Authors: Rachel Morgan
A Faerie's Curse
By Rachel Morgan
Copyright Â© 2016 Rachel Morgan
Cover Photography by Regina Wamba
Cover Design by Rachel Morgan
Calla Larkenwood must battle against a witch's curse to save the one she loves and prevent a power-hungry princess from tearing through the veil between two worlds. With her magic disappearing bit by bit, can she stop the worst from happening before the curse claims her life?
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or, if real, used fictitiously.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information please contact the author.
Mobi Ebook ISBN: 978-0-9946953-2-1
Epub Ebook ISBN: 978-0-9946953-3-8
Glittering beach sand crunches beneath my boots as I walk hand in hand with a five-year-old faerie girl toward the palm grove that conceals her father's home. It's late in the evening, and a million scattered stars illuminate our path up the beach and away from the waves. The pain shooting through my right ankleâthe result of skidding across a wet deck while being chased by a band of piratesâcauses me to limp, and the gash below my ear is no doubt oozing blood into my golden hair. Not the best way to present myself to faerie nobility, but all in all, I'd say it was a successful rescue mission.
Unfortunately, it isn't the rescue mission I wish it was. Chaseâthe man who was once Lord Draven; the man I've found myself falling for despite the things he's doneâis still chained in a secret dungeon beneath the Seelie Palace. His own mother made a deal with the Guild, trading his life for her freedom. It's been a weekâan entire torturous weekâsince he was taken, and we're no closer to breaking into the Seelie Palace. Tonight's mission, however, will change that.
Elsie tugs my hand and says, “This is where you throw the gem.”
I smile down at her. “Thanks for the reminder.” From my jacket pocket, I remove the red gemstone I was given earlier. I throw it between the trees ahead of us as we continue walking. Layers of glamour magic begin to peel themselves away. The palm trees vanish, sand filters into the ground as lush grass and tiny flowers take its place, and a ruby-studded stone path appears beneath our feet. At the end of the path rises the grandiose home of Baron Westhold. Elsie reaches down and plucks a star-shaped yellow flower from the ground. She twirls it between her fingers as we head toward the house.
Now that this part of the mission is over, distracting thoughts circle my mind: Chase disappearing into the night sky in a Seelie Palace carriage, Mom's trial ending tonight, the horrible vision of a spell that will tear through the veil separating our world from the human world. That vision is the reason Mom ran away from the Guild years ago. It's the reason she's been on trial.From the magic of the depths to the magic of the heights, with blood from one side and blood from the other. Together with the greatest power nature can harness, we shall tear this veil asunder.
I shake away the memory of those disturbing words and point my thoughts firmly in a different direction. Tonight's mission isn't yet complete, and I can't afford distractions.
The two security guards at the entrance to the baron's home pull themselves a little straighter as Elsie and I walk beneath the pillared archway and toward the front door. Their blank expressions never faltered earlier today as they took me to see the baron, but now, as their eyes fall on the girl at my side, they can't hide their relief. The younger guard opens the door and steps back as we enter the house. “This way,” Elsie says, tugging me past the mermaid statue and along a wide marble passageway, unaware that I already know where to go.
We've barely taken five steps when I hear a commotion up ahead. Something falling, hurried footsteps, and then a voice shouting, “Elsie?”
From around the corner at the end of the passage, his clothes rumpled and hair disheveled, Baron Westhold appears. A groan of relief escapes him before he runs the final distance toward his daughter and scoops her into his arms. He hugs her tightly to his chest while she pats the top of his head and says, “I'm fine, Father. I was with your friend, the captain. He said you wanted me to make gold for him.”
“Dear Seelie Queen,” Baron Westhold murmurs. “Elsie, that man was not my friend.”
An older girl runs around the corner, almost skidding in her purple unicorn slippers, but stops short of throwing her arms around her father and sister. Instead she clasps her hands together and tucks them beneath her chin as her brow puckers. “I'm so sorry, Elsie. I'm so sorry. I only looked away for a moment, and thenâ”
“That's enough, Brynn,” the baron says. He lowers Elsie to the floor and straightens. He blinks and clears his throat before turning to his older daughter. “Take Elsie upstairs.”
“I'm so sorry, Father. You know I never meant for thisâ”
“We'll talk later.”
I take a few discreet steps backward, distancing myself from the family drama. As Brynn attempts to plead her case, I reach down, wrap my hand around my ankle, and release additional magic into the area, hoping to aid the healing process. My mind reaches automatically for Chase, to update him on what's going on, before I remember I'm not wearing the telepathy ring. Gaius took it from me before the mission began.
“Please don't ground me,” Brynn begs. “Elsie's safe now, and I promise I'll never lose her again.”
“Brynn,” the baron says, slow and precise, her name a warning on his lips. “We will talk later.”
Brynn nods, her eyes downcast, and reaches for Elsie's hand. The little girl looks toward me and says, “Thank you.” She stretches her hand out to me, so I step forward and take it. The flower she's still clutching tickles my skin, then seems to become â¦ heavier. She pulls her hand backâand a solid gold flower sits on my palm.
Gold.Real gold.That isn't normal magic. My mind races to fill in the missing gaps from the brief I was given this morning. By the time I tear my eyes from my palm, Elsie is skipping ahead of her sister as they disappear around the corner. I look at Baron Westhold and find him staring at the gold flower. He sucks in a shaky breath, turns around, and says, “Follow me.”
I place the flower carefully into the hidden pocket on the inside of my jacket and hurry after the baron, my limp almost gone now. We turn out of the passageway, cross an atrium with a fountain at its center, and head down another passage toward the office I met the baron in this morning. It's richly furnished with paintings in gold frames, a maroon and gold carpet, and dark wooden shelves lined with leather-bound books. A tall glass vase filled with liquid that glitters gold and maroon stands in one corner. Flames flicker and crackle in a fireplace, warming the chilly ocean air entering through the balcony doorway. The sheer curtains lift gently in the nighttime breeze, giving me a glimpse of waves tumbling onto the shore.
The baron walks to his desk and unlocks the top drawer with a stylus. He removes a slim rectangular case made of wood. “This payment doesn't come close to expressing my gratitude,” he says as he hands me the case. “My guards told me it would be impossible to retrieve my daughter from that vile pirate's clutches. I didn't know if I'd ever see her again.”
I remember the baron's words to me this morningâHow old are you anyway? Are you sure you can get this done?âand manage to keep my response polite as I take the case. “We specialize in the impossible. That's why you hired us.”
“Yes.” He pauses a moment, watching me carefully, then adds, “And for complete confidentiality.”
“If the Guild finds out what my daughter can doâ”
“They won't. Not from us. We understand the need for secrecy, especially when it comes to Griffin Abilities.”
The baron flinches at my use of those two simple words. Words he left out of his instructions this morning. Words he's probably been trying to deny ever since he discovered what his daughter can do. He must have been in possession of one of the griffin discs when his daughter was conceived. Except â¦ there were no griffin discs five years ago. They lost their magic after Draven used them to unlock the chest Tharros's power was kept in. So how â¦
I push my confusion to one side and clear my throat.No distractions, I remind myself. “Besides,” I add, “if we couldn't be trusted, no one would ever hire us. We rely on word of mouth, which means we need happy clients. Trust me, Baron Westhold. We don't want to make you unhappy.”
The baron considers me for another moment. “I suppose not.”
I slide the wooden case into the pocket with the gold flower. “If that's all â¦”
“Yes, thank you, that will be all.”
“I can show myself out then.”
I nod politely, then turn and leave. With quick strides, I make my way back to the entrance hall. The guards need to see me leave, just in case the baron asks them, so I pull the heavy wooden door open. Instead of walking out, though, I release my control on the imaginary fortress around my mind and let my Griffin Ability free. I picture myself walking out into the night, and that's exactly what I see. The imaginary version of me continues along the path, and the guards watch her go. “How the hell did she get past all of Captain Nuvareed's men on that ship?” one murmurs to the other.
The other shakes his head as he moves to close the door. “Wish I'd been there to see it.”
I smile to myself as the door slides shut with a heavy thud. I close my eyes and picture my imaginary self still moving along the path. When I've imagined her going far enough into the night that the guards can barely see her, I let go of that illusion and wrap a different one around myself. The illusion of invisibility. Then I turn back to face the mermaid statue and focus on the real reason I was given this mission: a party invitation.
When Gaius, one of Chase's team members, was called here late last night, he witnessed a conversation between the baron and his teenage daughter. Brynn was distraught, barely able to speak through her tears as she explained how Elsie had disappeared. Furious that Brynn had let her little sister out of her sight, the baron yelled, “You are grounded for the rest of the year. For the rest of yourlife.”
With her tears shocked to a halt, Brynn was able to speak more easily. “What? But the party. I have to go. This isn't the kind of invitation you say no to.”
“You won't be going near the Seelie Palaceâor anywhere else for that matterâif we don't get your sister back.”
And that was the moment at which Gaius became a lot more interested in the whole matter. With Chase confined beneath the Seelie Palace for a week now, and the rest of his team no closer to finding out how to get there, this invitation was the best lead so far. Despite the fact that it was extraordinarily unprofessional, Gaius asked, “What party is that?”
The baron ignored himâmost likely because the question had no relevance to the current situationâand sent Brynn to her room. He then discussed the rescue mission details with Gaius, who promised he would select the best member of his team for the job, and there'd been no further mention of the Seelie Palace.
Given the ease with which I can sneak around without being seen, Gaius chose me for this task.No pressure, I think as I remind myself that this is our one chance to get inside the Seelie Palace.No pressure at all.Wrapped securely in invisibility, I begin my search for Brynn's bedroom. I look into several unoccupied rooms upstairs before finding the right one. The door is ajar and I hear sniffling from within. I imagine myself as Baron Westhold, then knock on the door and push it openâand have to stop myself from blinking in surprise at the purple glitter covering almost every surface.Focus!I command myself.
Brynn, who was lying on her stomach with her face buried in her arms when I walked in, looks up with hopeful eyes. “Father?”
“I've decided you won't be going,” I tell her in a voice that sounds just like her father's.
Her face falls as she pushes herself up into a sitting position. “But it's rude to decline the invitation.”
“Don't tell me you care about politeness. I know you only want to go because of that boy.” I have no idea if that's true, of course, but I imagine it's something an angry father might say.
“Whatâwhat boy?” Brynn asks, but her twisting hands and the way she looks down instead of holding my gaze tell a different story.
“Where is the invitation?” I ask.
She looks up, her eyes narrowing in confusion. “The invitation to the party?”
“Yes, of course. What other invitation would I be talking about? I won't have you sneaking out on your own to attend this event.”
Her frown deepens. “But you know I can't get there on my own. And don't you still have the invitation? It was addressed to you, not me. I don't even know what it looks like.”
Shoot.I had hoped this would be as easy as taking the invitation from Brynn and leaving. How am I supposed to get the baron to give it to me? I focus hard on keeping the image of the baron covering me as completely as a second skin. I allow my folded arms to fall to my sides as I say, “I'm still not happy with you, Brynn, but it's late now, so we'll speak tomorrow.”
“Okay, but please just think aboutâ”
“Tomorrow, Brynn.” I leave the room and pull the door closed. I release the image of Baron Westhold and switch back to invisibility as I hurry downstairs to his office, hoping he hasn't gone to bed yet. Reaching his office doorway, I see him standing at a gap in the curtains with his back to me, staring out at the night. I step away from the door and press myself against the wall beside it, giving myself a moment to clear my mind. I need to take more care with deceiving the baron than I did with his distraught teenage daughter.
I focus hard on picturing Brynn, on seeing her in my place. I don't move until I look down and see her slippers instead of my boots. Then I tell myself that IamBrynn, and I walk into her father's office. “Father?” I say, relieved that the voice I hear sounds more like hers than mine.
He turns and frowns at me. “You should be in bed, Brynn.”
“I know, but I just wanted to ask if you've changed your mind about â¦ about the party.”
“We don't need to discuss it now,” he says, returning to his desk and sinking into the leather chair.
“But â¦ didn't we say we would attend? If you've changed your mind, then we need to let the palace know.”
“Fine. I will inform the palace tomorrow.”
I allow myself to look appropriately devastated. “Please, please don't do that. I've been looking forward to it for so long. This was just one mistake, and it willneverhappen again.”
The baron folds one hand over the other and leans forward. “You allowed your sister to be kidnapped by a pirate. It wasn't just amistake, Brynn. Can you even begin to imagine how devastated your mother would be if she were still alive? No, my decision is final. We will not be attending that party.”
I wobble my lower jaw before pressing my lips tightly together. I imagine tears forming in Brynn's eyes. “Can I at least have the invitation as a memento?”
“You don't need a memento of an event you won't be attending.”
I bite my lip, clench my fists, and prepare myself for a teenage tantrum. “You know what? I hate you. Ihateyou for ruining my life like this! I'm going to find that invitation when you're not around, and I'm going to that party without you. I don't care that I can't find the palace on my own. I'll find someone who knows how to get there.”
Baron Westhold looks thunderstruck. I turn and flounce from the room before he can respond. I stop just outside. Picturing myself as empty space instead of as Brynn, I look into the office once more. The baron slowly shakes his head, clearly shocked at Brynn's outburst. He leans back in his chair with a weary sigh, covering his brow with one hand. I start to consider what illusion I can use to get him to leave the room, but then he opens one of his drawers and removes a rosebud the color of champagne. He places it on the desk and the petals slowly open. Gold words appear in the air above the rose. I tiptoe into the room to get a closer look, but the baron brushes his hand against the petals, causing the words to vanish and the petals to curl closed once more. He stands, carries the rosebud to the fireplace, andâ
No!My hand stretches out automatically, but I'm on the other side of the room, and the rose is already in the fire.No, no, no!I need a distractionâsomethingâa noiseâ
The first sound that comes to mind is a child's scream. I go with it, clinging desperately to my invisibility as the shriek pierces the still night. The baron's head whips around. “Elsie?” He dashes from the room as I lunge for the fireplace. I drop to my knees, shove my hand into the flames, and grasp the flower. I breathe in sharply against the sudden, burning pain, scramble to my feet, and plunge my hand into the tall vase. I search the room with desperate, darting eyes for my escape. I need a way out, I need to think, and the vase's contents isn't providing nearly enough relief for my burning hand. I squeeze my eyes shut and hold in the groan of pain I wouldreallylike to release.
At the sound of running footsteps, my eyelids snap open. I pull my arm from the vase and rush onto the balcony, trailing drops of water behind me as my hand BURNS LIKE A FREAKING INFERNO. Below, the white sand gleams in the starlight. It isn't too great a distance to the ground, so I should be fine if I jump. I don't want to crush the rosebud, though, so I form a bubble of shield magic around it. Breathing heavily against the pain, I coax the bubble into the air and watch it drift down toward the sand. Thenâ
“â¦ didn't imagine it,” a voice says from somewhere inside the house. Distant, but quickly growing louder. “If neither of my daughters screamed, it means someone else did. Search everywhere.”
I climb hastily over the balcony railing. I look over my shoulder, and as the curtains flutter and a dark shape enters the room, I jump. I hit the ground a second later and roll to a halt. Sand shifts around me as I climb to my feet, making me slower and clumsier than I should be. Fortunately, my twisted ankle is almost fully healed. I imagine myself as invisible and shoot a glance behind me, hoping I don't find someone looking down from the balcony. I don't. In fact, I don't see any balcony at all. The glamour is once again hiding the enormous home, and all I can see are several palm trees and clumps of coarse grass here and there amongst the sand. Which means someone could be watching me, and I wouldn't know. Best to keep myself concealed.
Gritting my teeth against the pain that threatens to distract me from my illusion, I look around for a surface to write on. My eyes land on the nearest palm tree. I hold the bubble in my non-burned hand and run as quickly as the sand will allow. I've almost reached the tree when something strikes the back of my right boot. I stumble to the side and look behind me. A spark of magic shoots toward me, narrowly missing my arm as I dodge out of its path.
My footprints, I realize. Someone must have noticed the shifting sand as I ran for the tree. More magic flies in my direction, and then suddenlyâshouts greet my ears and three figures appear almost exactly where I landed just now.
“Crap.” Keeping myself concealed, I rush for the palm tree. Sand flies up around me as sparks strike the ground. I swing myself around the side of the tree and retrieve my stylus with my burning hand. I instruct myselfâuselesslyâto ignore the pain and the panic as I write a doorway spell onto the tree trunk. The rough surface melts away, revealing a dark space just wide enough for me to fit through. Holding the thought of Chase's lakeside house in my mind, I hurtle into the faerie paths.
Seconds later, I rush through the lake house living room to the faerie door, pulling the key from one of my pockets. DAMN, MY HAND IS BURNING. Then I'm in another dark space, and then through a door into the foyer, and finally I'm back at Gaius's mountain home.Mymountain home, seeing as nowhere else is safe for me anymore. I fled the Guild after they discovered my Griffin Ability, and they've been watching the homes of my family and friends ever since.
I hurry upstairs to Gaius's studyâburning, burning,burninghandâand find him bent over a spider-like contraption that appears to be shooting sparkling dust from one spindly leg and ink splatters from another. “Mission number one complete,” I announce, marching across the room and managing to feel immensely pleased with myself despite the horrendous pain scorching across my hand. “Here's the payment for the job.” I remove the wooden case and the gold flower from my pocket. “Plus a bit of gold, because little Elsie felt like making it on the spot for me. Andâ” I lower the translucent shield bubble onto a pile of books and allow it to pop, revealing the rosebud “âthe all-important invitation.”
“You got it!” Gaius exclaims, standing so quickly his chair falls over behind him.
Despite my pain, a laugh escapes my lips. “I got it.”
“And gold? You said shemadeit? Andâyour hand. That looks terrible.”
“It's fine, I'll treat it in a moment. Open the invitation so we can seeâ”
“You haven't opened it yet?” Gaius asks as he rummages through one of his drawers and pulls out an emergency kit.
“No, I had to get out of there without getting caught. I didn't want to ruin the good reputation you and Chase have worked so hard to build among certain circles of fae.”
“Ah, yes, probably a good idea.” Gaius removes a small tub of burn healing gel and hands it to me. “Here you go. Fix your hand up while I open this thing.”
As Gaius clears a space on his desk for the rosebud, I scoop some gel from the tub and smear it across my hand. The relief is instant as the gel's magic diminishes the burning to little more than a whisper of pain. With my attention fully on the invitation now, I lean over the desk and watch closely. Gaius touches a petal with one finger that shakes ever so slightly. The petals begin to unfurl. “This is it,” he breathes. “Our ticket inside the Seelie Palace.”
“Well, if we can find out how to actuallygetthere,” I remind him.
“Details,” Gaius says with a wave of his hand. “We'll figure that part out.” He squints at the gold letters that appear in the air above the flower. “Cordially invited â¦ blah, blah, blah,” he reads. “Princess Audra's birthday â¦ masked ball â¦ on the fourteenth day of â¦ oh, goodness, that'sâ”
“Nine days away,” I say, my heart sinking. “Nine whole days. How is Chase supposed to last that long?”
Gaius stares at the invitation, chewing on his bottom lip. “Well, this is our only option, unless you know how to get us in and out of the palace on a regular day without being caught.”
“Might not be enough. This is the most well-guarded place in our world. There will be magical protection everywhere. The easiest way in is during an event like this. Security will still be high, of course, but not impossible for us to get past.”
I grip the edge of the desk. “Fine. But if â¦ if there's even a hint of something happening to Chase before this party, then we have to go immediately.”
“Of course. Which means we need to hurry up and find someone who knows how to get there.”
“Yes.” And that's something that someone else on the team will have to figure out, because my one and only potential contact is someone who never seems to leave the Seelie Court. I hold my rapidly healing hand out. “May I have the ring back? We need to update Chase.” And I need to hear his voice. I've gone a whole day without hearing it, and it feels as though a piece of myself has been missing.
“Yes, of course.” Gaius removes a book from one of his shelves and opens it. From a carved space in the center of the pages, he removes the telepathy ring I've been using to communicate with Chase since he was imprisoned. A ring imbued with a Griffin Ability someone didn't want. Fortunately, Chase was wearing the corresponding ring when he was captured. “I'm sorry I took it, but I didn't want you distracted by anything today.”
“I understand, but I wish you'd trusted me to simply leave the ring in my bedroom. You didn't need to hide it from me.”
“It isn't that I didn'ttrustyou, Calla. I just wanted to be certain you wouldn't take it with you.”
I raise an eyebrow as Gaius places the ring, a simple silver band with a green stone, on my palm. “So you didn't trust me.”
He ruffles his already mussed up hair. “Fine. I'm sorry. It was your first mission for us and â¦ well, it was very important.”
“I'm fully aware of that, Gaius. I want to get Chase out of the Seelie Queen's clutches just as much as you do.”
“Of course, I know, I'm sorry. I promise I'll trust you next time. Oh, you probably want your amber back too.”
“You hid my amber as well?” I demand, curling my hand around the ring.
“It was a potential distraction.”
“It's old and oversized and the only person I can contact is Ryn, so I definitely wasn't planning on taking it with me. You know that.”
“Just taking precautions,” Gaius says, handing me the antique piece of amber with a guilty smile. “Which I understand now were unnecessary. Won't happen again.”
I shake my head in frustration as I tap the amber's surface. Gold writing fades into view. I tell myself I'll look at it properly just now, after I've spoken to Chase, but I see the words âmom' and âtrial just finished' and I can't stop reading. A chill rushes across my skin. I feel faint, as if the blood has been drained all at once from my head. “The trial's over,” I whisper, pulling my eyes from my brother's message and looking up at Gaius. “Theyâthey're sending my mother to prison.”
* * *
Chase, are you there?
I call his name once more as I sneak into the Guild just before midnight. I've been trying to get hold of him since I left the mountain, but all I can hear are my own thoughts. I tell myself not to worry. He's sleeping, that's all. He's fine. Well, he isn'tfine. He's imprisoned in a dark, dirty cell with magic-blocking chains attached to his arms and legs. But he isn't dead. He can't be. The Seelie Queen wouldn't keep him alive for a week only to suddenly finish him off with no fanfare. No, she's keeping him alive for a reason, which means he's just sleeping.You're just sleeping, right?I whisper in my mind.
I swallow, trying to rid myself of the nausea in my stomach, and walk confidently across the Guild's great foyer. Moving around under the illusion of invisibility has become second nature to me. Still, it's a risk to come here so late at night when no one else is around and a surveillance deviceâwhich isn't a living being and can't be influenced by my projectionsâcould so easily spot me. I casually pull my hood further over my head. I may look suspicious to anyone watching me on a recording orb right now, but no one would ever suspect me of being Calla Larkenwood, the runaway Gifted faerie who supposedly killed one of her classmates before making half the Guild sick with a disease-causing Griffin Ability.
I climb the stairs to Ryn's office, but I walk straight past his closed door. I stop near the end of the corridor and lean against the wall. I lift my hand, as if examining my nails while waiting for someone or something. In reality, I'm scouring the corridor with my eyes for any sign of a surveillance bug. I flinch when the door beside me opens, but my projection is intact, and the guardian who walks out does nothing more than lock her office and leave with a bag slung over her shoulder.
I examine the corridor for another few minutes. When I see no movement and hear no buzzing, I push away from the wall and walk back to Ryn's door. I open it, slip inside, and shut the door. “They're sending her toprison?” I say as I drop into the empty chair beside Dad and across from Ryn. “That's absurd. She was only a child when she broke her contract and fled the Guild. What happened to them fining her and leaving it at that?”
Dad, who looks sicker than I feel, shakes his head and covers his face with both hands.
I turn to Ryn instead. “She did receive a fine,” he says. “For manufacturing high-strength potions without a permit. For breaking her Seer contract, the Guild has taken into account the seriousness of the vision she chose not to tell them about. They also seem to want to make an example of her so that other Seers don't make light of their contracts, which is why she ended up with six months in prison instead of a second fine.”
“Six months? Your message said two years.”
“The rest is for the other charge: keeping your Griffin Ability secret. Considering the mess at the Guild recentlyâthe murder and the dragon disease and the big display you put on when you fledâthey're taking failure to register Gifted persons very seriously. Apparently we're supposed to begratefulthey only gave her a year and a half for that one.”
“Butâthat'sâ” I struggle to put my thoughts together into a coherent sentence. “The mess at the Guild was my doing, not hers. She had no control over what I might use my ability for. And Dad didn't register me either, but they're not throwing him into prison.”
“They've opened an investigation on me,” Dad says quietly. “And it isn't just about failing to register you. It's â¦ well, they want to know how we kept it quiet for so long. Given the stories surrounding the departure of every school you've been at, they find it hard to believe that no one else knew about you.”
Icy apprehension fills my veins. If Dad is under investigation, there's no way he can continue to hide what he's done. “They're going to find out, aren't they,” I whisper. “They're going to find out about the bribes.”
Dad pulls back slightly as confusion creases his brow. “How do you know about that?”
“I overheard you and Ryn speaking.” I leave out the fact that this eavesdropping took place during an accidental trip into the past while I was wearing a time-traveling bangle.
Dad watches me for several moments before saying, “Do you understand how serious this is?”
“Yes. What are you going to do?”
Dad takes a deep breath. “Well, as your mother said earlier, it's time to face the consequences for what we've done.”
My throat tightens as I try to hold back tears. “That's what she said?”
“Yes. And she's right. We've broken the law.I, especially, have broken the law. Your mother doesn't even know the lengths I went to in order to keep your name off the list.”
“Dad, I'm so sorry Iâ”
“I broke the law, Calla,” he says firmly. “Idid that. If I have to face the consequences, then I will.”
“We don't even know yet what will happen to me. Right now, our concern should be for your mother. She's the one being carted off to Barton Prison tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I gasp. “Where is she now? Can I see her?”
“No, of course you can't see her!” he says, his voice rising. “She's in the detainment area downstairs. Is your ability going to get you past all those guards? Probably not. And then you'll end up in the cell next to hers when you're caught.”
Dad's lack of faith in my ability stings, but now isn't the time to argue. Not when he's clearly close to cracking from the pressure of Mom's trial and the devastating news of her sentence.
“I â¦ I need some space,” Dad says, standing. “I'll be outside in the forest.” He places a hand on my shoulder and adds, “You've found yourself in enough life-threatening situations recently. I just want you to stay safe now.”
The door closes behind Dad and I pull my feet up onto the chair. I wrap my arms around my legs and press my face against my knees as the weight of what I've done to my parents becomes almost too much to bear. “This is all my fault.”
“You know it is.” I raise my head and look at Ryn. “Dad would never have had to break the law if not for me. And Mom â¦ well, the Guild might still have punished her for running away in the middle of her training, but it wouldn't be this bad. It's because of me that they're doing this to her. I'm on the loose instead of in custody for supposedly murdering Saskia, and they're taking out their frustration at their own failure on Mom. They can't make me pay, so they're making her pay.”
Ryn rubs his face. He closes his eyes and slowly shakes his head. “I don't know, Cal. You're probably right, but there's nothing we can do about it.”
“What if â¦” My feet slip to the floor and I sit up a little straighter. “What if I turn myself in? Do you think that would make a difference?”
“What?” Ryn's eyelids spring open. “No! Are you crazy? Of course that wouldn't make a difference. You'd end up in prison along with your mother. You can't make this situation any better.”
I flop back into the chair. “So we're supposed to just let this happen? Let her go to prison for the next few years?”
Ryn shrugs helplessly. “What's the alternative? Help her escape so she can be on the run for the rest of her life? Barton Prison isn't all that bad. Not like Velazar. Maybe it's better if she just does the time. Maybe â¦ I don't know.” He rubs both hands over his face this time. “I don't have all the answers, Calla.”
I peer more closely at him. He seems more tired than I've seen him in a long time. “Are you okay?”
He sighs. “Yes. I just â¦ have a lot on my mind. I took the rest of last week off after Victoria was born, so yesterday was my first day back. So many things to do. My team began looking into this so-called guardian hater group straight after Zed tried to take Victoria. I told them to question the owner of Club Deviant, like you suggested.”
“Oh yeah? Did they discover anything?”
“They did, actually. One of my team recognized him as someone who escaped from the scene of a previous crime. They arrested him and searched his club. They found illegal potions that link him to another group we've been trying to take down for a while. Perhaps they're all part of this larger guardian hater group. Anyway, none of this proves he had anything to do with the dragon disease or the plan to hurt Victoria, and of course he says he knows nothing of a faerie named Zed. But we've requested permission to use a truth potion, so if that request goes through, we'll soon know more.” Ryn stifles a yawn before adding, “Oh, and we've had a spike in disappearances in Creepy Hollow recently. That's not my department, of course, but I know Vi can help with her Griffin Ability. So I've been trying to discreetly get my hands on some of the belongings of those who've disappeared so Vi can attempt to find them. Amidst all my own work, of course.” He leans one elbow on the desk and blinks at me, as though trying to wake himself up. “How's, um, Chase?”
“Oh.” I automatically swivel the ring around my finger. “The situation's still the same,” I say carefully. I told Ryn about the telepathy rings and that we know where Chase is being held prisoner, but I haven't told him what we're doing about it. I think it's probably best he doesn't know we're attempting to break into the Seelie Palace. He might feel obligated to try and stop us.
“I still haven't heard a thing about him,” Ryn says. “Not even a whisper. I assumed there must be someone on the Councilâthe Head Councilor, at the very leastâwho knew about Draven's capture, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe Angelica negotiated directly with the Seelie Queen for her freedom.”
“She mentioned the Guild, though.” I continue twisting the telepathy ring, frowning at the desk as I remember that moment beside the Wishbone Rivers when I realized exactly what Angelica had doneâtraded her own son for her freedom.
“Do you love him?”
My hands freeze and blood rushes to light a fire across my skin. “What?”
“After he was taken,” Ryn says, “you told me you care a great deal about him. I didn't question it at the time because you were so upset, but â¦ well, you mentioned previously that I had nothing to worry about when it came to your feelings for him, but something's obviously changed since then.” He leans forward and watches me closely.
“Don't do that,” I say, pointing at him. “Don't feel what I'm feeling.”
“Hey.” He holds his hands up. “You know I have no control over that. Besides, the only thing I can feel is your complete mortification. It's impossible to sense anything beyond that.”
“Good. You can keep feeling mortified then.”
“So â¦ do you really feel that strongly for him?”
I sit back in the chair and cross my arms. “Are you asking because you have a legitimate interest in knowing, or because you'd like to remind me that you think he's too old for me?”
“Well â¦ he is.”
I roll my eyes toward the ceiling before returning them to my brother. “Would you feel better if he were a hundred-year-old vampire? Because the rest of society seems to be okay with that.”
Ryn cocks his head. “What are you talking about?”
I lift one shoulder. “Haven't a clue. Chase told me to say that if you brought up the age difference again.”
“Anyway, back to Angelica.”
He sighs. “If you insist.”
“I don't understand why the Seelie Queen agreed to this bargain in the first place. I can't see her wanting her traitorous daughter set loose into the world.”
Ryn leans his elbows on the desk. “Presumably she agreed because she sees Draven as a far bigger threat. She must have decided the swap was worth it. I just wish the Council wasn't keeping us all in the dark about it. It makes me wonder what other secrets they're hiding.”
I frown. “Such as?
He gives a slight shake of his head. “I'm not sure. I thought I'd discover more after being invited onto the Council, but it seems there are secrets even within the Council. Secrets like Draven, and â¦ whatever's happening downstairs.”
“Downstairs?” My mind flits over the various levels below ground at the Guild. “The detainment area?”
“No. Some of the laboratories further down. I was following up on an assignment one dayâa potion sample that needed to be testedâand I realized I don't have access to some of the rooms down there. When I questioned it, I was given vague answers that don't make sense to me. I've tried to find out more since then, but I haven't been able to.”
“So you think they're hiding something in those labs?”
“It's possible.” He breathes out a long sigh. “You know, there's a big part of me that wants to leave the Guild. I mean, they do a lot of good here, but not everything seems to be entirely aboveboard. I don't know if I want to be part of it.”
His words remind me of Zed's accusations against the Guild.It's a noble idea, but there's so much wrong with the system. He obviously shouldn't have gone on to plant a deadly dragon disease spell that almost brought the Guild to its knees. And he shouldn't have tried to kill Ryn and Vi's baby to punish them for leaving him and dozens of other Gifted fae locked in Prince Marzell's dungeon years ago. But perhaps he was right about certain things.
“Anyway,” Ryn says, standing and massaging one shoulder with his hand. “It's late. You should get back to wherever it is you're staying now. There's no way you can see your mother tonightâor tomorrowâbut you might be able to sneak into Barton Prison once she's there. If you keep yourself invisible the entire time. Even then, it would be dangerous. Anyone watching surveillance recordings might see you.”
“I'll take the risk. I can't go two whole years without seeing her. I haven't even said goodbye.” Ryn nods, but his reply is lost in a yawn. “You should go home too,” I tell him. “You look terrible.”
He gives me a half-smile. “You don't look so great yourself.”
I shrug. “I've been busy.”
He raises both eyebrows. “I should probably ask what you're up to these days, but I think it's better if I don't know.”
“It's definitely better if you don't know.” He walks around the desk and lifts his jacket from the back of the chair Dad was sitting on as I add, “Hey, um, will you let me know if you hear any talk of a dangerous prisoner being held by the Seelie Court?”
“Thanks.” I turn to leave, but he catches my shoulder before I open the door.
“Don't do it,” he says.
“Whatever you're planning to do now about your mother. Sneaking downstairs to see her, or trying to get her out. It isn't worth you getting caught.”
“I'm tired, Ryn. I barely have enough energy left to focus on the invisibility required to get me out of the Guild let alone past all the security between here and Mom's detainment cell. And I'm not going to try and get her out. If she told Dad she's ready to face the consequences of her actions, then â¦ I guess I have to respect that.”
Ryn's eyes narrow. “You're not lying to me, are you?”
I look him straight in the eye and say, “No. I am not going down there tonight.”
I wasn't lying to Ryn. Not really. He told me not to do anything riskylast night, and I promised him I wouldn't. But this morning is entirely different. I wake early, after only a few hours of sleep, and return to the Guild. Ineedto see Mom before they take her away. I need her to know how sorry I am, because no matter what reasons the Guild might have given everyone, I know the length of her sentence is entirely my fault.
I head straight for the corridor that leads to the detainment area. I stop just outside it and peer in, watching the men guarding the gate halfway along. Invisibility won't work here, since I have to get through the gate. I need to project an illusion of someone else. Dad would be the best option, since he has the most reason to be here, and if somebody mentions it to him later, he'll realize what I've done and play along. Anyone elseâany guardian or councilorâwould deny it, and that would raise suspicion, which would lead to people taking a closer look at surveillance recordings.
I imagine myself as Dad and walk confidently along the corridor toward the guards and the gate. One guard looks uncertainly at the other, but before either of them can say anything, I open my mouthâimagining Dad's voiceâand say, “I'm here to see my wife.”
“Of course, Mr. Larkenwood, it's just thatâ”
I manage to keep from flinching as someone behind me calls Dad's name. I look around and find one of the Guild Council members approaching me with a frown creasing his brow. “You're a little early, aren't you? We're supposed to meet in half an hour.”
Meet in â¦ what? Alarm bells shriek inside my head, but I force myself to remain still instead of pushing past this man and running as fast as I can.Don't panic. Maintain the illusion. SAY SOMETHING, DAMMIT!“Uh, well, can you blame me?”
The councilor gives me an odd look, and I wonder if Dad's voice sounded as strange to him as it did to me. “I suppose not,” he says eventually. “This whole situation must be very â¦ difficult for you. I feel for you, Linden. But rules are rules, so you'll need to wait up here until we're ready for the transfer. I'll send for you then.”
If I really were Dad, I'd probably be furious at the prospect of beingsent forlike some trainee, but in this moment, I want nothing more than to get out of here in case my father really does show up early. I give the man a brief nod, then turn and stride along the corridor, fighting the urge to run with every step I take. Once in the foyer, I head for the grand stairway and duck behind it before switching back to an invisibility projection. I slump against the wall beside the elevator, keeping my head down and allowing my heart rate to return to normal. I have no hope now of seeing Mom before she's moved to Barton Prison. I didn't realize it was happening so early. I should have woken up sooner andâ
I tense at the unexpected voice in my head. Then I sag against the wall once more as relief floods me with warmth.You're still there, I say to Chase.
Yeah. Chained inside a dungeon cell, remember? I'm not going anywhere.
You know what I mean.I look past the stairway toward the entrance room on the other side of the foyer. Two guardians walk out, followed seconds later by another one. I decide to stay put for now. With everyone starting to arrive for work, it would be too easy for someone to accidentally walk into me in that small room.I tried to speak to you last night and this morning but you didn't reply. I got a little worried.
I'm sorry. I think I slept for longer than usual. I must be getting used to these charming surroundings.
Sleep is good.I try not to think of the very non-charming surroundings Chase has told me about. I'm amazed he ever falls asleep at all.
I assume you wanted to talk last night so you could tell me how spectacularly well your first mission went, Chase says as I walk around the stairway to where the steps lead down instead of up.
How do you know it went well?Several trainees walk past the stairway and toward the elevatorâtowardme. Although I know they can't see me, it makes me too nervous to stand right next to them as they wait for the elevator. I push away from the wall and stop at the top of the stairs that lead down.
You're one highly determined individual,Chase says.I can't imagine you leaving the baron's house without that invitation.
My hand tightens on the banister as I peer down the stairs.Yes, well, it might have been a successful mission, but in case I was having any doubts about the universe sucking, I was once again proven wrong last night.
What happened?Chase's question flashes into my head after barely a second's pause.
You have to survive anothernine daysuntil the party, and the Guild is sending my mother to prison for two years.
His thoughts grow silent, but I sense his sinking spirits. Eventually he says,I'm so sorry about your mother.
I'm sorry aboutyou.I breathe out a frustrated puff of air. I can't keep still, so I begin descending the stairs.Every day that goes by takes us closer to whatever fate the Seelie Queen has planned for you. We have no idea when she'll act. It could be tonight, it could be tomorrow, it â¦I stop myself before the claws of despair can get too tight a grip around my heart.I'm sorry. This isn't helpful. It's just â¦ nine days seems like an eternity when your life is hanging in the balance.
Everything will be fine, Calla.
Will it?I continue down the stairs, my fingers tracing lightly across the banister's carved patterns. I haven't really thought about where I'm going, but Ryn's suspicions nudge at the back of my mind, stirring up my curiosity about whatever's going on behind locked doors down here.
Yes. I believe it will. Clearly your optimistic spirit has rubbed off on me.
I want to laugh at that because my optimism seems to have all but vanished these days. And as confident as Chase sounds, I know it's only a front. I can sense him distancing himself emotionally, trying to keep from communicating what he's truly feeling. I hesitate on the stairs as the quiet thought enters my mind, as it always does at some point during our mental discussions:What are they doing to you there?
Nothing I can't handle.
You always say that.
It's always true.
I shake my head as I continue downward.Will you ever tell me?
Perhaps, but not now. I don't want to drown in the details of this dark and hopeless hell. I'd rather imagine your surroundings instead. Are you at the mountain?
Uh, no.I pass the level that houses the labs I had potions classes in while I was a trainee and keep going, my boots silent on the emerald green carpet covering the stairs.
You sound guilty, Chase says.What are you doing?
Just â¦ some private investigation.I stop at the next level down and look around.
I'm not entirely sure, actually.I'm at the Guild. I came early in the hopes of seeing Mom so I could apologize for being the World's Worst Daughterâ
âbut I didn't get here in time. And I'm sure there aren't many daughters in the world who've caused their mothers to receive jail time, so I definitely qualify for that label. Anyway, now I'm sneaking around the lower levels of the Guild trying to find out what's happening behind locked doors.
What locked doors?
I don't know.I head along the corridor, eyeing the clean, plain doors. So much of the Guild is intricately patterned and lavishly decorated that it's odd to find a section of it so stark. Some of the doors don't even have handles.Ryn said he came across rooms he doesn't have access to, which made him suspicious. Since he's on the Council, he thought he should know about everything that goes on here, but apparently not.
Be careful, Chase warns.You don't want to end up trapped somewhere.
I know, I know.I hold my breath as a guardian with a clipboard in her hand and a stylus tucked behind her ear walks out of a room up ahead and comes toward me. As she walks past, I relaxâand then her footsteps stop. Terrified I'll find her staring at me, I slowly look over my shoulder. But she's facing a doorâone of the doors without a handleâand frowning at her clipboard. After nodding to herself several times, she takes her stylus and waves it across the door. With a brief flash of light, the door vanishes. She walks forward. Without stopping to think, I turn and rush through the doorway after her into a room illuminated by dim blue light. I look behind me as a second flash registers at the edge of my vision. The door has reappeared.
What's happening?Chase asks. No doubt he felt the burst of panic that flooded my chest at the sight of that closed door.
So â¦ I'm inside a room I can't get out of, I tell him,but it's fine. I'm not trapped. I'll just wait here until someone leaves or comes in.Then I take my first proper look around the roomâand genuine panic tightens my chest. Four rectangular glass boxes are suspended in the air at eye level, and inside each one is a person. They're motionless, their eyes closed, and the glass is so closeâso closeâto their faces, it's almost touching them. I press my hand against my mouth and shut my eyes and remind myself thatI'm not the one inside the box. And I'm not inside a cage. I'm free. It will be easy to walk out of this room.
The lake. Think of the lake. The quiet lapping of water and the warm, gentle breeze and the soft, lush grass between your fingers.The memory of Lumethon's soothing voice takes my panic down to a manageable level within seconds. I open my eyes to the blue-lit room once more and remember how to breathe.
Calla?Chase calls.Are you okay?
Yes. Sorry. I was just â¦ battling a bad memory.I tiptoe toward the nearest glass box, describing everything I see as I go. The woman inside is a faerie, judging by her two-toned hair. Her marking-free wrists tell me she isn't a guardian. On the lower edge of the box, a small plaque tells me her name is N. Thornbough.
“Alrighty,” the clipboard lady murmurs to no one in particular. She's on the other side of the room, standing at a counter that's bare except for a tray of small spheres that glow faintly. “Let's try this again.” She runs a finger down her clipboard, then selects a sphere from the tray. She approaches the other side of N. Thornbough's box. After waving her hand near the side of the glass, a hole materializes, similar to the way faerie paths doorways melt into existence. She puts the sphere inside the box, where it floats without moving as she seals up the hole. With another wave of her hand, the sphere drops and smashes beside the woman's arm. Nothing else seems to happen.
The woman sighs and returns to her clipboard. She makes a note before selecting another sphere. As she returns to N. Thornbough's box, I step quietly around it and read the name on the next box. J. Monkswood. Also not a member of the Guild, andâ
I tense at the sound of pounding on the door. “I'm coming in,” a voice shouts. A second later, the door vanishes and Councilor Merrydale rushes into the room, looking around. “Where is she? The hooded figure.”
I freeze beside J. Monkswood's box as Clipboard Lady closes the second hole she just opened. “What hooded figure?”
“The guards in the surveillance room saw a hooded figure follow you in here just minutes ago. A woman.”
She shakes her head. “I haven't seen anyone. Are you sure you've got the right room?”
“Of course. We both know you're the only one working on this at the moment, so it had to have been you she followed.”
Crap, crap, crap.I take a careful step around the box as Councilor Merrydale moves further into the room, searching the floor, the walls, the ceiling with his eyes.
What's wrong?Chase asks. I don't answer.
“She's still here,” Councilor Merrydale murmurs. “Only a handful of us have access to this room, so she couldn't have got out unless you let her out.” He spreads his arms and moves closer, magic zapping at the tips of his fingers as he feels the air. “Close the door,” he says to Clipboard Lady.
CRAP!I skip around him, pressing myself briefly against the counter's edgeâthe spheres wobble audibly in their trayâand dart toward the door. As Councilor Merrydale lunges for the counter, and Clipboard Lady dashes to the door, I just,justslip out in time.
And then I run. No point in wandering around casually if people in the surveillance room are already watching this passage.
Calla, please tell me what's happening.
Just making a hasty exit, that's all.
Up, up, up the stairs. I'm still invisible, so no one in the foyer bats an eye as I streak past them. Whoever's watching on the other end of a surveillance bug will be too late to catch me. I dodge to the side to keep from running into the trainee who just walked out of the entrance room. As I hurry into the room and write on the wall with my stylus, the image I project onto the guard is one of a blank wall. Seconds later, I'm inside the safety of the faerie paths, long before any guardian can come chasing after me.
Made it, I tell Chase.
Feeling immensely relieved, I walk out of the darkness into Chase's lakeside home in the human realm. I take only two steps across the open-plan kitchen and living area before noticing the figure standing by the wide kitchen window. I throw both hands up, automatically raising a shield of magicâbut then I see the purple streaks of hair and the bundle of blankets in the woman's arms as she turns to face me.
“Vi? What are youâ”
“I need help,” she says, hugging her child more tightly to her chest. “Something isn't right with Victoria.”
“What's wrong?” I ask immediately, hurrying to Violet's side and laying a careful hand on Victoria's back. “Is she sick? Do we need to get her to a healing institute?”
“No, it isn't like that. It's not something immediately life-threatening. It's â¦ I can't really explain it. She just seems different since â¦ you know.”
I lower my hand slowly to my side. “Since Zed took her.”Can we talk later?I add silently to Chase.
Sure. Not going anywhere, remember?
“I'm probably just imagining things,” Vi says in a low voice, probably so as not to wake Victoria. “That's what Ryn thinks. He says we didn't know her long enough before the Zed incident to tell if there's actually a difference now. And the healers checked her out within hours of Zed taking her, and they said she was fine.”
“But?” I prompt.
“I don't know. I think something's different. Nothing visible, although I do think her birthmark is lighter than it was before.” Vi leans against the kitchen counter. “It's more â¦ her personality? She seems fussier. She cries a lot more. I can't â¦ I can't make her happy. I talk to her and sing to her and hold her close, but it only makes things worse.”
I quirk an eyebrow. “You sing?”
She narrows her eyes at me. “Not the point.”
“Sorry, sorry.” I give her an encouraging smile. “Aren't babies supposed to cry a lot? That's normal, isn't it?”
“Yes, but is it normal that I can't comfort her? She seemed to respond to me before, but now she doesn't. I finally got her to sleep, but I think it was more to do with complete exhaustion from all her crying than any comfort I provided.”
“Well â¦ I don't know. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Yes. That's why I searched for you.” She glances around the house. “This isn't where you live now, is it? I thought you were staying somewhere hidden from me, but I kept thinking of you this morning, and suddenly this place flashed into view.”
Keeping the details vague so she won't be able to give anything away if the Guild questions her, I say, “No, I'm not staying here. This house is sort of â¦ on the way.”
“I see. Well, the friend you're staying withâthe one who can take away Griffin Abilitiesâis a botanist, correct? I think you mentioned that?”
“Farah told me about a type of berry that's used to counteract harmful spells. She said it used to be an ingredient in many healing potions, but healers thought it had become ineffective over the centuries, so they stopped using it. But she believes it can still help against certain spells, and it has no negative side effects, so I thought I should try it.” Victoria squirms in her sleep, and Vi gently strokes her back. “Farah doesn't know where to get any seeing as it isn't commonly used anymore, but I thought your friend might.”
I watch the odd facial expressions Victoria is pulling in her fitful sleep. “He might. His greenhouse is overflowing with hundreds of different plants.”
“Can you ask him if he has fire tongue?”
I look up. “You want to give a baby something called fire tongue?”
“Apparently the leaves burn your mouth if you eat them, but Farah says the berries aren't as bad.”
“Hopefully she's right about that. Well, uh, if you don't want to know anything about where I'm going, you'll need to wait outside.”
“Right, of course.” She looks around. “Do you have a key for the front door, or â¦ never mind.” She opens a faerie paths doorway with a stylus and appears on the porch a moment later.
I head back to the mountain through the faerie door. I run upstairs, and then up again to the level with the enchanted greenhouse. Gaius is already there, digging through the dirt in the far corner to plant something new. He nods when I ask him about the fire tongue and adds that he still uses it occasionally in his own potions. He points me in the direction of the right bush. I gather a handful of berries, then stop at the rusted metal shelves near the entrance and select an empty glass jar from the collection. I drop the berries inside and return to the lake house.
I find Vi sitting on the porch step outside bathed in the twilight mix of orange and lavender light. I still don't know where in the human world this house is, but it's a number of hours ahead of both Creepy Hollow and the mountain. “What will you do with the berries?” I ask as I hand her the jar.
“I'm not sure. I think Farah will make some kind of juice from them.”
She moves as if to stand and I quickly ask, “Can I hold her before you go? Just for a little bit.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I have to wait another hour before I can meet with Farah anyway.”
I sit beside Vi on the step and she places the sleeping Victoria into my arms. One tiny, clenched fist has broken free of the blanket that swaddles her. I run my finger gently over it, then across her fine, dark hair. “Have you had any clue as to what color she'll settle with?”
Vi leans her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands as she watches her daughter sleeping. “Not yet. Her eyes are too dark to make out their color most of the time, and her hair â¦ it seems to switch from light brown to dark, but I've seen no other color in the past few days, which is also what's been worrying me.”
“It happened quickly with you, didn't it?”
“Yes. My parents weren't certain about my hair color, but my eyes were a very deep blue-purple from the beginning.”
I nod. “What birthmark did you mention just now?”
“Oh, it's this dark pink shape on her left shoulder.” Vi lifts Victoria and holds her against her chest. She carefully pulls aside the blanket and clothing at the back of her neck. “See, it looks just like a flower. It's almost a perfect shape.”
“That is so sweet.”
“I know. It's grown lighter in the past few days, and I'm sad that it might fade away completely.”
“I guess it doesn't matter what marks she does or doesn't end up having, as long as she's healthy.”
Vi nods and kisses Victoria's head. “I just want her to have a safe, normal life. I can completely understand now why your mother never wanted you to join the Guild,” she adds with an apologetic smile. “It's terrifying imagining my own child in the kinds of dangerous situations we've faced.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Looking at Victoria, I feel the same way. “Well at least she won't have to worry about keeping a Griffin Ability secret. It isn't possible forâ” I cut myself off as that scrap of information I pushed to the back of my mind while at the baron's house rushes suddenly to the forefront of my thoughts. “Unless â¦ hmm.” I sit up straighter. “Unless it is possible. Unless our understanding of Griffin Abilities has never been complete.”
Instead of looking surprised, Vi nods. “That's the question, isn't it.”
“You've considered this?”
“I have. We've always been told that the Gifted were born to those who used a griffin disc. The increased power those people possessed while using a disc was somehow transferred to their children. But those discs lost their magic after they unlocked Tharros' power from the chest it was trapped inside, and that was over a decade ago.”
“Right,” I say. “But what if that's not the only way? What if â¦ maybe â¦ two Gifted can produce a child who's also Gifted.”
“Exactly. I've wondered about this ever since I discovered I was pregnant, but there's no record of it on the Griffin List. If there are other Gifted couples out there who've had children in the past decade, they've kept their abilities hidden, just as we have.” She looks out at the lake, becoming darker and darker as night draws near. “Without proof, we can only speculate whether this is possible or not.”
“I think I've seen proof.”
Her gaze snaps back to me. “You have?”
“Last night I rescued a Gifted faerie child whose touch could turn objects into gold. That isn't normal magic, and her father didn't deny that it was a Griffin Ability. She was only five years old.”
Vi's eyes widen. She hugs Victoria closer as she murmurs, “So it must be possible then.”
“Look, we don't know nearly enough about this to know if Victoria is Gifted. And even if she does turn out like us, is that such a bad thing? I mean, we've all managed to deal with our abilities.”
Vi closes her eyes and groans. “This motherhood thing has given me so many more things to worry about. I don'tâOh.” She hands Victoria back to me so she can remove her pinging amber from her pocket. A tiny fist smacks my jaw as Victoria continues to wriggle and make nonsense sounds in her sleep.
“She really doesn't enjoy sleeping, does she,” I mutter as Vi reads a message on her amber.
“Oh, finally,” she exclaims, her face breaking into a grin. “My dad's visiting on Friday.”
As her words sink into my brain, I have to hold back a gasp of excitement. Vi's dadâthe only person I know who works at the Seelie Palaceâwill be in Creepy Hollow on Friday night. Reminding myself to continue acting normally, I ask, “Hasn't he met Victoria yet?”
“He has. He was given a grand total of about twenty minutes off work the day she was born. But now he'll be able to spend the whole evening with us.”
“That's wonderful.”For more reasons than one.I don't know how I'm going to do it, but Ihaveto get the location of the Seelie Court out of Vi's dad, and this will likely be my only chance.
Victoria's sleepy protest noises grow louder and her eyes are half open now. “Here we go again,” Vi grumbles. “I should probably go before she starts screaming her little lungs out.”
I look over my shoulder and check the time on the clock inside. “I have to go too, actually. I have a meeting.”
“A meeting?” Vi asks as she takes Victoria from me and stands. “You know I'm curious, but I won't ask.”
“Probably best.” I'd rather she not know that we're about to discuss plans for breaking into the Seelie Palace.
I dash into the meeting room on one of the lower levels of the mountain and drop into a chair, noting that I'm the last person to arrive. The other five members of Chase's team are already seated.Meeting time, I tell Chase.In case you want to add anything.
“Late again,” the elf girl with the spiked hair mutters from across the table. “You know some of us have actual jobs to be at in, like, ten minutes, right?”
I open my mouth to ask when last I was late, but Gaius gets in first. “Oh, did you find a new job, Ana? How wonderful.”
She absently twists one of the piercings in her left ear. “Yeah, well, we might be busy cooking up the biggest mission of our lives, but I've still got bills to pay.”
“You know you're welcome to stay here if youâ”
“Thanks, but no,” Ana interrupts. “I like my own space. Besides, Chase taught me well, so it wasn't too hard to find work.”
“Oh, you're also a tattoo artist?” I ask, working hard to keep my tone polite.
“Of course I'm a tattoo artist. Did you think I was just the receptionist?”
Darius, the blue-eyed faerie slouching in the chair beside Ana, snorts. “Receptionist,” he grunts in amusement. She flicks his arm with a tattooed finger.
“Perhaps we should begin,” Lumethon suggests, focusing her gaze on Gaius. With her perfectly white hair and colorless eyes a stark contrast against her dark skin, she might be a faerie with particularly exotic coloring or some other being entirely. I thought it too rude to ask.
Beside me, the drakoni man named Kobe who never says very much, nods in agreement.
“Right,” Gaius says. “Quick updates.”
I told you Ana doesn't like me, I say to Chase as I fold my arms and focus on Gaius.
Give her time. She takes a while to warm up to new people.
The spider-like contraption I noticed on Gaius's desk last night climbs onto the table. Lumethon snatches her hand out of the way as the device made of cogs, wheels, various pieces of metal, magic, and needle-thin sticks for legs moves past her toward Gaius. One spindly leg holds a scroll and another holds a quill. “Excellent, very good,” Gaius mutters with a smile.
Ana shakes her head and whispers, “Ridiculous.”
The spider raises the scroll and allows it to unroll, the bottom edge of the paper hitting the table and unfurling another few inches. Gaius leans forward to read whatever notes are on the scroll. “All other projects have come to an end, so we're now focusing solely on Chase, the Seelie Court, and this terrible veil-splitting vision that Amon and Angelica are so interested in.” He looks around the table. “You'll be pleased to know I've found some information on the prison beneath the palace. Most people don't even know it exists, but it turns out an old friend of mine had a brother locked up there at some point, and he was allowed to visit before they, uh, carried out the sentence. And before you ask,” Gaius adds quickly, “he does not know how to get there. He was both stunned and blind-folded.”
“Seems excessive,” Darius comments.
“Indeed. Anyway, this friend of mine has agreed to put together some drawings of everything he remembers. We can examine the drawings in depth once I've got them.
“Next â¦” Gaius examines the scroll again. “Darius and Kobe met with the mer king last night and confirmed that the monument involved in the veil spell is under heavy guard. The king is still refusing to have it moved, though, and destroying it isn't just out of the question, it's apparently impossible as well.”
“I wish he'd at least let ustry,” Darius says. “That would be fun.”
Kobe frowns, his reptile-like eyes narrowing at Darius. I see a flick of his forked tongue as he says, “Do you have no respect?”
“You know I have noâ”
“What's so magical about this trident monument anyway?” Ana asks. “I know the witch in the vision said something about magic of the heights and magic of the depths. And we all know the full moon can have a powerful influence on spells, so that's the height part. Obviously the mer statue is for the depths part, but what's so special about it?”
“As the name suggests,” Gaius says, “it's been around since the time of the very first mer king. That was â¦ oh, centuries and centuries ago. Every king and queen since then has added their magic to the monument in some way. That makes it a very powerful statue. Probably the most powerful object beneath the ocean's surface.”
“Okay.” Ana sits back. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Right then,” Gaius says. “Lastly, we now have an invitation to Princess Audra's birthday party at the Seelie Palace, so that's our way in. It's nine days away, including today, which means we still have time to find out how to actually get there. Ana and Lumethon, any luck with that?”
“Nothing yet,” Lumethon says as Ana shakes her head. “As we're all aware, it's a well-kept secret.”
“I think I can help there,” I say tentatively. Everyone's attention focuses on me. “I know someone who works for the Seelie Queen.”
Ana's hand slaps down on the table as her mouth drops open. “You didn't think to mention this before?”
Patience, I remind myself. She's a friend of Chase's and I need to make an effort with her. “I did think of it,” I explain to the group, “but I decided there was no point in mentioning it since he hardly ever leaves the Seelie Court. It's been months since I last saw him and we don't have that kind of time where Chase is concerned. But I just found out that he'll be visiting my brother and sister-in-law on Friday evening, so we have until then to come up with a way to get the Seelie Court location out of him.”
“Can't you just ask him?” Darius says.
I try to keep my frustration in. “He's a close advisor to the Seelie Queen. I am one hundred percent certain he won't approve of a group of outlaws breaking into the palace to rescue the man who enslaved our world a decade ago.”
“I wasn't suggesting you tell himthat,” Darius says. “Just, you know, say that you're curious.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Curious?”
“Okay, you have a point,” Darius concedes. “He's definitely not going to just tell you.”
“I wonder if it might be possible to follow him,” Lumethon says. “You can keep yourself invisible so he doesn't know.”
“I could, but what about the faerie paths? I assume they'd be involved for at least part of the journey, so I'd have to touch him in order to wind up at the same destination on the other side. How will I get away with that without him noticing?”
Lumethon looks at Gaius. “There are ways to follow him without being in physical contact.”
Gaius nods, and I remember Ryn telling me something similar once. “Yes, there is magic that will allow you to follow him through the paths without touching him. One of those unstable spells that relies on precise enunciation of every wordâand if I remember correctly, there are many words involved. It can easily go wrong, which is why it isn't taught in schools. I'll have to look it up.” He nods at his contraption, which lifts the quill in one spindly leg and makes a note on the scroll.
“Does Chase have anything he might want to add to this meeting?” Ana asks, looking across the table at me. “Is his situation still the same? Would you even tell us if something changed?”
“Of course I would tell you. Why wouldn't I?”
“You seem to be mighty possessive of that ring that doesn't even belong to you. I just hope you're not hiding anything from us.”
Breathing in deeply, I manage to refrain from crawling across the table and punching Ana. Instead, I tug the ring off and send it spinning across the table. She slaps her hand down over it, glares at me for another moment, then picks it up and swivels her chair around to face the wall.
I look at Gaius and mouth,What did I do wrong?
He shrugs. “Well, that's all for now. Some of you have work commitments, and Lumethon and Calla have a training session. I'll see you all tomorrow morning, unless something comes up before then.”
Everyone except Ana stands and moves toward the door. Darius complains about his boring day job and Kobe tells him to get over his laziness. Then they agree to meet later for a training session in the gym room next door. Lumethon greets me at the door, but before she can say anything further, Ana pushes her hand between us, the ring sitting on her open palm. “He says you shouldn't wear it during training,” she tells me as I take the ring from her. “He doesn't want to distract you.” Without waiting for a reply, she slips past me and out of the room.
“I know she can be â¦ difficult,” Lumethon says, “but give her a chance. She's had a tough life so far, and she doesn't trust easily.”
I push the ring into my back pocket. “What happened, or shouldn't I ask?”
“Well, it isn't a secret,” Lumethon says as we leave the meeting room. “She lost her whole family a year or two before The Destruction in an accidental fire. She lived with friends for a while, but â¦ well, I won't go into details, but it wasn't a healthy situation. A few years after Draven's defeat, at the age of eleven, she ran away. She survived on her own for three years, becoming particularly skilled at stealing and even more skilled at evading guardians. When someone eventually caught her, Chase rescued her and gave her a choice: join his team or face the Guild.”
“And she chose you guys, of course.”
“Yes. She lived with me for a few years, then announced on her seventeenth birthday last year that she wanted a place of her own.” We head upstairs toward the mountain's entrance hall. “I was a little worried in the beginning that she would simply run away,” Lumethon continues, “but she's been fiercely loyal to us since the moment Chase took her in. And a valuable addition to the team. Exceptionally stealthy. The places she's snuck into would blow your mind.”
Right, and here I am using invisibility to sneak into places. No wonder Ana looks at me with such disdain. “So she would have done a great job with last night's mission.”
“Yes, she probably would have done that one if you hadn't joined us, but since last night's mission involved stealing from one of our own clients, we needed to be absolutely certain that whoever we sent wouldn't be caught. Anyway, enough about that,” she says as we cross the entrance hall and stop by the faerie door. “It's desensitization time.”
I shudder inwardly at the thought of the systematic desensitization I've been forced to endure every day since I admitted to the rest of my team that I have a phobia of confined spaces. “Yeah, I know. Let's get it over with. Where are we going this time?”
“Back to Rosenhill Manor Art Gallery.”
“Oh, I love it there.”
Lumethon smiles. “That's why we're going back.”
I follow her through the faerie door to the lake house, where I place my hand on her shoulder as she writes a doorway spell on the wall. Moments later, we walk into the exquisite gardens of Rosenhill Estate. Green lawns, rose bushes and weatherworn statues surround us as we walk uphill toward the old manor house that was once the home of a Seelie Court lord. Now it houses room after room of magnificent art.
Luna, the old elf lady who saved Chase from his own misery and despair in the months after he ceased to be Draven, knew about this place. She never had the opportunity to visit the manor house herself, but she'd heard tales of the breathtaking artwork contained within and told Chase all about it. After she died and Chase found himself with her artistic ability, he came here for inspiration.
Lumethon and I walk through the grand entrance of the manor house and pay for a ticket each. Wooden floorboards creak beneath our feet as we walk toward the first room. A kaleidoscope of color drips from every inch of all four walls, the pattern continuously changing as the enchanted paint shifts again and again into a seemingly endless series of designs. It's mesmerizing, but not exactly relaxing. This isn't the room we came here for.
We pass through a room with sculptures that move fluidly from one form into another, and then a room filled with floating glass spheres that each contain miniature scenes constructed entirely from pieces of scrap metal. Another room seems sure to burn up at any moment as flames lick their way across every canvas. It's an enchantment of the paint, thoughâpaint I've been lucky enough to use onceâso the canvases remain intact.
We end up in the water-themed roomâmy favorite and the most suitable for our purposes. A stream of glittering, silvery water flows diagonally across the floor from one corner of the room to the other where it disappears into the wall. Flat round stones floating above its surface allow visitors to jump across from one side to the other. The canvases on the walls depict scenes of lakes, waterfalls and oceans with enchanted water paint twinkling, twisting and rushing but never leaving any canvas. Lumethon and I use the rocks to get to the other side of the stream where a tree trunk resting on its side serves as a seat. “Are you ready to begin?” she asks as I sit.
“Yes.” I try to clear my mind of all worries and distracting thoughts as I close my eyes.
“Breathe in through your nose,” Lumethon instructs. “Feel the air rushing into your body, feel it filling your lungs and expanding your chest. Now exhale, slowly, through your mouth, releasing all tension as you do so. And again, listening to the gentle movement of the water, slowly inhale. Focus on the air entering your body, filling you anew. Now release your breath and picture your lake, the place of relaxation you've chosen.”
I reach my imaginary peaceful setting quickly now that I've done this several times. It's a version of the lake outside Chase's home in the human realm. A wide expanse of water stretches out before me, gentle waves lap at the shore of the lake, a carpet of lush grass is wonderfully soft beneath me, and a clear blue sky finishes the picture.
“Now that you've reached a relaxed state,” Lumethon says, “think of your list. We're moving on to a scenario that produces a medium level of anxiety. Imagine yourself in that situation for as long as you can.”
Doing my best to hold onto my sense of calm, I imagine myself standing and walking away from the lake. The scene melts away to reveal the lowest level within Gaius's mountain home. The level where gargoyles and other creatures are kept. It begins with a small room with rough stone walls and a narrow slit of space in one corner. A tunnel so narrow I've never been brave enough to go through. I take in another slow breath as I picture myself approaching that horribly narrow tunnel. My heart rate kicks up a notch, but I focus on the soothingly repetitive water sounds as I keep moving forward.Breathe, I remind myself.In through the nose, out through the mouth.I walk closer. I place my hands on the wall on either side of the dark space and stare into it. The tunnel is narrow enough that it might touch my shoulders if I were to enter it, and so dark that I have no way of seeing the other side. But despite the fact that my heart is jumping faster than normal, I don't feel overcome by panic. I take one step into the tunnel, then another. The darkness grows around me, pressing in, and that's when I shake my head, shudder, and open my eyes.
“I can't go into the tunnel yet,” I tell Lumethon, looking around and finding her leaning against the wall between two paintings. “I was almost there. Iplannedto go inside and the thought didn't freak me out, but I couldn't actually do it.”
“I know. You were projecting again. I saw everything.”
“Not again,” I say with a groan. “I told you this would be a problem. I can't keep control of my ability because I'mtoorelaxed.”
“That's fine, Calla. The point here is to get over your anxiety. Once you reach that point, you'll be able to face these kinds of situations while retaining control of your projections. And you've already shown improvement,” she adds with a smile. “When we did this two days ago, you didn't want to even approach the tunnel.”
I nod. “True. It is getting a bit easier.”
“Good. Now close your eyes, re-establish a relaxed state of mind, and go through the process again, imagining the same situation.”
“Okay, but you'll watch the door, right? I mean, in case I project again, which I probably will.”
“I've had a shield across the door the entire time. You needn't worry about anyone walking in.”
I repeat the exercise, approaching the tunnel quicker this time, my anxiety only spiking once I'm actually inside the dark, tight space. I try to push myself further, to remain in the tunnel for more than two or three seconds, but the fear of something pressing in around meâtouching me, suffocating meâbecomes unbearable far too quickly.
“Well done,” Lumethon says when I open my eyes and wriggle my shoulders as if to shake the fear away. “You're definitely getting there. Now, how do you feel about doing a real life test?”
“The log you're sitting on is hollow. Do you think you can crawl through it from one side to the other?”
I stand up, walk to the end of the tree trunk, and peer down. Turns out it is hollow. Could I crawl through it? It's a ridiculously simple task, one that just about anybody else could easily perform, and yet â¦ “I'm not quite sure about that.”
“Why not try?” Lumethon suggests, pushing away from the wall. “We're in a non-threatening situation. The log is wide enough that it won't touch your back while you're crawling through, and you can see the other side.”
I nod. Being able to see the other side and knowing how quickly it will be over definitely helps. I lower myself onto my hands and knees and look through. Lumethon crouches down on the other side and beckons with her hand. I eye the rough interior of the tree and let out a nervous laugh. “It'll be quite a tight fit. Even though it won't touch my head or my back, I'll know it's right there.”
“Don't think of it. Look at me and think of wide open space. Tell yourself you're crawling on the grass beside your lake and there's nothing above you but miles of fresh air.”
I picture itâthe blue sky and endless spaceâand slowly, carefully start crawling. Rough bark scratches my palms and Lumethon smiles encouragingly up ahead. I think of space all around me. Space, space, space and â¦ the inside of the tree all around me. Closing me in. I suck in a breath and crawl faster. Faster, faster until I finally emerge at the other end. I grab Lumethon's hand and let her pull me to my feet. “Phew. Okay, that wasn'ttoobad. But, like you said, this is a non-threatening situation, so I had time to get myself into a relaxed state of mind first. That's not always the case.”
“True, but we'll keep practicing until the relaxed state of mind is automatic and you no longer see confined space as a cause for anxiety. You're making good progress, Calla.”
“I know, I just â¦ I feel so ridiculous celebrating something this simple. It's such a silly fear. I know it is, and yet, when the panic takes over, all rational thought flees from my mind.”
“Phobias aren't rational.” Lumethon moves to sit on the log. “And you have an entirely legitimate reason for developing this particular phobia.”
“Yeah,” I mutter, thinking of the hanging cage I was locked in as a child in the Unseelie Prince's dungeon. The black water and the wailing prisoners and the stink of sweat and terror. I shiver. That scenario is definitely at the top of my anxiety hierarchy. I'm leaving that one for last.
“I've got about twenty minutes left until I need to get to work,” Lumethon says, “so let's move on to illusion training.”
“More training. Right.” I push my hands through my hair. “Yes, okay. Let's do this.”
Lumethon's eyebrows rise. “Is something wrong? Have you had enough of our training sessions?”
“No, no. I'm very grateful for all the time you've spent helping me, and I know this is important. It's just â¦ Don't you ever feel so overcome by impatience that you want to tear your hair out?” I tug at my hair again, as if she might need an illustration. “I mean, we train every day, and everyone goes to work like they normally would, and every night we go to bed, and all the while Chase islocked in a dungeon where someone could kill him at any moment. I know we're doing everything we can, but it still feels likenothing.”
“I understand your frustration,” an unexpected voice says, and I look across the room to find Gaius standing in the doorway. “I feel as if we should be actively searching for the Seelie Court at this very moment, not sparing a second for sleep or rest. I have to continually remind myself that we'd never find it that way, and even if we did, we'd never get in.” He steps into the room, admiring the painting of water falling upward, crashing into quiet foam and the top of the canvas instead of the bottom. “Lovely art gallery, by the way. I've never been here.” He leaps onto one of the floating stones and jumps to our side of the stream where he takes a seat on the tree trunk beside Lumethon. “So. Ready to trick my mind with your latest illusion?”
“You're here for my training? I thought Lumethon was doing that.”
“We both are,” she says to me. “Today we're attempting the one thing you keep telling me is impossible.”
Wonderful. I tilt my head back with a groan and mutter, “Simultaneous illusions.”
Perry lets out a giant guffaw when I exit the faerie paths at the old Guild ruins late that afternoon. “What is that on your head?”
“Um â¦ hair?” I say, feigning confusion.
“It's blue! And short!”
“I like it,” Gemma says, leaning back on her hands and examining my sleek blue bob. “It isn't real, is it?”
“No, it's a wig. I found it at the mâum, where I'm staying now.” Turns out Chase's team has an entire costume closet of items to disguise one's appearance, since most magical beings are immune to glamours. Gaius pointed the closet out to me this morning after my unsuccessful attempt at projecting multiple simultaneous illusions. “I thought it might be a good idea to hide my telltale golden hair,” I tell them, “since I almost got caught at the Guild this morning.”
“You what?” Gemma says with a small gasp, covering her mouth with her hand.
“I was invisible to everyone around me, of course, but a surveillance bug must have flown past, so someone watching the orbs in that department saw me. I had to run.”
Gemma drops her hand into her lap. “That was close. You shouldn't do that again.”
“Yeah, probably not. I was sneaking around the lower levels.”
“Sounds like fun,” Perry says, rubbing his hands together. “What were you looking for?”
“Wouldn't you like to know,” I say with a sly smile. I sit beside him and Gemma in the shade of a cracked and vine-entangled marble alcove that was once part of the old Creepy Hollow Guild. The Guild Chase destroyed when he was possessed with power that wasn't his. The thought of his past doesn't twist my insides into nausea as it once did. Chase is nothing like the person he was when he ruled as Lord Draven. I focus on the papers and textbooks spread on the ground around Perry. “You're acting unusually studious,” I tell him. “Is that homework?”
“Nope. Something way more interesting. I'll tell you about my rule-breaking if you tell me about yours.”
I roll my eyes, but I already know I'm going to tell them what I saw in that blue-lit room. They know of so much already, like my Griffin Ability and the fact that it was Zed who killed Saskia, spread the dragon disease, and framed me for both. I haven't told them who Chase once was, though, and they don't know anything about my relationship with him or that he's been captured. Theydoknow about the prophecy that details the tearing down of the veil between our world and the human one. With Mom's trial taking place over the past few days, I figured they might hear whispers of the prophecy anyway. Best to give them the real story instead of letting them believe rumors.
I cross my legs and lean back on my hands as I tell them everything I saw in that horrible room with the glass boxes this morning. “I have no idea what it was about, but I doubt it's legal if they have to do it behind a locked door that only a handful of people are allowed through.”
“Ugh, that sounds so creepy,” Gemma says, pulling a face. “But you said it was Councilor Merrydale who came into the room? He wouldn't be involved in anything illegal, would he?”
“Okay, maybe notillegal, but â¦ you know. Something that wouldn't be approved of if everyone knew about it. And that makes me wonder if maybe â¦ it's something to do with Griffin Abilities.”
“You think those were Gifted fae in the boxes?” Perry asks.
“I don't know.” I pull one of his scrolls closer and write down the names N. Thornbough and J. Monkswood. “These are the two names I'm saw. I'm wary of going back inside the Guild if I don't have to. Could you search the Griffin List and see if these names are on it?”
Perry nods and takes the scroll from me, putting far more distance between himself and Gemma than necessary as he leans around her. He tucks the scroll into his bag. “This is messed up,” he adds. “We're supposed to be the good guys, aren't we? Not the guys who put people into boxes and experiment on them.”
“Well it isn'tallof us,” Gemma says, looking at me instead of Perry, despite the fact that he's the one she's talking to. “Only a handful of guardians.”
“You know what I meant,” he mutters, turning back to the books spread in front of him, one of which looks like a Guild manual with the words Security Spells on the front and someone else's name on a sticker. “Anyway, I think I'm getting closer to figuring this thing out.”
“The detection spell?” I ask, referring to the magic placed on the homes of everyone close to me after I escaped the Guild. Perry told me he was sure there must be a way around it.
“Yeah, so this manualâthat was conveniently left on a bench in the Guild dining room by a guard I was most definitelynotdistracting at the timeâexplains how to remove the spell. Unfortunately, it has to be done by the guardians who cast the detection spell in the first place, so that won't work. But I think I can put something on you to kind of â¦ shield you from being detected.”
“If that works, it'll be amazing.”
“Mm, so I'm just figuring out â¦ if â¦” He taps his stylus against the side of his head as he turns a page. “Where was that section about aâ”
At the sound of footsteps moving through the overgrown weeds, my head snaps up. I quickly imagine myself invisible as someone walks around the crumbling piece of wall the alcove is attached to. “Oh, it's just you,” Gemma says to Ned, placing a relieved hand on her chest.
I'm about to release my hold on the invisibility illusion when Ned frowns at Gemma, looks around, and says, “She's here, isn't she.”
“Hey, Ned.” I reappear and give him a friendly wave.
Instead of returning the greeting, Ned frowns as his eyes travel over my blue hair. He lowers his voice and says to Gemma, “I told you we shouldn't do this.”
“Do what?” I ask, but I'm already remembering what Gemma said to me the day we painted the spare room with paint balloons. Ned didn't want to see me for some reason, and she told me he simply needed time to warm up to me. But perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps the real reason was that the Guild had already suspended me at that point.
In a flat voice, Ned says, “I just don't feel comfortable hanging out with criminals.”
Well. From someone who doesn't usually say more than five words in an entire conversation, I wasn't expecting such blunt honesty. “IâI'm not a criminal, Ned. I haven't done anything wrong.”
He meets my eyes for a second before looking away. “You're required by law to add your name to the Griffin List. If you didn't do that, then you broke the law.”
“Ned â¦” Perry says.
Ned shakes his head and turns away. “I'm not doing this,” he says, walking back the way he came.
“Ned, come on,” Gemma calls.
“I'll go after him,” Perry says, jumping to his feet and hurrying after Ned.
I comb my fingers through the blue wig, wondering if I need to get out of here immediately. “Do you think â¦ would he go back to the Guild and tell someone that I'm here right now?”
Gemma shakes her head. “I don't think so. He's a stickler for the rules, but I don't think he'd go that far. But we probably shouldn't let him know the next time we meet up with you.”
I pull my knees up and wrap my arms around them. “I don't want you to have to lie to one of your friends because of me.”
“Then I guess we'll just â¦ omit information instead of directly lying.”
“Isn't that kind of the same thing?”
“Not really. And you know how I feel about the Griffin List, so the only law you've broken is one that shouldn't exist.”
“Yeah.” I look around at the dappled afternoon light shifting across the overgrown ruins before returning my gaze to Gemma. “So, what's going on between you and Perry? You're acting really weird around each other.”
“What?” Gemma laughs awkwardly. “No we're not.”
She blinks at me, then groans and covers her face. “Fine.” She lowers her hands and plucks a leaf from the nearest vine. She twirls it between her fingers as her face, growing steadily pinker, remains firmly pointed toward her lap. “Remember when I got sick? From the dragon disease?”
“Well â¦ Perry kind of â¦ toldmehelovesme.”
“Oh, finally!” I clap my hands together as Gemma's head flies up.
“You knew?” she demands.
“Of course I knew. No one who's spent any time around the two of you could possibly have missed it.”
“I'm such an idiot.” She drops the leaf and smacks both hands against her forehead.
“So what did you say to him?”
“I was kind of dying at the moment he said it,” she mumbles, “so, uh, I didn't respond.”
“Okay, and after you recovered?”
“Um â¦ I still haven't said anything.”
“Ah. Well, no wonder things are awkward.”
“I know! But what was I supposed to say? I mean, it just came out of nowhere, and I have a crush on someone else, and Perry is â¦ he'sPerry. My friend. The guy who teases me, not the guy who tears down a magically locked door to give me a cure while telling me I can't die because he loves me.”
I rest my chin on my knees. “That's quite heroic and romantic, actually.” Thoughts of Chase crowd my mind along with a desperate longing to feel his arms around me, a desire so strong that I have no doubt he'd feel it if I were wearing the ring right now. Fortunately, I'm not. Some feelings probably shouldn't be shared yet. Feelings I haven't had time to properly examine.
“It is heroic and romantic,” Gemma admits, “but I still don't really know how I feel about him. That's why I haven't said anything. I'm just â¦ confused. And there are so many other important things to focus on. Assignments, and all the stuff you've been telling us aboutâthe dragon disease and guardian hater groups and a terrifying prophecy that some ex-spy of Draven's wants to put into action. And now guardians are doing weird tests on unconscious fae. Next to all that, figuring out my love life seems completely trivial.”
“I know,” I say with a sigh. “I understand.” I'm trying to sort out all the same problems while at the back of my mind the memory of that kiss in the golden river teases me, tempting me to look away from everything important I'm supposed to be focusing on. “But maybe you should saysomethingto Perry. Just to let him know you're thinking things through rather than leaving him hanging after his declaration of undying love for you.”
“Ugh, I know. You're right. It's all just soâ” She cuts her words off as a faerie paths doorway opens nearby and Perry steps out. “And, um, then Olive was like, âAre you kidding me? You can't even do a triple flip? Who the hell let you into fifth year?' And Lily started crying right there. You can imagine how impressed Olive was withthat.”
I shake my head, smiling in amusement at Gemma's abrupt change of subject. I wonder if the story's even true or if she made it up in desperation on the spot. Looking past her, I ask, “Did you talk to Ned?”
Perry nods as he resumes his spot on the ground on the other side of Gemma. “He says he understands that you're not a bad person but that rules exist for a reason and we're supposed to follow them, whether we agree with them or not.” He spreads out a blank scroll and picks up a quill. “Anyway, it's impossible to argue with him, so after making sure he wasn't about to report your whereabouts to the Guild at this very moment, I left it at that.”
“Are you sure he won't say anything?”
“He knows you're not the one responsible for Saskia's death and the disease spell, so he won't say anything because he obviously doesn't want you locked up for that. He does think your name should be on the Griffin List, though.”
“Well, now that the entire Guild knows I'm Gifted,” I say, a hint of bitterness creeping into my voice, “I'm certain my name has been added to the list.”
“That's what I said. He still thinks you should have been the one to own up to it instead of waiting to be found out, but â¦ whatever.” Perry moves two open books next to each other and pulls the scroll closer. “Okay. Let's see if we can rustle up a shield charm specifically directed against this detection spell. There's a charm here for a full-body shieldâ” he leans forward and runs one finger down the page of the first textbook before moving to the one beside it “âand this manual details the exact words for the detection spell. So I think if we take the words from one and insert them into the other spell, we could make this work. I'm just not entirely surewhereto put them in. And isn't there something else that's supposed to be added when you mix spells?”
I nudge Gemma's shoulder. “You're really good at charms, aren't you? You and Perry should be working on this together.” She looks at me with wide eyes, probably trying to communicate that moving closer to Perry is the last thing she wants to do. I roll my eyes and mouth,He won't bite.
After sending a glare my way, Gemma shifts across the vines and twigs and picks up the security spell manual. “Okay, you don't need to include this whole spell. Just take this bit hereâ” she lowers the manual and points to something “âand put it in the shield charm over here, between these two words. And you're right. There's that extra incantation that needs to be woven in when you're blending two spells.” She pulls another textbook closer.
I straighten my legs out and lean back as I pick through my memory of the bazillion spells I studied before the Guild allowed me to register as a fifth-year trainee. “Is this the one you're thinking of?” I ask Gemma before reciting the words that have come to mind.
“Yeah, that's the one,” Gemma says, flipping through pages. “But we should probably check to make sure weâah, here it is.”
She and Perry finish writing out the words to their new spell within minutes. “Cool, let's test it,” Perry says, quickly packing all his books and papers away.
“Now?” I ask.
“Do you have a better time in mind?” He stands and lifts his heavy bag into the air with a wave of his hand. It floats beside him.
“I guess not. Where do you want to test it?” Gemma and I climb to our feet, brushing leaves and dirt off our clothes.
“My house?” Perry suggests.
“What if it doesn't work? You'll have guardians rushing into your home to look for me.”
“Then you'll just make yourself invisible and leave through the faerie paths.”
“And you'll be in trouble with the Guild.”
“Why? I'll just say I had no idea you were coming to visit me. Actually, no. I'll tell them their silly detection spell is malfunctioning because if you're not there, then who set it off?”
Raising my eyebrows, I say, “You really will wind up in trouble if you tell Guild security guards that their spells are silly.”
“Look, the spell's gonna work, so I don't know why we're discussing this. Gemma and I make a great team, so there's no way this shield charm is wrong.” A flush appears in Gemma's cheeks once more, and Perry hastens to add, “A greatworkteam. Obviously.”
“Okay, let's try it.”
“Brilliant. Come over here.” Perry holds the scroll out in front of him and raises one hand just above my head. As he reads the words, I sense something moving in the air above me. I look up and find a cloud of glowing dust swirling around Perry's hand. As he reads the final word, the dust descends quickly upon me, coating every inch of my body. With a final flash, the glowing dust vanishes.
“Is it supposed to do that?” I ask.
“Don't know,” Perry says with a shrug as he folds the paper and pushes it into a pocket. “Let's find out if it worked.” He leans into the alcove and writes a doorway spell onto the cracked marble. “After you, ladies,” he says as a dark space materializes. Gemma takes my hand and walks forward. I follow her, reaching back for Perry's hand. It doesn't escape my notice that Gemma put me between the two of them. I can't help but sigh as I walk into the darkness and try to empty my mind so I don't interfere with the destination Gemma's thinking of.
Light forms up ahead. The nothingness beneath my feet turns into solid ground as I walk into a tidy kitchen. I tense and drop Gemma's hand, looking around as if guardians might appear at any second. “Is an alarm supposed to go off?” I whisper.
“Not here,” Gemma says. “That manual Perry stole said an alarm will go off in the security department at the Guild if the detection spell is breached.”
“I should hide,” I say immediately. “Just in case guardians are on their way here.”
“I didn'tstealthe manual,” Perry mutters. “Someone left it behind and I happened to pick it up. And what's the point in hiding now? They'll still have to bang on the door and wait for me to open it before they flash their permission scroll and barge in here.”
I press my fingers to my temples. “Ugh, your parents are going to be so mad if guardians come trampling through here.
“My parents are often mad at me,” Perry says, waving his floating bag toward the kitchen table. “It's like their default setting whenever I'm around.”
“That's becauseyourdefault setting is to push boundaries, break rules and annoy your mom,” Gemma points out.
In the past, Perry probably would have laughed at a comment like that, but now he mutters something beneath his breath and walks out of the room.
Gemma looks at me with pleading eyes. “Help me!” she whispers. “I suck at this stuff. I just want everything to be normal again between us. I'd even take his constant teasing over this awkwardness.”
“You could go after him right now and talk it out,” I suggest. “I'll stay in here and get ready to vanish at the first sign of guardians.”
Gemma looks terrified at the thought. “Maybe not right now,” she squeaks.
“You guys coming?” Perry calls, as if his exit from the room was entirely normal and we were supposed to follow him. “Bring a snack.”
“See?” Gemma says to me as she opens a cupboard and looks inside. “Now isn't a good time. I'll â¦ talk to him later in the week.”
“Right,” I say, my voice filled with skepticism. Judging by the fact that she's never told Rick the Seer trainee that she has a gigantic crush on him, I don't expect this conversation with Perry to happen any time soon.
Gemma removes a bag of fizzing rainbow candies from the cupboard. I follow her into the next room where Perry is lounging in an armchair while tapping on an amber tablet. “No guardians yet,” he says, placing the tablet on the arm of the chair and catching the rainbow candy Gemma tosses his way. “Told you the spell would work.”
“Of course,” I say as I take a seat on the couch opposite Perry. “Because the two of you are so great at making magic together.”
Gemma looks utterly mortified at my words and Perry chokes on the candy he just put in his mouth. As he leans forward, coughing and smacking his chest, I hide my smile behind my hand and give Gemma a wide-eyed look of innocence. She takes another rainbow candy out of the bag and throws it at me before seating herself in the chair furthest away from Perry.
After another half hour or so of idle conversation and no guardians showing up, Perry says, “Well, I think we can call this a success, Calla. Someone woulddefinitelyhave shown up by now if they thought a dangerous Griffin Gifted murderer was hiding out here.”
“Yeah. Wow, this is amazing,” I say as the new reality of my situation hits me. “I could actually go home now if I wanted to.” It's a strange thought. I've become used to Gaius's mountain home so quickly. “I mean, I probably won't in case it's the kind of charm that wears off quickly, and I wouldn't want to get my dad into any more trouble than he's already in. But at least I can visit my family now.” I look at Gemma, then back at Perry. “Thank you. I'm so grateful to both of you.”
Perry shrugs. “It was nothing.” Despite his indifferent tone, though, he looks pretty pleased with himself.
“I should go before your parents get home,” I say as I stand. “Wouldn't want to freak them out.”
“You could just leave your wig on,” Perry says. “I doubt they'd recognize you. They only know what the Guild told them when they sent guardians to put the spell on our house.”
“I need to go too,” Gemma says. “I'm supposed to be making dinner tonight.”
Perry stands and fishes in his pocket for the folded up scroll. “Here's the spell, Calla. Feel free to visit whenever you'd like to.”
“Thanks.” I take the paper from him. “Will I be able to perform the charm on myself?”
“I think so. There's nothing about this particular shield charm that says someone else has to cast it. Oh, one other thing,” he adds. “I'm pretty sure the Guild is still monitoring our ambers, so I made another plan.” He heads to the sideboard and opens a drawer. “These mirrors are brand new, so they should be safe.” He removes two small circular mirrors, pushes the drawer shut with his hip, and hands one to me.
“Cool, thank you.”
“Hey, how have you been staying in contact with your family? The Guild must be keeping an extra close watch on all their devices.”
“We've been careful. You know those really old ambers? The ones that come in pairs and can only communicate with each other?”
“The ones that don't belong anywhere outside a museum?”
“Yes. My brother and I have been using those.”
Perry nods. “Retro. Whatever works, hey.”
“Yeah. Anyway, thanks for this.” I slip the mirror and the spell into my jacket pocket. With a sigh, I add, “It's ridiculous how badly the Guild still wants to find me.”
“Well, you know, you're supposedly a murderer and all that.”
I shake my head. “I'll figure out a way for them to uncover the truth one day.” One day when I'm not focused on rescuing Chase and stopping that veil-splitting vision from coming true.
“We can make that our next mission,” Perry says. “Or,” he corrects when he sees I'm about to protest, “you can wait until we graduate at the end of the year and get jobs as real guardians, and then I'll obtain official permission to re-open this case. Then you can't complain that I'll wind up in trouble for poking my nose where it doesn't belong.”
I smile. “Sounds like a plan.”
I'm confused to see Ana in the kitchen when I get back to the mountain. “What?” she asks when I stop in the doorway with a puzzled expression.
“Nothing.” I pull the blue wig off and watch her stirring something in a pot on the stove. “Weren't you telling us this morning how much you like your own space?”
“Yeah, so? I do like my own space. Doesn't mean I can't have dinner here when Gaius extends the invitation.”
“Does he do that often?” I ask as I walk into the kitchen and lean against the long table.
Ana shrugs, keeping her back turned to me. “I guess.”
“I suppose you guys are kind of like his family.”
“Yeah. Kind of. Or we were until a stranger pushed her way in,” she adds under her breath, just loud enough for me to hear.
I decide that this animosity thing has gone far enough. I grip the back of a chair and ask, “Why don't you like me, Ana?”
She looks over her shoulder at me with a scowl. “What?”
“It's painfully clear that you don't like me. I'm just wondering why.”
She does nothing but turn back to the pot and continue stirring.
“Is it something I did? Is it about Chase?” Crap, maybe she has feelings for him and she sees me as the one who butted in and ruined everything for her. Except â¦ she's been unpleasant since the moment I first walked into Chase's tattoo shop.
“No, it's not about Chase,” she mutters without looking around.
“Then what? Please just tell me what the problem is so I can do something about it. I'm not going anywhere, so you and I may as well sort this out.”
“Fine.” She bangs the lid of the pot down and swings around. “This team is all I've got, okay? They're not just Gaius's family, they'remyfamily. I'm very protective of them, and I don't like outsiders. It's just been us for years now, and I thought it was going to be like that until â¦ I don't know. Forever, I guess. And then you just barged in like you belonged here, and Chase didn't make a big deal of it at all, like he had no clue that maybe the rest of us might want a say in the matter. So â¦ yeah. I didn't exactly feel warmly toward you.”
“Okaaay,” I say slowly. I guess I can see how that might upset her. “But that doesn't explain why you didn't like me the first time we met. You didn't know me at all when I first walked into Wickedly Inked. I could have been a potential client, and you were downright rude.”
She places her hands on her hips. “Yeah, well, I've never liked pretty girls.”
That's the last thing I was expecting. “What?”
“The prettiest girls are usually the meanest.” She runs her fingers delicately through her spiked hair. “I've been picked on by more than my fair share of beautiful girls, and these days I just don't have time for them.”
I find myself slowly shaking my head. “I â¦ don't â¦ even know how to respond to that logic.”
“It's fine,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand, moving further along the counter to where a pile of chopped vegetables sits beside an empty dish. “I've decided you're not that pretty after all. It was just the gold hair and eyes. Kinda dazzling and overwhelming at first.”
“So â¦ does that mean you've decided I'm not thatmeanafter all?”
She flicks her hand and the vegetables jump into the dish. “Yeah.”
“But you still don't like me.”
She shrugs, performs another twirl in the air with her hand, and watches the dish of vegetables put itself into the oven. “I'm getting over that part.”
“Really?” I sit down at the table and cross my arms. “It doesnotfeel like it, I can tell you that.”
“Jeez, just give me a bit of time, okay?”
“Fine. But for now, it would be great if you could keep your snide comments to yourself. I don't want to be the only one making an effort to be friendly.”
She turns around, leans against the counter, and considers me. “I guess I could try that.”
“Thanks,” I say, eyeing her warily. I didn't expect her to agree to that. She continues watching me. After several uncomfortable moments, I ask, “Now what? Are you holding back all the comments you'd really like to fire my way?”
She tilts her head. “You completed your first mission last night, right?”
“Yeah,” I say uncertainly. “The baron's daughter and the invitation.”
She nods slowly. “Did anyone tell you about the tattoo tradition?”
“We each got a tattoo to commemorate our first completed mission after joining the team.”
“Gaius has a tattoo? And Lumethon?”
The corner of her mouth curls up into what could almost pass for a smile. “Theirs are in more discreet locations. So, what do you say?” She walks to the table and wraps her inked fingers around the back of a chair. “Ready for that first tattoo? You're not properly one of the team until you do it.”
“So â¦ you're offering to tattoo me?”
“Uh huh,” she says, nodding slowly as if I'm stupid.
I had thought my first tattoo would come from Chase. The phoenix he drew. But if this is a team tradition, I don't want to turn my nose up at it, and I can save the phoenix for Chase. Unless â¦ unless this is a trick and Ana's planning to tattoo some horrible, permanent image onto my body, like an ogre's skull. “Um â¦” I would ask Chase, but I don't have the ring on at the moment, and Ana will know exactly what I'm doing if I put it on right now. She'll know I don't trust her, and I can kiss goodbye to this fragile first step toward friendship she's offering meâif that's what this is.
“Well?” she asks. “I don't have all evening. Dinner will be ready in forty minutes.”
“Okay,” I say to her, deciding on a part of my body I can keep an eye on while she works.
“Awesome. What do you want?”
* * *
Later that night, with the lingering pain of my newly inked tattoos distracting me from sleep, I try to forget the worries plaguing my mind and instead calm myself with relaxation breathing techniques and the image of my peaceful lake.
It doesn't work. When I drift eventually into unconsciousness, my dreams are filled with smoke and black eyes and pointed teeth dripping blood over eerie, grinning lips. I'm locked in a cage again. A hand reaches through the bars and sharp fingernails scrape across my skin as I try to get away. The bars vanish. I'm on my back, my body incapacitated as smoke drifts closer. I use every ounce of strength trying to get my arms and legs to move, but an invisible force pins me down. The witch leans over me, her blonde hair falling in her black eyes and her ancient, blood-chilling laugh shattering the dream into a thousand pieces of glass that pierce my chest with sudden, sharpâ
I gasp and cough as I wake and roll onto my side, pressing my hand against the pain in my chest. As the ache subsides and my heart approaches a normal pace, I push myself up.Chase?I call silently inside my head, because that's generally the first thing I do when I wake up, no matter what time it is. He doesn't answer.
I look across the room toward my enchanted windows. After unpacking most of my belongings and moving in here properly, I asked Gaius if I could paint my bedroom walls. It may be fun to live inside a mountain, but I missed not being able to see outside. In between training and trying to figure out how to rescue Chase, I spent hours reading parts of my art textbooks, teaching myself how to paint windows with landscapes that would reflect the time of day and the weather outside. Eventually, I succeeded. Now, as I look at the windows and wish I could open them to allow a refreshing breeze inside, I see stars twinkling like jewels in a dark blue sky. Morning has yet to arrive.
I kick the bedcovers away from me and climb out of bed. It isn't enough right now to simply see outside. I need to breathe in fresh air. After pulling a blanket off the bed and wrapping it around myself, I step into my boots and open my bedroom door. My boots lace themselves up as I head downstairs. An odd outfit, I'm sure, but I don't plan for anyone to see me at this early hour. I unlock the faerie door in the entrance hall and walk through it to the lake house. I'm confused for a moment by the light that greets me when I step into the living room, but of course; it's already morning here. The pattering of rain greets me as I move further into the house. I locate the front door key and walk outside onto the porch. I breathe in a long gulp of air, savoring the smell of wet earth and damp leaves. I sit with my back against the door, pull the blanket tighter around my shoulders, and run through every thought that was so determined to keep me awake.
Amon's still locked up at Velazar Prison. Angelica's on the loose and her whereabouts are unknown. Same for Zed, who disappeared after attempting to kill Victoria. I don't know if we should still be concerned about him and his group of guardian haters. Will Ryn's team manage to bring them down before they try something else against the Guild? And then there's the veil-tearing prophecy. That horrible vision my mother Saw so many years ago of witches spilling blood over a trident monument beneath a full moon and using a great bolt of lightning to tear the veil. The full moon is closeâonly two days after the Seelie Palace partyâbut the Monument to the First Mer King is still safe, and if we can rescue Chase during the party, then no one can force him to produce that lightning bolt of power. We'll be safe for another month while we try to find Angelica.
I lift my hands and look at the black patterns that now mark the tops of my fingers. They finished healing while I was sleeping. Only one is permanentâthe flower I chose for the fourth finger on my right hand; a symbol of my first assignmentâwhile the rest of the marks are temporary. I quite like them, though. Simple patterns formed from lines and dots. Perhaps I'll have them done permanently oneâ
I smile to myself as Chase's voice fills me with warmth.Hey.
Still don't have much sense of time down here in this dark cell. Is it morning there?
I tilt my head back against the door.Yes and no. It's not morning yet at the mountain, but it is at the lake house. Bad dreams woke me up. I'm sitting on the porch watching the rain now.
What were you dreaming about?
Witches. Smoke. Blood.
The usual pleasant stuff, huh?
I laugh quietly.Yeah.I watch the heavy grey sky and the thousands of raindrops smacking the surface of the lake, and I begin to imagine a different scene. I start up high where the clouds are, using an imaginary brush to paint streaks of blue across the sky. Letting go of the fortress around my mind, I see the paint taking form, overlaying the real-world scene in front of my eyes. I finish the sky with varying shades of blue. I paint the lake with sparkling silver. I fill the ground with dabs of emerald green for the grass and magenta and saffron for the flowers. As my creation comes together, I remember when life was as simple as making art instead of worrying about villains and the possible end of our world. While I don't wish to have that life again, I miss the simplicity.
The Seelie Queen came to me tonight, Chase says, interrupting my work of art. In a blink, it's gone.
The Seelie Queen. My grandmother. I've never seen her before. She was gone by the time I took over this court when I was Draven. You know, I've lived in the magical world for over ten years now, but I still find it strange to associate the word âgrandmother' with someone who doesn't look any older than I am.
Did she speak to you? Did she â¦ hurt you?
She didn't come close. She watched me for a long time. Eventually she said, âLook at how powerless you are now.' Then she left.
How does she know you aren't some random halfling Angelica decided to bargain with? If she never met Draven face to face, then she doesn't know what he looked like.
There are others who've confirmed it for her. Some of her guards who were captured and marked during my reign. They were there when we were ambushed beside the mer monument. The night they took me. I suppose the queen wanted to confirm she was really getting the one and only Lord Draven before agreeing to free her traitorous daughter.
At least you still have the ring.
Yes. If she saw it, she thought nothing of it.
I wonder why she came to you now. I wonder if she's â¦Visions of all the terrible things the queen might have in store for Chase race through my mind. I try to stop my thoughts before he can hear them, but they're at the surface already.What if we're too late? What if she's planning to do something to you now before the party, and weâStop. No. I'm sorry.I shake my head and press my hands against my forehead.I'm sorry. I should be filling your head with positive thoughts, not negative ones. We'll make this work. We'll get you out of there. There is no alternative because you mean far too much to me and I can't consider a future without you.I take a deep breath and force my thoughts to STOP before they can run any further. Before I can overwhelm Chase with just how much I feel for him. We can talk about all that once he's safely back home. We can speak about those final moments in the golden river. Those moments when I bared my heart to him beneath a shower of magic-infused droplets before a whirlpool plunged us into a cold reality where everything went wrong.
How?Chase asks after several moments of silence.How did you manage to look past every horrific thing I've ever done and see the person I wish I could be?
Or we could talk about it now instead. My heart squeezes and jumps a little faster, preparing to share its innermost thoughts.Because you are that person now, I tell him.It isn't just a wish. Your past has made you what you are, and my heart chose that person. My heart chose all of you.
Miss Goldilocksâ¦ His voice is a whisper in my mind.My dreams should be filled with the horror of this place. The perpetual darkness, the echoing screams, the metallic scrape of chains on stone. But instead I dream of kissing you.
A shiver runs down my arms, and I wish so badly to have him next to me that it hurts. I feel my face scrunch up as I force the ache away and choose positive thoughts instead.I have to say, that sounds like the more pleasant option, as far as dreams go.
It is, he says.I keep reminding myself that they won't have to be dreams for much longer.
Warmth spreads up my neck toward my face.I like the sound of that.
I sleepily restart my painting, making the sky orange this time, before Chase says,Has Gaius done anything more with regards to keeping the prophecy from taking place?
The orange drifts away, mingling with the rain before disappearing.Not much. Our focus is on getting you out of the Seelie Palace at the moment.
While I'm grateful for that, you should probably be putting more energy into finding out what Angelica is up to. She won't be wasting her time now that she's free.
Probably not.A chill breeze lifts my hair. I huddle further down into the blanket.I keep coming back towhy, though. Why does she want the veil to come down? What would be the point in having no barrier between the magic and non-magic worlds? I still can't even imagine what that looks like. I know there are several places in the world where there are â¦ openings of some kind. Where fae can cross over from our realm into theirs and back again. But this is different, right? If the veil is gone â¦ will we be left with only one realm?
I don't know what will happen, Chase says,but I think I understand Angelica's motivation. Ignored since the day she was born, the youngest child of a queen with no time for anyone but her heir, Angelica has always wanted power and attention. She was told she was a waste of royal blood, and she's been trying to prove everyone wrong ever since. She began hunting down griffin discs while she was still a guardian trainee. She was the one who eventually found the chest containing Tharros Mizreth's power. I consumed that power in the end, and she pretended to be satisfied when I ruled over everything, but she wasn't. She would rather it have been her in the position of power than her son. Now, with her mother back on the Seelie throne, she has the opportunity to tear through to another world and rule that one instead. I believe that's her plan.
I lean my head back against the door.And Amon? Why would he want this to happen? He seemed so quiet and unassuming. If he had ambitions of power, why did he spend so many years as a librarian?
Amon â¦ That's a more difficult one to answer. I'm not sure I've figured it out yet. I started gathering notes on him after I realized what kind of visitors he was receiving at Velazar. That information is all at the mountain now, if you'd like to read through it. Look in my room in one of the desk drawers. You'll find a stack of papers tied together. My notes on both Amon and Angelica.
Thanks, I'll definitelyâMy thoughts screech to a halt as I feel the thud of footsteps moving through the house. I straighten.
Hang on.I imagine myself as empty space as I climb quickly to my feet and move to one of the windows. Peeking through, I see a figure by the faerie door. A figure turning slightly, reaching into his pocket â¦ I breathe a sigh of relief as I recognize him.It's just Kobe, I tell Chase as I let go of my illusion and open the door. “Kobe?”
He tenses as he spins around. “Oh, it's you, Calla.” His shoulders relax.
“What are you doing here so early? Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” he says gravely. “I just heard from our mer contact. The Monument to the First Mer King is gone.”
“How the hell did somebody steal that thing?” Darius asks. “It was protected by both magic and merpeople.”
“No doubt it was stolen with magic too,” Gaius mutters as he paces the living room. It's early Thursday morning and the rest of the teamâseveral of whom appear to be half-asleep stillâis now present after being alerted to the situation by Kobe.
“Angelica's obviously behind this,” I say, crossing the room to the fireplace and holding my hands toward its warmth. “She's probably aiming for the next full moon.”
“Which is a week and a half away,” Gaius says, “giving us little time after rescuing Chase to stop her.”
“We need to inform the Guild,” Lumethon says. “An anonymous message. I can send it now.”
“The Guild already knows,” Kobe says. “My contact mentioned that several of their guardians were involved in protecting the statue.”
“That makes sense,” I say. “The Guild knows all about the prophecy now because of my mother. They also know that the reason she was abducted was because someone wanted to find out exactly what she Saw. She told them she believed it to be Amon, since he was the one who witnessed my mother and the other two Seer trainees when the visions struck them all those years ago. I don't know if they believe her about that, but at least they know thatsomeoneis trying to tear through the veil.”
“Do we even need to do anything about this then?” Ana asks through another yawn. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of guardians who can hunt down the person doing thisâAngelica, obviouslyâand stop her. They don't need us to get involved. In fact, we probably shouldn't. We're criminals in the eyes of the Guild.”
Darius points a skeptical look in her direction. “Do you really think those guardians are smart enough to figure out where Angelica has taken this statue?”
“Hey, guardians are not useless,” I tell him. “Most of them are actually very good at what they do.”
“Uh huh. Is that why we end up dumping law-breaking fae on their doorstep? Becausethey'rethe ones doing their job?”
“Don't exaggerate,” Lumethon says. “We hardly ever need to do that.”
“Our priority is still to rescue Chase,” Gaius says, “given that the party is happening before the full moon. As Ana pointed out, we may not even need to get involved in this prophecy thing. We can reevaluate once we've got Chase back.”
“Which will leave us only two days before the full moon,” Kobe reminds him.
“Yes, but we've prepared for missions in far less time than that. It'll be fine.”
“So â¦ can we have breakfast now?” Ana asks. “Or do I need to return home to get some food before I go to work?”
“No, no, there's plenty of food here,” Gaius says, waving everyone toward the door. “Let's cook something up.”
As the rest of the team traipses out of the living room, Gaius motions for me to stay behind. “Next time you sneak into the Guild,” he says, “or perhaps tomorrow night when you're at your brother's home, see if you can find out what the Guild knows about the monument. If they manage to locate its whereabouts, that would be useful for us to know, just in case we need to act.”
“Oh, and I almost forgot,” he adds brightly. “I found that faerie paths spell.”
* * *
The spell that will allow me to follow Vi's father Kale through the faerie paths without touching him is a tongue twister of note. I understand now why they don't teach it in schools, since getting it wrong means potentially wandering the darkness of the faerie paths for days, weeks or even more. People have come out crazy on the other side, Gaius tells me, while others have never come out at all.
Wonderful. And now I have less than two days to perfect it.
After trying for almost three hours to memorize the spell perfectly, I decide it's time for a break. Remembering what Chase told me about his notes on Amon, I leave my room and walk to Chase's to find the stack of papers. After retrieving them from a drawer, I climb the stairs up to the greenhouse on the next level. It's raining at the lake house, so this giant room with its enchanted sunlight filtering through the enchanted glass ceiling is the next best option.
I find a rusted old chair and table on the far side of the greenhouse and transform one of the dirty, flat cushions Gaius likes to kneel on into something cleaner and puffier. Then I sit, raise my legs onto the table, and lean back to read about the guy who seems so intent on somehow joining our world with the human one.
According to Chase's notesâwhich I spend a few moments running my fingers across, memorizing his handwriting before reading the actual wordsâAmon grew up in the Mitallahn Desert. He was studious, enjoyed reading and learning, and his family was very wealthy. His father owned vast amounts of desert land and keptâhumanslaves? I bring the page closer to my face to make sure I'm deciphering Chase's handwriting properly. Yes, that definitely says âhuman slaves.' Wow, I thought many centuries had passed since anyone did that. Amon lived an easy, comfortable life with his family in the desert until his abrupt, unplanned departure some time in his twenties. Beside this note, Chase has written âWHY' followed by numerous question marks. I lower the page as I think. Perhaps Amon was opposed to the idea of enslaving humans, which is why he ended up working at a Guild, an institution that protects them. But why did he then become a spy for Zell, an Unseelie Prince who didn't care about humans in the least?
I continue reading. The next few pages are filled with Amon's travels and activities before he began working at a Guildâbefore he ran out of money, essentially. He started out as a library assistant and advanced to the position of Head Librarian after three years. Chase mentions the unexplained death of the previous Head Librarian with the note, âSuspicious.' Clearly no one in Creepy Hollow suspected Amon, though, since they promoted him and even sent him to other Guilds on occasion to share his knowledge and skills. One such work transfer took place at the Estra Guild. I check the date, count back to the year Mom must have been a first-year Seer trainee, and find that the years match. That must have been where Amon witnessed Mom Seeing her horrible vision.
The next pages contain answers based on Elizabeth's questioning of several Unseelie Court faeries. Presumably Chase didn't question them because they would have recognized him. They were able to tell Elizabeth the approximate year Amon began working for Prince Zell, and the kinds of information Amon passed on to him. Turns out Amon had some kind of helper spy within the Guild. A creeping vine of magical intelligence named Nigel. I squint at the page. “Seriously?” I murmur. “He named avine?”
I move to the last page about Amon, where Chase's final note reads, âHappy to follow others. Never shown much inclination for power. Why now?' Why now, indeed. Perhaps Amon simply got tired of never being at the top.
The next page begins Chase's notes on Angelica. I've just begun skimming through the details, most of which I know already, when Gaius enters the greenhouse. He walks over and hands me a piece of paper with the words to a short spell written on it. “Do me a favor, would you? Write these words somewhere on your bodyâanywhere, it doesn't matterâand let me know if you can hear me speaking while I'm in another room.”
“Uh, sure.” I find my stylus amongst the pages on the table and write the words on my arm. Gaius then takes his own stylus and adds a small mark next to the last word. “What's that for?” I ask.
“That tells the spell to listen for my voice as opposed to anyone else's.” He writes the same spell the back of his hand, then asks me to add a mark at the end with my own stylus.
“Perfect.” He hurries away. I stand and stretch my arms above my head, then lean down to touch my toes. I need to make use of the gym room downstairs. With my illusion training and phobia desensitization, I've been spending less time on physical training than Iâ
“Calla, can you hear me?”
I startle at the sound of Gaius's words in my ears. I was expecting to hear him in the same way I hear Chaseâsilent thoughts inside my own mindâbut his words are somehow audible. “Yes, I can,” I say out loud. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes. Wonderful. Okay, experiment over.” He hurries back into the greenhouse and shows me how to remove the spell from my arm. “You can get back to work now.”
I read the remaining notesâwhich detail just how ambitious Angelica's always been in her search for powerâbefore returning my efforts to memorizing the faerie paths spell. I repeat it over and over as I walk in and out of the various parts of the mountain. The kitchen and the living room, the storage room full of old furniture, broken weapons and other bits and pieces, the meeting room downstairs, Gaius's laboratory upstairs.
After another few hours, as afternoon draws to a close, I walk into Gaius's study, hold the book behind my back, and recite it for him. “Very good,” he says when I'm done. “Almost perfect. There was some hesitation here and there, which you should try to avoid, and a few words that you didn't pronounce correctly.” He takes the book from me and points out the words I mispronounced. He enunciates them slowly, making me repeat each one until I've got them right.
“Have you used the spell before?” I ask.
“A handful of times, long ago. That's how I know the pronunciation.”
“Did you ever get stuck inside the paths?”
“Fortunately not. And you won't either.” He gives me an encouraging smile.
“Why do I have to memorize it? Since I'll be invisible, can't I simply read it quietly as I follow Vi's dad into the paths?”
“Hmm.” Gaius looks thoughtful, as though he hadn't considered this before. “Yes, I suppose you could just read it. But if you're invisible, won't the book be invisible too? And if you're ever in a situation where you don't have the words with you, then it would, of course, be helpful if you've already memorized them.”
“I suppose so.”
“Either way,” he says as he returns his attention to the scroll he was writing on when I entered, “it will be good for your young brain to practice a memory exercise.”
I raise an eyebrow. “My young brain?”
He looks up again. “Sorry, that sounded a little patronizing, didn't it?”
“Just a little bit. But I guess my brain is a lot younger than yours. And most of the time you treat me like an adult, so â¦ thanks for that. My parents and brother still think of me as a child most of the time, so it's refreshing to be treated differently.”
Gaius raises both eyebrows. “Like a child? But your parents and brother know better than anyone the things you've been through since you were taken by Prince Marzell. And the burden of your Griffin Ability and having to start over again after every â¦ what did you say your mother called them? Incidents?” I nod. “Given all that,” Gaius continues, “I would have thought your family would understand that â¦ well, you probably stopped being a child a long time ago.”
I nod slowly. “Yeah. It has always felt a bit like that.” But since there's no point in dwelling on the fact that I missed out on a normal childhood, I push my momentary sadness aside and get back to practicing the words of the spell.
Ana joins us for dinner again, and after we've eaten, Gaius reminds me that I've done no illusion training today. We work on distance first, pushing the limits of how far I can send out a projection. When Gaius and I tried it the first time, I was able to stand in the living room and project all the way up to the greenhouse and down to the gargoyle cave. Since then, I've managed to push a little further each time.
We leave the mountain and go to the lake house. The rain has ceased, but it's utterly dark now, with clouds blotting out the starlight. Gaius and Ana walk around the lake, using magic to light their way. Once they become tiny dots in the distance, I force my thoughts out toward them. Images of snowflakes falling and ice-skating humans twirling upon a frozen lake.
When I begin to feel drained, we head home. I assume I'm done for the night, but Gaius suggests I try simultaneous illusions again. I sit in the living room and try with every particle of my concentration to direct one imaginary picture at Gaius and another at Ana, but it's like splitting my mind in half. I justcan'timagine two separate scenes at the same time. Either Gaius and Ana end up seeing the same thing, or they see something different, but the images are so unclear that neither of them can figure out what I'm trying to show them.
After an hour or so, I flop back against the armchair cushions as exhaustion consumes me. “Please can we stop now,” I say, sounding a little breathless despite the fact that I haven't been moving around. I press one hand against my throbbing head.
“Yes, of course,” Gaius says. “I apologize. I didn't realize this was sapping so much of your energy.” I wave his words away, trying to tell him it's fine without the effort of using actual words. “You're doing well, though,” he adds. “It's the first time you've managed to project two different images, even if they were fuzzy and unformed.”
“Not sure it counts,” I mumble with my eyes closed. Extensive use of my Griffin Ability normally leaves me feeling tired, but this is worse than usual. Probably because I spent so much brain power on complex spell memorization today.
“It counts,” Gaius assures me. “And you'll continue to get better as you practice.”
The thought of practicing more makes my head want to explode, so I say goodnight to Gaius and Ana. As I drag myself upstairs, I realize I haven't actually asked Ryn if I can visit tomorrow night. I drop onto my bed and pick up my ancient amber and stylus. I untidily scribble the words,Can I join you guys tomorrow night when Vi's dad visits? Perry found a way to shield me from the detection spell the Guild placed on your home.
My eyes slide shut and I'm almost asleep when the amber tingles in my hand. I open one eye and read Ryn's response:Are you sure it's safe?
We tested it at Perry's house. No guardians arrived.
That's great. Yeah, you can come. Stay over if you want.
I don't answer that last message. If everything goes according to plan, I'll be following Kale back to the Seelie Court instead of sleeping over at Ryn's house.
I repeat the faerie paths spell once more before lifting the knocker on Ryn's tree and tapping it a few times. A doorway melts into existence with Ryn standing on the other side. His gaze moves past me, examine the forest before returning to me. “Are you sure it's safe for you to cross this threshold?”
“I wouldn't risk getting you and your family into trouble, so yes. I am certain.” I stood in front of a mirror back at the mountain just minutes ago, watching the cloud of glowing dust swirl above my head and then descend over my body.
Ryn steps back. “Come on in then.”
I step inside and pause for a second, just in case I did something wrong with the shield charm. But if I have set the alarm off, we won't know until a guardian knocks on the door here, so I may as well relax for now. I lower my hood and walk through the hallway to the living room.
“What's that on your fingers?” Ryn asks as he follows me.
“Hmm? Oh. Tattoos.” I almost add that it's a traditionâthat these marks signify my first successfully completed missionâbut Ryn's not supposed to know anything about what Chase's team gets up to. “I'm now friendly with more than one tattoo artist, so I decided it was time for some ink,” I say instead. I raise my hands and display my fingers. “Do you like them?”
“I do, actually. They're pretty cool. Look at you, my badass, tattooed little sister.” He swings his arm around my shoulders and gives me a sideways hug as we walk further into the living room where Vi is slowly pacing with a sleeping Victoria pressed against her chest.
“How's she doing?” I ask as Vi places Victoria in my arms and heads for the kitchen.
“Better, I think,” she calls back to me through the open door. “She's barely cried at all since Farah gave her that berry concoction. Don't know if I should be worried about theabsenceof crying now â¦”
I look at Ryn and he shrugs and shakes his head. “She worries about everything now,” he whispers.
“What do you want to drink?” Vi asks. “We've got honey apple and sparkling mirror berry.”
“Honey apple, please.” Ryn checks his amber as I sit on the couch and rest my arm on an overstuffed cushion. Filigree flies to the couch as an owl and shifts into squirrel form before crawling across my shoulders, jumping down beside me, and nestling against my side. “Hey, Fili,” I whisper to him. “Are you not getting enough attention these days?” I scratch his furry head before returning my gaze to Victoria. I watch her frowning in her sleep, her forehead wrinkling as she unknowingly pulls the strangest expressions.
“Here you go,” Vi says, returning to the room and placing a glass of layered green and gold juice on the low table before seating herself beside me. “I probably didn't need to give you a choice. You always pick honey apple.”
“Hey, maybe one day I'll surprise you,” I say with a smile.
“I'm so sorry,” Ryn says, pocketing his amber. “I have to go back to work for a bit.”
“What?” Vi sits forward. “But my dad will be here soon. I thought you made sure to get this evening off.”
“I did, but this wasn't planned. Hopefully it'll be quick. It's â¦” He glances at me, then back at Vi. “I'll tell you about it when I get back.” He leaves through a doorway, and Vi leans back against the couch, watching Victoria with a tired smile.
“So you really think she's getting better?” I ask.
“Well, she's a lot calmer now.” She hesitates. “Very calm in fact.”
Something in her tone makes me ask, “Too calm?”
Vi groans. “I don't know. It's like she's now limp and lethargic instead of squirmy and unhappy. I keep telling myself that at some point I have to stop worrying so much. It's just â¦ I never thought I'd love anyone as much as I love Rynâand it's not as though that's diminished. It's more like my heart has expanded and my priorities have shifted and noweverythingrevolves around her.” She nudges Victoria's little feet through her blanket. “Nothing has ever meant more to me. She's the focus, and I'm still trying to figure out how to slot all the other pieces of my life in around her.”
“Well, at least you're not a workaholic anymore,” I joke.
“Yeah, instant cure,” she says with a laugh. Her expression slowly turns serious once more. “I still wonder about her color, though. We haven't seen any change in days. But then, some faeries have brown as their secondary color. It's rare, but perhaps it will be that way for her.”
“Maybe,” I say, thinking of Gemma's ebony and brunette locks. “And the birthmark?”
“Fading a little more every day.” On the table beside my drink, her amber buzzes. She leans forward and reads the message. “Oh, brilliant,” she groans, resting her head in her hands. “This evening just gets better and better.”
“My dad's not coming anymore.”
My heart plummets as our precarious Seelie Court plan crumbles. “Why not?”
“Whatever he's been so busy with lately was supposed to come to an end today, but apparently it's taking longer than expected. He said he might be able to get here tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, okay.” So I may still get my chance. Good thing Ryn said I could stay over if I want to.
“Anyway, now we've got this wonderful dinner and only the two of us here to eat it.” She picks up her stylus from the table, sits back against the cushions, and writes across the ambers surface. “May as well invite some other people.”
Twenty minutes later, Vi's friends Flint and Raven arrive with their son Dash. “That was fast,” Vi says as she lets them in.
“You mentioned food,” Flint says, “so I didn't waste time.”
Raven rolls her eyes. “You'd swear I never feed him. Oh, hey, Calla.” She crosses the room and joins me on the couch with Dash, who must be nearing five months by now. “I thought you weren't able to come inside this house without setting off some kind of alarm at the Guild. Have they removed that spell now?”
“No, but a friend of mine came up with a counter spell. So here I am continuing to break the law.”
“Oh, wonderful. Not the law-breaking, of course. Wonderful that you can visit your family while the Guild hopefully figures out who really caused that dragon disease mess.”
“Yeah. Anyway, what does Dash think of Victoria?” I ask.
“Uh, he's smacked her in the face a few times,” Raven says with a guilty look in Vi's direction. “But it was accidental, I promise. He just wanted to get a bit closer to her.”
“I know,” Vi says with a grin, watching both babies.
“Accidental, my ass,” Flint comments as he walks across the room with an oversized baby bag trailing through the air behind him. “You know how boys are. Always teasing the girls they like.”
Raven throws her head back and laughs. “A little bit early for that, isn't it?”
“Just a little,” Vi says. “Give them a few more years before you start playing matchmaker, Flint.”
“He's definitely fascinated by her, though,” Raven says, allowing the little boy to bob up and down on her lap as he giggles and reaches for her face. “She was squirming in her sleep the other day and Dash stared at her for ages.”
“That's because my little princess is so pretty,” Vi says, chuckling as she leans down to take Victoria from me. “The boys can't help but stare at her.”
“That must be it,” Raven says.
Vi moves toward the stairs. “I'm going to put her to bed now. She's doing remarkably well staying asleep despite all our chatter, so hopefully she keeps sleeping while we have dinner.”
“I need to get this little one down too,” Raven says, standing and following Vi. “Could be a challenge. Can I put him in the study down here? I don't want him waking Victoria if he starts crying.”
“Yes, that's fine,” Vi says.
“Good luck,” I call after Raven as she leaves the room with the baby bag floating behind her.
Flint and I move to the dining room and get the table ready for dinner. Filigree shifts into cat form and follows me around, rubbing himself against my legs every time I stand still. “I feel like I must be putting you in a difficult position,” I say to Flint. “Being a guard at the Guild, you're probably fighting the urge to arrest me.”
“Criminals are the only fae I get the urge to arrest, and you don't fit into that category.” He places the last fork on the table and stands back. “I've never agreed with the Griffin List, so I fully understand why you didn't add your name to it, and I know you didn't kill your classmate and spread a deadly disease throughout the Guild.”
I smile at him. “Thanks.”
Vi comes back downstairs. When Raven eventually joins us, we begin dinner. We're about halfway through the meal when Ryn returns home. He sits at the table without fetching himself any food from the kitchen, shaking his head when Vi asks if she can dish up for him. “Bad news,” he says. He focuses on me and adds, “Very bad news.”
I lower my fork as my insides squirm with apprehension. “What? What's wrong?”
“Dad's â¦ been arrested.”
“What? The Guild only started their investigation two days ago.”
Raven covers her mouth and Flint swears beneath his breath. “They uncovered the bribes,” Ryn says. “They arrested him immediately while continuing the investigation. You know how strict they are about anything Griffin List-related. Too strict, in my opinion, but â¦ that's the law.”
I push my plate away and press the heels of my hands over my eyes. I shake my head. “This is allâ”
“Stop,” Ryn says. “Just â¦ Yes, we know he did it for you, but it was still his choice. You never asked him to do anything.”
“No, but I still have to live with knowing he's in prison because of me.” I lower my hands. “I've sent my own father to prison.”
No one respondsâprobably because they all know it's true. I stare at my plate, feeling sick at the thought of trying to finish the food sitting on it.
“He'll be held in the Guild's detainment area for now,” Ryn says quietly.
“If the news gets out about why he was arrested, there could be anti-Griffin List protests again,” Vi says. “Just like the last few times.”
“Maybe,” Ryn says. “Or maybe not. If everyone believes that the Gifted person Dad was protecting is the one responsible for the dragon disease that threatened so many lives, those fighting the list will probably be quiet.”
I push my chair back, startling Filigree, who must have been sitting by my legs beneath the table. He becomes a sparrow and flits out of the room as I stand and begin pacing. My throat tightens as I push tears back.Dad's in prison, I say to Chase.Mom's in prison. You're in prisonâwell, worse; more like a torture chamber. I know I'm supposed to be the positive one, but it is gettingreallyhard.
No answer comes. I assume he must be sleeping, but then I hear his voice.None of this will last forever.
I guess not, but that doesn't make me feel any better.
I know. Doesn't make me feel any better either.
I reach the edge of the room and turn again. I ball my fists and release a groan.Why does everything have to go wrong at the same time?
“Cal, please sit,” Ryn says quietly. “Your pacing isn't helping.”
The remainder of dinner is accompanied by stilted conversation, and when Dash starts crying, Raven says it's probably best if they head home. Once they're gone, I drop onto the couch and close my eyes. I try to believe that everything will eventually be okay. Ryn sinks against the cushions beside me and wraps one arm around my shoulders. “I won't try to convince you that life doesn't suck right now because I know it does. For multiple reasons. Do you want to stay here tonight?”
I lean my head against his shoulder and nod. “Yes. Thank you.” I need to focus on the faerie paths spell and the fact that I may get the chance to use it tomorrow morning. I might not be able to help Mom and Dad, but I will damn well make sure I can help Chase.
That's the spirit, Chase says quietly in my mind.
A half-smile finds its way onto my lips.Are my thoughts slipping out again?
You're tired, he says.You're always less guarded when you're tired.
Vi calls Ryn to help her with something. He heads upstairs as I fetch blankets and pillows from the hallway cupboard. I used to sleep in the spare room upstairs when I stayed over here, but that room is Victoria's nursery now. After using the bathing room, I snuggle on the couch beneath the blankets and run through my plan for tomorrow. If Kale comes to visitâand hehasto, since we have no other way to get to the Seelie CourtâI'll hang around until he leaves. I don't know how long the journey to the palace will be, but I'll follow him the entire way. Once that's done, I'll consider whether to risk visiting Dad or not. Last week I wouldn't have hesitated, but I'm far more wary now that I've been spotted on a surveillance device.
I fall asleep with a string of images of the Guild and Dad and a palace I've only ever imagined running through my head.
* * *
At an undefined time of night, a heart-rending scream tears through the air. I wake with a jolt, my heart thrashing in my chest. The scream goes on and on, curdling my blood like nothing I've heard before. I throw myself off the couch and hurtle upstairs as icy terror closes its fist around my heart.
She died in her sleep. The healers say she didn't feel any pain, but how can they know that if they don't even know what caused her death? I know, though â¦ In the back of my mind, the truth of what happened to Victoria is there, crouched and lurking like a hideous, foul beast waiting for me to face it, to acknowledge it.
I refuse to look.
Hours after it happened, in the pale light of morning as family members and close friends begin to arrive, I'm still huddled behind the kitchen door, out of sight and trying to keep the horror at bay. I can still hear Violet's scream. It's a sound I'll never forget, not until the day I die. It raises the hair on my arms every time I think of it. The horrible scene keeps playing over and over in my head: Violet kneeling on the floor of the nursery, Ryn's terrified shoutsâGet help! Get help now!âme rushing into their bedroom and searching for the nearest mirror, placing an emergency call and not caring who saw my face. Then stumbling downstairs into the kitchen and cloaking myself in the illusion of invisibility as healers rushed into the house. Ryn yelling at them in broken-hearted fury to get out once it became clear they could do nothing for Victoria.
Again, the scene plays through from beginning to end. Again and again and again.
Vi's been silent since the moment she stopped screaming. I've been biting down on my fists, allowing my tears to fall in silence, waiting for the sounds of mourning. Wailing, moaning, crying,something. But I've heard nothing.
The silence is worse.
The first voice I hear belongs to Zinnia, Ryn's mother. I hear Ryn as well, then, and the heart-shattering sound of his sobs. I bite down harder on my fists, relishing the pain as my teeth break the skin. Ryn goes quiet when Flint and Raven arrive. It's Raven's turn to cry. Then I hear Jamon, another close friend of Vi and Ryn's, and lastly Kale, Vi's dad. I'm supposed to â¦ I should be â¦ But I can't even contemplate trying to follow him through the faerie paths when he leaves. Not when all I can think of is that tiny, lifeless body upstairs.
No one else arrives. My father should be here too, of course, if the Guild hadn't arrested him last night. Stupid, hateful people. Don't they know what's happened?Don't they care?But perhaps it's better that he isn't here. He and Kale can barely stand to be in the same room these days, and the situation is probably tense enough with both Zinnia and Kale here already. Ryn's mother and Vi's father. They were together for a while after The Destructionâsomething I was too young to notice at the timeâbut it didn't last. And now three people who were friends for years, who were all grandparents to Victoria and should be helping each other through this time, can barely stand one another's presence.
The voices grow louder. Discussions of what could have happened to her and what to do now. I start to wish for the silence again because thisâall this chatterâseems irreverent somehow. Clearly I'm not the only one who feels this way, because eventually I hear Ryn's voice, raised but as brittle as if it's about to crack. “Everybody. Get. Out.”
The voices quiet, and Zinnia softly says, “Ryn â¦”
“Get out!” he yells. “I can't do this now!”
I hear murmurs and the shuffling of feet, and things are almost quiet once more when a voice I don't recognize says, “Uh, good morning, Mr. Larkenwood. I'm sorry to do this to you, but we've received word that your sister, a Guild fugitive, was seen hereâ”
“GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE!”
My body jerks in fright as something crashes against a wall. Something that splinters and rains onto the floor in a thousand tinkling pieces.
Eventually I let go of the breath I didn't know I was holding. I force myself to continue breathing as I slowly push myself to my feet. My body aches from sitting in the same position for so long. I quietly step around the kitchen door and look into the living room. Ryn is sitting on the arm of a couch, staring at the floor.
“Ryn?” I say carefully as I take a few steps into the room.
I keep walking, as if approaching a dangerous animal. When I reach his side, he continues staring at the floor and says, “I asked everyone to leave, Calla. That includes you.”
“I know â¦ I just â¦”
His hands clench suddenly into fists on his knees as he grinds out his next words. “I am tryingreallyhard not to remember your part in all this.”
“M-My part?” The beast circles closer. My chest constricts. I don't think I've ever felt this sick.
“We all know who did this, and we all know he'd still be behind bars if you hadn't let him go free.”
His words are the final crushing blow that force me onto my knees in front of the beast. I'm staring head-on into its fathomless black eyes filled with nothing but the dark, horrible truth of what I've done. “Ryn, I'mâI'm soâ” My words catch on the tears I'm trying to hold back. “I'm so, soâ”
“GO!” he shouts. “I don't want to feel your guilt! I don't want to feelanything!”
I end up in the forest, crashing blindly through leaves and vines and over roots and fallen branches, as if I could possibly outrun the monster in my head. But it's there every step of the way, a shadow I'll never be rid of, a reminder for the rest of my days of the unspeakable grief I've caused.
An hour or so later, I'm curled in a dark corner of the lake house living room, tears continuing to wet my cheeks like a tap that can't be turned off. I haven't been back into the mountain. I can't face explaining what's happened and having to tell everyone that our one chance of finding a way to the Seelie Court has slipped away. But Chase â¦ it's easier to explain to him because I don't have to say a word. So as he wakes up in his dark cell and calls my name, I shrink further into my dark corner and let every agonizing thought pour out of my mind and into his.
I wish I could be there for you, he says when I'm done.I wish I could hold you and kiss your hair and tell you that I understand the kind of pain you're in.
I shake my head because as much as I wish for it too, I know I don't deserve any comfort.My brother has always done everything he can for meâeven risked his life for meâand how have I repaid him? By getting his daughter killed. He will never, ever forgive me for this.
He will.It might not be for a while, but one day heâ
He won't. And he shouldn't. This isn't something I should ever be forgiven for.
Don't say that. You're not the one who did this.
I may as well have been!
Stop it. You can't hate yourself forever. That only leads toâ
YOU STOP IT!I tug the ring off and fling it across the room, which makes me hate myself more. Chase is only trying to help, and now I've probably hurt him too. I wipe my tears away, stand up, and fetch the ring from the other side of the room. It sits on my palm for another few moments as I wrestle the beast that stinks of guilt into a cage in the furthest recesses of my mind. Then I return the ring to my pocket.
I stare blindly at the floorboards, my hands balled into fists at my sides as my brain begins to work again. Whether I should hate myself or not is debatable, but there's someone else I can definitely hate: Zed. He fooled me into thinking he'd done nothing to Victoria.She's fine, I swear, is what he said. But he was lying. He did something, performed some kind of spell or gave her a potion or cursed her. Something that slowly weakened her and caused her death. He must have had help, though. Zed hasn't done anything recently without the help of someone more powerful. First he went to Amon, because he knew that Draven's former right-hand man and spy would hate the Guild just as much as he does. But Amon was locked behind bars and couldn't help Zed directly, so he must have sent Zed to the witches. I know they were the ones who gave Zed the dragon disease spell, which means they probably helped him with whatever spell caused Victoria's slow death.
Zed is gone and I have no idea how to find him, but the witches â¦ the witches did this magic, and I know exactly where they are. I might not be able to make Zed pay for what he's done, but I will make sure those witches regret the day they decided to help him.
* * *
I slip into the mountain and arm myself with various weapons before heading Underground. It's dangerous in these tunnels for a faerie who looks anything like a guardian, but I couldn't care less. In fact, I welcome the possible danger.Try something, I whisper in my mind to the pair of reptiscillan men who narrow their eyes at me as I pass. To the man in the hood with the glaring red eyes.Just try something. Idareyou to.But I make it to the area of the tunnels where Wickedly Inked once was, where the witches now have their store, without incident. I walk boldly up to the entranceâ
And find a dark, empty room.
My cry of frustration is almost a snarl. Clearly this isn't going to be as easy as I'd hoped, but I refuse to be put off. Someone must know where those two witches went. Someone must have seen or heard something. I begin my search of the wide, winding tunnels, walking into every bar, every shop, every area that doesn't look like it's a private residence. I discover nothing, and in several places I end up fighting my way out with the assistance of an illusion. In my current frame of mind, though, I don't particularly mind. Punching and kicking seem like excellent outlets for my pent-up pain.
Eventually I reach Club Deviant, the place owned by the drakoni man Ryn's team recently arrested. The drakoni man who knows Zed. He may not be around for me to question, but perhaps whoever's managing this place now has information I can use. The club is almost empty, given the fact that it's about midday. A smoky haze still hangs in the air, though. I doubt it ever lifts. I walk to the bar area and take a seat. The elf slouching against the counter behind the bar opens one sleepy eye and looks at me. “Mm?” he grunts.
“I'm here to see whoever's in charge.”
“I doubt he wants to see you,” the elf says, making an effort to open both eyes so he can trail them down over my body and back up. “Or perhaps he does. Come back tonight and you'll find out.”
“I'm not coming back tonight. I'm looking for information about a guy named Zed, and I want it now.”
The elf leans forward across the counter, close enough that I can see the glitter sparkling in his sleek black hair. “You want it now? Oh, well if youwantit, then of course you can have it. That's the way the world works, right?”
“I don't have time for your sarcasm.”
With lightning speed, his hand flashes forward and grabs my arm. “And I don't have time for your faerie entitlement. Think you can walk in here and demand whatever the hell you want? Think again, sweetheart. Nobodyâand I meanabsolutely nobodyâin this club is going to be giving youanyinformation about anything. And before I kick you out of here on your ass, I'll be teaching you aâ”
“What's going on here?” a sultry voice asks. A feminine hand snakes around the elf's forearm. His grip on me loosens immediately. He sucks in a breath and tries to move backward, but the woman beside meâthe woman I now recognizeâyanks him closer. As he leans partway across the bar, gasping for breath, she whispers, “You don't want any trouble, do you, Lucimar?”
“No, no, of â¦ of course not.” He shakes his head and she releases him. He falls back, clutching at his throat and almost knocking over a row of brightly colored bottles on the back counter.
“You don't want to be here,” the woman who is part siren tells him.
“I â¦ I don't want to be here.” He pushes himself away from the counter and staggers down a passage to the back rooms of the club.
The woman swivels on her seat to face me and crosses one leg over the other. Wearing a form-fitting dress, a long coat and heels, she's as glamorous today as every other time I've seen her. “Looking for trouble, Calla?”
“Elizabeth,” I say evenly. “Or is it Scarlett? I never did ask which name I'm supposed to use.”
She lifts one shoulder. “Doesn't matter. I answer to both these days.”
“Well, Elizabeth.” I stand. “Yes, I am looking for trouble, and so far I haven't been able to find it. So while I appreciate you interfering in a situation I was in complete control of, I need to keep searching.”
She laughs as I turn away. “What an amusing way to pass the time. Perhaps I can join your search for trouble. Chase probably doesn't like the idea of you hunting for it on your own.”
Chase doesn't know, I admit silently. “Not unless you can help me find a faerie named Zed or the witches who vanished from Underground sometime in the past week.” And if she hasn't stopped by the mountain yet to offer her assistance with the plan to rescue Chase, then I doubt she'll want to help me.I don't play well with others, she once said to Chase.
“Witches?” Elizabeth repeats, pulling a glove onto her bare hand. “Since when are there witches around here? They know they're not welcome in this part of the world.”
“I don't know,” I say as I walk away. “I just need to find them.”
“Hey,” she calls after me. “Do you know their names?”
I stop and look back at her. “No.”
She slides off her stool and sashays toward me. “Luckily for you and your trouble hunting, I might still be able to help you.” I follow her out of the club to the dim tunnel where she asks me to tell her where I last saw the witches. When I mention that they had a store down here where they sold their wares, she looks pleased. “If they occupied that space for more than a few hours, they'll definitely have left traces of their magic.” She tells me to meet her there in half an hour. She vanishes into the faerie paths, and I turn around to wander my way back through the tunnels. I could go straight to the shop through the paths, of course, but then I'd have to wait for Elizabeth. And waiting means I'd have to occupy my mind with somethingâsomething that would no doubt be swallowed up by the guilt-beast straining at the cage my mind has locked it in.
I focus intently on everything I see and everyone I pass as I stride along the tunnels. Anything to keep me from giving in to the guilt that wants to consume me. In the end, I arrive at the empty Underground room only a minute or two before Elizabeth. I've just finished casting an orb of light when I hear her footsteps outside. I send the light floating up to the ceiling as she stops in the doorway with a book tucked beneath her arm and looks around. “So empty,” she murmurs. “I knew Chase moved out of here after you discovered his true identity. He mentioned a brief and unpleasant encounter with the new occupant of this space, but he forgot to mention it was awitch.”
“It was rather an unpleasant surprise to find those women here,” I say, remembering the day I came to look for Chase.
Elizabeth steps into the room and walks around the edge, running her hand along the stone walls. Near the back of the room, beside a door that leads to a second, smaller room, she pauses, running her fingers through faint grooves I can barely see. “Yes,” she whispers. “They definitely left traces of themselves here.”
She turns back and moves to the center of the room, steps out of her high-heeled shoes, and sits on the floor. Despite her figure-hugging dress, she manages to appear graceful and elegant as she tucks her legs beneath her body. She places the book on the ground in front of her, removes a bejeweled ring from a compartment carved into the back pages, and turns to a specific page. Then she removes a mirror from her coat pocket. “Should I sit?” I ask as she slowly enlarges the mirror, coaxing it to a size large enough to show one's head and shoulders.
“Yes. Sit there,” she says, waving to the space on the other side of the book. She places the mirror beside it, removes one of her gloves, and puts the ring on. As I sit with my legs crossed beneath me, she begins reading from the book. The words don't sound like any faerie magic I've heard before. They sound â¦ harsher somehow. As she speaks, she waves her arms in sweeping motions toward the walls. Something that looks like dust separates itself from the walls and floats on invisible currents. Streams of this dust curl and dance through the air before arcing down and plunging into the mirror. The mirror itself begins to cloud over. When Elizabeth finishes her spell, a billowing mistiness fills the glass surface.
“If the witches are anywhere near a mirror, they'll sense that they're being called,” she says, pushing herself to her feet. “As curious as I am to know why you're so desperate to speak with them, I'll give you some privacy.” She slips her shoes back on and walks out to the tunnel.
I pick up the mirror and balance it on my crossed legs. The misty surface slowly begins to clear, revealing moving shapes. One shape in particularâthe shape of a personâgrows larger and becomes still. The background comes into focus first. Endless sand dunes, and in the distance, a structure that looks like a pyramid with a second smaller pyramid sitting atop its apex. When eventually a woman appears, it isn't the one I expected. Not dark eyes and pointed teeth, but silver hair and a smile I want to tear off with my bare hands.
“Oh, look who's calling,” Angelica says. “We wondered if we might be hearing from you soon. Allow me to express my deepest condolences for your loss. Or hasn't that happened yet?”
She knows. She knows exactly what the witches did to Victoria. “I will tear you apart,” I say between gritted teeth.
“Ah, so it has happened. And I believe you tried the tearing apart thing once already,” she adds with amusement, “and gave up to run after my son instead. How did that work out for you?”
I hate her so much I can taste it. “Did I mention what a despicable waste of magic and breath you are?”
“I believe you might have.”
“Whose life do you plan to trade next? You used your own son to get yourself out of prison, so who will it be for Amon? Who are you going to exchange for him?”
“Amon can stay right where he is.”
I shake my head. “You backstabbing bitch. He orchestrated this whole plan, and now that you're free, you're going to leave him to rot in prison?”
She cocks her head. “You should be glad. One less enemy running around for you to worry about.”
“Remind me to thank you when I'm finished stabbing needles beneath my fingernails.”
She laughs. “Oh, it is fun playing around with people again. One of the many advantages of being free.”
“Not for long,” I mutter.
She raises an eyebrow. “Do you plan to put me back in my cage â¦ Calla?” She says my name as if it's a taunt. “I'd like to see you try.”
“Come out of hiding and we can arrange that.”
“I don't think so.” She steps away, out of view, and it's a fair head that takes her place.
“You called?” the witch says, a lazy smile spreading across her lips. She's the younger of the witches I met Underground. The only one I've had any dealings with.
“What did you do?” I demand, my fingers shaking as I grip the mirror. “What spell did you give Zed? How could youkill an innocent child like that?”
“Zed?” she asks innocently.
“You know,” I say, sarcasm dripping from my voice, “the one you gave the dragon disease spell to. The one who must have beenveryangry when he discovered you sold a cure to me.”
She waves her hand. “We sorted that one out. He came to understand why I sold you that cure. Just business, of course.”
“And then you helped him murder a child!” I yell. “You disgusting piece of filth! What spell did you give him toâ”
“Don't shout at me about things you don't understand,” the witch snaps. “You shouldn't be worrying about a child who's dead. Oh no, dear golden haired girl.” Her voice turns low and threatening. “You should be worrying about yourself now.”
“You can threaten me as much as you want, but it won't stop me from making you pay for what you've done.”
That lazy smile creeps onto her face once more. “You're the only one who's going to be paying.”
“A little silver bird told me all about your special magic. YourGriffin Ability, as the Guild has named it.”
A chill creeps up my spine. “So? You can keep dreaming if you think you're going to get your hands on my power.”
She chuckles. “I don't need to dream. Not when I've already cast the spell that will let me take your power for myself.”
A shudder runs through me. “You can't do that.”
“Oh, but I can, and I have. The curse has already been performed.”
I hate the quiver in my voice as I ask, “Whatâwhat do you mean?”
“It was quite complex. I'm rather proud of myself for having completed it.” She preens. “The effect is simple, though: the more you use your special ability, the weaker you'll become.”
I shake my head. “That's ridiculous. All magic replenishes itself after use.”
“Not anymore,” she whispers, stepping closer to the mirror. “You and I are linked now, and I feel it every time you use that special power. Your core magic will grow weaker and weaker over time, and in that moment when the life finally vanishes forever from your body, the only magic that remains, the only magic I care aboutâyourGriffin Abilityâwill flow out of your body and into mine.”
I'm still shaking my head. “That isn't possible. You can't do that.”
“You know nothing about what I can and cannot do with witch magic.”
“I know that you can try to scare me with liesâwhich is what you're no doubt doing right now.”
A predatory smile sits upon her lips. “You know I speak the truth. You've felt it already. You felt it the moment the curse was laid upon you.”
An image of my nightmare flashes across my mind. Her black eyes, her scraping fingernails. “H-how?”
She tilts her head. “Don't you remember the blood you gave me?”
“Butâbut the vial broke. You can't have used my blood.”
She laughs. “Oh, you silly girl. You think spilled blood can't be retrieved? I don't need it to beclean, if that's what you're thinking. The splinters of glass made no difference. On the contrary. They'll probably add a nice spike of pain to the effects of the curse, a needling headache whenever you use your magic.”
I swallow. My hands are shaking properly now. How did this happen? How did this confrontation slip so quickly out of my control? It was supposed to be about Victoriaâabout finding out what the witch did to her and coming up with a way tomake everyone involved payâand now it's about â¦ a curse placed on me?
With a wordless yell, I fling the mirror across the room. It shatters into hundreds of shards, sparkling in the enchanted light. Fear and hatred war within me. I choose the hate. I hate, hate, hate that witch more than I ever believed possible.
Elizabeth rushes into the room, looking around. “What happened? Why did you break my mirror?”
I ignore her as I push myself to my feet. I shout again, tilting my head back and baring my teeth at the ceiling. My orb of light cracks apart, sending flashes of light around the room before vanishing. In the ensuing darkness, I grit my teeth and speak. “I decided long ago that I never want to kill anyone, but â¦ that witch â¦ I want to kill her.I want to kill her!I will search every desert in the world if I have to, and then I'll make hersufferthe way my family is suffering.”
Elizabeth takes another step into the room and folds her arms over her chest. “That's â¦ quite extreme.”
“Someone is dead because of her magic.”
“Oh, well of course you should kill her then.” She waves her hand at the mess of shattered glass, causing it to sweep itself up into a neat little pile. “I'm sure it will make you feel much better, and you won't wind up regretting it in the least.”
“Don't patronize me with your sarcasm,” I spit. “You have no idea what I'm going through.”
“No, but I know what Chase went through. I know what kind of person he turned into because he was bent on revenge, and I wouldn't recommend that path to anyone.”
“This is different,” I mutter.
With a snap of her fingers, the glass shards and empty frame vanish. “You want to hurt someone who first hurt you. It isn't different at all.”
It is, I tell myself. I'm not trying to bring the whole world to its knees just to punish someone who hurt me. I simply want anyone who's caused me and my family any pain to pay for their crimes and to suffer as much as we've suffered. “Just â¦ don't,” I say to Elizabeth, pushing past her as I head for the door. “I don't want to hear what you have to say. Your opinion doesn't matter to me. Perhaps it would if you cared a little more about Chase than you pretend to, but your words are meaningless ifâ”
“Don't you dare question how much I care about him.”
“You have a funny way of showing it,” I say with a humorless laugh, looking over my shoulder at her. “You haven't even offered to help with the rescue plan.”
Her eyes narrow. “What rescue plan?”
* * *
Elizabeth sweeps into Gaius's study where he's leaning over a drawing with Ana. “How could you not tell me?”
He looks up, startled. “Elizabethâhi. And Calla! You're back!” He's about to address me further when Elizabeth smacks a fist down on his desk.
“Chase is in the clutches of the Seelie Court, and you didn'ttell me?” she demands.
Gauis's eyes flick from me back to Elizabeth. He raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Look, you're not the easiest person to get hold of, and we've been preoccupied with the rescue plans. You've never wanted to be part of the team anyway, so what good would it have done to inform you?”
“This isChasewe're talking about! Of course I want to be part of any rescue plans you're putting together!”
Ana places her hands on her hips. “You can't just barge in here andâ”
“I am part of this rescue mission. Don't you dare leave me out of anything.”
“Well then,” Gaius says. “I suppose that's settled. Now, Calla, I've been dying to know whether you were able toâ”
“I didn't. I â¦ couldn't. Something â¦ Victoria â¦” I breathe deeply to hide the sob that rises up and shudders through my being. I push it down. Down, down, down into that hard core of hatred and guilt. “She died. During the night.”
Silence. Elizabeth looks at the floor. Ana's face turns sympathetic. Then Gaius hurries around the desk, saying, “Oh, my dear, I am so sorry.” He hugs me and rubs my back, and I wish he wouldn't because that makes it even harder not to cry. “Your poor brother,” he murmurs. “And his wife. I can't â¦ I just can't imagine.”
They hate me. They'll never forgive me.“Can we â¦ just â¦ focus on getting Chase back?” My voice is weirdly high-pitched and shaky. I clear my throat.
“Yes, of course.” Gaius pats my back one last time before returning to his desk. “Right then. We need a new plan for getting to the Seelie Court.” He picks up a screwdriver and taps it against the drawing he was examining when we walked in here. “How about we find someone else who has an invitation to the princess's party, and Calla can follow him or her on the night of the event, then come back for the rest of us once she knows where she's going. Although â¦” He taps the screwdriver against his chin. “If it's a lengthy journey, there won't be time for that.”
“We need to know the location before then,” Ana says. “That would be cutting it way too close.”
I move to the edge of the room, trying to breathe, trying to forget, trying to focus on anything other than Victoria and Ryn and Vi.
“You must know someone, Gaius,” Elizabeth says as she sits in a chair in front of the desk and crosses one leg over the other. “You know everyone, don't you?”
“I'm flattered you think I'm so well connected, Elizabeth, but no. I do not know every royal, noble and high society fae invited to this event.”
“Oh, what about Trian Hared, the musician?” Ana says. “Remember we got his dragon back for him when someone stole it? 'Cause he had no permit so he couldn't get the Guild involved? He definitely counts as a celebrity, so he might have been invited.”
Gaius points the screwdriver at Ana. “He might have been.” Then he frowns. “Now that I think about it, how would the Seelie Queen ever keep her palace's location such a secret if she holds events that so many fae who don't live there are invited to. I wonder if perhaps none of these people actually know where they're going. Perhaps guards are sent to guests' homes to accompany them to the palace.”
“In which case guards are the only ones who know where it is,” Elizabeth says. “That would make more sense in terms of security.”
“Well, I'm going to speak to Trian anyway,” Ana says, walking to the door. “Hopefully he remembers me.”
“In the meantime,” Gaius continues, “we now have a drawing of what my friend remembers of the dungeons beneath the Seelie Palace. I just need to ask Chase if he can see anything from his cell so we can attempt to figure out exactly where he's being kept.” He looks at me.
“Oh, right.” I feel in my back pocket for the telepathy ring and hand it to Gaius. I think of the way I shoutedâsilentlyâat Chase earlier, and the ache in my chest throbs more painfully. After a moment, Gaius removes the ring and leaves it on his desk. “No reply. Must be sleeping. I'll try again later. Calla, if you need to be with your family right now, I completely understand. There's nothing else for you to do here at the moment.”
I nod and leave the room, but I don't head back to Creepy Hollow. I can't face Ryn, and I know I'm the last person he wants to see. I walk downstairs, intending to go to the gym to take out my feelings on a punching bag, but I find myself continuing further down. A punching bag won't help. A workout won't help. No exercise can distract my mind from the ache in my chest and the guilt-beast stalking my thoughts. The only true distraction is the one thing I never want to face: my phobia.
I forget about Victoria. I forget about the supposed curse. I forget about the three very firm goals I now have: rescue Chase, stop Angelica from tearing down the veil, and make sure Zed and the witches pay for what they've done.
I stand in the stone room at the very bottom of the mountain's stairs and peer into the narrow slice of space in the corner. I see nothing but darkness. I step back, shake my arms, and jump up and down a few times as I prepare myself for this. I force myself to breathe in slowly as I close my eyes. Immediately, everything I've tried to block out threatens to come rushing back. I visualize myself rolling every worry and thought into a great big boulder. A boulder I then push to the edge of my thoughts where I can no longer focus on it.
Then I picture my lake. My calm and peaceful place. The water nudges at grassy banks and a refreshing breeze skims across my skin. I breathe out slowly. I open my eyes and face the crevice in the wall. I step toward it, take another breath, embrace the rising panic, and run into the darkness. The tunnel is endless. In the utter darkness, I have to put my hands up to feel the wallsâthe walls that are pressing ever closerâso I don't trip. A squeal rises at the back of my throat, escaping in a rush of breath when I finally see light up ahead. I push myself faster â¦ faster â¦ and then I'm free.
I slow to a halt and look around in shock as I remember how to breathe. I'm standing in a cavernous space more vast than anything I ever imagined when I pictured this area. Like a wildlife park, it's divided into different sections. Part of it is a jungle, part of it is nothing more than rocks, and at intervals along the walls are openings to smaller caves. In the distance, I see a sandy desert patch, and off to one side, a collection of weatherworn towers and turrets. Movement fills the space. Gargoyles and dragons andâis that a nascryl? As my eyes dart around, I note the most important feature: not a single fence or enclosure in sight.
“Oooookay,” I breathe, stepping back and flattening myself against the wall. At the sound of a snarling roar, I whip my head to the side. A dragon has noticed me. A dragon covered in glistening green and purple scales, and with jaws wide enough to encompass my entire body. The dragon takes one step toward me, its giant, clawed foot sending a shudder through the rocky ground. Silence descends upon the cave. Every creature looks my way. For a single heartbeat, nothing moves. Then the dragon dives toward me, along with at least twenty other creatures.
I fling myself into the tunnel, which feels like safety now instead of a threat, and hurtle along it, expecting to feel claws ripping into me at any second. I reach the other side and catch myself against the stairway banister. I scramble up the first few stairs before turning around to watch the tunnel, waiting with heaving breaths for something to claw its way through.
Nothing happens. After several long moments, my shaky legs lower me onto the step. I swallow and close my eyes as adrenaline slowly works its way out of my system. Running into that cave without knowing what to expect probably wasn't the most sensible thing I've ever done, but it definitely tore my thoughts firmly away from the heartache of the past day.
Heartache that's slowly returning.
I drag myself back upstairs. I find that in the brief absence of my pain, I'm actually hungry. It's nearing dinner time, but I don't want to sit at a table with other people and have to make conversation. I rummage through the available food and find something small to eat, which I consume as I slowly walk upstairs to Gaius's greenhouse. I pluck some leaves from a herb I've seen my mother incorporate in many of her sleeping potions. Back in my room, I rub them across my pillow before climbing into bed. The scent alone won't be nearly as effective as taking a potion, but it's hopefully strong enough to send me into oblivion for a few hours. If I'm lucky, I'll be too drugged to have to confront my nightmares.
* * *
The herb's scent is gone by morning, but I don't remember my dreams, so it must have done its job. Leaning over to pick up the ancient piece of amber next to my bed, I'm filled with both dread and relief when I see a message on the amber's rough surface. Even if Ryn hates me, at least he hasn't stopped communicating. I rub my eyes and read the messageâand find that it isn't from him.
The ceremony for Victoria will be held this evening beside the Infinity Falls. Zinnia
Great. Ryn definitely doesn't want to hear from me if he's given the amber to his mother. I roll out of bed and automatically call Chase's name before remembering I don't have the ring on. Silence permeates the upper levels of the mountain, so presumably Gaius is still in bed. I walk into his study and retrieve the ring from his desk. I speak Chase's name over and over as I use the bathing room and get dressed, but he must be sleeping.
As the hours of the day pass by and Victoria's ceremony grows closer, my mind is continually met by silence. “I still can't get hold of him,” I tell Gaius, fighting the panic trying to wrap itself around my chest and squeeze all the air out of me. “What if â¦ what if he's â¦”
“Leave the ring with me,” Gaius says gently, patting my arm. “It's time for you to go, and you shouldn't be worrying about this while you're with your family.”
“You know I'll worry about it anyâ”
“Don't.” He takes my hand and pulls the ring off. “Put it from your mind now. You can speak with Chase for as long as you want when you get back later.”
If he's still alive, I add silently.
I swallow the terrifying thought as I walk downstairs. In less than a minute, I'm through the lake house, through the faerie paths, and walking into the late afternoon sun near the Neverending River. I squint up at the sky, wondering how the sun could dare show her face at a time as sad as this. It should be raining. All of nature should be pouring out its tears, mourning this tragedy.
I move closer to the group of fae gathered on the banks of the river but remain out of sight amongst the trees. I don't want to catch the attention of any of the Guild members who are here. I could use my Griffin Ability to hide myself and get closer to the proceedings, but the witch's words ring clearly in my mind:The more you use your special ability, the weaker you'll become.I don't know how much strength I'll need for the Seelie Palace mission when the time comes to rescue Chase, but I don't want to spend any of that strength if I don't have to. I tell myself that this is one of my reasons for not approaching Rynâalong with the possibility of accidentally revealing myself and getting him into troubleâbut I know the only real reason is fear. I'm terrified of what he might say to me. Terrified that his words might confirm just how much he blames me for his child's death.
I can't see his or Violet's faces as they place the fully wrapped bundle into a small canoe. All I hear are sobs and sniffles from the gathered fae as they place the canoe in the water and watch it float magically upstream toward the Infinity Falls. Natesa, Vi's reptiscillan friend, clings to her husband and whispers how unfair it is that something so awful could happen to such wonderful people. Nearby, Zinnia murmurs to someone else that by the time she got to the house yesterday, the baby didn't even look like Victoria anymore. That there was something grotesque and unnatural about the little body left behind in the wake of whatever magic took her. I move further away into the trees, my mind conjuring up horrifying images that will plague my nightmares later.
No one hangs around too long after the ceremony is over. They're all heading to Zinnia's house, based on the murmurs I've heard. I could go there too. I could keep myself concealed until it's safe to speak to Ryn and Vi. But I know I'll be too afraid to say a single word to them.
I flinch as a light pressure touches my shoulder, but, twisting my head to the side, I find nothing more threatening than a small, furry shape sitting there. “Hey, Filigree,” I whisper. “What are you doing here?” I lift his little mouse form off my shoulder and place him on the nearest tree branch. “I'm going home nowâmy home, not yoursâso you need to get back to Vi.” He shakes his furry little head and takes a flying leap back onto my shoulder. “What's wrong? Is it â¦” I swallow. “Is it too sad there?” He nestles against my neck. “Look, I don't know what to say. I can't take you back with me. You don't belong to me, youâOw!” His little paws dig into my earlobe. “So â¦ you want to come with me? Is that it?” He doesn't move. “Okay, fine. IâI'll just have to send Ryn a message to tell him where you are.” Filigree, of course, says nothing to that.
I arrive back at the mountain with renewed determination to find the witches. Or Zed. Perhaps I can risk an illusion strong enough and terrifying enough to force his location out of someone working at Club Deviant. Or I can go to Elizabeth and ask if she knows of a spell that can locate the witches. I don't care that it's dangerous to go after them. If it's something that might make up, even in some small part, for what I've done to my brother, I'll risk it.
With Filigree still on my shoulder, I look into Gaius's study. It's empty, though, and I don't see the telepathy ring on his desk. I walk down the passage. As I pass my bedroom, a low hum reaches my ears. I turn back and look around the door with a frown. It can't be the amber. It's so old it doesn't evenâOh, the mirror. Of course.
I hurry into my room and grab the small mirror Perry gave me a few days ago. Filigree leaps off my shoulder and onto the bed as I touch the mirror's surface and watch Perry's grinning face swim into focus. He waggles his eyebrows and says, “Want to know what the secret inner circle of the Guild Council is up to? Get your butt over to the Guild right now, and you can see for yourself.”
I'm not thrilled about sneaking into the Guild, but Perry's discovery sounds too important to miss. I grab a shoulder-length wig of black and pink hair from the costume closet and make my way to the Guild's library as quickly as I can, aware of every second of Griffin Ability use. I release my illusion the moment I reach the back corner of the library where Perry is waiting.
“I'm so sorry” are the first whispered words out of his mouth. “I am so, so sorry. I didn't know about your niece until just now when Gemma told me. I shouldn't have called you. If you need to be with family right now orâ”
“No. I â¦” I might need my family, but they certainly don't want me around at the moment. “It's fine. I don't â¦ I don't really want to think about it, so the distraction will be good.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. So what was the urgency all about? What do you want me to see?”
“Oh, right. Come on.” He motions for me to follow him to a door I've never noticed at the back of the library. “I got stuck with storeroom reorganization duty on Friday afternoon because of some homework I didn't finish.” He opens the door and ushers me into a dark room, pulling the door shut before I can get a good look at what's inside. He snaps his fingers and raises a single flame above his palm. In the flickering light, I see desks and tables piled neatly on top of each other and shelf after shelf filled with boxes of cards.
“You organized all this?” I ask.
“Yeah. And I wasn't allowed to use magic. Oh, and don't make a noise on the floor, okay? Tiptoe.” He leads me between the desks toward the back of the room. “Anyway,” he continues in a whisper. “I was looking for my sound drops this afternoon and couldn't find them. I last used them while I was tidying in here, so I came to look for them, and â¦” He crouches down. “Do you hear that?”
I lower myself to the floor and listen. “Voices? From beneath us?”
“Yes,” he whispers. “And if you look behind you and to the right, you'll see none other than a hole that leads straight into the room below.”
I twist around and see a beam of light shining up from a roughly circular hole. I crawl toward it and lower my face until it's almost touching the floor. “No way,” I whisper, looking down at the group of guardians gathered in a small but comfortably furnished room below. I count ten sitting in a circle around a coffee table, but I recognize only three of them: Head Councilor Bouchard from the French Guild, Councilor Merrydale, and Olive, my ex-mentor. The other seven guardiansâassuming they're guardians; some of them have covered their wrists so I can't see if they have guardian markingsâmust be from other Guilds.
“â¦ get it up and running, we won't have to worry about incidents like this again,” Councilor Merrydale says to the group.
“I should hope not,” Head Councilor Bouchard says in that precise, accented tone I remember from when I was unfortunate enough to meet him on my first official day here. “It is distressing to think you may have an invisible Gifted fae running around this Guild unseen. Who knows what such a person could get up to.”
Crap, they're talking about me.
“You said you didn't see this person's face?” asks a woman with hair shaved so close to her scalp I can barely make out the two different colors.
“Unfortunately not. I reviewed the recording after I failed to find the intruder. The person was definitely female, but I was unable to see her face.”
“What if it wasn't an intruder?” the woman suggests. “It may be that one of your guardians here is an unregistered Gifted person.”
“That's also a possibility,” Councilor Merrydale says. “In fact, we probably have more than one unregistered Gifted faerie working here, as do the rest of you at your various Guilds.”
“It's disgraceful to think of,” someone else says, shaking his head. “Guardians working for the law while breaking it every day. You'd think they wouldn't be able to live with themselves while lying to us like that.”
“Well, they do,” Olive says with a bored sigh. “Hence the work that's going on downstairs.” She leans back in her armchair and crosses one leg over the other. “Can we move on to the next item, Head Councilor?”
Her disrespect stuns me, but Head Councilor Bouchard doesn't seem to notice. He consults a scroll in his hand. “Hmm. Well, there is, of course, the Lord Draven matter, but as was the case with our last few meetings, the Seelie Queen has shared no new information.”
A jolt of surprise shoots through me. These must be the Guild members Angelica negotiated with.
“Probably a good thing,” the shaved woman mutters with a shiver. “As far as I'm concerned, he can stay imprisoned beneath the palace floors for the rest of his days.”
Nods of agreement come from the rest of the group, and a man who hasn't spoken yet says, “I still can't believe heâ”
“It's probably best not to dwell on that item,” Olive interrupts, “given that we have nothing new to discuss.”
“Yes, probably best,” Councilor Bouchard agrees. “Then the final item, as always, is this week's surplus Seer visions.”
“I've collected them all,” Councilor Merrydale says, leaning forward and picking up a large stack of papers. “Including the ones Meira forgot to bring last week.” Across the table, the woman with the shaved head nods.
“Have they been checked?” Councilor Bouchard asks. “Anything still to come?”
“No, they've all expired. I checked each one.”
“Well, you know what to do with them,” Councilor Bouchard says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Councilor Merrydale stands and moves to the fireplace, and I watch in horror as he tosses the dozens of Seer visions into the flames. As Head Councilor Bouchard calls the meeting to an end, I pull my head away from the peephole. “I've seen enough,” I whisper to Perry. We tiptoe our way out of the storeroom and back into the library.
“Did heburnthose visions?” Perry asks me immediately. “I know there was a fireplace in there, but I don't want to assumeâ”
“Yeah. He did. Did you, um, hear everything?”Did you hear about Lord Draven, is what I really want to ask.
“Bits here and there,” he says, “but not everything. I heard that last bit about the âsurplus Seer visions.'” He makes quotes in the air with his fingers. “Can you believe that? They actually throw visions away. Was that the stack of papers on the table?” I nod and he lets out a low whistle. “That's a lot. I can't believe they know about that many things going wrong that they just don't bother to fix.”
“Yeah.” I bite my lip and look around, keeping my eyes peeled for surveillance bugs. “If Zed knew about this, then I can see why he might not be so enamored with the Guild system.”
“Zed's the guy responsible for the dragon disease?”
“Yes. He was trying to tell to me that the Guild system is messed up and that they don't help nearly as many people as they could. He wanted to know how they decide who's worth saving and who isn't.”
“It's probably random,” Perry says in disgust. “I doubt they put any more thought into it than that.”
“Look, I agree that this is wrong, but it in no way excuses the things Zed did. He is a despicable, worthlessâ”
“What? No, of course not. I'm not excusing anything.” Perry looks horrified. “Killing every guardian isnotthe way to go about this. The Guild should be trainingmoreguardians. Let non-faeries in. Or send all those extra visions to the Reptiscillan Protectors Institute. Don't ignore and thenburnthem.”
I nod, staring at the floor as my mind ticks through possible solutions. “I wonder where they keep those surplus visions before bringing them to their secret meeting each week.”
“Why? What are you thinking?”
“It's not a long-term solution to the Guild's problem, but â¦ well, I have a friendâa group of friendsâwho could make sure those visions are seen to instead of wasted. We'd have to find the visions first and copy them.”
“I'll see what I can find out. I might even have to talk to â¦ ugh. Pretty boy what's-his-name.”
“I assume you're referring to Rick,” I say. The Seer trainee Gemma has a crush on, which Perry is all too aware of.
“Mm hmm,” Perry says, looking as if he has a bad taste in his mouth.
“Well, I should go before I get caught. Thank you so much for showing me that. I'm not sure I would have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself.”
“I know. Oh, wait. I have to tell you some other stuff.”
I peer around the bookshelf, then pull my head back and shuffle further into the shadows. “What is it?”
“Those two names you gave me to look up are both on the Griffin List. So whatever they're doing downstairs with those people in boxes is related to Griffin Abilities.”
I nod. “The conversation I just overheard confirmed that. I think they're trying to come up with a way to test for Griffin Abilities. I assume it would be mandatory for everyone to be tested.”
“That would suck big time.”
“Now that I think about it,” I say, “I wonder why they didn't come up with a test ages ago. They know they can't trust everyone to be honest enough to register themselves or their children.”
“They've probably been trying for a long time and just haven't succeeded yet.”
“Probably.” I look around the bookshelf again. “Okay, so I need toâ”
“Wait, just one more thing.” He grasps my shoulders as if to keep me from running away. “I know you told me to stop snooping around Olive's things after you found out who really framed you for killing Saskia, and I didâsort ofâbut then I came across something yesterday. Remember I told you we found scrolls with non-Guild seals in Olive's office?” Without waiting for my answer, he rushes on. “I found out who the seal belongs to. None other thanâ” he smacks my shoulders as if beating out a drum roll “âthe Seelie Queen.”
“Theâwhat? Are you sure?”
“Yes. I saw the seal in a textbook the other day.”
“Olive? My bad-tempered ex-mentor is receiving correspondence directly from the Seelie Queen?”
“Looks like it.”
“Maybe she was delivering the scrolls to someone else. Someone like Head Councilor Bouchard.”
“Why would these scrolls need to go through Olive then? Why not directly to Councilor Bouchard?”
“That's â¦ a good question.” I place my hands on my hips as I consider it.
“And another thing that's weird about Olive is that she periodically disappears for half a day or so at a time.”
“How do you know this?”
“My mentor's office is nearby. I notice stuff.”
“Okay, but that might have absolutely nothing to do with the scrolls from the Seelie Queen.” On the other hand, I add silently to myself, it might haveeverythingto do with those scrolls. I don't want to get too excited yet, but it's definitely worth following Olive around for a day or two to see if maybe, justmaybe, the place she disappears to is the Seelie Court.
* * *
Invisibility gets me safely out of the Guild without incident. I closely examine my level of fatigue when I arrive back at the mountain, but I don't feel any more tired than usual. Could it be possible the witch was lying about her curse? I can't forget that dream, though. The dream that ended with very real pain stabbing into my chest when I woke up. Perhaps I just didn't use my Griffin Ability enough tonight to feel the curse's effects.
Warm light illuminates the living room doorway along with the flickering shadows of a dancing fire. I walk into the room and find Gaius in an armchair. “Hey,” I say. “I might possibly have a way to get to the Seelie Court. I'm not certain, but I'll investigate further tomorrow.”
He looks up at me. “Oh, that's good. Excellent. Well done.” Though he smiles, his tone lacks its usual enthusiasm.
“What's wrong? Is everything â¦ Have you spoken to Chase yet?” I walk toward him and hold my hand out for the ring. It's been far,fartoo long since I heard his voice.
“Calla,” Gaius says slowly, removing the ring from his pinkie finger and placing it on my palm. “I haven't been able to get hold of him. It's been over a day now and he hasn't responded. We don't know what that means, and we can't assume the worst, but we need to be prepared for â¦ well, for anything.”
A chill settles in my bones as I allow myself a glimpse of a dark future in which there is no Victoria, no brother who loves me unconditionally, and now no Chase. I shy away from the image with a shudder as I wrap my arms tightly around my chest and press my lips together. I don't think I can speak, so I simply nod as Gaius reaches up and squeezes my arm. Trying to comfort me, no doubt, but when I look into his eyes, all I see is the same hopelessness I feel.
You're not dead, I whisper silently the next morning as I get dressed.You're not dead, you're not dead, and Iwillfind you.Despite the fact that I get no response, I tell myself that somehow Chase can hear me.
The witch's warning echoes at the back of my mind as I walk into the Guild under the cover of invisibility. I know it will weaken me to conceal myself, but this is too important an opportunity to pass up. With the Seelie Palace party only four days away now, this could be our last chance to find a way there. Wearing a brunette and orange wig and a tan jacket borrowed from Lumethon in place of the black one I always wear, I climb the stairs to Olive's office. Filigree's small shape is a comforting warmth in my pocket. I considered telling him to go back to my room when I found him hiding in the jacket earlier, but facing a full day of camping out in enemy territory felt easier with an accomplice at my sideâeven an accomplice as small as mouse-shaped Filigree.
Olive's office is near the end of a corridor where a group of chairs and a table form a small waiting area. I walk past her door, pick up a random textbook from the table, and settle into one of the chairs. As I lift the textbook to conceal my face, I pull my illusion back. My imagination is once again hidden behind a mental fortress, and I'm completely visible now. My heart pounds at the thought of my vulnerability.Anyonecan see me sitting here! But I have to conserve my strength. I need all of it for the Seelie Court mission, and I have no idea when the witch's curse will begin to take a toll on me.
I hear footsteps and Olive's voice. I swallow and tighten my fingers around the open textbook. She probably won't notice me sitting here, but if she happens to see my face, she'll recognize me. I watch her feet beneath the bottom edge of the textbook. She continues past her office, moving toward me, but turns into another office before reaching the end of the corridor. I force myself to breathe out and relax my grip on the book. I'm not going to get caught, I tell myself. And even if I am caught, I can fight my way out of here. I've done it once before, so surely I can do it again.
For the next hour or so, I observe Olive coming and going from her office. For one terrifying moment, I'm certain I'm about to be discovered when a mentor I only vaguely recognize stops in front of me and asks why I've been sitting here for so long. I try to imagine Gemma's face instead of my own before lowering my book and saying that my mentor tasked me with memorizing two full chapters before she quizzes me about them. Fortunately, the mentor standing in front of me seems to accept this. After wishing me luck, she continues on her way. Before raising my book once more, I see Olive closing her office door and walking away with a trainee at her side. This is my chance.
I make sure no one is watching before imagining myself as invisible once again. I walk to Olive's door, test the handle, and find it unlocked. Glancing around to make sure I'm truly alone, I open the door and slip inside. Without wasting a second, I move to the desk. Olive might be doing training now, but who knows when she'll lose her temper, give up on her trainee, and come back upstairs. I search across the desk's untidy surface, looking for these supposed scrolls with the Seelie Queen's seal. Finding nothing, I move to the drawers. I open and close them, riffling through the jumbled contents. Nothing. Next, I move to the filing cabinet. I've just slid the top drawer closed when the door handle turns.
I rush to conceal myself, holding my breath as Olive pushes her door open and enters the office. She walks to her desk, frowns as she looks down at it, then grabs the stylus sticking out of a dirty mug before turning away. As the door bangs shut, I slowly release my breath.
I search the rest of Olive's officeâwith Filigree's assistance, though I'm not sure he understands me when I tell him what I'm looking forâand find nothing. I wonder if Perry left signs of his search here. Signs that would raise Olive's suspicion and cause her to hide the scrolls elsewhere.
I return to the waiting area, picking a different chair and a different textbook this time, and keep watch for Olive. By the end of the day, the only remotely interesting thing she's done is stand in the corridor and shout at Lingâher supposedly perfect fifth-year traineeâfor failing to place in the top five for the knife throwing competition that I gather, based on her words, was held on Saturday. She adds that both she and Ling will be spending all night in the training center perfecting her technique and that she couldn't care less about the fact that Ling's parents will have to eat dinner without her.
I'm guessing this means Olive's not going anywhere exciting tonight, so as other mentors lock up their offices and head downstairs, I join the stream of people leaving the Guild. My restlessness rises a level as I think of my complete waste of a day. A day I could have spent searching for Zed or the witches. A day I could have spent sneaking into the French Guild, tying up Head Councilor Bouchard, and forcing a truth potion down his throat so he'll tell me everything he knows about the Seelie Court.
Gaius looks thoroughly alarmed at my suggestion when I lay it out for him that night. “No,” he says. “Absolutely not. Capturing the Head Councilor is out of the question.”
“We're running out of time, Gaius! If anyone at the Guild knows anything about the Seelie Court, it would be him, right? He could be our only option.”
Gaius cautiously pats my arm as if soothing a wild creature. “Following your old mentor seems far more sensible, Calla. Give it one more day, okay? Then we'll reassess.”
So I give it one more day.
I can't hang out in the waiting area any longer without raising attention, and I don't want to project an illusion for hours at a time, so I slip into Olive's office while she's busy speaking with a mentor in the corridor and hide beneath her desk. I stay there for the remainder of the day, observing her. I conceal myself when I have to, but mostly I rely on the solid, old desk to hide me. I was worried she might kick me when sitting at the desk, but she piles so many things on her chair throughout the day, that she doesn't actually sit on it all that often.
As the afternoon draws to a close and my body begins to ache from being crouched in the same position for so long, I start to consider the Head Councilor plan again. I'll need to steal a truth potion from somewhere. It's the kind of potion that would be kept in a locked room or cabinet along with other dangerous substances, but as long as I'm not seen by a surveillance device, I can probably get hold of one.
I wait for Olive to leave again before crawling out from beneath her desk. I'm about to stand when her door opens and she strides back in. My projection of invisibility snaps over me immediately, but her attention is on the amber in her hand so I doubt she'd have noticed if I'd been a little slow to conceal myself. With a grumble under her breath, she slips the amber into her pocket. She turns back to the doorway and stops just outside it, leaning into the office next to hers. “Something's come up,” she says. “I can't work tonight, and I'll only be back midmorning tomorrow.”
“Seriously?” comes the response from Olive's neighbor. “Another one of your random emergencies? I can't cover for you every time you have to go off on another trip.”
Another trip? A trip to the Seelie Court, hopefully. I tiptoe out the door as Olive says, “I'll make it up to you.” She walks back into her office, retrieves her jacket and a small pouch from her top drawer, and locks her office door. Anticipation pounds through me as I follow her downstairs, practicing the words of the faerie paths spell in my mind. Thank goodness Gaius made me memorize them. They're scribbled onto a piece of paper stuffed into one of my pockets, but it would be too much of a distraction from my invisibility illusion to have to take the note out and read it. I've managed to repeat the tongue-twisting words twice by the time we reach the little room off the side of the foyer where Olive will leave through the faerie paths. I realize that I never asked Gaius if the spell will work if the words aren't uttered out loud, but fortunately it's noisy in here with two guards chatting to a flirtatious trainee. I wait for Olive to raise her stylus to the wall. The moment she begins writing the words to open a doorway, I start whispering the words. The doorway opens. As she walks into the darkness, I hurry after her, continuing with the spell as quietly as possible.
I say the final word. Darkness surrounds me, and I have no idea if it's worked. No idea if I'm trapped here. Then, up ahead, light appears with Olive's silhouette framed against it. I almost laugh in relief as I hurry after her. I find myself on the bank of a wide river filled with the clearest water I've ever seen. The riverbed is covered in sand so white it seems to reflect the silver glow of the moon. Luminous fish-like creatures zip here and there through the water. The moon itself hangs low in the sky, but I can't tell if it's rising or sinking. I'll figure it out soon enough, then we'll know what time of day we have to leave the mountain on Thursday.
I remind myself to remain concealed as I pay careful attention to my surroundings. The slim, elegant trees, and those bushes of luminous purple flowers and blue leaves. I'll think of that when we need to return here on Thursday. I return my attention to the river as a white boat with a seahorse's head rising from the bow slips silently toward the bank. It must have magically appeared while I wasn't watching, and since no one is inside, I assume magic is what steers it. It stops moving when it reaches the bank and bobs gently in the water. I watch Olive carefully and make sure to climb inside the boat at the same time she does. She chooses one of the parallel benches, and I pick the bench furthest away from her.
As the rocking of the boat subsides, it begins to glide away from the bank. With her usual expression of boredom, Olive examines messages on her amber. I, however, keep my eyes peeled, taking note of the overhanging branches, the lush vegetation on both banks, the pattern of stars sprinkled above us. I need to remember everything, just in case.
Before long, the boat comes to a stop against the other bank. I move at the same time Olive moves, being careful not to make any noise on the bank as I step onto it. My boots form indentations in the grass. I could extend my illusion to hide the footprints as well, but Olive's attention is pointed the other way. I follow her gaze and see a closed carriage pulled by four white pegasi.
“Hey,” she says to the guard who steps out of the carriage. They exchange greetings in a familiar way that suggests they know each other. They both climb into the carriage as I consider how best to follow them. The carriage door shuts.
Shoot.Well, sitting inside the carriage with them for a journey that could last hours probably wouldn't have been a good idea anyway. I hurry over to the carriage and hoist myself onto the back. I probably shouldn't try to cling here the entire way, so that leaves â¦ the top? If I were brave enough, I'd consider sitting on one of the pegasi, but I don't want to upset any of them, and I don't want to have to remain invisible for the rest of the journey. I'm already feeling the ache of weariness at the edge of my mind.
Keeping as quiet as possible, I climb onto the top of the carriage. As it rolls forward with a jerk, I remove my belt and quickly lengthen it. I tie one end of the belt to the decorative wooden carvings on the left side of the carriage top, loop it around my waist, then tie the other end to the right side. I lie down on my stomach and direct a stream of magic toward one end of the belt to tighten it further. Then, as the rumbling beneath the wheels vanishes and the carriage begins to tilt backward, I hang on for dear life and try to convince myself that this isn't the worst idea I've ever had.
I'm flying. The wind tears at my wig and the trees shrink as we speed across the sky toward the stars. Good thing my phobia has nothing to do with heights. As my eyes water and air is dashed away before I can even attempt to breathe it, I raise my hands and fashion a shield in front of my face. An invisible layer starting at the edge of the carriage roof in front of me, rising up over my head, and ending at the back of my neck. It's flexible, moving as I move, so I push myself up onto my elbows and take a good look below me. I memorize every landmark I can make out. A winding river; a hill over there and another one on this side; a lake flowing into a smaller lake, which flows into an even smaller lake, all three surfaces as smooth as glass.
As the moon climbs higher and time passes, I become aware of a slow pounding at my temples. I'm too tired to hold myself up now, so I lower my head onto my crossed arms as I stare ahead. My headache worsens. I assume it's because of the curse and the fact that I projected more illusions today than I normally would, even if most of them were brief. A tight knot of fear takes form inside me, but I try not to focus on it. Now that I've solved the Seelie Court location problem, there's little else left to do before Thursday. I can rest all of tomorrow if I need to. And even if I can't regain any strengthâyou'll grow weaker and weaker, the witch saidâI won't get any worse as long as I don't project anything. At least, I hope that's how it works.
The journey goes on and on. Hours pass, though I'm not sure how many. I'm tired and achy and cold when finally the carriage begins descending. I blink and look around for the palace. It must be somewhere below, but I see nothing. A glamour, probably, preventing it from being seen. As the carriage wheels hit the ground, I release my shield. A spark of magic from each hand severs both ends of my belt. I sit up slowly, leaving the belt tied around my waist, but shortening the ends so they'reâ
I gasp as the carriage roof vanishes from beneath me. I force a projection out instantly as I crash onto the carriage floor between the two seats. The guard, who was laughing a moment before, tenses and frowns at the floor.
“What was that?” Olive asks, leaning forward and squinting at the spot where I'm lying.
Shoot, shoot, shoot.Aware that I'm making a noise, I scramble backwards on hands and heels until I hit the carriage door. I push myself up and jump. The guard leaps to his feet with magic crackling at his fingertips, but I'm already out of the carriage. My feet hit the ground and I stumble forward, managing to remain both upright and invisible.
“Stop!” the guard yells, and the pegasi come to an immediate halt.
I swing around to face him and freeze. Dammit,dammit! I can't get caught now. Not when we're so close to fixing this mess with Chase. I don't run because I know the guard will hear me. Despite the pounding in my head, I focus intently on making him see nothing except air. Stillness surrounds us as we stand beneath the stars on a tree-lined avenue. The only movement comes from the blossoms that float occasionally to the ground. Hands raised in front of him, the guard moves slowly in my general direction. Olive stands, and as a last resort, I imagine a cracking sound coming from the carriage floor. She startles and looks down. “How old is this thing?” she asks.
The guard lowers his arms and looks over his shoulder. “You think it was the carriage making that noise?”
Olive jumps up and down, and I close my eyes so I can properly imagine the sound of creaking, groaning wood. “Sounds like it. You should probably have this thing replaced at some point.”
“Probably. I guess we won't be using this one on Thursday night. Wouldn't want guests falling out of the sky, would we.” The guard swings himself back into the carriageâI add another cracking sound as he landsâand snaps his fingers. “Fortunately,” he adds as the pegasi begin trotting forward, “we have plenty more.”
I don't release my illusion. I don't move. I barely even breathe as I watch them driving toward an archway with a sheet of water running down it. Olive raises a small dark shape above her head and shakes it. Something sparkles in the air before floating downward and disappearing. Moments later, the carriage and its two occupants drive beneath the archway, the water parting like a curtain to let them through.
I breathe more easily once they've disappeared, but despite my growing exhaustion and the throbbing ache in my head, I don't let go of my illusion. I'm standing in a driveway that leads directly to the Seelie Palace, so I won't fool myself into thinking there are no guards in these trees. There are probably dozens of them, hiding just out of sight. No way am I revealing myself to them.
Knowing how close I am to Chase, it's almost impossible to turn away from the palace. Only the knowledge that I wouldn't be able to get him out on my own makes me walk away. I move as carefully and quietly as I can, pushing my cold hands into the pockets of Lumethon's jacket to warm my fingers. At the touch of something warm and furry in the left pocket, I jerk my hand away in fright. But it's only Filigree, of course. He was so still the entire way here that I completely forgot about him. As I remove him from my pocket, he shifts into something larger. An ermine? I hug him to my chest as I continue walking away from the palace, my eyelids drooping and my legs feeling as though my boots have been filled with sand.
When I'm far enough away from the avenue of trees, I stop shuffling forward and allow myself to sit. I try to open a doorway to the faerie paths, but, as I suspected, the paths are inaccessible here. If it were possible to open a doorway, there would be no need for that long journey through the air. I lower my stylus and look out across my starlit surroundings. How long will I have to travel before reaching a place where the paths are accessible? All the way back to that river? Probably. The thought makes me want to cry, but I don't have to because fortunately I have something better to travel on than my feet.
“Filigree? What's the largest winged creature you can shift into?”
* * *
I stagger through the faerie door in the early hours of the morning and take a seat on the floor of the mountain's entrance hall. Did I really use my Griffin Ability that much during the past day? If I'm this weak after a few hours of simply concealing myself, how weak will I be after hours of complex illusions? I push the thought aside, too scared to consider it properly. I remain on the floor for a while, waiting to feel a little stronger before attempting the stairs, but my strength never seems to return and my head continues to ache. Eventually, when I feel I can manage it, I walk on shaky legs up the stairs, clutching the banister the whole way up.
I expect Gaius to be fast asleep, but I hear raised voices coming from the direction of his study as I reach the top of the stairs. He's either up exceptionally early or he hasn't been to bed yet.
“â¦ everything about the layout of that dungeon, but we don't even know if he'sthereanymore.”
“What else can we do, Elizabeth?” Gaius replies, sounding unusually frustrated. “We cannot contact him. We simply have to go ahead with the plan.”
I arrive in the doorway in time to see her throw her hands up. “Right, this elaborate plan that relies on us getting to a place thatnoneof us has everâ”
“I know how to get there,” I announce, propping myself up against the door frame.
Gaius pauses with his hands halfway through tugging his hair. “Youâyou do?”
“I do. My former mentor has been in contact with the Seelie Queen for reasons I don't know. She was summoned there yesterday afternoon, so I followed her. The palace is inaccessible from the faerie paths for miles in every direction, so we had to travel out in the open to get there. It's â¦ a long journey. I probably didn't need to go all the way to the end because â¦” I blink and force myself to remain upright. “Because, um, I think we just need to get ourselves to the beginningâto the riverâand boats will appear. And after the river, there will be carriages with guards and pegasi to take us the rest of the way. But I â¦ I know what most of the journey looks like, just in case.”
“That's brilliant,” Gaius says with a wide grin. “That'swonderful. You see, my dear Elizabeth? All is not lost. Now, Calla, you look like you could do with some sleep. Why don't you go and rest for a few hours, and I'll organize a final meeting for this evening. We need to make sure we have everything planned down to the most minute detail.”
“Mm hmm. Night.” I push myself away from the doorframe. I manage to make it to my bedroom without having to lean against the wall. I shut my door and shuffle toward the bed.
Without warning, the door opens. I turnâwhich takes far more effort than it shouldâand find Elizabeth in the doorway. “What's wrong with you?” she demands.
“What? I'm just â¦ just tired.” I reach for the bed post as my legs finally give way beneath me. I sag against the edge of the bed.
“Just tired?” she repeats as she shuts the door. “Gaius may be completely oblivious, but I'm not. Tell me the truth.”
“Go â¦ away,” I mutter as I let go of the bedpost and drape the upper half of my body over the bed. It feels like far too much effort to get my legs up as well.
“Tell me,” Elizabeth commands. “Are you sick? Is it something else? You're the one who has to get us in and out of the Seelie Palace, so if something's wrong with you, we need to know.”
With a great effort, I manage to heave the rest of my body onto the bed. I crawl toward the pillows and collapse against them. Being horizontal, which my body has been craving for hours now, gives me the energy to open my eyes and focus on Elizabeth. Standing at the end of my bed with her arms crossed, she looks anything but concerned for my health. Which is what makes me decide to tell her the truth. “How â¦ how do you break a witch's curse?”
She frowns, then comes around to the side of the bed and sits. “A witch cursed you?”
I nod. “The same witch who's been working with Amon and Angelica. The one you helped me contact. She knows of my Griffin Ability and wants it for herself. This curse â¦ apparently I will weaken every time I use my ability. My core magic will slowly be depleted until there isn't enough left to keep me alive. When I die, the only magic left will be my Griffin Ability, and it will flow from my body into the witch's.”
Elizabeth's frown deepens. “Well. That could potentially put a wrench in our plans to rescue Chase.”
“Exactly. So how do I get rid of this curse?”
“Either the witch must lift it, or â¦” She hesitates, then sighs. “Or the witch must be killed.”
“As if I need another reason to want to kill this woman,” I mutter.
“Why haven't you told anyone about this?”
“You know why. Our plan hinges on me being able to create a strong enough illusion to get us in and out of the Seelie Palace without being caught. If Gaius knows about the curse and that it could weaken me to the point of â¦ well,deathâ¦ then he might want to come up with a different plan, and we don't have time for that.”
“And you don't thinkImight want to come up with a different plan now that I know the current one might kill you?”
“No. I know you care about Chase far more than you care about me. You know this is the only way to get him back, so you're not about to change all our plans.”
“True. But I know Chase might never forgive me if I let you die in the process of rescuing him. He'd never forgive himself either.”
“He'd get over it eventually,” I tell her. The thought hurts, but hopefully it's true.
“And what if you die in the middle of the mission? That will ruin everything.”
I ignore her callous words and say, “I'm not going to die in the middle of the mission. I'm weak, but I'm not at death's doorstepâyet. So I just have to make sure I don't use my Griffin Ability at all between now and tomorrow night, and I should be strong enough to get through the whole event.”
“Will be. Iwillbe strong enough.”
Elizabeth shakes her head and sighs through her nose. She stands. “Give me ten minutes.”
I fall asleep while she's gone, so I don't know how much time has passed when she returns with a collection of ingredients, a bowl, a flask, and an old book. “I can't lift the curse, but I know enough about witch magic to be able to alleviate the effects for a limited time.” She places everything on the table. At my questioning look, she adds, “I couldn't very well mix up a tonic right there in Gaius's laboratory if you don't want anyone knowing what it's for. It may be the middle of the night, but he's still puttering around doing who knows what.” She reaches for the book, which looks like it may be the same one she used when contacting the witches. Faded foreign lettering runs down the battered spine, reminding me of the large leather-bound book that was on display in the witches' Underground store.
“Is that a witch's spell book?” I ask.
“Yes.” Elizabeth opens the book and scans through the contents, keeping her back to me.
“What kind of spells are in it?”
“A lot of elemental-based magic. A few witch classicsâsummoning and changeling magicâplus some darker spells. Chimaera creation, energy rituals, ancient curses. That sort of thing.”
“How did you get it?”
Her piercing gaze lands on me as she looks over her shoulder. “Do you want me to answer questions all night or make this tonic?”
“Sorry,” I murmur. My eyelids slide shut. I think I fall asleep again because the next thing I'm aware of is Elizabeth sitting on the edge of my bed with a spoon, a bottle of brownish liquid, and a glass of what appears to be water. She sets everything on the bedside table as I push myself into a sitting position. “Dilute a spoon of this in a glass of water whenever you've used your ability and are feeling depleted,” she tells me, following her own instructions and adding a spoonful of brown liquid to the glass. “It will replenish some of your strength.”
I take the glass from her and sip the contents, preparing myself for a horrible taste. It isn't that bad, though: sweet with a herbal scent. I gulp down the rest of the drink and, to my surprise, start to feel better within seconds. I stare at the empty glass in my hands. “I assume this won't work indefinitely.”
“No. I don't know how long it will keep the curse's effects at bay. Days, weeks, I'm not sure. Just keep using it until it stops working.”
Not the best plan, but I suppose I can't ask for much more at this point. “Thanks, Elizabeth.”
“You're welcome.” Then, as my eyes slide shut, she adds, “Now don't you dare screw up tomorrow night's mission.”
I wake up some time in the afternoon feeling almost normal, which is a great relief. I know I'm only postponing the inevitable effects of the curse, but I don't care at this point. I simply need to make it through tomorrow night without collapsing. If I survive, I'll worry about getting rid of the curse afterwardsâhopefully by getting rid of that witch at the same time.
Late in the afternoon, the rest of the teamâwhich now includes Elizabethâgathers in the mountain's meeting room for our final run-through of the plan.
“Problem,” Ana announces the moment she walks in. None of us are seated, and Lumethon hasn't even arrived yet. “I spoke to Trian Hared. Heâ”
“Who?” Darius asks.
“The musician. Heâ”
“Oh, that guy you got all swoony over?”
“Darius!” Ana punches his arm before continuing. “Trian wasn't invited to this party, but he's been to an event at the palace before. He said he doesn't remember where the journey began, but it was ridiculously long. Three or four hours at least, and not only was his invitation checked by someone at three different points during the journey, he was also supposed to have some special charm to get him through the entrance.”
“What charm?” Gaius asks.
“There's a waterfall of some sort at the entrance to the palace. If you don't have this charm on you as you drive through it, the water becomes solid and knocks you backward out of your carriage. The guards almost arrested Trian, but then it turned out he hadn't opened his invitation properly. Apparently when the person or people the invitation is addressed to first open it, a charm is released that allows those people passage beneath this waterfall curtain.”
“Oh dear,” Gaius mutters, followed by a far more colorful curse from Elizabeth. “We don't have that charm.”
“I know,” Ana snaps. “The baron and his daughter would have received it.” She drops into one of the chairs around the oval table and buries her face in her hands. “Whyyyyy does everything have to be so hard?”
“What's so hard?” Lumethon asks as she walks in, looking alarmed.
“We don't have the charm that will allow us to pass through the Seelie Palace entrance,” Kobe tells her.
“Hang on,” I say, holding my hands up as my last memory of Olive springs to mind. “The person I followed to the palace last night sprinkled something over her herself before she drove beneath that waterfall. Something she kept in a pouch in her desk at the Guild. Maybe it's the same kind of thing. Something that allows her to pass through the water.”
“And what if it's not?” Ana says as she looks at me between her splayed fingers. “What if it was something entirely unrelated?”
“Then why would she bother sprinkling it on herself just before entering the palace grounds?”
“Whatever it is, we have to try it,” Gaius says, seating himself at the table. “Calla, can you get this pouch from her office?”
My eyes meet Elizabeth's across the table. We both know I shouldn't be projecting any illusions before tomorrow night, but this has to be done. “Of course. I'll go as soon as this meeting is over.”
“Excellent. Let's run through everything then.”
Those still standing take a seat at the table, and Gaius begins by telling everyone to be here at midday tomorrow. We'll get readyâmasks, weapons, relevant spells and charmsâand leave the mountain in the late afternoon, which means we should arrive at the palace in time for the party in the evening.
Two or three hours later, when we've been through our plan in detail and talked through every possible obstacle we might encounter, Gaius calls the meeting to an end. He invites everyone to stay for dinner, but I tell him I'll eat when I get back. I want to get that pouch out of Olive's desk before she locks her office for the night.
I'm tired of wigsâthey itch my headâbut I know they help me to blend in far more easily than if I'm wearing a hood. I use the shoulder-length black and pink one again and stick with my normal black jacket. Lumethon's tan-colored one spent far too many hours hanging around Olive's office yesterday.
I expect the Guild to be emptier, given that it's evening and training should be over. Anyone working through the night should be upstairs in an office or out in the field on an assignment, but instead I find a bustle of activity in the foyer. Councilor Merrydale is there, speaking with two other guardians while tapping his foot and glancing over his shoulder every so often. Olive is present, as are several other guardians I recognize. Relieved to be covered by invisibility, I walk confidently across the foyer and up the grand stairway.
Olive's office is unlocked, so I slip inside with no trouble. I hurry over to her desk and open the top drawer. The pouch, of course, isn't there. Because, as Ana pointed out, everything about this mission is hard. Grumbling beneath my breath, I yank the second drawer openâand there it is. “Okay, scratch that,” I whisper to myself. Not everything is that difficult. I pick up the pouch and find a symbolâthe Seelie Queen's insignia, I'm guessingâstamped onto the fabric. Pushing the drawer closed with my hip, I open the pouch and peek inside. The powdery contents glitter in the light of the glow-bugs attached to Olive's ceiling. “This had better work,” I murmur as I pull the string to close the pouch. I open my jacket and drop the pouch into the inner pocketâjust as I hear footsteps pounding along the corridor outside.
“â¦ right now?”
I'm not here. Don't see me, don't see me.
“Yes. Not more than a minute ago. I saw herâ”
The door swings open and Olive storms in with a thunderous expression. “Who's hiding in here?” she demands, her eyes darting around. She marches to the desk. I squeeze around the other side as she yanks her chair back and looks under the desk. “You didn't see her leave the office?” she asks the guard standing in the doorway.
“No, but I might have missed something while on the way here. We'd have to go back to security and ask if one of the other guards sawâ”
“Was the woman wearing a hood?” Olive asks as I inch around the edge of the room.
“No. She was a faerie. Pink and black. Or dark brown. I couldn't quite tell from theâ”
“Get inside here and close the door,” Olive snaps.
No, no, no!I suck my stomach in and hold my breath as I side-step past the guard. “Yes, of course,” he says, moving into the room and slamming the door.
But I'm out. I'm out and I'm running. Not the best idea because it will draw attention, but if guards are watching for me, they'll see me anyway, no matter what speed I'm moving at. And they'll send people after me.Get out, my instincts tell me.Just get out as fast as possible.Corridor, stairs, foyer. It's almost empty now, allowing me to run straight across without having to dodge anyone. Through the doorway into the entrance room, I see Councilor Merrydale. But he's chatting with the guards, so it'll be easy to open a way to the faerie paths under the cover of invisibility and get myself out of here. I dash into the roomâ
And something shocks me. I can't move. I'm stuck in the doorway.What the â¦I'm visible. I'mglowing. Councilor Merrydale steps back, raising a hand to his mouth in surprise as he staresstraight at me. “Oh, itâit worked.” In an instant, his surprise vanishes. “Seize her before she gets away,” he shouts.
I wrench myself free of the magic constraining me to the doorway and stumble backward. The guard launches through the doorway and tackles me to the ground. I kick and squirm and elbow my way out of his grip. Scrambling away and aware of a least five guardians rushing toward me, I cast about for a suitable illusion. My desperate mind starts screamingâand screams are what I hear out loud. The blood-chilling screams that filled Ryn and Vi's house, magnified and echoing across the great foyer. The sound sends chills across my skin as my pursuers look around, searching for the source. Glittering weapons blaze into existence all around me. I jump to my feet and find that despite the deafening shrieks of despair, every guardian still runs for me.
Fire, as searingly hot as I can imagine it, tears across their path. They leap away from the flames, giving me time to run for the exit. I dive through the doorwayâand I'm stuck again. “Argh!” I writhe and shout and try to imagine flames consuming the foyer behind me andâ
A heavy force knocks me into the room. A person, strong and fierce and pinning my arms behind me. “Got you,” a voice snarls in my ear as she rips the wig from my head.
“Release her immediately!” my projection shrieks, and though I've never seen the Seelie Queen in real life, I think of her portrait in the library upstairs and picture her in the most opulent gown my imagination can come up with, along with an expression of fury and a commanding, pointing finger.
I take advantage of Olive's momentary confusion and thrust my elbow back as hard as I can. She grunts in pain and her grip loosens. I repeat the action, knocking her further backwards. I scramble away, turn around, and force a pulse of magic straight at Olive's chest. With a cry, she flies backward and hits the wall.
“What is the meaning of this?” my imaginary queen yells as she moves toward the doorway. I jump to my feet, fumble for my stylus, and scribble across the wall.
“It isn't real!” someone shouts on the other side of the queen.
A doorway of dark space materializes in front of me. I take my first stepâand Olive throws herself around my legs. I fall into the darkness of the faerie paths with the lower half of my body still sticking out. “Ugh, get off!” I yell, wriggling and shooting sparks of magic from my fingers.
“You're not getting away thisâ”
“Yes I am!” I sit up, lean forward, and swing my fist at her face. Surprise, more than anything, is probably what makes her let go. I give her a good kick and squirm my way into the darkness as my doorway closes up behind me. I stand up in the darkness and scramble awkwardly into the lake house on the other side of the paths. “Flip, that hurt,” I mutter, clutching my aching hand. And now, in the quiet of the lake house as fatigue and a headache creep up on me once more, my mind finally has a moment to comprehend what just happened.
A spell. To detect Gifted. That's what that woman was testing downstairs. She must have put it on the entrance room doorway after I was already inside the Guild. That's why there were more people than usual in the foyer. They cast the spell and then everyone went home, probably never suspecting they'd get a chance to see it in action so soon. And the damn thingworks, which means that every single Griffin Gifted fae whoâ
Ryn. Crap. I have to warn Ryn.
I'm about to rush straight to his house when I remember the other spell I'm supposed to be avoiding. Stupid Guild and their stupid detection spells. What were the words to that shield charm Gemma and Perry put together? It was so much simpler than the tongue twisting faerie paths spell but, darn it, I can't afford to get it wrong.
I unlock the faerie door and run through it. Then into the entrance hall, past the living room, and
“Oh, Calla, did youâ”
“Yes, got it!” I shout as I run for the stairs. Gaius can examine the contents of the pouch later if he wants. I find the page with Perry's spell beside my bed. I rush into the bathing room, stand in front of the mirror as I hold one hand above my head, and read the spell. Looking into the mirror, I make sure the glowing dust forms and settles over me. “Done,” I murmur to myself as I leave the page on the bed. I hurry back downstairs, and barely a minute later, I'm stepping out of the faerie paths into Ryn's living room.
Dark, quiet and musty, the room's only light comes from the open door leading to the kitchen. I take a careful step forward, and then another, afraid to disturb the stillness. The room is tidy, with everything in its place except for the open books on the coffee table and the bottle standing beside them. A bottle containing some kind of alcohol, judging by its shape. Human-made alcohol, I realize as I step closer. The kind that knocks faeries out after only a few sips. It's unopened, though, which provides me with some relief.
“What do you want?”
With a jolt, I realize Ryn is sitting on one of the couches. So still and silent, I hadn't noticed him there. I clasp my hands together as the pounding of my headache intensifies. “IâI know you probably don't want to see me, but I need to warn you about something. The Guild has set up a spell across their entrance that detects those with Griffin Abilities.”
He says nothing, his eyes remaining trained on the floor.
“I know you might not be going back to work for a while, but when you do, you'll need to figure out how to get in without setting off their detector.”
Still, he says nothing.
“Well, I'm not sayingyouhave to figure it out,” I add quickly. “I have a friend who can probably come up with a way around this. As soon as he does, I'll let you know.”
“Ryn â¦” I swallow. “IâI know I'm responsible for this. I'm not denying that. But the magicâthe spell that did thisâcame from a pair of witches. I know who they are, and I swear I'm going to find them. They â¦ they must be stopped. They mustn't be allowed to do this to anyone else.”
I expect some form of reaction from Ryn, but it's like speaking to an empty room. I can no longer stand the one-sided conversation, or the darkness or the stuffiness. The desperate desire tomake things rightgrips me as I walk into the kitchen. I cast about for something to do. Something that will help. The center of the kitchen table is piled with envelopes and folded notes. That's the spot where mail materializes when it reaches this house, which means Ryn hasn't touched any of it. I gather everything and sort it as best I can into two piles, one for business mail and one for personal. The personal pile is much larger. Condolences, no doubt. I leave them on the counter where Ryn will see them when he next comes into the kitchen.
A few dirty dishes sit in the sink, so I get a spell going to clean them while I prepare a hot drink for Ryn. Despite the fact that it's his favorite, he probably won't drink it. He might throw it at me in an outburst of angerâwhich, now that I consider it, would be preferable to the deathly silence he's directed at me so far. I return to the living room and leave the mug on the coffee table within his reach, but still he doesn't move. If it weren't for the occasional blink and the slow rise and fall of his chest, he could pass for a statue.
Next, I go upstairs. Quietly, so I don't disturb Violet. The bedroom door is open. I expect to see her asleep on the bed, or perhaps staring at nothing, but the room is empty. After looking briefly into the other rooms upstairs, it becomes clear she isn't here. I tidy up wherever I can, but there isn't much mess to begin with, so it doesn't take long before I'm walking back downstairs.
Ryn hasn't moved. Steam curls lazily into the air from the mug on the coffee table. I wrap my arms around my chest and swallow. “Where's Vi?”
He doesn't say anything for so long that I assume he's still ignoring me, but then, in a hoarse voice he says, “She left.”
“Okay. Um â¦” I cast about for something else to say. “When will she be back?”
The breath he breathes in is more of a gasp, and it shudders on the way out. “I don't know if she's ever coming back.”
Somehow, the silence seems to intensify as I come to understand what he means by âleft.' “You mean â¦ like â¦”
“Yes. Like she didn't just leave home, she left me too.”
“Go,” he says quietly.
I press my eyelids closed, and a tear drips down my cheek. When I've managed to swallow down the guilt and pain enough to speak, I whisper, “I love you and I'm sorry.”
Then I turn to leave. My gaze lingers on the bottle of alcoholâshould I take it with me?âand I notice again the books lying beside it. Books with pictures, one of them with Vi's handwriting scribbled in the margin. I pause, squinting down through the darkness, and this time I see something I recognize: a pyramid with a second, smaller pyramid on top of the first. My heart stills a moment before jumping into action. I lift the book, looking back at Ryn to see if he might be about to object. His staring gaze is pointed elsewhere, though, so I close the book and take it with me as I leave with renewed determination.
I finally know where the witches are.
The guilt-beast circles my thoughts as I enter the mountain with Vi's book tucked beneath my arm. Food is the furthest thing from my mind, but Gaius comes out of the living room and points toward the kitchen. “I kept some dinner for you,” he says with a smile. “You need to keep your strength up for tomorrow night.”
My strength. His words remind me of the weariness tugging at my body and the ache pounding my head. I don't need food. I need some of that tonic sitting beside my bed. But Gaius is already taking my arm and leading me toward the kitchen, so I decide it's easier not to fight. “You said you managed to get that pouch from your old mentor's office?” he asks as I sit at the kitchen table.
“Hmm? Oh, yes.” I remove the pouch from my pocket and hand it to Gaius. After waving his hand briefly at the stove to heat up whatever's in the pot, he takes the pouch.
“Very interesting,” he murmurs, looking inside.
“Gaius,” I say, opening Vi's book to the page with the pyramids. I cover her handwriting with one hand as I point to the pictures. “Do you know this place?”
He turns his attention away from the contents of Olive's pouch. “Uh â¦ Mitallahn Desert.” He reads the name out slowly, as if unsure how to pronounce it correctly. “Yes, I've heard of it.”
The name is familiar, but I can't remember why. “Do you know anything about it?”
“Yes, I remember Chase saying something about it several months back. It was â¦ oh, yes, it came up in his research on Amon. That's where Amon grew up.”
Of course. That's why the name is familiar. I read it in Chase's notes. I close the book and place it on my lap.
“More research on Amon?” Elizabeth asks from the doorway.
I look up to find her watching me closely. “Um, yeah. Oh, thanks, Gaius,” I add as he places a plate of food in front of me. “I'm going to eat upstairs, okay?”
“Oh, all right. Yes, I suppose we should all get an early night.”
“Yes, we should,” Elizabeth says, still watching me. Her gaze remains upon me the whole way up the stairs.
I shut my bedroom door and sit on the bed. I push the plate to one side, place the book in front of me, and turn to the Mitallahn Desert page. I lean forward for a closer look. I've definitely seen this pyramid construction before, in the background of the mirror when I spoke to the witch. Could she and the other witch and Angelica still be there now? Is that where they're staying? Possibly, if they're working for Amon and this is where Amon used to live. I guess he doesn't know yet that Angelica's decided to leave him in prison.
I turn the book sideways and read Vi's notes.V spell placed by Z. Spells belongs to Z. Follow spell, find Z. Pyramids. BUT HE WASN'T THERE!
I assume V is Victoria and Z is Zed. So Vi has obviously been looking for Zed. With her Griffin Ability that allows her to find anyone as long as she's touching something that belongs to that person, it shouldn't be too difficultâexcept that she doesn't have anything that belongs to Zed.
Oh. The spell. The magic that slowly killed Victoria. That's the only thing Vi would have access to that belonged to Zed. I cringe away from the image of Vi touching the lifeless body of her child in the hopes of finding the man who killed her.
BUT HE WASN'T THERE!
Her words glare up at me, screaming silently. Of course he wasn't there, I realize. Because the spell or curse or whatever it was that he placed on Victoria didn't belong to him. The witches made it. It would belong far more to them than it would to Zed. So when Vi touched Victoria and saw images of pyramids in a desert, she was seeing the location of the witches.
Which lines up with what I saw in Elizabeth's mirror.
I snap the book shut and head to my bathing room to fetch a glass of water. After mixing a spoonful of Elizabeth's tonic into the water, I drink it slowly, listening to Gaius walking down the passage to his bedroom.We should all get an early night.Hopefully he's taking his own advice. I, however, am not.
I tie my hair back, strap weapons to my body, zip my jacket up, and listen at the door for a minute or so. When I hear no further sound, I slip out and head downstairs. The guilt-beast, that ever-present shadow of dark and terrible truth, follows me. Hopefully, when tonight is done, that foul, stinking creature will plague me no more.
I stop in front of the faerie door. As my hand reaches for the doorknob, I hear footsteps behind me. “Look at you,” Elizabeth says in a sing-song voice, walking past me and placing herself between me and the faerie door, “making me go against my selfish nature in order to do the right thing.”
My words are almost a growl. “Get out of my way.”
“No. I know where you're going, Calla, which unfortunately means I'm the one who has to stop you.”
“You don't know anything.”
“Don't I? âI'll search every desert in the world if I have to.' Isn't that what you said about the witch?”
My glare intensifies. “Bravo. So you know where I'm going. How clever of you.”
“You're not going,” she says.
“Look, if you're worried about the mission, don't be. I'll be back in time for that.”
“I'm not worried about the mission. Well, I am a little bit, but mainlyâbelieve it or notâI'm worried about you.”
“Move,” I tell her.
She shakes her head. “You know you're not going to do this.”
“You won't. You might plan to. You might think you will. But in the end, you will not kill those witches. It isn't you.”
“You don't know anything about who I am.”
“Oh, but I do. Chase has told me plenty about you. And don'tâdon't be mad at him for that. He and I are â¦ kind of like family. We tell each other everything, and we've kept each other's secrets for years. So that's how I know that you're so much stronger than either of us ever was. We were both new to this world and didn't know what to do with the power we found ourselves with. I was weak and let others control me; Chase was scared and angry and broken, and that led him down a terrible path.”
I ball my fist and press it against my chest. Emotion makes my voice quaver. “What if I'm scared and angry and broken too?”
“You might be, but you're also brave and honest and optimistic. You endured things no one should ever have to endure, and you came out on the right side at the end of it, unlike some of us.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head. “Stop. I can't be any of those things right now. I don'twantto be any of those things. I have to do this.”
“Because my brother will never forgive me!”
Opening my eyes, I see confusion on her face for the first time. “What do you mean?”
“I let this happen! And he â¦ what if he never â¦” My throat constricts and I can barely breathe. All I can see is Ryn sitting alone in the dark, refusing to look at me, his heart turned forever cold toward me. “You don't understand how â¦ how he's always been there for me â¦always. And now â¦”
Elizabeth touches my shoulder. “Whether your brother holds you responsible or not, do you really think killing the witches whose magic brought this about will make everything right?”
I can barely force a sound out as I whisper, “I just want to hate someone other than myself.”
“Calla,” she says gently, kinder than I've ever heard her. “If you do this, it will only make you hate yourself more.”
I cover my eyes with my hands as tears fall. Perhaps she's right, but I can't do nothing. I can't leave Ryn sitting in perpetual darkness and donothing. I sniff and wipe my tears away. “Fine,” I say. “Fine. I won't kill them. But I'll capture them and leave them tied up outside the Guild. And I'll get them to tell me where Zed is so I can capture him too. I'll leave a note pinned to the witches explaining that they're the ones responsible for the dragon disease. The Guild will question them with truth potion, and they'llâ”
“Calla,” Elizabeth interrupts. “It isn't the right time for this. You know how important tomorrow nightâ”
“Of course I know,” I snap. “But I can doboth. I can surprise the witches, tie them up, and take them to the Guild. And then Ryn will know that the people responsible for Victoria's death will be properly punished.”
“Calla! This is our one chance to rescue Chase. You need to sleep tonight instead of fighting witches, and you need to be ready to leave with the rest of us tomorrow afternoon. You can't risk not being here when we depart.” She grasps both my hands and squeezes them. “I know you want to do this for your brother so he'll stop blaming you. And I know you want to rescue Chase. But you can't. Do. Both.”
I can't do both. The realization leaves me feeling weak. “I can't do both,” I whisper. At least, not tonight. And not tomorrow night. The night after that, the witches might be gone, but I'll search for them anyway. I'll search forever if I have to. One day I'll make them pay.