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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

The Society of Imaginary Friends

[][] Table of Contents

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

Epilogue

Afterword

About the Author

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The Society of Imaginary Friends

The Conjurors Series

By

Kristen Pham

Copyright © 2014 by Kristen Pham

[] Chapter 1

It was a flash of dark red hair that yanked Valerie out of her daydream and had her on her feet in seconds. Before the realization of what it meant reached her consciousness, she was already out the front door and halfway to the pickup truck.

“Daniel, no!” she yelled.

It was too late. Her ten-year-old foster brother had pulled the truck out of park, and it was sliding backward down the driveway. Sitting next to him, her blood-red hair ghoulish against her pale skin, was Sanguina.

“Now put your foot on the pedal on the left,” Sanguina coached Daniel, flashing Valerie a knowing grin.

Valerie’s peripheral vision registered a blue van barreling down the street right before she wrenched open the passenger-side door to the truck and jumped inside. Sanguina had already vanished. She hit the emergency brake a second before the truck reached the road, but not before hitting the mailbox at the end of the driveway.

“Hey! Whatcha doing?” Daniel asked indignantly. “You messed me up.”

“Sorry, buddy,” she said, relief coursing through her body. This time, she’d been fast enough to prevent something awful from happening. “But you know you can’t be in here.”

“There was a grown up! That lady was helping me.” Daniel leaned forward, looking past her, but there was no one else in the cab of the truck. “Where’d she go?”

Valerie had no idea where Sanguina went, or where she ever came from, for that matter. She only knew that no matter how fast or how far she ran, Sanguina always eventually found her and tried to make her life hell. Last time, she’d found Valerie living beneath an overpass off the exit of a highway and had provoked a drug dealer into trying to shoot her. The time before that, she’d goaded a school bully into beating up a little freshman right in front of Valerie. That time, she hadn’t been fast enough to help him, and the boy wound up in a coma.

Sanguina was Valerie’s very own personal tormentor, one she couldn’t run from, and what her doctors considered proof that Valerie was certifiably crazy. Because she couldn’t be real.

“Uh oh,” Daniel’s voice suddenly sounded very young and scared.

The front door swung open, and the biological son of the couple she and Daniel were living with stormed outside. Adam, twenty-one, only did three things, as far as Valerie could tell: work out relentlessly, steal from his mother’s purse, and take out his bottled-up aggression on the two foster kids living in his house—when his parents weren’t around.

“Duck,” she commanded Daniel, and scrambled over the boy to get behind the wheel, shoving him to the passenger side. “I’ll handle this.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed as he barreled toward his truck. He jerked the driver-side door open and grabbed her arm, throwing her to the pavement. She winced when her elbow and knee hit the concrete, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of making any sign that she was in pain. She knew his type, and seeing her scared was exactly the thrill he was hoping for.

While she was down, he kicked her in the gut. She jumped to her feet before he got a second shot in.

Her first instinct was to fight back. He’d be in for a surprise, because she’d fought bigger, tougher men than this bully, but she stopped herself, remembering Mrs. Sims’ warning that morning.

“I won’t tolerate any fighting now, hear? Not if you want to stay in my house,” she had said gruffly.

Valerie had given her a small nod, keeping the polite smile she had been wearing for the past two weeks pasted on her face. This was the first time she’d had a real bed and three meals a day since she’d been in the hospital two years ago, and she didn’t want to mess things up. She’d just take a few hits from Adam and keep her mouth shut.

“You’re dead,” he said, a smile of grim satisfaction on his face. He’d probably explain her bruises to his parents as being the result of her careless accident.

“It was a mistake. Take it easy,” she said, automatically slipping into a defensive pose, her arms a little raised in front of her, and her feet anchored firmly beneath her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Daniel sliding out of the truck, probably ready to come to her defense. He was a sweet kid, and the idea of him getting in the middle of this terrified her more than anything else. She tried to subtly nod her head to the side, indicating that he should run, but Adam saw her movement and turned.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he growled. “I saw you get out of my truck. You’re both gonna pay.”

“He’s not a part of this. It’s my fault,” she said. But she’d never been a good liar—probably a big part of the reason why she hadn’t lasted long on the streets.

“It was him who drove my truck, wasn’t it?” Adam said, turning his rage on Daniel.

Daniel’s face was white, but he stood his ground. Valerie protectively stepped in front of him, but Adam shoved her aside. Whenever she found herself in these situations, instinct always took over. Valerie had learned not to think and to just let her movements flow naturally.

She felt as if she was watching from a place deep inside of herself as Adam’s fist came hurtling through the air toward Daniel’s head. Valerie caught Adam’s arm mid-punch, stopping it before it reached its target. Surprise registered on his face before she followed up with a blow aimed at his chest. Her fist connected, and he was thrown back so violently that it looked like he’d been hit by an invisible bus. He crashed into the side of the truck.

“How did you do that?” Daniel whispered.

Adam groaned, stunned. Valerie herself had no idea where her strength came from, but she assumed that it was adrenaline, like mothers who lifted cars when their children were trapped beneath.

She grabbed Daniel’s hand and pulled him toward the house. Once inside, she locked the doors and even checked that the windows were latched shut. Adam would be coming after them, and he’d be mad. She had to stall him until Mrs. Sims made it home.

“In here,” she said, pulling Daniel into a bathroom on the ground floor. Inside, she locked that door as well. “No matter what happens, don’t leave until Mr. or Mrs. Sims get home.”

As always, her strength evaporated rapidly now that the immediate threat was gone. She leaned against the wall for support, sliding down toward the floor. Expending all that energy took a toll, and Valerie knew it would be a week before she felt normal again.

“You okay?” Daniel asked, his face blurry. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine,” she replied, managing a small smile.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “So, so sorry.”

Valerie had trouble focusing on his words. She was always weak after a fight, but this was more than physical exhaustion. She was being pulled into a tidal pool of blackness. This, too, she was familiar with, and she fought the tug with every ounce of her strength.

She knew that in the darkness, sucking at her consciousness, were terrors greater than anything she experienced awake. But her struggle was useless. Her knees finally gave way, and she fell forward, crashing into the ground. The last thing she remembered was the cool floor against her cheek before the darkness wrenched her under.

Part of Valerie knew that she was unconscious, and that her body was somewhere on the bathroom floor. But the scene before her eyes was so real that it was hard to remember this couldn’t be anything more than a terrible nightmare.

She was in a strange bedroom, kneeling on a small wooden bed, clutching her sheets with sweaty hands. Her heart beat fast and adrenaline chased through her veins, amplifying her eyesight and hearing.

In the corner of the room, the shadows began to move. Out of the darkness, Sanguina crept toward her. She was gaunt, and in the silvery light, Valerie could make out a network of purplish-blue veins throbbing beneath her translucent skin. Her eyes were a bottomless well of darkness, filled with cold hate.

Sanguina was much more terrifying in this shadow world than she was in reality. How had her tormentor traveled so fast, one minute in the pickup truck and the next in this strange bedroom? It was as if she wasn’t content torturing Valerie when she was awake; she had to visit her nightmares as well.

No matter how many times Valerie saw her, or how often she told herself when she awoke that Sanguina was only a figment of her imagination, she was always frozen by the fear inside her. “She’s not real. This is a dream. She can’t hurt me,” Valerie chanted softly, trying to convince herself that her words were true.

“Give it to me. You know what will happen if you don’t,” Sanguina said in a low, toneless voice that made Valerie’s skin crawl.

“Or maybe you want me to visit your family again?” a deep voice growled nearby. A tall, lanky man with yellow eyes was watching her as well. It wasn’t the first time she had seen him, but she didn’t know his name.

They didn’t always appear together, but when they did, it meant they wanted something. Something Valerie knew she shouldn’t give them. But she always gave in—anything so long as they’d leave her alone. Why was she always so much more afraid, so much weaker, facing these two in a dream than she was in real life?

“Please, go away,” Valerie begged.

“We’re never leaving. Get used to it,” Sanguina rasped in her ear, suddenly so close that Valerie was forced to stare directly into her black eyes. It was like staring into a void. A scream built in her lungs, and she squeezed her eyes shut to escape the emptiness of those eyes.

Some time later, Valerie peeked through her lashes. Her heart was ricocheting around in her rib cage, and she could still taste the echoes of her last scream. Sanguina’s hollow eyes were gone, and instead she saw the little window next to her cot in the room she shared with Daniel.

She opened her eyes wider and saw a familiar, beloved face close to her own. This was another one of her hallucinations, like Sanguina or Yellow-Eyes, except that this one comforted her.

“Cyrus? What…how?” Valerie whispered.

But Cyrus only glowed for a second and then faded away. She blinked, but he didn’t reappear. Fully awake now, she was kneeling on her bed, clutching her sheets in her hands as she had been during her unconscious vision with Sanguina. She was so weak, completely drained—physically and emotionally—by what she had experienced.

It was a different kind of fatigue than what she experienced after the fight. Then, she had been exhausted, but she would have been able to make it through the day. Now she knew the next time she closed her eyes she might not be able to open them again.

She let herself collapse back on her bed. The leftover fear from her dream receded, but it was replaced by a gnawing anxiety about what had happened to her and how she had gotten here. She saw her reflection in the bedside mirror and groaned. Her waist-length brown hair was a sweaty, tangled mess, and her usually warm brown skin had a yellow tinge.

The door cracked open, and Daniel peeked in. He thrust a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into her hand.

“Hide it, quick! She’s coming.”

Valerie shoved the sandwich under her pillow and gave Daniel a reassuring wink. “Don’t worry, little man. It’s all gonna be okay.”

He left, and a minute later, Mrs. Sims came through the door. She was a tall, imposing woman who rarely smiled. Valerie suspected that housing foster children was simply a way to make some extra money, because she clearly didn’t like children. Still, she wasn’t a bully, like her son, so Valerie couldn’t complain. Even considering Adam, this house wasn’t close to the worst of the places she’d lived. She hoped she’d be able to stay.

“Adam told me you wrecked his truck,” Mrs. Sims said accusingly. She stood over Valerie with her arms crossed.

“I apologize, ma’am. I was curious to see how it worked, and it got away from me.”

“That’s a lie. You were going for a joyride before Adam stopped you. I know your type. And then you hit him? That was a coward’s choice. Adam would never hit a girl back.”

Arguing would only make things worse, Valerie knew from experience. “I accept whatever punishment you have for me.”

“It’s too late for any of that. You and Daniel are more trouble than you’re worth. As soon as I can arrange it, you’re both out of here.”

“Daniel wasn’t involved—” Valerie started to say, but Mrs. Sims cut her off with a shake of her head.

“I won’t listen to any of your nonsense. And if there’s any more trouble from either of you, you’ll go without your meals. We’ll start tonight. Perhaps an empty stomach will remind you to be grateful for the generosity of those who take you in.”

Valerie nodded, and Mrs. Sims left. Maybe it was for the best that Daniel was leaving, too. Without her to protect him, Adam could really do some damage. She hoped that he would go to a nice couple with no kids. Or better yet, maybe he would be adopted. It was better to think that way, since there’d be no way to ever see him again.

Still, anxiety for her future made her stomach hurt, and forcing down the sandwich made her want to choke. What if her next foster family was like the one she’d had two years ago, and they locked her up in a closet? Or it could be another situation where she had to lie awake at night, guarding herself against any midnight attacks from other foster kids in the house. She’d have to go back to the streets again, which she hated.

Her breathing became shallow, as if she were breathing through a tiny straw. Her heart pounded so hard in her chest that she thought it would explode. She didn’t normally give in to her fears like this, but she was already so weak. Daniel tiptoed into the room and saw her gasping for air.

“Mrs. Sims! Help! Valerie’s dying!” he cried.

Then she collapsed on her pillow, back into sweet unconsciousness.

[] Chapter 2

Some distant corner of Valerie’s mind registered shouting—was it Daniel? He was shaking her, but she couldn’t seem to force herself to fight her way out of the darkness that had her trapped. She vaguely sensed her body being moved, poked, and prodded, but she couldn’t even crack her eyes. After a while she stopped trying, and it was a long time before she registered anything else.

The familiar, steady beeping of a heart monitor brought her back to full consciousness. Her mouth was dry, and when she cracked her eyes open, they were sticky, like they’d been shut for a long time.

She saw a row of three neatly made cots. The room was familiar. She was back at the Oakland Children’s Hospital. Her muscles relaxed, and she took a deep breath—this was the place where she was safest.

She was distracted from her thoughts by the familiar voice of Dr. Freeman, who had been overseeing her case since she was seven. She strained to hear the faint murmur of his conversation with a nurse. This was her only chance for answers. Later, she’d only get the sugared truth, what they deemed safe for a kid.

“Should we call her parents?” questioned the nurse.

“Foster parents, you mean. But custody of Valerie Diaz is being reassigned, so we should notify her social worker.”

Mrs. Sims had wasted no time making good on her promise to kick her out. Not that it really mattered. Alone…again.

“Oh, I had no idea she was an orphan. The poor thing,” the nurse said softly.

“Yes, it’s sad. She’s been in the system for twelve years, since she was three. She’s been bounced from one set of parents to the next, since not many people can handle a violent, schizophrenic teenager, even without all her other complications.”

“What happened to her?”

“Apparently one of the other kids in foster care with her found her struggling for breath last night, and then she collapsed and has been unresponsive since. She’s been in a coma for nineteen hours now,” Dr. Freeman said, and she heard a thread of deep concern in his voice. It thawed a little frozen patch in her heart.

“Schizophrenia doesn’t cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure. Is there another diagnosis as well? I don’t see anything on her chart.”

“That’s the great mystery. We believe the drop in blood pressure is somehow tied to the schizophrenia. But that’s a guess. We have no idea what’s causing this. We’ve given her MRIs, scans, blood tests, but all the results are normal.”

“That must be terrifying for her.”

“What’s worrying me most is that it seems these unconscious spells of hers are taking a heavier toll on her physically the older she gets, and it’s taking her longer to recover each time. If we don’t diagnose her illness soon, I’m afraid she might have a stroke and die.”

The shock of what she heard reverberated through Valerie’s entire frame, making her tremble. It couldn’t be true. Her life couldn’t be over before she had a chance to do any of the things she promised herself she’d do one day—see the world, go to college, fall in love. She gasped for air. Might die, she told herself, not will die. Dr. Freeman would never let that happen. In the hall, Valerie heard the insistent sound of the doctor’s beeper going off.

“I had better leave you to give Valerie her IV. I’ll come back to check on her as soon as I can,” Dr. Freeman said to the nurse.

She heard the doctor’s footsteps fade down the hall. Her door creaked open, and a stout nurse with round black glasses entered. Valerie stared at her, unable to put words to everything that was racing through her mind.

“You’re awake! Dr. Freeman will be so glad. Are you okay, sweetie? You’re shaking like a leaf,” the nurse said, putting a hand against Valerie’s forehead.

“I’m… fine,” she replied, forcing her muscles to relax.

“I’m Beth,” the nurse said hesitantly.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Valerie said as calmly as she could manage.

“I know you’re not going to like this, but I have to put a needle in your arm. It will only hurt for a second, and then you’ll feel much better.”

“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”

It was true. She didn’t even flinch when the needle slid into her vein.

“Nice job with that needle. Thanks, Beth,” Valerie said, suddenly wanting her to leave so that she could be alone to think.

“Just rest now. Everything is going to be okay,” Beth said with a tentative smile. She squeezed Valerie’s arm before she left and turned off the lights on her way out.

All the colors in her room blurred together. Whatever Beth had put in her IV was already working, making her mind sluggish. It was an effort just to blink, and she let herself be carried away by a gentle tide of drowsiness.

It was in her peaceful dreams that Valerie always found the inspiration for the stories that she liked to write in her journal and sometimes read to the little kids at the hospital. Tonight, as Valerie effortlessly used her superior kung fu skills to defeat Adam once and for all and put multiple dents in his precious truck, an old friend battled with her.

Valerie hadn’t fought by Cyrus’s side in a long time, since he had been her best friend—her imaginary best friend, that is—when she was little. Even in her dream, Valerie knew that Cyrus wasn’t real. But his presence didn’t frighten her, like Sanguina and Yellow-Eyes. He had always been someone who had her back, the only hallucination she wished she could keep. It was thrilling to be fighting another imaginary battle with him.

In the middle of combat, Valerie’s and Cyrus’s eyes connected, and Adam disappeared mid-kick. Cyrus walked over to her, holding out his hands. Valerie reached for him, but she couldn’t touch him, even in her own dream. As solid as he seemed, he was a figment of her imagination, and her arms went right through him.

“I miss you,” she said. “I wish we could be best friends for real.”

“Val, it’s time to wake up,” Cyrus said.

Valerie awoke suddenly, and all of the sticky cobwebs that the medicine had woven in her mind were gone. Her hospital room looked like it always did. Right now she was the only one in her room, and the other two beds were neatly made, gleaming whitely in the moonlight.

“Um, Valerie?”

Slowly, she turned toward the door. Sure enough, there was Cyrus, almost glowing in the dark room. His gold hair had a slight curl, and his blue eyes, which Valerie had always loved, stood out against his slightly tanned skin. It was so good to see him. But did his reappearance mean that her schizophrenia—and whatever else was wrong with her—was getting worse?

“It’s okay. I can explain.” Cyrus moved toward her slowly, as if he was afraid that if he moved too quickly he might frighten her, and stopped at the edge of her bed.

But fear was the last thing on her mind—she wanted him to be real so badly. Without thinking, she reached for his hand, almost pulling the IV out of her arm. She couldn’t help sighing with disappointment when her fingers connected with nothing but air. She was lightheaded. She shouldn’t have sat up so fast.

“Take it slow, Val,” Cyrus said gently, and she sank down onto her pillows.

“Maybe this is a sign that I’m going to die,” she said, mostly to herself. At least she would be able to pass away staring into a face she loved, even if he was a hallucination.

“No, I’m not gonna let that happen.”

“I see,” Valerie said, smiling a little at this person her brain had created. “And what can a hallucination do to stop it?”

“Not that you’re gonna believe me, but I’m no hallucination. And it’s almost time for me to prove it. I can’t wait to see the look on your face when you realize I’m telling the truth. Plan to be laughed at for the rest of your life about that, by the way.”

Valerie shook her head, trying to clear it. She wanted Cyrus to distract her with tales of his adventures, not offer her more proof of her own insanity.

“Why are you here?”

“I know the past few years haven’t been easy for you. But things are about to get a lot better. I’m busting you outta this place,” he said, grinning with barely suppressed pride.

She let out a short, surprised laugh. “What makes you think I’d go with you?”

Cyrus’s smile slipped. “I can’t fathom what you’ve been through. I’m asking you to trust me on this. I can save your life. What have you got to lose if you listen to me? Nothing. But if you stay in this hospital and wait to die, you will.”

Valerie stared at him.

“What are you thinking?” Cyrus asked, stepping closer to her.

“I’m thinking that I’ve reached a new level of crazy. One there’s no returning from,” she replied.

“Then don’t return. Come with me.”

[] Chapter 3

Over the next few days, Valerie relaxed as she fell back into the familiar rhythms of hospital life. She had been here so many times that the staff and other kids were more like family than any she’d ever had.

As she had during her last few visits, Valerie spent part of each day visiting the younger kids to deliver comfort and tell them stories to distract them from their pain—always under the careful supervision of a nurse or parent, of course. It was a much colder world outside of these walls, and Valerie was glad to be back. If only she didn’t have to worry about what was going wrong inside her, she could almost be content.

Because the hospital was currently at full capacity, two other children were sharing her room now, but that didn’t stop Cyrus from visiting her regularly. She did her best to ignore him, deciding that it wasn’t a good idea to indulge her hallucinations, but he made it very difficult. He seemed to take a childlike glee in forcing her to acknowledge his presence. One time, he entered the room on Dr. Freeman’s broad, dignified shoulders, pretending he was a cowboy and the doctor was his horse. He whirled an imaginary lasso above his head and pretended to pull back on reins to slow the doctor as he approached her bed.

She had burst out laughing, and the doctor had examined her sharply and made a note on his chart, which immediately extinguished her mirth. The last thing she wanted was for Dr. Freeman to decide she was dangerous and put her in isolation. So she did her best to stay calm as she recovered.

The next day when Cyrus entered, she refused to acknowledge him, even when he did cartwheels and back flips around the room. After more than an hour of unsuccessfully trying to attract her attention, he finally came to a stop beside her bed.

“Not even a smile for me today?” he asked, sounding a little petulant.

“Go away,” she hissed, not wanting the other two children, Ming and Jeremiah, or their parents, to overhear her.

While Valerie read a tattered old Seventeen magazine that Nurse Beth had brought for her, Cyrus tapped his foot impatiently beside her until the other children were called away for a Halloween craft hour.

On her way out, Ming stopped by Valerie’s bed. “Can I bring Mr. Hopsalot?” she begged, cradling Valerie’s tattered old stuffed bunny in her arms.

“Of course,” Valerie replied, smiling at the happy light in Ming’s eyes as she skipped out of the room.

“Now will you talk to me?” Cyrus asked as the door closed behind Ming.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re not real,” she replied, realizing how weird she must look, talking to an empty patch of air. She sealed her mouth closed and decided not to say another word.

“So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh? What if I could prove that I’m real? Would you listen to me then?”

She cocked her head in his direction, curious, but didn’t say anything. He gave an exaggerated sigh. Dr. Freeman walked in, still calling instructions over his shoulder to a nurse in the hall. When he turned around, he stopped short.

“Oh, excuse me, Ms. Diaz. I didn’t realize you had company,” Dr. Freeman said, surprised.

“Wh-what?” she stuttered, glancing around her room. No one was there—except Cyrus. Her eyes grew wide, and her heart sped up. “You can—see him?”

“Of course he can,” Cyrus jumped in, giving her a quick wink. “Stop acting like such a weirdo, Val. Nice to meet you, sir. I’m Cyrus.”

“Nice to meet you, young man,” the doctor replied, recovering his usually unflappable demeanor. “Are you a friend of Valerie’s from school?”

“No, we’re old friends from way back, aren’t we, Val?”

She could only nod her head. Her mouth was hanging open, and she made herself shut it. Dr. Freeman held her wrist to check her pulse.

“Everything okay? You seem excited. I’ll have a nurse bring you a sedative,” he said, making a note on his chart. Then, turning to Cyrus, he said, “In fifteen minutes, visiting hours are over. But you can come back tomorrow—or any day—to see our girl here.”

With a quick but affectionate pat on her shoulder, Dr. Freeman left the room. Valerie turned to Cyrus and let her jaw drop back open.

“Oh. My. God.” she said.

Cyrus threw back his head and laughed. “I warned you that I’m going to tease you about this every day for the rest of your life, didn’t I? Guess you believe me now! I wanted to prove I’m real so bad for the last week, but I had to wait till I was sure that you were well enough to handle it.”

“This is awesome,” she whispered, shaking her head. “How is it possible? If you’re not just a hallucination, why can Dr. Freeman see you today, but not yesterday when you rode in on his shoulders?”

“Why do you think? Magic, of course.”

“Magic,” she whispered with awe. A thrill ran through her body at the world of possibilities that one word could open. “But why are you telling me all this? I’m nobody.”

“No you’re not. You’ve got magic in you, too—more than you can imagine.”

“What are you talking about? I have hallucinations, maybe. But no magic.”

“I bet Adam would disagree with you after you threw him into his truck last week.”

“That was just adrenaline.”

“No, it’s magic inside of you, trying to burst out. But because there are rules in place to prevent people from using their powers, your magic is stifled,” Cyrus said, and his smile turned down. “That’s why you always feel so sick after you use your power. In fact, you have so much magic that if you don’t come with me soon, you’ll die.”

Childish laughter rang in the hall, and Ming and Jeremiah burst into the room covered in glitter.

Cyrus leaned close to her and said, “Meet me tonight, on the roof. No one will notice you’re gone with the Halloween party and parade going on. We can talk without anyone interrupting us.”

She nodded once, and Cyrus disappeared.

Valerie was bursting with excitement and questions. To distract herself from compulsively analyzing every word of her conversation with Cyrus, she spent the day helping the younger kids design their costumes for the hospital parade.

“Will you help me glue these jewels to my crown?” Ming asked, climbing onto Valerie’s bed for the third time that day.

Ming was a seven-year-old with warm brown eyes who was bald from her chemotherapy. She had been here two years ago when Valerie had been hospitalized last. The two had bonded then, and over the past few days had easily picked up where they’d left off.

“Of course,” Valerie said, putting aside her restless thoughts.

Nurse Beth changed Jeremiah’s IV and fluffed his pillows, all the while keeping a close eye on Valerie. It stung a little that she was always watched like a violent criminal, but she understood that they couldn’t take any risks with these kids.

Her bed was already covered in glitter and face paint from the costumes she had helped to create. As Valerie stuck the rhinestones onto the paper crown, Ming watched her, and her expression became worried.

“Are you going to get better soon?”

“I don’t know, cutie,” Valerie said, and reached out to hold Ming’s hand.

Ming’s brown eyes sparkled with tears that hovered on the edge of her eyelids, ready to spill over. Not wanting to upset her any further, Valerie whispered, “I’ll tell you a secret.”

Ming looked up hopefully. “What is it?”

“I might be leaving soon, with someone who has magic that can make me better.” Out of the corner of her eye, Valerie saw Nurse Beth shake her head sadly at her words.

“Is it a prince? Will he make you his princess?” Ming asked.

“No, I won’t be a princess. But maybe I’ll have some magic of my own. That’s way better than having to rely on someone else, don’t you think?”

“I don’t want you to go. I’d miss you,” Ming cried softly, interrupting her thoughts.

“I would miss you, too.”

Ming was quiet for a moment, then brightened and said, “But I want you to be happy. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

At seven o’clock that night, when all the kids were racing around in their costumes, playing games, and eating candy, Valerie braided her long hair and slipped into a ghost costume made from an old white bed sheet.

As she glided down the hall toward the stairwell that led to the roof, Valerie had to smile at how cute all of the kids looked. They ran around, playing and shouting together. Joey, dressed as Spiderman, led a parade of kids down the hall from his wheelchair. The sound of how full of life they were reminded her that she wasn’t the only one with real troubles.

Rounding the corner, Valerie almost crashed into a medical assistant with spiky brown hair. Their eyes met, and she gasped when she saw that his were an eerie yellow. Sanguina and Yellow-Eyes had never found her so quickly before. Terror filled her with a cold paralysis. She forced herself to take a deep breath and remember that she was hidden under her sheet. Maybe he wouldn’t guess who she was. She managed to give a little wave as if she was one of the kids enjoying the Halloween party.

The corner of the man’s mouth turned up in a snarl, and he said, “I know it’s you.” She took a step back, frightened, and the lights in the hospital went out.

She heard the excited squealing of the children at the sudden darkness. “Ooo! It must be a ghost!” Jeremiah shouted, and his friends roared with laughter. Part of her wanted to run down the hall to the safety of the children’s party. But another, bigger part of her was tired of running.

“You’re awfully far from your bed, little girl,” her tormentor growled. Goosebumps rose on Valerie’s arms at the slimy familiarity of his voice. “Bad things could happen to you out here.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said, proud that she was able to keep her voice from trembling. The lights flickered on, and she gasped at the hatred in his eyes.

“Then I’ll just have to prove it to you. You’re not getting away from me again,” he said, taking a step closer.

She reached out to push him away, her heart slamming inside her chest. But her hands went right through him, just like they did with Cyrus. Her fear diminished slightly. “Guess you won’t be hurting me tonight.”

Valerie heard footsteps, and she saw Dr. Freeman walking briskly down the hall. He paused and addressed Yellow-Eyes. “We need to re-stock the gauze in the exam rooms on the second floor. And check the backup generator to make sure it’s working—the lights shouldn’t have gone out for more than a few seconds.”

Her tormentor gritted his teeth. “Yes, sir.”

“I haven’t seen you here before. What’s your name?”

“Uh, Bill Smith. I’ll get that gauze for you right away,” Yellow-Eyes said, and then rushed down the hall before the doctor could question him further.

“Bill Smith,” Dr. Freeman said to himself, making a note on the pad of paper he always carried with him. Then his face softened as he turned to Valerie. “You better hurry and join the parade, little guy.”

Then Dr. Freeman left without realizing that it was Valerie under the sheet. She was so stunned that she stood frozen, processing the implications of what had happened. Dr. Freeman had seen Yellow-Eyes, plain as day. Yellow-Eyes wasn’t a hallucination any more than Cyrus had been. And the doctor wasn’t the only one to interact with her tormentors. Hadn’t Daniel talked to Sanguina? And there had been others, too, now that she thought about it.

Why had she never questioned Sanguina’s sudden appearances and disappearances more? It was as if her mind couldn’t process that there was an explanation other than some strange manifestation of paranoia and schizophrenia. But now she knew there was. Magic.

Valerie’s mind was racing as she headed down the hall toward the exit sign. She fumbled with the knob of the door to the stairwell and then hurried up the steps, taking them two at a time. When she opened the door to the roof and stepped out, she immediately pulled off her costume, which was suffocating her. The cold night air calmed her hot face, and her heartbeat slowed.

The sight of the glittering night sky cleared the last wisps of fear from her mind. The stars shone brightly, all traces of clouds from the days before gone. It seemed like a good omen.

“Cy?” Valerie called softly.

“Boo!” Cyrus said mischievously in her ear.

She didn’t flinch. “Took you long enough,” she said with a little grin.

Cyrus laughed. “I’m guessing you don’t have a lot of time, so quit yapping and let me tell you what you need to know. But hear me out, okay? I know this is going to stretch the limits of believability for you, but I’d hate for you to look like a dork for not trusting me yet again.”

Valerie would have given him a shove if he’d was next to her for real, but she had to settle for briefly sticking out her tongue. “I’m listening.”

“Thousands of years ago, some people on Earth started developing, like, special powers. Or maybe there were always Conjurors—creatures like us with magic in their blood.”

“No way,” she said, and then reminded herself that she had promised to listen. “Sorry, go ahead.”

“Some of these Conjurors banded together because they thought that they should be able to rule over everyone else. They called themselves the Fractus, and they flooded the entire world to prove how powerful they were. They wanted to terrify ordinary humans into never disobeying them—basically turning them into slaves.”

“But I guess they didn’t win, ’cause as far as I know, no one today is bowing before an evil magical overlord,” she interrupted.

“You’re right. The rest of the Conjurors—the good ones—fought the Fractus and won, but it was only a matter of time before they attacked again. So the Conjurors used their powers to create another world just for magical beings. And they separated Earth and our world—the Globe—with a barrier so that no one with magic could ever return.”

“I gotta say, that’s quite a story.”

“And it’s real, Val, I swear it. I’m standing on the Globe right now, as surely as you’re standing on Earth. You’re seeing a mental projection of me. I can’t be here in person because of the barrier. That’s why I can’t touch you right now.”

She reached out to grasp his arm, but her hand passed though him, triggering a memory of what had happened in the hall with her tormentor.

“Does one of these Fractus people have yellow eyes? Or how about a lady with red hair and super pale skin?” she asked, holding her breath as she waited for the answer.

“I don’t know, why? Have you seen someone?” Cyrus’s voice rose with alarm.

Valerie told him about Yellow-Eyes and Sanguina, and Cyrus listened intently. When she finished, he said, “I’ve never heard of either of them, but I’ll ask around. They’re probably part of the Fractus. They’ve been stirring up trouble lately, and they could be after you, too. It’s really rare for someone to have enough magic inside them to have to come to the Globe—you’ll be the first person to travel here in thirty years. They might want to find you for that reason alone.”

“Wait, who said anything about me coming to the Globe? I don’t even know where it is!”

Cyrus gazed up at the sparkling night sky. “It’s out there,” he said.

“You mean, in space?” Valerie couldn’t keep the disbelief out of her voice.

“Exactly. The Globe is in the center of a black hole.”

“That’s not possible. I’ve read about black holes. No one knows what’s inside of them, but they do know that anything that goes in will probably be crushed by the weight of the hole’s gravity.”

“You’re kind of a know-it-all, you know that?” Cyrus said with a smile. “Technically, you’re right. But the creators of the Globe combined magic with all the energy in the black hole to create a planet inside that no one can see from Earth.”

“And you want to take me there,” she said flatly.

“Yes.”

“It’s hundreds of light years away. By the time I get there I’d be dead of old age.”

“That would be true except for magic, remember? Pay attention, sheesh.”

“You really expect me to skip out of the hospital all alone and leave everything and everyone I know—forever?”

Cyrus frowned. “What have you got to lose? There’s nothing here for you. Your magic is gonna kill you soon. And whatever you think of everything else I’ve told you, you know that fact is true.”

She couldn’t deny it. Even though it was hard for her to accept that she had some kind of magic power, she was growing undeniably weaker. Her next standoff with Sanguina would probably be her last.

He continued, interrupting her thoughts. “Besides, you wouldn’t be alone. We’re sending someone to guide and protect you. His name is Thai, and he’ll take you to the launch site where you’ll take off from Earth to the Globe.”

A million thoughts tumbled chaotically around in her head, but she knew that ultimately there was only one choice to make if she wanted to survive. Finally, trembling, she whispered, “So what’s next?”

“Does that mean you’re coming?”

Valerie closed her eyes, but there were no answers there, only darkness. When she opened them again, the sky twinkled above her. “Yes, I’m coming.”

[] Chapter 4

The next afternoon, Valerie was ready when Dr. Freeman visited her on his rounds. Neither Sanguina nor the yellow-eyed medical assistant was anywhere to be seen. She was glad—she didn’t want to be distracted from her mission. Whether she was crazy or not, her decision was made. She was going to the Globe, and now she had to do her part.

That morning she had forged a letter from a “cousin” to show Dr. Freeman. She was going to have to make a run for it, and she didn’t want him to worry about her too much after she was gone. He was one of the few people on Earth who would notice—and care—if she vanished.

As he checked on the other patients in her room, her face burned. She hated lying, especially to him. He was the kind of person she wanted to be when she grew up—patient, smart, and caring. It seemed wrong telling him the biggest lie of her life.

“Well, Ms. Diaz, you’re looking much better. It’s good to see pink in your cheeks again,” he said as he reviewed her chart.

“I’m a lot better. I have great news! My cousin is coming to visit. I haven’t seen him in a long time. I got his note today,” she said, unfolding the letter she had written.

Dr. Freeman glanced at the letter over the top of his chart. “I haven’t met him, have I? I didn’t know you had family.” His voice was laced with suspicion.

Valerie knew that he probably thought this was part of an elaborate schizophrenic episode, but she continued with her story. “He’s been out of the country for the past few years. But he finished school, and now he’s old enough to be my guardian. He’s working on getting temporary custody of me.”

“I look forward to meeting him,” Dr. Freeman said, a little absently. He was already thinking about his next patient, she could tell.

“One more thing—could he take me on a trip?” He put down his charts, and Valerie knew she finally had his attention.

“You’re a very sick girl. We need to have you under observation,” he said sharply. Then his eyes became gentle. “These things aren’t sorted out overnight. You’ll have to remain patient while custody is being reassigned.”

She lowered her voice so the other children in the room couldn’t hear her. “I’m not getting any better. Every time I have one of my episodes, it gets worse. I know that you think I could even… die.”

“Now, listen, I’ve never said that.”

“In my entire life, I’ve never left Oakland or seen much of anything, really. And Thai is willing to take me to see the world while I still have time left.”

“I see.”

“One way or another, I’m going. I wanted you to know.”

“I can’t allow that, Valerie. I’m sorry,” he said, and she could see that he really was. But that didn’t change her mind.

That night, Ming’s and Jeremiah’s soft, rhythmic breathing didn’t relax Valerie as it usually did. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she couldn’t stop thinking about what was coming next for her. Where was this launch site, anyway? She wished she had thought to ask Cyrus. Sleep was impossible.

She quietly got out of her bed and went to the window. It was raining again, and the glass steamed up from her breath. She couldn’t see the stars tonight. Soon, she’d be seeing the night sky from a whole new perspective—or she’d be dead.

It was all so exciting, but the enormity of what was happening to her was overwhelming, and Valerie started to feel choked with panic. She was taking a decisive step, one that would either yank her out of her life as she knew it, or kill her. When she got to this Globe place, where would she live? How would she support herself? Would the people on the Globe be nice like Cyrus, or cold and distant, like Mrs. Sims? Her stomach twisted, and her breathing grew ragged.

A movement in the street below attracted her attention. Standing in a circle of flickering light shining from a battered streetlight was a solitary, drenched figure. Valerie squinted. It was a boy dressed in baggy jeans, the hood of his dark sweatshirt pulled up over his head. Was there any non-creepy reason that this guy could be out there at this time of night in the pouring rain?

He looked up at the window she was standing in and all her suspicions faded away. Even though he couldn’t possibly see her all the way up here, it seemed as if he was standing right in front of her, close enough that she could hear him exhale. Somehow, Valerie knew that this was Thai, and the fear thrashing around in her stomach dissolved. She wasn’t used to immediately trusting anyone, but he was the exception to the rule.

He made a gesture that she should come downstairs. She wondered why, since it wasn’t like she could walk outside or he could come in and chat. But curiosity got the better of her.

She peeked her head out the door, ducked beneath the nurses’ station, and quietly made her way to the stairwell. She hurried down the steps so fast that she didn’t see Sanguina until it was too late. Instead of crashing into her, Valerie went right through the vision of her nemesis.

“I knew it. You’re not really here, either.” Valerie couldn’t keep the triumph out of her voice. She’d known that had to be the case since she’d tried to touch Yellow-Eyes, but it was incredibly liberating knowing that her worst enemy couldn’t actually hurt her.

Sanguina’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because I can’t kill you myself that I don’t know someone who will do it for me.”

Valerie’s temporary relief vanished. She knew that Sanguina wasn’t bluffing. “You might as well leave. There’s no one for you to manipulate in this stairwell, and whatever you want, you won’t get it.”

A small, cold smile flashed across Sanguina’s face. “I know that you’re up to something. And I want you to know that I’m hoping it involves you leaving this hospital. Because outside these doors, you’re mine.”

Before Sanguina could detect her fear, Valerie raced out of the stairwell and into the bright lobby of the hospital. There was no one there except a woman she didn’t know reading a magazine at the front desk. She made herself calm her breathing down, reminding herself that Sanguina threatening to kill her was nothing new. She’d been trying for years. But soon enough, she wouldn’t be able to torture her anymore.

Valerie sank back into the shadows by the elevator to stay out of sight. A hand clamped over her mouth, and she swiftly elbowed the person in the gut. How had Sanguina’s henchman found her so quickly? She spun around to face her attacker and saw that it was the boy from the street. He was doubled over, trying not to make any noises that would alert the woman at the front desk.

“Thai?” she breathed, and the boy managed to nod. “I’m so sorry.”

Instead of anger, she saw something else in his eyes—grudging respect. “You packed a lot of power into that. Guess I shouldn’t have snuck up on you.”

Thai was a couple of inches taller than Valerie, and his dripping wet hair was black, just like his dark, intense eyes. She stuck out her hand and he shook it. Despite being wet from the rain, his hand was warm, and when he squeezed hers, her cheeks warmed.

Valerie stepped back, suddenly a little shy. “It’s good to meet you. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you would do this for someone you don’t even know.”

Thai was watching her intently, and the power of his gaze made her strangely nervous and excited. “I know how it is. To have crazy stuff happen to you all at once, I mean. It’s a lot to take in. Someone helped me out when I was learning about—well—myself and my magic.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “You have magic, too?”

“Yeah,” he said, but didn’t volunteer any more information. “I’m glad I can help a kid like me out now.”

Something about Thai thinking of her as a child stung a little. Then, conscious that she might have seemed a bit ungrateful, she replied, “Well, thank you. I’m really excited for this trip.”

“Yeah, about that. You are well enough to travel, right?”

“Don’t worry. I’m doing much better.”

“Good. Now, let’s talk about some ground rules.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s my job to make sure you get to the Globe in one piece. We don’t know each other well, and I want to be certain we’re on the same page in terms of expectations. First of all, what I say goes.”

“You know I’m fifteen, right? I’m not a little kid who needs my hand held when I cross the street. I’ve been taking care of myself practically my whole life.”

She guessed that Thai wasn’t more than two or three years older than she was. She’d probably seen more danger in a month than he’d encountered in his whole life.

His eyes narrowed. “You have no idea of the threats that could be lurking out there. Hopefully, everything will go smoothly and we’ll get you to the launch site with no problems. But I also know that some pretty insane stuff can happen that you’d never expect. I need to know that if I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. If anything goes wrong on this trip, listening to me could save your life.”

“All right, Thai. You’re doing me the favor here, so I’ll play by your rules. Once I’m on the Globe, I’ll be on my own anyway. So consider yourself the boss.”

Thai didn’t look like he exactly liked being called the boss, but he nodded. “Good. If you need to get a message to me, tell Cyrus. When are you going to be released from here?”

She hesitated. Should she tell him that she wouldn’t be released—she’d have to run? But all she said was, “A couple days.”

He gave her a little smile and squeezed her shoulder. She could feel the heat from his skin through her T-shirt. Did he notice the tingling connection between them? He didn’t immediately release his grip on her. Then he let go and followed a trail of water that led to the emergency door. That must have been how he had snuck in. She held her breath, ready to hear the alarm go off when he opened the door, but he left without a sound.

Despite the fact that Thai seemed a little controlling, it was a novel feeling knowing that someone out there was on her side. She tried to put her finger on the name of the emotion that it sparked, but it was so new that she couldn’t put a word to it. She quietly snuck back upstairs to her room, and right before she fell asleep, it came to her. She felt protected.

[] Chapter 5

The next day, Valerie wandered the halls, thinking through the details of her plan to escape. The easiest thing to do would be to slip out at night through the door with the broken alarm, like Thai had. But her instincts told her that it wouldn’t be that easy. She didn’t want to admit it, but she wasn’t sure that she had enough of her energy back yet to make it very far. She needed another day or two to recuperate with some of Dr. Freeman’s oxygen treatments.

All of the walking and planning had made her limbs heavy, so she headed back to her room. She paused outside the door, hearing a muffled crying coming from inside. She went inside and found Jeremiah, the eight-year-old with leukemia who slept in the bed next to hers. She knew that he’d had a round of radiation to treat his cancer that morning. His mother was a single mom who had to work during the day, so she wouldn’t be back for a few hours.

“Hi, Peanut.” At the sound of her voice, Jeremiah covered his face, not wanting to be caught crying. She pretended not to notice as he wiped his tears away with the back of his hand. “I wanted to check to see if everyone liked your Halloween costume. I bet everyone thought you were a real pirate!”

He smiled. “Yeah, my mom didn’t recognize me for a second. And my brother brought me black stuff to put on my tooth so it looked like it was missing,” he exclaimed. He was tired, but excited to tell her about how much candy he collected and what everyone thought of his costume.

She listened to his chatter, watching his eyes droop. Right before he fell asleep, she took his hand and held it. He smiled as he drifted to sleep.

Feeling eyes on her back, Valerie turned around. Dr. Freeman was standing in the doorway watching her, a deep crease on his forehead. “I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve gone to check on my patients and found you comforting them,” he said. “You’re something of a favorite around this hospital, Ms. Diaz.”

“Thank you,” she managed to say, a little choked up at his words.

“I know you’re set on leaving, but of course this hospital can’t condone that without proper guardianship in place,” he said. He gave her a significant look, and she read between the lines. He knew she was leaving, and he wouldn’t stop her. “Goodbye, Valerie.”

She swallowed a lump in her throat. He hardly ever called her by her first name. “Good bye, Dr. Freeman. I’ll miss you.”

Two nights later, Valerie packed everything she owned into her backpack, which wasn’t much more than some clothes, a toothbrush, and the one keepsake she had from her grandmother—a faded old book titled The Legend of King Arthur. It was finally time to go.

Ming was awake, watching her, and she sat next to her on her bed. “I’m going away to get better, like I told you I would,” she whispered.

“You won’t forget about me, will you, Valerie? Someday will you come back and tell me about your magical world?”

“It might take a while, but I’ll find a way. But until then, will you keep this for me?” she asked, giving Ming Mr. Hopsalot, whom she had carried with her since her first Christmas in the hospital. Ming loved to stroke his long ears, and she took it without a word.

But the second Valerie peeked out the door, ready to sneak out, rough hands grabbed her shoulders.

“Is this the girl you saw?” A nurse with dark hair that Valerie didn’t know well stared down at her accusingly.

A few feet away, the woman from the front desk stood with her arms crossed. Next to her was Yellow-Eyes, dressed like an orderly again. “Yes. I thought she was meeting with her boyfriend, and I was nice enough to let them have their privacy. But I should have known it was her drug dealer.”

“Kids like her… They don’t know anything else.” The nurse turned to Valerie, shaking her head. “It’s a good thing you’re leaving here tomorrow. Consider it a favor that I’m not reporting you to the police.”

“He wasn’t giving me drugs! Search my room if you don’t believe me,” Valerie said, but she didn’t know why she bothered to argue. Sanguina and Yellow-Eyes could be very persuasive, and from the look on the nurse’s face, her mind was made up.

“She probably flushed anything she hasn’t already used,” Yellow-Eyes said.

“Come along,” the nurse said, and pulled her down the hall by her arm. Before Valerie could register what was happening, she was whisked into a room. The nurse left, and when she shut the door behind her, Valerie heard a lock slide into place.

Why could things never be easy? Sanguina had said she wanted Valerie to leave. So why was her partner in crime trying to keep her in the hospital? They must be afraid of something—of her. Sanguina was trying to scare her into staying, and when that didn’t work, Yellow-Eyes had found another way to keep her from leaving. The realization steeled her determination to get out of there, one way or another. And certainly before she was shipped off to the next foster family.

She tried the door, using all her strength, and failing, punched it in frustration. It jiggled in its hinges, and she heard a bustle in the halls. When the nurse came back in the room, Valerie knew her struggle had been a mistake. The nurse sedated her, and she blacked out.

“Val! This is not the time to get your beauty rest!” Cyrus’s voice awoke her. He was joking, but she could here the strain in his voice that he was trying to mask.

Groggily, she rubbed her eyes and pushed herself into a sitting position. She was grateful that they hadn’t restrained her. That had happened before when the nurses had heard her yelling at Sanguina and had assumed it was a schizophrenic episode.

“What ’m I gonna do?” she mumbled.

“It’s now or never, so get it together!”

“Huh?”

“Your favorite doctor showed up to check on you. He returned your backpack and conveniently left the door unlocked when he left.”

“He did?” Her heart warmed at the thought, and it brought her to life a little. She ran her fingers through her tangled hair a couple of times and tied it out of her face. “All right. Can you sneak out there and tell me what you see?”

“Already done. There are two nurses on duty for this hall, but one is with a patient, and the other is writing up her notes. And Thai’s waiting for you outside. So get moving!”

She took a deep breath, stretched her arms over her head, and grabbed her bag. “Let’s do this.”

She decided that this was no time for subtlety. Instead she opted for speed. It was the right call. Sanguina must have been watching her door, because the second she emerged, she heard her unsettling voice calling for the nurses.

Valerie didn’t pause. Her sneakers hit the squeaky hospital floors at top speed. Before she hit the door to the stairwell, the dark-haired nurse grabbed her backpack and held on. For a second, Valerie was jerked backward, and she thought that her escape was over. But adrenaline was pumping through her veins, and she didn’t feel the pain of her knees hitting the ground or the straps of her bag digging into her skin.

Instead of fighting against the nurse, who was bigger and stronger than she was, she shrugged out of the straps of her backpack. She’d be sorry to lose her few things, but this little piece of her past was a small price to pay for her freedom.

She catapulted down the stairs, taking them three at a time. The nurse had no hope of catching up. She burst into the lobby, and the woman at the front desk could only stare, open-mouthed, as Valerie raced past her.

She crashed through the front doors of the hospital at top speed. She saw Thai in the parking lot. “Start running!”

To his credit, he didn’t waste a second. By the time she caught up to him, he was running as fast as she was. A cool, fresh breeze lifted her hair off her neck, and everything suddenly smelled amazing. As she raced through the bright November sunshine, a thrill sizzled through her entire body. The world shone brightly before her, full of possibility.

[] Chapter 6

Once they were out of sight of the hospital, they slowed down, melting into the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks. Thai walked purposefully down the sidewalk, his eyes sweeping the dingy streets for any sign of danger. Valerie did her best to hide the strain that her sprint had taken on her now that the adrenaline was fading.

“You want to tell me what all that was about?” he asked with a stern glare.

“Depends—are you sure that you want to know the answer?” she asked in the sweetest of voices.

His mouth twitched like he was forcing himself not to smile. “You’re right. I don’t.”

Too absorbed in her new freedom, she didn’t even think to ask where they were going. Before she knew it, they were on the open-air platform at the MacArthur BART train station, and Thai was opening one of the lockers lining the walls.

“I rented this locker so I didn’t have to lug our stuff all over Oakland. I figure that would look more than a little suspicious to Child Services.”

“Our stuff?” she asked, confused. The locker popped open, and he pulled out two large hiking packs, handing one to her.

“You’ll need this. Dump all your stuff in here. We need to travel light. Almost everything we’ll need for the trip is in these two bags, so don’t let yours out of your sight.”

“Uh, actually I have no stuff,” she admitted.

Thai didn’t ask for details. “Well, now you do,” he said.

Valerie peeked inside her bag and saw that Thai wasn’t kidding. He’d packed everything from a lightweight sleeping bag to an extremely fancy, technical pair of sunglasses covered in buttons and dials. She pulled the glasses out and started to try them on.

“Put them away! And be careful, those night vision goggles were not easy to get.”

“Unbelievable. I can’t wait until we get to use these! But how will I ever pay you back for all this?”

“Whatever, it’s a gift,” he said gruffly. “Oh, and you’ll need this,” he added as he handed her a passport.

“How did you manage to get this?”

“Those Conjurors have a few tricks up their sleeves. And good thing, too, or we’d never get out of here. Now let’s go. Our flight to England is in two hours.”

“England. That’s where the launch site is?” Valerie asked, a little embarrassed that she hadn’t bothered to find out before.

“Not exactly,” Cyrus said, suddenly popping into view next to Thai, who jumped about a foot in surprise.

“Don’t do that!” Thai growled.

“Sorry, champ,” Cyrus said with a smirk. Before Thai could reply, Cyrus turned to Valerie. “The launch site is in Giza, inside the Great Pyramid.”

Her eyes widened. “Then what’s in England, exactly?”

“You have to go there and take a test to prove your magic.”

Her mind whirled, trying to take in so much new information at once. “Prove my magic? What am I going to have to do? What if I don’t pass the test? Will I have to go back to a foster home again?”

“Don’t be such a worrier, Val. You’re bursting with magic, so I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colors. When you do, you’ll get a message that will show you the next step to the launch room inside the Great Pyramid.”

She wasn’t reassured. What if Cyrus was totally wrong about her and she failed the test? She still found it a little hard to believe that there could be anything magical inside of her. But she’d come this far; there was no way she was turning back now.

“Enough chit chat. You zap out of here, pal. Valerie and I have a flight to catch,” Thai said to Cyrus, not bothering to hide the annoyance in his voice.

Cyrus shot Thai an irritated glance and left. Valerie stuffed the night vision goggles back into her new backpack and followed Thai to wait for the train. Her earlier jubilation at leaving the hospital was already starting to fade as she worried about the hurdles ahead of her.

Suddenly, for no reason that she could explain, her worry transformed into a shiver of fear. For as long as she could remember, Valerie had always had a kind of sixth sense when danger was near, and now it lurked close by. Her eyes scanned the train station and fixated on a hulking figure standing in the shadows at the end of the platform.

His back was huge and muscular, and he was so tall that he would have dwarfed the people around him if it weren’t for the way he hunched over. His beady black eyes darted around the platform, and every few seconds, his Adam’s apple bulged in his throat, as if he was swallowing a huge bite of food.

Something about the man made her stomach churn, and Valerie had learned to trust her instincts about people. It was as if all his attention was focused on her, and he would pounce on her if he could. But strangely, she couldn’t put her finger on why she was so suspicious—he wasn’t even looking at her.

She turned away, not wanting to stare, but Thai caught her gaze and followed it to the man in the shadows. His eyes narrowed. “I’ve seen him before. That’s not a face you forget. Stay close by. I want to make sure that we lose that creep.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid?” Valerie asked, but she was secretly glad that he was taking precautions.

“Remember your promise and stay close,” Thai commanded with a glare.

She nodded and kept her mouth shut. When the train arrived, Thai and Valerie stepped on board and stood near the door. The stranger boarded as well, several cars down.

But as the doors were closing, Thai yanked her out of the train with him. The doors almost shut on her backpack. Thai grinned, satisfied. “He won’t be catching up to us any time soon. That train isn’t even going in our direction. See, I told you I’d keep you safe. That’s why you’ve got to cooperate with me. No hassles.”

Valerie wasn’t entirely sure that she’d needed protection in this case, but she decided not to say that, choosing a more diplomatic answer. “Thanks—I do feel safe with you.”

He nodded, satisfied. “Good. You should.”

A little later, they boarded a train for the airport. One short train ride and quick bus trip later, Valerie stood for the first time in the bustling Oakland International Airport. Everything was new to her, from checking in for their flight using a touch screen computer to passing through security. She almost laughed when they made her take off her shoes.

“What do they think I could be hiding in my shoes? A killer case of athlete’s foot?” she whispered to Thai. Instead of laughing, he glared at her again, like a silly kid.

Once they were past security, Thai hurried her through the terminal. “Thai, slow down! I’m missing everything!”

With that, he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her along at top speed. By the time they reached the gate, their flight was already boarding.

“Perfect timing,” Thai said smugly as he and Valerie joined the long line of people waiting to board the plane.

“I guess,” she said breathlessly. “But I wish there was time to walk around a little. It’s my first time in an airport.”

“Listen, kid. This is no Saturday afternoon trip to the mall with your little friends,” he hissed. “I timed it this way on purpose. I don’t want us hanging around anywhere for too long. You never know, the wrong people might notice us.”

“Get over yourself, Thai. It’s not like you’re escorting the president,” she retorted.

“Yeah? Well, one thing I’ve learned is that you never know what can happen. I mean, would you have guessed a month ago that you’d be taking a trip through the universe to a magic…” Thai stopped short and turned around to make sure no one was listening to their conversation.

“To you know where?” he continued. “Life’s full of surprises. Some are good, some are bad. Besides, I know for a fact that those evil Conjurors—the Fractus—like to mess with humans. They’re causing a lot of problems on the Globe right now. I hear that they want to come back to Earth and take control of the whole planet. And you’ve got to know that if the Conjurors have people like me to help them out on Earth, the Fractus surely have people doing their evil bidding, too.”

Valerie stopped smiling. “But I don’t think they’d be coming after me. I’m nobody.” But her words rang false, even to her. After all, why wouldn’t Sanguina and Yellow-Eyes leave her alone?

“You don’t know that. You don’t know what kind of magic you’re capable of.”

His comment startled her. He didn’t seem to have any doubt that she had magic power. At last, they reached the front of the line, distracting Valerie from her thoughts. The flight attendant took their tickets with a smile, and they boarded the plane and searched for their seats. It was smaller than she had imagined, and her heart thumped a little harder at the thought of being stuck in there for hours. Sweat prickled under her arms and she hoped that Thai didn’t notice.

“You take the window seat. It’s pretty cool to watch when we take off,” Thai said as he stuffed their bags into the overhead compartment. He tossed her a pair of headphones and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “It’s a long flight, and I thought you might want something to keep you busy.”

“I love this book! Maybe I’ll pick up some tips for my trip to the Globe,” Valerie said with a grin as she and Thai buckled themselves into their seats.

“It’s one of my favorites, too. Sometimes I feel like the hero in that book, Arthur Dent. It’s like the entire universe is opening up before my eyes, but at the same time, it’s so sad because the world as I once knew it is gone.”

She wanted to ask him what he meant, but a sudden rumbling beneath her distracted her, and then the plane catapulted forward. Unthinking, she grabbed Thai’s arm. It was warm and solid, and something about his nearness made her heart beat faster.

“Don’t worry. You’re safer here than you are in a car. Relax and enjoy the ride,” Thai said, his voice gentle for the first time.

The plane sped down the runway, and the seat beneath her shuddered. Was that supposed to happen? Out the window, the airport sped past, a white blur against the blue sky. Unexpectedly, the shuddering stopped, because the plane had lifted off the ground. They were airborne. The knowledge exhilarated her, and her fear evaporated. It was incredible how this huge hunk of metal holding hundreds of people could fly seemingly weightless through the sky.

She pressed her face against the window, staring at Oakland shrinking beneath her as they ascended into the clear blue expanse of sky. Below them, toy cars raced on thin ribbons of highway, and she couldn’t imagine real people living in those tiny dollhouses. At ten thousand feet in the air, the world, which had always seemed so huge to her, had suddenly shrunk.

Hours passed, and Valerie drifted to sleep, her eyes heavy from staring out her window at the endless miles of puffy clouds.

Later, Valerie couldn’t decide if what she heard had been a dream.

“What’s happening? Where am I?” she heard a gravelly voice ask with a hint of panic.

“It’s okay, buddy, we’re safe,” Thai’s voice replied soothingly. “We’re on a plane.”

She opened her eyes to see who he was talking to, but the seat next to his was empty, as it had been for the entire flight. Thai had his earphones on, and when he saw she was awake, he quickly turned his attention to the movie playing on the screen in the seatback in front of him.

“Who were you talking to?” she asked.

He pulled off his earphones. “What did you say?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

She leaned back in her seat, drifting back to sleep. She must have dreamed the conversation. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that she’d had a dream that seemed real.

[] Chapter 7

Valerie awoke for the second time with a shock as the plane touched down with a thud, trembling as it raced down the runway. Instantly she was wide awake.

“Welcome to London Heathrow International Airport,” the friendly voice of the flight attendant announced.

“I’m in a brand new country! A whole new continent, and a new time zone, even!” Valerie exclaimed. Even if she failed the test and had to go back to the hospital, at least she had the chance to see some of the world.

“Okay, get a grip, kid. Low profile, remember?” Thai scolded.

She suppressed her urge to smack him and held on to her good mood. Thai navigated through the airport and expertly led her outside to jump on a bus to London. When they arrived at the downtown bus terminal, they grabbed their bags and began walking.

Valerie thought she would drown trying to take in all the sights that floated by. Landmarks that she recognized from movies and her history books jumped out at her every time they turned a corner. Big Ben, the Tower of London, she was seeing them in all of their three-dimensional glory.

“Unbelievable,” Valerie whispered as she and Thai boarded a red, double-decker bus. “Can we sit on top? A bus with two floors!”

“Sure,” he said, grinning. “Try not to let your eyes pop out of your head or anything.”

She ignored his snarky comment, too enthralled with the sights. “Can’t you feel it?”

“What?”

“The weight of the history in this place. I mean, these buildings have been around since before the United States was even founded. That’s centuries-old dirt on that library! William Shakespeare walked these streets!”

London even smelled different to her. She never imagined that a country that spoke her language could seem so foreign. All the buildings seemed darker and older than the buildings in California, but their age gave them dignity. The storyteller in her was entranced as she imagined the centuries of drama that had played out in this city. But all too soon, Thai said it was time to get off.

“Would it kill us to spend one day in London, Thai? There’s so much to see! Is it true that the palace guards won’t move, no matter how hard you try to distract them? And the crown jewels, I’d love to—”

“It wouldn’t kill us, but it might kill you,” he said, not unkindly. “We’re on a quest, and neither of us can rest until we’ve accomplished it.” With that he held out his arm, directing her down some stairs to the underground train, which Thai called the Tube.

“He’s right, Val,” Cyrus’s voice whispered softly in her mind. She couldn’t see him, but she knew that he’d been watching over her the entire time.

“Okay, fair enough. So where are we going, exactly?”

“We’re going to Salisbury, where we’ll camp for the night. At dawn, we’re going to Stonehenge.”

“Stonehenge? My test is at Stonehenge?!” Valerie’s voice rose an octave in excitement.

“Keep it down!”

“Sorry. This is great! I’ll get to see some sights after all! I can’t believe that’s where this magic test happens. How has no one found something out about this? I mean, archeologists are digging up that place all the time. And how will we get in and out without being seen?”

“Enough with the questions. You’ll see for yourself when we get there,” Thai snapped. She shook her head. He should have slept on the plane ride, like she did. But soon, she was too distracted by the English countryside to even think about Thai or his mood.

“This is our stop,” Thai announced as the train screeched to a halt in Salisbury.

“Let’s not wait until tomorrow. Let’s go to Stonehenge now. I’m sure it’s not too late to catch an afternoon tour,” Valerie pleaded. It would be nice to see the monument without the pressure of having her magic tested—and the disappointment if she failed.

“We need to go just before sunrise. No one will be there, and dawn is the time on Earth when the rules binding magic are the weakest.”

“It can’t hurt to scout the place out before we go tomorrow, to get an understanding of how it’s laid out.”

“I guess that makes some sense. And you’re going to give me a headache if you don’t take it down a notch. But you do have a point. I’ve never been there before, either.”

“Thai, there’s a bus leaving for Stonehenge right now. It’s a sign.”

They jogged over to the bus and boarded it in time. As the bus sputtered along the bumpy road, Valerie strained her eyes to catch her first glimpse of the tall stones. Her heart jumped as Stonehenge appeared in the distance. Even from miles away through a dirty bus window, it was more majestic than she had ever imagined.

Gigantic rectangular stones stood vertically, roughly in a semicircle. Some of the stones were joined at the top by large slabs that connected the vertical stones. Inside the half circle were more stones, some that were standing and a few that had fallen over. Despite the obvious toll that time had taken on the ancient monument, toppling many of the boulders over, it still possessed a majesty and mystery that took her breath away.

Valerie was in a trance as she and Thai paid the entrance fee and walked down the visitors’ path. They could only walk around the perimeter of the ruins, and she had to fight the urge not to break the rules and run inside the ring of stones.

As she took it all in, a boulder in the distance caught her eye. “Why is that stone all the way over there so far away from the rest?”

“I think that’s the Heel Stone. There used to be a second stone next to it, and the sun would rise and shine right through the two stones and onto the altar stone that stands in the middle of the ring of tall stones, which is called the Trilithon Horseshoe.”

She turned to him in amazement, and he grinned. “What? I like to read. You think I didn’t research the place where the secret to leaving this planet is? I’m your guardian. I have to know what to expect.”

“Do people know what this place was built for?”

“Well, they don’t know about the test, if that’s what you mean. But it wasn’t built only for that reason. People used it to learn about the stars and the seasons, for religious reasons, and for burying important people when they died.”

“Can you feel the power of this place? It’s humming in the ground.”

“What?”

“Be still.”

Valerie shut her eyes, and Thai did the same. The hum vibrated in her veins. It was the magic; she knew it. She opened her eyes and saw Thai’s startled reaction.

“I feel it, too.”

Then, without warning, her vision went black and she collapsed to her knees.

Valerie was running through a dark wood. Her feet pummeled the ground and her lungs burned. But she knew that no matter how fast or how far she ran, Sanguina would always find her. Find her and mentally torture her until she did what she asked.

“Stop running, little one.” The whisper came from everywhere, yet nowhere, and Valerie’s fear spiked out of control. She spent so much of her time afraid—she couldn’t take it anymore.

“You have to leave me alone!” Valerie cried.

Sanguina stepped out of the shadows and stared at her with such ferocity that Valerie took a step back. “Never. I will never leave you alone. I will always be here. Give me what I want. Tell me about the monster you’ve seen in your dreams. I know there’s a new one.”

Valerie squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t understand what Sanguina wanted from her, but whatever it was, she would never give it to her. “I’m not telling you anything.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way. Stop fighting and join me. We will bring the universe to its knees.”

“No!” she was suffocating from her fear, and her grip on her own sanity started to slip.

[] Chapter 8

“Valerie, wake up!” Thai’s voice cried frantically.

“Come back to me!” Cyrus shouted.

Valerie was yanked out of her vision and found herself slumped against Thai’s chest. Part of her half-awake mind registered that he smelled like vanilla and cookies.

“I’m back; it’s okay,” she said, but her voice was weak. She had never been pulled into a vision like that before, without being weak from a fight.

Her breathing was shallow, and she knew that if Thai let her go, she wouldn’t be able to stand on her own. Luckily, most of the visitors were gone for the day. The sun was setting, and gray clouds made the light dim.

Her heart slowed to a crawl, and instinctively she knew that it would never speed up again. This was the end. This was a dream that she couldn’t recover from. And to think that she had been so close to experiencing magic! Valerie’s eyes fluttered and she was too weak to keep them open. “I’m so sorry, guys.”

“No, please! Stay with me!” Cyrus begged.

Thai’s dark, chocolate eyes were a little misty. “You’re a fighter, I knew it as soon as I saw you. No way are you going anywhere!”

Valerie didn’t want to let them down, but she knew that unless a miracle happened, she was going to die. A large drop of rain splashed against her forehead, and in a matter of seconds, water poured from the sky.

Thai started to lift her. “We’ve got to get her out of this.”

“No, wait!” Cyrus pointed at the stones, which were being pounded by the rain. As they were drenched, the stones began to glow from within. “Take her inside the circle. I’ve heard that the stones have healing powers. It’s worth trying—there’s nothing any doctor can do to help her now.”

Thai carried her to the ring of stones, and she knew exactly when he stepped inside the circle. Suddenly, warmth ran through her body, and with the warmth came energy. Her heart beat almost normally again, and strength flowed through her body. “Let me go,” she said to Thai, but he still gripped her tightly. “Let me go, seriously!”

He set her gently on the ground, and she laughed. She was still weak, but she knew that she had enough strength to go on. She walked over to one of the stones, which wasn’t glowing anymore, and touched it. “Thank you,” she said, not caring if anyone thought she was crazy for talking to a stone.

She turned to Cyrus and Thai. “I’m going to be okay for a while longer. Maybe I’ll even make it off this planet after all.” Hope spread through her. Maybe she would pass the test of her magic tomorrow after all.

Thai slumped against one of the boulders in relief. “Thank God.”

“I heard that water on the stones can heal, but no one has seen it happen in hundreds and hundreds of years,” Cyrus said.

“Hey, you kids! Get out of there!” A guard yelled, jogging toward them in the rain.

“Sorry, sir,” Thai said.

“Well, you have to be on a private tour to walk wherever you want. Anyway, we’re closing.”

Reluctantly, Valerie followed Thai out of Stonehenge. But as she walked toward the bus, she couldn’t help looking back over her shoulder at the stones that had saved her life.

An hour later, Thai and Valerie arrived at the Stonehenge Touring Park in Orcheston, which was as close to the monument as they could camp. The next day before dawn, they would have to walk the four miles to Stonehenge in the dark, before the buses started bringing visitors to the ruins.

Luckily, the rain stopped by the time they set up their tents. Valerie saw a small bonfire created by some of the other campers flickering in the distance. They decided to bring their cans of beans and stale bread to the fire to warm them up.

As they approached, she examined Thai, who still wore his drenched sweatshirt with the hood up. “Why don’t you take that thing off and let it dry? Besides, you’re kind of threatening with it on. You’ll scare people.”

“That’s the point. It’s better that people keep their distance.”

“God forbid that we should have any fun tonight,” she muttered.

But she cheered up as they approached the fire. The chill from the rain finally eased, and the other campers shared marshmallows for toasting with them. Valerie saw Thai’s eyes start to droop, and he made a small sound, like a child who was trying not to fall asleep. She knew he’d never go to bed without her, so Valerie headed back to her tent.

Valerie slept lightly that night, excited to get up and go back to those magical stones. At first, she thought she was dreaming again when she heard a noise coming from Thai’s tent. She sat up and listened harder. There it was again.

She went to Thai’s tent and pulled back the flap. “Thai, are you okay?” In the dim light, it seemed as if he was tossing and turning in his sleeping bag. “Who are you talking to? Is someone in there with you?”

“Get out of here!” he yelled, enraged, yanking the flap of his tent closed. “Leave me alone!”

Valerie, fully awake now, stood back, shocked. She couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night and was fully packed and ready to go at three a.m., when the two silently began the hike to Stonehenge.

After a mile of trudging in silence, she finally said, “Aren’t you going to say anything? It’s not like I meant to invade your privacy.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Then why don’t you explain it to me?”

“Because it’s none of your business,” he said without emotion as he pulled on his hood and retreated into its depths.

“Fine.”

Neither of them said another word until they reached Stonehenge. Valerie could barely make out the giant stones in the light that was starting to creep over the horizon, but her heart leapt at the sight of them anyway.

“So what’s the test?”

Cyrus appeared in front of her. “Simple. Show that your magic is too strong for you to survive on Earth.”

“Obviously the magic inside her is strong enough. It nearly killed her last night!” Thai blurted out. “So tell us where the next clue is!”

“I don’t even know, dude,” Cyrus said. “But chill out, she’ll be fine.”

“Both of you, give me some space,” she said firmly, as she saw Thai about to shout at Cyrus again.

Valerie approached the stones slowly. Magic hummed as she walked around the outside of the ring of stones. Inhaling deeply, she stepped inside, and the humming inside of her grew stronger.

Gently, she ran her hands over the rough stones, one at a time. At the fifth stone she touched, she stopped, puzzled. There was something different about this one. All of the stones contained power, she could sense that, but this one contained something else as well. It seemed—alive.

The dim light caressing the stone changed, and she gasped. How could she have missed it? Etched into the stone was a face. Were it not for the angle of light casting shadows on the stone, she would never have been able to see it. The etching had obviously faded over the hundreds of years that the monument stood. In direct sunlight, it would be practically invisible.

Valerie hesitated before touching the face with her hand, not wanting to offend it. Her fingertips brushed the cheek of the face, and she made a small sound of surprise. Instead of rough stone, it was warm flesh. At her touch, the eyes of the face glowed a gentle blue.

Her vision blurred, and when she was able to refocus, she was looking out over Stonehenge through those blue, glowing eyes. She could now see the monument as it once was in all its glory, with the stones all standing. At the horizon, the sun was now peeking over the edge. She followed with her eyes the first direct ray of light from the sun as it passed through the two heel stones in the distance and struck a stone in the middle of the circle.

Suddenly, Valerie was back in her own body, and the stone in the center of the circle, the altar stone, was still glowing. She approached the stone, which was bathed in new morning light. She stepped into the light and a flood of power surged through her. A thousand images of the Great Pyramid in Egypt flashed through her mind, too fast for her to process. But the last image burned into her brain—the great stone Sphinx staring down at her with glowing blue eyes, the expression in them curious.

She had her clue. What lay beyond the Sphinx’s strange gaze was a mystery, but at least she knew where she had to go next.

The bright light faded into normal morning sunshine. She was about to shout to Thai and Cyrus when a black shadow flickered in the corner of her vision.

“Val, watch out!” Cyrus shouted, pointing to her right. Thai came running toward her.

She turned and saw the enormous man who had frightened her at the Oakland train station a few days ago. Thai was right—he was dangerous. As quick as lightning, the man crouched and then jumped, farther than any human could possibly jump. As he flew through the air, she saw that his palms were covered in yellow, nasty-smelling slime, and he was reaching for her neck.

Valerie’s body responded, and she was able to dodge his grasping hands, despite his speed. She hit the ground, hard, and it knocked the wind out of her. But she forced herself to her feet. Without knowing what she was doing, she knocked his hand away with the back of her foot with an elegant spin kick. Her kick packed more power than it should—she was tapping into her magic.

But for the first time, she had the sense that she was capable of so much more—this bit of strength was only a taste of what she was capable. She strained against the invisible bonds holding her magic at bay.

With a growl, the man was on his feet again, lunging toward her. By now, Thai had reached the fight, and he kicked the man on his back from behind. The man spun around to face him, and Thai punched him in the face. The man staggered backward, but then leapt forward and slammed into Thai with his entire weight. With a grunt, Thai was thrown backward and his head hit one of the stones.

At the sight of Thai out of commission, her adrenaline or magic or whatever was inside her spiked. The man approached Thai, and she saw that the slime on his hands also oozed out of his bare feet. Instinctively, she knew that if any of that goo touched Thai, he might not survive. For the first time since the fight started, she was afraid. It made her gut clench. There was no way she would let him hurt Thai. As the man lifted his foot, she tackled him to the ground.

“Val, get away from him. He’ll kill you!” Cyrus yelled helplessly.

The man head-butted her, and her vision went black for a split second. Then he was on top of her, his weight pinning her to the ground, his slimy hand raised. Without knowing where the knowledge came from, she wrenched an arm free and brought her fist down hard on a spot between his neck and shoulder.

The man went limp, unconscious, and she knocked his hand away so it didn’t touch her. As she wriggled out from under his heavy body, she could swear she heard Sanguina’s voice, cursing. But when she searched for the source of the sound, there was no one at the monument other than the four of them.

“If you ever needed more proof that your magic is tied to your fighting ability, this is it,” Cyrus said with a relieved grin.

Thai staggered over to her, holding a hand against his head.

“Are you okay? I thought he knocked you out.”

“Not quite, but he might as well have, for all the help I was able to give you.”

She started to disagree, but was distracted by a putrid smell that stung her nostrils. It came from the slime on the man’s hands and feet.

“That must be poison,” she commented, and then noticed the stunned expression on Thai’s face. “What is it?”

“I didn’t see the poison. He could have killed me.”

“Let’s get far away from here before he wakes up. We’ll be long gone when he tries to find us.”

“No, Valerie, you don’t get it. You saved my life.”

“No—we beat him together. And your life wouldn’t have been in danger if it weren’t for me.”

“Well, thanks,” he said in a tone that was a mixture of admiration and gratitude.

Valerie couldn’t meet his eyes. She never knew what to say when someone thanked her. “Any time.”

Cyrus crouched over the unconscious man. “Now that I see this guy up close, I think I recognize him. I’ve heard people talk about someone helping out the Fractus with tasks they need done on Earth. His name is Venu.”

“Why isn’t he dying from the magic inside him, like me?” Valerie asked, confused.

Cyrus glanced at Thai, who had pulled rope out of his backpack and was tying up Venu, before answering. “It’s rare, but there are exceptions. Venu doesn’t have a magic power like yours. He’s part amphibian or something, from what I hear. That kind of magic—a person possessing qualities from nature—doesn’t break Earth’s rules for some reason.”

“So he can’t come to the Globe? He must feel like a freak on Earth.”

“Leave it to you to worry about the mental well-being of a guy who tried to kill you,” Cyrus said. “But anyway, I heard that the Conjurors offered him the chance to come to the Globe, and he refused. It was too late—the Fractus had already gotten to him. No one knows what they promised him, but he’s doing whatever they want.”

“I guess the Fractus want to stop you from getting to the Globe, Valerie,” Thai said quietly, giving a sharp tug on the expert knot that fastened the rope around Venu’s wrists and ankles. “But we’ll make sure they fail.”

[] Chapter 9

Valerie and Thai traveled with a new sense of urgency, turning the trip from Stonehenge back to the London Heathrow Airport into a race to escape before Venu regained consciousness and found a way out of Thai’s rope. Valerie couldn’t help searching the crowds of people they encountered, half expecting to see his enormous shoulders in the distance, lumbering after them. Only when they were safely aboard their flight to Cairo, Egypt, and Thai had scanned all the passengers to make sure Venu wasn’t on board, did she finally let herself relax.

“I wish there was some way we could know for sure that he isn’t following us again,” Thai said after they were safely in the air.

Cyrus popped into view, sitting in a cross-legged yoga pose on top of the bald head of the man sitting in front of them. Valerie couldn’t repress a grin, but Thai hissed, “Get down from there! That’s so disrespectful.”

“Whatever, he’ll never know,” Cyrus said, but then moved to the empty seat between Valerie and Thai instead.

Before they could start bickering, Valerie asked, “Did you find anything out about that Venu guy?”

“Sorry, Val. I tried to follow him to see what he’s up to, but he’s protected.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Usually, a Conjuror thinks about someone on Earth really hard, and we’re at their side in seconds. But no matter how long and hard I thought about Venu, I couldn’t find him. That means that someone on the Globe is using a charm to prevent anyone else from locating him.”

“So there’s no way for us to know where he is, then,” she replied.

“Nope. It’s kind of ironic—the charm was originally created to protect children on Earth from being bothered by the Fractus who like to scare kids. But eventually, the Fractus found out about the charm, and now one of them is using it to stop anyone from finding Venu.”

“We know he’s not on this flight,” Thai said. “We should take advantage of the fact that we’re safe for now and get some rest.”

Valerie nodded. She was exhausted, so she was able to sleep for most of the flight. It wasn’t until the wheels of the airplane came into jarring contact with the runway in Cairo that she awoke. Rested and confident that Venu was hundreds of miles away, the thrill and worries about her adventure returned.

“We made it! He’ll never find us now,” she said hopefully.

Thai shook his head. “I don’t understand how he tracked us to Stonehenge in the first place. It’s like he knows where we’re going. Maybe someone is watching us and feeding back our whereabouts to him. What if he knows about the Great Pyramid, too? He could be only a few hours behind us. We need to go straight there tonight so you can get off this planet!”

Valerie turned to him, her forehead wrinkling with worry. “Thai, you’re not going to like what I’m about to ask you, but it’s important. I don’t want to leave tonight. I want one last full day on Earth. Once I leave, I can never come back. And even though we’re in a foreign country right now, it’s not half as foreign as the world I’m traveling to. Please, give me one day.”

Thai didn’t immediately reject her request with his usual condescending commands, as she expected. “I can understand that. I’d want the same thing if I were you. But you’re in real danger, and I really don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I don’t know what Venu is capable of and who might be helping him.”

“I know, and it’s unfair of me to ask you to risk your life by waiting another day. I can find my way to the portal from here. I know where I’m supposed to go next. We can say goodbye now, if you want. The last thing I want to do is to put you in any danger.”

Thai’s eyes flickered with anger. “You really don’t get me, do you? I’m not afraid for myself! It’s you he’s after, and I won’t leave your side until you’re on your way to the Globe.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that at all. I meant—”

He interrupted, “You can have your day as long as no more trouble finds us. But the second anything weird happens, I’m getting you out of here right away, and I don’t want to hear any arguments from you.”

Less than an hour after disembarking, Valerie and Thai had collected their luggage and found the air-conditioned bus that would take them to a campground in Cairo where they would stay for the night. But just as they settled in, Cyrus appeared, perching on the arm of Valerie’s seat. His mischievous grin was back.

“I’ve got a surprise, guys. Turns out we have a contact here who has pulled some strings for you two. Get off the bus at the Mena House. A host will be waiting for you.”

“But what about—” Valerie started to ask, but Cyrus had already disappeared.

Thirty minutes later, the bus passed through twenty-foot, ornately carved iron gates that led up a flower-lined path, through a maze of elaborate gardens, and then pulled up to the front door of a building that resembled a palace more than any hotel that she had ever seen in Oakland.

“Mena House!” the driver shouted.

Valerie and Thai stared at each other in disbelief, their stunned expressions perfect mirrors of each other. She heard Cyrus laugh. “You guys are so easily impressed.” Thai pulled her off the bus, and she stared at everything in a daze.

“Is this a mistake?”

“It’s real, Val. Enjoy it,” Cyrus whispered in her ear.

The enormous front door of the hotel opened, and they were immediately greeted by a tall man clothed entirely in white except for a blue silk sash elaborately embroidered in gold with symbols that Valerie didn’t recognize. “On behalf of my employer, I welcome you, American guests,” he said with a friendly smile. “I am Chisisi, your personal host here at the Mena House. It is my great pleasure to attend to your every need while you are here.”

Valerie and Thai were so blown away by the magnificence of the hotel and the reception that they were dumbstruck—that is, until they saw Cyrus pretending to make out with a golden statue of the ancient Egyptian god, Ra. It was all Valerie could do to keep a straight face.

“Come, let us get out of the midday sun,” Chisisi said cheerfully. He whisked them past check-in so quickly that all the glittering finery became a blur. He stopped before a distinguished dark-wood door at the remote end of the thirteenth floor.

“Enjoy, with our compliments,” Chisisi said as he unlocked the door.

Valerie entered the room and gasped. The living room of their suite was bigger than any hotel room she had ever seen. It was extravagantly decorated in golden hues, including an enormous mirrored circle that adorned an entire wall. Chisisi unloaded their backpacks and set them down gravely.

“Please know that you are most welcome here at Mena House, but I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you that you must be on your guard. Please do not assume there is no danger here or anywhere in Giza. We have many strange guests visiting our landmarks, and not all are friendly. Do not hesitate to call upon me if I can be of service. Simply call Amun at the reception desk and ask for me.”

“Oh, I’m sure we can take care of ourselves, but thank you,” Thai responded.

“As you wish.”

Chisisi left, and Thai exclaimed, “I’m pretty sure that Chisisi guy rolled his eyes at me!”

But Valerie was already out on the balcony, and the view took her breath away in a way that she thought nothing ever could after seeing Stonehenge. In the distance, three tall pyramids were silhouetted against the pink and gold skies of sunset. Even from miles away, their dark, heavy presence was both imposing and intriguing. What secret passages and forgotten stories lay under the weight of those boulders?

Valerie sensed that she was not alone. She turned around and saw that Thai had stepped out on the balcony, but he seemed to have totally forgotten his indignation at Chisisi. He was staring at her with a focus that made her blush, which was only made worse when he smiled. It was the first time she had seen him smile, and she was suddenly several degrees warmer.

Thai’s eyes turned from her to the scene before them. “This trip keeps getting more and more incredible. The view is like something out of a movie,” he said.

“It’s beyond any adventure I ever imagined,” she whispered. She turned to him and found that he was already watching her with his intense eyes, though they seemed softer now. She had the overwhelming desire to step closer and see if he really smelled like vanilla and cookies, like she remembered.

“You were pretty amazing back at Stonehenge, you know,” Thai said.

“Not what you expected from a fifteen-year-old kid you had to babysit?”

“I barely know you, but I’m going to miss you, Valerie.”

Her palms started to sweat and her heart rate speeded up. Why was she reacting this way? She needed to get a grip. Her nerves made her lightheaded, and she hoped she wouldn’t faint again in front of Thai. Once was more than embarrassing enough. Finally, she managed, “We’ll still be friends. I can come back—just not in person.”

“Yeah, but from the fighting talent I’ve seen, you’ll be busy.”

“Projecting won’t be the same as being here for real,” she said thoughtfully. Thai’s stomach grumbled loudly, and they both laughed. “We’d better get food in you, quick!”

“I think we can arrange that!” Cyrus said loudly, startling them both. They turned around and saw him frowning at them. Valerie wondered why he looked like he’d tasted something sour.

Someone knocked loudly on the door, and Thai answered. Chisisi greeted them with a quick nod. “Come with me. A feast has been specially prepared for you!”

“Chisisi, it’s too much! We can’t possibly accept,” Valerie said.

“Nonsense. Your benefactor would be insulted if you refused his hospitality.”

“Please let us say thank you to him or her, then.”

“No, his identity is confidential. Enjoy it. Now stay by me, and we’ll avoid all the tourists. No one will bother you.”

Chisisi gave them a mini tour on the way to the restaurant, pointing out certain pieces of art and explaining their significance. The restaurant was as grand as the rest of the hotel, complete with high arches, beautifully painted screens, and lanterns that cast a golden glow over the restaurant. Chisisi led them to a secluded booth with crimson velvet draperies surrounding three sides of it.

Valerie and Thai didn’t even have to order. Chisisi oversaw the entire meal, selecting each dish personally. Most of them were exotic. Valerie had never tasted food so delicious, her tongue reveling in the many-flavored delicacies. Her favorite was a delicate mint tea that made her tongue tingle, and something Chisisi called kushari, which was a delicious vegetarian pasta dish. Sometime during the feast, they heard the lilting sounds of a flute and the low percussion of a drum, adding to the enchantment.

Cyrus, Valerie, and Thai talked excitedly, discussing their theories about who had sent Venu to attack Valerie. They barely noticed the curious looks of the other patrons of the restaurant until Chisisi stopped by their table. “It would be wise to keep your conversation quiet. You never know who might be listening,” he warned.

After dinner, Thai and Valerie were exhausted and stuffed. Totally satisfied, they let Chisisi lead them back to their room. For some reason, he did not lead them back through the breathtaking lobby to the elevators that would take them to their room. Instead, he led them to the end of the hallway to the emergency staircase.

“Thirteen flights of stairs? You’ve got to be kidding me. Why don’t we take the elevator?” Thai asked.

“You are less likely to be noticed if you take the stairs. We have many guests tonight, and all of their intentions may not be honorable. I must insist.”

Thai started to contradict him, but Valerie jumped in before he could speak. “Thank you so much, Chisisi. Good night,” she said.

“Be vigilant, young ones,” he replied, and watched them from below until they made it, exhausted, to their floor.

Thai collapsed, out of breath, on the sofa. He was already asleep by the time Valerie tugged off her shoes. After she grabbed a blanket to cover him up, she thought how different he seemed when he was resting. Not anxious and controlling, but happy and peaceful. “Sleep well, O Protector. Tomorrow is a big day,” she whispered with a smile.

Valerie went into the enormous bedroom and snuggled into the middle of the king-size bed.

“Sweet dreams for your last night on Earth, Val,” Cyrus whispered in her ear.

“Night, Cy. See you tomorrow,” she murmured before falling asleep.

[] Chapter 10

Valerie awoke later in the night to the sounds of mumbled conversation coming from the balcony. She assumed that Cyrus and Thai were talking, but when she looked out at the balcony from the living room, she saw that Thai was alone. Behind him, the moonlight turned the sand and pyramids silver, deepening the mystery that surrounded them. Valerie heard him chuckle and say something softly.

Thai turned and saw that Valerie was awake. He jumped slightly, as if she had startled him. She joined him on the balcony and stared out at the view.

“You doing okay?” Thai asked.

“Yeah. I’m nervous, but I’m ready to go to the Globe. I wish you were coming with me,” she said, and blood rushed to her cheeks. She hoped he couldn’t see her blush in the darkness. “But maybe you have people you wouldn’t want to leave behind.”

“Yeah, that’s part of it. I’m close with my brothers and sisters—there are six of us. And since I’m the oldest, my parents rely on me to help take care of them.”

“That explains why you’re used to giving orders,” Valerie teased, nudging him slightly. “But how did you ever become involved with the Conjurors in the first place?”

Thai hesitated, and then replied, “I never thought I would want to tell my story to anyone—it’s too weird. But now that I’ve gotten to know you, I’ve changed my mind. I think you have the right to know.”

“I didn’t mean to pry. You don’t owe me anything. We’ve helped each other. I couldn’t have made it this far without you.”

“I want to tell you,” Thai said earnestly, and she nodded. “I was born in a small town in Vietnam where most people knew each other. Growing up, I did well for myself. I’ve got a talent for sports, and always did well in school. I was even accepted early admission into an American college with a full scholarship. That’s where my parents think I am now. They’re so proud,” he said with a wistful shake of his head, and Valerie could see how deeply he missed them. She experienced a pang of envy for his big family who loved him, missed him, and depended on him. If he left Earth, they’d never forget him.

“But a month before I was supposed to leave, I got really sick. I had a fever all the time, and my entire body was achy. The weirdest thing was that I kept hearing these strange sounds inside my head. I didn’t know what was happening to me, and I was terrified. I didn’t want my parents or anyone to find out because they would stop me from going to college. So I hid what was happening. I kept hoping that maybe it was some kind of weird virus that eventually I’d fight off. Some days seemed almost normal and I would convince myself that I was getting better.

“Then one night, I fell asleep and was having these crazy dreams. The sound of crying woke me up, but I couldn’t see anyone in my room or outside. And then my whole body started convulsing, and I realized that the crying was coming from me. I have never been so confused, and terrified, in my entire life. It was as if my body wasn’t under my own control, like there was something foreign was inside me, trying to break out.” Thai paused, then continued. “Now, Valerie, I need you to stay calm, or you’ll freak him out.”

Before she could ask what he meant, Thai closed his eyes. His entire body shuddered, and when he opened his eyes, she saw they had changed from dark brown to a soft gold. Thai had disappeared inside of himself, and the owner of these eyes blinked at her with wide-eyed confusion.

Then he spoke, and his voice sounded subtly different from Thai’s—more gravelly, like it hadn’t been used in awhile. “W-w-who are you?”

“Um, nice to meet you. I’m Valerie,” she replied, trying to keep the shock out of her voice. A shudder passed through Thai’s body again, and when he opened his eyes, she saw that the Thai she knew had returned. She breathed a sigh of relief as he examined her face. Then he nodded, as if he was satisfied that she wasn’t going to start screaming.

“His name is Tan. The night I got so sick, a Conjuror named Midnight appeared out of nowhere, and after explaining about magic and the Globe, she described what was happening to me. I’m an amoebiate. What I’m going through are processes called mitosis and cytokinesis. Basically, I’m splitting into two people. I’m making an exact copy of myself, like an amoeba. First, all of Tan’s genes are created inside of me, which is what is happening now. Right now we’re sharing my body, and sometimes he takes me over, like you just saw. But in a couple years, he’ll physically split apart from me, and we’ll have two separate bodies.

“There are a couple of others like me on the Globe, but no one on Earth for a pretty long time. When we’re fully separated, Tan will have the exact same genes as me—like a clone.”

Valerie shook her head in amazement. “What’s it like when he takes over?”

Thai gave her a small smile. “Weirder than anything you can imagine. It’s like being paralyzed inside my own body, which is really scary. But it takes a lot of energy for him to completely take over, so he doesn’t do it very often. When his genes are completely copied, we’ll physically separate into two people.”

“Will that hurt?” she asked hesitantly.

The muscles in Thai’s face tensed. “Yes. But it’s quick—the physical separation only takes a couple of hours. He’ll appear exactly like me, and he’ll probably act a lot like me, too. The separation isn’t the part the worries me the most, anyway. Until that day, as he gets stronger, he’ll be able to take control of the body we share, and it will be hard to hide what we are. We’ll have to live apart from everyone. Not even my family will be with me. I can’t imagine being totally alone for months,” Thai said, and Valerie understood the dread in his eyes. She knew how empty and desperate being alone could make you.

“Then you should both come with me to the Globe! You could always come back and visit your family.”

“We can’t. At this stage, the Conjurors don’t know if Tan would survive the trip. And I could never let anything happen to him,” Thai said, and Valerie heard the tenderness in his voice, almost like a father for his son.

“You care about him a lot,” she said.

“Yeah. At first I hated what was happening to me, but I’m growing to like him. He seems more like a person every day. One who’s even more scared than I am of everything that’s happening.”

“Can I talk to, um, Tan?”

“Not right now. He doesn’t have the energy to take over again.”

“Where will you go when he starts being able to take over your body more?”

“The Conjurors found a place for me in some remote part of South America.”

“That sounds so lonely.”

“It will only be for a year or two.”

“I’ll visit you both—all the time.”

Thai smiled and then yawned. “I’m counting on that. Now that Tan’s resting, I’m going to try to get some sleep. And Valerie? Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For not freaking out about this. You’re the first person I’ve told. It’s a relief not to be by myself in all this.”

“I know what it’s like to carry a secret alone, Thai. I’m glad that neither of us has to do that anymore. ’Night.”

[] Chapter 11

The next day, Valerie and Thai decided to explore the Giza Plateau, where they could go inside the three huge pyramids that they could see from the window of their hotel room, as well as see the Sphinx, a giant statue that was half-lion, half-man.

As they were about to leave, Thai paused. “Hey, Tan. You have something to say?”

“H-h-hi,” Tan’s gravelly voice said with obvious effort. Valerie almost jumped in surprise.

“Your eyes didn’t change!”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes. It takes less effort for him just to speak without taking over completely,” Thai explained.

It was going to be strange talking to two people in one body. It would take some getting used to. She took a deep breath. “Hi, Tan. Do you want to see inside the pyramids?” she asked.

“Y-yes. Thai told me a l-l-lot about them.”

Valerie smiled. “You’ll have to tell me what you’ve learned. It’s all new to me.”

“Ready to go?” Thai asked, in control of his voice again.

“Definitely,” she said eagerly, excited to visit the site that would launch her to the Globe that night. Chisisi was waiting at the entrance of the hotel as they left.

“Good morning to you both.”

“Morning, Chisisi,” Valerie replied.

“I caution you to stay alert today, young ones,” he added.

“Thanks, we will,” she said, waving goodbye.

Once they were out of his earshot, Thai whispered, “Who does Chisisi think he is, calling me young? I’m a grown man!”

“Not much fun being treated like a kid, huh?” she said with a little snicker. “But Chisisi’s cool. He’s taking care of us.”

“I know. I wish he would tell us who his employer is. Maybe he would know more about Venu.”

Valerie shrugged. She didn’t want to dwell on the battle at Stonehenge. It was her last day on Earth, and she wanted to relish every second. The Giza Plateau was a ten-minute walk from their hotel, and she stared as the pyramids grew even larger the closer they came.

After getting their tickets, she hurried over to the base of the Great Pyramid, Thai trailing behind her. As she stood in line waiting to enter, she marveled at the thousands of golden brown stones that made up the Great Pyramid. It towered above her, hundreds of feet high, its ragged edges standing out in sharp relief against the cloudless blue sky. “So what do you know about this place?”

“I know it was the first of the pyramids built here. A pharaoh named Khufu had it built a long, long time ago—around 2500 BC, I think. It was supposed to be where he would be buried when he died, but they never found his body inside,” Thai said.

They reached the entrance to the pyramid, and Valerie squinted, staring into the dark opening and trying to see what was in store for them. The second she stepped inside, an oppressive, humid heat hit her like a punch in the face and made her start to sweat. The hall was dark and narrow. Was the space around her was shrinking, about to crush her? A bead of sweat trickled down her back, making the hair on her neck rise. As they walked deeper into the heart of the pyramid, the same vibrating hum of magic that she felt at Stonehenge returned. It was so strong that it almost overwhelmed her.

“It’s d-dark. I don’t like it,” Tan’s gravelly voice said.

“Don’t worry, buddy, we’ll be out of this hall soon,” Thai said quietly.

The halls split off in different directions, like a maze. An instinct steered Valerie away from the stream of people who were heading up the biggest of the passageways. “This way,” she whispered, leading Thai and Tan down a smaller hall that was vaguely familiar as she recalled the images that had flashed through her mind at Stonehenge. The ceiling of the passageway was so low that they had to hunch over. The tight space was squeezing her. She panicked that she had taken the wrong path and they would be lost inside the pyramid forever, doomed to search in the darkness for a way out.

She breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the end of the hall and entered an empty room with a vaulted ceiling. The vibrating was even stronger in here.

“It’s b-b-buzzing in here,” Tan said quietly.

“You can feel it, too? I’m glad it’s not just me,” Valerie replied.

“This must be the Queen’s Chamber,” Thai said, poking around the room with interest. “No one knows for sure what this room was for. Some people think it was supposed to be where they would put the pharaoh’s body when he died, but they changed their minds and built the bigger room above us for the body instead.”

Valerie walked around the room, running her hands along the surface of the walls and marveling at the way the stones were perfectly cut and joined together. She knew that the entire pyramid had been built by hand, each stone shaped by a person, not a machine. She couldn’t imagine how they had accomplished it.

“It’s near here—the room that will launch me into space tonight.”

“I w-w-want to s-see it!” Tan said.

“Sorry, Tan, but I don’t think there’s a way to get to it from here. I’ll have to start at the Sphinx and somehow find my way back here. Must be a tunnel,” she explained, and goose bumps rose on her arms at the thought of traveling through a dark tunnel beneath the ancient monuments.

“That makes sense. Otherwise someone would have found the entrance in here, I guess,” Thai said, his voice filled with curiosity and excitement. “Lots of people have thought that the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx are connected, but no one has been able to prove it.”

“From what I saw in my vision at Stonehenge, this whole place is a maze of tunnels that no one’s ever seen before,” she said, shutting her eyes and trying to remember the images that had flickered through her mind.

“L-l-look! I don’t like her,” Tan said, lifting Thai’s arm to point down the dark hall that led out of the Queen’s Chamber.

Valerie squinted and saw a flash of dark red that stood out against the neutral stones. Seconds later, a woman glided down the hall and entered the room. When she stepped into the dim yellow light inside the chamber, all of the heat drained from Valerie’s body. Sanguina. She stared right into Valerie’s eyes and her mouth stretched in a soulless smile of triumph.

“Found you,” she said, and the sound of her voice made Valerie’s stomach clench painfully. Thai stepped protectively in front of her.

“Get away from us,” Valerie said in a wavering voice. But Sanguina glided closer and closer, and Valerie knew that they would soon be cornered in the small space. “Run,” she whispered to Thai. “She can’t touch us; she’s projecting.”

Knowing that Sanguina couldn’t hurt them didn’t bring her much comfort. She decided to follow her instincts and sprinted past her enemy. Thai was right behind her. He didn’t need to ask why they were running—the danger surrounding the woman was so strong they could almost touch it.

They were only halfway down the low, narrow hallway when Sanguina appeared in front of them a few yards away, out of thin air. They stopped short, and Thai yanked Valerie’s hand so that she was behind him. The damp heat inside the pyramid was closing around her, smothering her.

“What do you want?” Thai demanded.

“I know what you’re here for. And if you leave this planet, I will kill you. I promise you that,” Sanguina said, speaking only to Valerie, as if Thai didn’t exist.

“If I stay, I die. You can’t stop me.”

Sanguina was close enough now for Valerie to see that her eyes were as black as they seemed when she was unconscious. “I can and will stop you. And I will make your life hell for defying me.”

As she stared at the woman who had hunted her for years, Valerie was filled with a desperation that made her hands shake. Would she never escape? “Why do you chase me in my dreams? Isn’t what you do to me while I’m awake enough?” she couldn’t help asking, and saw surprise flash across Sanguina’s face.

“Your dreams?” Sanguina echoed, her tone bewildered.

Before Sanguina could recover, Thai gripped Valerie’s hand. “Remember what you said. She isn’t even here! She’s on the Globe. There’s nothing she can do to either of us.”

Anger twisted Sanguina’s face. “You don’t know how wrong you are.” Her eyes bored into Valerie as if she would kill her if she could.

“Valerie, let’s lose this psycho. Run!” Thai’s voice yanked her out of her frozen terror.

She did run, squeezing her eyes shut as she passed through Sanguina. She and Thai raced away as fast as they could, never letting go of each other’s hands. They burst out of the pyramid into the bright sunshine at full speed, and didn’t stop until they were on the manicured lawn of their hotel, where they both collapsed, breathing in gulps of fresh air. Valerie glanced behind her, half expecting to see Sanguina chasing them, but she had vanished.

“Who was that freak? You knew her?” Thai asked.

Suddenly, from behind, they heard a man clearing his throat. When they saw Chisisi, they sighed in relief. “Welcome back. You seem exhausted. Let me take you to your room for rest and refreshment.”

“Thanks anyway, but we’ll be fine now that we’re back at the hotel,” Thai insisted.

“You must not assume that anywhere in Giza is safe. Danger may lurk where you least expect it, even here at the Mena House,” Chisisi said, his tone sharp for the first time. Then he abruptly turned and left them.

Valerie immediately worried that they had offended Chisisi after all he had done for them. But before she could chase after him, Cyrus appeared by her side. “What’d I miss? Who was that woman at the Great Pyramid? I barely saw her before she disappeared.”

“Sanguina. She’s been chasing me for as long as I can remember. She said she’d kill me if I go to the Globe,” Valerie said quietly.

Cyrus’s jaw dropped with shock, but he quickly recovered. “She’ll have no idea how to find you on the Globe, Val. Everything about your identity and your trip is a secret to all but a few people. And once you’re here, I’ll be able to protect you. In the meantime, I’ll ask the others about who this Sanguina person is. Don’t worry, they’ll find her. She’ll never get near you.”

“Venu must be working for her,” Thai said thoughtfully. “Maybe at Stonehenge he was trying to stop you from leaving Earth.”

“I don’t understand. Why is she after me?” Valerie asked.

“Because you’re special, of course,” Thai said, as if the answer was obvious.

[] Chapter 12

Back at the hotel, Valerie and Thai munched on some fruit that Chisisi had sent up while Cyrus wandered around the room.

“Is Tan okay? He seemed scared back there,” Valerie said.

“I think so. When something is more than he can handle, he kind of retreats inside me for a while. He’ll come out again when he’s ready. But are you okay?” Thai asked.

“It turned my world around to realize that there will still be someone chasing me when I go to the Globe. What’s waiting for me there is worse than what’s chasing me here.”

“But there you’ll have your magic to protect you.”

“And me,” Cyrus added.

Through the window, she saw that the sun was already setting.

“Are you ready?” Thai asked.

“I want to thank Chisisi one more time before I go. I hope he isn’t still upset. We were kind of rude before when he was trying to help us.”

“Fine, I guess you’re right. I didn’t mean to offend him,” Thai said, picking up the phone. “Hi, Amun, could you send Chisisi to our room? Oh, when? Okay, thanks.” He hung up the phone. “Amun said that Chisisi was heading over to our room twenty minutes ago.”

“What happened to him?” she asked. It wasn’t right to leave without saying goodbye.

“Who knows? Whenever we don’t need him, he pops out of nowhere. And now that we do call him, he’s nowhere to be found. But we can’t wait around any longer.”

“He’s right, Val. Let’s get out of here before something else goes wrong,” Cyrus added.

“Well, we’re finally going to need these,” Thai said, pulling the night vision goggles out of their backpacks.

Valerie grinned for the first time all day. It would be pretty cool to go all James Bond and sneak past the security on the Giza Plateau.

Rather than take the elevators downstairs and leave through the main entrance, she directed Thai and Cyrus to take the stairs, hoping that they would attract less attention. When she opened the door to the stairwell, a sour smell made her cover her nose. As they descended, the smell grew stronger, almost making her gag.

They were going down the last flight of stairs when she remembered where she had smelled that rancid odor before. “Thai, watch out, Venu’s been here. That smell is his poison, I know it,” she whispered, and fear glued her feet to the ground.

They both stopped, but it was completely silent in the stairwell. Thai then moved in front of her, murmuring, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Hurry up. Now is not the time to freeze up,” Cyrus said urgently, and she forced herself to hurry down the last few stairs at top speed and burst out the exit door behind Thai.

“I can’t believe he was that close,” Thai said.

Valerie noticed something lying on the ground, covered in yellow slime. She knelt down to examine it, and her entire body quivered with horror. It was a blue cloth with gold embroidery that she had seen before. “It’s that sash that Chisisi always wears,” she said, struggling to keep the panic out of her voice.

“You’re right. What happened?” Cyrus said. Before she could do more than blink, Cyrus vanished.

Thai yanked Valerie to her feet. “We have to get you out of here. Now.”

“We can’t leave without finding him! What if Venu really hurt him? You know what he’s capable of!”

“We don’t even know where to begin. I swear to you that I will not rest until I find Chisisi, but right now you need to get off this planet.”

Cyrus popped back into view. “He’s alive, Val. He’s not in good shape, but he’s alive. Amun called an ambulance.”

“I have to see him, to help him!”

“There’s nothing you can do for him now. And Venu is not going to stop trying to hurt you and those around you until you get out of here. Once you’re gone, he’ll have no reason to hurt Chisisi or anyone else.”

“I bring everyone around me nothing but misery,” she said with despair.

“That’s not true! Please, don’t give up on me now, when you’re so close to making it to the Globe. For everyone’s sake, you have to hold it together,” Cyrus demanded.

She took several deep, steadying breaths, staring into Cyrus’s blue eyes. “All right. Let’s go.”

As soon as they had made it off of the hotel grounds, Valerie and Thai put on their night vision goggles.

“I don’t see anything,” she said.

Thai pressed a button on the side of her goggles, and the world appeared before her in green and black. “They have a heat sensor, so we’ll be able to see the guards coming from a mile away. Speaking of which, drop to the ground, one’s about to pass us!” he hissed.

On her right, Valerie saw a glowing red figure walking closer. The guard was humming a tune, clearly not expecting to find anyone trying to sneak onto the Giza Plateau at this time of night. Still, she held her breath as he passed a few yards from where she lay on the ground, hoping that he wouldn’t be able to see her or Thai in the faint moonlight coming through the clouds.

“Thank goodness it’s a cloudy night, or we’d be caught for sure,” she whispered to Thai after the guard was out of sight.

Thai scanned the landscape in every direction. “Okay, the coast is clear, so lead the way.”

Valerie and Thai hurried across the plateau, keeping a sharp eye out for any security guards—or threats like Venu, she remembered with a shudder. The sight of Chisisi’s sash covered in yellow slime flashed through her mind. Would he survive? She didn’t know how she could live with herself if he died because of her.

“Stay with me, Val,” Cyrus said, seeing her expression.

“You can do this. I’ll go back for him, and he’ll be okay,” Thai added.

She nodded and forced herself to focus on their mission. Finally, they reached the Sphinx. The sight took her breath away, and she was temporarily distracted from her worries. When she had seen the Sphinx from a distance earlier that day, it had seemed like a piece of ancient history whose story had already been told. But in the moonlight, the Sphinx came alive, and she was reminded that this was a living monument that still had a role to play, particularly in her own future.

Valerie took off her night vision goggles as she approached the Sphinx. Up close, she could see that the half lion, half man was wearing an ancient Egyptian headdress. Despite the fact that his face had been battered by time and he was missing his nose, the Sphinx’s wise and regal expression soothed Valerie’s troubled mind.

His stone eyes held a fascinating secret, and they seemed to follow her as she approached closer and closer. It was like he could see inside of her mind, and her scalp prickled with apprehension.

“Unbelievable,” Thai said. “You can’t understand the power of these places from pictures.”

Only Cyrus wasn’t awestruck. “So where’s the entrance to the tunnel, Val?”

“I think I have to ask—well—him,” she said, unable to drag her gaze away from the searching eyes of the Sphinx.

Almost as if she was in a trance, Valerie approached the Sphinx. She circled the entire monument without speaking and then stopped at the base, right beneath his head. Hesitantly, she reached out to touch the stone. Beneath her fingers, warm muscle covered in soft fur. Gently, she stroked the fur, and she almost gasped in surprise when she heard a gentle, contented purr. The Sphinx’s eyes were softly glowing blue, just like the face at Stonehenge. Valerie’s eerie trepidation was replaced by curiosity.

The Sphinx was a guardian, protecting the magic of this place. His eyes saw in her, through her, and a tide of magic rose up inside her. It was so powerful, she could drown in it—it could sweep her away. The Sphinx may have awakened it, but it was up to her to tamp it down inside her before she was killed by the immensity of her own magic, breaking the rules set upon it.

“Val, are you okay?” Cyrus asked her.

She didn’t have the space in her mind to answer. Sweat beaded her forehead and trickled down her temples. She concentrated, imagining that her magic was like a room inside of her. The Sphinx had opened the door, and it was up to her to shut it. She fought against her instinct to embrace this part of herself that had been hidden away for so long, and slammed the door shut.

A tingle began in the back of her mind, and she knew that she had passed the first part of the Sphinx’s test. The second part, she suddenly understood, was to face the rest of her journey without her friends or her magic to aid her. She had to prove that she was worthy of traveling to the Globe not only because of her magic, but also because she was brave enough to seize her destiny.

“Valerie?” Thai said, echoing Cyrus. He gripped her shoulder, and her mind snapped back to the present.

“The entrance is through the top of the back right paw. And I have to go in alone,” she said, turning to Cyrus and Thai for the first time. Thai started to shake his head, but she walked away before he could form any words.

She walked to the Sphinx’s back right paw, where the lion’s tail curled over the hindquarters. The top of the paw was rough stone that was very different from the finished, exact lines of other parts of the Sphinx. It was the only part of the Sphinx’s paw that hadn’t been repaired over the years by people trying to preserve the landmark.

“Why wouldn’t they fix the top of the paw, too?” Thai asked.

“Let’s say that your Egyptian benefactor can do more than get you a room with a view. He made sure that the entrance was never touched,” Cyrus said. Valerie couldn’t help thinking that it was too bad that the benefactor, whoever he was, hadn’t been able to protect Chisisi.

Cyrus continued, “The top of the paw looks so old because it is—it has never been changed, not since when it was originally built.”

“Duck!” Thai said suddenly, and he and Valerie crouched behind the paw. She put her night vision goggles back on and saw that another guard was doing his rounds. Minutes later, he was gone, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

They removed their goggles again to examine the stone. Thai turned on his flashlight and shined it on the rough stone. Then he turned the flashlight on her face. “I’m coming with you.”

“You can’t. I have to go it alone from here or not leave at all. It’s part of the test.”

“I thought the test was over at Stonehenge!” he said, a deep chord of protective worry making his mouth tense.

“I’ll be okay.”

“She’s right, man. I don’t know what Val learned from the Sphinx, but it can be dangerous to be too close to the launch chamber when she takes off, so you have to stay out there.” Cyrus said. “And I need to be mentally back on the Globe during her journey. It’s up to her now.”

Thai nodded, but the worry didn’t leave his face. “Ready?” he asked her.

Valerie nodded, took a deep breath, and pushed on the stone paw with all her strength. Nothing happened. Thai added his muscles to the struggle, and they both turned red from the effort. Just as she thought her muscles would collapse, the ancient stone groaned and then swiveled, turning sideways. It opened to a set of stairs that disappeared into the darkness.

“That’s my cue. I’ll see you on the other side,” Cyrus said. His voice sounded light, but she knew him well enough to recognize the tension in his smile.

“Wait!” Valerie said, panicky. “What if this thing accidentally launches me to the wrong place? I don’t want to wind up floating around in space for eternity, all alone.”

Cyrus laughed. “It doesn’t work like that—it’s not a rocket! From what I’ve heard, it creates a kind of bubble around you that moves super fast. And you steer it with your thoughts. All you have to do is concentrate on me, and you’ll be by my side in no time, standing on the Globe. Don’t worry—it will all make sense when you’re here.”

“Okay,” she said, somewhat reassured. Then she turned to Thai. “I guess this is goodbye,” she said, and hugged him tightly, memorizing the way his arms felt around her. He pulled back slightly and met her eyes with a focus that made her breath catch. For one crazy second, she thought he was going to kiss her.

Cyrus cleared his throat loudly. “We don’t have all day.”

Thai released her. “Be safe, Valerie,” he whispered. Then he turned to Cyrus. “You’ll project back here to tell me she’s safe?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll stay right here until I see you take off, and then I’ll find Chisisi,” Thai said. He turned to Cyrus. “I will see her leave, right?”

“I think so. Look for a blue light that’s moving fast. In less than a second, she’ll seem like a shooting star. And then she’ll be gone.”

Her heart raced. This was really it. “See you soon,” she said to Cyrus with a smile, and his face lit up. With one last glance at Thai, she put the flashlight in her pocket, then put on her night vision goggles and went down the stairs.

 

[] Chapter 13

Valerie reached the bottom of the stairs and saw a long, narrow tunnel stretching ahead of her. Her heart thumped wildly as she stepped inside. She was only a few steps in when she tripped, catching herself against the wall at the last second. Her night vision goggles slipped off and landed beside her with a crunch. When she picked them up and put them back on, she saw only blackness. They were broken. She panicked for a second, and then remembered the flashlight in her pocket. She pulled it out and frantically pointed the beam in all directions.

The tunnel was completely empty, and the walls were lined with rough stones. The air inside smelled stale, as if it had been stagnating in here for years—which it probably had. The passage was only a few inches taller than she was, and so narrow that she could touch both sides of it without extending her arms completely.

She was being squeezed by the close space, and she struggled to keep her breathing steady so that she wouldn’t hyperventilate from her fear. Ever since a terrifying experience of being locked up at one of her foster homes, small spaces always robbed her of her self-control.

It took all of her strength not to turn around and race back outside to safety with Thai. But she considered the life that was waiting for her back there—the sickness that was sucking her strength away and the emptiness inside her that made her heart ache. If she moved forward, she had a chance of a fresh start.

So she forced herself to put one foot in front of the other, and her body obeyed even as her mind was tortured by thoughts of what was lurking further ahead. Without her flashlight, she would be in complete darkness. What could be hiding in the darkness beyond the circle of light?

Her panic swelled inside of her, and she began to run, faster and faster, hoping that the tunnel would finally widen. Would it ever end? Had she somehow failed the Sphinx’s test and this was her punishment? Abruptly, the tunnel narrowed and the ceiling began to taper down so that she had to crouch in order to move forward. Her breathing came in gasps, and she scraped her hands against the sides of the walls as she tried to propel herself forward. The lack of oxygen made her dizzy.

She had a sense that she was directly under the Great Pyramid, and the vibrating of its magic rattled her to the bone. It was as if the entire weight of the massive monument was upon her shoulders, bearing down on her. The tunnel curved sideways and angled upward.

Finally, she crashed into a barrier and collapsed to the ground. Her head was spinning as her lungs ached to breathe something other than the musty air of the tunnel. Her flashlight had shut off when she fell, and she frantically, blindly felt around the ground until her hand closed around the handle.

She turned the flashlight on and said a silent prayer of thanks that it hadn’t broken from her fall. She shone the flashlight beam on the barrier. It was the door that marked the entrance to the launch room. At last.

The door was covered in symbols and numbers that made up hundreds of complex equations. She recognized some of the symbols from her algebra class, though most of them appeared to be in a language that she couldn’t understand. Some of the symbols were the same as the ones embroidered on Chisisi’s sash, and her anxiety for him, which had been driven out of her mind by her harrowing journey through the tunnel, returned.

She rested her flashlight on the ground and wiped the sweat off her forehead. Then she pressed both of her hands against the door, ready to push. But she didn’t have to do a thing. She watched as light poured out of her fingers and traveled through the entire door, illuminating the equations with a translucent, neon blue light. Slowly the stone door disappeared, leaving only the glowing equations like a veil between the tunnel and the room behind it.

She stepped through the veil and into the chamber. As soon as she entered, the room lit up brightly, temporarily blinding her. More equations covered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room, and they were all glowing brightly. She stretched, relieved to finally have room to breathe.

Then something caught her eye that caused her anxiety to subside. In the center of the room, a long, silver sword appeared to be thrust into the stone floor. The handle was gold, and the blade shone in the light of the room.

She was immediately reminded of her favorite story since she was a little girl, the tale of King Arthur, who had pulled his magical sword from a stone to prove he was king. That legend had always fascinated her, and she had read every book on King Arthur and Camelot that she could find. She couldn’t help walking over to the sword and gently grasping the hilt.

Hesitantly, she pulled, and it slid out of the floor easily. She stared at it with reverence. She’d stepped inside of her favorite tale. Winding along the blade was elaborate script. She had only read the first word—Pathos—when her nose picked up a familiar foul smell and the blade reflected someone entering the room.

Venu must have managed to sneak past Thai and follow her into the tunnel. Rage rose up inside of her with a ferocity that she had never known. Rage for attacking her, rage for almost killing Thai, and most of all, rage for what he had done to Chisisi. His face was contorted with pure hatred, and she knew that he shared her loathing. Sanguina stood behind him, a nasty grin spread across her face. But the usual freezing paralysis that Sanguina induced melted in the inferno of Valerie’s anger.

Venu lunged at her. She didn’t know if she would have beaten Venu last time without that taste of her power that Stonehenge had allowed her. But even without magic, her time on the streets had honed her reflexes. She dodged him, and he slammed against the wall from the force of his own stride. Venu shouted something in another language that sounded like a curse, and pulled a long dagger from his belt.

“Leave here now and Venu will never come near you again,” Sanguina said. Valerie knew that she was trying to distract her. “I promise you, even if you escape him, I will be waiting for you on the other side.”

But Valerie’s rage focused her, giving her an anchor to keep her from getting lost in her fear of Sanguina. She held the sword in front of her, and even though it was clumsy and awkward in her hands, it also belonged there. As Venu thrust at her with his dagger, she awkwardly knocked his blade away, barely keeping the sharp edge from touching her skin.

It took every ounce of focus to anticipate where Venu’s next attack would come from. She concentrated on his twitching muscles, and escaped his next slash by a hair.

Sanguina put her face right in front of Valerie, blocking her view of Venu. “In the end, you know you’ll lose. Run now while you can,” she commanded.

But Valerie refused to let Sanguina’s words distract her. She knew that her life depended on being able to focus. So she said nothing and concentrated every cell of her being on the fight for her life.

She saw Venu’s blade less than a second before it came speeding toward her, ready to plunge into her stomach. She stopped it in time, but the tip of the dagger pierced her skin, and blood trickled out of the wound. For a split second, her mind registered the pain. But just as her rage had swallowed her fear, it also obliterated her pain. Nothing existed except for calculating her next move.

It was time to stop being on the defensive and attack. Every passing second was making her weaker. Valerie struck out blindly, and her sword met nothing but air. This wasn’t a strategy that would enable her to make it out of this fight alive. She forced herself to take a deep breath. She reminded herself of what a helpful foster brother had taught her about fighting—to use all her senses to guide her. She heard the sound of Venu’s heavy breathing and smelled the poison on his hands.

Letting instinct lead her, she thrust her sword and it clashed with Venu’s dagger. She flicked her wrist, and her sword nicked his flesh. She had the strangest feeling that her sword had acted on its own, giving her a tiny advantage.

Venu grunted in pain and his dagger skittered across the floor. Without over-thinking her next move, she kicked, and her foot connected with his stomach. She heard his heavy body fall to the ground.

“Are you going to let this little girl defeat you? Are you a man? Get up!” Sanguina demanded.

He struggled to stand at her words, but his wrist gave way and he fell again, hard. Valerie didn’t hesitate. She hit Venu on the head with the flat of her sword, and he slumped to the ground, unconscious for the second time in three days.

It took all her remaining strength to drag him out of the launch chamber so that he wouldn’t be near her when she was launched into space. As her rage drained away, something strange took its place that was even better—pride in her triumph over Venu, Sanguina, and her fear. Venu wasn’t moving at all, but he was still breathing.

“It will be much, much worse for you on the Globe, I promise you. I will find you like I always do, and I will destroy you,” Sanguina said when Valerie finally dropped Venu with a grunt. She heard the desperation in Sanguina’s voice and deliberately turned to her.

“You know what I think? For all your threats, you’re afraid of me. That’s why you don’t want me in your world. And you should be afraid. Because I will fight you, and I will crush you.”

Something in Valerie’s face silenced Sanguina, and she vanished. Valerie took a deep breath and knew that it was time to take off, before Venu could attack again. She had never felt so powerful in her life. She was ready to be on the Globe, to embrace her magic fully, and to take on whatever trouble came her way.

She must have passed the second half of the Sphinx’ test, because she knew exactly what to do next.

“Goodbye, Earth,” she said, and she touched the center triangle on the north wall that would launch her into space.

[] Chapter 14

A burst of energy exploded in the chamber, searing through Valerie like a shock wave. The symbols covering the walls of the launch chamber pulsated, glowing even more brightly. Then the air shimmered and the symbols seemed to peel off the stones, cascading closer and closer to her, surrounding her in a blue bubble of light. She floated a few feet off the floor in the exact center of the room. Bathed in the blue light and effortlessly hovering in the air, she was completely at peace, ready to be reborn.

But unexpectedly, the vibrating power of the magic that filled the room caused the ancient stones, now weakened without the magic of the symbols to reinforce them, to tremble. The whole room began to shake violently. One of the stones in the ceiling crashed to the floor and shattered into pieces. The last thing that Valerie saw before she was launched into space were dozens of rocks jarring loose as the room collapsed into itself.

Thai told her later that he saw a flash of blue light shoot out of one of the airshafts that exited the Great Pyramid. But all she knew was that one second she saw the crumbling walls of the launch chamber, and the next she was so far away that she felt like an astronaut seeing Earth from space.

Valerie stared in amazement at the brilliant blue, green, and brown planet that had been her home. No picture of Earth in a science textbook could compare to this. After a moment, she realized that Earth wasn’t getting any smaller. “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you move?” she yelled at the bubble. Her heart sped up in panic. “Cyrus! Where are you? You promised that it wasn’t possible for me to get lost in space!”

The second that she thought of Cyrus, the bubble began to move again, hurtling her toward the dark patch in the sky that hid the Globe. She breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that the bubble hadn’t been moving because she hadn’t been steering it with her thoughts. Concentrating, she pictured Cyrus’s face in her mind and the bubble moved even faster. The glowing equations moved rapidly in circles around her, spinning more quickly the faster that she traveled.

Because of the sheer speed at which she was traveling, the stars streaked past her, appearing as lines of light rather than individual stars. Line after line zoomed by. Was she moving faster than anything else in the universe right now?

In the distance, she saw a cluster of stars swirling around a dark hole, as if their light was being pulled into the eye of a hurricane. She was headed directly for that dark spot, which grew bigger with every passing second.

Logically, she knew that the Globe was hidden inside that void, but the closer she got, the faster her heart beat. As hard as she strained her eyes, she could see nothing in that hole but an empty blackness. She forced herself to control her panic. She would make it through this, like she had made it through every obstacle on this trip. The hole grew larger. She held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut as she was drawn down, down into the fathomless darkness.

When she finally dared to open her eyes, the darkness had lightened. Through the blue equations of her bubble, she could see a planet that was more colorful than she had ever imagined. The royal blue and turquoise water met land that was many colors, from purple mountains to golden deserts to red canyons. “Cool,” she gasped in amazement.

“Cyrus, Cyrus,” she chanted to herself as her bubble sped toward the Globe, worried that she might wind up in the middle of nowhere on this strange new planet. She could see that she was coming closer and closer to a light green patch of land, but she couldn’t make out specifics of the landscape as the colors blurred together from the tremendous speed at which she was traveling. Her pulse started to speed up again at the thought that she was going to crash into the Globe at a million miles an hour and be blasted into smithereens, but as if in response to her worry, the bubble immediately slowed, approaching the ground at a less alarming pace.

Seconds later, her feet gently touched land. The bubble around her popped, and she stared straight into Cyrus’s shining blue eyes. She was still clutching the sword she had found in the launch chamber, and she immediately dropped it and threw her arms around him. He lifted her off the ground and twirled her around in a circle.

“Took you long enough!”

She laughed in joy and relief. It was amazing to finally hug Cyrus and to have her feet firmly planted on solid ground. Up close, he was a good five inches taller than she was. In person, he seemed older, less like the kid that she had pictured playing with when he was her imaginary friend years ago. Somehow it hadn’t hit her that he had grown up, like she had, until she saw him in person.

Cyrus finally released her from his warm, tight hug, and she stepped back.

“You’re bleeding!” he said, alarm replacing his joy.

Valerie saw the slash Venu had given her with his knife. “I’m fine. It’s nothing, just a shallow cut. The bleeding has already stopped.”

“What could have happened in the forty-five minutes since I saw you last?”

Before she could respond, a unicorn, pure white with a silver horn, stepped out from the trees. The unicorn met her gaze and nodded.

Cyrus followed her gaze. “Valerie, meet Azra. She’s the only one other than me who knows you’re here. Azra is one of the founders of this place, and she’s been around longer than anyone. And now she’s sort of like, um, what you would think of as the Globe’s president.”

Valerie’s eyes widened nervously. What was the proper way to show a unicorn respect? Especially a unicorn that was president of a magical world? Azra’s eyes twinkled kindly, and Valerie felt, rather than heard, her lyrical voice in her mind. Welcome to the Globe. I’m so happy to finally meet you.

Valerie sent a pleading glance toward Cyrus, silently asking him to help her say the right thing. He burst out laughing. “Relax, Val! She’s cool.”

“It’s a, um, pleasure to meet you, Azra.”

If it’s my title that’s worrying you, I’m nothing like a president, really. I’m an adviser of sorts. And I do hope you’ll think of me as a friend.

Valerie smiled and relaxed. It was impossible not to trust the unicorn. For the first time since she landed, Valerie took in her surroundings. They were standing in a small, grassy valley surrounded by a forest.

“Now tell me what happened to you!” Cyrus demanded.

Azra noticed Valerie’s wound for the first time, and her gentle eyes filled with concern. Allow me to call a healer right away.

“I’m okay, I promise,” Valerie replied, and then turned to Cyrus. “I’ll tell you everything, but first, let Thai know I’m safe and find out what happened to Chisisi.”

“But, Val… Oh, fine,” Cyrus said, unable to hide his impatience. “Don’t say anything interesting until I get back!”

Valerie watched as Cyrus sat down and concentrated. The air around him shimmered, but he didn’t disappear. She knelt beside him and waited in silence so as not to break his concentration. Nervously, she stroked the grass, which was like velvet under her fingers, and watched Azra’s iridescent mane ripple in the gentle breeze. After a few minutes, the shimmer around him stopped and his eyes popped open.

“Thai found Chisisi. He’s going to be okay,” Cyrus said. The tension in her body began to dissolve. “Thai said if any more venom had gotten into his bloodstream, he might not have made it. But luckily, Chisisi knew what he was doing and went straight to the hospital. He’ll make a full recovery within the week.”

“I’m going to visit him as soon as you teach me how to do that mental projection thing. Now, what about Thai?”

“He’s going to stay at the hospital until Chisisi’s fully recovered to make sure that Venu isn’t coming back. Then he’s heading back to Vietnam one last time before he goes to South America,” Cyrus said. “Anyway, enough about Thai. I want to hear what happened to you.”

Valerie launched into her tale, recounting her fight with Venu and her trip through the universe. But one thing troubled her. “Did I do something wrong when I activated the launch chamber? I think I broke the room.”

Azra responded thoughtfully. It was a very ancient portal, Valerie. It was never meant to last this long. I think that perhaps the magic held on this long because it was your fate to take this trip. If it weren’t for you, the launch chamber would have crumbled long ago.

Valerie shook her head in disbelief. How could it possibly be that she, Valerie Diaz, was the reason that the powerful monument had survived for thousands of years? It had to be a coincidence that it crumbled after her trip.

“Where did you get that sword, Val? Did you make a pit stop at the Milky Way for one last souvenir?” Cyrus asked.

Valerie had forgotten all about the mysterious sword she found in the launch chamber. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands, examining it in the Globe’s bright sunlight. “I found this in the chamber right before I took off. It was embedded in the stone floor, like the story of King Arthur. I had to touch it. Do you know where it came from? Was it supposed to be there?”

Azra came closer, her mane brushing the blade as she examined it curiously. Then her eyes widened. That is a very famous sword—the Edge of Pathos. I have no idea how it came to be in the chamber. But I knew its last owner. She went missing years and years ago. She was a friend.

Azra shook her mane regretfully, and Valerie held the sword out to her. “You should have it to remember her by.”

Thank you, that is most kind, but I believe that Pathos was there for a reason. Besides, it somehow seems to belong to you.

Valerie lifted the sword—Pathos, she’d have to remember that—and took a few practice swings. The hilt fit her hand perfectly, as if it were molded to fit her grasp. “Thank you, Azra.”

We’ll find you a sheath for it this week.

Valerie took a deep breath, tasting the sweet air on the Globe. “I’m so glad I’m finally here!” she said, realizing for the first time that it was true. Coming here was the right decision. All of the fatigue and weakness that she had carried with her on Earth had been lifted. She could take on anything.

“Not as glad as I am! Can we take her to look around now? There’s so much I want to show you!”

Yes, if you’re ready, Valerie, we’ll give you the grand tour of our city, Silva.

Valerie’s eyes shone. “I’m very ready.”

[] Chapter 15

Azra and Cyrus led Valerie through the forest. It was like no woods that Valerie had ever seen, except in storybooks. Leaves of every shade of green imaginable were on the trees, and on some of them, the bark glinted as if it had been brushed with gold paint.

As they walked, Valerie occasionally caught a glimpse of something moving in the woods, but she couldn’t make out what it was. She started to worry that they were being surrounded, but Azra’s words softly entered her mind, reassuring her. It’s the people of the woods. Humans used to call them elves. They don’t like to be bothered often, but they won’t hurt us. Valerie let out a breath that she didn’t know she’d been holding. We’re nearly there, Azra added.

“Where exactly are we, anyway? On the planet, I mean.”

The Globe is split into different countries, much like Earth. Right now we’re in the country of Arden. It’s mainly made up of forests, lakes, and waterfalls, and its capital is Silva.

“That’s where you guys live?”

Yes. And I think you’ll like it here very much. In Arden, there are many wonderful teachers who will help you to explore your powers. Here, there are no rules like those on Earth to suppress the magic inside you. You can be the person you really are, fulfill your true potential.

“I hope I fit in.”

“You will!” Cyrus exclaimed. “After all, you’re friends with me, so everyone will know you’re cool. But you can’t tell everyone that you’re from Earth. People would ask a lot of questions. Plus, we don’t want that Sanguina lady finding out where you are.”

“Did you ever figure out who she is and what she wants from me?”

Azra’s eyes were clouded when she answered. I have a strong suspicion of who Sanguina is. I must make sure before I accuse her. Rest assured, when I know for certain, I will tell you.

Valerie nodded. “But won’t it be obvious that I’m not from the Globe? I mean, I’ve never been around magic before.”

Cyrus smiled. “No problem. We’ll tell everyone that you’re from Messina. It’s an island in the middle of the ocean. The people there have forbidden the practice of any magic. And they almost never leave their island, so you’re not likely to run into anyone who will ask you hard questions. Also, Messina is where I’m from, so it will make sense that we know each other so well.”

“You grew up without magic?” Valerie asked, surprised.

Cyrus shifted uncomfortably, not meeting her eyes. “It’s a long story. But yeah, I grew up without any magic, until my parents let me come to Silva for school when I was eight. I’ve lived here ever since.”

“You must miss them so much,” Valerie said, trying to imagine why anyone would want to leave their family if they were lucky enough to have one.

“I do, but I visit all the time. It’s just—I don’t fit in there. I love magic too much. It’s so hard to suppress my powers when I’m home for the holidays. But I’ll take you to meet my parents and my sister sometime.”

“I’d like that.”

“Anyway, Messina is the perfect alibi for you,” Cyrus said, changing the subject. “Speaking of fitting in, that reminds me, I brought you a charm so you can speak and understand any language. Everyone uses it on the Globe so that we can all communicate with each other. It saves everyone a lot of frustration and confusion.”

Valerie caught Cyrus’s change of subject and decided to drop her questions about him and his family for now. She had enough to absorb. She grinned widely as Cyrus described the charm. “No way! Magic can do that? It’s such a brilliant idea.”

Azra laughed and flicked her tail. Valerie’s breath caught at the beauty of the sound in her mind, like remembering church bells. Sometimes I take magic for granted after all these years. It’s so refreshing to watch you experience it for the first time.

Cyrus gave Valerie a candy wrapped in gold foil. “Go ahead and eat it—don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt at all.”

Valerie popped the candy in her mouth. It was sweet, and it made her mouth and throat pleasantly warm and tingly. “Well? Is it working?” she asked.

Azra nodded. Yes, you’re speaking in the universal language. It will seem to you like everyone you meet is speaking English. In fact, everyone speaks and hears in the universal language—but they don’t realize it.

“So the original language fades away? I mean, if I have children, they’ll never hear English spoken?” Something about that seemed sad to Valerie, like one more thing from Earth that she couldn’t hold on to.

The Language Guild ensures that no language is ever forgotten. They pride themselves on speaking to everyone in their own original language. If you ever hear them speak English, you’ll be able to tell the difference.

Valerie was about to ask what a guild was when they stepped out of the woods. Her heart almost stopped beating at the dazzling sight below her. Nestled in a deep, wide valley, Silva glittered.

The city was wildly different from the towns she had seen on Earth. The biggest buildings were white, laid out roughly in the shape of a giant horseshoe. The path in front of the buildings was constructed of flagstones in many colors. Creatures of all shapes and sizes walked on the path, and the stones lit up when they were stepped on. Inside the horseshoe was a large grassy area where children played games. A tree-lined path went straight through the middle, leading to the biggest of the buildings at the top of the horseshoe.

The rest of Silva was sprawled behind the main buildings that made up the horseshoe. This part of the city seemed completely unplanned and crammed full of buildings of every shape and size. Even the streets were unusual, twisting and turning in ways that seemed to make no sense at this distance. It was nothing like the grid of north-south and east-west of streets in downtown Oakland where she had grown up. Logically, she thought this hodgepodge should look messy, but instead, the city had a unique charm, and all of the buildings seemed to somehow be in harmony with each other. Nervousness made her stomach churn as she tried to imagine navigating the labyrinthine paths.

As they walked closer to the city, she was relieved to see that her appearance wouldn’t stand out. Conjurors came in all colors, shapes, and sizes, and everyone wore different styles of clothing, from long robes to dresses made of leaves. Valerie noticed that Cyrus wore a T-shirt and jeans, like guys on Earth. She was relieved that her own jeans and sweater wouldn’t seem strange—other than being a little dirty from her trek through the tunnel beneath the pyramid. While many of the Conjurors could pass for human, she also noticed that animals, fairies, and a variety of other creatures all talked, walked, and played together. She would blend right in.

The trio reached the multi-colored path, and Valerie stepped on it, smiling as a red stone glowed under her foot. She couldn’t help jumping from stone to stone, watching all of the colors light up.

“I made this path light up, ya know. It used to be regular stones, but I charmed them to glow when they’re stepped on. I’m up for an award by the city building commission next month,” Cyrus said. He tried to sound casual, but she could tell it was a big deal.

“That’s unbelievable! How did you do it?”

“I’ll show you my power tomorrow. It’s pretty cool.”

They reached the first of the buildings that made up the horseshoe. Up close, Valerie could see that each of the buildings was unique in design, but they were all white and had flags with different pictures and symbols on them.

Valerie heard the soft clop of Azra’s hooves against the stones as she came to stand next to her. This area is called The Horseshoe… for obvious reasons. Azra gave Valerie a wink. These buildings house what we call guilds here on the Globe. Noticing Valerie’s confused expression, she added, Guilds are much like different professions. We have guilds for acting, writing, music, and language—to name a few.

“I’m a craftsman at the Society of Imaginary Friends. After I moved to Silva for school, I became an apprentice here. That’s when I became your imaginary friend,” Cyrus added. “And when you have a chance to get settled, I’ll take you around to see all the guilds so that you can decide if you want to apprentice somewhere, too.”

“Is that how people earn money here?”

In Arden, we trade services, but we don’t use money. Other countries on the Globe use money, though, like Elsinore, the country to our north. But you won’t have to worry about basic necessities, like food and clothing, as you did on Earth, Valerie. Here magic provides those things very easily, so we have more time to do what we truly love. I hope you’ll find something you’re passionate about here.

Valerie smiled. She already had a few ideas. “What about school?”

“Little kids go to school, but once you apprentice somewhere, you take all your classes at your guild,” Cyrus explained.

The idea reminded Valerie of going to college—something she hadn’t thought she would have to deal with for years. Her anxiety returned as she tried to imagine figuring everything out for herself, without having teachers and guidance counselors to tell her what to do.

She was distracted from her worries as she noticed that the sun was starting to sink in the sky. Her eyes drooped—it had been a long day. Then they flew open wide. “Hey! What’s the sun doing here? We don’t even revolve around a sun on the Globe, right?”

It’s an illusion. Really, the stars that are sucked into the black hole provide all of the light and energy we could ever need. But when the Globe was created, we decided to program the weather to be similar to Earth, with summer, fall, winter, and spring. We also decided to include a sun that gives us a twenty-four-hour day. It was hard enough to leave Earth, so we tried to make the Globe as much like home as we could. And I would like to help you feel at home here, too, Valerie.

Valerie was glad that the Globe wouldn’t be too different from Earth. She couldn’t imagine never seeing another sunrise.

I can see you’re tired. And who wouldn’t be, after such a trip! The dorm for the Society of Imaginary Friends, where you’ll be living, is around the corner. Dulcea, the dorm matron, will make sure that you have everything you need. She can be strict, but, as Cyrus will tell you, she has a soft heart. The two of you have much in common. You’re welcome to stay there as long as you like. If later you would like to move to the dorm of your chosen guild, we can arrange a transfer.

“Trust me, you won’t want to transfer. Everyone knows it’s the best dorm in Silva. Naturally, because it’s where I live,” Cyrus said with a grin. “And I’ll be just two floors up from you.”

I’ll leave you here in Cyrus’s capable hands. But never hesitate to call me if you need me. Think of me in your mind, and I will know how to find you. And please stop by to talk any time. I work in the building at the top of The Horseshoe, Azra said, nodding toward the biggest of the white buildings. It had tall white pillars and a domed roof, and reminded Valerie a little of the White House. She couldn’t imagine going inside without everyone wondering what she was doing there. Go to the front desk and ask for me—everyone knows where I am.

“Bye, Azra. And thank you.”

Remember, anything you ever need. Then Azra touched Valerie’s shoulder softly with her nose before she left. She smelled like lilies.

[] Chapter 16

Cyrus led Valerie further down the lighted path in front of The Horseshoe, and then stopped near one of the buildings. “This is the Society of Imaginary Friends,” he announced proudly.

Her jaw dropped. The building was every kid’s dream. Giant waterslides extended from some of the windows and splashed down into a moat. Valerie could hear screams of laughter peal from inside. “Those slides must be so much fun. I can’t believe you get to work in a real castle!”

“You should see the inside. There are secret passages, trampolines, a room made of candy—almost anything you can imagine. I’ll have to give you a tour soon. You know, this is sort of where your whole adventure began.”

“What do you mean?”

“If the Society hadn’t assigned me as your imaginary friend when you were seven, the Conjurors might never have known about your magic. I’m the one who figured it out, ya know.”

“How?” she asked, fascinated in spite of herself.

“There were lots of reasons. The first clue I had was how you’d get super strong when you went into panic mode. But then there was—”

She was so absorbed in Cyrus’s story that she didn’t see the man in front of her carefully sweeping the path. As a result, she tripped over him, falling to the ground. The man grunted in pain.

“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry,” she began her apology, but she choked on her words when he turned to her and stared into her eyes. His stormy eyes were blue-gray with flecks of gold in them, somehow reminding her of the sea during a storm. His wild brown hair was streaked with gray, and she doubted that he’d cut it in years.

“Watch where you tread!” the man snarled. Power hummed from him so intensely that it vibrated in her blood, like it had at Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid.

She couldn’t even open her mouth to finish her apology. He was still staring in her direction, but he didn’t quite meet her eyes. His gaze seemed unfocused. She suddenly understood—he couldn’t see her. He was blind.

Cyrus quickly helped her to her feet. He seemed nervous around the man, too. “Sorry, Oberon. We’ll get out of your way,” Cyrus said as he hurried her down the street.

“What’s his story?” she asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Oberon is one of the founders of the Globe, like Azra. He’s the one who set up the weather system. He has powers over the sun, weather, land, and sea. No one knows the specifics, but he is one of the most powerful Conjurors of all time.”

“What’s he doing sweeping the sidewalk, then?”

Cyrus’s face became very serious. “For years, he was a spy for the Fractus. He believed that Conjurors should be able to move back and forth between Earth and the Globe whenever they wanted. He gave the Fractus some pretty important information, supposedly. But then maybe his conscience bothered him or something, because he confessed everything. His punishment is that he can’t use his magic for one hundred years, and during that time, he has to serve the city as its groundskeeper.”

Once again engrossed in another of Cyrus’s stories, she hadn’t noticed that they had left The Horseshoe, and were now walking through the twisted streets of the city. But the strangeness of the buildings finally demanded her attention. Never on Earth would a cottage stand next door to an L-shaped skyscraper—especially when the skyscraper was completely filled with water and mermaids swam around inside. It reminded her of a giant aquarium.

Part of her wanted to stop to marvel at every new feat of architecture, but Cyrus pulled her along until they stopped at a building in the shape of a tall cylinder. Every floor was painted a different shade of blue, and a silver staircase spiraled up the side all the way to the roof.

“What do you think of the Imaginary Friends’ dorm?” Cyrus asked with a grin.

“I get to live here? No way!” Valerie exclaimed, thrilled. Then she glanced doubtfully at the long, winding staircase. “What floor am I on? This could be quite a climb at the end of every day.”

“Check it out,” Cyrus said, leading her to the base of the stairs. Suddenly, the floor beneath her rose, and without warning, she and Cyrus were swiftly gliding up the stairs on a small platform. She smiled as a breeze made her hair stream out behind her.

“These platforms are inside most buildings in Arden. You steer it with your mind, by thinking about where you want to go, like when you traveled to the Globe in the bubble,” Cyrus explained.

“Let me try,” Valerie said, and concentrated. She steered the little platform up and down the stairs effortlessly. “It’s so simple!”

“The best magic always is,” Cyrus announced authoritatively.

“Stop at the sixth floor so you can check in with Dulcea,” Cyrus said, and she was proud that they came to a smooth stop at a tall wood door with a giant brass “6” nailed to it.

The door opened automatically to a scene like a picture from a storybook come to life. At one end of the room was a giant bed with a pink canopy. The wallpaper that went around the entire circumference of the room was decorated with lollipops, cookies, and candies of every kind. The sweet smell of chocolate filled the room, making Valerie’s mouth water. Giant pillows were in the center of the room, and plopped right in the middle was a woman with golden ringlets who was popping candy in her mouth as she read a book.

As Cyrus and Valerie approached, the woman looked up with wide, innocent eyes. She reminded Valerie of a grown-up version of Goldilocks. “You must be Valerie! I’m Dulcea! Welcome!” she said in a happy, bubbly voice. “Have a chocolate.”

“Thanks,” she said, overwhelmed by Dulcea’s energy. She sank down on a pillow next to her.

“So, tell me about yourself, Valerie. I know the basics. You’re from Messina, and you’re a friend of Cyrus—which I won’t hold against you,” Dulcea said with a grin. “But what are your passions? What gets you up in the morning? Who do you want to be?”

Valerie had no idea what to say.

“Sheesh, take it easy on her! She’s had a big day,” Cyrus said to Dulcea. Then he turned to Valerie and explained, “Dulcea’s training to become a Master in the Society of Imaginary Friends, and she’s writing her thesis on finding your passion through imagination. She asks everyone these questions, and no one knows what to say!”

Valerie relaxed slightly. “Well, I know I want to help people. And go on adventures!”

“It’s so wonderful to see such enthusiasm!” Dulcea exclaimed. Then she quizzed Valerie on everything from her hobbies to her favorite color. Valerie found it dizzying trying to keep up with her as she jumped from topic to topic. Finally, Dulcea seemed to notice her exhaustion. “I was so interested in what you were saying, I didn’t notice the time. Cyrus will take you to your room. It’s all ready for you.”

“About time,” Cyrus said, finally getting a word in edgewise.

Dulcea handed Valerie a small book. “Here are the dorm rules. Curfew, dinner hour, that kind of thing. As long as you follow these few rules, things will be sweet for you here.”

“And if you break the rules, things can get really sour, really fast,” Cyrus muttered under his breath to Valerie.

“My door is always open. Come by any time to talk, and grab some candy on your way out!”

“Thanks, Dulcea.”

Finally escaping Dulcea’s sugary presence, Cyrus led Valerie up another two floors, where the platform paused. The door to the eighth floor opened automatically, and the platform glided down a hall of red carpet and stopped at a door at the very end. She could hear music that sounded a lot like American hip-hop blaring in the room.

Cyrus grinned. “You’re gonna love your roommate. With Kanti, you’ll never be bored.”

A muffled bass pounded through the closed door. He opened the door to reveal someone doing the most complex break dancing Valerie had ever seen in her life—clearly unaware that anyone was watching. The girl was graceful, and she moved faster than any human break-dancer that she had ever seen. Cyrus applauded mockingly, and she stopped dancing and collapsed on the floor laughing.

“Wow, you really love those Earth dance moves, don’t you? You’re pretty into it. I wish I had a picture of this for blackmail,” Cyrus joked.

The girl grinned and teased, “Whatever, Cy. I could tell your friend here some pretty entertaining stories involving you and your attempts to master the art of flying.”

“All right, you win. You keep that story to yourself, and I won’t tell the gang at the Society about your super cool dance moves,” Cyrus said, shaking his head and laughing. “Kanti, this is your new roomie, Valerie.”

At first glance, Kanti reminded Valerie of a wicked witch in a fairy tale. Her skin had a yellowish cast, and she had two huge warts on one of her cheeks. She had long greasy dark hair that fell above her shoulders and thick black eyebrows that were growing out of control. But her smile, which revealed her buckteeth, was so genuinely warm and friendly that it eased any awkward tension.

“It’s really nice of you to share your room with me.”

“Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting and waiting for a roommate. We’re gonna tear this town apart.”

“I’ll let you guys get to know each other. Val, I’ll come by tomorrow for the rest of your tour. Let her sleep, Kanti. She’s had a really long trip.”

“Yeah, yeah, got it, boss,” Kanti said as she shooed Cyrus out the door.

“Night, Cy.” Valerie felt very alone, more alone than the first time she stayed overnight at the hospital and no one came to visit her.

Kanti closed the door, and Valerie prowled around the room for the first time. She gasped when she saw that one side of the room was already decorated in her favorite color—green. Everything from the curtains to the bedspread on her side of the room was how she had always imagined her room would be one day when she had a place of her own.

“Who did this for me?”

Kanti laughed. “Dulcea. When she was asking you all those questions, she was figuring out what kind of room you would like. Then when you were on your way up, she used magic to decorate this half of the room for you!”

Valerie was touched by Dulcea’s kindness. It was the first time anyone had made a home with her preferences in mind. “So is that her power? Decorating?”

“No, her power is in creating the best candy you’ll ever taste! Couldn’t you tell from seeing her room?” Kanti asked.

Valerie laughed. “Of course, I should have guessed. But how did she create this room for me?”

“A couple of years ago, when she became the dorm matron here, she convinced her friend to use his magic to make the building read her mind. So now, just by thinking, she can decorate any room in the entire dorm. She redecorates all the time, so you’ll always find unexpected surprises around the dorm. And she filled your closet with clothes, too,” Kanti added as she sat down on her own bed, which was made up entirely in black.

Valerie opened the closet and saw every skirt, shirt, and dress she had ever dreamed of owning. Her heart was warm and full, and she made a mental note to find a way to thank Dulcea for her gift. It was strange to think that, for the first time in her life, she had more possessions than would fit in a backpack—especially now that she had her own sword. She shifted Pathos in her grip, testing its balance. It fit her hand so well that she’d almost forgotten that she was still carrying it. Gently, she slid it under her bed.

Kanti watched her with raised eyebrows, her mouth slightly open like she was about to say something, but instead, she turned up the music she was playing.

“Hey, is that Tupac you’re listening to?” Valerie asked.

“No way, you do not listen to Earth-music, too!”

“That’s the only thing I listen to.”

“Girl, fate made us roomies. I live for hip-hop. I’m always watching that Earth channel—MTV. We are going to have such crazy good times, I know it.”

Valerie had to smile at Kanti’s enthusiasm.

“But Cy’s right, that pain in the butt, you do need sleep. Tomorrow we’ll talk more.”

Valerie barely remembered Kanti showing her the bathroom, where a green toothbrush was waiting for her. She put her head on what must be the softest pillow in the universe. Just as she was drifting out of consciousness, she saw the door crack open and Dulcea peek in, checking on her. This little attention warmed her, and she fell asleep with a smile hovering on the corners of her lips.

[] Chapter 17

Valerie and Kanti woke up early the next day to get ready. While Valerie showered and brushed her teeth, she couldn’t help fantasizing about which of her new outfits she should wear for her first full day on her new home world. But when she finally opened her closet, she was overwhelmed by all the choices. In some ways, life was simpler when she was living out of her little suitcase.

“Go with jeans, you’ll want to be comfortable since we’ll be walking all over the place,” Kanti advised. Valerie gave her a grateful smile and quickly changed. She brushed her long hair to get the knots out and swept it up into a ponytail. Then they glided up two floors to bang on Cyrus’s door.

“I’m up, don’t rush me. You’d think the Fractus were attacking!” Cyrus said, opening the door while still towel-drying his hair.

It was strange to be able to hang out with Cyrus for real. Valerie never had a lot of guy friends her own age before, and in the last two weeks, she now had two—which reminded her of something.

“Will you teach me how to project myself to Earth today? I want to check on Chisisi and Thai.”

“No problem, Val. But first, let’s go to The Horseshoe. I want to show you the lay of the land out here.”

“Count me in, too,” Kanti added.

Before they left, they stopped by Dulcea’s room for some breakfast. She wasn’t there, but she left a warm plate of fluffy, neon-colored pastries with a note saying that anyone who stopped by should help themselves. The weird appearance of the pastries made Valerie hesitant to eat one, but her stomach grumbled. She cautiously nibbled on a corner, and groaned in delight as the sugary sweetness melted on her tongue.

“Dulcea’s pastries are made to adapt to your unique taste buds,” Cyrus explained, wiping a crumb off of her face. “You’re such a little kid sometimes, you know that?” She shut her eyes and ignored him, her mouth still crammed with a neon green piece of heaven.

On Earth, she almost never had a chance to eat treats. In the hospital, they made sure the kids all ate healthy food, and in her foster homes, her parents had rarely spent money on such luxuries. She could definitely get used to eating such delicious food, for free, no less!

The three took a roundabout route to The Horseshoe, which was the heart of Silva, as well as the center of Arden. Kanti and Cyrus answered all of Valerie’s questions about the strange buildings that she saw. The giant aquarium skyscraper was a hotel for visiting guests from Illyria, the underwater city on Arden’s southeastern border. That way, when the Illyrian mer-Conjurors sent representatives to Global meetings to discuss issues affecting the planet, they had a place to stay.

Kanti also pointed out Enchantz, a nightclub for underage Conjurors to cut loose and show off their dance moves.

“If you ask me, that club is on its way out. I’d skip it,” Cyrus said.

“Says the guy who has two left feet,” Kanti retorted. “Valerie, you have to see Cyrus try to dance. It’s hilarious.” Cyrus reddened, but Valerie pretended not to notice, staring at a building that in the shape of a giant mushroom.

When they reached The Horseshoe, Cyrus led the way to an empty grassy area in the middle. Then he cleared his throat. “So you were asking about my power. Prepare to be amazed,” he joked.

Cyrus held out his hands, and a glow began to surround them. Valerie noticed that light seemed to be attracted to him, as if drawn to him like a magnet. He moved his hands so quickly that she couldn’t see what he was doing, but it almost looked as if he were molding and shaping the light with his hands.

There was a bright flash, and then he held out his hand to her. He was holding a delicate flower that was made completely of light from the petals to the leaves. Valerie didn’t even dare to exhale, afraid that her breath might blow it apart.

“Take it, Val, it’s yours.” Carefully, Valerie reached into the palm of his hand. The flower was infinitely soft, like the warm down of a baby animal. “It won’t break, ever. I made this flower to recharge itself, so it will always glow for you.”

“Oh, Cy,” she said softly. “It’s the most amazing gift that anyone has ever given me.” Cyrus beamed with pride. Valerie twisted it into her hair.

“Very impressive, Romeo,” Kanti said, wiggling her eyebrows dramatically. “Bet the ladies love that trick.” Cyrus glared back at her.

Valerie interrupted their sparring. “Can you make anything out of light?”

“Small objects are the easiest. Right now, I’m practicing how to give the light different textures. Making it hard, like metal, is really difficult. I can also make objects that already exist glow, like the stones on The Horseshoe path.”

“That is such an incredible power!”

Cyrus tried to hide the grin tugging at the corners of his lips, but Valerie could tell that he was pleased that he had awed her. “It’s cool. And I’m one of the few Conjurors on the Globe who uses this power,” he added.

“How did you discover your power? I don’t remember you having it when we knew each other back on Messina.”

“I think it runs in my family—I’m just the only one who uses my magic. You remember, Val, that my parents are the keepers of the lighthouse on Messina. It’s an important job when you live on a tiny island in the middle of that huge ocean. One night when I was really little, I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the top of the lighthouse, which was my favorite place in the whole world. As I sat there, staring into the light, I was hypnotized. It was as if every time I breathed, the light was pouring down my throat. It was warm and tingly. My hands were glowing. Then, there was a bright flash, and I was holding a tiny ship made of light in my hands.”

“No way!”

Cyrus’s face darkened. “Then I saw my mom watching me, all worried. She told me that it was wrong for me to use my powers. She wasn’t angry, but I didn’t understand her reasoning. I still don’t. She thinks magic is evil, and that Conjurors will abuse their powers and end up destroying the Globe. But magic does so much good, too, and I don’t want to live the rest of my life hiding who I really am.”

“I never heard you talk about that before,” Kanti said, with interest. “I know what it’s like to have parents who wish you were different.”

Valerie was a little irritated with them both. Didn’t they know how lucky they were to have parents who cared about them? Maybe his parents weren’t perfect, but at least Cyrus was loved.

“Do you know what kind of magic you have yet, Valerie?” Kanti asked, interrupting her thoughts.

“All I know is that a couple of times when I was threatened, I was suddenly able to fight a guy who was a lot bigger than me. It’s weird, because I’ve never taken lessons in martial arts or anything.”

“My roomie has fighting powers? I suddenly feel so safe,” Kanti teased.

“What about you, Kanti? Your magic must have to do with dance, right?”

To Valerie’s surprise, Kanti blushed. “Um, thanks. No, I don’t have any magic. That’s from practicing.”

“None? I thought everyone here had some kind of power.”

“Nope. There are a few Conjurors on the Globe who have magic in their blood, but it never develops into a power. It’s kind of rare, though. All of my family has powers except for me,” Kanti explained.

“Does your family live around here?”

“No, they live up north in Elsinore. It’s really cold up there, and it doesn’t help that my house is made of ice. Sure, it’s impressive, but I’m always freezing my butt off! It’s a good excuse not to go home too often. My family drives me nuts, and they’re always embarrassed when the ugly daughter with no magic returns.”

“Azra says you do have magic, Kanti, it just hasn’t manifested yet,” Cyrus corrected her.

Kanti narrowed her eyes. “She’s wrong. This is who I am, and I’m fine with that.”

“Azra’s never wrong about that kind of stuff.”

“What do you mean, Cy?” Valerie asked.

“Azra can sense the magical powers inside of people. She says everyone has magic of some kind inside them, and she can help bring out that power if they want her to. Even a regular human on Earth would have a power with Azra’s help.”

“Can all unicorns do that?”

Cyrus’s and Kanti’s faces suddenly turned serious. “She’s the last of her kind,” Kanti said softly. Valerie understood why she must have connected with Azra—she knew what it was to be truly alone.

Something of what Valerie was thinking must have shown on her face, because Kanti changed the subject, pointing out all of the different guilds that she could join. There were hundreds, ranging from the Inspiration Guild, which consisted of muses that inspired artists all over the universe, to the Glamour Guild, where Conjurors created fantastic illusions and disguises, to the Illuminators’ Guild, which put on brilliant light shows all around the Globe.

Despite how exciting all of the options sounded, Valerie quickly narrowed her choices down to two: the Guild of the Knights of Light, that policed all of Arden to keep its citizens safe, and the Guardians of the Boundary Guild, that protected the barrier between the Earth and the Globe, to make sure no Conjuror was able to travel back to Earth in person. They also made sure that no one projected to Earth for evil purposes—like haunting people or jumping out from under kids’ beds to scare them.

Kanti and Cyrus had both finished their apprenticeships at the Society of Imaginary Friends and were now craftsmen. They taught the young apprentices the basics about how to be a good imaginary friend to their companions on Earth.

“Why did you guys stop being imaginary friends and decide to teach?”

“Well, I was getting a little old for it,” Cyrus said. “Mainly apprentices work as imaginary friends, because the younger Conjurors relate to kids better.”

Valerie noticed that Kanti seemed far away, her eyes a little glassy.

“I don’t like to talk about my years as an imaginary friend,” Kanti said. “But since we’re going to be friends, you should know. When I was an apprentice, I was the imaginary friend of a kid named Henry. We had so much fun together—he had such a huge imagination!” Her voice cracked, and she stopped talking.

Cyrus surprised Valerie by putting his hand on Kanti’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said gently.

Kanti seemed to draw some strength from Cyrus’s gesture, and she continued. “One day, I couldn’t find him when I projected to Earth. I couldn’t sense him anywhere. So I projected to his house. His father was there, dressed all in black, and he was crying. I saw a coffin standing at the end of the room. The reason I couldn’t sense him anywhere was because Henry was gone—forever.”

Valerie put her arm around Kanti, who had tears in her eyes. “I never even found out what happened,” she said in such a soft whisper that Valerie had to lean close to hear her. With visible effort, Kanti pulled herself together. “It took a long time, but I’ve accepted that there’s nothing I can do to bring him back.”

“I know. The pain never really goes away, but you learn to live your life around it,” Valerie said, empathizing with Kanti’s misery. Hearing her tone, Kanti turned to her in surprise, and saw the understanding in her eyes. They’d both lost people they loved. Valerie knew that she would have one more friend on the Globe.

[] Chapter 18

In part to distract Kanti, Cyrus suggested that they take Valerie to visit the guilds that she was considering. First, they headed toward the Guild of the Knights of Light. The building was shaped like a ring. The trio walked through a tall arch that was etched with the words “Power, Courage, Mercy.” The words glowed gold against the gray stone. Once they passed through, they entered the middle of the ring, which was outdoors. Valerie could see Conjurors practicing their combat techniques with different types of weapons that ranged from swords to long jagged spears that shot lightning.

Immediately, a tiny fairy the size of Valerie’s hand flew over to greet them. “Hello! I’m Kellen. Are you all potential new recruits?” he asked in a voice that was surprisingly loud and deep for someone so tiny.

“Only me—I’m new. I arrived yesterday from Messina. I’ve always dreamed of being a knight, so I thought this might be a good fit for me,” Valerie explained.

“Raised on tales of King Arthur and chivalry, no doubt,” Kellen replied. “You know, it’s not all glory and rescuing damsels in distress. We do serious work here. Not to mention, it’s no place for you if you don’t have a stomach for paperwork.”

Valerie nodded. “I’ve always wanted to be able to protect those who need it,” she said, remembering all the foster kids like her in situations where they couldn’t defend themselves. Even now, Daniel could be in another dangerous situation. She forced herself to shake off the thought.

“Her power is expressing itself as combat skills,” Kanti added.

“Let’s see what you can do,” Kellen said, and then called to a tall, wiry man. “Gideon! Spar with this girl.” Gideon strode over and seemed to size Valerie up in a single glance.

“I’m not ready! I thought I could take a look around,” she said nervously.

“Trouble never waits for you to be ready. Now, spar!” Kellen shouted.

Valerie reached out to shake Gideon’s hand. Without saying a word, he grasped her hand, and seconds later, she was flat on her back. She had no idea how it had happened.

She jumped to her feet, adrenaline gushing through her system along with something else—something pure and brilliant. For the first time, she could release her magic without struggling against the bonds on Earth, and the immensity of it almost overwhelmed her senses. Which might have been why Gideon landed several firm but not painful blows before she even had her bearings.

She decided to let this incredible power take over. She didn’t have to be afraid of unleashing it anymore. She was on the Globe now, and she could embrace the potential that had been trapped inside her for so long. The next time that Gideon reached out to hit her, Valerie blocked his lightning-fast punch. She countered with a kick of her own, which Gideon dodged.

Kanti, Cyrus, and Kellen watched as the sparring continued. Valerie managed to land a few blows, but she spent most of her time barely fending off Gideon’s swift, efficient attacks, even with her power at full blast.

Finally, Kellen nodded. “Acceptable. You may apprentice here if you wish.”

“Thank you,” Valerie said to Kellen and Gideon.

Gideon turned to her and nodded his head briefly, respect in his eyes. Then he disappeared through one of the many doors that led to the inner rooms of the Guild. She had never once heard his voice.

“Frankly, we need every new recruit,” Kellen admitted. “The Fractus have been ambushing my Knights. They have some new creatures working with them who are almost impossible to beat. All of the Knights have a strong power, but these creatures seem born to defeat them.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Valerie asked.

“One of my best Knights was a great fighter who also had the gift of invisibility. He was unstoppable. Until a pack of animals, deranged bears, by all accounts, found him. They could see through his invisibility, and they ripped him to shreds. He didn’t stand a chance against thirty of those creatures.”

“That’s awful!”

“Yes, and unusual. No such creature has ever been reported on the Globe before. Strange times we live in,” Kellen said with a shake of his head. “I’m not trying to scare you, but I want you to understand what you’re signing up for. The Fractus are up to something, and you can bet that the Knights will be on the front lines of the battle that’s brewing. It’s only a matter of time before the Fractus try to attack key Guilds like the Guardians to learn their secrets. When that time comes, it will be up to the Knights to defend them and all of Arden.”

Kellen departed, leaving Valerie deep in thought. Could Sanguina somehow be involved in the increased attacks by the Fractus? Valerie’s gut told her that Sanguina was hungry for power, and controlling the Guilds would give her the authority over the Globe that she craved. But why would she consider Valerie a threat to her plans? She shuddered as she imagined what Sanguina would do if she ever found her.

Kanti interrupted her thoughts. “That was killer! Do you know who you were fighting? Gideon is second in command of the Knights of Light. Most people don’t last a minute with him.”

Valerie blushed. “Let’s check out the Guardians. I want to keep my options open.”

Cyrus was oddly quiet as they walked down the path toward the Guardians of the Boundary Guild.

“What is it? Something’s bothering you, I can tell,” Valerie said, worried.

“He doesn’t like it that you’ll be better at protecting him than he will be at protecting you. Gideon left him unconscious in thirty seconds flat when they sparred,” Kanti said with a loud laugh.

“Shut up, Kanti. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m really tired—yesterday was a long day.”

“You wanted to join the Knights?” Valerie asked, surprised.

“Not really. I checked out a few guilds a couple years ago. I wanted to make sure that I was making the right decision to stay with the Society of Imaginary Friends. But the Knights weren’t right for me,” Cyrus explained.

“Plus, you didn’t make the cut,” Kanti added.

“I said, shut up!”

“No worries, he’ll tell me if he wants to,” Valerie said, uncomfortable with the angry turn that her friends’ constant teasing had taken.

But Kanti continued. “Why beat around the bush? What’s there to be ashamed of? You are who you are. You can’t be good at everything. Heck, I’ll admit that I was turned down from every guild I applied to except for the Society of Imaginary Friends. I would have loved to be in the Players—that’s the drama guild here. They told me I didn’t have the right ‘look.’ But it’s for the best, because I’m right where I belong, and so is Cyrus. I’m not going to indulge his giant ego.”

The rest of the walk to the next Guild was very quiet, and Valerie wished she had never asked Cyrus why he had wanted to join the Knights. But her worries were temporarily forgotten when she saw the building that housed the Guardians. It was a tall, white cathedral reaching toward the sky. Giant silver doors etched with pictures of rearing horses, flashing swords, and powerful men and women opened to the main room, where stained-glass windows let in a muted light.

They stepped through the doors, and Kanti left them to find a restroom while Valerie stared at the graceful beauty around her. It was so quiet and peaceful inside that she was startled when an exceptionally tall woman with dark skin and deep purple hair appeared suddenly, as if she had stepped out of thin air. Something about her quiet authority almost made Valerie want to bow, as ridiculous as that idea was. She smiled pleasantly at her visitors. “Cyrus, Valerie, welcome. My name is Midnight.”

“Hi,” Valerie said shyly. How did Midnight know her name? Did she have some kind of psychic power? She was tongue-tied staring into the depths of Midnight’s violet eyes, which were a shade lighter than her hair. Her name sounded familiar, and Valerie remembered that she was the Conjuror Thai had mentioned when he had told her about Tan.

“If I may ask, how was your trip to the Globe?” Midnight asked, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. “We so rarely have travelers from Earth now.”

Valerie was surprised, and looked at Cyrus for help. How did Midnight know? But Cyrus seemed confused, too.

“Um, the whole thing was pretty cool,” she said uncertainly, not sure how much to tell.

Midnight chuckled. “I apologize. As the Grand Master of this Guild, I approve and assist with all travel between Earth and the Globe. Azra and I worked closely together to craft your trip. The Great Pyramid portal is complex, but it was the last working place to launch from Earth.”

“You should know—I think I broke it,” Valerie said, stricken.

“We knew that was a possibility. We’re simply grateful that it was able to deliver you to us before it disintegrated. I sense you’ll be a delightful addition to our world.”

Valerie relaxed. “I’m sure glad to be here.”

“How is your friend, Thai? I haven’t visited him in a few weeks. He’s a resourceful young man.”

“He’s doing well, I think. He’s very grateful to you.”

Midnight shook her head, and her beautiful hair brushed against her shoulders. “It was my honor. We are lucky to count him as an ally. So what brings you to our guild today? Are you here to report a Sighting?”

“No, nothing like that,” Cyrus said. “Actually, it’s Valerie who’s here to see you. She’s new to the city and she’s checking out the guilds.”

“But what’s a Sighting?” Valerie interrupted.

“We like to see curiosity in our new recruits,” Midnight said with approval. “A Sighting occurs when a Conjuror discovers that one of the Fractus has been seen projecting to Earth for a dark purpose. Sometimes it turns out to be mischief-makers having fun at the expense of humans, but we have had some situations where the Fractus have been terrifying a human to the point of mental torture.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Even when it’s young Conjurors thinking it’s funny to jump out from under children’s beds, it can leave a psychological scar. It’s always busiest here around Halloween, so we’ve been receiving many reports of Sightings over the past few weeks.”

“As if all the parties and tricks happening on the Globe for Halloween aren’t enough to keep them happy! They think it’s fun to scare some poor kid.” Cyrus said, disgusted.

“We partner closely with the Society of Imaginary Friends,” Midnight explained to Valerie. “Often they’re the best eyes and ears for what’s happening down on Earth. In fact, information from Cyrus has led to the capture of twelve troublemakers over the years, as well as three members of the Fractus.”

At this remark, the gloom surrounding Cyrus finally lifted. He whispered to Valerie, “I found most of them when I was your imaginary friend, Val. You were like, some kind of monster magnet. That’s the other reason I suspected that you had some major magic inside you. It was probably what was drawing them all to you.”

Valerie remembered that she and Cyrus had fought many foes over the years, but she had always thought they were imaginary. “Those monsters were real?”

“On the Globe they were, sure. But they couldn’t hurt you on Earth. So I turned it in to kind of a game, so you wouldn’t be afraid.”

She shuddered. “I can’t believe someone would do that to a kid.”

Midnight overheard Valerie’s last sentence. “Yes, it’s disturbing how some troublemakers see nothing wrong with frightening innocent children. That’s part of the reason why what we do here is so important.” Just then, Kanti walked back to the group, and Midnight turned her attention to the purpose of their visit. “Let me call someone to give you a tour. If you’re interested in joining the Guardians, they’ll set you up for testing.”

But before she could call anyone, the door burst open and a big, beefy man wearing a long, blue robe and tall, pointy hat hurried in. He was so focused that he didn’t notice the group at first.

“Chern? Everything okay?” Midnight asked.

The man let out a high-pitched shriek, and his eyes filled with terror. “Oh, you scared me!”

Midnight purposefully spoke in a soft and soothing voice. “Nothing to frighten you in here, Chern. All is safe.”

“Yes, yes, I know. You startled me.” His face turned very red. “I’m here to report that one of the Fractus is after me! I’m convinced of it!”

“What happened?”

“Well, first, when I opened my front door this morning, right there on my porch was a black shoe print. And I know it’s not from my shoe—it was much too small. Then, I discovered that one of my robes was missing from my closet! I’m sure, simply positive, that this is the work of the member of the Fractus that I heard about in the news—the one who was haunting that young family in India! He’s disguising himself in my robe. You must find him before he comes back for more of my things!” Chern’s voice reached a higher and higher pitch as he told his story.

Valerie had to use all her concentration not to burst out laughing. She made a point not to make eye contact with Cyrus, because she knew that one glance and they would both be on the floor.

“We’ll send someone over right away,” Midnight said seriously. Then she turned to Valerie. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll send someone to give you your tour,” she said, and then whisked Chern through one of the doors in the back of the room.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Kanti, Cyrus, and Valerie burst into laughter. “That guy brings new meaning to being paranoid!”

“He’s the Grand Master of the History Guild. He’s always running to the Knights of Light or the Guardians with these kinds of stories. He even comes to the Society of Imaginary Friends on a regular basis swearing that he knows where the Fractus are hiding! He’s become a running joke around town,” Cyrus said.

The rest of their visit was uneventful. The guide showed Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti around the building, explaining some of the details about how they protect the barrier between Earth and the Globe, and the history behind the Guild.

Valerie was very drawn to the Guardians, and learning more about the Guild deepened her interest. After all, she had more firsthand experience in crossing between worlds than almost anyone else on the Globe. In fact, compared to the Conjurors, Valerie was an expert on everything about Earth—from its culture to its geography—in a way that only having lived there could give. She could really make a difference as one of the Guardians, and she liked the idea of protecting her old home from the Fractus.

Still, she had held the dream of being a Knight for so long that it would be difficult to let go. It was one of the most important decisions she’d ever make, and she knew that there was someone on Earth whom she wanted to talk to before she made her choice.

[] Chapter 19

After finishing the tour of the gothic Guardians of the Boundary Guild, which was filled with secret passages, dark hallways, and tall, arched ceilings, Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti left The Horseshoe so that Valerie could see the rest of the city.

Kanti had to leave to teach a class on popular culture on Earth to the apprentices, and Cyrus seemed more relaxed after she left. He and Valerie wandered around Silva for hours, peering into strange shops and exploring the winding streets. She insisted on stopping by every shop that sold sweets. Since she wasn’t sure how to barter her power yet, Cyrus volunteered to leave small objects made of light in return for the candy. She gobbled the candy up, though none tasted as good as Dulcea’s pastries.

“Dr. Freeman would freak out if he knew how much junk I’m eating! But maybe not. Maybe he doesn’t have time to think about me.”

“Why do you always do that?”

“What?”

“Assume no one cares about you. Trust me; you’re not the kind of person people forget.” A piece of Valerie’s heart that she didn’t know was frozen thawed a little. “Anyway, it’s almost dinner time, and Dulcea doesn’t like it when anyone comes late.”

They burst into the dorm cafeteria in the nick of time, and Dulcea was waiting at the door, watch in hand. “Right on time. Valerie, how are you liking Silva?”

“I love it. There’s so much to see!”

“Excellent!”

“And thank you so much for my room. I love it.”

“Of course! That’s what I’m here for. Now, you two go fill your plates and make sure you leave room for dessert!”

A long buffet full of strange dishes stood in the middle of the room. On either side of the buffet were round tables filled with other young Conjurors of different ages studying at the Society of Imaginary Friends. In the group of around one hundred, Valerie spotted several fairies, two giant people who towered five feet over everyone else, and five boys with bright red hair who were completely identical. Were they were brothers, or was one was an amoebiate, like Thai, and they were all clones?

She put a little bit of everything on her plate, and then she and Cyrus sat alone at a table in the corner. This time, she didn’t hesitate to taste everything, no matter how strange it smelled. She was in ecstasy, and she practically inhaled everything in sight. It was as if a part of her couldn’t believe that she was finally going to have as much to eat as she wanted, so she had to fill up before it all disappeared.

“Cy, you have got to try this purple lumpy thing; it’s the perfect amount of salty and sweet! It’s like mashed potatoes with a little hint of sugar.”

“It’s muddleberry pudding. It’s really popular in Elsinore, where Kanti’s from. She’s always eating that stuff.”

Once Valerie had her fill and topped it off with a chocolate filled with a sweet cream, she sat back, content.

“Finally! I’ve been waiting to give something to you,” Cyrus said. From under his shirt, he pulled out a long chain that he was wearing around his neck. On the end of the chain was a clear sphere. He pulled it over his head and handed it to her.

She took it, looking curiously at the image that was flickering inside the sphere. At first, she couldn’t make it out, but then the image shifted, and she realized what she was seeing. Inside the sphere was a moving picture of Valerie when she was little, playing with a dollhouse that she recognized from when she was seven years old. It was her first trip to the hospital, and it had been her favorite toy. “It’s me in there,” she said in confusion.

“Yeah. This was made for you. It’s your protective charm, so that when you were on Earth, no one could find you except for me.”

“Like the charm Venu has that stopped you from finding him?”

“Yes. For the past few years, the Society of Imaginary Friends has been issuing these charms for all kids with imaginary friends so that they can’t be found by the Fractus.”

Valerie put it around her own neck. “Thanks, Cy. For keeping me safe. Not only with this, but also from all those monsters. You made it fun to fight those guys, so I was never really afraid. I don’t know what I would have done without you all those years.”

“I never took it off, even after you stopped believing in imaginary friends. I wanted to make sure that nothing bad would ever happen to you.”

Her heart squeezed in her chest. Maybe he wouldn’t get sick of her, like the others. After all, he had been her best friend for a long time, and he hadn’t abandoned her yet.

Before they said goodnight, Cyrus explained how to project to Earth. He assured her that there was really nothing to it other than a lot of concentration, but she was doubtful. She decided not to try it for the first time in front of Cyrus—she’d definitely embarrassed herself enough in front of him over the past few weeks.

That night, Valerie entered her room and found that she had the space to herself. As she unwound Cyrus’s flower of light from her hair, she had to smile at how perfectly Dulcea had decorated her room. There was even a poster of her favorite band, the Crew, on the wall. She put the flower on her bedside table, where it glowed softly, like a nightlight. Then, taking a deep breath, she decided that it was time to make her first trip back to Earth. Kanti wasn’t back from her class yet, and Valerie was glad. For some reason, visiting Thai was private.

She squeezed her eyes shut and thought of Thai. She pictured his dark, intense eyes, and imagined the sound of his voice when he thought he could tell her what to do. She was thinking so hard that it took her a few seconds to notice that someone was talking to her.

“You’re here already, open your eyes,” a familiar voice ordered her.

She popped open her eyes and Thai was sitting in a green chair next to a hospital bed where Chisisi lay, watching her with interest.

“Chisisi! Are you really okay?”

“Yes, yes, no need for more fuss. And my efforts were most gladly given, seeing that you have made your journey safely.”

She turned her wide eyes to Thai. “He knows?”

“He knew the whole time,” Thai said with a shake of his head, but she could see that he wasn’t annoyed. His glance at Chisisi seemed affectionate.

“Then you know you were attacked because of me,” she said, all of her guilt rushing back. “I’m so sorry for what happened to you.”

“It is no fault of yours. It was the Fractus who did this to me, not you. I am proud that I had the chance to thwart their plans and to help you make your way to your new home.”

“Thank you for everything you’ve done,” she said, and Chisisi nodded his head.

“Speaking of your new home, how is it there? Are they treating you okay?” Thai asked.

Valerie filled him in on her fight with Venu in the pyramid, her trip to the Globe, and all of the marvelous things she’d seen. Thai and Chisisi listened with quiet attention.

When she finished, Thai burst out, “I can’t believe that Venu sneaked past me! I was staring at the pyramid, waiting to see you leave, and he must have crawled in right behind my back. I knew I should have come through the tunnel with you, no matter what you and Cyrus thought. You could have been hurt!”

“It worked out okay. He’s not following either of you anymore, is he?”

“The frog man is quite gone, I assure you,” Chisisi said. “Your benefactor looked in to the matter and said that he has left the country.” Valerie breathed a sigh of relief. She noticed that Chisisi was tired, and his eyes closed.

In a softer voice, she whispered to Thai, “I heard you’re going home for a while.”

“I want to say goodbye, since I won’t see my parents and my brothers and sisters for a while. I’ve missed them. I wish I could tell them what’s going on.”

“Maybe someday, you will. Obviously, there’s magic in your family. Maybe they’ll understand.”

Thai’s face darkened. “I hope this doesn’t happen to any of them. I want them to have normal lives.”

She watched his mouth tense with worry, and wished that she could touch his face and smooth the worry away. “It’s so good to see you.”

Thai’s face softened. “I know. It’s not the same without you. No one to get me into trouble.”

“I’ll be back soon. Tell Chisisi I said good-bye.”

“Bye, Valerie,” Thai said.

She concentrated and let her mind be pulled back to the Globe. It wasn’t until she sat on her own bed that she remembered she had forgotten to ask him what he thought about choosing between the Guardians and the Knights. She’d have to visit him again tomorrow, she thought with a sleepy smile.

That night, she didn’t fall asleep as soon as she lay down. She loved the Globe, and she knew that this was where she finally belonged, but something was missing. Would a piece of her always remain on Earth, at Thai’s side?

[] Chapter 20

In the middle of the night, for no apparent reason, Valerie suddenly awoke from a deep sleep. It was almost as if a fire alarm inside her head had gone off. Panic seared through her like a flash of lightning, and she sat up straight in her bed, ready for an emergency. What had woken her? Everything was as it should be in her room, and there was no sound other than Kanti’s soft, even breathing.

Then, without warning, the room faded before her eyes, and she saw the white walls of a strange closet, where she was curled in a ball, shaking. She knew that she was in one of her visions like the ones she had on Earth when she was unconscious. But this time was different—she hadn’t fainted, and she was still awake and conscious. If she concentrated, she could even feel her soft sheets clutched in her hands. This knowledge grounded her and allowed her to watch the scene unfold more objectively than she ever witnessed it before.

She heard Sanguina’s voice, low and threatening. “Where are you? Hiding?” She popped into view, her face inches away. Valerie screamed.

“You swore that you would stay away after I helped you last time!”

“You know by now that I will never let you go, Henry,” Sanguina said, shaking her head as if she was disappointed. “I’m always here. And like always, I won’t leave until you give me what I want.”

“No! Get away from me! Go!”

Valerie was confused. Why was Sanguina calling her Henry? She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror that was hanging on the door of the closet. But instead of her own face, she saw the face of a boy about her age. His black hair was oddly streaked with gray. His eyes were wide with fear, and his entire body was quaking with dread. He was terrified of what Sanguina would do to him, Valerie thought.

“We need another monster, and you’re the only one who can give it to us. And if you don’t—”

“Valerie, wake up!” Kanti was shaking her, and Valerie’s vision faded away. For the first time, she wasn’t weak and helpless, drained by her vision as she was on Earth. She was as strong as ever, and she had the power to save Henry.

“It wasn’t me! All along, in my visions, it wasn’t me that Sanguina was after! I was seeing through the eyes of Henry. That’s why Sanguina didn’t understand when I asked her why she haunted my dreams. But what does she want with Henry?” she asked.

“What are you talking about? Are you even awake?” Kanti asked, and then started to shake her again.

Valerie snapped back to the present, where Kanti watched her with genuine concern, and made a decision. Maybe it was important for her past to be a secret from almost everyone, but Kanti had shown Valerie nothing but kindness and deserved to know the truth about where she was from. Besides, she needed to talk about this right now. She was so close to solving this puzzle; she couldn’t let it slip away.

“I’m awake, Kanti. I need to tell you something. And you’re gonna want to sit down for this,” Valerie said.

Kanti sat, and Valerie told her story from the beginning. Kanti listened without interrupting, her jaw dropping further and further with every new detail. At the end, Valerie told her about her vision.

“So it means that all along, my visions were real! And now there’s a boy on Earth being terrorized by Sanguina. It’s awful, Kanti. He’s my age, but his hair is already turning gray! It must be from Sanguina and her monsters terrorizing him every night.”

Upon hearing this last detail, Kanti, who until now had been quietly absorbing everything Valerie told her, began to tremble violently.

“It can’t be! No, he’s not my Henry! My Henry is dead.”

“That’s a pretty common name on Earth.”

“Yes, it was what you said about his hair—my Henry’s hair was turning gray, too, from the time he was three and his mother died.”

Shock reverberated through Valerie. But what were the odds?

“No matter who he is, we have to find him and save him,” she said, realizing for the first time the impact of what she had discovered. All of the horror that she had experienced when she was unconscious, Henry dealt with all the time. “It’s a miracle that he didn’t die from the strain of being so terrified all the time. I don’t think I could have survived it. The visions of Sanguina alone almost killed me. We have to find her.” If she had to search every corner of the Globe, she would find Sanguina and stop her.

“I have to go to the Guild and tell them about this right away. They’ll know what to do,” Kanti said, already changing into her jeans.

“Will anyone be there in the middle of the night?”

“Sure. Kids call on their imaginary friends at all hours, so there’s always a supervisor on duty in case an apprentice needs help,” Kanti replied. “Want to come with me?”

Valerie slowly shook her head. “I want to try to remember more about my visions. Maybe it will give us clues to where Henry is, or where we can find Sanguina. Until tonight, I didn’t know that it wasn’t me experiencing those things. All that time, I was being pulled into Henry’s mind. But why me?”

Before Kanti left, she gave Valerie a quick hug. “Thank you for telling me, for trusting me.”

After Kanti left, Valerie decided that she didn’t want to stay in her bed any longer. The spacious room suddenly seemed stifling. She needed fresh air to clear her head.

She wandered the winding streets, not paying attention to where her feet led her. She was lost in her thoughts, trying to remember what Sanguina had said to her in the past. It always seemed as if she was coming to get something from her—from Henry, she corrected herself. What could that hag possibly want from a child?

She had reached the edge of town, and the shadowy forest loomed up in front of her. Somewhere deep in the trees, moonlight glinted on water. The mesmerizing sight seemed to call to her, slowly drawing her in. Without thinking, she made her way through the woods.

The water was farther away than she thought, and she walked for a long time before the trees opened up to reveal a clearing with a sparkling lake in the middle. She knelt at the water’s edge and drank deeply. The water glittered in her hands, as if there were sparkles inside.

She saw the white form of a unicorn against the trees. Azra nodded at her solemnly, her horn glinting in the moonlight.

I know what has happened, Valerie. The boy in your visions is real, and he is in great danger. Sanguina is in league with the Fractus, maybe even leading them. For some reason, they need Henry. For what, I’m afraid to ask, Azra said, and the depth of her concern flooded through Valerie’s mind.

“How do you know all this?”

The water in this lake connects to the endless ocean of Illyria, and is therefore extraordinary. Have you ever heard of the Akashic Records?

Valerie shook her head.

It is all of the knowledge of the universe. Every thought, every feeling, every event that has ever happened has been recorded for all eternity in the depths of Illyria. And as time progresses, more and more of the story of the universe is written.

“Like a giant underwater library,” Valerie said, leaning forward so that she could stare into the water.

Yes. The Illyrians, the people of the water, are the keepers of this knowledge, and from time to time they will share pieces of it.

“What have they told you?” Valerie asked eagerly.

The Illyrians who live in this lake guard their knowledge jealously, and tonight they will tell me nothing. But over the millennia, I have learned to interpret a few small pieces of the records. On a clear night, like tonight, I can sometimes find answers to my questions. I was searching for knowledge of Sanguina, and I saw your vision.

“Did you learn anything else?”

Yes, but there is so much I don’t understand. You and Henry share a special connection. I think it may be that Henry’s power is psychic, and he is unconsciously reaching out with his mind for help. His mind must have connected with yours originally because you were the only other person on Earth with powers as strong as his. But it amazes me that his mind can reach yours now that you are here on the Globe.

“But why do I only jump into his mind when Sanguina is near?”

It is when Sanguina terrorizes him and his fear reaches its highest pitch that he unconsciously reaches out to you. When you were especially weakened by your own magic, he was able to pull you into his mind. I cannot discover why Sanguina is obsessed with Henry, but their names are linked in the records.

“I hate her! Why won’t she leave us alone?” Valerie cried, rage filling her completely. She suddenly wanted to use her power, to destroy Sanguina, to crush her with her newfound strength. The thought of what Henry was enduring every day made her furious.

Azra’s expression changed, and she stepped closer to Valerie. Her soft mane brushed Valerie’s shoulder. There is much you do not know of her. I cannot excuse what she has done, but Sanguina was not always like this. Not so long ago, she went by the name Lydia and was an apprentice for the Guardians. She was hunting down a member of the Fractus who was haunting children on Earth. She found his lair on the Globe and went to fight him. She was over-confident, and went alone, believing that he wasn’t a threat to her. But he was fast, strong, and had the ability to steal her magic. In the end, he defeated her, and changed her into what she is today.

“Which is what?”

Long ago on Earth, they were called vampyres. After her transformation, she gained speed and strength, but then she also craved fear. The myths on Earth are incorrect; in truth, vampyres feed on fear, not blood. The taste of terror gives vampyres immeasurable strength, and such a prize is hard to resist. Sanguina might have been able to fight that craving with the help of friends, but it was not to be. As a vampyre, she could never step foot outside because the light constantly pouring into the Globe is said to be fatal to vampyres for the first few decades of their lives. Even when they are older, they still shun the light because it weakens their powers.

She was forced into the shadows forever. The Guardians didn’t allow her to stay in the Guild because she was useless to them. Without her Guild, she had nowhere to turn. I believe she turned to the Fractus because no one else would welcome her. She is who she is today because we abandoned her. Azra’s large, bottomless eyes were the saddest things that Valerie had ever seen.

“That doesn’t excuse what she’s done to Henry,” Valerie said with certainty. Still, learning about Sanguina’s past drained some of her rage away. Sanguina had been abandoned by the Guardians, just as she had been discarded by her foster families, like a defective part. That crushing sense of loss was unbearable. But even though a part of Valerie sympathized with her, Sanguina had made her choice to embrace evil. Valerie was determined to do anything to save Henry—even if it meant hurting Sanguina.

Nothing excuses what she has done, it is true. But we will find Henry, and we will save him.

She suddenly remembered Kanti. “Is this Henry the same Henry that was Kanti’s friend? Maybe she would know where to find him.”

I do not know if the two Henrys are the same—I have not found that answer in the records. But it occurred to me that when Kanti couldn’t find Henry all those years ago, it could have been because Sanguina or one of the Fractus blocked him with a protective charm like the one they created for Venu. When Kanti couldn’t find Henry and she saw the coffin, she assumed he was inside of it. But maybe that wasn’t the case. Perhaps Henry lives.

It can’t hurt for the two of you to project to his home on Earth and look around. I will continue to search the records. I will also work with the leaders of the Guilds, and they will lend us their resources. We will find him, I promise you. Tomorrow I will travel to the sacred pools on the island of Messina. The record keeper there has helped me in the past. I will return with answers.

“Thank you, Azra,” Valerie said, but inside she squirmed with frustration. She had spent so much of her life waiting—she wanted to save Henry now, today. The thought of Sanguina haunting that boy was more than she could bear.

Valerie returned to her room as the sun rose over the horizon. Kanti and Cyrus were waiting for her. The expression on Cyrus’s face was grim, and Valerie knew that Kanti must have filled him in on what had happened. She told them about her meeting with Azra.

“We can’t just sit around waiting!” Kanti exclaimed.

“There is another option,” Cyrus said thoughtfully. “The Oracle. We have a great need. Don’t you think they’d give Valerie her prophecy? “

“Yes! Cyrus, you’re brilliant!” Kanti said, the panic disappearing from her face.

“That’s what I’ve been telling you,” Cyrus said, trying to lighten the mood.

“What are you guys talking about?”

“The Oracle is a group of Conjurors who can see the future. They deliver prophecies to guide people on their quests and give them answers to their questions. But they’re really picky about who they’ll help. Only if your need is great enough will they prophesize for you.”

“Cyrus, how do you know all this stuff, anyway? You have answers for everything,” Valerie said admiringly.

“Whatever,” he said, not meeting her eyes.

“Aw, are you shy?” Kanti teased. Then she explained, “He was elected to serve on Azra’s youth council. It’s a really big honor, and she tells them a lot of stuff about the Globe that isn’t common knowledge.”

“That’s awesome, Cy! Why didn’t you say so?”

Valerie was surprised he didn’t jump at the chance to brag a little. Instead, Kanti explained, “He thinks it’ll bother me because I also ran for the council position, but didn’t get elected. I’ve told you a million times, I’m happy for you, not jealous.”

“I never said you were! The subject didn’t come up, that’s all.”

Sensing tension in the air, Valerie changed the subject, hoping to prevent another argument. “So, do we need to bring something to the Oracle? Like, an offering?”

Kanti and Cyrus stared at her, surprised. Finally, Cyrus laughed and said, “It doesn’t work like that. They’ll help us if they think it’s the right thing to do. And if we can help them, we will.”

“Sorry. Earth thinking, I guess,” Valerie said. She saw the shocked expression on Cyrus’s face and added, “Kanti knows I’m from Earth. We’re friends, and I want her to know the truth.”

“Fine, whatever,” Cyrus said, trying to sound casual. But his tone didn’t fool Valerie—Cyrus liked being the only one to know her secret.

“Back on track, people,” Kanti said. “Let’s pack up and get out of here.”

“Before we go, I want to fill Thai in on what’s happening. When we figure out where Henry is on Earth, he’ll be able to protect him. Kanti, if this is your Henry, why don’t we project to his house? Maybe he still lives there and we can explain everything,” Valerie said.

Kanti shook her head regretfully. “I had the same idea. While I was waiting for you to return, I projected to Henry’s house. It doesn’t even exist anymore; there’s a parking lot where it used to be. They must have moved quite a while ago. My guess is that they’re probably still in the same country, if not the same state. Maybe Thai should travel to America. By the time he gets there, there’s a chance that the Oracle will tell you exactly where Henry is.”

“That would make things easy,” Cyrus agreed giving a comforting squeeze to Valerie’s hand.

His words—and the squeeze—had the opposite effect that he intended, sending a shiver of foreboding through her body. She’d learned the hard way that in her life, things rarely came easy.

[] Chapter 21

Cyrus and Kanti left to gather supplies for their journey, and Valerie immediately concentrated on Thai. She was amazed at how effortless it was to return to Earth.

He was sitting at a table with a huge group of people that she guessed were his parents and siblings. They were a happy group, laughing and playing around with each other. It was how she imagined the perfect family would be. She had pictured it a thousand times all those years while she was waiting to be adopted.

For a second, she panicked that they would see her. Then she remembered her lesson from Cyrus on projecting to Earth. It was up to her to choose who could see her, and she only wanted to be seen by Thai.

She relaxed when his parents and siblings looked right through her. It was almost as if she were a ghost, and the thought sent a chill through her. It would be so easy for the Fractus to watch Henry without his knowledge and learn everything about him, including his greatest fears. Then they could use that information against him, to terrify him into doing what they wanted. But what would drive the Fractus to such lengths to control him?

Thai saw her and almost choked on his noodles. She couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her mouth. It was good to see him so happy. He said something to his family in Vietnamese, and then left.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I can come back later.”

“It’s fine, we were finishing up anyway. Something’s wrong, I can tell.”

She quickly explained to Thai what she had discovered about Henry and her visions. To her surprise, he didn’t seem shocked.

“I knew you were seeing something real. I watched you when you had your vision at Stonehenge, and whatever you were experiencing was really happening to you. You were so afraid that you were shaking in my arms. And no regular dream sends someone to a hospital.”

“I have a huge favor to ask. When we figure out where Henry is, will you go to him? I’m so afraid that Venu will be after him next. And Henry has no idea what’s happening to him! He’s never heard of the Globe. He must think that he’s going crazy, or that monsters are really trying to hurt him.”

“That’s horrible,” Thai said with a shudder. “I can’t imagine going through my change without Midnight’s help. I would have lost my mind.”

“I’m so scared for him.”

“Of course I’ll help in any way I can.”

“What about Tan? Will he be able to handle this trip? I know that you’re sharing your body with him more and more, and I don’t want you to sacrifice his—or your—health.”

“Tan will be okay. He’s getting stronger every day, and he’s beginning to understand more of what’s happening. I’m sure he’ll want to help you, too. So consider us both in on your plan,” Thai said confidently. “Now, where was Henry last seen?”

“If Kanti’s right and this is her old friend, then he used to live in America. Also, in my vision, he spoke English without an accent of any kind, so I think chances are he probably does live there.”

“I’ll go straight there. And as soon as you find him, I’ll be ready.”

“Thank you so much. I feel so much better knowing that you’ll be there to protect him.”

Valerie let herself be pulled back to her body on the Globe, and she opened her eyes. Kanti was rushing around the room, yanking clothes out of drawers and throwing them into a silver box that sat in the middle of the floor. It was full of food, clothes, a water jug, and an assortment of other strange objects.

“How will we carry that box on our journey? Wouldn’t backpacks be easier?”

Kanti put the lid on the box. “It’s a call box. We leave it right here in this room, and when we need something, we call for it and it appears wherever we are on the Globe. I packed you some clothes and food, and Cyrus is grabbing his stuff as we speak.”

Valerie bent over the box to examine it more closely. It seemed like any ordinary silver box, but it had a slight hum of power that indicated it had been touched by magic. “No need for suitcases,” she murmured with a shake of her head.

“It makes traveling much easier. Plus, someone is bound to stop three kids wandering around with luggage and ask where they’re going. And trust me, there is no way Dulcea is going to be okay with us traveling to another country on our own.”

“Shouldn’t we let her know we’ll be gone? I don’t want her to worry.”

“Not going to work. She’ll insist that we have a chaperone, and that could take days. She’ll probably punish us when we get back, but this trip can’t wait.”

Valerie shook her head regretfully. “I know you’re right, but let’s leave her a note so she knows we haven’t been kidnapped or something.”

“Good idea—she won’t be back for a couple hours anyway. Can you write it, Val?”

She jotted down a note for Dulcea explaining their quest and apologizing. When she was satisfied with what she’d written, she turned back to Kanti. “So how do we get to this Oracle, anyway? I’m guessing it’s not by bus.”

“You’ll see,” she said with a grimace. “It’s not my favorite way to travel, but Cyrus said you’ll love it.”

Before they left, Valerie took the flower of light from her nightstand and slid it into her pocket, where it glowed through the fabric. It somehow didn’t seem right to leave it behind, and she might be glad to have a light at night during their journey.

Cyrus met them gliding down the stairs and hopped on to their platform. “I dumped my stuff in the call box. We’d better hurry; the next car leaves the station in fifteen minutes.”

“Car, huh?” Valerie said curiously. “I thought you said—”

“It’s a surprise!” Cyrus said, and then refused to add another word.

Before they left, she dropped off the note for Dulcea for heading out.

The station seemed ordinary enough, like a train station on Earth. But when they reached the tracks, the sight made her heart leap. “Conjurors travel by rollercoaster cars?” she shouted with glee.

Stretching into the distance, the silver track was full of twists, turns, and loops. A red rollercoaster car was waiting at their station. Valerie boarded and sat between Cyrus and Kanti, and a conductor came over and strapped them into their harnesses.

“It’s totally safe, too. The harnesses are something to hold on to; the magic in the seat will prevent you from falling out,” Cyrus explained.

“Sure, you won’t die, but the magic won’t protect you from getting hit with my puke,” Kanti said. “So if I start turning green, be prepared to duck.”

“Thanks for that image,” Cyrus said, wrinkling his nose.

“Last call, Ephesus!” the conductor cried, and then the rollercoaster inched slowly forward.

Once the car had exited the station, it immediately whooshed forward at top speed. The wind yanked Valerie’s hair straight back, and she screamed with joy. It was so much smoother than the old wooden rollercoaster she had ridden two years ago on a school field trip. That time, she had been jostled so much that she left the ride with a headache. But not this time. Every loop and corkscrew was as smooth as glass, and Valerie could enjoy the speed and the thrill without distractions.

At one point, the rollercoaster sped past the lake where she had met Azra the night before. They came so close that Valerie could reach out and touch the water, sending a spray all over Cyrus, who laughed and repaid the favor. She was drenched, but she quickly dried in the wind.

Finally, the rollercoaster slowed down at the edge of the shady woods as the sun sank behind the horizon. Even Valerie had her fill of riding at that point, and solid ground had never felt so safe. Kanti was green from nausea, and Valerie hoped that she wasn’t going to throw up.

“We’re definitely walking home,” Kanti said grumpily. “You’ll never get me on that thing again!”

“I’m a little dizzy, but that was so worth it,” Valerie said. “I have to hand it to you, Cy, you know how to travel in style!”

“I knew you’d love it,” he replied triumphantly as the rollercoaster took off, roaring as it zoomed away into the distance.

“Where are we? I don’t see anything out here,” Valerie said. The rollercoaster had stopped at the edge of Arden’s forest, and stretching out before them were a smattering of trees that gradually became sparser and more ghostly, giving way to nothing but the yellow sands of a vast, barren desert.

“This is as far as we can travel by rollercoaster,” Kanti said. “Travelers to the Roaming City in Ephesus have to enter on foot.”

“The Roaming City is where the Oracle Conjurors live?”

“Yes—not many Conjurors ever get to see it,” Cyrus said, clearly excited by the prospect of the adventure ahead of them.

“How far away is the Roaming City from here?” Valerie said, straining her eyes to see anything other than miles of sand.

“That’s the tricky part. You don’t find the Oracle, the Oracle finds you. It’s called the Roaming City because it’s never in the same place twice. It can only be found by those in great need of guidance. People have come here searching for the Roaming City until they go crazy, but you’ll only find it if the Oracle wants you to.”

“Well, our need is great, so we’ll find it for sure,” Valerie said with determination. “Let’s go.”

[] Chapter 22

As Valerie began to walk toward the immense desert, she heard a rustling in the trees behind them, and what sounded like the whimper of a wounded animal. Instinct told her that someone was in danger.

“Did you hear that?” Kanti asked.

“Let’s check it out.”

Valerie quietly made her way back through the trees. After she had walked for little while, she heard a boy’s voice say, “We’ve been waiting a long time to get our hands on you.”

Again, Valerie heard the weak whimpering. Peering through the trees, she saw a lanky, unwashed older boy who wore grungy clothes that were full of holes. The small creature he was talking to was no larger than a baby bear cub. He was like no animal Valerie had ever seen on Earth. He had wide, innocent eyes and was covered in soft golden fur that was trembling from fear. But the strangest thing about him was that something was glowing deep inside him. It was his heart, she realized with surprise as she watched the red light pulse softly under his skin.

“It’s Darling!” Cyrus said in surprise. Seeing Valerie’s confusion, he explained, “He has healing powers, and he visits sick children all over the Globe.”

Seeing a helpless creature at the mercy of someone much bigger unlocked the anger inside of Valerie, making her fearless. After all, this scraggly boy would hardly be a threat when she unleashed her powers. She stepped out of the trees.

“Wait, no!” Cyrus called behind her, but it was too late to turn back.

“Really? Picking on someone one-fifth your size? You’re such a coward that it makes me sick,” she said, stalking over to the boy.

The boy laughed. “You have no idea the world of trouble you walked into, just to help this little rat.”

“You’re not the first person to underestimate me and regret it,” she snapped back. Never breaking eye contact with the boy, she knelt down, and Darling ran into her arms. A wave of protectiveness washed over her, and she hugged him close. Darling’s safety was more important than her urge to fight this thug, so she turned to leave.

But before she could take two steps, the boy’s voice said mockingly, “Going so soon? We haven’t had a chance to get to know each other.”

“We’re not going to let you hurt him,” Cyrus said harshly.

“Do you really think you have a choice? And he’s not the only one who will be giving us what we want. Give us a taste of your magic, or we’ll take it,” he said with a dark grin. The trees behind the boy moved, and seven dirty kids of various ages with nasty sneers on their faces stepped out of the shadows.

“Take a hike, jerk,” Kanti said, stepping forward. Valerie tried to yank Kanti back. The dynamics of the fight had changed dramatically. Couldn’t she see that they were completely outnumbered? It didn’t mean that the fight was lost, but they did need to use a different strategy than she had planned on.

“Those are some nasty words for such a pretty little yellow thing,” the leader replied sarcastically. He stepped forward threateningly. “They call me Shade—and I’m your worst nightmare.”

Kanti laughed out loud. “Really? Nice line, Shade. It goes so well with your super-cool name.”

Shade’s eyes narrowed. “I’m going to enjoy watching you take your words back and beg me to forgive you.”

“Kanti, no!” Cyrus whispered. “You don’t know what you’re doing! They have a weapon.” Then he spoke more loudly to Shade, “How much do you want? Our powers are still developing.”

Kanti looked at Cyrus incredulously. “Are you kidding? We’re not giving these thugs anything.”

Without another word, Shade whipped a small black cone out of his pocket. But it was clearly much more, because dark magic hummed from it. “Run, Darling!” she whispered before releasing him behind a tree. He scampered into the forest.

Shade lunged at Kanti as the other attackers closed around her in a circle, leaving her nowhere to run. Shade pressed the cone against Kanti, and she turned pale and fell to her knees.

“No!” Valerie said, and her defenses automatically kicked into high gear. Two of the thugs stepped closer and grabbed her, trying to pin her down. But she swept her leg underneath one of them, and he fell to the ground. The second attacker pulled out a sharpened stone from his pocket, but she kicked it out of his hand before he could even try to strike her. It was so different from the fights she’d had on Earth—she almost felt guilty at how easy it was to take them down.

Her grin of victory was brief. Cyrus had tried to tackle Shade and blind him with a shield made of light. But Shade pressed the cone against Cyrus’s forehead, and he cried out in pain. The light in his shield was extinguished. To her astonishment, she saw that Shade’s hands were now glowing.

“Cool power,” he said, playing with the light in his hands. Something inside of her snapped. No one hurts Cyrus. Ever.

“Get away from him!”

Shade ignored her, fascinated by the way he could draw light to himself. She took advantage of Shade’s distraction and approached him from behind. With an elegant jab of her elbow, she hit him in the back, hard. He grunted and turned around. She noticed with triumph the pain in his eyes. But then Shade turned the cone on her. Something tugged inside of her, sucking away her strength. It was as if her fighting powers had vanished, and the cone hadn’t even touched her skin yet.

“What’s happening?” she asked, more to herself than her attacker.

“You’re realizing how big a mistake you made when you decided to mess with Shade.”

In the edge of her vision, she saw Cyrus’s head hit the ground. He was unconscious. She knew that she couldn’t let that cone get any closer to her, or she would be knocked out, too. And then they would be completely defenseless.

She took a deep breath and tried to keep her rising panic from taking over. She may not have her power, but she had common sense. As fast as she could, she kicked the cone out of Shade’s hand and then punched him in the face.

Without her powers, her punch didn’t do much damage, but it did make him stagger back. His friends were quickly closing in on her, ready to help their leader if he needed it. But with the cone on the ground, rolling away, her powers returned in a rush.

Her body hummed, and a thrill ran through her as she hummed from her own magic this time. The thugs closed in on her, and she punched one in the gut and elbowed another in the chest in one swift move. Both squealed like wounded piglets and backed away.

Without allowing her to catch her breath, the five remaining thugs attacked all at once, punching, kicking, and biting her. She curled in a ball to shield herself from their blows. Shade stood slightly away from the group, watching with a satisfied smirk. “All right, guys, back off so I can take her power.”

As soon as the blows eased up, she jumped up and kicked one of the thugs in the back, and smashed a second in the knee with her heel. At that point, Shade jumped back into the fray. She had the presence of mind to kick the cone out of his hand immediately. It flew out of his grasp and landed several yards away, out of reach.

Something inside of Valerie took over. It was almost like she was watching herself from above as she fought the last three, blocking their punches and kicks effortlessly. She dispatched one with a jab to the neck, and a second with a well-timed blow to his shoulder.

Finally, she had her chance to fight Shade. His moves were sloppy, and his eye was red from where she had hit him earlier. With her power, his strength was no match for hers. She tackled him to the ground, pinning him beneath her knee.

“Retreat,” Shade said weakly to the rest of his gang, his formerly sarcastic voice now full of pain. She let his friends hobble away, but she kept Shade pinned down.

“Swear you’ll never bother us again.”

“I’m not promising you anything. Without your powers, you’re nothing more than a helpless little girl. Next time, I’ll know to take your powers first. You’d never be able to beat me in a fair fight. I can’t wait to watch you beg for mercy.”

Before she could blurt out an angry reply, Shade pulled his arm free, grabbed a rock and smashed it into her head. She fell back, loosening her grip. Shade immediately grabbed his cone and raced away into the woods before she could get her bearings. She started to chase after him, but Kanti’s groan stopped her.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s my own damn fault. I thought I would be immune to his power-eater, since I don’t have any magic.”

“By power-eater, you mean that cone thing?”

“Yes, it temporarily sucks people’s powers. And now I have a killer headache.”

Darling scampered out from his hiding place and ran over to Kanti. She gently petted his back, and the light from his heart glowed brighter. The pain stamped on Kanti’s forehead eased. “Thank you, Darling,” she said, her voice full of relief.

Valerie hurried over to Cyrus, who was still unconscious. Cyrus wasn’t glowing at all. It was as if the light that was always turned on inside of him had been switched off. Fear gnawed at her stomach. What if Shade had taken more than Cyrus’s power?

“Water!” Kanti called, and a jug of water appeared in her hands. She promptly poured it over Cyrus’s head and he woke up, sputtering.

“A splash would have been enough, ya know.”

In the moonlight Valerie could see the relief on Kanti’s face. She acted tough, but she had been scared for Cyrus, too. “Where’s the fun in just a splash?”

Cyrus rubbed his temples. “That’s the second time they’ve robbed me. Dirt bags.” He absentmindedly stroked Darling’s head, and he made a gurgle of pleasure. Cyrus smiled at Darling as the glow around him returned.

“Who are those guys, anyway?” Valerie asked.

“They’re a gang of kids without powers of their own. I heard that one of the Fractus offered them the chance to steal powers if they worked for him. He created that device, the power-eater, so that the gang can steal powers. They get to keep some of the power, and the rest they give to their leader.”

Kanti snorted. “Give me a break. I don’t have powers, and I don’t rob people. Besides, can’t Azra bring a power out in anyone?”

“Yeah, but the gang lives for the thrill of trying out all the different powers they steal from Conjurors. It gets addictive, and eventually the power they steal runs out and they have to come back for more. So we’d better get out of here before they come back with reinforcements.”

Valerie turned to Darling, who was now curled up in Cyrus’s lap. “Come with us. We’ll keep you safe.” Darling jumped back into her arms, and warmth spread through her. With it, all of her aches and pains from the fight eased. “You didn’t have to do that, Darling. Save your energy.”

Darling made a small noise and then jumped out of her arms and hurried away into the trees. “Where are you going?” she called after him.

“He never stays in one place too long, and he isn’t seen for long periods of time, sometimes months,” Cyrus explained. “I think that he hears the calls of children in pain, and he has to go help.”

Valerie was a little sad that Darling hadn’t decided to join their quest. There was something about him—as if he were created from pure love—that made her heart full. She hoped that she would have a chance to meet him again.

The three resumed their quest and trudged out into the desert. Kanti walked slightly apart from the other two, scouting for any sign of the Roaming City. Cyrus and Valerie walked more slowly, and they stared up at the night sky.

“There are so many more stars here than there are on Earth,” Valerie said.

“Hundreds of times more,” Cyrus confirmed. “And you’re only seeing part of their light. The sky is programmed to dim the starlight so it isn’t too bright at night.”

“I miss seeing the constellations I recognize. What are the constellations here?”

“There aren’t any. Every night the sky is different because new stars are always being pulled into the black hole, and other stars disappear when they’re absorbed by the magic in the Globe’s atmosphere.”

“I guess no one can navigate by the stars here, then.”

“Wishing you were back on Earth?”

She stared at Cyrus incredulously. “Are you kidding? I love it here. Using my magic, making friends—it’s more than I ever hoped for.”

The expression on Cyrus’s face changed, and he pouted. “It must be nice to have Kanti to talk to instead of just me. I bet you two have lots to talk about that I can’t even understand. Boys, clothes, whatever else girls talk about.”

“No one’s replacing you,” she promised. “You always have been, and always will be, my best friend. We have history.”

Cyrus smiled, satisfied with her response. Then Kanti’s shout interrupted their conversation.

“I see it!”

Sure enough, shimmering in the distance like a mirage, the Roaming City rose before them. Valerie’s entire body tingled with anticipation—it was time to learn about her future. She hoped she would like what she saw.

[] Chapter 23

As they approached the Roaming City, Valerie could see a circle of tall, white pillars surrounding an oval pool that reflected the night sky. Beyond the pool, clusters of pale brown huts blended with the sand so well that, if it were not for their shadows, the dwellings would be invisible from a distance. The city was still except for a solitary figure who approached them rapidly. Whoever it was wore a long, dark robe that brushed the ground and a hood that hung low, concealing the face beneath it.

When the figure was a few yards away, a deep, haughty voice bellowed, “Who presumes to enter the Roaming City uninvited?”

Valerie was embarrassed. Were they not allowed to be here? But Cyrus stepped forward confidently and flashed his widest smile. “I’m Cyrus, and my friends are Valerie and Kanti. Valerie is here to receive her prophecy. May I ask who you are?”

The figure threw back his hood dramatically, revealing long, dark hair held back in a ponytail, and eyes that flashed with irritation. “I am the First Prophet of Ephesus,” he said in a ringing voice. He gave them a look, and when they just stared back, he said through gritted teeth, “I assume you have brought me a gift to honor me.”

“I’m sorry, but we —” Valerie began to stammer, but Kanti interrupted her.

“I don’t know who you think you are, but that’s not how it works. We’re not giving you anything.”

“Then you had better return to where you came from,” he said, struggling to keep his voice calm.

“You know that is not our way, Putrefus. These travelers have found us, so they have a right to be here,” said a light musical voice. A slight woman who stood no taller than Valerie’s waist stepped out of the shadows.

“Stay out of this,” Putrefus snarled.

The woman approached, smiling. “Excuse him. Since he was named First Prophet, the title has gone straight to his head.” Then she turned to face Putrefus, and Valerie saw that dark wings were folded against her back. “But even you cannot ignore the laws of this city or else you will answer for it. The Roaming City has allowed these travelers to enter, which means that their need for help is great, and their hearts are deserving. To deny them a prophecy would be punishable by banishment.”

“We’ll see about that,” he replied, and then stormed off in a huff. Kanti laughed outright at his tantrum.

“Kanti, get a grip. We’re guests here,” Cyrus admonished. Kanti made a face at him.

The woman swiveled back to face them with a bright smile. “Allow me to welcome you to the Roaming City properly. I’m Sibyl. You’ve picked an unusual night to arrive. You will have the opportunity to witness an Illyrian immortality ceremony.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t stay. I need to talk to one of the Oracles immediately to hear my prophecy. There is someone who’s depending on me, and I need to help him right away,” Valerie said urgently.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible. There will be no prophecies until dawn. We haven’t had an immortality ceremony here in fifty-nine years, and the entire city has taken the night off to witness it and celebrate. And there is another problem.”

“What’s that?” Valerie asked, worried.

“Well, if your need is as great as you say, you will want the most gifted Oracle to deliver your prophecy.”

“Yes, of course. Where can we find him or her?” Cyrus asked impatiently.

“You met him. Putrefus is First Prophet, and you may have some work ahead to convince him to help you.”

Without another word, Sibyl began making her way back toward the shadowed huts.

“Wait, won’t you help us?” Valerie called after her.

“I must assist with the preparations for the ceremony. I recommend you approach Putrefus tomorrow, and don’t be afraid to be particularly complimentary. Also, don’t wake him too early. He likes to sleep in after rituals, and he doesn’t prophesize as accurately when he’s irritable.”

Then, before anyone could respond, Sibyl left, leaving the three alone again. “We’re stuck here for tonight,” Valerie sighed.

“Way to make a good impression, Kanti,” Cyrus hissed.

“Whatever, Ambassador. Why don’t you turn on that magical charm you’re always bragging about?” Kanti retorted.

“Relax, you two! On the bright side, we’ll catch a few zzz’s. We’re not going to be much help to anyone without some sleep.”

Kanti nodded reluctantly. “Let’s set up camp on the outskirts of the city. Then we’ll try to suck up to that snob, Putrefus, first thing tomorrow.”

“Tent!” Kanti called, and then, in a blink of an eye, a roll of canvas, pegs, and poles appeared on the ground beside them from their call box.

“I brought it for you, Val. I know you always wanted to go camping. So I brought an old-fashioned tent, like the kind you use on Earth,” Cyrus said with a grin.

“Should’ve packed the houseplant,” Kanti said. “It would have grown into three nice weatherproof canopy beds in three minutes. That would be much more comfy than sleeping on the ground.”

“Well, I think it’s really nice of you to remember,” Valerie said, before Cyrus could get annoyed by Kanti’s comment.

“Hey, where are the directions for this contraption? Did you pack them?” Kanti asked.

“You don’t need directions,” Cyrus said confidently. “You’ve got me.”

Thirty minutes later, Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti were still struggling to set up the tent.

“Forget it. We’ll never get this up. Let’s sleep under the stars,” Kanti said, frustrated.

“I would’ve had it up by now, but there’s a pole missing. Not my fault,” Cyrus snapped back.

“Look,” Valerie said, pointing to the Conjurors trickling out of the huts to gather around the pool. It was just as diverse a group as Valerie had seen in Arden, but everyone wore long robes. “They must be here for the ceremony.”

A man with bushy, gray eyebrows made his way across the expanse of desert toward them. When he reached the group, he gave them a friendly smile. “Seems like you could use some help with that.”

“It’s no use,” Kanti said, throwing the pole she was holding onto the ground.

But the man only smiled and worked quietly on the tent, sliding the poles into the canvas sleeves expertly. In a few deft moves, the tent was standing.

“See, I told you there wasn’t a missing pole!” Kanti said triumphantly.

Cyrus pointedly ignored her comment and turned to the man instead. “Hey, thanks! That was impressive.”

“Leo, at your service,” he replied.

“How did you get so good at setting up tents? I don’t know anyone who uses them on the Globe.”

Leo smiled and changed the subject. “You three must be here for a prophecy.”

“Yes. But we have to wait until dawn, after the ceremony,” Valerie said with anxiety in her voice. What is an Illyrian immortality ceremony, anyway?”

“All of the Conjurors who live in the underwater city of Illyria are immortal. Every once in a while, they allow someone to join them and live forever. That person must enter Illyria through the Sacred Pool,” he said, pointing toward the pool of water by the pillars.

“Sibyl said it’s been more than half a century since the last immortality ceremony. What does someone have to do to be allowed to join the Illyrians?” Kanti asked, curious.

Leo rubbed his neck like he was a little uncomfortable. “Legend says that if a Conjuror performs one truly selfless act at great personal cost, he—or she—will be offered an opportunity to become immortal. But joining the Illyrians means leaving behind the rest of the world forever.”

“They can never leave?” Valerie asked, intrigued. It reminded her of her own choice to leave Earth forever.

“Illyria can only be entered once. If an Illyrian ever chooses to rejoin the world above the water, he will have no second chance at immortality. He will finish his life, and then die like everyone else.”

Valerie met Leo’s kind eyes. “The ceremony is for you, isn’t it Leo?”

“Yes.”

“But won’t you miss your life on the Globe?”

“My family is lost to me,” he said, and a shadow fell over his face. “I can’t go on with life as usual without them. I believe it’s my destiny to help the Illyrians with their work.”

“As a keeper of the Akashic Records,” Valerie said with reverence.

“Yes,” he said, sounding surprised by her knowledge. “I may finally find the answers I have been seeking for so long.”

“I hope you do. And for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes you have to leave behind everything you’ve ever known in order to really start living.”

“You are really very mature for one so young,” Leo said. Valerie blushed. Noticing her discomfort, he changed the subject. “There is one thing I’ll miss. All of the light! It will be very dark in that underwater world. I can always swim to the surface, of course, but I’ll miss waking up to the sunrise.”

Valerie thought hard, and then her face lit up. “I have an idea! Cyrus, couldn’t you make Leo something to take with him? Something that would glow underwater so that he has a piece of light with him always? Cyrus made me this,” Valerie explained, taking her flower out of her pocket. “It always glows, night or day. Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Cyrus beamed with pride, and Leo said, “Incredible. What a powerful gift!”

Cyrus was already busy pulling starlight to his hands and shaping it. He concentrated, and his hands moved like lightning. Several minutes later, there was a flash. “There,” he said, and in his hands was a glowing orb that shone so brightly it made Valerie squint. “That will stay lit for several months. Then bring it up to recharge it for a few hours. It will last a long time—maybe even forever.” Cyrus handed Leo the orb. “Look inside.”

Leo stared, and Valerie and Kanti crowded closer to see it as well. Inside was a roaring, golden lion.

“It’s a lion, since you’re Leo,” Cyrus explained.

Leo blinked back tears. “Thank you, children. I don’t think you understand what this means to me.”

The high, sweet sound of singing filled the air. The mournful music came from Sibyl, who was fluttering in the air with her wings spread wide. Though the song was in a language Valerie had never heard before, she somehow knew that it described all of the things that Leo would never experience living underwater among the immortals.

“The farewell song, to make sure that I don’t take this decision lightly,” Leo murmured. “That’s my cue. I won’t forget you three.”

Every cell in Valerie’s body was responded to the poignant beauty of the music. It made her think of everything she had ever yearned for but never had: a mother to hug her when she was sick; a father to pick her up from school and ask her about her day; a family that was tied to her by blood, who loved her no matter what.

Meanwhile, Leo walked solemnly toward the pool. The orb that Cyrus had created lit up Leo’s face softly. The Oracles who were crowding around the pool parted to make a path for him. They joined Sibyl in song, and when Leo stepped into the water, the song reached a crescendo. A wave of emotion crashed over Valerie, and tears streamed down her cheeks.

When Leo was waist deep, the singing grew softer. He took one last look around at everyone. Then he gazed at the stars and dipped beneath the water, leaving only a solitary ripple to mark the spot of his passing.

Then suddenly, cheers burst out from everyone at the pool, and from somewhere the sound of lively music filled the air. “Now, we celebrate! Celebrate the life Leo lived, and the life we all have yet to experience,” Sibyl shouted joyfully.

The weight of farewell and loss that hung heavy in the air lifted. Like magic, the atmosphere changed wildly, and Valerie’s feet were suddenly light, as if she could walk on air. Everyone began to dance around the pool, and she was pulled into the swirling mass of Conjurors. With Kanti holding one hand and Cyrus holding the other, she let herself go, joining in the dancing and singing.

Something about the dance was mesmerizing, and somehow, her feet seemed to remember the steps, and her voice knew the tune. The crowd moved as one, racing around the still pool. Valerie and Cyrus both started laughing from sheer joy. She had never been so full of life.

The rest of the night was a whirlwind of spinning, singing, and feasting. When she finally collapsed inside the tent, she could still hear the music inside her head.

[] Chapter 24

The next morning, Valerie was shaken awake by Kanti. “We’ve overslept! Come on, guys, get up.”

Cyrus rubbed his eyes and sat up. “Relax, we’re up.”

“Relax? How could I have forgotten about Henry like that last night? It was like I was drugged or something. Did they use some fairy spell?”

“I don’t think so. It was a celebration of life,” Valerie said. She smiled at the memory. It was the first party she had ever gone to, and it made up for every birthday that she had never had the chance to celebrate.

“Anyway, Putrefus sleeps in, remember?” Cyrus added.

“I’m no better than my parents, forgetting what’s important just to go to some party,” Kanti muttered angrily, her bushy eyebrows drawn so closely together that they almost met in the middle. Then, louder, she said, “Whatever, let’s get going.”

“What’s with her?” Cyrus whispered to Valerie as they hurriedly packed their gear. She shrugged. She was starting to get used to Kanti’s mood swings.

Outside, bright light beat down on the tent and rolled off the desert in waves. The Roaming City was full of movement. In the daylight, Valerie could see that all the robes worn by the members of the Oracle were different colors.

Cyrus noticed Valerie examining them and explained, “The colors have to do with how experienced they are at prophesying. The white robes are for the newest apprentices, but other than that, I don’t know what the colors mean.”

Sibyl, wearing a silvery robe, fluttered over as they finished packing. “I’ll take you to Pythia’s Temple. Putrefus should be there by now. Maybe we can persuade him to deliver your prophesy with a little enticement. I brought you his favorite pastry. It might sweeten him up,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, handing a fluffy muffin to Valerie.

“Thanks, Sibyl. That’s so thoughtful of you.”

“And can we hurry? Not to be rude, but it’s so important,” Kanti said, apprehension written on her face.

Sibyl led them through the streets of the Roaming City. It was very different from Silva, where every building was unique. Instead, all of the tan huts were indistinguishable from each other until they came to the door of one brown building that was several times wider and taller than all of the other huts.

“This is the temple of the founder of the Oracle, Pythia. She is one of the most ancient creatures on the Globe, born when Conjurors still lived on Earth. She established this city as soon as she moved here in order to train others who possess a gift for prophesying. She has instructed hundreds in her craft and in her code of honor. She taught us how to use our powers to give the worthy insight into the future, so Conjurors could shape their lives and this world in a positive way. She also created the code we live by, to help those in need and to resist using our powers for profit,” Sibyl said. “Of course, some of us revere the code more than others.”

Valerie had a pretty good idea who Sibyl was referring to. Putrefus didn’t embrace the code with quite the same fervor that Sybil did.

“Will we meet Pythia?” Cyrus asked.

“That’s very unlikely. She rarely leaves her bed,” Sibyl replied, her eyes filled with grief. “Pythia is coming to the end of her days.”

“I’m so sorry,” Valerie said, putting a gentle hand on Sibyl’s shoulder. Sibyl squeezed her hand and then led them into the temple.

The inside of the temple was as unassuming as the outside. The walls were bare, and the only decoration was a spiral staircase at the back of the room that swept up to the second floor. The temple was filled with a quiet bustle as the Conjurors in their many-colored robes went about their tasks. In the middle of the room were three concentric circles. At the center was a three-legged stool. Valerie noticed that no one stepped inside the circles.

“No one can enter the rings unless they are delivering or receiving a prophecy,” Sybil explained. “The space inside the rings is holy.”

“There he is,” Kanti said, nudging Valerie and distracting her from her examination of the room.

Putrefus, wearing a deep purple robe, stood by a window talking to a small group of Conjurors wearing blue. Putrefus said something, and then the group looked over at Valerie, Kanti, and Cyrus and didn’t even try to hide their laughter.

Valerie took a deep breath. “Let’s do this.” They walked over to Putrefus with Sibyl lingering behind them. “Good morning, Putrefus. I think we got off on the wrong foot. I’m Valerie. I heard that you’re the most gifted member of the Oracle in the city.”

“You heard correctly,” he said.

Valerie saw Kanti trying to stifle her laughter, and she nudged her hard in the ribs. “I brought you breakfast. I heard this is your favorite,” Valerie said with a smile, handing him the muffin. “I would be so honored if you would deliver my prophecy. The need is great, for, you see, there’s a boy in trouble and I have to save him. May I count on your compassion?”

“I already ate,” Putrefus said, tossing the muffin to one of his friends. “So if I help you, what’s in it for me?”

Valerie turned to Cyrus, confused. “I thought we didn’t need an offering.”

“You don’t!” Sibyl burst out indignantly. She had been hovering a few yards behind the group, but now she pushed herself forward so that she was standing inches away from Putrefus. “It is our duty and privilege to help those in need.”

“I’m very busy. Why don’t you ask one of the lower level Oracles to deliver your prophecy?” Putrefus said, turning away disdainfully.

Before Valerie could react to Putrefus’s rejection, a sudden hush fell over the room. Everyone stopped what they were doing and fell to one knee with their hands over their hearts. To her surprise, even Putrefus grudgingly knelt.

Valerie followed the gaze of everyone in the room and saw an ancient woman in a red robe at the top of the staircase. Slowly, she descended, stair by stair. She moved as if each step took great effort, but when she reached the bottom, she spoke in a voice so booming that Valerie couldn’t fathom how it came out of her small frame.

“She’s here!” The woman announced, pinning Valerie with her stare. “At last, I can deliver my final prophecy.” She wound her way through the kneeling group and stopped in front of Valerie. Up close, Valerie could see that her darkly tanned face was covered in dozens of deep wrinkles. Her pure white hair hung to her waist. “I have waited for you. Your need called to me across the universe, across the centuries. I was so afraid you would not make it to this place to hear your prophecy until after I was gone.”

A murmur of astonishment rushed across the room. Valerie was mesmerized as she stared into the woman’s blue eyes, the widest she had ever seen. This couldn’t be anyone other than Pythia.

“Guess you weren’t too good to deliver Val’s prophecy after all. Turns out she was too good for you,” Kanti whispered to Putrefus. Putrefus grunted, but he didn’t reply.

Pythia clasped Valerie’s hands in her own and pulled her gently into the circles in the middle of the room. Then she sat on the stool in the center, sighing with relief as she rested. Only then did she release Valerie’s hands.

Valerie knelt before Pythia, whose eyes darted around the room, as if she was watching a scene unfold before her eyes, trying to absorb every detail. Then, all of the frailty that Valerie had seen in the old woman dropped away, and before her stood not an old woman, but a force of nature, the Oracle. She exuded power, and it hummed inside of Valerie more strongly than she had ever felt before, causing her entire body to tremble. Pythia now sat board-straight, and her voice echoed as she spoke.

“Before your eyes, two destinies unfurl.

Both are full of adventure, love, and loss.

The path you choose will impact both of your worlds,

But be forewarned, each choice has a cost.

“The cry for help across the universe

Is your own brother’s frightened, desperate peal.

Answer his call to save a life that’s cursed.

A family divided now can heal.

“When sister and brother unite power,

Though war may rage with those who seek to rule,

The ones who wield fear will now cower,

Though they try to use you as their tool.

“When blood calls blood, answer its thrumming call.

Know that with one false step we all will fall.”

As Valerie listened, her heart seemed to expand in her chest. Did this mean Henry was her brother? That she wasn’t alone in the universe, as she had always thought? Terror and joy clashed inside of her. She had one family member left after all, but he was in terrible danger.

But before she could process her emotions, she saw Pythia slump on her stool. She swayed, and Valerie leapt up and caught her before she crashed onto the floor. The hush in the temple transformed into an uproar. The Conjurors rushed to the edge of the circle, but no one stepped inside the rings.

“Help! Someone help her!” Valerie cried in horror. Then she leaned down and whispered softly, “I’m so sorry.”

“Do not fret, child,” she replied weakly, putting her hand on Valerie’s face. “I’m content. I foresaw what would happen if you never heard those words, and it was terrible. But I lived long enough to tell you, and the future of the Globe is in your hands now. I know you have it in you to follow the path that will save us all.”

Cyrus and Kanti had ventured inside the circle and were now beside her. Kanti, like Valerie, was crying. Sibyl sped through the crowd, fluttering through the air at a speed that Valerie wouldn’t have believed she was capable of. In seconds, Sibyl was by Pythia’s side.

“Tell me what you need. Anything, and I will do it,” Sibyl said, her voice trembling.

The woman in her arms seemed peaceful, her blue eyes unfocused as she smiled softly. “There is nothing to be done, my Sibyl. It was you who foresaw my end. Is this not how you pictured it?”

Sibyl gently took Pythia out of Valerie’s arms. She cradled her close. “This is how I saw it. With you in my arms,” she said, and tears spilled out of her eyes. “I can’t bear for you to go.”

“I’ll be waiting for you when your time comes, precious one.”

“I love you, Mother,” Sibyl replied.

With a faint smile on her lips, Pythia’s eyes fluttered closed. Sibyl released a melancholy wail that echoed off the walls. It was heartbreaking. “Pythia has departed us forever,” she said to the room, and her cry of pain was echoed by dozens of other voices. “The circle is broken. Enter and help me to prepare her for the beyond.”

[] Chapter 25

The city was in chaos for the rest of the day as the members of the Oracle prepared for Pythia’s funeral. Valerie and her friends would have left, but Sibyl asked them to stay, saying that it was what her mother would have wanted.

Guilt lay heavy on Valerie’s heart, and the tiny pocket of joy that she had found her brother only made her feel like a worse person. Her tongue was like lead, and she couldn’t bring herself to talk about what had happened, even with her friends. So they stayed in their tent most of the day, saying little to each other.

As the sun began to set, the flap on their tent was pushed aside, and Azra’s head poked inside. With a sob, Valerie rushed over and wrapped her arms around her neck, weeping into her mane. “It’s my fault. My prophecy killed her. I took too much from her, and I drove her away, like I eventually drive everyone in my life away.”

No, no, child, that is not true. It is like the room inside the Great Pyramid that crumbled behind you when you were launched into space. Pythia was waiting for you. If she hadn’t needed to deliver your prophecy, she would have died long ago.

“How do you know?” Valerie said tearfully.

I knew Pythia well. I know how hard she struggled to hold on to life when death was calling to her for her next adventure. You can’t take responsibility for nature taking its course. And though I will miss my friend, I am happy that she is at peace at last. And it was you who gave her that peace. The weight on her heart that Valerie thought would never lift seemed to ease slightly, and her breathing calmed. Say goodbye to her tonight, and when you do, let go of your guilt as well.

“How did you know to come here?” Cyrus asked.

I sensed all of her power released into the universe. Chern bent space and created a door for me so that I could be here tonight to say goodbye.

“Chern?” Kanti said with disbelief. “I didn’t even know he had a power.”

Yes, he can bend the laws of physics, and was kind enough to use his power to allow me to say goodbye to an old friend.

In the distance, Valerie heard the sound of bells that seemed to be moving closer. Come, it is time for the ceremony to begin.

They left the tent and saw Conjurors walking down the street in a long line. Most wore the long robes of the Oracle, but some, like Azra, were Conjurors from other cities who had sensed Pythia’s passing and had come for the funeral.

At the front of the procession, six Oracles, each wearing a different color robe, carried a platform that held Pythia’s body. Sibyl fluttered above her mother, her face now calm. She saw Azra and nodded to her. Azra returned the greeting, and Valerie saw tears standing in her eyes. The procession reached the pool, where light from torches flickered on the water. The Oracles placed the platform on the pool, and Azra moved closer, her hooves making no sound. Valerie and her friends followed.

Azra made her way through the crowd, and as she did, her words filled the minds of everyone who had gathered to say goodbye to Pythia.

Pythia was my oldest friend. She was by my side when we first imagined this world. Her sense of honor and capacity to love have been my inspiration, and I often think of her when I make difficult choices. She was a powerful, brave person who valued integrity above all.

She accomplished so much in her life. But the memory that is closest to my heart has nothing to do with her power as an Oracle. When we first came to this world, my husband died. I lost the love of my life, and also became the last of my kind, with no chance of ever having a child of my own. Pythia stayed with me for many years as I worked through my grief. She helped me to see that devoting my life to shaping the Globe would give me purpose and be my legacy when I die. Without her love and guidance, I don’t think I could have survived. I will carry the memory of her in my heart forever.

When Azra had finished, one of the Oracles who had held Pythia’s platform began to speak, telling a story about how Pythia had comforted her when she first came to the Roaming City as a novice. One after another, the Conjurors shared stories about Pythia, some profound, some funny, all showing what a loving and ethical person she was. It was many hours later when the last person shared her story. Then quiet fell over the group.

After a long pause, Sibyl spoke. “My mother was ready to leave. She had taught us all she knew about prophesying, and she left us with her code of honor to guide us in our future. We honor her memory by keeping that code alive.” Then she fluttered over to her mother and kissed her softly on the cheek. “Farewell, dear Mother.”

The crowd began to hum softly, and Valerie joined in. The platform holding Pythia began to rise higher and higher in the sky. When it reached the top of the pillars, it paused. The tears in Valerie’s eyes spilled over.

The twinkling stars seemed to welcome Pythia. She was leaving the Globe, but her journey wasn’t over. And then, Valerie let her go. The platform vanished.

To her surprise, Valerie was able to sleep that night. She woke up the next morning emotionally exhausted, but without the despair of the day before that had made her so hollow inside. She even let herself bask in the knowledge that after years of thinking she was completely on her own, now she had a brother.

Who was in trouble, she reminded herself, and her temporary contentment disappeared. She wanted to jump up right then and go rescue him, but she’d have to find him first. Her determination strengthened into resolve. She wouldn’t let anything happen to him—ever.

Then a second realization hit her, and her excitement grew. How had she not thought of it before? She gently shook Kanti awake. Her friend cracked one eye, grumpy.

“I’m sorry to wake you. But I have to know. Henry’s parents—my parents—what are they like?”

Kanti sat up and put a hand on Valerie’s shoulder. Hesitantly, her eyes full of worry, she said, “Val, Henry’s adopted.”

Valerie knew that had to be a possibility, but she was a little crushed. Her status as an orphan hadn’t changed after all. But she forced herself to shake off the thought. She had a brother, family, where yesterday she had none.

“It’s okay, I just had to know. Go back to sleep,” she said, and she left the tent before Kanti could say anything else. She refused to let her disappointment cloud the best revelation of her life.

Outside, Cyrus was watching the sunrise. She sat beside him.

“You said yesterday to Azra that you drive everyone away. But that’s not true. You never drove me away, and there is nothing you could ever do to make me stop being your friend. I thought you knew that.”

“But I did drive you away, by not believing in you. Even at the hospital, I thought you were imaginary and told you to leave me alone. It’s my fault that we weren’t friends for all those years.”

“I didn’t leave because of anything you did wrong. I left because I had to. There’s a Guild rule about when human children can no longer see their imaginary friends. Otherwise the child might be perceived as mentally unbalanced. Do you know how heartbreaking it was to leave you? You called for me all the time. I would have broken the rule and visited you anyway, but they threatened to take away the charm that protected you. Then I could never have visited you again.”

Valerie listened intently. Cyrus hadn’t abandoned her after all, like all of those foster parents who had promised that they would be there for her, but hadn’t stayed in her life. He had always been her friend, even though she hadn’t known he was there.

“I really missed you,” Valerie murmured.

“Me, too. That’s why I used to visit you in your dreams sometimes, and we’d go on adventures, like the old days.”

“Now I get why those dreams always seemed so real!”

A shadow flickered on the sand, and Valerie saw that Sibyl was approaching them with Azra by her side. She carried something in her arms. “I hope I’m not interrupting,” she said hesitantly.

“No, of course not,” Valerie said, and some of her guilt returned. “I-I’m so sorry for what happened.”

But Sibyl shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault. It was her time to leave us. I brought you this.”

Sibyl unrolled a scroll that she was carrying. Written in beautiful calligraphy was the prophecy that Pythia had delivered to Valerie. The words were written in gold, and the edges of the scroll were decorated with pictures.

“Oh, Sibyl, thank you.”

“What will happen here, now that Pythia’s gone?” Kanti asked, stepping quietly out of the tent.

Sibyl sighed. “A new leader will be elected. I hoped for a period of mourning, but Putrefus is campaigning already.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Kanti snorted in disgust. Valerie shook her head.

“He is very gifted in prophesying. Maybe he would be the best leader. But everyone will have a chance to weigh in. We have many choices before us. I believe the days ahead will be very busy, between prophesying for our visitors and selecting a new leader.”

“Good luck,” Valerie said, and she reached out to squeeze Sibyl’s hand. But Sibyl pulled her into a hug, whispering, “You are not to blame. I am grateful to you.” Then she released her and said, “I have a feeling I will see you three again.”

“Well, you are an Oracle, so if you have that feeling, I’m guessing we’ll see you soon,” Cyrus quipped.

[] Chapter 26

Kanti breathed a sigh of relief when Azra told them of a quicker way back to Silva—one that didn’t require the use of the Arden rollercoaster system. Azra led Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti into the desert, and no sooner had they left the outer boundaries of the Roaming City than it disappeared behind them. Valerie glanced over her shoulder for one last look at the city that had changed her life, and it had vanished. Would she ever return?

After walking a short distance, they reached a place where a rectangular patch of air, about the size of a door, flickered. It was strangely out of place against the monotonous sand and sky that stretched as far as they could see. When they drew closer, Valerie could see through the flickering door into the blurry inside of a room with stone walls.

Azra stepped through the door, and Cyrus and Kanti followed her as if crossing through a place where space had been bent was the most natural thing in the world. But Valerie paused before stepping through. Was there any chance that she could get caught in there, trapped between two places? It was too late to ask Azra now.

“Come on, Val!” Cyrus called through the window, his voice sounding muffled.

She held her breath and stepped through. It was as if she was being pulled in two directions at once, and her vision swam. But seconds later she stepped into a room with vaulted ceilings, and walls adorned with maps of the Globe.

The tension left Valerie’s muscles. She made it through safely. Azra noticed, and her eyes became apologetic. I should have explained to you that this was the door Chern had created for me so that I could travel to the Roaming City so quickly. It must have been rather nerve-wracking to step through without any warning. But you are safe in my office now, so you can relax.

“I’m sure it’s completely safe,” Valerie said as her eyes adjusted to the room. She noticed that, in addition to Azra, Cyrus, and Kanti, Chern also stood behind the desk, gnawing at his fingernails as if he was even more anxious than he had when she first met him in the Guardians of the Boundary Guild.

“Well, that’s not precisely true. There’s always a chance that the threshold will collapse on itself with someone inside. The person would literally be torn to pieces,” Chern said.

Valerie’s stomach flipped, and she decided she was glad that she hadn’t learned that piece of information until it was too late.

One-in-a-billion chance of that happening, though, Azra added. It’s one of the safest ways to travel, though Chern here is the only living Conjuror who has the ability to bend space. Chern stood a little straighter at the compliment.

Still, Valerie hoped she would never have to travel that way again, especially since Chern was the one bending space. He was so shaky that he might accidentally make a wrong movement and trap her inside. He clapped his hands, and the flickering window disappeared with a loud crack that startled everyone, including himself. She couldn’t help grinning—she had never met anyone so jumpy.

Thank you for your help, Chern. I will not soon forget it.

He bowed low to Azra. “Always at your service.” Then he hesitated, adding, “However, helping you may make me a target of the Fractus. In fact, they could be on their way to my house right now.” Valerie noticed that his hands started to quiver from fear.

I will call one of the Knights of Light to guard you until we are certain that you are safe, Azra promised. Then she turned to Valerie and her friends. Now, you three had better return to your dorm. Dulcea was frantic when she discovered your note. You should let her know that you’re safe as soon as possible. We will talk about what you learned in the Roaming City when you have had a chance to rest and after I return from a trip to see a friend who may have some of the answers that we seek.

Valerie saw Azra glance at Chern, and she sensed that Azra didn’t want to speak of what had happened in his presence. It made sense, Valerie reasoned, because Chern might let something important slip in a moment of panic, and the wrong person could overhear. So she repressed all of her burning questions for Azra about the prophecy for now, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti trudged back to the dorm, exhausted from everything that they had been through and dreading Dulcea’s scolding.

“The real question is, what do we do now?” Valerie asked, as much to herself as to her friends. “Waiting around for Azra to get back is not going to help Henry.”

“I’m outta ideas,” Cyrus sighed. “That’s the problem with prophecies. They’re never straightforward. For once, how about a simple ‘Henry’s living at 222 First Street, Oakland, California’?”

“I still can’t believe he’s your brother!” Kanti exclaimed.

Hearing Kanti call Henry her brother brought the joy of the discovery rushing back—she really had a brother, joined to her by DNA. She was dazed by the news. “For so long, I thought I’d never have a family. Now I have a brother! Do you think he’s older or younger than me?”

A strange look passed over Kanti’s face. “I wonder… Valerie, when’s your birthday?”

“April 5th, why?”

Kanti turned pale, and her eyes filled with a strange glitter. “Your Henry and my Henry are the same after all! His birthday was April 5th, too.”

“Twins,” Cyrus said, awe in his voice.

“That means all this time he’s been alive,” Kanti said, and her eyes filled with tears. “If I only knew. I could have stopped Sanguina, or helped him understand what was happening.”

They had reached the outside of their dorm, and Valerie gripped the railing on the staircase. A piece of a puzzle fit into place. Not having a family had always torn Valerie apart inside, as if a piece of herself was missing. With Henry in her life, maybe she would finally be whole.

Before Valerie could respond to Kanti’s revelation, a thin man with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes who was walking down the empty street stopped in his tracks. He paused, and then met Valerie’s eyes. Her heart seemed to slow down, and she clutched her chest, unable to breathe. Yellow-Eyes had found her. Again. Sanguina wouldn’t be far behind.

“Val? What’s wrong?” Cyrus said, trying to shake her out of her trance.

She tried to tell him, but her breath hitched as she struggled for air. Yellow-Eyes smiled slowly at her, and said, “Found you.”

A girl passing him in the street gasped when she saw his face and ran away, screaming for help.

“We need to get inside, NOW,” Cyrus said, yanking Valerie’s arm. But she couldn’t stop staring into his yellow eyes. Being this close to him in person, something incalculably precious drained from her. It was her magic, and something more. She stumbled to her knees. Kanti and Cyrus struggled to help her to her feet.

“This is no place for you,” Midnight’s voice rang out clearly as she crossed the street. “We’ve been tracking you since you arrived in Silva. Did you think we wouldn’t notice?”

Yellow-Eyes turned away from Valerie toward Midnight, and Valerie sagged with relief, some of her energy returning with a rush.

“You’ve been tracking me for decades, yet here I am,” Zunya sneered. “And you know what happens to those who get too close.”

Midnight’s eyes flashed with a bottomless rage. “I think you’ll find that I’m ready for you.”

Valerie felt the hum of magic, and a high-pitched sound pierced the air. Yellow-Eyes stumbled back a step and his hand involuntarily went to his head.

As if aware that he had shown vulnerability, he firmed his stance and made a strange gesture with his hand. Even from across the street, Valerie saw Midnight pale, and her hands clenched at her sides, every muscle in her face straining. Zunya advanced on her, but Midnight didn’t retreat. Still, the toll of whatever he was doing was telling on her, and a trickle of blood appeared at her nose.

Valerie couldn’t watch for another second. “Get the hell away from her!” she cried.

She launched herself toward Yellow-Eyes, tackling him to the ground. She landed a firm punch to his jaw, but she didn’t even hear him grunt from the force of her blow—her mind went blank from pain. For a second, she couldn’t even see anything, but she knew she was being dragged away by Cyrus and Kanti.

“This is out of your league,” Cyrus hissed.

“The best way to help Midnight is to find a Grand Master,” Kanti said.

“I’m not leaving her. He’s here because of me, I know it,” Valerie said, trying to focus her blurry vision. She saw that Midnight had stepped between her and Yellow-Eyes.

“If you leave now, I’ll let you, for the sake of these children. But if you force my hand, I will take you down,” Midnight said, her voice cold and in control. Maybe Valerie’s distraction hadn’t been for nothing, if it had given Midnight time to regroup. “And I admit, I’m hoping that you decide to stay and test me.”

Yellow-Eyes was back on his feet, and Valerie noted with satisfaction that his teeth were bloody from her punch as he sneered at them. His eyes flicked to Valerie. “Next time, sweetheart. I only came by to welcome you to the Globe. I’ll see you again real soon.”

A hum of magic began to emanate from Midnight, and Yellow-Eyes turned and headed toward the woods, the piercing sound making him stumble as he hurried away. Midnight turned to them, her expression softening.

“Who is he?” Kanti asked, pale and shaken.

“His name is Zunya, and he has repeatedly projected to Earth to sow seeds of dissention and pain,” Midnight replied. Then her voice faltered and she added, “He has also killed more than one innocent here on the Globe.”

Valerie sensed that one of those innocents had been someone very close to Midnight, whose hands were still shaking from the force of her emotions.

“He’s one of the Fractus?” Cyrus asked.

“Yes, and he is a vampyre. A few years ago, in front of hundreds of witnesses, he turned someone into a vampyre against her will. As punishment, the Justice Guild took his powers away. But what they didn’t know was that when a vampyre’s powers are torn from them, it has a strange effect. They start being able to absorb other people’s powers.”

“That sounds like the power-eater that Shade used on us,” Cyrus said.

“Yes—he’s the one who invented the power-eater,” Midnight explained.

“Since he’s a vampyre, why doesn’t light hurt him?” Kanti asked.

“When he was stripped of his powers, he also became much less sensitive to light, though it still weakens him slightly. If it weren’t for that advantage, we might not have survived that encounter,” Midnight said. Then she turned to Valerie. “How does he know you?”

“He’s been following me around for years. He’s after me,” Valerie said, still stunned.

“May I see? My power is psychic, and if you allow me, I can peer into your mind and find your memories of him.”

She nodded a little uncertainly, hoping it wouldn’t be painful. Midnight touched her cheek, and a pleasant hum relaxed her as images from her past raced through her mind. Then Midnight pulled away, and her eyes were sad.

“You’ve seen so much pain,” she whispered, seemingly to herself. Then she spoke up. “All that Zunya and Sanguina put you through is on my shoulders. Again and again I have failed to capture him. And Sanguina… Lydia… She was one of our own, a Master of the Guardians. I failed her as well, and that led to even more of your pain. I am so sorry for all you have endured.”

“No, don’t do that to yourself,” Valerie said.

A terrible cough racked Midnight’s body, and Valerie saw blood on the corner of her mouth. Standing against Zunya had taken more of a toll than Midnight had let on.

“We have to get you to the Healers’ Guild,” Kanti said urgently.

Midnight wiped her mouth and stood a little straighter. “Azra must know of this right away. She will help me recover.”

“We’re coming with you,” Valerie said firmly.

Midnight gave her slight smile but shook her head. “I am in command of myself. You children need to stay inside your dorm. It would be foolish not to take Zunya at his word. He will be back.”

“At least we can report this to the Knights and the Guardians,” Cyrus said.

Midnight nodded. “You were all very brave. I thank you for all you have done. I would never have allowed you to put yourselves in harm’s way, but today, you may have saved my life.”

“And you surely saved mine,” Valerie said. The light touch of Midnight’s magic on Valerie’s mind made a little of her fear recede. Her psychic powers must be powerful. Then Midnight turned and glided away. If she was in severe pain, she hid it well.

Before Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti could process what had happened, the door burst open with a bang, and Valerie jumped a foot into the air. Dulcea stormed out. “There is NEVER an excuse for what you three did! I haven’t slept a wink since you left. Do you know what kind of people hide in the fringes of the forest of Arden?”

“Actually, yeah, we met this gang—” Cyrus began, but he quickly shut up when Kanti kicked him in the shin.

“A gang?! You’re lucky to be alive! I ought to lock the three of you up for the next year.”

“We’re really sorry. But you’re not going to believe what just happened. Valerie could be in—” Cyrus started to explain about Zunya, but Dulcea interrupted him.

“I don’t want to hear it! I don’t want to hear anything from the three of you right now.”

“But—” Cyrus began.

“Not now, Cy,” Valerie said. She had been in enough trouble with her foster parents to know when to stay quiet. Who knows—if Dulcea was angry enough, maybe she’d kick them out. And Valerie didn’t relish the idea of living on the streets again—even on the Globe.

“This will never happen again!” Dulcea ranted. “The three of you are forbidden to leave the dorm without signing out and saying exactly where you will be going to and when you will be back. And for the next month, you are not to go anywhere other than your Guild without my express permission!”

“A month!” Cyrus cried.

“I’m not done. You will clean each and every bathroom in the dorm for the next three weeks—by hand—no magic.”

“Oh, eew,” Kanti said.

“Go to your rooms, right now. I can’t even look at you.”

“But, Dulcea, we need to go—” Cyrus began.

“Not another word,” Dulcea interrupted, her voice trembling.

Valerie saw the tears standing in Dulcea’s eyes, and guilt hit her like a punch in the stomach. Dulcea really cared about them, and they had scared her. Despite all that, she hadn’t so much as threatened to send them away. Valerie knew she had been ungrateful, repaying Dulcea’s kindness by sneaking away without talking to her first. “I’m going to make this up to you,” she murmured to Dulcea before heading up the stairs to her room.

That night, it took Valerie a long time to fall asleep. By the light of Cyrus’s flower, she read her prophecy over and over until she knew it by heart, but she still couldn’t glean any clues from it. When she shut her eyes, the golden letters floated behind her eyelids. But as much as Henry’s fate preoccupied her, the last image that she saw before she entered the world of dreams was a pair of yellow eyes.

[] Chapter 27

The next day, after getting grudging permission from Dulcea, Valerie walked to the Guild of the Knights of Light while Cyrus and Kanti went to the Guardians to alert them to the fact that Zunya was projecting to Earth. After much discussion, they decided that they couldn’t tell anyone that Zunya might be after Valerie without revealing that she was from Earth.

For protection, Valerie carried her sword, Pathos, with her everywhere she went. She noticed people eyeing her warily as she carried the naked weapon around the streets of Silva. When she arrived at the Knights’ Guild, it was bustling as usual, full of Conjurors of all ages practicing their skills and taking lessons.

She wandered around and soon found Gideon teaching what looked like a karate class full of Knight apprentices a few years younger than she was. He nodded to acknowledge that she had arrived, and motioned her to join in. He said little, demonstrating graceful martial arts forms that the class mimicked.

She fell into a rhythm, and her body moved naturally through the forms. She experimented with allowing her power to supplement her strength, and then stopping the flow of magic so that she was relying only on her own body and mind.

All too soon, Gideon bowed to the class. “Excellent. You are all progressing well. Practice what you have learned each day, and I will see you next week,” he said in a soft, low voice.

As the class departed, Valerie approached him. “Thank you for letting me join your class today.”

“You have a talent for this,” he replied.

“Because of my power, you mean.”

“Not only your power. You have the spirit of a great warrior, one who uses physical strength as a last resort to solve problems.” She flushed, deeply flattered yet embarrassed by his compliment. “But you did not come here today to take this class. What would you like to ask me?”

“First, I wanted to tell you that yesterday I saw Zunya. I heard that he’s a wanted criminal, and I thought the Knights should know that he’s in Arden.”

Gideon’s face darkened. “This explains much. We have suspected that someone has been spying, watching the Knights’ every move. It may be that Zunya has been observing us undetected. I will tell Kellen what you have seen.” Then, seeing the expression on Valerie’s face, he said, “Is there something else?”

“Three days ago, my friends and I were attacked in the forest by Zunya’s gang. We were outnumbered, but as I fought them, my power rushed through me, and I thought I could take them all on and win—easily. But then, the leader brought out a power-eater. It didn’t even touch me, but when he turned it toward me, all of my magic vanished. It was scary. I was defenseless. I’m so vulnerable without my power, not only to Zunya and his gang, but to anyone or anything that could take my magic.”

“You are wise to realize this so young.”

“Could you teach me to fight both with and without my power? I want to know that I can defend myself, even if my power fails me. I wouldn’t take up too much of your time. Would you give me permission to participate in the classes you teach—even if I decide that I don’t want to become a Knight?”

“Yes. And my classes are open not only to you, but to anyone who wishes to learn combat for self-defense.”

“Thank you. I think my friends might come, too.”

“I will tell you this, because I can sense that your spirit is old, though your flesh is young: a battle is brewing. The Fractus attack us more frequently, and they even dare to attack us in the heart of Arden, not only on the borders. There will come a time when we will need everyone who is able to defend our land. It would be my honor to train you and your friends as warriors.”

She was excited that she would have the chance to train with a teacher as skilled as Gideon, because the thought of Sanguina and Zunya having such powerful allies was chilling.

She was determined to make the most of every day to build her fighting skills, so she lingered at the Guild until dinner so that she could attend Gideon’s afternoon class on swordplay. The class was made up of craftsmen who were older and more experienced than the apprentices in the class that she had attended in the morning. Gideon patiently taught her the basics of how to use her sword while the rest of the class sparred.

“Someday, you’ll have to tell me how you inherited the Edge of Pathos,” he said, nodding toward her sword. “Its last owner was a master of the craft. She was a fine warrior and an exceptional person.” Hearing the obvious emotion in his voice, she took a step closer, but before she could ask him about the sword’s history, he moved on to correct the way that another student held the hilt of his sword in his hand.

By the end of the class, Valerie’s shirt was soaked with sweat and her arm and leg muscles were knotted and tight. Gideon had given her a temporary sheath for Pathos, so that she wouldn’t accidentally hurt anyone when she carried it around. Having the elegant sword strapped to her side made her feel like a warrior, and dreams of rescuing Henry in a duel with Sanguina flashed through her mind. In her imagination, she fearlessly, effortlessly defeated her arch enemy, but she knew that the reality of fighting Sanguina would be much more difficult.

As Valerie headed back to the dorm, she remembered to pick some pink flowers from the edge of the forest for Dulcea. It wasn’t much, but she wanted her to know that she hadn’t forgotten what she had done. It was easy to apologize to someone, but it was much harder to truly earn forgiveness. Valerie didn’t want to be like the people who had disappointed her in the past, so she vowed to show Dulcea that she meant it when she said she was sorry.

Dulcea accepted her gift graciously, but after a quick dinner, she sternly reminded her three little fugitives that they had to clean the bathrooms before bed. Starting at the top, the three began the arduous process of disinfecting showers, toilets, and sinks.

“I knew Dulcea wasn’t one to cross, but I never imagined she’d make us do this,” Cyrus said disgustedly as he pulled a hairball out of a shower drain.

“I gotta admit, I never knew how spoiled I was until now,” Kanti said, scrubbing a toilet. “I never thought I’d see the day when I got this close to a stranger’s skid marks.”

Valerie was tempted to laugh. This was definitely not the nastiest bathroom she had ever cleaned. That honor went to the time she lived with four boys in a foster home that was so filthy that she waited to go to school to use the toilet. When her foster mother finally made her help clean the bathroom, she had almost gagged. Compared to that, these bathrooms were hardly dirty at all. On Valerie’s first day on the Globe, Kanti had explained to her that the bathrooms were completely sterilized by magic every three days, so she knew that not a lot of dirt and germs had accumulated yet.

“Guys, you don’t get it. Dulcea’s not only mad at us, she’s hurt. We really scared her. And with good reason—think about what happened to us. We weren’t gone for more than a few hours before Shade attacked,” Valerie said.

“I know. I thought about that. And I’m really sorry,” Cyrus said, repentant.

“Me, too. And this is definitely a punishment I’ll never forget,” Kanti added.

“I think that’s the point,” Valerie replied. “But let’s take our minds off the grime. I had an idea I wanted to ask you guys about.”

“What’s up?” Kanti asked.

“I hate the thought of waiting around while Azra looks for answers. So I was thinking that I could make Thai one of those protective charms so that no one from the Globe could find him except for me. At least I’d be doing something, not sitting around waiting for Azra to find a solution. And I don’t want Sanguina hunting Thai down like she hunted Henry,” Valerie said, her fingers clenching into a fist at the thought of her brother still being tortured by Sanguina, while she, his own sister, couldn’t do a thing to stop it.

“Sure, we can do that. There are some caves on the southern edge of the forest that have the crystals that are needed to make the charm. We can collect some tomorrow,” Cyrus said.

“I’ve got a class tomorrow morning that I can’t skip,” Kanti said, obviously disappointed to be missing out on the adventure. “You guys should wait till I’m done—strength in numbers, after all.”

“How will we ever survive without you to protect us?” Cyrus said sarcastically.

Kanti was about to snap back at him, but Valerie interjected, “I don’t want to delay this, even by half a day. If I wait too long, he could be lost to me, like Henry.”

Kanti’s expression softened. “I understand. Anyway, I can help after you find the crystal. I know someone back home who can help craft the charm for it,” she offered.

“Thanks, Kanti. It’s frustrating, after a lifetime of wishing for a family, to find out I have a brother, but I can’t help him, or even talk to him. I can’t wait until we find out where Sanguina is hiding so I can crush her and get the charm she made to block Henry from being found.”

“Now we have to convince Dulcea to let us go,” Cyrus said gloomily.

“I’ll talk to her. Maybe it’s time I shared my secret—I think after everything I put her through, she has a right to know.”

That night, after Valerie finished scrubbing the last bathroom, she went to Dulcea’s room and quietly knocked on the door. When Dulcea called her in, Valerie entered and breathed in the sweet smell that always clung to the room, a welcome scent after working in bathrooms for the past three hours.

Dulcea was busy in her kitchen, carefully painting a layer of chocolate onto plump, juicy cherries. When she saw that it was Valerie entering, she looked up at her with eyes that were no longer full of anger, but without the unquestioning trust that had been there when they first met.

“Good timing. The chocolate on these cherries needs to set,” Dulcea said, licking some off of her index finger. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to tell you a story—about me. I’ve been thinking a lot about how what we did must have scared you, and I want you to know why it was so important for us to go to Ephesus.”

Valerie described everything to Dulcea, from her lonely life on Earth to her trip to the Globe to what her prophecy revealed about Henry. Dulcea didn’t say a word, but her face was so expressive that Valerie could read her reactions as clearly as if she said what she was thinking.

“I should have told you all this from the beginning.”

“I’m glad you told me now,” Dulcea said, her voice full of an emotion that Valerie couldn’t name. “It will seem so strange to you, but I know how you feel. I lost my parents when I was a baby—they were hit by lightning while they were crossing the mountains in Dunsinane. After that, I was on my own, like you. I yearned for a family so much that it seemed to eat me up inside—until I became the dorm matron here, that is. Now this is my family, and you are all my little brothers and sisters. Being a part of this family finally filled up that hole inside of me. So when I thought I could lose one of you, it was more than I could bear.”

“Azra told me that we had a lot in common, but I had no idea that you were an orphan, too.”

Dulcea nodded thoughtfully. “I think she likes us to discover these things for ourselves.”

“That makes sense—it means more hearing your story from you.”

“So what’s next in your search for Henry? You must be desperate to do something to help him.”

“Yes, I’m going crazy with all this waiting. I know that technically we’re grounded, but I was hoping to create a charm for Thai to keep Sanguina from finding him. I can protect him, even if I can’t help Henry. Could Cy and I have your permission to search the caves for the crystals?”

“With the increase in attacks in Arden from the Fractus these days, I can’t send you alone.”

“I understand,” Valerie said, her face falling in disappointment.

“So I’ll have to come with you! I’ve had my share of experience getting out of sticky situations. I’ll make sure that we stay off the Fractus’s radar,” Dulcea said, bringing the tray of cherries over and giving one to Valerie.

“Thank you!” Valerie said, popping a cherry into her mouth. She shut her eyes as the chocolate melted on her tongue. It tasted rich and milky at the same time, making her tongue sing. “You make the best treats in the universe, without a doubt. And it’s nice that you included the cherry, too—it’s the first Earth-food I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

“Now that I know you’re from Earth, I’ll make sure we have some food you recognize at the dinner table.”

Valerie’s heart warmed at Dulcea’s thoughtfulness, and also with the knowledge that Dulcea viewed her as a little sister. Her dreams of having a family of her own were finally within reach.

“Not to be a party-pooper, but it’s time for lights out. I’ll see you first thing in the morning.”

“I can’t wait. And Dulcea—thanks for everything.”

Valerie walked back to her room, relieved that the weight of her guilt wasn’t squeezing her heart. But before she could collapse into her bed, there was one more visit that she needed to make.

Quietly, so as not to wake Kanti, Valerie slipped into her bed and concentrated. In seconds, she was on a dark, deserted street on Earth, watching Thai peer around a corner.

“What’s going on?”

He whirled around, surprised, and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that Valerie had joined him. He motioned her to be quiet, and then hurried down an alley. It was strange to follow him, allowing her mind to effortlessly drift behind him without any effort required from her body.

“That stench is disgusting,” Thai said, making a face like he might gag. Valerie expanded her mind-to-mind connection with Thai, sharing his senses. She breathed in a nasty, familiar smell that filled her with dread.

“Venu. You have to get out of here!”

“Don’t you see? Sanguina might have sent him to find your brother. I have to stop him.”

“But if he sees you—”

“I can take care of myself. This time he won’t have the element of surprise.”

Valerie was about to argue when Thai tripped over a dark shape on the ground. A woman’s pained groan pierced the night. Thai rushed to her side and felt for her pulse. Yellowish-green slime dripped down her arm.

“I’ve got to get her to the hospital right away,” he said, squinting down the street to see if he could make out Venu’s enormous shoulders in the distance. Valerie could see nothing but shadows.

Thai dialed 9-1-1, and soon an ambulance rushed down the street, lights flashing. He turned to Valerie and said hurriedly, “You better get out of here. I have to explain to the paramedics that somehow she has poisonous frog venom in her system so they know how to treat her. The story is going to sound crazy—I don’t want to accidentally talk to you and have them think I’m nuts.”

“Okay,” she said reluctantly. “But when can I talk to you?”

“Come tomorrow night. Unless I find Venu’s trail, I’ll be in my tent at the Yosemite National Park. No one will be around to hear us talk.”

Then Thai turned to talk to the paramedics, who were rushing over with a stretcher, and Valerie let herself return to the Globe. Her heart was still thumping in her chest when she burrowed under the covers of her bed.

[] Chapter 28

The next day, Valerie woke up early after dreaming that Sanguina had found Thai and sent Venu to kill him. Her dream made her all the more anxious to create the charm to protect Thai as soon as possible.

When Cyrus and Dulcea met Valerie in front of the dorm the next morning, their moods were much different from hers. They were both excited for the trip, and they talked and joked as they walked into the forest toward the caves. But she couldn’t join in, unable to shake the sense of urgency and danger that had gripped her last night when she visited Thai.

Venu and Sanguina were acting more openly, attacking a stranger on the street. Had Venu had targeted that woman, or had she been in the wrong place at the wrong time? Either way, he was getting bolder, and if he discovered that Thai was trailing him, Valerie knew that he wouldn’t hesitate to attack with full force. She shivered, remembering how pale Chisisi had been, lying in the hospital after the attack. With a little more poison, who knew what would happen to Thai.

She was abruptly distracted from her thoughts by the sight of a glinting waterfall in the distance. The water rushed over white rocks and sent up a spray that caught the light, creating dozens of little rainbows. She veered away from her companions, drawn toward the waterfall with a powerful sense of urgency that she didn’t understand.

“Hey, where are ya going?” Cyrus called.

Several yards away, Valerie stopped. A screen of vines hanging thickly from the surrounding trees blocked her path like a curtain. When she pulled the vines aside, the sight behind them made her breath catch in her throat. Spreading out before her was a spectacular garden. Four white marble tiers were stacked on top of each other, each containing thousands of flowers in brilliant shades of purple and gold, creating a cascade of petals that seemed to be flowing all the way down to her feet. Elegant waterfalls gracefully flowed down the marble tiers, adding to the sensation of movement within the garden.

The strangest feeling came over her, as though this place belonged to her, even though she’d never seen it before. Valerie heard Dulcea’s and Cyrus’s steps as they came closer to see what she was looking at. Dulcea gasped.

“What is this place?” Cyrus asked.

“You don’t know?” Valerie asked, surprised, as she stepped into the wonderland with her friends behind her. Inside, the garden was still, like she’d entered a church. There was something almost holy about its intense beauty.

“I think you found Babylon, Valerie,” Dulcea said.

“I thought that was a story,” Cyrus said, confused.

Dulcea shook her head. “This was a really popular vacation spot a couple decades ago. Conjurors traveled from all over the world to rest here for a few days and take in the beauty. And then one day, it vanished, as if it had been wiped off the map. No one knew exactly what happened, but it would take a very powerful Conjuror to seal off this garden from the rest of the world.”

“Why did we find it now?” Cyrus mused.

Valerie noticed that between the flowers, a set of stairs wound their way up to the top tier. Despite the urgency of her mission, she had to see where they led. She quickly ascended the steps, and the sight when she reached the top made the detour worth it. An enormous waterfall rushed down into a pool surrounded by trees with leaves in every color imaginable. The leaves were reflected in the pool, turning the water into a liquid mix of colors.

Valerie heard Cyrus shout, and then he came running past her and cannonballed into the water below. Seconds later, he bobbed to the surface, laughing. “It’s warm, like bathwater! You guys have to jump in!”

“You don’t have to ask me twice!” Dulcea said, following him into the water with a splash.

“I guess you’ve found your inner child,” Valerie laughed.

“Come on, Val!”

“I can’t swim,” she said. But then she spotted a small dirt path that wound down the side of the waterfall to the bottom, and she hurried down it. When she was almost at the bottom, she saw that behind the rushing waterfall was a small cavern. Carefully, she inched closer, and slid past the waterfall without falling in, getting thoroughly drenched with spray in the process.

Inside, the cavern was dim, the only light coming through the pounding water that rushed past. At first, she thought it was empty, but then she noticed someone standing at the back. Her heart pounded.

“Hi, I’m Valerie. Sorry to bother you.”

The person didn’t move a muscle. She stepped closer. It wasn’t a person, but a statue of a female warrior, who was about to draw her sword from the sheath that hung at her side. Coming closer, Valerie noticed that the sheath was empty, and the woman’s hand was closing around air. Had the statue’s sword been stolen? The woman’s face had a fierce expression, her eyes narrowed and her body tense, ready to fight.

Why would someone put such an intricate statue behind a waterfall where no one would see it? She touched the statue’s hand, and she was reminded of when she had touched the face at Stonehenge and the Sphinx’s paw. Did this statue guard a secret, too?

“Valerie, where are you?” Dulcea called, worry in her voice.

She hurried out from behind the waterfall. In the bright sunshine, she recalled her goal for the day, and was ashamed of being so distracted from her quest. Every day that went by was another chance for Sanguina to find Thai and tell Venu where he was. Or worse, Sanguina could create a charm of her own and she would never see Thai again.

“Hey, guys, we should go find the caves. Didn’t you say it could take days to find the right kind of crystal, Cyrus?”

“Yeah,” Cyrus said, reluctantly getting out of the water and wringing out his clothes. “But when we come back here, I’m teaching you to swim.”

It was only after they were tramping through the woods that Valerie thought of the statue behind the waterfall. But neither Cyrus nor Dulcea had heard anything about any statues or art in Babylon. Something about the woman tugged at her mind, and she promised herself that after this was all over, she would go back and discover what secrets the statue guarded.

When they reached the caves, tucked inside of a rocky hill, Cyrus and Dulcea explained what kind of crystal they needed to make the charm. It had to be at least the size of a walnut, and perfectly clear, without a single speck or deformity that could twist the spell to make it do something that it shouldn’t.

Inside, the caves were dark and damp. Valerie had imagined that they would be beautiful, covered wall to wall with glittering crystals, but instead, they were eerie inside, the crystals sending light slanting in strange ways, sometimes blinding her. The work was tedious. They had to gently wipe away a layer of muck on top of each crystal to see if it was promising. If it seemed to be clear from deformities, they gently pried it free with their fingers and took it outside to examine it more closely.

After hours of searching, they still hadn’t found any perfect crystals, and they decided to split up, each taking a different cave. The caves were close enough that they could call to each other if they ran into trouble.

Valerie worked quickly and methodically in the mouth of the caves. The repetitive nature of the task allowed her mind to finally relax for the first time since she had heard her prophecy from Pythia. Without realizing why, she wandered out of the cave into the woods. At first, she didn’t think about where she was going, but after she had walked for several minutes, a part of her mind pestered her, questioning where she was going and insisting that she shouldn’t leave without telling Dulcea and Cyrus.

She knew she had to turn back, but somehow she couldn’t make her body obey her directions. It was as if someone had seized control of her mind and was forcing her body to do things that she didn’t want it to. Panic rose inside of her as she struggled to regain control of herself. Her breathing became rapid, and she started to shake. Something was very wrong.

Her feet led her farther and farther away from her friends, and she worried that they would never find her now. Finally, her body slowed down, stopping at the entrance to a crystal cave much like the one she had left. Dread made her stomach sink, and she struggled with all of her mental might to stop herself from entering the cave. But it was a fight she lost, as her body entered the shadowy cave against her will. As she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, she fell to her knees.

“You were warned what would happen if you came here,” Sanguina said, advancing closer and glaring down at Valerie, her face filled with contempt. “You dared to suggest when we last met that I was afraid of you. But I could never fear someone so pathetic and weak. You can’t even protect yourself, much less your friends.”

Anger flared up in Valerie, giving her a burst of energy that enabled her to break free of the mental restraint that had stopped her from controlling her own body and stand before her tormentor. “You’re wrong!” she shouted, surprising Sanguina by hitting her squarely in the knees with a sweep kick, sending her crashing to the ground.

But Sanguina moved even faster than Gideon, and before Valerie could make another move, she attacked, her punches and kicks coming so rapidly that Valerie couldn’t stop some of her blows from coming into painful contact with her neck, arm, and finally her stomach, knocking the wind out of her.

It was different from any fight that Valerie had ever had—even though she was using her power to its fullest, she was hopelessly out of her league. Sanguina was stronger and faster, and she couldn’t even defend herself, much less go on the offense. No sooner had Valerie realized this than Sanguina grabbed hold of her mind and she was unable to control her body again. Sanguina forced her to fall to her knees.

“Really? That’s all there is to your magic?” Sanguina sneered. “I will make you crawl, grovel, and beg for me to end your life.” Sanguina smacked Valerie across the face so hard that her ears rang and blood trickled out of the corner of her mouth. She didn’t even have enough power over her own body to wipe the blood away.

The horror that she experienced was beyond anything that she had ever known before. She was broken inside, completely at Sanguina’s mercy. She had failed them all—Henry, Thai, Cyrus, Azra. She was no match for Sanguina. How could she have ever wanted to fight her? Somewhere deep inside, hadn’t she known that defeat was inevitable? She was nobody, just a little girl that no one wanted, and for good reason. She brought nothing to those she loved except misery.

“Never. Cross. Me.” After each word, Sanguina hit Valerie across the face again and again. The last of Valerie’s mental defenses crumbled, and her hold on her consciousness started to slip. She yearned for the oblivion that passing out would bring.

But before she succumbed, the cave filled with a bright light that reflected off of all the crystals. Through her blurry eyes, Valerie saw Sanguina’s shriveled lips open wide as she shrieked and retreated into the dark depths of the cave.

“Val, are you okay?” Cyrus asked, his voice seeming very far away.

“Grab her and let’s get out of here!” Dulcea said, and Valerie was lifted into Cyrus’s arms before she gave in to the blackness tugging on her mind.

[] Chapter 29

“Is she awake yet?” Valerie heard Cyrus ask.

“Not yet,” Dulcea said, sounding worried and exhausted. “But I think she’s stirring.”

Not yet ready to face the waking world, Valerie reached for unconsciousness, hoping for the relief of oblivion for a little longer. But no such luck. With every passing second, she became more and more awake as the pain radiating through her body refused to let her slip away. She struggled to open her eyes, which were swollen. Her entire face must be twice its normal size.

When she opened her eyes part way, the world was hazy, as if everything was slightly out of focus. She was in a long room filled with beds, reminding her of the Oakland Children’s Hospital, but without the insistent beeping of machines. She had never been so tired and beaten down in her life. This was even worse than the many times she had awakened, weak and alone, after one of her fainting episodes back on Earth. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered Dr. Freeman’s calm voice telling her that everything would be okay. A tear slid free of her lashes.

Cyrus hurried to her side. “Finally! You scared us. You’ve been out for more than a day.”

Dulcea bent down to briefly cup Valerie’s face, her wide eyes filled with worry. “We were scared Sanguina put you under some kind of spell to make you sleep.”

“I knew you guys shouldn’t have gone without me!” Kanti said indignantly. Valerie assumed she was the blurry shape sitting on the end of the bed. “I would have been on the lookout and none of this would have happened.”

The weight that lay heavy on her heart lifted a little. It was nice to awaken from unconsciousness surrounded by friends instead of machines. She tried to tell them she was glad that they were there, but the insides of her mouth were so bruised and swollen that the effort made her wince. Hadn’t they heard of pain medication on the Globe yet?

“Don’t try to talk until you’re healed,” Cyrus said, bending close.

The smell of lilies filled the room, and Valerie heard the gentle clop of Azra’s hooves against the floor. I am so sorry that this has happened to you. But you’ll feel better soon; I’m here to heal you. I couldn’t do it until you were conscious again. Then she turned to a shadowy figure standing at the edge of the room. Oberon, you know what to do.

Oberon stepped forward, his eyes staring blankly at a spot above Valerie’s head. When she’d first tripped over him on the street, she hadn’t realized how tall he was. Now looming over her, his presence was overpowering, and she shrank away from him. Azra lowered her head, and Oberon touched her mane, reaching for her horn. When he found it, he said some words in a strange language. Azra’s horn vibrated, and the hum of magic filled the room. Then he grasped the horn and pulled it free from Azra’s forehead, leaving no mark behind. Valerie was horrified. Why was no one stopping him?

“Get away from her!” Valerie said, her mouth filling with blood. She struggled to sit up, but Cyrus held her back.

“Don’t hurt yourself! It’s okay, that’s supposed to happen,” Cyrus explained.

Don’t be afraid. I’m not hurt, Azra said, and her soothing voice in Valerie’s mind calmed her. My healing power is in my horn, but I need help to call it forth. Oberon has aided me many times. He’s a friend.

In Oberon’s hand, the horn was like a cone-shaped cup, completely hollow inside. Valerie watched, mystified, as he held Azra’s horn in one hand and held his other hand open above the opening. The room hummed with magic, and condensation formed on his palm. The droplets of water increased in number, creating a pool of water that he channeled down his finger and into the empty horn.

“Here,” Oberon said gruffly, and held out the horn. Dulcea took it and gently put it to Valerie’s lips.

It’s okay. Let us help you.

Valerie shut her eyes and sipped the warm, sweet liquid. Like when Darling had healed her after her fight with Shade and his gang, warmth spread through her body, and her pain eased, leaving only a dull ache behind. Dulcea gave the horn to Oberon, who gently placed it back on Azra’s forehead. A shudder passed through Azra’s body, and she sighed softly as if it were a relief to be whole again.

I’m sorry. I can’t completely erase your pain the way Darling can. But I hope I have brought you some relief. Thank you, Oberon.

He nodded in acknowledgment. “You know where I am if you need me,” he said, and then left without another word.

“I gotta ask—why do you trust that guy?” Cyrus asked Azra. “We know there’s a spy in Arden, watching the Knights and who knows what else. What if it’s Oberon? It wouldn’t be the first time that he’s spied on us for the Fractus.”

Azra’s gentle eyes became stern. It’s true; his past is dark. But he’s a changed man.

“How do you know?” Kanti asked.

Because I witnessed his change. He was never cruel or evil, only proud. And that pride made him believe that his immense powers entitled him to rule over others. But then, he fell in love with a woman, a Master of the Guardians, and she taught him to embrace justice. She’s gone now, but for her sake, I know that he would never betray her ideals.

“That’s so sad, but beautiful,” Dulcea said softly.

“I hope you’re right about him,” Kanti added.

If he were going to betray us, he would have done it long ago, when the Fractus captured him and tortured him to discover what secrets he had learned from the Guardians. What he endured in order to protect those secrets is unspeakable. Even after they blinded him, he didn’t give in.

“Poor Oberon. Now he’s free, but he’s blind and alone, without his love to comfort him,” Dulcea said with tears in her eyes.

Valerie’s heart softened toward him. Oberon had known what it was to be truly alone, just as she did. Even Kanti’s eyes were a little watery.

But Cyrus shifted impatiently, bored. “Enough about him, I want to tell Val what happened after she passed out.”

With that, Cyrus explained how Sanguina had retreated deep into the cave, and how he would have pursued her if it hadn’t been for the fact that Valerie was so hurt. Instead, he had carried her to the Healers’ Guild, with Dulcea’s help.

“My light can destroy her! I’ll find her and defeat her myself,” Cyrus said confidently.

But Azra shook her head. She won’t expose herself by leaving her fortress again. And wherever she is hiding, I am certain there are spells to extinguish any light inside. As a vampyre, it is the first precaution she would take. Our only hope is to draw her out of her fortress again, where we may have a chance to talk with her, or, if we must, fight her.

Listening, Valerie couldn’t help letting her attention wander as the memory of her encounter with Sanguina overwhelmed her. Azra, seeing Valerie’s distress, gently sent her friends home. After many protestations, they finally left, promising to be back the next day. When they were alone, Valerie let herself fall back on her bed, giving in to her emotions with a sob.

“How will I ever save my brother now? Sanguina crushed me; I never stood a chance against her. I was such an idiot to think I could fight her and win!”

Tell me what happened.

Valerie told her story through her tears, and in telling Azra what she had endured, some of her despair lifted.

Sanguina is very powerful. To stand against her, as you did, and fight back, is an incredible feat of strength. Few can resist when a vampyre controls their mind. What you did, pushing her out of your head, shows how great your power truly is.

“I must have seemed so pathetic to her, like a fly that she could swat with a flick of her wrist.”

That is the most terrible power that a vampyre can wield—robbing people of their hope. You can’t give in to that. Fight it, like you fought Sanguina’s control of your mind.

“It’s only a matter of time before she finds me again. And next time, she’ll finish what she started. But if I don’t face her, she’ll keep torturing Henry!” Valerie said. She was torn apart inside at the memory of his haunted face.

We’ll find a way to stop Sanguina, I promise. I’ve been working with the leaders of the Guilds, and even if it means attacking her fortress ourselves, we will stop her. We believe that she lives in the mountains of Dunsinane to the south, and I don’t think she’ll leave in the near future. She will try to find a way to have you brought to her, but we won’t let that happen. Trust in me.

“I do,” Valerie said, slightly relieved. For now, she had to let Henry’s fate rest in more capable hands than her own.

Now rest, because tomorrow you will need all of your strength.

Before Valerie allowed herself to sleep, she decided to check in on Thai. The healing seemed to have sucked her strength away, so it took a greater effort than usual to muster the concentration she needed to find him.

Finally, the world around her vanished, and she found herself standing in his tent. He leapt to his feet. “Where have you been? Do you know how scared I was? You were supposed to come yesterday! What were you—” he stopped short, examining her face. “What happened? Who did this to you? I’ll kill them,” he said, his voice turning rough and his eyes glittering dangerously.

Seeing how protective he was made her smile a little for the first time since she had encountered Sanguina. Despite how hopeless her situation seemed, she couldn’t help thinking how strange and wonderful it was to know that so many people cared about her.

“Is it that bad?” she asked, self-consciously touching her face.

“Don’t leave me in suspense!” he exclaimed, ignoring her question.

“I met Sanguina, we fought, and she defeated me,” Valerie said simply, not having the energy to go into detail again. “I don’t know how to save Henry now.”

“Thank God you escaped with your life,” Thai said, his voice raw. He stepped closer, raising his hand to her face, and then dropped it, realizing that he couldn’t touch her. Valerie was conscious of that familiar, warm feeling churning inside of her that always erupted when she stared into his eyes.

She blushed and changed the subject. “How is the woman Venu attacked?”

“Her name is Mrs. Leeds, and she’s fine now. Some of Venu’s slime got in her lungs, and she starting coughing up all this blood mixed with poison. Luckily the paramedics listened to me and were able to save her. She’s resting comfortably now, and has no memory of what really happened. I think that Venu attacked her accidentally, or maybe to steal her money—she’s a local schoolteacher.”

“Any luck finding Venu?”

“No, after leaving the hospital, I went back to the place where we found her, but there was no trace of him.”

“I guess it’s been lousy luck all around.”

“I’ll find Henry. He can’t be far, with Venu here.”

She didn’t know whether that was a comforting thought or not, knowing that Venu was so close to two people she cared so deeply about.

“I wish there was a way for me to stop Sanguina and protect you both. But she’s too powerful; she’ll crush me again,” she said, her earlier despair returning.

“Listen to me,” Thai said earnestly. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you, it’s that you’re a fighter. Life has thrown a lot of obstacles in your path, but no matter what happens, you’ve always come out swinging, ready to meet the next challenge. I know you’ll beat Sanguina, like you’ve beaten everyone else who’s tried to stop you from doing what’s right. We’re coming up to the final lap—hang in there.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right,” she said, some of her energy returning. With so many people on her side, she would find a way to save Henry—she had to.

[] Chapter 30

The next day, Valerie awoke to find a strange green creature bustling around her room. He was about half her size with enormous ears, long, tapered fingers and sharp, fanged teeth. At first, his appearance frightened her, reminding her of an evil goblin in a fairy tale.

But the creature’s demeanor was all business, and when he saw that she was awake, he walked briskly to her side. “I’m Nightingale, Master Healer,” he said in a low, soothing voice. “I’ve been watching over you for the past two days, and it’s high time that we got you up and out of that bed. The only way you’ll completely heal is if you stretch your muscles.”

“It’s nice to meet you. And thanks for taking care of me.” Without thinking, Valerie sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bed. Her body ached, protesting the quick movement.

Nightingale winced in sympathy. “Sorry, I should have warned you. Though your broken bones and muscle tears were healed, there is still some bruising. You’ll have to tread carefully for the next couple of weeks,” he said, handing her a glass of bubbling liquid. “You’re from Messina, right?”

“Um, yeah,” she replied, uncomfortable with the lie.

“Then this is probably your first time drinking Elixir. Think of it as a kind of magical painkiller. One that will not just make you feel better, but will also accelerate your body’s healing process.”

Valerie gulped the drink down, trying not to gag at its bitterness. Even on the Globe, medicine tasted terrible. But seconds later, the stiffness in her muscles eased and she was able to stand with Nightingale’s help.

“There are some Conjurors hovering at the door who have been waiting to see you all morning. Shall I let them in?”

She grinned and nodded. When Nightingale opened the door, Kanti and Cyrus burst through.

“Sleep late enough, Val?” Cyrus said.

“I’d think you’d be up at dawn, ready for our adventure! We’re already packed—I put some clothes and your sword in the call box for you,” Kanti added breathlessly, her eyes sparkling. “I can’t believe you get an armed guard! This is so cool.”

“Back up a sec. What’s happening?”

“Keep your voices down; this is a place of recovery,” Nightingale admonished before he left the room.

“Azra’s sending the three of us to Messina to hide out at my parents’ house. We’re going to get a Knights’ escort and everything! It will be almost impossible for Sanguina or anyone to find you in Messina, because if anyone uses their powers anywhere on the island, an alarm goes off and the police are there within seconds to arrest them,” Cyrus said. Then he winced. “Unfortunately, I know that from personal experience.”

“They take the whole not using magic thing really seriously there, huh?” Kanti said, intrigued. “I mean, I knew that using magic was taboo, but they actually arrest you?”

“Oh, yeah. I had to spend a night in jail once after I used my power to impress this gir-um, I mean, when I used my power,” Cyrus said. He glanced at Valerie. “Not an experience I want to repeat.”

“I don’t get it—why do they hate magic so much?” Kanti asked.

“My parents say that using magic only leads to war and violence, and that if all Conjurors had repressed their powers, they would never have had to leave Earth in the first place. So they have tried to make Messina as much like Earth as possible—a country of science instead of magic.”

“It sounds so different from any place I’ve ever visited,” Kanti said.

But Valerie wasn’t paying attention. “I don’t understand why Azra is sending me away,” she said, bewildered. What about their conversation the night before about finding a way to save Henry?

“She didn’t have a choice,” Cyrus explained. “She’s leading a team into Dunsinane to try to capture Sanguina. She didn’t want to leave you in Arden without being here to guard you herself. It’s too dangerous.”

“Henry’s going to be okay now. Azra will fix everything,” Kanti said, and Valerie understood now why she seemed so excited about their trip. She was relieved that her old friend was going to be rescued at last.

And Valerie herself was surprised how relieved she was at the news, too. Azra would take care of everything—she’d find Sanguina and get the charm that was blocking her from finding Henry. Valerie wouldn’t have to fight Sanguina again. It was strange, but comforting, having someone take care of her. She never thought she would like having someone swoop in and save the day for her, but for the first time, her fear ebbed away. Someone was going to take care of her and keep the monsters away.

“Cheer up. This is gonna be great! Do you know how hard it is to visit Messina? You have to get special permission to enter. I’ve never been there before! There was no way I was gonna miss out on this trip. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Think we’ll have time to visit the science museum?” Kanti asked, her enthusiasm infectious.

Valerie grew excited for the journey ahead, and she quickly cleaned up, ignoring her aches and pains. She groaned when she saw her reflection in the mirror, finally understanding Thai’s reaction last night. Her face was various shades of mottled yellow and brown from her bruises, making her look like a walking corpse. She tried to comb through some of the knots in her hair using her fingers, and then just gave up and put her hair in her usual ponytail.

As she turned to leave, she caught a glimpse of something silver in the mirror. A streak of gray now wound its way through her dark brown hair. It started at her neck, and she could only see it with her hair up.

“Just like Henry,” Valerie thought with a shiver. What had Sanguina done to him? His hair was half gray already. She pulled the elastic out of her hair so that no one would see the gray streak yet. She wasn’t ready to talk about it—even with Cyrus.

But even that couldn’t get her down when she returned to her hospital room and saw that Gideon was one of the Knights who would escort her to Messina. With him were two wolves, one jet-black and the other a pearly gray.

“Gideon! How can they spare you?” she asked, secretly thrilled that her teacher would be coming on the journey with her. Knowing that he was coming blew away the last cobwebs of fear from her mind.

“It’s an honor to be a part of this mission. I volunteered,” Gideon said in his quiet, commanding voice. “And these are two Master Knights, Jet and Chrome,” he added, gesturing to the wolves at his side. They both nodded silently, and Valerie noticed the intelligence in their eyes. She nodded back, respectfully returning their greeting. She was starting to understand that judging Conjurors by their appearance didn’t make any sense on the Globe, where no one was what they seemed.

“If you’re comfortable with it, they will communicate with you by sending you mental images,” Gideon said. “It’s tradition for wolves to ask permission to talk to you this way, because touching minds is a very personal experience.”

“Um, sure,” she said, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly, images of a pack of wolves gathered around a fire filled her mind. Somehow, she understood that this image meant safety and protection, which the wolves were promising to provide her with as long as they were her guardians. “Thank you for watching over me,” she said, touched by their gentle offer to her, even though she was a stranger to them.

“Jet and Chrome are famous Trackers,” Cyrus said, excited. Then he turned to the wolves. “I’ve heard of you guys—you tracked down the hideout of three of the Fractus living right in downtown Silva!” Valerie could almost swear that the wolves were grinning at Cyrus’s admiration, and images of the two wolves running across open fields and through forests, following a strange scent, filled Valerie’s mind.

“They can follow magic trails,” Gideon explained. “Magic leaves behind a unique signature every time it’s used. Trackers can sense where magic has been used and trace it back to its source. They will ensure that no one evil is using magic near us on our journey. And once we’re in Messina, they’ll be able to sense if anyone on the entire island is using magic.”

“How will we get there?” Kanti asked, bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet.

“It would take us days to travel by foot or even rollercoaster to the Illyrian Ocean. But Azra gave us special permission to use the Shortcut. It’s a tunnel that goes straight from Silva to the ocean. A powerful spell placed on it reduces the distance so that every hundred miles is cut down to one mile, so instead of taking days to get there, we’ll be there in hours,” Gideon replied.

“Almost no one gets to use it—the Shortcut is only for emergencies, so this is a real privilege,” Cyrus added reverently. But Valerie shuddered inwardly at the thought of being cooped up in a dark tunnel for hours and hours.

“Then we’re taking a boat to Messina, because there’s a law against arriving on the island magically. So thankfully, no magical rollercoasters or bending space to get there. We’re traveling Earth-style—for the most part,” Kanti said.

“Enough talk. It’s time to leave before this location is discovered by someone unsavory,” Gideon said firmly.

[] Chapter 31

While Jet and Chrome scouted ahead, Gideon led Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti to the middle of The Horseshoe, where an enormous fountain of oversized, gem-cut flowers and stone fish spouting interlocking streams of water made a fantastic display. Gideon muttered a strange word, and the air around them became blurry.

“We have only a minute before the spell that is preventing people from seeing us wears off,” he said.

“Most people don’t ever learn the entrance to the Shortcut,” Kanti whispered excitedly in Valerie’s ear.

Before she could ask any questions, Gideon pulled on the stem of a beautiful giant rose that must have been cut from a single ruby. Then she heard a grinding sound, and the middle of the fountain swung aside, revealing steps that led down into darkness.

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that Valerie approached the entrance to the Shortcut. Imagining the small space and close walls that were waiting for her below, her fear swelled, threatening to upset her stomach. But before she became overwhelmed, she forced herself to get a grip. The last thing she wanted was for Gideon to think she was too weak to be a Knight.

When Valerie reached the bottom of the stairs, the sight that met her was a surprise. The steps opened up to a platform that looked over an enormous, glittering underground city a few hundred feet below them. Lights twinkled inside of little buildings made of granite, and Conjurors traveled down the streets in shallow, round buckets that whirred quietly as they swiftly took their passengers to their destinations. It was like entering another world.

“The Stone City,” Cyrus said breathlessly. “It’s real.”

“Its true name is Plymouth. And of course it’s real. What are they teaching you in school these days?” Gideon asked.

Valerie, confused, nudged Cyrus. He explained, “Plymouth is the name of the first city created on the Globe, before Conjurors created the weather system and all of the land masses you see today above ground. I was taught that the city had disappeared over the ages, but here it is.”

“These Conjurors—the Groundlings—chose to stay and live beneath the surface. They asked to be sealed off from the struggles for power in the world above. In return for hiding the entrances and exits to their city, they allow Guild Masters to use these tunnels to travel in times of great emergencies,” Gideon explained, gesturing to the network of clear tubes above their heads.

As spectacular as the underground city appeared, Valerie cringed at the thought of always living below the surface, never seeing the light of day. She noticed that she wasn’t the only one who was more uncomfortable than impressed with Plymouth. Jet’s and Chrome’s eyes darted around, and their ears lay flat against their heads. Images of the rock ceiling crumbling, crushing them all and trapping them underground forever, flashed from the wolves minds to Valerie’s, and she shuddered.

Noticing their discomfort, Gideon led the group to a circular platform like the ones the Groundlings were traveling on in the city below. The vehicle was several feet deep and filled with bright red cushions. They climbed in, and the platform immediately began to speed through the clear tubes as if it knew exactly where it was going.

Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti huddled together, peering over the edge to admire the city whizzing by. They marveled at the underground world built entirely of stone. For hours, they pointed out different landmarks to each other that they could make out as they sped along, like a life-size rainbow made of gemstones and a castle cut out of the side of a sparkly pink and black granite mountain. But after awhile, the stone buildings began to blur, and Valerie sank back against the cushions, yearning to be above ground.

Jet and Chrome dozed on the floor, and images from their dreams occasionally flickered in her mind. The gentle rhythm of their breathing eventually put Cyrus and Kanti to sleep also. But not Valerie. She was restless. The image of Sanguina hovering over her, in complete control of her every move, kept her awake.

“That fear—I see it in you even now—is why you lost when you faced Sanguina,” Gideon said, his voice interrupting her thoughts. “You are strong enough to defeat her.”

Valerie was immediately defensive. “Do you think I want to be afraid? That I wouldn’t stop if I could?” After all, what did Gideon know about what she’d been through? He was an incredible fighter, even without any magic. He didn’t understand what it was like to be powerless, to be forced to submit to someone else’s will. But she’d been controlled and manipulated long before Sanguina gave her this beating, and didn’t see any reason why that pattern would ever really stop.

“No one wishes to be afraid,” he replied quietly. “But not everyone is strong enough to fight their fear. I think you are.”

“How?” she asked hopelessly.

Gideon hesitated, and then slid a golden ring off of his third finger. He handed it to Valerie, and she took it, surprised by how heavy it was. When she touched it, the ring, which had been warm and bright, suddenly turned cold and black in her hand. She almost dropped it in shock.

“What happened to it?” she asked Gideon.

“This ring is very special. A teacher gave it to me when I was a Knight apprentice. I was the only apprentice without a power, and many of the other students tried to pick fights with me, saying that I didn’t have a right to be in the Guild. For a long time, I thought they were right, and I was so afraid that I would be asked to leave. But one day, one of the apprentices—a bully—insulted my parents. His words inflamed me, and instead of being afraid, I was angry. The rage seemed to burn away my fear, and I fought as I had never fought before.”

“Did you win?” Valerie asked, remembering her fight with Venu at Stonehenge. Her rage had saved her from a bully then, just as Gideon’s had.

“Yes,” he said with a small smile. “He never bothered me again. But a teacher saw me fight that day and recognized my potential. It was my fear holding me back, but when I let go of that fear, all of my skills and training emerged. He gave me that ring so that I would always know when I was being held back by my fear instead of my skills.

“He called it the Laurel Circle, and explained that the temperature and color of the ring changes in relation to how much fear is ruling the person who touches it. Fear makes it cold and dark, and it becomes warmer as the wearer learns to control, and eventually overcome, their fear.”

Valerie looked more closely at the Laurel Circle, fascinated. It was still cold and black in her hand, because she was still afraid of so many things, like what would happen to Henry and how she’d ever fight Sanguina again if she had to. The words etched on the inside of the ring caught her eye. “Power, courage, mercy,” she read aloud. She remembered reading those words somewhere before.

“The values that every knight lives by,” Gideon explained.

“These are the words on the arch of the Knights’ Guild,” she suddenly remembered.

“Yes—they are the words I live my life by. The Laurel Circle is yours now, Valerie,” he said solemnly.

“It’s too much—I couldn’t accept!” she said, trying to give the ring back to him.

“I have learned its lesson well. Now it’s time to pass it to another worthy warrior, and I choose you.”

A warm pride grew inside Valerie at the honor of being chosen to wear the Laurel Circle. Gideon believed in her. It was too large to fit on her middle finger, where he had worn it, so she slid it onto her thumb, where it fit snugly. Already, the ring seemed a little warmer, and more gray than black. Before she could respond to Gideon, their vehicle came to a smooth stop, awaking the others. She got up, thankful that the long trip underground was finally over, and walked to the staircase at the end of the platform.

At the top of the stairs, she pushed open a trapdoor disguised with fallen leaves. Climbing out, she saw that they were at the edge of Arden’s forest. The ocean glittered a few hundred yards away. She took a deep breath of fresh air and reveled in the warm, salty breeze that filled her nose and lifted her hair off her neck. She led the way down to the beach, where the sunset turned the water a deep shade of blue. She watched closely, unable to say a word.

Even though she had grown up in a city not far from the ocean, no one had ever taken her to see it. Her understanding of an ocean came from pictures, movies, and a shell that a school friend had given her once when she was eight. But seeing the ocean up close, with her own eyes, made those pictures pale in comparison. The Illyrian Ocean was flat and glassy, and the vastness of it was beyond her comprehension. For the first time, she understood why, long ago, people had believed that the world was flat and if you reached the edge of the horizon, you would fall off. It also hit her how enormous Illyria must be, if the city and the Akashic Records were all beneath this enormous ocean that was somehow connected to the lakes in Silva and the Roaming City.

“We’ll camp here for the night,” Gideon announced, interrupting her thoughts. She rejoiced that they would sleep above ground, and that she would get to see the sun rise over the water.

Jet and Chrome immediately left, scouting the area for traces of magic. Before the last of the light disappeared, Kanti and Cyrus called a houseplant from the callbox. Valerie watched in amazement as the leafy green plant sprouted long, green vines as thick as Valerie’s wrist, and bright yellow, blue, and pink flowers budded between the leaves and bloomed into four canopy beds.

“Much more comfortable than that tent-thing,” Kanti said smugly.

Cyrus shrugged. “Without the tent, we never would have met Leo.”

“Whatever. I’m glad to be sleeping somewhere comfy tonight.”

While Cyrus and Kanti bickered, Valerie approached Gideon, who was stretching. “Do you have some energy left for training?” he asked. She nodded eagerly, and then called for Pathos.

“In these dangerous times, Pathos, or whatever your weapon of choice is, should never leave your side,” Gideon said.

“You’re right. If I’d had it when I fought Sanguina, maybe things would have gone differently,” Valerie said.

“A warrior should dwell not on the ‘ifs’ but on the facts.”

Without another word, Gideon began performing the martial arts moves that he had been showing the Knight apprentices the other day. Valerie followed his movements, and she noticed Kanti and Cyrus watching curiously.

With a small gesture, Valerie invited them to join her. Soon, the four moved in perfect synchronization as the last of the sun’s rays transformed into starlight. Peace settled over her heart, and her magic flowed through her body.

Cyrus’s and Kanti’s movements harmonized with her own, magnifying her sense of personal strength. After they had silently moved through a series of kicks, blocks, and punches, Gideon began to give them individualized advice on how to maximize their defenses.

First, he demonstrated for Valerie several moves to practice with her sword. “These maneuvers should come to you effortlessly,” Gideon explained. “Practice them until you can do them in your sleep.”

While she practiced the moves, both with and without magic to aid her, Gideon spoke quietly with Cyrus about his power, and how it could be used defensively and offensively. After analyzing several options, he instructed him to practice creating blinding flashes of light.

Finally, Gideon approached Kanti. “What is your weapon?”

“Oh, I don’t have a power to use for fighting like Cy and Valerie. I’ll never be good at this.”

“That matters not—I don’t have a power, either. Though Azra has offered to help me develop my magic, I have refused. I prefer my own effort and inner strength to magic,” Gideon said.

Kanti’s eyes were wide with awe. “But no one can defeat you. How is that possible without having a power?”

Gideon made a soft sound. He was laughing. “There are many who can defeat me, I’m sure. But it is true that I fight well enough, or I would not be a Master Knight. And you can learn to fight, too, with a little sweat. There will be a time when you will be glad that you do not need your friends to protect you.”

“I’m ready,” Kanti said, with determination.

“Good. First we need to find you a weapon. For some, like Valerie, a weapon will call to them. For others, they must try many weapons until they find one that suits them. Here, try my sword,” Gideon said. Kanti took it, but she held it away from her body like it might bite her if it got too close. Even after he taught her how to hold it, the sword frequently slipped through her fingers and fell to the ground.

“Not the sword,” Gideon said decisively. “From the way you move, I think the staff may be better for you.” He briefly disappeared into the forest and then came back with a long wooden branch about the thickness of Kanti’s fist. Kanti grasped it in her hands, testing its weight and texture.

“I like this one,” she said, gripping the staff tightly. “It reminds me of when I held the ballet bar at dance lessons when I was little.” Gideon gave her some instructions, and she practiced with the staff for hours. Later, she was reluctant to put the branch down when Gideon told them to rest, even though she was drenched with sweat.

No bed had ever felt as comfortable as the one Valerie crawled into that night. Kanti was right—no more tents from now on, she thought drowsily before drifting off to sleep, the Laurel Circle cool, but not cold, against her skin.

[] Chapter 32

The next day, they woke at sunrise to continue their journey. The sight of the sun shining brilliantly on the turquoise ocean infused Valerie with energy and purpose. One way or another, she would find a way to make sure her brother was safe, even if Azra’s mission didn’t succeed.

A short distance down the beach was a dock crowded with dozens of boats. Gideon led the group to a boat that reminded her of yachts that she had seen on television. It had three little cabins, a kitchen, and even a small pool.

“With all this water, why would anyone need a pool on a boat?” Valerie asked, mystified. “And it seems way too fancy for a day trip.”

“Actually, it’s almost a three-day trip to Messina. The island’s really remote,” Cyrus said, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet with nervous energy. Was he worried about bringing such a strange crowd to his parents’ house?

“You okay?”

“Oh, yeah. I hope everything goes smoothly.”

“I hope they don’t think I’m a total weirdo. I want them to like me,” Valerie said, wondering for the first time what Cyrus’s parents were like.

“Of course they’ll like you. Who could help it?” Cyrus said, trying to sound confident, but she heard the worry in his voice.

“Something’s bothering you.”

“It’s nothing. I hope they don’t tell embarrassing stories about me or anything,” Cyrus said. She let the subject drop, hoping he’d open up to her later.

The next two days passed like a dream for Valerie. Gideon captained the ship, with Jet helping him with navigation. The ocean water was so clear that they could stare down into the depths and sometimes see hints of the vast city beneath the waves. At night, lights glimmered through the water, and she couldn’t help but be entranced, imagining Leo living below the waves. But just as when she had been in Plymouth, it gave her a chill to imagine living so far away from the surface and the sunshine.

A few times, she even caught a glimpse of mermen and mermaids, the immortal residents and record keepers of Illyria. Their long hair was silky and fluid under water as they curiously approached the boat and then quickly swam away, satisfied that they were visitors skimming across the surface, not intruders trying to force their way into the underwater world.

Every morning, she checked in with Thai back on Earth to give him the update. At first, she felt guilty that he was sitting around, waiting for her to figure out where Henry was, but he seemed to be enjoying the time he spent in the woods, talking to Tan and exploring. At least he wasn’t miserable, because she didn’t know when she’d have any news for him now.

Valerie, Kanti, and Cyrus’s time didn’t go to waste during the long days of travel. On the first morning, the three friends practiced the moves that Gideon taught them on the bow of the ship. As Gideon watched and called down instructions, Valerie noticed Jet and Chrome watching her closely.

When she finally took a break, the wolves approached her, and Valerie’s mind was flooded with images, almost like a daydream, of a warrior in full armor being attacked by a group of assailants armed with many different types of weapons. The warrior’s incredible speed and skill kept all of the enemies at bay, and one by one, the attackers fell. When the warrior was the only one standing, the helmet that was hiding the warrior’s identity slid off. Valerie gasped when she saw her own face.

Gideon was standing beside her, sharing the vision. “Masters Jet and Chrome are showing you what you’re capable of, as well as what you need to work on—focus and speed. They want to help train you.”

“Yes, thank you,” she said eagerly, staring into the eyes of each wolf in turn so that they could see her gratitude.

For the rest of her time on the boat, she spent a large part of every day training with Jet and Chrome. She used a practice sword and shield, and her mission was to prevent the wolves from forcing her to the ground. Initially, she thought she would never be able to block even one wolf’s attack, never mind two. She was constantly being hurtled to the ground as they attacked her from all sides, and her bruises from her fight with Sanguina were joined by new black and blue marks all over her arms, knees, and back.

Physical combat was only part of the wolves’ training. Jet and Chrome also spent hours taking Valerie, Kanti, and Cyrus through a series of mental exercises that Valerie found as difficult as fighting. The wolves sent visions to the three friends of battles that they had witnessed in the past, and then quizzed them on the details of what they had seen. The wolves expected them to remember everything from the techniques of the fighters to where the defenses were weakest to who was wearing a red shirt. The visions seemed chaotic to Valerie at first and she had trouble remembering any of the details that they asked about.

But then Kanti commented that there was a rhythm pulsing through the battles. “It’s almost like a dance. Now that we’ve seen a few of these battles, I can recognize most of the moves. It’s like the battle has been choreographed.”

In the next vision, Valerie searched for the rhythm that Kanti had mentioned, and suddenly, as if something unlocked in her mind, she could see the pattern of the battle unfolding before her eyes. Every move was in reaction to something else, and she started to see the battle as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. From that point on, her answers to the wolves’ questions became increasingly accurate.

She also noticed that she had a better awareness of where the wolves were located in relation to her at all times. When they were fighting with her, she was able to block out the details that weren’t relevant to the fight, like Kanti’s and Cyrus’s shouts of encouragement and the rocking of the boat.

The intensity of her focus was also critical in helping her speed—it was as if she was seeing her next two moves in her head, which enabled her to move without thinking. After two days of practice, she was able to block some of the wolves’ attacks as long as she channeled her magic, though she had yet to touch the point of her sword to their fur and claim a victory of her own.

When Valerie was sweaty from practicing all day, Kanti and Cyrus harassed her, insisting that it was time to learn how to swim. At the thought, the Laurel Circle turned ice cold. She remembered one day when she was six years old, and the boys who lived in the neighborhood of her foster family decided it would be funny to throw her into a lake and watch her drown. They’d pull her out at the last second and laugh as she threw up water. They’d done it three times before they finally got bored and left her alone. Since then, she’d never dipped so much as a toe in a body of water bigger than a bathtub.

But it was time to leave that behind, she decided. This was one fear she could conquer right now. She decided to let Cyrus coax her into the little pool on the boat. He showed her how to float on her back, blow bubbles, and eventually swim. She was surprised how quickly she caught on. The second night, when Gideon anchored the boat and told them they’d be there until dawn, Cyrus and Kanti told her it was time to jump in the ocean and practice her swimming for real.

But peering into the dark depths of the ocean, Valerie wasn’t so sure she was ready for that. Anything could be down there, ready to grab her and pull her into the darkness forever. She shuddered, remembering a special on sharks that she had seen on television. Sharks were probably tame compared to the mysterious creatures lurking in the depths of the Illyrian Ocean. Even the moonlight shining down on the water with its shimmering light dancing on the surface did not bring Valerie any comfort. No way was she getting in there, she decided, ready to turn back.

Then Cyrus stepped next to her and whispered, “So, let me get this straight. A gang of thugs attacking us in the middle of nowhere and robbing us of our powers doesn’t freak you out, but faced with a little water, you completely chicken out?”

“Hey, to be fair, it’s not exactly ‘a little water.’ It’s an ocean!”

“Whatever. Come on, wimp!” Cyrus yelled, and then cannonballed into the ocean.

“Show off!” Kanti shouted, and then dove into the water gracefully.

The Laurel Circle was freezing on her thumb. This was the chance to do what Gideon had said and fight her fear. She leapt off the side of the boat, briefly suspended in the air before crashing into the water below. Everything was dark, quiet, and cold under the waves. But then she clawed her way to the surface and gulped in a giant breath of air. Surprisingly, the cold ocean made her feel alive instead of frightened, as if every one of her senses was tingling. She felt so different from the girl she’d been back on Earth who had no one but the hospital staff to love and no new experiences in her life.

“Maybe there’s hope for you yet!” Cyrus said, splashing her playfully.

With strong, confident strokes, Valerie swam over to him and immediately dunked his head under the water. Kanti cheered.

To Valerie’s surprise, even Gideon and the wolves jumped in for a midnight swim. Splashing in the sparkling, moonlit water with her friends, proud that she had finally learned to swim, she reveled in the realization that this was one of the best times of her life. If only Henry and Thai were here to share it with her, her happiness would be complete.

[] Chapter 33

The next morning, Valerie awoke to a slanting ray of sun hitting her face from the porthole in her cabin. Eager to make the most of her last peaceful hours on the ocean, she got ready, strapped on Pathos, and left the cabin without waking up Kanti.

Gideon was already at the wheel, watching the sun rise over the ocean. But this morning, instead of endless miles of shimmery aquamarine, the shadowy outline of a city skyline appeared etched on the horizon. She was surprised to see that it was full of skyscrapers, reminding her of San Francisco.

“It’s so normal,” she said, mystified.

“Did you expect it to be different from when you left?” Gideon asked.

Valerie blushed. “The truth is, I’m not really from Messina. I’m from Earth. It’s supposed to be a kind of secret,” she admitted. Gideon’s expression didn’t change. “I never meant to lie to you.”

“It’s a necessary precaution. I understand. And it explains several things that puzzled me.”

Gideon didn’t seem inclined to ask any questions, so she changed the subject. “From the way people talk, I didn’t imagine that Messina would be a big city. I thought these people were living on farms with no electricity or anything.”

She heard Cyrus burst out laughing and turned around. “There’s a ‘no magic’ law on Messina, Val, not a ‘no science’ law. Messina is the science capital of the Globe! They’ve adopted a lot of inventions from Earth, and added a few of their own. It’s probably the only place on the entire Globe that won’t seem totally weird to you.”

“And I’m excited to meet your family,” Valerie added.

“Yeah, I can’t wait to see how that goes,” Cyrus mumbled. “When we meet my parents, please don’t wear your sword, though, okay? And tell Kanti to hide that staff of hers, too. There are some pretty strict rules about weapons on Messina, even non-magical ones. My parents believe that fighting, even to save your own life, is wrong.”

Gideon shook his head in disbelief, but didn’t say anything.

“I’m going for one last swim,” Cyrus said, abruptly ending the conversation. Yanking off his shirt, he jumped into the pool and began swimming furious laps.

“That reminds me; I meant to ask you about this sword—the Edge of Pathos,” Valerie said, shading her eyes to get a better look at Gideon’s face. “When I came to visit you at the Guild last time, you mentioned that I had inherited my sword from a master of the craft. Who is she?”

Gideon’s usually expressionless eyes clouded over. “It belonged to a Master of the Guardians, Adelita. She was a brilliant strategist as well as a swordswoman. She captured many members of the Fractus who were trying to break through the barrier between Earth and the Globe. The sword was a gift that she received for saving the life of the Grand Master of the Weapons Guild. It’s ancient, supposedly created before the barrier was placed between the worlds. It is said there has been no blade crafted before or since with its power. To see Adelita fight with it was like watching a ballet.”

“Did you know her well?”

“We teamed up many times to track down and fight the Fractus. She saved my life more than once, and I hers. We were friends.”

“What happened to her?”

“She fell in love with one of the Fractus. He swore to her that he would change, give up all contact with the Fractus, but in the end, it would have been better if they had never met,” Gideon said, and Valerie could hear the anger in his voice.

She hadn’t even noticed Jet’s quiet approach until an image flashed in her mind. A woman with long, dark hair was passionately kissing a man with stormy eyes—Oberon?

“Adelita was Oberon’s love? She was the one who convinced him to work for the good guys instead of the Fractus?” she asked, shocked.

Gideon gave Jet a stern, knowing look. “It is beneath my honor to gossip.”

She knew she should back off, but she had to ask, “What happened to Adelita?”

“Being with—that man—made her even more of a target to the Fractus than she was before. She knew too much, so they killed her,” Gideon said, his anger becoming mixed with sadness.

It was horrifying to learn that the last owner of Pathos had died so brutally. Seeing the firm set of Gideon’s jaw, she didn’t dare to ask any more questions about Adelita, and his usual calm returned.

“Now a question for you—where did you find the Edge of Pathos?”

“It was in the launch chamber on Earth, embedded in the floor. It sounds weird, but I think it was waiting for me.”

“That’s not strange—sometimes weapons recognize their new owners. But why would she put such a beautiful sword on Earth? Of course, if anyone would know how to send an object to Earth, it would be Adelita. She was a Master of the Guardians, so those secrets must have been known to her. But why? What could it mean?”

She left him to ponder those questions while she practiced with Pathos and her magic, aware that she wouldn’t be able to use either once they reached Messina.

When they were a mile or two away from the shore, Valerie eagerly strained her eyes for a more detailed view of the city they were approaching, trying to imagine what wonders would be in store for her in this corner of the Globe. But as the boat drew closer, she was slightly disappointed to see that Messina was remarkably similar to any major city in America, filled with buildings, people, and lots of traffic.

They docked the boat on a wooden pier, and she stepped onto dry land with a twinge of regret. The past two days had been the most peaceful in her entire life. She knew that it would be a long time before she had a chance to relax like that again.

At the end of the dock, crowds of people rushed past, buying things from the colorful vendors’ stalls and hurrying to their next destination. She was surprised how vulnerable she felt without the endless sea surrounding her, protecting her from attack. What if Sanguina was lurking somewhere in that bustling mob, watching and waiting for a chance to snatch her away from her guardians? She took a deep steadying breath, reining in her fear and telling herself to focus on impressing Cyrus’s family rather than the possibility of another encounter Sanguina, who was probably halfway around the world right now.

“Cyrus,” summoned a tall man in a gray suit.

“That’s your dad?” Kanti asked. Cyrus nodded.

Curious, Valerie stared at him as he stepped out of the throng of people at the dock. He was an older version of Cyrus, except his blond hair was very trim and neat, just like everything else about him, and his cold blue eyes didn’t sparkle with humor the way Cyrus’s did. He approached Cyrus and patted him stiffly on the shoulder, as if he were an acquaintance rather than his only son.

“Hello, Father,” Cyrus said solemnly. “Please allow me to introduce Valerie, Kanti, Gideon, Jet, and Chrome.”

Gideon bowed deeply. “Many thanks for hosting us during our stay in Messina.” His voice carried a power in it that made everyone standing near him on the dock stare. But instead of being impressed, Cyrus’s father kept glancing around, uncomfortable with the attention he was drawing.

“Thank you for your hospitality, sir,” Kanti added.

“You may call me Mr. Burns, young lady,” he said.

“I’m so happy to meet you, Mr. Burns,” Valerie said softly, intimidated by his tone.

But Cyrus’s father talked only to his son, as if the rest of them didn’t exist. “I trust you have explained to these Conjurors the rules of this island.”

“Yes, of course. We just need a place to sleep. You’ll barely know we’re here,” Cyrus said. Valerie could hear a thick chord of tension in his voice.

“Mr. Burns, we will always be near, but you won’t see Jet, Chrome, or me for the rest of our stay here,” Gideon said, still respectful, but with a chilly condescension of his own laced into his words. Then he turned to Valerie. “We will scout the area for any magical activity or potential threats. One of us will always keep you in sight, watching for any trouble. Farewell, for now.”

Without another word, Gideon and the wolves melted into the crowd.

Mr. Burns’ voice interrupted Valerie’s thoughts as he said to Cyrus, “Your mother will be relieved that it’s only the three of you who need lodging.”

Cyrus’s father led them to a dark blue car that was different from any Valerie had seen on Earth. It had sharp, crisp edges rather than the fluid lines of the cars she was familiar with, and apparently ran on energy captured by metallic panels on the roof that she assumed worked like solar panels.

It was a silent trip to Cyrus’s house, despite the fact that Kanti and Valerie each made a few attempts at small talk. Their questions were met with one-word answers from Mr. Burns, so they gave up and stared out the windows at the city. Kanti couldn’t stop pointing at everything that fascinated her, and Valerie had to smile. Had she looked like that when Cyrus and Azra first showed her around Arden?

After a half-hour drive, the tall buildings gave way to rows of identical houses. Apparently suburbia wasn’t limited to Earth. Mr. Burns pulled into one of the plain, concrete driveways.

Before they went inside, Cyrus pointed out a spot in the distance to her. “That’s the lighthouse where my dad works. I’ll take you there tomorrow. It’s pretty cool. When the ocean’s rough, the water splashes halfway up the tower.” She squinted and could see the tall lighthouse standing among the rocks at the edge of the ocean. The light at the top shone so brightly that it stood out like a star, even in the middle of the day.

“Who wants to see the lighthouse when there’s a world-renowned science museum to check out?” Kanti asked eagerly.

“Fine, we can do both. Any excuse to get us out of here early,” Cyrus replied.

“Enough dawdling. Your mother made dinner, and I don’t want to eat it cold,” Mr. Burns said impatiently.

[] Chapter 34

Inside Cyrus’s house, everything was in meticulous order. There wasn’t a speck of dust or an item out of place. The walls were painted white, and there was something almost clinical about the extreme order in the house. Valerie was distracted from her observation by a delicious, familiar smell. She turned to Cyrus, delighted. “Is that roast turkey? I didn’t think I’d ever get to eat that ever again!”

“If I’d known you’d get this excited over turkey, I would have brought you here ages ago. Sometimes you’re ridiculously easy to please, Val,” Cyrus said, the anxiety leaving his voice for the first time since he’d seen his father.

A short woman with long, red hair appeared. “Welcome home, dear,” she said, giving Cyrus a light hug and kiss on his cheek.

“Missed you, Mother.”

“You must be Valerie and Kanti. You’re exactly as Cyrus described you,” she said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

It was strange how parents and children could be so different. Cyrus was so warm and full of life—the exact opposite of his parents. Maybe they were friendlier when they didn’t have the burden of two extra guests to feed.

“Thanks for having us, Mrs. Burns,” Valerie said.

“Yes, it is a pleasure to meet you,” Kanti added.

“Where are the rest of the guests?” Mrs. Burns inquired.

“The other three are fending for themselves. It turns out that we won’t have to deal with them at all. Is dinner ready?” Mr. Burns asked.

“Yes, dear, Cara’s finishing the gravy. Why don’t you all sit down?”

Cyrus’s mother disappeared into the kitchen as they all sat down at the table. Valerie could hear her arguing with a girl she assumed must be Cara in the other room.

“I can’t believe you’re letting her in the house! She’s the reason Cy left and never came back!” the girl said passionately.

“Keep your voice down! Don’t embarrass us. Azra asked us to do this. We can’t very well turn her down, now, can we? Mind your manners.”

Valerie was shocked. Were they talking about her? Was she the reason Cyrus hadn’t come home? Cara and her mother burst out of the kitchen, their hands full of plates piled with traditional American Thanksgiving food.

Cara had red hair, like her mother, and Cyrus’s blue eyes. She was only a year or two younger than Cyrus. Cara shoved a plate in front of Valerie, spilling some of its contents onto the table.

“You must be Cara. I’m Valerie. I’ve been really excited to meet you—Cyrus has told me a lot about you,” Valerie said, smiling tentatively.

Cara snorted. “I’m sure he barely mentions us. But we know plenty about you. You’re all he talks about.”

Cyrus turned bright red. “Enough, Cara! Nice to see you, too.”

“Sure, whatever, big bro. Bet you’re overjoyed at a chance for a family reunion.”

“Children, I’ll thank you to be quiet and eat your food,” Mr. Burns glowered.

For several minutes, everyone chewed quietly.

“This is delicious, Mrs. Burns. I’ve really missed traditional Earth food,” Valerie said.

“Thank you.”

More silence. Kanti and Valerie exchanged glances, and Kanti nodded, acknowledging that it was her turn to try to dispel the awkwardness with a safe subject. “So, Cara, is it true that the science programs in the schools here rock?”

Cara stared back at Kanti, clearly trying to figure out what to make of the weird-looking girl wearing a Ludicrous T-shirt. Cyrus’s mother gave her a nudge, and Cara sighed dramatically before replying, “We’re studying life science right now. It’s kind of cool.”

Kanti was genuinely interested. “There isn’t even a class offered at my Guild on life science—not enough students interested to form a class. What kinds of things do you get to do?”

“We watched caterpillars grow into butterflies and released them at a park last week. It was beautiful,” Cara replied, warming to the subject.

Kanti’s eyes were wide. “Wow, that sounds better than magic.”

“That’s the kind of thing you’re missing out on, Cyrus,” his mother said softly.

“Don’t start, Mother, please.”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” she replied sharply, but then the harsh expression on her face relaxed into concern as she examined his face. “You’re exhausted. You haven’t been getting in to fights again, have you?”

“That fight wasn’t his fault, Mrs. Burns, I swear,” Kanti said. Cyrus elbowed her under the table, and Kanti immediately turned back to her food, realizing that she had opened a can of worms.

“So there was a fight. I knew it. You really have turned your back on everything we stand for,” Cyrus’s father reprimanded.

“I get it! You’re ashamed of me. Do you have to remind me every time I come home?” Cyrus shouted, upsetting the gravy bowl in his angry rush to leave the table. Then he stormed out the front door, slamming it behind him. Valerie started to get up to follow him.

“You’ll finish your dinner, young lady. My house, my rules. Then bed. I don’t want either of you causing any trouble and making the neighbors talk any more than they already are.” Mr. Burns’ tone didn’t leave any room for arguing.

They ate the rest of their food in silence. After dinner, Mrs. Burns showed Valerie and Kanti a small room with two twin beds, and they quietly changed and turned out the light. Kanti fell asleep right away, but Valerie lay awake, waiting to hear Cyrus come back. What if someone had followed them from Arden after all, and Cyrus was in danger?

Quietly, she slipped out of bed and crept out of the house. Outside, the stars were harder to see than when they were in Arden because of the lights in the city. But in the distance, the lighthouse glowed brightly, a beacon in the night. Cyrus had to be there. But she couldn’t leave—hadn’t she learned that the hard way when she had disappeared without telling Dulcea? Instead she softly called for Gideon.

“The island is free of magic,” Gideon’s voice came quietly out of the darkness. “You’re safe.”

“Cyrus ran off during dinner. I have to find him. What if he’s hurt?”

“Chrome followed Cyrus when he left. If anything had happened to him, I would know.”

She was relieved. “Is it okay if I bring him back?”

“I will accompany you. Jet will stay with Kanti.”

“Thank you.”

She hurried down the street, using the bright light from the lighthouse as a guide. It was farther than she had guessed, and an hour passed before she and Gideon reached it. Chrome was noiselessly circling the base of the lighthouse in the dark. When he saw them, he gave a quick nod, indicating that everything in the area was safe. Chrome sent her an image of Cyrus huddled at the top of the lighthouse, and she knew that her guess as to where he was hiding was right. As she approached the door at the base of the lighthouse, Gideon joined Chrome in scouting the area in order to give Valerie and Cyrus some privacy.

The door was slightly open, and Valerie went inside. There was a small kitchen and a few sofas inside. It was cozy, and much more welcoming than the Burns’ house. A set of stairs spiraled to the top. She hurried up the stairs, and sure enough, standing at the top, staring out at the ocean, was Cyrus.

“You found me,” he said, turning around. His eyes were slightly red and swollen, but she knew better than to ask if he’d been crying.

“It’s nice up here, away from the rest of the world. So this is where you discovered your power for the first time, huh?” Valerie asked, still breathless from her climb.

“Yeah, the best and worst day of my life.”

“What do you mean?”

“Discovering my power made a whole new world of possibilities open up before me. I could do anything. But it was also the first time my parents seemed really disappointed in me. Obviously, it wasn’t the last time. You know, if I stayed in Messina, I’d probably follow in my dad’s footsteps and take over maintaining this lighthouse. But as much as I love it here, I’d suffocate if I could never use my power. My parents don’t understand. They think magic is turning me into some kind of violent gangster. They don’t understand the beauty of using their powers and letting magic rush through them.”

“The last thing you could ever be is violent.”

“I know that, most days. But sometimes, when my dad looks at me as if I’m some disgusting distortion of the son he once knew, I worry that he’s right. Maybe someday, my magic will warp me into a power-hungry villain, like he thinks it will.”

“But lots of people with powers don’t abuse them, like Azra, or Jet and Chrome.”

“I guess.”

“And your sister, she agrees?”

Cyrus shook his head sadly. “No, I think she’s mad at me because after I left, my parents started keeping tight control over every aspect of her life. They’re afraid she’ll run away and turn out like me.”

“I think she misses you.”

“I miss her, too. But my parents never let her visit me, and I dread coming home because every time I do, it’s always more fighting. I’m so sorry that you and Kanti have to deal with this, Val. So, so sorry.”

She heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and Kanti’s head popped into view. “So your parents are tools. Join the club. Hopefully, they’ll come around and understand you’re being who you are. But even if they don’t, they love you, in their own bizarre way. That’s what I tell myself about my parents.”

“She’s right. Your parents wouldn’t be so mad if they didn’t care. They’re not perfect, but they’re yours,” Valerie said. Cyrus’s parents were angry because he had left them to see the world. That meant they loved him enough to want him around.

“I say, let’s take Cara and ditch your parents tomorrow. We’ll check out the museum, and you guys can show us the sights,” Kanti suggested.

“Yeah, what do ya think, Cy?”

Cyrus nodded, and his eyes glinted with a little of their old mischief. “Even without magic, we can still have some fun. I have a few ideas that my parents wouldn’t approve of.”

Kanti grinned. “Those are the best kinds of ideas.”

[] Chapter 35

Valerie, Cyrus, and Kanti managed to sneak back to the house that night without waking Cyrus’s parents, so luckily no one got in any real trouble. It was a quiet breakfast the next morning because no one knew what to say after the blowup the night before. Valerie caught Cyrus’s mother shooting him a worried glance. She did care about him. She probably didn’t know how to deal with a son who was different.

“Um, Mother, Father, is it okay if I borrow the car to show Kanti and Val around the island? They want to see the science museum and stuff.”

“Fine, but no bending any rules this time,” Mr. Burns said sternly. “We have a reputation to protect that’s still recovering from your last visit.”

“Cara, want to come with us?” Cyrus asked.

His sister’s mouth fell open in surprise. “Really? Why?”

“You probably know more about science than I do. You can give a better tour. Plus, I hardly ever get to see you.”

Valerie saw a grin flash briefly across Cara’s face that she tried to hide. “All right. I’ll go, as a favor.”

As everyone put on their shoes, Mrs. Burns quietly slipped a few brightly colored bills that Valerie guessed was Messinian money into Cyrus’s hand. “Have fun today. Take your friends somewhere nice to eat for dinner,” she said, and Valerie read the apology in her eyes.

“Thanks, Mother,” Cyrus said, giving her a quick hug and a small smile.

They started to head out the door, but Mr. Burns suddenly stepped out in front of Cyrus and Valerie, blocking their exit. “You two had better watch what you say around Cara. No talking about magic and making her yearn for things that will ultimately destroy her. The last thing we need is another bad influence in her life.”

“Fine,” Cyrus retorted through clenched teeth. “Excuse us!” Mr. Burns, with anger flashing in his eyes, silently stepped aside, and Valerie and Cyrus hurried out the door.

Outside, Valerie briefed Gideon on their plan for the day. Gideon decided that the wolves would scout the island while he accompanied Valerie and her friends on their tour of Messina. The reminder of the possible danger that Gideon and the wolves were protecting her from made her fingers cold.

“Gideon, has there been any word from Azra?” she asked. Cyrus and Kanti moved closer, curious to hear the answer.

Gideon’s face was serious. “I spoke with a messenger from Azra this morning at dawn. New charms have been placed on the fortress where Sanguina lives, making it impossible for enemies to find. Wandering around the mountains of Dunsinane is dangerous, so Azra and the Grand Masters with her have returned to Arden to discuss a new strategy.”

“Does that mean—” Valerie started to ask, but Mr. Burns’ approach interrupted their conversation.

“Why are you still standing around? If you’re not going to the museum, there’s plenty of work around the house you can all help with!” Mr. Burns said sternly.

“We’re going, we’re going!” Cyrus said, hustling everyone toward the car.

When the door slammed closed, Kanti turned to Cara and burst out, “You must be ready to scream, living in that house. Your parents are so uptight that they could crack walnuts between their butt cheeks!”

“Tell me about it, and they’re so over-protective,” Cara said with a huff of impatience. “They have to know where I am every second of the day.”

Kanti then started asking her questions about her science classes and life on Messina. Their chatter eased the tension that had weighed on them all when Cyrus’s parents were around. Soon, they reached the science museum and parked.

“I’ll be scouting the area to make sure it’s safe,” Gideon said, obviously needing some space from the chattering teenagers.

Inside, the museum reminded Valerie of the science museum in San Francisco that she had visited once on a field trip. Other than a few differences, such as the advanced use of light energy to power the city, she didn’t learn anything new. But Kanti was completely fascinated by the exhibits, and Cara enjoyed playing teacher and explaining concepts to someone older than she was.

Valerie and Cyrus hung back, pausing to examine a pool filled with underwater creatures that they could pick up and touch. Valerie cradled a bright purple, spiky creature in her hand. It purred when she petted it, like a cat. She was about to ask Cyrus to tell her about it when a girl with curly blue hair whose arms were covered in glittery tattoos suddenly stopped, staring at Cyrus.

“Cyrus?” she squeaked. “You’re back? I have to tell everyone! Give me a huge hug!”

Without waiting for him to even stand up, the girl sat on his lap and threw her arms around him. “Without you, there has been, like, no excitement. Are you here to stay?”

“No, I’m only visiting. Val, this is Shelley, an old friend.”

“Friend? We were a little more than that, weren’t we? As of last summer?” Shelley asked, sounding a little offended.

“Yeah, um, of course. So what are you doing here, anyway?” Cyrus said, obviously desperate to change the subject.

“I work here, duh,” she replied, pointing to her shirt, which was stitched with the museum’s logo. “The real question is, what are you doing here, since it’s obviously not to see me?” Shelley pouted.

Cyrus relented and smiled. “It is really good to see you. I miss everyone. Think your mom will ever let you visit me?”

“I wish. I bet you have such a rockin’ good time in Arden. Is that where you’re from?” Shelley asked Valerie.

But before she could reply, Cyrus jumped in, “Yup, she’s an Arden native. So, are there any good parties going on tonight? We could use some fun.”

“Yeah, there’s one at the Where-o-well. Should be cool—Frankie’s got some new Earth music that he says is pretty good. So if you two are up for dancing, come!” Shelley said, and then scooted off Cyrus’s knee.

“Definitely. And hey, good to see you, really,” Cyrus said before he and Valerie walked away to find Cara and Kanti.

After Shelley was out of earshot, Valerie said, “Old girlfriend of yours, player?”

“What? No. Well, yes, kinda. But now we’re friends. What are you getting on my case for?” Cyrus asked, flustered.

“Whoa, relax. Shelley seemed cool. I’m excited to go to my first Messinian party and meet your friends.”

“What party are we talking about?” Kanti asked as she and Cara joined them. Cyrus filled them in, and they were both excited to go, Kanti for the music and dancing, Cara for a chance to hang out with the older crowd.

Gideon soon joined them, and the group left the museum. The rest of the day flew by as Cyrus and Cara took them around the city, pointing out the major sights, such as a set of giant, five-story statues of the Globe’s founders, including Azra, and an elaborate garden in the middle of the city where botanists from around the world came to study. Gideon insisted on scouting every location for signs of anything suspicious, but if he saw anything out of the ordinary, he didn’t mention it.

[] Chapter 36

For dinner, Valerie, Cyrus, Kanti, Gideon, and Cara went to a popular restaurant that served Earth food, and Valerie relished her hamburger and fries, which were as tasty as any that she had eaten on Earth. It was nice not to be a newbie in Messina, like she was when in Arden where every new feat of magic astonished her but didn’t make anyone else look twice.

After they finished their milkshakes, they headed back toward the car. “It’s a little early, but why don’t we head over to the Where-o-well for the party? It’s less than a mile away,” Cyrus said, pointing.

“Yes, I ran past it last night while scouting. Since it’s close, I’ll run over,” Gideon said. “It will give me a chance to make sure the surrounding woods are safe. I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes.”

With that, Gideon took off at a speed that Valerie would have sworn required magic, if she hadn’t known that he didn’t have a power. A twinge of worry pinched her as she watched Gideon race off. She and the rest of the group piled into the car.

“Where-o-well is such a funny name. What is it? A park?” Kanti asked.

“Actually, it’s one of the most famous landmarks in Messina. It’s the only magical place on the whole island,” Cara said importantly. “It appears to be a normal stone well, but it’s filled with magic, not water. Eighteenth birthdays here are marked by a special ceremony. The birthday person jumps into the Where-o-well. Instead of hitting the bottom, the well spits the person out at a random location somewhere on the Globe. Then they have to find their way back to Messina with only what is in their pockets. It’s kind of a rite of passage to prove that you’re an adult. By coming back, you’re saying that you accept the rules of Messina and you want to live here. Of course, some people can’t wait until they turn eighteen to jump in,” Cara said, grinning at Cyrus.

“What does she mean, Cy?” Valerie asked.

“It wasn’t my fault! When I was six, I was visiting the Where-o-well on a fieldtrip. When the guards weren’t watching, I sneaked past them so I could peer down the well, because I was curious about the magic in there. Well, I leaned over the edge, and sort of fell in. I wound up in Arden. Luckily, Azra found me and delivered me to an aunt who lives there. But as soon as I saw Arden, I fell in love and never wanted to leave. My parents finally let me go to school there because I kept trying to run away after I came back.”

“I can’t wait till it’s my turn!” Cara said excitedly. “You’re supposed to make your mind completely blank, so that the Where-o-well sends you where fate says you’re meant to be or something. But I’m going to think of Arden, and hope it sends me there!”

“So you can control where it sends you?” Kanti asked. “I thought you said it’s random.”

“It’s only a theory, but some people say that they concentrated on a certain spot, and they wound up there. But it doesn’t always work. It’s definitely not a reliable way to travel. No matter how hard you concentrate, you could always wind up in the middle of the desert.” Cyrus explained.

“I totally want to see this weird well,” Kanti exclaimed.

“Me, too,” Valerie said. The idea of the Where-o-well intrigued her. If she made her mind blank, would fate send her to someone who could help her find Henry? Then she shook her head. Even Cyrus didn’t know exactly how the Where-o-well worked, and the last thing Henry needed was for her to wander around a desert or some remote forest where she couldn’t help him at all.

Cyrus pulled into a parking lot at the edge of a large park with an immense expanse of bright green grass bordered by a dark, dense forest. Valerie could see the Where-o-well in the distance, a cylinder of neatly packed stones about twice the width of her arm span. The park was mostly empty, except for three guards in grey uniforms. They were talking to a group of girls having a picnic while another group tossed around an oddly shaped ball nearby.

They all got out of the car and began walking into the park. Suddenly Valerie had that strange tingling in her stomach. Something wasn’t right. The trees at the edge of the park were full of shadows. It would be easy for someone to hide in there. She hoped that Gideon would join them soon to tell them that there was nothing in there to fear.

“Guys, I think—” Valerie started to say, when light flared behind her eyes and her mind was pulled away from her body. Henry was pulling her into his reality. The urgency of his call seared through her body and she fell to her knees.

“Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?” Henry cried. Fear coursed through Valerie’s body—it was like there was no separation between her own mind and her brother’s. They were inside a dark bedroom, and Valerie tried to absorb every detail, searching for a clue that would help her determine exactly where Henry lived.

“Shut up or I’ll make sure your daddy doesn’t wake up tomorrow,” a deep voice growled.

“Don’t you hurt him! Dad! Are you okay? Please be okay!”

Valerie saw through Henry’s eyes that a large man lay unmoving on the bed in the middle of the room. A sour smell filled her nostrils, and Valerie’s stomach twisted. Venu had found Henry. She was too late to save him.

“You’ll do exactly what I tell you, or I’ll add one more drop of poison to his skin and he’ll die,” Venu said viciously, pulling a pair of black gloves over his slimy hands. “Now get moving!”

Henry’s arm was yanked in the darkness, and he was dragged down a long, narrow hallway and through a door. Outside, cold hit them in the face like a stinging slap. Valerie tried to will Henry to notice street signs, landmarks, anything that could tell her where they were. But Henry stared up at Venu, watching his hulking shoulders as he yanked him down the street.

“Please, I can’t leave my dad like that. When he wakes up, he’ll think I abandoned him. He won’t know what to do without me,” Henry pleaded.

Sanguina suddenly appeared next to Henry, her black eyes staring into his. Henry jumped backward, away from her. But Venu’s gloved hand was clenched tightly on his wrist, preventing him from going far.

“Be glad he’s waking up at all,” Sanguina said coldly. “Starting now, know this: your father’s life is in my hands. If you make one wrong move, he’s dead. So you’ll do everything Venu and I say, without whining. Got it?”

Valerie was distracted by a pull on her mind from the Globe. Her friends needed her. But she clung to Henry’s reality, not wanting to leave without knowing where he was going. This could be her last chance to save him. Where could Venu and Sanguina be taking him?

‘Please, Henry, tell me where you are!’ Valerie thought, trying to will Henry to help her.

“Where are you taking me?” Henry asked, his voice trembling. Had he heard her, somehow?

“Shut your mouth,” Sanguina said coldly, her eyes boring into him and making him tremble. Venu grinned at his obvious terror.

“Ask them—” Valerie started to think, and then light flashed behind her eyes again, and Henry’s world disappeared.

“Wake up! Val, look out!” Cyrus shouted at her.

Valerie turned and saw a boot coming at top speed toward her head. Her reaction was automatic. Magic rushed through her veins and she caught the boot with one hand and twisted. The Conjuror who was wearing the boot was almost entirely transparent, as if he were made of glass, and when his body smashed into the ground, with his leg twisted beneath him, she heard the sound of glass shattering. Her attacker screamed and clutched his leg, which was now shattered into a million tiny pieces.

Alarms started blaring, She must have set them off by using her power. She saw that her friends were grappling with two more of the semi-transparent attackers. All three guards lay unconscious but breathing near the Where-o-well, the first victims of these strange attackers. The loud noise of the alarm covered up her voice as she tried to yell advice to her friends. “They’re breakable! Try to shatter them!”

“What?” Kanti shouted back.

“Gideon! Jet! Chrome!” Valerie called, searching the horizon for her guardians. Gideon was already emerging from the trees, racing toward her at top speed with Jet and Chrome at his heels.

A pair of steely hands grabbed her, pinning her arms against her sides. No matter how hard she struggled, she couldn’t break free from his grasp. But she bent and threw her weight forward, flipping her attacker over her back and sending him crashing to the ground in front of her with a crunch.

The wolves leapt on the creatures that were attacking Kanti and Cyrus. Almost simultaneously, they tried to sink their fangs into the transparent Conjurors, but then they immediately let go, howling in pain. They fell to the ground, and blood gushed from their mouths, which were filled with dozens of cuts made by the sharp, glassy shards that formed their enemies’ flesh. The wolves’ assault gave Kanti and Cyrus the chance to break free, and their attackers fled back to the woods. Cyrus grabbed Cara, who was standing behind Gideon as he sparred with another transparent Conjuror.

Gideon grunted as he punched her attacker in the chest, and a crack appeared in his almost invisible torso from his heart to his stomach. He groaned and retreated, clutching his heart as he ran toward the woods. “Get out of here,” Gideon commanded. “More are coming.”

Shadows moved in the woods. Then her power weakened, like it had when Shade had turned the power-eater on her. Seconds later, Zunya stepped out of the trees, surrounded by more of the transparent Conjurors. His yellow eyes locked on hers, and he held out his hand toward her and smiled darkly. The last of her power vanished. Her panic rose. She was defenseless against her old enemy. The Laurel Circle, which had been warmer as she had fought, suddenly became cold.

But even without her powers to defend her, she couldn’t abandon Gideon. Hadn’t she been training for this, learning to rely on only her own strength and wits? “There is no way that I’m leaving you here to deal with those guys on your own. Zunya is with them! I have to stay and fight.”

“Zunya can do nothing to me. I have no powers for him to steal. Now listen to me. That Where-o-well—jump in it. They’re after you, Valerie. If you jump in, they’ll follow. With luck, you won’t all come out in the same place. It’s the only solution. There are too many of them. If we’re forced to fight, we’ll lose. Now go—that’s an order.”

Valerie desperately searched her mind for another solution, but as more transparent figures emerged in the distance, she knew she had to act—now. “Kanti, Cyrus, Cara—run for the police. I’ll distract these breakables.”

“No, you’re not going alone!” Cyrus said, taking a step toward Valerie. But Cara stood pale and trembling beside him, and his expression changed.

“Protect her, Cy. She needs you more than I do,” Valerie said, anxiously watching the attackers begin to break through Gideon’s and the wolves’ defenses.

“You’re not going without me,” Kanti said, and Valerie could see from her expression that she wasn’t going to change her mind. She nodded, and they both took off at top speed for the Where-o-well.

“Hang on to me and think about ice when we jump in—I have an idea,” Kanti said, breathless.

They sped toward the Where-o-well, leaping over the unconscious guards and reaching the edge of the well just as the transparent Conjurors clashed with Gideon, Jet, and Chrome, trying to fight their way past them to get to Valerie.

“On three?” Kanti asked.

“Forget that. Let’s jump!” Valerie said. Then she grabbed Kanti’s hand, squeezed her eyes shut, and leapt.

[] Chapter 37

For one thrilling moment, Valerie hurtled down, down into the well in a complete free fall. Remembering what Kanti had said, Valerie forced herself to turn her thoughts toward ice, snow, anything cold. A strange sensation seized her entire frame. For a split second, warm bubbles tickled her and a sweet taste filled her mouth.

As she fell, the sight of stone and dirt vanished and Valerie’s vision went blank. She was hovering alone in the middle of nothingness, suspended in time and space. She didn’t know if she was frozen there for a second or a millennium, but suddenly time sped up, and a cold blast of air hit her in the chest, knocking the wind out of her. Bright blue sky blinded her, and she fell several feet to the ground, tumbling into a tangled heap with Kanti.

“Yes! It worked!” Kanti exclaimed.

“What worked?” Valerie asked, rubbing a sore spot on her knee.

“We’re in Elsinore, in the woods right behind my house. We can hide out there while we try to figure out what to do next.”

“It’s freezing here!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be inside soon,” Kanti said.

“I hope Cyrus and the others are okay. Do you think the plan worked and those transparent guys jumped in after us?” Valerie asked anxiously. Had she made the right choice by running? Her place was by Gideon’s side, fighting like a warrior.

Suddenly, the sky flashed above their heads, and one of the transparent Conjurors who had attacked them in Messina fell from midair and landed in a pile of snow that had fallen from a nearby tree. Instinctively, Valerie leapt into one of the defensive stances that Gideon had taught her, positioning herself between Kanti and their enemy and curling her hands into fists.

The breakable rolled over in the snow, groaning. Valerie tensed, ready to fight, but he yelled, “Wait, please, don’t hurt me! I don’t want to fight.”

“Yeah, right!” Kanti said, almost shouting.

“Why should we trust you? You ambushed us!” Valerie added.

“I didn’t have a choice! Zunya’s punishment for disobedience is worse than death,” he said, shuddering. “He ordered us to capture you, and I had no other choice than to obey.”

Valerie straightened from her crouch but didn’t let her fists relax. Her mind raced. “What happened to the others?”

“I don’t know—Zunya told us to jump in the well after you, so I did. I think the others followed me, but I jumped in first, so I can’t be sure.”

“If you are so against Zunya, why did you join him in the first place? Who are you?” Valerie asked.

“And why shouldn’t Valerie kick your butt right now?” Kanti added.

“I’m Blake. I wish I never got into this whole mess. I wanted a power so badly, and Zunya said that he could take me to someone who could give me one. In return, I’d work for him for a while. It was cool at first—I was given the power of invisibility. No one could track my magic and no one could see me. I thought I’d be the perfect spy and become really famous.”

“Wait a sec, wonder boy,” Kanti interrupted. “Magic always leaves a trail, and we had experts following us 24/7. So cut the crap.”

“Oh yeah? Well I guess you’re not as smart as you thought you were because my friends and I followed you all the way from Arden to Messina, and you had no idea we were there—even those wolf trackers didn’t have a clue!” Blake grinned triumphantly until Kanti gripped his shoulder tightly. He shrank away from her touch.

Valerie ignored his comment, lost in her own thoughts. It seemed like his power defied the laws of magic, and even Azra and Gideon hadn’t known about this. Would she ever be safe, since someone like Blake could slip past any defense and ambush her when she least expected it? Even the most skilled guardians on the Globe hadn’t been able to stop them.

“But as you can see, the power is wearing off,” Blake continued, woefully holding up his hand. It was true; Valerie could see that he was already less transparent—more like a ghost than glass.

“And that’s not the worst part. The power had a side effect. I’ve become breakable,” he said, his eyes wide with horror. “I have to be careful all the time, or I’ll shatter. But Zunya keeps sending us out to fight, knowing what could happen to us,” he finished, showing them a shattered finger that might blow apart from the next strong breeze.

“Who gave you your power?” Valerie asked.

“This crazy vampyre with red hair cast a spell. Someone was helping her, but I didn’t get a good look at the guy. I wish my power was to turn back time, so I could avoid this whole mess!”

Blake fell to his knees and started to sniffle. She knew that she could disable him with little more than a kick, but she didn’t have it in her heart to leave him crippled in the snow. Besides, he seemed more concerned with his broken finger than capturing Valerie now that Zunya wasn’t there to give him orders.

“All right, I guess I believe you. Go on your way,” Valerie said.

“But if you breathe one word to Zunya, we’ll tell him that you revealed his secrets,” Kanti warned.

“Thank you!” Blake said gratefully. “You can count on me not to say a word.”

He started to walk away, but Valerie called him back. “One last thing. If you, or anyone you know, needs a power, go to Azra next time. She’ll help you, no strings attached.”

He hung his head glumly. “I know. But I heard that it’s hard work developing a power with Azra. It takes time and training for her to bring it out in you. I thought this Zunya guy would hand it to me. I should have known there’d be a catch.”

After Blake had gone, Kanti turned to Valerie. “We better figure out our next step, fast.”

“Yeah, I don’t trust Blake.”

“Me, either. He’ll give us up in a second to the next person who threatens him,” Kanti replied.

“Then let’s move,” Valerie said with determination.

As Kanti led the way out of the woods, Valerie’s mind sped a million miles an hour over what had happened. Even the bitter cold, which her thin sweater did little to keep out, and her chattering teeth couldn’t distract her from her worries. Was everyone safe back in Messina? Where could she possibly hide so that Sanguina wouldn’t find her? How would she ever rescue Henry now?

Then, almost as if thinking his name triggered the connection, Valerie saw a flash of light and was pulled into Henry’s reality. “Kanti…” she tried to tell her friend what was about to happen, but before she could, the world around her vanished.

“What did Sanguina tell you earlier?” Venu said angrily to Henry, who was trying to back away in fear. Venu grabbed him roughly by the front of his shirt. “She said to do everything I said.”

“Please, I want to call my dad,” Henry said, his voice trembling with emotion. It broke Valerie’s heart.

“No calls! And no more warnings,” Venu said, his voice dangerously angry.

As they spoke, Valerie desperately tried to make sense of where they were. It seemed as if Venu had taken Henry somewhere busy. People bustled by purposefully, and she saw a food court. Was it a mall? Henry turned, and she saw through his eyes out a large window. Outside, airplanes taxied down a long runway. Her panic for Henry increased. Wherever Venu was taking him, it was far away.

‘Show me your ticket, give me a clue where you’re going, Henry, please!’ Valerie tried to shout her thought to Henry, hoping that somehow he might be able to sense her wish.

“Please, tell me where we’re going,” Henry said as Venu yanked him through the crowd. “I’m really sorry about the call. It won’t happen again.”

“Shut your trap. You know everything you need to know,” Venu replied, his fierce eyes boring into Henry’s.

Henry’s fear was consuming him. Then, finally, she caught a break. Venu gripped Henry by the arm and pulled him to a gate. As he handed the flight attendant two tickets, Valerie caught a glimpse of the final destination—Zambia, Africa.

“It’s okay, Henry. I’m going to find a way to help you. I promise,” Valerie said, and his heartbeat slowed a little. At least she knew where he was going now. But without the strength of his fear to connect them, Henry’s world dissolved before her eyes. She hoped that maybe she had comforted him a little.

Back on the Globe, Kanti had propped Valerie up against a tree. Kanti paced worriedly in front of her, and then knelt next to her when Valerie made eye contact. “What happened? Is Henry okay?” she asked anxiously.

“No. But I know where he’s going. Let’s get moving while I tell you everything. It’s freezing out here,” Valerie said through chattering teeth.

Kanti and Valerie began walking, and for the first time, Valerie was hopeful. She finally had a concrete clue as to how to find Henry. She then related everything she had seen to Kanti, who gnawed on her fingernails as she listened.

“Now I have to tell Thai where to find Henry,” Valerie concluded.

“The sooner the better!” Kanti agreed.

“I hate sending him after Venu with no protection. I wasn’t even able to create that charm to protect him from Sanguina and the Fractus.”

Kanti’s eyes lit up. “I have an idea. I know someone in town who sells the crystals with the charm already cast on it. They can be pretty pricey, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Valerie was about to protest, but they stepped out of the forest, and standing in front of her was an enormous castle that was straight out of the pages of a fairy tale. It seemed to be carved entirely from ice, and it sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Other than a few stray groundskeepers sweeping snow off of immaculate stone paths, there was no one to witness their arrival.

“Ah, home sweet home,” Kanti said sarcastically.

“I remember you saying something about your house, but I had no idea…” Valerie drifted off.

“Yeah, I know. It’s a little bigger than you imagined,” Kanti said with a shake of her head.

Valerie had to smile at her understatement. “A tad.”

“Let’s just say my family’s motto is something along the lines of ‘the bigger and more expensive, the better.’ Trust me; it’s not as big a deal as you think. We’ll only be inside for a minute. I just have to grab something from my room that we’re gonna need to get the charm for Thai,” Kanti said, leading Valerie toward a small door at the back of the castle.

Kanti opened it and peeked in. She motioned Valerie to be quiet, and the two slipped inside. Valerie stared around in amazement, her body beginning to thaw as the warm air chased away the chill that had crept into her bones during their walk through the forest. All of the walls and furniture were carved out of ice, yet it wasn’t freezing inside the castle.

“Magic keeps the ice from melting, even when the heater’s turned on. The spell is a guarded family secret,” Kanti whispered, seeing Valerie staring at everything with amazement. “Now if we can sneak up to my room and out of here without anyone noticing—”

“Kanti, darling! What a splendid surprise!” A tall, beautiful woman with streaming hair descended lightly down a sweeping staircase of ice.

“No such luck,” Kanti muttered under her breath. Then she turned on a fake smile. “Hello, Mom,” she said with forced cheerfulness. Kanti stood stiffly as her mother kissed the air beside each of her cheeks. “Mother, this is my friend, Valerie. Valerie, this is my dear mother, Pauline.”

“Nice to meet you,” Valerie said with a polite smile.

Kanti’s mom stared into Valerie’s eyes searchingly, and Valerie sensed a slight hum of magic. Pauline’s eyes widened in surprise, and she gushed, “I like your new friend, darling! She’s powerful. She’ll fit in well here. At last, you’re making quality friends.”

Kanti narrowed her eyes. “We’re friends because she’s cool, Mom, not because she’s powerful.”

“Sweetheart, let’s not argue. Of course, Valerie’s lovely, I’m sure. I’m simply surprised to see you, that’s all. Is everything well?”

Kanti’s face softened a little. “Actually, we could really use your help. You see, what happened is—” she started to explain, but her mother interrupted her.

“This will be a long story, won’t it? Darling, I want to hear all about it, but right now I’m off to the duchess’s party. I really must be seen there before it’s too late. We’ll catch up later.” Kanti’s mother whisked herself away, leaving behind only the sickeningly sweet smell of her perfume.

Kanti paled, heartbroken, but she quickly recovered. Valerie gave her hand a sympathetic squeeze. “She seems, um, nice.”

“I can’t stay mad at her anymore. I can see now that she can’t help the way she is—like cotton candy—all sweet and no substance,” Kanti said with a sigh. “She and my dad are so alike. They were so relieved when I moved far away where I can’t embarrass them. She seems to like you, though.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?”

“My mom’s power is that she can sense how strong others’ powers are. She must have sensed that you have a lot of magic inside you. Around here, that counts for a lot.”

“Sounds like living here must be a lot of pressure.”

“You have no idea.”

Kanti led Valerie up the stairs and down a long hall. They turned so many corners that Valerie was certain she wouldn’t be able to find her way out on her own. Finally, Kanti stopped and entered a room in which the ice walls had been stained black and covered in posters of bands that Valerie recognized from Earth. Despite the many thoughts and worries spinning inside Valerie’s head, she smiled. Kanti was so out of place here. Her room seemed like a piece of another world that was accidentally dropped into this storybook castle.

Valerie heard the most beautiful singing coming from somewhere nearby. She went to the window and opened it. She saw an angelic-looking girl with golden hair who was a few years older than Kanti leaning her elbows on her windowsill and singing. Below, several handsome young men stared up at her adoringly.

Kanti stood next to Valerie and peeked out the window. Then she gave an exaggerated gag. “Peach. She’s the most musical of my sisters. She’s out there every day, rain or shine. She can’t get enough of the attention. Am I the only one who thinks she’s ridiculous?”

Valerie shook her head in disbelief. “I’m relieved it’s not only me who thinks that’s weird. I can see why you had to get out of this place. It’s like, the exact opposite of your personality.”

Kanti grabbed a small pouch from under her mattress and stuffed it into her pocket and then tossed Valerie a coat. “I know. How could my parents have ever made a kid like me? But enough ranting about my family. Put that on and let’s get outta here.”

Valerie’s mind immediately snapped back to the task at hand, and suddenly the glittery surroundings and chirping princess seemed silly to her. She gratefully wrapped herself in Kanti’s coat and followed her out of the castle.

[] Chapter 38

Elaborate mansions with sparkling, snow-covered lawns lined the streets of Elsinore, giving the city the impression of a wealthy winter playground. All of the buildings were ornately decorated, though none so much as Kanti’s ice castle. Everyone dressed lavishly. The styles were unfamiliar to Valerie, but she could see that the rich fabrics were covered in lace and sewn in golden thread.

The sight of so much finery was dazzling as she rushed through the streets with Kanti, who wasn’t distracted in the least by the sights, even when a bird settled on her shoulder and started talking in her ear. “Princess Kanti, you’re back!” But Kanti shook the bird off, and the little creature flew away.

“What was that all about?” Valerie asked, wide-eyed.

“Bad news. Those birds carry gossip around the city. News of my return will circulate in a matter of minutes. We need to get that charm and get out of here. If Zunya and his crew didn’t know where we were before, they’ll find us now for sure.”

Finally, they stopped at a building that had four stone gargoyles on the roof that stared down menacingly at any visitors. This foreboding manor seemed out of place with the opulent, sparkling houses they had passed by earlier. Kanti lifted a heavy knocker, and the boom was thunderous as it crashed against the door.

A wizened old man with glasses as big as saucers eventually opened the door. His gray eyes brightened when he saw Kanti, and he gave her a quick hug. Then he hurried them inside, glancing around the street before he shut the door.

When the door closed, the air around the man blurred, and he morphed into a tall woman with long, dark hair that was streaked with silver. Valerie gaped, and the woman laughed deeply.

“Valerie, this is my Aunt Ani.”

“Call me Ani, PLEASE. My, child, you are SO puzzled. Haven’t you ever seen a glamour disguise before?” Ani said. She spoke strangely, overemphasizing some of her words. It made everything she said sound SO dramatic.

“No, she’s from Messina. So it’s all pretty new,” Kanti jumped in. Then she explained to Valerie, “Ani bought a disguise from the Glamour Guild a few years ago so that she could go out and about in Elsinore without being recognized.”

“It gets so DREADFULLY dull talking gossip and going to parties all day,” Ani said with a dramatic flourish of her hand. “But no one bothers me when I’m disguised as old Iago. SO much fun to see what people REALLY think. But unless I’m much mistaken, you’re here for MORE than a friendly visit.”

“We need a protection charm for someone on Earth.”

“More of your Imaginary Friends’ GUILD work, dear? Of course, those charms are very expensive, even for YOU.”

Kanti hastily handed Ani the small pouch that she had taken from her bedroom. Valerie examined it more closely and saw that it was moving, as if something was squirming around inside. Ani peeked in the pouch and raised her eyebrows.

“I never needed to spend the allowance my parents gave me. There’s nothing here I ever want to buy, and there is no currency in Arden,” Kanti said.

“What’s inside?” Valerie asked, a little worried. Whatever was in that bag churned like it wanted to get out.

“It’s magic. That’s the currency around here,” Kanti explained. “The best kind—it can be used for any purpose.”

“VERY rare,” Ani added. “I accept. Wait here.”

Ani walked down the hall and into another room, and they heard her rummaging through some drawers. She came back, blowing dust off of a crystal so pure that it was almost invisible. Only the light glinting off its surface indicated that it was a real, solid object. Ani dropped it into Kanti’s hand.

“I DO hope you’ll stay for dinner, and overnight if you need.”

“We’re as safe at Ani’s as anywhere in Elsinore,” Kanti whispered. “We’ll get outta here first thing tomorrow morning. Everyone sleeps late, so the streets will be deserted.”

Valerie’s stomach was empty, and a warm bed sounded welcome. “Thank you, Ani,” she said, gratefully.

Ani showed Valerie and Kanti to a room that was paneled in dark wood carved with roses. The bed was covered in heavy, red sheets. Once Ani left to arrange dinner, Kanti handed Valerie the crystal.

“Might as well go visit Thai now,” Kanti said.

“How do I make the crystal protect Thai?” Valerie asked.

“The spell is already inside. Go visit Thai, and before you leave, look at him through the crystal for a few seconds. When you come back to the Globe, there should be a little image of him inside. Then we’ll know it worked.”

Valerie nodded. It sounded simple enough, even for her. She settled down to concentrate on Thai, eager to see him. It felt like forever since they had last talked. She shut her eyes and pictured his smile.

“At last!” Thai cried. Valerie opened her eyes. He was standing outside, and behind him was a magnificent view of the mountains. A little ways away, she saw his tent next to a small, smoldering fire.

“Still in Yosemite?” she asked, enjoying the sight of his face and relieved that at least for Thai, she wasn’t too late to protect him.

“Are you kidding? You’re really going to ask me about the view when I haven’t seen you for two days? What happened after you left the boat? I was freaking out!”

As Valerie related her story, Thai’s face began to relax, until she reached the part about Zunya’s attack.

“It seems like every time you disappear, my worst worries come true,” he said. Then his face changed, and his eyes turned gold.

“H-he misses you. So do I,” Tan said. His shoulders slumped.

“I miss you, too. I promise, when all of this craziness is over, I’ll visit more often.”

Tan’s face brightened, and then he blinked, and Thai’s dark eyes looked back at her. “He’s getting stronger. He takes over more easily now, and for longer periods of time,” Thai said, sounding proud.

“That’s great!”

“Great, but weird. I can’t always regain control of my body right away,” he said. “Anyway, finish your story.”

“I’m in Kanti’s hometown now. When I got here, I had another vision of Henry, and I finally know where he is. Venu is taking him to Zambia, Africa. But I have no idea why.”

“Me, either. But we finally have a clue. I’ll catch the bus out of here and take the first flight leaving Sacramento.”

“Be careful, okay?”

“Right back at you,” Thai said, softly, the worry returning to his eyes.

“One last thing. I was finally able to get ahold of a crystal to make the charm that will protect you from being found by anyone on the Globe except for me. I swear I’ll keep this charm with me always and die before I part with it.”

“No, Valerie, if it ever comes to that, give them the charm. I’d rather have you alive and be harassed by a crazy redhead than lose you.”

She had an overwhelming urge to touch Thai’s hand, but knew she couldn’t. Before she left, she looked at him through the crystal as he warmed up his hands over the small fire. He flashed one of his rare smiles, and then she let herself be pulled back into her body on the Globe.

Back on the Globe, Valerie saw a tiny image of Thai inside her crystal, warming his hands on the fire.

“It worked!” she said, and an enormous weight lifted from her heart. She didn’t realize how much she had worried about Thai being taken from her by Sanguina until now. She carefully slipped the crystal into her pocket next to the flower of light, which she always kept with her like a lucky charm.

“Finally, one thing is going right,” Kanti said.

“If only we could know for sure that Cy and the others are okay,” Valerie said. “I can’t imagine sleeping tonight without knowing for sure.”

“Actually, I thought we’d give them a call, now that Thai’s safe.”

“A call? As in a call on a phone?” Valerie asked, confused.

“Most people don’t have phones on the Globe, outside of Messina. But Ani does business with people in Messina, and that’s the only way to communicate with them. Come on,” Kanti said, and Valerie followed her down the hall. Hanging on the wall was a cordless phone that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Earth. Kanti picked it up and said, “Cyrus Burns,” and then handed the phone to Valerie.

The phone rang, and Valerie’s palms started to sweat. “Hello? Who is this?” Mr. Burns’ gruff voice answered.

“Um, hi, Mr. Burns, it’s Valerie. Is Cyrus—”

“I let you in my house, feed you, give you shelter, and this is how you repay us! We will never forgive you for this. You are not welcome in this house ever again—” Mr. Burns’ shouting was suddenly silenced and Valerie heard a brief scuffle on the other end of the phone.

Then a new voice, deep and slimy, said, “I always knew you were a coward at heart.” A chill went down Valerie’s spine as she recognized Zunya’s voice. “You may be safe, wherever you ran away to, but those you’ve left behind aren’t so lucky.”

“You leave Cyrus alone!” she tried to shout, but her voice trembled at Zunya’s unspoken threat. She gripped the phone in her hand so hard that the plastic bent out of shape.

“Cyrus isn’t here anymore.”

“What have you done?” she slumped against the wall, so weak she could barely prop herself up. How could she have abandoned Cyrus? Zunya was right—she was a coward.

“Aw, don’t sound so sad. It’s so—pathetic,” Zunya said with a snicker. “Cyrus is alive. He’s staying with a friend of mine in Dunsinane.”

“Sanguina,” she whispered.

“Yes. If you want his head to stay connected to the rest of his body, go, alone, to the castle on the highest peak of the Dunsinane mountains. And Valerie, things will go very badly for Cyrus, his family, and the rest of your little Knight friends if you don’t come by yourself.”

The way Zunya said her name made her flesh crawl. But Cyrus was still alive, and there was a sliver of a chance that she could save him. That was all that mattered—more than her life. “I’ll come. Then she’ll let him go?”

“Then he’ll stay alive.”

“Leave the rest of them out of this.”

“You’re not the one calling the shots here. No, they’re my insurance policy. If you or anyone runs to Azra or the Knights, I’ll strip them of their sanity. Now, scurry off to Dunsinane, little girl. You better hurry or something might happen to one of them. I get so bored when I have to wait.” Zunya hung up the phone.

The receiver slipped out of her fingers and she heard it clatter on the floor. As she imagined Cyrus, locked up somewhere under Sanguina’s control, her helplessness and guilt hardened into a cold determination. For Cyrus and Henry, she knew it was time to face Sanguina again, even though there was no way to win.

[] Chapter 39

“This is insanity!” Kanti exclaimed, her voice high-pitched with panic. “You can’t rescue Cyrus on your own. I’m not doubting your power, but remember what Azra said? Dunsinane is where Sanguina will be at her strongest. It would be almost impossible for you to defeat her there.”

“I know,” Valerie agreed, amazed by how calm she was, her sense of purpose giving her certainty. “But if I don’t go, Cyrus and his family will be hurt. If you could have heard Zunya’s voice, you would know that he wasn’t bluffing. He’ll kill them one by one to get to me if he has to. Please, don’t make me live with that on my conscience for the rest of my life.”

“What about my conscience? Let me come with you! They won’t consider me a threat since I don’t have any magic. But at least then there will be two of us. We can watch each other’s backs.”

Valerie had never seen Kanti so desperate. Her face was flushed, and sweat beaded her forehead. There was no way that Kanti was going to let her go without coming along. Valerie couldn’t blame her. But she couldn’t bear the thought of putting another friend’s life in jeopardy. She had caused enough damage already.

Valerie had an idea. “You can’t come with me because I need you to do something even more important. We can’t leave Gideon and the others in Zunya’s control. Get Azra and as many Conjurors as you can to defeat him. Once they’re safe, you and Azra can come help me in Dunsinane without worrying that they’ll be hurt.”

“We should do that first, together, and then go rescue Cyrus!”

Valerie shook her head firmly. “I know Sanguina. She will make him suffer for every second that I delay. This will work. We both have to move as fast as we can.”

“All right. But if you and Cyrus don’t come back in perfect condition, I swear to you I will find Sanguina myself and tear her apart with my bare hands,” Kanti said with a quiet rage that Valerie had never imagined her capable of.

“So how do I get to Dunsinane fast?”

“The wind tunnel is the quickest way. But I’ve never visited the mountains before, so I don’t know how to direct you farther than that.”

“‘The castle on the highest peak,’ Zunya said. It can’t be that hard to find.”

“Azra wasn’t able to find it,” Kanti said doubtfully.

“Azra didn’t have an invitation,” Valerie replied. Sanguina would be all too eager to destroy her as soon as she had a chance. The thought made her stomach roil with nerves.

The booming sound of the knocker hitting the front door echoed through the entire house. Kanti and Valerie exchanged worried glances.

“Probably just a visitor,” Kanti said, but she kept her voice at a whisper. They crept down the hall and peered through the banister down to the first floor. Ani had transformed into Iago and hurried to open the door. To Valerie’s horror, Ani ushered one of the transparent Conjurors into the house and glanced around nervously, as if she was afraid that she would be seen.

“Wha—” Kanti started to say, but Valerie clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Could you BE any louder? They’re sure to hear you. You incompetent fools have made enough of a mess already, do you want to add blowing my cover as WELL?” Ani hissed to the man, glancing up toward the banister where Kanti and Valerie were peering. They jumped back to avoid being seen.

Kanti shook her head and then slammed her fist into the wall beside her. “How could Ani do this? She’s my family!”

“I don’t know, but we have to get out of here,” Valerie said. She pulled a stunned Kanti down the hall back to their room. “You’ve got to keep it together. We have to get out of here right now.”

Kanti took a deep breath and shook herself out of her daze. “Right, okay.” She pointed to the large gargoyles and frills that were sticking out of the wall. “Use the wide ledge and then spider down.”

“Okay,” Valerie said, gulping back her fear as she peered down the two stories. “Let’s do this!”

Quietly, Kanti raised the window and stepped out onto the ledge. Valerie followed tentatively. She couldn’t let her fear freeze her mind right now. She had to move, or Cyrus and Henry would be the ones to suffer for her spinelessness. She put one foot onto the head of a nearby stone gargoyle and one hand on the windowsill, and slowly inched her way down.

“Okay, you can jump now, Val,” Kanti whispered loudly after several heart-pounding minutes. To her relief, the ground was only a few feet below her. “Put your hood on. We don’t want any of the birds chirping our whereabouts to anyone.”

Valerie obeyed, pulling up the hood of Kanti’s coat, and then hurried after her down the cobblestone streets. For almost an hour, she and Kanti half ran, half speed-walked to avoid being noticed. Wherever possible, they took side streets and alleys. Adrenaline coursed through Valerie’s entire body, and she was alert, noticing every detail of the people on the streets, from the bright feathers in the ladies’ elaborate hairdos to the stiff nods people greeted each other with as she kept a sharp lookout for anyone suspicious.

Finally, they reached the edge of town and entered a clearing next to the snow-covered forest. “Here you are,” Kanti said, panting slightly.

Valerie was puzzled. “It’s an empty field full of snow. Where’s the tunnel?”

Kanti pointed up. A tornado of swirling air hovered above the clearing. Valerie’s eyes widened with nervous surprise when she saw her latest mode of transportation.

“Walk beneath it and jump; the wind will sweep you up. After awhile you’ll land in Dunsinane somewhere, from what I hear. Oh, and hang on to your hair.”

Valerie’s heart beat hard in her chest, but she didn’t want Kanti to know how terrified she was—not only of the journey to Dunsinane, but also what she’d have to do once she got there. “Thank you, Kanti, for everything.”

Kanti gripped her in a sudden, tight hug. “Azra and I will stop Zunya, and then we’re coming straight to you.”

“I know. It’s going to be okay.”

“It has to be,” Kanti said fiercely. Then she turned and ran in the opposite direction.

When Kanti left, Valerie called for Pathos from the callbox and strapped it to her side. Gripping the hilt in her hand lent her strength and eased some of the tension in her muscles. Then she forced herself to walk purposefully to the middle of the clearing, beneath the wind tunnel. She squeezed her eyes shut, jumped, and—nothing happened. The spinning air was still there. A few leaves blew around in circles inside of it.

She jumped up and down over and over again, but she stayed firmly planted on the ground. What was she going to do? Had she come this far only to mess it all up now? Then the air around Valerie changed, stirring the hair on the back of her neck. The breeze, gentle at first, blew harder and harder. Valerie remembered Kanti’s advice about holding her hair, but too late—the air was already swirling around her.

Her feet lifted off the ground, and suddenly she was in the middle of the whirlwind. She was spun around in circles, and thought she might vomit everything she had ever eaten. But then the spinning abruptly slowed as she was swept into the eye of the tornado, which was comparatively calm and still. She hovered a few yards above the ground. Then, like she had been shot from a cannon, she was hurtling straight through the air. Beneath her, the ground was a blur of colors.

At first, Valerie found the trip frightening. There was nothing to hold on to except for her sword, nothing to support her except the wind swirling around her. But as she got used to it, she spread her arms wide. It was like flying. She could even steer herself a little, like a bird, and she made sure that she stayed in the center of the wind tunnel. No way did she want to be whipped around at the edges again. She was free. The crisp wind and the exhilarating speed energized her. Maybe she would be able to defeat Sanguina after all, and in a few hours, she, Henry, and Cyrus would all be safe.

The jagged purple peaks of the mountains of Dunsinane appeared in the distance. The wind whisked her up higher and higher, dashing her past piles of dusty rocks in the foothills of the mountains. Gradually, she seemed to be flying more and more slowly until she finally hovered above a huge, flat rock about the size of a football field. The whirling wind eased, and she was deposited gently onto the ground.

She tried to get her bearings. Her hair was a tangled mess. The landscape was strange. Instead of the browns, greens, and grays that she was used to seeing in nature, here the land was different shades of muted purple, and the few tufts of green weeds growing between the rocks stood out in sharp contrast. Purple was usually one of her favorite colors, but here it seemed eerie and foreboding.

A prickle of fear raised goose bumps on Valerie’s arms. She was so alone here, separated from everyone who cared for her. She scanned the skyline for the castle on the highest peak, and immediately knew where she was meant to go. Towering above everything was a tall, black castle shrouded in heavy mist that looked as if it had grown straight out of the mountain itself. It had dozens of pointed, narrow turrets, but not a single window, as far as she could tell from a distance. She began to sweat as she imagined how dark it must be inside, and how hard it must be for Cyrus, as a lightweaver, to be so completely deprived of light.

As she stared, the castle seemed to flicker. Then, right before her eyes, several new spires appeared on the fortress. She stared in amazement, and a few seconds later, the castle changed shape again. This time, a large turret on the side disappeared. It was as if the castle was constantly morphing, unable to maintain one shape.

She stared, trying not to let the thought of what she was about to face intimidate her. Then she forced herself to put one foot in front of the other and begin her climb up to the castle. But before she could take three steps, a loud laugh echoed off the rocky mountainside. She froze, her muscles tense and ready to attack.

Suddenly the shadowy landscape came to life as Shade and his gang scurried out from behind the rocks like rats. Before she could ready a clever retort about her last encounter with him, an instinctive prickle of foreboding made the hairs on the back of her neck stand at attention.

[] Chapter 40

Zunya stepped out from behind a large rock. A crushing sense of defeat filled Valerie. Her fight was over before it had even begun. She never had a chance; she had been doomed when she left the relative safety of Elsinore. The Laurel Circle was a ring of ice around her thumb.

As he walked slowly toward her, Valerie’s power ebbed, but her tactical instincts were as sharp as ever. With a sudden revelation, she whispered, “Pathos!” and her weapon immediately returned to the callbox. If she needed it later, she could call for it. She knew that she could never defeat them all, even with her power. Her best hope was to make them think that she would go peacefully, but keep a sharp eye out for an escape. She wanted to face Sanguina on her own terms, not as Zunya’s prisoner.

“You know what I love about humans?” Zunya said, his yellow eyes resting on Valerie. “How gullible and stupid they are.”

“But… but I heard you on the phone, at Cyrus’s house,” she said, wishing her voice didn’t sound so small and shaky.

“You really don’t grasp what magic is, do you? With a little help from Ani to rig the phone, I made sure your call was routed straight to me. The rest was a magical imitation of that pathetic lightweaver’s father. You know, I never guessed that you were so brainless when I watched you back on Earth.”

“And I never guessed what a scum-sucking lowlife you are,” Valerie snapped back, surprised that she was still able to think straight through her fear.

“You’ll address me with respect!” Zunya’s eyes flashed, and she saw a glint of madness in them.

“I would rather eat crap,” Valerie spat.

Without another word, Zunya grabbed her arm. It was pain like she had never experienced before. Her scream pierced the heavy mist, reverberating off of the rocks. The pain shot through her mind and body, tearing her apart from the inside out. It was as if her magic was knit with her soul, and he was ripping it away.

“Uh, boss, didn’t Sanguina want to, you know, see her first?” Valerie heard Shade say dimly through her agony.

Zunya let go of her arm, and the absence of pain was so sweet that she almost fainted from relief. Zunya sneered at Shade in disgust. “You’re pathetic, no better than the rest of your little gang. I thought you wanted this one to suffer.”

“I do! I mean, do whatever you want, I was just saying…” Shade trailed off. He seemed so different from when Valerie had met him in the woods. He was stripped of his arrogant confidence. Shade and his gang were clearly ready to crawl through hot coals if Zunya asked. He was a kid, like her—a kid who was almost as out of his league as she was.

“Take her to the dungeon. Don’t speak a word to her—I’ll be watching every step of the way.”

Shade half led, half supported Valerie down a winding path through the rocks. She was still so weak from Zunya’s touch that she could barely keep herself standing upright. Any hope that she had of defeating Sanguina evaporated. All she could do now was negotiate to keep Cyrus alive. Zunya trailed a short distance behind them, far enough that he didn’t suck away any more of her strength so that she was able to walk, but close enough to make sure that she didn’t try to escape.

The familiar ache of guilt and despair weighed on her soul, threatening to rob her last shred of strength. But she fought it. She wasn’t dead yet, and Zunya had to be keeping her alive for a reason. Even if it was only so Sanguina could finish her off, she still had one last chance. She hadn’t come all this way to give up now.

Finally, they reached the moat in front of the castle, which was desert dry. Up close, the castle still flickered, changing shape every few seconds. But certain parts of it never moved, she noticed as the giant iron door to the castle opened wide enough for them to walk through in single file. Inside, it was so dark that she could barely make out the high walls made of a strange, black stone that sparkled slightly in the light coming through the cracked door. The glittering stone walls disappeared as the giant iron door boomed shut behind them.

“When you’re done, report to me,” Zunya said to Shade, and then strode away, leaving them alone.

As Valerie’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, she saw that a few flickering lights hovered on the ceiling. They were balls of faint light that had been created by magic, and they provided so little light. How could anyone find their way around the castle without becoming hopelessly lost? Shade led her down a long passage. She heard nothing but the sound of her own breathing.

Then he surprised her by breaking the silence with an urgent whisper. “We got a score to settle, you and I. And I plan to collect—but this ain’t the time for that.”

Hearing the tone of his voice, Valerie felt hope. “Will you help me? I have to stop Zunya and Sanguina! They’re trying to hurt—or maybe even kill—my brother and my best friend!”

“Shut up! They got amazing hearing.”

“Please?” she begged quietly.

Shade wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. They’re too strong.”

“You could try! Tell them that I escaped,” Valerie said. Shade’s gang edged closer, not about to let her go anywhere.

“You escape and we answer for it,” he said. “Now shut up and listen. I can’t let you go, but I can give you some info that might help you. First off, don’t let Zunya touch you—ever. You’ll lose your power for good after a few minutes of contact. It’s way worse than my power-eater. You gotta avoid it at all cost, or you’re done for.”

“Gee, thanks, that’s really helpful,” she said, not quite managing to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

“You want to hear what I gotta say, or you want me to throw you in a dungeon cell that’s infested with snakes?” he said, towering over her threateningly.

She was still weak, but she was tempted to take him on anyway. Then Cyrus’s and Henry’s faces flashed through her mind, and she thought better of it. If Shade had information that could help her, she owed it to them to listen. “Sorry, go on.”

Shade nodded, satisfied with her apology, and continued. “Zunya’s not the worst thing in this castle. There’s this crazy lady who’s the boss of him, and you got to stay on her good side. If you don’t, you’ll either wind up in a cell until the end of time or you’ll disappear forever. Even Zunya obeys her.”

“Is it only the two of them? I mean, if we all attacked at once, we could defeat them for sure!”

Shade snorted. “Not likely. Besides all the invisible guards they have with all sorts of powers, there’s another guy who comes here, too. I don’t know anything about him, except that whenever he’s here, there’s always lots of screaming. I get me and my gang outta here then.”

“Is he here now?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. It’s too quiet,” he said as he opened a tall arched door. He led Valerie down a long hall lined with cells on either side. Inside, silent shadows hunched in the corners of the cells, barely moving. They were the prisoners. It was eerily quiet for a prison, and she sensed that terrible, unspeakable things had happened to make these prisoners so silent and motionless.

“I know this is a lot to ask, Shade, but my friends are coming to help me. When they came before, they couldn’t find the castle on their own.”

He nodded knowingly. “It can only be found if the person coming has permission, or someone who does have permission shows them the way,” he explained.

“Would you show them the path if—when—they come?”

He glanced around nervously, and her heart sank. But then, to her surprise, he said, “I’ll do what I can. No promises. I’m not gonna do anything that gets me or mine killed. All right, we’re here,” he said, leading her to a cell. Then he whispered, “It’s the cell next to your friend, the lightweaver guy. I’m not sure what happened to him, but he don’t look so good.”

If she didn’t know better, Valerie would almost swear that Shade was worried. Gripping his shoulder briefly, she said, “Thank you, Shade.”

“My real name’s Jack. And, uh, good luck or whatever,” he said, and then closed her cell with a clang. He and his gang scurried down the hall, clearly eager to be away from the eerie, dark prison.

“Cy?” Valerie called, wishing more than ever for a little light. There was no response. “Hello?”

Not a single prisoner responded. Had Jack had lied? Maybe she was alone here, buried underground, forgotten, forever. Her friends would never know what happened to her, and eventually they would forget about her while she rotted down here. She thought the darkness would eat her alive, and it would be as if she had never existed.

[] Chapter 41

Panic rose inside of Valerie, and the Laurel Circle grew noticeably colder on her thumb. But before her fear could swallow her up, she heard the sound of someone moaning softly in the cell next to her. She went over to the bars that separated her from the cell next to her and called, “Cy, is that you? It’s going to be okay.”

“Val?”

Cyrus was curled into a tight ball, shivering. Tears filled her eyes, and she knelt down. “It’s me.”

She touched his cold hands through the bars. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?” he asked. His voice sounded lifeless.

Rage rose up in her. Whoever had taken away the light and life from his eyes would pay. Fury infused her with energy, and the magic that had been suppressed when Zunya was near welled up inside of her. She allowed herself to relish the feeling before she turned back to Cyrus. “What happened to you?”

“That woman, Sanguina, asked me questions about you. When I wouldn’t answer, she hurt me,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I tried to fight back, to use light to scare her away like I did last time. I did my best, Val, I swear! But there is so little light to pull from inside of this place… not nearly enough to hurt her. I’m sorry.”

Without realizing it, she clenched her hands into fists. She had never yearned to make someone suffer before, but now there was nothing she craved so badly as to make Sanguina beg her for mercy—and then to deny her plea. The darkness inside of Valerie frightened her a little, and she forced herself to breathe slowly. She needed to channel her anger and adrenaline as Gideon had taught her, not waste it on her hate.

“You didn’t fail. This is my fault—she never would have kidnapped you if it weren’t for me. But one way or another, I’m going to stop her, I swear.”

“No! Stay away from her and Zunya! They’re too strong, and the more scared you are, the more pain you’re in, the more they love it. Fear and pain are like food to them.”

Hearing Cyrus sound so defeated made Valerie physically sick. “It isn’t over yet,” she said softly.

“I wish there was a little light in here, something to drive the darkness away. I’m going to disappear inside it.”

For the first time, she remembered the flower of light that she always kept in her pocket. Gently, she took it out and held it up to the bars. Cyrus’s face, streaked with dirt and blood, appeared in the soft, golden light. He had to be exhausted and scared, but a small smile appeared as he took the flower in his hands. As she watched, the light seemed to put life back into Cyrus’s blue eyes. She could hear the other prisoners stirring in their cells, aroused from their silent stupor by the little flower of pure light.

“I know it seems hopeless, but I have a plan. Zunya captured me, but before he did, I sent my sword back to the callbox. This time, when I face Sanguina, I’ll be ready. I’ll be armed, and if I can channel my magic, I know I have a chance.”

Cyrus’s face became thoughtful. “Call the sword. I have an idea.”

“Pathos!” she said, and it appeared in her hand.

“Hold it here, next to the bars,” he said. Then Cyrus concentrated, staring at the flower that he held gently.

She watched, mesmerized, as the flower melted into a pool of light in his hands. Then he poured the light from his hands onto the blade, and Pathos glowed from hilt to tip. “Now send it back to the callbox. With your powers, a weapon, and a little light, I think you can beat her, I really do.”

By the glow of the sword, she saw that hope had returned to his eyes. “Pathos!” she said, and the sword returned to the callbox. She heard Cyrus sigh softly, already missing the light. Then they sat back-to-back in their cells, whispering to each other about the best strategy to use when she fought Sanguina.

The sound of her cell door being wrenched open interrupted their whispers.

“Sanguina is asking for you,” a strange voice said, and someone grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out of the cell.

“Val!” Cyrus cried.

“I’m okay—I’ll see you soon, I swear!” she said, trying to sound brave.

In the dim light, she saw that it was a transparent Conjuror who was yanking her down the hall. He was much more difficult to see than Blake had been, so his power must still be new.

By the sound of the scuffling of feet all around her, she guessed that at least ten other transparent Conjurors were also guarding her to make sure she didn’t escape. She tried to calm her thumping heart and concentrate on her plan—call for her sword, channel her magic, fight Sanguina.

If Valerie could take her down, chaos would ensue, and with a little luck, she would be able to rescue Cyrus in the mayhem. But she had trouble collecting her scattered thoughts, and her terror of facing Sanguina again choked her magic, making it a trickle running through her body instead of the flood that she needed to win.

Suddenly, Henry pulled on her mind. She desperately tried to resist his call, but his terror was so great that she had no choice.

Venu stood out like a dark shadow against the verdant green grasslands of the African landscape. He loomed over Henry, who was curled in a ball on the ground, his entire body shaking. Venu lifted his boot and kicked the boy in the back. The sharp pain rippled through his body, and tears streamed down his face.

“Please, no more. I’ll do it, I’ll do it.”

Venu pulled back his leg, preparing to kick him again when Sanguina appeared.

“You miserable cretin, what are you doing? You have disobeyed me! I don’t have time to deal with your incompetence now!” Sanguina seethed at Venu. Valerie was shocked. Why was she helping Henry? She had to have some sinister reason for intervening.

For the first time, Valerie saw fear flickering in Venu’s eyes. “I’m sorry, mistress. But the boy refused to follow my orders! I had no choice—”

“I heard him agree to do what you asked,” Sanguina replied icily. “You’re wasting time. You should be at the Devil’s Pool by now! Go!”

Henry looked up from the ground through swollen eyes, and for the first time, Valerie saw where he was. The longest, most magnificent waterfall she had ever seen stretched out for miles. The water rushed over the edge so hard that the spray rose up like a cloud when it crashed into the pool below, creating a mist in the air even though they were still far away from the falls.

“Don’t give up, Henry! I’m sending help,” Valerie thought, hoping he could perceive her message. Then she let herself be pulled back to the Globe.

“What’s wrong with you?” the guard standing nearest to her said, shaking her roughly.

“Sorry,” she said, realizing that she was slumped on the ground.

“I’m not falling for your tricks,” the guard said, and without another word, Valerie was slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. It was an awkward position, but she was able to reach into her pocket and clutch the charm she had made for Thai. She pictured his face, and instantly she stood next to him in a busy airport.

“Can’t stay—go to the biggest waterfall in Zambia. Ask anyone—it’s enormous; it can’t be hard to find.”

“Victoria Falls, of course!” Thai exclaimed.

“Venu’s taking Henry there—somewhere called the Devil’s Pool!”

[] Chapter 42

Valerie’s body was thrown on the stone floor. She hit the ground hard, but despite how disoriented she was from her vision and her whirlwind visit to Thai, she had the sense to immediately leap to her feet and assume a fighting stance, though she doubted that she could take on all of the guards in addition to Sanguina.

It didn’t help that she couldn’t even guess how many people were surrounding her. She was in total darkness. Not even one of the dim balls of light was near to give her a sense of the layout of the room and the location of her enemies. She was defenseless without the use of her sight. How could she possibly fight Sanguina when she couldn’t even see where she was standing?

“Glad you’ve come out to play,” Zunya’s voice slithered through the darkness. Valerie’s power dipped, and a hopeless fear gripped her heart. She would be completely defenseless in the battle to come with Zunya present to subdue her power.

“Leave us,” Sanguina’s raspy voice commanded. Valerie heard the light tread of the guards’ footsteps as they left the room. “You, too, Zunya. I don’t need your help with this.”

“I should stay, in case—” he started to say, clearly annoyed at her order.

“Get out—NOW!” Sanguina’s voice exploded. Zunya opened the door to leave, looking back once at Valerie with his vicious yellow eyes.

Then the door slammed closed, and she was alone with Sanguina and completely blind. She took a few practice kicks, preparing herself for Sanguina’s attack. But the onslaught of blows never came.

“I didn’t bring you here to fight me. I’ve already proven that I could kill you without making much of an effort,” Sanguina whispered in Valerie’s ear, the threat of violence in her voice. Valerie’s chest tightened as the fear that she couldn’t hold back gushed through her.

“Then why am I here?” she asked. She was ashamed of how childlike her voice sounded in the darkness. The Laurel Circle was freezing, reminding her that it was only her fear holding her back now—not her skills. She forced herself to breathe more slowly and fight back against her terror.

“To answer some questions for me. If I like the answers, maybe your little lightweaver friend will see his family again. And if I don’t…” One of Sanguina’s long, sharp fingernails raked across Valerie’s arm, cutting into her skin. She cried out in pain and a thin trickle of blood dripped down her arm where Sanguina had sliced her.

Valerie punched the air wildly, but in the darkness she could make contact with nothing. “What do you want to know?” she asked, desperate.

“What did you mean when you asked me about haunting your dreams?” Sanguina shouted from somewhere nearby. “It means something; I know it. And you’re going to tell me.”

“I don’t know!”

“Liar!” Without warning, Sanguina landed a fierce punch across her left cheek. Sanguina’s fist was a rock, and Valerie’s brain rattled in her skull and the skin on her cheek split open. Her ears rang from the blow and her head throbbed, but she managed to stay on her feet. She was already losing her tentative hold on her magic. She knew that if Sanguina tried to control her mind right now, she wouldn’t be able to fight her off.

“I saw you in a dream or a vision, and you were always really angry, that’s all,” she relented, knowing she had to give some kind of answer.

There was a short pause, as if Sanguina didn’t know what to make of her answer. Switching tactics, she said, “How do you know the boy, Henry?”

“Henry? Never heard of—” Valerie broke off in a scream as Sanguina threw her to the ground by her hair.

“You’ll tell me everything you know about Henry, or I swear I will kill that boy in the dungeon!”

“Kill me,” Valerie begged. “Let Cyrus and Henry go.”

“I will never let you go—or Henry. You are both mine,” Sanguina’s voice was low and deadly.

But instead of terrifying her, the confidence in Sanguina’s voice awoke something in Valerie. She was still afraid, but overwhelming her fear was her explosive anger. This monster would never own her—or her brother. The Laurel Circle suddenly blazed hot on her thumb, and Valerie knew that her fear wouldn’t swallow her up this time as it had done before.

Her rage was uncontrollable inside of her, and she almost hurtled herself toward Sanguina so that she could finally hit her. But she forced herself not to attack wildly. Instead, she contained all of her energy and power inside her, and prepared to channel it into a more intelligent assault.

“Fine, I give in. I’ll tell you what you want to know,” Valerie said quietly, remembering her lessons with Jet and Chrome. She needed to gauge where Sanguina was standing in relation to her in order to launch an effective attack, and the only way to do that in the dense darkness was by listening to Sanguina’s voice.

“Yes, you will,” Sanguina replied, and this time, Valerie’s heightened senses told her that Sanguina was two feet behind her.

“Pathos!” Valerie yelled, and immediately her blade was in her hand, glowing brightly in the black room.

Sanguina screamed in agony when the light hit her. Valerie immediately lunged toward her, bringing the blade down forcefully toward her shoulder. But despite her pain, Sanguina managed to dodge the blow with astonishing speed. She darted across the room, and Valerie raced after her.

Sanguina grabbed something hanging on the wall, and this time, when Valerie wielded Pathos, aiming for Sanguina’s heart, she heard the sound of metal meeting metal as Sanguina blocked her with a long, curved rapier of her own. The air was filled with sparks and the sound of their swords crashing against each other.

Valerie’s arms moved faster than they ever had before as she deflected Sanguina’s blows. She was in a trance, and nothing existed except for the fight. The flow of magic inside of her was only a small stream, as her fear kept gnawing at her mind, trying to steal her attention away from the fight. By the glow of Pathos, she could see Sanguina’s confidence in her ability to defeat her. Sanguina’s mouth turned up in a cruel snarl of victory. Valerie’s fear flared, interfering with her concentration, and Sanguina managed to slash Valerie’s leg with the tip of her sword.

“How many times do I have to prove to you that you aren’t good enough to defeat me?” Sanguina jeered.

Valerie refused to let Sanguina know how much pain she was in from this new gash on her leg, from the earlier slash on her arm, and from the dizzying blow to her face. But the pain had the opposite effect from what Valerie had anticipated. Instead of distracting her, adrenaline rushed through her body, sharpening her focus so that she barely noticed the blood trickling down her cheek and leg.

She said nothing, but more of her fear transformed into rage, and the stream of magic inside of her exploded into a torrent. She gave in to her power, fighting purely by instinct. Now Valerie had Sanguina on the defensive, and she slowly backed her into a corner. Sanguina’s face was grim, and Valerie knew that she had to use every ounce of her own strength and speed to fend her off. Sanguina tried to grasp at her brain to control her, but her attempts to claw her way into Valerie’s mind were useless, as if her consciousness was a ball of fire that couldn’t be contained.

Valerie’s heart raced. She was actually winning—but she knew that she couldn’t keep fighting this hard for much longer. Her magic would eventually run out. She needed to try something different. So this time, after blocking Sanguina’s sword from lopping off her right arm, Valerie deliberately flashed the luminous blade in Sanguina’s eyes. The light made her squint and flinch. A second of hesitation was all Valerie needed, and she pressed her advantage. She knocked Sanguina’s hand with the flat of her sword as hard as she could, loosening Sanguina’s grip on her weapon. The rapier clattered onto the ground.

Swiftly, Valerie pressed her blade against Sanguina’s neck. “Surrender,” she said quietly, trying to contain the glorious tide of joy rising inside of her. Had she really won? Sanguina stared at Valerie, her hatred emblazoned across her face.

Suddenly, Valerie’s attention was drawn to light glinting off of a crystal hanging on a chain around Sanguina’s neck. She saw Henry’s image inside the crystal, screaming. With her other hand, Valerie grabbed the chain and yanked it off of Sanguina’s neck. In the process, Sanguina tried to push her away, but she didn’t budge.

Sanguina’s eyes flicked down, noticing Pathos, and suddenly shock replaced the seething hate in her eyes. She looked up at Valerie searchingly. “Why do you have Adelita’s sword? Who are you? Tell me. Now!” Sanguina commanded, but her hatred seemed diluted, as if something had distracted her from their fight.

“This time it’s you who’s not in a position to give orders,” Valerie said, pressing her blade against Sanguina’s throat even harder. “You’re not going to distract me.” But she was genuinely confused at the change in Sanguina.

“Could you be… it’s not possible, but…” Sanguina said, so puzzled that she seemed almost unaware of the sharp blade against her neck. “It’s you!” Sanguina cried out, and her face contorted as anger warred with some other emotion that Valerie couldn’t begin to guess.

Pathos had nicked the thin, chalky skin on Sanguina’s neck. It was only a scratch, but Sanguina shrieked in pain. As Valerie watched, the light from Pathos poured into Sanguina through her wound. Valerie pulled her blade away, but it was too late. The light traveled through Sanguina’s body, illuminating her veins from the inside out. The sight was ghastly, as Sanguina appeared to be nothing more than a network of glowing veins in the blackness.

The pitch of Sanguina’s scream became higher, and Valerie knew, without a doubt, that the light was killing her. But instead of triumphant, she was more horrified than she had ever been in her life. Because of her, someone would die. She hated this woman, but suddenly she wished more than anything that she could take it all back. There was no way that she could live with herself, knowing that she had ended a life. She heard a faint clatter in the hall. Someone was coming. But she didn’t care. She didn’t know if she would ever care about anything ever again.

The door to the room burst open, and dim light streamed in. But Valerie couldn’t take her eyes off of Sanguina’s death throes.

Strangest of all, when Sanguina looked at Valerie now, all of the loathing was drained from her eyes. For the first time since Valerie had known her, Sanguina spoke without bitterness, and said, “If I had known who you were, I never would have hurt you.” Then Sanguina’s eyes rolled back in her head.

It was more than Valerie could bear. Agonizing remorse left her frozen in shock.

Something flashed through her like fire. She was burning with an energy that filled her from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Sanguina started to fall to the ground, but before she collapsed on the floor, Valerie caught her, and the energy inside her burst from her fingertips and shot through Sanguina. Sanguina’s entire body glowed fiercely with a bright yellow-green light.

Energy flooded out of Valerie and into Sanguina in a torrent. Her strength faded as her field of vision narrowed to a tiny circle. She knew that if she didn’t stem the tide, she would be swept away with it, gone forever. It was as if she were pushing hard on a door inside of herself that didn’t want to close. With a burst of strength, Valerie slammed it shut.

Abruptly, the light inside of Sanguina went out and her body relaxed. She shuddered in Valerie’s arms and sighed. But then something miraculous happened—Valerie heard the sound of ragged breathing. Sanguina was alive.

You saved her. Azra’s soft voice moved through Valerie’s mind, comforting her.

Valerie struggled to remain conscious and not give in to the darkness that surrounded her mind, inviting her to lose herself in its oblivion. She couldn’t let go, not yet. Henry’s life depended on her. With a struggle, she pushed the darkness back inside her.

She blinked, aware for the first time that Azra and Kanti stood in the doorway, and behind them were a crowd of other Conjurors, some, like Gideon and Midnight, whom Valerie recognized, and many she had never seen before. Everyone was staring at her, stunned. Even Azra’s eyes were wide with surprise and sudden understanding.

“I don’t understand.” Valerie said.

You’re a vivicus, a life-giver. It has been many centuries since a Conjuror has been born with this gift. I sensed something untapped inside of you when we first met, but I never guessed… Azra trailed off with a shake of her mane.

“Will Sanguina be okay?” Valerie asked, resting her gently on the ground. In the dim light, Valerie could see that Sanguina’s skin had lost its pasty sheen. She looked almost—human.

Better than okay—you brought Sanguina the woman back to life, but the vampyre in her is dead. She is as she was before she was changed by Zunya.

“Zunya was the one who made her a vampyre? How—” Valerie began, but Henry’s fear ripped through her. “Henry’s still in danger! I have to go to him!” she cried, realizing that she was still clutching Sanguina’s charm for Henry in her hand. Adrenaline burned away her exhaustion.

Go and comfort him as best you can. We will wait.

She gripped the charm and concentrated. In the space of a thought, she was transported to Earth.

[] Chapter 43

A barrage of sights and sounds overwhelmed Valerie. Rushing water drowned out almost every other noise and filled the air with a wet mist. To her astonishment, she was standing on a grassy patch of land next to a swiftly moving flood of water. Her eyes followed the flow of the rapids, and she saw that about a hundred yards out, the water dropped away, falling into an abyss of mist.

She was not far from the edge of the enormous waterfall that she had seen through Henry’s eyes earlier. The view would have been breathtaking if it weren’t for the realization of how easy it would be to slip and fall into the raging water coursing past.

Her assessment of her surroundings was interrupted by a cry, and she saw Henry trying to run away from Venu. He only made it a few steps before Venu leapt onto him, and the two crashed to the ground. Her heart squeezed at the sight of the terror in his wide brown eyes.

“You’re going in, whether you like it or not,” Venu barked. Then he smiled, revealing his yellow teeth. “There’s even a surprise waiting for you over the edge of the falls. Time to go find it!”

“Get away from him!” Valerie yelled. Venu and Henry jumped a little in surprise. Venu’s grip loosened on Henry, who wrenched himself away. “Run,” she said to Henry, who was still staring at her with disbelief. But before he could take off, Venu deliberately touched Henry’s arm with one finger.

“No!” Valerie screamed, but it was too late. Henry fell to his knees and stayed there, motionless but conscious. Venu clearly didn’t want to kill Henry. He had paralyzed him so he couldn’t escape.

“This time, you won’t leave alive,” Venu said to Valerie, his eyes narrowing into slits.

“Somehow I doubt that. That will make, let’s see, three times that a girl kicked your butt?” she taunted, hoping to distract him.

Venu’s body tensed, ready to attack. Valerie automatically assumed a defensive stance, but she knew that there was nothing she could do to stop him from hurting Henry—Venu just hadn’t realized it yet. A helpless panic tore through her. She was so close to Henry, but there wasn’t a thing she could do to save him.

Venu crouched, and then leapt toward her. She did the only thing she could—she dodged his outstretched fist. The dance continued as Venu tried to punch and kick her, and Valerie dodged his blows. Venu’s eyes narrowed when she didn’t go on the offensive. Finally, one of his blows punched through her shoulder.

“You’re not here. You’re on the Globe, with Sanguina,” Venu said, and he smiled, revealing his yellow teeth. “You can’t do anything but watch.”

“NO! Please, I’ll give you anything you want!” she cried in desperation, but Venu turned his back on her and trudged toward Henry. “I’ve defeated Sanguina. There’s nothing she can do if you release him. I’ll give you money, find a way to get you to the Globe, anything!”

Venu stopped. He turned slowly, surprised. “Sanguina’s gone?”

“Yes. Now let him go.”

“It doesn’t matter. Sanguina is not the one who gave me this order. I will be rewarded for this beyond anything that witch could give me,” Venu said with a greedy smile, turning to Henry, who was shaking with terror.

Then he put on his gloves and lifted a limp, helpless Henry off the ground and carried him to the water. Valerie knew he was about to throw him in, and she clawed in vain at Venu. He laughed as her arms went through him. Panic gnawed at her mind, threatening to swallow her whole. But before she could give in to her terror, Thai came tearing past her and crashed into Venu, knocking him to the ground. Venu’s grip loosened on Henry, who rolled dangerously close to the place where the land dropped away and the falls began.

“Thai! You made it!”

“Of course,” he said, kicking Venu hard in the chest. Venu grunted and fell, but only a small flicker of pain appeared in his eyes. He eyed Thai from the ground, sizing him up.

Then, in the blink of an eye, Venu was on the attack. Ripping off his gloves, he leapt to his feet and lunged for Thai. Venu was fighting to kill. Valerie watched as Venu and Thai sparred. Thai carefully avoided the poison oozing from Venu’s hands and feet, and managed to land several more kicks to Venu’s stomach and chest.

To Valerie’s eyes, the fight appeared to be a blur at first as they swiftly attacked and blocked each other’s blows. But Venu was growing tired. Thai landed a punch squarely across his jaw. Venu grunted in pain.

Thai’s eyes flashed with triumph, but the look was quickly replaced by terror. “Not now, Tan!” he shouted.

Valerie saw him shudder, and then Tan’s gold eyes appeared in Thai’s face. He backed away as Venu pulled himself off the ground. Venu saw the change in Thai’s face. He couldn’t possibly know what had happened, but he must have sensed that this change was to his advantage, because he didn’t hesitate. He laid his hand on Tan’s neck, and Tan fell to the ground, moaning.

Valerie was by his side in an instant. He opened his eyes, and Valerie saw that Thai was back in control. “I failed you,” he whispered, and then his eyes closed and his breathing slowed. Venu laughed.

“Don’t give in to the poison. Please, wake up!” she begged, tears pouring down her cheeks.

“Pleeease wake up,” Venu mocked. Grinning, he turned to Henry. “Now it’s your turn,” Venu said, pulling his gloves back on and lifting Henry off the ground.

“I swear to you, if you don’t put him down right now, I will find a way to make you suffer a million times more than Sanguina ever did!” Valerie said. But her words had no effect on him—without saying another word, Venu hoisted Henry above his head, poised to throw him into the rushing water that was racing toward the precipice.

“Help!” Henry shrieked, his tortured eyes connecting with Valerie’s.

Then everything seemed to go in slow motion. A strange feeling filled Valerie, reminding her of all the times that Henry had needed her so badly that his fear had pulled her into his reality. But this time, the world suddenly appeared distorted to her eyes, as if she were looking through a funhouse mirror. It was like she was underwater, unable to breathe. But before panic could set in, the strange sensation was over, and she breathed in the clean, wet air.

Wait—the air wasn’t wet on the Globe. What happened? When the grass tickled her ankles and dirt squished under her shoes, Valerie knew that something inexplicable had happened—she was standing on Earth on her own two feet. She had done what she had been told was impossible—she had crossed the barrier between the two worlds, and returned to Earth from the Globe.

Before she could rejoice or even regain her focus, Venu hurled Henry into the rushing water. His body was swept away by the current. Adrenaline kept Valerie’s mind clear, she knew exactly what she had to do. Without thinking, she pushed Venu to the ground and jumped into the water after Henry.

“How—?” she heard Venu cry.

The cold water shocked Valerie to her core, and the current shoved her forward like a giant hand. She embraced the speed and launched herself forward toward Henry’s blue jacket, which bobbed just out of her reach. Speeding downstream, she came closer and closer to him, but at the last second, the current yanked her away and her fingers closed around water instead of his arm. Her eyes stung and she choked, inhaling water as she struggled to keep her head above the surface.

Downstream, she saw Henry sinking facedown a few feet beyond her grasp. With sheer determination, she surged forward, wrapping her fingers around his sleeve and pulling him toward her. He was unable to move, still paralyzed from Venu’s attack. Valerie held his head above water and he gasped for air. But it could be his last breath, she thought, as they sped toward the edge of the falls.

Valerie reached desperately for something, anything to grab on to. Finally, she spotted a rock that rose above the frothing water slightly downstream. With a burst of strength that she didn’t know she possessed without the aid of magic, she steered herself toward the boulder with Henry in tow. Once it was within reach, her fingers scrabbled at the rock, and her hand became bloodied as she struggled to grasp its rough edges. But finally she managed to find a handhold, and her body jerked to a stop as the current wrenched her arm, trying to pull Henry away from her. A few yards away, water zoomed toward the edge of the falls and then dropped out of sight.

Valerie could only enjoy her temporary safety for an instant, as she saw Venu’s bulky form heading toward them. He used his immense strength to fight the current.

Within seconds, Venu reached the rock. “You will pay for all the trouble you’ve given me,” he growled, his rancid breath in her face making her gag. She had no free hand to fight him with, as one hand held tightly to the rock and the other kept Henry’s head above the water.

“Please, don’t do this,” Valerie begged.

Venu ruthlessly began to pry her hand from the rock, finger by finger, until she lost her grip and was yanked back into the current. She shut her eyes and clutched Henry tightly, knowing that soon they would be swept over the side of the falls and plunge to their deaths.

But seconds before they reached the edge, the bottom of the rapids dropped away from under her feet, and the water rose up to her chest. Then, inches from the brink of the falls, she and Henry slammed into a wall of rock, saving them from being carried over. She stared around her. The wall of rock that had rescued them formed a natural pool right on the edge of the waterfall.

“The Devil’s Pool,” she whispered to herself, finally understanding what she had heard last time she had been pulled into Henry’s mind.

What a stroke of luck. Venu was upon them already, his face red and contorted with rage at being thwarted again. He lurched toward Valerie, and she knew that he was going to murder her. She mentally prepared herself for the fight, but without much hope of winning. The water had the advantage of washing away Venu’s natural poison, but without her power, she was no match for him.

Venu captured Valerie’s wrists with one hand and wrapped the other around her throat and squeezed, choking the life out of her. Black spots formed in her vision from lack of oxygen. But abruptly, the pressure on her neck was released. The cold water must have partially revived Henry from his paralysis, because he had grabbed Venu’s arms to pull him away from her. But Henry was still weak, and Venu tossed him aside like a rag doll. Then Venu pulled himself up on the narrow, rocky border of the pool that also formed the edge of the falls. He hauled Henry up by the hair and onto the ledge with him.

Valerie scratched at Venu’s legs, trying to pull him back into the relative safety of the pool before he could throw Henry over the side. Venu kicked at her, but she couldn’t make him budge. Desperate, she climbed onto the thin strip of rock that separated the pool from the abyss. Using all her weight, she grabbed Henry and threw him back into the pool. Venu roared with frustration.

Only then, standing alone with Venu on the very edge of the falls, did Valerie allow herself to look over. Far below, she saw a group of people huddled on a bridge staring up at them, pointing and shouting. But she barely took this in, her attention drawn to a sight stranger than anything she had ever seen. Instead of seeing rushing water that faded into the mist, she saw something that could only have been created with magic. The watery air swirled like an inverted tornado, creating a vortex. She knew why Venu had brought Henry here. Venu wasn’t trying to kill Henry after all. Sanguina—or whoever gave Venu his orders—wanted Henry thrown into the vortex. What would happen to him inside there, she couldn’t guess, but there was no way she wanted Henry to find out.

Instead of waiting for Venu to attack, Valerie leapt onto him, hoping that the element of surprise would cause him to lose his footing so they would fall back into the pool. He lost his balance. Which way would they fall—into the pool or into the vortex? But he was strong, and he quickly regained his footing.

Fiercely, Venu grabbed Valerie’s arms and tried to throw her over the side with all his might, but she held on to his wrists. Her entire body swung, hovering in midair. The only thing that kept her from going over the falls was her vice-like grip on Venu’s wrists. But then her body’s momentum swung her back, away from the edge. She released his wrists and fell backward into the Devil’s Pool.

The abrupt absence of Valerie’s weight caused Venu to stumble. Before he could steady himself, Henry, with a shout of pure rage, pushed Venu as hard as he could. For a single frozen second, Venu teetered on the edge of the falls. His mouth and eyes opened wide with astonishment, and then he fell backward, over the edge of the falls. Venu roared as he plunged down toward the vortex.

His bulky form hurtled through the mist until he vanished through the center of the vortex, which disappeared as soon as it swallowed Venu and became one with the swirling mist. Valerie hoped that they would never see him again, but she was glad that she hadn’t actually killed him. She didn’t want Venu’s death on her conscience, either.

For several seconds, Valerie and Henry stared at the spot where Venu had fallen until the screams of the people on the bridge below woke Valerie from her reverie. There was still much left to do before she could think about everything that had happened to her. Turning, she swam toward the landside edge of the pool and pulled herself out of the rushing water. Then, lying on her stomach, she extended her arms as far as she could. Henry was able to grasp her hand, and with the last of her strength, she hauled her brother out of the pool.

Without wasting another minute, she said, “Come on, we have to get Thai to a hospital now, before Venu’s poison kills him.”

“Who are you?” Henry whispered. “I thought I was all alone with that monster and then suddenly—you were here to save me. You seem so familiar.”

Valerie stared into the eyes that were so much like her own and a warm glow filled the core of her heart. “I’m your sister. You’ll never be alone again—and neither will I.”

[] Chapter 44

By the time Henry and Valerie lugged an unconscious Thai across five miles of open grasslands to the closest hospital, they were exhausted. The hospital turned out to be not much more than a simple building with one large room that contained rows of cots. Luckily it wasn’t busy, so Thai was given immediate attention. Valerie vaguely explained that he had been bitten by a poisonous frog on their hike, hoping the nurse wouldn’t be too suspicious. She breathed an internal sigh of relief when the nurse nodded, unsurprised.

“Many people come here after they’re bitten by frogs and snakes near the falls,” she said. “We’ll fix him up in no time.”

The nurse opened a drawer, took out a syringe filled with a milky fluid, and injected it into Thai’s abdomen. Color quickly returned to his cheeks and his eyes fluttered open.

“I’m okay,” Thai rasped, seeing Valerie hovering over him anxiously. She squeezed his hand, and his eyes searched hers. “You’re really here? You’re not just projecting from the Globe?”

Her heart lifted at the energy returning to his voice. “It’s a long story—I’ll tell you everything when you’ve had a chance to rest. I was so afraid that I was going to lose you.”

“Did you really think a little poison could get the best of me?”

“How silly of me,” she quipped.

Then Thai slept, and the hospital staff let Valerie and Henry collapse on two of the unused cots nearby. As she rubbed her gritty eyes, she noticed that the Laurel Circle was just a gray lump of metal around her thumb. It was dull and plain choked off from the magic that lit it up from the inside out. Now that she was back on Earth, she also felt as if her energy had faded without her magic to lend her strength. Her old illness tugged at the back of her mind. How long would she survive with Earth’s rules binding her power? However, despite these worries and physical exhaustion, her mind was at peace. At last, everyone she loved was safe.

The next day, while Thai lay in bed recuperating, he and Valerie gave Henry a very long explanation of everything that had happened to them. When Thai got to the part about Venu attacking Mrs. Leeds in the alley, Henry became tense.

“He hurt Mrs. Leeds? Is she okay?” he asked anxiously.

“She’s fine. The paramedics got there in time. I thought Venu’s attack on her was random, but I guess not, since you obviously know her.”

“She’s my teacher. Why would he hurt her?”

“Maybe Venu thought she might know where to find you,” Valerie said thoughtfully.

“You’re probably right,” Thai agreed. “But no need to worry, Henry. I made sure that she was okay before I left. She’s probably back at work by now.”

Henry nodded, reassured, and Valerie continued the story, telling Henry all about the Globe, how she had discovered that he was her brother, and the defeat of Sanguina. As he listened, fascination replaced the fear in his eyes.

“All this time—Sanguina couldn’t touch me,” Henry said, shaking his head as if he couldn’t quite believe it. “It all seemed so real, like she could choke the life out of me at any time. But that wasn’t the worst part. She knew things about my family, like how my dad blames himself for my mom’s death. Once, when I disobeyed her, Sanguina punished me by pretending to be the ghost of my mother, blaming my dad for letting her die. My dad believed it was Mom and was so depressed that he didn’t come out of his room for days. He’s never been the same since. After that, I was too afraid not to do whatever she wanted.”

“How horrible,” Valerie said. It was still so strange to hear about her brother’s life—so different from her own in many ways, but filled with the same loneliness and terror.

“I still don’t get it—what did Sanguina want from you?” Thai asked.

“It sounds so stupid, now,” Henry said, embarrassed. “She told me that I had the ability to give other people magic powers. I guess that was a lie, too.”

“I don’t know about that,” Valerie said thoughtfully, and then explained how Conjurors like the not-so-invisible Blake had been appearing with powers that had never been heard of on the Globe before.

“Hey, I did do that! Sanguina forced me to make a bunch of these guys appear invisible, and to make their magic untraceable by other Conjurors. Did it really work?”

Before Valerie could reply, Cyrus popped into view. Henry jumped up in surprise.

“Nice to meet ya,” Cyrus said to Henry. “I didn’t want to visit until Val filled you in.”

“H-hi,” Henry replied uncertainly.

“There’s a bunch of people who are dying to say hi. Is it okay if they visit?”

“Yes! Send everyone!” Valerie said, eager to see her friends.

Only Azra and Kanti walked through the door, obviously trying not to startle Henry by appearing out of thin air like Cyrus had done. Still, Henry gawked at the sight of a real unicorn approaching him.

We didn’t want to overwhelm you, so I thought only Kanti and I would visit for now. The others will stop by later, Azra said with a concerned glance toward Henry. Valerie could see that Henry was a little dazed by all of the information being heaped on him and by the fact that a unicorn was talking to him in his head. I am so glad to meet you, Henry and Thai.

“It’s an honor,” Thai said, nodding respectfully.

Valerie saw the same calm on Henry’s awestruck face that Azra always brought to her. “Glad to meet you, too. Valerie’s told me a lot about you,” he said with an affectionate glance at his sister.

“So what happened? How is it possible that I’m on Earth?” Valerie asked, unable to contain her curiosity.

Midnight was with us when you disappeared from the Globe. No one knew what had become of you, but she explained to me later that there are exceptions to the rule that no one can return to Earth. Those exceptions are guarded secrets. One is that a blood relative on Earth can call back a family member in times of great need. This rule hasn’t applied to anyone for decades, because no one has come to the Globe from Earth in a long time.

“ ‘When blood calls blood, answer its thrumming call,’ ” Valerie quoted. “That’s what the prophecy said.”

“So—I brought Valerie back to Earth?” Henry asked.

Yes. There is powerful magic inside of you, Henry. Aside from the ability to grant powers to others across the universe, which is a feat in and of itself, you have many untapped psychic abilities. You and Valerie are two of the most gifted, powerful Conjurors I have encountered in centuries.

“Then it’s true—there really is magic inside me, like Valerie,” Henry said.

“I always knew it,” Kanti said, speaking up for the first time. “Remember your old imaginary friend?”

Henry looked at her closely, confused. But seconds later, recognition spread across his face. “Kanti? You’re real?”

“Yep!” she said with a grin, her reservation gone. “Miss me as much as I missed you?”

“More,” Henry replied. Then the two went to the other end of the room and began to chatter, rapidly catching up and sharing stories about the time they spent together when Kanti was Henry’s imaginary friend.

“So what happens now?” Valerie asked Azra when Henry was out of earshot. “Can Henry survive on Earth? And how long do I have before…” she trailed off. She knew that coming back to Earth to save Henry would kill her before long, but she didn’t regret it for a second. Even if her return did kill her, now she could die loved, surrounded by her family.

Now, you will begin a new journey. Much has changed, but one thing remains true. Earth is no place for you, Valerie. Or for Henry.

“How much time do they have?” Thai asked, putting a protective arm around Valerie’s shoulders.

I believe that Valerie’s sickness was accelerated because Henry’s magic was pulling on hers every time he reached out to her with his mind when he was afraid. The magic inside of her was trying to burst out in order to help him, but Earth’s rules stifled it. And when her magic was stifled, so was her life.

“So she’s gonna be okay now that Henry is free of Sanguina, right?” Cyrus said, his blue eyes anxious.

Without Henry’s magic pulling on yours, Valerie, you won’t die as quickly. But neither you nor Henry will live to grow old here, either. That is why you must both come to the Globe to live. The magic inside of you is too great, and unless you are free to use it, that magic will wither and die, and you will perish with it.

“But the Great Pyramid—it was destroyed!” Valerie exclaimed. Azra’s eyes twinkled, and Valerie’s pulse quickened with hope.

There is another way. When you’ve had a chance to recover, I’ll tell you all about it. It’s not going to be easy, and it will definitely involve some traveling. But I have the feeling you’re up for it, Azra said with a slight toss of her mane.

“I have never been more ready for anything in my entire life!” Valerie could have jumped for joy. Her adventure wasn’t ending. It was beginning.

[] Epilogue

Within the darkest room of the highest tower in the black castle of Dunsinane, Sanguina shivered on the bare, stone floor, waiting. The desolate chamber was icy cold and completely devoid of any comfort whatsoever. Only Reaper’s blood red throne cast an ominous glimmer in the darkness.

Had it always been so dim in here? Yesterday, with her super-sharp vampyre eyes, every crack in the walls was visible to her. But now, with her senses dulled by her human frailty, she realized how terrifyingly pitch black the castle really was. Gloom was everywhere, suffocating what was left of her soul. Soon that same blackness would invade her body. She would be dead, executed for her failure to obey Reaper’s order. But she accepted her fate, only regretting that she’d never have the chance to bathe herself in light one last time, now that it could no longer destroy her.

Suddenly, Sanguina heard a crackling, as if the air was full of charged particles. Reaper was here. When he was angry, the air always crackled like that, and it prickled her skin like little electric shocks. Despite being resigned to her death, fear filled Sanguina, choking her. When she was a vampyre, she couldn’t experience fear herself—she could only feast on the fear of others. It had been a very long time since fear had made her heart thump rapidly and caused sweat to bead up on her forehead. Strangely, a tiny part of her heart relished her ability to actually feel something again.

“Why?” The agony in Reaper’s roar cut through Sanguina like a carving knife.

“I wasn’t strong enough,” she replied, knowing she could never tell him the truth. “And for that, I know I must forfeit my life.”

“Everyone I trusted had disappointed me in some way, until you. You were different. It wasn’t only that you were strong and smart. You shared my vision.”

“I still do!” Sanguina said automatically, but even as she said it, doubt crept into her mind. She didn’t know what she wanted anymore.

“This was the final test, and I never doubted you would pass it. You were so close to sharing my power. If you had killed the girl, you would have been my partner, my equal, maybe even more. Together we could have made my vision a reality,” Reaper said wistfully.

“I’m sorry,” Sanguina whispered. And she was sorry—sorry that she had disappointed the person who had made her what she was, who had trained her and taught her to use her powers when others would have abandoned her to her fate as a vampyre, shut away from the light and the rest of the world. She was sorry that now they would never explore the bond that was growing between them. She regretted many things, but she couldn’t bring herself to be sorry that she had not killed Valerie.

Reaper’s voice hardened. “Hearing those simpering words from you disgusts me. Enough with what could have been. You failed me. Now you will never be more than one of my henchmen, like the others.”

His words humiliated and hurt Sanguina, but she also found a thread of hope forming inside her. “Can it be that you will let me live?”

“Why should I?” he asked, standing over her imperiously.

“I won’t beg,” Sanguina replied, her voice cold. She had nothing, now, no friends and none of her vampyre power. All she had left was the last dregs of her pride, and she was willing to die for them. She rose from her knees and stared him directly in the eye. “Go ahead. Kill me,” she commanded.

Reaper laughed. It wasn’t a cold laugh, but rather a chortle of true enjoyment. He had always despised weakness in others, and he punished it more severely than defiance. “Good! You have some fight left in you. Maybe you can be of use to me yet.”

“I know I can still help you. I believe in your vision,” Sanguina enticed, knowing that only her ability to help him would keep her alive.

Reaper eyed her critically. “Your failure does present an opportunity. I have been watching the Grand Masters closely. They have knowledge that I need in order to take my next step, but they guard their secrets well. I require someone else I can trust to keep an eye on them with me and help me learn their secrets.”

“Reaper, I will obey any order you give, but I ask you—why would they ever trust me? I would undoubtedly arouse their suspicions.”

“Perhaps not. If you surrender and repent, I believe those feeble Conjurors, especially Azra, will forgive you out of their own guilt for how you were treated when you first turned into a vampyre. Use their guilt to your advantage.”

Sanguina nodded thoughtfully. “I accept the challenge.”

“Now, there is one more thing we need to discuss. Your payment.”

“I require no payment but the honor of serving you,” she said, bowing deeply.

“Ha! No, Sanguina, it is you who must pay me for what I have given you. Your life.”

Fear flashed through her like lightning, making the hair on her arms stand on end. “What payment do you demand?”

“You will pay with power, and with your own flesh.”

Despite herself, Sanguina physically recoiled from his words. Only once had she seen Reaper exact such a price—from Zunya after he had turned her into a vampyre. Zunya used a glamour to hide his missing hand, but nothing could make Sanguina forget his pain. As if remembering him, Reaper summoned him to the room. Zunya entered, a cruel sneer on his face. Sanguina could see his undisguised joy at finally making her suffer for replacing him at Reaper’s side. He would relish sucking away her power, just as much as Reaper would revel in taking her flesh.

“Kneel!” Reaper commanded. Sanguina forced herself to fall to her knees. Disobedience was not an option. She knew, without a doubt, her life would be the forfeit. No one left the black castle unless Reaper permitted it. “Remember, you brought this on yourself.”

Then, Reaper tore apart her right leg cell by cell, dissolving it before her eyes, and Zunya sucked away all but the dregs of her magic from her soul. Sanguina’s anguished screams filled the black castle, and their echo reverberated around the Globe. For a moment, Conjurors everywhere tasted her fear.

 

THE END

[] Afterword

If you would like to hear about my giveaways and new releases, please sign up for my newsletter on my website. I love hearing from readers, so please leave me a review and let me know what you thought. It makes a huge difference to my success as a writer.

The next two books in The Conjurors Series are now available on this site, and the final book in the series will be released in March of 2016. I hope you continue to follow Valerie on her journey!

The Society of Imaginary Friends

Knights of Light

Guardians of the Boundary

Edge of Pathos (March 2016)

[] About the Author

Kristen Pham lives for really great fudge, rollercoasters, and exploring new worlds via fiction. She lives in San Jose, CA with her son (Jake), daughter (Clara) and husband, where she eagerly waits for Jake and Clara to turn eleven and receive their invitations to Hogwarts. Her childhood memories of adventures with her imaginary friends inspired The Conjurors Series.

 

You can reach her on Twitter (www.twitter.com/theconjurors), [+ Facebook+], and her website (www.kristenpham.com).

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The Society of Imaginary Friends

Belief is a powerful magic. Valerie Diaz has a power that she can't contain, and it's killing her. Bounced between foster homes and the streets, she only has time to concentrate on staying alive. But a visit from the imaginary friend of her childhood opens a world of possibilities, including a new life half a universe away on a planet that is bursting with magic. The Society of Imaginary Friends follows Valerie on a journey that straddles two worlds. In order to survive, she must travel many light years away to a realm where anything is possible. On the Globe, imaginary friends come to life, the last of the unicorns rules the realm, and magic seeps from the pores of all the Conjurors who live there. But choosing to embrace her potential will set Valerie on a treacherous course – one filled with true love, adventure and perilous danger.

  • Author: Kristen Pham
  • Published: 2016-01-01 01:05:22
  • Words: 90041
The Society of Imaginary Friends The Society of Imaginary Friends