guessing they also use the magic to get them for free, because I don’t see any transaction of money, and I doubt the elves have any anyways. People stare at us, but I mean, we’re in an airport, so we’re not the only unusual looking people. We blend in here better than we would probably anywhere else.

It’s time for our flight, and we all stand up and go to the gate. Min has been relatively calm this whole time, so while Night and another elf have hands on each of his shoulders, he’s not actually restrained or anything. He walks passively, his head down, un-alert. Very un-Min-like.

“Hey,” Mackenna says. “Are you okay?” I guess I look pretty out of it, even more so than usual.

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

“It’s going to get better. Liz will know what to do. She always knows what to do. She’ll help him. She’ll make it okay. She’ll….”

“Mackenna,” I interrupt. “I’m fine, seriously. I’m just…I’m fine.”

And I am, sort of. It’s just that being on a plane is making me think of all the other times I’ve been on planes. Not of Min, exactly, but just that I was always returning from danger to safety, and this time it’s the other way around. Being with the elves was almost like a time-out from life, a place where I could rest and try to recover. But once I get back to the School, everything is back on. I can’t pretend the war isn’t happening, and I have to be ready to face it head on. I need to be the strongest version of myself, except even stronger and without Min by my side. I don’t know how I’ll do it.

But then I look over at Mackenna, and I have a sudden, very keen sense of how much she means to me. She never fails me or goes back on me or doesn’t trust me or doesn’t love me. She is worth everything. I want to hug her or something, because without her help I’m sure I would be dead by now.

“Hey,” I say suddenly. “I love you. You know that, right?”

She looks a little confused. “Um, yeah. I love you too. As a friend.”

We give the lady our tickets, and she smiles at us and tells us to have a nice flight. Then we walk through the tunnel and our footsteps echo even though the ground is carpet, and all I can hear is the rushing of air and the rolling of suitcase wheels.

And then all of a sudden Min freezes. “No,” he says, pulling backward. He starts bucking and writhing, struggling backward. He ends up pinned against the wall, breathing hard, eyes wild.

“No,” he yells again. “No. No.”

“What’s wrong with him?” I scream, my voice high and worried. Because for once he is not trying to get to me, to hurt or attack anyone, as far as I can tell. Instead he’s twisting away from….

“The plane,” I breathe. And then louder, “The plane!”

Everything comes back to me in a furious rush that leaves me gasping. I can’t believe I forgot before. I remember going to Costa Rica when he was so panicked I was worried he wouldn’t be able to come, when I had to sit next to him and talk to him and he had to squeeze his eyes closed tight. He’s terrified of planes.

“He’s scared,” I tell the elves.

“Of what?”

“Of the plane! He’s scared of planes!”

Mackenna gasps too, and I can tell she remembers. Her eyes widen, and we both look at him, the familiar, frightened expression in his eyes, the way he twists in fear, almost shaking.

“He’s…afraid of planes?” Night asks.

“Yeah. Because he was in a plane crash, a few years ago. It was really bad, and he almost died. When we went to Costa Rica last year, he was almost too scared to come.”

All of a sudden, the significance of this hits me. Min wasn’t born afraid of planes, it’s not really a phobia. He had a bad experience with planes, and that’s why he’s afraid. Fear of planes is not an intrinsic part of him, it’s something formed by his past, by his memories.

The memories that I thought were gone.

“Mackenna,” I almost yell, grabbing her shoulders. “Mackenna, do you know what that means?”

“Um, no?” She’s still looking at him out of the corner of her eye, looking a little unsettled.

“It means he’s still there, somewhere. Some of him at least.” I’m still talking way too loud for the claustrophobic tunnel leading to the airplane. People are starting to stare. There’s me, panting with excitement, and the elves, looking too regal and powerful to be real, pinning Min up against the wall. But for once I don’t care. I don’t care about anything, except the fact that Min isn’t gone, not completely.

Mackenna’s eyes widen, and only someone who knows her very well could tell that it means she’s too shocked for words. She glances over at him, at the tawny eyes that look like Min’s but don’t hold the same expressions.

If Min is still afraid of planes, that means he hasn’t been erased, like I thought, but instead he’s been suppressed, buried beneath a new, imagined life. But if he’s not gone, than I can get him back. Whatever it takes.

The plane ride seems impossibly long. I’m practically bouncing up and down, and I won’t stop talking. I’m sitting next to Mackenna, and I’m sure I’m driving her insane, but she knows better than to try to make me shut up. I feel filled up with something, helium maybe, and I just can’t contain the thought that maybe I can save Min.

Every sign of anxiety he shows over the course of the ride fills me with joy. During take-off he clutches his seat tightly, and closes his eyes. His eyes stay closed for most of it, his muscles rigid, tensing against the safety belt. The sight is so familiar from the flight to Costa Rica, and it makes me want to cry. I’m not sure if they’re tears of pain for a lost, easier time, or tears of joy for the chance to get it back again.

Finally, finally, I manage to fall asleep, and I stay like that for the rest of the ride back. I jolt awake when the plane lands. It’s starting to get dark, light glimmering just at the edge of the horizon like a slender border between night and day.

I get off the plane with Mackenna, looking anxiously back for Min. Now that I know there’s a chance he could still be inside, it’s even harder to comprehend the fact that the old Min is still hidden, gone from me. In fact, after getting off the plane, I fully expect my Min to be there, having emerged while I slept.

So of course, as soon as I see him, I walk over to him like an idiot. Immediately, he snarls like a wolf and lunges at me. I uppercut him without hesitating, and he stumbles backward, a bruise already blooming on his jaw. Night grabs his shoulders, then turns him around and wrenches his hands behind his back. I really hope the elves are using magic or something, because otherwise the airport police will probably arrest us for fighting.

“Don’t go near him,” Night yells at me. I reel backward, pain snagging in my throat. “He’s the same as he was before. He’ll kill you.”

My chest tightens. I am very sharply reminded that even though Min may still be in there, it doesn’t mean he’s in control. Just because my Min’s memories may still exist, doesn’t mean I’ll ever get them back.

 

CHAPTER 16

I resolve to be strong, whatever that means, and that resolution lasts me a little while. Eventually my strength turns to numbness, a numbness that is closer to exhaustion than any real sadness anymore. The numbness lasts me too, for the several hours until we get back to School.

And then we’re back at the School, and it doesn’t matter anymore whether I’m strong or numb, it’s all unnecessary. Because at least now there will be more people to help hold me up.

“Aubrey!” Liz yells when she sees me, running to me. “How did it go?”

And then the elves start emerging from the rental car that Mackenna ended up driving us the rest of the way home in. She stares openly at them, and I guess they do look pretty cool, human and yet not quite human at the same time.

For the first time I realize that, technically, our mission was successful. Our goal was to alert the elves to our situation and get them to help us, and we did. The elves will be fighting with us now. We did it. We suffered a big loss, but we did, after all, succeed.

“I’m so glad you all made it back okay,” Liz says, smiling with relief. And I don’t know how to tell her. But Mackenna is beside me, so I guess I don’t have to. She can. And does. She tells Liz everything, with some help from the elves. Not from me. I don’t talk.

I can tell instantly how much it hurts her. We are all her children, Min and Mackenna and Rowan and Storm and Marco and everyone else at the School, as much as Paige and Lily are. She doesn’t want to see any of us get hurt. She wants to be able to protect us all.

They let Min out of the car last, and any sign of the old Min that I saw or thought I saw, is either gone or hidden now. He snarls at me, and probably would have attacked me if an elf and a teacher hadn’t been holding him back. Eventually they have no choice but to chain his hands. I turn away and Mackenna puts a hand on my shoulder.

Later I hear that Min is in an empty room, chained to the bed but free to move around other than that. Liz asks if I want to visit him. I say no, not because I’m afraid, not because I’m sad, but because I’m trying to forget. Or, not forget exactly, but move on. There are other pieces of my life, pieces that I’ve been forgetting about. I am not defined by Min.

So when Liz starts experimenting on him, or, with him, I guess, I don’t really help. It’s not that I’ve given up on him, or that I don’t care. I channel that energy into getting stronger, running faster, learning new uses for my magic. Mackenna helps with Min, but she spends a lot of time with me too.

The problem is, Liz’s ideas are working no better than the elves’ were. Min is just as crazy and empty and not Min as he was before.

I start reading books for fun, which is something I’ve never really done as a habit. I’m doing it frantically, desperately. I’m escaping into a world of someone else’s problems, the only way I can forget about my own. I read everything that crosses my path.

Everyone else in the School tries to be kind to me and treat me gently. All the girls my age hang out with me as much as possible, trying to ensure I’m never alone with my thoughts. Lily is sweet to me as always, and I spend a lot of time with her too.

I do visit Min once, about a week after we get back to the School. He’s sitting on the bed in the plain, first-floor bedroom, his manacled hands clinking mournfully behind him.

“Go away,” he says. He doesn’t sound like he’s trying to be cruel though, he sounds…sad. “I….” He closes his eyes, takes a few deep breaths. “I don’t want to hurt you.” He almost sounds sincere, almost like the old Min. And I want to go to him, and hold him, and tell him everything will be okay.

But the thing is, there’s no way for me to know if he’s telling the truth. He could really not want to hurt me. He could really be learning to control himself. Or he could want me closer to the bed, so he can jump out and strangle me.

I notice his eyes are very wide, pupils dark, almost swallowing up the caramel irises.

Despite everything, I find myself drawn toward the bed. He looks so broken, and I naturally want to comfort him. He still [_looks _]like Min, and he sounds so sincere and sad. I reach out a careful hand to try to touch his shoulder. It’s going to work this time. I don’t know if he’ll be completely back, but at least some of him will be, it has to. Something they’re doing must be working, he looks better. Safer, happier, more like the Min I remember.

And then, suddenly, he’s lunging at me, almost tearing his chains out of the wall.

“I’ll kill you!” he screams. “I’ll escape, and I’ll kill you! And there’s nothing you can do!”

I gasp and stumble back against the wall. He’s still screaming at me like a lunatic, his eyes wild. I sink down the wall and fight to hold back tears. He keeps trying to reach me, even though he’s ripping apart his wrists in the process.

“Min, stop! Min, please.”

“Don’t call me that,” he growls, and in that second he looks so feral that I am truly frightened.

I feel for the doorknob and turn it, not taking my eyes off him. Fear is making my breath catch in my throat. I back my way out, and then once I’m clear of the door I start running.

I thought maybe I would feel better seeing him, but I don’t. I feel depressed. I resolve not to visit him again.

Later that night, Liz comes into my room. “I’m sorry that seeing Min didn’t work out for you today,” she says softly.

I don’t say anything, just roll over to the other side of the bed. I pull the pillow on top of my head. I don’t have the energy to respond to her.

“How are you doing?” she asks me.

I don’t respond again. Just groan.

“Aubrey, I know you’re really, really unhappy. But you can’t just stay up here all the time. You need to be exercising, and…and eating, and spending more time with people in places that aren’t your bedroom. You need to…carry on. Keep going. Aubrey, your life isn’t over. We need you with us.”

“You don’t understand!” I practically scream at Liz. I am suddenly furious, at her insensitivity, her lack of understanding, “You don’t get it. I am in love with him. How am I supposed to just…carry on when he’s like this? I can’t. It’s just…not possible. You wouldn’t get it.”

“What do you mean?” Her voice is very calm, and something about that rubs me the wrong way. She should be angry too, she should be furious, she should feel like her heart is breaking, she should be dying inside because I am. I almost want her to be mad, just so I can fight with her and have something to do other than cry over Min. Just so I can know she understands.

“What do you mean, what do I mean?” I say, trying to inject venom into my voice, to make her feel guilty for pushing me. Then I realize how stupid what I just said must have sounded. That makes me even more pissed off.

“Why did you say I don’t understand? What makes you think I wouldn’t understand?”

“You were never in love,” I say dismissively. “I mean, you were in the adult kind of love, but that’s different. That’s easier to lose.”

Liz sucks in a sharp breath, and I realize I’ve crossed a line. “Do not say that,” she says, her voice low and dangerous. She’s definitely angry, but not in the way I wanted her to be. She’s not yelling, distracting me, instead she is freezing me from the inside out. “Do not say that to me. Never say that I have not lost. I have lost more than you know.”

I try to recover. “I know you’ve lost a lot. And that sucks. I’m just saying it’s not quite the same. I mean, your husband died sixteen years ago. It can’t hurt the same amount now as it did then. And I’m only sixteen. I don’t have the…the barriers or whatever set up, I am not yet strong enough to survive losing someone I love. I just…haven’t learned enough yet, or whatever.”

“Losing someone you love makes you strong. It makes you hard in a way nothing else does. You know nothing of that, not really, not yet.” Her voice is still diamond-hard, edged with steel.

“Oh, um, yeah. Okay.”

“I met my husband when I was fifteen. Younger than you and Min are now.”

“How did you meet?” The truth is, I’ve always been curious about Liz and her husband. She very rarely talks about him, and I would never press her. But I know next to nothing about him, I’ve never even seen a picture of him, even though he’s Paige’s father.

“At school. It was love at first sight, or as close as it ever comes in real life. We started dating within a month of meeting each other. I was a lot like you back then. Selfless, optimistic, afraid. He was…not very much like me. We complimented each other. His magic was rock. And he was…fearless. Impulsive. He didn’t always follow the rules, but he was always very kind.”

Like Min.

Liz stops talking. She looks sad, suddenly, impossibly sad. It is written in her eyes, the line of her mouth, the stoop of her shoulders, everything about her. How did I not notice before? How could I never have seen that she had suffered as much as I had?

“And then what happened?”

She hesitates. “We got married as soon as we graduated high school. We were so in love, we didn’t want to wait. It was a very small ceremony, only our closest friends. Mackenna’s father did the ceremony, actually. He was a close friend of my husband’s brother.

She looks tired. But not just tired like she needs sleep, tired like she needs rest, tired like she needs something to give, something to be over. “We couldn’t afford much for the wedding. I didn’t even have a dress. He wore a suit of his father’s. It was outside, in a field. We didn’t buy flowers, so we asked each of our friends to bring a bouquet. None of them matched. But it…it didn’t matter. It was beautiful. It was all we wanted.

“Paige was born when we were still living in an apartment, near the school we had both attended. I didn’t move up here until after…after he was gone.

“He was with us to celebrate Paige’s second birthday, I remember that. That was one of my last memories of him. It is my last picture of him. He’s next to Paige, and I’m on the other side. We’re both looking at her, and she has a cake in front of her, and she hasn’t blown the candles out yet. We looked very…happy there. Very normal, a real family, anybody’s family. I could see how much he loved her. He was a good dad. He…he would have been a good dad.

“By that point, by Paige’s second birthday, the war had already started. It had been going on for six months, maybe. But you have to understand, nobody really believed in it. Nobody really knew what it meant.” Her voice is all of a sudden very quiet. It’s not intense though, or sad, or anything really. It’s completely emotionless, like a robot voice, like a dead voice.

“That was when the attacks started. Nobody was expecting them. He told me to come up here to New Hampshire. He had been born here, after all. His family was up here, not his parents or brother, but his whole extended family, his parents’ parents. He figured we would be safer there, in relative isolation, right next to one of the earliest magic schools in the country.

“He left a week before I was supposed to, and that was the last time I ever saw him. He and his brother were killed, in a brutal attack by a small group of soldiers, only two days before I was supposed to see him again. We never even found his body. There was so much blood there, so there must…not have been much of him left.

“I didn’t know what to do. I already had a job and a house waiting for me in New Hampshire. My husband’s parents were still here waiting for me, needing me more than ever. There was nothing left for me anyway, no point in staying, so I came up to New Hampshire and took the job at the School that had already been set up for me. I lived in the house my husband and I had picked out together, I began to raise the daughter we had made together, by myself. I put back together the life that had been shattered without him, and I survived it. I survived the terrible pain, and the loneliness, and the hopelessness. I was broken without him, but I didn’t give up.”

For a few long minutes, she doesn’t say anything. Then, finally, she takes a deep breath and starts to speak again. “So I do know, Aubrey. I know what it is like to be separated from someone you love. I know what it is like to be separated from someone you love at a very young age, when you have your entire lives together ahead of you. But I also know what it is like to carry on. I [know _]how hard it is, Aubrey.[ ]But I also know that you have to survive, and that you _can. You can make it, Aubrey.”

I nod, still slightly in shock from the overwhelming amount of information I have just received. I have no idea what to say, how to respond. I feel like I can’t exactly continue to talk about myself, and my own misery, after what she shared. I don’t know if I should try to offer sympathy, or ask more questions, or what. I…I still can’t believe that Liz has basically been my mother for the past year and a half and this is the first time I’m hearing any of this.

“Thanks,” I finally say. “Thank you for telling me this.”

“I just,” she pauses, “I thought it was time for you to know.”

CHAPTER 17

The next morning I don’t really feel like getting up. Liz’s words are still echoing around in my head, her and her young husband, just like me and Min, his harsh, tragic death. I hear her telling me that I have to be strong. And the truth is, I want that. I want to be strong. But I don’t entirely remember how.

I reach for the book that’s now always on my bedside table. I open up to the place I left off, but it’s just not engaging me. I wander aimlessly around the third floor. Mackenna is at her father’s house, and I’m lonely.

I go outside and run a couple laps, until the running feels too hard and I can’t bring myself to do it anymore. I sit idly in the middle of the track for a while. I know I should probably get up, but I just can’t bring myself to. It seems like too much work.

I watch the clouds roll overhead for a little while, and I focus on my breathing. Breathing always feels like more work now than I remember. So does moving.

I stare down at my hands. I’m not really taking them in. My eyes just need a place to focus that doesn’t require any effort, and that is the natural best choice. My chest feels hollow, my whole body feels hollow. I don’t know how to do this anymore.

I don’t think I’m strong enough after all.

And the truth is, it’s not just the thing with Min either. It’s that, but it’s also the fact that I killed Ryan, that Mackenna is having just as hard of a time as I am. That this giant responsibility rests on my shoulders, and it never, never lets up. It’s been more than a year since I could look down at myself and know that I was truly free. I am shackled to a burden that is too heavy for a sixteen year old girl, that no one person deserves. I don’t want that burden anymore. I am too tired for it. I just need a break, a vacation from my life. I just need to go a little while without some other giant thing going wrong. I just need a little time to rest.

It takes a very long time for me to muster enough energy to stand. I do finally, though, and I walk with slow dragging steps back up to my bedroom. I figure I’ll take a nap. Sleep is about the closest to a break that I get.

But before I get to my room, I hear a door open behind me. I stop for a second, but don’t turn around. It feels like too much work.

“Aubrey.” It’s Storm’s voice, I’m pretty sure. I still don’t turn. She waits politely for a few seconds for me to start a conversation. I don’t.

“Um, is it okay if I talk to you for a minute?”

I do turn around now, lethargically. I can tell that my appearance surprises Storm a little bit. I know I must have dark circles under my eyes, I know I haven’t brushed my hair in a few days. She hides her surprise quickly though.

“Yeah,” I say, not smiling, “we can talk.” I feel heavy and thick, lonely, but without the energy to actually start a conversation.

She seems sort of urgent, her movements fast but somehow unsure. “I’ve been thinking,” she says, “about Min.”

“What about him?” I am not in the mood for a Min conversation. Please not another one.

“Well, I’m kind of an expert on poisons….” Immediately she looks around, as if afraid someone in the empty hallway has overheard her. She’s always uncomfortable talking about her past in Tempeste’s army. Then she stares at me, waiting for me to judge her, to reject her idea because it came from her soldier past.

I nod at her, encouraging her to go on.

“And if the poison was designed to brainwash him….” She trails off again, too anxious about my response. Too self-conscious and unsure.

“What?” I prompt her.

“And then I was thinking that the poison probably wasn’t designed for him.”

“Would it make a difference who it was designed for?”

She stares at me. “Yes,” she says, like it’s a really stupid question. I decide just to let her continue.

“The poison was probably pretty generic, designed to target either elves or humans. So it wasn’t designed to take his memories, exactly.”

“Yeah, I know. It just replaced them with other memories, with another life as a soldier.”

“No,” she says again. I think she’s getting agitated that I don’t understand what she’s getting at. “The point of the fake memories wasn’t to make Min think he was a soldier. It was to give Min a reason to try to kill you, without wiping everything and making him physically incapable of doing it. They wouldn’t have wanted to make him…amnesiac, that’s too touchy and risky. He might have forgotten how to talk or walk or fight or something. So…I guess, the goal of the poison was to get Min to kill you, without needing to take away all his memories. The only goal. So I think that if he were to think you were dead, to really and truly believe it, the poison would stop affecting him.”

“But…but I can’t die.”

“I didn’t say you needed to die,” she whispers. “I said he needed to think you did.”

CHAPTER 18

Liz hands me a tiny vial full of clear liquid. “Here,” she says. “Min’s not stupid, so it needs to be realistic. The poison will actually affect you, but we have the antidote here. You have five minutes to try to get through to him, and then we have to get you out. During those five minutes, the poison will slow your heartbeat, and you won’t be able to focus as well toward the end. You will need to go fast. And if anything…happens, we’ll be right here. We’ll be watching you the whole time.”

I examine the tiny bottle in my hands. It’s glass, with a cork stopper. It’s so small that it can’t hold more than a few swallows. The liquid inside is clear and thin. It might as well be water.

Storm designed it, as well as the antidote. Liz felt awful for asking her to do it, but we didn’t have another choice. Nobody on our side knows how to use poisons, not like she does. It took her maybe an hour to make them, and afterward she spent an hour throwing up. I know making them, going back into the side of her she thought she had left behind, made her feel awful. It made her feel like she was Tempeste’s again.

I start to uncork the bottle and drink it, but Liz stops me. “Wait. The symptoms of the poison will come on fast. Go inside first.”

I nod, then slowly walk inside. Min is sitting on the bed. His eyes are sunken and shadowy, so they don’t even look like his own. He’s tense and wary. When he sees me, he gets off the bed and starts stalking toward me, pacing back and forth.

I’m not a very good actress, so I’m not really sure how this will work. But I have to try. There’s too much at stake for me not to.

“You’ve won.” My voice cracks with real emotion. Seeing him makes me want him so badly I almost can’t take it. “I give up. I can’t do this anymore. This is the end. You win.”

He just blinks at me, completely silent and still. I wait for any sort of reaction from him, but none is coming. I start to raise the bottle, but my hands are shaking with a mixture of fear and sharp desperate hope.

Please, please let this work. This is the last hope. If this doesn’t work I…don’t think I could handle it.

In one smooth motion, I uncork the bottle and drain its contents.

Min started out watching me, curious to know what I would say, but now that I’m done talking he springs forward. He’s handcuffed to the wall, and the chains wrench him sharply backward. He can get several feet away from the bed, but he can’t reach me.

The poison tastes like water too, and for a second I’m worried there was a mix-up and this is only water after all. But when I swallow, the back of my throat starts to burn, so fiercely that my eyes tear up.

Min is confused. What I have just done is so out of character for me that he can’t quite figure out what it means. I just keep looking at him, trying desperately to keep eye contact as he pulls harshly at his chains.

All of a sudden, a wave of dizziness washes over me. I drop to my knees, pressing my hands into my eyes. I’m struggling to even stay kneeling, to not just give up and lie on the floor. It’s hitting faster than I expected, already I feel it aching though my veins.

Min has stopped pulling at his chains. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. A very real part of his identity, his old identity at least, was to help people in trouble, even if he didn’t know them. The poison has erased that, but imperfectly. He keeps starting forward and the pausing, as if he’s forgotten what he intended to do.

When he finally lunges toward me, I’m not sure if it’s to help or hurt me. I don’t even think he knows. But it doesn’t matter. The manacles hold him back. He can’t get to me.

I allow myself to fold in half. My entire body is burning, pins and needles but way more painful. There’s a trail of fire going down my throat. I don’t think either Storm or Liz knew the poison would hurt this badly. Otherwise they wouldn’t have given it to me.

“Aubrey,” he says, and it’s the first time he’s said my name since he lost his memory. His eyes are focused. Not quite his own, but almost. “Tell me how I can help you.”

But then the other part of him kicks in, and he tries to reach out his arms and grab at me. He growls low in his throat. The handcuffs around his wrists slide back to reveal twin bands of bloody skin.

The world spins. Somehow I’m completely on the ground now. I’m still burning. Burning and dizzy. I lay my head against the floor.

Min’s eyes are changing. I can’t pinpoint what the difference is exactly, but I can tell. It’s the difference between the Min with his memories and the Min with the fake ones, the old Min and the new Min. My Min and this Min.

I touch my head, which feels thick and heavy and tender. “Ow,” I whisper. This better either work or end, because I think the poison is killing me. I don’t care though. Everything feels strangely detached. Please, I just want to be able to save Min.

Min pulls at the chains again, winces as they press into the raw wounds on his wrists. His shoulders are wrenched behind him. He drops to his knees.

My burning chest seems to have stopped working. My breath catches. I squirm on the ground, trying to relieve the agony somehow.

Min is very close to me. He’s still fighting, his eyes still flickering back and forth. He’s so close to me, I could reach out and touch him. And suddenly, I want to.

He’s not Min anymore, and he growls and tries again to reach me. Then he slumps in his chains as a bit more of my Min returns. His back arches and he groans.

“No. I didn’t want this,” he whispers. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t even think he’s talking to me.

My Min returns again, briefly. The kind Min, the Min I love, is stronger now. And I make an incredibly impulsive, split-second decision.

I crawl forward, and with the world spinning and my entire body burning, I yank myself upward and kiss him on the mouth.

He starts to kiss me back, and I gasp. But then he stiffens. He tenses up and pulls away. I can feel him shaking, writhing, and then he collapses. Then the poison overwhelms me, and I collapse too.

CHAPTER 19

Liz is shaking me. My head lolls. I can blink a little bit and see her, but I can’t seem to respond.

“Aubrey!” she yells, slapping me. “Wake up!” I see that she’s crying, tears streaming down her face like rain.

Fear courses through me. Does she think I’m dead? Am I dead, or dying? I can’t move. What’s going on? I wrench my eyes open and sit up in the same moment. Liz gasps and hugs me, then begins crying again in earnest.

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I’m fine.” This is only half-true, I still feel sick from the poison. Everything feels fake, sort of, like this isn’t real life. The floor seems to be spinning. But at least I’m not dying anymore.

“No,” she whispers. “It’s Min….”

I catch sight of him. He is lying completely spread eagle on the floor. Limp and still. Not moving at all. His chest isn’t rising and falling. People are leaning over him, other teachers, but there’s nothing they can do.

My chest constricts. I can breathe. I feel like I’ve fallen and had the breath knocked out of me. Or no, I feel like I’m still falling. The whole world has dropped out from under me, and now I have nothing to hold onto at all.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” It just slips out, but as soon as I say it guilt crashes over me. I feel like that sentence is a massive betrayal, after all we’ve been through together. Too quick of a dismissal of his life.

I try to stand and go to him, but my legs physically will not support my weight. Liz is answering me, trying to comfort me, but her words fall on dead ears.

His eyes are closed, almost like he’s sleeping. But you can see the rise and fall of a sleeping person’s chest. A sleeping person has a heartbeat. I close my eyes and count to three. When I open them, this will all go away. This won’t be happening. This can’t be happening.

I open my eyes, and of course everything is exactly the same as it was before. I can’t breathe again. No. No, no, no.

I crawl over so I’m next to him. Amity tries to pull me away, but I push her back with magic. I’m not even thinking about it, but she goes flying across the room. I ignore her. I am completely focused on Min.

I lean over him and grab his hand. I’m crying. This is slightly surprising, considering how much I’ve cried in the past few weeks. I shouldn’t have any tears left. Why do I still have tears?

His face is very still, peaceful almost. For some reason, this angers me. I want to shake him, to grab him by the shoulders and make him react. But at the same time, I don’t really want to move him. If he is finally peaceful, then I guess he can stay that way.

So instead, I scream. At first it’s his name. Just Min, over and over again. But then it’s wordless, a universal song of pain. A cry for help. I rock back and forth, cradling myself, still holding Min’s hand.

Disbelief washes up over me. I’m choking on it, and I must be falling. I must be dying. I cling to Min’s hand like a drowning person.

I’m crying and gasping, screaming that this can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. I squeeze Min’s hand as hard as I can and he squeezes back. I can’t seem to catch my breath. I close my eyes because I can’t look at his still face anymore. I’m sinking and alone, and nothing can ever go back.

Wait. Is that my imagination, or did Min just squeeze my hand? The hope balloons up in my chest before I can stop it. I don’t dare look at his hand, because what if I’m imagining it? The hope feels good and I don’t want to kill it. I don’t want to be falling again.

But I can’t hide forever. I blink my eyes open and look at our hands. His fingers are wrapped around mine.

“Min?” My voice is small and questioning. I look at his face just as his copper eyes open and lock on me. My heart explodes.

“Aubrey?” He looks dizzy and a little confused. “Are you okay? What happened?”

His voice has lost the cold edge I’ve almost become accustomed to. But I have to be sure.

“Min,” I whisper. “Is that you?”

He sits up and kisses me. And that is all the answer I need.

“Oh Min,” I whisper, my hand still wrapped around his. “Don’t scare me like that.”

I’m still crying. Not hard, just a few tears slipping down my cheeks. I am so full-up of so much emotion that it needs to leak out my eyes. I want it to stop. It’s blurring my vision, and I need to be looking at Min.

He sits up and tries to hold me, but he’s still a little too weak. He slips and falls backward, so we switch. I hold him. He doesn’t cry, but I can see he’s upset. He buries his head in my shoulder and I hold him tight to me.

“What do you remember?” I ask him.

“All of it. Everything that happened. The spear, the elves, all of it. Everything I said, everything I did. I hurt you so badly. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I’m just glad to have you back.”

I don’t let go of his hand. He needs help getting to his feet, but once he’s there he seems pretty steady. He starts to take a step and stumbles, but me and the wall support him. There’s a heavy clink, and I realize his hands are still chained.

“Does anyone have the keys to these?” For some reason, I’m still screaming.

“I think they’re in the desk in my office,” Liz says calmly. “Let me get them.”

“No!” I yell. “He’s not a prisoner. He shouldn’t be in chains. I’ll…I’ll blast them off with magic if I have to!” I yank on the chains, and Min winces in pain when they press into the bloody skin on his wrists.

“Oh Min, I’m so sorry….”

“Aubrey,” Liz says gently, “if you blast the chains off with magic, you could further injure his wrists. Let me get the key.”

I nod. “Be back as quick as you can.”

I keep holding onto Min’s hand. If it was up to me, I would never let go. I would keep holding onto Min forever. His hand is warm and dry and just the right size for mine. Maybe it will be up to me now. Maybe I won’t ever, ever have to let go.

Liz comes back quickly with the key. She starts to unlock the handcuffs, but I take it from her and do it myself, all without letting go of Min’s hand. The cuffs fall away, and he gasps with relief. His wrists are a mess of raw skin and blood and pus, looking even worse now that they’re not partially covered by metal.

I touch one gently. “Does that hurt?” I ask. He shakes his head but pulls away.

“I’m fine,” he whispers. “It’s not very bad.”

I can almost feel his shame. He is guilty and embarrassed that he had to be chained to the wall like an animal. So he wouldn’t hurt anyone. But it wasn’t his fault. Of course it wasn’t. I gently squeeze the hand that I’m still holding tight to.

Someone, not Liz, hands me cloths and bandages. I do have to let go of his hands to gently clean the wounds, and then apply antibiotic creams and bandages. He winces in pain if I bump them too hard, but they look better, more manageable, under the clean, neat bandages.

“I’m hungry,” he says, and I laugh because it’s such a Min thing to say. He’s back. I say it to myself over and over again, because I almost can’t believe it. He’s back.

Liz says she’ll start making a meal. She leaves, and not even a minute has gone by when Mackenna bursts in.

“Min!” she yells, and throws herself at him. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

She hugs him hard, and he embraces her hesitatingly back. She looks ecstatic, and he does too, although he also looks tired.

“Whoa. Are you okay?” Mackenna asks him. He’s swaying a little bit, and his eyelids keep lowering and snapping back up.

He nods and then steadies himself on a chair.

“Sit down,” I say, and he turns and collapses into it. His eyelids flutter a few times and then close. I don’t know if he’s asleep or unconscious.

Once his tawny eyes are shut, I can’t stop watching him. I’m irrationally afraid that all of a sudden he’ll die. I measure each rise and fall of his chest with my eyes. If it stops, I’ll be ready. Ready to…do something to save him. Ready to take drastic action, whatever sort of action is necessary. I will not let him die again. While I am here, nothing will hurt him.

Liz comes in saying she has dinner ready for us. I shake Min once and he wakes up immediately. Asleep then.

I grab his hand because I want to be touching him. Then the three of us trail behind Liz to the kitchen.

It’s a bit hard for Min and I to eat without letting go of each other, but we manage. There are other students and teachers in the kitchen staring at us, but they don’t matter. All that matters is that Min is back, that his tawny eyes are his own, that he says my name like he means it and remembers our first kiss. The fact that lots of people are staring at us or that he still looks like he could fall asleep at any moment, or that his wrists are swathed in white bandages are all insignificant. They don’t matter.

Once dinner is over, there’s a problem. Because Min has to sleep, and there is no way I’m going to be separated from him for even one second. Liz tries to pry me gently away from him, but I kick her only half on accident, and no one else dares touch me. Finally, they say we can both sleep in Min’s bedroom.

I’ve been in Min’s bedroom once before, and it looks about the same. But no one’s been in here for a month, and it doesn’t have the lived-in feel that it did before. The bed is made just a little too perfectly, there’s a thin coat of dust over everything.

“You can take the bed,” Min says. Somehow, Min had arranged to have a bedroom all to himself, and the other bed is gone.

“No. You need it more than I do.”

He doesn’t argue with me. He’s too exhausted to. It must be hard to sleep chained to a wall, searching for memories that just aren’t there, with everyone angry at you for something that really isn’t your fault.

It suddenly occurs to me that we could sleep in the same bed. And I want that, badly. To fall asleep wrapped up in his arms, to wake up that way too. But tonight is not the night. I want that, but it is not the right time for Min. He needs sleep, real sleep, time to recover and figure out who he is again. And that’s the thing about being in a relationship. It’s not all about you.

Min throws me a pillow and a blanket, and I lay them on the ground. He gets into the bed and I flip the light switch off. Moonlight streams through the window so I can still see his outline.

I think he’s asleep, but then he turns over to face me. The moon doesn’t really make the room much lighter, but I know with our animal vision he can see me as well as I can see him.

“Goodnight, Aubrey,” he says. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Min.”

And then his breathing goes deep and even. I watch him as I did when he was sleeping in the chair, but this time I’m not afraid for him. Instead, I am filled up with love. I’m so glad he’s back. When I fall asleep, I’m truly content for the first time in weeks.

CHAPTER 20

I wake up before him. I smile. I just slept the whole night in the same room as Min. I mean, we’ve slept in the same tent, cave, or back of a car, but never together in an actual bedroom. It feels more intimate, and somehow more important. Also, it was the first time there weren’t other people with us.

I’m only awake for about ten minutes when Min wakes up. He looks much better. The shadows under his eyes have faded, and his coloring is almost normal. When he gets up I see his usual grace has returned, and he is perfectly balanced again.

He’s beautiful, and I stand up to kiss him. He wraps his arms around me, and he is steady and strong like he was before. Our lips meet, and then the door bursts open.

It’s Liz. She blinks at us. Clearly not expecting to walk in on us kissing. She looks a little confused, passes a hand over her eyes.

“Oh, um….” She trails off. I think she’s trying to decide if she should yell at us or not.

We shouldn’t be in trouble, obviously. There’s no law against kissing. We are dating, after all.

“When you’re done with…that, I have a few questions for Min. Can the two of you come down to my office?” She pauses like she’s about to say something else, but thinks better of it and leaves, closing the door behind her.

Min pulls away from me. “We should go down there.”

“One second.”

I reach out and hug him. We don’t even kiss or anything, just wrap each other in our arms. It’s not even romantic, exactly, more like drawing strength and comfort from each other, an acknowledgement that we’re so close that touching is necessary. And then, without another word, we turn and go down the stairs.

Liz is waiting for us in her office. I blush a little when I see her. I feel vaguely like I’ve done something wrong, but I know, technically, that I haven’t.

Min is all business. As usual, he can put his emotions aside and focus on the actually important things when it’s necessary. “What questions do you have for me?” He pauses. “And can I have breakfast?” I guess getting three meals a day is one of the most important things too.

“Here.” Liz, always prepared, hands us both a muffin and a banana, and Min starts eating quickly. She gives him time to finish before asking him anything.

“What do you remember?” she asks once she sees that he’s done.

“Everything,” he says immediately.

“Do you remember being hit by the spear?”

He nods. “Some of it is a little hard until we got to the elves. I think I had a fever. And I passed out a few times. But I remember most of it.”

“Do you remember being with the elves? What was that like?”

He grimaces. “Weird. Not the elves, they were fine. But I could feel that I didn’t have my memories. Like, I had the knowledge of what I was supposed to do, but not the reason behind it. And I could feel that they were missing. But I could keep looking and looking for them and they weren’t there.”

“And were there other, fake memories in their place? What was that like?”

“Sort of,” he says. “I felt like I was one of Mercuriel’s soldiers. I really thought I was, at first. But after a while I started realizing that those memories were false, somehow, that they didn’t quite seem to be complete. Like I could remember being in a camp with the other soldiers, but not anything about getting hurt or getting captured by the elves. I could sort of remember some training, and someone telling me that I had to kill Aubrey. But I couldn’t remember like my friends, or my family, or my childhood, or anything. It was freaky.

“After a while those memories did start to fade though, a little. I still…I still wanted to kill Aubrey, I guess my other self was trained to think that that was the most important thing. I still couldn’t remember anything about my real life. But I could remember that I [_had _]a real life. I remembered…remembering, I guess, I just didn’t have those memories anymore. I think that’s when some of my personality came back. But it wasn’t really enough. I was still…overwhelmed by whatever Mercuriel’s poison did to me. I couldn’t break free. I still…I still knew I had to kill the Princess.

“But then, yesterday, seeing Aubrey…I…I thought she was dead. And that…snapped me out of it, I guess. I don’t know how. But it made me come back to myself.”

Liz nods. “It was Storm’s idea. She told us that the purpose of the poison was not necessarily to implant false memories, but to force you to kill Aubrey. So she reasoned that after seeing Aubrey dead, there would be no purpose for the false memories at all, and they would fall away. It seems she was right. Although it seems to have been really hard on your body, it almost killed you.”

“Why?” he asks. He mostly just sounds curious, a little anxious, maybe.

“I’m not completely sure. I think as your real memories came back, it was too much for your brain. It just shut down. You were really pretty close to dying, but I guess your body ended up being able to repair itself.”

“Aubrey saved me,” he says confidently. “She grabbed my hand. That’s the first thing I remember. That’s what brought me back.”

Liz looks at him skeptically, but chooses not to say anything. “Are there any holes in your memory now?” she finally asks, cautiously.

He stares at her. “How am I supposed to know?”

“Do you feel any different?”

He shrugs. “I don’t think so.”

It had never occurred to me that anything about this could leave permanent damage. All of a sudden I’m panicked. Please, please don’t let Min have anything wrong with him forever. Don’t let him be missing any memories.

“You can still do magic, right?” Liz asks.

He nods. It seems to take him a beat longer than normal, but he makes a ball of light energy in his palm. It’s as strong as it was before. No problems there.

He closes his hand and it flickers out. Then he stands and closes his eyes. I have no idea what he’s doing.

I notice that he’s trembling lightly, all over. And then he’s not trembling, he’s shuddering, his eyes still closed. He bends double, and I think he’s going to throw up or something. Then he’s on his knees staring up at me, disbelief and shock raw in his eyes.

“I can’t,” he whispers, his voice almost shaking.

“You can’t what?” Liz asks, at the same time I reach down and hug him because he looks so _lost. _

“I can’t change into a wolf. I don’t remember how.”

I reel backward and change into a jaguar without thinking, just to be sure I still can. Liz glares at me and I realize abruptly how insensitive I’m being. I flicker back.

“Do you know why you can’t?” she asks. “Is it being blocked somehow? Is there still some…poison in you?”

He shakes his head. “No. I just don’t remember how.”

“It’s not instinctive?”

I have to almost choke back laughter. I remember spending days trying to learn to shift, spending hours kneeling on the floor, trying to think about being a jaguar right before going to bed so I would dream about it. I have a painful awareness of how not instinctive it is. Someone, somewhere, has to explain how to do it in a way that clicks. Everybody’s way is different. If you forget how to do it, then you forget how to do it. It’s almost impossible to figure it out on your own.

I understand what needs to happen better than Liz does. “Who taught you in the first place?” I ask, even though I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

I’m right. “Tay,” he whispers.

He stands up, looking ready for whatever sort of action needs to take place. “We have to find her. She can teach me to shift. I know she can.”

“But how do we find her? We don’t know where the prison is. You know that, Min. Otherwise we would have gotten her out by now. I want her to be rescued as badly as you do. Everyone does.”

And then all of a sudden I have a bright idea. I know how we can figure out where Tala is being held. “The elves,” I gasp. “The elves can find the prison. And then, once they’ve found it, we can break in and rescue her. And we could get other prisoners out too.”

Liz blinks, appraising all the parts of my idea in a few seconds. She nods slowly. “That might work. That’s not bad at all.”

Min’s eyes are wide and hopeful. “Could they do something like that? Could they find Tay?”

“I don’t know. We would have to ask them if they think it would be possible,” Liz says thoughtfully. “But they have a better chance of finding her than we do.” She stands. “I’m going to find them right now. Will you two be okay?”

“Yeah. Just go talk to them.”

She leaves, and Min and I are alone. He still looks a little shocked. I guess so much has happened in the last few minutes that he needs some time to process it.

“Let’s go…somewhere else,” I say. “Somewhere other than Liz’s office.”

He nods.

“Do you want to go up to my room? Maybe we can find Mackenna.”

“Okay.”

Mackenna’s not in my room. She’s probably with the other girls, Rowan, Paige, Jessie. I feel a brief pang of guilt for abandoning her last night. I hope she wasn’t lonely or anything, even though I know she probably was. I wish she had a new boyfriend. I wish she had Ryan still. I wish I wasn’t so selfish, so afraid. I wish I hadn’t killed him.

Min stays in my room until Mackenna comes back later that night. I’m not going to sleep in his room again, he is sufficiently recovered and I’m no longer worried about him.

I tell Mackenna everything that happened since I saw her last night before going up to bed with Min. About the shifting, and my idea to get the elves help in finding the prison, the possibility of getting Tala and all of the other prisoners out.

“Will we be included on the mission to rescue Tala?” Mackenna asks when I’m done.

“I forgot to ask. Min probably will, since she’s his cousin, but I’m not sure about the two of us.”

“I hope we are,” she says softly.

“Yeah,” I say. “I hope we are too.”

CHAPTER 21

The next day Liz tells me that a small group of elves is already searching for Tala. They left last night. We’ll be the first to know if they find anything.

A few hours later, Min asks me if I can help him try to shift. I say yes, even though I know it won’t work.

I learned how to shift when I was mostly dead and with my mother. It had been like breaking down a wall that I hadn’t known was there, and allowing myself to be whole. At least that’s the best way I can explain it. I try to tell this to Min, but I know that’s not how he learned, and it’s just making him mad.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Min says after a while.

“But it has to!” All of a sudden I’m frustrated too. It makes so much sense to me. How could it not work for him?

“You already are half-wolf!” I yell at him. “Just break down the wall and you can change! Then you can change back and forth whenever you want.”

“That way worked for you, but it’s not working for me. There is no wall. I just can’t remember how to make the shift.”

My heart starts racing. I have the feeling that we’re in the middle of the fight, and suddenly I’m furious at him. I want to scream at him. And so I do.

“But my way is the best! It’s the only way I know.”

“Once we rescue Tay, she can help me.”

“Oh, yes, perfect Tala can help you learn how to shift again because she’s just so cool, you know, maybe you should just date her instead.” I’m venomous, almost shaking with anger, and I’m not entirely sure why. But I have the sudden sense that I have just allowed myself to admit something that’s been bothering me for a while, something I’ve never dared to say aloud before.

I love Tala, obviously. She’s one of my favorite people. But I guess sometimes I am a little jealous of how close she is with Min. I feel like they know each other so intimately that it’s like some sort of secret club, something I could never hope to be a part of. And I almost feel like he…looks up to her more than he does to me. She’s been gone so long that she has taken on an almost mystical quality in his mind, better and more perfect than anyone, even her, could ever hope to live up to.

I’m not really mad at Tala, obviously. I’m just…[_mad. _]I want him to fight back. And he does.

“What’s your problem with Tay? Are you jealous of her? She’s my cousin! We’re related. So back off.”

“Fine. Let’s not talk about Tala. Let’s just not talk. You know, you’re just a….” I trail off. I can’t think of the sort of word I’m looking for.

“No. What were you going to say? I’m dying to know.” His voice drips sarcasm.

“You’re just a…you’re just a big…all you do is push people away. You don’t…you don’t let people get close to you. Why do you have to go around saving everyone? Jumping in front of spears and stuff? People don’t actually want that, you know? That makes it…uneven. People don’t want to always be in debt to you, to always have you be better than them. They want to help, they want to be there. What you’re doing isn’t for us, it’s for you, it’s so you can always be the hero, and everyone else can look up to you, and you never have to feel weak.”

Okay, now here’s another thing I don’t think I’ve ever admitted before. I feel almost shocked at myself. But I guess while Min was chained to that bed and I couldn’t even go in and see him, there was time for some subconscious anger to build up. About his relationship with Tala that seems somehow stronger than his relationship with me, and about the fact that he would have died for me without bothering to stop and think that maybe that would break me so badly that it wouldn’t be worth it.

Min just looks at me, briefly stunned. Then he arranges his features into something resembling defensiveness. “You’re mad at me because I saved your life?”

“No. I’m mad because you thought your life was worth less than mine, and you didn’t…you didn’t bother to ask me what I thought about it.”

“What did you want me to do? Ask for your permission before jumping in front of the spear? It would have hit you!”

“Well, we should have…talked about it beforehand or something. I wouldn’t have wanted you to do that.”

“Fine,” he says, and his voice is sarcastic and hard. “Sorry. That’s the last time I make that mistake. My days of saving your life are over.” He pauses. “And what are we even arguing about anyway? I thought this was about Tala.”

“It is! Or…it was. I just…I don’t know, okay?” I pause, trying to put my emotions into words that Min will understand, that won’t make him any more angry. “When I thought you were dead, it practically killed me. So…what’s the point of you dying for me if I can’t live without you anyway?”

There’s a long, loaded silence.

“But, Aubrey,” he says slowly, “what was I supposed to do? The same thing would have happened to me if the spear had hit you. I couldn’t just watch you die. I can’t….”

All my anger is gone, or at least turned into something else. “Oh Min,” I whisper. “I guess we’re at an impasse. Neither of us can save the other’s life because neither of us can watch the other die.”

“I guess we’re just going to have to be extra careful then,” his voice is even a little teasing now. I guess we’re not really fighting anymore. “No more life or death situations for us.”

Now we’re standing very close together. “Somehow I can’t imagine that working out for long.”

He kisses me lightly on my nose. “We can still try our best.”

And just like that, the fight is completely over. Neither of us is angry at each other, no hurt feelings. We’ve never really fought before, and even that didn’t really count, although the jibe about Tala was probably one of the meanest things I’ve ever said to him, especially considering that in a twisted sort of a way, I kind of meant it.

Honestly, the truth is, we haven’t been dating that long. I feel like we’ve been together forever, but it hasn’t even been a year. And a good portion of that time we’ve been traveling, or apart, or he’s been injured or I have, or we’ve been helping Mackenna through her grief. I still feel like I’m in love, if I even know what that means. I feel like I could spend the rest of my life with him.

But we just haven’t had time for all those normal teen romantic experiences yet. The only real date we’ve been on, as in no-one-else-there-and-not-in-either-of-our-rooms, was that day at the beach, a million years ago. We’ve never really fought, because we’ve had no reason, no time.

But I love him, and I’m almost positive that I really do know what love is, even though I’m only sixteen. Maybe because it’s not the idea of him that I love, tall and handsome, strong enough to always be the one to hold me up. I love real Min, I embrace all his flaws, take him into my arms exactly as he is. And that is a big part of what love is, I think.

 

I’ve spent a few days pondering this when Liz calls me into her office. Min and Mackenna are already waiting there.

“The elves have found some information,” she says, without preamble.

“They have? That quickly?” I expected to be waiting at least a couple of weeks.

“Yes.” Liz never acts all that excited, but I can tell that she’s pleased. “They’re all so powerful, and their magic is so different from ours. I’m so glad they’re fighting with us, and helping us with things like this….”

“Liz,” Min interrupts, “what did the elves find?”

Liz goes serious all of a sudden. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. They found the prison. They have no way to tell if Tala is alive or not, if she’s even in there, but we have to assume that she is. But that’s not all they found.

“The elves found the prison by searching for large pockets of energy. They found a lot, all over the country, most of them unimportant. But one group found the prison, and one group found…something else. And Aubrey, they think it may be Verina. They think your sister may be alive.”

It takes me a little while for her words to register. Verina, the last Princess of the Wilderness before me, the author of the journal we’ve been basing our entire strategy off of, creator of the shrine that is my only chance at bringing my mother back. Verina, my sister, alive. Alive. I gasp and stand up. “What? Are you serious?”

And then I realize all the things that this could mean, and I abruptly sit back down. My sister is alive. And she’s not just my sister, she’s the Daughter of the Wilderness, just like me. She alone shares my unique pain. I’m not alone anymore.

Liz nods. “According to the elves, she’s living in a cave. With her dragon.”

I swallow a little bit, trying to wet my throat enough to talk. “How has she stayed alive this long?”

“Well, I have a few theories,” Liz begins, and I have to smile, because Liz always has theories. She figures everything out. “I believe immortality was a gift given to her by her sisters.”

“The other Daughters of the Wilderness?”

“No. Her adopted sisters. The three sisters.”

Mackenna breaks in, for the first time during this whole conversation. “That’s not possible,” she says harshly. “The three sisters don’t give gifts.”

Min and I, though, are nodding. Mackenna never read the journal. Min and I both did, and through that, we could see that the three sisters did love Verina, in their own twisted way. At least at first they did.

“Everyone loves something,” Liz says, “even people like the three sisters. Just because they are evil doesn’t mean there is no good in them.”

“Is she here?” I ask quickly. “Verina? Did the elves bring her back?”

Liz shakes her head. “She refused to speak to them. She will only speak with you.”

“Great,” I say. “I’ll go there. That’s fine. Great, even. When can we leave?”

“That’s one of the things I came in here to talk to you about. You are the only person who has been imprisoned by Mercuriel before. We need you on the mission to rescue Tala as well. One of the missions, either Tala’s or the one to your sister, will have to wait. And it’s your choice which one.”

I make a low, whimpering sound in my throat. Whatever mission I don’t choose could have to wait a month or more. It could effect people far beyond me. Verina. Or Tala.

Min is looking at me, and there’s a hard, dejected sort of expression on his face that I can’t quite read. “You should go to Verina first,” he says, only a little stiffly. “She’s…more important.”

There is hope and sadness mingled on his face. And I realize maybe sacrifice isn’t always about giving your life for someone. Sometimes it’s just about doing what’s best for them. About putting their wishes above your own. Tala is important to Min. And Min is important to me.

“We have to get Tala first,” I say. “Verina can wait.”

Min’s eyes go wide with surprise. “Aubrey, are you sure? It’s Verina….”

“I’m sure.”

He jumps up and hugs me. “Thank you,” he whispers. Then he turns to Liz. “When can we start preparing for the mission?”

“And that’s the last thing I want to talk to you. Min, you’re still weak from your ordeal.”

“I am not weak!”

“And you only have half your normal magic….”

“I have way more than half. I just can’t turn into a wolf.”

“You’re not going on the mission,” Liz finally says flatly.

“What? No! That’s not fair. She’s my cousin. I could help.” He looks at me helplessly. “Does Mackenna get to go?”

Liz nods. “Aubrey can communicate directly into her mind. That could prove invaluable.”

“Really?” Mackenna has been almost silent this whole time. “I can go?”

Liz nods at her.

“Then why can’t I?” Min says angrily.

“I’m worried about you,” Liz says simply. “You don’t have your full power back yet. It’s too dangerous. And honestly, you’re not really necessary for this one. You don’t know anything about the prison. It’s not worth putting you at risk.”

“But Tay….”

“Will be fine without you,” Liz says firmly. “Everyone else can handle it. We will get her out. We’ll bring her back for you. Just relax and focus on recovering.”

“But I am recovered.”

“When was the last time you ran a mile?”

He pauses to think about it. “Maybe two months ago,” he finally says, a little put out.

“Exactly. Focus on that.”

“If I’m…fully recovered, can I go on the mission?”

She sighs. “No. You cannot go on the mission to rescue Tala. Stop arguing. But maybe if you get yourself back in shape, you can go on the mission to find Verina.”

He gives her one last desperate, almost venomous glare. He sucks in a sharp breath. “Okay. I’ll run or something now.” He gets up.

“Mackenna, you go with him.”

They both leave and we’re alone. I don’t say anything. It almost seems like she is measuring some part of me, appraising me somehow.

“You really are in love with him,” she finally says.

I blink. That’s not what I was expecting. “Well, yeah,” I say. Isn’t that kind of obvious? Isn’t that kind of the point? If I didn’t love him, why would I be going through all this crazy stuff for him? Why would I have just said I would rescue Tala before finding my sister?

“You’re sixteen. And you already know what love is. That’s….” She trails off, and I think of her. Of her past, her history with her husband, her story. In that way, we are alike, believing in love in a world that tells us we can’t.

“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it. “Thank you for understanding. Thank you for believing in us.”

“You know why.” And she’s right. I do know why. I know absolutely why, I know that my story is a weird parallel of hers. I know that she was once a hopeful teenager just like me, that like me, she has loved and lost. I wonder how many people still alive have seen that part of Liz. How many people here at the School. Probably not that many. Maybe just me. Young love is a secret we share.

Her eyes tell me that she almost wants to say something else, but she doesn’t. She just stands abruptly, drawing in a long, slow, breath. “I…I have to go. We have to start…start preparing for the mission tomorrow. Yes.”

And just like that, without another word, she leaves.

CHAPTER 22

One week. One week until we rescue Tala. The next day we spend hours making plans and poring over maps. Then practice day, more planning. Three days left. Two days. One.

The countdown is over, game up. We’re breaking Tala out of prison today, along with any other prisoners that we can get our hands on. We have no idea who might be there, if there could be anyone we know. But in the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter. Anyone in that prison is automatically our ally, and we will try to free, and bring back to the School, as many of them as we can.

The day of the mission, Liz has laid out an outfit for me on the bed in my room. When I see it, I start laughing.

“Liz, you’re not serious, right? You don’t actually expect me to wear this?”

“Everyone has to. Including you.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re going through some tight spaces, and it won’t get caught on anything. And it doesn’t add bulk.”

I eye it skeptically, but it’s not like I have a lot of choice. Once the outfit is on, I examine myself in the mirror.

My first impression is that I look like someone straight out of a cheesy spy movie. I’m wearing a pair of tight, stretchy, black pants and a top made of the same material. There’s a belt with a knife on it, but the pants don’t have any belt loops, so it’s just slung low on my waist. There’s a pair of black boots that I like enough that I’m going to ask Liz if I can keep them afterward. Assuming, of course, that I survive.

My second impression is that I look good. The shirt highlights my muscles, and black is a good color on me. But this is no time to think about things like that. I laugh at myself. Now all I need is dramatic makeup and a blow dryer and I’ll be all set.

Saying goodbye to Min used to be hard, but it’s easier now that I know he’ll be waiting for me when I get back. I hug him, and he kisses me. Even though we’ve done it a bunch of times, it makes my heart explode with happiness.

“I’ll get her back,” I tell him. And in my heart, I swear that I will make that promise come true, that whatever I have to do, whatever I have to give, I will bring Tala and Min back together.

“I know you will.” He is totally confident in me. I will not let him down.

Mackenna and I go down to the car where Jake, the Weapons teacher, and a few older kids are waiting. The only other person our age is Storm. Everyone is wearing the same black outfits. I have the vague thought that we look like a flock of ninjas.

I realize I have absolutely no idea where the prison has moved to. I do know it’s far away, but I know we’re going to get there in one shot. I’m forcing myself not to be nervous. I end up sleeping most of the way.

When I wake up, there’s only a half-hour left to go. I’m afraid now. I keep going over the plan, and there’s so much left to chance. So much left to me. I don’t understand how it’s possible that this will work.

We have to stop almost ten miles outside the new field where we know the prison is. We walk about eight miles of it that night, and we sleep the next day. Our little tents blend in with the forest, but they are too small to be comfortable. It’s cold, but Mackenna isn’t allowed to light a fire in case someone spots the smoke. I spend the day shivering in my sleeping bag, huddled against Mackenna and Storm, waiting for the sunset that I’m both longing for and dreading.

Later that day, as the sun is setting, we eat a meal of trail mix and beef jerky. We pile our tents and backpacks together in the center of the camp. Mackenna incinerates them in a quick blistering inferno. We will either make it back to the cars, or we won’t make it back at all. We can’t afford to leave any evidence.

After we’ve burned all our supplies, we start walking again. It’s twilight now, and I think I finally understand why Liz chose these outfits for us. They blend into the shadows, camouflaging us in the night. I feel graceful and lithe, like a big cat, a panther. And I actually know what it’s like to be a big cat, so I think that it’s a pretty accurate description.

Once we arrive at the edge of the prison buildings, we wait. We let ourselves stay in a place where we have a clear view of it, but we cannot be spotted by guards. I hang back a little farther, knowing that if there is any chance they see me and realize that I am the one who came, the mission will be all but over. I am the final prize, the one they would give anything for. I make sure to stay hidden in the shadows.

We keep waiting until we have found the rhythm of the patrols. Now comes the tricky part. We will sneak across the grass in two groups of three, and use my magic to get into a hidden storage basement that Storm showed us. We will rely on my mind-communication with Mackenna to communicate. The biggest problem is that though I can talk to her to an extent, she can’t talk back to me.

There’s really no cover between our forest and the prison cells. It will be one long sprint. If we move fast enough, maybe we won’t get seen. Maybe we won’t get caught.

I take a deep breath, bouncing on the balls of my feet. It got slightly warmer during the late afternoon, but now the temperature has dropped and it’s cool enough to see my breath. My hands are numb. My fingers are shaking, very slightly, although I don’t know whether it’s with cold or nerves.

“Just…go fast, okay?” Mackenna tells me. I can tell she’s worried. “And don’t look behind you. Either the other two will be with you or…they won’t be. Just run, and don’t focus on anything else. You can’t get captured again. We’ll be following right behind you.”

“Are you ready?” Jake whispers. I nod.

He counts out three beats on his knee. One. Two. Three. Go.

I sprint forward. My momentum carries me into a lunge and I’m flying. I move as low to the ground as possible, like a gray twilight shadow.

It’s a long time to be running full-out like that. My lungs and legs are burning. I force my legs to run faster, but they can’t. I’m tired.

There’s a shout. It comes from a good way behind me. I don’t think I have been spotted, but one of my friends has. We’re not even halfway to the basement Storm told us about. We could go back. There’s still a chance that we could retreat to the cover of the trees.

But then we would fail. All of the prisoners that are here, all the lives we have a chance at saving, would be gone. All of the work we have gone through for nothing. I picture Tala’s face, broken and alone behind her prison bars. And then I picture Min, and I want to make him happy more than anything. I want to see the joy on his face when he is reunited with Tala again. I hold the image of that in my mind, and I will do anything to make it come true.

I put on a burst of speed, changing into a jaguar mid-stride. My long legs eat up the ground. I’m panting and I’m flying. I [_will _]see Min and Tala together again. I would run forever for them. For him.

I’m still on the point of collapse when I finally reach the point Storm specified. I turn into a human and stand, but immediately drop to a crouch. My legs are shaking, too weak to support me.

I reach my consciousness into the ground. I can feel the empty space below me. I pull the earth apart, opening a hole down to it. I slide in, but don’t cover it over me. Jake and Storm are still out there, and I pray that they’re still coming.

I look back out over the field. Jake is holding up Storm, and they’re stumbling forward. Soldiers are chasing them, but they’re still a good ways behind. Storm and Jake are going absolutely as fast as they can. They’re coming closer, and I leap out of my hiding place, drag Storm into the hole with me. Jake follows behind quickly, and once we’re all underground I cover the hole.

Immediately I close my eyes and push my consciousness outward. The soldiers are directly above us. I can feel their confusion, they can’t figure out where we’ve gone. But Storm was right. It’s not going to occur to them to check for us in the basement. At least for a while.

I look over at Storm and sharp panic courses through me. She’s white with pain. Something must be wrong with her, even if I can’t tell what it is.

“What happened?” I ask.

She winces. “I tripped or something. I think my ankle’s sprained. Or broken.”

“Can you heal it?” Jake’s eyes meet mine. He must not be thinking. I’m strong, but I don’t have healing power and never have. There’s nothing I can do about something like this.

I look at Storm’s leg. It’s swollen, but it might not be broken. Actually, I really can’t tell. But it sounds more hopeful if I don’t say it like that.

I want to hit something. Why can’t I have healing power? That seems like it would have been a helpful power to have. I would rather be a healer than a thorn. And then right now I could be healing Storm’s leg, and saving the mission.

“Storm, you’re going to have to stay here, I guess. You can wait until we’ve rescued Tala and then we can pick you up.”

She nods, her face white with pain. I push my consciousness outward again. The basement is empty, at least for now. There’s a long hallway and many rooms. A lot of it mirrors the complex above.

I feel something else. The soldiers are going down a set of rickety stairs. Down to the basement. They’re coming here. Fast.

“Soldiers are coming,” I yell. “We have to go now.”

Storm hops to her feet, balancing precariously on one leg. Jake grabs around her waist. I’m not sure where Tala is being held, so I pick a random direction and run. I am the leader. But I’m panicking, because they think I know where I’m going. I am completely lost.

The soldiers are closing in behind us. They’re now close enough that Jake and Storm can hear them. They know their way around much better than I do. We’re slowed down both by my indecision and Storm’s leg. They’re gaining on us fast, faster than we can run.

All of a sudden, my knees buckle. I slip into a vision. I’m running down the same long hallway that I’m going down now. And then I’m turning left twice, then right, then up a shallow flight of stairs. Then I use magic to make a hole in the ceiling.

I see myself crawling through the hole. The vision ends, but I know Tala will be there.

I come back to myself. I had put out a hand to catch myself on the wall, otherwise I would have fallen. Jake and Storm are a few steps ahead of me, frozen, unsure of what to do.

I blink a few times, trying to clear away the lightheadedness. I step forward and stumble. The soldiers are closing in. I pick myself up and run, going in the same direction as in my vision. Jake and Storm follow behind as fast as they can.

I make a few more turns. The hallway I’m running down dead-ends. I must have picked the wrong direction somewhere. I backpedal, but a small group of soldiers is already blocking the hallway.

We’re trapped.

CHAPTER 23

I punch the wall. It doesn’t help. But we’re outnumbered, and Storm can’t fight at all. And neither can Jake, if he’s protecting her. I guess that leaves it up to me.

I run forward, pulling out the small knife at my belt. There are fewer soldiers than I originally thought. Six. But I’m afraid to use too much magic underground. I don’t want to cause a cave-in. And it’s not like there are any plants anyways. There’s only the smallest amount of moisture in the air that I can use.

The first person that comes at me is a woman. She runs toward me with her own knife. I block. She whips around me, and the next person punches me in the shoulder. He dislocates it, and I hiss in pain.

I reflexively stab the knife forward. He falls to the floor with a grunt.

The woman wraps around my throat with a chokehold from behind. For a few seconds, the world starts to go dark. Then I picture Tala’s dark eyes, and I have the strength to keep going. I headbutt the soldier and kick out with my legs at the same time. He’s knocked backward. I hit another man in the chest.

All three of us fall to the ground. I gasp for air, trying to clear my vision. I feel behind me for a wall that I can support myself on. My hand slips in the blood of the man I stabbed. I open my eyes and look at him. Dead.

His eyes are open and glassy. I feel a pang of regret, but I force myself to move on. The woman is dead too. When she fell she impaled herself on her own knife. It’s now sticking grotesquely out of a jagged hole in her stomach. Blood is still oozing sluggishly up around it.

This seems ridiculous. This sort of thing is reserved for movies, it shouldn’t happen in real life. I have a sudden, sharp sense of realness. I am really breaking into a prison. I really just killed two people.

I feel a wild laugh bubbling up inside me and I choke it down. This is not the time to be losing my mind.

The man I kicked in the chest is unconscious. I can see him breathing. The other two people ran. I wish I could chase them down, but I don’t know where they went. They’ll surely report us though, and now everyone will know exactly how many of us there are and what we can do.

I stand and walk back to Storm and Jake. They look shocked. The entire thing took only a minute or two. They’ve never seen me fight like that.

“I took a wrong turn,” I say, trying to change the subject. “We need to go back this way.”

I start walking, and they follow behind me. I keep going until I find the place where I got lost the first time. I go the right way this time, remembering from the vision.

Before long, I’ve reached the end of the path. This is where my vision finished. Tala’s cell should be right above us.

I make a hole in the ceiling and boost myself through, before I can think about it anymore.

Immediately, something cracks across the back of my head. I pitch forward on my hands and knees, trying not to black out. My ears are ringing.

“Aubrey?” a voice above me says. Even after all this time, I still know that the voice is Tala’s. I would recognize it anywhere. “Is that you? What are you doing here? Oh! Your head!” She kneels next to me. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” I look dizzily up at her and see that she is holding a heavy metal tray. That must be what she hit me with. She helps me get shakily to my feet.

I thought Tala was skinny before, but really that was nothing. Now she’s so thin that I can see all the bones in her body, like someone could use her to study the skeleton. I’m afraid if she turns to the side she’ll completely disappear. I’m surprised she can even support her own weight.

“You shouldn’t have come here!” she whispers. “Go back! You’ll be captured.”

“Aubrey!” Jake yells up. “Someone’s coming!”

Tala holds the tray up and poises to hit the new intruder with it. I pull her away. I prepare to blast her cell open with magic, but of course magic doesn’t work in the cells. Otherwise there would be no way to keep us trapped.

A soldier boosts his way into the room, and I drag Tala back into the farthest corner. Again, without thinking I try to attack the man with magic. I’m very vulnerable without it.

Luckily, Tala is thinking more clearly than I am. She gets a pretty good hit at him with her tray before he really sees us. He stumbles upward, bellowing. He hasn’t seen me at all yet. I don’t think he even realizes I’m in the cell. He runs at Tala, and I grab his shoulders from behind.

I lock my hands around his neck, and he’s so tall I’m lifted into the air. I struggle to keep clinging to him and eventually drop. He turns toward me, his eyes bulging with rage. But it’s too late. By dropping, I accomplished my original goal and get his keys.

There’s no keyhole on the inside of the door. Maybe this should have been obvious, but it stumps me. It must be on the outside, but how do I get to it? There is a barred window, but it’s pretty high up, and I’m not sure if I can reach my arm out.

I lunge up and grab the bars. I manage to hold myself up with one hand, my feet scrabbling for purchase on the rough stone. I push my arm through the bars. I can’t see the keyhole, but I locate it by touch, forcing the key in. I turn it and the door swings inward, smashing me into the wall.

I fall to the ground. I blink a few times. My head smacked against the wall, and now my vision looks funny. I shake my head a few times to clear it. That’s the second time I’ve hit my head tonight. Probably not a good thing.

I manage to stagger to my feet. Tala is still fighting with the prison guard. I step out of the cell and feel my magic return to me in a rush. I blast the man with water, then again with light energy for good measure. He falls to his knees, and I grab Tala and run.

I can hear more soldiers closing in behind me. I have no idea where Storm and Jake are, and Tala’s already exhausted. She’s too weak to be much help in a fight. I start to panic. It’s only then that I remember Mackenna.

“Mackenna!” I scream inside my head. “Where are you? Get over here.” I try to send a mental picture of where I am, even though I have no way to know if she gets it. I wish she could mentally respond. I hope she’s coming.

I start running down the halls, blasting open some of the doors with magic and using the keys to open any that are too strong. I’m not even looking inside, just trusting that any enemy of my enemy is my friend. Half the cells I’m opening could be empty for all I know.

“Follow me!” I’m screaming as I run. “I’m the Daughter of the Wilderness! I’m here to help you!” It might not be a good idea to advertise who I am so openly, but I don’t stop. I want them to trust me. I need them to follow me.

All of a sudden I see movement in my peripheral vision. Jake and Storm are running next to me. Storm is pale, but her expression is set. Each step is causing her pain but she’s keeping up.

“Hi. I’m Tala.” She introduces herself with a cheery smile even though we’re running for our lives through a dingy prison. Nobody responds to her, but she doesn’t look put out at all. I have the sudden urge to hug her. And I desperately, more than anything, want to see her reunited with Min. I want to let them grow up together. I want them to be happy. They deserve it.

 

I’m still unlocking cell doors when all of a sudden Storm freezes. She’s turning around, running into a cell. Her back is toward me, so I can’t read her expression. I can’t figure out what she’s doing.

I follow her. In the cell is a boy, maybe Lily’s age or a little older. He has the same black hair, deep brown eyes, and freckles, as Storm. But perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that behind him trail a pair of crumpled gray wings.

“Kestrel?” Storm says slowly. “Is…is that you?”

The boy just keeps staring at her, like he doesn’t believe she’s real. Like he thinks she’s a ghost, or a movie star, or something like that. “Storm?” he says, so quietly he’s almost whispering, but still loud enough that I know she can hear him. Just that. Just that one word. Storm.

And then, just like that, she’s running to him. “Are you okay? Why are you in prison? How long have you been here? They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

He shakes his head. “I’m okay.” His voice is soft, but surprisingly strong. “I think that Doctor is here somewhere too. I saw her not that long ago. It was a few days ago, or last week or something. I don’t know for sure. It’s hard to tell.”

Storm wraps him in a hug, and for a few moments I think she’s going to start crying. I have never seen Storm cry. On an impulse, I check the next cell over and find a girl a few years younger than Kestrel, who could be a miniature version of Storm. She looks afraid. Afraid of me, I realize. I am someone older and larger than her, and she probably thinks I am working with Mercuriel, that I am here to hurt her.

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I’m here to help you. Your brother and sister are in the next room.”

She shakes her head, looking suddenly suspicious. “You’re lying. My sister is dead.”

I’m trying to think fast, but my head’s still throbbing and I’m not sure how well it’s working. How many siblings does Storm have again? I know there’s her dead brother, but how many other than that? Is there another dead sister that I’m forgetting, or has this girl already realized I’m talking about Storm.

“Um…no,” I say slowly, “not that sister. This is…um, your other sister. It’s Storm.”

CHAPTER 24

A burst of emotion flashes across the girl’s face, so fast I don’t have time to identify it. Even before it’s really there it’s gone, and her face is contained again.

“I don’t believe you,” she says again, but she’s too tired. Too tired to fight me. Too tired to have her hopes lifted and then dashed again.

She takes a small step toward me and stumbles. I lift her up, and in my arms she is heartbreakingly small. I carry her into the first cell with her brother and Storm.

She smiles and wiggles free from my arms. But before she goes, she touches me gently on the temple. Power flows into me and my headache disappears. I touch my forehead lightly and find the bruising is gone. I look at the little girl in wonder. She must be a healer. I remember her name is Doctor, and that Tempeste’s soldiers were named for their magic, so this makes sense.

All of a sudden, Tala yelps. I whip around just in time to see her lunging at a man, changing into a wolf the second she passes the doorway of the cell. She pushes him backward, pinning him down. There’s a second of hesitation, and she bites him in the throat. Then she turns back into human.

“There’s more coming,” she gasps. “We need to go. Now.”

Blood splatters the front of her ratty clothes. There’s some smeared on her cheek too. I don’t know why, but I just never pictured Tala as someone who even had the ability to kill someone, let alone someone who would do it with so little thought. But I guess only two years ago I would have thought the same thing of myself. The right situation can turn anyone into a killer.

Sometimes you have no choice but to kill, or to watch the ones you love die around you.

Storm grabs the hands of both her younger siblings. She’s not limping anymore. Doctor must have healed her.

I run out of the cell but see something in my peripheral vision and freeze. At first I think it’s soldiers, but then I realize it’s just a bunch of other prisoners, maybe twenty or so. They’re all looking at me, waiting for me to tell them what to do. To be their leader.

But now I can hear the pursuit closing in behind us, and we don’t have time. No time to explain, or to lead, or even to rescue any more people.

“We need to run. Stay close to me,” I say. It’s as much of a plan as I can come up with.

I start to jog and everyone follows me, Storm and her siblings and Jake and everyone else. I go faster, making turns on instinct and not pausing to think. I’m lost in the maze of the prison, but I have to keep going forward. There must be an exit somewhere. There has to be. I don’t allow myself to think of the alternative. That we’ll be cornered, trapped, left to be picked off by the guards.

A few of the escaped prisoners stumble. They’re weak and tired, they can’t keep going forever. None of us can. One of the prisoners, a man, is trying to help them. But he’s weak and stumbling too, and there’s only so much he can do.

With a sudden shock, I realize I recognize him. I met him once, a very long time ago. I was being tortured and he got me out of it, honestly probably saving my life. He has a long scar wrapping almost the whole length of his face, old and probably mostly healed. I remember that this is the man who had been tortured so much that he had essentially lost his memory of his entire life before being brought to prison. That he had forgotten his old name and chosen the new name of L.

I also remember the very sharp feeling that he reminded me of someone. I guess I had figured that was only because I was so out of it, but even now, when I’m feeling much sharper and more aware, I still think he looks familiar. I can’t quite place who it is he looks like, but I am sure that it is not just my imagination, that he [_does _]look just like someone that I know.

But who is it?

I keep running, shooting sidelong glances at him as we go. But he’s too out of context, and I simply don’t recognize him.

We need to find somewhere to hide and rest. I don’t really know how to do that, not without them finding us. I don’t think they know how many of us there are, though. That’s a good thing, I guess, although I’m not sure how it will help us.

I turn another corner, and it’s a dead end. I start to scream, with frustration, with fear, but immediately I realize I can’t. I can’t make any noise that will draw attention to ourselves. I cover my mouth with my hand, forcing my scream back down, trapping it inside of me. Now is not the time for hysterics. Now is the time to be strong. It is my job to get everyone out of here alive, and that is what I will do. I have no choice.

I need a place to hide and rest. That is my first priority, and I focus on that. Could we go back to a cell? That would at least be easy to fortify, I could guard the entrance with a few others and keep all of the escaped prisoners safe. But I don’t even think all of the prisoners would fit in one cell. And that’s not exactly a hiding place. I’m sure the soldiers would be able to find us and then we would be trapped, unable to do magic.

Is there a secret room? Maybe one that Storm knows of? But then I realize we already know of a secret room. Storm’s already told us. The basement, where all of the equipment is stored. I know it runs underneath almost the entire prison complex, but there are no more than two entrances, I don’t think, and most of the guards won’t have the keys. I can get us down there. That will give us time, at least, and we’ll be able to make a plan.

I crouch down, slowly, closing my eyes and letting my consciousness flow outward. There it is, the empty space. The basement. Directly below us, just as I’d hoped.

But accessing it from here is not like accessing it from the outside. I cannot simply push aside the dirt and grass to reveal a hole, an entrance. There are layers of rock in between us, the floor is thick, made of stone, unmovable by me.

“Can…can any of you move rock?” I ask. My voice cracks. It sounds small, not a leader’s voice at all. But that doesn’t matter. A powerful voice is a good trait for a leader to have, but not a necessary one. I can lead, even though my voice is frightened and quiet. I can save these people.

“I can.” It’s L who answers, the man who I remember from the last time I was in prison, the one who reminds me so fiercely of someone, but I can’t put my finger on who. I’m surprised he even heard me. But he is looking at me with kindness, sympathy even, and without another word he steps up next to me, holding his hands out to show that he is mine to command.

“What do you need, Princess?” he asks me. Somehow, he makes princess sound like a pet name rather than a title, and not in a bad way. He is very calm. His presence relaxes me.

“There’s a basement below us. If you can make a hole, we can bring everyone down there to hide.”

He does as I ask, making a hole big enough for even a rather large person to squeeze through. His movements are careful and precise, and his eyes are closed as he focuses.

And then, in one sudden, blinding moment, I understand. I know who it is he reminds me of. It’s [_Paige. _]I don’t know exactly what it is about him that reminds me of her, but something about him speaks very clearly of Paige. I don’t know if it’s his eyes, the same shade of dark, almost violet blue, or his strong-looking hands, or his sharp cheekbones. But he is like an older, male version of Paige, and I have no idea why.

“Hey,” I say as he continues to carefully shape the edges of the hole, “did you ever remember anything else about yourself?”

“What?” He looks up at me, seeming, for the first time, to realize who I am. “Oh. Right. Yes, I did remember a little bit more.”

“Have you…have you ever met someone named Paige?” I ask cautiously, not really sure what to expect.

“Paige? Yes, that’s…familiar. I think…that was the name of my daughter. I can’t imagine it’s the same Paige you know.”

I gasp. Everything is illuminated in one sharp, blinding moment. [_His daughter’s name was Paige. _]I feel like I can’t breathe. I feel like I can’t…even begin to process any of this, not here, not now. I don’t know what to do.

This man looks just like Paige, he has a daughter named Paige. He is the same age as Liz. I know that this is an impossible, crazy long shot, so unlikely as to be unimaginable. Could this man, trapped here for years, be Liz’s husband?

I don’t have time to think this through right now. I don’t have time to sit down and really look at him, and carefully examine all the pieces of the puzzle until I’m sure how they all fit together. All I know is that Liz seemed very, very sure that her husband had died, but this man is the right age, and he has a daughter named Paige.

Aside from that, I just don’t know.

I shake my head a little, like I can flick the thoughts out of my head and focus again. I start herding all of the prisoners toward me. I guide them toward the hole that the man who might or might not be Liz’s husband made. Once the prisoners are all safe, I help down my team of rescuers from the School. Finally I hop down, into the damp, close smell of earth, into the darkness that is all but complete.

I look around. Now that we’re in the basement, I can hear more clearly the footsteps of the soldiers. There are at least five or six groups of them, everywhere. I try to plan out a route in my head, some way that we could get all of us out of the prison, to safety somehow. I wish I knew the prison better. I wish there were fewer of us, so we would be able to hide.

I feel a sudden surge of guilt. I was the one who let out all the other prisoners, and then failed to actually help them escape. I thought I was saving their lives, but in the end I just doomed them to a different kind of death, because now there is no way for us to leave the prison complex unnoticed. They will either be captured and tortured, or just killed on sight. And it’s my fault.

There’s just too many of us.

I lean my head against the wall and put my head in my hands. I give up. There’s no solution. I’m lost and alone. I need Mackenna. I need Min.

I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Storm.

“What?” I say. I’m not even sure how I mean it, but it comes out as a whimper. A hopeless, lonely whimper. Why am I the leader? I don’t know how to make decisions like this. I don’t know what to do.

“I think I can help you,” she says.

I snap my eyes open, focus on her. “You do? Do you remember some secret passageway? Do you have some trick that will….” I pause to think about it for a second. “Vaporize them?”

She shakes her head. “I want to be a distraction.”

“No,” I say instantly. Because in this case, distraction is just another word for bait. And nobody is going to be bait under my watch. I will do my best not to lose anybody, but I’m certainly not going to let anyone who came in with me die. I will return with all the members of my mission that I started with.

“Aubrey, I want to,” Storm says, her voice low and intense. “I’ll be fine. I can do this.”

She looks so calm and sure. “No,” I say again, but more hesitatingly this time. “We’ll just…wait. Mackenna is coming. She’ll think of something, I’m sure.”

“But it might be too late. They’re patrolling this entire hallway. Eventually, they’ll find us. But if I run now, you can lead everyone back the way we came. And I’ll…meet you at the forest.”

I close my eyes again. Storm is looking to me to tell her what to do. If I let her go, she could die. But if I keep her here, we could all die. I know it should be her choice. But if she…I just don’t know if I could take it.

“No,” I whisper, so quietly that Storm doesn’t even hear me. It’s not even a response to her, just a protest against my impossible situation.

I open my eyes again. Storm has moved to the side to wait for my answer, so I see Tala. She’s kneeling next to Storm’s brother, the one with the wings. Kestrel.

In that moment, she looks so much like Min that it hurts. I remember finding him half-drowned in the river that runs by my house, when he was almost as starved as Tala is now. But it’s not exactly that moment that catches my attention for some reason. It’s the day after, when Liz still wouldn’t let him go to the School, or even leave the house. The day he made me breakfast, and then we played cards for hours until we were so bored we were basically just throwing cards at each other. I haven’t thought about that moment almost since it happened, and I’m not sure exactly what’s making me think about it now. But I just want…I want something, and what I want seems to be somehow linked to that memory. Normalcy, maybe, or safety, not just for me, but for him.

I remember when Liz told him that Tala had been captured, that she was gone. He locked himself in the guest bedroom for a few hours, and we never heard him make a sound. I wonder what he was doing in there. Crying, maybe, or just thinking. I don’t know. Grieving for the person who had always been there for him when he had had no one else, for his best friend in the world, for his cousin.

I want, I need to bring Tala back to Min. I need them to be reunited, because somehow then…everything will be worth it.

I realize, suddenly, that if we do nothing I might never see him again. Everyone here will be killed, or captured, including me. We do need a distraction, or we will all die here. So I make my decision partly based on the group, partly based on my own selfishness. Not based on Storm.

“Yeah. You can go. Just….” I cough. “Just watch out for yourself, okay Storm? Take care of yourself. Meet us in the forest.”

She nods. “Take care of my brother and sister.” There’s a long, aching pause. “If I don’t come back.”

“Don’t say that. We’ll meet in the forest.” I say it earnestly, grabbing her hands, meeting her eyes. I need it to be true.

She hesitates again. “Thanks,” she says finally. “For everything.”

She hugs me.

“I won’t say goodbye,” I whisper. “Good luck. But not goodbye. You’re coming back. ”

She nods, then goes to her two siblings. She kneels down by them. “I’m going away now,” she whispers. “Not forever, just for a little while.”

Doctor looks up at her with those eyes that are too knowing for her age, and yet still too innocent for all that she has seen. “Do you promise? Promise that you’ll come back. You left for a long time last time. I missed you.”

Storm hesitates, swallows down her emotions. “I promise we’ll see each other someday, but it might not be soon. Okay? I love you both.”

She hugs them, holding them tight to her like she never wants to let go. Kestrel, who’s older than Doctor and probably has a better grasp of what’s going on, has one of those funny expressions on his face. He’s trying not to cry.

Storm stands up. All of a sudden Doctor runs at her, grabbing onto her legs. “Please don’t go. Please stay here. I’ll do anything.” Doctor is crying, and I think soon Storm will be crying too.

But she carefully detaches Doctor. “I love you,” she says. And then she turns and walks toward the hole in the ceiling.

Right before she leaves she looks back at me one more time. I see real sadness on her face. She mouths something. But by the time I realize what it is, she’s boosted herself out the hole, and she’s gone.

It was goodbye.

CHAPTER 25

I push myself off the wall. “We need to move,” I say to the room at large. “Storm is a distraction for us. We don’t have much time.”

I gather everyone at the front of the room. It’s hard, because some of the prisoners are relatively unresponsive. Tala helps me, even though she seems like she’s on the point of collapse. I’m afraid she won’t be able to run, that I’ll have to carry her or something. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to. But she’s the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. I have to bring her back to Min. And if I have to carry her, I will.

I wait at the door, my breath catching in my throat, bouncing agitatedly on the balls of my feet. I hope there’s some sort of signal so we know when to go. I look around at the assembled group one last time, they all look eager and ready, down to the smallest one, Storm’s little sister.

All of a sudden I hear a clatter from a nearby hallway. Storm must have knocked something over. I also hear the sounds of one of her mini-thunderstorms.

Then I hear the voices of the prison guards, much closer than I realized, almost right outside the room. I hear them chase after the noise. After the distraction. After Storm.

“We need to move,” I yell out to everyone. They look up, tired but ready. “Follow as close behind me as you can.”

I take off running. I can’t check if everyone is following me, I have to focus on where I’m going, all the while straining my ears for any sound of Storm.

I make a few turns, with the sound of the prisoners echoing footsteps drowning out anything else. And then I hear a scream.

I stop dead. Tala runs into me.

“We have to keep going.” She drags my arm, pulling me forward.

“We have to get Storm.” I struggle against her. I pull my arm free, but she’s so weak that I knock her over. She’s on her knees on the ground, gasping.

“Oh, Tala, I’m sorry….” And then I’m torn again. Because Tala needs help. She’s too weak to keep going like this. But Storm needs help too.

Another scream, tearing through my heart like a knife. I hear a guard’s voice, high and clear.

“Where are the rest of them?”

Storm screams a response, but I can’t tell what it is. My stomach drops. Her screams are abruptly ended.

I extend my consciousness outward, confirming what my heart already knows. I can feel the emptiness, the absence of her soul in the lonely place where it should be. Her consciousness is gone.

Storm is dead.

 

I open my eyes and realize I’ve slid down the wall and am sitting on the ground. My cheeks are wet with tears.

We need to go. But I’m not strong enough. Not now. My limbs are too heavy to get under me. My heart hurts with the pain that I don’t dare allow myself to really feel. My throat and eyes are tight.

Someone hauls me to my feet. I expect it to be Tala, but when I open my eyes I see it’s the man I think might be Liz’s husband. He doesn’t say anything, just pulls me upward. I reel against the wall, numb with shock. And then I straighten up, because I am the leader, I have to be strong. I can’t afford to feel this pain right now.

I extend my consciousness again, avoiding the spot where Storm should be, the way I would avoid poking a bruise. I trust my sense of the people around us to guide us, because my eyes are blinded with tears. I tuck my head against my shoulder and run.

I turn a corner and hit something solid. And warm. And alive.

My body reacts before my mind does. I hit out weakly. I keep pounding on the person’s chest, sobbing and not doing any damage. I don’t care. Storm is dead. I let her go. It’s my fault, the same way it’s my fault the Ryan is dead. All I can do is kill.

The person grabs my punches. She holds my arms tightly against her chest. It’s a long time before I realize the person is also talking to me.

“Aubrey,” she says over and over again. “Aubrey. What’s wrong?”

It’s Mackenna. Her team finally found us. But it’s too late. Too late.

“Storm,” I whisper. “Storm is dead.”

Mackenna stiffens, but she recovers faster than I did. Maybe because she doesn’t have to carry the terrible guilt of knowing she caused it.

This burden is already familiar to me. I have carried it before.

“There’s nothing else we can do for her,” Mackenna says. It sounds harsh, but I know it’s true.

I’m inconsolable. I’m gasping, tears soaking my face and Mackenna’s shirt. I can’t make myself run anymore.

Tala stumbles against me. Not for the first time tonight, she is the only thing keeping me going. She needs me. Min needs her. And I need Min.

“Let’s keep going.” I pull myself together, force myself to be strong. I’m not sure if I can do this. But I have to try.

I start to run. I’m paying attention to where we’re going now. Storm sacrificed herself, and if we don’t make it out of here her loss will have been pointless. Mackenna is helpful, since she mostly remembers the way.

It seems like forever, but we finally burst into the cool night air. I take a few deep, steadying breaths. There’s still no sound of pursuit. We’re free. We made it. But without Storm.

There are people waiting for us in the woods, hands to hold us up, shoulders to cry on. They lead me back to the cars almost in a trance. It takes hours, I know, but it doesn’t feel like it. It seems to go by in a blink, while at the same time taking a lifetime. I’m numb and empty and sad.

I sleep for as long as I can. It takes up a few hours. Those hours are precious, hours with no thought, no pain. Eventually I just wake up and watch the trees go by, not focusing on anything. There’s a very long time of that before I can focus on anything else.

Finally, I look around at everyone else in the car. There’s a few cars, so it’s not all of the prisoners, or all of the people who came from my school. Mackenna is in this car though, and so is Tala. So is the man who I think might be Liz’s husband.

Tala is between Mackenna and me. She looks…exhausted, and ill. Her face is pale and grayish, and she’s asleep, head back against the car, mouth slightly open. I hope she’s okay, and not about to die or anything. I don’t think I could take it.

Mackenna is on the other side of her, and that, at least, is a relief. She’s awake and alert, and while she looks tired it’s no more than I would expect. Part of me wants to talk to her, and maybe somehow her words can make me feel better, but part of me never wants to talk again.

I twist around in my seat a little bit, looking at the row of people sitting behind me. On one end, directly behind Mackenna, is Paige’s father. As much as I just want to sit here in silence, now probably is the time to confirm my theory, and find out for sure who he is. He’s awake, at least, so I won’t have to wake him up.

“Hey,” I say to him, quietly.

He doesn’t seem to realize I’m talking to him. He just stares at me. “Hey,” I say again. “What else do you remember?”He shrugs. “A lot more than I did before. Like my name. Jack.”

Was Liz’s husband named Jack? To be completely honest, I have no idea. I file the information away for some sort of possible use later.

“Do you remember…your family?”

For a few long seconds, he doesn’t say anything. “Yeah,” he finally says. “I was married. To a woman named Liz. And I had a little daughter.”

This is no more or less than I expected, but it still gives me chills. I feel tears of relief and shock and a mess of other unidentifiable emotions prickling at the backs of my eyes. This seems too strange and unreal and perfect to really believe in.

“Your…your wife was named Liz? And you had a daughter named Paige?”

“Yeah.” He shrugs again, a little helplessly. “She’s probably moved on by now though. It’s been fifteen years. I don’t even know how I would be able to…to find her. It’s just been so long. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.”

I don’t say anything for a little while. I’m not sure how. I have information that could assuredly change his life, but how do I tell it to him? What if he doesn’t want it? What if it’s not her that he’s worried has moved on, but himself?

“Jack….” Even just the single word is strange. What am I supposed to address him as? I don’t want to be too formal. After all, if he and Liz are still married, then he is technically my father. But Jack feels a little too familiar somehow. “Liz is still alive. So is her daughter, Paige. They’re…they’re living at the School in New Hampshire, the same one as me. The one we’re taking you to.”

He doesn’t say anything, just stares at me. Like he expects me to suddenly start laughing, or scream out “just kidding” or something like that. But I don’t. Of course I don’t.

It’s Mackenna who eventually breaks the silence. She seems to have just processed what has been said, and she flips around. “What?” she says, her eyes yo-yoing back and forth between me and Jack. “Did you say that you’re Liz’s husband? Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”

He shrugs helplessly at her, and I stare at her, wanting her to be a little more sensitive. But the problem is, she’s not being insensitive exactly, just being typical Mackenna. I don’t exactly know what to tell her to stop doing.

“Yes,” he says slowly, like he’s testing out the words in his mouth. “Yes. I am Liz’s husband. And she’s alive?” A sudden look of dread flits across his face. “Has she…has she married someone new? It has been fifteen years. That is a long while to wait.”

I shake my head. “She waited. Although she does have…another daughter.”

His face whitens a little bit. “One of mine?”

“No. Adopted.” I had been thinking of Lily, but I suddenly realize that I apply to the situation just as well. “Two daughters, actually.”

I don’t say the identity of the second daughter, that it’s me, the Princess of the Wilderness. That just seems like it would be too much information for him to digest. I can’t do that to him.

“Two more daughters?” His face is a weird mix of wonder and fear and disbelief. I have no idea what else to say to him, not when he has so much he needs to think through, to figure out for himself. I turn around to face front again, figuring if he has any more questions, he can ask me.

I realize that actually, we’re almost back to the School. I slept through most of the ride, mercifully, and now there’s only maybe another half an hour. That’s a big relief. I’m feeling very…desperate, or something, some huge negative emotion that seems to big for me to contain while I’m sitting trapped in a car.

Not to mention the fact that, as we get closer to the School, Tala is fading. She’s sitting propped between me and Mackenna in the car, and her head keeps lolling onto my shoulder. Her eyelids are fluttering, and she appears barely conscious. Her skin is pale and cool, and I’m reminded of Min when he was hit by the spear. I’m afraid she’ll die before we even get back to the School. She needs to see Amity as soon as possible. I don’t know if she’s going through shock or what, but I think it might kill her if she doesn’t get help soon.

Tala moans, and my heart twists in fear for her again. I’m honestly surprised she’s even managed to stay alive this long. These last few weeks must have been brutal for her. She’s terribly dehydrated, her lips are cracked and her skin is tight and dry. I can see all the places where her bones come together, because she is so thin. Her arms and shoulders are a mess of scrapes and bruises, recent and only half-healed.

I think the exposure to the cold air on the way to the cars might have gotten her sick, on top of everything else. She’s shivering, but is hot and fevered to the touch. She’s unconscious now, but when she was awake her eyes were unfocused and glassy. She’s mumbling things under her breath, but I think they’re just hallucinations. Her breathing is much too quick and shallow. Her heartbeat is fast too, like she just finished running or something. Her wrist, where I found the pulse, is almost impossibly tiny and delicate, like a baby bird.

I look around at the other escaped prisoners, sitting behind and in front of me. Most of them are sleeping, or at least pretending. Storm’s brother has his head leaned against the window, and he’s crying softly to himself. Her sister is just staring off into space, looking a little shell-shocked. She can’t be more than maybe four or five. Too young to understand the concept of death. That Storm is really gone. That she’ll never, ever come back.

All of a sudden that really hits me, and I gasp with the pain of it. I will never see Storm again. I remember when we first met her and I discovered I was a thorn. And she brought with her the information that identified me as the Lost Princess. She used to mistrust us, and we didn’t trust her either. I have a sudden, sharp memory of her first lunch at the School, when she wanted to test the hamburgers for poison.

It was her idea for me to pretend to kill myself to bring Min back. That is something I will always owe her, a debt that now will never be repaid.

She gave up everything. She fought and died for a cause that was never hers to begin with. She left her only home, her only family, for this. And now she will not even get to see her siblings grow up.

I look out the car window because I can’t bear to look at Kestrel and Doctor anymore. To my surprise, I recognize my surroundings instantly. We’re only about ten minutes away from the School, in a familiar part of town. I carefully try to wipe the tear stains away from my eyes and finger-comb my hair. I don’t want everyone to be able to instantly see my sadness. I don’t want to ruin the first moments of joyful reunion.

Jake pulls the van up to the School. He gets out and looks like he’s about to try and go find someone, but then he doesn’t. He just takes a little half-step and leans wearily against the car. I know how he feels. We’ve all seen too much today.

Mackenna starts trying to herd everyone out of the car. She grabs Storm’s sister and holds her carefully on her hip. With her free hand, she grabs Storm’s brother’s hand too. Tala is still passed out next to me.

I start to try to shake her awake, but she doesn’t respond. It’s then that I realize she’s barely breathing. I start to cry again, just because I can’t handle this, not on top of everything else. Not now.

I grab her shoulders. “Tala. Listen to me. You have to wake up.”

No response. Her eyelids don’t even flicker. She’s super out of it. I start to panic.

Everyone else is gone. I look out the window and see Mackenna walking away from me, Storm’s siblings by her side. She doesn’t see me. Nobody sees me. I’m alone with Tala and she’s dying.

“Wake up,” I scream desperately. “Don’t you dare die on me. It’s…it’s not okay. I won’t let you. Just…just no. No. You can’t die. Not now. Wake up. Wake up!”

I shake her sharply a few times. “You have to see Min! I won’t let you die!”

She doesn’t respond.

CHAPTER 26

I break down completely. I start sobbing. My nerves are already too frayed to handle this reasonably. Not after Storm and everything else. I can’t take this anymore. I can’t take one more thing.

“Don’t die,” I whimper. “Please don’t die.”

Finally, Tala’s eyelids flicker. “I’m tired,” she whispers. “But I’m not going to die. Not before I see Min.”

She struggles to get to her feet. She’s shaking all over, trembling against me. I’m afraid she won’t be able to walk, but she does, leaning heavily against me.

Min is at the door. He’s white-faced, desperately searching the group of escaped prisoners. Tala’s been in the car, and he hasn’t seen her yet. He thinks she hasn’t escaped. He looks like he might be about to start crying, which breaks my heart. He’s about to go back inside when I call out to him.

“Min!” I scream. “Wait!”

He turns, and the expression on his face is worth everything. It’s worth all the pain and fear. It is worth the crushing sadness, and the long wait, and giving up my sister to get Tala first. His face is joy, and relief. It’s the face of someone who has had an important part of themselves missing and it has finally been returned to them. It is a wonderful expression, a perfect expression. I would give anything for him to feel like that more often.

Even Storm. As soon as I think that, I bite my lip. But it’s true. Storm gave herself for Tala. Without her, this reunion never would have happened.

Tala drops. For a second my heart constricts and I think she’s fainted. Then I realize she’s turing into a wolf.

I look up and Min is a wolf too, as easily as if he had never forgotten how to do it. They’re running toward each other, meeting. Tala leaps upward and pushes him over, and then they’re nothing but a tangle of limbs, all pink tongues and wagging tails. They’re rolling on the ground, yelping with joy.

They both turn back to human and hug. Their faces are shining and they are beautiful because of it. Tala’s weakness is forgotten, but I can see that Min is still worried about her. He helps her inside. Even when they’re gone, I can feel their happiness in the air like a tangible thing. It leaves a warm space in the air, and a filled space in my heart.

But it is bittersweet. Because where Tala and Min were At standing, now there is Kestrel and Doctor, looking lost and alone. Storm should be there for them, but she’s not. They should be having a beautiful reunion scene too, but they’re not. They should be getting a happy ending, but now they can’t. They got to be a full family for what? Five minutes? And then they were ripped apart again. I feel like I can’t take it.

I’m too sad to stay here. I start to walk after Min, but then I see Liz standing in the doorway. She’s smiling out at everyone else’s reunion, but she hasn’t yet realized that she is going to get one of her own. But her husband, pregnant, is nowhere in sight. He must still be in the car. But why? Is he afraid?

I sigh, because it’s going to have to be my job to deal with this too, and all I really want to do is talk to Min and see if Tala’s okay.

I open the car door and slide in next to him.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hello Aubrey.”

I’m not really sure what to say. “Um…Liz is over there. See her? She doesn’t know you’re here yet. But you could make her really happy. Just so you know.”

He nods but doesn’t say anything.

“Do you want to go see her?”

He doesn’t respond.

“Do you…remember her?” I ask tentatively. This is awkward. I look down away from him, rubbing my hands down the length of the seatbelt, on the edge of the car. It’s a nervous, unconscious movement. The truth is, while I know that he’s recovered at least part of his memory since that day he saved me from getting tortured, I have no idea how much.

I sneak a glance up at him. He’s looking forlornly out the window. “I remember parts of her,” he says. “When I look at her, I remember that I love her. But I don’t remember the details of our life together. I don’t remember her birthday or her favorite color or even her middle name.” He looks at me suddenly, and I see real fear in his eyes. “We’ve been apart for a long time. Maybe too long to go back.”

I realize that this is one of those moments where you see an adult at their most vulnerable. All his defenses are stripped away. All he is is fear, fear of rejection, fear of more heartbreak. And I am caught up in the balance, with absolutely no idea what to say.

“She loves you,” I finally say, because after all, that is one thing I understand, and one thing I know to be true. I remember the pain in her voice as she told their story to me, the way she seemed to understand Min and I through the lens of herself. The way she protects her children, all her children, with everything she has, because she can’t lose someone she loves again. The way even now she is watching everyone else’s reunion with bittersweet eyes, missing the family she never got to have for herself.

“She loves you,” I repeat. “Still. After all these years. Go to her.”

Slowly, as if in a trance, he gets out of the car and starts to walk toward her. At first she doesn’t see him. And even when she does, it takes her a second to recognize him. They’ve been apart over fifteen years, and prison has aged him a lot.

But then her eyes widen in surprised recognition and her mouth is a little O. She stands completely still as he takes step after step, moving slowly closer to her. Her expression is guarded. I can’t tell what she’s thinking.

“Jack?” she says hesitantly once he’s close enough that she could reach out and touch him.

“It’s me.” He pauses, overcome with some unnameable emotion. “I told you I would always come back.”

And then she runs at him, and throws her arms around his neck, and he lifts her up and spins her around like they’re in high school and it’s days they’ve been separated, not years. They kiss, and when they break apart I see that Liz is crying and smiling at the same time, still shocked and disbelieving but still so, so happy.

I glance toward the door of the School. Min is there, and my heart does a little leap. He meets my eyes, and then slowly comes toward me.

“I thought you followed me inside,” he whispers.

“There was something I had to do first.” I’m whispering too, not wanting to break the magic of the moment.

“I missed you.”

My only response is a kiss. Because he is a part of me, and I missed him too.

“Storm is dead,” I mumble into his shoulder. He gasps slightly and stiffens against me.

“She is?” He sounds disbelieving, like he honestly thinks I might tell him it was a joke. I actually consider doing it for a split second. It would be nice to pretend none of this is really happening. But I don’t have that luxury.

“She’s dead. But her siblings are over there….” I start to point to them then realize they’re gone. Mackenna must have taken them inside. Probably a good idea. Who knows what such a long imprisonment could do to someone so young?

Liz and Jack are still embracing. I look over at them and see Paige and Lily leaning against the wall. Now that I’m seeing them together, I see even more clearly how much Paige looks like her father. She looks more like him than Liz even. They have the same sort of round faces, the same big eyes and splattering of freckles.

I can see that Paige recognizes him. She can’t remember him, obviously, she was too little when he left. But she must have seen pictures of him, or otherwise she’s just judging by her mother’s reaction. I can tell she wants to go to her father, but she’s not sure how. She takes a few steps forward then rushes back to the wall, like it’s a safe zone in a game of tag. Finally Lily, who can be surprisingly perceptive sometimes, grabs her hand. They walk forward together.

“Dad?” Paige whispers, so quiet I have to read her lips. But he hears. He turns toward her.

“Paige?” he says. I have no idea how he even recognizes her. He hasn’t seen her since she was a baby, before she could even talk.

I realize that I am watching this family reunion like an outsider. But I’m not. This is my family too. Liz is as much my mother as the Queen is, Paige and Lily are my sisters more than Verina. This isn’t my father yet, but he could be. He will be.

I start to walk forward, but then all of a sudden I’m too shy. I’ve talked to him a few times before, but not as his daughter. And it must be strange enough for him with Lily, who he is expected to be a father to but has never seen before in his life.

I’m afraid, afraid of rejection, afraid of being the one to screw up the family after it has just started to put itself back together. Part of me belongs here, but part of me doesn’t. I flee with Min into the safety of the School.

But the School isn’t a place of solace right now, it’s bustling with activity. The hallways are crowded with students, teachers, ex-prisoners trying to find their way and others trying to help them. I catch a glimpse of Kestrel before he turns a corner, and am again struck with how similar he is to Lily, same age, same crumpled wings. I wonder if he can fly.

No one bothers me. I must look frightening. I’m still wearing the skin-tight, black clothes, but they’re torn and filthy now. I’ve been through a battle without taking a shower, so I’m probably pretty disgusting. My eyes are red from crying over Storm, there’s blood in my hair, crescents of dirt under my fingernails. But even though no one responds to me, they part before me, giving me a path straight to Amity’s office.

“Tay’s in here, I think,” Min says.

We open the door, and Tala is already sitting up. She looks stronger, healthier.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I say. She smiles at me. I know it’s stupid, but I have to fight down a pang of jealousy. She’s been through more than I have, but somehow, with her thick straight hair and big coffee eyes, she still looks stunning. It’s not fair, considering I look like an absolute mess.

We all just kind of look at each other awkwardly for a moment. I want to say something, anything, but I’m not sure what, or how, or even why. Then Amity tells us to go away. Tala needs rest and the nurse’s office is cramped enough with all the escaped prisoners needing treatment. I know she’ll be fine though, and that’s all that matters.

Min and I are ushered back out into the hallway. I’m not really sure…where to go from here. Should I go back to my room? I’m not tired, but still, part of me wants to sleep more than anything. I want to find Mackenna, but I have no idea where she is. I hope she’s still with Kestrel and Doctor. I hope she’s taking care of them.

“Who was that guy with Liz?” Min asks curiously. I keep forgetting that no one has any idea who he is.

“It’s actually…her husband.”

He just stares at me. “Um, I’m pretty sure her husband died. Like, a long time ago.”

I shake my head. “No. I mean, everyone thought that he did, but he was just captured, apparently. So he’s here now. We got him out.”

“And he’s Paige’s father?”

“Yeah.”

“So that makes him…Lily’s father too, right? And…and yours?”

I don’t say anything for a long time. Because the truth is, I have never had a father before. I have never had anything even vaguely resembling one. Liz was without a husband, at least the whole time I was with her, and so while I had a family, I never had a father, or even the possibility of one.

But it’s more than just that. I have always been the [Princess, _]daughter of the _Queen, but I’ve never heard of the Queen having a husband. To be honest, I’m a little fuzzy on how the whole Daughter of the Wilderness thing even works. Was my real mom ever even pregnant with me? Or did I just spring into existence one day, fully formed? That seems just as possible as anything else, I’ve never heard anything that would suggest otherwise.

Is it really possible that I don’t have any sort of a father at all?

And if I’m never going to find out who he is either way, and if I’ll probably never see my mother again either, does it really matter at all?

Honestly, in most ways Liz has been more of a mother to me than the Queen has. So even if I do have a father, and he’s just some random man whose job was to make sure the Queen ended up with a Princess, is he even relevant? Or is Liz’s husband my father now in the same way that Liz is my mother? The people who are actually there to wipe away my tears and teach me how to live and protect me in their arms.

But even if that is the case, I don’t really know how to be a daughter. Not to a father. It’s not something I’ve ever really had to practice before. I’ve seen the way Mackenna interacts with her father, watched her with a fierce sort of jealousy because I can see that they mean everything to each other. Is that what I’m expected to be like now? Because…I don’t really know how.

“Yeah,” I say, answering Min’s original question. “I think he might be my dad now too.”

I think he has at least some idea of all the mixed feelings that this brings up, because he puts a hand on my shoulder. I lean into him lightly, and for a few long minutes, neither of us says anything.

“I need to go see Tay again,” he finally says. “And Aubrey,” he hesitates, “I think you should go out and see your father.”

He leaves before I have a chance to protest, to complain, to ask him to stay, to tell him I am afraid. I don’t particularly want to stand in the hallway by myself, so I do what he asked. I walk out to rejoin my family.

They aren’t there. They are no longer joyously reuniting in front of the School. I don’t know where they are. I feel suddenly a little excluded. Why didn’t they try to find me, or wait for me at least? I mean, I am a part of the family, as much as Lily is. Except that Lily has lived with Liz and Paige her entire life, that she has no idea who her real mother is and has never known a mother but Liz, that she always stays where Liz and Paige are and never just lives at the School by herself. That she’s not constantly on missions, becoming independent but also becoming alone.

Am I really part of this family after all?

 

CHAPTER 27

Everything begins to move very quickly. Min, Mackenna, and I will leave to try to find Verina in no more than a week or two. We can’t afford a larger gap than that. There’s still so much that needs to happen. There’s a sort of big battle brewing. Mercuriel’s troops are mobilizing, although no one is sure exactly where or why. Everything is coming to a head, brewing up for some massive battle, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. All we can do is be prepared.

The first night after breaking open the prison, I stay at the School. Honestly, I was mostly just hoping to get a chance to talk to Mackenna, but she’s not there and I’m stuck by myself. I think she went back to her dad’s house with Kestrel and Doctor, to take care of them, I guess.

The other prisoners mostly stay in empty rooms in the School, I think, or maybe some of them go home with magic families in town. I know a couple of them were in pretty good shape, and have already left the School in search of families or friends that they left behind when they got captured. None of the prisoners have died after getting out, so that’s something, at least.

I don’t sleep much that first night, with Storm’s face dancing in front of my eyes. The next morning, early, there are knocks at the door. I open it, expecting Mackenna, but realizing a second too late that she would never knock at the door to her own bedroom.

It’s Seth and Drew, standing in front of me and with sleepy eyes and tangled hair. “Aubrey,” Drew says. “We just heard from Min….”

Seth continues when he trails off. “Is Storm really dead?”

I stare at them for a few long seconds. “Yes.”

They both gasp. Drew reels backward. Seth just looks stunned, he reaches vaguely for the door frame. “How did it happen?” he asks hoarsely.

All of a sudden, I do not want to talk about it anymore. I don’t even want to think about it. I want to pretend it never happened, pretend I never gave her permission to go off on her own and bait the soldiers. Pretend I didn’t let another person that I care about die.

“Please, ask someone else,” I whisper. “I don’t want to talk about it. Not yet.”

They nod, sympathy in their eyes.

I remember, what feels like a lifetime ago, Storm telling me that she had a crush on Marco. I don’t know if anything ever came of that. I’ve been away too much, and even after I got back, I was too wrapped up in Min. But even if they never actually dated, I know they were really good friends, brought together by their siblings’ bond, their common loss.

I do not want Marco to come talk to me, to ask me what happened, to require sympathy that I don’t have the strength to give.

“I know this is really unfair of me to ask you, but would you mind telling everyone else? Marco, for sure, and Jessie and Rowan? And Paige, if she doesn’t know yet?”

They nod, and leave. I sink back dejectedly onto the bed.

I can’t think of a good way to avoid contact with any of the other kids my age, so I go home to Liz’s house that night. There, we have an awkward family dinner. It’s almost like one of those movies, where the whole extended family is there, but they have no idea what to say to each other.

Lily and Paige eat in silence. Liz keeps trying to make uncomfortable conversation, but it’s not really working. The most prevalent sound is that of silverware clattering against slowly emptying plates.

Liz and Jack are kind of awkward around each other, to be honest. I mean, I guess that’s to be expected. They haven’t seen each other in fifteen years. But it makes it weird to be around them as they slowly start to figure each other out again. I find myself wishing I could leave. Nobody is really talking to me. I don’t think I would be missed.

I haven’t had a real conversation with Jack since he found out I was his other daughter, presumably last night. We’ve been polite to each other, obviously, saying hello, please, thank you, all that. But we haven’t really talked, and I don’t know if it’s my fault or his. It makes things weird between us, somehow, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.

The next day, all five of us drive back to the School in relative quiet. It’s the day of Storm’s funeral, and the preparations for my next mission, to find Verina, will not begin in earnest until it is over.

I think Paige and Lily stay with Liz and Jack, but I leave as soon as I’m out of the car. I go up to the room I share with Mackenna, hoping and praying that she’ll be there.

She is. I sit on my bed, and she sits on hers, and in the half-hour while we wait for the funeral to start, we just sit, enjoying the comfort of each other’s presence.

I’m trying to think of anything, anything, but Storm. If I think of Storm there will be absolutely no way to keep from crying, and if I cry now how am I supposed to pretend to be strong? I can see Mackenna is struggling with the same thing, because she keeps biting her lip which she only does either when she’s lying or trying not to cry.

“You know Kestrel and Doctor?” she asks after a while. I’m pretty sure this is her attempt to distract us, although it’s inherently flawed, seeing as they are, in fact, Storm’s siblings.

“Yeah,” I say. “How are they? I haven’t seen them since the first day.”

“They’re actually doing really well. They’ve been staying at my house for the past two days. They’re really cute. And I think…I think my dad is thinking about adopting them.”

“Wait, really? Like, for real?”This surprises me, actually. Mackenna’s mother died when she was just a baby, and she has never been anything but an only child. It has never been anyone but her and her father. I’m glad for Kestrel and Doctor, relieved that they have managed to integrate into a new family so soon after losing their old one. It’s good to see them adjusting to life outside of prison again, especially since they’re so young.

But at the same time, I can’t fight down a small pang of jealousy. How come Mackenna’s family has been perfectly expanded by the mission, and mine just…doesn’t seem to be working?

Mackenna nods. “They’re good kids. They lost their entire family and now they have nowhere to go. I think my dad always wanted more kids, but my mom…you know. Was dead. Well, anyway, I hope he does, because I like having them around. And I’m gone a lot of the time, so I think it’s really good for him. He likes having people to take care of.” All of a sudden she smiles. “Also, I think Kestrel has a crush on Lily. Have you seen them together?”

I laugh. “No, I haven’t yet. Are they the same age?”

“I think so. Lily’s ten, right? So not really old enough for any serious dating, but you know, someday. I mean, they both have wings. That makes them practically perfect for each other.”

I smile, and for a second I really am happy, I really have forgotten about Storm. But then it’s time for the funeral, and we have to go down, and all I am again is sadness. I killed another one of my friends, through my selfishness and stupidness and fear, and now I have to continue to live with myself even though I’m not sure how anymore.

There’s no body, just an empty coffin, an empty grave. Doctor and Kestrel stand by Mackenna’s father, dressed all in black and looking somber. They’re still too thin, too pale, but now there is a faint touch of healthy color to their cheeks. Kestrel’s wings trail out limply behind him, like a young, mourning angel.

A few people speak. I’m not one of them. I’ve never been good at speaking at things like this. No matter how hard I try, I can’t find the words to commemorate the death of a friend.

Tala is one of the speakers, which I had thought was kind of funny. She never met Storm, except for like five seconds in the prison when we were all running for our lives. But once she starts talking, I understand why she wanted to do this. She is a beautiful speaker, graceful and articulate. She manages to put into words all the things I couldn’t, bravery and strength and sacrifice.

Halfway through the speech, I start crying. At first I try to hide it a little, because while it’s not weird to cry at a funeral, I don’t particularly want to be sobbing in front of all these people. But then the tears start coming too fast for me to keep wiping them away, and I just sit there, a sniffling mess, as everything I have lost threatens to swallow me up.

For a long time, no one comes to me. There are no arms of comfort to tell me it will all be okay. Mackenna is with Kestrel and Doctor, probably doing with them what I wish she was doing with me. Min is with Marco. He looks heartbroken, so he and Storm probably were dating, I guess. That just makes me cry harder.

But after a while, an arm goes around my shoulder. It’s one of the other kids our age, Rowan or Paige, probably. Maybe Liz, if she’s not busy comforting someone else. I lean into it, closing my eyes as the tears continue to drip softly down my cheeks.

But when I open my eyes, it is not Rowan or Paige or Liz who has their arm around me. It is Jack, looking down at me with sympathy and confusion and love. Staring at his arm as if he’s not quite sure how it got there. Staring at my face as if he’s dreading the moment when I’ll ask him to take it away.

And this is how we connect. Not with words or long, heartfelt conversations. Just with simple touches, a shoulder when I need one to cry on. This careful, fragile contact is a relationship I can live with, a relationship that makes me feel safe. This is a kind of daughter I can be.

I am suddenly so, so grateful that Jack is here.

As Tala’s speech winds to a close, I stop crying. Jack sits down next to me, a comforting presence if I need one, no more, no less. And after Tala steps down, I am left feeling satisfied, weirdly, inspired almost. I am not left with the feeling that her death was for nothing. I am not left with quite as much of the crushing hopelessness.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 28

After the funeral, things start moving fast again. Min, Mackenna and I start preparing for the mission to find Verina. We get maps and plans, and Mackenna finally reads the journal. We’re constantly working, and that’s good, I think, because it distracts me and keeps me from feeling sad.

Tala moves back into her old room with Rowan. A lot of her stuff is still there, although some of it was replaced by me, during my brief stint there, and a lot of it was replaced by

Storm. It’s lucky in a very depressing way she’s gone, because otherwise Tala wouldn’t get her old room back, and she would have to stay by herself.

Tala starts getting in shape again too. She’s dangerously skinny. She’s trying to get back up to a healthy weight as quickly as possible, and she’s eating so much it makes her sick. For a year and a half she’s been eating prison food, so her stomach isn’t used to rich things. But it’s only a week before I can’t see her ribs so clearly anymore, and she’s no longer so fragile I’m worried that she’ll be knocked over by the wind.

She starts running and working out again, too. Min, Mackenna and I help her train. At first she can barely even walk a mile, it’s been that long since she got any exercise. But she is determined, and slowly but steadily her strength returns.

Liz tells me that before I leave for my next mission, I need to practice flying with Arden, my dragon. Bringing my mother back will depend on my ability to get to the shrine, which will depend on my ability to fly with Arden.

And it’s not just that. About a week and a half after the semi-disastrous mission to Mercuriel’s prison, we receive word that Mercuriel’s army is moving again. This time, though, we know where. It’s to a place in Colorado, another magical realm. The place where, according to the elves, the village that the three sisters grew up in used to be situated. The place where the shrine is.

Theoretically, Mercuriel has no idea where the shrine itself is. I’m sure Verina would protect that knowledge with everything she had, and I can’t imagine there being any way that Mercuriel could find out. Mercuriel must know [_something _]though. Liz tells me that she thinks it’s probably a lucky guess by Mercuriel for the most part.

She knows that something happened that prevented the Queen from completely dying, otherwise the magic barrier would be down and Mercuriel would be able to use magic against non-magic people. She also probably suspects that this has something to do with Verina. Since Verina spent almost her entire life in the village where the three sisters grew up, it makes sense that Mercuriel would assume that whatever Verina did, it happened there. Unfortunately for us, she’s right.

Basically, what I’m told that that means is that a big battle is going to go down there. There’s so many of them that there’s no way I can try to be stealthy and just sneak into the shrine with Arden. I would be destroyed. As soon as Mercuriel sees me, and realizes that her hunch was right, she’ll kill me, not to mention eradicate the shrine and ruin our only chance at winning. We will have to try to assemble an army that can rival hers, and fight our way in. As far as I can tell, everything will come down to that battle. We will win the battle, win the war.

Or the other way around.

Which is why I really need to practice flying with Arden. It will be essentially up to her and my skill in riding her, to make sure I don’t get killed, and make it to the shrine. If that doesn’t happen, then essentially everything we’re doing is for nothing. Arden and I need to be good enough at flying and fighting that we can protect ourselves and win the war, and if we can’t do that, then thousands of people will die that day for nothing.

So, obviously, any practice we’re doing is pretty important.

Arden, my dragon, doesn’t stay at the School most of the time. There’s nowhere here for her to hunt or fly. So she goes to the nearest place she can comfortably stay, which isn’t really nearby at all. She stays there most of the time, and I barely see her, only once every couple of weeks or so. That will have to change now.

Even from this far away, she can sense my mind when I call out to her. I can tell she starts flying to me immediately, but it still takes her a while to get to the School. I wait almost an hour before she’s finally close enough that I can really feel her.

When her consciousness comes into my range, I can feel it like a physical impact. I run outside then, and there she is, landing in the courtyard that’s barely big enough for her, almost knocking me over with the force of her wings, and tearing chunks of earth out of the ground with her claws.

I look behind me and see that Tala, for some reason, has followed me out. She looks a little overwhelmed by Arden’s size. After over a year in a cell smaller than my bedroom, everything has the power to surprise her.

Even though Tala looks frightened, she walks forward and very gently touches Arden’s side. “You’re very beautiful,” Tala breathes.

“Thank you, little one.” Arden’s voice rumbles through my mind, and I can tell from Tala’s expression that she can hear her too. Then she turns to me. “I have missed you, princess. Why have you called me?”

“We need to practice flying together,” I say. “And fighting and stuff. You might even need to stay here for a couple days.”

“But you are leaving again soon?”

“Yeah. I’m going to visit Verina. My sister.”

“May I come with you?” she asks.

“No,” I say, a little sadly. “We’re trying to keep the group small. You’re too big. You would attract too much attention.”

Tala looks over at me, as if something has suddenly dawned on her. “Aubrey…could I come?”

I actually consider it for a heartbeat. I like Tala, and it would be nice for her to come along. But overall, for Tala’s sake and the sake of the mission, I don’t think it would be a good idea for her to come. “No,” I say. “You’re still too weak. It would be dangerous for you to come.”

“But…I’m not weak anymore.” She says it matter-of-factly, like she’s stating something obvious and completely true. “I’ve been working hard ever since I’ve gotten out of prison. I’m stronger than any of the other escaped prisoners.”

“Talk to Liz about it. I’m not in charge.” I realize that arguing against Tala is pointless. She’s too in control of her emotions, too smart and good with words. She can ask someone else.

Once Tala is gone, I turn back to Arden. “We only have a few days to do this, so we should start.”

She lowers her shoulder to the ground to make it easier for me to climb on. “No,” I say. “Just stand. That’s what it’ll be like in the real battle. We won’t have time for you to…help me out or anything.”

But as soon as I try actually getting onto her while she’s standing, I regret telling her too. It’s hard, and I feel like I’m not strong enough. But I was right, it is more realistic, more like what the real battle will be like, so I suck it up and keep trying.

Arden’s scales are smooth and hot, and do not really provide good purchase. There’s not much to hold on to. I finally manage to get a hand around a spike on her back, but I’m not strong enough to pull myself up one-handed, and I can’t seem to swing myself up high enough to get my other hand around. The effort of it makes my shoulder ache.

I end up kind of boosting myself up with magic, which I know is cheating. As soon as I’m on, she takes off fast and I have to cling to her. She starts doing complicated aerial acrobatics and it’s all I can do to hold on, let alone fight.

“Can you fly a little straighter?” I yell over the rushing wind.

“This is what a real battle would be like,” she says calmly into my head. “You have to be able to fight when I’m flying like this.”

“I’m going to take my hands off. If I fall, catch me.”

I cautiously take my hands off, start to lose my balance, and snap them back on to catch myself. I need to get a better feel for what she’s doing before I go hands-free. And I need to learn to go hands-free before we actually make a go for the shrine. Otherwise, how will I hold weapons?

I start to pay attention to the way her muscles tense up before each different maneuver, the subtle ways her body shifts before flipping or turning or diving. That way I can prepare myself instead of getting thrown around.

Finally I think I’m ready to take my hands off again. I’m still clinging tightly with my thighs, but my hands are in the air. Every muscle in my body is tense. I keep expecting to fall off, but I don’t. I sway with Arden’s movements and stay balanced. After a while, I relax a little bit.

I try to imagine fighting like this. It would be hard because of the lack of stability and purchase, but I think I could do it. Maybe, maybe, this just might work.

When Arden finally lands I’m exhausted, but exhilarated. Once I got the hang of it, flying was kind of fun. But now every muscle in my body is sore and cramping. I slither off her back and almost fall.

“Are you alright, princess?” Arden asks me. I suddenly fiercely appreciate the way she uses princess as a nickname rather than a title.

“I’m fine,” I say. “Just tired. That was…more work than I expected.”

“You will need a lot more work.” Her voice isn’t condescending, but it makes me feel vaguely defensive regardless. Obviously I need more work. Basically the entire future of the world rests on it. I’m trying my best. I don’t say anything, but Arden correctly interprets my silence.

Even though we don’t really know each other all that well, she still knows me too well. Probably has something to do with the fact that we can see into each other’s heads.

“But you will do fine. Princess, we will win this. You’ll see.”

“Okay, Arden,” I say. I really, really want to believe her, but I’m not entirely sure I do. Still, it’s nice to have someone have complete confidence in you. “Thanks.”

That night, as I’m getting ready for bed, Min knocks on my door in what appears to be a state of panic. “What?” I ask before he can get any words out. “What’s wrong now?”

He stares at me, as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing. I sigh, hopefully in a way that he can’t tell. I’m exhausted, and I don’t particularly want to deal with whatever this is. I’m exhausted. I really just want to go to bed so I can prepare for another long, early day tomorrow.

“Did you tell Tala that she could come with us to find Verina?”

“Um, no?” I say.

“Well, she’s saying that she’s coming with us now.”

“What?” I lean heavily against the door frame. I’m too tired for this right now.

“She says she’s coming with us. On the mission to find Verina. And that you said she could.”

I groan. “Min, I didn’t say anything like that. She asked me if she could come, and I said no, that it was too dangerous. But she kept bothering me about it, so I finally told her if she really wanted a different answer, she could talk to Liz.”

Min closes his eyes and swears softly. “Liz must have said she could go. She just came up to me all excited and said she was coming with us.”

“And this is…a bad thing?”

“Yeah. She’s not ready to go on a mission yet. She’s still so weak from the prison. She’ll be in so much extra danger. What if she gets hurt or something? She should stay here, where she’ll be safe.”

Now it’s my turn to stare at Min in disbelief. [Min _]is suggesting that someone stay home and stay safe, suggesting that some things might be too dangerous? If it was him who had just gotten out of the prison, of course he would want to go on the mission, and he would fight for it fiercely. Even if it was me who had just gotten out of prison, he would still be fighting for my right to go. But for some reason when it’s Tala, all of a sudden _safety is the priority.

It’s confusing. And weird.

“Wait,” I say, just to clarify. “So you don’t want Tala to go? You think it’s…too dangerous?”

“Yes,” he says empathetically.

I’m too tired to deal with this. This weird hypocritical irony should not be my job.

“Well, not much I can do about it now. Sorry.” And then I lunge forward a little, kiss him on the lips, and slam the door in his face.

The next day there’s a flurry of preparation to incorporate Tala into the mission, which will now leave in four days instead of three. I fly with Arden again, and I get a little better. Min doesn’t really seem mad at me for our awkward nighttime encounter, which is a relief. Tala seems excited, and that’s always good. It’s probably been a really long time since she’s felt genuinely excited.

That’s how the next few days go by like too. Prepare for the mission, fly with Arden, try vaguely and fail to balance Tala’s safety and happiness in a way that makes Min happy.

And then it’s time to leave.

CHAPTER 29

Verina’s home is, according to the elves, pretty near the place we found Arden, so it takes us a while to get there. A few days of riding in a car, which would be boring if it weren’t for Min, Tala, and Mackenna.

Finally, we arrive there. Liz’s hands keep fluttering nervously around her chest. She is worried for us, so worried that for a second I’m afraid she won’t let us go. But she does, reluctantly. We’re on our own. Again.

We don’t know where exactly Verina is. The elves could get close enough to sense her presence, but she wouldn’t let them get close enough to really find her hiding place. But it shouldn’t be all that hard, I figure. Verina must want to talk to me, right? She’ll make herself accessible.

My goal is to find her as quickly as possible. I don’t particularly want to be stuck wandering around once it gets dark, to be eaten by dragons or bears or picked off by Mercuriel’s soldiers. I extend my consciousness, hoping her presence will be large enough that I’ll be able to find her that way.

But for some reason, it doesn’t work. I can’t seem to focus on the search. I’ll extend my mind, keep forcing myself to go further, but then have my concentration shattered. I keep having to return to myself. I can’t figure out what my problem is. This sort of thing normally isn’t difficult for me.

It’s not until I’ve tried several times that I realize what must be going on. Somehow Verina must be blocking my consciousness, keeping me from finding her. She’s the one that’s forcing me backward, like I keep hitting some sort of impenetrable wall. She’s pitting the strength of her own consciousness against mine. It’s an interesting idea, something I never even imagined was possible. But if she’s blocking me, how will I be able to locate her?

I come back to myself for the final time. “Do you know where she is?” Mackenna asks.

I shake my head, panting a little from the strange effort. “She’s doing something to me, blocking me somehow. I can’t seem to…concentrate, I guess. I’m not going to be able to find her. We’re just going to have to search everywhere.”

“She’s blocking you?” Min asks skeptically, as if the idea of someone’s consciousness being more powerful than mine is just inconceivable.

Mackenna’s eyes widen. “The mountains are huge. It will take forever.”

Tala just stares at me, confused. I realize that she hasn’t really been around long enough to know all of my powers yet. She probably has no idea what I even mean by extending my consciousness. Somehow, now doesn’t seem like the time to explain it, though.

“I have an idea,” Min says suddenly. And just like that, he turns into a wolf and drops to all fours. He raises his head in the air, nose twitching, ears pricked forward. Then he morphs back into human, stumbling a little. I reach out to steady him.

Once, before the spear and the poison and everything, he could change into a wolf flawlessly, in a split second. That was how he fought, changing fluidly between his two forms, effortless and graceful. But the change is not like that for him anymore, it requires concentration and effort and time. In all likelihood, it will never be smooth and quick again. He’s been too badly damaged.

“What was that?” Tala asks, who’s sort of looking like she wants to turn into a wolf too, just to not be left out.

“I can smell them,” he says.

“Verina?” I ask quickly.

He shakes his head. “No. Not Verina, exactly. I can smell her dragon though. Just follow me.”

He shakes the wolf back over himself, and this time Tala follows suit. Mackenna and I exchange a quick glance, and she shrugs. We start scrambling over rocks and low shrubs, following the two of them as best as we can.

At one point I change into a jaguar too, just to see if I can catch the scent that they’re following. I can, but only very faintly. If I couldn’t see where Min and Tala were going, I don’t think I would have noticed it.

It’s a magic smell, sharp and familiar. I can’t quite place it, but I know I’ve smelled something very similar to this before. It takes me another ten minutes of following the trail before I remember where. This magic smells almost identical to mine.

They eventually leads us to a mountain. After awhile of awkwardly climbing after them, I see that there’s a high cave halfway up the side. I’m guessing that’s where we’ll have to climb up to.

Min shifts back into human. He shakes his head. “I lost the scent. But she’s probably up there.” He points to the same cave I noticed, carved into the mountainside high above us.

I extend my consciousness outward again. This time it feels less like I’m being distracted, and more like I’m being forcefully pushed away. I’m quite sure this is the place. Very few people would have the strength to block my mind like that, but I’m guessing Verina is one of them.

“We have to climb up there?” Mackenna sounds dismayed. I don’t really want to do it either. It looks like a long, steep climb.

But we have to start up, because we have to get to Verina. It’s difficult. There’s no path, and trees and low bushes block our way. We’re constantly going around boulders and stumbling over smaller rocks. Pebbles make the footing treacherous. We’re constantly sending small stones skittering down the side of the mountain.

Before long, my limbs are burning. We’re hiking fast as we can, uphill, with no stops. I’m panting. It’s too hot for exertion like this.

I’m forced to turn into a jaguar to conserve energy. Min changes back into a wolf too, and Tala never even bothers changing to human. I feel bad for Mackenna, who is lagging behind. She can’t change into an animal. And now she has no one left to talk to.

It feels like hours of walking before we even get close to the cave. We decide to approach it slowly, just in case it’s not Verina. I’m almost positive it is, though. I can feel it, sense her presence vibrating through me. Like I’m perceiving, except it’s not the future, it’s my present.

At the last minute, right before entering the cave, I get a little nervous and grab Min’s hand. He looks a little surprised, but appreciative. He doesn’t pull away. Mackenna smiles a tiny bit, but then pain flashes across her face. I know she’s thinking about Ryan. And just as the pain of losing a loved one never goes away, the pain of killing a friend’s loved one barely even fades. I keep holding onto Min though.

The temperature drops dramatically as soon as we enter the cave. The air is cool and moist, thick with the taste of minerals and moss. I can hear dripping water farther in, distorted with echo. The air is so dark I can’t see anything.

I start to walk blindly forward, but Mackenna pulls me back. She allows a tiny flame to grow in her hand, lighting the way in front of us. Eery shadows are thrown a long the rough wall. Mackenna’s face is cast into sharp relief. But at least now I can see what’s around me.

I take another step forward and gasp. Only feet in front of me is a sheer drop, so deep I can’t even see the bottom. If I’d been alone, if Mackenna hadn’t been there, I would have died.

There’s a path winding to my left. It’s made of rough stone steps cut into the cliff side. The rock is wet and slippery with moss. I tentatively step forward. The footing is dangerous, but I have the balance of a jaguar. Even so, I cling to the side of the rock face, leaving as much room as I can between me and the drop.

It’s not that I’m afraid of heights, exactly, but I am afraid of heights I can’t see. I’m sweating slightly, feeling panic build in my chest and throat. I try not to look down at the drop, but I can’t help it. I put my hand on the rock, and see it’s shaking.

Min notices it too. He puts a steadying hand on the small of my back. I’m not really any more stable than before, but his touch comforts me. I relax, knowing that Min is here, that he will always catch me.

Mackenna allows the fire lighting our path to grow bigger. It illuminates the cavern, catching on tiny jewels embedded in the walls. It’s much larger than I realized. I can see an area bigger than a football field, and that’s not even the end. In front of us, the path separates. One continues in the same direction as before, and one branches off in a new direction. The new path doesn’t have a wall on either side, it’s just a narrow bridge of rock. I’m afraid to walk on that one. It looks slippery, and if I fell there would be nothing to save me from a certain death.

“Which way should we go?” I mean it to be a whisper, but my voice bounces of the walls until it sounds like I screamed it. I flinch. If we were wrong, if it is not Verina in this cave, than we have just condemned ourselves.

“What do you want?” a new voice replies. It echoes against the wall until I can’t tell where in the cavern it was spoken from. It’s a female voice, I’m praying it’s Verina, but it still makes my heart tighten in my chest.

“Why are you here?” It’s the same voice, but it overlaps with the first sentence and sounds like it’s coming from somewhere else. It’s eerie.

I hesitate. I’m suddenly afraid. I don’t want to say something back. I don’t want this to be a mistake.

“Are you Verina?” Min suddenly calls, startling me.

“Who wants to know?” It sounds like it’s coming from yet another place.

I finally find my voice. “I’m the Lost Princess of the Wilderness,” I scream into the darkness. It echoes around the cave, magnifying itself, making me sound more powerful than I really am.

“Prove it.”

I pause. How do I prove that I am the Daughter of the Wilderness? I have to do something drastic, something that leaves no room for doubt. On a spur of the moment, I decide to call on the nearest dragon, have it come over and roar or something. That would be a good show of power, I think.

I reach my consciousness outward. Now that I’m actually in the cave, the strange barriers are holding me immobile, making it impossible for me to contact anything. But I push at them, weakening them until I can thrust them aside.

A dragon’s consciousness blazes to life. It’s close, much closer than I ever would have guessed. There’s a dragon in the cave with me. I had forgotten about Drayne. Verina’s dragon. Of course he’s here.

For a second, I flinch away. I’m surprised, not sure what to do. But I recover quickly and go with my original plan.

“Roar!” I command it.

“No,” its voice speaks into my head as clearly as Arden’s does. It is calm and cool. I push harder against its mind, but it is like pushing at something wet and slippery. I keep sliding off, I can’t seem to get a grip.

“Please,” I beg.

“No. I am not going to roar right now.” The contact retreats from my mind. I scramble desperately after it, but it’s gone, shielded. I come back to myself, disappointed.

I’m about to ask how to prove that I’m a Daughter of the Wilderness when the voice starts speaking again.

“You contacted my dragon?”

I start to panic. “I’m, um, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean to….”

She pauses for a long moment. For a few seconds I am afraid that she will never come back to us. I feel like I can’t breathe. But finally, she speaks again.

“Walk down the curving path. I will be waiting for you at the bottom.”

I look at the two paths. The curving one is clearly the one that goes straight out and stops hugging the wall. I wince. I don’t really want to walk on it, but I have no choice.

“Aubrey….” Mackenna says, but she knows there’s nothing she can say to stop me, not really. We didn’t come all this way for nothing.

I take a few deep, steadying breaths and then change into a jaguar. My balance automatically increases. I start down the path without giving myself time to think about it. I gasp. The rocks are wet and sort of slippery, and the path narrows quickly so I have to put all four paws in a row.

I look back. Mackenna is trying to follow me, but she almost loses her balance on the slender path. I change briefly back into human, staying in a crouch, wobbling a little.

“Wait here,” I say. “I’ll go down alone and talk to her. I’ll see if there’s another way to the bottom for you.”

Min changes into a wolf and starts to come after me. “You too. Wait a second,” I hiss at him. He ducks his head and puts his tail between his legs like a reprimanded puppy.

The path is dangerous. Some parts are slick with almost invisible water. Once, my paws slip out from under me and I barely stay on the ridge. I dig my claws in with each step. The rocks are loose in many places, and my steps send them skittering. I can hear them bounce and clatter against the cavern wall for a long time before hitting the bottom. I imagine my body doing that. I wince and try not to think about it again.

I can feel the path sloping slowly downward. Even so, it seems to take hours before I reach the bottom. I’m out of breath and my muscles are trembling from keeping them clenched for so long.

Finally, I get to the bottom. I turn into a human and stand up, but almost immediately I have to sit down again. My legs burn. I close my eyes briefly.

“You really are the princess,” a voice next to me whispers. I flinch but don’t have the strength to jump away.

I turn toward the voice. It’s a woman. It’s hard to pinpoint what age she is. Her skin is still smooth and her hair is blonde, but she gives the impression of a very old woman regardless. There is a lot of me in her, our noses and eyes are the same shape, we have similar hair.

“Verina?” I whisper.

“Aubrey?” Her voice is tender. “I hoped so much it was you.”

CHAPTER 30

I close my eyes softly, relief coursing through my body. Slowly, I let my limbs relax. It’s Verina. Verina my sister is here, and she will take care of me, and everything will be okay.

“Is there another way down for my friends?” I ask her, my voice already a little stronger.

She nods. “Both ways lead to the bottom.”

“Min, Mackenna, Tala,” I call out to them. But my voice cracks with exhaustion. There’s no way they can hear me.

“The other path also leads down to the bottom. Aubrey’s here and she’s safe,“Verina yells up to them.

There’s no answer for several minutes. Finally, Mackenna screams something back. I can’t hear what it is, so I have to hope it’s an affirmative. I have to hope that they’ll be coming.

I breathe a sigh of relief when my friends make it down safely. They don’t look as exhausted as I was, probably because their path was easier.

“Um, these are my friends, Mackenna, Min, and Tala.”

“Nice to meet you,“Verina says, smiling at them.

My friends stand frozen. I start to nudge Mackenna, but Tala recovers first. “Nice to meet you too.” She reaches out and they shake hands. I’m filled with sudden love for Tala, my brave friend who is polite to my sister and trusts me unconditionally.

“We need to go to Drayne,“Verina says. “I won’t discuss anything without him.”

“Discuss?” I say. To be completely honest, I hadn’t realized there was anything to discuss. I didn’t have much of a plan for what to do once we got here. We need to talk about…the shrine I guess, and the upcoming battle, but I don’t really know what else. I guess a big part of me had just wanted sympathy.

“Drayne?” Tala asks at almost the same time. I realize, suddenly, that the name is unfamiliar to Tala. She has never read the journal. I’m sure she knows Verina has a dragon, but just not how intrinsic that dragon is to my sister.

“That’s her dragon,” Min whispers to Tala before I have a chance to answer.

We follow Verina into the back of her hollow mountain. It’s almost pitch black, and that makes the distance seem longer. I’m just starting to get nervous when there’s a glimmer of light up ahead. There’s a hole, like a window, in the side of the mountain, and sunlight streams down from it like a spotlight.

And basking in the light from that single sunbeam is Drayne. He is absolutely magnificent. I thought Arden was big, but she is a child to him. It’s like he’s a toy from a different play set, perfectly proportional, although dwarfing my dragon so completely it makes him seem almost pretend. His scales are milk, or snow, or diamonds. I never knew there were so many shades of white in existence.

He blinks one sleepy silver eye at me. His eyes are bigger than Arden’s too, and where her pupils are like a cat’s, his are perfectly round. He gets slowly to his feet. Standing up, he is overwhelmingly large, and looking at him like that is starting to give me vertigo.

I have not been afraid of dragons since the day I met Arden, when she could have killed me a thousand times but instead she spoke with me, agreed to help me for no other reason than that I was a princess. But if I ever were to be afraid again, it would be now. Drayne could crush me with one claw.

I can feel his huge consciousness without even trying. He has so much knowledge amassed over the years that it’s literally leaking out of him, practically knocking me over, almost incomprehensible.

Almost without thinking, I grab Min’s hand. His touch helps to ground me.

Verina is looking expectantly at me. She is waiting to hear why I came all this way to find her. I open my mouth to tell her, and then stop. I realize, with a pang of nerves, that this, right now, is the first time I’m being forced to think about why I came here at all.

I guess, if I’m being honest with myself, I just wanted to see her, to verify that she really is real. That I’m not alone. But she is expecting a plan, or a request, or something, so I just start talking.

“We know where your shrine is,” I say. “But the enemy does too. Or at least, they sort of do. They’re close by, guarding it, but they can’t destroy it or anything.”

“And you’re going to use it to bring our mother back?”

I nod. “I’m going to try.”

“You’re very brave.” Her eyes are pitying, and there’s another expression in them that I can’t read.

“Um, thanks.” There’s something in her voice, in her face, that makes me do a double take. “Wait, why?”

She blinks, like she can’t quiet figure out what I’m asking. “Sacrificing your life is very brave. It’s one of the bravest things you can do. I don’t even know if I could do it.”

For a split second, I have absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. And then the air rushes out of my lungs. I gasp, stiff with shock. My heart speeds up involuntarily, and I can’t seem to breathe properly. I realize I’m squeezing Min’s hand, crushing it in my grip.

“So you mean…that in order to get my mother back, I have to die?”

She nods slowly. Then, all of a sudden, her expression softens. “Oh, sister. You didn’t know.”

I shake my head, then slowly sink to the rough stone floor, dragging Min with me. I’m shaking, hard, like I’m about to fly apart. I close my eyes, because maybe that way I can pretend to have imagined what I just heard. I hide in the darkness for as long as I can.

When I finally open my eyes, Verina is kneeling in front of me. Her expression one of tender concern, like I’m a baby turtle she found lying on the side of the road.

I wrap my arms all the way around my head, peeking through a tiny gap in between them. “I’m still going to do it,” I whisper in a little voice that doesn’t even sound like mine. “I have to bring my mother back. But I thought…I thought I would have a mother after that. That she would come and make everything okay. I just thought….” I break off, taking a gasping, ragged breath. “Why did I let myself believe that for so long. I should have…should have known something like this would happen. I was never meant to survive this war.”

And then I start to cry, right there in front of everyone, big wordless tears of pain.

Verina hugs me, and I realize I really am happy to have gotten to see her. She is my sister, and she understands my burden, the desperate struggle to live up to everyone’s expectations.

Min, Tala, and Mackenna are all circled anxiously around me. They’re afraid for me, I realize. The true knowledge that I have maybe a couple months to live hasn’t fully sunk in, but they still have a vague, indefinable fear for the future, for me, without truly understanding all the implications yet.

Or, wait. Maybe those are my feelings.

I can see that Verina is upset, and she isn’t really sure what to do about me. She keeps starting to say something, breaking off. Her hands flutter anxiously around me. “Is there anything you need? That I can get you?”

I’m about to answer, even though I’m not really sure what I want, when Drayne interrupts. His voice, like the rest of him, is so huge as to seem impossible, low and loud as an avalanche, broadcast into all our heads. “She needs rest.”

The dragon has spoken. No one protests. The truth is, he’s right. I do need rest. I need time to recover.

Verina leads me to a small room cut right into the side of the mountain. There’s a mattress on the ground and a few drawers and things pushed against the wall. It’s dark, a small lantern near the entrance provides the only illumination.

I lie down on the mattress and gaze up at the stone ceiling. I hear the exiting footsteps of my sister and friends. Min leaves last.

“Wait,” I call out to him, weakly. He pauses and comes back to sit by my bed.

I’m reminded of the day, so long ago, when I first found out I was the Lost Princess. That was another time that I was so overwhelmed with responsibilities, so insignificant in a world with such big plans for me that I couldn’t bear to be alone. I called out to Min that time too, but he was awkward and silent. This time though, it’s different. He comes and sits by my bed and strokes my hair and whispers to me until I fall asleep.

CHAPTER 31

That night, I dream of sacrifice. I see Min, leaping in front of the spear, bleeding into the snow, saving my life. I see him still and silent and dead. I see Storm, whispering ‘Goodbye’ and turning the corner. I hear her scream, and echo it with one of my own. Ryan, who I sacrificed. He never really had a choice, but he allowed Mackenna and I to live. I see shadowy future shapes, people who haven’t sacrificed themselves yet but will, maybe for me.

Then I see something I’ve never seen before, or at least not something I remember. But I’m not perceiving. This is the past I’m seeing, not the future. It’s my mother, sacrificing herself for me. I don’t know if it’s a dream from my mother, or if it’s a long suppressed memory. Either way, it’s sharp, vivid, a movie.

I’m playing with a string of beads on a smooth wooden floor. It’s a mindless, pointless game. The beads are part of a necklace, belonging to my mother, I think. Each little circle is a different kind of stone, all polished to an identical perfect shine. I like the way it clicks along the ground.

I’m small. I can feel my little body, see my fat, uncoordinated fingers as they struggle to maneuver the beads. I’m in a little cottage. Sunlight streams through the windows, but it’s dappled in a way that tells me we are surrounded by thick woods. The cottage is small but neat, a hardwood floor, a quilted bed.

My mother is sitting on the bed. I realize this is the first time I’ve seen her as a human, and I stare at her openly. She is the Queen, the white jaguar from my dream, my mom.

Her hair is, for the most part, just like mine. It’s rich and golden, the same not-quite-curly, not-quite-straight that has always annoyed me but looks amazing on her. It reaches all the way down her back, and flowers are woven through it. Her eyes are as green as mine used to be, like spring grass or something. She is dressed in a gray silk dress that seems to shift into a thousand colors when it hits the light. She’s taller than I am, slender, a willow. I know that she’s old, ancient even, but she looks barely thirty.

She sees me looking at her and smiles at me. She rises, and I think she’s about to come to me, but there’s a sound at the door. For a second, the Queen freezes. It’s only for a heartbeat, less even. But after that one second, it’s too late.

The door blasts open. Tempeste, looking much the same as when I saw her, stands there. Her blue eyes take the entire cabin in. She sees me, and her eyes narrow. Then, before I can even understand what’s happening, there’s a knife in her hand and she’s throwing it at me.

Pain explodes across my shoulder. The knife is embedded in my chubby arm. I start to cry, loud, wailing baby screams.

Tempeste grabs me, holding me across her chest. She rips the knife out of my arm. Blood rushes over me, horrifying me. I start to scream louder. My mother starts to rush toward me, but then there’s cold metal being pressed against my neck. When I breathe in, the blade cuts into my windpipe, burning like ice.

“Make another move and she dies.”

My mother freezes. Her eyes dart around the room, trying to find a way to get me out of Tempeste’s grip before she can cut my throat.

“Put your hands out.”

My mother holds her hands out, but there is a glimmer in her eyes and I know she is about to do magic. She throws her arms out but Tempeste is too fast for her. The knife bites into my neck again, and it hurts so much I can’t make a sound.

My mother is desperate. She is breathing fast, her eyes darting and panicked. I see it when she gives up. She reaches her hands out, but there is no trick this time. She won’t risk my life again.

Tempeste binds her hands with water, heating it up so it leaves blisters everywhere it touches. My mother drops to her knees, tucking her burning wrists against her body.

As soon as my mother goes down, Tempeste drops me. My injured arm hits the floor, and I’m afraid I’m going to pass out. My whole body is slippery with blood.

My mother is lying sideways, her position mirroring mine. Our eyes meet, hers dark and frightened, mine dimming from blood loss.

And I realize that my mother is strong. Even with the skin being burned off her wrists, she can do magic. Enough to escape. But she doesn’t.

Instead, she extends her hands outward as much as she can, toward me. The magic is invisible, but I can still feel it wash over me. It heals my wounds. The pain fades to a dull throb. I’m still weak from blood loss.

But my mother doesn’t stop. She takes a few deep breaths, steadying herself, gathering her energy. The world is all shadows now, so I don’t see her throw the magic toward me. But I feel myself squeezed and stretched. Everything goes black, but it is not the darkness of sleep. I’m flying, or floating, or something. I can feel my body traveling, shifting through space.

I can’t breathe. My chest is compressed until I’m sure I’m going to pass out. All around me is blackness, the darkest blackness I have ever seen. I have a few more seconds to feel paralyzing fear, and then there’s nothing.

I realize after a minute that it’s only dark now because my eyes are closed. I blink them open, and light floods my vision. I’m in a field, but there’s a road to one side of me. I can hear cars going by. My arm and neck are throbbing, but I’m exhausted. I don’t have the energy to cry. I let my eyes slip closed and hope that someone will find me….

CHAPTER 32

I wake up gasping, in a cold sweat. For a second I’m not sure where I am. Brown stone walls, a thin bed, a lantern, everything is whirling around me. I see Min asleep in a chair, and this helps steady me. I watch him until I can start to catch my breath.

I need water. There’s another door, aside from the one I came in, and I pray that it leads to a bathroom. I get up, but pitch dizzily forward. I catch myself on the bed and stumble past Min. I wrench the door open and tumble inside.

It is a bathroom, and I gasp in relief. It’s surprisingly comfortable and modern, even more than the room it was attached to. I brace myself on the sink. I let the water run until it’s cold, then splash my face and drink some with my hands.

There’s a mirror hanging above the sink. I look at myself in it. I’m pale and damp-looking, with sharp shadows under my eyes. Slowly, I pull down the collar of my shirt. There’s a faint white line where Tempeste’s knife bit into my skin. I’m surprised I haven’t noticed it before.

I drag my sleeve up to check for the scar on my arm. This one I have noticed before, although I had no idea what it was. It’s an irregular patch, slightly darker than my skin, smaller than a penny. This is where the point of Tempeste’s knife entered my skin. I had always assumed it was a birth mark. I had never had any reason to believe differently.

My hands are shaking. I touch the scars on my neck and arm and take more steadying breaths. This story, the story of my mother’s death, is not one I’ve heard before. There was no one there who could tell me, no one who knew what happened. I had no idea that my mother could have escaped. That she used even her last scraps of energy to keep me safe.

And then, all of a sudden, I remember last night. That I am supposed to die. I have to sacrifice myself to bring my mother back and end the war.

“I am going to die,” I whisper. And then my knees give way and I slide to the floor. I bury my head in my hands and start to cry.

Before long, everything is rushing up to drown me and I can’t seem to breathe anymore. My hands are shaking, and I wrap them around my knees but that still doesn’t get them to stop. I’m gasping, sobbing, reaching out for a life that’s been torn away from me, for a lifeline that won’t appear.

I suddenly feel too overwhelmed to even continue to sit up, and I crumple sideways to the floor. I curl into the fetal position, my head pressed up against the base of the toilet. I keep sobbing, trying to drag in shuddering breaths but barely able to. I’m hyperventilating now, and my chest and throat hurt, and there’s tears and snot dripping down my face and into my mouth.

Min hears me. I hear the door open. I don’t look up though. I don’t care if he’s here. He can’t save me. No one can now.

“Aubrey,” he whispers, and I can’t tell if it’s a question or a statement or meant to be comforting. I don’t respond. I’m crying too hard.

Carefully, he kneels down and scoops me into his arms. He pulls my body against him, and he is warm and solid, and I really am glad that he’s here for me. I turn my face into his chest and keep on crying into his shirt. And that’s sort of comforting, it’s better to be crying into someone than crying all by yourself.

Min pats me on the back a little awkwardly, but at least he’s not running away in fear as soon as he’s seen me completely falling apart. After a little while, Mackenna and Tala must have heard too, and they come in. I can tell neither of them is really sure what to do, so they just stand in the doorway, a weird mixture of sympathetic and uncomfortable.

Finally, my tears start to slow down, and while I’m still shaking, I can breathe okay again.

“I’m going to die in a couple months,” I say. And then, quieter, “I’m afraid.”

For a few seconds, everyone in the room is still and silent, with no idea how to respond. To my surprise, Min is the first to recover. He hugs me tight again, and I rest against him. But this just makes me sadder, because I already love him so much and I don’t want to have to leave him. Not yet. Not ever.

“Maybe something will change. We’ll find some other way. This won’t be it. I won’t let it be,” he says fiercely to me.

I don’t say anything. What can I say? I could pretend that what he’s saying is the truth, that something will happen to change this. But I don’t know if that’s better. Is it better to live in a lie or a terrible truth? Either way, it’s too late. Too late.

I don’t know how long I stay like that, still crying a little,hopeless and desperate, Min holding me. But I finally manage to pull myself together. I can’t let myself fall apart like this. I have to stay strong. I still have a few months left.

I pull myself to my feet steadier than I expected. I walk back into the room and glance around.

“Where is this room? And where’s Verina?” I ask. “Can I see her?”

Mackenna nods. “I can show you,” she says. “She’s this way.”

We walk out of the room and twist and turn through what seems like miles of stone tunnels. I don’t remember any of it from the identical trip I made last night. I must have been pretty out of it.

Finally, we get back to the giant room where Drayne lives. Verina is there too, sitting on a thin pad.

“Hello,” she says to me. “How are you doing?”

“Fine.” I plaster a fake smile on my face. “Is this where you sleep?”

Mackenna and Verina exchange a quick glance that I don’t miss. “Actually,” Mackenna begins, “the room [_you _]were sleeping in is Verina’s room. Tala and I slept in the hallway outside it.”

Immediately, I feel guilty. I had just assumed that Verina was the kind of person who keeps nice guest rooms, which was a stupid assumption considering I’m probably the only person who’s ever visited her. I slept in her room the whole night, I sobbed in it. A warm flush creeps over my cheeks.

It had never even occurred to me that Mackenna and Tala might not have a place to stay. They slept in the hallway all night, waiting for me. I don’t feel like a very good friend.

How am I supposed to sacrifice my life for something if I can’t even sacrifice a bedroom that doesn’t belong to me?

“It’s okay, Aubrey,“Verina says, rising and coming over to me. “You needed that room. Nobody blames you.”

I nod, trying to choke down the tears that are threatening to spill over again.

“Are you hungry?” she asks me.

I shake my head. There’s no way I could eat anything right now.

There’s a noise from the tunnel and I whirl around. But it’s just Min and Tala, smiling, completely comfortable in each other’s presence. I’m again startled by how much they look alike. Same silky black hair and coppery skin, same noses. Identical smiles. And they both carry themselves the same way, with the easy grace of wolves.

Min sees how lost and alone I still look, and he comes to me, squeezing my hand. His touch fills me with strength. At first I think I’m just happy to see him, but then I realize he is actually giving me some of his energy. I smile gratefully at him.

“I can do this. I can do this,” I whisper to myself. It’s not even completely a lie. With Min by my side, I feel like I could maybe do anything. It’s my time to take control.

“We need to make a plan,” I say decisively, sitting down on the ground. Everyone sits around me, in a sort of circle, with Drayne’s head making up one side.

I don’t have a plan, so I was kind of hoping someone else would have one. But everyone is looking at me, like I’m supposed to be the leader or something.

“Can you fight?” I ask Verina. It would be great to have someone as powerful as the Princess of the Wilderness on our side. You know, a princess other than me. We could also use another dragon.

But Verina shakes her head. “No. We will not fight in this war.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I don’t say it in a mean way, although maybe it comes across that way. I’m honestly just curious.

“Drayne and I no longer fight. We have killed many, and during the last years of our lives we will atone for it. We will not fight.”

I blink at her. It takes me a long time to understand what she’s even saying. She no longer fights? Even though she’s still strong? What does that even mean? Why?

And then I get it, and with the understanding comes a surge of anger. She can fight, but she won’t. I mean, I get it. I wouldn’t fight too, if I could. But that’s not an option for me anymore. I have to fight, because thousands of lives are resting on me, and I am the only one. If I turned my back on them, I…I don’t know what would happen. But I couldn’t. Refusing to fight in a war this big, this important, is just selfishness disguised as being selfless.

“No,” I finally say out loud, once I’ve had time to process my thoughts a little better. “No. That is so not okay. You have to fight. There is so much at stake. I mean, I…I’ve killed a lot of people, and you don’t see me quitting. That’s not an option.”

“Aubrey,“Verina says gently, “we always have choices. Drayne and I have made a different choice from you. Even though you see it as wrong, we will stand by it. We are not going to fight in this war.”

I feel the thick, aching feeling in the back of my throat that means I’m probably going to start crying again. Why is this my life? Why is everything so ridiculously unfair? Why do I have to give my life up, while Verina and Drayne can choose to just sit this one out?

“I hate you,” I say suddenly, putting as much venom into my voice as possible. It’s not true, and everyone in the room knows it. I am not the type to hate people, especially not so quickly. But I am furious. “I didn’t get to choose. You know that, right? I don’t have a choice.”

She shakes her head. “Of course you have a choice. You always have a choice. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.”

I have absolutely no idea what to say to that. I just stare at her, breathing hard. Maybe if I look at her hard enough, she’ll catch on fire. Then I realize some sort of slightly uncontrolled magic is actually a real possibility, and I look down. I still don’t speak though.

For a long time, no one else says anything either. They just watch me watch the ground. Finally, Tala clears her throat. “Um, Aubrey? Can we get back to planning? We were kind of in the middle of something. And we don’t have that many days here.”

“No,” I say. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I’m still mad. Nothing’s fair.”

Mackenna touches my shoulder with her little gentle bird touch. “Do you…do you think you could pretend? Just pretend you’re not mad for like, an hour or so while we make our plan, and then afterward you and Verina can talk it out.”

“I don’t want to talk about it with her. But yeah. Fine. Whatever. Start planning.”

The truth is, I’m just not a very angry person. I don’t have the energy to sustain it for long. Already, I’m feeling the actual rage draining out of me, being replaced by a different, more mild feeling. Not anger exactly, but more the feeling that I should be angry. I hold onto that feeling at least. After all I’ve been through, all I still have left to do, I deserve to be angry as long as I please.

I understand what Verina means by saying she refuses to fight, I guess. That’s never really been a valid option for me, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I have killed a lot of people, and that sort of starts to blur the lines between their side and ours. If we’re both killing anyway, it’s sort of hard to put my finger on what exactly it is that I’m fighting for anymore.

But still, that doesn’t mean it’s possible to just stop fighting. If I stopped fighting, if I quit, if I gave up, then so many people would die. Just because I have that responsibility resting on me, and Verina doesn’t, shouldn’t mean that the brave choice for both of us is two different things. Just because I don’t really have a choice, and she does, doesn’t mean she should choose the easy way out, the more moral, more wholesome, [_better _]option just because she can. That’s not being brave, or righteous or anything. It’s not fair.

Right?

CHAPTER 33

I realize that everyone is looking at me again. I’m starting to get irritated by that. Maybe I should be mad about it instead.

“So,” Mackenna says cheerfully, like she’s asking what movie we should go out to, “what do you think our plan of attack should be?”

“A sneak attack would be best if possible, I think. Just a very small team, including, of course, your dragon. In and out, before Mercuriel or her army has the chance to notice.”

“It’s too late for that,” Mackenna says. “Mercuriel’s forces have already gathered. They’re in the red mountains, waiting for Aubrey. They don’t know where the shrine is exactly. But as soon as Aubrey shows up, they’ll attack her.”

“They’re waiting for you?”

“Yes. And I…I can’t keep them from being there, and as soon as I show up, they’ll attack me. They’ll kill me before I even get a chance to kill myself.”

Everyone stares at me. I bite my lip. I hadn’t met for it to come out like that, sounding so bitter, so defeated. Min looks a little shocked, I know he has never been the best with these kinds of emotions, Tala gives me a sort of half-smile, like that’ll make it better, and Verina just looks sorry.

“Well, you won’t have to do it alone, obviously,” Mackenna says, in her little Mackenna voice, so perfectly herself, so completely comforting in just the way I need. “We’ll all be with you. I’m sure [_everyone _]will be with you. There are thousands of people who will follow you into battle.”

I nod, maybe a little less hopelessly than before.

“Yeah,” Min says, jumping onboard once he sees Mackenna’s tactic actually is helping. “We’ll get a ton of people to help you. We need a force to match Mercuriel’s.”

He’s right. The time for small armies, for hiding and sneaking, is over. This is not just a battle, not just a mission, this is a war. It’s time for me to finally go up against Mercuriel, just the two of us, once and for all. One way or another, it’s time for this to end.

We keep talking about it, going over more details. I drift in and out of the conversation, and nobody seems to care. I think about death, and life, and everything that’s being asked of me. It’s not really fair, I decide. And I’m not saying that to be selfish. It’s not.

I lived my entire life in foster care, with no real family. Then I had those three perfect months when I still had Liz and Mackenna, before I even knew about any of this. Then a couple more months, in between finding out I had magic and finding out I was the princess. Then, just like that, all this huge responsibility crashed down on to me. I’ve had to kill my enemies, I’ve had to let my friends die, I’ve had to give up everything I thought mattered, I’ve had to grow up too fast. And now, for my finale, I will give up my life to end this war. My mother will come back, I will have the family I’ve always wanted, and instead of being able to enjoy it, I will be dead. It seems ironic, almost, the life I want becoming available to me too late for me to be able to enjoy it.

The truth is, I don’t want to die yet. I’m not ready.

I stay with Verina for two more days after that. We don’t talk about the war or the last battle or Mercuriel. We talk about other things.

“Verina,” I ask, “did you meet our mother?”

She nods. “I was raised by her until I was ten, and even after I went to live with my other family, I saw her often.”

“What was she like?”

Verina has to pause to think. It is hard to describe a person with just words and nothing else, I have been to enough funerals to know this. It is especially hard when, for me, so much rides on the answer. We are not talking about the war, but at the same time, we are. I am asking her if it is worth it.

“She was very powerful,” she finally begins. “You could sense it, all the time, even when she was just doing normal, everyday things. And when she actually demonstrated her power, it was…breathtaking. She seemed very old, and very wise. Impossibly wise.”

“But that wasn’t it. She was always there for me, I guess. Even with everything else, she was always very attentive to me. Very nurturing. She was gentle, and kind, and my mother. She felt like my mother.”

“Did she know you were alive?”

“Of course she did. But the three sisters didn’t, so she didn’t dare contact me in case she gave me away.”

“I wish I could meet her,” I say. “Like really meet her.”

“I know,“Verina says sadly. “I wish you could too. I would do anything for that.”

“But you won’t.” This is the first time we’re talking about what she said earlier, that she won’t fight with us. “Maybe if you were with us, we would stand a better chance. Because at this point, it doesn’t matter how it turns out, at least for me. If we fail, our mom will stay dead forever, and I’ll never get to see her. But if we win this war, I’m going to die. Do you understand that? I’m going to die. And I’m never going to meet her anyway.”

“I know. Aubrey, I am so, so sorry. I would do anything to take this burden from you. But you know I can’t. Even if I were to fight by your side, this would still end the same way.”

I just gasp raggedly, with no idea what to say. I know she’s right. Verina can’t sacrifice herself in my place. I’m mad that she won’t fight with us, but in the end, what difference does it make? I will die either way.

“It’s the bravest thing you could do, you know. It’s the bravest thing possible to do. And even though our mother can’t meet you, I know she would be so, so proud of you.”

And really, despite everything, those words mean a lot.

On the last day, saying goodbye to Verina is hard. I mean, I knew it would be, but it’s harder than I expected, somehow. Verina is my family, truly, in a way no one else is. She’s my real sister, my own flesh and blood. There’s a bond between us, already, a bond of blood and power and a shared burden. And I know, once I leave, I’ll probably never see her again.

But I have to leave. I have to move forward. That’s what it’s all about now. Making myself keep going. Not losing hope, even though the best I can hope for is to save the world through the power of my blood, to save the world and die.

That’s enough of a hope to hold onto though, at least for now. So with a final goodbye, I turn and leave. Min, Mackenna, and Tala follow me, slowly, sadly, almost.

There are teachers waiting for us at the same place we were dropped off. Not Liz. They didn’t know the exact time that we would return, so there have been shifts to wait for us. This is the fourth rotation.

The teachers have a little campsite. They jump when we emerge into the light of their fire. A few draw swords or create balls of magic, but they relax when they see it’s just us.

We drive back to the School in silence. Well, I’m silent. Everyone else talks normally, I think. I sleep for a lot of it.

When we get back to the School, Liz asks me how it went. I can’t even begin to explain, so I go up to my room. Mackenna follows me, leaving Min and Tala to tell Liz everything that happened.

“Hey, Aubrey, how are you doing?” Mackenna asks me when we’re alone in our room. We haven’t really spoken since we left Verina, and we haven’t spoken one-on-one for days before that.

“Fine,” I say. I say it as convincingly as I can, but I’m lying to Mackenna. She sees through me immediately, hearing everything I don’t dare to say aloud.

“I don’t believe that you’re going to die.” She says it with a lot of conviction, like she’s stating a fact instead of just a desperate hope.

“I have to die, if we want to win the war,” I say miserably. “Bringing back the Queen is the only way.”

“I don’t know. Maybe something will change. It has to change. It has to!” She doesn’t sound so sure anymore, though. She sounds like she’s convincing herself.

I take comfort from her anyways. She believes in me, and if she believes in me maybe I can find the strength to believe in myself. I can find the strength to do what has to be done.

CHAPTER 34

The next week goes by in a blur. I know there is a lot of action going on around me, but I am not really a part of it. Liz contacts so many schools, she talks to old friends, calls in favors. Now we know for sure that there really will be one final showdown, a huge clash between our army and hers. There will be one last desperate bid to get me close enough to the shrine to bring back the Queen, and we will need as many people as we can get to make that possible.

Liz can’t assemble an entire army all by herself, but she doesn’t need to. The movement ripples away from her. The people she talks to talk to more people, and they talk to more. Everyone will fight for me, fight for this. Everyone wants to give me a chance.

People start traveling to the red mountains. In small groups of twos and threes. Families. Groups the size of whole schools, whole states. All assembling. All ready. They mass into a huge group, near enough to see Mercuriel’s army. And then they wait, because Mercuriel’s army cannot, will not attack until they see me go for the shrine, and our army cannot attack until I am there to win.

As I wait for the final battle, I’m kind of listless. I’m sixteen, it’s not like I have a bucket list or anything. What am I supposed to do with myself? I don’t have any loose ends to tie up, or regrets that I know how to fix. No hobbies or goals that I want to finish. In the past two years, I’ve been so wrapped up in the war I haven’t had time for dreams. I feel like my life is incomplete, but I have no idea how to change that. In my sixteen years, I’ve seen too much, but at the same time I haven’t seen nearly enough. Not the things that matter.

At least I still have Min. I half-expected him to abandon me, because who wants a girlfriend who’s going to die in a month or two? But of course he doesn’t, because you don’t abandon people you love. No matter what. And I know with absolute certainty that if our positions were switched, I wouldn’t abandon him either.

I end up sleeping a lot. Sleeping is easier. I don’t have to think. I can relax in the blackness, the oblivion of it all. Sometimes I dream, but even those are alright. Better than real life.

One morning, a week or two after I get back from visiting Verina, I hear my bedroom door click open. I know Mackenna spent the night at her father’s, so I’m not sure who it could be.

A heavy weight settles on the end of my bed. I blink my eyes open. Sunlight streams through the window. It’s late, later than I used to ever sleep. But now I might as well. I’m going to die in a month anyways. What else matters? Is anything really worth it if it can’t be completed? What’s the point of this in-between life, when I already have my death sentence but it has yet to be carried out? What am I supposed to do with myself while I wait to die?

But still. I force my eyes open, expecting Mackenna. But it’s not. It’s Tala.

“Hey,” I say sleepily. “What are you doing here?”

“I have to tell you something.”

“Go for it,” I say listlessly.

“Listen to me!” Something in her voice forces my eyes open further. I push myself into a half-sitting position. She sounds sad. And not just sad, exactly, but…broken.

“No, seriously,” I say, looking her in the eye, “you can tell me anything.”

“Okay, good.” She takes a deep breath. “You know how Min can sense people’s injuries. Like, he can tell how badly they’re hurt?”

I nod. I haven’t seen Min use that particular power very many times, but I know that he has it.

“I have a power like that too. Did he ever tell you what it was?”

“No. He…never mentioned it.”

“Well, I do. And it’s….” She pauses, then speaks all in a rush. “I can tamper with people’s memories. I can change them, to an extent. And I can erase them.”

I gasp. “You can? But…he never told me. I never knew that. Have you used it before?”

She nods. “Once, when we were very young, Min and I tried to run away.”

“Yeah. He’s told me about that.”

“How did he tell you it ended?”

“He was…hurt. Some doctors or something found you two and brought you back to your parents.”

“Yeah, that all happened. But that’s only half the story. Min was hit by a car. I mean, not just hit, but completely run over. He was bleeding, and his arms and legs were bent wrong, and I…I thought he was going to die.

“Someone called 911, and the paramedics came. He almost died on the way to the hospital, I was there in the ambulance with him and I saw him flatline. There was a lot of internal damage, he lost a lot of blood, but at least he had no head or neck trauma. He was lucky, they said. Only a few broken bones in his arms and legs. It took him a week or two in the hospital to recover, and then they sent him home.”

My chest feels tight. I didn’t know. Min never told me. I had no idea he had been run over by a car. Now all I can picture is him, lying on the street, damaged and still. Blood staining the black asphalt like paint. I swallow hard and try to think of something else. I don’t like the idea of him injured. I don’t like the idea of him…suffering, like that.

“He wasn’t the same,” she continues. “He became afraid. Of everything. He wouldn’t get in cars, he would barely leave the house. He had nightmares every night, and he would wake up screaming, But there would be no one there to comfort him. Except me. But there was nothing I could do, not really.”

I can’t picture that. I just can’t imagine it, a Min full of fear, anxious and broken. That Min does not sound like my Min. But how old would he have been when he ran away? Eight? Nine? He is hard now, but something had to make him that way. No one is born with the kind of strength he possesses. Once upon a time, there would have been a screaming, panicked Min, but slowly, I guess that would have turned into the brave, controlled Min I know now. The transformation process, that change, had to occur.

“And then, one night, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was wishing so hard that I could make him forget that I did it. It happened. I took away the memory of the pain and fear and everything. It was just gone.

“It knocked me out. It took more energy than…than anything else. So much energy I would have died, I think, if I had tried to do anything bigger. But I didn’t. And it worked.

“I could tell immediately, as soon as I woke up. I could feel the memory I had taken, like a half-remembered dream. It wasn’t strong, it didn’t feel like a memory of my own, but I did know what I had done.

“I did tell him. It was a few months later. He said he couldn’t remember anything. There was no blank or anything either. I had removed the memory flawlessly. He was angry at first, but he forgave me pretty quickly. After a little while, he was grateful. But in the beginning, when he was still mad, I promised him I would never touch another memory. His or anyone else’s.”

She pauses, and I just stare at her for a minute. That’s a lot to take in. I need a second to process this. “Wait,” I say, grasping onto something, “Min was run over by a car?”

She nods. “Yeah, but that wasn’t really the point of the story. He’s fine now.”

“But still,” I say, “he was so little….”

Tala is looking at me weird. I trail off into silence.

“So…what?” I finally ask. “Why are you telling me this now?”

“I’m not done yet,” she says. “I broke the promise. I used the power a bunch of times when I was captured. I wanted to get better at it.

“It didn’t work very well at first. I would erase memories of them torturing me, and then they would think they had forgotten me and do it again.

“Eventually, I figured it out though. I started erasing their memories of giving me food and they would bring it to me a second time. And I learned that I could add memories too, sometimes. I could escape torture.

“But that wasn’t all. One day, a soldier came to give me food. He was young, and he seemed truly sorry for me. He gave me an extra piece of bread.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I just kept imagining us fighting him. I thought he might surrender, or try to switch sides somehow. But it wouldn’t matter. We would never be able to trust him, not really.”

We trusted Storm, I’m about to say, but I don’t. Because that’s only partially true. [_I _]trusted Storm. My friends trusted Storm. Liz trusted Storm, and most of the teachers did, at least to an extent. But nobody outside of the School would have trusted her. The mission to rescue Tala was the first and only mission she ever went on. And maybe, maybe it’s good she died like that, for the cause, because now she’ll be remembered as a soldier, as our soldier, instead of Tempeste’s traitor who could never truly be one of us.

“I hated the idea of that,” she continues. “He had never done anything wrong to me. It wasn’t his fault he was born onto their side instead or ours. It made me sad. But there was nothing I could do, no way to ever prove that he was truly being honest. No way to make him brave enough to actually make the switch either, not without something happening to him or his family.

“So I altered his memory. Flawlessly. I took away only a little, and I added a few things too. I made him believe he was a spy. He kept all of his memories of everything, family friends, his house. I just switched his side.”

CHAPTER 35

I almost want Tala to stop talking for a minute. I need a little time to process everything that she’s saying, to figure out how I feel about it. I’m having an information overload right now, and all I can do is hang on her words and try to understand.

“I was so proud of myself,” she continues. “I felt like I had done some good. I got ambitious, and tried it again. This time, it was with a guard who was much more loyal to Mercuriel.”

“It didn’t work. The alterations didn’t take. He stayed exactly the same as before. But I didn’t give up. I just believed I had to push harder, so I tried again. I tried it on a different guard, and he…he broke.”

“Like Min? When his memory was gone?”

“Yeah. I think so. He was gone, but there was nothing to take his place. I had as good as killed him.

“I tried again one last time, this time with another guard who was more sympathetic toward me. It worked perfectly with her, as well as it had with the first man. I learned that I only have a little bit of power, so I can’t change everything. I could only try it on people who were already somewhat compassionate toward me, who were at least understanding of our cause. I couldn’t change anything more than that.

“Later, I tried to escape by altering guards’ memories, but I didn’t have enough control. But then you came along and got me. And….”

She pauses. I don’t say anything. I can see that’s she struggling with something, and I don’t want to interrupt her.

A long few seconds pass, and finally, she starts again. “For the ones who were already sympathetic, it took less energy than I thought it would. It was easy, almost. Very possible. And it felt so…right.”

She breaks off again, her voice cracking as she struggles to gather her thoughts. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt sympathy for anyone, aside from myself I guess. But now my heart is squeezing for Tala, for whatever she doesn’t have the strength to say. I put my hand on her wrist, gently, the same way Lily sometimes does for me.

“I don’t have to be…touching them or anything. Or even looking at them. I wasn’t, the second time. I’d only met the guard once, and it was months before I tried to tamper with her memories. I don’t…I don’t think I’d have to do that though. I don’t think I’d have to meet someone before I could influence their memories. I don’t think I’d even have to have a direct target in mind. Does that make sense?”

She doesn’t give me a chance to respond. “I think I could do that so it happened all the time. I could do…a blanket. Everyone, or I mean, most everyone, who has the right kind of mind, who has enough sympathy toward what we’re trying to do, all their memories could be changed. It would make them…brave, it would make them finally be able to actually switch sides. And we would be able to trust them. Especially if I…if I told Liz or something. She could tell everyone that all the people with the altered memories really are for us.”

There’s another long pause, this one from me. Tala is looking at me expectantly, waiting for a response. But I am not ready to answer. I’m still…still trying to process what she just said. Is she saying she could make all of the soldiers, anywhere, who at least sort of wanted to side with us actually do it? Is that what she’s saying?

My first instinct is to say yes, yes, of course yes, always yes. Two reasons. First off, we simply need the people. Mercuriel’s army is far bigger than ours, better trained, more ruthless. We can use all the bodies we can get, even if they’re her former soldiers. As long as we know we can trust them.

But there’s another reason too. Tala almost said it earlier. It’s that the people in Mercuriel’s army are just that, people. I think of the first person I ever killed, the boy only a few years older than me, with eyes the same color as Min’s and blood that looked black in the moonlight. I think of Storm, and of Storm’s tiny siblings that now have no place to go. The three sisters are evil, but the fact is, that doesn’t automatically extend to everyone who works for them. A lot of them weren’t given a choice. They deserve a chance too, right? We couldn’t give them one before, but now we can, so…shouldn’t we?

But at the same time they are soldiers, fighters, who have killed our people, maybe my friends. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how I feel about that. Honestly, a bigger part of me wants to say yes, but there’s another part of me, a new part of me, that wants to let anyone who was ever part of the three sisters’ army, who ever did any of those terrible things, burn.

I mean, they don’t [_have _]to wait for someone like Tala to come along so they can join us. They could desert, like Storm did. It would be dangerous, but it’s like a test, only the ones that are brave enough to leave really deserve us. I just don’t know.

So I latch onto something else. “How could you possibly have enough energy for something like that?”

“I told you, it doesn’t take that much energy. I could probably to hundreds of people before I…” she pauses delicately, “passed out. And I probably wouldn’t be doing that many people at one time anyway. There can’t be [_that _]many traitorous minds in Mercuriel’s army.”

And then I realize something. My mixed up, tangled emotions have no bearing on this decision. This is Tala’s choice to make, it is her power. It is the first time in a long while for the burden of a choice to be taken off my shoulders. It feels off, somehow, it feels like I should be doing more. But I don’t have to. This is all Tala.

“Alright,” I say finally. “When do you want to do it?”

“Today. No, tomorrow. And don’t tell anyone about it. Well, I’ll tell Min. And Mackenna. But no one else. Not Liz or anyone, they’ll try to stop me. At least, don’t tell anyone until after.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

“And today can the four of us do something fun? It’s just that…I’m so bored. I want to do something interesting.”

I realize that the last time I did something with the intention of it being fun was…a long time ago. Too long ago. Tala is right. We need to do something for ourselves.

Tala leaves and I get dressed. Then we go get Min. I call Mackenna, but she and her father are spending the day in the city together, for the first time in a long time.

The problem is, without Mackenna, none of us has a car. We have no one to drive us anywhere, no way to actually have a fun, exciting day.

“We’re just gonna have to have a great day here,” I say to Tala. For some reason, she actually looks really upset, like she might start crying.

“I really wanted to do something fun, like go to an amusement park, or the beach, or something.”

It’s not really the right time of year for any of those things,” Min says. “It’s still too early. We can do them over the summer.”

She takes a deep breath and nods. “Okay. Fine. What should we do today then?”

It’s after lunchtime anyways, so Min suggests that we play a board game, make ourselves dinner, and watch a movie.

Except none of us have any board games, and the only ones at the School are ancient. The instructions are long gone, and the pieces are so worn we can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. But we just go with it, and soon we are making up our own rules and screaming with laughter. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun.

After a couple hours, there’s no clear winner. We changed the rules every few turns, so I guess this makes sense. We’re done playing, so Tala tips the board over and the pieces go flying. For some reason we all find this hysterically funny. We roll on the ground, laughing like maniacs.

Even though our stomachs hurt from laughing so hard, we still make dinner. Tala is a great cook, Min is decent, and I am absolutely awful. Unfortunately, I haven’t done a lot of cooking, so I didn’t know this. If I didn’t have water magic, we probably would have burned the School down. Tala and Min still manage to salvage the meal though.

Tala has a TV in her room, and we bring our meal up there and eat sitting down on her bed. Rowan, Tala’s roommate, is actually doing something productive with her day, so we have the room to ourselves.

The meal is actually pretty good. We have chicken that was supposed to be panfried but is now something more like blackened, pancakes, grilled cheese, peanut butter, brownies, and pudding. It’s more than enough food, and kind of random. But that simply doesn’t matter.

We have a movie marathon, watching all three of some series I’d never heard of. It’s action, and a little scary. Min has seen them before and likes them, and Tala has at least heard of them, even though she’s been in prison for the past year and a half. It’s been a long time since I’ve had time to pay attention to movies.

When they’re over, it’s after midnight. I don’t want to go back to my lonely room, but I need sleep, and Tala needs sleep too if she’s going to use all that magic tomorrow.

“Goodnight, Tala,” I whisper to her, leaving.

“Aubrey, wait.” She gets up, hugs me. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

I guess after I leave, Tala explains her plan to Min, because when I wake up in the morning he seems to understand what’s happening. Mackenna arrives at around ten, and Tala explains it all to her too. Then all four of us go into an empty classroom, where we can be alone.

Min starts protesting. “You can’t do this. It’s too dangerous. I mean, it’s nice and all, but not worth it. The only people you’re helping with this are our enemies.”

It’s funny that normally Min who is the one who takes risks without a second thought, is the cautious one here. It’s because of Tala. He has a soft spot for her, a different sort of one from the one he has for me. She is older than he is, but sometimes he is still her protecter. Most of the time, actually, but she is his protecter too. They are family, the only family they have, they have to cling to each other, because otherwise they would be alone.

Tala takes a deep breath. “They’re still people,” she snaps at him. “They still deserve a chance. Just let me do this, okay? It’s not your decision. Stop fighting me. And give me some of your energy.”

He shakes his head, but still gives her so much energy that he stumbles. Mackenna and I help him to a chair.

Tala is literally glowing. Not a lot, but faintly, her bronze skin giving off a weak light. She smiles radiantly. She is beautiful.

“Aubrey, can I talk to you in the hallway for a second?”

“Um, yeah.” I follow her out.

“Can I tell you something?” She’s talking kind of fast, and I wonder if the excess energy is making her hyper.

“Yeah, anything.”

“I was kind of lying before.” All of a sudden she becomes serious. “I’m not really sure if I have enough energy for this. I’m not sure if I’ll survive. So tell Min I love him and I’m sorry. And in a few months, when you have to…you know, I want you to think of me.”

“No. Wait, what? No. I won’t let you do that. You have to stop.”

“It’s my decision to make!” she screams. And then, before I can stop her, she runs into the room. I run after her, planning to grab her, tackle her, anything, anything. But I’m too late.

CHAPTER 36

When I burst into the room, Tala’s already encased in light. She turns toward me, and there’s a small, sad smile on her face. I run toward her again, but the strength of her magic pushes me back. And then the light is so bright that I can’t see her anymore. I can’t tell what’s happening, or if it’s working, or anything. My heart is pounding hard and fast in my chest.

The energy around Tala dies, and the lack of light is so sudden that for a second I can’t see anything. And when I finally can see, it’s in a series of blinks. Trying to clear the afterimage.

Blink. Tala is swaying like she’s about to fall.

Blink. She collapses to the ground.

She is spread eagle, staring up at the ceiling.

Min is kneeling next to her.

She twists sideways, crying out in pain.

She reaches up to grab Min’s hand.

Mackenna is kneeling down too.

Tala’s dark eyes meet mine.

They snap me into action.

I kneel down too, not breaking eye contact with her the whole time. She is pale, her breathing quick. A faint smile plays around her lips. Her eyes are dark as bruises, dark as chocolate, dark as dusk, as death.

She has lost too much energy. That is evident in every line of her body, in her struggling lungs, in every shaky movement. She doesn’t look tired, exactly. It’s not just that. She looks very sick, and very, very old, like something deep inside has snapped. Like something deep inside her is missing. Tala is dying. I can tell, and she can tell. I know she can tell because she’s crying, and Tala never cries. I’m crying too. Because Tala’s dying. Everything is moving slow motion. I can’t seem to think. I can’t even breathe.

I thought it would be the big things that would matter. Tala will never get married, never have children. But it’s not the big things. It’s the tiny details that hurt so much worse. Tala will never sleep in her tie-dye bed again. She will never again feel warm sunlight, or cold ocean water. She will never eat chocolate cookies, or doodle in the margins of her notebooks or run barefoot. She will never exchange another laughing glance with Min. She will never see another sunrise.

I can see that she’s trying to tell us something. I think it was going to be long, full of beauty and hope. But she can’t get it out. “I love you,” she whispers. She’s looking at Min, but I think she’s talking to all of us. Or at least, I would like to think it’s for all of us. A last piece of her to hold on to. Min shakes her. For a second she doesn’t react, but then she manages to open her eyes.

“You’re not going to die,” Min says, his voice firm, like he’s reprimanding a small child, like he’s stating the most obvious fact in the world. “I’m not going to let you. You’re going to stay with me.”

“Let me go.” Her voice is not even a whisper. No more than a breath. Min gasps.

She breathes in, and her face is full of life and love and pain. And then she breathes out. And her gaze is full of nothing but emptiness.

It’s been less than thirty seconds since Tala collapsed to the floor. And now she’s dead. I reel backward. This can’t be happening. Her body is so still, and I can’t breathe. I can’t scream, or cry, or say a word.

Min hasn’t moved a muscle this entire time. He’s kneeling by her side, looking down at his hands. His expression isn’t empty, or broken. It’s not even shocked. It’s a nothing expression, completely empty.

I don’t feel sad. Not yet. Weirdly, all I feel is disbelief. This isn’t the real Tala. This is some sort of cruel practical joke. I’m dreaming right now.

Dear God, please bring Tala back. Please don’t let her really be dead. I’ll do anything. Min needs this, I need this. If you bring Tala back, I…I’ll never even consider not going through with the plan. When the time comes, I’ll sacrifice myself with pleasure. Just please, please, please don’t let Tala really be gone.

Still, Min is not moving. His mouth is open, almost like he’s screaming, but no sound comes out. He can’t seem to get enough air. His eyes are wide, as disbelieving as mine were a second ago. Begging, and broken.

Everything is fragmenting again, like my eyes and brain can’t work together fast enough to connect all the images. I can’t figure out what’s happening anymore. All I know is that Tala is dead, really, truly, and that this is happening. She’s dead, and she’s never coming back.

Min lifts her up and crushes her against him. He rocks back and forth.

“I can’t let you go, Tay,” he whispers. And then louder, “You can’t be gone. No. No!”

All of a sudden, Mackenna screams. It’s completely unexpected. High and pained and startlingly raw.

Liz, from wherever she is in the School, hears that scream. And in a moment, she is at the door, already reassuring us that everything will be okay.

But the sight of Tala, lying in Min’s arms, has the power to stun even Liz. She stops dead as if she’s hit a brick wall. She rakes her hands through her hair. For a second, she honestly looks like she’s trying to find a way to fix everything for us, to smooth everything over. But it’s too late for that.

And then she crumples against the wall. All the strength has gone out of her. “What happened?” she gasps. “Is she…is she….”

No one gives her an answer. But no one needs to. Tala is very clearly not there anymore. The part of her that made her ours is gone.

“Here,” Liz says. “Let me take her.” She cautiously approaches Min. “I’ll bring her to Amity. Maybe there’s still something she can do.”

“No,” Min snarls. He holds her body tight. Liz reaches out and tries to gently pry his hands away.

“No!” he screams. All of a sudden he is savage, growling like a wolf. Pain displayed as anger, splattered across his face like invisible blood. “Don’t touch her. Don’t take her.”

“Min….”

I look at the clock. It’s been about two minutes. It takes me two minutes to brush my teeth. In two minutes, I can make a bag of microwave popcorn. A movie trailer is two minutes. Now that I’ve gone through so much physical training, I can hold a plank position for two minutes.

In two minutes, Tala can go from being alive to being dead. Everything can go from being a whole and fragile crystal to being shattered on the ground. I can go from breathing fine to feeling like every breath sends knives scraping into my lungs.

“Min,” Liz’s voice is fake-calming, like we’re little, hurting children, which I guess, right now, we are. “You can’t just keep holding onto her forever. She’s gone. I’m going to take her body now.”

He doesn’t say anything, but when she tries to take Tala’s body, he won’t let it go. He keeps grabbing onto her, his fingers wrapped around her wrist, like a desperate game of tug of war.

Liz wins. All of a sudden, all the fight goes out of Min. His hands let go, go limp at his sides. He is still breathing hard, like he’s angry, but that’s not quite it. He’s feeling pain, and trying to hide it, or mask it, with another feeling. It’s not working though, not really. Now he is a mixture of a thousand broken emotions, rough edges and emptiness.

Tears I hadn’t even realized I was holding back are spilling over my cheeks. They run down my cheeks and into my mouth and make my throat taste like salt. They make everything blurry. Blurry is better. I can’t see the way Tala is stiff like wax, the anguish in Min’s face, the shock in Liz’s eyes.

Min drops Tala to the ground like he doesn’t have the strength to hold onto her anymore. Liz grabs her body.

“I’m taking her to Amity,” she says. “Stay here.”

Min turns toward me, and there is a single silvery tear making a track down his face. That single tear breaks my heart more than sobbing would. I have never seen Min cry before. He never cries. That single tear means he is heartbroken, sadder than either of us have the words for. Mackenna is crying softly in the corner, a curtain of tears hides my face, but neither of us can come close to his pain.

The fact that she’s dead, that she’s really gone, hits me all over again. I can’t seem to breathe. It feels like my chest is being squeezed. Tala is dead. She’s never coming back. Min is all alone again. And I was the one who let her go.

 

CHAPTER 37

The next day, for a few blissful seconds, I don’t remember what’s happened. I feel my aching eyes, raw throat, feel the sadness like a thorn in my heart, always.

And then the image of Tala in Min’s arms goes through me like a lightning bolt. My heart tightens into a painful knot. All of a sudden, getting up feels like too much work, impossible. So does opening my eyes. So does breathing, existing, holding it together, continuing on in a world where this can happen, where Tala doesn’t exist.

Min. Is he okay? I barely remember yesterday. The last thing I can clearly picture is Min, damaged and kneeling on the floor, that one single tear. And then someone, Amity, I think, brought me up to my room, gave me something to make me sleep….

I hope Min got something to knock him out too. He needs the bliss of a dreamless sleep. We all do, but him more than any of us.

It’s mid-afternoon. I slept for a long time. It’s been over twenty-four hours since Tala died. And twenty-four hours before that, she was here, sitting on my bed, telling me about her secret power.

Mackenna is still sleeping off whatever they gave us. I get up and leave the room without waking her. I’m suddenly worried about Min, and I’m praying he’s not alone.

I kind of stumble to Min’s door and knock on the door. No response. “Min?” I call out, but my voice is hoarse with sadness and I don’t think he could hear me even if he was awake. Even if he was in there.

I’m seriously debating blasting the door open with magic when I try the doorknob. It twists under my hands. Not locked. I push the door open and go inside.

Min is lying on his back, on his bed, his eyes open and glassy. He blinks when I come in, but doesn’t react other than that.

“Min?” I say tentatively.

He doesn’t say anything. He’s lying on top of his sheets. He’s wearing the same clothes as yesterday. His feet are bare.

“Min, have you been sleeping? They gave Mackenna and I stuff to help us sleep. Did they do that for you?”

He shakes his head minutely. It makes sense, I guess. When Amity came in to get us, Mackenna and I were both borderline hysterical. Min wasn’t, of course he wasn’t. They probably assumed he would be fine, that he would fall asleep on his own. He’s probably been alone all night.

The shades over the window are closed, so it’s dim even with the lights on. I pull them open and the afternoon sunlight streams in. Min blinks a few times in the sudden brightness but still doesn’t move.

“Min, you have to get up.” Still no response. I walk over to the bed and shake him lightly, because suddenly I desperately want him to at least look at me. “Min, please.”

I want to help him process his grief, help him recover in whatever way I can. If I do that, I don’t have to deal with my own emotions, I can feel them through him. The panicked, hysterical pain from yesterday has changed to the slow, numbing feeling that nothing in the world will ever be right again, the crushing guilt that makes it hard to breathe. I don’t want those things. I want to baby Min, and pretend my own problems don’t exist.

Min blinks again, and his caramel eyes focus on me. “Why?” he croaks.

“You can’t just…do, well, whatever, you’re doing right now. Lying very still isn’t going to change anything. You should…talk about your feelings or something. And you need to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

It’s only then that I truly understand how bad things are for him. Min is [_always _]hungry. Even if he’s sick, or hurt, or sad, he’s always hungry. He’s hungry within a few hours of eating Thanksgiving dinner. He’s hungry at three in the morning. If he’s not hungry, and willing to admit it, something is seriously wrong.

“You’re going to be okay,” I say, even though I have no idea if it’s true.

“I’m losing everyone I love.” I don’t understand what he means for a second, but then I get it, and I suck in a breath. He just lost Tala, and in month or two, he’s going to lose me. He has no one else to hold onto.

I can’t stop the wave of guilt that washes over me. Tala told me what she was going to do, and if I had been faster, stronger, better, more prepared, I could have stopped her. She’s dead, and the blame, at least part of it, lies with me. It’s my fault. And it’s my fault that in a few months, I am going to die.

He deserves better. He deserves to have a girlfriend who doesn’t cause him so much pain, who can be strong for him when he loses his only family, not who was already falling apart at the seams. He deserves someone to rely on. He deserves someone who can make him happy for years to come. Someone who won’t let his cousin die.

I should break up with him now. Well, not now, when he has nobody. But I should have already done it, because it must be so impossibly traumatic to have your girlfriend and cousin die in the same season and I could save him from that pain.

But I’m too selfish, and I want a boyfriend for that last little bit of my life, and I’m not going to let him go. Even if it’s unfair, to both of us but especially him.

“Min, please stand up. You need to eat something.”

He draws his knees up to his chest and sits. It’s a good enough start. I grab his wrists and pull him to his feet. He’s limp, and I have the distinct impression I’m the only thing holding him up.

I pull him against me and hold him tight to my chest. He lets me hold him up, and with one of my hands I stroke his hair. Poor Min. I feel like I will never be happy again, I feel like I will always be incomplete. And whatever I’m feeling, he’s feeling a thousand times worse.

But even now, pitiful as I am, I am strong enough to hold up both of us. My arms are all around him, and I want so badly to keep him safe. I will not let anything hurt him, any more than it already has. He is mine, and I will protect him.

After a few minutes, once he’s ready, we go downstairs to find Liz. Her bedroom door is open, and she’s sitting on her bed. Her head is in her hands, eyes dark as bruises. She looks up at me, and in that one second she is nothing more than a cornered, wounded animal.

“Aubrey,” she says, her voice small, like a child’s. But that can’t be right. She is my mother, she is supposed to be strong, in control, older and wiser than me. She can’t be scared, or small, not now, not when I need her so badly. “We need to go.”

“What…what do you mean we need to go? We need to go where?”

“To the mountains. I was going to tell you yesterday. I was going to tell you yesterday so we could leave today. We need to go to the mountains, because everyone else has already gathered and they’re just waiting on you. We’re…we’re one of the last schools to leave, our soldiers will be some of the last to arrive. But without you there, there’s nothing to stop Mercuriel from attacking. You need to command your army.”

I feel like I’m breaking. This is too much, but it can’t be too much. It’s not allowed to be too much, because I’m not allowed to fall apart. We don’t have the time, we don’t have the forces, I have to be there, and somehow I have to make myself be strong.

“How soon?” I whisper.

“Tomorrow. I guess maybe…maybe the day after. We can’t wait anymore. I’m sorry.”

“What?” Min croaks. “What about Tala? We have to…we have to bury her. And a funeral. She deserves a funeral. Have you told the rest of the School yet?”

She nods. “I told them last night. But we…we don’t have time for a big funeral….” Her voice snaps off mid-sentence. She takes a ragged breath. She looks like she’s about to start crying.

All the students at the School are Liz’s children, and I know she feels personally responsible for all of them. But Tala more than most. Liz was like a mother to her and Min, taking care of them until they were old enough to take care of themselves. Right now, Liz must be experiencing not only crushing sadness, but crushing guilt. It was in no way Liz’s fault that Tala died, but it might as well have been. Liz will carry it with her for the rest of her life.

All of a sudden Liz really is crying, slowly, desperately, almost silently, like she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. Min would be too. I can see him biting the inside of his lip to keep the tears from flowing. Tears start beading along the edges of my lashes. Then somehow I’m in Liz’s arms, and Min is grabbing onto me, and we’re all holding onto each other like we’re the only things left in a drowning world.

CHAPTER 38

Tala’s funeral is tiny, just a few people who were very close to her. It’s the first funeral I’ve been to where there’s an actual body to bury. I don’t see it though. Min and Liz dug the hole, and marked the spot with a cross. I only came out later. I couldn’t bear to see her body all stiff and cold and lifeless.

I say some words. I have never talked at a funeral before, and I used to think it was something I would never do. But I remember Tala talking at Storm’s funeral, speaking beautifully about Storm’s life even though they had never even met. If she did that for Storm, I know it’s something that she valued. It’s something that’s important to her, and I owe her that. She would have wanted me to.

“Tala was the bravest person I ever met,” I begin. “She sacrificed her life for people who could have been her enemy, people who she thought was worth it. She…saw the goodness in everyone. She was very kind to me, always, and very brave, and…the world is a worse place without her. She deserved better. Better than to die, better than to live the way she did. But it’s what she would have wanted, I think, because she liked helping people. She will be missed.”

I bend my head foreword, so no one can see me cry. Everyone knows what’s happening, but they don’t say anything.

“Goodbye, Tala,” I say, to myself and to anyone else who might be listening. Maybe to her. Maybe she’s up there watching me. I don’t know. I hope she is. She deserves to be in paradise.

And then I start to panic. Because I thought I had a month or two left to live. But I don’t. Wherever she is, it’s only a week before I’ll be joining her.

 

I’ve seen the Red Mountains so many times in dreams, visions, and pictures that they don’t really impress me in real life. They’re big, bigger than anything in New Hampshire certainly, but there’s not enough forest or plants here. We’ve just arrived and already I’m starting to feel trapped.

I flew here with Arden. It was good practice, and more fun than being trapped in the car for ten hours. Anyway, that was the last chance I’m going to have to see the country, so I’m glad I got it. Now I can say I’ve seen most of the middle of the country, at least.

Seeing me flying with Arden was pretty good motivation for the rest of our army too. When they saw us flying together, bathed in light and wind and freedom, they were inspired. Even as high in the air as I was, I could hear them cheering.

Now I’m walking through the camp. I have a private tent set up for me, and a slip of paper with directions on where to find it. I don’t know where any of my friends are, and the camp is set up haphazardly, with too many rows and different groups for me to keep track of. I think I might be lost.

Strangers keep coming up to me and talking to me as if they know me. Most of them just want to exchange a few words, maybe wish me luck. Some want to clasp my hand. A few want advice. And not necessarily even about things related to the war. One person asks me if she should go to a non-magic college. Another asks me what he should name his newborn daughter. A third, a child maybe a year younger than me, asks me if he can ride Arden. I say no.

Eventually, after maybe an hour of this, some sort of commander or something comes to find me. He says his name is Collins. He says he can show me to my tent but he needs my help with something first, and he would like to brief me on the war plans.

We walk through the camp quickly, too fast for anyone else to talk to us. He is much taller than me, and I have to take two steps for every one of his. His face is lined, but not yet truly wrinkled. His hair is cut like he is from the actual military, short and functional, and his shoulders are broad.

I see two children of no more than five playing in the reddish dust between the tents. I gasp. “They’re so young! They’re not going to fight, are they?”

Collins shakes his head. “Many families want to stay together. There are children of all ages here, but only the ones who have passed their test are allowed to fight.”

It’s not right to bring children here when they’re still so young. It’s so dangerous. What if the camp is invaded? They have no way to fight, some of them are even too young to run. I think of Lily, safely at home with Jack, who is still too weak to fight. None of the youngest children from the School are here, as far as I know. I’m glad to know that they’re safe. If I was a mother, I don’t think I would want my children anywhere near the war zone.

But then again, how can I really judge? When I was that little, I had no family. I don’t know what that feels like. I can’t really understand what lengths I would go to for my children, since I never got the chance to experience being the child so loved she couldn’t be left behind. Is it stronger to keep the ones you love with you, despite the risk, or to keep them safe even if it means leaving them behind?

All of a sudden we’re at the edge of camp. In the distance I can see Mercuriel’s army, somehow menacing even though I can’t pick out individual details. They’re waiting. Waiting to kill me.

We walk along the outer border of the camp until we arrive at a fence. It’s chain-link but not very high, with coils of barbed wire at the top. There’s a hum in the air, and I recognize the sound from my time spent as a prisoner of the three sisters. The fence is preventing the thousand or so people inside from doing magic.

The people inside are a mix of both men and women, ranging from a girl a little older than me, to a man so old he can barely stay on his feet. They’re dirty and ragged. Hollow eyes, tangled hair. I can almost feel the hunger coming off them in waves.

“Who are they?” I ask. Pity is already twisting in my heart.

“We don’t know. They’re from Mercuriel’s army. They came in a few nights ago. Said they wanted to join our side, that they realized they had been wrong. We didn’t know what to make of it. They could be spies, but why would they tell us where they were from? And why would there be so many of them at once? So close to the battle? We put them in here. So you could decide what to do with them.”

My mouth dropped open with the first words he said, and now it sort of feels like my jaw is going to fall off. This is Tala. This is what her life was, this is her legacy. Brave, strong, Tala. All of these people were given the chance to fight for what’s right, to live the way they were supposed to, because of her.

I tap on the fence, getting the attention of a women in her mid-twenties. She comes over to me, clutching the bars of the chain-link fence. I’m abruptly reminded of Tala clutching the bars of her prison cell.

She’s still wearing her uniform for Mercuriel’s army, but it’s ripped and dirty. All the uniforms carry a silvery design on the right shoulder, but she’s ripped hers off. There’s a hole there now, showing a flash of pale skin every time she moves. There’s a cut on her temple, and dried blood is crusted over that side of her face.

“You know who I am, right?” I ask, meeting her eyes.

She nods slowly. “You are the Princess,” she whispers.

“Right. Will you tell me why you’re here?”

“My mind was opened,” she says simply. “I needed to make a change. I saw everything…clearly. And it happened to everyone all at once….”

“So you all came here?”

She nods. “We were hoping to help you fight, but we were locked up here instead.”

“I believe you,” I say. “I know you’re on our side. You’re not here to spy on us or weaken us from the inside. I trust you.”

Her eyes widen. “You do?” she breathes. “Why?”

I swallow. This is Tala, this field of people who really do want to stand with us. This is a thousand tiny bits of her, scattered and spread out and diluted, but still there. Still real. This is what she wanted, enough to give her life for it. How could I ever explain that to a stranger?

“A friend trusts you,” I finally whisper. “She trusts you, and I trust her.”

“Where is she?” the woman asks. “I want to meet her.”

“She’s dead,” I say simply, and then I turn and walk away without another glance. “Have them released,” I say to Collins. “We can trust them.”

He has to walk quickly to catch up with me. I’m walking fast, hoping maybe the lump in my throat will lessen with distance, maybe the tears building behind my eyes will vanish with speed.

“Come to the main command tent,” Collins says. “We can tell you our plans there.”

“No,” I say, and it’s nice to be powerful enough to say something like that with authority. “I’m going to my own tent now. Whatever you want to say to me, you can say to me on the way there.”

“We’re going to take two more days to prepare, then we’re going to attack. You are a huge motivation to our army, and you intimidate the others. You will lead our army into battle, and then as soon as the battle begins, you will get on your dragon and go to the shrine. Your goal is to end the fighting as quickly as possible, to avoid the needless loss of life.”

“Okay. I can do that.” Two full days left to live. Plus a little bit of today and a little bit of the last day. Let the countdown begin.

As it turns out, my tent is pretty easy to find. There’s a large open space directly to the left of it, and Arden is curled up in it, asleep. I touch her consciousness with my own, and she comes slowly awake.

“Hello, Aubrey,” she says softly.

“Hello, Arden,” I murmur, leaning against her side. We stay like that, and I relax in the sleepy warmth of her scales. An hour later, the sun starts to set behind the mountains. It bleeds over the land like a river of gold, a river of light, a river of blood.

I sort of fall asleep, and I think Liz comes in and carries me into my tent. Then I really do sleep, dreamlessly

for once.

Arden leaves to go hunting around mid-morning, and the shock of feeling all the other consciousnesses around me is so large that it wakes me up. Arden’s consciousness is overwhelming when I’m next to it, but now that it’s gone I can feel the tens of thousands of people around me. Their collective consciousnesses are unbelievably vast, completely overwhelming. They are spread out around me and I can [_feel _]them, and it frightens me. I wish Arden would come back and block them.

Mackenna peels back the flap of the tent to peek at me, and when she sees I’m awake she comes in.

“Hey,” she says, perching herself on the edge of my bed. “Are you awake?”

I groan and roll over, and she pushes my shoulder playfully.

“Hey,” she says, slightly more serious now. “I think Liz wants you to make a speech to all the people here. It doesn’t have to be long, just, you know, something.”

I cover my head with the pillow, burying my face in the thin mattress. Just the thought of appearing in front of all those people, let alone speaking, makes my heart pound and stomach clench. “No,” I say, “No way. I do not want to make a speech.”

“Come on. This is your job. You’re supposed to make speeches and encourage people and make everybody want to fight and be strong.”

“I thought my job was to die.” I don’t actually say it. I bite it down at the last second, swallow and keep it trapped inside of me. It’s not Mackenna’s fault. Not anyone’s fault, really. Just one of those things that has to happen. The way I have to make a speech.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Aubrey who was afraid of speaking in front of anyone, even just a dozen people. Who would do anything to get out of it during class. I don’t know if I’m braver now, or if I just have fewer choices. But I know one thing. That Aubrey is gone. She was lost in the shuffle, somewhere between watching people die and killing and being killed myself. Now there is just me.

CHAPTER 39

“When do I have to do it?” I ask Mackenna.

“Later today would be good. You should shower and stuff first though, and I think Liz has a dress for you.”

“A dress?” The old Aubrey used to wear dresses for fun, sometimes. I wore a dress when I asked the elf king for help, before that I can’t think of the last time. Maybe the dress I wore to the party for passing my test, the dress I killed someone in. The old Aubrey never killed anyone, never would have dreamed of it. The old Aubrey couldn’t speak in front of people, never killed anyone, and wore dresses for fun. Ha ha ha.

“Where are the showers?” I finally ask.

She thinks about it for a moment. “Um…I’m not really sure.”

It turns out that I have to shower under a waterfall. And in order to get to the waterfall, I have to walk through a large portion of the camp.

If I walk like I have a purpose and keep my head down, I’m hoping no one will notice me. My hair isn’t too distinctive, so I use it to hide my face. I tug my shirtsleeve down until it barely covers the thick band that Tempeste gave me. I try to walk as quickly as possible and try not to meet anyone’s eye.

And then, inevitably, I’m recognized. “Aubrey!” they scream, and their voice is joined by more and more until I am surrounded by a yelling throng of people. I smile and wave and try to pretend I wasn’t just hiding from them. I try to pretend I’m the brave hero they think I am, not a scared little girl who is too frightened to do what has to be done.

I’m lucky this is a small crowd, that it only takes maybe fifteen minutes to disperse. I hurry to the showers, but of course they’re not private and there are other people there. And for some reason that puts me over the edge, because I have to give a speech and the day after tomorrow I’m going to die and I just do not want to have to shower with everyone else. Please, I just want to be alone.

So I do something low. I ask everyone to leave, and of course, once they know who I am, they do. And then I stand guiltily under the waterfall, completely alone. Because maybe I’m a hero on the outside, but inside I’m just a spoiled girl who doesn’t want to share the only shower in the camp.

Even though it’s tinged with guilt, I might as well enjoy my private shower. There are six little waterfalls that tumble down the rocks before landing in a shallow pool. They’re all freezing and pound almost painfully against my back. I don’t have any soap.

I stand under the water and let it run through my hair. It’s longer than I realized, especially with all the curls stretched out, reaching almost to my butt. I massage my scalp until I’m sure it’s at least relatively clean. Then I do the same thing with the rest of my body.

After a while, the pounding on my back becomes soothing rather than almost painful. I relax backward against the rock, letting the water wash over my face and down my back. I give myself thirty seconds to relax and not think about anything. It’s surprisingly difficult. Thoughts keep drifting into my mind unannounced, leaving me to shove them forcefully back.

This could be my last shower. No, no, don’t think that. I’m not going to think. I’m going to have to speak in front of more people than I can count. Tala is dead. No.

Does it hurt to die?

My thirty seconds is up and it wasn’t even fun. I hop out of the water and pull my clothes on, my hands shaking, trying not to cry. I tell myself that I need to practice being brave and I need to hold my head up all the way to my tent, even though I kind of screwed up by ordering everyone out of the shower.

That resolution lasts about ten minutes. As soon as people even glance at me, I cover my face and walk faster, afraid I’ll be recognized.

I run through the flap of my tent, panting lightly. The tent is empty, but I’m afraid that people will break in and find me.

There’s a dress laid out on the bed, I guess Liz probably put it there. It’s white, knee-length and kind of lacy. I wonder why everyone always dresses me in white. White is the color of innocence. And I’m not innocent anymore.

The dress is pretty though, nice and thick, doesn’t drape too low on my chest. The white stands out against my tan. I wish I could keep it. I wish I could have the chance to wear it more than once.

I’m combing out my hair when Liz comes in. “How are you doing?” she asks.

“Fine.”

“Did Mackenna tell you about the speech?”

“Yeah. When do I have to do that?”

“You don’t…you don’t have to do it. I just…thought it would be nice.” She pauses. “It was a stupid idea. I don’t have the right to even ask you for anything. Not now.”

She looks like she’s about to start crying, and my heart twists. I’m so focused on myself, how afraid I am, how brave I’m trying to be, that I keep forgetting about everyone else. The people I’m dying for in the first place. They’re hurting too, and they’re also trying to be brave, and they don’t want to lose me anymore than I want to die.

“I’ll do it,” I say firmly. “It’s no problem. Really.”

“Thank you. If…if you’re sure, you could maybe do it this evening?”

“This evening. Right.”

“Well, we are going to attack the day after tomorrow.”

“I know.” My voice cracks and I look up at her with desperate pleading eyes. Of course I know the day we’re going to attack. Of course the day I’m going to die has been haunting me for days. I haven’t forgotten for a second.

I feel like I’m going to start crying, and I struggle to swallow it down. I’ve been crying a lot lately. Too much.

“Oh, Aubrey,” Liz whispers. “I’m so sorry. I would take this away from you if I could. I would die to take it away from you. You are so brave. Oh, baby….”

“Tala did it,” I sniff. “Tala knew she was going to die, and she didn’t say anything, or cry, or….”

Liz stiffens. I know she still bears the guilt of Tala’s death, and mentioning it hurts her.

“You’re brave too, Aubrey. Just because you’re talking about it doesn’t make that any different.”

I’m brave too. I like it when she says that. I’m brave like Tala, who is the bravest person I’ve ever known.

“I think I’m ready to speak now.”

Liz nods, still looking sad. “I’ll make an announcement. It will still take a little while for everyone to gather, though.”

“I’ll be waiting here when they’re ready.”

It takes a surprisingly short time to gather everyone. Apparently, the camp is pretty eager to hear me speak. Within two hours, thousands of people are gathered beneath a makeshift stage.

And I’m standing behind the stage, with no idea what to say and praying it will come to me, wearing my white dress and only shaking a little bit. I can do this though. I know it. Maybe in the past I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but now I can. I can.

Min is waiting with me. Mackenna is with her father in the crowd, and Liz is trying to get everyone to quiet down, but Min is with me. He will wait with me for as long as it takes.

Which turns out to not be that long. Liz comes in and asks if I’m ready, and I say yes even though I’m not.

“Good luck,” Min whispers, hugging me. “I know you’ll do great.”

And then I turn, pull aside the thin curtain that was shielding me from view, and face the crowd. At first, all I can see is rippling movement. A thousand faces blending together into one creature, cheering wordlessly.

“Um, I….” For some reason, my name seems to stick in my throat. “Well, you know who I am.”

There’s a roar of laughter and I blink, a little overwhelmed.

“I’m going to die the day after tomorrow,” I say. I can’t seem to think about anything else. “And then, hopefully, the war will be over. But only if everyone does their very best. You have to keep going, no matter what the cost. Remember who the enemy is. Remember what we’re fighting for. Don’t give up. It’s not going to be easy, but if we can end the war, it’s going to be worth it.”

And then I trail off, because I have nothing left to say. I just stand there, gasping and swaying because at least it’s over.

At first the cheer is just loud, everyone screaming. But after a few moments it solidifies into words.

“Long live Aubrey! Long live Aubrey!” Everyone over and over. United because of me. Through me.

I feel filled up. And I realize that the last thing I said was absolutely true. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s going to be worth it. It’s going to be worth it. Protecting literally the entire world is the most worthy cause I can think of.

I let the cheering continue for as long as I think I can without crying. And then I duck back inside my curtain, where Min is waiting for me with a kiss. Liz goes back out, I guess to say some other stuff. I sit down, completely exhausted even though I was out there for less than five minutes.

It was a surprisingly good five minutes.

CHAPTER 40

There are more motivational speeches the next day. I don’t know what this camp’s problem with motivational speakers is. There have been at least twenty in the past day and a half, none of them very good. Me included. They also more or less say exactly the same thing, just with different, fancy words. I’m not included in this. I kind of more summarized everything I was supposed to say beautifully.

I sat through most of them, and I’m starting to get sick of them. I’m next to Min, so at least I can rest my head on his shoulder, but I’m getting bored out of my mind. I can tell Min is too, he has a hard time sitting still for this long, and he’s starting to get fidgety. Also, the speakers keep talking about the brave people who have already died for the cause, and I know Min is thinking about Tala. Just as Mackenna is thinking about Ryan.

Finally, he can’t take it anymore. He pulls a scrap of paper and a pencil from his pocket. I assume he’s doodling or something, but after a few minutes he passes it to me and I see it’s a note.

I read it twice, and for what feels like the millionth time in the past few days, I fight back tears.

Aubrey, I love you. I don’t know what might happen tomorrow, but want to spend time with you. Compared with everything else, all the time I’ve spent with you is golden.

[]I flip the note over. I want one more golden day.

The whole note is covered with scribbles and crossed out words. I can see how hard he worked to make the words right.

I look up at him. He raises his eyebrows slightly and I nod. We’re sitting close to the edge, so we just slip out as unobtrusively as we can. Nobody stops us.

We hold hands and run lightly through the camp until we get to the place where the showers are. We keep going, following the river that feeds the waterfalls. We follow the river upward until it branches off into a small pond.

“Mackenna told me about this place,” he says.

“Can we swim?”

He nods very slightly. I pull off my dress, but leave on the tank top and boy shorts that I was wearing underneath. Then I dive in. Min rips off his shirt and follows me.

We start a splash fight, and soon we’re soaked and laughing wildly. Then it becomes something much more tender than a splash fight. For once, I’m so wrapped up in the moment that I’m not thinking about my very brief future.

Eventually, we drag ourselves out of the water. He turns into a wolf, not as effortlessly as he used to, and shakes his fur like a dog. I do the same as a jaguar.

We let the sun dry our fur, and then we turn back. And we talk. We talk about everything, telling each other all the details, meaningless and important, all the bits of our past that make up who we are now. I’m slightly frantic to do this. If I don’t tell someone these stories now no one will ever know them. Min is an attentive listener and I’m filled with love for him. We talk until the sun starts to set.

I remember back when I first met Min, when I liked him because I thought he was flawless. Now I love him, and I know he’s no more perfect than I am. I know all the little faults that make him who he is, make him real and make him mine. It is so much better that way.

Nobody’s flawless. But Min and I fit together like puzzle pieces, and if puzzle pieces were perfectly smooth they wouldn’t be able to connect at all. It is not despite his flaws that I love him, but because of them.

He puts his arm around my shoulder and I lean into him. I remember watching the sun set on the beach, on our first real date. Now I’m watching the sun set on our last date. Ironically, it’s also our second date.

I don’t want it to end. If I could, I would stay trapped in this moment forever. But the sun dips below the mountains, and the stars start to come out like sparkling eyes opening.

“Min,” I ask, “will you do something for me?”

He nods. “Yeah. Anything.”

“When we get back to camp, will you…will you carry me to the tent and…kick open the door, I mean, the flap. I saw that in a movie, and I…I always wanted it in real life.”

He doesn’t answer, just picks me up, kisses me, and carries me all the way to my tent. He opens the flap with his foot and sets me down in the bed

“Anything else?” he asks.

“Will you get Mackenna?”

He nods, and is back with her in only a few moments.

“Hey,” she says softly. She looks at me like she expects me to be sad, but I’m not. I’m numb and resigned.

I’m about to ask them to stay with me, but then I realize I don’t need to. They have parked themselves in my tent and have no intention of leaving me.

I sleep a little bit, because I make myself. I can’t afford to be tired tomorrow. I end up sleeping for even longer than I wanted to, and when I wake up, it’s dawn.

There’s a trumpet playing, and all over camp everyone is getting sleepily out of their tents and gathering. Preparing for battle. I get up too. It’s the morning of my last day.

We gather at the same place everyone spoke yesterday. I don’t know where Liz is. Crap. I never said goodbye to her. I only have a few moments, but I’m not letting anyone else leave without a farewell.

I grab Mackenna and hug her. “Goodbye, Mackenna. You were the best friend I ever had.”

She sniffles a few times. “I love you, Aubrey.”

And then it’s time for me to say goodbye to Min. I don’t know what to say. He hugs me tightly to him.

“Promise me you’ll try to come back,” he says. “No matter what happens. Just try to come back.”

“Min….”

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t do what you’re supposed to. You have to do that, Aubrey, okay? You have to save the world. I’m just saying…I don’t know what I’m saying.” He’s the closest I’ve ever seen him to crying, aside from when Tala died. “Just promise.”

“I promise. I will try to come back.”

CHAPTER 41

The sunrise glimmers over the edge of the mountains, golden tendrils illuminating both armies. Everyone is so still, so quiet. I swear I can hear the collective breathing of everyone in the valley. It is my moment now. I will start this battle, and both sides are waiting for me. No point in hesitating now. This is it. It all comes down to this. So with a scream, I charge.

It takes about three seconds for me to reach Mercuriel’s army. Those seconds are surprisingly quiet. I’m not sure if this is because the armies are actually silent, or more likely because my brain isn’t processing the noise fast enough.

In those three seconds, I’m very conscious of everyone behind me, following me. Min is back there, and Mackenna, and the rest of the School, and all the people Tala saved, and thousands of other people too, who I have never even met. And then the three seconds are over.

The two armies melt into each other like a wave crashing into a cliff. All of a sudden there’s a soldier in front of me. He has a sword. So I pull out my own, and kill him with it. Once, I couldn’t kill. Or I didn’t want to, and I didn’t. Now I don’t have a choice.

I take a gasping breath to recover, and then there’s already another soldier in front of me. Her sword whistles toward my neck, and my block is dangerously close. The flat of it strikes my shoulder, and I choke down a moan of pain. There’s a line of fire where my own sword bit into my collarbone.

For the first time, I am afraid I will die even before I have a chance to give my life. I’m a decent fighter, not a great one, and I’m trying not to use magic. If I use too much, I’m afraid I won’t have enough energy to bring my mother back at all. I’m out of my element here, with the closest plants and water back at the river.

But I keep going, my sword whirling, moving around bodies with the grace and ease of a jaguar. I settle into a familiar rhythm. My body knows how to do this. I don’t worry, don’t think, just focus on myself and whoever I’m fighting.

Already, the ground is slippery with blood. I can smell blood and sweat and death, taste it with every breath. I can hear the sound of the fighting people around me too. But even though I could reach out and touch the fighting people, it sounds distant.

Where is Arden? I need her. I need to end this before there is any more blood in the air, bodies on the ground.

Occasionally I see glimpses of those I care about. Mackenna, fighting side by side with her father, Min, beautiful even as he fights, like a stalking wolf. I want to follow him, protect him, but then the battle sweeps us apart again.

My injured arm screams in pain every time I lift it. My breath is coming in gasps. The muscles in my back are sore in a sharp, painful way. But there’s no time to stop or rest. Every second it seems like there’s a new soldier in front of me. Someone else I have to fight.

Finally, after what seems like hours but is really probably more like fifteen minutes, I see a golden blur in the corner of my vision. Arden.

“Please hurry,” I speak quietly, directly into her mind.

“Aubrey, I can’t land. There’s no room for me.”

“You have to. I have to get on your back.”

“I’ll keep circling until I find something.”

In the minute I was distracted by Arden, a group of soldiers has surrounded me. They’re on all sides. I’m trapped.

“Princess,” one of them sneers, “not so brave now, are you?”

I lash out at him. My claws come out, and open thick slashes down his face. One of his friends lunges at me. He’s bigger than I am, and he knocks me backward. My head cracks against rock.

I dizzily struggle to aim at him with magic. I’m seeing three of everything. He’s pinning my arms down. Almost his entire weight is on me. I can’t get my feet under me. I can’t even seem to think straight….

Then the weight is lifted off me. A hand is extended, and I take it. I’m on my feet before I realize it belongs to Min. Our eyes meet. He gently touches the scratch on my head. And then we’re pulled apart. The fighting separates me from him like a river dragging a leaf.

I see the rest of the battle in snapshots, in between bursts of fighting. Two children no older than me tearing at each other with their bare hands. A bleeding corpse, so mangled I can’t tell if it’s male or female, let alone its age. An old woman fighting with a blood-splattered club. A man staggering across the rocks, holding his stomach as if he’s afraid it’s going to fall out.

Everywhere there are swords flashing, people screaming, groaning. The smell of so many mixed magics is bitter, and the flashes of it in my peripheral vision makes my eyes ache. The sound of the swords are loud and clanging and sharp. I swear I can hear the sound of many footsteps, hovering under everything like the beat of a drum.

Arden swoops over me, low enough that her wings ruffle my hair.

“I’m making space to land.”

She starts grabbing soldiers in her claws. She throws them, and they hit others. She’s like a whirlwind of destruction, all by herself. Swords can’t penetrate her scales. Magic can’t harm her.

But each time she creates an opening, more bodies flood in to fill it. She can’t get enough space for more than a second or two.

Finally, she roars in frustration and lands. Flattening soldiers with her claws and tail. I run toward her. Start to clamber up her smooth sides.

Her scales can’t be damaged by stabbing or slicing. They’re too strong for that. But there are places where they overlap. And if someone were to stab a sword parallel to her body, under her scales, he could hurt her. And that’s exactly what one of the soldiers does.

Her scream of pain is shockingly human. She rears. The sword is still stuck in her side like a toothpick. I manage to keep holding on to one spike with my hand, and I use the other hand to rip the sword out of her side. A scale as big as a dinner plate comes away with it. Blood ripples in a sheet down her side.

Her wings expand, and suddenly she’s in the air. I’m dangling by her side. I gasp. My hands slips, and I’m only holding on by my fingertips. A few seconds pass. Now we’re so high that if I fell, I would die for sure.

Arden swerves, and my body knocks into the wound in her side. I push myself quickly away with my injured arm. She drops alarmingly. I’m suddenly afraid she’s going to fall out of the air. She’s losing a lot of blood.

I try to pull myself up with one arm. I’m not strong enough. I grab with my other hand, but the blood is slippery and I can’t hold on. I can’t get onto her. I can’t find a grip. And then she swerves, and I’m falling.

I’m lucky I’m so high up, in a way. The world whirls around me and I’m suspended, falling, falling. I’m conscious of the wind rushing against my ears, lifting my hair. Of the sudden cold. And the fear.

But then I slam into a hard surface. The breath is knocked out of me. I open my eyes. I’m on Arden’s back, only inches away from one of her spikes. If I had landed on one, it would have killed me. Blind dumb luck, or something else?

I scramble into a sitting position. A smile cracks across my face. After all that, I did end up on Arden’s back. Now I just need to get to the shrine.

Arden is swerving, trying to avoid arrows and balls of magic. Every time she starts to get close to the shrine, a volley of arrows pushes her back. We’ll have to wait.

I pull myself into a crouch on her back. My golden hair whips around my face. My body is lithe and strong, halfway between human and cat. I pull out a dagger, and in the other hand I hold a ball of magic.

I am a warrior, and in that second I am magnificent. I am strong enough for anything. And I want Min to be watching me. I want this to be the picture he holds in his heart. The last time he sees me. Because suddenly, I know that I am strong enough. I will die. And I accept that. I just want Min to hold onto this beautiful powerful picture of me. Not to lose it. Not to let it go.

I balance like that, precariously, gracefully, for maybe thirty seconds. And I am so sure this is going to work just the way we planned it. We can see the shrine. The only person who could really stop us is Mercuriel. And she’s not here. I’m going to die, but what does it really matter? I was always going to die in the end. This is just a little sooner than I planned.

And then I see something black. A shadow. But it’s too big for that, too solid and close. And then I see it’s a dragon. And then it’s colliding with Arden.

The jolt knocks me off Arden’s back again. I grab on, barely. Pain rips through my injured arm. I heave myself back on. Just in time.

Arden is fighting the black dragon. They’re both roaring, tearing at each other, blowing fire. Claws rip through scales like paper. Soon, both dragons are bleeding. Great drops of blood are falling onto the battle below.

Arden grabs the black dragon’s fragile wing in her teeth. For a second, I’m sure she’s won. But then he’s twisting in her grip, and he opens two twin gashes along her side.

His wing is still in her mouth. She lets go in pain, but not before ripping a hole in it, like scissors ripping through tissue paper. Both dragons start to spiral slowly toward the ground.

The black dragon has a rider, clothed all in black so I can’t see his face. The rider clambers out on the dragon’s wing and presses a hand to the gaping wound. It starts to knit back together, not completely healed, but well enough to fly.

I start swearing under my breath. Arden is still sinking to the ground, eyes half-lidded from blood loss. The new wound on her side makes the place where her scale is missing look like nothing.

Blood is water, more or less. And I can control water. I could stop it from flowing. Maybe I could do the same with blood.

I close my eyes and start feeling around with my consciousness. I can feel all the many places where Arden is bleeding. I start putting up barriers there. It’s exhausting, careful work. I can’t tell how much it’s working. But I don’t think she’s sinking anymore. I slowly open my eyes. Most of her body is covered in a sheen of blood, but it’s not still flowing.

She beats her wings with newfound strength, climbing up to meet the black dragon again. They keep fighting, and I hold myself tight to her back. Arden keeps trying to break away from the battle. But she’s always blocked by the black dragon. I can see the shrine, it’s so close, but we can’t get there.

The black dragon will kill us before I can even sacrifice myself.

CHAPTER 42

More arrows are shot. I start to try to deflect them with magic, but then I realize they’re not aimed toward us. They’re aimed toward the black dragon. It’s my people, firing arrows to protect me.

The arrows distract the black dragon and his rider just enough. Arden banks hard and races toward the shrine. The black dragon is heartbeats behind her, roaring in anger.

“You’ll have to jump off,” Arden says, and even in my head her voice sounds tired. “I don’t think I’ll be able to stop.”

The shrine is closer. I could almost touch the mountain, even though there’s a lot of it above me. The shrine is at the top. I can’t quite see it. Arden starts circling up the slender mountain, as fast as she can.

Going so high so quickly is starting to make me dizzy. I take a few shallow, gasping breaths. I struggle not to black out. My eyelids flutter. No. I can’t pass out. I have to stay awake.

My eyes snap open just as Arden tilts one of her wings sharply downward. The tip of the rock is below me. Maybe twenty-five feet.

“Aubrey, jump!” Arden screams into my head. So without thinking, I do.

For a split second, I’m falling. Then I slam into the unforgiving rock. I absorb some of the impact by rolling, but the breath is still knocked out of me.

I’m on a slope, and I slide downward a few feet. And then there isn’t rock below me anymore, and I’m falling again. This time, I’m so startled I scream. Still, I manage to twist enough to land on my feet, lower than I planned, on another cliff or something.

The impact of the fall knocks me to my knees. I’m not injured, though. I get slowly to my feet, looking around in wonder.

I’m in a sort of cavern, but it doesn’t have the feeling of being enclosed. There are lots of holes in the ceiling, like the one that I fell through, and sunlight filters through them. A lot of the walls are gone, replaced by stone columns. There are columns in the center too, and various statues. Vines twine up them, covered in delicate pink flowers. The whole thing has an air of mystery to it, but also a sort of fragile, perfect beauty.

Once I’ve recovered from my fall, I’m startled by the silence. The sounds of the battle are gone as suddenly as if I’d muted a TV. All I can hear is the low, far away roaring of the black dragon and Arden’s slightly higher pitched answer.

I start to walk through the cavern, weaving between statues. My footsteps sound too loud. Even though I’m alone, I still feel the need to be as quiet as possible, and stick to the shadows.

I thought the actual shrine would be easy to find, but it’s not. I see several statues shaped like jaguars, and even more shaped like beautiful women who could be my mother. I start reaching out and touching each shadow I pass, seeing if any of them feel different.

There’s another dragon roar, almost earsplitting, loud and of a different pitch than either Arden or the black dragon. I sprint to one of the openings between the columns and look out.

There’s a green dragon that I’ve never seen before fighting Arden. I can’t see if it’s being ridden or not. It’s a sturdy, compact thing, muscular. Its scales shimmer dark green and emerald, and its claws and teeth reflect the sunlight.

The green dragon and the black dragon fight well together, like a pair of matched blades. They attack Arden too fast for her to really defend herself. She’s struggling to stand her own, and keeps getting pushed farther and farther away from me.

Arden’s only advantage is her agility. She is slimmer and faster than either of the other dragons, and she’s using that as much as she can. She keeps breaking away for a few seconds at a time and being pulled back.

I look down. It takes me a few seconds to adjust to being so high. I sway. For a split second, I’m afraid that I’m going to fall. Everything is so far away that I can barely tell what’s happening.

But even from this distance, I can tell it’s not going well. The black and silver uniforms of Mercuriel’s soldiers are clearly visible, and there are more of them. The piles of bodies are getting higher. We don’t have a lot of time. I have to end this as fast as I can. I have to end this now.

Arden breaks desperately away again. But the black dragon doesn’t chase after her. Instead he turns. I don’t realize until it’s almost too late that he’s coming straight toward me.

I scramble backward as the dragon collides with the side of the cavern. A few of the columns crack and rubble rains over me. I inhale dust and start coughing. For a split second, my eyes close.

A knife bites into the base of my throat. I swallow hard. It presses into the tender skin of my neck.My heart contracts frantically.

“Don’t move,” a voice whispers in my ear. I open my eyes and turn my head up as high as it will go without my neck getting cut.

I immediately notice two things about the person leaning over me with a knife. First off, this person is clearly the person who was riding the black dragon. Second off, it’s Mercuriel.

There’s something off about the way she looks. Mostly, she looks like Tempeste or Zephyra, but she’s somehow different too. She’s almost see-through, shadowy and dark. It hurts my eyes to look at her. I feel almost sick.

I stay very still. The knife is so close to my neck that it nicks me every time I breathe. My heart is fluttering in my chest. I can hear it in my ears like the rushing of a river. I am afraid. Because how can I bring my mother back now? Mercuriel’s going to kill me and all this will have been for nothing.

Her eyes are cold and dead. There is no spark of humanity left in them. There was something in the other sisters’ eyes, fear, excitement, pity. But Mercuriel’s eyes are like a shark’s, empty of everything.

“Stand up.” Her voice is cold and hard like the edge of a sword. I do stand, because I don’t have a choice. The tip of her knife is under my chin, guiding me upward.

“Face me. I will kill you on your feet.”

For a second I think she’s giving me a chance to fight, and I feel a glimmer of hope. But then I realize she’s just going to bring me to my feet and stab me.

No. That is not going to happen. I turn into a jaguar and let the blade slice across my neck. But not hard enough to kill me. Then I turn and lunge at her.

 

CHAPTER 43

She drops the knife and it goes skittering across the floor Then I realize it was my knife. She had picked it up where I’d dropped it earlier, when I fell. I have no weapons now, aside from myself.

I pin her to the ground, snarling. Blood from my wounds drips onto her face. I raise one clawed paw. She’s in my power. And I am going to kill her.

But then, all of a sudden, she’s a jaguar too. At least as big as I am, and as dark as my mother is light. She’s still growling. She gets to her feet, knocking me off as if I weigh nothing. She probably has at least thirty pounds on me, maybe more. Her muscles ripple under her coarse fur.

She growls and rams me in the side. We both go over, rolling on the ground, biting and scratching. She’s on top of me. I flip her off and tear into her back. We’re a ball of flashing gold and black, constantly trying to get the edge.

She’s larger and stronger than I am, but I’m faster. I’m reminded of Arden fighting the black dragon. We’re like a smaller mirror of them. But then again, that’s not going so well for Arden.

Mercuriel rolls me backward and I slam into a rock. I gasp in pain and turn back to human. I whip the vines upward, and tangle them around Mercuriel’s paws. But she turns into a human too, and easily slips out.

I run at her and we’re fighting again. We’re going at each other street-style. Knees and fists, using every dirty trick. There are occasional flashes of magic, but for the most part we’re too close together to use it properly.

I grab her hair and yank it. She punches me in the face, and I reel backward. She leaps on top of me, and I fall. I shove my knee into her stomach and she releases me long enough that I can get part way to my feet.

As we fight, I keep looking for the shrine. I need to find it, that’s the only way to end things. But I see everything through the blurry adrenaline rush that is fighting. I can’t focus on the various statues enough to figure out which one is the shrine.

All of a sudden, almost without thinking, I manage to pin Mercuriel against a wall. She twists and struggles, but she can’t escape. She tries to shift but I press my forearm to her throat.

Her eyes widen with surprise when she realizes I actually have her trapped. They start to roll wildly like those of a terrified horse. She spits in my face, but I don’t react. I can feel her frightened pulse below my hand.

I try to figure out how to kill her without any weapons. My magic is, for the most part, not particularly violent. I wish Mackenna were here. I don’t have a good enough grip to snap her neck. I decide to try to keep the pressure on her throat until she dies from lack of oxygen.

But then I hear something that freezes my blood. Another dragon roar, lower even than the black dragon. There’s no way Arden can fight off three dragons. They’re going to kill her.

My grip lessens just for a second, but that is enough time for Mercuriel. She shoves me hard, and I stumble backward a few steps, fall, and slip right over the edge.

Falling over the side of the cavern is nothing like jumping off Arden’s back. I’m so surprised I don’t react. I can barely breathe. Even though it’s a fraction of a second, the fall seems to last a lifetime. I picture my body exploding on the rock below.

For that fraction of a second, everything seems to slow down. The world around me freezes. I am going to die. I have time to form that conscious thought. Mercuriel pushed me over the side of the cavern, and now I am going to hit the ground thousands of feet below and die. There’s no way I can survive a fall like that. I’m not going to bring my mother back, I’m not going to do anything I was meant to do. The last image everyone will ever have of me is of a broken, worthless body.

And then I hit the ground. My body explodes. Or at least, it feels like it does. Each of my nerve endings feels like it’s on fire. My hands are warm and sticky. Every bone in my body feels like it’s shattering. I scream, and black out.

I come awake only a few seconds later. I’m hyperventilating, tears streaming down my face. I’m terribly afraid that part of me is missing. I lift my head a little bit and bite my tongue to keep from screaming out again. I’m all there, bent and bleeding and broken. My head falls back.

I didn’t fall all the way to the ground. Obviously, or I would be dead. I can see the cavern, maybe fifty feet above me. Mercuriel’s still up there. She knows the shrine is up there. She’ll destroy it. I can’t let her. I have to stop her. I have to….

I can’t move. There is no way I can move. I’m dying. I must be. Because my body is broken, my body is on fire. I’ve lost. It’s over.

Some time passes. Maybe it’s seconds, maybe it’s hours. Maybe days, or years, or lifetimes. There’s no continuity between anything, just heartbeats, waves of pain. I cry a little bit, but it hurts. I can feel blood, flowing out around me. I’m not sure where I’m actually injured. I guess everywhere.

After a while, I decide I really am dying. It’s hard to tell. I can’t really think. But I’m pretty sure my heartbeats are getting slower. The pain is less too, but in a scary, numb way. Everything is blurry. And then I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed.

My breath rattles painfully in my chest. Soon that’s all I am conscious of. Each breath, one after another. I wonder if I’ll pass out before it stops, or if I’ll be awake. If I’ll draw in one breath and then not find the strength to take another.

At least I’ve already prepared myself for death. I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be. I’m sad, obviously, and afraid. I feel incomplete, because my last action, bringing my mother back and saving the world, never got a chance to happen. But at least I already said my goodbyes.

I can’t feel my body. I can’t feel my chest. I’m only a head, a mind trapped inside itself. Lying alone on the cliffside, crying in pain. Frantically trying to escape a prison made of flesh and blood.

I hold onto Min. He has already lost Tala, he doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve to have the two people he loves most die. It occurs to me that I was going to die anyway. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this, pointless and alone. This is a different, a harder kind of death to bear.

I picture his face for as long as I can. And then, when that fades, I imagine his arms around me, holding me tight. Protecting me from everything. And then, when I can’t even hold onto that, I just picture his energy, the feel of him. Coursing through me. Lifting me up.

His energy feels so real, I can almost taste it. And then I realize that the energy is real. My breathing is a little steadier, my heartbeat stronger. Imagined energy doesn’t do that. I was so close to dying, and just imagining someone wouldn’t be enough to bring me back. But that’s not what’s happening.

It flows over me, into me. It’s like being wrapped in a hug from the inside. I’m all filled up with Min, my Min. In a way, he’s here with me.

Is he here? I find the strength to turn my head and open my eyes a little bit. Everything is gray and blurry, but I can see well enough to know that he’s not here. So how is he giving me energy?

It slowly fades and I almost cry out in sadness. I’m not dying anymore, not exactly, but I’m also not strong enough to fight Mercuriel or find the shrine.

But then I feel something else. It’s Mackenna’s energy. It rushes through me like fire, leaving me warm, with the taste of cinnamon on my tongue. It sustains me like water. It fills me up, giving me more strength.

A third energy starts to trickle into me. It’s harder to place this one. I can’t think of who it could be. Min and Mackenna are the only two people who can give me energy, as far as I know. This energy is not either of theirs. It’s…sick-feeling, somehow, but it is also intimately familiar. Even more so than Min’s or Mackenna’s. It feels like it belongs with me.

I raise my head and look around. I’m hoping maybe the person with the mysterious energy will be just standing there, so I can figure out who they are.

All of a sudden, a memory hits me with the force of a train. Me, looking down on a broken girl on a cliff, a girl who could be my twin. It was when I was dying from Tempeste’s energy, having fevered dreams. Liz thought I could have been perceiving, but I had been sure I was just imagining things.

 

I remember pouring out my energy, and Min’s and Mackenna’s, to the dying girl. I saved her life. And that girl was me. And it was real. It was now.

CHAPTER 44

I have enough strength now to sit up. I look toward the cavern where the shrine is. And gasp.

The four dragons are still fighting violently around the cavern. The fourth dragon is far larger than any of the other dragons. Almost twice the size of Arden. He is pure white, shining like marble or diamonds. Drayne.

One of his wings is injured. It won’t support him, so he’s clinging to the top of the spire of rock. His claws dig into the the soft stone, and he sends rocks scattering down below. He fights like that, tail and teeth and claws, pressing the advantage of his size.

I’m too weak to keep sitting up for that long. I let my head fall back against the rock. I struggle to straighten all my limbs. I take inventory of my injuries. I have to bite my lip to keep from crying out.

I fell on my right side. I can’t straighten out my right arm, no matter how much I try to push through the pain. I think my elbow is broken. My hip is obviously shattered, pushing my leg out at an odd angle, and there’s something wrong with my knee too. I recognize the pain of a few broken ribs. My whole right side is torn and bloody, a mess of scrapes, bruises, and a few deeper cuts. That’s where the blood is coming from.

The rest of me is covered in bruises and scrapes too, but some of those were from earlier. I touch a few of them, gently, to make sure they’re not as bad as they look.

I have to straighten out my leg. It’s all bent and twisted, maybe if I straighten it out it will hurt less. But the muscles don’t quite seem to be attached to my brain anymore. I have to straighten it out with my hands, which involves moving the arm with the shattered elbow. The other arm, where the soldier hit me in battle, feels like nothing now.

I start slowly straightening it out. It is agony. I scream, and Arden hears me. She tries to fly to me, but the black dragon claws her and engages her again.

There’s an audible crack. The pain flares up in a blinding flash, but then fades a little bit. My leg is more or less straight, except for the hip and knee. It’s the best I can do. I fall back, completely exhausted.

I start to curl up on my side, but freeze. Cut into the spire of rock is a small cave. And inside the cave I can barely make out something glowing.

I start to laugh. Of course Verina wouldn’t make the shrine as obvious as a cavern at the top of the mountain. She’s smarter than that. The shrine is here, on the ledge, with me. Not with Mercuriel.

For the first time in what seems like my entire life, something lucky has happened to me. I never would have found the shrine if I hadn’t fallen in the exact spot that I did. And now I’m the one here, and not Mercuriel. I still have a chance.

The entrance to the cave is at least fifty feet away. It’s a bare expanse of rock, with nothing for me to grab or lean on. I don’t think I can do it.

I flip onto my stomach. I would crawl, but I don’t think I’m strong enough for that. I reach out with both arms and pull myself forward a few inches. Then a few more. I don’t focus on how far I’ve gone, how far I have left. Just each movement, each breath.

I must be almost there. I’ve been inching my way forward for forever. Every second is agony. I could never have imagined pain like this. I’m too damaged. I can’t do it.

I have to rest a little while at least. My eyes wander to the cave. I’m not even halfway there.

I start crying, little gasping sobs that hitch in my throat. I’m shaking all over. It requires effort just to keep from passing out. Every little bit of me hurts, parts I didn’t even know had feeling. I am on fire.

I am going to stop trying. Mercuriel is in the cavern, and she doesn’t know where to look for the shrine. Maybe she won’t find it. And I can rest here. This whole stupid mess can be someone else’s job. I don’t want to do it anymore. Please, I don’t care what happens, I just don’t want to have to move. I want this to be over.

I can just lie here, and maybe I’ll die or maybe I won’t. Either would be better off than trying to keep moving. Actually, not dying would be a lot better. Maybe, if I give up now, someone else will come along, someone else who has enough of the right kind of energy to sacrifice their life instead of mine. Maybe, if I give up now, I’ll see Min again. Maybe I can get married, have children….

Sorry Tala. I guess I’m not as brave as you after all. I’m not strong enough to do this. Not now, not ever. I let my eyes slip closed.

Min made me promise to try to come back. I’m keeping that promise this way, right? Min would want me to stay safe, stay alive. I’m making the right choice.

But no. That…that can’t be right. Min would sacrifice himself for me. Just for me, not even for the whole world, for everyone he loves. But that’s what this is. Everyone I love is at stake. I can’t…I can’t just let them all die.

But I can’t find the strength to care. Every breath hurts. I wipe away my tears with my shoulder, because I am not strong enough to move my hand. I can’t do this. I don’t want everyone to die, but I don’t want to die either. I don’t want to be the sacrifice anymore. I can’t find it in my heart to do this.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. Min, Mackenna, Liz, Arden. Tala. Mom. “I’m sorry, Mom. I wish you had a stronger daughter. But I cannot do this.”

There’s a long silence, and I’m trapped in the in-between, not quite dead, but not really fully alive anymore either. “Please,” I whisper. “Take this burden away from me.”

A moment passes.

“Please. Give me strength to go on.”

Min’s face flashes before my eyes. Why did I think I could come out of this and marry him? He would be so disappointed in me, because if he was the one making this journey, he would find the strength in his heart to complete it. And anyway, if we don’t win this battle, he’s going to die. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but soon. They all will, everyone I care about. Maybe in two days, maybe in ten years. But if I really want to give them a chance, I need to keep going.

No. I’m so tired. But I…I don’t want that. I don’t want the war to keep going. I don’t want all this death. I have to save my friends. I came this far for them. Tala, Storm, Ryan, they all are dead now so I could get here. I can’t…I can’t give that up. It doesn’t matter how tired I am.

I am better than this. Please, I am not strong, I am not enough, I am hurting, and want to give up. But I will not. I will not let Mackenna die for me. I will not let Min die for me. I will not let anyone else die for me, because of me. I have to keep going, because I have to save them.

I’m not saying it will be easy, but it will be worth it.

It will be worth it.

Through an enormous force of willpower, I heave myself to my feet. I am not going to stop again. I am going to get to the shrine or die trying.

I go forward a few steps, swaying like I’m about to fall. I don’t stop though. I lurch drunkenly across the rock, stumbling with every step. The pain is white hot and blinding, eclipsing everything else until it doesn’t even seem to exist.

I don’t think. I hold a picture of Min in my mind, and that’s it. I don’t count breaths or footsteps or seconds. I just convince myself that somehow, if I get to the shrine, everything will be okay.

Finally, I stagger into something solid. It knocks me to my knees. I open my eyes, squinting through the haze of pain. I ran into the side of the mountain. The cave is a few feet to my right.

I use the wall to support me and go inside the cave. Once the wall isn’t there anymore, I fall over again. The world whirls around me in a dizzy blur. I will stand up, no matter how much it hurts. I struggle to get my hands under me. I don’t think I can stand without passing out.

I sit up. I’ll take this one step at a time. Sit, crawl, then maybe stand. As long as I keep moving. I look around. Only a few more steps away from me is a statue of a jaguar, with glowing emerald eyes. In front of it is a bowl of water. I have to get to the water.

I am spent. I don’t think I can reach the bowl. I don’t think I can move again. But I have to, I have to….

My head hits the floor. I hadn’t even realized I had toppled over. I pull myself up a little and crawl. I’m beyond crying, beyond screaming. I’m making a low, pained, whimpering sound.

I collapse to the floor again. The bowl is almost within reach. So close. So close, too far. I don’t have the strength to get up again.

I stretch out the fingertips on my left hand, my less injured hand, the hand I used to stab Tempeste. So close, too far. I close my eyes. Please. Just a little farther. I can do this. I have to.

My fingertips touch metal. The bowl. I hook them weakly around it, and use it to pull me a little farther forward. One more inch, two. I place my palm in the water.

Nothing happens. Tears are streaming down my face, darkness is eating away at the edges of my vision. I gasp and move forward a tiny bit more. I’m almost screaming in pain. One finger brushes the bottom of the bowl.

The water starts to glow. That seems to open some sort of floodgate inside of me. Slowly, my energy starts to trickle away from me. I don’t have to do anything more than just keep contact with the bottom of the bowl. Even that seems like almost more than I have the strength for. But I will not give up.

I let my energy flow out of me, everything I have. It’s not much. I’m not sure if it’s enough. For a second I’m sure it won’t be, that I’ve come all this way, that I’ll give up all my energy and die, and it won’t even bring my mother back.

I could pull out still, remove my hand. But I don’t. I won’t give up, it’s too late to turn back. I went all this way for a reason, and this is it. This is my duty, my destiny. This is where it ends. And in a way, this is what I want. I want it to be worth it.

 

CHAPTER 45

I hear someone come in behind me. It must be Mercuriel. She must have found me. I pour my energy into the bowl faster, and the jaguar’s eyes glow brighter.

Hands pull me away from the bowl. I scramble back toward it, but I’m too weak. The glowing starts to fade. I hit the ground with the flat of my palm. That is all I have strength for.

I want to die, I don’t want to die, I want to see my mother. I’m never going to see my mother. I want to protect my friends, I don’t know how. I have to get to the bowl, I have to get to the bowl, I’ve failed, I’m alive. I want the pain to end, I want to die, I want to live, I want it to be worth it….

Please, don’t let Mercuriel kill me, please don’t let this all be for nothing. Tears are streaming down my face.

Then I realize the hands slowly turning me over are gentle, not rough like Mercuriel’s would be. I can’t move my head to look at whoever’s helping me though. I have to wait until the person comes into my field of vision.

It’s Verina. I blink slowly up at her. I can’t muster any other reaction. Why is she here? There must be a reason, but I can’t think well enough to figure it out.

She shakes me a little bit. “Aubrey, no. You can’t be dead. Wake up.”

I blink a little bit more until she notices. I don’t have the strength to form words. She sighs in relief.

“Stay here,” she whispers. “Don’t move.”

“Wait,” I manage to whimper. “Why are you here?”

“I’m here to save you.”

I blink slowly at her, trying to comprehend what she’s saying. “What?” I say slowly.

“Your bravery, your willingness to sacrifice yourself has…inspired me. I am not afraid anymore. Aubrey, I have lived a long life. I’m ready for this. I’m going to take your place.”

Still, everything seems to be moving slowly. I still can’t believe that she is really here. She’s really here, and she is pulling me away from the bowl, telling me she will take my place….

“Wait,” I say weakly. “No….”

“Don’t try to stop me.” She hugs my limp body. “Little sister. You are so brave. You are so worth it.” Then she sets me gently on the floor of the cave, and places her hand in the bowl of water.

It glows brighter than it did for me. I watch her stiffen and then her eyes start to glow too. Everything is moving too fast. I still don’t quite understand what’s happening.

And then I get it. Verina is a Daughter of the Wilderness. She can bring our mother back. It doesn’t have to be me. I can live.

I can’t watch another person die. Not after Tala, not after Storm. Not if I can help it. This is my sacrifice. I chose this.

I grab her shoulder and try to pull her away. But I don’t even have a fraction of the strength I would need. Verina is as still as the statue of the jaguar, her hand still in the bowl. She doesn’t react to me at all. It’s as if she can’t see me anymore.

She turns to me, one more time. “Let it be,” she whispers.

[Let it be. Little sister. You’re worth it. _]I was going to do it. I would have done it. I would have sacrificed myself. I…should have sacrificed myself? But now Verina is here, and she wants to do it instead. She thinks I’m worth it. But…I’m not, am I? This was my job, before now I was worth it because of _this.

Sometimes, maybe sacrificing yourself isn’t always the bravest option. Sometimes maybe it’s letting someone else sacrifice for you. I know, this time, that I’m not being selfish. I would have done it. But now I’m not, because Verina is. Because she wants to. Because she needs to repay a debt she doesn’t actually owe, because she loves me, because we’re sisters. Because she doesn’t want it to end the other way.

So I let her. I fall back, dizzy, exhausted, and I do not fight her again. I let my eyes close.

A second later, there’s a bright flash of light. My eyes snap open. The bowl flares up. Verina slumps forward. I reach out to her, but before I can touch her, she vanishes.

Something flickers where she was. I imagined it. I must have imagined it. But then…my mother appears.

She looks a little startled, a little dizzy, maybe. She keeps glancing around like she can’t quite figure out where she is. Then she sees me lying on the floor of the cave, all bleeding and broken, eyes half-lidded from pain and exhaustion. Strong enough to make it here, but not necessarily strong enough to keep on living.

She goes to me and lifts me in her arms. Like I’m still her little baby, like no time has passed at all. She bears me out of the cave, and with each step I feel strength returning to me. When we’re finally back in the sunlight, she sets me on my feet. I find I have the strength to keep standing. She keeps a protective arm around my shoulder, just in case.

“Mom….”

“Not now,” she whispers. “Look.” She’s pointing down, at the battle raging below us.

I look. The battle is not going well. The four dragons are fighting mostly on the ground, near the base of the mountain. The bodies are many more than when I looked down from the cavern.

Verina is dead. The thought hits me like a train. I almost fall over from the force of it. The Queen tightens her grip on my shoulder. “Not now,” she says again, as if she knows what I’m thinking. She points up.

I follow her finger. She’s pointing to the cavern. “Oh yeah, Mercuriel’s still up there. This isn’t really over until she’s dead. But we can take her.”

I say it confidently. Like there’s no chance we won’t win. Even though my mother probably hasn’t fought anyone in sixteen years. Even though I’m worried if I try to take a step, I’ll fall over.

“How are we going to get up there?” I ask.

My mother starts to open her mouth, but I come up with a solution on my own.

“Arden!” I call out with my mind.

She turns her head toward me. And then she’s streaking upward like a golden comet. I expect her to try to land on the narrow cliff but she doesn’t. Just grabs one of us in each of her claws and keeps racing upward.

She drops us in the cavern and is gone before I can thank her. Mercuriel’s back is toward us. I take a stumbling step forward. She hears me. She freezes and whips around to face us.

She has no eyes for my mother. Only for me, swaying and reeling, barely able to stand. She lunges at me. I can’t think a way to fight back, not without passing out.

But then my mother jumps in front of me. She turns into a jaguar, and Mercuriel does too. And they fight.

If I thought my mother would be a poor fighter, I was wrong. She’s a blur of pure white, tangling with Mercuriel like a yin-yang symbol. Their movements are almost too fast for me to follow, let alone match. And their fight is almost silent, just speed and strength and endurance.

I decide I need to sit down. I lean against one of the columns. I wish I could help my mother, but there’s really not much I could do. Not blacking out is a good start. I’ll just focus on that.

The knife I dropped earlier is actually pretty close to me. I stretch out my arm, and my fingers can barely close around the hilt. I hold it out, and if Mercuriel tries to come near me I’ll kill her.

Mercuriel breaks away and runs at me. I hold the knife out shakily. I can barely breathe. I can’t fight Mercuriel off. But I have this knife, and I know how to use it. I slash out at her, opening a long cut down her arm.

That is all the opening my mother needs. She roars and turns back into human. She stands, and she is not weak or shaky. All the light in the room seems to flood to her, plunging the rest of the room into shadows. She raises her arms, and a thousand vines come alive, snapping and whipping around the columns. Electricity crackles in her hair and at her fingertips. She glows with strength, with power.

“Get away from my daughter.” Her voice is commanding and dangerously low. Mercuriel freezes, startled, and turns back into human. Instantly, vines are trapping her, tying her into a kneeling position.

Her chest goes up and down, and her eyes are wide and frightened. My mother stands over her, not even breathing hard.

I see that Mercuriel is crying. Real crying. I can see her trying to bite her lip to stop the tears, but she can’t. I am suddenly conscious of how very young she looks, even younger than Liz.

I get slowly to my feet. I stand next to my mother, still holding the knife. I look down at Mercuriel. She is pitiful, crying and whimpering. Once my greatest enemy, she is now on her knees before me.

“Please,” she whispers. “Have mercy. Forgive me. I didn’t mean it….”

The stream of apologies continues. My mother looks at me. It is my call now. I am the one who has been hurt by her. If Mercuriel is going to die today, it is going to be by my hand.

I have mercy. I believe in second chances. For everyone. But Mercuriel can never have another life, she will be hated by everyone. And while she is alive, she will always be able to control her army. If I give her a second chance, then they can never really have one.

But mercy. That…that shouldn’t be conditional, right? I can’t expect it, ask for it, and not give it in return. But what if she’s lying? She must be lying. Something seems off, and suddenly I’m sure she is. I….

She snarls, turns into a jaguar, and lunges at my face.

CHAPTER 46

If my dagger wasn’t already moving, she probably would have killed me. But I had decided to kill her a split second before she started moving. The dagger goes into her stomach, stopping her a few inches from my face.

For a second, her face is frozen in a snarl. And then her eyes go wide and glassy and the rest of her goes slack. She slumps heavily to the ground, the knife still pushed up under her rib cage. Blood makes her black fur sticky.

I look down at her body. She seems smaller in death, somehow. Once, I would not have killed her. But it would, I think, have been weakness that kept me from using the knife, not strength. I am wiser now. And there is one thing I know for sure. It was mercy, not cruelty, that moved the knife.

The first person I ever killed was with a knife. Maybe, if I’m lucky, the last person will be too.

My mother lifts Mercuriel in her arms, the same way she lifted me only a moment ago. Then she walks to the edge of the cavern. All the eyes of both armies are instantly drawn to her, as if she is a magnet.

“Stop fighting,” she commands, and even though she is thousands of feet above the two armies, I know they can all hear every word she says perfectly. I hear the clang of thousands of weapons being dropped.

“Mercuriel is dead.” She holds the body out, and there’s a collective gasp. “My daughter lives. The battle is over. The war is over. There will be no more fighting.”

As soon as she’s said that, I know no one would dare fight. It really is over. It’s over….

My knees buckle. I would have pitched over the side if my mother hadn’t dropped Mercuriel to catch me. And then Arden is there, although I don’t remember calling her. We both get on her back. I grip one of her spikes limply. I’m still in denial. Or maybe it’s more like shock.

Arden sets us on the ground without saying another word. I slide down from her back. “Where are Min and Mackenna?”

Arden nods her head toward a black lump. “I let them fly up with me. They killed the black dragon.”

“Are they okay?” I hear the desperation tinging my voice. Arden doesn’t answer, but she doesn’t have to. I can see that she has no idea.

If I could, I would sprint to where they are. I can’t. But I have to see them. I have to know they’re okay. I will crawl to them if I have to.

I start to walk steadily toward them. I can feel hundreds of eyes following me. I don’t care. I just don’t want anyone to try to come to me. I don’t want them to block me.

It seems to take hours to get there. But finally, I can clearly see the dead black dragon, and beyond him, Drayne. Also dead. I feel a pang of sharp sadness, but it’s overwhelmed by worry.

There are two figures huddling in the shadow of the black dragon. One of them gets up and runs toward me with a scream of relief. It’s Mackenna.

She looks broken too. Injured, bruised and cut in so many places. She’s limping. Half of her long auburn hair is missing, burned away. One of her eyes is a dark bruise. She can’t open it.

“Aubrey, you’re okay,” she whispers.

I nod. “I made it. Verina sacrificed herself for me.”

“I’m so glad.” She reaches forward and hugs me, very gently, like she’s afraid I’m going to fall apart.

“Min?” I ask once we’ve separated.

She looks behind her. Min is crumpled under the black dragon. My heartbeat seems to freeze in my chest. He looks dead. If he’s dead, I will have nothing. I kept going for him. He can’t be dead.

“Is he….”

Mackenna shakes her head. “He’s alive. Badly injured though.”

“Min!” I scream. He hears my voice and sits up a little bit.

This is supposed to be the part where we run to each other and hug and kiss and everything is all right. But no running is going to be happening. We’re only about ten feet away from each other, but I’m not sure we can make it. I don’t even think Min can make it to his feet.

He does though, which surprises me. He takes a few halting steps and then collapses, and I managed to make it the rest of the way to him. I drop to my knees beside him.

“You’re alive.” He strokes my hair. I can see he’s injured, as badly as I am at least. “Me and Mackenna, we killed that dragon.”

“Good job,” I whisper. I’m crying with relief. I thought I would never see him again, him or Mackenna, and now I’m seeing them both.

“I love you. I really do. You know that, right?”

“I know, Min.”

He smiles, and then blacks out in my arms. I hold him, and Mackenna stands over us, keeping us safe.

My friends gather in a loose semi-circle around us. Liz and the Queen arrive at the same time. My mother starts to tend to me first, and Liz glares at her.

“She’s my daughter,” my mother says.

“She’s my daughter too,” Liz whispers fiercely, and in that moment they come to an understanding. I have two families now, two mothers, and they are both mine.

I feel both of their hands touch me, my forehead, my broken limbs, my injured side. And, finally safe, I pass out next to Min.

 

I don’t really see Min, Mackenna, or really much of anybody for the next week or so. I’m unconscious for a few days, and there’s a lot of healing I need to do.

I had a dislocated shoulder, fractured hip and elbow, three broken rips, a sprained knee, and the scrape down my side. No permanent damage, but even now, ten days later, healed by magic, I’m still sore.

Min and Mackenna killed the black dragon, and it fell from the air with them on it. Mackenna jumped off, leaving her with scratches on her chest and a broken wrist. The dragon burned away part of her hair, and she ended up having to shave it all off just to make it look normal.

Min was not so lucky. When the dragon fell, he was caught in its grip. He has four puncture wounds along his chest from the dragon’s claws, each like a shallow knife wound. Both of his arms were broken in different places, and his collarbone too. Most of the weight of the dragon landed on the lower part of his leg, and it was shattered. There was internal bleeding. He almost died, but he’ll be okay too.

Most of Mercuriel’s army instantly surrendered when they saw the Queen was alive. The ones that didn’t were killed. They had to be.

The war is over, but in a way it’s not. There’s so much rebuilding that has to be done, so much recovering. So many people were killed. So many lives were destroyed. I don’t think my mother will regain her full powers for a long time. Maybe never.

Some things are happy. Watching Mackenna’s father adopt Doctor and Kestrel, Kestrel’s cautious eleven-year-old flirting with Lily. Seeing Liz’s whole family reunited, exactly as it was supposed to be. All of the prisoners we couldn’t rescue freed from Mercuriel’s prison. The soldiers Tala helped, starting to build new lives. Lovers brought together. Old wounds healed.

It is mixed with sadness. Drew’s parents searching for days only to find his corpse lying broken among a hundred others. Burning Drayne’s body because there’s no way for us to dig a hole big enough for it. Lovers separated, and old wounds reopened. New wounds created.

Today, they have decided it is time to do a memorial service. To honor all those who died. Of course I will be speaking, as everyone thinks I’m a hero. And I’ll be honoring everyone, Verina and Drayne especially. Verina, who gave her life so I might live.

I look at myself in the mirror and think of the Aubrey I was before all this started. I haven’t cut my hair since I found out I had magic, and now it reaches all the way down my back. I’m covered in strong ropy muscle, and it looks odd on me, harsh somehow. I have the band from Tempeste on my arm, and her eyes. There’s the bruise-scar from the poison too, and too many other scars to count.

The real changes are on the inside though. I am stronger now, braver, but harder somehow too. Sometimes, a lot of the time, I wish I could go back to being the old Aubrey, when everything was simpler. I was different then, weaker, less myself, but I didn’t have to be special, I didn’t have to be someone, I didn’t have to be eaten alive by nightmares and guilt. When you have to kill someone, something inside you snaps, and that something is irreplaceable. In a lot of ways, I’m broken.

I’m stronger now, and I have my mother, and friends who would die for me, who I would die for. I am stronger now. But I have woken from nightmares every day since the last battle. Sometimes, I would give anything to go back.

It’s time to speak in front of everyone. I step out on the same stage I spoke on two weeks ago, when I thought I was going to die. There are thunderous cheers this time, just like last time. Someone announces me, like I’m a celebrity or something.

I start out with the speech I had prepared, but then I realize something. Memorializing everyone who died is not the most important thing right now. The important thing is to keep moving forward, keep standing strong. So I scrap the speech and start again.

“Everyone who died for this will live forever. They are part of us, and we will not forget. I lost some of my closest friends. I lost my sister. And I feel them, every day I feel them with me. And every day I grieve them, and every day I miss them, and that will never stop. The scars they left on my heart will always be a part of me.

“We will not forget them. We will never forget them. But they gave themselves so we could have a new future, not be shackled to the burden if the past. This is a time for celebration. For rebirth. This is not a time for grieving, but for honoring our dead by moving forward.”

I break off. All of a sudden, someone in the crowd is moving forward, running, pushing people out of the way. I’m not sure what to do. But then my mother is there behind me, pushing me forward to meet whoever it is running toward me.

It’s Min. He’s running toward me, climbing up on the stage. And I haven’t seen him in so long, and he looks so healthy and perfect. I’m running forward, and we meet in his arms. And then we’re kissing.

The crowd goes wild. Everyone is screaming. Cheering for us. I let him wrap his arms around me, and everything is color and light. I’m suddenly fiercely conscious of how [_alive _]I am, how alive everyone is now. I made it. I made it, and I’m alive. It’s over.

I wouldn’t trade this moment, right now, for anything in the world. I am a different Aubrey now, and I don’t know if I am a better Aubrey. But I am a stronger Aubrey, and at least I know I made a difference. The war is over.

I was right, earlier. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

h1=.

Devlin began writing the Aubrey Rising series when she was 13 years old, and finished it just after she turned 15. She is currently 17 years old and is working on her seventh novel. Abby enjoys writing, karate, and spending time with her friends. She lives in New Hampshire with her parents, brother and dog Cocoa Puff.

 

October 2015


Mercuriel--Aubrey Rising Book 3

Aubrey feels the weight of all those who have been lost to the war, and it is crushing her. As more of her friends suffer and families are ripped apart, she strengthens her resolve to defeat Mercuriel, the last and most powerful of the three sisters. Aubrey and her friends go on a series of dangerous missions to gather support, testing Aubrey and her friends more deeply than she could have imagined. Aubrey has to find within herself the strength to do whatever needs to be done, as the war with the three sisters draws to a final, epic conclusion.

  • Author: Devlin Richards
  • Published: 2015-11-04 19:20:18
  • Words: 87915
Mercuriel--Aubrey Rising Book 3 Mercuriel--Aubrey Rising Book 3