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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Zephyra--Aubrey Rising Book 2

 
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ZEPHYRA

 

 

 

AUBREY RISING BOOK 2

 

By Devlin Richards

Zephyra

Aubrey Rising Book 2

Devlin Richards

 

Copyright © 2015 by Devlin Richards

[email protected]

 

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

 

First publication 2015

  • Table of Contents *

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 1

It’s my first day back at normal high school since Tempeste almost killed me and I lost the use of my arm.

That was only about two weeks ago. Since then, my health has been kind of touch and go. Some days I feel okay, sort of. Most days I’m exhausted and just want to sleep. But it’s time for me to get back to my life, get back to school and homework and classes and everything. And that includes magic.

This is kind of annoying. Well I’m glad to be getting back to my normal schedule, and very glad to finally be able to go back to the School. But there are only two-and-a-half weeks left of my sophomore year in normal school, and I don’t see why it’s really important that I complete it. I’ve missed a couple months altogether, I’m failing most of my classes, and I can still barely even make it through the day without falling asleep.

The only good thing about my first day back at school is that it’s also the first day of school for a new student. Who happens to be one of my best friends, who’s here to watch out for me. Min.

It’s a little weird that he’s just being enrolled in school now when there’s only two weeks left. Of course we’re not going to tell the school that he’s just there to watch out for me and make sure I’m okay. We don’t want the school to ask questions, so when Liz signs Min up she brings his “brother”, who is actually Seth, another of my friends from the School. Seth can influence the mind of the principal. So by the time Min and I are both ready for the first day back, nobody’s wondering anything, and he’s automatically in my homeroom and all of my classes.

Liz is shaking me. “Aubrey! Wake up!” I open my eyes. I vaguely remember my alarm clock going off maybe twenty minutes ago. I turned it off and went back to sleep. I have to get ready in about ten minutes, because that’s when I have to leave and there’s no way I’m going to be late on my first day back.

“I’m awake,” I say sleepily to Liz. This is kind of a lie because I honestly feel like if she stops shaking me I’m going to fall asleep again. But I force myself to sit up and she leaves, probably to go make me breakfast or something.

Paige comes in. She’s been helping me get dressed and stuff since I can’t move my arm. When I killed Tempeste, a lot of her energy went through me and it fried some of my nerves. Since then I haven’t been able to move my left arm at all. Not only that, but the sensation is dulled too. I can feel if it’s hot or cold, sort of, and sometimes it feels kind of tingly. I can feel pain too, which is just perfect, because I almost died after killing Tempeste and totally need another part of my body to be in pain.

Paige, my adoptive sister, is one of those people who can get herself ready in ten minutes and still look amazing. She always sort of has that I-don’t-care look, with ripped jeans and too-big T-shirts. She’s still beautiful though, with sandy blue-streaked hair and violet eyes, so tiny she’s almost petite.

“What are you wearing today?” she says, pulling open my closet.

“I don’t know.” My head hurts and I want to go to school, but I don’t want to deal with this. Picking out an outfit seems like an impossible difficulty when I’m this tired. But I only have a few more minutes, so I have to stand up.

I stand up, sway, and almost fall. Sympathy flashes across Paige’s face. “I’ll pick out something for you. Go do your hair and stuff.”

I go into the bathroom, brush my teeth and do my makeup, put my hair in a bun because that’s all I have the energy for. By the time I’m done Paige is gone from my bedroom, but has laid out clothes for me on the bed. Jeans, sandals, a tank-top. The tank-top is maybe not the best because it doesn’t hide my bandaged arm at all, but I pull it on anyway. It’s too hot for bulky sweatshirts no matter how much I would prefer to wear them.

It’s lucky my arm is wrapped in thick bandages. It doesn’t really help, it’s not like it’s still healing or anything, but at least that explains why I can’t use it to everyone else, and minimizes questions. I told the administration that I got in a bad car accident, and presumably that’s what I’ll tell the other kids too.

There’s another reason behind the bandages too. When Tempeste transferred her energy to me, she gave me a thick black band around my arm full of iridescent patterns, like a bracelet around my upper arm, or a tattoo. I don’t want anyone asking why I got in a car accident and then promptly got a tattoo, so it’s easier to just keep it covered up.

The one thing I can’t hide is my eye color. My eyes used to be green, like my mother’s, like a forest. But now they’re as blue as Tempeste’s were, another side-effect of all that energy she gave me. There’s not really a good way to disguise that. Hopefully, no one will notice.

I pull on the clothes with some difficulty. Having only one arm makes every little thing harder, but I refuse to ask for help. I’ve spent enough time in the past few weeks relying on others to dress myself. So I just struggle with my tank top until I get my dead arm in, and then I hurry downstairs.

Liz has made me breakfast, but I don’t have time to eat it. I’m not hungry anyway. Paige, Liz, Lily and I all pile in the car. Liz will drop me off at my normal high school, and then the other three will go to the magic school.

There are a lot of things that are hard with a damaged arm, things most people wouldn’t even think about. For example, I sit down in the car and then can’t buckle my seat belt. I can’t grab it with my right hand without twisting all the way around, and since I don’t have a second hand to hold up the little thing it goes into, I still can’t buckle it. Lily, my eight-year-old sister, has to help me.

When I finally get to school, I’m so nervous I’m sweating. But I made it this far. Paige helps me sling my backpack over my good shoulder, and then Lily opens the door for me. I take a deep breath, and then step out of the car.

“Good luck,” Liz says to me through the window. “And remember to call me if you need me. Remember, if your arm hurts even a little bit, I want to know. I don’t want you to be going through the day if you’re in pain. You’ll do that, right?”

“Yeah, Liz.” I can tell how worried she is, and I try my best to put her at ease. “I’ll be fine. I’ll have Min and Mackenna with me, remember? And I’ll call if I need help.”

I can tell that she absolutely hates to drive away. I am her little, broken baby, and if it were up to her she would never let me out of her sight. She is so afraid of me getting hurt again. But I have to jump back into my life at some point, and now’s as good a time as any.

I take five steps into the hallway, and already the stares are attacking me, a thousand unasked questions. I knew that would probably be the worst part. I have been gone for three weeks, and I come back fifteen pounds lighter, with a cast on my arm and different colored eyes. Everyone who even sort of knows me wants to know the story, and I haven’t even really thought out my cover yet. So I just duck my head and look at the ground, trying to ward off any questions until I can talk to Min and Mackenna.

Homeroom is a relief. I slide into my usual seat next to Mackenna almost five minutes before the bell even rings. She only missed about a week of school, a couple days before the battle and a couple days after. She looks good, beautiful and familiar, and I am fiercely glad to have her here with me.

“Hey,” she says softly. “How are you doing?”

“Not bad,” I answer, which isn’t exactly a lie.

Mackenna and I have barely seen each other since after the battle. We normally see each other at both schools, and we share a room when we stay over at the magic school. But she has spent most of her time these past few weeks at one school or another, and I have been mostly at Liz’s house. It feels like ages since we’ve even both been in my bedroom. She’s my best friend, and these have been long weeks without her.

Min comes in just before the second bell rings. Everyone turns around to stare at him. I tell myself it’s just because he’s new, and that’s unusual so close to the end of the school year. But part of me knows it’s not just that. The light tawny eyes, the half-smile, the sort of fitness that can only come from being extremely, well, [_fit. _]The things that made me fall for him in the first place.

A few of the pretty, popular girls give him smiles, tossing them to him across the room and hoping he’ll catch them and notice. He gives them a little sideways smile back, and for a second I’m sure he’s going to go over to them and my heart twists. But he doesn’t, of course. He comes to sit by Mackenna and me.

He’s mine, I think in the direction of the popular girls before I can stop myself. But then reality crashes back over me, and I remember that he’s not mine, not really. I know him, he’s one of my best friends, but we are not together in any sense of the word. He’s no more mine than he is theirs.

Min is one of my best friends, except I have kind of liked him as more than a friend for a couple months now. It’s kind of confusing and awkward, since he has no idea. He’s not mine. I wish he was, but he’s not. At least we’re still friends.

I haven’t seen Min very much since the battle either, so it’s sort of comforting to have him here now, even if it’s not in exactly the way I want. The three of us quickly fall into our old patterns of friendship, and by the time homeroom ends we’re all laughing, even me.

Basically, having all three of us together again is the highlight of my day. It just goes downhill from there. People keep asking me questions I don’t know how to answer, and I’ve missed so much class time I don’t even know what’s going on anymore. Min is in all of my classes, but most of the time I have an assigned seat and I don’t really get a chance to talk to him. Mackenna’s not in my lunch, so the three of us aren’t together again until Liz picks us up to take us to the magic school. By that time I’m so tired I feel like I could pass out at any moment.

My first class is Athletics, which I can’t participate in at all. Then comes Weapons. They do let me do a little bit in this class, but I have to basically start from the beginning, learning a whole new style of fighting for only one arm. I’m not strong enough to lift a sword yet, so it’s just me and a knife, watching everyone else, and burning with something resembling jealousy. First-aid is the best because it’s just writing today. I was afraid we would be doing something with our hands, and I almost cried with relief when we weren’t.

I guess it’s nice to see all my friends again. I missed them, they are my family. And it’s not like in normal school, where no one knows what happened and everyone keeps asking me unanswerable questions. At the School everyone knows exactly what I did, and what I’ve been going through since then. As an added bonus, most of the awe has worn off, and people have gotten the sympathy out of their system, so I’m treated more or less like just one of the club again. That alone is almost worth the rest of it.

As soon as I get home from the School, Liz sends me up to bed. I’m not really used to getting this much sleep, so it takes me a while to even start to close my eyes. I stare at the wall, thinking about almost nothing, not even realizing that tears are pouring down my cheeks.

I wish my arm was better. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that I receive a crippling injury this early in life, and now everything is so much harder. I was just trying to protect my friends, just trying to help people. I didn’t ask for this.

And if I ask myself if, knowing what would happen to me, I would still kill Tempeste, I’m not sure the answer is yes. I don’t want this. I’m not completely sure it’s worth it. I know it’s selfish, and I hate myself for it. But it’s the truth.

I never signed up to be some sort of martyr. I didn’t ask to be the Daughter of the Wilderness. I didn’t want it to be my job to protect everyone. I don’t want their safety resting on my shoulders. I don’t want to be asked to make sacrifices like this over and over, until I have nothing left.

I’m not strong enough.

I don’t deserve to be the Princess of the Wilderness.

I want, I want, I want….

I don’t know what I want.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

The next day is essentially the same. I can barely make it through the school day, and I have to miss a bunch of stuff in my classes. At least my magic is still strong, almost as strong as before. It will take a little while, but I think my magic will recover completely. At least I still have that.

For my free period I meet with Amity and Liz while they try to fix my arm. This will happen every free period indefinitely, which I guess means until either I get better or they give up. The first thing they try is some liquid medicine stuff that burns going down and tints my vision green. Then Amity runs balls of heat and cold up and down my arm. I can feel the pressure, but not the temperature. Amity says that means it’s improving. But it doesn’t feel very exciting. Now my throat hurts, my vision is green, and I still can’t move my arm at all.

I try not to get discouraged. I remember the promise I made right after waking up from my six-day coma. I will protect everyone at the School from harm, even if I have to give my life. I try to recapture the feeling I had when I made that promise. It doesn’t work. I can’t remember the feeling, and I get discouraged anyway.

The next day in Athletics I pass out. Or at least I wish I just passed out. Instead I start hallucinating, and Paige and Storm have to carry me screaming out of the classroom. I don’t come to myself for almost twenty minutes.

When I can finally recognize my surroundings, I see a very concerned looking Min and Mackenna leaning over me. I turn sideways and see that I’m in the nurse’s office. I try to push myself into a sitting position, but with one arm tucked against my chest, I can’t. My own weakness angers me. My eyes start to swim with tears.

“Are you okay? Does your arm hurt?” Mackenna’s voice is tense with worry. I look at her and see dark circles under her eyes, the kind that can only come from many sleepless nights.

I feel bad for adding to her already substantial stress load. Wait, I’m not adding to her stress load, I’m causing the entire thing. If I had never been born, she and her father would probably be living peacefully in New Hampshire, with Mackenna going to a normal high school and knowing nothing about magic. And her mother would still be alive.

A wave of guilt washes over me, guilt for a life I’ve ruined. A life that never even had the chance to begin. I wonder how many other lives I’ve ruined or ended or altered. Probably a lot. Indirectly this entire war is about me, and through that thousands of lives have been destroyed. Even if I can somehow save the entire planet, I can’t really make up for that. At least some of the burden for this entire war falls on me.

The face of Marco’s sister flashes before my eyes. Isabella, who was killed by Tempeste’s army last year. I killed you. And you. And you. More faces rush by me. All people I killed, just by existing.

And now, instead of trying to fix what I’ve done, make lives better instead of worse, save people instead of kill them, I’m stuck in this bed. I can’t even sit up. Everything is broken with no way for me to put it back together.

I start full-out crying, because I have no choice. The pain inside of me has to escape somehow.

“I ruined your life,” I whisper to Mackenna. “I ruined everything.”

She hugs me to her. I lean into it because right now I need support more than anything.

“No. You, and this, it’s…the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s who I am. If I never found out I had magic, I would be nothing. You make me something. And it’s not always fun to be something, it’s not always easy, but it’s what I want. It’s what you gave me.”

I nod. I’m still almost crying, but Mackenna’s words really did make me feel a bit better. She is the best friend I could ever hope for. Who else could make me feel okay about myself when all I can do is destroy?

Min is standing slightly away, awkwardly pretending not to notice anything is wrong. Typical teenage boy. Afraid of emotions.

For some reason the sight of him standing there looking so uncomfortable strikes me as funny. I start laughing, my emotions doing an abrupt one-eighty. Min and Mackenna start laughing too, I think because they’re so relieved I’m okay. There’s really nothing all that funny about the situation.

In between classes, some of my other friends come visit me in the nurse’s office. Rowan, Paige, and Jessie come first, all full of concern, asking if I’m okay and telling me to get better soon. This is kind of funny too. They’re acting like I’m recovering from a cold, instead of almost dying. I thank them, and then they wait with me for a little while. They leave just as Storm bursts in.

Storm used to be one of Tempeste’s soldiers. She betrayed them after they killed her brother and his girlfriend. She’s managed to integrate herself here surprisingly well, considering that she was with the enemy for almost her entire life, but she’s still not exactly one of us. I saved her life during the battle, and for her the awe has not worn off even a little. I like her a lot, even though I’m not completely positive I trust her.

“Aubrey,” she says very quietly. She whispers a lot of the time, even when there’s not really a reason for it. “What’s wrong?”

I can’t tell her, I can’t explain it. I wish I could, because she might be the one person who would actually kind of understand. She must know what it’s like to wake up one day and realize you’ve done awful things, unforgivable things. But I don’t know how to say it, I don’t know how to let her in. I just shake my head. She hugs me though, so I think maybe she kind of gets it.

The other boys visit me next, Drew, Ryan, Seth, Marco. I sort of pretend not to notice the way that Mackenna lights up as soon as Ryan comes in the room, because I don’t think she would want to know how painfully obvious it is. She’s blushing and stammering the whole time he’s there.

I wish she could see the way his eyes fill with sadness when he has to leave, the way he looks at her when she’s looking away. Ever since the battle they’ve been acting differently around each other, like something about a life or death situation made them see each other for who they really are. I hope they actually end up together at some point. They both have fire magic. They would make a cute couple.

Liz is the last person to visit me. She tells me I have to stay here for the rest of classes, another two hours. This is a little annoying, since by this point I feel fine. Or at least I tell myself I feel fine. I guess I’ve felt better.

Okay, fine, I guess I’ve felt a lot better. By the time Liz, Paige and Lily come to collect me at the end of the night I’m exhausted, and kind of shaky. They have to help me to the car, and as soon as I get home I head up to my room and go straight to sleep.

I sleep for a very long time. When I wake up Paige is the only other person in the house. She stayed home to take care of me when Liz had to go to the School. I guess they didn’t have the heart to wake me.

When I come downstairs Paige is sprawled out on the sofa, eating fruit loops straight from the box. She’s simultaneously reading a book on philosophy and watching the kind of TV show that is probably killing her brain cells by the second.

“Here, do you want fruit loops?” she asks me.

“No. I want to make a real breakfast.”

“I’ll make it for you,” she says, muttering something about how fruit loops are a real breakfast under her breath.

I watch the TV show that she had on for a couple minutes as she makes me breakfast. The show is not very good, so I can only imagine that Paige is watching it to piss off Liz. I sigh. Typical Paige. She’s brilliant, but so rebellious.

“How do you feel?” she asks, setting my breakfast of yogurt and toast in front of me. In her eyes I see real concern for me.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m sure.” If I say it with enough conviction, I can almost pretend it’s true.

She keeps looking at me though. “What?” I finally ask.

“You’ve been asleep for almost two days.”

“Are you serious?” I massage my temples, feeling suddenly disoriented. “I don’t feel like I’ve been asleep for that long.” I do some quick calculations in my head. “But then that would mean…today’s Saturday. Where’s Liz? And Lily?”

“Liz just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

“Handle what?” I feel a stab of guilt, although I can’t exactly place why. What could Liz not handle anymore? Is it something to do with me? I mean, it most likely is. I’m not trying to be difficult, but I feel like everything in her life has revolved around me lately.

“You,” Paige says, confirming my worst fears. Liz is done taking care of me. She doesn’t want this burden anymore. “Watching you suffer, I mean. You’re her daughter. She’s determined to fix your arm. I mean, more determined than she was before, I guess. She’s going to do as much research as she possibly can, and I…I don’t think she’s going to stop until she finds some sort of a solution. She’s looking at all these old books that were in the School’s attic right now. I think she has Min and Mackenna on it too. Lily’s at a friend’s house. She was being too loud, we were afraid she would wake you up.”

“Has she actually found anything new yet?” I ask, trying not to sound too excited. I don’t know why I would expect something different from this, different than all the other research that’s been done. But I can’t help but hope. “Is she going to be able to heal it? Do you know anything else?” I feel slightly guilty, because I know I can’t hide the desperation in my voice. I know there are other people, other places, with much worse problems than mine, but somehow I can’t bring myself to care. All that matters to me right now is my arm.

“She’s found a few leads, but she doesn’t have much hope for any of them.” She watches my face fall. “Yet,” she adds quickly. “And Liz feels the need to look into every lead tons. She probably hasn’t even found that many options yet. But she will. Trust me, Liz is great at research.”

I want to believe her. I really do. But she has no idea. Maybe Liz will find something, maybe she won’t. Maybe I’ll be healed, or maybe I’ll be stuck like this forever.

 

That night we all eat dinner together. It’s the first time we have done this in…a long time. At first I think just since before the battle with Tempeste, but before that there were a few weeks when everyone was staying at the School. I guess we technically were eating together then, but there were like a hundred other people too. And before that Paige and I were staying at the School to study for the test, and before that there was Costa Rica. It must have been at least a few months.

We are an odd crew. We’re a family of four girls, with only two of us biologically related. There’s me, with my damaged arm and false blue eyes, so tired I’m almost falling asleep into my soup. Paige with the colored streak in her hair, Liz with the dark circles under her eyes. Lily, with her wings extended behind her, light as an angel. Yes, we are a strange crew. But we are a family, and that’s deeper than anything, and that’s all that really matters.

“Aubrey, is it okay with you if I go away this weekend?” Liz asks. “Paige and Lily will be here with you. I’m just going to talk to some old friends, try to find something for your arm.”

“Okay, yeah, whatever, I’ll just stay here for the weekend.” I don’t have a car, or a license, and none of my friends do at this point either. If Liz leaves, that pretty much leaves me relegated to the house. But it’s not like I usually have lots of places to go, so I don’t think it will be much different. I pause. “Who are these old friends?” I ask, trying to be casual. “Why are you going to talk to them? Do you think they’ll have something for my arm? Do you think it will work?”

She doesn’t say anything for a second, and I read the answer in her hesitation. She puts on a cheery smile and gives me false hope a heart beat later. She tells me that one of them was a field doctor in the very beginning of the war, and knows all sorts of stuff about rare injuries. But I know that what’s happened to my arm is not just rare but unique, and that at this point Liz is just grasping at straws. I try not to pay attention to it, because I don’t want her words to have the power to disappoint me. I must let some of the pain show on my face though, because Liz winces in sympathy.

“Something’s going to work. You know that, right? It’s impossible to make something like that completely permanent, and you’re the Daughter of the Wilderness so we’ll have all of our resources at our disposal. It will work. It might take time, but something is going to work.”

Why does everyone keep saying that? Something doesn’t have to work. Something might work, or it might not. I’m done. Done with all the waiting and the guessing and everything. It’s been almost a month, and I’m ready to move forward. Maybe if everyone stopped dangling hope in front of me, I would be able to move on. I feel like I’m stuck in limbo, with my life put on hold until something changes. But really, that shouldn’t be the case. I want to be able to move on now, with or without my arm being better. But I don’t see a way for that to happen.

Liz’s words end up making me feel worse instead of better, and not just because of the fact that it’s an unlikely solution. They also make me feel guilty. I am disgusted with myself. Resources that could be put into helping the war effort are being used to help me find a cure. And why? I’m not particularly powerful. I shouldn’t be important. I haven’t done anything to prove myself. But I am selfish too. And I want the help. I need it.

Min would ask for it to stop. He is the most selfless person my age that I can think of. He always puts others above himself, and I feel like I never do. Even Mackenna would ask for it to stop. She’s optimistic, she wouldn’t allow herself to be dragged into misery like this. But I can’t do it. I don’t want the search for a cure to stop, even though it’s draining our army’s resources, even though I can’t move on with my life.

Both schools the next day are awful. Well, normal school isn’t that much worse than it usually is. This Friday is the official last day of school, and the finals are over. There’s not really much to do. Min isn’t here anymore, I think he’s helping Liz do research or something. He really only came for about a week and a half. Mackenna is happy though, and so is everyone else, and the atmosphere is slightly infectious.

At magic school, Jake the Weapons teacher tries to teach me a fighting style that only requires one arm. He explains to me the basics. Use your good arm to block, feet to kick, and focus more on not getting hit than attacking. Then he just starts attacking me, and I struggle to fight back.

He sends a hard punch toward my ribs, and my block jars my whole arm. I’m knocked off balance and my knee-strike goes wild. I hit him in the stomach, but then drop to my knees. Jake is merciless. He grabs my arm and twists it up behind my back.

“I surrender,” I gasp. My shoulder isn’t flexible enough, he’s twisting it pretty hard.

“Not yet you don’t. Escape!”

I shove all my weight backward and up, wrenching myself to my feet as my arm screams in pain. I’m standing, but still in an arm-lock, with no clear way to get out of it. I could normally elbow backward with my free arm, but of course it’s not working.

It’s against the rules to use magic in a fight like this, but I don’t have a lot of options right now. We’re outside and the field is grassy. Before Jake has time to react, the grass is twining up his legs, pulling him over. It’s one of the first times I’ve really used magic since my fight with Tempeste, and the effort exhausts me more than it used to. I drop to my knees again. Soon Jake has me in another arm lock.

We try to run the whole drill again, but my balance, stamina, and coordination are so messed up that we can’t. The other kids in the class were watching the fight, and I did so badly that I’m embarrassed to meet any of their eyes, except Min’s. But when I look to him, the expression on his face is hard to read. It could be anything really, sympathy, pity, anger, sadness. But of course, my messed up brain can only assume one thing. That it must be disappointment.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

The rest of the week is no better. Mackenna is supportive, but I barely see Min, and his distance hurts. Liz keeps researching during every spare moment, but I can’t help feeling that it’s all for nothing. I can’t participate in classes, I can barely even stay awake. Sometimes my arm will throb with pain. Other times it will be numb. Liz says this is good, but I think she might be lying again. I know she’s just trying to protect me from pain, but please, please, will somebody give me a straight answer?

Friday afternoon, Liz makes sure Paige, Lily, and I have absolutely everything we need for the weekend. We need enough food to last us the whole weekend, a pile of DVDs, an exhaustive list of emergency numbers. Obviously if there really is an emergency there’s plenty of people for us to turn to. But hopefully, nothing will happen and the three of us will just have a quiet weekend at home.

Liz anxiously goes over all the instructions one more time before she leaves. I can tell she’s worried about us, although it’s hard to tell what, specifically, it is that she thinks will happen. I don’t know if she thinks I’m going to fall down the stairs and die, or if Paige will throw a wild party. It takes us a while to convince her we’ll be okay, but we finally do. Then she drives away. We watch her go.

“Now what are we gonna do?” Lily asks.

Paige and I barely have time to exchange a look before the phone rings.

“I’ll get it,” I say, picking it up.

“Hello?”

“Aubrey.” I recognize Min’s voice instantly. He sounds relieved. “Is that you?”

“Yeah.”

“Great! Can you get Liz to drive you to the School? Like right now?”

“No! She just left for the weekend. I’m not going to call her back.”

I think I hear Min choke on something. He starts coughing. “You’re not? But this is really important.”

“Min, I’m sure it isn’t more important than whatever she’s doing right now. It can wait until Monday.”

“You wanna bet?”

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t want to say over the phone.”

“Fine. I’ll call her and ask if she can take me over to the School. This better be good.”

I hang up before he can say anything else and quickly dial Liz. My breathing is a little harsh, and I suddenly realize I’m afraid. What could Min possibly have to tell me that’s this important?

Liz picks up on the first ring. “Hello?”

“Liz, do you think you could really quickly drive me over to the School? Min says he has something really important.”

“What is it?”

“I…I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me.”

“Aubrey, I’m sure it can wait. What I’m doing now is also really important, and if I drive you to the School now I’m going to miss my flight.”

“Please. I think he’s serious. He says it’s really, really big. He won’t tell me over the phone though.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t. You’re just going to have to wait until Monday.”

I slam down the phone without saying goodbye, and call Min.

“I can’t go to the School until Monday. Can you just tell me what it is? Why would anyone be listening to Liz’s home phone? We barely ever even use it.”

I can hear the disappointment in his voice. “This is big. Like, the most important thing I’ve ever found. I can’t risk telling you now. I just…are you sure you can’t come over? Please?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t,” I say flatly.

The line goes dead. I laugh a little. It’s funny how much that conversation echoed the one with Liz, except in reverse. Both of us refused a desperate request, and got hung up on.

Any chance I had of having any fun this weekend is gone. I can’t concentrate on anything, and I can barely sleep because I’m so anxious about what Min has to tell me. He didn’t even say if it was good or bad, all he said was that it was important. All of Saturday I’m on edge, wondering what it is. He sounded so convinced when he said this would change everything. I try to imagine what it could possibly be.

Even though I’m sure this isn’t what it is, for some reason I keep coming back to a giant button that, if pressed, will completely destroy the entire army. And I am hesitating over it, trying to decide if I can kill all those hundreds of thousands of people. And I desperately, desperately want to. And I can’t.

I’m not exactly sure how many people I’ve killed. There was the first one that I stabbed with a knife, and maybe five others that I killed in the battle, not counting Tempeste, who doesn’t hurt me the way the others do. The ones I have killed haunt my sleep. I have ended lives to protect my friends. But who am I to decide that my friends’ lives are worth more than the lives of my enemies? And I know that if Min’s secret is that giant button, I will not be able to press it.

Liz said she wasn’t really sure when she would get back on Sunday, but I’m guessing it will be sometime in the afternoon. By two-thirty, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, clutching the phone and waiting for Liz.

“I’m going on a run,” Paige announces. “Do you want to come?”

“No! I’m waiting for Liz.”

“She might not come home for hours. You know that, right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She goes on a run anyway, and arrives back, panting, half an hour later.

Lily comes over to me, sitting down next to me and putting a hand on my arm.

“Aubrey, do you want to play a game with me?”

“No, not right now.” She looks crestfallen. “Sorry.”

The phone rings and I jump up in excitement. “Hello? This is Aubrey.”

“Hi Aubrey, this is Liz. My flight is running later than I expected. I probably won’t be home until late tonight. I know I said I would take you to meet Min this afternoon, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to. I’ll take you over there tomorrow morning, okay?”

“Um…that’s fine. I guess.”

“Okay, great. I have to go, my flight is leaving.”

“Wait! What about my arm? Did you find anything about my arm….”

But she’s already gone.

I slam the phone down on the counter. Lily watches me, eyes wide with alarm.

“It’s okay,” she whispers, stroking my bad shoulder gently. She must have forgotten that I can’t feel her touch. I can feel myself starting to get angry, not at Lily, but at the cruel twist of fate that made me like this.

But then I catch Lily’s eyes, and they are full of genuine kindness and innocence. She hurts because I hurt, but she has never really felt hurt of her own. She is too young to realize what a harsh place this world is. And for a second, I’m not sure whether to envy her or pity her. And then I realize the answer is neither. Maybe, sometimes, I should try to copy her.

I pull her into a one-armed hug. “Paige,” I yell, since I’m not sure which part of the house she’s in, “if you want to go on another run, I’d go with you.”

She comes down the stairs, smiling. In the end though, I can’t run, I’m too tired and sick, so all three of us go on a walk. Later, we watch a movie, and though I’m not exactly happy, I’m…content. At least for a little while, Min’s game-changing secret is pushed out of my mind.

Liz comes home at nine, but she’s so exhausted from her day of traveling that she goes straight upstairs to bed. I quickly follow her. I want answers.

“My arm….” I trail off as she turns to face me.

“I don’t know,” is all she says. But she means no. I can read it in her face.

I feel weird, so I go to bed too. Not physically weird, like I’m sick, but emotionally weird. I feel all mixed up inside. I don’t know what to do.

Surprisingly, my night is completely dreamless. This does not happen to me very often. I’ve always had very vivid dreams, nightmares, usually. I don’t know if this is because I’m a perceiver, someone who can see visions of the future, or if it’s just because that’s the way I was made. Either way, the dreamless night is a welcome relief. The next morning I sleep in, and by the time I wake up, feel surprisingly well rested. It’s not a feeling I get often, but I think I could get used to it.

I realize that today is the first official day of summer. The weekend doesn’t really count, because we would have gotten that off anyway. I’m not as excited as I should be, probably because all together, I’ve missed more than two months of school. Not having it doesn’t feel like a huge change.

As usual, Liz is up and ready to go long before me. Almost as soon as I’m ready, I get in the car so she can take me to the School. We drive together in almost complete silence.

I want to hop out of the car and run to wherever Min is, and pretend that everything can be all better when I’m with him, but I can’t because of my stupid arm. I can’t open the car door and unbuckle at the same time. Then, when I finally do get the strap off it tangles around my arm, and I pull and pull but I can’t get it off. I try to slow down, use my other arm to make up for the damaged one, but even my good hand is shaking.

Finally, I wrench myself free so hard I fall down. Liz is getting out, trying to help me, but I don’t want her help. I just want to go, go, go. I get up and run, sprinting as fast as my weakened legs will take me through the empty hallways of the School.

I realize, suddenly, that I have no idea where he is. I remember Paige saying that Liz, Min, and Mackenna were looking for a cure in old books that had been taken down from the School’s attic, and I guessed I assumed that whatever Min had to tell me came from one of those. But does that mean he’s actually in the attic? To be completely honest, I have no idea where the attic is. I figure the library is probably my next best bet, since Min probably wouldn’t want to do research in the attic anyway, right? He could also be in his room, I guess, and that might be even more likely. But I don’t know with any certainty where his room is, so I just head toward the library anyways.

I get to the library successfully. To my relief, Min is sitting on a beanbag chair, intently reading a small, worn book. He doesn’t even notice me come in. I clear my throat loudly and he leaps to his feet, practically glowing with excitement. He looks like a dog that knows it has done something wonderful, and is wagging its tail, waiting for praise.

“Alright, let’s hear it, what do you have to show me?” I say. My voice comes across as a weird mix of excitement and nerves, sounding almost angry.

“This.” With the air of handing over something tremendously important, he gives me the book he was reading. It has a faded, red leather cover, held closed by a loop of string and a wooden bead. There’s no title, no author, nothing. I can’t tell one thing about it just by looking. At least it’s not a big red button like in my imagination.

“Um, what is it?” I ask him slowly.

“This,” he says dramatically, holding it out like I’m supposed to be impressed, “is the solution to all our problems.” He smiles, bounces on the balls of his feet. I sigh patiently, waiting for him to explain.

“You know the story of the three sisters, right?”

“Yes, of course.” The three sisters grew up in a mountain village, a long time ago. All three of them had strong magic, and they left the village and went out into the real world, where some normal people discovered their magic and tried to kill them. Then they decided to take revenge on the non-magic population, mostly just so they could practice magic in peace. And then they killed my mother. And almost killed me. I killed the youngest one, Tempeste, but the other two are still out there.

“Well, there weren’t only three sisters,” Min says. He pauses dramatically. “There was a fourth. She was pretty unknown, and not really associated with the other three. She was adopted, and much younger. Her name was Verina. And she was a Daughter of the Wilderness.”

 

 

CHAPTER 4

I think my mouth actually drops open. I can’t seem to form an entire coherent thought. I want to say something, but even my brain doesn’t seem to be working, let alone the parts that attach it to my mouth. There’s no way I can form words. I just…I can’t….

“Wait, what?” I finally stammer. It’s about all I can manage. I think I’m going into shock.

“This is her journal,” Min says, holding up the faded book. “Liz brought me this big trunk of old books that I was supposed to look through and I found this one inside of another one.”

“Really?” My voice sounds all strangled and weird. Am I dreaming? I must be dreaming. Because this can’t be happening. This can’t be real.

“Yeah. In the past, it was typical for a Daughter of the Wilderness to be raised by adoptive parents for at least some of her life, but still have contact with the Queen. This Princess, Verina, just happened to be sent to the village that the three sisters lived in, and just happened to be taken in by their parents.

“Now, this all happened at least ten years before the three sisters became immortal. Soon after Tempeste left for school, the village the three sisters had been living in was part of this big war with the dragons. Both the village people and the dragons were about to be decimated, but Verina befriended a dragon, a white one named Drayne. Her actions basically ended the war.”

“Okay, wait, slow down,” I say. I’m having a hard time comprehending what he’s saying. Daughter of the Wilderness, Daughter of the Wilderness. Fourth sister. Journal. All I can do is think of a bunch of random words, and hope they string themselves together in the meaning. My heart seems to be constricting, it’s a feeling almost like pain but somehow better.

Min pauses, and for the first time today I feel like he’s really [_looking _]at me. Sympathy washes over his face, and it’s like sunlight shining through the darkness.

“Do you want stop? I can tell you about it later, you know. Or I could talk to Liz and she could tell you, if that would make you feel better.”

“No, it’s fine. Now. Please now.” I sit down on a beanbag chair next to him. Standing up and trying to understand the crazy story he’s telling me is a little too much for me to do at the same time.

“A little after ending the dragon war, I think Verina realized what the three sisters were starting to become. She didn’t realize how serious it was, of course, but she was starting to catch on. I think she just assumed it would start something like another dragon war. She wanted to make sure nothing like that would happen, so she made a shrine to the Queen of the Wilderness in a place near her village, only accessible by dragon-back. The Queen’s presence is strong there, and she made it so any Princess of the Wilderness could go there to ask the Queen for help. The Queen would always appear there if called, and she would offer aid.

“Years passed, and Verina became even more worried about her sisters. She knew that Mercuriel had been hurt, but not how badly, and she knew that the three sisters were doing things to themselves that made them barely human. After a while she left the village to find them, to…to stop them from whatever they were doing, I guess. But before she left, she put even more magic in her shrine.

“Okay, and this last part is the part I’m not sure on, so please, please, please don’t take my word for it. I’m totally guessing here, and I could be completely wrong.” He pauses. “I don’t even want to tell you, in case what I’m saying isn’t true.”

“Just say it.”

He takes a deep breath. “Okay, I think, although, like I said, I’m not positive, that if a Daughter of the Wilderness were to go to the shrine now, she would be able to bring the Queen back to life.”

I gasp. Disbelief courses through my body, almost knocking me over with the force of it. But at the same time my heart grows wings of hope and spreads them. I feel like someone has inflated a balloon inside me. My good arm is shaking.

“Really?” I say, but my voice cracks. I sound like a little kid who expects to be yelled at, but gets only love. I sound young, my defenses stripped away. Reverting back to a small child at the possibility of having a real mother again.

“Remember, I don’t know for sure. It just seems like something that would make sense. One of the things that the shine could do, was that no matter where in the world the Queen was, a Princess going there would bring the Queen to her. I think it might work even if the Queen was, well, dead, because your energy is still tied to hers. It’s kind of complicated, but yeah, I think that you can bring her back. You can have your mother back.”

I don’t know what to say. I just stand there, trembling. I realize suddenly that there’s a little wet on my cheeks, and I must be crying a little bit. I’m so relieved that tears of joy are streaming down my face.

“And that’s only half of it.”

“There’s more?” I squeak.

He smiles. “Yeah. And I’m a little more sure about this part, too. One of Verina’s friends was the first victim of the dragon war. He wasn’t killed, but his…his eyes were damaged. He would have been blind, but Verina fixed his nerves so he could see again. She actually wrote kind of a lot about how she did it, and her healing magic was similar to mine. Well, a lot stronger, obviously, but still. I think I can fix your arm, the same way she fixed his eye. It shouldn’t take a lot of healing magic. It’s just about knowing where to look.”

I just stand there for a moment and let this sink in. Then I rush forward into his arms, almost pushing him over. His strong arms go around me. He looks startled, but I’m relieved that he doesn’t push me away. Tears are still streaming down my face, but they are happy tears. For the first time in what seems like weeks, my face finds a natural smile.

After a while, I break apart, reeling backward. I’m still trying to recover from the shock of having everything I thought I knew stripped away. I thought I would never be able to use my arm again, and that’s not true. I thought I would never see my mother, that’s not true either. I’ve never been so confused, and I’ve never been so happy.

I almost start laughing. I just broke off Min’s hug first. That’s something I would never have imagined myself doing. I would never have imagined myself being this happy over something that has nothing to do with him.

I feel numb. I mean, I’m kind of used to feeling numb, but for once it is a pleasant feeling. I’m numb with a joy so sharp I can barely even believe it’s real. I am happy, truly and completely, and I want this feeling to last forever.

Min says he’s spent enough time in the library over the past few days, and now that he’s told me he needs to go back to class. I don’t want to go to class, not today. I stay in the library, sitting on my beanbag chair with my knees drawn up to my chest. I still feel like I can’t quite properly breathe.

I think back to the time, right after the battle with Tempeste, when I was dying. I had been asleep for days. My fever hadn’t broken. I saw this girl in a vision, I guess, who looked like an older version of me. I gave all of my energy to her, to someone who probably doesn’t even exist. I had been dying, really. I was all out of strength to keep fighting, all out of energy of my own. Some other energy had saved me then, someone else’s energy. I realize now that it must have been my mother’s. She has been watching over me this whole time, her energy somehow connected to me, and she had saved my life then.

I feel warm inside. My mother is alive, at least sort of, and she has been watching over me, helping me. I think back to all the dreams I’ve had, all the times I’ve seen jaguars. Was that my mother too? I like the thought that she’s been watching over me this whole time. I like the thought that she’s been with me.

I can see her again. I can have a mother again. I don’t have to be alone, I don’t have to be an orphan, maybe it can all be okay after all.

Once, I was falling. I haven’t landed on solid ground yet, not exactly, but I’m not falling anymore, or at least the world isn’t rushing past me. I’m floating, and I can keep up with this, and it will all be okay.

“Thank you,” I say to the empty room, to Min who’s already left, to Verina, who’s up there somewhere, who saved my life. To my mother. “Thank you. Thank you.”

 

Liz is teaching a class so I don’t go talk to her yet. I assume Min has either already told her or will tell her as soon as he can. Not my problem. My problem is to find Mackenna and tell her.

She’s in the same class as Min. It’s Monday, so really I should be in class too. But no one seems to really be enforcing that, at least for me, so I figure it’s fine. I killed Tempeste, so I guess I have earned myself the privilege to play hooky once in a while. Not to mention the fragile state of my health.

But how to get Mackenna out? Because I need to talk to her now. I need someone to talk to, and it can’t wait. I need someone to promise me I’m not dreaming.

Finally, I just decide to go into the classroom and ask for Mackenna. What can they say? I’m the Princess of the Wilderness, and I saved all their lives and killed Tempeste and almost died. And now I want to talk to Mackenna. When I come in asking for her, Min flashes his tawny eyes at me and gives me a smile. Mackenna looks confused, but she comes out.

“I found something really important,” I begin. “Well, technically Min did, but anyway here it is.” I hold out the journal. It looks so small, something that couldn’t possibly be significant. But it is. It is life-changing.

I explain it to her as fast as I can. My words are leaping all over each other, getting tangled and tripping before they leave my mouth. I have no idea how much Mackenna understands, but she can see how excited I am, so she just nods along and looks happy for me.

As soon as I’m done, she asks me what just happened and makes me repeat the entire story again.

“Wait, are you serious?” she says when I’m done, which is a better reaction.

“I know!” I say. “I can’t believe it.”

“Aubrey, you need to read that journal. Like right now. You need to know all the information about it that you can.”

“What time is it?” I ask. We both glance at our wrists at the same time, which is funny because neither of us wears watches. We laugh, and then Mackenna runs down to an empty classroom and checks the clock in there.

“It’s almost one,” she says.

“I’m going to read the journal then. You should get back to class,” I say. She nods and leaves.

I go find Liz. I burst into her class because I honestly don’t care anymore, and walk up to her.

“I’m staying at the School tonight,” I say. “I’ll be up in my room.”

“Oh, um, okay. Paige, Lily, and I will stay at the School too.”

“Cool, thanks.”

“Wait! What did Min have to tell you?” she calls out behind me, but I’m already gone, whipping around the corner, hurrying up to my room with the journal tucked under my arm.

 

 

CHAPTER 5

I settle down on my bed to read Verina’s journal. When I open to the first page, a musty smell so strong it makes my eyes water assaults me. I drop it on the bed without thinking. It’s so old and fragile-looking that I’m afraid to touch it again. When I finally do pick it back up and open it, the pages are yellow with age, and the writing is badly faded. It’s also in an older form of English, so it’s hard to understand even the parts I can see.

I flip to the first page. Most of it is taken up by an ink drawing of a dragon, but above that there is a note, almost like a modern dedication. It reads: To all my sisters who come after me, especially the one I see in my dreams, the blue-eyed one. Remember, everywhere you are weak, there is someone who is strong.

[]I read the first part twice. It sends little shivers of happiness down my spine. All of the Daughters of the Wilderness have green eyes, passed down from our mother. Except me. I am the unique blue-eyed sister, the only one of my kind. She saw me in her dreams, she knew I was coming. All my sisters. For some reason, this sounds beautiful to me. I have always thought of myself as an only child, but I suppose I’m really not. Verina is my sister. I have had many other sisters before me. And maybe, maybe if what Min says is true, there will be more sisters after me.

Then I try to figure out what the second part means. It could be a warning, to guard your weaknesses especially, because they will be someone else’s strength. Or is it supposed to be comforting, like don’t worry about your weaknesses because there will be someone stronger to lift you up? I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll be able to figure it out as I read more of the journal and get its tone.

I read the first page and almost start to cry. Because most of it is about Verina being made breakfast. By her sister. Who will grow up to be Tempeste. The woman who would kill Storm’s brother and Marco’s sister and many hundreds of children and many hundreds of non-magic users. The woman who would grow up to destroy my arm. The woman who I would kill.

If you read the journal and didn’t know, you would never guess. In the scene, Verina is maybe eleven, her handwriting shaky and unpracticed still. Tempeste is only about twenty or so, maybe not even. Tempeste sings as she makes Verina breakfast. Later, when Verina goes out to play and scrapes her knee, Tempeste washes it out with her water magic and comforts her. Verina actually writes down exactly what she says.

“It’s okay, don’t cry now. Remember, patience and time can heal any wound.”

Then Tempeste hugged Verina.

There’s more like that, the first third of the journal chronicles Verina ages eleven to fourteen. Tempeste, Zephyra, and Mercuriel all dance in and out of the pages, inspiring Verina and performing small acts of kindness, lifting her up and leaving again.

I learn a lot about the three sisters’ early life, more than anyone who’s not read the journal could ever know. They were all quite a bit older than Verina, so at the beginning of the journal I estimate Tempeste as nineteen or twenty, Zephyra as twenty-two, and Mercuriel as twenty-three. Apparently at the age of sixteen, all the village children are tested for magic, and at eighteen they are tested again, to see if their skills are strong enough that they can be sent out of the village and into the real world. Tempeste, Zephyra, and Mercuriel were all training to become guards for important people, both magical and non-magical.

Tempeste and Zephyra are both early enough in their training that they come home often, but Mercuriel comes home more rarely, and Verina spends a lot of time looking forward to it. Verina’s adoptive mother and father make a big dinner together every time Mercuriel visits. Her visits are almost like a holiday, revered by Verina. She looks forward to them all the time.

Here the three sisters are frozen in time, preserved as the people they once were, the people they really still are. Not monsters, not evil, but just…sisters. Watching out for each other, holding each other up. Making Verina laugh. It’s hard to reconcile the version the journal presents of them with the people I know them to be.

But I do see it, kind of. Some of the traits they had then, intelligence, determination, fierce loyalty, are what makes them who they are now. They’re not so different. For the first time in my life, I see it as a continuum. The three sisters have a story with a beginning, middle and end, plots twists and character motivations and growth.

And then, just as I think I’ve gotten a handle on the journal, that I finally know what’s going on, Verina meets her mother.

Verina knew she was a Daughter of the Wilderness the whole time, and she’s had some contact with the Queen. But they don’t actually see each other very often, actually really at all. Until they do.

Verina is maybe fifteen, and her mother just shows up at the house. My mother. I don’t know why, I’m not even paying attention to that part. I’m just tracing her name over and over. Mother, mother, mother. Mine, mine, mine.

Before now, I’ve mostly just heard of how powerful the Queen is. I’ve never really heard anything about her personality, what she was really like. She’s like…I don’t even know. Kind, I guess, and thoughtful, and determined, and smart. And very, very…real.

When she finally has to leave, I keep touching her name. I cry a little bit. And then I turn the page.

Then, as Verina passes fifteen, the story changes. All three sisters are away now, so Verina spends more time writing about her friends. She’s especially close with one particular boy, who kind of reminds me of Min. Since most everyone in Verina’s village besides Verina has straight black hair and dark skin, he probably even looks like Min.

We get into the heart of the story when the dragon war starts, maybe halfway through the journal. Only about a month before she is going to be tested for magic, Verina and her friend are collecting water when he is attacked by a young, frightened dragon. Her friend survives but is blinded by long scratches and damaged nerves.

As most of the village adults, including the three sisters’ parents, search for the dragon, Verina is left alone to care for her friend. The scratches around his eye become infected, and she uses magic for the first time when she heals him, repairing his vision.

This must be the part that Min said he could use to fix my arm. It doesn’t seem that detailed to me, but maybe it would make sense if I had healing magic. It’s less like an instruction manual the way I thought it would be, and more focused on feelings and impressions. I guess it’s kind of like being a thorn, but I still don’t think I could do it. Maybe Min gets it better than I do.

The adults of the village don’t end up finding the dragon who attacked Verina’s friend. But they do find another dragon, an unrelated dragon. They manage to capture it, and they bring it back to the village where they leave it tied up for days. Eventually, it dies of dehydration. After that, a different dragon captures and kills a human. A vicious cycle begins, two species that once lived together in relative peace are now constantly at each other’s throats.

One day, when most of the adults in her village are gone, Verina finds an orphaned baby dragon that had been injured in the mountains. She almost kills him with a knife, but then it talks into her mind. She realizes that what she thought was a dumb animal is really as thoughtful and aware as any human. She takes him back to her house and secretly nurses him back to health. She names him Drayne, and a bond of friendship grows between them.

Eventually, Verina comes to understand Drayne, and once she knows that dragons are an intelligent species, she can’t bear to watch any more dragons and villagers be killed. She tries to speak to the other villagers and get them to make a truce with the dragons and end the war. They don’t listen to her. There’s a period of time where she expects both races to be obliterated.

After a few more deaths, she and Drayne decide to attempt a negotiation with the dragons themselves. The journey to find them is long and difficult, and once they find them they are both almost killed by the other dragons.

Verina and Drayne manage to talk about half of the dragons into going to the village and trying to make peace with the villagers. Or at least, to attempt to.The ones that agree to negotiate with the villagers leave their home. The villagers are skeptical at first, but when the hostile dragons start attacking even more viciously, the villagers and allied dragons agree to join forces.

And then Mackenna comes in. “Hey,” she says, startling me so badly I let out a little scream. I whip around to look at her.

“It’s like the middle of the night,” she says. “Why are you still up?”

“Why are you still up?”

She blushes. “Ryan and I were doing homework together,” she mumbles at the ground.

“Until after midnight?”

“Um, we had a lot of homework.”

I smile, only a little bit distractedly. There’s nothing she needs to be embarrassed about, I’m her best friend and it’s not like doing homework together is illicit.

“I thought you would be asleep by now,” she says.

“I’m reading the journal.” I hold it up with my good arm for emphasis. Some dust falls out on my bed.

“Oh, right. Well, Liz was looking for you.”

“Do I need to go find her? What did you tell her?”

“I told her I thought you were asleep. I think she’s just going to go to sleep now. You probably don’t need to find her.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I go back to reading the journal. Verina is….

“It’s late.” Mackenna interrupts my thoughts. “Aren’t you going to turn the light out? When are you going to bed?”

“Not for a while. I want to finish the journal.”

“Oh.” She fidgets for a while, and then just turns over and goes to sleep. I ignore her. I want to get back to Verina.

Verina, riding on Drayne, is about to lead the dragons and villagers into battle. Everything is set up. I’m tense, on the edge of my seat. I feel like I’m reading a novel or something, that’s how into it I am.

I flip to the next page. It’s blank. It takes me a minute to get it. I flip more pages, and then I’m frantically tearing through the rest of it, desperate for something, anything else.

I throw the journal down on the bed. There’s nothing left. She stopped writing. It’s over. I don’t know who lived, who died, how the battle turned out. Did Verina die? Is that why there’s no more? What about Drayne? What about the others? I start to feel panic. I’m almost about to start crying.

I’m still hopelessly turning pages when I see it. One more entry. The date is almost a year later and the handwriting is a bit different, older looking somehow. It has a hurried look about it, there are ink splotches and crossed out words. But it is still clearly Verina writing the journal.

I am very worried. There is something very wrong with my sisters. Since the end of the dragon war, they have changed. I have only seen them a few times, but each time they have been distant and almost unkind. I haven’t been able to contact them in months. I’m worried they’ve been corrupted somehow. I’m worried something evil is coming.

[]Another entry, dated the next day: _I had a vision last night. My adopted sisters were trying to take control of the world. There was only one person standing in their way, a girl younger than I am now. She is my sister, another Princess of the Wilderness. She will have great trials, and I am not sure whether she will succeed or not. But she is the only hope. _

[]Then there’s a break of a week or two.

_I have put even more of myself into the shrine. I believe that if a Daughter of the Wilderness, especially the one I have seen in my dreams, were to go there, she could bring the Queen there from wherever she was, in this world or another. The shrine is only accessible with a dragon. I will not say where it is here, in case this journal falls into the wrong hands. _

[]I flip the page. There are no more words, but there is a inked-in picture of a tall spire of rock, with a dragon flying around its base for scale. I can barely see a cave at the top. There’s no indication of where on the planet it might be. The next page is the inside of the cave. The walls are smooth, and in the center of the room there is a life size statue of a jaguar with jewel eyes. Below her is an elaborately carved bowl.

I flip the page one more time. This time there is one sentence, nothing else.

Good luck, Aubrey.

[]I touch the words, and a shiver runs down my spine.

 

 

CHAPTER 6

I want more of Verina. I want to fall into her world for longer, let her troubles take away my own. I want more of my sister who knew I was coming and wishes me luck. Who understands me. I wish suddenly, desperately, that I could meet her. She is like me, more than anyone else. She knows my unique burden.

I actually plan to start reading the entire journal again when I happen to glance at the clock. It’s after two in the morning. I want to fall asleep, know I probably should sleep, but I’m not tired at all. I want to talk to someone, but I doubt anyone is awake. I just can’t sit still anymore though, so I decide to go check.

Mackenna would be my first choice, but I look over at her bed and see that she’s fast asleep. I don’t want to wake her, not at this hour. Mackenna needs sleep to function, at least eight hours. If I get her up now, I will have to deal with a very angry, grumpy, tired Mackenna in the morning.

Min would be the next best, so I head toward his room. I don’t exactly remember which room number his is, but I’m pretty sure I’m in the right area. At least this is where most of the guys my age have their rooms. Hopefully Min is with them. I’m feeling pretty confident, so I knock softly on a random door that I’m almost sure is his.

“Um, hello?” says Min’s voice from behind me. I whirl around, startled. He’s in his pajamas, glass of water in hand, looking at me quizzically.

“Why are you knocking on Ryan’s door?” He doesn’t sound angry, just confused.

“Oh, this, um….” It hadn’t occurred to me that visiting a boy’s room in the middle of the night would be a very awkward situation to explain away. “I just wanted someone to talk to,” I mumble, looking at the floor.

“How about you come into my room? I’m already awake, so you won’t need to bother Ryan. He really needs his sleep.”

I smile. Just like Mackenna.

“Right. Yeah,” I say to Min. Of course I wasn’t even looking for Ryan, but he doesn’t need to know that.

I’ve never been in Min’s room. I know he used to share one with Drew, but when Min disappeared they gave it to Seth. Now Min has his own. I’m not sure what I’m expecting when I open the door and step inside, but it’s not this.

At first the room just looks messy, filled to bursting with stuff. But as I look at more of it, I see there’s a kind of wild order to it all. Every surface is completely full, but not with junk. Everything is obviously beautiful, or useful, or presumably has some other meaning known only to Min.

I turn to him. “Why are you even up?”

“Water.” He holds up the glass.

“What’s it for?” It’s only once the words leave my mouth that I realize what a stupid question that is.

“Um, drinking.” He clears a space on the table next to his bed and sets the glass down there.

I take a moment to be grateful that Min decided to get water at that exact moment. If he didn’t, I would have woken up Ryan and then had a very awkward situation on my hands that I would have had to explain.

“So, what should we do now?” he asks.

“What do you mean what should we do now?” It comes out more accusatory than I mean it to, I’m not sure why. Why does everything I say when I’m near Min come out either mean or stupid?

“I mean now that you know about the secret shrine that could possibly bring the Queen back to life.”

“Oh.” I’m even more embarrassed now that I know what he actually meant. Of course I assumed he meant now that I’m alone in his room in the middle of the night. I need to focus on the problem at hand. I shake my head lightly.

I sit gingerly on the edge of his bed. He looks at me expectantly. I realize he’s still waiting for an answer. I can’t seem to remember the question anymore.

“So, what are we gonna do?” he asks again.

“About what?”

“Now that you know. About the shrine. You have to get a dragon. You have to find out where it is. We need to fix your arm.” He starts pacing agitatedly as he talks. “We need a plan. We need to rent a car or something. We need to get a team together. We need to convince Liz to let us go. We need more allies.”

“Calm down, Min. There’s nothing we can do right now.”

“What do you mean there’s nothing we can do? There’s everything we can do! Don’t you understand? This could change everything.”

I nod. He’s right. We need to start now. We need to find the shrine. We have to bring my mother back. Time is of the essence, when every day brings the magic barrier, the only thing keeping the non-magic people safe, closer to falling apart completely. When every day brings Zephyra and Mercuriel more power, and brings them closer to finding out where I am.

“I’m going to heal your arm,” he says suddenly.

“I know.” I am completely confident that he can and will heal my arm. There’s no one else I would rather have do it.

“Now.”

“You mean right now?”

He nods, dead serious.

“We can’t do it now! No one even knows I’m here. What if something goes wrong? Can’t we at least wait until tomorrow and tell Liz?”

“Fine.” He starts pacing again. The movement is driving me to distraction, but I don’t say anything. I know what it feels like to be that wound up. To have so much coiled emotion that you have to move, even if it’s just back and forth across the floor.

“And it’s honestly okay.” I’m suddenly a little afraid. “I don’t even need my arm to be healed. Once I’m not so dizzy I’ll learn to fight again. It won’t be the same, but I know I can do it. I can still be a whole person without my arm.”

“I know.” He looks over at me. “But I want to do this. I want to.” And I see in his face that it is more of a need, that he has set his mind on achieving this and there’s nothing that will stop him. I don’t really want to talk about it anymore, so I change the subject.

“Do you really think we need to go to the shrine? It could escalate the war and if it doesn’t work it could cost thousands of lives.” It’s one of the more selfless things I’ve ever said. There’s nothing I want more than my mother back. But even I don’t want to risk that many people for something that might not even work.

“Yes,” Min says immediately, and I breathe a sigh of relief. “We have to do everything we can. If we don’t flip the balance somehow, nothing will ever change. It will keep going until the world is destroyed or Zephyra and Mercuriel finally kill you. And then nothing would matter anymore.”

At first I think he’s talking about the world, that if the world was destroyed nothing would matter anymore. But then I realize he’s talking about me. I’m pretty sure he means that if I am killed we would lose the war and everyone would die, but what if he means it more personally? I know I’m reading too much into what he’s saying, but maybe he means that nothing would matter to him if I died. I’m debating whether or not to ask, when I pitch forward. For a second my eyes go dark, but then images start to spill across them.

The tall spire of rock from the journal rises above me, startling against the blue sky. It would almost be beautiful, if it weren’t for what was going on around it. Behind me there are thousands of people fighting. I can hear the clashes of swords, the screams of the dying. I can’t see any individual bodies, only a writhing mass with occasional flashes of magic.

I start trying to climb the spire of rock. It’s almost completely smooth, my fingers have only the tiniest handholds. I can’t help but look at the battle every few seconds, and the climbing goes almost impossibly slow. My fingers feel like they’re being ripped out. The palms of my hands are scraped raw and red.

I’m only about twenty feet up when the height starts to scare me. I force myself to stop looking down, to stop thinking about it. I pretend I’m only a few feet off the ground, doing some sort of training activity. Nothing to worry about. Just keep stepping up.

By the time I’m thirty feet up, I’m shaking. And not just with fear, but with exhaustion. The rock is hundreds of feet high, there’s no way I can make it to the top. But I have to try. So much is at stake. Some part if me realizes this is a vision, but I still feel the same sense of urgency, the same sense of desperation, that I would in real life.

Suddenly, wind blasts into me, throwing me against the rock. I gasp and cling to the mountain as hard as I can. One of my hands slips, and I almost fall. My scream is torn away, like a shred of paper ripped from my lungs. I try to suck in air but can’t. My chest bangs against the rock and warm blood sticks my shirt to me.

I manage to turn my head around and find myself face to face with a huge emerald dragon. My eyes widen and my heart pounds against my rib cage. I’m too scared to even cry out. All I can do is make a little whimpering sound in the back of my throat.

On the dragon’s back, nestled between two of its massive spikes, is a woman clothed all in black. I know instinctively that she is Mercuriel. She whispers something to the dragon. In one smooth motion, it lunges forward and wraps its claws around my middle. I try to hold onto the rock face, but the dragon pulls slightly, and I’m ripped away, leaving my fingertips bloody. Even though I know this isn’t real, I feel the pain, sharp in my fingers and middle, and I feel the fear, choking me. For a split second I’m in the dragon’s grip, and then its claws are no longer around me, and I’m falling….

I never hit the ground. The world goes dark for another second, and then the images come faster. I’m lying flat on my back, stripes from a barred window falling on my face and side. Min is lying in a cave, very still, but I can’t tell if he is dead or unconscious or just sleeping. An old woman kneels in front of me, earnestly saying something I can’t quite catch. I’m in a circular room that bursts into flame. Liz is kneeling over me, her face white with fear. I’m falling again and this time I do scream.

I sit up straight, gasping. I’m in Min’s room again.

“Um…what just happened?” Min asks.

“I was perceiving. Part of it was like it usually is, just flashes. I can’t really make sense of anything. But the beginning was different, slower, I guess. I was at that pointy rock thing with the shrine in it, and I was trying to climb it. But there was this huge battle, and then Mercuriel,” I don’t know how I know the woman I saw was Mercuriel, the eldest sister, I just do, “was there, and she had a dragon, and there was nothing I could do. It was going to kill me, I think. You’re right, Min. If we’re going to win this war I need to find the shrine and get myself a dragon.”

“Wait, but are you okay? Like right now? You were just like….” He demonstrates. Apparently, I fell forward and off the bed. I think the arms twitching and eyes rolling up in head are just for effect, but I could be wrong.

“Yeah. I’m fine. But thanks for being worried about me.” My heart does a little dance. Min probably spends half his life being worried about me. But it still makes me feels good.

“We need to talk to Liz right now then,” he says. “If I can heal your arm tomorrow, maybe you can go on a mission to find a dragon next week.”

I stand. I’m a little shaky, like I usually am after perceiving, but it’s not too bad. I can still walk, and I don’t feel like I’m going to pass out or anything.

It’s not until I’m out in the hallway that I realize I have no idea where Liz’s room is either. How have I never been in all these peoples’ rooms? I try to think back. Have I ever seen Liz come out of her room, or go into it?

Yes. When Storm was injured, I called for Liz, and she came out of one of the rooms where the teachers sleep. I remember the hallway it’s in, even if I don’t remember the exact room number.

We go downstairs. I’m too frightened to just guess a room again, but Min is braver and knocks on the door of one we’re pretty sure is right. There’s no answer.

“This must be the wrong one,” I say. “There’s no one here.”

“No wait. I’m almost sure this is right.”

He knocks again, more incessantly, pounding almost. Finally, we hear a quiet voice from inside.

“Come in,” it mumbles.

I open up the door. Liz is tangled up in her bedsheets, blinking in the light from the hallway. We were right. This is her room.

“What is it?” she asks, taking in our pajamas, our faces flushed with excitement, our glassy, sleep-deprived eyes.

“When I was in Min’s room just now I had a….”

“Wait.” She shakes her head a little bit. “What were you doing in Min’s room?”

“We were talking about how we were gonna find a dragon.”

“What?” She looks confused, too tired to puzzle out my cryptic comments.

“It said in the journal….”

“What journal?”

I start at the beginning, with Min’s discovery of the journal. I have to tell the whole story, and it takes at least a quarter of an hour. I kind of thought Min told her that he found a precious ancient artifact belonging to a Princess of the Wilderness, but apparently he didn’t. I’m annoyed, but also a little touched, that he came to me first.

After I’m finally done explaining, I start telling her about my vision and our plan. Her expression ranges from shock to awe to excitement to anger.

“So that’s basically it,” I finish. “Min can heal my arm tomorrow, or I guess it’s today now, as soon as possible. Then we can start a mission to look for a dragon sometime next week. And we need to start looking for that place with the pointy rock. The journal didn’t say where it was.”

Liz puts her head in her hands, the way she always does when she’s stressed or not sure what to do.

“I need to talk to some of the other teachers before we can make any plans. It’s the middle of the night. And this just seems so dangerous. I don’t want either of you to get hurt….”

Min looks like he’s about to start arguing with her. I don’t want to have to deal with them fighting in Liz’s bedroom at three in the morning. “No, it’s fine,” I say, dragging Min after me. “We’ll talk to you…later today, I guess. I could use some sleep anyway.”

I pull Min out of the room. I bump into someone as soon as I step into the hallway. I stumble backward and into Min, and he catches me lightly. I blink. The person I ran into is Mackenna.

“What are you doing up?” I ask her. It’s takes me a second to realize how ironic the question is.

“Where were you?” She sounds a little angry. “I woke up and you weren’t in your bed. You’re always in your bed! I thought you were just going to read the journal tonight.”

“Sorry,” I say, and I actually am. I didn’t mean to make Mackenna worry. I give her a brief summary about the actual content of the journal, and then the plan Min and I came up with. I leave out the part about the three sisters’ kindness to Verina though. Every time I think about that I get a burning feeling in the back of my throat, like I’m about to start crying. It hurts the way pressing on an old bruise hurts.

“I’m going to find something to eat,” Min says, and starts to walk off.

“Min, it’s three in the morning, how could you possibly be hungry?”

“I haven’t eaten anything in almost five hours. I can’t go that long.”

Mackenna mutters something about teenage boys under her breath. I laugh, and we both follow him.

I’m still self-conscious about the fact that I’m wearing pajamas. Mackenna had the good sense to change before wandering around the halls looking for us. Now I’m stuck wearing polka-dotted shorts and a tank top while she’s in jeans and a T-shirt. At least Min is still in his pajamas too, and barefoot while I’m wearing flip-flops. That should count for something.

I expect Min to go to the kitchen for his snack, but instead he goes to his room, where he has a mini-fridge hidden under a pile of weapons and stuff. He pulls a few slices of cold pizza out, and eats them sitting cross-legged on the bed. I sit on the bed next to him, and then somehow I end up lying down. I’m suddenly tired, but don’t feel like going back to my room. Maybe I should. But Min’s bed is so comfortable. I rub my arm where it hurts, watching him and Mackenna through narrow slit eyes. Then, somehow, my head ends up on his pillow….

 

 

CHAPTER 7

By the time I wake up, sunlight is streaming through the window. I roll over and stretch like a cat before remembering where I am. I sit up fast and look around. Min is in a chair, idly flipping through Verina’s journal.

“Good morning.”

My eyes widen. “I slept the whole night? In your bed?”

He nods slowly, as if he doesn’t see the problem. “It was really only a couple hours. Not a big deal.”

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t tired. And you just looked so…peaceful. You never relax anymore.”

I throw my legs out of bed. “I’m going to go change,” I announce. I go back to my room, digging through my closet. Most of my clothes are at Liz’s, so I borrow one of Mackenna’s tops. It’s a little short on me, but fine other than that. She’s not here so I can’t ask if it’s okay, but I would let her borrow one of mine in the same situation, so I think it’ll be fine.

I go back to Min’s room, expecting him to still be there, but he’s gone. He’s left me a note telling me to meet him in Liz’s office. He and Liz are both already there when I arrive. I look at Liz expectantly.

“Can Min heal my arm today?” I ask when she doesn’t say anything for a while.

“No,” she says flatly, taking me by surprise. “We need to do [_way _]more research on this first. I can’t risk either of you getting hurt on something we’re not completely sure on first. And Min won’t be the one to do it anyways, Amity will. And again, that will be after a lot more research.”

“But I can do it. I know I can,” he protests. “And shouldn’t Aubrey be able to use her arm again as soon as possible? We don’t need to do more research.” He says research like it’s a swear, which makes me laugh. After all, he’s been doing almost nothing else for the past week. I don’t say anything aloud though, because I want Min to be able to convince Liz.

“Min, you only found out about this yesterday. I’m sorry, but we need to look into it more. We don’t even know if it will work.”

“I found out about it three days ago,” he mutters, but she doesn’t seem to hear.

“Please,” I hear myself say. “I would really like to be able to use my arm again. And anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? It won’t get any worse than it is now.”

“It’s very dangerous for both of you, one or the other of you could die. You both are…in enough danger already. I don’t want to add another unnecessary risk.” I can see I’m starting to wear her down, but not enough. “It will only be a week or two before we know enough to be able to attempt it, I’m sure you can wait that long. I’m sorry, but no is my final answer.”

Mackenna meets us in the hallway.

“How did it go?”

“Same way we expected,” I groan. “Of course it was a no. I mean, in a week or two, she said. After they do more research.

“I’m still gonna do it,” Min says.

“You’re what?” I turn to look at him. His caramel eyes burn twin holes in me.

“I’m going to heal your arm,” he says simply, his face glowing with that fierce determination that I love.

“Min, no. We can’t. Liz said we couldn’t. She said we could die.”

“I can do this. I won’t let you die.”

“I know that.” And I do. I’m absolutely confident that Min can fix my arm, and there are no doubts in my mind that he won’t let me die. But that’s what worries me. He will keep going and going, pushing himself past the point of safety. Even if he ends up dying himself.

“I think it’s a great idea.” Mackenna says unexpectedly. “It could be months before Liz feels like she has enough research to make it work. It doesn’t even seem that hard. The instructions in the journal were apparently pretty clear. And I bet your dizziness and stuff will get better too, so the benefits of it kind of seem to outweigh the risks.”

I imagine another month, maybe longer, of not being able to use my arm, unable to make it through an entire day without falling asleep, unable to fight or run or do anything really. Then I imagine everything being better, normal, back to how it was before. And maybe I’m being selfish, but there’s really no question.

“Alright,” I say. “We can try it.”

 

Less than ten minutes later, I’m in my room, watching Min drink some sort of espresso. I have no idea how Mackenna got it for him, but he says it’ll give him more energy and I guess make it safer for him. Once Min is done with his drink, we will do the healing in here, with Mackenna to watch over us.

I’m not worried any teachers will come looking for us. I would like to think they assume I’m on some super-secret mission, but I bet they don’t. My teachers probably think I’m passed out and hallucinating in some corner. People could come looking for Mackenna and Min, I suppose, but they’ll probably just assume they’re with me. Mackenna will try to keep watch at the door anyway.

Mackenna helps me undo the bandages on my arm, pulling the sling off from around my head and undoing layers of ace bandages. Liz has me redo the bandages completely every couple of days, so it’s not gross or anything underneath. Except that it’s way paler than my other arm, because it hasn’t gotten to see the sun.

Once Min is buzzing with caffeine, he gets off Mackenna’s bed and comes sits on mine. “Drink this.” He holds out a little cup of something.

“Okay,” I say agreeably. I take it from him and swallow it in one gulp. It tastes kind of bitter, but it doesn’t hurt or anything.

“Whoa,” he says, looking a little alarmed. “Not so fast.”

But his face is already blurring. I try to say something, but my tongue feels thick all of a sudden, and it flops uselessly around in my mouth. I think Min starts to say something else too, but I miss it. My cheek hits the pillow and I’m out like a light.

“Aubrey, Aubrey wake up!” Someone is shaking me. I want to respond to them, but I can’t. My eyelids feel thick and heavy. The person lifts me into a sitting position and then drops me, and the sensation of falling wakes me faster than a bucket of ice would have. My hands instinctively go behind me, and my eyes fly open.

Mackenna leans over me. “Aubrey, thank God you’re awake. It’s Min.” He’s crumpled sideways on Mackenna’s bed, completely still. Mackenna turns toward me her eyes wide with fear. “I think he might be dead.”

Immediately, my mind empties of everything else. I scramble out of bed, bracing myself for dizziness. Thankfully, none comes. I feel fine. Better than fine.

Min appears not to be breathing. I know sometimes people don’t look like they’re breathing, but they really are. I know there are ways to tell, but I can’t seem to remember them. I try to feel for a pulse, but I don’t even know if I’m in the right spot. I’m so panicked I can’t think straight.

“Get Liz,” I say to Mackenna. Liz will help us. Liz has to help us. Mackenna runs off.

I run through all the first-aid knowledge I have. It seems like it should be substantial, but in a real emergency everything is gone. I wish Rowan were here, she’s the one who got Drew and Min through Costa Rica alive. I wish anyone were here but me.

If someone’s fainted, I know that you’re supposed to elevate their feet. I don’t know if Min’s fainted exactly, but it seems like a solid place to start. I pile pillows under his legs.

I also remember you’re supposed to turn concussion victims on their side, but I’m pretty sure Min doesn’t have a concussion. Not that I would be able to tell if he did. I leave him on his back, but mostly because I don’t feel comfortable moving him.

I try to push a little of my energy into him, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I feel so useless, so woefully incompetent now that my friend’s life is at stake. I actually feel tears pooling in my eyes, and I hold them back through sheer will power.

“Min, if you die, I’m going to kill you,” I cry out, pounding on his chest.

I am suddenly desperately afraid that he is already dead. Never again will I hear his laugh or watch his practiced, graceful movements or smell the sharp, piney scent of his magic. Even though I know I’m not supposed to, I start shaking him, wildly.

I’m on the verge of actually going into hysterics when suddenly Liz is there, taking in the entire situation in the blink of an eye. Her presence relaxes me so fast I almost go limp. Liz is here. She will make it okay.

“I should have known you would do something like this,” she says in a calming measured voice. If only her hands weren’t shaking, then maybe I could believe her. If only her next words didn’t crack like those of a hurt child. And I realize, suddenly, that Liz doesn’t always have the power to make everything okay. Some things are out of her control. And this could be one of them.

“I should have stopped him.” She kneels down by his side, checking his eyes, feeling for breath, listening for a heartbeat. All the things I should have done. When she feels at his wrist and shakes her head, my pulse leaps into my throat. Tears I can no longer control spill onto my cheeks. Mackenna grabs my arm, her fingers tightening with fear and pain. Her nails dig little crescents into my skin, maybe hard enough to draw blood, but I don’t care. I relish the pain, the external pain that dulls the frantic pounding of my heart for a few seconds.

“It’s not over yet,” Liz whispers, and starts rhythmically compressing his chest.

He remains unmoving, and physical pain blossoms in my chest. I lunge forward and wrench him into a standing position. I shake him violently.

“Min! Min!” I scream.

“Aubrey, calm down!” Liz yells at me, but I don’t stop. On the third shake, his eyes open and he clutches at me for balance. I pull him into me and hug him harder than I have ever hugged anyone in my life.

“Min,” I whisper into him.

“Aubrey, your arm!” he gasps the first time he can get a word in. For the second time, everything else is forgotten, and I almost drop Min to the floor. Liz helps settle him on the bed. And, for the first time since I woke up and saw Min lying too still next to me, I examine my arm.

 

 

CHAPTER 8

It looks the same as it did before the battle, before it was injured. I hadn’t even realized it had [_looked _]different until all of a sudden it looks the same again. Slowly, cautiously, I lift it above my head. I flex my elbow, bend my fingers for the first time in over a month. I feel like ever since the battle I have been carrying around a backpack filled with an ever greater load of bricks, that’s finally been taken off. And the relief is amazing.

I lean down and hug Min again, this time in thanks. Then he says he’s hungry, which I guess is unsurprising. He’s acted almost normal since his heart started beating again, so no one stops him when he tries to get to his feet. But his knees immediately buckle. He tries to support himself on the bedside table, but he misses his grip and ends up crumpled on the floor. He protests that he’s fine, but his face has lost its color and his eyelids are flickering like he might pass out. We get him back onto his own bed and Liz offers to bring him food, but by the time she comes back he’s asleep. We all tiptoe out of the room.

We want to be there if he wakes up, so we end up sitting in the hallway outside his room. I glance at the clock. It’s only about eight in the morning, but that still means the fixing of my arm took about two hours. It also means that in about a half an hour the halls will start filling up with students. Right now they are virtually empty.

I am completely absorbed in my newly healed arm, so Mackenna tells Liz all the details of what happened. I’m not really paying attention to what she’s saying. During the story, Liz’s frown continues to deepen. When Mackenna is finished, she says, “Of course I’m glad about your arm, Aubrey, and I’m glad you’re both okay. But you still shouldn’t have disobeyed my direct instructions. And Min could have died. He almost did. How can I ever trust you three again? I’m sorry, but there will need to be consequences.”

This does get my attention. My head snaps up to look at her. “What? But it worked out. Min knew he could do it and he was right. And it almost killed him! How can you punish him now?”

“Min not only put his own life in danger, he put your life in danger too. He needs to understand….” She breaks off and groans, balling her fists up in frustration at Min’s disobedience. “He needs to understand that he can’t always do what he wants. It doesn’t matter if he’s doing something that’s right or wrong, helpful or not. It’s not all about him. He needs to listen sometimes, too.”

“But what about Aubrey?” Mackenna protests. “Hasn’t she been punished enough?”

“All three of you need to learn that there are consequences for your actions. Min has always had a…disregard for authority, and this was a long time in coming.” She manages a wry smile, and I imagine she’s thinking of some other time Min disobeyed her and escaped punishment. “I’m assuming this was his idea?”

Mackenna and I stay silent, but I know that she can read the answer in our faces. No part of me has ever been good at lying.

“Min led you into this, so his consequence will be the most severe. But you two will be punished as well. I…I’m sorry.”

 

After that, Liz spends a long time looking at my arm, asking me to move it different ways, seeing how strong it is. She consults with Amity. Together they determine that my arm is healed completely, back to how it was before Tempeste fried it. It’s weaker, obviously, since I haven’t been able to use it in a month, but once I strengthen it, it will be back to normal.

I’m still ridiculously happy. Yeah, it kind of sucks that we have to go find a dragon, and that I know the three of us will receive some sort of punishment. But, I mean, the dragon is just so we can bring my mom back to life. And my arm is healed. Everything looks so much brighter, so much more [_possible, _]with that taken care of.

Once all the stuff with my arm has been sorted out, Mackenna and I go back up to Min’s room. To my relief he’s not asleep anymore, he’s sitting up on his bed, eating a bag of chips.

“Arm still working?” he asks me. I can tell he’s trying to be fake casual.

I flex my fingers to demonstrate. “It’s like it was never even hurt.”

“How do you feel?” Mackenna asks him.

“Fine.”

She eyes him skeptically. His near-death won’t be something either of us soon forget.

“I’m fine! I swear. I was just tired, but I feel completely better now. No problems.”

A little after that, Rowan bursts into the room. “Oh Aubrey, your arm is healed!”

Rowan is blind, but her magic allows her to “see” where things are, to a certain extent. In a lot of ways her sight is much more limited then a normal person’s, but it’s linked to her magic, and in some ways it seems to work better. Presumably that’s why she knows that my arm is better before I move it. Presumably that’s also why she doesn’t react to our confused faces.

“Liz wants all three of you guys downstairs in her office. She just sent me up to tell you that.” She pauses for a second, letting her magic take all three of us in. “Well,” she finally says, “I’m going to be late for class. Bye.”

“Bye Rowan. Thanks for telling us,” Mackenna says.

She leaves. The three of us exchange quick glances, but don’t say anything. Slowly we go downstairs and file into Liz’s office.

Liz is already in there, and we all sit down anxiously, waiting for her verdict. Min really does look fine, he looks alert, and his eyes are bright. Despite this, I keep looking over at him. I’m irrationally afraid he is going to pass out or something.

“Aubrey, Mackenna, I’m very disappointed in you,” Liz begins. I can tell from almost the first word that this is going to be a prepared speech. She has spent a while thinking over what she wants to say, and it’s desperately important to her that we listen. “I expected you to listen to me when I told you not to heal Aubrey’s arm. It was dangerous and irresponsible of you. Aubrey, just because you are the Daughter of the Wilderness doesn’t give you an excuse to do whatever you want. What you did was thoughtless. Behavior like that will not be tolerated. You will both be suspended from classes for a week.”

I wince. It was a worse punishment then I was expecting, especially after just getting the use of my arm back. I half-expect her to immediately back down on it, but she doesn’t. I realize I’ve never really been punished by Liz before, and it’s kind of frightening. Liz comes in and doles out terrible punishments like some sort of avenging angel, sudden and merciless.

What is motivating her? Why can’t she just accept that we’re all okay, unhurt, better than okay even? I try to read it in her face, her eyes. I can feel it, just out of reach, but I can’t quite be sure what it is.

“I hope this will help you understand, and next time you will make better choices. Especially you, Aubrey. We can’t afford anything to happen to you.”

She says it with almost a straight face. But her voice catches slightly. And I realize that it is fear motivating her. Fear for me, for Mackenna and Min. And I think I understand that. Fear can make people do irrational things. And what she’s doing isn’t even really irrational. She’s hoping beyond hope that she’ll teach us a lesson, and that that lesson will keep us safe. She would rather me have a useless arm than be dead, and she is trying to find a way to make us see that.

“Min, you should have known better. I know you started this. You put yourself in the most danger, and you were the one who directly disobeyed me.” She is afraid because she loves him. I can see that too. She wants to do something that will really sink in. But not because she wants to hurt him, not because she’s angry. If she doesn’t do something strong enough, it won’t really change him. And she doesn’t want to lose him. I remember the fear on her face when she thought he was dead. “You would have been included on the mission to help Aubrey find the dragon. But we can’t have you go on a mission until you learn to control your impulses.”

Min stiffens with shock. Liz worded that poorly, at least from my perspective. She made it sound like she doesn’t trust his judgement anymore. It will hurt him on so many levels to be punished like this. His punishment is much worse than mine.

“What? No! How could you do that? I shouldn’t be punished at all. I healed Aubrey’s arm. I knew I could do it and I did, and it was fine. You should be grateful. Now we can all move forward.”

He pauses. Liz looks like she’s about to say something, but he cuts her off. I can see the anger in the whiteness of his knuckles, the stiffness of his sloping shoulders. But more than angry, he is ashamed. I read that in the way he’s biting the inside of his cheek, and his eyes that won’t quite meet hers.

“And I was the one who found Verina’s journal in the first place. I figured out how to heal her arm. I found a way to end this war. I shouldn’t be being punished for this.”

Liz looks down at the table. I almost feel sorry for her too, and I wish Min would stop baiting her. But I know what she’s doing is unfair, not because he shouldn’t be punished, but because we should all be punished equally. We all did the same thing. Min is only getting the worst of it, because for him disobeying Liz is a pattern. I half-hope Liz will back down, but I know she won’t. Liz can have a fierce stubborn streak when she wants to.

“I’m sorry Min, but that’s my final decision.” She says it slowly, like she’s not really sure it is her final decision after all. But I know it is. Liz will not back down, she never backs down. She has that strange determination about her that will keep her from taking back her word. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m going to start talking about the mission with Aubrey and Mackenna.”

He gets up and leaves without saying a word. But his shoulders are stiff. I want to go to him, but I don’t dare. I stay in my seat, but my heart aches as I watch him go.

 

 

CHAPTER 9

Saying goodbye to Min a week and a half later is even harder than I expected. I might have to go without seeing him for anywhere between a week and a month, maybe more. The mission to find me a dragon will only end when we actually find me a dragon. There’s no set return date.

Min gives me a quick goodbye hug, and I just want to keep holding on to him. He has to kind of push me off, and I quickly let go and back up. I keep forgetting that he just thinks of me as a really good friend. That’s awkward.

When everyone finally loses patience with me, Mackenna has to practically drag me away from him. It takes a while to break eye contact, but once we do I don’t look back. Instead I watch Liz and Lily, who I will also be leaving behind. Mackenna packs me into a van, which we will be using to drive to wherever the dragons are. I realize I really don’t know much about what this mission actually entails. I don’t even know exactly where it is we’re going.

I feel the van rumble to life under me, and the School starts to retreat behind me. Even after the road curves and I can’t see all the people I’m leaving behind, I keep looking back and watching the asphalt unfold for a very long time.

Most of the past week has been spent in preparation for the mission, but I haven’t really been part of it. I’ve spent most of the time trying to get back all the strength I lost from being unable to use my arm for so long. Mackenna and Min kind of became my personal trainers, and most of each day was spent either working out or fighting. In the end it really didn’t matter that I was suspended from classes, except that I was a little ashamed about it. I wouldn’t have had time to go to them anyway.

Every night I would fall into bed, exhausted from a long day of working. My arm is better than it was when Min first healed it, stronger, but still not even close to what it was before. It’s because I’ve spent so much time working on it that I don’t even know where the mission is going, let alone who’s on it. I’ve been pretty out of the loop.

I tear my eyes away from the road and look around at the people in the van. There are six people in it, the only one I know being Mackenna. There’s a boy, maybe in his early twenties, who looks a lot like Seth. I’m about fifty percent sure they’re brothers. There’s an older girl who used to share a few of my classes, but I think graduated this year. I can’t seem to remember her name. And two people who I guess must be from a different school, a father and a son who’s about my age.

I notice the father, who is driving, keeps stealing covert glances at me. His son stares at me openly. I try to ignore them both.

I wish Min were here. He would know what to say to make the boy stop staring without singling me out. Why did he have to go and be so stupid and get in trouble? Not that I didn’t want my arm fixed, and I guess that’s why he’s not here. It’s just…I don’t even know.

The boy is still irritating me. I run my fingers through my hair and snarl at him with my teeth bared. He gasps and turns away from me, staring fixedly out the front. Immediately I feel bad. It’s not his fault Min is so annoying. And it’s not Min’s fault the one I‘m really mad at is myself.

Now for the rest of the ride, possibly the rest of the mission, he’ll be scared of me. I don’t feel like trying to smooth it over, so I just sit in a moody silence until Mackenna does it for me.

“Hi, I’m Mackenna,” she says cheerfully. “I don’t know a lot of you, so let’s all introduce ourselves!” Her smile is forced, but luckily the other girl jumps on it. I breathe a sigh of relief, glad I have Mackenna to do the things I’m not strong enough to do myself.

“I’m Kari,” she says. “My magic is that I can control plants.”

“Wait, really?” I ask, too intrigued to be hostile anymore. “I can too. Why didn’t they make a separate class for us?”

“They wouldn’t make a separate class for only two people. And who would teach it anyway?”

I don’t respond until Mackenna stares at me pointedly.

“Um, yeah, I guess. Anyway, I’m Aubrey. And I’m, uh, the Daughter if the Wilderness. If you have any questions you can feel free to ask.”

“Can you really turn into a giant jaguar?” the boy I don’t know asks.

“No,” I say, blushing a little bit. Does he actually mean giant? Because he should know that it’s impossible for people to gain more than around thirty pounds when they change. Even if you’re the Princess.

I sigh and unbuckle my seat belt, moving smoothly into a crouch. I pull the jaguar over me like I’m pulling on a coat. My teeth and claws slide out, my muscles ripple powerfully. I let a low growl rumble out from my throat.

Everyone gapes at me. I’m not sure why, until I catch a glimpse of myself in the front mirror. I’m farther into the change than I have ever been before. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference, but I look…feral. And something about the set of my features, the brightness of my eyes, the fall of my curls. I am wildly beautiful.

I let the cat fall from me, and suddenly I am just a girl, small, not very pretty, and feeling very much alone. I shrink back into my seat, trying to avoid the stares that I will never be able to escape. I am too obviously different.

Luckily, the boy who may or may not be Seth’s brother covers for me. He has dark eyes and hair, pale skin, an almost playful smile.

“I’m James,” he says. “I think you know my younger brother, Seth.”

So I was right on that one. At least I’m not going completely crazy. I knew I had seen them together, and they look similar enough that I probably could have called it anyway. I try to remember what I know about Seth’s childhood. Not much. I know he was adopted, but it was when he was pretty little, so he feels like part of a family. I hadn’t realized he was with a biological brother.

“My power is rock,” he finishes. There’s silence. I feel like I should applaud or something, but since no one else does anything I don’t either.

The father and son share a quick glance. The father speaks first. “You can call me Flint. My power is increased senses,” he says. I stare at him. What sort of power is increased senses? “I am a dragon expert. I went to school with Liz as a child.”

I could have guessed he and Liz had a long relationship, otherwise she wouldn’t allow him in a car with me. I’m still not sure I can trust him, though. I understand why she put me in a group with a dragon expert, but I wish she’d put me with more people I know.

The son is extremely shy, he keeps his eyes glued to the floor as he talks. He says his name is Justin, and that his magic is wind. I can’t even really see what he looks like, because he keeps his face turned carefully away from me, like I can steal his thoughts or something just by looking into his eyes.

The six of us drive long into the night, stopping only occasionally. For dinner we stop at some random gas station, and eat at a small all-night sandwich shop. Around midnight Flint and Justin switch, so Justin must be a little older than me, old enough to drive.

Mackenna falls asleep as soon as it gets dark, displaying her almost uncanny ability to fall asleep instantly anywhere. I eventually fall into a light doze. I only wake about halfway up, and for a moment I think I’m in Costa Rica again. Min is at the wheel, his eyes always alert, and I know he will protect me from danger. I reach out, wanting to touch him, but I feel only the cold glass of the backseat window. And of course Min is not driving. Seeing Justin at the wheel almost makes me start crying. I don’t fall asleep again.

We have to stop altogether around two in the morning. Apparently we already have reservations at a hotel. Kari and Mackenna wake up in time to stumble up the stairs and to their beds, but even in the hotel I can’t fall asleep. I just stare at the wall all night, wishing for an indefinable something that I don’t have a name for.

Oddly, the next morning I’m barely tired at all. Everyone else is playing games like “twenty questions” and “would you rather”, but I don’t feel like playing. I draw my knees up to my chest, and stare out of the van with sullen eyes. I can tell other people in the van are uncomfortable around me, and it’s making me angry. It’s not my fault.

We drive late into the night again. We should get there, wherever it is we’re going, around noon tomorrow, and I can’t wait. Being stuck in this van is driving me crazy.

In the middle of another sleepless night I start crying for no apparent reason. I can’t stop. I try to figure out what’s making me so upset, but it’s hard because there are so many different reasons. I list them all out in my head, as if maybe that will make them better.

First off, I miss Min. I wish he were here, he understands me in ways no one else does, he stands up for me, and I trust him. He makes me laugh. This is the first reason that occurs to me, but it’s not the only one, and I’m not even sure it’s the main one. He is a friend, that’s all, and I still have Mackenna here with me.

Ever since I found out I was the Daughter of the Wilderness, I’ve felt isolated by everyone. It’s better with people that I knew before I found out. But with people like Flint and Justin…. It just seems like everyone is either in awe of me, or scared of me. Or both. And part of me enjoys it. Like everyone, I’m torn between wanting to be special and wanting to be normal. Sometimes the special part wins. But not usually.

What I think is the biggest cause of my unhappiness is also the hardest to define. Finding a dragon is cementing my role as hero of the war. And that’s not a position I’m sure I want to be in. It’s not that I don’t believe in the cause, because I do. It’s not that I don’t want to help people, because I want to do that too. It’s just that I honestly don’t want to fight people.

In movies, they make coming face-to-face with evil and fighting back look energizing, inspiring, and sometimes even fun. But it’s not. Seeing someone you care about get injured or killed is horrible. You would think it would make you want to fight even more, but it doesn’t. You wonder what kind of awful, selfish person could do this. And then you realize it’s you, that you have killed, you have injured, you have ruined countless lives, broken countless families. And the feeling isn’t energizing, it’s the opposite. It makes you want to curl up in a hole and die.

I would want to fight anyway, I think, to protect the people I care about. But it doesn’t matter. The choice has been made for me. I wish I could have chosen. And just being a normal magic kid is one thing, but I’m not. I don’t just play a major part in the war, I play a pivotal part. Whether we win or lose rests squarely on my shoulders. And that is much too large of a burden for any sixteen-year-old to bear.

There is something relaxing about untangling and organizing my fragmented thoughts. It’s nice to work toward a goal like trying to fix the causes of my unhappiness. But as I examine each problem one by one, I realize I can’t solve any of them. Min will not be here, I probably won’t see him for weeks. I am so different that people will always stare at me, and I have to find a dragon and help win the war. I have to fight and kill people who I don’t even know, if I want to save the ones I care about. I can’t change any of it.

I can change the way I’m looking at all of this. I can pretend to be happy and brave, and maybe if I do that for long enough I really will be. I resolve to do that tomorrow, if I can. Except that’s hard, and probably won’t work, and I’m not selfless enough to really put a positive spin on this whole situation. So for now I watch the stars flicker through the window, and know that they are reflecting off the tears still making paths down my cheeks.

 

 

CHAPTER 10

The next day I try to include myself in the conversation. It’s hard, especially after two days of silence. Luckily, Mackenna catches on and helps me out. Soon I’m talking with James and Kari pretty normally. The other two still seem a little awkward around me though, especially Justin. When I ask him a direct question and he just looks at the floor, I have to use all my self-control not to scream. I want him to treat me normally, I want him to understand, I want, I want, I want….

Pretty far into our next day of driving we pass a Welcome to Illinois sign. “We’re almost there,” Flint informs everyone in the van.

“The dragons are in Illinois? Really?” I say. “How has nobody noticed them?” I realize, not for the first time, that I really don’t know anything about how this mission is going to work. I don’t know where the dragons live, or how they keep people from noticing them, or how we intend to get one to help us.

“The dragons aren’t technically in Illinois,” Flint explains to me. “It’s just the entrance to their realm. Did Liz explain to you the way the three sisters’ village was set aside by magic?”

“Um, yeah,” I say. I actually really don’t remember, but I don’t want to say that in front of everyone. I think he can hear it in my voice though.

“People with certain kinds of magic can separate a certain location from this world. It won’t take up physical space that way. Only someone who knew it was there and was looking for it would be able to enter. A person without magic would just pass straight through to the other side, without realizing that anything was different. So the entrance to the place where the dragons live is in Illinois, but the actual dragons aren’t in Illinois at all. They’re in…their own little world, I guess. A dragon realm.”

“Okay.” It’s all coming back to me. Sort of. I remember Liz explaining it to me, but I didn’t really understand it. I still don’t really understand it. But whatever. Flint does, and hopefully some of the other people in the van do too. I’ll just have to trust them.

Nobody seems really mad at me or anything for being curious, so I decide now might be a good time to ask some of my other questions too. “How are we even going to find a dragon? And how are we going to get it to help us?”

“There are maybe a hundred dragons left in this area, and we’re guessing at least some of them will be interested in helping you. Those ones will probably try to find us, and then we can get them to align themselves with our cause.”

“What about the other dragons?” Mackenna breaks in. “They won’t all want to help us, will they?”

“No. I don’t believe they will. We’ll need to avoid most of the dragons. I don’t know how much alliance they’ll feel with the Princess. They could all want to help us, or they could…not. If a dragon does attack, we won’t really be able to fight. We can run though, and if they’re not hungry they probably won’t give chase.”

For the first time I realize how dangerous this mission is. I had been afraid that somehow the remaining two sisters would figure out where we were and attack, or somehow find the journal, or the shrine, or the School, or me. But now I realize that I am in danger right now, or I will be in a matter of hours. Compared to a dragon we have no power, no chance. They might kill us as quickly as help us. We could be dead before we ever get back to the School.

We’re mostly silent for the short remainder of the drive. Early in the afternoon we cross into the dragons’ realm, the other hidden place that Flint was talking about. I feel it in my bones as soon as we make the shift, like a shiver, but inside my heart instead of over my skin. It hurts almost, and I close my eyes against it.

It’s over as quickly as it came. And when I open my eyes, we are clearly not in Illinois any more.

Everywhere is color. Mostly red. Dusty red ground, swooping red cliffs. Blue sky, curved overhead like a giant bowl placed over everything, blue river, cutting through the ground like a ribbon. Green, on the edges of my vision, on the tops of the mountains, lush plants and trees. There’s something harshly, sharply beautiful about it, but in a sort of empty, almost frightening way.

The road stops as soon as we enter the dragons’ realm. I don’t think even Flint was expecting this, because he doesn’t stop quickly enough. The van bumps over rocks, and then there’s the edge of a cliff in front of us. I gasp. We roll over a boulder, and the van goes up on just its back wheels. For a split second I’m sure the van is about to tip over sideways, crushing all of us. But it doesn’t. Instead, it pitches forward and goes over the cliff.

For a second, everything is frozen. The van is balanced perfectly. Half of it solidly on land, half of it hovering over empty space. It’s like a tug of war, the weight of the trunk versus the strength of gravity. Gravity wins, and we plummet forward.

I scream. The cliff isn’t as steep as I expected, and the front wheels crash down to land. We’re flying down the steep rock face, sending pebbles skittering behind us. A cloud of dust flies up around us, rusty red and fine as sand. We’re going too fast, too fast.

At the bottom of the cliff is a river. We’re heading straight toward it, and the cliff is too steep. There’s nothing we can do, the hill is just going to dump us straight into the water. Flint is trying to wrench the van around, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s nowhere else for the van to go.

I flash back to a similar time, most of a year ago now. Liz and I were in her little gray car, and we were hydroplaning down a hill, and there was sheeting rain, and a tree, and there was no escape but a flash of magic….

I saved us then, and that was by accident, before I knew who I was, before I could even use magic. That’s not who I am anymore. I can save us, just like I did with Liz what feels like almost a thousand years ago.

There aren’t many plants around, not on a cliff this steep, but there’s enough. I extend my consciousness, feeling for any kind of life. I feel the river, the forest, and on the very edges of my mind I feel tiny pricks of life that must be dragons. And I feel scrubby, tough plants, barely clinging to life on the steep face of the cliff. These are the plants I need.

I grab onto them with magic, pulling them upward and around the wheels of the van. The weight of the van tugs the first few plants out, ripping their root systems from their fragile holds. It’s not going to be enough, it’s not going to work. But I keep going.

Finally, the van grinds to a stop. I feel the gravel crunch under us, and there’s the harsh sound of metal scraping on stone. But we’re not moving. The plants are holding us up. We’re safe.

“That was awesome,” Mackenna whispers.

All six of us hurry out of the van, and then grab our things out of the back. The van is basically lost to us now. I can keep holding it if I keep concentrating, but I can’t move it. It is stuck on the steep cliff, with nowhere else for it to go. We’ll have to leave it behind.

Leaving the van behind is actually sadder than I expected. I’ve spent most of the past three days in this van. Also, if the van is gone, how are we supposed to get back? Nobody mentions this, so I don’t either. But as we walk back up the cliffs with the van fading in the distance behind us, I know it is weighing on all of our minds.

“Wait,” I say once we’re at the top of the cliff. “I have to let it go.”

I’m talking about the van, of course. I can’t keep holding it up, not without taking up more of my precious energy. So all six of us turn around, and then I pull the plants holding the van away.

For a second, the van just hangs there, and I’m sure that it’s not going to fall. It’ll stay here, hung in the balance, until the tires go flat and the paint is all worn off and some animal has made it into its home. But then it starts to slide, going faster and faster until it sort of melts into the river. It’s floating mostly at the surface for a moment, like an iceberg or something, and then it slowly sinks below the surface. There’s something oddly beautiful about it. Once there was a van there, and now there is nothing at all.

Once the van is completely gone, we start walking. We trek through a forest that seems oddly like a jungle, considering how close it is to what was essentially a desert. It’s thick and humid, reminding me sharply of Costa Rica. I’m carrying a couple bags, and soon sweat is dripping into my eyes and down my back. It’s brutally hot.

“Let’s stop here,” Flint says after a while. We’re in a clearing, I guess, except it’s not very big. There are trees on three sides, a river on one. I nod and sit down. I have just fully realized how painfully out of shape I am. A week and a half of a healthy amount of exercise cannot even begin to make up for two months of almost none. And I’ve mostly been working on getting my arm back to where it used to be, so though that is going pretty well, the rest is kind of lacking.

I just stay sitting for a couple minutes, breathing embarrassingly hard. Mackenna comes over to me, asking if I’m okay.

“Yes,” I pant. “I’m fine.”

I think longingly of the girl I was only three months ago, when I was in the best shape of my life. I probably could have run a couple miles without breathing like this. I could do all those push-ups, all those crunches. For the first time in my whole life there was no layer of fat to hide my muscles, but now it is back. I feel like crying, strangely. But it’s just that…I thought once my arm was fixed everything would be better. But that’s not how it works. There are no quick fixes.

Once I’ve mostly recovered, I help the others set up the campsite. We don’t really need to do much. It’s not cold, and using magic to build temporary shelters isn’t exactly hard. So basically all we do is pile all our bags in the center of the clearing and then get out our weapons, so we’re prepared for any sudden attacks. Then, since by this point the light is already fading, we have nothing to do but wait.

Mackenna makes us a campfire. Everyone but me talks and laughs, but their words wash over me, as meaningless as the wind or roaring ocean. I’m exhausted, but that’s not it. It’s something else.

It’s this place, I realize. Something about it is wrong, off somehow. I can literally feel the magic pulsing through it, but not in a good way. I feel like I can’t quite get a deep breath. I want to run, or sleep, or do something, anything, other than just sit here. After a while I lift up one of my hands, and realize it’s shaking.

I try not to focus on it, because feeling the weirdness in the air and aching through my body is kind of freaking me out. I try to think about something else.

I end up staring into the depths of the fire, letting it take my mind off everything. It’s constantly flickering, changing, shifting color and shape. It doesn’t seem like Mackenna could make something so flighty, not when she is so steady and constant. I wonder vaguely if I remind people of a jaguar. I remind myself of one, but only a little bit. I am not brave or strong, but I am isolated now, like a jaguar alone in the forest. Maybe that’s why both me and my mother have the spirit of a jaguar. Because we were always destined to be alone.

 

 

CHAPTER 11

When we’re ready to go to bed, I offer to build our shelter for the night, but Kari says she wants to do it instead. She bends trees and branches into little huts. She uses the magic easily, and I can tell she is powerful. But by the time she’s done, she’s pale and exhausted. I wouldn’t be. My magic hasn’t suffered much. She may be older, but I am so much stronger.

I don’t sleep well that night, which I guess isn’t surprising. I doze lightly a couple times, but I toss and turn and always wake up. I’m alternately burning up or freezing, and I have the eerie sense that I’m being watched. For the few times I fall asleep I know I dream, but I don’t remember them when I wake up.

We spend much of the next day hiking, looking for any signs of a dragon. Flint leads us brutally, we only stop twice for water and food. Most of the trail is rocky, which everyone complains about. I do like it when it gets steep enough to use my arm though. It’s not as strong as it was before, but it is there and mobile at least. I wish I could say the same for the rest of me. I’m exhausted.

Early afternoon, we find a huge, reptilian footprint. It’s bigger than I possibly could have imagined. I can’t seem to comprehend the size of the creature it could be attached to. I could easily sit cross-legged in it. The dirt inside it is dark and moist and all packed down.

I try to actually imagine a dragon. It’s not something I have ever really tried before. It’s not like there’s a lot of actual pictures of them, no one’s seen one in years, as far as I know. All I have to go off are those weird hand-drawn pictures from the middle ages, and a couple similar but more recent ones. And now this, which gives me some slightly incomprehensible idea of the scale.

I’ve noticed that Flint closes his eyes when he’s thinking. His eyes are closed now. He pauses for a moment, and then sends Kari and I into the woods about six feet away. We find another footprint, facing the same direction. It’s almost identical, the same size and shape and everything, but this one is missing a toe.

“This was an adult male dragon,” Flint says. “He was taking off for flight. These are his two back feet. I would guess his entire body is at least forty feet long, maybe more.”

I realize all of a sudden that I don’t want to find a dragon to help me. I want to run away from here as fast as I can. I’m scared of dragons. I don’t want to meet one, and I really don’t want to have to talk to one and convince it to help me. I don’t want to have to work with one in order to bring my mother back. I don’t really think I like dragons at all.

Now when we walk, I’m nervous. I imagine dragons swooping down from the sky with their giant claws and eating me. I keep compulsively looking up at the sky. I can’t relax. I can’t focus on trying to find a dragon, because I’m too focused on not getting killed by one.

After a while the scenery changes. We had been walking uphill through a forest, but all of a sudden the trees completely disappear. We’ve reached the summit of the mountain, all around us is dusty red rock, blue sky wheeling overhead. It’s almost breathtakingly empty.

The landscape below us has completely opened up. In front of us there are red mountains, clumps of green trees, winding, silvery streams cutting their way through the bedrock. Wind pushes into me, makes the clouds race across the sky. The land seems to stretch out below me forever, and it is wild and beautiful and free.

“We can break for food,” Flint says. I flop down to the ground. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until he said it. It must be after two in the afternoon.

I smile to myself. Good thing Min’s not here, because he would never be able to go this long without eating. But thinking about Min makes my chest feel hollow, so I try to focus on something else.

I eat a sandwich and watch a bird swoop overhead. I’m not really paying attention to it, at least until it starts to get bigger. There’s an earsplitting shriek, and what I thought was a bird resolves itself into a dragon. It takes me about a second to fully comprehend this, and in that second the dragon drops.

“Run!” someone screams, but it’s too late. The force of the dragon’s wings presses me into the ground until I can’t move. It’s coal black all over. The sunlight makes shifting rainbows on its scales. One beady eye meets mine. It screeches again and opens its mouth. I realize a heartbeat too late that it’s about to breath fire.

I roll sideways and duck, even knowing that it won’t be enough. Waves of heat roll over me, and I scream from the anticipated pain. It takes me a few seconds to realize that even though the heat is uncomfortable, it’s not burning me. I’m not dead. I turn tentatively around and see that Mackenna is on her feet, deflecting the fire. It’s spreading out in a circle around her as if it’s hit a glass wall.

Mackenna looks a little shocked that what she’s trying to do is actually working. She has a funny little scared smile on her face. But the dragon’s fire keeps on coming and coming and coming. Mackenna drops to her knees, but she continues to shield us from the flames.

Finally, it ends. The dragon stops to take a breath. I grab Mackenna’s wrist and start blindly running. All of a sudden we’re going downhill, far too fast for us to run, and we can’t stop, not without falling.

The dragon roars above us, and its tail knocks rocks down after us. Mackenna and I have to concentrate hard so we don’t slip. The loose gravel threatens to turn our ankles and send us tumbling to our deaths, but that doesn’t seem to matter. There is a dragon chasing us.

There’s a shout behind us, and I see that Justin has fallen on the loose gravel. I grab him and manage to pull him up. He catches his balance, and the three of us sprint down the mountain.

We can hear the dragon pursuing us, and feel the wind from its flight. I force myself to go faster, even though it’s dangerous on the steep slope. The mountain that took us an hour to climb up only takes us ten minutes to sprint down, but still, by the time we’re at the bottom I’m breathing too hard to talk. But I don’t stop. I can’t.

I turn toward a clump of trees with Mackenna and Justin following. I don’t stop until I’m in the middle, then wait once I can’t go any farther. The dragon tears into the trees. They are ripped up from the roots, shredded. My breathing is fast and shallow, and almost painful.

We crouch in the middle of the trees, trying to quiet our breathing, calm our racing hearts. Adrenaline courses through my veins. My hands are shaking, and I grab around a tree to steady them. I pinch my lips tight closed, shut my eyes. I try to prepare magic inside me, even though I know if it comes to a fight, we won’t win. We can’t. The dragon is just too big.

For a series of panicked heartbeats, the dragon is silent. I can’t tell if it’s gone or not. Then suddenly it’s only feet in front of me, roaring in my face. I scream and scramble backward into Mackenna.

The dragon doesn’t attack. I realize that only its head has managed to weave its way through the trees. Its shoulders are stuck farther back. It pushes as hard as it can, but the trees are strong. The dragon cannot reach me.

It snaps its jaws in frustration and lunges forward one more time, then retreats. I gasp. I can feel Mackenna shaking too. There’s a fierce gust of wind, and I know the dragon must be taking off. Leaving us behind.

I hear the dragon roar farther away. The next time it roars, I can barely even hear it. I catch a glimpse of it through the trees, now it’s so far and high it looks like a bird again.

Mackenna jumps into the air, pumping her fist. “Yes! We escaped a dragon, we escaped a dragon.” She’s smiling, always the optimistic one. To her it’s not about the fact we were almost killed, but the fact that we’re still alive.

“Shh!” I say. “It might come back.”

We all crouch down for two minutes. I time it out, counting silently to myself. When we finally do stand up, I can’t see the dragon anymore at all.

“We should find the others,” Justin says. He looks worried, and I remember that his father is out there somewhere. Worry for a parent is a feeling that, for the most part, I am not familiar with. But then I think of Liz, and imagine that she is out there, maybe being eaten. I haul myself to my feet.

We walk cautiously out of the cover of our trees. I flinch as soon as we’re exposed, but the dragon doesn’t return. At least for now, we’re safe. We made it.

There’s a silver-blue river snaking by only a few yards away from us. We stand next to it, look up and down its banks. I don’t see anyone.

Panic starts to dance painfully in my throat. Where are they? How are we supposed to find them? Did they even make it off the mountain? Are their dead bodies lying somewhere, probably never to be discovered by us?

Mackenna and Justin look as worried as I feel. They’re looking at me like they expect me to be a leader, to take control of the situation, but I’m honestly not sure what to do. Hopefully, once the others realize it’s safe, they’ll come out and find us. If not….

Suddenly I double over as if I’ve been punched in the stomach. My breath comes out in a gasp. Pictures explode across my vision, a red mountain looming above me, a cave at its base, and in that cave, the three other members of the mission.

I straighten up and blink my eyes open. The real mountain is above me, just as it was in my vision. I start to walk purposefully toward it.

“We need to go this way,” I say with certainty.

Mackenna is staring at me with some amount of concern, and Justin is staring at me like I’ve gone insane right before his eyes.

“Um, why?” he asks.

“I saw it in a vision,” I say, waving him away. “Come on, we need to go. If they leave we won’t have another way to find them.”

He still looks skeptical, but Mackenna gives him an evil glare and he follows me. I’m suddenly grateful for her uninformed trust in me. I’m not sure I deserve it.

The mountain is farther away than it looks. I’m not sure how the others could have gotten there unless they ran down the opposite side of the mountain and looped around. Anyway, I would guess it’s a little farther than a half-mile away from our mini-forest, and it takes us about fifteen minutes to hike to it. That whole time I’m desperately worried and trying not to show it, because I know Mackenna and Justin are relying on me. And the idea of the rest of our party being missing is not even my biggest concern.

My biggest concern is the dragon. I’m absolutely terrified it will come back, and I’m checking the sky almost compulsively every couple seconds. The skin on my spine is tight, and the back of my neck prickles painfully. I feel like a giant hand is squeezing my chest. I’m resisting the urge to start sprinting for the shelter of the cave.

Some people are scared of monsters, or ghosts, or vampires. I’m not scared of any of those things. Apparently, I’m scared of dragons.

Finally, finally, we get to the mountain that I saw in my vision. And just like in my vision, there’s a shallow cave at the base of the mountain. I run inside, relaxing as soon as I’m not out in the open and covered only by the sky.

“Kari, James, Flint, are you in here?” I yell. My voice bounces eerily off the cave walls. Somewhere farther back, I hear dripping. But there is no response. The cave is empty.

 

 

CHAPTER 12

“Hello?” I repeat, but of course no one answers.

“It’s empty.” Mackenna says next to me. Normally, I don’t mind it that she always feels the need to state the obvious, but right now, it grates on me.

And then suddenly, someone is grabbing my shoulder from behind. I react instinctively, throwing my weight backward and knocking the attacker off. I bring my hands up, guarding my face and neck, ready for whatever’s coming. I know it’s too small, but my mind can’t help but think dragon.

It’s Flint. “Relax, Aubrey,” he says to me. “It’s just me. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He looks around, and I can see the tension drain out of his face when he sees Justin. Justin looks relieved too. I see James and Kari are behind Flint, looking maybe a little shaken, but unharmed aside from that. We’re all fine. The dragon didn’t manage to kill any of us. None of us are even hurt.

“How did you find us?” Flint asks. “We were about to go out looking for you.”

“I saw it in a vision,” I say. Everyone looks at me blankly. I realize suddenly that I know almost nothing about them, so how could I expect them to know so much about me? Why should they know about my visions? I don’t want special treatment, so then why am I expecting it?

“I’m a perceiver,” I explain. I knew what that word meant even before I found out I was one, so I’m praying they do to. I see nods of recognition, a renewed look of awe from Justin.

Flint takes the attention away from me again, and for that I’m grateful. “We should set up camp for the night. That dragon could still be hunting us.”

“What…what about all the other dragons? How do we know we won’t be attacked again tomorrow?” I’m embarrassed by the fear evident in my own voice.

“That’s a chance we just have to take. We just have to keep walking around until one approaches us that wants to help. Nothing else we can do. Unless you want to leave now.”

“Although that could be difficult seeing as we have no car,” James pipes up from the corner. Even his voice sounds like Seth’s.

“But how will we know if any dragons are coming?” My voice sounds high and anxious. My throat feels tight. I have that pounding right behind my eyes that means I’m probably going to start crying at some point if someone can’t tell me how to stop a freaking dragon from ripping my head off.

“Maybe you can see them in your visions?” Mackenna asks hopefully. She can hear the panicked tension in my voice, and wants to make it better.

“I didn’t have a vision about the last one,” I say miserably.

Mackenna’s face lights up, and I know she suddenly had a good idea. Except sometimes when she has a good idea she can’t quite talk properly, so it takes her a little while to get it out.

“You could use that…that mind thing.”

It’s funny, and a testament to our deep friendship, that I immediately know exactly what she means. And it’s actually a good idea, too. I could extend my consciousness every minute or two, and if a dragon’s coming I would be bound to feel it. I try it out now, just to see how broad my range is. I feel trees, river, plants, little animals. No dragons. I hope that means there are none near us, not that I can’t feel them for some reason.

We end up making camp anyway. The cave is small, and kind of damp smelling, but once Mackenna has lit a fire in the middle, not scary at all. We all talk and laugh. Well, Mackenna and I talk and laugh with each other, and James, Justin, and Flint talk and laugh in their little group too. Kari seems to be stuck awkwardly in between, she doesn’t already have a relationship with Mackenna and me, but she also wouldn’t really fit in with the guys. She casually comes over to us. We talk to her, but it’s one of the situations where Mackenna and I already have a perfect rhythm and she just can’t quite get it.

I realize suddenly that I have never been on this side of the situation before. A thousand times I have been on the other side, the side that Kari’s now on, trying desperately to fit in with people who I really don’t belong with. Sympathy rushes over me, and I try to be more inclusive. It sort of works.

After a while, everyone starts slowly falling asleep. I say goodnight to Mackenna and Kari, and then curl up in my sleeping bag in a corner. I’m not really afraid anymore, mostly because I’m surrounded by people who know what they’re doing better than I do, and it’s nice and warm and quiet in the cave.

Even so, it takes me a long time to fall asleep that night. And once I do, of course I dream of dragons.

Flint wakes us up way too early in the morning. Mackenna has always been a heavy sleeper, and I have to shake her to get her to open her eyes. She blinks a couple times, trying to adjust to her surroundings.

“Well, I see we weren’t attacked by any dragons last night,” she says, almost cheerfully but a little too tired. I think part of her is making fun of me.

“Yeah,” I say, forced casual. But her words remind me to check the vicinity for any dragons. I quickly extend my consciousness, combing through anything I can feel. No dragons, I think.

Mackenna sees that mentioning dragons has actually frightened me, and she tries to backtrack. “Never mind, I didn’t mean it. It’s fine to be scared of dragons, they’re big, and um…scary, and they can just come out of nowhere and they have those claws and those teeth….”

I silence her with a look. Listing off all the things that make dragons terrifying is definitely not helpful. “Let’s not talk about dragons anymore, okay?.”

James throws us each a protein bar, and we eat them while we’re packing up our sleeping bags and stuff. Then we all follow Flint out of the cave, blinking in the bright sunlight.

It’s early, and I’m still exhausted. The sun is just barely starting to rise, filtering into the cave we spent the night in, but throwing the other edge of the sky into darkness. Painting the in-between purple and peach. I blink a couple of times, trying to wake myself up, focus.

That day, we walk. We walk as the sun rises in the east and comes to rest above us like an egg yolk. We walk until we’re all covered in the same red dust that seems to cover everything here. We walk until my feet hurt, my legs hurt, my ankles hurt, parts of my legs that I have never before been conscious of and don’t know the name for, hurt.

I’m still nervous about the dragons, and I throw my consciousness out to look for them every couple of minutes. I still don’t feel anything, so I start to fall into a tentative relaxation. Except for the fact that everything hurts, my throat is dry and coated with dust, and I’m pretty sure my back is peeling with a heavy sunburn.

But aside from that, nothing happens. The day is completely uneventful, no dragons, or anything else. We make camp as soon as it starts to get dark. We talk for an hour or two, just like last night, and we make dinner. I sleep a little better now that I’m used to the feel of being in a place so filled with magic.

The next week is like that. We fall into a pattern. Wake up, walk, look for a dragon, make camp, sleep. I talk to everyone in our group more, and it’s interesting. I learn about them. Kari is nineteen and graduated from the magic school last year, but she still stays around because she hopes to teach there someday. James is nineteen too, and went to another magic school for a year, the same way Paige did. Flint went to school with Liz and her husband, and he was friends with them both. Justin at least…talks to me sometimes now. He is only a little older than me and Mackenna.

But I know, and everyone else knows too, that getting to know each other is not the point of the mission. The point is to find a dragon, and that just doesn’t seem to be working. We should have found one by now. There’s nothing else for us to do.

We thought, I guess, that the dragons would want to help me, that they would make themselves easy to find, that they would seek me out. But that’s not happening, and we don’t have another way to find a dragon. We need to wait for one to approach us, but they’re just not doing it. Without that, there’s nothing else we can do.

 

 

CHAPTER 13

It’s Tuesday now, ten days after we arrived here. Out of habit, I’m searching through the consciousnesses around me. Five people, a bunch of plants, some small animals, and…something else. It’s huge, so big it startles me, so big I almost instinctively pull myself away. I have never sensed anything even close to that size before. There’s only one thing in these forests that big. A dragon.

I can tell that it’s scared, way beyond normal animal fear. There’s nothing near it as far as I can tell, so I don’t know what’s frightening it. It’s not like it’s going to be attacked or anything. I can also tell it’s intelligent, and I realize that I might be the thing scaring it. I think it can feel my consciousness brushing up against it, so I pull back.

I take a deep breath. There is a dragon, and I think it’s trapped or something, not too far away. This could be my only chance to actually find one and talk to it, so it can’t be wasted. I need to make a move. But I’m scared of dragons.

I know that approaching it with all six of us will never work. It will just fly off. It needs to be me alone. Or maybe me with Mackenna. I’m not sure if it will work, so I want her with me. Dragons can breathe fire, and she can defend me from that. There’s no way I’m going up to a dragon alone.

“Um, guys?” I ask, “can we stop for a sec? I think I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Yeah, sure, go ahead,” Flint says, sitting down on a rock.

“Mackenna, you should come with me.”

“But I don’t have to go to the bathroom.”

I widen my eyes and try to send a message with my facial features, but she doesn’t get it. I remember suddenly when I sent a message straight into her mind during the battle with Tempeste. That was a moment of panic, a fluke that might never be repeated. But I know how to do it, more or less, so I might as well try.

I focus all my thoughts into one single bolt of clarity. I scream it into her head with as much force as I possibly can. Maybe what I lack in ability, I can make up for in volume.

Mackenna comes to an abrupt stop, as if she’s run into a brick wall. She drops to her knees and puts her hands over her ears. Then suddenly the message registers, and she straightens up.

“I have to go to the bathroom too,” she says, almost dazed.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Kari asks, sounding a little concerned.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She blinks a couple times, like she’s clearing spots from in front of her eyes. “I just have to go to the bathroom.”

“What was that about?” she practically yells as soon as we’re alone. “You just about scared me to death! And you made my brain hurt.” She looks at me reproachfully.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I was just trying to get your attention.”

“What kind of person gets their best friend’s attention by screaming into their head?”

“I told you, I’m sorry! I didn’t know it would work that well. I didn’t know it would work at all.”

We walk in silence for a few seconds. Finally, Mackenna can’t contain herself any longer.

“Is there really a dragon? There’s a dragon, isn’t there? That’s why you called me. Is it big? Can you feel it? Is it a girl or a boy? Can it breathe fire? Is it going to attack us?”

“Um, yeah, there’s a dragon.” I disregard her other questions. There’s too many to answer, and most of them aren’t relevant anyways. “It seemed really scared, so I didn’t want to approach it with the whole group.”

“You should have at least told them where you were going.”

“They would have have wanted to come with me.”

A few minutes later, “Aubrey, how far away are we?”

“I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. But we should move faster. We probably only have a couple more minutes before they come looking for us.”

We go into a light jog. It’s hard to tell distances when you’re sensing consciousnesses, so when we finally do get to the dragon, it comes as a bit of a surprise. We’re walking through a forest when all of a sudden the trees disappear and there is nothing but bare rocks. And the dragon.

It’s almost blindingly bright, a mass of rippling gold, smooth and sharp and overwhelmingly large. It takes a moment for the picture to arrange itself in my mind, for me to figure out which parts are where, what position it’s in.

A boulder has been very deliberately placed on the dragon’s wing, pinning it down and pulling it sideways. It’s snarling, pulling at it, trying to get it off. But it’s twisted down at an awkward angle, and it can’t seem to maneuver itself in a way that gets any leverage.

It hasn’t seen Mackenna and me yet. I quickly back into the shadow of the trees. I watch as it struggles to get its legs under it, then twist and push the boulder off. It’s too heavy. It can’t do it.

It starts desperately flapping its free wing, like maybe it can get enough momentum to get the boulder off. At first I think it’s working, the boulder does seem to be sliding free. But then I realize it’s tearing straight through the fragile membrane of the dragon’s wing. The boulder gets caught on one of its slender bones. I think the dragon’s going to give up, when it’s so clearly causing itself damage, but it doesn’t. It keeps trying to drag its wing out, and I hear the boulder grating against the bone. If the dragon keeps going, the bone is going to be crushed.

“Stop! Stop!” I cry, running forward into its line of vision. This could be my only chance at a dragon, and I’m not going to let the dragon break itself. Immediately, it whirls around, snarls, and releases a blast of fire at me.

I don’t move, I am stock still, frozen with terror. There’s a wall of fire in front of me, and for a second I don’t understand what has happened. Then I realize Mackenna has stepped beside me and is keeping the fire at bay. For the second time this week, she has saved me from being roasted.

The dragon turns so it can see us better, further scraping up its wing. Its mouth opens in a growl, and I think that it’s about to breathe fire again. My legs are weak all of a sudden. I fight the urge to run back into the woods, even though it wouldn’t do much good at this point. But I’m here, facing a dragon, and I don’t know what to do, and my heart is beating so hard I’m pretty sure it’s going to burst out of my chest.

“What are you? Why are you here?” the dragon screams into my head.

Immediately, I know what Mackenna felt like. There’s an explosion in my head, the dragon’s words echo painfully thousands of times. And just the fact that the dragon is speaking into my head is strange. I can’t explain what it’s like, exactly, but it leaves me feeling violated.

I clap my hands over my ears, groaning, unable to think or breathe or respond. It takes a few minutes to get myself together. But once I’ve recovered enough to form coherent thoughts, I realize something else. The voice that spoke into my head was distinctly female. This is a girl dragon.

I have to collect myself quickly, because the dragon is staring at me like she wants to bite my head off, and the last thing I want is to have my head bitten off by a dragon.

“Um, I’m a human. And,” I glance at the boulder pinning her wing down, “I guess we’re here to help you.”

My voice trembles. I hope our version of helping doesn’t involve actually getting any closer to her. It’s taking all my self-control not to run away screaming.

“You would help me?” For a second she looks like we actually got through to her. At least, I don’t think she’s about to blast us with fire again. Her eyes narrow. “But you are very tiny. You will not be able to lift the boulder.”

“I’ll get the boulder off you. I promise. But you have to promise me something. You have to promise not to attack us, and to listen to what we have to say.” Somehow that sounded really good in my head. Out loud though, it sounded…less good. The dragon looks like she can’t decide if she should take us seriously or not. I’m not sure if she should either.

“I promise,” she finally says. She unfurls her good wing, flexing it. I can tell she’s desperate. But I also believe she’ll keep her promise.

I bend a tree over and very gently wrap its branches around the boulder. I slowly straighten the tree, being careful not to damage the dragon’s already-torn wing. When the boulder is sufficiently clear, I drop it. The effort of lifting it tired me, but not nearly as much as I expected. More proof as to how strong I’ve become.

Once she’s free, the dragon gathers herself into a low crouch, every muscle tense. I back off quick, because she looks like a cat ready to pounce.

“I give you my word that I will return,” she says. Then she unfurls her wings and surges upward. Before I even totally understand what’s happened, she’s just a spot in the distance.

“Wait, wait!” Mackenna screams after her. “We didn’t get a chance to talk to you. Come back!”

“She’ll come back,” I say. I’m absolutely certain. Something in her voice made me trust her, even though she’s a dragon, and I don’t really trust them on principle. I’m still afraid, but I can handle it now. The dragon is…frightening, I guess, because of her power. But she’s not evil, I don’t think, she’s…complicated, just like a person.

I’m just standing there staring at the sky when I’m suddenly tackled to the ground.

“Get down,” someone hisses in my ear.

Before anything else registers, my brain goes into attack mode. I’m sideways, but I twist myself onto my back and gather my legs under me, pushing my attacker off. The second I’m on my feet, I’m delivering two spinning back kicks, one to the head and one to the chest. Then I’m twisting the attacker’s arm up, pulling her shoulder. It’s only then that I recognize her.

“Kari!” I exclaim, pulling away from her.

Apparently she has a one track mind. I don’t think she even hears what I’m saying.

“Get down!” she cries, running at me again. “Dragon!”

“Stop! Stop, Kari, it’s okay.”

“No, there’s a dragon! We saw it flying. It’s going to come back,” she whispers, her eyes wild.

“Kari,” I say, grabbing her shoulders, “Do you trust me?”

“Yes, but….”

“Then I want you to lie for me.”

“Okay, but….”

“I want you to leave right now and go back to Flint. Tell him anything, I don’t care what, to get him to stop looking for me. Set up a camp somewhere around here, I promise I will find you tonight. Just don’t worry, and get them to stop looking for me.”

It’s a long time before I can tell if she’s going to do it or not. Finally, she asks, “Why?”

“I found a dragon. I’m trying to talk to her, but I think she would be overwhelmed if more people came. Please, please, just trust me.”

At last, she nods. “Okay. I trust you.”

Then she simply runs off, leaving me standing in the forest, staring after her. Within a few heartbeats, she’s been swallowed up by the forest.

 

 

CHAPTER 14

Mackenna and I sit down on the large slab of stone to wait for the dragon. We wait. And wait. And wait. It takes almost an hour for the dragon to return, long enough for even me to start doubting her word.

When the dragon finally does came back, we have next to no warning. There’s a speck in the distance, and then she’s hurtling toward us. Within seconds, we can feel the wind from her wings. Mackenna and I tumble off the rock a split second before she lands there.

The dragon is an impressive sight. Her body is at least as long as a school bus, including her head and tail, so maybe about thirty-five feet altogether. Her scales shine a hundred shades of gold, ranging from pale to almost coppery. Her eyes are the size of my hand, and have a vertical pupil like a cat’s. When she lands, there’s a click from her three-inch razor sharp claws. Altogether, she is the most majestic, powerful, frightening creature I have ever seen.

Once she’s landed, she folds up her wings and settles neatly into a crouch. She eyes me warily as I approach. My hands are shaking, so I ball them into fists.

“Um, hi,” I say, unsure of how to start a conversation with a dragon. “I’m Aubrey. What should I call you?”

“You may call me Arden. My real name doesn’t translate to the spoken word.”

“What is it?” I ask, genuinely curious.

She sends it into my mind. It’s not a word, so much as a picture, an idea. Blue sky, golden rock, sleepy warmth. I almost stumble from the force of it. I’m not used to having ideas spoken into my mind, and it kind of hurts.

“I’m just gonna call you Arden,” I say, trying to pretend to be confident, pretend my voice isn’t shaking.

“Why did you help me, Aubrey?”

She makes my name sound metallic, and for a second I’m so focused on that that I lose track of my thoughts. Her tail flicks impatiently, reminding me that I have maybe only another few seconds before she loses patience with me and leaves.

Finally, I manage to gather my thoughts and start talking. I tell her everything, the war, the three sisters, why we need a dragon. I do leave out one crucial piece of information, though. Who I am. I talk about the Daughter of the Wilderness as if she were someone else. Not as if her help is vitally important to me, personally.

Before now, Arden has never heard any parts of the story, although she says she felt it when the Queen was killed. She didn’t know what had happened, and now she opens her fury to me, allowing me to feel just a tiny piece of it. It comes across as a sound more than a feeling, a thousand clanking swords, a raging storm, a high, keening scream. I grab my head and drop to my knees under the weight of it. The rough rock scrapes my knees bloody, and for a long few seconds I can see nothing but shadows. Finally it’s over, and I can push myself to my feet.

Then in the span of a few seconds, she shows me everything that has happened since the death of the Queen. The night it happened, a terrible earthquake splits the dragons’ realm in half. A wildfire of crippling disease reduces the dragon population to a fraction of what it was. The rest of the dragons are torn apart, and further reduced through a series of wars. Dragon turns on dragon, families and friendships are torn apart. Old wounds run deep, which is why Arden has been trapped under a boulder for days by another dragon, even though the most recent war has been over for a year now. The same dragon left her with a faded scar running almost the entire length of her body.

The final image, and this one is the most heartbreaking, is of eggs. Apparently, dragon eggs only hatch when the conditions outside are safe, and they can remain dormant inside for years. Since the Queen of the Wilderness was killed, no dragon eggs have hatched. Arden herself has a nest of sleeping eggs, waiting until it is safe to emerge.

“Where is the Princess?” Arden asks suddenly. “Is she fierce and brave? Are her claws and teeth sharp?” she says this quickly, like it actually hasn’t occurred to her that the Princess won’t be built like a dragon. I wonder suddenly how much human contact she has had in her lifetime.

“I’m the Princess,” I say finally. The words stick in my throat a little, but I get them out.

She just stares at me, calculating, and cold fear trickles through me. I can’t tell what she’s thinking. I have a sudden suspicion that I have just ruined our chances at getting her help at all.

I can’t take it any more. “Will you help us? Am I brave enough?” My heart pounds. She’s going to say no. My claws and teeth aren’t sharp or anything. She’s going to reject me and then rip me to shreds.

“I will help you.”

“Great!” Relief turns my voice into a sigh. “Let’s go tell the others.” I start walking back through the forest, already reaching my consciousness out to find their campsite. I’m almost embarrassed about how eager I am to get away from her.

“Wait,” she says, and her voice commands me to a stop. “Fly with me.”

I turn back. Arden is majestically silhouetted by the sun. Her very being radiates grace and power. I’m so terrified my throat closes up, but that’s not the only reason I can’t say no.

“Wait here,” I say to Mackenna, who has said almost nothing the whole time. She nods, looking a little shocked. I walk over to the dragon, and for some reason, now that action is being taken, I’m a little less afraid.

Getting on Arden’s back proves to be difficult. She is several yards taller than me, even when she’s crouching. Her scales are hot and smooth and there’s no good way to grip them. Eventually she curls her tail around, and I use that to make my way up. I sort of feel stupid doing it, so I’m glad there’s no one here but Mackenna.

She has spikes starting at the base of her neck and extending all they way down her back. The largest ones are at least a foot and a half high. Luckily there is enough space in between them for me to sit.

When she gets to her feet, I pitch forward and am almost impaled. As she lifts her wings, her body shifts and I almost slide off her smooth scales. I have to grab onto the spike in front of me just to stay on. I think that this isn’t going to work, that maybe I should just get off. My heart pounds fiercely. But then she jumps, and everything is completely forgotten.

She soars upward and the wind rushes around me, the ground whirls below, the sky circles above. I am completely free. I slowly take my hands off the spike in front of me, and throw them in the air. As Arden climbs smoothly upward, I can’t stop laughing. Everything is beautiful. I am no longer afraid.

The dragon banks into a shallow dive, and I whoop. Then she’s surging upward, twisting in a complex dance. I grab on again. But I’m laughing.

“This is amazing!” I scream. The dragon makes a whirring sound in response.

I lose track of time. It’s not long before I’m numb with cold, the insides of my legs scraped raw by her scales, the muscles in my thighs cramping. I’m tired and hungry. But I still love flying.

When we finally land, I feel like I’m waking up out of a dream. I can barely wait to get back on. I try to open my feelings to Arden, to let her know how much it meant to me. I do it clumsily, but I think she gets it. She purrs with pleasure.

Why was I afraid of dragons again? Well, they are kind of scary, I guess. But only the other ones. Not Arden. Arden is…something else. Powerful, certainly, but I know she won’t hurt me. She let me fly with her. That requires incredible trust on both our parts.

I hadn’t noticed, but the sun is going down. The shadows are lengthening, and everything is bathed in red light. Even not so high up in the atmosphere, it’s freezing. I wrap my arms around myself.

“Arden, I have to find the other people. Will you come with me?”

“No. I do not wish to meet the other humans yet. Bring them here tomorrow. I will speak with them then.”

“Oh, right, okay.” It’s not like I’m going to argue with her.

Mackenna is silent walking next to me, back through the forest to the safety of our camp. I’m so wrapped up in my dragon that it takes me a long time to realize that this means something is wrong. Mackenna is never silent.

“What’s wrong?” I ask her.

“It’s just…never mind.” I can almost feel a sort of anger in her voice, tight and thick. Anger directed at me. I have not often been on the receiving end of Mackenna’s anger, and I shift uncomfortably.

“No, really,” I say. “What’s wrong?”

“You just left! I wasn’t part of that at all. I couldn’t hear half the stuff she was saying, and I didn’t know what you were going to do. I didn’t know where you were. It’s just…you can’t do that. We’re trying to keep you safe, that was the whole point of trying to find a dragon in the first place. But how are we supposed to do that if you aren’t helping at all?”

“I’m…sorry.” I don’t really know what else to say. I can still tell that she’s a little pissed at me though, so we don’t talk as we walk back to the camp.

I extend my consciousness, searching for everyone else. It’s farther than I expect, almost a half-mile. My range doesn’t really go that far, and I can only barely feel them. I desperately hope I’m going in the right direction.

By the time we get to camp, it’s fully dark. They’ve made a campfire, a kind of small one without Mackenna’s help, and I can see it from a long way off. As I approach the fire, everyone turns toward me.

“Where have you been?” Flint asks, his eyes hard.

“I was….”

“It was so irresponsible of you to not tell any of us where you were going. You’re too important to just run off like that.”

He continues to lecture me like that for what feels like forever. I just stand there. Where did Kari tell them I was? I try to interrupt several times, but he won’t let me get a word in until he’s finished with me. Finally he finishes with, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Um, I found a dragon.”

“You what?” says Justin from his seat by the fire.

“I found a dragon,” I say again, “and she wants to help us. I flew with her and stuff.”

A hundred questions bombard me. I start to answer them, trying to separate out everyone’s voices. All of a sudden I can’t seem to take a deep breath. Sweat is dripping down my forehead, and my skin is hot and prickly like I’m being swarmed by ants. My vision swims in and out of focus. And then my legs can’t seem to support me, and the ground is rushing up toward my face….

I am gliding silently on the wind, watching a silver river snake below me. I’m flying, clearly. But this time, I am not riding the dragon, I am the dragon.

Or, not exactly. I’m still Aubrey. I can feel my small, trapped consciousness all wrapped up in the dragon’s. I’m in the dragon’s body. It doesn’t feel like Arden, it’s a dragon I don’t recognize. I wish I knew why I’m here, what I’m supposed to be seeing. But I can’t access the dragon’s thoughts.

The dragon hones in on a small spot of brightness on the land below. He swoops toward it, circling low, almost invisible in the darkness. And suddenly I understand. That is our fire. This is an unfriendly dragon. And we are about to be attacked.

 

 

CHAPTER 15

I wake up groggy and cold, with Mackenna half-supporting me. I guess I collapsed, and I’m glad she caught me. It takes me a few long seconds to gather my thoughts.

“Run!” I finally scream. No one questions me. We all scatter in the woods. Three seconds go by. Then there’s a burst of fire, so fast and white hot I can barely see it, and then our campsite is gone.

I look around. Mackenna is next to me, same as she was before the dragon attack, but I don’t see anybody else. I hope they’re okay. I hope they’re alive. Sections of the forest are already catching fire, and there’s so much smoke already heavy in the air that I don’t know how to find them.

The same black dragon that attacked us the first day flies over our campsite again and again, breathing fire the whole time. The crackle of it washes over me, and it turns the whole night into a mass of red and gold. The heat stings me even from this distance. Smoke and ash choke me, burning my eyes and nose and throat.

“Aubrey, are you alright?” one of the boys screams. I wince, because if everyone is silent the dragon will have a harder time pinpointing where we are. The dragon whips toward the sound, and I pray that whoever called out was smart enough to move. That whole section of the forest goes up in flames.

I stagger to my feet, holding myself up on a tree. I try to run, but I’m so stiff and cold, still weak from the vision. I can do nothing as the dragon methodically torches the forest. Please don’t let my friends be killed. Please don’t let my friends be killed. Let them escape.

That doesn’t seem likely. There’s nothing we can do to stop the dragon, nothing we can do to stop the whole forest from burning down.

Or at least, I think there’s nothing I can do. But then I realize that there is one thing. I can call for help. Even though Arden speaks directly into my head, I have never spoken into hers. I don’t think it can be too different from speaking directly to Mackenna, though. I’m not sure how far away Arden is, or how far it will even work from, but I have to try.

“Arden!” I scream as loud as I can inside my head. I don’t know if she hears. It’s the best I can do. My head hurts, and that definitely isn’t helping. I close my eyes.

Mackenna is shaking me. “Aubrey come on. Let’s go. We have to move.” I can see the fear in her eyes. Wait, that’s just the fire. The flames reflect in her eyes, turning them orange and flickering.

“I can’t yet,” I moan. “Perceiving is too tiring.”

I sway, relying on Mackenna to keep the fire at bay. I realize that the whole forest isn’t on fire, just a few patches. I breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe my friends are still okay. But the black dragon continues to circle, so they won’t be for long. Unless Arden hears my call for help.

There’s a scream, coming from a ways away. One of my friends burning? I hope not. But the dragon hears, so it doesn’t matter. He roars triumphantly and dives toward it.

“No!” I cry, but I can’t do anything. The dragon plunges toward the forest, gathering speed. And is knocked sideways by a massive golden blur. Arden.

Watching the two dragons battle is a frightening experience. They’re both roaring and breathing fire at each other. They twist around each other and bite and scratch and break apart and clash back together. Soon they’re both injured and bleeding. Drops of blood rain over the forest. Roars of pain, roars of triumph. I want to cover my ears, but they’re inside my head as well as out.

It’s hard to tell which dragon is winning. The black dragon is bigger and stronger, and in the darkness his color is an advantage. But Arden is faster and more balanced. It could go either way. Either one of them could die.

I hear the scream again, one of my friends. I can’t watch the dragons anymore.

“Aubrey!” Mackenna yells, “If you don’t do something the whole forest is going to come down.”

“What am I supposed to do?” I scream at her. I’m not mad, but it sort of comes across that way. “You’re the one with the fire magic. You put it out!”

“If I knew where everyone else was, I could keep the fire from reaching them. But I can’t just make it disappear. That’s impossible, since I didn’t create it.”

I push my consciousness out, searching for the rest of my group. The presence of the dragon’s consciousness overhead is overwhelming, and I’m having a hard time sensing anything else. I shuffle through the landscape like I’m flipping through the pages of a book, but I can’t really feel anything.

Tree, plants, animals, people, dragons, river….

Wait. River? Since when have I been able to sense water? That’s not alive. I blink. But no time to worry about that now, because the dragons are still fighting, and I have to do something.

Far to the left, I can sense a river cutting through the landscape. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to sense something that’s not alive. I don’t know why. I don’t care why. But maybe if I can sense it, I can move it….

Gently I start to lift the water up. I try to do it by degrees, hoping that if the strain becomes too much I’ll have time to let it go. Lifting the water is harder than bending a tree, but it’s possible. I can do it. I bring the water upward, and allow it to rain over the land and put out the fire. I feel so exhilarated I almost start laughing. I never dreamed I would discover yet another magic that I had.

As soon as I drop the water, waves of exhaustion sweep over me. But I’m not dead, I’m not even unconscious. I am strong. But I shouldn’t have water magic. I don’t have water magic. Except…apparently I do.

“How did you do…that?” Mackenna stumbles over her words, still not quite believing what her own eyes are telling her. I think she was planning on yelling at me, but she’s too shocked.

“I just…did.”

We look at each other for a long moment, until we hear a desperate roar from overhead. The black dragon is flying away. I guess now that the world’s not burning down around us, he’s not really sure what to do. Also, I don’t think he was expecting to encounter someone who could move water. Arden starts to give chase, but I think one of her wings is injured, and she has to let him go.

“Where is he going?” I ask. The question isn’t really directed at anyone, since obviously Mackenna won’t know the answer. But it still begs to be said.

“I don’t know.” Mackenna looks up at the sky. I look up too, and see that Arden is trying to land in the clearing where we were camping.

“We should go to her,” I say. “And we need to find the others.”

I take a step forward, and almost fall over. I grab a tree to steady myself, but the blackened bark burns my hands. I let go, and then I really do fall. I guess I’m still weak from the after-effects of both the vision and the water magic. I’m dizzy, too. The world isn’t spinning exactly, but it does appear to be faintly vibrating. It takes me a long time to get back to the clearing.

By the time I get to the clearing, Arden is there. So are the other members of my group, looking worse for the wear, covered in dirt, with ripped, blackened, disintegrating clothes. All six of us are scraped up and burned, exhausted from running, and eyes stinging from smoke. But at least they’re alive. They appear to have worked themselves into something of a panic, not sure where I was. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when I emerge.

Arden looks the worst. Her wing, already torn from the boulder this morning, is now badly ripped and bleeding. The membrane is so thin, fragile almost, and now it’s shredded like a garbage bag that had a run in with an ax murderer. She’s holding it awkwardly away from her body, so I’m worried the black dragon has broken one of her slender bones.

“Are you okay?” I ask, running to her. I touch her side, surprising myself with my boldness.

“Are you?” Her eyes are tender, no one but Liz has ever looked at me like that. Like I’m her child, like it’s her job to protect me. It’s funny. I wouldn’t have guessed Arden, any dragon really, would be so…mothering.

“Yes,” I say firmly. I’m exhausted, but not injured. The only things I need right now are rest and food. Of course right now I can’t get either of them, but once I do I’m sure I’ll be fine.

Justin’s eyes are wide. “Did you just do that magic?” he asks, gesturing at the sky. I nod. “That was insane.”

“It’s also a problem,” Arden says, and everyone starts as if they hadn’t realized she could talk. I guess our last conversation had been private, spoken only into my head. “That is the same dragon that attacked me yesterday. I think he works with the three sisters you were speaking of.” She looks at me, as if searching for confirmation that she should keep speaking. I nod at her. “You gave yourself away as the Princess of the Wilderness, both when you called me, and when you put out the fire. He’s going to tell them who you are now.”

“Okay, wait, what?” Mackenna interrupts. “The three sisters have dragons working with them? No way. That’s so messed up. And if they have dragons, how are we going to get to that shrine thing with Aubrey’s mother in it? Won’t they just attack us? And why does it matter if the black dragon reports back to them? They already knew who Aubrey was, didn’t they? Well, I guess they didn’t know she could do water magic. I didn’t know she could do water magic either….”

The only one of the three sisters who really knew any details about me was Tempeste, and she died with that knowledge. She alone knew what I looked like, what my magic was. If the dragon really is working with the two remaining sisters, he’ll tell them everything he found out about me. And they’ll know exactly where I am. They could be after me tonight.

Flint grasps the magnitude of the situation immediately. I can almost see his mind working, flitting to the same place mine is. “We need to go,” he says harshly. “Now.”

“How?” Kari is the one who asks what everybody’s thinking. Our van is gone, swallowed by the river. We have no way out.

“There’s an airport, not far past the edges of the dragons’ realm. Maybe thirty miles from here. If we can make it there, we should be able to make it back to the School.”

“Thirty miles?” I ask. We’re all in shape, and we’ve done lots of walking over the past week and a half. But that is pushing it. It’ll take…probably at least fifteen hours, maybe more. And that’s without sleeping. At this point, I honestly don’t know if I can do it. But it’s either that or die, so I guess I have no choice.

“How are we going to get tickets on an airplane even if we can make it to the airport?” Mackenna asks.

“I’m sure there will be an open seat on a flight to somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you get a direct flight back to the School, as long as you’re not here, where the three sisters expect you to be. And anyways, we can always pay someone off.”

“Wait,” I say suddenly. “What about Arden?”

“Right,” says Flint, spinning around to face her. “Do you know where New Hampshire is?”

“No.” Her voice is calm, flat almost. I have no idea what she’s thinking.

Flint grabs a stick, and draws a quick map in the dirt. “We’re here now. Fly in this direction. Stop when you can sense Aubrey, it should be around here. In between the mountains and the ocean. Got that?”

“Yes.”

“Wait,” Mackenna says suddenly. “Arden, you should take Aubrey. It’s most important that she stays safe. The rest of us can walk to the airport.”

“No way. I’m not leaving…you guys.” I was about to say Mackenna. It’s really her I refuse to leave. I have to hold onto her. There’s no chance of me abandoning her, leaving her to face whatever happens while they try to get back to the airport. I am staying with her, no matter what. After everything she’s done for me, I owe her that.

“Aubrey.” Mackenna sounds exasperated. “You have to go with Arden. You have to stay safe. That’s the most important thing.”

“No. It’s not going to happen. I’m not going to leave. Stop asking.” She must hear the hardness in my voice because she looks down. She doesn’t ask again.

“I will fly near you,” Arden says. “If I stay nearby, I can protect you. Perhaps you will not be attacked.”

“Thank you,” Flint says to her. Then he looks around at us. “We need to go. Now.”

 

 

CHAPTER 16

So we do. It’s dark, and that makes it almost automatically harder to walk. We should be asleep. But we can’t be. We have to keep moving, as fast as we can. At least the ground is flat, at least we know where we’re going. But that’s not really enough. People can’t function on sheer will power alone. They need rest and food and water.

Except in life or death situations. Then sometimes sheer will power is enough.

We walk. I stumble a little. Mackenna walks next to me, and if either of us falls, the other one reaches out and steadies them. We don’t talk. I keep on going.

The night was cold to begin with, but before long it is freezing. I’m at that strange place where my core is burning and my skin is ice. I touch my arm, just because it’s so numb I’m not sure if it’s still attached. The night is dark, and I crave sunlight. That would warm my skin. That would be enough.

Arden flies overhead every once in a while. She doesn’t really camouflage. Even in the darkness, she glows like a new penny, copper and gold. I’m not close enough that I can hear her thoughts, or maybe she’s just not projecting them to me. But still, I feel safer when I can see her, when I know she’s around.

Finally after at least five hours or so, the sun starts to rise on the horizon. By this point my legs hurt so badly every step makes me feel like crying. My sneakers, which were new two weeks ago, are falling apart. Blisters form and break where they press into my heels, and blood stains them. It’s light now, but that doesn’t help. My eyes keep slipping closed, and each time it requires more and more effort to snap them open.

Everyone else is absolutely exhausted, same as me. We don’t talk. We don’t think, not if we can avoid it. I’m falling, but I’m not. I’m still walking.

It’s stupid that we have to do this. We shouldn’t have let the van go, but even that’s not exactly the problem. Walking to the nearest airport wouldn’t be nearly so bad, except that we have to do it without stopping. If that stupid dragon hadn’t found our campsite, we could have left today, walked the thirty miles over the course of a few days at least. But the three sisters are still possibly about to attack us, and so we have to get back to the School. We have to keep moving.

An hour passes. “Do you want to play a game?” Mackenna asks me.

“Sure,” I say wearily. “What sort of game?”

“Um…eye spy with my little eye something green.”

I look around. Everything is green. We keep walking, and I oblige her by guessing. It’s something to do, and it sort of helps to distract me.

“Is it a bush?”

“No.”

“Leaf?”

“Nope.”

“Moss?”

“No. It’s something specific.”

I point. “That tree?”

“No.”

I keep guessing for a couple minutes. Finally I give up.

“Well, it was a tree. But we passed it like ten minutes ago. Do you want to play again?”

She smiles. It takes a special sort of person to be so perfectly optimistic. You can see she honestly isn’t even upset, she’s just trying to keep me entertained, keep both of our spirits up. It kind of works, but I tell her I don’t want to play again. I’m too tired.

I didn’t think it was possible to sleep and walk at the same time, but it turns out it at least sort of is. My eyes are closed, my feet are moving of their own accord. I’m not looking where I’m going, obviously, and I keep tripping over things. Sunlight shines through my eyelids, but I don’t care. I’m not really aware of it.

At some point someone asks me if I want to rest for a little while and eat. I don’t. I think I might grunt out an answer, or I might just keep walking. Either way, I am the pace setter. We keep walking.

And finally, after hours and hours, after so long that I’m not tired anymore, I’m just numb and bleeding and falling apart, we’re finished. We’ve made it.

The first thing I notice is the traffic. It’s not right next to us. It’s distant traffic, rumbling right on the edges of my consciousness. But it is impossibly comforting after the long march, after the everlasting silence of the dragons’ realm.

The second thing I notice is that, for the first time in almost two weeks, I can take a deep breath. It tastes like car exhaust and people and heat, but that doesn’t matter. The air in the dragons’ realm tastes funny, and I’m just happy not to be breathing that anymore.

Finally, finally, I open my eyes. Even the light looks different here, back in my own world. We’re on a field, and I can see the line of the highway in the distance. Even more distant, there is a tall building. Even from here, it is recognizable as an airport.

I want to jump up and down or something, but I’m too tired. I just smile weakly.

I realize suddenly that Arden is gone. “Where is Arden?” I ask, to no one in particular. Flint drags us backward a few steps. It only takes that much before I feel the change. The land around me completely changes. Arden reappears.

“Are you coming with us?” I ask her.

She shakes her head. “No. Once I leave this place, I will not be hidden anymore. I have to travel at night, or anyone will be able to see me. I can’t come with you.”

I used to be terrified of dragons, but now I’m not. Maybe other dragons, but not Arden. I don’t want to have to leave her already. We just found her. And she makes me feel safe. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt safe. “How long will it take for you to find me?” I ask her, a little desperately.

“At least three weeks. I cannot follow you until my wing heals. And after that I have to avoid big cities, and I can only fly at night.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“Go now,” she whispers fiercely. “Quickly. Protect yourself. May the wind be at your back and the stars bright enough to guide your way.”

“Yeah. You too.” I run up and hug her leg. Then I turn and leave the dragons’ realm, with everyone else following behind me. I remember leaving Min and Liz behind too, and the memory sends a stab of pain through my chest. I think for me, separation is the hardest thing to bear.

The sight of the airport, so close I swear I can smell the fuel, puts new energy into all of us. We run, almost, and then in only ten minutes or so we’re there. I have no idea what people think of us. We left most of our stuff behind, so now all we’re still carrying is the absolute essentials. We’re all dirty and gross, wearing the same clothes we just spent the last half-day walking in. We’re covered in cuts, scrapes, bruises, and shallow burns. And none of us looks related, aside from Justin and Flint, obviously. It’s lucky we’re in an airport, because any other place I’m sure we would attract even more attention than we already are.

We go in through the airport, and I sit on a bench. Sitting down feels so good that I actually start crying. And then I start crying in pain, because my legs have spent the last few hours being numb, and now they’re not anymore. I just sit there, in between Kari and Mackenna, with silent tears running down my cheeks.

It is a few long minutes before even Flint can stand up again. Finally he gets up and talks to the lady at the information desk. I overhear snippets of their conversation.

“Do you have any flights leaving in the next few hours with six seats going to New Hampshire?”

“No,” she says flatly, not looking up from her computer.

“Boston? New York? Even Philadelphia?”

“We have six spots on a plane leaving for Boston in three hours.”

I think he agrees, and I guess there’s some sort of transaction of money, because when he comes back he’s holding six tickets. By that point I’m pretty out of it. My head is on Mackenna’s shoulder, and her head is on top of mine. Then everything is kind of sideways, and I’m too tired to get it to flip the right way again. I feel my eyes closing, and I pull them open again. It’s hard, like doing pushups or something. And then I’m asleep.

 

 

CHAPTER 17

Someone, I’m not even sure who, shakes me a little at some point and I stumble through security and onto the plane. My only coherent thought during this time is that it’s a good thing Min’s not here. He’s terrified of planes. Then I‘m asleep again.

It takes about four hours for our flight to land in Boston. I sleep a little longer, and then watch the movie. By the time we arrive it’s evening, twenty-four hours since the black dragon identified me. We haven’t been attacked yet, so I guess that’s something. I never really had time to feel fear, but I realize if the black dragon had moved a little faster, or if we hadn’t walked so determinedly through the night to get to the airport, I could be dead now.

After the plane ride, we rent a car. There is a drive of maybe two hours and we’re back at the School. I’m actually not that tired after sleeping on the plane and in the airport. My legs are still the sorest I think they’ve ever been in my life, but I’ve endured some pretty bad pain, and they’re nowhere near that. Liz meets me at the door of the School, wrapping me in a hug. I lean into her. I need her comfort.

But then Flint has to talk to her, and everyone else is stumbling off to any room they can find where they can crash for the night. Mackenna is up the stairs to the room we share before I can say another word to her. I’m really not sure what to do with myself. I don’t really feel like I’m needed with Liz and the others, although I desperately want to be surrounded by familiar faces, faces I’ve been missing for almost three weeks. I’m also not ready to go up to bed with Mackenna either.

And then it’s like I’m physically being pulled up the stairs toward the boys’ rooms. I know what I want to do. I want to see Min. I need to see Min. It’s not even for any stupid, lovestruck reason, it’s simply because I have two best friends, and I have not seen one of them since I left. I miss him, and that is the whole truth.

Halfway up the stairs I collide with a dark shape. I spring back, startled. I look up, and there he is.

I gasp with relief, and decide to be honest with myself. I miss him, but not just because he’s one of my closest friends. It’s more than that. He looks very happy to see me, but I’m sure I look completely ecstatic, and those two things are not quite the same.

It is a strange thing, that I belong to him so deeply and he doesn’t belong to me at all. I care about him in a completely different way than he cares about me. It’s an odd, painful thing. Something it almost doesn’t seem like I could handle. But somehow, I do. And the funny thing is, he’s the one that helps me survive it. He’s the only thing that can ease the pain that he gave me in the first place.

“I, um, heard you were back,” he says awkwardly.

“Yeah.”

“Was it a good trip? Did you find a dragon?”

“Yeah, I found a dragon named Arden. But we were attacked. And….” The full impact of my words hits me as I say them, and I have to lean against the wall. “Min, I used water magic. As much as Paige can. And the black dragon, the one who attacked us, it saw me use the water, and I think it saw me perceive too. It knows who I am. It know’s I’m the Daughter of the Wilderness. And it was working with Zephyra and Mercuriel. It’s going to report back to them, and then they’ll know too.” My voice is rising in panic, borderline hysterical.

I pause, hesitating again. I’m not sure if I should go tell Liz that right now. I think I need to.The water magic thing is super important, and it needs to be dealt with immediately.

I turn to go back down the stairs. My legs are literally shaking, and I’m honestly not sure I’m going to make it. But I have to. I have to talk to Liz.

Min puts a steadying hand on my shoulder. I would barely notice with someone else, but with him I can feel each point of contact, prickling slightly. I wonder what it would feel like to have more of us touching….

I shake my head to clear it. Why can’t I seem to concentrate on anything now? Well, except Min obviously, but that doesn’t really count as concentrating. I need to…get it together somehow. I need to…I don’t know what I need to do. Tell Liz about the water magic, I guess. And sleep.

“Wait, Aubrey, let’s think about this. I don’t think it’s as bad as you think it is.”

“But now Zephyra and Mercuriel know who I am.”

“I think they probably knew before.”

“But how could they? Tempeste was the only one who knew anything about me, and she’s dead now.” My voice sounds plaintive, even to my own ears. I realize I’m not tired so much as overwhelmed. I don’t have the strength to deal with this right now.

“But that’s just it. I think that because you killed Tempeste, they have access to some of her memories. They had magic linking them, remember? So they’ve probably already figured out who you are.”

“But that’s worse than I thought it was! They’re probably already planning an attack on the School.”

“No, I don’t think so. Do you want to know how I know?”

“How?” I ask, turning my eyes toward him.

“Because they’re afraid. You killed Tempeste. They have no idea how strong you are, just that you were able to do something no one else has been able to do. And now you have another almost untapped power. And they won’t dare attack the School again anyway, because they know if they do, then every magic person in the country will fight by your side. You’re too protected, too powerful, and too unknown. They wouldn’t straight-out attack you.”

He says this with absolute conviction. And I believe him, at least mostly. But they will keep building an army. And at some point their strength will override their fear of me. And that will be the end. Because my protection is in the fact that they think I’m powerful, not the actual amount of power I have. It’s less than they’re expecting. It’s not enough.

“You should go to sleep. I’ll tell Liz everything you told me when she’s done talking with the others.”

“Thank you.” I move to walk past him on the stairs, but stumble.

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Yes.” I climb the rest of the stairs using the hand rail for support. When I get to my room, Mackenna is still awake.

“Talking with Min, I see.” She smiles at me.

“How could you tell?”

She taps her cheek knowingly. “Blushing. And your hair is frizzed up. You always run your fingers through it when you see him.”

“I do?” I smooth it down self-consciously. I am suddenly embarrassed. In the light of all the other stuff that was going on last year, I realize I never actually told Mackenna that I like him.

“I know how you feel about him, you know. But don’t worry,” she murmurs, rolling over. I can tell she’s about to fall asleep. “I won’t tell anyone. Your secret’s safe with me.”

“Wait. Who do you like?” I’m not really expecting an answer, but it’s always worth a try. It’s only fair that since she knows who I like, I should know for her.

“Oh, you know.” She sighs. “Ryan.”

And then she falls asleep.

“Ryan,” I say out loud to myself. Of course I already knew that, or at least I had guessed. But I’d never actually heard her say it before, just like she’d never actually talked about how much I like Min. How come we’ve never talked about who we like with each other before? She’s saved my life, I’ve saved hers. We’ve seen each other at our absolute worse. I saw her right after she found out she had magic, she saw me right after I killed my first person. We have been sleeping in the same room for over six months, but still, somehow we’ve never talked about it.

How screwed up is that?

I can’t think about it anymore. I fall asleep.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 18

For the next week after finding the dragon, I have time to relax. Or at least it seems like relaxing after spending three weeks in the wilderness. Really, Liz has me exploring my new water power the whole time.

Honestly, when Liz calls me down to try it the day after I get back, I expect it to be gone. I expect the whole thing to be some random twist of luck, an unrepeatable miracle. But when Liz asks me to make a small ball of water hover in the air, I do it, and it requires only a little more energy than moving a ball of light energy that size.

“Amazing,” Liz breathes.

She gives me bigger and bigger amounts of water to control. Before long, I’m whipping huge amounts of it all around the room, making silver streamers fly through the air, curling rivers in the sky. There’s something deeply satisfying about it. It feels as intrinsic to me as plants, but it’s new, so it seems slightly more refreshing.

But something about it bothers me too. Or maybe not bothers me, exactly, but…I just can’t stop wondering how I got this. What triggered this sudden new power? Was it my mother? Or something else?

Normally your first magic is your only magic, the same magic you will have for your entire life. That is always the rule, with the possible exceptions of shifters and perceivers and other powers that come mostly with practice.

Exceptions to the rule don’t just happen. You don’t just get a new magic. It’s not possible. Even for the Daughter of the Wilderness.

Which leaves two options, at least that Liz and I can think of. One is that I’ve had water magic my whole life, it’s just been dormant or something. Water does seem like the kind of power a Daughter of the Wilderness would have. Except that doesn’t happen either. If I’d had water magic the whole time, there would have been some signs of it. It would have shown up on my test. And once I’d learned how to use magic, I would have been able to feel it, and trigger it in myself.

Which leaves one other possibility. Liz isn’t sure if this one could happen either, as it’s never been documented before. But it seems more likely, which is unfortunate. Thinking about it makes my skin crawl, like a thousand tiny spiders’ legs are pressing up against me.

The second possibility is that I got my water power from Tempeste’s energy. We know that some of her energy was transferred to me, that was what damaged my arm so badly. It almost killed me. It turned my eyes from green to blue. Tempeste’s energy could have also given me my new power. It’s possible, we think.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, I guess. But if her energy has already worked these changes in me, what else could it be doing? What other ways could it be changing me?

I am so frightened that Tempeste’s energy has done something to me, made me so I’m not fully Aubrey anymore. I’m like a prisoner trapped inside my own body, not sure what to trust, not sure what is still mine. I want to scrub myself raw, get her out of me somehow. But there are some things that no amount of washing can save you from, some actions that stay with you forever.

I already told Liz about the strange visions I had while dying in the dream world, but we need to revisit them. We never really had time to talk about them, not enough. I was sick for weeks after, and then I was trying to catch up at school, trying to keep from falling apart, and then we found the journal, and then there was that thing with the dragons…. It’s been over two months since the battle, but I’ve still only really talked to Liz about it in passing. So she has me go over every detail I remember, sitting on the training room floor.

I shut my eyes as tightly as I can, trying to remember everything. There was a woman, shocked and laughing, like a twin of Tempeste’s but with brown eyes. Probably Zephyra. A mass of pulsing darkness, probably Mercuriel, whose form isn’t quite so physical as the other two. Watching my real self fade from above, receiving energy from Mackenna and Min. Saving the girl from dying on the mountain-side. My mother giving me enough energy to pull myself over the edge of the cliff.

“That’s everything,” I finally say.

“The three sisters could transfer energy to each other, the same way, you, Min, and Mackenna can.”

I nod. I don’t see where she’s going with this. Why is it important?

“That’s an extremely rare ability, you know.”

“It is?” I had never really asked about it, and no one had ever told me. Honestly, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about it either, just assumed it was some sort of lucky accident that ended up saving my life.

Liz shrugs. “No more rare than your other abilities, I guess. But among everyone else, yes, it’s very rare.”

“Why can I do it then? I mean, what does it have to do with anything? Is it like, another princess thing?”

She shakes her head. “It doesn’t have anything to do with being a Princess of the Wilderness, as far as I know. It has more to do with your connection to the person. Friends, siblings, parents and children, and married couples are all more likely to be able to transfer energy to each other. Min and Tala could do it. And so could…my husband and I.”

“Oh, wait, what? Really?” The thing about Min and Tala doesn’t surprise me so much as Liz and her husband. She rarely talks about him, I’ve only heard him come up in conversation a handful of times. Honestly, I assumed they had been kind of divorced or something when he had died. But now all of a sudden I’m not so sure. There’s something in her voice that makes me think otherwise, that maybe it was that she loved him so much it’s painful to talk about now, not that they didn’t end on very good terms.

Liz doesn’t say anything else about it though, and I know if I were to ask her, she still wouldn’t. But I think I understand better now. Some things are too painful to ever revisit.

She continues on as if she didn’t just mention her husband. “I think that probably the three sisters could transfer energy to each other, too. When Tempeste died, I’m guessing her energy was transferred to Zephyra and Mercuriel automatically. You were just caught in the middle.”

“What does that mean?” I don’t care about the technical aspects of it or anything, I just want to know what it means for [_me. _]Liz seems to understand.

“Two things.” She pauses, collecting her thoughts. “One is that you definitely have Tempeste’s energy inside of you. It is giving you water power, but it could be doing other things too. I honestly don’t know.

“The other thing is that it means Zephyra and Mercuriel are more powerful. They have extra energy from Tempeste, and it might mean they have Tempeste’s magic too.”

I think about that. It kind of sucks. We finally brought Tempeste down, but her influence is still living on. We thought we had done something great by killing Tempeste, but really we’re barely ahead of where we started. Zephyra and Mercuriel are each more powerful than before, and there could be something wrong with me too.

“It’s even worse than you think,” Liz says, reading my face. “If I’m right, if we do manage to kill one of the other sisters, all the power will be transferred to the remaining one.”

Fear closes my throat. I imagine trying to fight someone three times as powerful as Tempeste. I don’t think I could. Actually, I know I couldn’t. Tempeste almost killed me. How can we survive this? There’s no way to win.

 

 

CHAPTER 19

It’s August. One month left, it’s that time of summer when normally I would be pushing to spend as much time outside as possible, and trying to sleep in every day, as if I could store up sleep for the long year ahead. It’s hot and humid, like Costa Rica, so my clothes stick to my skin and the air seems to stick to my clothes. It’s just starting to get cold enough at nights that I need to close the window, wear a sweatshirt.

I remember this time last year. It was possibly, all things considered, one of the best months of my life. Liz adopted me over the summer, so it was the first time in my entire life that I would start the school year with any degree of permanency. I had just met Mackenna at the pool, and we were starting to test out our friendship, seeing if it was really backed up by common interests. It was before I found out about magic or the war or any of that stuff, and it was the first and only time I really felt normal.

This time last year, this time every year, has been spent slowly preparing for the return to school. Buying all my school supplies, paper, pencils, notebooks, new clothes. That odd mixture of worry and excitement that only comes from starting a new unknown. But this year is not like that at all.

For one, I’ve been steadily going to the magic school all summer. I’ve never had a break long enough to grow accustomed to sleeping in or relaxing, or anything like that. And for another thing, I’m still not sure if I’m going to return to public school at all in the fall.

I managed it last year. I discovered I had magic, learned how to use it, and fought in a war, all while maintaining a B average. But honestly, I spent most of last year living moment to moment, studying on the bus for tests I had that day, begging teachers for extensions on yet another project. I don’t think I took in enough information to pass my classes again this year. And I’m not sure I could handle another year like that.

And anyway, I spent most of last year not knowing that I was the Daughter of the Wilderness. I spent most of it not realizing that the whole fate of the magic world was on me. If I had known about that giant responsibility, I don’t think I could have done it.

But now it’s the second week of August, and I don’t have much more time to decide. I’m trying to push it out of my mind, but I can’t do that forever. Eventually I’ll have to make a decision between the magic world I was born into, and my dream of being normal.

 

It’s Friday now, and Min has a cold. He actually stayed in his room instead of going to classes, something I never imagined he would do. Liz, who is practically his mom, won’t let him stay alone in the School overnight. So as soon as she finds out, she’s bringing him home to our house, offering him her spare bedroom.

Min does act a little sick the whole car ride home. I actually find it slightly funny. Not that he’s sick, but that out of all the things that could happen to him, he ends up with a plain old cold.

Liz doesn’t get to mother to sick children as often as she would like, and in my opinion she goes a little overboard. She makes him drink water and tea, gives him some pills and has him sit on the sofa. I’m laughing at him. He’s protesting, but he looks a little pleased with himself, and I can tell he actually likes being babied, as long as it’s only for a little while.

One of the pills Liz gives him knocks him out, and he falls asleep right where he was sitting. He looks younger while he’s asleep, when the weight of the years fall away and he is in the in-between place, resting and peaceful. His cheeks are colored by the tiniest flush of fever, but already it’s fading.

I watch him sleep for a little while. It feels private somehow, seeing him in a way different from how he usually is, with his guard down. It’s like seeing a teacher at the grocery store, or a celebrity without any makeup on. It’s like a secret we both share together.

After a while I go up to bed, since Paige is at the School, and Lily’s already asleep anyways. I can only watch Min for so long, it gets a little lonely when the only other person in the room is passed out on the couch. As I lie in bed, I’m happy. The whole time I sleep, I’m conscious of Min, sleeping too, only a floor below me. It makes me smile, and I hold onto him in my dreams.

The next day is Saturday. When I wake up, Liz is asleep, but Min is awake. And hungry, as usual. Liz did seem to mostly heal him, but I still don’t really want him handling the food. Of the two of us, he’s the better cook, but just to be on the safe side I decide to make breakfast for everyone. It consists of yogurt and toast.

Lily comes down after like twenty minutes, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. Liz comes down around then too, still in pajamas, yawning and blinking in the August sunlight. Min keeps staring at her, like he can’t believe she’s real. I guess he’s experiencing the same thing I did last night, seeing someone so out of their usual context that it feels like trespassing. He basically can’t stop looking at her until she finally leaves to get ready to go to the School.

Lily finishes eating, and informs us that she wants to go flying. I’m hesitant to let her. Liz is pretty strict that she can only practice at the School, but I know Lily’s careful. And what’s the worst that could happen? Someone could think she’s a bird. Big deal. I tell her she can go, as long as she’s back in an hour and stays within a mile of the house.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” Min asks as we’re clearing the dishes.

“Yeah. Anything,” I say without thinking. As soon as I say it, I realize it’s not strictly true.

“If you thought you might like someone, would you tell them?”

My heart starts to pound, even though my mind is telling it to stop. I really don’t want to be having this conversation now. Except I actually kind of do. I’m fighting the urge to tell him everything, I’m fighting the urge to run.

“You mean like, me, personally?”

“Yeah. If you liked someone, would you tell them?”

I weigh my answers, and settle on the truth. “No,” I finally say. “I guess it depends on the situation, but generally, no. I wouldn’t.” In my opinion, that’s kind of a stupid question. Obviously, if you thought someone liked you, you would want to tell them, and if you thought they didn’t, than you wouldn’t want to tell them. It’s a matter of getting what you want, not of being completely honest with yourself or anyone else.

“If someone liked you, would you want them to tell you?”

“I don’t know.” That’s an honest answer too. I wish I could say I always want the truth, but I don’t. Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it hurts worse than the lies do.

“If I liked someone, do you think I should tell them?” My heart drops a little bit, and I swallow. Min and I have always given each other advice, he has asked for and received it so many times before. But not like this. Never like this.

“I don’t know, I…I guess it depends on the situation.” My voice cracks. This cannot be happening. I don’t want to be talking about Min’s love life. I just wish he would go away. Or kiss me. Or something. Something needs to happen, right now, or I’m going to start crying.

He takes a deep breath. “Well, there’s this girl….”

I cut him off. I don’t want to hear about Min’s girl, now or ever. I don’t want to know who it is. I just know I can’t talk about Min’s love life any longer. And I need to remove myself from the situation.

“Sorry, um, can we finish this later? I need to go…um…tell Lily something. Right now.” My voice breaks, and I swallow whatever else I was going to say.

“Wait!” he says, but I ignore him. I’m out the door in a second, not even bothering to change out of my flip-flops.

I’m sniffling, biting my tongue to keep from crying, which only sort of works. I don’t want to hear about whatever girls Min likes. I want him to like me the same way I like him. Not some other girl.

That makes me feel a little bad. I’m jealous, and I know I’m being selfish. I’ve heard that real love is supposed to be selfless, that I should want Min to be happy more than I want him for myself. But whatever I’m feeling must not be love, then, because I am in no way selfless about this. All I know for sure is that any girl who has won Min’s affection has also earned my hatred.

I realize I have tears silently streaming down my cheeks. I start running blindly, trying to lose myself. Trying to get to the place where all I am is motion. A place where I can forget, where I can just be me and not have to worry about Min and everything else. I run and let the pounding of my feet on the pavement match my heart, and my legs burn and my lungs hurt, and I don’t care. I feel sore inside, like someone ripped out my insides and stuffed them back in all wrong. Running doesn’t help.

All of a sudden the back of my neck prickles, sharp enough that I freeze. I have the painful, tense feeling that something is watching me. I whip around, but no one’s there. A trickle of fear runs down my spine. Min is pushed from my mind, as much as he can be. Adrenaline makes my hands shake. Anyone else would just be able to disregard a feeling like this, but not me. I don’t have that luxury.

I slow to a fast walk, which attracts less attention than running. A black van with darkly tinted windows eases around the corner. They drive extremely slowly, staying about a hundred yards behind me.

Okay, so I’m being followed. There’s no way that could be anything else. But why are they being so obvious? Are they somehow not expecting me to notice? Do they [_want _]me to notice, and react in some specific way?

And more importantly, why? Why are they here for me in the first place? There’s always the chance that they’re just normal people, trying to kidnap me or something, and in that case they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. But I highly doubt that.

I didn’t think the sisters knew where I lived though, specifically. But then again, I don’t know where they’re getting their information. I’m sure they’re after me. They’re a bit too lucky for it to be a coincidence.

I step off the road and try to blend in with the shadowy forest. I have no way to know how well it’s working. I pull the trees closer around me, leaving just a little space that I can peek through. I wince at every rustle they make. My heart is pounding high and hard in my throat.

This is not the right time. I can’t do this right now. Not when I already feel like the shaky foundation I built my world on is falling apart under me, not when I already feel like I’m about to burst into tears.

The van stops where I disappeared into the forest. They seem too close to me, so I move farther back. My feet are silent, even on the leaves, and I’m grateful for the jaguar spirit that is keeping me safe. Three men get out of the van, and I recognize from their black uniforms that they are soldiers.

I have a sudden sharp wish that I was in a city or something. There are houses around, but all set far back from the road. Nobody around to hear me. But it’s not like they could help me anyway, I guess. Whereever I am, I would be on my own for this one.

One of the soldiers calls out to me. “Come out, Aubrey. We know you’re in there.”

My breath freezes in my chest. I guessed that they knew who I was, but it’s scary having it confirmed like that. They are here for me. They know who I am. I back away a little more. I’m sure they’ll be able to hear my heartbeat. I’m sure it will give me away.

A twig snaps under me. It sounds like a gunshot in the silence. All three of them turn toward me, and I’m almost shaking with panic. They know where I am. They’re coming.

But the man talking to me isn’t quite looking at me. They can’t see me, not yet. I move silently to the left. There’s a tree there. A tree I think I can climb.

I feel the rough bark under my hands and start to haul myself up. I climb so high that the branches are slender. I’m afraid they won’t hold my weight. They sway and bounce when I touch them. Finally I decide I’m high enough, and I stop, clutching the branch so hard my knuckles turn white. I crouch down, laying almost flat against the branch. I’m high, but not high enough that there are no leaves. I think I should still be hidden, as long as I don’t move.

The men below me exchange a glance. They seem to know they won’t be able to find me. I’m hiding too well. One of the men makes some sort of signal with his hand. Two more men get out of the van, carrying a third person between them, one I recognize immediately. Lily.

 

 

CHAPTER 20

She is struggling madly, but her hands, feet, and wings are bound. The two men shove her against the side of the van and hold a knife to her throat.

“If you don’t come down right now, this girl will die.” The man presses the knife to her throat, and a few drops of blood appear.

My mind is racing a mile a minute. Something about what he just said catches my attention. He didn’t say Lily would die, he just called her girl. Does that mean he doesn’t know who she is? Does that mean he doesn’t know we’re sisters? Did they just pick the first magic girl they could find, trusting that I would save her? Maybe that will help us, although I don’t know how.

Then I realize it won’t help us. If they knew they had Liz’s daughter, they would keep her alive as hostage, as a bargaining tool. But they think they have some random magic child. They will almost certainly kill her either way. I can’t just turn myself in, I have to save her.

I crawl out on the branch so I’m almost directly above the van. The branch shifts alarmingly under me, and my heart leaps into my throat. I swallow hard and keep going. No one looks up. I’m in plain sight now. I wait a few seconds, then jump off the branch and simultaneously crack it with magic.

As I hoped, one of the kidnappers is crushed by the falling branch. I fall hard a heartbeat later. I crash hard to my knees, scraping them. Then I’m on my feet and running toward Lily, looking for a weapon, throwing myself into action.

I throw a ball of light at someone and they are thrown away from me. I lunge forward to the man with the knife. I grapple with him for it. He scratches at me, and pain races through four matching lines down my arm. I scratch him back, and with my jaguar claws I scratch better.

I wrench the knife backward out of his hands and start cutting Lily’s bonds. She doesn’t help me. She just lies against the side of the van, her wings crumpled underneath her. She’s very pale, and her neck is bleeding worse.

I hear someone coming up behind me. I whirl around and punch him in the jaw. He goes down with a grunt. I focus on trying to free Lily’s wings. She sort of wakes up and uses her free arm to untie her legs.

The knife is taking too long, so I break the ropes with magic. Then I grab her and toss her into the air. For a second I’m afraid she won’t have the strength to fly, that she’ll crash back down to the earth. But then her wings snap open, and she’s soaring upward. But instead of flying away, she hovers near the battle.

“Go, go!” I scream, but I don’t have time to see if she does.

There are five soldiers that are still uninjured. They circle around me. Against five I have a chance, although it’s a slim one. But before I can make a move, one of them throws something at me.

At first I think it’s a knife. I brace myself for pain. But then I look down at my arm and see it’s some sort of a dart.

It’s clear, and there’s liquid inside of it. I can already feel it flowing through my veins. I rip it out, but it’s too late. I’m already getting dizzy.

I stumble forward. A soldier steps out as if to catch me, but I blast him with magic, and he reels backward. I manage to kick him in the ribs too.

Another one races toward me. He has a stick that he’s using like a club. I block his overhead strike. Pain explodes over my arm where he hit it. I don’t think I can block another blow like that.

But I don’t have to. Something whistles down from the sky and hits him in the back of the skull. It’s a rock. From Lily. Them not knowing we’re sisters does have an advantage. They certainly weren’t expecting her to stay and protect me.

I can feel the liquid pumping all through my body. Every muscle it touches becomes weak. After only thirty seconds, I can barely stay on my feet. I keep fighting, but my aim is off, and I have no strength left. When someone manages to hit me with another tranquilizer, I know it’s the end. I’ve lost. I stand there, swaying for a few seconds before I topple over. I’m unconscious before I hit the ground.

 

I wake up without opening my eyes. The sleepy warmth is gone from my veins, leaving me sore and stiff, but at least a little more alert. I’m also cold to the point of shivering, even though I know it’s summer.

I’m lying sideways, one cheek pressed against a rough stone floor. The air smells like mold and tastes damp. I rub my palm along the floor, and it’s scratchy and freezing and hard.

I slowly blink. Even my eyelids hurt to move. I don’t want to turn my head yet. I try to take in as much as I can without needing to turn my neck. I’m in what appears to be a small stone cell. Set high in the wall above me, there is a barred window. The moonlight shines down onto me, and the bars make a pattern of stripes on my skin. In the corner under the window, there is a thin, narrow mattress. I roll over without getting up, and see in the opposite wall there is a heavy steel door. I slowly sit up to look at the other two walls.

The entire room is bigger than I would expect from a prison cell, just a bit smaller than my half of the bedroom at the School. The walls, the ceiling, the floors are all damp grey stone. There’s a steady stream of water dripping down one wall, constant and echoing in the small room. The water puddles in a small depression in the floor. I wonder if that’s what I’m supposed to drink.

The back of my throat is already tight with thirst. It won’t be long before I’m thirsty enough to get down on my hands and knees and drink from the puddle like a dog.

My head is throbbing and I’m a little dizzy. It must be the after-effects of whatever they drugged me with. I wonder how long I’ve been out. It’s night now, so it must have been at least a couple hours. Beyond that though, I really have no way of knowing. It could have been days. My brain still doesn’t seem to be working quite right. I can’t exactly remember the events that led to me being here. I was upset, and there were soldiers, and something about Lily…. I hope the confusion isn’t permanent.

I try to stand up, but it doesn’t really work out. The world tilts and dumps me back on the floor. I’m painfully nauseous. I just lie on the floor and wait for the pounding in my head and the rolling in my stomach to subside a little bit. Whatever was in that dart must have been pretty strong, to leave me unable to stand after at least ten hours of sleeping it off.

I stay on the floor for a little while, trying to piece together everything that’s happened. There was a drug in that little dart they shot at me that knocked me out for a while. Then they must have transported me here. Here. I assume it’s the prison of Zephyra and Mercuriel, where they keep prisoners of war or whatever. Honestly, I’m glad I’m here, in a way. I would have expected them to kill me right off the bat, and being in prison is better than being dead.

When I finally feel strong enough, I slowly sit up again. I look at the other wall, and to my surprise there’s a little barred window or something set into it. My vision’s still a little blurry, so I move closer to get a better look. There’s something moving on the other side, but I can’t make out what it is. I come even closer, and gasp.

There’s a low barred window looking into the cell next to mine, and framed in the window is…oh, wait, that’s not Min. As I look closer, I see that the person in the other cell is a girl, and she doesn’t even look much like him, although they have the same coloring. Her small features are much more delicate, and where Min’s eyes are caramel, her’s are so dark they look almost black.

The thought of Min sends anger mixed with fear mixed with desire through me. I hope he’s okay. I hope once they caught me, they didn’t keep looking, that they left everyone else on that street, at the School, alone. But then I remember how angry I am at him, that he likes someone and it’s not me, and he wants my opinion on whether or not to tell her. I don’t even begin to know how to feel about that. Just thinking about it makes my chest tighten like a giant hand is squeezing me, and my eyes prickle.

“Hi. What’s your name?” The girl in the cell next to mine smiles at me, bringing me back to present. I blink. I’m suddenly worried that I’m hallucinating this friendly prison girl.

“Um, I’m Aubrey.”

I manage to move a little closer, so I can see the girl better. She looks like she’s about my age, fifteen or sixteen I would guess. Her hair would be beautiful, it’s black as ink, but it’s all ratty and tangled from her time in prison. All I can see of her body is her arms, but they look skinny and bruised. Her eyes are sunk into deep hollows, her cheekbones are sharp from starvation.

The girl sighs. “I’m honestly really sorry you’re here, but it is nice to have some company.” As she says it, she sounds sincere. It’s weird. I wonder how long she’s been in here alone. “What’s your magic?”

“Plants. And, um, water. And I’m a shifter. And a perceiver. And, uh, a thorn.” I wince. At least I didn’t go right out and say I’m the Daughter of the Wilderness, but I might as well have. My brain still doesn’t seem to be functioning quite right.

The girl doesn’t seem to notice, or at least if she does she doesn’t say anything. “You’re a shifter? A full one? I am too!” She sounds genuinely excited. I blink at her. She’s in prison, isn’t she? How is she still being so nice to me?

“You…you are?” I say slowly, still trying to figure out what exactly is going on. “You’re a shifter? I’ve only ever known one of those….” And all of a sudden something clicks. I understand why she looks so familiar, why she’s so nice and my age and can shift. “You’re Tay,” I say out loud, my voice hushed, reverent. Min’s lost cousin. The one who was supposed to be dead.

 

 

CHAPTER 21

Tay reels backward, looking stunned. “Only one other person has ever called me that,” she whispers. “And that’s….”

“Min,” I breathe.

There’s a long pause, a silence weighty with unsaid things. I can almost feel the shock coming off of her in waves as she struggles to process what I’m saying.

“You knew him?” she finally says.

“Yeah. We’re…” I pause, trying to find the words to describe my relationship with Min. To his cousin. “Really good friends.”

She takes a deep breath. “Then I’m really sorry to tell you this,” her voice is now low and serious, “but he’s dead.”

Now it’s my turn to lurch back. Min couldn’t be dead, I’d seen him just…whenever the last time I’d seen him was. He couldn’t have died since then, right? And how would she know anyway? She’d been in prison.

My heart is screaming. I’m still not quite sure what’s going on. This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. Min absolutely cannot be dead.

“What..?” My voice catches and I swallow hard, choking down tears and screams and all my disbelief. “What happened?”

“He died in a plane crash. A little over a year ago.”

I gasp. Relief courses through my body like a drug. My heart is still pounding against my rib cage like it’s trying to escape, and I feel almost limp. My cheeks are wet. I’ve been crying, without even realizing it. Tala is wrong. Min is still alive.

“No,” I whisper. “No, he isn’t dead. I saw him just a few days ago.”

Her eyes are wary, mistrustful suddenly. I didn’t miss the hope that flared up in her face for a few seconds. But now it’s gone, replaced by disbelief and desperation and pain. And then all I see is longing, too sharp and intense for her to hold in. She clutches at the bars between us, her hands white and shaking.

“My Min is dead,” she whispers. “My Min died in a plane crash. Before I ended up in here. I know. I went looking for him, and he was gone. The three sisters’ soldiers killed him. You must be mistaken.”

“No. He didn’t die.” How can I make her believe me? I have no proof, nothing to show her. My voice is so impossibly sincere, I am telling the truth. But she has spent a whole year thinking he was dead, and it’ll be hard for me to convince her otherwise. In some ways, it’s almost just easier for her to go on believing what she always has.

Tala rocks backward again. She doesn’t cry though, which reminds me of Min. I have never seen Min cry either. In fact her every movement reminds me of Min. The way she wraps her legs into her chest like she can hold her pain inside, the way I can read her every emotion in her eyes.

I just start talking. It’s a stream of consciousness, only roughly chronological. Everything Min is, and everything he is to me. I’m baring my soul, and I’m showing her Min through me, so how could she not believe me? I start out with the time I first saw him, fevered and dying in the river. I tell her about our disastrous trip to Costa Rica, the time we spied on Tempeste’s camp and I killed someone for the first time. I tell her about the battle with Tempeste, the way Min caught me when I blacked out, and carried me back to the School. The way he found the journal, the way he healed my arm. She listens carefully the whole time, her eyes dark and wide.

“Thank you,” she whispers when I’m done. “Thank you so much.” She grabs my hand through the bars. “Min…Min is alive. And I never would have known without you. Thank you. Just…thank you.”

“Um, you’re welcome,” I say. She almost looks like she’s about to start crying. She doesn’t, but her display of gratitude is a little overwhelming. I try to imagine not seeing Min for a year, thinking he was dead. I guess I can understand why she’s so happy.

Suddenly a little flap in the bottom of the door to my cell opens. A tray is pushed in quickly, before the flap slams shut with a click. On the tray is food.

I scramble to my feet, still a little dizzily, and run to the tray. It contains something that resembles oatmeal, and something else that is about the size of a brick and sort of gray. I have no idea what that is, maybe cheese, some kind of bread, or meat.

I honestly don’t care what any of the things are. I don’t know when the last time I’ve eaten was, but it’s too long ago. My stomach is empty and cramping. I’m so hungry I feel like I might throw up. Or I guess that could be the after-effects of the drug, but either way I want the food so badly that I gasp.

Then I see there’s also a pitcher of water. I’m even more thirsty than I am hungry, which is saying a lot. My throat is sore and dry as paper. I figure this is really not a good time for me to get dehydrated, so I reach for the pitcher first.

“Wait,” Tala hisses. “Bring the tray over here. Don’t eat anything yet.”

I think she’s going to take some of my food. Not that I would mind, she’s probably starving, and I’m sure it’s enough for two. But she doesn’t take any of it.

Instead, she turns into a wolf. She looks achingly similar to Min, gray and white and beautiful. A pang goes through me. Then she sniffs each thing on my tray in turn. Then she turns back to human.

“Dump out the water,” she commands. “It’s laced with some of the same stuff they gave you earlier to knock you out.”

“But I’m thirsty,” I complain. I’m fully prepared to drink it anyway. It’s better to be drugged than die of thirst, I figure. And anyway, I wasn’t built for this kind of self-control. But Tala grabs the pitcher. It’s small, and just barely fits through the bars. Before I have time to even blink, she throws it across her cell. It shatters against the stone wall, and water drips down and pools on her floor. I think I whimper or something, because Tala looks at me in sympathy.

“Sorry. But it’s a milder version of what they gave you before. It won’t knock you out, but it will make you dizzy and tired. And it’s a little slow-working, so you probably won’t feel the effects of it until tomorrow. It probably means they’re going to torture you, and they want you to be easier to work with.”

“Torture me?” My voice ends in a high, pitiful whine.

She nods. “You’re not on vacation, you’re in prison,” she says. The words sound harsh, but I know they’re true. Tala may be kind, and surprisingly happy considering her situation, but she is still a prisoner. She has been here for at least a year. She must have survived here for so long somehow. She is harder than she seems. “Expect that you’re going to be tortured.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Whatever information you have and they don’t. Probably mostly about the Daughter of the Wilderness. A lot of their information on her died with Tempeste. I’m guessing you don’t know much about her, so maybe something else too.”

“Oh, wait, I’m the Princess. I guess I forgot to mention that part.”

She blinks, and I can see that I have truly startled her. “You are?” She pauses and takes a deep, steadying breath. “Wait, you are?”

“Yeah. They already know that though. They knew that when they captured me. And they already knew what I looked like too, from the time this dragon spied on me….”

Everything I say goes directly over her head. “Wait, you’re the Daughter of the Wilderness?”

“Yes.”

She looks at me with undisguised awe. “Is it a secret?”

I shrug. “Not really. Everyone who knows me knows who I am. And a lot of people who don’t really know me know who I am too, I guess. When I killed Tempeste….”

“You killed Tempeste?” Another thing I guess I forgot to mention, even though it felt like I was talking for hours. “How?”

“That was the battle I was talking about earlier, when I was injured. When I stabbed her with the spear. That killed her.”

She squints at me, like she still can’t quite believe I’m real. “You’re the Lost Princess? And you killed Tempeste?”

“Yes,” I say patiently. “And when I killed her, most, if not all of her memories were transferred to the other two sisters, we think. So they already knew everything about me that she knew, which I guess wasn’t that much. Plus, the dragon. It saw me use my magic, and it was working with them.”

“Wow.”

All of a sudden I’m stressed out. Well, I was stressed out before, but now I’m really stressed out. Tala can’t even believe I’m real. I can inspire people, I can change people’s lives. That’s an awful lot of power. And now it’s all gone wrong, I’m in prison. And I’m desperately afraid that all that hope is gone, replaced by fear, or hopelessness, or something.

I could have escaped. I know that. But not with Lily. I had to choose. But I played right into Zephyra and Mercuriel’s hands. They have exactly what they want, and I have…what, exactly? I know I made the right choice, the moral choice, I guess, but suddenly I’m not sure if that’s enough. If I could go back, I would do the same thing though, even knowing the consequences. Right? I would have to save Lily, because she’s a young child and would have died without me. Even knowing that I would end up a prisoner. Isn’t that the right thing to do?

I feel physically ill. Sweat beads on my forehead, and my heart thumps rapidly in my chest. I’m almost dizzy and I can’t seem to breathe right. I think I might be having a panic attack or something. I’ve never had one before, but I have been under a lot of stress lately.

“Can we talk about something else please?” I say tightly.

“Sure.” Tala looks at me, waiting for me to lead the conversation. I still can barely even breathe, let alone think of something to talk about.

“How often do they bring food?” I ask after a little while, once I’ve calmed down some. I don’t care that much right now, but it probably is a good thing to know. And I need to be distracted.

“It varies. Sometimes it’s pretty often, maybe two or three times a day. Sometimes it’s only once every three days. It depends on how well you’re cooperating.”

I look at Tala. She is painfully skinny, I can see the way all her bones connect. I guess she isn’t very cooperative. “When was the last time you got any?”

She shrugs. “My stomach has shrunk,” she says, but that doesn’t really answer the question. I carefully divide all my food into two equal pieces and give her half. She says she doesn’t want it, but her eyes give her away. Min is hands-down the hungriest person I know, and she’s related to him. I have a hard time making myself choke down the food, but Tala’s is gone in an instant.

After we’re done eating, we talk for a long time again. I feel better, as long as we don’t talk about my role as the Princess. We talk about everything else though, as the moon gets lower and lower in the sky and my eyelids get heavier.

For most of the night, it’s me doing the talking. I tell her everything, everything I can think of, things that are important and things that matter only to me. Tala listens and asks questions, but she doesn’t really say anything. It’s better that way, I think. Her stories would all be about prison, and I don’t think I’m ready to hear those yet. Tomorrow, maybe.

Finally, when I’m so tired I can’t even think let alone say another word, she starts to speak. Not about prison, though. About nothing, really, just words. She whispers to me until I fall asleep, and even once my eyes are closed she whispers to me in my dreams.

 

 

CHAPTER 22

I can watch the sun rise from my cell, which means it faces east. For some reason, it gives me hope. There’s still an outside world, everyone is still out there. They will look for me, and they will find me.

Another meal is pushed through the flap, exactly the same as last night. Tala sniffs it again, and this time she doesn’t detect any drugs. I drink the water first, and I don’t think I have ever been so grateful for it in my life. It soothes my aching throat and wakes up my tired muscles.

The meal seems a little soon. I’m not complaining, because I’m already hungry. But I remember what Tala said last night. That the meals come at varying times. I better enjoy this meal, because it could be the only one I get for a while.

Now that we’re in the light, Tala’s appearance is shocking. There are bruises running up and down her arms, along with barely healed cuts and even burns. There are dark circles under her eyes. She’s so skinny, too skinny. And she looks tired somehow, spread too thin. But even so, the resemblance between her and Min is striking.

Without warning, a scream rings out. I jolt upright. The sound grates along my already frayed nerves. It seems to echo through the cell, through me. I can’t tell where it’s coming from exactly, but I know it must be close.

“What was that?” I ask fearfully.

“It’s someone being tortured.” I can tell from the way she says it that it’s a pretty commonplace experience.

I’m still a little woozy from the drug, even after sleeping for at least a couple more hours. I have a sick headache that pulses behind my eyes like a second heartbeat. If they drug me to torture me, I should probably get used to it. I’ll probably have that sort of headache a lot.

I sort of drift off to sleep again. I’m aware of my surroundings, but my eyes are closed. I can almost pretend none of this is real, and it’s comforting. But the floor is too hard, I’m too cold, all of me seems damp, my clothes are ripped and smell like sweat. I am not home. All of this is real.

All of a sudden, I hear coughing. I snap my eyes open and look around dizzily. Tala is leaning against the wall across from the window, coughing and choking. She puts her hand to her mouth and it comes away red, streaked with blood.

“Are you okay?” I gasp.

“I should be fine now,” she says, wiping her mouth. She doesn’t say anything else, and I don’t press. But somehow, I know Tala has been here too long. She can’t last much longer. The prison is killing her.

Now, when I’m worried she’ll die, is the first time it really hits me that she’s alive. Min thinks she’s dead, has thought she’s been dead for most of a year. But she’s not, she’s here. Min could see her again. The thought of them together makes me ridiculously happy. No matter what it takes, if it’s the last thing I do, I have to get her out of here.

Once she’s done coughing, she goes to sleep. I think vaguely that we should coordinate our sleep schedules, so neither of us has to be alone. But my thoughts are cut short when my cell door bangs open.

Immediately, five men are surrounding me. Before I have time to react, my hands are cuffed behind me, and one of the men holds a syringe of the same clear drug they used earlier at the ready. I really, really don’t want anymore of the drug, so when they try to march me out of the room, I obey.

I am carefully herded into a room that looks absolutely nothing like I expect. It’s mostly bare, except for two chairs. One is a high backed arm chair, and the other appears to be a plastic lawn chair with chains twining up the back.

“Can I sit in the armchair?” I ask. I’m hoping if I pretend to be one of those brave people who never crack under torture and always have a comeback, I’ll really be able to be one. But my voice comes out as a squeak, which kind of ruins the effect. I have never been brave, and pretending to be won’t change that.

The men don’t answer me anyway. They poke me in the back with the syringe, as if I need reminding that it’s there. I sit in the plastic lawn chair, putting my arms obediently behind me. They’re wrenched farther backward and chained. I wince with pain, but don’t say anything.

After a few minutes, a tall, elegant woman comes in. “Can we have a civilized conversation?” she asks me. I’m a little taken by surprise. I don’t know how to react to this well-dressed woman who chains me to a chair but talks to me like I’m a human being.

I don’t say anything. That seems like the only safe thing to do. I just blink up at her, all dazed and confused and so tired.

She seems to take my non-answer as a no, even though that’s honestly not how I intended it. “I see we’re going to have to do this the hard way,” she says.

I nod, even though I’m not really sure what I’m agreeing to. I meant to pacify her, but instead she gets angry. She snaps, and the chains pull my arms back even tighter. Then she starts to pace around me. It makes her seem hungry and desperate, like a caged tiger. And as she puts two fingers under my chin and lifts it, she seems a little unhinged.

“So,” she says mockingly, “this is the Princess of the Wilderness. We’re going to have fun.” Suddenly she’s on my other side, sinuous as a snake. “I am Zephyra’s friend. And I do what she asks. She asked me to torture you.” Now she’s behind me, so I can’t see her face. “So that’s what I’m going to do.”

My heart is pounding. I want to go back to my cell. That thought almost makes me laugh, in the middle of all this. Things must be really bad if I actually want to go back to my cell.

“Why are you doing this?” My voice is panicked and gasping.

“Winning the war would be infinitely easier with you on our side. It will be faster, and there will be fewer casualties for both sides. If you join us now, your school will be given leniency. You’re friends will be saved. Join us.” Her voice is perfectly sincere. It gives me shivers.

I take a deep breath. My first answer is no. I can’t just go over to their side, that would be…wrong. But isn’t it also wrong to let my friends die? If I can save them, I have to, don’t I? Otherwise, if they die, it would be all my fault. I picture Mackenna and Liz and Lily and Paige and everyone at the School. And Min. Min’s eyes, all caramel and staring at me, and full of life. And Min dead. Min dead in the war, dead because of me, my mistake, my fault.

“No,” I whisper. Min can’t die. None of my friends can die. It’s not acceptable.

“No? You don’t want to help us? You want to let the people at your school die for you?”

Min’s eyes are boring into me like twin flames, burning me up inside. He wouldn’t want me to betray everything I thought I believed in. Not for him, not for anyone. Not even for myself.

“No,” I say stronger this time. “I’m not going to join you. I’m fighting for what I believe in, and I wouldn’t give that up. I won’t give that up. Not even for….” I almost say Min. Then I swallow and say, “my friends.”

She sneers at me. “You will come to regret that decision. In the end you will be ours anyway, and your friends will be granted no privileges.” I suck in a breath. If we lose, I have doomed them all to death. “Come.” The chains unwind from my arms, but I make no move to follow. She grabs my handcuffs and wrenches me after her.

We go into another room. This one looks more like I would expect. Traditional instruments of torture line the walls. I’m reminded of the test I took last spring, where I ended up in a simulation of a prison I had to escape. I go and lie down on the table, trying to protect my shoulders from being pulled harshly again.

“You know I don’t have any information right? What are you even trying to find out? You already know who I am. I don’t know any plans or anything. There’s nothing you’ll be able to get from me.”

“We’re not trying to get information from you. We’re trying to get you to join our side. We want you with us, Aubrey.”

“And you think torturing me will make that more likely?”

“I know it will.”

I realize there’s another man standing in the corner. He looms in front of me, holding a syringe. I recognize the clear liquid inside, and almost start crying. I don’t want to be drugged again. But I’m tied down, there’s nothing I can do.

Now that I’m not in the middle of a battle, I can fully appreciate how much the syringe hurts going in. It’s as painful as a shot, and longer. I can feel the drug running through my veins, relaxing me despite everything. My head hits the back of the table. The world drifts in and out of focus. I’m having a hard time thinking, but I don’t fall asleep. Everything is going very…very…slowly.

“She’s resisting more than I expected,” the man says. “Should I give her more?”

“No. I don’t want her unconscious, just a little…sleepy.”

Sleepy would be an understatement. My eyes drift closed.

“No, you can’t fall asleep. Wake up!”

I can’t wake up, I’m too tired. My eyelids are impossibly heavy. When did the metal table turn into a cloud?

Just as I’m about to fall asleep, I receive an electric jolt so powerful it brings tears to my eyes. Every nerve in my body is burning for a split second, and then it’s over. My eyes snap open. I whimper in pain.

“We can’t have you falling asleep on us,” the woman says. “Next time you do, the shock will be even stronger. We’re mostly just trying to gather information this time. Expect pain if you don’t answer our questions. Who is the person you care the most about?”

With normal brain function that would be a tough question. But right now my thoughts are so muddled, there’s no way I could sort it out. I’m not trying to be disobedient, I’m just not sure.

“I don’t know,” I say honestly.

“I’ll give you one more chance. Who is it?”

“Myself,” I say. It’s the first person that comes to mind. Also, I’m pretty selfish. It might even be true.

She makes a long, shallow cut down my arm. I scream, more with shock than with pain. Then she spreads some sort of acid along it. It burns like fire, searing my skin. I clutch at my arm, trying to wipe it off, but it’s already sunken in. I take fast, gasping breaths and will myself not to pass out.

I have to wait for about thirty seconds for the pain to fade. By that time I have tears pouring down my cheeks. I bite my lip to keep from screaming out again. “Aubrey, be strong,” I whisper to myself over and over and over. “You can get through this.” Be strong. Be strong enough.

I’m given more of the drug and asked more questions. I don’t remember my answers, I can barely think. I’m an animal now, seeking respite from the pain. I don’t care what she says, I don’t care what I answer. I just want it to end. Oh, please God, please just let it end.

As a final punishment, she makes me drink a small vial of water that makes my whole body burn and sting. I feel like my insides have been rubbed all over with scalding water.

“Liz is making you feel this pain.” The woman whispers in my ear. “If it weren’t for Liz this wouldn’t be happening. This is all Liz’s fault.”

These are the last words I hear as I lapse into unconsciousness.

 

 

CHAPTER 23

When I wake up, I feel like I’ve been run over by a steamroller. My first thought is why would Liz do this to me? It takes me a little while to calm myself down, convince myself that this is not Liz’s fault. This really worries me, because it’s obviously what the woman is trying to do. She’s trying to make me blame Liz, and the other people I care about, and turn me against them. I’m shocked at how easily she succeeded.

I sit up. It’s twilight, so I guess I’ve been out about two hours. There’s food and water in the corner of my cell. I realize I’m starving, and soon I’ve eaten everything on the tray. Tala isn’t in her cell. I have no idea where she is.

I kind of fall back asleep. There seems to be a lot of sleeping in this cell. I am awakened some time later by the sound of doors slamming open. I tense, already scrambling into the farthest corner, ready to fight or do whatever it takes to keep from feeling that pain again. Then I realize the cell door I heard wasn’t mine. It was Tala’s.

They toss her into her cell like she’s a piece of trash. She hits the wall with a painful thud. Immediately she whirls to her feet and turns into a wolf. She snarls at them, wild and hurt and cornered. Then they leave and she changes back, curling up on the floor, eyes open and watchful, full of pain.

“What happened?” I ask.

“They were trying to find out more information about you. I don’t remember how much I told them, I’m sorry. And at the end, I…I freaked out. I attacked one of the men, as a wolf. I didn’t get very far, obviously. It’s not like I could do much damage. But I’ll be punished for that.”

Sure enough, when I get food again several hours later, Tala doesn’t get any. I share with her, but even I’m surprised by how grudging it is. I wonder if that was the point, to turn us against each other. We can starve together or I can watch her starve alone. I have food and she doesn’t. This time I give her half, and next time I know I will give her half, but what about the time after that? What about the time I’m so hungry I won’t even think before eating it? What about the time that even her hollow eyes will not convince me to give up any of my food to her, even if I have to let her die?

How long do I have in here before I turn into a monster?

Prison life goes on more or less like that for the next week. We don’t ever get quite enough food, and we spend a lot of time sleeping. Tala is tortured, though not as often as I am. And slowly, slowly, the torture is working. I am not breaking, not exactly, not yet, but I am cracking, like a brick building worn down with time. Little fractures, but they’ll keep getting bigger. And one day I’ll shatter into a million pieces, and no one will ever be able to put me back together again.

I can’t do this anymore. My body can’t take it, my mind can’t take it. One morning I wake up without even the strength to stand. I curl up on my tiny cot, covering my head, wishing the whole world would just go away. I don’t want to have to start today. I’m too tired to face the world. There’s nothing left to live for. I’ll just be stuck here, all alone, until I die or go crazy or betray everything I care about. I wish I could just die now. I wish this could all be over.

Tala is still asleep, her breathing harsh and ragged. Her slender chest barely seems to be moving. Her hair is spread out on her pillow. It looks like Min’s, all silky and black and straight. My heart aches for her. She deserves better.

My cell door bangs open. I don’t have the strength to fight the soldiers who grab my hands and pull them behind my back. I don’t want to be tortured, I don’t want to move. I’m too tired, too tired….

“Walk.”

I actually do try to stand, but I stumble and can’t seem to catch my balance again. They carry me limply between them. My legs hurt. I feel like I’m dying. I don’t know how to be strong enough to do this anymore.

I realize all of a sudden that I’m crying. I have barely cried since I’ve been here. Crying had somehow seemed like it would be worse, like once I let my feelings out I would never be able to hold them in again. But now there are tears silently pouring down my cheeks, and I wouldn’t be able to stop them for anything. I try to rub them away a little on my shoulder. Even now, I don’t want to seem weak. It doesn’t really work though. They just keep coming in steady trickles down my cheeks.

The men strap me down to the chair. My head lolls sideways. Black spots dance in front of my eyes. I’m afraid I’m actually going to pass out before this even begins. My eyelids flutter. It takes all my strength to wrench them open.

Today for the first time there’s someone else in the torture room. Another prisoner. At first all I see is gray hair, tired eyes, a scar wrapping from his ear down to his opposite collar bone. It gives the impression of age, but as I look closer I realize he is no older than Liz. Mid-thirties, I guess.

The men wrench my head forward, so I can’t see him anymore. I know they want to give me an injection, but they have to literally hold my head up to expose my neck. Normally, with their fingers so close to my mouth, I would try to bite one of them. But today, I simply don’t have the energy. All I can do is sit there, eyes wide, and try not to black out or scream or anything.

“Stop,” the other prisoner says suddenly.

The guards don’t look like they’re very used to prisoners talking to them like that. They actually glance up at him, consider his question, instead of just ignoring him.

“Stop what?”

“Stop torturing her. Can’t you see she’s had enough? You’re going to kill her if you keep going like this. Is that what you want?”

I think he’s bluffing, just trying to help me. I flash him a grateful smile. But the eyes that meet mine are deadly serious. And I wonder, is he bluffing? Or could all this torture really kill me? It seems like it might. Cold fear washes over me.

“Is she now?” The man is trying to be sarcastic, but I can hear the whisper of doubt creep into his voice.

“You don’t want to be responsible for killing her.”

“Maybe we should check with someone.” He looks uncertain. I try to look as sick as possible.

They tie me tighter to the chair, wrenching my hands behind me, putting a wide restraining belt around my waist. It’s not like I’m going anywhere anyway, though. I’m not even trying to escape.

The two men actually leave. I turn in my seat, trying to see the man who saved me. He looks exhausted, worn down and broken. But even so, he manages a small, hurting smile.

Suddenly I blink. There’s something about him that’s sharply familiar. I can’t place his face, but I am sure I have seen him before, or at least someone who looks similar. The flash of recognition is gone, but his identity still bothers me. I must have seen him before.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

For some reason, this rubs me the wrong way. “Fine,” I snap. “Don’t tell me.” He just saved me from being tortured, so I know this is unfair. But I want this one piece of information. I want to connect to this other person, if only for a moment. I am so painfully starved for human contact, that depriving me of it now seems unusually cruel.

“No. That’s not what I meant,” he says quickly. He’s trying as hard as he can to backpedal. I give him the benefit of the doubt.

“I meant,” he says carefully, “that I don’t remember who I was before. They tortured me too much, gave me too much of the drug. The one that alters your memory. The same one, I believe, that they are using on you.”

I try to swallow. All of a sudden my throat is tight and dry.

“Do you have a name?” I ask.

“L.”

“Your name is L? Like the letter?”

“I chose it for myself. I like the letter L.”

“Why?”

“I don’t remember. I just know I like it.”

“Do you remember anything?” I don’t know why I care so much. Maybe because this person could be the future of me. I could stay here, trapped, until I’m overdosed with some drug and I have no memory of my former self either.

“I remember flashes. I have a daughter, I haven’t seen her since she was a baby. She would probably be around your age now, probably a little bit younger. How old are you?”

All of a sudden I can’t remember. I turned fifteen, but then I turned sixteen too, right? I haven’t turned seventeen yet, have I? How long have I been in here? How much time has gone by?

“Sixteen,” I say, but in that moment I’m not really sure. And that scares me so badly I feel like I might start crying again. I can’t stay here much longer. Not if I want to stay myself.

“What’s your name?” he asks me.

“Aubrey.” I manage a weak smile. At least I know I got that one right.

“Aubrey, I’m sorry you’re here.” He says it with the utmost sincerity, and for some reason it makes me trust him.

“I….” I’m about to tell him who I really am, that I am the Princess. But then the two men are slamming the door open, dragging me roughly from the chair.

“It’s your lucky day, Princess,” one of the men growls. L’s eyes widen infinitesimally, but I can’t tell if he understands, or thinks it’s just an idle nickname. I nod at him, trying to thank him with my eyes, and then I’m being dragged around the corner and he’s gone.

I’m shaking and limp with relief as they lead me back to my cell. They shove me inside and I fall to my knees, coughing and still barely able to stand. But the strange man’s kindness is still glowing inside of me. I hold onto it the way a drowning person grabs at a rope. It’s once kindness like that is gone that there really is nothing left to live for.

That is the last day I escape being tortured. It’s not like normal torture anymore, not like any torture I would expect. It’s more like brainwashing, really. And that makes it that much harder to resist.

They’ll give me pain, give me drugs, and they’ll be talking to me the whole time. Afterward, I’m confused. I can’t remember what’s real anymore, what they told me. My memories of everyone I thought I knew are altered, but I can’t figure out which parts they’ve changed. I’m not sure if any of this is real anymore. Maybe none of this is happening. Or maybe none of my old life really happened. Did Min even really exist? Did Mackenna? What was I fighting for again? Why?

I won’t break. At least that’s what I tell myself. I am strong enough for this, and I won’t break, I won’t give in. I’ll keep going, and if I can hold on long enough it will all be okay. It will all be okay.

I’ll keep on resisting. I won’t let them break me. I won’t give up. Except I don’t quite remember what exactly it is I’m supposed to be not giving up. I’m resisting so hard that I’ve lost track of what I was resisting in the first place. I don’t remember what it was like to be whole, so how on earth am I supposed to tell whether or not I am broken?

 

 

CHAPTER 24

And one day, everything snaps. I snap. I shatter apart into a million pieces, too small to ever be the same. If someone ever tried to put me back together, it would just be little bits of Aubrey, all mixed up with the other junk you can scrape off the floor of the prisons. I’m all gone.

That afternoon it’s raining. Rain drips into my cell until there’s nowhere to get away from it. I’m so cold and so wet I’m sure I’ll never be dry again. I’m shivering, and I’ll never be warm, and all I can hear is rain, and the roaring in my ears, and the sharp sound of everything I am breaking apart. I’m in the middle of a tirade, yelling at the wall, at Tala, at anyone that will listen, at no one because no one is listening. The tirade is about Min.

“…he told them who I was, I know he did,” I scream. “He’s been feeding them lies this whole time. He betrayed me, he betrayed all of us. That’s how they found out that we were in Costa Rica, and that’s how Tempeste found out which school was mine. He’s always been a traitor. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for him.”

“Aubrey,” Tala says slowly, “did you ever think you might be…wrong? I don’t think Min betrayed us. You never thought that before you got here. They’ve been torturing you, twisting the way you’re thinking of him. I know they have. And I think you know it too.”

But I know that Tala’s wrong. Because the absolute truth is that the last thing I remember about Min was being furious at him. I don’t remember exactly what it was about now. Something desperately important to me in my old life, before I got to prison and everything changed. But I remember standing in Liz’s kitchen with waves of anger and hurt rushing over me, all because of Min. And I know they didn’t tamper with that memory. They couldn’t have. Because I never told them about it.

But if I was so angry with Min before Zephyra’s torturers touched me, then that must mean that they’re right. Min really is the evil one. All the pain I’m feeling, all my suffering, it really is all his fault. And for some reason, Tala refuses to see it.

I rise to my feet, my face flushing with rage. How could she still stand up for him? Isn’t it obvious he betrayed me, he betrayed all of us? He probably betrayed her too, come to think of it. He is probably the reason that she ended up here in the first place. They probably found her because of Min. I hate him. I don’t understand how she could still trust him, after all he’s so clearly put us through. Unless they were in it together….

“You’re with him!” I shriek, my voice rising in anger. “You’re just here to continue telling his lies to me. And I thought you were my friend. You’re worse than him!” I run at the window separating us and try to claw my way through it. “You’re a traitor! I can’t believe I trusted you!” My voice is harsh and raw and screaming. I turn and face the wall, my back to her. I can hear her whimper softly behind me, but I don’t turn around, because I don’t care.

I remember being in love with Min, but I don’t feel that anymore. I don’t understand why I did. He didn’t love me back anyways. He never loved me. Maybe that’s why he betrayed me. Maybe that’s why I don’t care as much as I should. Maybe part of me knew he was a liar before I even came here. He hurt me, he hurt me and I hate him. I hate him. I hate them all.

And after that day, being tortured isn’t the same. It’s not really torture at all. They take me out of my cell, but they just talk to me. They tell me that they’re proud, that I made the right choice. They even give me food if I want it. They don’t tell me their plans, but I don’t mind. I’m sure they’ll tell me when it’s time for me to help them. The war is building. I’m sure it won’t be long now.

I don’t think about Min’s eyes anymore, or the way Mackenna’s laugh would light up her whole face. I don’t think about the way Liz would make me breakfast, the way Lily would touch my shoulder when I was sad. None of that matters anymore. It was just one long game of pretend, and now it’s been erased completely. I’m a new Aubrey, rising up without them, finally able to see the big picture, strong and alone. Strong because I am alone. Because I left my old self behind.

We were never going to win. That’s what I tell myself. The old Aubrey, the schools and the children, were never going to win anyway. You can’t win a battle if you betray the people who care about you. You can’t fight a war if you base it all on lies.

Tala doesn’t believe me. She hasn’t seen the truth yet. I tell her over and over that the people she thought were her friends are really her enemies. I think there’s still hope for her. If I can convince her, maybe she can join me. That’s what I want really. She never meant to hurt me, and I don’t want her to be hurt either. I think.

But I don’t care, not really. She keeps telling me I’m wrong. I don’t listen to her, but it’s tiring. I’ll try for a few more weeks to convince her I’m right, and if she doesn’t believe me I’ll give up. I’m not going to sacrifice everything for a girl who doesn’t even trust me.

“Aubrey,” she says one night, “if they really think you’re on their side, why are you still in a cell?”

I freeze, not sure how to respond to that. I just decide to stop talking, to curl up and face the wall like I usually do when she gets angry with me. But I keep wondering about that, and the next day I ask one of my guards about it. He doesn’t answer.

The sun has just gone down when two men come for Tala. They lift her up, one on each skinny arm. She tries to fight them, kicking and scratching, biting with her wolf teeth.

“I haven’t done anything!” she screams. “You already have all my information. Why are you taking me now?”

“Your bothering our friend Aubrey,” one of them snarls.

“We think it’s best if you’re removed for a little while,” the other one says.

They take her away. She struggles harder for a few seconds, then goes limp. I wish I had convinced her I was right. I will miss her company. Maybe.

She doesn’t return. I try to fall asleep, but I can’t really. I drift in and out of dreams. I think I hear screaming, but when I jolt awake it’s gone. There are anxious voices outside my cell, though. They keep me awake and I toss and turn on my tiny, lumpy cot.

My friends keep floating in front of my eyes, like an endless video playing on a loop. I almost want to bang my head against the wall. I want them to be out of my brain, I want them to go away, I want to be alone. I want to be a new, independent Aubrey without them chaining me down.

I blink, and their faces are superimposed over my eyes. Liz, Paige, Lily, Rowan, Ryan, Drew, Marco, Min, Mackenna. Mackenna. I blink again. Mackenna is still there, framed by the barred window, highlighted by starlight.

She is outside my cell window.

 

 

CHAPTER 25

I fall off the bed and scramble backward in surprise.

“Min!” she hisses. “Stand up straighter. I can’t quite see in.”

Her face rises a little bit so she can peer into the whole cell. Her eyes widen when she sees me, backed into a corner.

“It’s okay, Aubrey. We’ll get you out of here.”

A look of intensity comes over her face. She grasps the bars and drips of hot magic fall off her hands. The bars turn orange, then white. Finally, they melt away completely. She scrambles in through the window, the hot metal that would have burned anyone else has no effect on her.

“Aubrey,” she whispers, kneeling beside me, “are you okay? Don’t worry. We’re gonna get you out of here.”

“Don’t touch me,” I scream. “Don’t come near me.”

“Min.” Mackenna’s voice is high and worried. “You have to come in here. Something’s wrong.”

He pulls himself in through the window, wincing when he brushes against the still-hot metal. He comes over to me, but I twist away from him.

“No,” I cry out. “Don’t come any closer. Traitor. I hate you. I hate you! Get away from me!”

His presence is causing me almost physical pain. Hatred for both of them surges through me. How could I have trusted them? Here they are, pretending they cared for me….

“Is she…insane?”

“No,” Min says slowly, “I think it’s more like…brainwashed.”

“Aubrey, do you remember me?” She waves a hand in front of my face, I guess in case I’m not paying attention to her anymore.

“I remember you,” I say, each word harsh and short. “How could I forget? You lived every day pretending to be my friend, then you turned around and betrayed me.”

“No. Wait. What? We didn’t betray you,” Mackenna says.

“Lies,” I shriek. “All lies. Even now, all you tell me is lies. Help!” I scream louder. “Somebody help me!”

“Aubrey, listen to me,” Min cries. “We didn’t do it. I don’t know what they’ve told you, but none of it is true.”

He grabs my shoulders. His touch burns me, and I writhe in pain. But he pulls me against him, and my heart beats frantically. I try to wrench myself away from him, but he’s too strong. From the outside it may look like a hug, but he’s really keeping me trapped, like I’m an animal. I snarl, pull out my jaguar claws, and scratch his arm.

He starts whispering to me. I’m not paying attention to the words, but his voice is low, like he’s comforting a frightened child. He’s warm, too. I hadn’t realized how cold I was until suddenly I’m not anymore.

I keep fighting him. He’s lying, and I don’t want to hear it. I push at his chest, and buck and twist so I’m hard to hold onto. He doesn’t let go though, and he keeps whispering.

“Do you remember when you first found me? I was in the river. You could barely do any magic, but you used it to save my life. And you carried me home. I was really sick, but you and Liz helped me get better. Do you remember that?”

“I should have let you die!”

And then Mackenna is catching on too. “Do you remember our first sleepover? It was that time we ate so many M&M’s we almost threw up. And we were hyper, and awake all night, and at three in the morning we ran outside just to feel the rain….”

“Do you remember when we were going to Costa Rica and I was afraid to fly? You talked to me, and I wouldn’t have made it without you. I grabbed your hand so hard I almost broke it, but you didn’t cry out once. And then we played the question game, and talked the whole time. And my favorite color was green?”

I want to believe him, I want to get away from him, I don’t know what I want. I almost scream again, but my breathing isn’t working, and it comes out as a small, harsh gasp. His hands are heavy on my shoulders. I feel sick, almost claustrophobic. I struggle to pull away from him again. His hands tighten. I wrench myself backward, hard. He was holding me tight enough that some of my skin is scraped away. I snarl at him.

“Do you remember when we moved into the room at the School together? You had that bedspread that had the flowers on it and all those pillows, but mine were just white, so you gave me one? And we listened to music, lying on the ground, and it was like we were going to college even though we were only sixteen?”

I whirl around to face Mackenna. My eyes are hard. Fury is making my face hot. My hands curl into fists. I have the sudden, strong wish that she were dead. Immediately, I decide to act on it. I lunge forward, wanting to clasp my hands around her throat.

Min tackles me from the side. He keeps his weight on me, pinning me to the ground. “Get away from me,” I hiss. “I’ll scream. I’ll scream so guards come in and…and kill you!”

Without hesitation, he puts his hand over my mouth. I bite his fingers. He doesn’t let go.

“Do you remember,” he says slowly, panting with the effort of holding me down, “when we played all those card games, one right after another? The day after you found me, when Liz still wouldn’t let me leave the house? And I won at all of them, except Spoons. You won at Spoons, and I wasn’t really mad but I threw the cards in the air anyway, and they landed all over the room, and we were both laughing….”

My heart is pounding furiously. Flashes course through me, flashes of the memories brought forth by their words, flashes of torture. I feel like I’m on fire, like I’m dying. I wish I was dead. I wish I was dead and I wouldn’t have to see Min and Mackenna anymore. Their stories are making me hurt, and it is worse than any torture because it is all in my mind.

I scream, but it is muffled by Min’s hand. I think they’re still above me, talking to me, but I can’t hear it anymore. I can’t focus on their words, not when my mind feels like it’s being melted. Not that I would want to focus on the words of my enemies. Right?

I’m going to pass out. Blackness is swimming in front of my eyes. My heart is hammering so hard it feels like it’s going to explode. I’m going to faint. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what to be.

The memories keep flowing through me. They are like Tempeste’s energy, uncontrollable, too much for me to handle. They are burning me up. I don’t know what side I’m on anymore, I don’t even know who I am.

The memories blur together into a swirling foggy mess, too dark and tangled for me to ever sort it all out. I scream with pain and anger. But then all of a sudden the memories separate, and I know which side is mine. I know who I am again.

I remember. I remember all of it, all the little bits that make me Aubrey. All the pieces that I thought had been shattered and lost on the prison floor. Really, they were lost inside of me, and all I had to do was look for them. I remember.

But I don’t completely. I still don’t remember how to breathe, and it still almost hurts to have Min’s arms pressed against me. Every time I look at Mackenna, I have to remind myself that she didn’t do it. I remember everything that happened, but not how I [_felt _]about it. I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to go with them, part of me wants to stay here, where at least I know where I stand.

But still, I go limp in his arms, pressing against him. “I remember,” I whisper. “And I won’t ever forget.” Kind of a lie. Maybe all the progress I made will be gone if I go to sleep again. Maybe I’ll never really be the same as before.

Actually, scratch that. I know I’ll never be the same. No matter what happens now, prison has changed me and I can’t ever go back.

Mackenna breathes a sigh of relief. “Alright, let’s go.”

I stand up and immediately fall over. My legs are weak and shaking. I’m not strong enough to escape. I’m not even strong enough to walk.

Min grabs me and helps me out the window. I fall to the ground outside the prison and lie there. I’m free. I’m free. But I don’t have time to really relish this, let alone the energy to enjoy it at all. Min and Mackenna have to help me into a standing position. I couldn’t stay on my feet without them on either side of me. For a minute, I’m too sick and dizzy to even say anything, too focused on not passing out. Min and Mackenna start supporting me across the grassy space leading away from the main prison building. On the horizon, I can see just the barest beginning of dawn.

“Wait,” I croak. “What about Tala?”

Min stops dead. It’s as if he’s just slammed into a brick wall. He whirls around to face the building, a look of surprise and disbelief on his face.

“Tay? She’s here?”

“Yeah,” I whisper. “She was in the cell next to mine. She just wanted to see you….”

Min stands stock still for a couple wild, panicked heartbeats. Then he ducks out from under me and starts sprinting back toward the prison.

“Min, stop!” Mackenna screams. Then she claps her hands over her mouth, because several lights have just flickered on in the building. The guards have heard us. They’re coming.

People are running and shouting to each other. Several guards take off across the grass toward us. One voice rises above all the noises, the voice of the woman who talked to me the first day. Who brainwashed me into almost getting my friends killed.

“Don’t let the Princess get away. Kill her!”

The soldiers start sprinting toward us, and Mackenna and I start sprinting away. Min remains frozen in the middle. I swear that even from here I can hear his panicked breathing. I can almost feel how badly he wants to go back for Tala.

A face appears in the window next to the one we just left behind. Tala. She must be back in her cell. She looks around like she can’t figure out what’s happening, and then her eyes light on Min.

“Min!” Her voice is high and raw.

“Tay.” Where her voice was loud and desperate, his voice is soft, sad almost. He starts running to her, leaving me behind. He will get her out, and we will all escape together. Please, let him get Tala out.

“Min, no! Behind you! Get Aubrey,” Tala screams to him. “Please help Aubrey.”

He looks back at me. His eyes are dark and sharp and full of pain. He looks at Tala one more time. And for that second everything is frozen, and some silent communication is passing between them. And then she nods, and he turns away. Back toward me.

I make it about five more steps before my knees buckle. Mackenna tries to drag me, but can’t. She’s too small. The soldiers are getting closer, but then Min is there. He grabs my other side and then we are up and running again. But it’s too late. The soldiers have reached us now. There’s a flurry of motion, a sharp prick in my arm.

It takes only a few more seconds to get to the woods. Min sets me carefully down. Mackenna is saying something, but I don’t hear it. I’m too distracted by something on my arm. It’s a dart. The tip is acid green, the end feathered. I stare at it, absurdly fascinated.

Already there is a burning, numbing feeling traveling up my arm. I pluck the dart out. And just like that, the world starts to spin around me. I lie back against the forest floor as the edges of my vision blur and blacken.

I know, without knowing exactly how I know, that this is not like the other drug, the one that they used to torture me. What is running through my veins now will kill me, quickly and for sure.

Min is saying something, I can’t hear it. Already the poison is affecting me. I feel like I’m coming down with a bad case of the flu. Like I have a high fever and nothing quite makes senses. Min’s words slip in and out of focus like a badly tuned radio. I can feel the poison spreading through my arm, the rest of my body.

“We need to get her to Liz…not enough time…in the woods…dying…gone.” Even through the cloud of pain, I can hear the fear in his voice. And it makes me afraid too, even though now I can’t think clearly enough to figure out why.

He picks me up, cradling me against his chest. The movement sends daggers of pain through my side. I arch my back, scream, but no sound comes out. My lungs are broken, collapsed. Painful tears burn my cheeks like acid. I can’t survive this. I’m dying.

 

 

CHAPTER 26

Min is moving fast. He’s almost running, carrying me somehow. I can feel his panicked breathing, his frenzied heartbeat. I want to reassure him that it will all be okay. But I don’t think it will be. And anyways, I don’t have the strength to move my mouth.

I feel my own heart beating too. Unlike Min’s, mine is going very, very slowly. There is an eternity between pulses. They echo emptily around my chest like the beats of a drum.

I open my eyes to dizzy slits. The forest whirls around me. Mackenna is following close behind Min, breathing hard, clutching her side. Sometimes she stumbles, but she manages to keep up.

Agony rips through me again. I close my eyes, take shallow breaths. Try not to pass out. Wait for it to subside.

I’m shaking. I can’t help it. I can feel the poison coursing through my veins. I clench my teeth, trying to stop. It doesn’t work.

Min has gotten me…wherever he was trying to go. I’m transferred to someone else, I can’t tell who. I can hear Min panting behind me.

Voices talk over me. I can hear the words, but it takes me a long time to understand them. I can’t follow the conversation.

“We need just Aubrey,” the person that’s holding me says. “It will be better for her that way. The rest of us will wait here, and follow in the second car. There are still some of our people inside the prison.”

“Shouldn’t someone go with her?” It is Min talking now.

I force my eyes to open. Mackenna reels into Min, who catches her. He stumbles slightly with her sudden weight.

“Mackenna, what’s going on?”

And it’s only then that we see the blood she’s been trying to hide. It’s spreading across her shirt. She presses her hand in to it. Shows the blood to Min. Their wide, panicked eyes meet.

Another teacher grabs Mackenna. “Put her in the car too.”

I’m completely limp as the teacher lifts me, opens the car door, sets me inside. But I stay focused on Min’s eyes. I don’t blink, I don’t look away. I keep watching until my vision narrows to a point, and his eyes are all I can see.

The time I spend in the car is not time I can even begin to measure. It could be hours, days, years, or just seconds. It could be lifetimes, a thousand, one right after another.

Everything is moving in slow motion. My eyes blink sluggishly, my breath whooshes in and out like the pounding of an ocean. Blood rushes in my ears, a dull background noise of pain. The word [_dying _]keeps repeating in my head over and over again. A mantra.

Mackenna is sitting in the back seat of the car. I’m lying sideways, my head resting in her lap. She’s trying to keep me as still as possible, but she keeps twisting, wrapping bandages around the wound in her side. I carefully reach up and touch the hole in her stomach, the place where the blood bubbles up to soak the bandages, her T-shirt, my hair. I try to communicate with my eyes what my lips don’t have the strength to say.

“It’s fine, Aubrey. It doesn’t even hurt anymore.” A tear falls from her cheek to mine, like a tiny drop of rain. “Just…don’t die, okay? Promise me that. Don’t die. That would be enough.”

I want to make the promise, to solidify it with my breath and throat and lips. But I can’t, because I’m too weak and I’m not sure it’s a promise I can keep. I don’t want to lie to Mackenna. Not even now.

I don’t want to die. But my breath is fading. I’m not sure if I can help it.

The car jolts over a bump. Pain races up my side again. Blackness swims in front of my eyes, my whole body numb and screaming.

It would be easy to give in, to let the darkness overtake me. But if I fall asleep, if I close my eyes, I know I will never wake up. And out of everything, all the things I’ve been through, all the pain and suffering and fear, dying is still what I’m most afraid of.

I try to picture Min. His caramel eyes, his silky black hair. His laugh, his smile. The way he says my name. The way he touches me.

He’s fading. I can barely see him now. Shadows erase his features. I can almost hear him whisper my name. Aubrey. Then his caramel eyes close, and he’s gone.

Mackenna is easier. I can open my eyes and see her face, even though it is blurry and I can’t bring it into focus. I can feel her hair brushing my cheek as she bends over me. Her touch on my shoulder. Her voice, exhausted, whispering soothing words I’m too tired to understand.

Then finally, I think of nothing. I focus only on taking the next breath. I know I can’t keep my heart from stopping, not really, but if I focus hard enough on each beat, at least I can pretend. I can see only blackness, hear only a rushing in my ears. Feel the poison numbness spreading through my veins. I am nothing. Nothing but pain.

The car takes a long turn. I’m shoved against the wall, the hard metal touching a thousand points of pain. But I can’t scream, I can’t even groan. My lungs must have collapsed. I am nothing.

Mackenna is slumped sideways. I can’t see her, my vision is too dark. But I can feel her shallow, labored breathing.

Somehow, I know this is a problem. But I can’t remember why. The world is just a series of blurry shapes and muted colors, no logic, no meaning. Mackenna is dying. But I don’t care. We’ll be together. Because so am I.

Time loses its meaning. Hours seem to pass in heartbeats, just a brief blur. Seconds seem to take years, though. Years between breaths, years between blinks. Years of pain and fear. I am trapped in the in-between, in limbo. I am not dead yet, but really, I am no longer quite alive either.

Finally, we arrive at the School. The teacher opens the car door, intending to pull us both out. But Mackenna is unconscious, she slips out the door as soon as it is not there to hold her up. And before the teacher can grab me, I fall too.

I hit the ground, jarring every bone in my body.

And somehow, I find the strength to scream.

People pour out of the School, Liz runs to me, she picks me up, the pain burns through me, we’re running through the School, I can’t see, I can barely think, pain is my only reality, death would be a relief.

She runs into a room full of potion ingredients, she sets me against the wall, I fall sideways, my strength is gone. Rowan is here, why is Rowan here, she must have followed us, she leans over me, she looks worried, worried about me because I’m dying. Dying.

The world blurs in and out of focus, my heart pounds fast then slow, my breath is short. Rowan is saying something, I can’t understand it. I hear the sounds, they don’t form words. Suddenly they come into focus, clear and sharp and angular, clashing along my ears.

“…we need you Aubrey, if you die the war is lost. You’re my friend Aubrey. So many people look up to you. You can’t die. Don’t die. Please.”

“Keep her talking,” Liz screams. “Don’t let her pass out, she’ll never wake up. I’m almost done, just a few more minutes.”

Rowan nods, and I can see glimmering tears on the corners of her sightless eyes. “Stay awake now, please Aubrey….”

My hearing tunes out again, along with my vision. The pain is constant now, but I am almost numb to it. Actually, my whole right side is completely numb, I can’t feel the cool tile below me, the heat from whatever Liz is making, the pain. Somewhere in the back of my mind this is worrying, but I can’t focus on it. I can’t focus on anything.

My vision comes back, but it’s dark and blurry and there’s a rushing in my ears.

“…stay with me.”

Remember.

My eyes start to roll up in my head. Rowan shakes me, but I can’t respond.

“Liz!” she screams.

“I’ve almost got it, wait, Aubrey. Listen to me. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t you dare fall asleep.”

The floor feels soft and wonderful. My eyelids are heavy. And it would be so nice to sleep, for the pain to end. Even if it’s forever, even if I have to leave everything behind. Maybe it’s easier that way.

There’s a bright white light over Rowan’s shoulder. It keeps coming closer, getting bigger. Liz is coming too, she is racing the light. I desperately want her to win, but she won’t. The light consumes all of Rowan, all of Liz. Then my vision goes white. There’s an emptiness in my chest, and I have a split second of consciousness where I realize it’s because my heart has stopped.

Then my eyes slip closed.

 

 

CHAPTER 27

At first Liz doesn’t understand what has happened. She doesn’t see that Aubrey’s eyes have slipped closed, that her chest has ceased to rise and fall.

She starts to tip the potion she’s made down Aubrey’s throat, then pauses. Aubrey is very still, her face very pale.

“No,” Liz whispers. Her heart is still denying what her eyes are seeing, her fingers feeling.

“Liz?” Rowan asks, her voice small. “Is she going to be okay? Did you…did you make it in time?”

Liz doesn’t hear anything Rowan says. Her eyes are wide with shock and disbelief. She starts to shake Aubrey before the tears spill over.

“No, no,” she cries. “Aubrey. Aubrey!”

Liz starts doing CPR, regularly depressing Aubrey’s chest. “Don’t you dare die on me! Please no. Please.”

The CPR does nothing. Aubrey remains still, her chest does not move, her heart does not beat. Liz’s voice drops to a whisper.

“Aubrey, please. I can’t lose you. I can’t lose you too. Come back to us. Don’t die. Please don’t die. Please.” The last word is barely audible, but full of emotion. So full of desperation and pain.

Rowan is almost as pale as Aubrey. She cannot believe what’s happening. This cannot be happening. Aubrey cannot be dead. Aubrey is the Princess. She’s practically immortal. She can’t be dead. Aubrey cannot be dead.

Liz is literally shaking. Her heart is breaking as she looks at Aubrey’s small, still body. It does not just mean the death of her daughter. It means the end of everything. The war is over, lost. There is no more hope.

“We have to tell the others,” Rowan says, her voice weak and scared and raw with pain.

“Who should we tell?” Liz gasps, her voice thick from crying.

“Everyone. Everyone has the right to know the truth. Even if it’s this.”

Then Liz bends down, and with her last remaining strength she lifts Aubrey’s still, slender body into her arms. A tear falls on Aubrey’s cheek and stays there, sparkling like a diamond.

At the door, Liz hesitates. She can hear all the people outside waiting for news of the Princess. Once they heard her scream, nothing under the sun could keep them in their classes. All they need is a simple nod, a shake of the head. Just one step forward. But still, it takes Liz a long time. Giving hope is like giving a precious gift, and taking it away is not something that can always be survived. And with the Princess dead, there is no more hope. And they might not survive.

Finally, as if in a dream, Liz opens the door and steps out of it. The noise in the room stops as suddenly as if Liz had plunged underwater. Faces turn toward her, shining, then falling. A single high wail goes up, then another, until the room is full of the sound of pain.

Liz looks at Aubrey’s still face, her golden hair, the band around her arm, the scars that Liz has memorized. A bolt of pain slices her heart in two, and she realizes that losing a child is the worst pain. Nothing could surpass this. Nothing could even come close.

Suddenly Liz’s legs refuse to support her anymore. She deposits Aubrey on the floor, and drops to her knees. It takes absolutely everything she has left to arrange Aubrey’s body into something vaguely resembling sleep. And then she bows her head, finally broken.

 

 

CHAPTER 28

I’m walking through a ghostly forest with absolutely no idea how I got there. There’s nothing in the forest but tall, even trees and curling mist. Between the trees there is nothing but whiteness, no bushes, no animals, no glimpses of sky. Light is streaming down through the branches, but there is no sun in sight.

I feel like I’m searching for something, but I can’t remember what it is. Something is keeping me moving forward though, something I feel like I must do. I want to lie down, or sleep or something, but I can’t. Not yet. Not until I find what I’m looking for.

When I first came to myself, I was holding onto a memory. A boy, a girl, a golden dragon, a barred window, a glowing spear. But it has faded like a half-remembered dream, leaving me with only a face, and a voice, stay with me.

Already that is fading too, until I can’t remember if the face is male or female, the eyes dark or pale. And then I feel even that slipping away, leaving me with nothing but emptiness.

But still I keep walking forward, until suddenly the trees open into a clearing. In the middle of the clearing is a rock, tall and gray, even and smooth. And on that rock….

“Mother,” I whisper, not knowing how I know it, only knowing that it’s the truest thing in the world. She is a jaguar, strong and white, her fur smooth as silk or water. I start to run forward. And as I run I change, my legs elongating, my ears migrating, fur growing all over my body. Soon I am fully a jaguar, sprinting toward my mother in the mysterious forest.

And then she’s not on the rock anymore, she’s running toward me. And then we meet.

For a long moment, everything is a blur of happiness. My mother and I are tangled up, my golden fur mixing with her white, just reveling in each other’s presence.

“Aubrey,” she whispers to me. Her voice is familiar, even though I have never heard it before. “I am so proud of you.”

“For what?” I’m not trying to be sarcastic, I just genuinely can’t remember. What could I have possibly done to earn her praise?

“For everything,” she says, and I just accept this because it’s nice to have someone be proud of you for everything.

“Do you live here?” I ask, because it’s the only thing I can think of to ask that has a solid answer. I know there are other, more important things I should be worried about, but I can’t put my finger on any of them. My thoughts are floating away like wisps of cloud.

“I am prisoner here.”

Even that’s not really a concrete answer, because how could a whole forest be a prison? But I look around, and I am reminded of bars by the even trees. Another image tantalizes my memory, a girl clutching prison bars, her eyes wide and desperate. But then the picture is swept away, leaving me with nothing but sadness.

I finally ask a most pressing, confusing question. “Am I dead?”

“No,” she shakes her head. “Not if you don’t want to be.”

“What does that mean?”

“I suppose you could stay here if you wanted to,” she says slowly, softly.

“I do,” I say. “I want to stay here with you.”

“No,” she whispers fiercely. “No. You…you don’t really want that. You have to go back, you have to help win the war. And you have two very loyal friends who are willing to give their lives for you. Do you really want their sacrifices to be for nothing?”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t remember them,” I say dismissively. It’s true. All I am aware of is this forest, here and now, with the only person I have ever known who shares my own flesh and blood.

“Do you trust me?” she asks, and for a split second there is a boy kneeling before me, whispering the same words.

“Yes,” I say once he’s gone. “I would trust you with anything.”

“You will want to return. It is the world’s only hope for a future. I don’t want to be separated from you any more than you want to be separated from me. But…but it is what has to be. I love you and I’m sorry.”

I don’t say anything for a long moment. I’m weighing the most important decision of my life, my mother or the boy and girl I can’t even remember. And the whole rest of the world of course, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter as much.

“Go back,” my mother whispers. “You will find me again. I promise you will find me.” She pauses and comes toward me. “Remember me,” she whispers.

Remember.

Then she touches her nose to my paw. I turn back to human abruptly, without trying. I look down, and there’s a tiny ink drawing on the inside of my wrist. I look at it closer. It’s a little jaguar, clearly my mother.

“It’s time.”

“But wait. I’ve just barely seen you, we haven’t even talked, I can’t leave yet, no wait….”

She shakes her head. “I love you.”

“Are you strong enough to bring me back on your own?”

“Not alone.”

“But then….” I am going to ask who will help her, but then suddenly I’m falling.

“I love you,” she says again. Her voice comes to me as if from a very far distance. I hold onto it as the only real thing as I drift through nothing.

And then everything disappears.

 

 

CHAPTER 29

My chest expands and my eyes open at the same time. The light seems too bright after the muted glow of the forest, so I immediately close them. I lie in the darkness, taking deep breaths, trying to calm my pounding heart. I move my arm slightly, terrified that it will explode with pain again. It doesn’t. My whole body feels like it’s been run over by a steamroller. I guess other than that I’m fine, but that’s not saying much.

I open my eyes. Liz is leaning over me, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Can’t you tell?” she says without opening her eyes. Apparently she doesn’t recognize my voice. “Aubrey is dead.”

I sit up and tap her on the shoulder. Someone in the back of the room cheers. Liz opens her eyes and gives a little scream. Then she starts crying even harder, and envelops me in a hug.

More people start to cheer, then everyone is rushing forward, trying to touch some part of me. I’m a little overwhelmed, and I can’t even stand up yet. They all want to talk to me, and I really want to be alone, but I can’t turn any of them away. I mean so much more to them now. I am not just the Princess of the Wilderness. I am not just the girl who killed Tempeste, the girl who escaped from Zephyra’s prison. I am the girl who came back from the dead.

It takes a long time before I can finally get Liz alone and ask her the question, the only question that really matters.

“What about Mackenna? And Min? Are they okay? Where are they? Are they…are they even alive?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been with you. I’ve been dying to check on Mackenna. She’s with Amity. Min….” She trails off, looking troubled.

“Let’s just go see Mackenna.” I very forcefully push Min out of my mind. Or maybe I’m just pretending I’m not thinking about him. I don’t have the strength to deal with it right now, either way.

It takes at least ten minutes to push my way through the crowd and get to the nurse’s office. I open the door and quickly shut it behind me. Amity’s office is oddly quiet, the only people in it being Amity and Mackenna.

Mackenna is lying on the bed, still and pale, and for a second I think she’s dead. My heart rises into my throat. But then I see the faint rise and fall of her chest, the flicker of her eyes under her closed lids.

“She’s alive,” I breathe.

“She’ll make it,” Amity says. “But it was close.” She turns to me. “You are lucky. You have a very brave friend.”

“And she’s okay now?”

“Yes. She’ll be fine. For now she needs to sleep, but she’ll probably wake up within a few hours.”

Relief courses through me. And then suddenly, I am drained. Completely. I sit down in an empty chair, physically and emotionally spent.

“Min…?”

Amity and Liz exchange a quick glance. I don’t even want to think about what it means.

“Aubrey, we don’t know,” Liz says. “The rest of the people on the mission haven’t come back yet.”

I start to say something, but Amity interrupts me. “How do you feel?” she asks. “I heard you scream, were you injured?”

I have the sudden, strange desire to laugh. And as quickly as it came, it is replaced by the urge to start crying. She doesn’t know. And now I have to explain it.

Since Liz is here and she has to know too, I start from the beginning. I tell everything as well as I can remember it, but it’s hard because so much of the time I was drugged. I try to say as many details as I can, though, hoping something will help.

Liz says I was in the prison for almost seven weeks, but if I were to guess, I would have said more like four. This scares me a little. Not just that I must have had long stretches where I can’t remember anything, but that I don’t remember having long stretches where I don’t remember anything. What if something permanent happened to me in there?

I don’t share my worries with Liz, because some rational part of my brain knows they’re grounded in nothing. Probably. Instead, I finish telling my story, talking about the rescue, the poison, and finally, the encounter with my mother.

Already the details of it are fading. I tell them as much as I can, but there are already a few details I’ve forgotten. I want to cry. I want to go back.

As I lift my arm to try to show her height, I catch sight of the inside of my wrist. The tiny brown drawing of my mother is still there. It comforts me, gives me something to hold onto, something to remember her by. I would be afraid that it will wash off, but I know that it will not. This reminder of my mother will be permanent, just like the band on my arm from Tempeste. It’s like a partner for it, a match, a permanent reminder of great darkness and great light, inked onto my skin.

Once I’m done with my story, Liz and Amity tell me what happened while I was gone. Lily had told Liz almost as soon as I had been captured, but it was already too late to tail the van I was in. They sent out search parties and stuff, but they couldn’t find me or the prison I was in. They probably never would have found it if Arden hadn’t arrived.

“Wait,” I interrupt, “Arden’s here?”

“Yes,” Liz answers me. “She’s somewhere around here. She’s been getting food from different places so she doesn’t attract attention. Normally she hunts during the day and comes back at night.

“Anyway, after she showed up, we were much better off. She flew around every day in wider and wider circles, listening for your thoughts. She had to search a big area, though. It took a few weeks to pinpoint your location.”

“Where? Where is the prison?”

“Vermont.”

“Vermont.” I fight the urge to laugh again. “Zephyra’s prison is in…Vermont?” I don’t know why this strikes me as funny. Maybe it’s because Vermont seems so innocent, far too mundane a place to hold Zephyra’s prison, the place where I lost myself, the place where I almost died.

Liz smiles at me a little worriedly, like she’s glad I’m okay, but can’t figure out why I think Vermont is so funny. She decides to move on without comment.

“After locating you, planning your extraction was relatively simple. We called in the most skilled fighters and strategists we could from all over the country. We decided to attack the prison in four waves, with the third being the one to actually find your cell and get you out. I have no idea how Min and Mackenna ended up on the third team. They weren’t supposed to end up on the mission at all….”

She looks suspiciously at Mackenna, who is lying innocently on the bed.

Amity cuts across her. “Aubrey’s very lucky Mackenna and Min came. They were the ones who got her out. And Mackenna almost died bringing her back here.” She turns to me. “You are lucky to have friends like these.”

“I know,” I whisper. And I do. I could not ask for better friends. And that sends a stab of fear through my heart, because I still don’t know if Min is okay. A shiver runs down my spine.

“Aubrey, maybe you should go to bed,” Amity suggests. “You look a little….”

I turn and catch sight if myself in the window. My hair is tangled around my head, and my skin is shockingly pale, displaying the dark circles under my eyes and a bruise on my jaw I’m not sure how I got.

“I don’t want to go to bed. I want a shower…and a cookie!” I say, improvising wildly. I have tears pouring down my cheeks. And I know why. Because I can’t have the things I want most right now. Min. Or my mother.

“I think you need sleep more than you need a shower or a cookie,” Amity says worriedly.

“Okay,” I say obediently, because suddenly all the fight has gone out of me. If someone asked me to, I would fall asleep right where I stand.

Amity does make me stay in the nurse’s office so she can check on me. I barely even remember getting into bed, just closing my eyes.

And then, for what seems like the thousandth time that day, I fall into darkness.

I’m surprised I last as long as I do before the nightmares come. I’m looking at Tala through the bars of her cell, then her face changes to Min’s, who changes to a shaking skeleton who leers at me before falling emptily to the ground. Then the woman is standing over me, holding a syringe and then injecting me until I’m screaming with pain. Then I’m in blackness, in a cave, with ever rising water lapping at my feet, my ankles, my knees. And below the water things are swimming, brushing against my legs, biting me. And then I’m falling, and then, suddenly I’m on my bed, screaming my head off.

To my surprise, it’s not Liz or Amity who comes to comfort me. It’s Arden. She sticks her head in through the open window, snarling like she thinks I’m being attacked.

I’m still lying on my bed, waiting for my heart to slow. But when I see her, I get up and hide my face in her neck, because the prison has left me desperate for physical contact, starved for comfort.

It’s dark, pressed between my arms and her side, and her scales are still warm, even though the night is cool. I start to cry, hidden from all the world but Arden. And once I start, I can’t stop, because I have too many things to cry about. For a few minutes I’m afraid it will drown me, because there’s too much, too much.

But after a few minutes I have to stop, pull myself together. Too much is riding on me, I don’t have the luxury of crying. I have to be strong now, for everyone.

“I left Tala behind,” I say, because that is what is weighing on me the most. Every time I blink, her face is superimposed on my lids. I’m just trusting that someone else will have filled Arden in one what happened, because I don’t have the strength to right now. I don’t have the strength to explain to her who Tala is.

“You did what you had too,” Arden says. Her voice is comforting, crackling right into my mind, a part of me. “Sometimes, choosing to put yourself above someone else is even harder than sacrificing yourself. But too many people are relying on you, and if you had waited to get her out you would have died. And if she is anything like her cousin, she would have willingly sacrificed herself for you.”

“You’ve never met Min,” I sniff.

“But I can sense him through you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Perhaps I should say, ‘I can sense the way you think of him.’” She says this with a laugh in her voice, but it takes me a few seconds to figure out what she means. Then I feel my face grow hot.

“You never said you could do that!” I push on her side, the way I might push on Mackenna’s shoulder. But then I remember that Min could be dead right now, and the smile melts off my face. I’m worried I’m going to start crying again.

“I’m not strong enough,” I whimper. “I’m not strong enough to lose everybody I love over and over again. I’m not strong enough to carry the world on my shoulders. I just wish I could be normal, that I could make decisions based only on me.”

“Aubrey,” her voice is comforting and slow, a mom sort of voice, weirdly, “someday you’ll be able to do that again. Someday, if you choose, you can be normal. But for now, that’s not an option. You have to be as strong as you can be. And we will do the rest. We will stand by you, and we will hold you up.”

I wonder how Arden got so wise. “I will try to be strong,” I say, and my voice only trembles a little bit. Her words actually do comfort me.

“Later you can be strong. Right now you need to sleep.”

“It’s not safe,” I mumble, even though it probably is. I’m suddenly so tired I can’t concentrate.

“Sleep. I will keep you safe.”

I do fall asleep, and with Arden watching over me there are no nightmares.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 30

By noon two days later I am sitting outside, waiting for Min. The day after I got back I did nothing but sleep. The whole next night too. Once I woke up, I did get a shower and a cookie, plus a lot of other food. By the time I was done, Mackenna had woken up. Seeing her awake took a huge weight off my shoulders. I stayed with her for a while until Min started pulling at my mind again and I decided to go outside and wait for him. Mackenna offered to come with me, but Amity maintains that she needs more rest.

So now I’ve been waiting for Min for almost an hour, and there’s no sign that he’s even coming.

I have had a lot of time to think, and basically that thinking has consisted of replaying the conversation with my mother over and over again. Specifically the end, when she said she alone didn’t have the power to bring me back. But clearly someone did, because I’m alive.

That must be God or something, what else could it be? I’ve never specifically been a Christian, but now I feel like I kind of have to be. I’ve never really prayed, not that I can think of.

So for the first time in my life, I open myself up and pray.

“Dear God,” I whisper, my eyes closed. “Please, please, please bring Min back to me. Let him get out of Zephyra’s prison okay. Please let him not be injured. Please let him not be dead. Bring him back to me. Please. Amen.”

I hope my prayer is good enough. I’m not even sure if I did it right. But it’s the best I can do.

I wait for a very long time. After a while I see a group of people in the distance, at least five or six of them. My rescue team? Please let Min be with them. Please let Min be okay.

Min is not with them. They seem relieved to see me though, and it takes a while to get anything out of them. Jake, the weapons teacher, is mostly the one who talks to me.

“You’re okay!” Jake says excitedly.

“Yeah. Have you seen Min? Is he with you? Is he alright”

“But…you were poisoned. I thought you were going to die. But you’re okay.”

“Yup. Liz can tell you about it later. But I need to know what happened to the other people on the rescue team. Especially Min. What happened to Min?”

“You’re…alive.”

Now I’m getting irritated. “Yes. We’ve established that. Tell me what happened!”

He blinks like he’s still too stunned to even think right. It takes him another minute to gather his thoughts. “Well, there were still maybe ten people in the prison who were looking for you, and we waited in the woods for them to come back. We tried to get to the other two cars we were going to use to get back, but the soldiers got there first. They blew up the cars, and we were scattered. Everyone lost track of each other. This was the biggest group, I think. We tried to go back for the others, but we couldn’t. Everyone was on their own to get home. I guess we’re the first people to arrive?”

I nod. “Did you walk back?”

He nods, glances at the watch. “It took us almost the whole time to get back. We haven’t slept in all that time. We wanted to get back as quickly as possible so we could find out if you were okay. We….”

He stumbles then, and I feel a rush of sympathy. “Go inside,” I say. “Sleep. You did a good job.”

The five people stagger inside, and it’s only then that the fear hits. Min is still out there somewhere, possibly unconscious, probably injured, and definitely alone. Maybe dead.

No. That can’t be it. If he were dead, I would know. I would know. Right?

Over the next five hours, people come. They come in ones and twos and threes. Each one sends a pang through me. First because from a distance they all look like Min, and second because for every three that return, one doesn’t.

They sacrificed their lives for mine, and I have done nothing, can do nothing for them. I’m sure I would be crying, but after the torture, the poison and last night, I simply have no tears left. There’s only a burning in my throat and eyes and chest, and the terrible guilt that leaves me bent over, barely able to breathe. And the emptiness in my chest, where there used to be something and now it is gone. I realize part of what’s missing is innocence. For the first time I see the world as it really is. A world of sharp angles and hollow hearts and broken things. A world of pain.

After a while, Mackenna comes out too. She just sits next to me, knowing there’s nothing she can say. But at least she is someone. I am no longer alone with the guilt and emptiness. And I am desperately glad she’s okay.

When it gets dark, Amity makes me go back inside. She says my body is still weak, and Mackenna’s too. She won’t let us stay outside to catch pneumonia or the flu or who knows what else. She won’t let us kill ourselves, waiting out here for someone who might never return.

I sleep fitfully that night, but I don’t have nightmares. At least, if I do I don’t remember them. I wake up as early as I can and go back outside, wrapping myself in a blanket to ward off the cold.

Mackenna waits with me again that day. We talk a little bit, but not much.

A few people are coming back still, but not many. Most of the people got back late yesterday, even a few who were injured, though all the injured people who returned were with someone else. It’s been over three days now, by tonight it will have been four. There are still at least five people missing.

It is for all of them, not just for Min, that I sit outside and wait the next day, the fifth day.

The time comes when Min could have gotten home, even if he was injured. Mackenna and I both know it, but neither of us says anything.

Amity comes out to bring us food. Neither of us touches it. She begs us to come back inside, but we won’t.

“When it gets dark tonight, I’ll come in.” I don’t mean just for tonight. When it gets dark, I will stop waiting. By that time Min will have either already come back, or he won’t be coming back at all.

And suddenly I can’t take it anymore. Arden says I am strong enough, but I’m not. I’m not. Cold washes over me, and I shiver. I can’t stop.

Mackenna folds me into a hug, holding me against her. I stiffen at first. It’s been a long time since I’ve been hugged like that, and I almost forgot what it feels like. But then I melt into her, and she holds me tightly, holds me up.

The shadows have just started to lengthen when I see him. The sun is setting behind him, so for a second I can’t see his face. But my heart knows. In one smooth, simultaneous motion, Mackenna and I both get to our feet and start running toward him.

Fear pounds through me, because he’s staggering in the way only an injured person does. Like he can barely stay on his feet anymore. But it’s even more than that. It’s confused, drunken almost. From blood loss maybe, or infection.

But then as he collapses I see it’s none of those things. It’s worse. It’s his head.

The wound on his head is bruised and swollen, but at least it’s not bleeding. I think this is good, until I see that his eyes are unfocused. He can’t walk, and he doesn’t seem to recognize me.

I get a split second view of his caramel eyes. They don’t quite meet mine. I don’t think he’s really even awake anymore.

And then they close.

 

 

CHAPTER 31

“Amity! Amity!” I scream. Mackenna grabs him, and I hurry to help her. We meet Amity on the grass. She lays him out, murmuring under her breath.

“Was this caused by magic?” she demands.

“I…I don’t know.”

Her eyes are worried. “Pray that it isn’t.”

I don’t know if she means to pray literally, but I do. It makes me feel like I’m doing something as she checks his pulse and gathers her magic. She lowers her hands onto the wound, covering it up so I can’t see if it’s healing or not. My hands are shaking.

Everything comes down to this moment. If the wound was not caused by magic, she will be able to heal him completely, and he will be fine. If it was, he will probably die here. He’s too dehydrated, too sick and injured and worn down after almost a week of traveling, to make it if he can’t be healed.

The wound was not caused my magic. It heals, and when he opens his eyes they are focused and alert. Relief courses through me, so thick and heady it almost makes me go limp. Thank God. Thank God, thank God, thank God. Min is okay.

He immediately stands up. I know magic healing makes some people dizzy, he either doesn’t feel the effects or just isn’t showing it. But either way it doesn’t matter. Mackenna and I hug him.

“What happened?” I ask. “How did you get back?”

He flushes suddenly. “I…I tried to go back for Tala. But she wasn’t in her cell. I know it was stupid. I could have gotten killed, I could have jeopardized the mission. But…I had to see if she was okay.

“I was outside the cell when one of the soldiers saw me. We fought, and he knocked my head against the wall. That’s what this is from.” He touches the place where his head was injured, and seems almost surprised to find that it’s fine now.

“I turned into a wolf and killed him. Then I ran. By the time I got to the place where we were supposed to meet, everyone else was gone. I figured I should probably try to get to the School, so I just started walking. I had to rest a lot. But I ended up back here eventually.”

“Min,” I whisper, “I am so glad you did.”

I wish I could stay by Min all night. But that’s not something someone does for their best guy friend, no matter how close they are. No matter how much she likes him. Seeing him in a normal setting is reminding me again what we really are to each other. Good friends, nothing more, nothing less. Staying by someone’s side while they heal is a privilege reserved for girlfriends, or family members, maybe. I am neither.

I wonder suddenly if Min does have a girlfriend now. He liked someone, and he was thinking about telling them on the day I got captured. Maybe he asked them out, sometime in the seven weeks that I was gone. The thought sends a pang through me.

But he can’t possibly have a girlfriend, right? They would have been waiting for him, with me, all those days that he was gone. If he does have one, and she wasn’t waiting, then she’s a crappy girlfriend. She doesn’t deserve him.

Maybe he asked someone out and got rejected. I don’t know how I would feel about that. I don’t want Min to be unhappy, obviously. But it’s not like I want him to have a different girlfriends either.

But all I know for sure is that I am not his girlfriend, and I cannot stay by his side all night. So now Mackenna and I are in our shared room, sitting on our respective beds, not talking. Mackenna is making little balls of fire that explode in poofs of smoke. She keeps sending sidelong glances at me, like she’s afraid I might pass out or something.

“Hey do you want to watch a movie or something tonight?” I ask after a while. It’s been too long since I’ve done anything like that. Anything, you know, fun.

“I said I would do something with Ryan….” She trails off, looking over at me, waiting for a reaction.

She gets one. “Ryan?”

“We’re dating,” she says. “I forgot you didn’t know.” She bites her lip, which means she’s lying. Of course she knew I didn’t know. She just wasn’t sure how to tell me. “It…it happened while you…weren’t here.”

It’s taking me a little while to process this fully. “You and Ryan are…dating?” I repeat, just to make sure I’m getting it straight. It seems a little weird that I didn’t know my best friend had a boyfriend. It seems weird that life moved on while I was in prison.

Mackenna nods.

“How did that happen?”

“Um, well, after you were gone I was really sad. For like a week I didn’t really eat or anything. No one knew what to say or how to make me feel better. I spent some time with Min, but mostly I was by myself.

“One night Ryan and I were both staying over at the School. He saw me sitting by myself so he came over to talk to me. We started out talking about you, but then we talked about other things. We talked for hours, about stuff that doesn’t matter, and about important stuff too. We talked about everything. It was…so easy.

“After that, we went into the courtyard and he kissed me. And we’ve kind of been dating ever since then. I guess we never really officially talked about it, but we’ve done stuff together, like gone to movies and stuff. I mean, it’s only been like a month. And….” She pauses. “I’m going to cancel with him tonight. You and I need to hang out. We haven’t seen each other in forever. I think he’s at the School, just let me go find him.”

She leaves, and I am alone. I’m happy for Mackenna. She’s liked Ryan for almost as long as I’ve liked Min. They deserve each other. They both deserve to be happy.

But even as I think it, I know I’m also being ripped apart be another feeling. Jealousy. I deserve to be happy too. I have sacrificed as much as she has. I killed Tempeste, I have spent almost two months in prison, I have [_died _]for this war. But somehow she gets to make out with her crush while my crush and I are nothing more than good friends, siblings practically.

The truth is, I have never been asked out. Not even once. I guess it kind of makes sense. Before I was adopted, I was too painfully shy, and it was too likely I would move. Also, I wasn’t very pretty. Now, I’m more confident, but also more busy. And I can’t imagine ever being in a relationship with a boy who doesn’t have magic. I also can’t imagine being in a relationship with a boy who doesn’t have caramel eyes, and can’t turn into a wolf, and doesn’t have that perfect smile, and….

I want Min. I want love. I want someone to kiss me and listen to me and look at me like I matter to him. I want what Mackenna has. I don’t know exactly what it is I want.

I feel like I should be practicing magic or something while I wait for Mackenna. To take my mind off things, and because I can’t afford to be captured again. I can’t survive being captured again. But I’m pretty strong at plants, water, and light energy, and it’s not like I can practice being a thorn without poisoning someone.

But there is one thing. As soon as it occurs to me, I try to brush it out of my mind. But still, it keeps prickling at the back of my thoughts, like an itch I can’t scratch.

When I was with my mother, in the dream world, I was a jaguar. I still remember the feeling of being sleek and powerful, the feeling of the ground beneath the pads of my feet, of having ears on top of my head. The feeling of having a tail.

I close my eyes and stretch out along my bed. I remember the feeling of being a jaguar. I finally understand what Min was trying to explain to me all this time. The way you can’t just pretend to be your animal, you have to actually be your animal. The way you just have to open up and let it in.

And so I do.

 

 

CHAPTER 32

I know it worked without even checking. I don’t feel myself stretch or change or anything. But when I open my eyes, everything looks different. Colors are muted, but other random details stand out. The way water sounds rushing through the pipes in the wall. The softness of the carpet. The faint, stale smell of a room that isn’t as clean as it could be.

It takes me about thirty seconds to get used to my new body. I stretch each limb, twitch my ears, blink. Then I leap off the bed and land almost silently on the floor.

Just then, Mackenna opens the door and screams. Her shout startles me, and I react using my cat instincts. I leap at her, landing on her bed with a snarl. She screams again, and this time it brings me back to myself.

I turn back to human with a gasp. I’m too close to the edge of her bed, and I overbalance and fall to the floor. I sit up, still breathing hard.

“Aubrey! Are you okay?”

But I’ve already turned back into a jaguar. This time I’m prepared for the way my senses and instincts are different. I feel wild, powerful. Feelings of worry and fear have fallen away, and feelings like anger are sharper. I want to run or jump. I want to take action. I’m not going to sit in my room and wait for things to happen around me.

Mackenna starts to walk toward me, moving slowly and cautiously like she’s afraid I might bite her. I won’t, of course, but I’m not going to let her pet me or anything either. I lunge toward the doorway, slinking through the crack before bolting down the hallway. I can hear Mackenna calling behind me, but I don’t turn around.

I can hear someone at the opposite end of the hallway. My acute cat hearing picks up sounds my normal hearing would never be able to. Somehow, by the pattern of the footsteps, the sound of the breathing, I can tell it’s Paige.

“Aubrey! Aubrey!” she calls as she turns the corner. She catches sight of me and screams. What is it about seeing a jaguar that makes people yell like that?

Again, my first instinct is to chase down whatever it is making all that noise. My feline muscles ripple under my smooth fur. I spring forward, then realize what I’m doing and skid to a stop. Paige is running backward.

I morph up into a human, easily standing and catching my balance. Paige looks startled, her eyes are as wide and round as quarters. I notice with relief that my clothes are just exactly the way they were before, like I never changed into a jaguar. That’s pretty convenient.

“Oh, Aubrey…um, hi,” Paige says. “I was just looking for you. I have to tell you something. Wait, were you just, um….”

“Yes,” I say impatiently. I’m not in the mood for a lot of explaining. “What do you have to tell me?”

“Oh, right. That.” She trails off, still staring at me. It’s like she thinks I’m about to sprout fur and fangs at any moment. “But you just….”

I sigh and allow myself to fall into a jaguar for the third time. I turn, letting her see my limbs, my tail, my sleek, spotted coat. I relish in my jaguar senses. I can hear Paige’s rapid breathing. I can’t tell what color shirt she’s wearing, but I can focus in on the almost imperceptible pulse in her throat.

I don’t feel like changing back and forth anymore, so I sit down. I wrap my tail neatly around my paws. Paige will tell me the news when she’s ready.

She finally gets her bearings, but she’s still kind of giving me a weird look. “Right, well, I was coming up here to tell you that Min’s awake. He’s downstairs with some of the other teachers. They’re having a meeting or something, and they want you to be there. Mackenna too.”

I turn back into a human and stand. “I’ll go down there now. Will you get Mackenna for me?” She nods.

I turn to leave, then stop. I give her a quick hug. “Thank you,” I whisper. And I don’t just mean for getting Mackenna.

“You scared me.”

“I’m sorry.”

She smiles. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

We break apart and both go our separate ways down the hallway. I remember that Min is awake and waiting for me downstairs, and start to run. I wish he were as excited to see me as I am to see him, but it can’t be helped. Maybe someday.

I can vaguely feel the pressure of a small group of people on my consciousness. I burst into the room. Everyone turns to stare at me. In the past I would have looked down, but now I meet their stares, challenging them. I knew most of these people even before I became the Lost Princess. Before I came back from the dead. I have nothing to be ashamed of.

I knew I would be surrounded by a fair amount of rumor and mystery, but I didn’t realize how much it would affect even the people close to me. Even Liz’s expression is tinged with awe. Min is the only one who looks normal, just genuinely happy to see me. I sit down next to him, and he smiles at me. And I know that he did miss me, a lot, even if it’s not the way I want him to.

The long pause starts to become awkward. Mackenna walks in, looks around without saying anything, and sits down. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable, like I did something wrong.

“You died,” one of the teachers says. “You were dead. And you came back to life.”

I wait patiently for her to get to the point of the story. But she doesn’t.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m clearly not dead anymore.”

“But you were.”

“I was. I talked to my mother. And now I can do this.”

I leap onto the table, changing into a jaguar, scattering papers and pencils everywhere. Mackenna buries her head in her hands, like she knew I was going to do this and is embarrassed by me. Min stiffens in shock, then turns into a wolf and jumps up to join me. We touch noses. I like the way he smells with my new senses. It makes me tremble with pleasure. I hope he doesn’t notice.

I also notice with some amusement that I am now bigger than him by at least twenty pounds. My paws are at least twice the size of his. He’s bushier though, and his fur is thicker and longer.

I realize I’m standing on a table with Min in the middle of a potentially important meeting. I self-consciously flip back to human and sit down.

Liz gasps. “Aubrey. You’re…you’re a shifter.”

“Um, yeah. That probably wasn’t the best time for that. But I am a full shifter now.”

Murmurs run through the room like the whispers of fire. Min smiles. He looks almost giddily happy, like a small chid with a new birthday present. I can’t help but grin excitedly back.

Liz seems a little flustered, but I can tell she is trying to get the attention off me and back onto whatever they were doing before. I realize I have no idea what they’ve actually been talking about. But as soon as Liz starts talking, Min tenses up.

She’s using so many code words and techniques I haven’t heard of that I can barely understand what she’s talking about. But then finally it clicks. They’re talking about Tala. They’re talking about breaking her out of prison.

“When is this happening?” I finally interrupt.

“As soon as possible.”

“As soon as possible, like tomorrow? Because I’m not sure if I feel well enough to go back there yet. It might be better if we wait a few days.”

“Oh you’re not going. This is a no student mission. And we’ll be keeping an eye on those we think might sneak in anyway.” She glares at Min and Mackenna.

And then what Liz is saying really sinks in. I will not be going on the mission to rescue Tala. I will stay here, alone and discarded, while everyone else goes off to rescue my friend.

“What? No! I can’t stay here. I want to go.”

Apparently Min and Mackenna hadn’t been told that they weren’t going either. Min stands up, looking affronted.

“I’m going too!”

“Neither of you are going. It’s too dangerous, and you’re too weak. We will rescue Tala without you.”

“I have to go with you,” Min says, and something in his voice makes me believe he actually does[_ have_] to go. “Tay’s my cousin. And I left her behind. I have to go back. I can’t just leave her there!”

“You did what you had to do, Min. If you had gone back for Tala, Aubrey would have died.”

“I….” He trails off, but his unfinished answer hangs in the air. He had to choose between Tala and me. He chose me. But I think I can hear the faintest note of regret in his voice.

My reason for wanting to go on the mission is not as personal, although I do want to help my friend. But mostly I’m just burning with anger at not being included. I have more magic than all of the adults here. I’m the only one who’s actually been imprisoned before. I’m sixteen now. Too old to be treated like a child who can’t make her own decisions.

“I think I should be able to go,” I say, using my most calm and mature voice. “I’m the most powerful person here. I know my way around the prison. You might not even succeed without me.”

“Sorry Aubrey, but you’re too important to risk.”

“It’s not fair, I want to come….”

“Aubrey, stop.” This time the voice is Mackenna’s. “She’s right. We…we can’t lose you again.”

“But I want to help Tala.”

“Aubrey, you can’t,” Liz says. “We need you to stay here. Safe.”

“Stop telling me what I can’t do!” I scream, suddenly furious. “You’re not in charge of me. You’re not my mother!”

 

 

CHAPTER 33

As soon as I say the words, I wish I could take them back. Liz recoils from me. Hurt flashes sharply across her face.

“Liz, wait, I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant….”

“We’ll talk about this later,” she hisses. Then she gets up and walks out of the room.

I sit down, trembling. Guilt rushes over me. Liz is the only mother I’ve ever known. She has treated me like her own daughter, she has loved me. She has been one of the only consistencies in my life these past months. And I missed her desperately while I was in prison. How could I say something like that to her?

I don’t pay attention to the rest of the meeting. People ask me specific questions about my imprisonment, but I give clipped, one-word answers. Eventually I bury my head in my arms, and Mackenna leads me back to our room. Once she leaves to go back to the meeting, I just lie on my bed and sob.

I guess I’m still a little fragile. Everything seems to be going wrong. I can’t do anything right, and I’m pushing people away without even trying. I do really want to help Tala. But I also wish there was someone there to help me. I am only sixteen. This is all too much.

I remember the feeling of my mother, holding me against her just like a mother should. I want that now. But I want to grow up too. I don’t want to need it. But I still do.

I want to prove that I am strong enough to be the Princess, that I can carry the weight of the world all by myself. I want to be special. But I also want to be a normal high schooler. I could be going to dances and parties. My biggest worries could be hard classes. I could be learning to drive. And maybe I could meet a boy. A non-magical boy, one who’s not always risking his life, not always inches away from death. One who liked me as much as I liked him.

But that is not me. This is my life, through good and through bad. There’s nothing I can do to change it, even though sometimes I desperately want to. I curl into a jaguar and imagine I’m safe, that my mother is holding me again.

When I wake up I can tell I’m not alone in the room. Mackenna is gone, though. I can see her empty, unslept-in bed. Maybe she met with Ryan after all.

Liz is sitting on the end of my bed. I flinch away from her, look down at my bed. I’m afraid to see the anger in her eyes. Afraid to see her hard arms closed against me.

But when I look up, I see her face is filled with sadness. It pours into me, breaking me. Soft pain builds in my eyes and throat. I bite the inside of my lip.

I want to beg for forgiveness, to wrap myself in Liz’s arms and allow myself to be frightened. But more than that I want to prove that I am strong. I hold my ground, swallowing back my tears. Blinking hard. For Tala.

“You were right,” she says, and even her voice sounds defeated. “You passed your test with one of the best scores I’ve ever seen. You should be allowed to go. We can’t shelter you forever.” Her voice rises. “I can’t protect all of you. All my children.” She gestures grandly, her arms encompassing me, the room, the School.

“I just want to keep you safe. I want to protect all of you. But I can’t do it forever. It’s not fair to you, and it’s not fair to myself.

“If I could, I would take away all your pain. I would take it for myself, because it would be a thousand times better than seeing you get hurt. I want the road of life to be smooth for you. I want it all to be simple and easy and wonderful. I want you to be innocent of all the evil in this world. But your innocence was never mine to keep. Too much responsibility rests on your shoulders. I have to stop pretending that keeping you close to me will keep you from harm.

“You will always be my daughter, and I will always love you. But you can grow up. You can make your own decisions. You can choose if you want to go on Tala’s mission. Just….” Her voice cracks. “Never mind.”

“Wait,” I say. “I don’t think that’s what I wanted.” And then I start really crying.

Liz tentatively reaches out, touching my shoulder. Then she pulls me forward into a hug, rocking me back and forth, holding me against her as I cry. Her chin rests on top of my head. I can hear her breathing, feel her slow, resting heartbeat. I let myself relax.

“I wish it could go away.” I’m not even totally sure what I mean by “it”, just everything, I guess. The pain and the pressure and the constant fear.

Liz seems to understand. “I know,” she whispers. “And I wish I could take it away from you.”

I just stay there for a long time. After a while, all my tears are used up. I leave the hug, and the warmth, and the safety. Time to face the real world again.

“I can turn into a jaguar now,” I sniffle. In case she hasn’t noticed. “Like all the way. I’m normal, though. Not white or big or anything.”

“I know. I saw you, remember?”

“Yeah.”

We stay silent for a few moments.

“Are you going to tell Min the same thing you told me? That he can make his own decisions now too?”

“No,” she says simply. “Anything Min wants to do, he’ll do, and probably drag you and Mackenna along with him. Telling him he’s officially allowed to won’t change anything, unless it makes it worse. He’s been pushing against me like this for as long as I’ve known him. It’s nothing new.”

“What about Paige?”

“No!” she says, fiercely this time. “Maybe I can still protect her. Keep her from harm. I won’t change that, not if I can help it.”

“So it’s just me.” I smile. It almost feels like we’re sharing something private, just between Liz and me.

“I’m going on the mission to rescue Tala,” I say after a while. “I don’t want to hurt you, and believe it or not, I also don’t want to die. But this is something I have to do.”

“I know.”

Suddenly, I’m exhausted. My eyelids open and close sluggishly. I’ve slept almost twice the amount I normally do since I’ve gotten back, but I’m still catching up. Even after almost a week I’m still physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. I lie back again and am asleep almost instantly. But this time, I don’t have to pretend that someone is holding me.

 

 

CHAPTER 34

The teachers decide to launch the rescue mission for Tala two weeks from the day I got back. They’re hoping some of the security will have at least started to relax by then. Personally, I don’t think it will get back to normal for months. Maybe never.

But we can’t wait that long. Tala was dying anyway, and now that I’ve escaped they’ll probably be torturing her even more. Another thing that I can feel guilty about.

Our only advantage is that our plan of attack is completely different. This time, we will have a small group of no more than five teachers to actually rescue Tala. A larger group will wait farther behind as back up. That is the group that I will be part of.

Mackenna and Min will not be part of the mission. Even though Liz is not making decisions based only on our safety anymore, she still wants to give the mission its best chance of success. The only reason I’m included is because I’m intimately familiar with the inside of the prison. Mackenna and Min don’t have this advantage.

Mackenna doesn’t seem that upset. She never expected to be on the mission, and she doesn’t have the personal connection that Min or I have. The only thing she’s mad about is that she won’t be there to protect me, and I might get hurt.

Min is understandably distraught. He wants to go on the mission more than I’ve ever seen him want anything. It hurts me to see him so upset. I want to help him, but I’m not sure how.

Min, the only other full shifter at the School, has also been teaching me how to control my new power better. Generally, using my jaguar instincts are, well, instinctive, but there’s so much more to it than that. I can make my jaguar senses stronger, giving me better sight, hearing, power, balance. It’s a trade-off though. It takes more energy to fully use my new senses, and if I stay like that too long I start to lose touch with my human instincts.

It’s much more natural for me to allow my jaguar nature to graze my consciousness, keeping them carefully in the back of my mind. I don’t get as many benefits, but I don’t lose myself. I can still feel my jaguar senses, but they don’t control me.

Apparently every shifter uses their animal senses slightly differently. Min tell me I am more like Tala, that even when I’m in jaguar form, my emotions, instincts, behaviors are still naturally quite human. Min says that he feels the change more, his wolf instincts take control more than his human instincts do. He doesn’t say it, but I know that’s why he rarely changes except during battle.

Min is spending most of his time teaching me to distract himself from Tala, but I’m still struggling to recover. My stomach seems to have shrunk, and I can only manage one or two small meals a day. I have nightmares almost every night. I’m also still almost painfully weak, and the time I don’t spend with Min I spend trying to get my strength and endurance back up to normal.

Even though I love spending time with Min, having him constantly asking me to become a jaguar really isn’t helping. When he comes into my room at almost eleven telling me I have to practice moving my tail, I know something has to change.

“Min, I don’t want to do this all the time. It’s the middle of the night. I’m trying to sleep. And why does it matter if I can move my tail?”

He blinks. “I…I guess it really doesn’t. I just thought…I guess I just wanted to do something.”

I smile. “That’s what I thought. And you know what? I’ve decided to help you.”

“Help me distract myself?”

“No. Help you get on the mission to rescue Tala.”

“How?” I can see his carefully-contained excitement, etched into his every movement, every fleeting expression on his face.

“I don’t even think it will be that hard. Most of the teachers from this school are in the smaller first group. That means you should be able to sneak into the second group without too much trouble. You won’t actually be on the smaller rescue mission, but it’s the best I can do.”

For a second I think he’s going to hug me, and my heart speeds up wildly. But he just stands there. “I…thanks, Aubrey,” he says.

I have to hide the tiny shiver that goes through me when he says my name. I want to reach out to him. I have to clench my hands into fists to keep them at my sides. I want physical contact with him. And I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this. If something doesn’t happen soon, I know I’m going to snap, and tell him everything, and then our friendship will be broken.

I force myself to ignore those feelings. I make a few brief plans with Min, then he leaves. He can sleep now. He doesn’t need to be distracted. I’m glad he’s happier, but somehow it makes me feel worse. I was only there to help him cope with Tala. Just a distraction.

Why does love have to hurt so much?

Getting Min onto the mission is easier than even I imagined. There are five vans that will take everybody, each departing from the School fifteen minutes apart. Min hides in the trunk of the fifth one, under a pile of supplies.

I help him get settled in the trunk almost three hours before they are supposed to leave. This is the only tricky part. If anyone checks the trunk, he will easily be discovered.

Nobody does. Min’s hiding place stays undisturbed. I get into the van, and soon we’re on the road. I’m less than a foot away from Min, and I can almost feel his presence. I wish we could talk. The rest of the car is silent, and it makes me anxious.

We have to stop about five miles from the border of the prison. It’s surrounded by hills, one of which everyone will have to climb. Then the members of the more elite mission will keep going, while the rest of us wait on the hill and watch for signs of trouble. We won’t be close enough that we’ll be spotted by guards or anything. We’re really more of a fail safe.

Everyone gets out of the van and Min slips into the crowd as it mills around. Nobody is really paying attention to the people there, but he still tries to stay away from any teachers from our school who would recognize him. It’s dark by now, so that helps too. Nobody stops him.

I try to keep an eye on Min as we run through the forest. I’m worried that when he sees the prison he might do something dangerous. I don’t want him to get hurt or jeopardize the mission.

I catch a flash of silver fur a few paces ahead of me, off to the right. I run faster to catch up with him. When he sees me, he turns smoothly into a human without breaking stride. We run side by side, our footsteps keeping time with each other.

The forest ends abruptly. All of a sudden we’re almost to the top of a bare hill, bathed in moonlight. I feel uncomfortably exposed.

Jake, the weapons teacher, catches sight of Min. “What’s he doing here?” he asks me.

“I…um….”

“I was added to the mission at the last minute. To look out for Aubrey,” Min lies smoothly. Jake nods. It’s believable, Min goes on lots of missions and Liz knows we make a good team. And it is Min’s cousin we’re trying to rescue.

We slow down as we approach the top of the hill, and just before we go over it we stop completely. I lie flat down, pressing my body into the damp grass. I inch closer to the top of the hill. I let my eyes go above it, trying to catch sight of the prison, trying not to be seen by any guards. My heart is pounding in my throat. A big part of me doesn’t want to see the prison again. A big part of me wants to turn around and go back to the vans now, before it’s too late.

But I don’t do that. I ease myself over the hill. I gasp.

Because the prison is gone. All that’s left is a big dirt rectangle, and already grass is starting to grow over that. There’s no building, no cells, no chain link fence. Nothing.

Nothing at all.

 

 

CHAPTER 35

I’m so stunned by what I’m seeing, that for a second I forget about Min. But suddenly he’s on his feet, lunging past me, flying down the hill.

“No!” I scream, racing after him. What if there are still prison guards down there? But the night remains still and silent.

Min is a wolf at the bottom of the hill and he howls, a terrible, keening, broken sound. I change into a jaguar and run headlong down the steep slope. I barely keep my balance. The loose dirt almost sends me tumbling. No one else has reacted yet, the only two people who have breached the hill are me and Min.

He hears me coming and turns his head. Even though he is a wolf, his eyes have very human emotion. They are full of so much pain I can’t bear it. And then he turns away and starts running. I race after him, afraid of what he might do.

I catch up to him and knock him over. He rolls sideways onto the dirt square where the prison was. I leap onto him, pinning him down. Then I realize he’s turned into human. I tumble off so I don’t crush him.

When I look up he’s kneeling dejectedly, his whole body streaked with mud. His head hangs against his chest. His shoulders slope. He barely seems to be breathing. He looks broken, damaged somehow. I don’t know how to help him.

“She’s gone,” he whispers. He picks up a handful of dirt and stares into it, as if he’s trying to read an answer there. “Why?”

“They must have moved the prison after I…after you guys freed me. They wouldn’t have wanted us to know where all their most important prisoners were kept.”

His caramel eyes meet mine, wild, panicked almost. “Tala!” His scream cuts through the darkness, so unexpected that it scares me. “Tay! Where are you?”

Immediately he claps his hand over his mouth. The scream was his one moment of weakness. He forgot for a second that drawing any attention to ourselves is dangerous. But normally he’s always aware of things like that. He will not forget again.

More people are starting to come down the hill, slowly, apprehensively. They are worried it’s a trap. I would worry too, if Min and I weren’t already here. Haven’t we proved it’s not? There is nothing but emptiness here.

“She’s gone.” His expression is stunned. Like he just got the breath knocked out of him.

All of a sudden he looks up from the patch of earth directly in front of him. “I could have saved her.”

I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. It’s not the words themselves that hurt, but the implied message. That if I hadn’t been there, he could have gotten her out. That he chose me or her. And he regrets choosing me.

I’m about to say something to him, but all of a sudden it starts pouring rain.

“Back to the forest!” someone from up on the hill screams. “There’s nothing for us here.”

There’s nothing for us here.

I start sprinting toward the shelter of the trees, but then I realize Min is not with me. He is still on the ground, watching the dirt around him slowly turn to mud.

“Come on. We need to move.” I grab his hand and drag him backward. We run up through the rain, not slowing when we get to the hill. Before long we’re in the shelter of the trees.

It’s raining so hard that the trees branches aren’t really stopping the water. I knit them into a little roof above our head. I make it so tight that no water can get through the cracks. Then I pull the water away from the ground so it is dry. I look around for everyone else, but I don’t see them. We can find them after the storm.

I sit on the ground and draw my knees up to my chest. Min sits next to me. I doesn’t say anything, but I look over at him. His T-shirt is soaked through and clinging to his chest. The water has made his hair a tiny bit too long, and it falls in his eyes. He shakes his head like a wet dog so his hair sticks up all over the place. I could pull the water away from his clothes and hair, and I’m about to do it without asking, but something stops me.

“Do you regret it?” I finally ask.

“Regret what?”

“Saving me…instead of Tala.”

He turns slightly away. “It was the hardest decision of my life.”

I search him with my eyes, wanting, needing, more.

His tawny eyes meet mine. He enunciates each word clearly. “I don’t regret it at all.”

Then, without quite understanding what happened, I’m in his arms, looking into his eyes, which are full of pain and something else.

I’m hot all over. Each place his body touches mine feels like it’s charged with electricity. I want more of it, and I press myself closer to him, still looking into his face.

And then his mouth is pressed against mine.

I can feel his lips, a little chapped and tasting of rain and pine needles and salt. His kiss is impossibly gentle, hesitant almost.

I grab the back of his head and pull him closer to me, our bodies pressed together, our arms locked. A wave of heat washes over me, and I close my eyes, trembling with pleasure.

I’m not sure how long we stay like that, but however long it is, it’s not enough. We finally break apart. My knees give way and I fall backward. His arms are the only things keeping me standing. I realize I’m lightheaded, and it’s only then that I remember to breathe. Min is gasping too. We both look at each other for a long time.

“I’m sorry” he says, breathing hard. “Was that okay?” He turns away shyly.

In answer I twine my arms around him again, and this time our kiss is slow and gentle. I don’t want it to be over either, but again we have to break apart. We both sit down on the forest floor. I’m not looking at him, but I can’t stop smiling.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my entire life. I think I might be about to start crying. I feel like I’m dreaming. This very well could be a dream. Because I can’t even count the number of times I’ve dreamed of this moment. I’m finally living my perfect dream, my love story, my fairy tale.

“I thought we were friends,” I say after awhile. I hope he doesn’t think I’m complaining, because I’m definitely not. But I’m confused. I’ve spent all these months crying over what I felt and he didn’t, and now it’s over, just like that.

He looks over at me, and I can’t quite read his expression. “We were. It wasn’t until you were captured that I realized how much…how much you meant to me.”

“Oh,” I say. It’s not like I’m complaining, but that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted the sort of ending where we’ve both loved each other ever since we first laid eyes on each other, and we’ve both just been too shy to act on it. I have had more time for the love to build up. Now I will always be under his control, because I love him more than he loves me. He can leave me, but I can never leave him.

I start crying then, and I wipe frustratedly at my eyes. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I can’t leave him, because I don’t want to anyways. It might take a little time, but I’m sure eventually he’ll feel the same way about me that I do about him. Probably. But right now, it doesn’t matter. I can just sit here, perfectly content, listening to him breathe beside me.

I’m suddenly so happy that I’m terrified I’m dreaming. I’ll wake up and this will all be gone. That is the way it always has been, every single time.

But no. If I were dreaming, I wouldn’t be able to feel the wet grass below me, hear the water dripping through the trees, see it beaded on Min’s lashes. If I were dreaming I wouldn’t be able to hear the sound of our ragged breathing, feel the ghost of heat on my lips. If I were dreaming we wouldn’t both be covered in mud and sweat and tears.

If I were dreaming we would have rescued Tala.

“So what happens now?” he finally asks.

“We’ll wait here until it stops raining, then we’ll go find everyone else from the mission,” I say, but I know what he means. And I don’t know how to answer.

“I mean between us. When we go back. What’s going to happen?”

I’m suddenly exhausted. “I don’t know. One of us could die. I probably will die. I…I can’t really imagine myself surviving all this. I really like you, but honestly, I don’t really have time to date someone right now. But I don’t want to lose you.”

He grabs my hand. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”

“I trust you.”

We just sit there like that for while. I’m thinking only of him, and I know he’s thinking of me, but also of Tala. Then I start thinking about her too. I wish she was here. Well not[_ here_], with Min and I in this private moment, but safe. I wish she was here and safe and now we don’t even know where she is.

After a while it stops raining, and I have to stop staring at Min. I also have to let go of his hand, and the place where it was feels cold without it.

We walk through the still, wet woods, looking for the rest of the mission. We finally find them, huddled together in a clearing. I realize my hair is a mess, tangled around the back of my head. I flush and smooth it down self-consciously.

Nobody seems to notice. I’m suddenly glad Mackenna wasn’t included on the mission. She definitely would have said something.

“Good,” Jake says. “Now that everyone’s back, we can head back to the School.”

On the way here, everyone was deadly focused and buzzing with nervous energy, but now the atmosphere is gloomy. The gray clouds tumble and roll overhead, and no one says anything. We all know the mission was a failure, and Tala and the other prisoners are suffering because of it.

The journey here seemed to take hours, but the return journey goes by in a blink. I’m almost numb. The only thing I’m aware of is Min, and his every movement in relation to mine. I smile to myself, because he makes me happy. Because he likes me, at least he does now. Because we kissed.

As I suspected, as soon as we get to the School, Mackenna knows something happened.

“Did you get Tala?” she asks.

I shake my head. “Not now.” I mouth, and point subtly at Min. I don’t want her words to break him again. She starts to nod, pauses, and squints at me. “What happened to you?”

“Later.”

 

 

CHAPTER 36

The next day Mackenna sits cross-leg on the bed opposite me, resting her chin in her hand. Her brown eyes focus on me, the faintest smile plays along her lips. It’s the first time we’ve been able to be alone together. She went to a movie with Ryan the first night I got back, and I’ve had to explain everything that happened during the mission to Liz, including why Min was on it. I think she’s a little mad that I went behind her back, but what can she do? All the normal things like taking away my car keys or my phone or grounding me wouldn’t work. She can’t punish me because I have nothing left for her to take.

“So, you and Min?” Mackenna says, her voice almost teasing.

“How did you guess?” I mean to say it serious, but then I remember the way his hand felt against my back, running my fingers through his hair, his lips pressed against mine. I can’t help but smile like an idiot.

“Well, I’ve never seen you so happy. And he’s happy too, even though you failed in the mission. And you both blush every time you look at each other.”

“Yeah. Min and I….”

“You and Min what? Come on Aubrey! Details, please!” She throws a pillow at me. I instinctively catch it and whip it back at her. She laughs for a second, but then gets a little more serious. “Aubrey, come on. What happened?”

“He kissed me.”

“He what?”

“He kissed me. Or maybe I kissed him. I don’t remember. And I’m not really sure what the difference is.”

Her jaw drops. I start blushing again.

“Are you guys going out? Where is he? Was it good? Does he like you? Are you in love?”

“Yes. I mean, maybe. I don’t know. What was the first question again?”

“This is so adorable. You guys should go on a date.” She looks around like she expects him to pop out and make himself available right now. “Oh my gosh, you and him and Ryan and I should go on a double date. That would be [_so _]fun. I’ve always wanted to have someone to double date with. I bet you guys are really cute. Where is he?”

“He’s with Liz. And we can’t go on a date right now. I think he’s still upset about Tala. We should leave him alone.”

She blinks. I can tell this isn’t what she would do in my situation. She and Ryan are always together, tell each other everything. But this is my romance, and it is different from hers. And I think Min needs some time to sort out his feelings. I know I do.

Guilt washes over me. Tala is still imprisoned. The prison was moved, now we have no idea where it is, and no way to find it. She could be dying, she could be dead.

And the honest truth is I don’t care. I know it will hurt worse later, like an injury subdued by medicine. But now, my own personal triumph is rendering everyone else’s pain insignificant. My life has turned a corner, and something I’ve wanted for so long is now beautiful and wonderful and real. My dreams are coming true. And nothing else seems to matter.

I’m suddenly exhausted. I need to sleep. I need to find Tala. I need Min, but I don’t think now is the time. I decide sleep is the best option. Mackenna’s not ready, so she goes downstairs, probably to meet Ryan again. I turn off the light, roll over, and try to regulate my breathing.

I’m drifting in and out of sleep, almost there, gently touching its edges before floating away again. I’m twisting, dreaming about everything and anything, sleep like a bubble fragile enough to pop.

All of a sudden a vision lights up the edges of my mind like a fireworks show. It’s only an instant long, and then it fades to blackness again. Slowly it flickers back to life, allowing me only brief glimpses.

What I see turns my throat to ice. Aching panic courses through me. It’s Tala, looking almost healthier than when I last saw her. Healthier, except for the fact that she’s clearly dead. Lying broken on the ground, no longer breathing, golden energy spilling around her like blood.

And then, less than thirty seconds later the vision is gone. My eyes fly open and I have to choke back a scream. My heart thumps painfully in my throat, the blankets tangle around me, damp with sweat. I just had a vision of Tala’s death.

I need to find out how it happened, find a way to prevent it. Because I can’t let her die. Not now, not ever.

I try to calm my racing heart and lungs. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. I have the chills. I feel like I’ve just awoken from a terrifying nightmare which, in a way, I have.

A glimmer of hope lights up the darkness around me. Maybe that’s it. Maybe this is just a nightmare. After thinking about how much danger Tala’s in, I almost wouldn’t be surprised. It could be just a nightmare, something my fevered brain concocted. After all, I am no stranger to nightmares, especially after my imprisonment.

Except I know, deep down inside, that it wasn’t. It was a vision. I don’t get normal nightmares, not like that. Not about things like that. It was too horribly realistic.

I try to push those thoughts back out of my mind. I will not dwell on this. I will not allow it to destroy me. I will find a way to change it, end it, make it better. Everything will be fine. Everything won’t be fine. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I feel like crying. I feel like crawling into a hole and closing my eyes and never waking up again.

I need to find Min. Not because I want to tell him, simply because I want to be with him. I need him. And this was our wonderful, perfect night. I will not allow anything to ruin the night of our dreams. The night I have spent so long waiting for.

But in the end, who am I kidding? Tala is going to die. I saw it. And how could that not ruin our night?

I open the door to go look for Min. But apparently he had the same idea as me, because he’s already standing there. He blushes adorably when he sees me, and my heart does this crazy little jumping thing. I launch myself into his arms, and it is so gratifying to do something I have dreamed about for so long. I smile, and he holds me against him. He is warm and solid, it almost makes me believe everything will be alright. Almost.

I have so many emotions that I actually start to giggle. I can’t remember the last time I giggled. But living out my beautiful fantasy is making me giddy. “What are you doing here?”

“I brought you a picnic.” He holds up a plastic bag, bulging with food.

“It’s the middle of the night.” It’s not what I meant to say, I’m a little flustered.

“Oh, sorry. I just…how about I just go?” I’ve never seen him look so off-balance before, so vulnerable.

I suddenly wonder how much he’s actually dated before. We’ve never talked about it before, except when we’re sort of joking. He’s attractive enough, obviously, but that point when you’re around fourteen and just starting to actually be able to go on dates, was the same time that he was in the plane crash. I’m nervous, because I’ve never done this before, but I think he might be nervous too.

“No, this is fine. This is great. Let’s go into my room.” I blink. I just invited a boy into my room. For a picnic.

I take the quilt off my bed and spread it out on the floor. I absentmindedly smooth it down. My nervous energy needs to go somewhere.

He spreads the picnic out on the blanket. There’s bread and cheese, soda and cookies. I pick up a piece of bread and eat it tentatively, watching Min the whole time. I do love being with Min, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But part of me mourns for the effortless friendship we had before. There’s a touch of awkwardness in the air that I’m not sure how to diffuse.

Min’s left hand is lying unoccupied on the blanket. I have the sharp urge to pick it up. I’m about to hold it back, but then I realize I don’t have to. I can pick it up and hold it with no repercussions. I allow my hand to rest in his, reveling in the glorious freedom, in the contact of our skin.

I take it back. I don’t miss our friendship. This is so much better.

Tala flashes before my eyes again. It’s not a vision this time, just a sharp, painful memory. My breath catches in my throat when I look at Min. They look so much the same. And I should tell him. But I can’t. I can’t ruin this night. And saying anything will make the fear tangible, real. Once I say it, I can’t go back. I can’t go back.

To distract myself, I say something random and unimportant. But somehow I manage to start a conversation. Talking is easy, and soon we’re laughing together. It’s effortless, and beautiful. I takes away the pain, at least for a little while.

That’s the good thing about dating your best friend. We don’t have to slow down and get to know each other. It’s an easy transition, just a different kind of love. It’s so much easier to date someone that you already know, that you already care for more than words can say. How could anyone want to go out with someone whose name isn’t already written all over their heart?

Min was already mine, and I was already his. I have already seen him at his best, through his worst. We know everything about each other, our pasts and our presents are together. Why shouldn’t our futures be too?

Mackenna always made love sound kind of hard, a series of sacrifices made for each other. But this isn’t just easy, it’s absolutely effortless. I smile. How could something that I’ve spent so long imagining be so much better in real life?

Eventually, though, Min has to pack up the picnic and go. I will miss him, even if it’s only for a couple hours. I know it sounds desperate. But when I’m with him, I feel like everything is going to be okay.

Before he leaves, we kiss. It’s gentle, a goodbye kiss, a promise of better things to come. But still, it leaves me filled up with heat, my heart pounding wildly.

I can’t fall asleep now, the heat of Min is still pulsing through me, making me glow. And anyway, I’m afraid that if I close my eyes I will see Tala again.

I’m torn between these two things, beautiful, wonderful Min, and the horror of Tala’s impending death. My mind goes around and around in circles like it’s chasing its own tail, stuck on two things that it can’t do anything to change.

I don’t even notice until the next morning that Mackenna didn’t come back.

 

 

CHAPTER 37

Everything seems brighter the next morning. I convince myself that Tala’s death was only a vision. It will only happen if nothing in the present changes. I will change the present. Probably, if I rescue her, she won’t die. I’m sure that’s it. I just have to change the present.

I remember the picnic with Min last night, the ease of it, the careful kiss. I roll over to tell Mackenna about it, but she’s not there. Her sheets are still as rumpled as they were when she left last night.

I’m momentarily confused, but I soon forget about it. She must have slept in someone else’s room or stayed downstairs the entire night. Maybe she even went back to her father’s house. Or…something. I’m sure she’s fine. I don’t have enough room in my heart to worry about her too.

I leave to get breakfast. Rowan and Paige are sitting together at a table and I go sit by them.

“Hey, have you seen Mackenna?” I ask casually. I don’t want to act worried yet. Not when I’m sure there’s nothing wrong.

They completely ignore the question. Paige looks up at me. “So, you and Min?” Her eyes are sparkling. I don’t know how much she knows.

I wince. I wasn’t expecting everyone to already know about it. And it sort of feels personal, not something I want to share yet.

I force myself not to shut down, to try to talk animatedly. It’s hard to share this much of myself. But I trust Rowan and Paige. And that’s how you make better friendships. And since I haven’t spent much time with my friends since before prison, my friendships have suffered.

Eventually they leave to go to their classes. Technically I should be going to classes too, but I haven’t really been integrated back into them since I was captured. I consider going with them, but decide against it. I have to find out where Mackenna is first.

Of course the logical first place to look is the classes. I walk casually by the door a few times, trying to see into even the farthest corners. There’s no sign of her. The row of three in the back where we usually sit is almost empty. The only one there is Min.

I check another few classrooms where she might be, just trying to cover all my bases. She’s not in any of them. No one I ask has seen her since last night.

I tell myself to calm down. There’s no reason to be worried yet. There could be a perfectly innocent explanation for her absence. She could be sick, and in the nurse’s office or the bathroom or something. Maybe she got sick last night, and that’s why she went home in the first place. It could be something as simple as that she overslept.

I spot Ryan from a distance as he’s going to his next class. I run over to him.

“Ryan! Have you seen Mackenna?” I ask, panting slightly. It’s pretty likely that she was just with him the whole time.

“Not since last night.”

“Do you know where she went?”

“She said she was going to her father’s house.”

I smile in relief. But the reaction is superficial. I have the deep feeling that something is wrong. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m starting to think Mackenna’s in danger. A danger even closer than Tala’s.

“Why?” he asks. “Is something wrong?” I can hear the worry in his voice too. “Did she not come back?”

“No,” I say. “She went out to see you, but then she never came back to her room. I haven’t seen her at all yet today.”

“Do you want me to help you look for her?” I can see that I’ve unsettled him. He’s worried about her.

“No. You can go to class. It’s fine. If, I mean…when I find her, I’ll let you know.”

I walk away after that, leaving him to go to his next class. But I have the funny feeling that he won’t. I’m sure he’s just as worried about Mackenna as I am, and I’m sure he’ll be looking for her too. Hopefully, between the two of us we’ll find her quickly. I’m sure she’s somewhere obvious. I’m sure nothing’s wrong.

I need nothing to be wrong.

I decide to call Mackenna’s father, Mr. Williams, just to be on the safe side. I use the phone at the School, since my cell phone is up in my room and I don’t feel like getting it. To be honest, I don’t feel like getting it because I don’t want to see Mackenna’s worriedly empty bed again.

He answers on the second ring. “Hello? Mackenna, is that you?”

“No, it’s Aubrey.”

“Aubrey? Have you seen Mackenna?” he asks before I can even start speaking.

“What? No, I was just going to ask you that. I haven’t seen her at all today.”

I can hear the worry increase in his voice. “She called last night saying she was coming.” His voice takes on a bitter edge of humor. “He said you and Min were doing ‘something’ in her room and she didn’t want to disturb you.”

I find myself blushing, even though we didn’t really do anything. “Well, I’m going to keep looking for her. If you find her, will you call me?”

“Yes. I hope we find her soon.”

We hang up and I go back to searching for her. Now, finally, I really am starting to believe that something’s wrong. Mackenna should have been at her father’s last night. If she wasn’t there, then she should have been here. There’s nowhere else for her to go. Those are the only two places she sleeps. If she’s not either of those places, then…then I think she must be missing.

I look around for a teacher to tell, or even another kid. But everyone is in classes, and the hallway is empty. I would feel comfortable interrupting Liz during class, but I don’t know where she’s teaching. I don’t know where else to go.

I scour the school grounds like a child playing hide and seek, as if Mackenna will be hiding behind a bush or in a trash can. The whole time I am growing more and more afraid for her. My heartbeat is steadily increasing, pounding against my chest until it aches.

“Where are you?” I mutter, frantically searching through the closet in our room. “Where did you go?”

I go downstairs, this time to look for Min. He can’t share my worries about Tala because I still won’t tell him, but at least he can share my worries about Mackenna. I want to melt into him, to let him give me relief. But when I find him, he looks as worried as I am.

“Aubrey, have you seen Ryan?”

“Ryan? Yeah, I saw him this morning.”

“I know, he was in my first few classes. But I haven’t seen him since before lunch.”

My stomach drops out. “He’s gone?” My mind is racing. Of course I imagined that he would look for Mackenna, but it didn’t occur to me that he might [_leave _]to look for her.

Min shrugs. “I haven’t seen him. He said he was going somewhere…something about Mackenna….”

“He said something about Mackenna?” I gasp. “Did he know where she was?”

He looks a little startled at my reaction. “I have no idea. I mean, they’re dating, so probably. Why do you ask?”

“Because she’s missing too.”

“She is? When did you last see her?”

“Last night she was supposed to go to her father’s house but she never actually arrived there.” My heart is constricting in fear. I was still holding onto the hope that Min would know exactly where she was, that there would be no reason to worry.

“Did you try to find her with your….” He gestures vaguely at my head. “Mind thing?”

I could extend my consciousness. That way, I could feel for sure if she was anywhere in the School. I don’t know exactly how far away I could feel something, I’ve never really pushed myself. But it’s potentially pretty far. Maybe if I push myself hard enough, I could feel her if she was somewhere outside of the School too.

“That’s actually a good idea.”

I allow myself to fall into the embracing darkness, extending my consciousness outward. I can feel the minds of everyone at the School, like bright glowing flames. Mackenna is not among them.

I extend myself farther, feeling the whole town, allowing them to flow through me the way water flows through a net. I feel the worried consciousness of Mackenna’s father, the normal high school, empty except for a few lonely teachers. But still no Mackenna.

I force myself to go farther. Now I am afraid. My mind is stretched out like a rubber band, threatening to snap. I can actually feel it starting to tear, a faint burning prickle just behind my eyes. I am afraid of my mind tearing itself away from my body. But there is still no Mackenna. So I keep going.

I’m stretching, reaching farther than I’ve ever gone before. Farther than my mind should go. Maybe farther than I can go. But I have to keep on. For Mackenna.

The ache behind my eyes is getting stronger, a constant pressure, always increasing. And suddenly, something snaps.

But my mind is not gone from my body. Instead, my body is enveloping everything, and I can go farther, but effortlessly. Like cutting through water. I’m encompassing everything, going with the flow rather than trying to force my way through. And it is in this way that I find Mackenna.

My head starts to hurt again as soon as I try to focus on her, and soon I am sent spinning away. But the quick glimpse is enough. I allow the tension to release.

My mind snaps back in on itself like a too-tight rubber band. I stumble against Min. The world seems to swoop around me. I try to stand, but fall dizzily again. I keep seeing tiny flames on the insides of my eyelids, the afterimages of a hundred million souls.

“I saw her,” I gasp, still breathing hard after my ordeal. “That way, moving away from us. Fast. Like in a car.”

“Do you know why?”

I try to think back. It’s hard, I only saw her for a second or two. “There were people with her. Taking her…somewhere. But she didn’t want to be with them. We have to save her. ”

“How much time do we have?”

“None. We need to go now.” I stride toward the parking lot. Mackenna has her own car, and it’s sitting there unoccupied. I have a spare set of keys for it, not because I really know how to drive, but just for emergencies exactly like this one. I pull them out, already turning them in the lock.

“Wait,” Min says. “Let me drive.”

There’s a strange, intense expression on his face. I realize suddenly that this, right here, could be his only link to Tala. I hand over the keys.

Min is a good driver. Well, he’s a fast driver. He’s so reckless I find myself gripping the edges of the seat most of the time. I try to keep Mackenna’s consciousness in the back of my mind the whole time, and sometimes I give him last minute directions. He takes those turns so aggressively that I’m actually worried we’ll crash. But his reflexes are good, and soon we’re catching up with Mackenna.

“She’s stopped,” I say at one point. “Wherever they were trying to go, they got there.”

“How close are we?”

I screw up my face, trying to concentrate. “It’s hard to tell for sure. Ten more miles? Fifteen?”

He nods, but doesn’t say anything. He just presses down the gas a little harder, his eyes so completely focused on the road that I’m worried he’s not seeing it at all.

“We need to get out of the car,” I say after a while. “We’re getting too close to them. They’ll see us coming.”

We pull the car over, and I really hope we’ll be able to come back for it. What sort of friends would we be if we rescued Mackenna but lost her car? Then Min and I start to run, just inside the woods so we can’t be seen from the road.

We go as fast as we can, running lightly through the woods. Not stopping even when our breaths come in short gasps. When our sides burn, our leg muscles ache. We don’t dare to take even a short rest until we’ve put miles behind us.

I feel out for Mackenna again. She’s closer, so it’s much easier. She’s only another few miles away. She continues to stay still, which is a relief. I was worried it was just a temporary stop, and that they would keep moving her. I was even worried that I was so wrong about the placement of her consciousness that she had never stopped moving at all. But as it is, I think Min and I have a good chance at catching up to her.

I’m too focused on Mackenna to notice anything else. I feel but don’t register the other tiny dot, much closer to Mackenna than we are. The dot that, if I were to think about it, I would realize must be Ryan. Going off to rescue Mackenna the same way Min and I are. I see but don’t really think about the other overwhelming consciousness, almost eclipsing Mackenna’s with its hugeness.

Min and I can’t run anymore, at least not at the same speed. We have to slow to a jog. Even though we stop as little as possible, it still takes us at least an hour or two to run the distance. An hour of fear and pain and silence.

All of a sudden, the trees end. We’re thrust into the open, at the base of a hill. Above us, silhouetted by the setting sun, is a castle. A real, live castle, nestled in the hills of New England.

It’s not like a fairy-tale castle, really. It looks like something people might actually have lived in hundreds of years ago. It’s more of a mansion I guess, with stone walls that cast long shadows reaching almost to my feet. One dark tower soars into the night sky. In the fading light I can barely see ivy twining up its walls, crumbling stone. Faded beauty.

I know without even having to check, that Mackenna is in there. And then suddenly, the other presence I felt registers. It’s powerful, huge, impossibly similar to one I felt once before. The person in the castle with Mackenna is Zephyra.

I curse myself. I should have known. Min and I should have known. There is no way we can do this on our own. We should have told someone, should have brought more people.

“It’s Zephyra,” I say frantically to Min.

His head snaps up. “What?”

“It’s Zephyra. Zephyra has got Mackenna in there with her.”

Min starts swearing furiously under his breath. “Why? Why Mackenna? And why is she here? How has no one noticed that she was so close?”

“I have no idea. Maybe she knows Mackenna’s connected to me?” I pause. Min doesn’t say anything, and there’s a long silence. “I don’t know how she’s here. How could we have missed that?”

Min’s eyes meet mine, desperate in the fading light. “We need backup. This is way bigger than we imagined. This is too big for us alone.”

Min, who never asks for backup, who never admits he needs help, looks terrified. It is a testament to how big of a deal this is that he realizes that we don’t have the power to do it alone. We are in way, way over our heads.

I pull out my cellphone. “No signal,” I whisper. Every shadow suddenly looks ominous, and I can’t bring myself to speak even at a normal volume.

“Go,” I say quietly to Min. “We need teachers. Go back and get Liz. I’ll go inside, see if I can do anything to protect Mackenna.”

“No. There’s no way leaving you alone.”

“Please.” I want to push him, make him go back. I want him safe. I want him safe even more than I want him with me.

He grabs my shoulders, weirdly intense all of a sudden. “Aubrey, I cannot leave you to face Zephyra all by yourself. I just can’t. Do you understand? I’m coming in there with you, and I will do everything I can to protect you.”

“Min,” I whimper, “please. Just go get teachers. Go back and get help.”

“The School is too far away for us to get back there and get any teachers to help and you know it. I’m not leaving you to bring back help that won’t even get here in time to save you. I’m coming in with you.”

He starts very quietly stealing up the slope, and I have no choice but to follow him. Not unless I want him to go in there unprotected.

“Can you find Mackenna?” he whispers, his voice no more than a breath.

I reach my consciousness out, but Zephyra’s is too large, too close. I can’t feel anything aside from her. I can’t locate Mackenna. I shake my head.

“We need to go inside, find her, and get out.” He starts to look for a place we can enter. We eventually settle on a high window.

The ivy makes it an easy climb, but our entry is not as silent as we had hoped. The castle echoes too much, there’s no way we can walk without making noise.

We go down a long hallway and a flight of stairs. I look around frantically. Where would Mackenna be? Where could Zephyra be keeping her? Does this castle have dungeons or anything? That seems like a likely place to keep a prisoner, there would be chains and stuff there already. But is that too cliche? Are there even dungeons here at all?

At the bottom of the flight of stairs, the castle opens up into a sort of entrance hallway. At the opposite end of it, I can see a pretty big looking room. I walk cautiously toward it, not seeing any other obvious places that I could go. My feet send up little puffs of dust every time they collide with the rich carpet.

The room is a sort of grand hall that’s been converted into a library. There’s a fantastically high ceiling, with bookshelf after bookshelf reaching up to it. I suddenly, desperately want to go inside. I think we should search it. It looks deserted. I walk down the hallway toward it, Min pacing quietly behind me.

I pause outside the entrance, trying to ignore a feeling of foreboding. There could be a map in here, something to help us find Mackenna. And anyway, there’s only a few shadows where people could hide.

I take one tentative step forward. And the room explodes.

 

 

CHAPTER 38

I’m thrown backward. My head cracks on the floor so hard I see stars. And when I try to sit up, I can’t. I’m literally paralyzed.

For a second, I panic. My heart starts to pound so frantically it feels like I’m dying. Why can’t I move? Am I dying? Did I break my spine in the fall? Am I never going to move again?

But then I realize it’s not exactly that I can’t move my limbs. I can move them, just not very far. It feels like I’m strapped down to the floor. Trapped. By magic.

“Min, run!” I scream. “Get help.”

“No. I don’t want to leave you.”

“You have to!” My eyes meet his panicked, torn ones. “Go. Please.”

He looks like he’s about to say something, but then he turns and runs. I pray he makes it out. That he can get help. That I won’t stay here, strapped down spread-eagle until Zephyra kills me.

Another blinding flash of light sears the inside of my lids. I find that my head is being forced to turn sideways. I try to fight it, briefly, but I can’t. I’m not strong enough. Against my will, my neck is being wrenched upward and sideways. To look up into the face of the one who is keeping me like this. Zephyra.

“What have we here?” She cups my face with her hand. “I only needed one, but now I have three. And three is always better. Three is so much more…versatile.”

“What do you want?” I spit.

“Information. And help.”

She allows the spell binding me to release slightly, letting me rise into a kneeling position.

“I will let you go,” she says. “If you do one thing for me. I want you to go back to the School. And I want you to bring the Daughter of the Wilderness to me.”

If I wasn’t already frozen, I would have just stiffened in shock. She doesn’t know who I am. But how? She has never seen a picture, never seen my face. But I thought that Tempeste’s memories had transferred to her, and told her who I am. But is it more complicated than that? She must know what school I go to, and where I live too, because she sent soldiers there to capture me. But still, somehow, does she not know what I look like? Maybe the memory transfer doesn’t work like that. And it’s not like she visited me in prison. She’s never seen me before. To her, I could be any student.

But if I’m not careful, she will find out who I am. I have to keep her distracted.

“Why would I ever want to help you?” I ask, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

“Aren’t those your friends? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

I don’t say anything.

She makes a screen appear in mid-air in front of me. It’s just a rectangle, maybe three feet by five feet long, like a window into another part of the castle. Mackenna and Ryan are being shown on it. They’re in a narrow cell with a single high window. I can see them, silently ringing their hands, searching desperately, hopelessly, for a way out. Trapped like rats.

“Maybe I should just kill them both. Maybe that would make you more cooperative.”

“No!”

She puts the same paralyzing spell she has on me on both of them. I watch them stiffen, almost fall to the ground. Mackenna looks absolutely furious, but I can tell how afraid she is too. My heart twists in my chest. I have to save her. There is no way I could live with myself if I let my best friend die.

“I could do it,” Zephyra hisses, her face still very close to mine. “They are in my power. What’s to stop me?” I see the muscles in her hand twitch, like she’s about to start choking them from a distance. I panic.

“Just, please,” I cry out. “Have mercy.” It’s a last desperate attempt to save them. And as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I regret them.

“Mercy.” She seems to chew on the word, mulling it over and spitting it out, turning it into a joke. Her eyes harden. My heart seems to drop into my stomach. “Yes. I think I could be merciful.”

I smile, even though I know it’s premature. It’s sort of more of a nervous reaction.

“I can be merciful,” she repeats, whispers. And then louder, “You may choose two of you to remain alive. And then, because I am being [_merciful, _]I will let the other two live, assuming, of course, that I have at least one of you to go back and fetch the Princess for me.”

It takes a long time for me to figure out what she means. I just kneel there, blinking stupidly, counting us over and over again. Me, Mackenna, Ryan, me, Mackenna, Ryan. That doesn’t equal two. Two of us can remain alive, like she said. But there’s more than two of us here.

And then it hits me, like a punch to the gut. She wants me to choose two of us to survive. And one of us to die. One of us for her to kill, right now, in front of me.

My only hope is that Min escaped. That Min escaped, that he made it back to the road. That’s probably really as far as he needs to get, to get cell service again. And then he can call the teachers, and somehow, someway, they will make it here in time. And that they can help me, so I don’t have to choose. Because this is not a choice I can make. This is not something I can do.

I know I should keep Zephyra talking. If I can distract her long enough, Min will get the teachers. I need to stall her. But I can’t say anything. I’m frozen, numb.

Zephyra throws me up against the wall. I dangle in the air, barely able to breathe, as she chuckles below me.

“I’m tired of waiting,” she says in a laughing, sing-song voice. “Choose!”

And then there’s pressure around my neck. It’s not choking me exactly, I can still breathe. But it’s slowly constricting, measuring out the last moments of my life. Or someone else’s. If I don’t make this choice, if I don’t choose one of the three of us to die, then she’ll kill me anyway.

I shove outward with magic. The room ripples. Books fall off the shelves. Papers ruffle and fly up into the air. A high window cracks, and glass rains down around us. Zephyra barely stumbles. Her magic doesn’t release me.

I extend my consciousness outward, searching for any life. Plants, animals, literally anything that could help me. There’s nothing. Or at least, I can’t feel anything. Zephyra has so much energy it’s overwhelming. I don’t think I could sense less than a dragon with her here in the room with me.

There is nothing I can do. I’ve seen movies where the hero is faced with a choice like this. But they always find a way out, a way to save everybody. They kill the bad guy instead of making the choice, or they move so fast that they have time to keep both people safe. But this isn’t a movie. And there’s no way I can save everybody.

A hundred thousand thoughts fight for attention. The grip around my throat gets tighter. It hurts now, like a rope biting into my neck. I gasp for breath. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. Mackenna and Ryan are oblivious. They’re still caught in Zephyra’s magic, still fighting for a way out.

I see Mackenna turn over a little bit. She says something to Ryan, I can’t tell what it is. He smiles weakly at her.

The clock tightens around my windpipe. I have to choose one of us to die. To kill. I’ve run out of time. I have to choose.

Immediately, I discard Mackenna. I know that I can’t kill her. She has to live. She’s the reason we came here, as a rescue mission. If she doesn’t make it out alive, then this whole thing will have been pointless. And anyway she’s my best friend.

As if Zephyra can read my mind, she lifts up Ryan in the same sort of chokehold. I can see it tightening around his neck to the same rhythm it’s tightening around mine. Both of our lives hang in the balance. It is down to the two of us, Ryan and I. One of us is, in the next few minutes, going to die. Either I will sacrifice myself, or I will kill him.

I don’t know what to do. I’m not getting enough oxygen, and I’m having a hard time thinking. I can’t figure out what to do. Should I sacrifice myself for Ryan, or let him die? Is that the selfless thing to do?

If I sacrifice myself, I’m giving up the cause, giving up the war. If I die, so many people will die with me. I’m the only chance at really ending the war. At bringing my mother back. At restoring balance. I need to be alive for that. So I…I shouldn’t let myself die, right?

I picture the bodies of my friends, lying burned and broken on the ground. The School in ruins. A world where anyone who doesn’t have magic is killed. But I also picture other things. Being loved and having a family and holding on tight because that will always be enough. Laughing at stupid jokes and staying up late and Saturday mornings and summer vacations and being strong and being Aubrey. Eating ice cream with Mackenna, clinging to Liz when I’m sad, sharing kisses with Min.

Is it more selfish to live or die? If I die, the world will be lost in so many ways. But am I making a choice or making excuses? Is it truly more selfish to die, so I don’t have to live with the fact that I killed Ryan? Or am I just trying to justify the fact that I’m too afraid to die?

Because deep down inside, I think it’s kind of both. I’m too important to die. The war can’t be won without me. But that doesn’t change the fact that I desperately want to live. That even if I wasn’t the Princess, I don’t think I would be strong enough to sacrifice myself.

“Time’s up,” Zephyra snarls. The pressure on my throat increases, making my head go fuzzy. “Who will live?”

And I’m not sure if it’s selflessness or fear that brings out the word. If I’m strong enough to live with the fact that I killed my friend, or too weak to die myself. The word is gasped out, croaked out, barely audible. But the word will change everything.

“Me,” I whisper.

I was almost out of air. I fall to the ground, coughing, grabbing at my throat. Blackness is swimming in front of my eyes. So I miss what happens next. I only look up when I hear Mackenna scream.

 

 

CHAPTER 39

Ryan is on the ground. And he is so clearly dead. His eyes are wide open, and staring. His legs are crumpled under him. A little blood trickles out of the corner of his mouth. I can see a ring of dark bruises around his neck. Where Zephyra’s magic crushed his windpipe.

The magic binding Mackenna released the second that Ryan fell. She scrambles to her feet. For a second she stands there, swaying. I’m not even completely sure that she’ll actually go to him. Part of me thinks she’ll just sit down again right where she is, before her legs give out.

But of course she goes to him, because Mackenna has always been stronger than anyone gives her credit for. She kneels down beside his still face, and strokes his hair off of his forehead. She leans down and kisses him on the lips. Even from here, I can see that she’s crying. I have broken her. I have ruined my best friend’s life.

I start screaming too. Pain and guilt bubble up inside my chest, blocking out everything else. I’m hyperventilating, my lungs are broken, I can’t get air. Ryan is dead. Dead. Because of me.

I feel my frantically beating heart, touch my skin, my hair. I’m alive. I chose to live. I chose to kill. Not my enemy, but my friend. I chose to sacrifice him, so that I might live.

Physical pain twists through me, like a knife to the side, a broken rib. I bend double. Furious at the world. Furious at Zephyra. Furious at myself. Why am I so weak? Why did I think killing my friend was something I could live with? Why was I ever selfish enough to think this was the right choice?

I hear Zephyra laughing. Hatred rushes through me, white-hot, blinding me. I lunge forward, prepared to kill her too. She made me do this. She turned me into a monster. She broke Mackenna’s heart.

But I can’t. She’s keeping me pressed to the ground with magic. I can stand, but I can’t walk. It’s as if there are invisible shackles on my wrists, keeping me dragged downward, pinned in place.

I see that Zephyra is laughing at whatever’s on the screen, so I look up at it too. Mackenna has grabbed Ryan’s body, and she’s crying now, screaming with grief. Flames are licking around her, growing higher by the minute. All her emotion, turned to fire. She will let the whole world burn around her.

I don’t understand why Zephyra is laughing. She looks at me as if expecting me to be amused, but I’m not, obviously. I don’t think I’ll ever laugh again. But still, she seems put out that I can’t share her joke. So she shows it to me. The screen with Mackenna on it zooms in on the window. Smoke is pouring out of it. We go even closer and see that the window is fake, leading to a little alcove the size of a shoe box.

It still takes me a minute to understand. Why does this matter? Maybe Zephyra assumed I thought Mackenna was high up in the building and now she could be anywhere? But I had no idea where she was, I hadn’t connected the window to anything at all. I hadn’t even noticed it.

And then the whole compartment fills with smoke. And I get it. Mackenna thinks the smoke is being vented out the window. But it’s not. And even she is not immune to it. She has the power to control fire, but the smoke still has the power to suffocate her.

“Save her!” I scream. “You said you would let both of us live!”

“I said I would let two of you live. And by my count, we’re not there yet.”

“Yes we are! You took Ryan, what else do you want from me?”

She starts laughing again. It makes me feel sick. She expands the screen’s focus. For a brief second I see Mackenna, coughing, then she’s gone. We’re in the hallway, somewhere else in the castle.

My heart almost stops. Min is chained to the wall. He’s slumping against it, only half-conscious, not even trying to escape.

“What did you do to him?” I’m screaming in fury, in desperation. I have nothing left. Nothing left.

“He’ll recover.” She smiles. “If he lives.”

“Why are you doing this?” My voice is no more than a whisper. I’m worn down by grief and pain and guilt. And fear.

“It’s interesting to watch you kill your friends. And I only need two of you. One to go back to the School. The other one to keep here, as hostage, to make sure you do what you’re told.” She pauses. “I’m being merciful, remember? I’ll give you some time to think this time. At least, I’ll give you as long as they have to live.”

I look over at Min again. He’s gasping, a web of dark veins stands out against his neck. Even from this distance, I can tell what it is. Poison. Somehow, Zephyra found him, chained him to the wall, and poisoned him. I can’t tell how long he has to live. A couple of minutes, maybe? They’re both dying, with or without me. I can choose one to save. Maybe.

But I can’t. This is absolutely not a choice I can make. There has to be some other way, any other way.

I look at Mackenna. Her dark hair swirls around her, all caught up in the flames. She is tiny. I’ve stopped noticing that, but she is. And beautiful. I remember the first time we met at the pool, the first day when we sat together in home room, the time we discovered we both had magic. I remember laughing with her until our sides hurt, calling each other up just to talk about nothing. Watching movies together, sleeping in our room at the School, holding on to each other when we have nothing else left. I remember dreaming about her and then seeing her face peeking into my prison cell.

Min. All silky black hair, skin that’s too pale because of the poison coursing through his veins. I can’t see his eyes from here, but I can picture them perfectly. I can hear his laugh too, and the way he says my name. The way he fights with the strength and power of a wolf. The way he looked the first time I ever saw him, half-drowned and almost too skinny to be alive. I remember dreaming about him from a distance. I remember when we were best friends and I thought I was the only one who wanted more. I can almost feel the pressure of his lips against mine. I’ve worked for too long for this. I haven’t had enough time. It’s been to soon. I can’t lose him.

Which of course leaves only one option. If there’s three of us and one of us has to die, and it can’t be Min or Mackenna, it’s going to have to be me. But then I have put their lives above Ryan’s. Is that fair? If I was going to die anyway, I should have just sacrificed myself from the beginning. Then that means I really was being selfish the whole time. But at least this way I don’t have to live with myself anymore. At least this way they’ll both be okay.

I’m going to die. I’m going to let myself die, and let the whole world die with me, so I can avoid choosing between Mackenna and Min. I almost tell Zephyra, but I can’t. I can’t. The words seem to freeze in my throat, I can’t get them out. I can’t sacrifice myself. I’m just…not brave enough. I can’t do it. I can’t let the words escape my lips and know that they will be the last thing I ever say.

Suddenly, Mackenna screams. It’s like she’s read my mind, seen what I am thinking about doing.

“Aubrey!” she screams. I watch her on the little screen. I have to save her, I have to do it. I can’t do it.

All of a sudden, she starts building the fire, putting all of her energy into it. The flames burn higher, licking toward the ceiling. Dark smoke obscures her. All I can see is her outline, bent double, coughing.

And then, in one brief flash I get it. The fire has gotten so high that smoke has started leaking up through the floor. I know where Mackenna is now. She is directly below me.

Instinctively, I lunge forward. The invisible chains tighten around my arms, my chest, my legs, my neck. I scream in frustration, tearing at the emptiness.

Zephyra grabs my shoulder. Her eyes are wide, insane. “Don’t you go to her!” she hisses. She shoves me backward, sending me sprawling. My wrist bends against the floor.

For some reason, the physical violence makes me furious. I leap up and claw at her face. It startles her. So much, that for a split second the magic holding me dissolves.

I jump toward her, knocking her to the floor. She shoves me backward with magic, and I push out at her with light energy. Her face twists, alive with magic. I back up as fast as I can. But it’s too slow.

She punches me, using both her real fist and magic. I get lifted off the ground, and go flying backward into a shelf. A thick volume called The Village of Death hits me hard on the back of the head.

For a few seconds I think I’m going to pass out. I pitch forward to my hands and knees. I get tunnel vision until all I can see is the book’s front cover. I focus on it, trying to breathe deeply and get my vision back. I cannot black out. Not now.

The title of the book is embossed gold, I think. There’s a picture below it. I can’t tell what it is, my sight is still too blurry. I blink furiously, trying to clear away the blackness.

My vision clears, and I gasp. The picture on the front cover has been in my dreams for months. It is my last hope, my only chance at survival. The image that has consumed my whole life. It’s the tower of rock, the one drawn on the last page of Verina’s journal. The one we’ve been searching for for months. The one that hides the shrine. My chance at bringing back my mother.

I grab the book and hold it under my arm. Then I’m on my feet and running. I need to get to Min, to Mackenna. I need to stay away from Zephyra. I need to hold onto the book.

Zephyra tries to push me back with magic. I instinctively shield myself. Then I take a deep breath and blow a hole in the floor.

I misjudge. The wooden floor boards have been half-burned away by Mackenna’s fire. I wanted just a small hole, that I could drop into and get Mackenna out. But that doesn’t happen. The entire floor collapses. And I fall twenty feet into the burning fire.

 

 

CHAPTER 40

I scream, expecting to be burned alive. It takes a second for me to realize that I’m not. Mackenna keeps me from being burned, but the heat is still blindingly hot. Smoke coats my throat. I cough and gag. It stings my eyes until I can’t see anything.

Mackenna is at my side. Her hair had caught fire, and it’s whipping around her face. Her eyes look almost crazed, and her cheeks are smudged with soot. Her eyes are full of raw grief. She looks like some sort of fire princess, or a fire demon maybe. Burning from the inside out.

A fresh pang of guilt goes through me. Mackenna is still carrying Ryan’s body against her.

Rubble from the castle starts to rain down around us. The whole room above us has caught fire, and it’s so unstable it’s collapsing. The fire is out of Mackenna’s control, the castle is too dry, too much wood. We don’t have much time before the whole thing comes down around us. And neither of us have the power to stop that from happening.

“What’s that?” Mackenna screams over the roaring flames. I look down and realize I’m still holding the book.

“Book. I’ll explain later. We need to find Min.”

Burning chunks of wood fall down around us. I duck and wince and as a piece of wood catches me in the shoulder. I run forward whenever I find a clear path. The air is so thick with smoke I can’t see where I’m going.

A burning log falls in front of me. I change direction as fast as I can. It’s like going through a maze, everywhere I try to turn my path is blocked. My sleeve is over my mouth, but I’m still coughing. The smoke is making me feel lightheaded. I can’t tell if I’m still breathing or not.

Somewhere in the castle Zephyra is still alive. Waiting for me, probably to kill me. I don’t think her offer of mercy still stands. In her mind, I probably no longer deserve mercy.

Somewhere in the castle, Min is alone. Dying. If not from the poison, than from the fire. Or from Zephyra. He is too weak to either run from the flames or fight for his life. We have to find him.

“Min! Min!” I scream.

“Aubrey!” someone screams back. But the voice isn’t Min’s. It’s Liz’s.

“Liz! Is that you? Please, please be here.”

But it’s too loud. If she responds, I can’t hear her anymore. I’m not even sure I really heard her in the first place. It was probably a trick of my mind. Or a trick of Zephyra’s.

I feel like the heat is literally melting my face off. My whole body itches and burns. My throat is so raw and scratched I can barely breathe. My eyes sting, and painful tears leak onto my cheeks. I can’t see anything but red fire and smoke.

Suddenly, I’m in a sort of clearing, a place full of rubble but where the fire has barely touched. I gasp, sucking in lungfuls of relatively clear air. I cough weakly a few times, feeling lightheaded and ill.

The rubble piled in the middle of the room shifts. Half of me hopes it’s not Min, because how could he be uninjured with all that weight on top of him? But who else could it be? I have to get him out. Maybe, maybe, there’s still time to save him.

I start sifting through the mess of burning wood and rocks. Mackenna sees what I’m doing and helps me, digging and protecting me from the worst of the heat. My heart rises when I uncover a hand, too pale and slender to be Min’s. But then I realize who the hand must belong to. Zephyra.

I immediately stop digging. Mackenna keeps going, though, until Zephyra’s face and shoulders are uncovered. She’s semi-conscious, covered in burns and scrapes. Her brown eyes flit back and forth between me and Mackenna.

I look up at Mackenna. Her face is twisted with hatred. Her eyes look like they should be burning twin holes in Zephyra. She steps forward with her hands clenched by her sides. For a second I’m not sure what she’s going to do. Hit Zephyra? Help her out? Shove the rubble back down on top of her? Strangle Zephyra with her bare hands?

“Go,” Mackenna spits out. “Dig yourself out. I never want to see you again.” She pauses. “I hope you burn to death in your own castle.”

And then she backs up to to Ryan’s body, lying on the floor. She crouches next to him, stokes his face. She refuses to look at Zephyra. I turn my back on her too, and go comfort Mackenna.

“Help me,” Zephyra gasps. “My legs. They’re pinned.”

I don’t look back. When Zephyra made me kill Ryan, she made me kill a part of myself. She doesn’t deserve my help now. I can’t even look at her without shaking in anger.

And anyway, that’s part of the contract that comes with being someone’s best friend. When she killed Ryan, she might as well have killed Min. If Mackenna wants her dead, then I will kill her myself.

“Mercy!” Zephyra cries. “Please. Show me mercy.”

I freeze. Something about the way she says it gets my attention. How can I beg for mercy and yet not show it myself? She didn’t show mercy. But I think I still should. I should still show mercy. Right?

I look at Mackenna. “You lost everything. I wouldn’t stop you.” We both know what I mean. If Mackenna wanted to kill Zephyra, right now, I wouldn’t stop her. I would help her, even. It’s her choice.

“My magic can’t move the log,” Mackenna whispers. “It’s up to you. You have to choose.”

I close my eyes. I try to picture Zephyra, laughing sadistically over Ryan’s body. And I do. But I also picture the old Zephyra, the one from Verina’s journal. And I know what to do. The only way to teach mercy is by example.

I use light energy to move the log pinning Zephyra to the ground. She stands and stumbles forward. I catch her. She’s too heavy for me to carry, but then Mackenna is there, supporting her with me.

“We have to get her out of here,” I say to Mackenna. She throws a glance to the center of the room, where she has laid Ryan’s body. Pity rips through my heart. If she helps me carry Zephyra, she will have to leave him behind.

She crosses to the center of the room, kneels next to him. Smoothes his hair, kisses him one last time. And then she stands and walks to me, not looking back. Silently crying.

I didn’t know it was possible to be in this much pain. I did this to Mackenna. I ruined her life. My heart is breaking into a million pieces. I’m crying too. I don’t…I don’t know how to be a person anymore. I don’t know how to be Aubrey.

Zephyra is unconscious. We lift her together. I’m completely numb as we navigate through the fire. It’s actually fairly easy to find our way now that I’m not randomly running. The fire is dangerously high, but Mackenna can protect us from it. She seems to be able to sense where the safest path is.

After what seems like hours, we finally back into the sunlight. I drop Zephyra and fall to my knees, sucking in the clean air. I’m lightheaded, spots of pain burn all over my body. Everything hurts, everything stings. My heart is broken.

“Aubrey!” I manage to look up at the sound of my name. Liz is running toward me, a group of teachers behind her. I start crying in relief.

“Liz.” My voice breaks. And then she’s next to me, pulling me up, squeezing Mackenna and I into a hug.

“Aubrey, we were so worried. You were missing, no one knew where you were. It’s only thanks to Arden that we found you at all.” She looks down. “Is that Zephyra? And where’s Min?”

“Min’s not here?” When we hadn’t found him in the castle, I guess I had assumed he had somehow managed to find his way out. “I thought he would be with you.”

She starts to say something else but I’m already gone, running back up to the castle, morphing into a jaguar mid-stride. The ground level is completely blocked by flames, so I leap and scramble though a second story window. I land in half-crouch.

I throw my consciousness outward. Before, Zephyra’s consciousness eclipsed everything else, but now it’s faint, flickering like a candle. I can feel the mass of teachers, Mackenna’s

brightness, and beyond that, the grassy field, the forest. And something else, several floors below me, fading faster than Zephyra. Min.

I start running, trying to get to him, but everywhere I go my way is blocked. I start to panic. The floor is collapsing, and I need to find a way to get to Min before we’re crushed.

There’s a huge timber spanning between two sections of relatively intact floor. If I cross it, I might be able to find a way to get down to Min. It’s burned black and unstable, though. I’m not even sure if it will support my weight.

I start out across it, moving as fast as I dare. I have more balance as a jaguar, and my claws can dig into the soft wood. But I’m only halfway across when the log rolls. I’m dumped over the side. I cling desperately for a few seconds before dropping.

The damaged floor gives way beneath me. I end up in a dungeon basement even farther down than where Mackenna was kept. I land hard, getting the breath knocked out of me. But I force myself to recover. I shake off the pain. I don’t have time for this.

There had been no fire in the basement, but when I fall through, chunks of flaming wood fall with me. Within seconds, anything flammable is catching fire.

Min is lying at the far end of the hallway. For a second my heart stops. I think he’s already dead. He’s painfully still, black lines are tracing their way up his arms and neck. His eyes are closed, I can’t hear or see him breathing.

My heart jumps to my throat. I run to his side, kneel next to him, feel desperately for a pulse. I find one, faint and fluttering. Dying. But it is enough, because it means Min is still in there, struggling to live. And if he’s still alive, I can save him.

I slip under, into the place where I can see and touch nothing but the poison. I’ve only done this once before, and that was half by accident. But now this has to be very intentional, and very fast. Min’s life is at stake.

The poison is swirling through his body, already starting to touch his heart. I reach forward, and the poison follows my fingers as if they’re magnetic. I draw it out, shake it into the air.

My eyes open. Min opens his eyes at almost the same second. He gasps and coughs, taking several deep breaths. The color starts to return to his face, the black veins recede. I’m so relieved I want to cry or scream. I can’t believe that worked. Min is going to be okay.

“Min,” I whisper. I was going to say something else, but all of a sudden I can’t. I’m not even sure what I was going to say. Doesn’t matter.

“Aubrey,” he says, and my name is enough, it’s all that I need.

We just look at each other for a little while. I wait for him to recover enough to sit up. I got almost all the poison out, and it takes less than a minute. He sits, then stands, leaning against the wall for support.

While I was curing Min, the walls and doorway burst into flames. I look around for an exit, but the ceiling is burning too, and the floor is solid. The flames are too high to jump over or through, unless we want to burn to death. We are completely trapped.

I run through all my magic. There’s no nature close enough to use, and I’m not sure how it would help us anyway. I try to pull water out of the air, but the fire has left none. Light energy doesn’t effect it. Even if I turn into a jaguar, it’s still too hot, too high to jump over. Even with magic, I’m not Mackenna. There’s nothing I can do.

I turn to Min, meet his eyes. I don’t need to say anything. He knows we’re trapped. He knows we’ll probably die here.

The flames press closer to us, eating up the floor. The heat is burning me even from this distance. My whole body is raw red, like I have a bad sunburn. I’m crying, and the pressure of my tears hurts the damaged skin on my face.

I’m afraid. I’ve been so close to death so many times tonight. But this time it feels so real, so inevitable. I hate being cornered. I hate that there’s nothing I can do. I hate that I made Ryan sacrifice his life for nothing. I hate how much I’ve gone through just to die like this, trapped by fire, for nothing.

Min’s arm goes around me. I relax into him, bury my head in his smoky shirt. I love the feeling of him touching me, but it almost makes me sadder. I have so much I’m going to lose, so much I’m not sure I ever appreciated enough.

I start hugging Min back. I can feel his warm, solid chest. Underneath the overwhelming smell of smoke, he smells like Min. Like pine needles and rainstorms and soap. I kiss him, not long and passionately, but gentle, full of unsaid things. Then we sit down, and he holds me, and we wait.

The fire is constantly edging closer to us. The space without it is getting smaller and smaller, until finally the clear space is no larger than a mattress. Soon we will have to stand just to avoid getting burned. And before long, even that won’t be enough.

I close my eyes. I don’t want to see my death, Min’s death. He gently strokes my hair, and I try to lose myself in that movement.

I wish suddenly that Mackenna was here too. I wish she would say something distracting and sarcastic. I wish she would calm me. Even if she didn’t have magic, and there was no way for her to save us from the fire, I would still wish I could see her face again.

“Thank you for coming back for me,” Min says. It’s the first full sentence either of us has said.

“I love you.” It seems the only adequate response. It sounds all raspy though. I can barely breathe around the smoke in my throat.

Soon I have to get even closer to Min just to avoid getting burned. I picture all the people who are important to me coming and saying goodbye. “Goodbye Aubrey.” Over and over again. I hold Mackenna in my head the longest. I can hear her voice in my head exactly.

“I hate to break up this romantic moment, but I think it’s time to get out of here.” I blink. Why would the Mackenna in my head say that? Those aren’t good farewell words.

But then I realize it’s because they aren’t farewell words. Somehow, Mackenna, the real, solid, beautiful one, has found us.

 

 

CHAPTER 41

Min is already getting to his feet. “Mackenna,” he gasps. “You found us. You came.”

I look up. Mackenna is there, with her father. They stand next to each other. Mackenna’s hair is whipping around her face, and her cheeks are flushed in exertion, but in that second she is the most perfect, beautiful thing I have ever seen. They both are. They’re like angels, here to rescue us. Here to keep me from having to watch Min die. Here to keep me from giving up my life for nothing.

Mackenna keeps looking from me to Min, like she thinks we were doing something awkward. “Um, was I interrupting something?”

I share a brief smile with Min. “Let’s go.”

She and her father lead us out, together protecting us from the fire.

“Zephyra’s dead,” Mackenna informs me. “She was dying even when we brought her out. There was nothing we could do.” There’s a strange, bitter note in Mackenna’s voice. It’s not grief, obviously, but at least it also doesn’t sound like triumph.

I actually do feel a slight pang of sadness. Not exactly for the loss of Zephyra, but for the loss of someone. Someone with so much power, the potential to do so much good. It feels like the waste of a life. She could have helped so many people, and instead she chose to waste herself on destroying lives. And she never got the chance to do better.

Even more important, hearing about Zephyra’s death makes me feel afraid. When Tempeste died, her knowledge and power transferred to the two remaining sisters. That’s how Zephyra knew where I was, and why she could do such powerful magic. We could barely even beat Tempeste, who was, in the end, just one single person. But now Mercuriel, the last sister, has all of Zephyra’s power, plus the half of Tempeste’s power that went to Zephyra. How are we supposed to ever even hope to defeat one person who is as powerful as three?

Mackenna doesn’t seem upset about Zephyra at all. Min doesn’t either, but at least he has the decency not to smile. I start crying again. It’s been a long, awful day, and I’m feeling a little fragile. Min keeps his arm around me until we get outside.

The sunlight outside the castle is so bright that it hurts my eyes. The cool air stings my raw, damaged skin. I’m exhausted, physically and emotionally spent. I sway. Liz seems to understand what’s happening, and catches me as I slide to the ground.

People crowd around us. A few people cheer, but they sound empty against my ears. “We have cars,” Liz whispers. “Let’s take you three home.”

Mackenna looks completely numb, not even her eyes move as she walks to the car. Min barely makes it without collapsing, gray with exhaustion. I stumble along behind everyone else, drained and empty.

“What’s that?” Liz asks me. She points to something in my hands. I look down numbly. Somehow, amazingly, I’m still holding the book. I show Liz the cover. She gasps.

“It hit me in the head while I was fighting with Zephyra,” I explain. “I can’t believe I managed to hold onto it this whole time.”

Mackenna starts to say something, but then trails off gasping. At first I think it’s because of the smoke inhalation. But it’s not. It’s because she’s crying.

“What’s wrong?” Min asks. I realize, abruptly, that he doesn’t know Ryan is dead. Mackenna just shakes her head. He looks at me, but I can’t talk about it either. I am completely responsible for his death, and that knowledge is eating me up, ripping my heart into shreds.

I hate myself. I don’t want to tell Min.

“Ryan is dead,” Mackenna finally says. Liz jerks the car sideways.

“No,” she whispers. Her eyes are wide, her hands are shaking. I look over at Min. His face is pale with shock.

“How did it happen?”

I stiffen. I can’t hide anymore. Now Min and Liz will know what I did. They’ll hate me. It’s my fault.

“Zephyra,” Mackenna begins, “I don’t know. We were looking for a way out. I didn’t know Aubrey and Min were coming for us. Zephyra just…she just…. And then he was on the ground. And….”

I freeze. My breath catches in my throat. Mackenna doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that I was the one who killed Ryan. That I chose myself over him. And I’m not sure what I should do. Should I let her go on thinking it was Zephyra, or should I tell her the truth? I probably should be honest, right? That’s what friends do. I can’t though. Not yet. I’m not strong enough.

Suddenly, exhaustion rolls over me. I was tired before, but nothing like I am now. I feel heavy all over, my eyelids are being dragged toward the ground. And I just can’t stay awake anymore. I fall asleep on Min’s shoulder.

 

I have never been to a real funeral before, so I am not sure how Ryan’s compares. For one thing, it is outside. For another thing, there’s no coffin, no tombstone. No body. Also, it’s large. Everyone from the School is there, and many others besides.

People are talking. Speaking about Ryan. Trying to capture his essence, who he really was, with words. It’s not possible. Ryan is really gone, and these words are empty. They are nothing. They are stiff and formal. They don’t show the real Ryan.

The only place Ryan still really exists is my memories. And the grief. Mackenna, with her head bowed and broken. Jessie, Ryan’s adopted sister, her eyes already filled with sadness too great for her years. Parents experiencing crushing guilt, feeling like they should have done something else, said something more. Hundreds of students who can’t handle yet another death, not after everything else.

The funeral seems both too long and too short. It’s long in the sense it’s starting to drag. The youngest children are starting to get fidgety. I’m sweating through my ugly black dress, and I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. But in every other way, it is too short. How can an entire life be squished into such a short period of time? It can’t ever do it justice.

I still haven’t told Mackenna the truth. That it was me who killed Ryan. At the time it seemed like she needed my support more than she needed my honesty. But I’m dreading it now, wanting to put it off for one more day. Maybe, if I don’t tell her for long enough, I’ll just forget about it and she’ll never have to know. But I can’t go on like this forever.

I decide I will tell her after the funeral. I will be strong. I will be honest. I will tell her the truth.

“Mackenna.” I run up to her after the funeral. “I have to tell you something.”

Her appearance almost stops me. Her eyes are red-rimmed from crying. Her hair is unkempt and tangled around her shoulders. There’s still a shadow of a bruise on her jaw. But I don’t let myself back down. I have to go through with this now or I will never do it.

I realize suddenly that facing down Tempeste or Zephyra is not the bravest thing I have ever done. This is.

The words start to pour out of me, a wrenching, terrible flood that I can do nothing to stop. All I’m doing is causing destruction and pain. I can see it in Mackenna’s face. And feel it in my re-breaking heart. I’m choking back sobs. But I keep going.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I killed him. I’m so sorry.”

She looks at me, shaking, her face raw with grief. For a second, I think she’s going to say something. Maybe she’ll even scream at me, and I think that would be good because it would help her feel better and I deserve it. But then she just turns on her heel and walks away.

“Mackenna!” I scream after her, my voice breaking. But she doesn’t look back.

For an entire week, Mackenna doesn’t say a word to me. I watch her from a distance, wanting to talk to her and yet not daring to. I watch when, three days after the funeral, she smiles again for the first time, the joy of her unquenchable spirit finally leaking back through. I watch her seek comfort from Rowan, Paige, Storm, even Min, but not me. I watch her eyes harden every time she looks at me. I watch her continue to sleep at her dad’s instead of in the room we share.

And I am afraid. I am afraid that our friendship has been shattered into pieces with nothing I can do to repair it.

Min is the only other person I tell about Ryan. I desperately need a friend, someone to help me. Min doesn’t judge me, even though I know he doesn’t agree with my decision. It’s not what he would have done. He would always, always chose to die himself. But at least he doesn’t tell anyone else.

On the eighth day after the funeral, Mackenna comes up to me. I have no idea what she’s going to say. As it turns out, she doesn’t say anything.

She slaps me, cracking her hand across my cheek. I rock back on my heels. The fact that it is my best friend giving me the slap makes it hurt more, but the weight of my own guilt dulls it again. I deserve this. This is a small part of my penance. It won’t bring Ryan back. But maybe, maybe, it will help Mackenna forgive me.

“I’m sorry,” I say, even though I know it’s woefully inadequate. And then, “I miss you.”

She runs at me. At first I think she’s going to tackle me to the ground or something. But then my arms are around her and she’s crying into my shirt. I hold her for as long as she wants. If she needed me to, I would hold her forever.

After that, our friendship is sort of back. It’s different. Mackenna’s different. She’s more serious, reserved. She will possibly never trust me the way she used to. But at least we’re together, sort of.

The next day is surprisingly warm for November. It’s warm enough that Min, Mackenna, and I can sit outside comfortably. We stretch out on the still-green grass, watching the clouds float overhead and the last of the leaves fall.

Min’s hand is very close to mine. We’re not exactly holding hands, but our fingertips are touching. Somehow that feels even more intimate.

It’s been just over a year since I discovered I had magic. Since then, I’ve also found out I’m a Princess and helped kill some of my world’s greatest enemies. I’ve also almost died multiple times. But I’ve made some of the best friends I could ever imagine.

Ryan’s death is still crushing me. I see his face every time I close my eyes. And even though Zephyra is dead, Mercuriel is still out there, stronger than ever. Maybe too strong to be defeated. But for now, none of that has to matter. Min and Mackenna are by my side. And even though the stakes are high, I have to believe we can win. I have to live in the present. I have to have hope.

And for now, I want to enjoy this one last day.

 

 

h1=.

Devlin began writing the Aubrey Rising series when she was 13 years old, and finished it just after she turned 15. She is currently 17 years old and is working on her seventh novel. Devlin enjoys writing, karate, and spending time with her friends. She lives in New Hampshire with her parents, brother and dog Cocoa Puff.

 

October 2015


Zephyra--Aubrey Rising Book 2

Aubrey has lost the use of her arm in the battle against Tempeste, and casualties from the battle are still crippling the School’s troops. In the search to find a cure, a journal belonging to a former Daughter of the Wilderness is located, giving them new hope for victory. However, this new plan is dangerous, and it puts Aubrey herself at more risk than ever. Aubrey and her friends must learn to rely on each other more than they ever would have thought possible, as the battle with Zephyra builds towards a final, deadly confrontation.

  • Author: Devlin Richards
  • Published: 2015-11-04 19:20:33
  • Words: 80378
Zephyra--Aubrey Rising Book 2 Zephyra--Aubrey Rising Book 2