Aren POVs

Warning: Unedited writing commences below!

Aren's POV #1

The stone in the blacksmith’s hand glows blue as he drags it along my sword one last time, sharpening the blade with his magic. The metal is dark and unevenly shaded, not pure and pretty like the Court fae’s. But this is the way it should be. It will kill just as efficiently.

The blacksmith hands the weapon to me.

Aren,” someone calls out. I recognize the voice, and I roll my shoulders, loosening my muscles before I turn. It’s Isyll, one of our palace spies.

You’re early,” I say, keeping my voice calm and unconcerned. Isyll jogs toward me, breathing rapidly. Edarratae flash across her skin, protesting her presence in the human world. The bright blue lightning looks agitated, and the sweat beading on her forehead indicates she fissured multiple times to get here. Good. We can’t afford the Court fae learning our location.

The king knows,” Isyll says when she reaches me. “He knows we learned the shadow-witch’s name.

The blacksmith curses, and a murmur runs through the other fae who are near enough to hear her words. Trev, a fire-thrower who’s even more impatient than me to kill the shadow-witch, rises from the edge of the porch of the abandoned inn we’ve taken over.

We learned her name too easily,” he says, moving to my side. “The king has set a trap for us.

The king has made a mistake,” I say, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Wait here.

I open a fissure and disappear into the slash of white light before anyone says another word. The chill of the In-Between sharpens my mind, and an instant later, when I step into my room on the inn’s third level, I know exactly what we will do.

I grab a bag from a trunk in the corner and leave the room. Via the door, not a fissure. I can’t risk the In-Between stealing the contents of the bag.

Taking the stairs three at a time, I make it back to the front door within a minute of my departure.

We go after the shadow-witch, now,” I say, striding onto the porch. I loosen the drawstring on the bag then toss it to the ground. Dozens of anchor-stones spill out. “They’re imprinted with the location of her school. We’ll take her there.

That’s not our plan.

Trev and the other fae straighten when they hear Sethan’s voice. I don’t. I hop off the porch, pick up one of the anchor-stones, and toss it to my friend, the Realm’s future king. “I made a secondary plan.

Sethan catches the stone in the air. “When-

Naito looked up everything about her he could find.” Which, admittedly wasn’t much. “She has a class schedule. We’re going to disrupt it.”

Sethan’s brow furrows while he weighs my words. He has more concerns than I do. More responsibilities. He has to think about the repercussions of my actions, how they’ll be interpreted by our allies, and even by our enemies. I don’t care what the others think. I have one objective: to keep this rebellion alive and thriving. To do that, I have to take out the shadow-witch. She’s tracked down and killed too many of our fae.

No.” Sethan shakes his head. “We need her to be alone. We’ll wait at her home.

The king won’t let her return to her apartment,” I say.

We’re not certain the McKenzie Lewis we’re targeting is the king’s McKenzie Lewis.

Naito’s looked at all the possibilities. This one is the best candidate.”

I don’t want-”

Sethan,” I interrupt. “We need to do this. We need to eliminate her. She almost tracked me. If she crosses paths with you, and reads your shadows, everything you’ve worked for will be lost. This rebellion will end.”

He isn’t convinced yet. It takes everything in me to stand my ground, not to push him too hard on this. He’ll come to the same conclusion I have in time. But time is the enemy. If the king knows we know the shadow-witch’s location, he’ll send his swordmaster to save her. I would relish that fight, but not today. Today, we need to cripple the Court fae.

The nobles who support us are growing nervous,” Trev says beside me. “They’re afraid of the shadow-witch. They think she’s immortal and infallible.”

I fight to hide my smile. Perfect timing, Trev. Political pressure will bring Sethan to my view.

This opportunity won’t come again,” I say, just one more small nudge.

Sethan closes his eyes, and my adrenaline spikes. I’ve won.

Stay invisible,” he says. “Watch your weapons. I want no human witnesses.

I palm an anchor-stone. Trev and ten other fae do the same. I scan their faces quickly then meet Sethan’s gaze.

We’ll have only one human witness,” I tell him. “And she’ll be dead in a few minutes.

Grinning, I draw my sword then open a fissure. The king will soon learn what it feels like to lose a valuable asset.

Aren's POV #2

The second the bright white light of the In-Between disappears, I know we’re almost too late. The king’s swordmaster is here, and he’s dragging a human from one of the college’s tall, brick buildings.

Beside me, Trev lets out a hiss. He wants Taltrayn and the shadow-witch dead as much as I do, but he heard Sethan’s command: no human witnesses. Taking the girl without every other person here seeing something unusual will be almost impossible.

Almost.

We’re doing this,” I say to Trev and the other fae who fissured with us to the rooftop.

Sethan-”

I know what he said,” I cut him off, scanning the paved courtyard and nearby buildings. There’s only one place that might be unoccupied, a structure to the north that’s in the process of being built. It will be difficult to lure her there, but it’s our best chance.

Force her that way.” I point to the building. It’s surrounded by a metal fence, piles of dirt and lumber, and a few inactive construction vehicles, but there’s no movement I can see. It’s late here, almost dark. Human workers travel home in the evenings. It should be empty.

How do you expect us to do that undetected?” Trev demands.

I move to the left, following the progress of Taltrayn and the shadow-witch. “No magic. No misses with your arrows. And when you kill, make sure any dropped weapons go to the In-Between.”

Aren-”

Kill them.” I fissure out before Trev can protest again. Bright light and piercing cold overwhelm my sensations for an instant, then I reappear on the ground below.

And almost get my head taken off.

Sidhe, the swordmaster is quick. I deflect his attack, but my counter is weak.

I disappear out of Taltrayn’s path, step back into the world half a foot away, just behind the shadow-witch. She has long, dark hair. I could reach out and grab a handful of it, but she’d scream. She’d draw too much attention.

I curse again. Surprise should have been on our side, but Taltrayn was ready for us, and he has reinforcements. They’re fissuring in around us as quickly as my rebels can notch and release their arrows.

A fae’s sword whistles by my head. I face my new opponent, dodge another attack.

The Court fae’s mouth is twisted into a snarl. He knows who I am. Good.

Holding his gaze, I open a path to the In-Between, step into the light, then step out at the same point. The enemy expected me to move. He’s already spinning, making it easy to lop his arm off. It drops to the ground.

No time to watch it disappear. Multiple fissures cut through the atmosphere behind me, their loud shrrips far too close. I spin, and my sword slices just below the nearest Court fae’sjaedric cuirass. Blood arcs from the gut wound, splattering on the concrete.

My boot pounds the chest of my next opponent, giving me time to defend another’s attack. I counter and kill, but another fae replaces him then another.

I have no choice but to fissure out of the way, away from Taltrayn and the shadow-witch. It doesn’t matter, though. My fae are doing exactly as I ordered, attacking hard and heavy, leaving the construction site the only potential escape path.

But Taltrayn is still at her side. That has to change.

Cut them off,” I order as I disappear into another strip of light. Six of us emerge in front of Taltrayn and the human. She’s not a threat; he is. We let her slip past and close in on our secondary prey.

I adjust my two-handed grip on my sword and meet the swordmaster’s gaze. His expression doesn’t change. He looks at us all as if we’re deranged tor’um, unimportant and unthreatening. The arrogance fits him like his well-oiled jaedric armor and that gilded, glistening sword. Noble traem.

Attack,” I command. My fae are getting better at working as a team. They close in on Taltrayn, giving him no choice but to disappear. Instinct tells me where he’ll emerge and I vanish, too.

I step from the In-Between swinging, and almost get the kill. But my instinct was slightly off. My sword slices through Taltrayn’s side, but it’s only a deep flesh wound.

He doesn’t give me time to hurt him again. He rounds on me with a speed and strength that’s staggering. There’s a reason he’s considered the best swordsman in the Realm. I almost forgot that in my reckless pursuit of the shadow-witch.

I reel backward. His sword passes through the air where my head was, so close I can almost feel the slice of his blade across my throat.

He’s swinging again. My heel comes down on my other foot. I try lifting my sword to block his attack, but I’m not quick enough.

He’s going to kill me.

Shock paralyzes me for the briefest instant, then I hear the sharp shrrip of my fissure opening behind me.

Taltrayn’s blade advances faster than I fall, and when a cold, piercing light sucks me out of the human world, I don’t know whether I’m entering the In-Between or the eternal Ether.

Aren's POV #3

Falling into a fissure without a plan is never a good idea. It’s even worse when the deadliest shadow-reader in the Realm is nearby. The shock of the In-Between makes it impossible to arrange a strategic exit. Fae instinctively open gateways to personal places, places that feel like home.

In my case, that’s my latest encampment.

Sethan, the fae I’m supposed to be protecting so he can take the throne, stares down at me.

“She didn’t see me,” I grind out, climbing to my feet.

You’re sure?” he asks. His tone points out that mistakes like mine are why so many of our friends and swordsmen have been killed.

She was scared and running, no pen or paper in hand.” I’m trying to convince myself, not him, that my words are true. This location should be safe, but the reason we’re going pursuing the shadow-witch is because she’s skilled enough to map old shadows.

I let out a sigh. Better to be cautious than to visit the Ether early. “Leave. I’ll meet you at the inn.”

Tightening my grip on my sword, I open a fissure. The In-Between holds me for a fraction of a moment then I’m back in the humans’ world.

In the twenty seconds I was away from the fight, our fortune changed. We’re losing. The king is sending every fae he has to save his precious shadow-witch, and my swordsmen are bleeding and fleeing.

Clenching my teeth, I look for my target. She’s there, running toward a fence with the sword-master at her side. While I watch, an arrow plunges into Taltrayn’s side.

He yanks it free. A smart fae would fissure to a healer, but he stays with the shadow-witch. They move together. She presses forward despite the arrows flying through the air. She has complete faith in his ability to protect her, and they’re in sync. More in sync than I’ve ever seen a shadow-reader and a fae. They know each other well. She trusts him with her life.

What might he trust her with?

The question wedges itself in my mind, but I signal to my nearest swordsmen as the shadow reader climbs the fence that surrounds the construction site. She crashes down on the other side. Gets up. Runs.

My fae occupy Taltrayn and the other Court fae. I catch Trev’s attention then, when the human disappears into the building, we fissure to its entrance.

Three more fae join us. We need line of sight to appear in unfamiliar places, so I take a step forward and peer inside.

As soon as I spot the shadow-witch sprinting across the cement floor, I enter the In-Between and exit in front of her, cutting off her escape.

She slides to a stop.

“McKenzie,” I say. Finally, we have the shadow-witch.

Her eyes go wide as she stares at me and my swordsmen, who’ve appeared on either side of me.

“McKenzie Lewis.” When I say her name this time, the panic in her posture disappears. She presses her lips into a thin, determined line then glances over her shoulder.

A slant of moonlight illuminates her face.

My first thought is that it would be a waste to kill her. She’s human and different, pretty in a foreign, innocent way, but she has fight in her eyes. Fear and hatred, too. She must believe every rumor about me that’s ever been spread. Some of them are true. The important ones are not.

Then my earlier question weaves its way through my mind again. She’s Taltrayn’s pet. She’s spoken with the king. She knows almost every high-level fae in the palace. If we could turn her…

She takes a step back, and the light that was shining on her face moves to her stomach. Her shirt is dark with blood.

“Are you hurt?” I battle down a surprisingly strong desire to step forward and heal her wounds. This human is the shadow-witch, I remind myself. She deserves to die for the fae deaths she’s called. I shouldn’t be concerned if she bleeds out.

She stares down at her shirt as if she’s never seen blood before.

Impossible. She’s seen violence – she’s responsible for most of it – but her expression hits me hard enough to fray my mental armor.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” I say. “I’d like to talk to you.”

Trev’s gaze jerks toward me. I ignore him, and my plan solidifies in my mind. Yes. Much better to use her than to end her. If even half of the innocence in her eyes is real, I can make this work.

“Look.” I sheath my sword and hold my hands out. I’m not going to kill her. I’m going to convert her.

Aren's POV #4

The fear in the shadow-witch’s eyes disappears. At first, I think it’s because she’s going to trust me, but then I notice the set of her jaw, the stubborn lift of her chin. Hate radiates from her. It’s as sizzling hot as the In-Between is bitingly cold. Her expression hides nothing, and for a brief moment, I wonder what other emotions would look like on her smooth, exotic face.

I wonder what trust would look like.

I take a step toward her–

–and she lunges for the staircase.

Trev slashes his hand through the air, opening a fissure. I grab his shoulder before he can step into the light. Instinct has taken hold of me. Instinct and an idea.

Trev glares. “She’s running.”.

If you call that a run.” I could walk up the stairs backward and still catch her. “I’ll take care of the shadow-witch. Find Naito. Have him bring transportation.”

Transportation?”

I nod then jog after the nalkin-shom. Her footsteps pound up the stairs. My pace is leisurely, but I’m overtaking her. She stops on the fourth floor then scrambles across the cement, undoubtedly looking for a place to hide.

“You’re making this more difficult than it needs to be.” I survey the floor, the shadows cast by the machines and lumber and the orange, webbed fence blocking an opening to the edge of the building. Moonlight outlines a tall arm of a crane outside.

I take a quiet step forward and the nalkin-shom leaps from behind a piece of machinery. I’m certain she’s going to turn toward me, to attack me with that determination and hate I saw in her eyes below, but then I see what her gaze has locked on.

“No, wait!”

She attempts a suicidal leap toward the crane. My fingertips catch a strap on her backpack, enough to save her life and swing her down against the wall of the building. Her hands tangle in the orange safety fence, and she screams.

She keeps screaming.

My heart knocks again my chest. The shadow-witch is alive and dangling below, but Sidhe, that was close.

I let out a nervous laugh. “I can’t believe you held on.”

Those angry eyes glare up at me again. She kicks. The plastic fence stretches.

“Woah, easy, there. Easy.” Why am I trying to comfort her? I should let her fall. My original mission was to kill her. I shouldn’t waste my time and energy on saving her, especially not when the human police or Court fae could stumble upon us at any moment.

“Back off.” Her voice cracks. She’s still kicking. The fence is still stretching. If I want her to live, I have to calm her.

“Sure,” I say, grinning down. “No problem, but how about you give me your hand first. There’s no need for you to fall.”

“I won’t help you.”

“I’m not asking for your help.” Not yet at least. “Just give me your h–”

The plastic fence rips free from the wall. The sudden force of her weight drags me over the edge. Instead of letting go, I hold tighter to the plastic and grab the wood beam beside the opening.

McKenzie kicks and screams below.

“McKenzie. Hey, look up here, McKenzie. I’ve got you.”

Wide, frightened eyes stare up at me with an innocence and vulnerability that nearly makes me lose my grip on the window frame. My earlier instinct feels even more right.

“Stop kicking.” I make my tone soft, but demanding.

She stops. She’s listening. She knows she needs me.

“Good. Now, you’re going to have to grab my legs. I think the fence will rip if I try to pull you up. Can you do that?”

I look at the orange fence again. The plastic is stretching, in some places so much that it’s almost translucent. There’s no way the plastic will last.

Her gaze drops toward the ground.

“No, don’t look down, McKenzie. Look up here. Look at me.”

Her eyes find mine again. They’re a deep shade of brown flecked with moonlight. I’m used to the silver eyes of fae. Her eyes are darker than her hair.

“Pull yourself up.”

She manages to reach up and grab my dangling legs. As soon as I feel her arms tighten around me, I release the fence then use both hands to drag myself back up over the ledge.

“Are you okay?” I ask after I pull her up. She’s lying face down on the cement and breathing hard.

She doesn’t answer. She just lurches to her feet.

With a short laugh, I casually rise too. Three sets of fae footsteps are coming up the stairs. She’s not going anywhere.

The police are coming,” Trev says, running into the room.

I translate his words for McKenzie, who slides to a stop. She takes a tiny step to the side. Brave little thing. Even with three fae blocking her path and me at her back, she’s thinking about running. I can see it in the way she tenses.

Grabbing her arm before she does something stupid, I guide her to the shadows along the back wall. “The police can’t help you.”

Her eyes are angry again, and something sparks through me. Chaos lusters. The blue lightning on my skin zig-zags down my arm and into McKenzie. I should be prepared for its impact, but the heat from our touch hits me in a way that no human’s ever has before.

The shock of the sensation almost makes me release her, then I see her expression. I see just how much she doesn’t like my touch.

A smile curves my lips. If I hold her hand, maybe she’ll confess all her secrets.

“Let go!” she snarls.

My smile falters. Heavy human footsteps pound up the stairs. If the police spot McKenzie, I’ll have to let her go. We don’t want normal humans to learn about our existence.

Leaning toward her ear, I whisper, “Be quiet. Be still.”

She struggles harder, opens her mouth to scream.

I silence her with my palm–

–and she bites it.

Nom-sidhe!

It takes everything in me not to shout or jerk free. The police wouldn’t hear me, but they’d hear McKenzie when she started to scream again.

Gritting my teeth against the pain in my hand, I say, “Sorry about this.”

I draw my dagger from my belt and slam it into her temple.

Her knees buckle, but only for an instant. She’s still conscious.

Reminding myself she’s an enemy, I fight an uncomfortable, hesitant feeling in my gut and I hit her again. This time, she goes limp.

Slowly, quietly, I lower her to the ground and press my hand against her head.

“Very sorry about that,” I whisper. Then I send my magic into her. The two red, swelling lumps on her head disappear. I keep my hand there, but cut off the magic. She’ll have a headache when she wakes up, but she won’t know I healed her.

The sound of the policemen’s footsteps fade. They’re returning downstairs, falling for a distraction my fae created. I wait several more seconds, watching the sparks of blue light on my hand. In the dark of the night and the glow of the chaos lusters, McKenzie doesn’t look like a heartless pawn of the Court fae. She looks like a spirit with her own kind of magic. This plan of mine might be more dangerous than I thought.

Aren's POV #5

This is taking too long.

The road is black. Not a single vehicle has driven by since Trev and I fissured here. Naito said it would take an hour to get here. It’s been twice that long.

If you had killed her, you wouldn’t be pacing like a deranged tor’um,” Trev says.

He’ll be here.” The words are meant for me. I don’t normally worry during a mission, but the fate of McKenzie Lewis is crucial to Sethan’s future. If she escapes, she’ll keep tracking us. She’ll continue to whittle down our numbers. The Court fae have been fissuring her to places where fae are rumored to support us. Half of the shadows she maps aren’t for our followers, but the other half are. One day, she’ll get lucky and send the Court fae straight to our latest camp.

Something’s gone wrong,” Trev says. “You feel it. So do I.”

Light brightens in my peripheral vision. I turn.

Headlights. Finally.

I stop pacing and grin. “See? No problems.”

Trev scowls.

The van’s door slides open and Teo, the fae I sent to make sure the shadow-witch didn’t wake early or cause problems, climbs out, holding McKenzie’s backpack. The chaos lusters are erratic after two hours of being in a human vehicle, but he’ll be fine. He acknowledges me with a nod then fissures out.

Take her to the gate,” I say to Trev. “I’ll catch up.”

I walk around the front of the vehicle to the other side where Naito sits behind the wheel with his window rolled down.

This is a bad idea,” he says in Fae.

It’ll be fine,” I tell him. “If Sethan’s against it, we can kill her at the inn.”

Naito stares straight ahead.

You don’t want to kill her?” I ask.

She should already be dead. In battle. Not captured and helpless like this.”

You should be on my side then. I want to keep her alive too.”

Naito shakes his head. “I worked for the king for a few weeks and had a hard time trusting you. She’s worked for him for ten years. She’s as much a part of the Court as any fae is. You can’t abduct her, make a few threats, and have all that change overnight.”

I’m willing to take two or three nights.”

His expression says I’m not funny.

Through the opposite window, I see Trev yanking the shadow-witch away from the van. He looks like he wants to jerk her arm out of its socket. I understand. I wanted to hurt her the second I spotted her at the campus. She’s killed so many of our friends, and last week, she read the shadows of Trev’s brother. The Court fae tracked him to a farm in Cadek Province. I’ve told all our supporters to fissure out the moment they see the Court fae, not to fight, but Teo’s family didn’t want to lose their home. They stayed too long and Trev’s brother, likely out of guilt for bringing the Court fae there, remained to help. Ten fae were sent to the ether that night, all because the shadow-witch mapped Trev’s brother to the farm’s doorstep, giving them no warning, no time to grab weapons or don armor.

My hands are clenched into fists. I force myself to relax, to focus on my plan. It isn’t the shadow-witch I want to hurt. It’s the king and his Court fae, the men and women who are actually spilling the blood. If I can turn McKenzie, it will be a blow. I’ll use her as they have done. I’ll track their friends and families. They’ll feel each death. They’ll look over their shoulders each time they fissure and fear for their survival.

“Aren.”

I refocus on Naito. He holds out a black cloth. “Make sure she doesn’t see the shadows.”

No need to tell me that. I know how dangerous she is. I was going to hold my hand over her eyes but this will be better. Less physical contact. I take the cloth then fissure to the gate. It’s located at the edge of a pond in the middle of a field. Reaching into its waters, I scoop a handful of the magically infused water. Each drop that pours through my fingers turns into light. The connection between this world and the In-Between vibrates through me much like the edarratae when I touch a human. When the light fully forms, the sensation vanishes.

Taking the cloth out of my pocket, I approach Trev and McKenzie.

I’ll take her through.”

The shadow-witch eyes the blindfold. “Is that necessary?” Her voice is strong, almost accusing, not unsure and worried like it should be. I like her aggression, but it might be dangerous. It could mean I’ve miscalculated and won’t be able to sway her to join Sethan’s side.

“If the rumors about you are true,” I say, “then yes. It’s very necessary.” I wrap the black cloth around her head, tighten it and make sure her eyes are covered. After adjusting it, only her mouth shows. I stare at her lips a moment, and an image of Naito and Kelia kissing leaps into my mind. They’re addicted to each other, addicted to the spark their bodies create when they’re together, and I wonder if this human knows how that feels. There have been whispers that she’s an enchantress. She corrupts souls and steals magic, but the human who stared me down in the half-built building on her campus didn’t seem to have any evil or magic in her eyes. She’d been vulnerable, but tough and determined.

Trev clears his throat.

“Naito will meet you at the other gate,” I say. With one last disapproving scowl, he fissures away.

I take an anchor-stone out of my pocket. It’s the only way a human can travel the In-Between without dying, and I press the imprinted rock into McKenzie Lewis’s hand.

Her fingers tighten around it, and the set of her mouth tells me she wants to chuck the thing at my head. Despite her situation, she still has that spark.

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

“I’ll be eviscerated into a hundred billion pieces of flesh and plague your nightmares.” She drops the stone.

I want to laugh, to give her credit for her courage. Instead, I lean close to her ear and make my voice low and threatening. “If you’re suicidal, there are less painful ways to die.”

“You need me alive.”

I’m holding her wrist. My chaos lusters leap to her skin and flicker up her arm. I’m not sure if it’s my touch or a crack in her confidence that’s responsible for the slight waver in her voice.

“You’re sure about that?”

“You wouldn’t have saved me if you wanted me dead.”

She’s smart. Possibly too smart.

“Pick up the anchor. It’s by your left foot.” I’ve seen her bravery. I’m not picking up the stone. Besides, I need her to give into me. Give in once, it’ll be easier for her to give in again.

“You won’t be eviscerated if you let go of the anchor.” I pull her upright. “You’ll be lost in the In-Between.”

Without the courtesy of a warning, I pull her into the gated fissure.

Aren's POV #6

McKenzie clings to me when we step from the light. It’s so sudden a reversal of her cold, angry attitude from a moment ago that I return the pressure she’s putting on my hand. The anchor-stone warms between our palms and lightning flickers over our fingers. I look down at her parted lips, her heaving chest, and the lightning that ricochets over her skin. In the Realm, the chaos lusters cover humans, not fae, and they’re as searing white as the light from a fissure. With her dark hair and eyes, McKenzie already looks foreign and fascinating, but the lightning adds something more to the enchantment.

Nalkin-shom. Shadow-witch. It’s such an appropriate epithet.

A shiver runs through McKenzie. An echo of it rattles through me, though I’m not half as cold as she is.

While she’s distracted recovering her breath, I put some distance between us then quickly reach down to the bank of the river by my feet. It takes only a second to open the gated fissure. I’m about to be nice and give her a fair warning this time, but then she reaches toward her blindfold.

I seize both her hands and grip them hard. We’re in Cadek Province, at the location of the only Missing Gate in the Realm that we have knowledge of that the Court does not. I have no intention of ever letting McKenzie return to the king, but I’d be a fool to let her see the shadows of this place. Fissuring back and forth between the human’s world and mine is the best way to evade the fae sent to track us. If she sees these shadows, she’s dead. There will be no convincing Sethan otherwise.

Oblivious to how close she came to sealing her fate, she tilts her head up.

“Never, ever pull me through a gate unprepared again!” She throws the words at me like shards of Satusian ice, but the warmth her touch creates doesn’t go away. It won’t as long as there’s contact between us.

My gaze flickers to our clasped hands. “I brought you through in one piece.” I pry the anchor-stone from her fingers, re-imprint it with a new location, then press it into her palm again. “Hold your breath.”

The In-Between cinches around us like a belt of frost-covered iron. I feel it in my bones this time, and in the muscles of my back, which always stiffen up when I fissure too quickly. There’s no avoiding it, though. I have to be cautious. We all must be.

The heat of McKenzie’s world sooths the bite of the In-Between. I make sure the deep, slow breath I draw in is silent so she doesn’t learn the double fissure effected me, then I re-imprint the stone a third time and open another gateway.

“Again,” I say.

“Again—”

Her voice ends in a strangle when I pull her into the fissure. When we emerge this time, I have to set my stance wide to remain steady and upright. Sidhe, but this is worse than usual. I need rest, but there’s never enough time for that. I’ve spent the last two days hunting McKenzie so she’s no longer able to hunt us. It’s required me to fissure over and over again nearly every hour of the day. If I was anyone else, I’d be unconscious or on my way to the Ether. Lucky for me, I’m just exhausted.

But I have to pretend that I’m not.

I stare at McKenzie, who’s shaking uncontrollably. Instinctively, I release her to run my hands up and down her arms, warming her. Warming me. It’s only after she attempts to knee me in the groin that I question what I’m doing. I don’t need to comfort the shadow-witch. She’s an enemy.

She blindly swings a fist toward my face. I dodge and grab her hand.

“Let me go!” She tries to headbutt me. I wrap my arms around her and squeeze tight while she kicks and struggles. Humans aren’t as strong and quick as fae, but it feels like I’m holding an enraged tor’um.

A grin she can’t see bends my lips. I have to admit, I like her defiance. I like her fight.

She squirms again then goes still.

“Are you finished?” I ask.

She kicks my shin, and I have to hold back a grunt.

“For now,” she says.

I don’t release her immediately. Her scent captivates me. She smells clean and feminine despite the battle she survived to end up here. It’s unexpected. No fae smells like she does. Neither does Naito. It makes her seem fragile and innocent, which is disorienting since I know she’s the opposite of both.

I give my head a little shake to find my equilibrium again. The human is undeniably dangerous, but she could be dangerous to our enemies too. I need to remember that. I need to remember my goal here, my scheme.

“I’m going to take the blindfold off,” I say. “Do not turn toward the shadows.”

Her brown eyes blink when I remove the strip of cloth. She looks at me only for a second before her gaze goes to the dark green canopy above us. Sunlight peeks in between the foliage, and I smirk when her brow furrows. It was dark when we abducted her from her campus. She knows we’re nowhere near her home. Or anywhere the Court fae can find her.

“Where the hell have you taken me?” The way she squares her shoulders and takes small, but aggressive step in my direction is impressive. She’s afraid, but she’s determined to hide it.

I start to reply to her question with a lazy shrug until she turns toward the spot where we exited the fissure.

Sidhe!

I grab the back of her neck, force her to look back at me. “I told you not to turn.”

“I wasn’t looking at the shadows!”

I must squeeze her neck too hard because she drops to her knees. I go down with her, making sure I maintain eye contact. She’s obviously not afraid enough of me. I can’t see the shadows from our fissure, but if I’d stopped her from turning a second later, she would have seen their twists and turns. I don’t know the full extent of her abilities, but I’ve lost enough friends to know she reads the shadows more accurately than any human I’ve ever heard of. Maybe I should have left the blindfold on. Maybe I should replace it. But how will I earn her trust if I keep her shrouded in darkness?

“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.” The words come out as a gasp, and I realize I’m still hurting her. I relax my grip immediately, but keep my hand on the back of her neck. A few seconds pass then she finally meets my eyes again.

Fear crowds out her stubborn anger like the canopy above us crowds out the sun. I don’t like her looking at me like this, like I might slit her throat any second. It doesn’t fit the innocence in her eyes.

Fake innocence, I remind myself.

“Good.” I force the word out then pull her to her feet. I was prepared to kill her at the college, but those were my orders and I hadn’t thought it possible to turn her before I looked into her eyes. I think it’s possible now. But if it isn’t, if she proves to be unwaveringly loyal to the Court, I’ll have to kill her. She needs to be afraid. She needs to know I’m serious. I will not risk Sethan’s life or the lives of everyone who follows him just because the shadow-witch happens to be pretty.

And I do think she’s pretty. On the surface.

“This way,” I say. “We have a long way to walk.”

Aren's POV #7

Thanks to Naito, the trail through the forest is noticeable enough that the nalkin-shom has no trouble following it. Despite the thick underbrush on either side of the path, I stay close to her. She’s shown enough courage and resourcefulness that I wouldn’t be surprised if she tried to escape. But if she managed to evade me even for a minute, she’d likely get an arrow in the chest. We’re careful to the point of paranoia here, and our encampment isn’t a place a human would stumble upon by accident.

McKenzie ducks beneath a low hanging branch. A half dozen paces later, we emerge into a clearing.

A quick scan of the area tells me all is well. Everyone is relaxed, though more than one fae glares at the human by my side. Isyll or Teo must have told them I was bringing the nalkin-shom. No one looks surprised, but at least they haven’t lifted bows or swords to kill her.

“Germany? Seriously?”

My gaze whips toward McKenzie.

“Why not?” I ask. My voice is light, my grin forced, but Sidhe, the dilapidated sign at the trail’s end was an oversight. That has to be how she knows where we are. The Realm has one language, but not McKenzie’s world. The sign gives too much away, and even though this region isn’t a small one, it vastly narrows where the Court fae have to search for us.

It’s another reason to kill her. If they continue to add up, I won’t be able to keep her alive.

An old, ramshackle inn rises up three stories toward the back of the clearing. From its front porch, Lena breaks the camp’s silence by calling my name.

The fae who had been sitting rise. Others come forward to greet me. When they ask how the attack went, they glance at McKenzie. I assure them it went better than expected, and then Lena approaches. When her gaze darts to McKenzie, something flashes in her eyes.

I step forward, intercepting her before she decides it’s best to kill the nalkin-shom. Her nostrils flare, but she wraps her arms around me then pulls me close to whisper into my ear, “Sethan will not like this.”

I turn sideways. I’ve been on the receiving end of a knee to the groin too many times from Lena, and the look she gives me says the thought of doing so now is forefront in her mind.

Trust me,” I say.

She could unravel everything.”

I know what I’m doing.”

And if you’re mistaken?

Then I’ll kill her myself.”

I ignore Lena’s quiet quip about me being wrong some day, and turn toward the nalkin-shom, who has been slowly inching her way toward the trees. She freezes, and her brown eyes meet mine. She needs to work on her innocent look. But then again, maybe she can’t manage innocence because she brings death through a fissure.

I push the thought away. This scheme will work as long as I fully believe in it.

“This is the nalkin-shom.” I let my voice carry across the clearing so everyone can hear it. There needs to be no doubt as to who she is. Everyone here knows full well what the shadow-witch is capable of. We’ve all lost enough friends and had enough close calls to know how dangerous she is.

Lena crosses her arms. “You didn’t kill her.”

I suppress a sigh. She’s not going to make McKenzie’s conversion easy with comments like that. Nothing I can do about it now. The only way I’ll be able to get Lena to accept my plan is by convincing Sethan first.

“This is Lena, daughter of Zarrak,” I say to McKenzie. “She’ll show you to your room.”

Lena spears me with a glare. “She gets a room?”

“Yes.” I study McKenzie and note the stubborn anger in her eyes. “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.”

I grin. The human isn’t anything like I thought she would be.

“And Lena,” I say. “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.” I wink at her. “Enjoy your stay, McKenzie.”

With one last hateful glance, she turns and heads to the inn. As soon as the door squeaks shut behind them, my smile disappears.

I turn to Blayn. “Where’s Sethan?”

Vancouver,” he says. “Trev took Naito there as well.”

And Kelia?” I ask.

She’s at Naito’s home.”

Fissure there. Have her bring clothes for the nalkin-shom. Then I want her in Vancouver.”

Blayn motions behind me, then says, “You’re really not going to kill her?”

That depends on her.” And Sethan, but I think he’ll give her a chance.

Another fae hands Blayn a bag, which he turns over to me. It’s McKenzie’s backpack. I’d forgotten about it.
For some reason, I want to rummage through it in private, so I leave Blayn with instructions to keep watch on McKenzie then I walk back to the narrow trail. I find a fallen log a few minutes later, sit, then unzip the top of the bag.

It smells like her. The clean, slightly floral scent intrigues me even more than what she might be carrying inside. I lift the bag to my face, breathe in her fragrance again.

Then I shake my head. If I’m not careful, I’m going to get caught up in my own scheme. I need to remember who she is, what she’s done, and I need to be fully aware of my role in this plan. I’m keeping her alive for a purpose. If she can’t be manipulated into helping us, then she must be killed. This rebellion can’t be risked for a human, even a human who has an intriguing mix of vulnerability and courage in her eyes.

Aren's POV #8

I step out of my fissure into cool night air. A fae stands in front of me. He lowers his sword when he recognizes me, then moves aside, leaving an open path to the two-storied, redwood siding home.

Where is he?” I ask.

Basement,” the fae replies.

I nod, then enter the very human residence. It’s always strange walking into the tor’ums’ home. They were born without magic, so the tech of this world doesn’t effect them like it does normal fae. They use electric lights and appliances, and instead of watching illusionists magically create a story on a stage, they watch things called televisions which are mounted to the walls. One is on now. Clare, the youngest of the tor’um, is sitting on the couch watching it. She glances my way when I step into the living room, and her face brightens.

“Aren.” She pauses the television, then tucks her legs beneath her as she turns to face me. “Are you staying a while? There’s a new Star Wars movie out.”

I’d watched one of what she called the original trilogy a month ago. Despite the headache it gave me, the story—the whole experience—had been interesting.

“Sorry, but not today,” I tell her. “I could use your help with something though.”

Taking McKenzie’s backpack off my shoulder, I hold it out.

Clare frowns. Fae don’t tend to run around carrying human things.

“There’s tech inside it,” I say. “A computer.”

She unzips the bag and takes out the thin, silver rectangle.

“A laptop,” she says.

“Can you see if there’s anything important on it?”

Muted edarratae flash across Clare’s face. “I can try. Whose is it?”

“You’ll see.” She’ll likely learn McKenzie’s name. I’m hoping she’ll learn other valuable information as well.

I ruffle her hair, grab the backpack, then head to the basement. The stairs are dark. The tor’um stripped the lower level of tech, and the large, open room is lit by orbs of blue light. That’s how the Realm is brightened after dark, and my muscles relax, feeling more at home. Tech isn’t half as damaging as the Court wants us to believe, but it’s uncomfortable to be around. I can still feel its presence upstairs but down here, I won’t get a headache unless I stay around for hours.

Sethan is sitting at a table with Arlen and Gwynn, Clare’s parents. Like their daughter, both are tor’um. They were the first fae we know who moved permanently to this world. They’ve been here longer than Clare has been alive, and they take in other tor’um who want to leave the Realm, helping them adjust to human life before they move away on their own.

Sethan stands.

“Give us a minute,” he says to Arlen and Gwynn. The couple leaves the room, and their stony silence tells me how they feel about what they think I’ve done. They were against killing the human—any human—from the start.

“You didn’t tell them,” I say.

“She may still end up dead.” Sethan sets a pen down on the table. “Explain why you’ve kept her alive.”

“I can turn her.”

His eyebrows arch up. “Why do you think that?” He doesn’t ask the question like his sister would. Lena’s voice would have been scathing and sarcastic, but Sethan’s tone is more curious than accusing.

“Instinct,” I say. “She looks innocent.”

“Brainwashed,” a voice says from the stairs.

I glance over my shoulder and see Naito coming down the last few steps.

“I can unwash her.” I turn back to Sethan. “The Court fae has protected her from us and the truth. If we tell her—”

“She won’t believe us,” Naito says.

“You believed us.”

“I was never loyal to the Court,” he says. “They’ve indoctrinated her for a decade.”

I shrug. “I can make her believe.”

“How?” Sethan asks.

With a kiss. The thought comes out of nowhere, so quick and unexpected I almost flinch. That would be the worst way to gain her trust. I can’t touch her. She’s intelligent. She’d see through any ruse on my part. The only way to lure her to our side of the war is with logic and facts.

“We’ll tell her about you,” I say.

Sethan’s expression doesn’t change. “It was your idea to keep my identity secret.”

“It will be from the Court. We won’t let her escape.”

“What if she turns this around on us?” Sethan asks. “What if she gains our trust? We give her more freedom? She reads the shadows for us and then flees?”

“I won’t let that happen.”

“You can’t guarantee that.” Naito joins us beside the table. “The Court will do anything to get her back. She needs to be dead.”

“They need to think she’s dead.” I’ll have to arrange that somehow. Send her bloody clothes to the swordmaster, spread rumors to the right people. It can be done.

“This feels like a bad idea,” Sethan says.

“It will work,” I assure him. Then I unzip McKenzie’s backpack and pull out the small, draw-string pouch.

“And there’s this.” I toss the pouch to him.

He catches it. His gaze holds a question as he loosens the string, then he looks down at its contents.

“Anchor-stones.” He looks up. “Where are these to?”

“I haven’t been to them all, but the darkest one is a new Missing Gate. This one,” I take a stone out of my pocket, “I couldn’t fissure to.”

Sethan’s eyes widen. He knows what that has to mean.

“It’s not imprinted?” Naito asks.

“It’s imprinted.” I put the stone back into my pocket. “Its destination is protected by silver. The only way to fissure wherever it leads is to enter at a Sidhe Tol. An Ancestor’s Gate.”

“We need that location,” Sethan says. If we found a Sidhe Tol, we could fissure into the Silver Palace itself.

“I can gain her trust. Come talk to her. Tell her who you are, what the king has done.”

Sethan looks at Naito, who shakes his head. The movement holds more resignation than objection.

Something blurs through the edge of my vision. My hand goes to the hilt of my sword, but one quick glance is all I need to see that there’s no threat.

I grin. “Sosch.”

The kimki’s whiskers twitch. He scurries toward me, wraps his long body around my right leg then scurries up to my shoulder, tiny claws almost pricking my skin. He doesn’t perch across my shoulders like usual though; he jumps to McKenzie’s backpack, which I left open on the table. His black nose nuzzles the bag’s flap again and again until he lifts it up enough to slide under it, then he curls up, rests his head on his front paws, and flushes silver.

I’m not the only one who likes McKenzie’s scent.

“Lena wants her dead,” Sethan says. He knows his sister well. Since their parents’ murders, she’s been his biggest supporter. She wants revenge against the Court, and she’ll kill anyone who stands in her way, even if it’s a human.

Sethan pulls the pouch’s string tight. “What about the others?”

I shrug.

“Find out,” he says. “I need to speak with Tate, then I’ll fissure to the inn.”

I grab McKenzie’s backpack. Sosch doesn’t budge so I zip it enough that he won’t fall out, then gently sling it over my shoulder.

“Aren,” Sethan says before I turn. “If I agree to this plan, it has to work. If we aren’t confident that she can be trusted completely, she has to be eliminated. Will you be able to do that?”

“Of course,” I say, but oddly, my confident smile feels plastered on.

Aren POV #9

“It’s decided then.”

Lena’s voice rings out over the clearing. When she turns to glare at McKenzie, I watch the human’s expression. Her chin is lifted, her shoulders pulled back, but there’s an uncertainty in her eyes that betrays her fear. I keep my face blank, letting her mind wander to where it will. She needs to be afraid. She needs to know her life is in my hands.

She doesn’t need to know that I don’t want to kill her.

Lena turns. Wearing her nobility like a cloak, she climbs the steps to the porch. She unsheathes a dagger and holds it out to me. “It needs to be done.”

My boots are propped up on the porch’s wooden railing. I stay lounged back in my seat when McKenzie’s gaze meets mine, but I want to smile. Just like on her campus, she’s wrapped a protective confidence around herself. That confidence led her to run from me in the unfinished building and then to her defiance at the gated-fissure. She needs to be careful, though. Too much resistance and I’ll have to take her life.

Lowering my feet to the ground, I lean forward and wrap my hand around Lena’s dagger.

McKenzie’s courage stutters.

“Sure you don’t want to read the shadows for us?” I ask.

Her eyes dart around the clearing. Her jaw clenches and I’m almost certain I see a tremble in the hands she’s clenched at her sides.

“Trade me,” she blurts out.

I let my amusement show, and my gaze travels to her feet then back up to her face. “How much do you think you’re worth, nalkin-shom?”

“She’s stalling,” Lena cuts in. “We can’t let the Court have her back.”

“The Court doesn’t know she’s alive,” someone says. I don’t see the fae, but I think it’s Tohm. He’s one of the few rebels gathered here who sees the benefit of keeping McKenzie alive.

“They need to know,” another says. “We should send them her head in a bag.”

I don’t mention that there are other, less brutal ways of telling the Court she’s dead. I need to get her out of her bloodstained clothes and send them to the king, but I doubt that would go over well with her right now. Besides, it might not be necessary. Sethan has contact with two tor’um who are in the Silver Palace. They’re listening for rumors of McKenzie’s death and hints of the Court’s strategy. Since both tor’um are servants, they’re virtually invisible to the guards and nobles, and it’s possible we have another ally among the palace fae. Someone sent an anonymous letter betraying McKenzie’s name to us. Now, our two tor’um are trying to learn who that traitor might be so that we can enlist their aid in our war.

While Lena argues with the other fae about a trade, I watch McKenzie. I admire her ability to stand there while we consider her death. She’s trying to keep her expression steady, and she’s succeeding more than I want her to. I want more emotion on her face.

“Care to make a wager?”

Her brow creases at my question.

“Wager?” she asks.

“Yes. A wager.” Now that the words are out, the idea solidifies in my mind. I need to know the extent of her capabilities, not just for the rebellion’s sake, but for my own.

I hand the dagger back to Lena, who scowls.

“Depends on what you’re bidding,” McKenzie says, her voice hardening.

I grin. “There’s only one thing you’re interested in, nalkin-shom. I’m willing to offer it.”

“You’re offering me my freedom?”

“If you can map one of my fae to within a hundred feet, yes.” That’s a stretch, even for her.

“What do you want if I can’t do it?”

“You’ll shadow-read for me.” A long, long time from now. After I’ve earned your trust.

Lena crosses her arms. “Even if she’s half as good as the rumors suggest, we can’t trust her.”

I hold McKenzie’s gaze. I want to know what’s going through her mind.

“If I lose,” she says. “I’ll read one fissure.”

“You’ll read as many as I need.”

“Two.”

“All of them until I’m satisfied, McKenzie.” I like the way her name feels on my tongue, and my gaze drops to her lips. If they weren’t pressed into a thin line, I bet they’d be soft.

Her chin juts out again. “If you’re going to be like that, then I’m back to offering one.”

I take a step closer. “I’m offering you your freedom.”

“You’re asking me to hurt the Court.”

“They’re not your people.” I watch for a response to that. Just how deep does her loyalty go? I’m certain she’s not a killer, but does she know what the Court has done? How many fae they’ve murdered? And if she learns the extent of the truth, will she claim the loss of life is acceptable?

“Fine,” she says, her stubbornness returning. “I’ll do it.”

“Good.” I trot down the porch steps and motion Trev to join me a few paces away. “Fissure to the Carbana orchard.”

You should kill her.”

If it comes to that, I will. But go. Then go to Vancouver. Kelia’s there. Send her here.”

I turn back to McKenzie before Trev can protest again.

“Ready?” I ask. She glances toward her backpack, which sits on the bench of a wooden table.

“I’m ready,” she says.

Trev fissures out, and the nalkin-shom’s gaze locks onto the spot where he vanished.

“Give me pen and paper.”

“We don’t have any,” I say smoothly.

The ever-present scowl on her face deepens. “I have a notebook in my backpack.”

“Oh, we cleaned out your bag. Got rid of your tech and things.” Your anchor-stones to be precise. They’re in my pocket.

Her head whips my way, and from the porch Lena laughs. I keep my grin on my face, but I feel a small amount of guilt at setting her up for failure. She believed she could do it, win her freedom, and I wonder if, under normal circumstances, she would be that accurate.

I’m about to console her on her loss, but she closes the distance to her backpack and lifts the flap.

Two bright blue eyes blink up at her.

“His name’s Sosch,” I say. “Kimkis flush silver when they’re near gates or other things they’re attracted to, so he must really like you. He curled up in your backpack the moment he caught your scent in it.” And I can’t blame him. She’s intoxicating.

“I… You…” She looks like she wants to strangle the kimki, and I wonder if this was a mistake. This might have been a mistake. But the animation in her face, the fire in her eyes… I love triggering her passion.

“McKenzie—”

She grabs a rock from the ground. My eyebrows raise. She can’t possibly be thinking about attacking me—I’d have her disarmed and restrained within seconds—but she eyes the two fae sitting on top of the picnic table.

“Move,” she orders.

They comply. Slowly. And then she sets to work, using the sharp edge of the rock to carve lines and curves into the table.

I move closer. I should be staring down at her etching. Instead, I focus on the line of her neck. Some of her hair has fallen loose from her hair band. She should be exhausted and afraid, not determined and… pretty.

She carves one last line into the table and whips around to face me.

“He’s there. Near Cabada.”

My gaze shifts to the “X” she marked, and Trev’s location locks into my mind.

Nom Sidhe. She did it. She marked his exact location at the edge of the orchard. How—

“That’s what I’m worth,” she says. Then, with chin raised and ice in her voice, she adds, “Have a nice life.”

My chest feels tight, like my heartbeat is shifting between alarm and admiration. I watch her as she walks away. No wonder the Court assigned the swordmaster to protect her. She’s extraordinary.

I feel Lena’s wide-eyed glare. McKenzie’s halfway to the tree line.

With effort, I regain my composure. “Stop her.”

Tohm cuts off her path. She stops in front of him, and worry grips me. She might try to run. If she does, more than one fae here will draw their weapons.

I raise my hand to open a fissure, but lower it when she turns.

Her shoulders slump and she makes her way back to me.

“Glad to know you’re a man of your word.”

The statement shouldn’t feel like a punch to the gut, but it does. This was a mistake. She wasn’t supposed to win the bet. She was supposed to lose, then be relieved when I didn’t immediately ask her to read the shadows. She was supposed to trust me a little more each day, not doubt my honor.

I swallow, then push my regret aside.

“I said I’d give you your freedom and I will. Eventually. But I can’t let you go right now. Especially not after seeing what you can do. You’re amazing.” I hope there’s not too much awe in those words. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay with us until this war ends.”

“The war’s never going to end.”

Her words, her defeated tone, twist a deep ache inside of me. Some days, it feels like she’s right. We’ve been fighting for too long.

“I guess you’re going to be here a while then,” I say. I look at Tohm. “Take her up to her room, then find Sethan. We need to talk.” Again.

I glance at the scratches on the table, shake my head, then walk toward the tree line. I need time to think about this and strategize. We need McKenzie on our side. She could help us defeat the king.

“Aren,” McKenzie’s voice rings out behind me.

I turn.

“The king’s sword-master,” she says. “He’ll kill you for taking me.”

So much conviction and confidence in her eyes. I wish she talked about me that way.

Keeping my gaze and voice level, I say, “It will be an interesting fight.”

Aren POV #10

As soon as McKenzie disappears inside, I rub the back of my neck. She’s dangerous. More dangerous than I originally thought.

I glance at the picnic table. Shadow readers are supposed to have to immediately sketch out the shadows. The longer they wait between a fae fissuring out and mapping what they see, the less accurate their shadow-readings will be. But despite the delay my deceit caused, McKenzie marked Trev’s location down to within a few feet.

The king will do whatever it takes to get McKenzie back. He will begin a new, brutal assault to defeat us.

Ten minutes pass before Trev returns with Sethan. I meet them at the front porch and we climb the stairs to where Lena is waiting. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her customary frown is in place. She used to smile more often. Then her parents were murdered and, one by one over the years, her friends were killed too.

“This is a mistake,” she says.

Trev glances my way wearing an expression that says she’s right, then he goes inside the inn.

Sethan takes a seat on the cracked porch bench.

“Why is that?” he asks. Unlike his sister, he has the ability to maintain a calm, level temper no matter what’s going on around him.

“Because she’s the enemy,” Lena says. “She can’t be trusted.”

“Would she be valuable if we could trust her?” Sethan asks.

“No,” she snaps.

Sethan maintains eye contact. He doesn’t say anything or change his expression, but there’s an almost tangible shift in the atmosphere. He drains the tension from the air, allowing those around him to think more reasonably.

“Yes,” she says. If I was standing closer, she’d launch a kick at my ribs.

I try not to grin. Sometimes Lena hates being reasonable.

“She may be valuable, but we will do just as much damage to the Court if she’s dead.”

“We can win the war if she’s ours,” I say.

“I don’t want her to be ours.” Her words come out as a harsh hiss. Not even Sethan’s latent magic can completely erase the level of hate she has for McKenzie and every one of the Court fae.

“Aren,” Sethan says. “Why don’t you go for a walk.”

Lena’s fire will lessen without me there to verbally spar with, so I hop off the porch. She and Sethan will discuss McKenzie’s fate. With her brother’s calm rationale and deliberate questions, they’ll come to the same conclusion that I have: it’s worth the risk to keep McKenzie alive.

I take a slow stroll through the clearing. Most of the fae have left. The few who have remained behind are lying down to sleep or talking quietly around magically lit flames. I have too much energy to sit and talk with them, so I head toward the tree line then circle around toward the back of the inn.

It’s a beautiful night. Stars dot the clear, black sky. I’ve spent enough time in this world that the constellations are becoming familiar. I don’t know how Earth and the Realm are connected. Most fae accept it as magic. Humans would probably quantify it as a law of an obscure and complicated science. Either way, the existence of this world is—

My hand goes to my sword at the sound of a loud scrape and quiet yelp. I look at the inn and then up.

Sidhe, she’s…

Impressive. Stubborn and reckless, too.

She slides too fast down her rope. I lunge forward, driven to stop her from plunging to her death, but her fall stops suddenly. Several seconds pass, then she looks up toward the open window. Is she thinking about climbing back in? She’s more than halfway down now. I doubt she’d make it back up.

I move to the shadows beside the inn and watch, curious to see what she will do.

She slides down again. This time, she leaves behind a smear of blood on the rope. It must hurt because she releases the rope before she reaches the ground. Her legs buckle beneath her.

She doesn’t stay down long. Her expression changes from hurt and afraid to triumphant and she stands. She doesn’t see me move from the shadows. When she turns her back to me, I hurry forward then thump my sword back into its scabbard.

She spins.

“You’re certainly resourceful.” I take a casual but obvious look at her rope, which appears to be made from ripped bedsheets. “I must give you that.”

Her eyes widen and she takes a small step back. Her fear bothers me. It shouldn’t, but something in me reacts to it. It makes me want to save her, which makes no sense because I’m the reason her life is at risk.

I push that sensation aside and focus on her hands. They’re in loose fists at her sides. The blisters there are something I can fix, so I take her right hand in mine and send my magic into her palm.

She jerks back, but I hold her tight. The pain of healing such a minor wound only lasts for a few seconds, and I feel her relax.

She looks down at our clasped hands. So do I. Blue lightning ripples between us.

Edarratae,” I say. “Chaos lusters.”

“I know what they are,” she snaps. “You can let go.”

She tries to tug her hand free.

“You could have killed yourself.” I release her right hand to take her left. This one is barely blistered at all, but I like watching the lightning.

“That would have made Lena happy,” she says.

“Yes. Yes, it would’ve.” I hold her hand for too long. Her dark brown eyes are extraordinary, and they hold a sense of faith and determination that I haven’t seen before. I want to stay here and talk to her, find out what the Court has told her about me, but when she breaks eye contact, I let her tug her hand free. She crosses her arms over her chest, closing herself off from me. She won’t believe anything I say. But she might believe Sethan. His presence will help her think reasonably.

“Come, nalkin-shom,” I say. “We need to talk.”

She doesn’t move. “I have a name. You don’t have to insult me.”

“Insult you?” I try not to grin, but her words are an invitation for more conversation. “Nalkin-shom is one of the least insulting titles you’ve been given.”

She frowns. “Titles?”

“Yes, titles. Nalkin-shom means shadow-witch. Lena prefers to call you traep-shom. Shadow-bitch. Some of the other names lose their sting in translations, but there’s also shadow-scum, map-whore, kin-killer.” Her eyes widen with each title, and I don’t hold back my grin. “What? You didn’t know you have the reputation of a killer?”

“The court captures most of the fae I track,” she says.

I move closer. Lower my voice.

“Fae children have nightmares about you.” I grab her wrist again. I’m playing with her now. I can’t help it. She’s easy to unbalance, and I like her touch. It’s comforting. The connection makes me feel like I can trust my instincts with her, that she’s as innocent and overtrusting of the Court as I think she is.

“Parents tell them if they’re bad,” I continue, “that the nalkin-shom will come for them in the night, sear them with her lighting, and drain them of their magic.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“Am I?” I want to lean closer but I’m already only inches away.

“You’re the false blood,” she says softly. “If they tell stories to scare their children, then they’re telling them about you.”

It takes an effort to maintain my smile. She believes everything the Court has told her, and her hatred is almost tangible.

“Come, nalkin-shom. You need to meet someone.”