TWO

MY HEAD’S KILLING me. I’m alone in the backseat of a IV van. A human is driving, slowing down, stopping. I don’t want to move from the floor of the van, but the side door grinds open and I’m yanked to my feet. Black splotches dance in my vision. They’re much like the shadows I read for the Court, but these don’t form patterns and no one’s opened a fissure here, wherever here is. Before I’m able to focus, I’m yards away from the vehicle, which is already pulling back onto the road. At least Aren isn’t the fae who’s trying to dislocate my shoulder. He’s a man the rebels call Trev. I can barely feel the electric thrum of his touch because his fingers are cutting off my circulation. He doesn’t hesitate when I stumble or lag behind. Humans can’t move as quickly as the fae. He knows this. He’s a total asshole for not slowing down.

We don’t go far. That’s good because walking makes the world wobble, but bad because this means we’ve reached a gate. It’s invisible when I look directly at it, but if I turn my head to the side, it’s there in my peripheral vision. A thinness in the world. A subtle blurring of the atmosphere.

I blink, trying to figure out where we are. I manage to read the numbers on my digital watch. It’s a little after midnight. I know the locations of every gate within a three-hour radius of my campus, but we’ve driven beyond that boundary. I don’t recognize the tiny pond in front of me or this patch of trees, which appears to be in the middle of some farmer’s cow pasture.

Aren steps to the pond’s edge. Gates are always located on water, so I understand what he’s doing when he reaches into the dark pool. He makes a connection with the gate, then stands, lifting his cupped palm toward the sky. But instead of a sprinkling of water, light spills over his fingers one drop, two drops, three drops at a time until the unending rain forms a bright, solid downpour. When this fissure breaks through the In-Between, it grumbles like a raging thundershower.

“I’ll take her through,” Aren says, taking a long strip of indigo cloth out of his pocket.

“Is that necessary?” I ask.

His silver eyes meet mine. “If the rumors about you are true, then yes. It’s very necessary.”

Having a reputation sucks sometimes.

Trev holds me in place while Aren ties the blindfold around my head. I guess I shouldn’t have expected them to make a stupid mistake, especially since the only reason I’m in this situation is because of what I’m able to see. If I wasn’t blindfolded, there’s a good chance I’d learn our location after we fissured. Basically, I’m a glorified cartographer. When fissures wink out of existence, I see the topography of the earth written in the shadows left behind. It’s like looking at a bright light for too long. When you look away, it takes a while for your vision to clear. The same thing happens with fissures, but where everyone else sees random blurs and blotches, I see the curves of rivers, the edges of mountains, and the slopes of the land. I sketch out these shadows so the Court fae can hunt down their enemies, and I’m pretty damn accurate; a fact that has obviously pissed off the rebels.

Aren says something in his language and a moment later, I hear normal, ungated-fissures opening. I assume the other fae are going directly home or to their base or camp or wherever the hell it is they stay. That leaves me alone with Aren, one on one, mano a mano. Not that my odds of escaping are that much better but, hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Aren presses something warm and smooth into the palm of my right hand. I don’t have to see it to know it’s an anchor-stone, one that’s probably still glowing from his imprint.

“Do you know what will happen if you drop this?” he asks.

“I’ll be eviscerated into a hundred billion pieces of flesh and plague your nightmares.” I let the stone slip through my fingers. It hits the ground with a light thump. I wait for him to bend over to retrieve it, but I don’t hear or feel him move.

“If you’re suicidal,” he says after a long moment. “There are less painful ways to die.”

“You need me alive.” My voice is steady. My heart rate, however, is not. The lightning from his touch radiates up and down my arm.

“You’re sure about that?”

“You wouldn’t have saved me if you wanted me dead.” That’s the only thing giving me courage right now. He went to a lot of trouble to keep me from going splat. He has to want me to shadow-read for him, for the rebels. As long as he thinks I might do it, I should be okay. I think.

His hand slides from my elbow to my shoulder. “Pick up the anchor. It’s by your left foot.”

I sink down to get away from the tingling heat of his touch and pat around the dew-covered grass until I find the stone. It’s so very tempting to chuck it as far away as I can, but I’m not suicidal and Aren, son of Jorreb, is the Butcher of Brykeld.

“You won’t be eviscerated if you let go of the anchor,” he says, pulling me upright. “You’ll be lost in the In-Between.”

And with that, he yanks me into the gated-fissure.

My breath whooshes out of my lungs and crystallizes. It feels like I’ve dropped through the surface of a frozen lake. It’s so cold here my heart stops beating, my blood stops flowing. Only my mind functions, and it can only focus on the heat of the anchor in my left hand and the heat of Aren’s palm in my right. I don’t remember taking his hand, but I squeeze it tight. I’d rather be squeezing his throat.

Supposedly, traveling via fissure, whether gated or not, is instantaneous, but I swear it lasts ten to fifteen excruciating seconds. That’s plenty of time for me to know I do not want to stay in the In-Between one moment longer than necessary. I hate going through gates, especially without Kyol.

As soon as the ice releases me, I know we’re in the Realm. The air here is different. It’s . . . crisp, like biting into an apple, and the atmosphere is lighter. Or maybe it’s me that’s heavier. I’m not sure. All I know is I’m human. I don’t belong in this land any more than the fae belong in mine. I feel big and awkward, like I stick out. And I do. Here in the Realm, chaos lusters originate from humans, not from fae, and the bolts of lightning are white instead of blue. I’ll get used to them and this world in an hour or two, but right now I’m more than uncomfortable. I’m pissed.

As I turn toward Aren, I reach up to take off my blindfold. He stops me, takes both my hands in one of his, and holds them to the hard jaedric armor protecting his chest. We’re so close his cedar-and-cinnamon scent dances its way into my lungs. My thoughts hitch for a moment as his touch triggers more lightning. It shimmies through my fingers, over my palms, and up my arms. It would be so easy to forget myself in the addictive sensation, but I’ve had ten years to steel myself against a fae’s touch and I won’t be distracted.

“Never, ever pull me through a gate unprepared again!” I try to jerk away as I snarl the words. I’m unsuccessful, of course, and I think I hear a chuckle beneath the rumble of another gated-fissure opening.

“I brought you through in one piece.” He takes the anchor-stone from my hand, returns it a moment later. It’s hot with the imprint of a new location. “Hold your breath.”

Already? I start to ask, but he pulls me into the fissure and the question is whipped from my mouth.

I’ve never traveled this quickly before. Fae can fissure over and over again as long as they don’t move far from their original location, but we just jumped between two worlds. Even if we stayed on Earth, the most conditioned fae would have to wait two to three minutes before opening a second fissure. No wonder the Court’s never been able to capture Aren.

My world’s warmth wraps around me. I try to listen between my gasps for air for the voices of people or fae, for the sounds of traffic or construction. Something, anything, to give me a clue as to where I am. The birds twittering overhead aren’t helping me out. I could be anywhere.

Aren re-imprints the anchor-stone. “Again.”

“Again?” I yelp, but this time I hold my breath before he takes me through. That helps. My lungs don’t feel the bite of the frost, but I’ve never, ever been through more than two fissures in an hour before.

We stay in my world. I’m shaking now, and it’s not entirely due to the ice that seems to have replaced my bones. Journeying sucks energy from travelers. When Kyol takes me through a fissure, he absorbs most of that drain himself. Unless he’s exhausted or injured, I only feel a little disoriented on most trips. I’d undoubtedly feel more if we crossed through three fissures, but there was never a need to. Besides, I’m pretty damn sure what we just did was dangerous.

Aren releases my hands to rub his palms up and down my arms. The electric tingle warms me some, but I shove away from him. With the cloth still blinding me and my head still pounding from being knocked out, I’m off-balance. I’m sure my knees would have buckled if he didn’t steady me, but I don’t want his help. As soon as my dizziness subsides, I pivot on my right foot and swing my left knee up and into his groin. He harrumphs but doesn’t let go, and he has no trouble catching the fist I blindly aim for his nose.

I kick and twist and struggle. “Let me go!”

I try to swing my head into his, but he’s ready for me now. His arms encircle me, pinning my arms to my sides. I spin until my back is pressed into his chest and stomach, and I keep squirming until I wear myself out, which doesn’t take long since the gated-fissures siphoned most of my strength.

“Are you finished?” he asks.

I slam my heel into his shin one last time. “For now.”

A short pause, then, “I’m going to take your blindfold off. Do not turn toward the shadows.”

I can feel them lingering just a few steps away, and when Aren removes the cloth from my eyes, it takes all of my self-control not to glance over my shoulder. It’s always difficult not to be sucked in by the shadows. They tug on my consciousness, calling to me like the whisper of a siren’s song. I’ve gotten better at resisting their lure over the years, but Aren’s order not to turn has made them even more tantalizing.

I dig my fingernails into my palms, trying to distract myself. Then, instead of a forbidden glance over my shoulder, I tilt my head back to peer through the treetops to the sky—the sunlit sky.

Wait a second. It was pitch-black when Aren took me through the first gate, and he was so freaking impatient to get through the next two that no more than three or four minutes could have passed. My watch says it’s only ten minutes after midnight.

“Where the hell have you taken me?” I demand.

A tiny smirk pulls at the corner of his mouth. He should have left the blindfold on because I’m seething now that I can see the smug expression framed by his tousled blond hair. He pulls off disheveled-sexy very well, and the fact that I notice he’s good-looking pisses me off even more. A killer should be ugly and scarred. He shouldn’t have a face like his.

I yank my gaze away to scan my surroundings. I think there are mountains to my right, but I don’t get a clear look because Aren’s hand locks on the back of my neck.

“I told you not to turn.”

“I wasn’t looking at the shadows!” His fingers hurt. He must have found a pressure point because I’m on my knees in an instant.

“I’m trying to be kind to you, McKenzie, but I will not allow you to learn anything that might hurt my people.”

“I’m sorry,” I say because my left shoulder is going numb. I stare at his scuffed boots and remain as still and docile as possible. His hand relaxes but remains on my neck. I can feel him staring. After a long silence, I risk a glance up.

His silver eyes turn a mirthless, steely gray as he appraises me, and fear shimmies down my spine. His words really sink in now, and I’m afraid he’s starting to think keeping me alive isn’t worth the risk.

“Good,” he says with a nod that tells me he knows I understand how precarious my situation is. He takes my hand and helps me to my feet.

“This way.” He gestures to a path that might loosely be considered a trail. “We have a long way to walk.”

Because I’m exhausted, it takes a hell of a lot of effort not to ask him why he didn’t just open the last fissure directly to our destination. I have to enter a fissure at a gate, but I can exit anywhere, as long as I have an anchor-stone imprinted for that location. Besides, I think I know the answer to my question. He’s paranoid. That’s why he took me so quickly through three gates, and that’s why he’s watching me now like I might suddenly grow eyes in the back of my head and see the shadows behind us. I want to tell him I’m not that good at my job—the shadows are too old, too faded, for me to read—but I keep my mouth shut.

I glance at the sky as we walk and wonder if we could be in California or maybe Oregon. There’s a two-hour time difference between my home near Houston and those states, but no, that distance isn’t enough to account for the sun. It’s on its way up, not down, so we can’t be on the West Coast. I don’t think we can be anywhere in the western hemisphere.

Great. Just great.

Critters skitter in the underbrush as we follow the pseudotrail. Aren stays close by my side. I want to ask about Kyol. I know he could have escaped if he tried, but he’s never abandoned me when I’ve needed him, and I can’t shake the feeling that he died for me.

My steps falter. I bite my lip, forcing myself to focus on that pain instead of the fear gathering in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want Aren to learn how much the king’s sword-master means to me. I don’t want him to know how much I mean to the sword-master.

Grimacing, I duck under a low-hanging branch. Hiding my feelings isn’t anything new; I should be used to it by now. Kyol and I aren’t supposed to want each other. We’ve both tried not to. We’ve tried to keep our relationship professional, to touch only when necessary, but Kyol’s stronger than I am. He’s the most honorable man—human or fae—I’ve ever met, and he was honest with me from the beginning: we’ll never have a happy ending. Even if he doesn’t lose his life fighting for his king, the laws of the Realm keep us from being together.

I know I need to move on. No woman in her right mind would wait ten years for a man to become more than just a friend, but that’s the thing about love—it makes you do stupid shit. I live for the moments when Kyol’s control breaks, the moments when we’re alone and we kiss, and when I can pretend everything is right in both our worlds.

God, what if we never have another moment like that?

When the trail ends, I force my worry aside. Aren and I step from the woods into a clearing that’s about the size of a football field. Enough trees are scattered about the glade for their outstretched branches to create a fairly solid canopy above us. Sunlight flickers through the leaves, tossing shadows over dirt, trampled grass, and a broken wooden sign. The paint on the sign is cracked and faded, but I’m pretty sure it’s welcoming visitors to the illegible name of the guesthouse that’s just ahead. It’s a three-story structure with a peaked roof and brown trim crisscrossing its once-white walls. Cracks zigzag up its side and the whole place looks weakened by age, but I can imagine what it might have looked like in its youth. There’s a certain storybook feel to it. More precisely, there’s a Hansel and Gretel feel to it. Hmm.

I look back at the dilapidated sign and scrutinize the barely there words. It’s not exactly welcoming visitors to the guesthouse ; it’s willkommen-ing them to the gasthaus.

I stop suddenly and turn to Aren. “Germany? Seriously?”

The corner of his mouth quirks up. “Why not?”

He places his palm on the small of my back and urges me forward. Maybe I should count myself lucky he isn’t upset I’ve learned what country we’re in, but honestly, it’s not like we’re in Luxembourg, which is about the size of the average mall in Texas. If I’m ever in trouble, I’m supposed to call Paige, my best friend—okay, my only friend—and tell her where I am. She doesn’t know the fae exist, but she’s met Kyol. She’ll pass on my message if I ask. Problem is, even if she passes it on today, it would take the Court months to search all the remote areas of Germany. Aren and his rebels would be long gone before they found me.

Speaking of the rebels, there are more than a dozen here. It’s a decidedly strange sight—medieval, I guess I should say—but it’s a sight I’ve become somewhat used to over the years. They’re dressed in typical non-noble fae fashion. Men and women both wear white or pale-brown tunics over dark pants that are stuffed into black boots. A few wear armor similar to Aren’s. It’s made from the bark of a jaedric tree. The Court treats theirs with a substance that darkens and shines it, but the rebels don’t. Theirs is dull and splotchy. Small drawstring pouches are tied to the weapon belts cinched around their waists. They’re the same kind of pouches as the one I have stuffed into my backpack, which I haven’t seen since Aren knocked me out. Those pouches hold anchor-stones the same as mine does.

The fae notice me and a whisper passes through the camp. When their silver eyes meet mine, they end their conversations. Pretty soon, everyone’s staring. No one’s muttering a syllable.

Blue lightning flashes over their skin, and the hair on the back of my neck prickles. These people despise me, especially the trio sitting on logs several paces to my right. Swords lie in scabbards on the ground at their feet, and two of the men’s shirts are stained red. They’re the attackers Kyol engaged when they tried to block my escape. At the time, there were six of them. Some didn’t survive. That bothers me even though it shouldn’t. Those deaths are their own fault. When I track fae for the Court, Kyol always tries to capture our targets. He only kills if it’s necessary. These rebels made it necessary when they attacked me.

“Aren!” A female voice shatters the silence. She closes the inn’s front door, then hurries down the porch steps, and the entire camp is suddenly in motion welcoming Aren back. It’s clear everyone here respects him, and I have to admit he has a certain amount of charisma. I watch him grin and shake hands, and though I don’t understand what’s being said, I get the impression he’s shrugging off what he’s just done. That’s irritating. Abducting me might not have been difficult, but there will be repercussions. I’ll make sure of it.

The woman who called Aren’s name rushes forward and throws her arms around his neck. He returns her embrace, but turns his hips away in a safe-hug. It’s a platonic hug between friends, though I’m positive she wants it to be more. With shells braided through her gold-blond hair and stone bracelets clinking together on her wrists, she’s beautiful. And important, too, if her clothing is any indication. She’s dressed in a bright blue tunic and clean, snug-fitting pants. The material looks expensive, like only-affordable-to-nobles expensive, and her collar and the tunic’s flowing hem are adorned with chips of gemstones. Everyone notices her. Aren does, too, I’m sure, but maybe he has a prettier girl tucked away somewhere?

While he’s distracted with his homecoming, I experiment with a small, almost insignificant step backward. No one seems to notice, so I retreat another inch. I can’t outrun the fae. I guess I’m hoping I can put some distance between me and the camp before anyone figures out I’m gone, but I don’t make it one full stride before Aren turns. I freeze and don my best innocent expression.

“This is the nalkin-shom,” he says to his audience.

I frown. I’ve never learned the fae’s language—humans aren’t allowed to—but I’m pretty sure what he called me is an insult.

“You didn’t kill her,” the pretty female says. She scrutinizes me with obvious contempt. I don’t like her either, and it’s not just because she’s beautiful. The only reason she spoke in English was to unsettle me, to let me know that killing me had been a very real option. The reminder does bother me, but I manage to keep my chin up and glare.

“This is Lena, daughter of Zarrak,” Aren says to me. “She’ll show you to your room.”

Her scowl deepens. “She gets a room?”

“Yes. Make sure it’s one on the third floor. She needs to get some rest before we decide what we’re going to do with her.”

“You mean, before you decide if you’re going to kill me.” A moment passes before I realize I spoke those words out loud.

Aren smiles. “And, Lena, make sure the room’s not near one of the oak trees. I think our nalkin-shom has an affinity for jumping out of windows.” He winks at me. “Enjoy your stay, McKenzie.”

“Come on,” Lena snaps as Aren unbuckles his weapon belt and walks toward a trio of waiting fae. I consider ignoring her until she folds her slender but toned arms across her chest and raises an eyebrow, looking all too ready for a fight. We might be close to the same height and weight, but I’m pretty sure the daughter of Zarrak can kick my ass—I’m pretty sure all the fae here can.

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