by Salena Casha
My heartbeat quickened and I froze. How did they know my name? The half-crescent light of the moon glowed off stone. An alleyway, shrouded in darkness, slithered between the buildings. I reached for the familiar hilt of my knife, but my fingers grasped at air.
A cackle pierced through the night. The hair on my arm bristled. “You can’t hide from us, dearest,” the voice sang. “We only want to talk with you”.
Yeah right. Their medallion burned against my chest. I tried not to wrinkle my nose. Who knew how many of those foul creatures had caressed the ruby with their hands. Its heat soothed me, and my muscles relaxed. The swish of satin brought me out of the trance.
“You’ll be my undoing,” I whispered to it and tucked it under my tunic.
Interminable darkness stretched in front of me as I slowly backed down the alley. My current position was far from advantageous. They’d find me eventually. I shivered at the thought of the Specters: those who trailed me. They were monsters that no one knew existed, except us, the Order. And our duty was to protect everyone else from them.
I quickened my pace, my feet soundless against the stone pavement. Not that it made a difference. If I had worn a silence spell, they still would be able to hear me. They had senses beyond those of humans. They were probably enjoying the fast beat of my heart. My feet tripped into a run as I slipped through the side-streets of Brita. The roads of the village were barren, the silence emphasized by my blood pounding away in my ears.
“Melody, I see you,” the voice called out again. Its high tone vibrated against the walls. I took another step forward when something grabbed my feet and slammed them into the ground. Panic built up in my chest as my throat threatened to close. I struggled against their magic as it paralyzed my legs, rooting me in my spot. Iciness spread through my veins; a cold breath slid down my back. I winced as the chill made its way deeper into my body. Focus, I urged myself. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Control. Do not let them take your body from you.
A pale white form materialized in front of my eyes in a cyclone of wind. Her sharp teeth glistened in the moonlight, their sharpness punctuated by beady black eyes that stood out against white skin and hair. She traced my face with a long finger, her skin hard as marble. I tried not to wince as her nails scratched against my cheek, hot blood blooming from the scrapes.
“I believe you have something of ours,” she purred from her perch a few feet above the cracked ground.
The ruby’s heat radiated through my body as it undid the cold of the Specter’s magic. “Is that a question? Because if you’re asking, you’re supposed to say please,” I replied. Acid rose in my throat and I tried to swallow.
She swooped down, inches from my face, enraged. The rotting smell of her breath overwhelmed my senses. “Give it to me. Now.”
“No,” I said. My body thrummed with energy. The nerves in my hands felt as though they pulsed outside of my skin, shocked through with adrenaline. If I lost the gem to her, there was no telling what the Captain would do to me.
“I would tell you I won’t hurt you, dear, but I don’t like to lie.” Her eyes hardened as she barred her teeth.
The Specter’s magic slipped slowly off my body like melting ice. My muscles tensed as she reached out to touch my arm, her hand twisted into a claw. I delved deep into my mind and tugged at the core of my powers. Gritting my teeth, I pushed the blue string of magic out of my fingertips toward the creature. The sparks tunneled together, entwined in a long blast of light. She screamed out in pain and withdrew her outstretched hand. Magic rolled off my skin, escaping from my pores. It molded itself over my body in a bubble.
A loud crash bounced off the walls of the alley. I whirled around, my hand poised to send another stream of magic toward the disturbance. A dark silhouette tripped over a pile of rubbish.
“Melody, we have to get out of here,” someone cried. I wiped away the sweat that bled down my forehead. It was Aaron, my partner, the most notorious wimp in the entire kingdom. Always came out at the last possible moment.
“Easy for you to say,” I grimaced as I sent another string of magic from my fingers toward the Specter’s image. Something sharp cut against my hand and burnt my skin.
“My shield’s faltering. She’d breaking through,” I muttered.
I fell back onto hard rock. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Specters only weapon was fear; they had little true magic of their own. Aaron grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet as the Specter began her approach. Patches of red decorated her white skin where my shield had scorched her.
“Let’s get out of here,” Aaron whispered.
“The Captain wanted a prisoner this time,” I snapped.
Aaron’s eyes widened, but he knew better than to protest, so he stepped behind me. I delved deeper into my power to search the hidden crevices of my reserves. I pressed my palms together and opened them. A whirlwind of blue heat erupted from my skin. The Specter clawed and shrieked against it as I twisted the blue wire around her figure. With one final twirl, I formed the magic into a cage. She clawed against the barriers. Part two of mission completed.
“We ready now?” Aaron asked. A loud howl ripped through the air, the sound of Specters screeching through the night. I didn’t think it wise to wait for them. I slung the cage over my shoulder, and he grabbed onto my arm. His touch seared my skin as he mumbled words beneath his breath. Pressure built inside my chest. Air pushed down on me. The alley tunneled and I closed my eyes. Wind sucked at my skin. And then there was only silence.
Order members filled the headquarters, the cabin lit by a roaring fire. Red stains colored the floorboards. The elder members told us, with a wink and a nod, that at the time Headquarters was built, even the trees bled red. I knew better. It had been painted the scarlet to honor Order members who had died fighting the Greater Evil, a constant reminder of our own fate. I brushed a strand of frizzy auburn hair away from my eyes as I hefted the cage higher on my shoulder. Aaron trembled beside me. He never was particularly fond of crowds.
The rumble of voices hushed as the members watched us enter. I swallowed, ignoring their curious stares and looked confidently ahead of me. A desk emblazoned with two swords, the sign of the Order, sat at the center of the room. The Captain looked up from his map. Even in the limited light, the scar that ran from his temple to his lip glinted, sinister.
“Melody,” the Captain said. He removed his eyeglasses and let them hang from his meaty fingers. Grey speckled his black hair. The floor creaked under his weight. My stomach clenched as I removed the cage from my back.
“I’ve brought the stone and a prisoner,” I said. The Captain raised his eyebrows. Just stay strong. If he hears fear in your voice, you’re done for, I reminded myself. I was tough, raised on the streets. I knew how to deal with a military man.
“Are you sure?” he asked and gestured toward the cage. I looked down, my heart sinking inside my chest. The Specter had torn a hole in the side of my magic cube. Vanished. Must have disentangled herself during Aaron’s teleport. My hands shook as I forced myself to meet his eyes.
“She was here a minute ago, I swear,” I said. Digging into my tunic pocket, I produced the ruby. “But I do have the stone.” A sharp edge of the rock dug into my hand and blood oozed from the cut. A silvery spark of my magic stitched up the wound.
He shook his head, frustration oozing from his eyes. “Without a prisoner, the stone is useless.” He waved the congregation away with his hands. “Back to work.”
“Rogue, Henderson,” he pointed at two younger men at the back of the room, “Go out and try to catch that Specter. She can’t have gone far.” With a nod, they disappeared into the night.
“You, come with me,” he said and beckoned me toward the desk.
His reading glasses skittered across the table. I crossed my arms in front of my chest. Anger boiled in my veins. How did the Specter escape without my knowledge?
“Do you know how much everyone here has sacrificed for you? You have failed us.” His voice was heavy. “Again.”
Heat rose in my cheeks. Okay, I might not have been the most accurate shot in the entire Order, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t trying. “I would just like to point out, sir, that last time was not completely my fault. I was outnumbered.” He shook his head.
“This isn’t about blame. I put my trust in you and it’s gotten us nowhere. There is a war going on out there. We can’t afford any mistakes.” He sighed and replaced his glasses on the bridge of his nose.
“I’ll give you one more chance. Find out what the stone does. If you can’t, you don’t belong here.” My throat closed and I tried not to choke as my eyes burned. The Order had been the only home I’d ever known. He couldn’t just take it away from me. I stormed out of the room toward the Novice barracks.
“Since the Specter escaped, does that mean we won’t be getting promoted?” someone asked. I turned around to see Aaron looking up at me from under his thick spectacles.
I shoved him in the shoulder. “We have a lot more than that to worry about,” I replied. My head pounded as though my skull was about to split open. He fell silent and ran his hand nervously through his hair. I ducked under the wooden archway to my room. The dirt floor crunched beneath my shoes. I tumbled toward the shaky structure of my bunk bed. The other Novices were sound asleep. They were able to doze through a hailstorm.
Pulling off my boots, I ignored his worried expression as he stood in front of me.
“What?” I looked up at him angrily.
Aaron’s shoulders bowed forward. “Nothing. You look tired. Get some rest. I feel like we both could use some.”
“Yeah, you must be tired from standing and watching me save your sorry little butt,” I said to his retreating back. He just shook his head and disappeared through the archway toward the male barracks.
I pulled off my tunic and slipped into my night shirt. The soft material caressed my skin as it beckoned me to sleep. Just relax, I told myself. You’ll be able to figure something out. I placed my knife back into the waistband of my shorts. Sliding under the covers, I listened as the sounds of the Order, those who worked around the clock, receded into the distance. Those sounds, which had been so familiar to me, sent a jagged pain through my heart. I couldn’t afford to lose my home.
“This is useless.”
I slammed the jewel down against the boulder. My knuckles throbbed but the stone was still intact. Too bad it hadn’t cracked open and spilt its secrets onto the grey rock. Aaron looked over at me from where he sat. He clenched a handful of grass clippings, torn out by the root, in his fist. The Jove River trickled by us. Miles downstream, along the Brita Boundaries, it expanded large enough for barge traffic. But here, it was just a thin brook; barely a creek. And quiet enough for me to think. Below us, the village center prepared itself for nightfall. Below us, the Captain sat at his desk and awaited our return. I dug my nails into the rich soil.
“Melody, really, we’ll figure something out,” he said. I waved my red knuckles in his direction and he frowned.
“There’s nothing to figure out,” I said. The Captain’s threat whispered through my mind and my heart clenched as I tried not to look down at headquarters. Tendrils of sun flickered over the grass. The last rays flashed across Aaron’s glasses. “It won’t work for me. I don’t know how to make it show us anything.”
This wasn’t a fair test at all. How was I supposed to be able to figure out this secret? What if it was just a regular rock? All I wanted was to bury my face in my hands and sob like a child. But I couldn’t let Aaron see me cry. He had always been the weaker one, the one I comforted. And now in crisis, I couldn’t let the roles change. Squinting into the distance, I ground my teeth.
“What? Is there some other stupid advice you want to give me?” I snapped.
“No. It’s just…”
“We don’t have time for this. For anything. We’re just going to get kicked back onto the street. Is that what you want? For us to become performers? You know what happens to Order members who are dismissed. They don’t last very long out there.”
Resignation folded his shoulders. His eyes gazed at a point above my head, his mouth hard. “Just look.” He raised an arm and pointed behind me. I followed his gaze.
Crimson light lit the valley below us. At first, I thought it was just the glowing remains of day. But the beams moved and flicked. I shaded my eyes. Flames stretched up toward the sky, a threat to set the clouds on fire. I could see Headquarters, see the wooden beams through which smoke spiraled. The structure creaked, on the verge of collapse. Dark shapes moved around the perimeter. From beneath their cloaks, matches flew onto the enflamed pyre. Magic sizzled under my skin and pulsed readily at my fingertips.
“No!” I rose and scrambled forward.
I ignored him. It was a half-mile descent to the village through the thinly grassed meadow. I could get there in minutes. An explosion shook the structure. Tremors traveled through the ground. My knees slammed into the hard dirt as I lost my balance. I had to get there. Had to save them. I pushed myself to standing when Aaron grabbed my wrists. His brows curved down into a frown.
I felt for the knife at my waistband. “We have to help. Teleport us.”
“Are you crazy? We could land in the center of a burning room and die. We can’t risk it,” Aaron said. I wanted to remind him of all that the Order had risked for us long ago. That we owed them our lives.
“But it’s our duty,” I cried. The acrid tang of smoke stung my nose. I blinked away haze as I glanced toward the flames.
“No,” he said. “Our duty is to protect the stone.” He pulled me onto the ground. Grass tickled my bare legs and I wanted to wrench myself away but he gripped me hard. His voice lowered to a whisper. “Whoever set the fire is probably looking for it.”
I needed to tell him that he was wrong, but as I looked back at the shadows around the flames, my blood cooled. My arms went limp but he did not release his hold.
“We have to get away from here,” he said. I nodded and he pulled me to stand.
“You can let go,” I said. He hesitated, still holding my wrists. I rolled my eyes. “I promise I won’t run.”
“Fine,” he said. We made our way back to the river and I slipped the stone into my pocket. Silky plumes of smoke funneled into the darkening heavens.
The lazy current of the water made it easy for us to cross the river. The cool liquid seeped into my leggings and glued the fabric to my skin. I grimaced as I followed Aaron out of the stream, my clothes heavy. Grass crunched beneath our feet as we hurried away from Brita. It would’ve been nice not to have to walk, but Aaron never went outside the Britan boundaries. Teleportation required familiarity of some form or other.
Not that we knew where we were going anyway. I’d never been outside the boundaries either, never been outside the outline of the country. When the night sky had completely blacked out the light of the sun, other than the eerie glow of the coals that were once our home, I curled my magic into two glowing orbs that balanced on my palms. The landscape before us rolled toward the horizons in hills of never-ending grass. Aaron barreled on ahead of me.
“What?” He called back over his shoulder.
“Nothing. I just didn’t know you knew how to walk,” I replied. I could picture his eyes rolling back in his head, annoyed that he had me for a partner.
“Wait up.” I panted up the hill to where he stood. His black curls rustled in the wind, the muscles in his back tensed. I placed a hand on his shoulder and he shrugged it off. “Aaron, we should stop. Rest. I can hide us. At least for the night.”
He did not turn and I walked around to face him. In the orb’s blue glow, his eyes glistened. His body shook as he wiped a hand across his nose.
“It’ll be okay,” I whispered. He shook his head, arms crossed.
“It wasn’t just your home,” he said.
“I know.” I moved toward him but he stepped back.
“It wasn’t,” he repeated. And I could see him for what he was beneath the magic: just a homeless, orphaned thirteen-year-old boy.
“I’m so sorry,” I said and I grabbed his shoulders. On the verge of tears, he folded into me, his body thin beneath my hands. I helped him sit down on the cold grass. In the night air, I wove a cube of protection around us. His eyes traced the pattern as my magic glowed and then disappeared, an ebb and flow of familiarity. I lost myself to the buzz, to the patterns. Stay strong, I reminded myself, biting my lip. Aaron’s sobs echoed in the space as he cried into my shirt just like he had when I first met him.
When the Order had found me, I had been seven years-old. I was playing in the street, dressed in rags. Sitting on my haunches, I watched as blue sparks trickled from my fingers and fell onto the concrete. Flowers bloomed where my magic touched the ground. People in Brita had acted less than kindly toward me when they had seen such displays of power. One day, after a nasty incident with a shopkeeper, the Captain approached me and told me to come with him. I’d been horrified, thought that he would take me back to the orphanage I’d escaped. But I was too small to fight him. He brought me to Headquarters, gave me a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a place to train. He taught me how to use my magic.
They found Aaron when he was five. I had been at the Order for a year when they brought him in. All the Order children younger than nine slept in the same room and he was assigned to be my bunkmate. He cried all through that first night. When I asked him what was wrong (right after I threatened him that I’d strangle him in his sleep if he didn’t shut up), he clung onto me and cried until the sun came up.
As we had learned, the Order was a group of Mages. They were born with magic to protect their fellow ignorant brothers and sisters from dark forces that hid in all corners of civilization. War was caused by darkness as was famine and disease. The Order fought those that sought to bring evil into the world. We had all sworn to protect and serve the human race until we were no longer needed. Like that was going to happen any time soon.
I held Aaron against me even though my stomach ached. The Order was gone. The people who had loved us, who had accepted us, who had taught us how to use the magic that had alienated us from other humans, were gone. Rocking him like a baby, I whispered words I didn’t believe into his ear until he fell asleep in my arms. Slowly, I shifted him onto the ground. He lay there, snoring.
“I’ll take first watch,” I whispered and stepped outside of the protective circle. The acrid smell of smoke drifted toward me as the wind blew through my thin clothes. My nose wrinkled at the stench. It would have been a beautiful night if the flames from headquarters did not still blaze and bathe Brita with a golden glow. I swallowed and swiped the tears from my cheeks with a quick hand.
Be strong, I whispered to myself. So I watched the fire settle down to embers and, as the sun rose, cool to ash. My nails pressed red crescents into my arm, but still, I watched. My home was truly gone.
“Melody, we have a problem,” Aaron’s voice drifted toward me. I looked up from the fire-pit where I sat cooking our breakfast. Another problem? As if we didn’t have enough already.
“What is it?” I raised my eyebrows. I had sent him down to catch some more fish from the river. Unless the entire population of salmon had died, I didn’t want to hear his news. He reached into the back pocket of his trousers and pulled out a scroll. Our faces stood out in black ink, imprinted on the front page.
I snatched the paper from his hand. “What does it say?”
Aaron was one of very few people in Brita who could read. Only a handful of people were born with that type of power. The Order had used his gift to its advantage and communicated with other organized protective groups through Aaron’s cryptic scribbles. Not that we had ever seen any fairies or other Mages. The Order members were the only magic folk we had ever known.
“The authorities are looking for us. They think we had something to do with the fire.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “We have to leave before they find us.” I didn’t respond. I could feel his stare boring a hole in my back. I breathed in the sweet scent of flowers. Spring would arrive soon.
“Where would we even go?” I asked, my voice soft. Brita was the only place I had ever lived. Born into the disgusting streets, full of filth and death and danger, I had thrived here. My blood ran in the gutters and my magic coursed through marbled veins in the city walls. If I left, I would lose a piece of myself. He shrugged and sat down next to me. He patted my hand, his blue-veined skin pale against my bronzed complexion.
“It’s okay,” he said.
“It’s not okay,” I shot back. My magic sizzled on the ridges of my fingertips. My skin glowed gold. Anger raged through my body and I breathed out as I tried to stabilize my core.
“It will be,” he continued. Fear flickered across his eyes, but he held his ground. “The ruby will tell us what to do.”
“Why do you bother believing that fairytale?” I asked and rolled my eyes. I shoved my hand into my pocket. The rough edges of the ruby blistered across my fingertips. I held the crystal up to the light, watched the sun glance off the surface. “It’s just a stupid rock. There’s nothing important about it.” I glanced at the stone and my heart skipped.
“What?” Aaron demanded. He moved toward me.
“It’s just, I think I saw something.” I brought the gem close to my face, challenged the cracked edges to speak to me, to show me something. Nothing. I sighed. Now I was seeing things. Great.
Aaron’s hand closed over my fist and I met his gaze. “Your magic. Maybe it brought out a message.”
“I doubt it,” I said.
“It’s worth a try. That is unless you’re afraid of being wrong,” he said and crossed his arms in front of his hollow chest.
My power still sat, unused, on my skin’s surface. Blue sparks speckled the glass before seeping inside the gem through a fissure at the edge. Must have happened when I’d tried to break it open. My magic burrowed into the gem. It trickled like grains of sand into openings and pockets. I watched as it formed itself and settled. A mountain peak appeared in the ruby, sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. Four words engraved beneath the image blinked and shuddered. There were no mountains in Brita, just rolling hills and grassy plains. And ash, I added. I could still taste the acrid powder that had been blown by the wind and settled on our bodies the night before.
“Look,” I said and held it out to Aaron.
He stared, his eyes wide. It took him a few moments to study the symbols, to read their meaning. As I watched him, heat crept up my neck. We couldn’t survive without each other and it made my head ache.
“It’s the Cora Ley Mountain Range,” he said.
“Do you think you can take us there?” I asked. I choked on the words, my breath coming out in a cough.
He nodded. “You sure you want to?” he asked. I wished I could bottle up Brita’s wind and take it with me. Not that I was sentimental or anything.
“We should go,” I said finally. Aaron nodded and looked back down the valley, back at where we’d last seen Headquarters and the river and the streets of Brita. I felt dizzy as he slid his small hand onto my wrist. His skin felt cool, like ice, and I shivered.
“It’ll be okay,” he said. The corner of his mouth twitched into a watery smile.
I nodded tightly as I ignored the knot that twisted my intestines, as I tried not to dig my feet too hard into the ground. My magic slipped through my shoes like roots. It touched the stones and the dirt and the waterways, traveling toward Earth’s core. I let my tendrils embrace all that was Brita. All that was me.
“Good-bye,” he whispered to the wind. Pressure crushed down upon us and my vision tunneled. As my patchwork home disappeared into darkness, I remembered to let go.
Green needles covered the ground. They crunched under my feet as I landed. Pine needles, I reminded myself. The cool air spilt into my clothing. A breeze sent a shiver down my spine. It didn’t help that we stood in the shade of a tree. Absentmindedly, I ran my hand across the trunk. It was rough and pointy as it shed pieces of bark into my hand. The amulet had returned to crystal clarity. I shoved magic into the gem again, but the sparks slid off the surface.
“Damn it,” I swore. “You took us all the way into the middle of nowhere and now you’re abandoning us.”
Aaron raised his eyebrows, “When you start talking to inanimate objects, I know we’re in trouble.”
“Shut up.” I slipped the jewel back under my clothes. “I know exactly where we’re going.”
“Uh huh,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“Just follow me,” I said and set off into the woods. Aaron sighed and followed, his city shoes snapping twigs beneath his gait. The sun peeked at us from above the canopy of leaves. At least the golden rays were the same here as in Brita. Speckled light danced across the floor and, for lack of a better option, I decided to follow it.
Flowers thrived beside their bramble archangels, bushes populated by the strange pairing. Ironic, I thought as we skirted thorns and sidestepped petals. Aaron tramped behind me, his steps punctuated every so often by yelps of pain as his skin caught on dangerous points. I shook my head, glad he couldn’t see my smile. Even if he was the most inept partner ever, there was no one else in the world I could imagine on a trek with me through the mountains. Not that I would ever admit that to him.
As we progressed farther into the forest, the overgrowth choked out the colored blossoms. Tree roots twisted up in snarled bunches from the ground, intent on tripping our feet. The air grew thicker; the sun disappeared for stretches of time. It was as though something compressed the woods. As if something had sensed that we didn’t know where we were going. I was about to turn around and retrace my steps when I realized that I could no longer hear Aaron’s footfalls behind me. My windpipe tightened and I whirled around, hand on my knife. He stood yards away from me, rooted in place, his eyes staring skyward.
“What are you looking at?” I asked.
He didn’t reply.
“Aaron,” I called again. He said nothing, his eyes focused on the canopy. I shook my head. Of all times for him to want attention, now he chose to make me confess that I didn’t know where I was going.
“Seriously, Aaron. I’m talking to you,” I repeated. Again, only silence. Annoyed, I walked over to him. If he wasn’t moving, I’d drag him back with me. I grabbed his arm. His skin was hard and cold to the touch. His irises did not register me, their surface glassy.
“Aaron?” I whispered. His skin marbled, his expression empty. A few of the leaves above me rustled and my heart pounded in my chest. This wasn’t right, didn’t feel right. A shadow flickered in my periphery and I tried to pull him behind a tree. But his body remained rooted to the ground. Leaves rustled again. I tugged at his arm, but I could not break his trance.
The air went still and I ducked behind a tree trunk. From the splintered bark, I watched Aaron’s frozen frame. I licked my lips, my palm sweaty against the cool metal hilt of my blade. The silence of the forest made my ears ring. I flattened my left hand, ready to spin a shield, when a loud pop boomed through the trees. Wind whipped my hair from my face and I gasped for breath. Black dust began to materialize next to Aaron. It sparkled as it formed a cloaked figure, its face hidden by its hood. I swallowed hard. The figures from the Headquarters fire. My body tensed as the misty being approached.
Suddenly, a hand clamped around my mouth and pulled me down to the forest floor. I tried to scream, but it came out as a gasp.
“Don’t yell. If you do, we’re both dead,” a man’s voice whispered urgently into my ear. I struggled against his hold. Something sharp pressed into my back and I went limp.
“I’m not going to hurt you. Just stop moving or it’ll hear us,” he ordered. I kicked him in the shin. The man swore under his breath, but his hold did not loosen. “I should just let it have you,” he said. “But I’m too much of a gentleman.” I rolled my eyes.
The black mist glided toward Aaron above the floor. My stomach clenched. So it wasn’t human. Great. Now this situation had reached the umpteenth level of bad timing. The dust sparkled. I let my mind delve into my magic reserves, but they were empty. I had used it all up on that stupid rock. The glittering specks settled on Aaron and enveloped him in black mist. Moments later, they disappeared just as the ashes from headquarters had blown away in the wind.
A voice, different from my captor’s, whispered in my ear, “Melody, Melody, sweet song, we know you.” I shivered as the cold wind blew down my back like an icy breath. Specters. It wasn’t the first time they had called to me, had told me they knew my name.
Anger roiled inside me with a heat that boiled my blood. I bit my captor’s hand hard, my teeth sinking into his flesh. Howling in pain, he pulled back and I dropped to the ground. I spun on him, knife drawn. Blond hair, pulled back from his face by a leather thong, framed silver eyes. He seemed to glow, his pale body fluorescent against his dark tunic. A long-sword balanced from his hilt.
“Where did they take him?” I asked slowly. I wanted to dive to the ground where Aaron had been, search for any sign of him, cry out his name. But I had the man to deal with now. I watched him warily. I should’ve let the Specter take me with him. At least then I’d know where it had gone.
“There’s nothing we can do now right now. They’ll be back,” he said. A thin line of blood oozed from the bite mark on his hand. At least he knew better than to grab me this time. “We have to get off the trail.”
Trail? I glanced around the forest, but I didn’t see any path. I gritted my teeth together and nodded tightly. If he left, I’d be alone, wouldn’t know where to go. Still, I did not put down my knife.
“Fine. I’ll follow you,” I said.
He nodded and set off into the trees at a run. The cold air stung my lungs as we raced away from the spot. My mind buzzed as I replayed Aaron’s stony form disappearing into the darkness. The man stopped in his tracks and I barreled into him.
He shot me an aggravated look. “Watch where you’re going,” he whispered. I shrugged. He grunted and knelt down onto the ground. Leaves rustled as he searched the forest floor for something. A click popped through the silence and the man pulled up a trapdoor.
“Get in,” he ordered. I hesitated, my hand resting nervously on my knife. “We don’t have much time.”
“Why should I trust you?” I asked.
“I saved your life,” he said. Again, I didn’t move. “Do what you like. But I wouldn’t stick around out here if I were you.” With that, he disappeared down the hole.
A screech, like fingernails against porcelain, echoed through the forest. The hairs on my arms prickled and I took a step toward the opening. The cry ripped again through the air and I didn’t need any more convincing. I dove into the entrance and the door clicked shut behind me.
My fingers drummed against my leg as I sat by the fire. The man stood beside a chest of clothes, biting his thumbnail. He was a head taller than me and probably twenty years older. Thin, short scars decorated his face.
My voice sounded slow and hoarse as I broke the silence, “So you’re telling me that the Specters can come out in daylight?”
He cocked his head. “That’s what I just said, wasn’t it?” My face grew hot. When I didn’t say anything, he continued. “The cloak that you just saw is their new protection. They’re able to come out now anytime and anywhere.”
“Why?” I asked. My heart raced inside my chest, my feet ready to spring into action at any moment and take me back out into the forest.
His charcoal eyes pierced me before he looked back down at his hands. “You know very well the war that is being waged between the living and the dead. The Specters have become desperate. They have new,” he paused, “strategies. They’ve become bolder since branches of the Order are going up in smoke.”
“There’s more than just one,” he said.
“How do you even know about the Order?” I asked. He was no regular huntsman. Mage? Warlock? He smiled ruefully. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Erik. I made a peace agreement of sorts with the Order. They asked me to join them, but I’ve found better things to do with my time,” he looked lazily into the fire. “What is so special about you that the Order was trying to protect?” His eyes shone with mischief. The ruby burned in my pocked, so hot I almost yelped out in pain.
“Nothing.” I refused to meet his gaze.
He looked at me again and sighed. “Show me the ruby. It’s in your pocket. I won’t take it. I just want to see it.” I gaped at him, my heart dropping into my stomach. He smiled, “You and your friend Aaron are not the only ones with special powers. As rare as magic people are, you still run into one every once in a while.”
“You’re a mind reader,” I whispered. Great. Now he could see exactly what I was thinking. So much for trying to escape.
He nodded, “Now show it to me.” I hesitated and he rolled his eyes.
“Fine,” I said. I slipped my hand in and pulled out the red ruby. He looked at it, eyes wide.
“What’s the matter with it?” I challenged. It looked the same as it always did, crimson light pulsing from its depths in a quick one-two beat.
He raised his eyebrows. “Do you know what you’re holding?”
“No, not really,” I said. “I’m trying to figure out what it does.”
He smiled. “I’m lucky I ran into you then. Or vice versa,” he said. He walked across the dirt floor, his body feet away from me. “That blood-red gem you’re holding is my heart.”
My jaw dropped.
“Your heart? You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
He nodded. “Hard to believe, right?”
“But I took it from the Specters. They’ve been guarding it for centuries. How is it your heart?” I closed my fist. This was a just a trick. It had to be. To make me give the ruby to him.
“Not centuries. Just as long as I was alive. It didn’t really have a form until I came about.” He noted my raised eyebrows and waved a hand at me.
“It’s too complicated for me to explain. Too complicated for you to understand,” he said. “I’m not asking for it back.”
“How are you alive then?”
“It’s still beating, isn’t it?” he asked.
I looked down, watching the ruby pulse again. “Yes,” I said slowly.
“As long as it beats, I stay in this world.”
“Why did they have it?” I asked. If I was going to believe this whole “heart” thing, he needed to at least try to make me understand it.
“It’s how they live. A trade of sorts. They need it to survive. You’re a mage, you should know that.”
“But they usually kill people, not keep pieces of them,” I reminded him.
His face grew serious as he nodded, “Yes, that’s true.”
Silence filled the room and I slipped it back into my pocket. His eyes followed my hand but he made to move to walk across the room and take it from me. It was just what I needed: a bargaining tool.
“I have to get Aaron back,” I said. “Tell me how and then we can talk about giving you your heart.”
“I told you already I don’t want it,” he said.
My heart sunk. “At least tell me where I can find him.”
He paused, his fingers tracing over his sword. “We can’t be rash about it. Marching into a den full of Specters isn’t going to solve any of these problems,” he said calmly. “You still don’t understand everything.”
“What is it that I don’t understand?” I spat at him. Rage boiled under my skin and I tried to take a deep breath. I was still a Novice learner when it came to magic. I didn’t want to kill anyone on accident. Not just yet anyway.
“Aaron is only the first of many who will disappear.” He paused as he gazed into the fire. “I need to take you back to the Order, understand?”
“The Order? I thought it was destroyed.”
He laughed. “This is what happens when you come from such a small village. Your home was only a branch. The main one is nearby.”
Heat flooded my cheeks and I looked down at the ground. Foolish. “And they’ll know what to do with the – with your heart?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It’s really worthless to us. But it’ll be safer with them than it will be here.”
My eyes burned. Aaron was gone and it was all my fault. Erik walked toward me. His steel eyes softened.
“It really isn’t your fault. Everything that’s happening. Losing the stone made the Specters understand that they really haven’t been living. It was only a matter of time before they attacked us, declared war officially,” he said.
I fingered the knife at my waist. “We will find Aaron first though, right?” I asked.
“It’d be best to get you to safety first. To get you away from me,” he said.
Why? I wanted to demand. If he was such a danger to my safety, why was he helping me? I swallowed. “We need Aaron. He can teleport.”
“It’ll be too dangerous.”
“I will not go to the Order without him,” I said slowly.
Flames crackled across his silver eyes. He stared at me hard but I refused to flinch, refused to look away. He sighed.
“Fine. We’ll get your friend. But then I’m taking you back to the Order. Ending whatever quest it is that you’re on.”
“Our mission was to discover what the ruby was. We lost our home, we were following the path it gave us…” I stuttered.
“Right back to me.”
“You’ll need to go to the Order and explain to them about your heart. They’ll hear you out, maybe let you have it back. They didn’t know what it was,” I said.
“They’ve known for a while now,” he whispered beneath his breath.
I blinked at him, put on my best pleading face.
Erik bit his lip. “Fine, but the ruby stays here. If we lose it to them, the battle’s over.” I nodded.
He pulled me over to an ancient trunk that sat in the middle of the room and opened the lid. Inside was another container, smaller and lined with purple velvet. He opened the latch and I placed the ruby inside. Taking a red pen, he drew symbols around the lock. The box sizzled for a moment before it settled down into the depths of the trunk. He did the same with the outer box. Standing up, he turned to me and said, “You sure you’re ready?”
“I’ve never felt more prepared,” I said. Butterflies buzzed in my stomach.
He nodded. “Then you’ll need all the sleep you can get. Rest up. You can rest there,” he gestured to a worn leather chair in front of the fire. I watched the smoke curl toward the ceiling. Sparks sizzled as it touched the enchanted rocks. At least he was smart enough not to let us suffocate.
“I’ll be in the back room. If anything happens, come and get me.” With one last look, he ducked his head under a carved dirt archway. A flap of fur swung shut over the entrance.
I sat down on the chair, felt it creak under my weight. Shadows from the fire flickered across the red clay walls. The light blinked off the symbols of protection; I only knew them because Aaron had taught a couple to me. Invisibility, Silence, Dark. Only readers could understand their significance. A makeshift kitchen, with a boiling pot and an herb holder, sat toward the back of the room.
Snores issued from Erik’s room. Already out. I crept over to the trunk and traced the edges of the rough wood with my fingers. Maybe this would give me a clue about him. Tendrils of my magic enveloped the lock. The metal sizzled, burned my power. Mind-readers, I thought bitterly. I stared annoyed at his door. I guess the Order wasn’t the only society who kept secrets. I’d trust him for now. But if he did anything out of the ordinary, I’d be out of here faster than Aaron could teleport.
“How do you know where they’ve taken him?” I whispered as we slunk through the bushes. I had woken up that morning to a breakfast of sausages and eggs, food I hadn’t smelled, let alone tasted, in years. After arming up, we headed to where Erik claimed the Specter fortress lay.
“Can you stop the questions until after we find your friend? If you carry on like this, we’ll get caught even before we get close.” Erik turned and held up his hand to halt me. “Be quiet and just follow my lead.” I ground my teeth together, but said nothing. I would get my answers eventually. I slipped after Erik’s shadow as we wove in between the trees, deeper and deeper into the forest.
The canopy of leaves blocked out sun and sound. Eerie. It felt as though death had stolen over the entire area. Brambles, however, remained in abundance. The thorns tore at my clothes, drew thin red lines on my skin. Blue sparks constantly licked my skin as my magic sewed up my wounds.
A branch flew into my face and I ducked, rolling to the ground. Erik yanked me to my feet, his lips set in a thin line. I was so close to him I could see a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead. Then again, the layers of protective garments probably didn’t help his ventilation.
“It’s through there,” he said, his voice calm. He nodded behind him through a dense overhang of branches.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked, licking my lips. A cool breeze ruffled my hair. The smell of pine stung my nose.
“Just trust me,” he said. I folded my arms in front of my chest, my fingers vibrating with magic.
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” I said with narrow eyes.
He shook his head, his gaze hard. “I can’t risk it. If you want your friend back, you’ll have to follow my lead. You won’t be able to get in there without me.”
“We’ll see about that,” I responded. If people thought that by telling me what to do, I’d just shut up and let them boss me around, they were wrong. I brushed past him and swept the branches aside. My heart stuttered in my chest. An immense black building rose up from the ground in a wide open clearing. Pointed minarets twirled up toward the sky and skewered the clouds. The sunlight reflected off the building’s metallic surface. Flashes of silver blinked on the grass.
“Ladies first.” He tilted his head.
“Whatever,” I replied. The area was too open; there would be no place to hide if we got caught. Sparks sizzled on the edges of my skin. My heart pumped in my ears as I approached the wall. Placing my hands on the smooth stone, I yanked my power up from my core. Tendrils exploded from my hands and ran across the surface. I tried to concentrate it in one spot but the sparks scattered, deflected by the strange metal.
“Finished?” Erik asked. He leaned against the wall and inspected his nails. “Don’t waste your magic. We’ll need it when we’re in there,” he said. He extended his arm in my direction. “Give me your hand.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think this is one of those types of moments,” I shot back.
He shook his head, hand still outstretched. My ears burned. Calling my magic back to me, I watched as the sparks slithered under my skin. The electric buzz of the current felt familiar. He grunted and grabbed my wrist. My feet, which had been below me only moments ago, disappeared. I went numb. Gasping, I tried to cry out, but my voice was gone. Erik stood beside me, his eyes white. We glided a foot above the grass toward the wall. I squeezed my eyes shut as we slammed into the granite. Warmth slid down my back. Pressure squeezed my body from all sides. The feeling passed and I opened my eyes.
We stood in a hallway, the walls glazed with the same metallic surface from the outside. Purple torches decorated the infinite walkway. A gaping hole stood before us from which darkness oozed. Erik was already moving forward.
“Your friend is down these stairs in one of the cells. Most of the Specters are at the other side of the castle, so we’ve got some time,” he turned to continue down the stairs but I stopped.
“How did you do that?” I whispered. I looked back at the wall, my hand shaking as I touched the hard surface. What other magic was he keeping from me?
“I already told you. No questions,” he said. “Let’s move before they register the breach.” With that, he charged down the cold stone steps. After a beat, I followed him. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I became aware of blue doors that decorated the walls every few feet. The floor slipped beneath my feet as I ran. Erik halted in front of a large door covered in spikes. He drew a circle over the portal with his finger, muttering something under his breath. A click. The door swung forward. More darkness. Erik motioned me through.
“He’s here. Paralyzed. Not dead,” Erik mused as he brushed past me. The smell of mold and rotting fruit stung my nose. Imagine living here, I thought. Even for Specters, these were pretty poor accommodations. The floor was rough beneath my sandals. I took a tentative step forward, my foot sinking into a puddle.
“Gross.” I shook the muck off my foot. It would take an hour for me to get the stench of this room off my body. Snapping my fingers, I pushed magic out of my palm into a small orb. Manacles hung from the stone walls, rusted with abandonment. Who needed chains when you had a paralyzing spell? I thought. Ambiance maybe?
Aaron stood, statue-like, in the right corner of the putrid room. I rushed forward, and wrapped my arms around him, burying my face in his stony shoulder.
“Aaron, I’m here, it’s okay now,” I said. His skin was cold; the blue veins that customarily ran through his hands marbled. It didn’t even matter that he couldn’t hear me.
“I need you to push your magic where his heart is. It’ll spread out and thaw the rest of his body,” Erik glanced back toward the door. His hand rested on a saber at his side.
I nodded, placing my fingertips against Aaron’s stony chest. Heat seared through my nerves as sparks jumped from my body to his. Slowly, his clothes near my hand began to soften.
“He’ll warm up on the way out. We only have so much time,” Erik said. He swung Aaron over his shoulder and nudged me toward the door.
My lungs stung from the dead air as I ran. The hallway stretched on before me in interminable darkness. The skin on the back of my neck prickled. My breath came out in fogged puffs. They were coming. I sprinted up the stairs two at a time. My body collided into Specter mist. Agony contorted my muscles. Without thinking, I pulled my knife from its sheath and slammed the blade into the fog. My magic soared across the metal and tunneled outward. The woman let out a piercing scream as her body disintegrated into white dust.
“Melody, behind you!” Erik yelled and I whirled around. A claw slammed into my chest. My back hit the hard ground, my lungs winded. My knife skittered away from my fingers. I scrambled to regain my balance, but I could feel my body freezing, my feet rooted to the floor. Don’t panic, I said to myself. A male Specter floated inches away from me. I watched warily as his twisted lips curved into a grotesque smile.
“Hello, dear. We knew you’d arrive. Where is it?” he snapped. An icy wave of fear crystallized in my blood. I gritted my teeth, pulled my powers up from my core. Heat seeped in my veins. The Specter made to swoop in closer when metal sang through the air. A blade sliced through the Specter. Remnants of the apparition blew away as the cold slipped off my skin.
“I could’ve handled that,” I said as relief flooded my muscles. I slid my blade back into its sheath.
Erik rolled his eyes. “I never said you couldn’t.”
“Let’s just get out of here,” I said, holding out my hand in Erik’s direction.
“Mhmm,” someone groaned and I looked around in surprise. Aaron raised his head from Erik’s shoulder.
I smiled, “About time you woke up.”
“Melody,” Erik said slowly, his eyes wide.
“What?” I asked, but the word barely escaped my mouth before something hard slammed into my right temple. Pain bounced inside my skull as I collided with the floor. Moments later, Erik collapsed next to me with an audible oof.
I tried to focus, but my vision spun. A sharp pain shot through my back. Slowly, the world lost its fuzziness and I scrambled onto my elbows, ready to push myself to stand. Fear trickled into my stomach. Around us, in a circle, were about twenty Specters. And they all looked hungry.
An old Specter, with wrinkles that curved down his ghostly face, stepped out of the circle toward us. His matted white hair fell around his shoulders, his soulless eyes the same pale color of his skin.
“The girl is mine,” he said to the group. The pack grumbled, but no one moved to challenge him. “Nice to see you again, Erik. It’s been far too long.” Erik’s muscles tensed. I raised my eyebrows, but he ignored me.
“What’s happening?” Aaron’s weak voice reached my ears. I crawled over to his limp body. The hard floor scraped at my knees.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I whispered. All I wanted was to grab him into a hug, feel his bones crunch under my arms. But I smiled weakly instead.
Erik cleared his throat. I looked back to see the Specters circle closer. Their white hair looked like flames in the dark.
“Can you get us out of here?” I asked and encircled Aaron’s wrist with my hand.
“He’s far too weak. There’s no telling what could happen,” Erik said.
“I can do it,” Aaron said, his voice soft. He pulled himself off the floor, wavering against my body.
I looked back up at Erik. “I’m no coward, but I’d rather not be eaten by a bunch of blood thirsty, revenge-seeking, unhappy-they’re-stuck-in-an-in-between-state ghosts.”
“Fine,” he said.
“Where to?” the boy asked. I’ll send him a mind picture of the hut,Erik’s voice resounded in my head and I nodded in agreement. If only I’d been born as a mind reader, I thought wistfully.
Pressure crushed the air out of my lungs. I forced my lips into a smile. A good picture to leave them with while we escaped. The Specters dove at us, choked with rage. One reached toward us just as the lair tunneled away into calm darkness. With a loud bang, we landed on the dirt floor of Erik’s hut. Aaron struggled into a sitting position, his face pale. Before he could say anything, I wrapped my arms around his thin frame and squeezed him hard.
“Don’t ever, ever, do that to me again,” I whispered.
He nodded weakly and then fainted in my arms. Picking him up, I laid him on the couch. His snores filled the room.
Erik stood against the wall, his eyes vacant. I focused on the blade at my hip with stinging eyes.
“Thank you,” I finally said.
He shrugged away my words. “It was part of our deal, wasn’t it? Save Aaron so I can take you both back to the Order where you belong. So everything can go back to normal?”
“Normal? I don’t think anything is ever going back to normal. You said so yourself. The Specters will never stop.”
Erik took a deep breath and sighed. While I didn’t know how old he was, I could feel the experience behind his steel eyes. “I mean the part about you going back to society. Me staying here. Just bring the stone to the Mages so we can be done with all this.”
“But the Order could use you, with all your powers” I pressed.
“I am not wanted by the Order for that purpose,” he replied bitterly.
I wasn’t going to let up that easily. “The Specters seem to recognize you. If you know something that could help stop the war,” I stopped. I rubbed my temples. It wasn’t as though I was ungrateful or anything. But he acted as though we were some sort of burden. A newly formed bruise hammered away at my ribs.
“At least help me understand,” I said.
His eyes were as hard as flint. He gestured toward the back room and held the flap aside. I stepped through the arch. An earthy smell filled my nose, like herbs and soil kept in heat for too long. Walking in after me, he sat down on a wicker chair at the center of the room and pointed at a stool that leaned against the far wall.
I sat down. My mind buzzed as I remembered the way his eyes turned white, how we had passed through the walls of the fortress like ghosts. Like Specters. I scratched at my leg. Myths were all I knew, stories the Order had told me, about beings that were far more powerful than your average magic holder.
“Are you from the other world? The dead one?” I whispered. My breath caught in my throat.
He didn’t blink, just continued to stare at me. “Something like that.”
I could feel magic sizzle under my skin. “How can you expect me to trust you if I don’t know what’s going on?”
“Not everything about me is relevant. My job is to deliver you and the stone safely to the First Circle and that’s all I must be concerned with,” he said, his voice firm. The firelight flickered across his face and cast shadows over the scars on his cheek. I sighed.
“The Order needs you. To help them save everyone.”
“I owe no debt to humanity.”
“Neither do Aaron or I. Our parents abandoned us. They hurt us because we were different. Erik, we are more alike than you think.”
“Melody, do not speak of what you do not know,” he said quietly. He glanced at the chest and then looked down at the large brass ring on his forefinger. I closed my eyes, the heat from the fire warming my cold body.
“Please. I will understand,” I said.
He continued to toy with the ring. “You would not speak this way to me if you knew what I was. What the Order did and what they will not undo even to save us all.”
The fire crackled and he rose from his seat. “We will leave tomorrow. I suggest you get some rest.”
“But – ”
“Melody, please,” he begged. “Just leave me alone.”
I wanted to reach out and tell him he didn’t need to feel so alone. That we could all be alone together. But the look in his eyes was one I had known far too well, one I had experienced too often.
“Thank you again,” I whispered and walked out into the common room.
Erik led the way through the underground tunnel that was hidden at the back of his cavern. As if the lair wasn’t far enough in the ground to begin with. The air was cool and smelled like wet earth. Water dripped down the sides of the passage, the drops thick and fat like clear beads. The dirt walls were decorated with roots from the trees above. I trudged after him, followed by a still-weak Aaron. The tension of the day, of the knowledge that the Specters were most likely on our trail, reverberated through the earthen walls. I shivered and pulled Aaron along beside me.
“The First Circle is only a mile from here,” Erik said.
Why he lived in such close proximity to a place that he was ardently trying to avoid was beyond me, but I held my tongue. No need to create more conflict at a point where we needed him. Not that I was particularly thrilled about our return to society. I kind of liked the solitude of the wilderness. The lack of people who judged me or used me.
“Why can’t we teleport again?” I asked as I ducked my head to avoid the low ceiling. My body was still sore from our last expedition.
Erik sighed. “You can’t teleport into a Mage zone. It’s spelled against any unwanted visitors. You can try if you want your body to be turned inside out.”
“What about that other thing you do? The whole passing through wall deal. There are so many easier ways to get to the Circle without having to walk,” I said.
“Melody,” Erik warned. Aaron raised his eyebrows and I shook my head.
“I’ll take you to the end of the tunnel. From there, it should be less than one-hundred yards to the first base. I’ll protect you,” he said.
“But you’re not coming to the base with us?”
His jaw hardened. “No. It’s not safe for me. It would be a poor move on my part.”
“Why?” I asked. He said nothing, but I couldn’t let this go. “If the ruby is useless, why are we even going to the Mages? Why can’t we just stay here?”
“That’s out of the question. You’d be in too much danger.”
“Stop saying that. From what you’ve told me, nothing is safe anymore,” I pressed.
“Melody, stop,” Aaron whispered next to me. I shook him off and stared straight into Erik’s silver eyes.
“Erik. You have to tell us what’s going on. If there’s no hope to save anything, why are we going back?”
“There is a way to save everyone from the Specters, from the darkness, but it’s too difficult.”
“For the world or for you?” I said.
Silence. Water dripped from the cavern walls onto the floor in a measured beat. The air felt thick again and I tried to breath. Aaron wheezed beside me. He was never one to handle tension very well.
“What are you?” I whispered.
Erik breathed in and pressed his back against the wall. His face looked weary, older. I tended to have that affect on people. Wearing them down until they finally caved.
“A Specter Child,” he said.
I swayed under his words. But it didn’t surprise me. His eyes had told me something had been different about him back in the lair. The way the specters had spoken to him. Still, chills slid across my skin. “What side are you on?” I asked.
“I consider myself a free agent,” he said. He brushed an impatient hand through his hair. “I broke from the Specter’s magic long ago, sixteen years to be exact. They ceased bothering me after I became neutral. They kept my heart and I kept my life. I care nothing for my own species,” he said. He leaned against the wall.
“You can’t be a part of their world and then renounce it without aligning yourself to something else,” I said.
“I can do whatever I want with my life,” he said.
“How did you break from their magic?”
“A Mage helped me transition back into a human.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. Frustration bubbled in my core. Nothing made sense. Why were we bringing his heart now to the Mages? To the Order?
“It’s better this way. It’s better for the Order to feel as if they have some control. We have to go.” His voice was icy. Traces of red flickered through his pupils.
Aaron let out his breath. I looked down at my pocket where the ruby burned against my leg. Disgust bubbled in my throat. Hopefully, the heads of the Order would know what to do with it.
“Are you sure you don’t want your heart back?”
“It is useless to me, Melody. Just keep moving,” Erik said, his back tense.
Our pace quickened. The only sound in the tunnel was the water against rock as it ticked off precious time. Erik stopped, signaling us to halt. He turned around and removed his pack from his back.
“Okay, through this door is the entrance to the First Circle. It has a shield, an invisible one, which surrounds the camp, so you won’t really be able to tell when you are in the safe zone. The second you get out the door, I need you to take Aaron and run. I can only protect you so much.”
I nodded. “Take this,” he said and handed me a short blade. It had symbols of protection written all over it.
“I have my own knife, thank you very much,” I responded.
“You’ll need more than one,” he said and wrapped my fingers around the hilt. Great. He thinks we’re going to die, I thought bitterly as I stowed the knife inside my boot. He tossed another weapon to Aaron. The boy’s eyes widened as he stared at the blade. I rolled my eyes. The kid should have spent more time studying combat instead of pouring over nonsensical runes.
“Stick close or the Specters won’t be the ones who’ll kill you. Understand?” I tried to sound stern, but Aaron’s pale, frightened face nearly broke my heart. I nodded to Erik who stepped aside and motioned to a large wooden door. He grabbed the handle, my feet poised to run.
“Come with us, Erik,” I said. “Into the circle. You can help them. Help everyone. This will all be over and then we’ll be free to live.”
“I’m already free to live as I like,” Erik said. He placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it lightly.
“Please,” I whispered.
He pushed the door open. Mist seeped through the hole and meandered into the tunnel. I peered through the fog, Aaron’s breath hot on the back of my neck.
“Stop it,” I whispered to him. “You’re making me nervous.” He inched away and I continued my surveillance. Tall blades of grass stretched up toward the sky, covered in frost. Underneath all the white haze lay a meadow. Erik stepped out first, his weapons drawn, his eyes glowing red.
“C’mon, Aaron. Run!” I said and took off into the stiff stalks. They whacked against my face as I pulled him forward. The ground was uneven, sharp divots and climbs disguised by the fog. My foot connected with a rock and I tripped, my hands bracing for the impact. We slammed into the hard soil. I tried to scramble to my feet when the ground began to shake.
“Melody!” Aaron screeched.
From the mist, a horse and rider galloped toward us. I pushed Aaron to the ground and unsheathed my knives. Ice filled the air. They had come.
I leaped and stabbed the rider in the side. Blood gushed from the opening onto my hands, soaking my skin in red liquid. In horror, I backed away. He was human. Humans had joined the Specters? My fingers slipped through blood as I grabbed Aaron and stumbled toward the campsite. The ground trembled with the threat of splitting open. More riders. Aaron fell again and I scrambled over to him.
“Go,” I yelled and shoved him in the direction of the camp. Aaron’s face twisted with fear, but he knew better than to wait. With that, he sprinted into the safety net. I turned to follow when a sharp pain split across the back of my head. My skull ached as the world spun. Deftly, I rolled onto my back in time to see a rider raise his saber. I flipped aside just as the tip of his steel spike slammed into the ground. Grabbing his weapon, I shoved it into his chest. He fell from his horse as the mare screamed. Its shrieks echoed in my mind as I ran toward the safety area. As I passed through the magic boundary, a pair of hands wrapped me in an embrace.
“Melody,” I heard Aaron cry out in relief.
A deeper voice accompanied Aaron’s and resounded through the space, “Fetch a healer.” Someone grabbed me roughly by my coat, pulling me from my friend. A thin, tall man with a shock of red hair looked down at me.
“Do you have the ruby?” he demanded, his voice gruff.
Goodness, how many times were people going to ask me that question? I nodded, reaching into my leather pouch that wrapped around my waist. My nerves spiked as I emptied the bag. Nothing. It wasn’t there. Frantically, I looked back at the battlefield. It must have fallen out. It had been my duty to bring it here. How had I failed such a simple task? I sprinted toward the opening. As I reached the edge, Erik burst through the magic line.
“What are you doing here?” I cried.
Pain distorted his brow, his mouth set in a grimace. Long gouges had been torn across his sides. Blood stained his white hair, plastered against his face and neck.
“I told you not to lose it. To bring it to them,” he panted. He opened a gritty palm. The ruby floated a few inches above his hand. “Take it,” he gasped. “I cannot be here. They cannot see me.” His skin was charred beneath the garnet. I snatched the gem from him and his eyes closed.
He staggered back toward the barrier, away from us, but shouts rang in my ears. I reached for him, called for him, told him not to leave. Arms wrapped around me and darkness clouded my vision. Oblivion pulled me under.
“Order. I said, order,” the red-haired man from the battlefield commanded. Sergion, the Head Mage, I recalled his introduction. The din in the room settled to a low growl as the members of the First Circle turned their attention toward him.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, wincing as the bruise on my thigh collided with the wooden table. The healers had given me salves and other medications after I passed out. They had taken the ruby. Here I hoped he would tell me I could go, that Aaron and I had been released from our service. I couldn’t help but wonder where Erik had gone, if the Specters had seen him save us again and taken him captive. After all he had done for us, he may have perished. I could not live with that.
Representatives from the other forces of the living surrounded me. Sprites and nymphs mainly, their gorgeous bodies punctuated by blue skin and green scales. Aaron gaped back at them. He, somehow, had managed to reach the Circle unscathed.
“Stop staring or they’ll turn you into a toad,” I whispered. He jumped, looking over at me sheepishly.
“Sorry, I can’t help it. They’re just so cool looking,” he said. I smiled and squeezed his hand.
“Bring forward the prisoner,” Sergion stated.
Prisoner? A captured Specter? One who would tell them what to do with the ruby? I remembered my first failed mission and a blush rose in my cheeks.
The doors to the chamber opened and my breath caught in my chest. Erik stood in iron chains, his face still bloodied, his clothes torn. I made to rise from my seat but a hand pressed me back into the cushion. Two guards led him to the center of the room. His shoulders hunched forward, his eyes refused to meet mine. A hush fell over the Circle and Sergion stepped forward.
“It was our fault that the Specters exist,” he began. “It is our fault that these beings have continued to live. Have bred,” he pointed at Erik. “The specimen before you is a Specter Child. The ruby is his heart. He was created with the potential to help end his race. But he betrayed us.”
“He betrayed nothing,” I said.
All eyes focused on me and Erik raised his head. Sergion shook his red hair, his green eyes wide. He ran his hands over the rough wood of his desk.
“By refusing to help us, he betrayed us. He was created to serve the Order, to help us stop the darkness,” Sergion said to me coldly.
“Why is he of importance? We are here to save humanity, not try some guilty war criminal,” a short, bearded man with pointed ears jumped to his feet.
Sergion looked down at his hands as the room buzzed. “I think you are all forgetting how this happened. How the Specters came to be. Why they are still here and have not passed on,” Sergion said.
I frowned. I thought the Specters were merely the undead, those who refused to pass on. Sergion made it sound as if they had no other choice. Erik’s chains clanged as he shifted his weight.
“Long, long ago, Mages created limbo in an attempt to understand death. To keep the dead with us longer. By returning this Specter Child to its original form, we found a way to get rid of the in-between phase that has been haunting us for centuries. His heart is the source of their energies. As long as it beats, so does theirs. We all share the blame for letting them stay in this world for so long,” Sergion finished. The hall rang with silence.
I wanted to reach out and touch Erik, to tell him that we had all been betrayed, that none of it was his fault. He seemed to have heard my thoughts because a weak smile lit across his lips.
“He is the answer to end the war. To ease the Specters’ pain, to ease our pain,” Sergion said.
“What are you saying?” I demanded. My chair grated against granite as I rose from my seat. “He has done nothing but desired life. Life that your committee gave to him.”
“Each must serve his purpose, Melody. Just as you must serve yours,” Sergion said. “The Specter Child and the Ruby must be returned to the Land of the Dead.”
Sergion nodded. Erik’s face paled. He had known all along. That coming to the Circle endangered his life. But he had done so to save me from their wrath of not completing my mission. Again, I was to blame.
“The Child and the heart must be reunited and destroyed. And you, Melody, are the one who must take them.”
“Why me?” I asked. “I cannot take his life. I refuse to.”
“Consider it penance, my dear,” Sergion said.
“Penance? For what? I have done nothing but serve the Order. I owe the Order my life. But I have done nothing wrong.”
“I know,” he said sadly. He glanced at Erik. “It is horrible how the sins of a mother must be visited on her later generations.”
“All you want is a martyr to die for your sins,” I said with a steady voice.
“Not mine, my dear. Not completely mine. I may have helped but it was your mother who got us into this entire mess. Over her dead husband.”
“My mother?” My heart skipped inside my chest. I looked toward Erik but he did not meet my gaze. “What does my mother have to do with this?” I didn’t even know her, had never met her. She’d just left me in the streets of Brita to die, to fend for myself.
“He can explain everything to you,” Sergion said. “It is not my place.” I tried not to roll my eyes. No one explained anything here. That was why everything became so complicated, how everything got to be so screwed up. Specters ran amuck in limbo as the Mages tried to right their mistakes. It made no sense. I had had enough of humanity’s poorly played games.
“I will not do it,” I said and crossed my arms in front of my chest.
“I don’t think we are giving you a choice,” Sergion said, his tone hard. “Take the Specter Child and Ruby to the land of the dead, complete your penance, or Aaron will perish.”
I reached out to grab Aaron’s arm, but my hand fell through air. He was gone. “Is this what the good side does? Blackmail people into submission? This is not what we stand for,” I sputtered. I could feel my magic sizzle up into my pores and flash from the hairs on my arm.
“No, Melody. This is not what you stand for. We, on the other hand, have been doing this for centuries. You are doing good. You will save the world from the Specter wrath and allow the dead to finally rest in peace. Now go, you are wasting time.”
Anger threatened to bubble from my throat, but I pushed it back. I apparently had been destined for disaster since birth. But I could not let them take Aaron from me. He had done nothing.
“Fine. I will take the prisoner,” I said.
“Much better. Cooperation is good,” Sergion nodded. “You won’t have to travel far. The First Circle was built above the entrance to the Land of the Dead. It’s been empty ever since we created limbo and allowed them to roam the Earth. Pack your belongings. You will leave within the hour.”
The members of the room stood, shuffled out of the meeting place. All avoided my eyes, even Erik.
“Aren’t you going to look at me? Say something?” I asked as I approached him.
“What am I supposed to say?” He asked. My stomach flipped and I shook my head. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do. Reach out? Comfort him? Tell him that it would all be okay even though it wasn’t?
“I don’t know,” I sighed. My eyes burned and I glared angrily up at the white columns that supported the dome. “I just don’t anymore.”
His chains clinked as he moved toward me. The guard by his side, a thin mage with green eyes and a sallow face, nodded at him and left his post. They put too much trust in me. So much it scared me.
“They don’t have a Mage with powers to see the future here, do they?” I asked, watching as the mage exited and left us alone in the dome.
He snorted and shook his head. “If they did, they could’ve foreseen this mess and stopped it from happening.”
“I highly doubt they would’ve done anything of the kind.”
A laugh crinkled the corners of his eyes. It faded gradually, but he didn’t appear altogether too sad. The runes on the walls sparkled in the midday sun. I traced the symbols edges with my eyes. Aaron would know exactly what they said. He always did.
“How did my mother fit into all of this?” I asked. Light danced across the dried blood on his forehead. He shrugged.
“She was a Mage of the High Order. Both her and your father. I didn’t meet them until they came to the Land of the Dead. The Order gave them instructions for taking our species out of limbo. But visitors are usually not welcome,” he said and shook his head sadly.
I wanted to ask him what she looked like, what she had said, if she had mentioned me, but I held my tongue. I had waited sixteen years. A few more moments would matter little.
“Your father was turned to Specter before they could complete the spell.” He paused. I felt his silvered eyes plead for understanding. “I did not know them, if at all. But I could tell they loved one another. We all know that weakness of love is in our hearts.”
“She could not destroy the Specters without losing my father forever,” I said slowly.
“She would have lost him anyway. He was dead. But it’s so hard when you see your loved ones that have died in breathing form. It is so hard to be rational.” He fell silent and picked at the threads of his torn tunic.
“What did she do then?”
“I stepped forward. I did not completely understand what was going on. I had never lived, you see. I was born inside the limbo walls. And I yearned for life. I saw her power, her magic. In her agony, I stepped forward and asked her to help me to become human. To live the life I had been deprived of because I was born from the undead. It is as much fault hers as it is mine.”
“So she bound the destruction magic to your heart.”
He nodded. “And then she let the Specters take her.”
My mother. I wanted to scream, to demand why she had forsaken me. How she had left me in the world without her or my father. I squared my shoulders and breathed out slowly.
“Why did the Specters have your heart then?”
“In order for me to leave, they asked for protection. By retaining the heart, they could remain in the world of the living. It mattered little to me. I just wanted to be free.”
His cavern rose in my mind, its empty walls, its desolate hiding space. He had not been living. Separate, alone, removed from the rest of humanity. But then again, neither had I.
“Man is selfish, Melody. We all are. We understand it. But we can’t let it outshine our other qualities,” he spoke quietly, but his voice reverberated in the hall, bounced off the age-old stone. I reached for his hand and squeezed, his skin cold. “You and Aaron still have much life to live.”
So do you, I wanted to say, but my throat closed. A low hum resounded through the archway.
“They are coming to tell us to leave. To bring us to the Land of the Dead. We have to go.”
I nodded and kept my hand on his fist. “Thank you,” I choked out. “For everything.” For telling me about my mother, my history, my fate. The Order. For saving us.
A stream of soldiers in Order colors of red and black filled the doorway. Erik set his eyes ahead, his hand clenched.
“It’s time to go home,” he whispered.
“So how, exactly, am I supposed to get in there?” I looked down at the gaping black hole. “Jumping into abysses isn’t quite my thing.” Sergion stood above where Erik and I sat at the edge. I intended on making the Head Mage’s last few moments with me his least desirable.
“Fall,” he said simply.
“That doesn’t sound too promising,” I replied.
“The Land of the Dead isn’t supposed to hold promises,” Sergion said.
I’d had enough of his truisms, his turns of phrase. His silly, unhelpful advice.
“And how am I supposed to get out when I’m through with the binding?”
The crowd around us grew silent. The nymphs tittered, their wings swishing like Specter satin. I shivered.
“You’ll find a way,” Sergion replied.
“That’s just supposed to mean you have no idea,” I said. He nodded at the soldier at his side who stepped toward us, bayonet raised.
“Do your duty. The rest will follow,” he said shortly.
Erik’s hands were still chained and it didn’t look as though our captors had provided a key. I was beginning to feel less like an Order member and more like a convict. Then again, that wasn’t out of the ordinary for how I’d been feeling ever since the village burned down. I wanted to grab Erik’s hand, to hold it as we fell into the nothingness, to not have to be alone in our final moments on Earth, but I couldn’t look weak in front of the Order head. The breeze rustled a few wisps of my hair that had come untied from its bun. I breathed deeply, the scent of lilacs tinged by rotting flesh. Great memories.
“If I do find a way out,” I whispered, “I intend on changing a few things here.”
Sergion shrugged. “Just do what you are told. Like I said before, the rest will follow.”
I rolled my eyes and lowered myself into the hole. Pebbles on the ground bit into my palms but I refused to flinch. My feet dangled into the open air as I searched for a foothold. Nope. Nothing. With a deep breath, I closed my eyes and let go. The dank air rushed by me as I plummeted into the depths. My breath froze in my lungs as goose bumps sprouted on my uncovered arms. The wind whistled to a stop and I put my arms in front of me, ready to brace for unforgiving gravity. But I felt nothing.
Slowly, I opened my eyes and looked around. I floated, suspended in mid-air, inches above the ground. Erik’s silver irises glowed white beside me through the darkness, but no familiar fear snaked up my arms.
Whatever kept us alight gently set us down on the floor. I arched my neck back to glimpse the abyss entrance. The cavern stretched up above us, the opening a mere pinprick of light. Sun slivers slid across the blue walls. A weaving, stone path led away from the light and I motioned for Erik to follow.
“Any of this look familiar?” I asked.
“Was that supposed to be a joke?”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m just trying to lighten the situation.” As if on cue, the sun disappeared above us.
“They closed the opening,” Erik said. I could feel panic poison his words and I threw my shoulders back. My magic coursed into my palms, forming itself into small orbs of light. They had no intention of letting me back into the world. Not with the danger I posed for them, the knowledge I had about their corruption. Their mistakes. The mistakes of my mother. I followed the path, Erik close behind. My shoes crunched across the pebbles and filled the cavern with lengthy echoes. Curiously enough, we didn’t see a corpse, which seemed kind of strange since this was supposed to be the Land of the Dead. A dusty speck floated into my light. It sparkled brightly in my line of vision.
“They’re coming,” Erik whispered. I clenched my jaw shut, more of my magic burning the tips of my fingers. More specks glittered from the shadows and filled the air with shining dots. Their light outshone my orbs as the dots gravitated together. I shaded my eyes. Air crackled, electric, and then the glitter subsided. A gray old man stood a few feet in front of us, his back bent, his body supported by a crutch. I tensed and reached for my knife.
“Melody. We’ve been waiting for you for so long,” the man said. He had wrinkles that made some of the three hundred year-old dwarves I’d seen look like youngsters. He glanced at Erik. “Welcome back, our child. We knew you would return eventually.”
“It was not originally my first choice,” Erik said. I wanted to tell him to be quiet. Who would want to live on the surface anyway? Death, as far as I could tell, was much closer to freedom.
Shrugging, the man twirled a lock of his grey hair around his finger. “Choice matters little now since your fates are clearly laid before you,” his eyes smiled up at me, mischievous.
My mind raced as it recalled the story of my mother. “You knew a female mage of the High Order, did you not?”
“Your mother?” He asked. It was more a statement than a question.
I nodded vigorously, my throat dry.
“Melody,” Erik warned. “Think of what you are doing.” But I shook him off.
“Is she still here? Among you?” I asked.
The old man nodded gravely. “Yes. She resides in limbo. With your father.”
My throat burned, my eyes ached. If I was sentenced to die here with Erik, I could be granted a last wish, correct? A last rite of sorts?
“Can I see her?” I choked out.
“Melody, don’t do this,” Erik said behind me, but he did not move forward to stop me, did not move to take the gem from my hand. He understood this was the end, for both of us.
The old man ignored Erik and hobbled toward me. His gums, rotted, stank of age and decay. “You have the ruby?”
I nodded. “You know what I have to do. That I have to free you from this place.”
He nodded. “I have been waiting for centuries to cross over my dear. To finally rest. My back has grown bent from holding my breath. Waiting for another to try to free us from the curse your people placed upon us all centuries ago.
“Show me my mother and then I will free you” I replied.
“Very well, very well. But even when you see her, understand she is dead. She will try to turn you over to us. You must resist. There are members of my kind who wish to remain in the world, who do not understand that we do not belong here,” he said slowly.
“This is a horrible idea,” Erik whispered behind me. I squeezed the ruby in my palm.
“Trust me. I’m stronger than you think,” I replied.
Wind whistled through my ears. Erik stood beside me now, his silver eyes glowing.
“She’s here,” he whispered.
I turned around and lit my orb once more. Light threw itself around the interminable cavern. I inhaled sharply. Floating inches above the ground, her auburn hair unkempt, stood my mother.
It took me a few moments to realize I had seen her before. In the alley in Brita, she’d chased after me for the gem. I’d captured her and she’d escaped my magic. I knew now why. The same powers that coursed through my palms had once run in her veins.
“Melody, Melody, my sweet child,” she sang and stepped toward me. Erik moved to block me from her, to stand between us but I pushed him aside.
“You have finally come home,” she whispered.
Home? The word felt foreign to me. I had thought Brita had been my home, that the Order had been my home. But I had been wrong just as she was now.
“I do not live here, mother,” I said. I wanted to reach out and grab her hand but I remembered the way she’d scraped my skin with her nails. The way she had meant harm for me.
“You have come to join us then? Your father and I? So we can be a family again.” She still moved toward me. I could feel the chill of her breath on my skin. I feel no fear, I reminded myself.
“I cannot join you,” I said.
“You have the ruby though. You’ve come to return it to its rightful owner” she smiled, her teeth pointy.
I turned to Erik now. “My mother was the keeper of the ruby?”
“Yes,” he said. His eyes focused on the floor at his feet.
“She made you give it to her in exchange for your freedom,” I asked slowly.
“Yes. But she set me free,” he said as if he pleaded for his life.
My mind buzzed. It was too much. Too much knowledge for one day, for one lifetime. A lifetime I would soon end. Erik had been right. It was a mistake to bring her here. But questions clicked inside me and I opened my mouth to spill them into the stagnant air.
“Why did you leave me?”
“Leave you? Darling, I’ve never left you.”
“Yes you did,” I insisted. “You abandoned me to Brita before you even passed to the world of the dead. You did not want me.”
A frown creased her ageless face. She leaned away from me. “I did not want you to have my fate. To be controlled by the Order.”
“But that’s where I ended up anyway,” I said.
“You don’t understand – “”
“Will everyone stop telling me I don’t understand! I understand perfectly well, mother. You were not controlled by the Order. You let your body control your actions. I understand that and I forgive you. We all make mistakes. But we have to own up to them.”
I clutched the ruby to my heart. My magic burned on my fingers as I searched for the crack in the gem. Closing my eyes, I could see the plains around Brita. I could see Aaron’s black curls rustle in the wind. I could feel myself on the edge of it all. The ruby against my chest, its surface like a hot coal, I knew how to end it.
“It’s over, mother,” I whispered. “I forgive you. I will see you on the other side.”
“No!” Erik shouted behind me, but my power built up, encased the stone in blue light. Bind it to myself and it would end once and for all. It was never about binding it to the Erik. It would only perpetuate their existence. A sham. I had to bind it to the blood of the maker. Blood that ran in my veins.
Fire ripped through my soul, pulled at my hair. Behind closed eyes, I could see symbols erupt in golden curls. The cavern exploded with light. Air sucked at my clothes. Pressure built on my arms. I felt fingertips try to pry open my fist but I held steady. It would end soon.
“Melody!” a voice cried.
I opened my eyes and blinked through the whirlwind. Millions of Specters stood before me, their hollow eyes focused upward. Their ugly mouths were curved into something that resembled a smile, nearly peaceful. One by one, they faded to dust. Pain throbbed behind my temples as my light swallowed them. I could feel it engulf me now, bit by bit, my body imploding. I could only hope that on the other side, I would find some peace. That we would find some freedom.
My surroundings no longer existed. I floated through darkness, a never ending pit of blackness. I had no knowledge of body, of space, of time, of substance. I just was. Everything slipped by me, around me, went through me. A sensation that was both liberating and eerie. Then, the voices started. Many, all familiar to me, whispered in my ears. Order members, Erik, my mother. I am dreaming, I thought. I liked the warmth of the darkness, the inability for me to see the others around me, the specks of dust. None addressed me directly. It was just a hum of familiarity. But it was always dark.
Through the darkness, my name echoed out to me. It grew louder until whoever uttered it was nearly on top of me.
“Melody!” it cried. Something hard collided with me and I could feel my body and muscles and joints again.
“Aaron?” I asked. My head spun (now that it seemed I possessed a head). “How did you get here? I’m supposed to be dead.”
“I really have no idea. I teleported I guess,” he answered and wrapped his arms around my waist like a little kid.
“Did you die?” I asked, alarmed. Tears stung my eyes as I buried my face into his shoulder.
“Die? Why would you say something like that? I’m too young to die,” he whimpered.
“Oh don’t be so dramatic,” I said. “It’s just, I’m not supposed to exist.” I told him how I bound the ruby to myself, sent the Specters to their resting place. I could tell he wanted to ask about Erik, but I avoided his gaze.
“I mean technically I nearly turned into one of them when they froze me to stone,” he reminded me. “I guess I’ve got some leftover afterlife in this body.”
I wanted to hold him to me, to kiss his cheek and tell him how happy I was to see him.
“Do you think we can teleport back?” I asked.
“Well, I got here, didn’t I?”
I wanted to ask him if he could see others around us. As if reading my mind, he looked into my eyes, his expression grave. “You’re alone here. I’m assuming you’re stuck in limbo of some sort now.”
If there was one thing I’d learned from the entire adventure, everything was hard to grasp, hard to understand. “Just try and get us out of here,” I sighed.
With a smile, he grabbed my hand. The age-old pressure pushed down against my chest. I welcomed the familiar weight. We spun upwards. The dark slowly faded to light as we landed with a thump at the closed entrance to the Land of the Dead. The smell of flowers overwhelmed my senses. Sun breathed life into my limbs. Aaron sat beside me, glasses askew.
“How did you escape the Order? What had they done to you?” I asked.
“Put me in a division of their teleport training unit. Some new mission about recon on the sprites. Apparently they may have stores of black magic we don’t know about.”
“It’d be a bad idea to get involved,” I said.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he replied.
The grass tickled my bare legs and I lay down among the blades. Even though the sun’s heat pounded against my skin, my chest felt cold. A parting gift from the underworld.
“So,” he began. He pushed his glasses farther up on his nose.
“What’s death like?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” I said.
“That’s why I’m asking.”
I fell silent, recalled my mother’s emaciated form. “Better than limbo,” I said finally.
The wind wrinkled his hair and he wiped his forehead.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” I continued. “We’ll get there eventually.”
“And Erik?” he asked.
“He’s where he belongs,” I whispered. Floating somewhere, free and at peace.
“What do we do now?” Aaron asked.
“Disappear,” I said. “That’s one thing we’re both spectacular at. Get away from the Order, from the villages. Try to be normal or something like that.” A smile tugged at the edges of his lips.
“Sounds like a plan to me.” He wrapped his fingers around my wrist. I closed my eyes, letting my skin absorb the sun’s rays. Freedom had never felt so beautiful. I looked into Aaron’s dark mysterious eyes. Together, we still were outcasts, but at least we had each other.
“Take us away,” I said.
“Where?” he asked.
“Anywhere. Anywhere in the whole world. It’s ours now.” I took a deep breath as the pressure returned. Maybe someday the others would understand. But for now, it was our turn to find our own way. The world we knew tunneled away, left the darkness behind. I smiled. This was how one was supposed to live.