The point of the gun jabbed into the side of my neck, proof that the man holding it was serious about pulling the trigger. Again. Shallow puffs of air were all I could manage. It might have only been a stun as opposed to a bullet, but given the chance, I’d be drawing my breath and his blood at the next opportunity.
“I’ll explain everything later, Sara.” C-05’s familiar voice filled my ears, causing my blood to boil well beyond a low simmer. The rage I was feeling would likely cause me to shift into the hawk, as a means of protection. That was the result since I’d been injected against my will with a serum to alter my DNA. While I didn’t like the result, it had been useful on more than one occasion. “It must be hard to believe I’m here to protect you this time around, given our last few encounters.” He moved beside me.
Or because you’re holding a weapon against my neck?
“I don’t blame you,” he said at my ear. “I’d have a hard time believing me, too. And that I’m no longer working against your effort to recover the last key.” He placed a hand on the top of my head. Rage melded with a new sickening sensation.
Did the stun affect the ability to shift? Can’t move equates to not being able to fly.
“The evil that hunts you has already arrived.” He angled his head so I could see him. “I can’t have them find you. Not now. You didn’t have to open the gateway to this realm like you did in Scotland and in the Yucatan. I gave the dark forces the location this time.” He stood and looked right and left before ducking down again beside me, returning the gun to its original position at my neck. “Oh, it’s true that, given the proper coordinates for the initial passage, it opened an entry point from one realm to another. This one, with its advancements, shall we say, took a bit more effort to track. It didn’t take long for you to find the path leading to the temple.” He glanced around at the trees above. “Egypt. Strange how it resembles more of a jungle instead of a desert, huh?” My stare answered him with imaginary daggers, as the gun slipped down my neck an inch. “It was only a matter of time before the dark forces homed in on your energy and our immediate location.” His gaze flicked back up to the sky.
How exactly are you helping me?
C-05, a man who’d once been sided with me, had put me on my back one too many times and never with my approval. Over the short time I’d come to know him in this life, I’d given him a fair show of strength that ended up drawing blood. A single chance was all I needed to put him down for a good long while. He was, after all, a man who’d turned against the mission to rescue Earth and keep Ardan, the world where immortals resided, safe.
Enemy number one to the immortals, the Dark Lord, Tarsamon, had used every bit of information C-05 held before pinning him to a wall and leaving him for dead. He’d marked his body so his soul would be forced to wander the realms, unable to reincarnate or find solace. On our last quest in the Mayan jungle, I had cut C-05 free from the necromancer spirit drifting over his immobile body, waiting to take his soul. I never thought granting him one last act of mercy would haunt me. The man should be grateful, not repaying me with the element of surprise and a weapon pressed against my neck.
“Where’s that team of yours? They’d never leave you alone for long.” His eyes swept across the landscape and back to the area where the portal had opened up.
Should be here any second to string you back to that wall. For good this time.
“Now, now. Don’t let our past get in the way of me trying to hide you from the evil that hunts you. Both of us now, I suppose,” he said, hearing my thought. “Better keep that mind quiet, too. Can’t risk any of your energy being detected.”
Maybe C-05 was trying to rescue me now. From whom or what, I had yet to actually see. But I’d be damned if I didn’t want him out of my way once and for all, dead preferably, so I could finish this quest. I had enough to worry about with the demons and magic that had met me at almost every turn as I searched for the last two keys.
He crouched beneath an overgrown, leafy bush, further concealed. “Stay quiet,” he said. “They’re near. Feel the shift in the energy around us?”
I couldn’t answer. The initial stun had blocked my vocal cords but not my thoughts that he had already warned me to keep quiet.
Is he hiding from Tarsamon?
The Dark Lord was well into a crusade to consume the life force of humanity and stop me from recovering the third and final key that would put an end to his assault. He’d become as strong as I had in this lifetime, harboring shadows that fed off the negative energy of the humans until they were so weak the wraith-like beings could consume their forms. His faceless demons were set on tracking my energy, often arriving with packs of rabid-like dogs with one mission—hunting me down and delivering me to Tarsamon. To kill me meant he’d release the power of the two keys I’d collected into the world, effectively undoing his efforts to extend his reach into another realm.
What is taking my team so long to arrive?
Another press of the gun at my neck reminded me of the previous instruction to remain quiet.
A shadow crept over the daylight as if the sun had been blanketed in a full eclipse. The graying of stones and trees swept the landscape with all the speed of clouds in a windy, storm-filled sky. I prayed that in that blanket wasn’t the deadliest of Tarsamon’s forces, the dark angel . For the first time I could remember, I felt fear as though I was vulnerable prey, hiding from her predator above. The safety of the immortals and the lives of billions in the hands of a traitor. C-05 would pay for that, too.
The dark pattern shifted direction, its veil lifting as it glided beyond the two stone-carved faces I’d almost run into before being caught by C-05’s grip at my throat. His approach had been a perfectly timed attack, as my hand slipped through the faces to discover they were only an illusion. I watched as the darkness coasted farther away toward a building in the distance.
“They’re scanning the territory for you,” C-05 said, letting the gun fall away. “They’ll be back.”
I made an effort to shift to my side and found that I’d recovered some movement in my legs. The stun was wearing off but still left me without all motility.
“Why are you helping me?” my voice scratched out. Sweat started racing down my back, despite the cooler temperatures one might expect any place other than Egypt. A reaction to the stun?
“Let’s just say I was able to convince the Soltari that you needed my help.” He glanced up to the sky. “I made a deal with them.”
“And let’s say I don’t believe a damn thing you have to say after what you’ve put me through. I don’t need anything from you.” He’d gone against the Soltari, the all-powerful entity that governed the balance of good and evil in the realms, the Alliance who made decisions to carry out that leadership, and he’d stood in the path of me and my team at every turn. “You have zero credibility.”
He huffed out a breath but didn’t move to strike again. “I fully expect that.”
“Why would the Soltari, who gave you to Tarsamon, listen to you, much less believe anything you had to say?”
“Because I gave them the coordinates of the portal that led you here, to where the last key is hidden. I helped them get you to the key. The Soltari shared the location with the small group you left in New York.
The Inner Society. Leahnan, their director. The group of thinkers, telepathic introverts who protected the remaining light of Earth in a high-tech underground city in the heart of New York. The base of which had been carefully crafted to hide such energy beneath a fully charged metropolis above ground.
“You gave the Soltari the coordinates?” Sheer disbelief sounded as the words fell out.
“Yes, before I shared the location of the key with Tarsamon. There was no choice in that.”
“There’s always a choice and you made the wrong one.”
He let out a breath of frustration. “Look, there’s no time to explain and even less time before the shadows circle back this way. The real question is why the darkness didn’t sense your energy when they passed overhead.”
I shook my head. “Wish I knew.”
He was assessing whether my reply was a truth or a lie. The ring I wore, made of chiastolite, had been strengthened by the elves on the quest for the last key. It was meant to block my energy from the keen detection of any one of Tarsamon’s forces, including the dark angel . But I hadn’t seen her flying in the blanket of evil that had crossed our path to test it, and I sure as hell wasn’t sharing any information with C-05 on the matter of my energy. At his suggestion to keep quiet, I’d blocked my thoughts from his perusal since the shadow passed over us.
“We’re going to have to start moving soon.”
“I’m not leaving without—”
A crack of electricity signaled the opening of the portal and I turned my attention to the open space, barely visible in the daylight. My team.
C-05 took a couple of steps back.
First to come through was Kevin. Better known in the immortal realms as Cerys, and the Last Great Warrior. We’d spent lifetimes fighting alongside each other and loving one another. Most of the memories of said lifetimes, however, had been withheld from me by the Soltari. They were believed to be a distraction to completing the mission, and a point of contention I harbored with the Alliance.
Kevin took two steps forward, his eyes meeting mine before drifting to C-05. His brows closed over his gaze and he charged.
Had he read my thoughts that quickly about the events that brought C-05 and me together here? Was there time to find a wall to pin C-05 to before the shadows returned?
I’d managed to get to a standing position and waited, finding some satisfaction in allowing Kevin the chance to release the frustration he’d been holding toward C-05. He’d put me in harm’s way with Tarsamon by giving up our locations after he’d decided to side with him. His efforts had nearly cost the lives of the team more than once, and had caused me to be consumed with an illness that only the elves could cure, after being held by him in the Dark Lord’s realm for too long.
The two men rolled off the path and into the brush, as the other members arrived. Before being called to this mission, Juno and Matt had been Special Forces commandos. They glanced at me and to the brawl, assessing what was happening. After determining no intervention was necessary, they stood silent, waiting for the guardians of the last two keys, Mac and Topetine, who would lead us to the location of the next key. The small, older woman arrived first, carrying with her all the grace and strength of the jaguar she could shift into. Once Aria, Elise, and Jade arrived, the scuffle was nothing more than several heavy puffs from both men as they glared at one another. C-05 had come out on the bloodier end of things with a split lip and abrasion on the side of his head.
“I had that coming,” he said, swiping the back of his hand below his lip and shaking it off.
“You have a lot more due,” Kevin replied.
For someone who’d taken an oath to save lives and had done so for a living as the director in the ER at a top New York hospital before this quest began, Kevin’s eyes and pulsing veins suggested for one man, he’d gladly set aside the pledge to do no harm.
“He hid me from the shadows that scanned overhead moments before you arrived.” Why I’d decided to mention the fact at that moment escaped me. It certainly wasn’t to protect C-05. But if he was indeed planning to help us, my team needed to know that he already had.
“Tarsamon’s forces shouldn’t be here,” Juno said. “Something went wrong.”
I looked at C-05 and back to Juno and Matt. “It seems he gave them the coordinates to this location.”
A tic at Juno’s jawline twitched and his eyes centered on C-05.
“Why are we wasting time with him then?” Aria asked. Her flaming-red hair caught a breeze and lifted before resting on her shoulders again.
“They’re coming back.” Matt pointed a gloved finger in the direction I’d last spotted them. “That way.” I couldn’t see any indication of the shadow, but that didn’t mean he was wrong. Matt and Juno carried the unique ability to see coming events. And they’d been right on too many occasions to doubt either of them now. “Our entry must have signaled a break in the energy.”
“Head for a large building about a mile or so that way.” Topetine lifted her head in the direction we should go. “We’ll be safe there.” She shifted into her black jaguar form.
“Jade,” Kevin said. “Take Sara.”
“I can’t trace her to the location without an energy path to follow,” he said. “It would’ve already had to have been set by one of us.”
Topetine growled out a call. Her emerald eyes looked over her shoulder before she bounded off.
“Let’s move,” Juno said. He turned to me. “Don’t give any indication of your energy by lighting that ball of fire you use for protection. We’re going to have to hope the ring will hide you, even though they may be drawn to the rest of us. Use the shield if you must and run like hell.”
“We don’t have to run,” C-05 said. “I have two vehicles over here.” He started to move but Juno pulled the gun slung over his shoulder and aimed it at him.
“How’d you manage two?”
“I could explain it, or we could get the hell out of here.”
“Stay in front of us,” Juno said. “Keys.”
“Don’t need them here.”
Kevin gripped my hand in his and, with his other, wiped away a bead of sweat. His eyes, every sensation from him reflected concern, but with no time to assess further.
“I know,” I said. “Stay close.” I’d learned to squelch my instinct to lead and follow direction from him when it came to safety. Not having done so in the past had led to putting myself and my team at risk.
C-05 took off into the brush, with the rest of us close behind. Juno lowered his gun but still kept it pointed forward. Kevin and I, along with Mac, piled into the back of an open-roofed Humvee camouflaged to match the trees and lower-level green scrub, instead of the expected desert oasis. The remaining five fit snugly into the main cabin and headed in the same direction as Topetine. There was no way Matt and Juno were going to break us into two vehicles with a man we didn’t trust and the storm of evil moving our way.
I shed the jacket I’d arrived with, feeling the sweat beginning to soak the back of my cotton tank and wishing I could trade out the heavier pants for the shorts I’d had in the Yucatan. No sooner than I had the thought and with only Kevin taking notice, the wish became a reality.
Our thoughts are that powerful? Is that how this beast of a car drives without keys?
The skies clouded again in the ominous gray, denying the light of the sun and hinting at the masking of good over the approaching evil, as the shadows drew closer.
We’ll lose her.
“We’re not going to lose Topetine,” Jade said, hearing my thought. Commander himself of what was left of a small army of men purposefully left behind to keep our pace faster, he had the skill to trace anyone’s energy path. “I can track her. I already see the pattern ahead. Right turn at the clearing,” he called out.
Clearing? Wide open for…
The screech I’d prayed not to hear earlier cut through the sound of the engine.
The top of my head slammed into the wall of the ship, jolting me awake. The wooden bed I was lying on creaked in defiance at the sudden halt in movement. Rubbing the spot that took the hardest blow, I glanced to the ornate carvings on the ceiling and lowered my gaze to the only porthole. The same intricate detail encircled the window. The colors of the sky were a brush stroke of gray and pale orange. Land. We’d arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula.
I rose from my semi-comfortable nest, straightened my clothing, and strapped my sword in place. Shouts of orders being given, followed by the sounds of running footsteps, fell below deck. A slight tingling sensation warmed at my left shoulder and ran the length of my arm.
“I feel you,” I whispered, angling my head to the side. “Will you show yourself?” I reached a hand toward the man I’d come to know as Cerys but felt nothing as my fingers penetrated his image. The dream I’d awoken from so abruptly was one with detail of my bonding to the spirit in front of me. “Are you responsible for that vision of us?”
“Not this time. Your dreams are memories of other experiences, other places you have been. I wanted to be here when it was returned to you.”
“How could you be sure it would?”
“Having a direct connection with the entity guiding your course, I’m privy to information released to you.”
My gaze floated around the tiny quarters in search of my boots.
I was still getting accustomed to the recent knowledge that Cerys had all the information required to guide Kevin, the human form of his spirit and my love. For each human, there existed a higher level of being to guide them. The closest science had to proving such a theory was that of a parallel universe. It would take more years than I had on Earth to see the formula connecting spirits to the human experience come to light. While Cerys aided Kevin, I had yet to encounter my equal or even the memory of her. The only information I had was that her name, Arwyn, also belonged to me in realms far from Earth.
My memories had been withheld by the Alliance, a governing order that handed down the direction of the Soltari—an entity that set the rule of law for creation and its progression in the realms. They did this by voting on certain factors pertaining to the immortals and their ability to complete a mission. The Alliance believed my memories would give rise to emotions that might interfere with recovering the keys, risking the future of the humans who had opened the path for Tarsamon’s consuming shadows. Kevin was sworn to secrecy to be able to join me in this life. The problem was the emotional connection existed, anyway, between Cerys, Kevin, and myself without any history to anchor it to.
I glanced up at Cerys. “I don’t agree with the Alliance’s decision. I fought for them to give me those memories, our history together.” A seed of resentment had been planted when I’d learned it had been a vote that would alter my life. I wanted more than anything to understand the deep connection I shared with a man I’d only known a few short months. All I had were flash images revealing a life from long ago, and the need to know felt like a relentless itch I couldn’t scratch.
“They’ve seen the clarity in your argument to not deny you, us, of what was shared.”
I nodded. Maybe.
“And you’ve proven your ability by obtaining the first key.”
“I hope you’re right.”
When I’d last seen Kevin a little more than a week ago, I’d almost interrupted his request to alter his agreement with the Soltari to protect me. The penalty for going against the Order or failing the mission was a permanent breaking of that connection forged so long ago. That grated on my nerves. A punishment for failure by an entity that had guided my existence and a belief system I fought for.
For Kevin, there was too much pain in my not knowing our past. Combined with my stubborn nature, it had caused tension to grow between us as he tried to protect me in the manner he believed was best, which often meant keeping track of my every move. I was too independent a soul for that sort of care. What occurred to me on our voyage across the sea was that what I wanted most, though I loved him, was distance. I’d have to find a reasonable common ground.
“Are you not pleased to have the memory of us?” Cerys asked, interrupting further thought on the matter.
“Of course I am.” I pressed a smile across my lips, avoiding the intense stare I felt from him as I slipped the dagger in place.
A flash of the vivid dream blinked across my vision. Since waking from it, there at least existed an answer for our connection—a bond that transcended life. The tenderness we’d shared touched the core of my soul and frightened me. I’d spent my life blocking intimate relationships and close feelings for the vulnerability that came with them. No, I needed to keep the wall in place that numbed my feelings and kept me focused on my task to recover the last two keys.
With a decision made, I lifted my gaze to Cerys again. “They’re waiting,” I said, referring to the team that traveled with me. “I wish we had more time.”
Cerys smiled and nodded once. I slid on my boots and glanced up. What would it be like to have both Cerys and Kevin in the same room? Is that even possible?
Warm tingles slipped down the length of my arm again. As I reached the door, I turned to see Cerys fading from view. I headed up the narrow staircase toward the deck.
A blanket of humidity fell over me. A fine mist surrounded the ship and beads of moisture began to form on my skin. I scanned the coastline and the dense trees and foliage we would cover. Making a trek through the jungle would require stamina in an environment I had little familiarity with. Even though I had pulled my hair into a sleek ponytail, the intensity of the warm air made it feel as though I was wearing it long and heavy. I had shucked my heavier garments for a pair of shorts and sleeveless top with a bit of stretch for comfort and movement only to find it sticking like a second skin. I doubted any material in this steam bath would be comfortable. I shifted my gaze upward to watch a sunset of deep yellows and pinks. White clouds were strewn across in an illuminated haze. My eyes drifted to the beach and a mountain below the colored sky. Several elves raced to lower the mainsail, while others finished tying off the bow.
They had initiated this voyage on a ship, undetectable by the human eye and, more importantly, by the evil that sought to interfere with our mission. But it was a temporary veil of protection to get us to the Yucatan and the location of the guardian of the second key. It wouldn’t take long for Tarsamon and the dark shadows to track our energy path to this jungle, as they had done at the gateway at River Teith in Scotland. Darkness hunted light. As another level of guard, Lady Mara, a woman of no more than five feet tall and with a wrinkle for every hour of time that had passed, had a talent for creating certain unique tools not provided by the skilled elves. She had given me a ring to help hide my energy from the dark forces that chased us. Along with the gift was the limitation that the protection was temporary, but she hadn’t said for how long.
Why didn’t the Soltari place the keys in realms where we might be able to hide our energy? Such a place has to exist. The physical world was difficult to maneuver in, heavier, making it harder to move without being noticed.
As I stared across the landscape, the difficulties encountered on the last mission floated back to me, as well as the man with a lot of information who had turned against our team, joining with Tarsamon. C-05 had died once. Or so I’d thought. As a shapeshifter, he’d brushed against the energy of another man, assuming a new image—a spiked haircut set above an overly thin, angular face. But instead of the cool white strands of hair I was used to, they were now the color of soot, to match the darker shade of the soul he was transforming into. His eyes were what I couldn’t forget. Gray steel that burned into my own, willing me to give up the key to him. He’d be back in one form or another, unless, of course, Tarsamon had lost patience with his first failed effort to get the key.
“Sara.” Eldor, the leader of the elves, stood a few yards away. He lifted his chin in my direction. With the flick of a few fingers, he invited me to follow him as he ducked down a stairwell across from where I stood. As I came around, I saw the door to a cabin closing and entered.
Eldor’s appearance was immaculate, with perfectly groomed long chestnut-colored hair resting behind his shoulders. His face was without a single line or wrinkle, despite his age of nearly four hundred years.
“I could take a bath on the deck just standing there,” I said, realizing the scent of my skin and hair was becoming more fragrant the longer I was outside. Easy to track for a hunter.
He smiled, hearing the thought. “You may be,” he replied. “And so I want you to have this.” He lifted two blades tucked in sheaths, not much larger than my hands. “They’re to be worn on your back. And before you ask, you’re not only trained in swordsmanship but in all bladed weapons,” he said, reminding me of yet another memory I didn’t have.
“But I’ve never practiced with these in Ardan,” I replied, taking the package and feeding my arms through the shoulder straps.
Ardan was the home of all immortals. A place where every soul resided, unless they chose to venture to other realms, and where those of us who were tasked with keeping the balance of good and evil could practice our skills.
“Shouldn’t I recall some of the training?” I reached over my shoulder to pull one of the blades.
“You will when the time calls for you to use it,” he replied. “The knowledge is present. While your skills at manipulating energy to protect you are useful, it doesn’t hurt to have a few additional tools at the ready.”
I pulled the blade through the air in a sweeping X fashion. The movement felt natural enough, as though I had done so many times. “What about the members of the team?”
Eldor and his fleet of elves were precision weaponry craftsmen, developing our blades, and expert fighters who had aided us when nearly consumed by Tarsamon’s army of dark shadows and faceless demons a few weeks earlier.
“They’ve been provided for as well.”
A knock on the cabin door redirected my attention.
“Come in, Kevin,” Eldor said. I flashed a smile at Kevin that went unreturned.
“The ship is secured and Mac is ready to depart to the village with the team to locate the guardian of the key.” A slight shine of perspiration glowed over his face and I felt him fight to not meet my gaze. He hadn’t said more than a few words since our departure from Scotland. Like me, I sensed from him a desire to maintain a distance between us.
So that’s how he’s going to play it. Good, I need the distance anyway to concentrate.
Kevin’s eyes met mine at the thought before returning to Eldor.
No complex emotions. Need to focus.
It would take me a little time to set aside the bond that we had begun to create since reconnecting in this world. But if Kevin thought he’d be able to focus on the mission that much more because of the space he was creating, he wasn’t fooling me. Had he forgotten that I shared the same ability as he to feel what others felt and to hear the truths of their thoughts? His ability to block me was either weakening or I was becoming stronger at getting through. And he was most certainly in a battle with himself over his decision. His eyes confirmed that much. How long could he fight the good fight?
“We were just finishing up here,” I said.
“I’ll let him know.” He turned to leave, closing the door behind him without another glance.
“Be patient with him, Sara,” Eldor said, giving my shoulder a slight squeeze. “He must find the best way to fulfill his obligation to the Soltari and the Alliance and not lose you in the process.”
“I know. But patience doesn’t make things any easier between us.” I tugged once on the strap at my shoulder. “Thanks again.”
“You love him, whether easy or not.”
It wasn’t a question, and yet I still felt obligated to confirm the statement. “Yes. And we both know that can get us killed with one wrong judgment call.”
Eldor placed a light kiss on my cheek a second before I turned to leave.
I joined the six other members of the team, waiting for the two boats maneuvering closer to take us to shore. As I stepped into one of them, I felt something more in the balmy air than humidity, drawing my attention as though a rancid aroma floated on the current. I hadn’t detected the shift in the energy earlier as I’d gazed over the landscape. I sharpened my senses but couldn’t tune in to it. Kevin looked at me with the same knowing. Stay with Ceanag. I heard his thought and let my eyes linger on him before letting them drift to the team with their own connections to each other.
Aria had formed an alliance with Matt that seemed as old as the one Kevin and I shared. And despite Elise’s attempts to thwart Juno’s attention, they, too, were connected in some way I had yet to uncover.
Ceanag (KEN-uhk) MacCristal, better known to us as Mac, and guardian of the first key, was tasked with leading us to the guardian of the second key and journey with us until all three were obtained. Although we were guided by Mac, I also carried knowledge that would lead me to each one. If I needed to follow a different path than the one intended, there would be little I could do to deny that urge.
I hiked with the others through the damp and rocky terrain. Numerous fallen trees lay on our self-made path, along with hundreds upon thousands of sprouts of new foliage. We were headed into the depths of the jungle, far beyond any well-worn tourist routes, and across a landscape resembling destruction following a storm. Debris was scattered all about the ground. A bird whistled from above, signaling tranquility and calling my immediate assessment a lie. Above us towered mature trees and plants, shading us from the heat of the sun under canopies of leafy green arms clasped together. While the additional shade provided some relief from the heat, it would be more difficult for us to see anything or anyone who might be stalking. I would need to keep my senses sharply tuned.
As if he felt the same ominous sensation in the air, Kevin’s next steps brought him closer to where I hiked, choosing to follow through with guarding me and withdrawing his previous affections. If that’s what he needed to do, so be it. I respected the decision and had developed enough of a toughened shell to withstand the nagging loss of him while he focused on his duty.
Still, being close to him was wearing on my defenses, those I’d spent thirty-one years molding. My nerves tightened at the tension not eased with the silence between us.
“Bleeding hearts will never survive. Foolish girl. Faster, Sara, run!” a booming voice said, breaking the silence like a thunderclap. All I could hear now were the gasps of breath that escaped me and the heavy pounding of my heart thudding in my ears. I couldn’t run fast enough to catch whatever I was chasing or escape from that which was close at my heels. The fact was I could see neither, but the sensation of urgency still tore through me. I tripped and fell, hitting my head.
I blinked open my eyes and felt as though I was trying to catch my breath. A trickle of cold sweat beading on my chest and back sent a shiver through me, as I gazed out the window over the foggy landscape.
“The road is a bit bumpy. Sorry it woke you,” Kevin said, glancing at me. “Are you okay? You look pale.”
“Yeah. I’m fine, thanks,” I said, swallowing hard. I slid a hand over the top of my head and straightened in the car seat. My heart was beginning to slow at the abrupt realization I was no longer in Ardan, another world immortals could travel to during sleep, but instead with Kevin on the mission to obtain the first key of enlightenment and, with any luck, rescue humanity. I must have dozed on the drive from the airport. I could see the faint outline of Doune Castle through the clouds at the top of the hill just a little way up the road.
“What scared you? Where were you?” Kevin asked, reading my thoughts.
“I don’t know. Maybe Ardan. I didn’t recognize the world I traveled to this time.”
“We can wait here a few minutes if you’d like,” he said, pulling to the side of the road.
“No, no. I’m fine.” My head was throbbing with lack of sleep and the need for water. “Better to keep moving. Besides, we aren’t going to get less tired.”
After the narrow escape from the dark shadows hunting me the night before, neither of us had rested well on the nearly seven-hour flight from New York to Scotland. And now here we were, plunged into the center of our mission to find the guardian of the key, one of three that would rescue earth.
Better get used to this, Sara. There could be several sleepless nights on this journey. The gentle touch of Kevin’s hand against my cheek pulled me from my thoughts. I lifted my eyes to his, deep brown with flecks of gold winking back at me, reading every thought and emotion. Through tired eyes, I dropped my gaze to his lips and back to meet his stare.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We left the car parked on the side of the road and climbed up the long, cobblestone path toward the main entrance of Lord’s Tower, an extension of Doune Castle and a seemingly longer walk than necessary with the wind pressing against us, as though invisible hands urged us to stay away. I pulled my coat tighter around me as another gust blew fiercely past us. Kevin, undisturbed by the weather, tilted his head into the oncoming blast of cold air like a bull ready to charge his opponent. The sky was filled with shades of rain-heavy gray and white clouds, blocking out any trace of blue.
Under the shelter of the overhang, in front of two enormous wooden doors, Kevin and I glanced at each other with the knowledge of the dangerous venture that waited beyond the entrance. A few knocks upon the door produced no response until the third heavy-handed rap yielded a young woman dressed in a navy blue uniform with medium-length auburn hair and a tired look upon her face.
“I’m sorry but tours will not begin for another hour,” she said in a British accent. Her eyes dropped to the floor and the door began to close. Kevin took one step forward and placed a hand on the moving door, stopping it instantly and causing the woman to meet his gaze with surprise.
“Pardon the interruption, miss. We are not here to trouble you for a tour. We are expected by Mr. Ceanag (KEN-uhk) MacCristal,” Kevin said as a rather polished Scottish accent rolled off his tongue at the pronunciation of the name. “Is he available?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Do come in,” replied the young woman politely. We stepped into the foyer of the castle that was even darker than the gloomy, clouded sky outside. “Who shall I say is calling?”
“Doctors Sara Forrester and Kevin Scott,” I replied, smiling at her.
“Please wait here. It’ll just be a moment,” she said, then hurried down the hall and disappeared into a room.
Torches were lit along the dark corridor, leaving me to wonder if it was for effect or actual purpose. The castle was indeed fit for a lord, to be sure. My eyes couldn’t help extending the length of the walls, taking in brick by ancient brick, and wondering what life in the castle must have been like in the late fourteenth century, during the Stewart Dynasty or later as the castle stood during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Jacobite Risings in the seventeenth century. The elegance of such hardened refinement was breathtaking even from the dark foyer.
I placed a flattened palm against one of the bricks and felt an energy run from it through my hand, as if the fourteenth-century walls wanted to speak of all the goings-on. I heard the voices of what sounded like soldiers, loud voices of men, some shouting commands, a rustling of several footsteps, and a single distant scream from a woman. I pulled my hand away and returned to the silence of the small space we occupied. My extrasensory abilities had become even stronger than I’d realized over the last few weeks.
“When you spent time in Scotland, did you happen to tour this castle?” I asked Kevin. My fingers flicked over one of the brochures on a weathered wooden table against the wall. “Do you know about the rooms contained within?” I lifted my gaze and peered down the hall after the vanishing echo of footsteps.
I never visited this one, he replied in thought. Kevin had been communicating via telepathy more in the last few days in an effort, I guessed, to get me to exercise my ability. He wanted to keep our communication between us and away from curious ears, too. The practice of telepathy just wasn’t that natural to me. “It’s been years since I spent time in this part of the world, growing up with my father, after my mom…” He trailed off, not wanting to finish recalling the memory of his mother’s murder, for which he had been a witness at the tender age of seven. His brow had a slight wrinkle. I stroked a hand down his arm. He stepped closer and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “Are you cold?”
“I’m thawing.” I tilted my head toward him and flashed a grin. The angular features of his jaw met at the center of a squared chin. His dark chestnut hair showed a few lighter waves. And the eyes, with a hint of a shadow of fatigue beneath them, pulled me into him and stared straight through me just like they had when I’d awoken in the ICU of the hospital where he had been my attending physician. Because we had bonded millennia before now, he could feel my energy from the moment I’d arrived in the ER, clasping at life’s fragile hand, following an accident that had brought us together and engaged the quest for the keys. And yet I still had no memories of our previous lives together.
He squeezed my shoulder and kissed an icy cheek, his breath hot against my chilled skin. The contrast sent a warm, tingling sensation down my neck and across my shoulders. It was a feeling that made me want to curl into him and forget finding keys or those they would rescue.
“How much time do you think we have before the dark forces track us?” I asked.
Even with my growing anticipation of getting to the first key, my thoughts had never left Tarsamon, the demon that directed the evil that had recently been ordered to hunt me. I was an increasing threat to him and to his forces sucking the energy out of the humans to create an existence for the dark energy. By the time we’d fled New York, Tarsamon’s shadows had accelerated their effort to consume the weaker humans who allowed fear and anger to drive them by absorbing their energy like famished vampires. Such behaviors were fuel to the dark legion—the more of it that existed, the easier the humans were to devour.
If I were to fail the quest, the Soltari—the ethereal governing order over the realms that maintained the balance of good and evil—would forever break the bond I’d shared with Kevin across lifetimes. The Soltari engaged an Alliance of immortals to carry out the details or rules of the Order. The penalty hanging over our heads would be for losing all the lives on Earth. As if the task of staying alive and finding three hidden keys wasn’t complicated enough, the additional threat that faced us was, I supposed, intended as a driving force toward success.
“With your energy like a beacon to him, we don’t have much time at all,” Kevin answered in a hushed tone. “Where we go to find the key will be up to Mr. MacCristal. And we must rely on the guardian in order to access it. As a custodian of the key, he’s spent a lifetime preparing for the possibility he would be called to lead you to it. What we need is for the rest of the team to arrive here as soon as possible to provide protection for you. Matt and Juno are on the next flight out. Elise and Aria can’t…”
The clicking sound of footsteps interrupted further discussion on the matter of our team but quickly disappeared.
“Elise and Aria will be here within a day or so,” said Kevin.
“Do we have that long?”
“We don’t have a choice.”
“But Tarsamon’s ability to track us… He could find us before we can get to the key.”
“We’d be safer to count on it and take any precautions we can.”
I’d come a long way from the days just before I’d met Kevin. I’d learned early on never to trust anyone, with a mom who put me up for adoption at the age of eight to be with her boyfriend and a father who was nowhere to be found. I’d been betrayed by the very people that should have cared for me the most. Fortunately, I’d found a good home with my adoptive parents, Mary Ann and Robert Forrester, that helped me to ease out of my shell the tiniest bit with a good dose of love and by being taught wealth was nothing to take for granted but to share with those who helped others, through their foundation. In my short time with Kevin and our small team, I was only starting to trust those sent to protect me on this mission. And despite how normal things appeared for the moment, there was no time to waste searching for the key, not with the dark shadows close at our heels. Two days could literally determine the fate of the world.
My cell phone buzzed to indicate an incoming message. I pulled it from my coat pocket and pressed the button to see a picture of the symbol that had led us to Scotland flashing. The medallion reflected a tree, a sun, and three triskeles. Gaelic lettering was imprinted along the edge. A smaller version of the same detail had been forged into the hilt of my sword, tucked neatly in its case in the car. Though we were in the right area to find Mr. MacCristal, I believed the first key was not at Doune Castle. It couldn’t be. The Professors in Ardan, who helped guide us, said the Druid priests had left the key in safe hands to be guarded until the appropriate time came to relinquish it. If that was true, and I had no reason to believe it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be held in a castle that had the traffic Doune has seen over centuries, including the imprisonment of government troops captured during the Battle of Falkirk. No indeed. Something so valuable would not be hidden in a place where it could accidentally be found. I would need to put my faith in Mr. MacCristal, that he would be able to lead us to the exact location. I turned as the soft sounds of footsteps from the hall interrupted my thoughts.
“What is it?” Kevin asked, referring to the message I’d received.
“A reminder to get moving.”
I pressed the button again and slipped the phone into my pocket. Kevin shook his head, knowing there was little we could do to hasten our way through this mission.
The symbols, kept safely in Ardan, were believed to hold information for three different locations, one for each key—Scotland, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Egypt. Each symbol had lettering, hieroglyphs, or images that were like clues to individual puzzles and each had a guardian that we had to find first. The guardian knew the way to the gateway, a portal to the realm where the key had been hidden thousands of years earlier by the Soltari, a powerful entity that held the balance of good and evil in its governance. The Alliance of Souls, to which I belonged, handed down the order of the Soltari. And it was my mission to set the balance between light and darkness right again and push Tarsamon’s evil from our world. This could only be accomplished by harnessing the power of all three keys of enlightenment.
“Good mornin’ to ye. I’m so sorry to keep ye waitin’.” A stout man greeted us in full kilted attire.
Costume or culture?
The man’s hair was cut short around his ears, with no effort to hide the patch of baldness at the crown. It was medium brown in color with graying sprigs sneaking out beyond the darkened areas on his round head, revealing his age, I guessed, to be in his early fifties. My attention always went first to the eyes of those I spoke with, to seek the truth in their words. The blue of his were smiling at us in half-moons as he reached out a hand in welcome, first to Kevin, then to me.
“Good morning,” I replied, extending my hand. He lifted my fingers gently to his lips. His thumb grazed the silver ring I wore, a symbol identifying me to others involved in our mission as the only person able to hold the keys. The ring had been set like glue on my finger since Cerys, a spiritual equal to Kevin, had placed it there a couple of months earlier.
“My name is Robert Watson, I’m the constable of the castle. I understand ye are to meet with Mr. MacCristal,” he said in a thick Scottish accent.
“Yes,” Kevin replied. “He should be expecting us. Is he here?”
“He’ll be along directly. I’ve been asked to see ye to your quarters and perhaps offer some refreshment after your long journey. Might ye have baggage I could attend to?”
“Yes, in the car,” Kevin said. “I’ll bring it up.”
“Please, sir. I’ll see ye fit to your room and then attend to it directly.”
“That’s very kind of you. Thank you,” I said, touching Kevin’s arm.
As we followed the constable into the Great Hall and on into Lord’s Hall, I could swear I heard faint whispering coming from all around me, as if thousands of voices were whispering at once. I couldn’t make out what was being said. I glanced toward the ceiling to see carved faces in the beams above my head. Are they there or am I imagining it? It must be the cleaning staff working nearby, preparing to open the castle to visitors, and their voices are just carrying over, I told myself. In whispers? I knew better than to doubt my senses, but I couldn’t help it.
Kevin leaned closer. “I hear them, too,” he said into my ear.
Sound most certainly echoed from wall to wall in the great empty space. But the eyes in the faces I’d seen felt as though they were following us as we moved through the hall.
“Mr. Watson, as old as the castle is, do you have any visitors who’ve witnessed ghost sightings?” I asked.
“Ah, we do get the chasers of them, ye see, those that hope to find ’em. But I’m sure it’s nay more than a shadow, or perhaps their own that frightens ’em.” He chuckled under his breath and shook his head, dismissing the notion. “More like silly nonsense, if ye ask me. But the belief keeps them coming ’round.” Kevin and I glanced at each other at the mention of shadow. My attention lifted once more to the ceiling.
As the door opened for us to exit, a breeze greeted us. Hurry, it seemed to say in a whisper that stretched from behind us as we stepped through the doorway.
We continued through Lord’s Hall and outside, down a set of stairs leading to a large, grassy courtyard below. Beyond was a small stone cottage that reminded me of the French country homes I had visited a couple of times as a girl with Mary Ann and Robert, near Cumberland, Maryland, during a summer vacation. The cottage was no more than two bedrooms, with a bath in one and a sparse but adequate kitchen area consisting of the basics—an electric stove, small sink, and a refrigerator that resembled the smaller iceboxes found in the 1950s, a relic that had found its place in the quaint Scottish home. I immediately felt surrounded in comfort.
“I hope this will do?” the constable asked. I nodded and smiled, thanking him. “My wife, Mairi, tends to the guests in the house and will be up directly to see to any needs ye may have. I’ll return straightaway to take ye to see Mr. MacCristal. It won’t be long.”
With that, the door closed with a slam, leaving Kevin and me in the peaceful company of each other. I gazed around the room as a noticeable chill sank through my coat and touched my skin. The air in the home seemed a bit stale and I wanted to open windows to clear the place. Instead, I grasped the edges of my coat and pulled it tighter in a feeble attempt to retain what little body heat I still had. We stood in silence, taking in the accommodations and feeling trapped for the moment, at least until the constable returned.
“I’ll start a fire,” Kevin said, echoing my thoughts. Before he could reach for the firewood stacked neatly in a large basket by the hearth, a quick knock at the door came just before it opened, letting in a fresh burst of cold air no more than the forty-two degrees the car registered on our drive to the castle. A short, plump woman entered, wearing a knee-length gray dress and white apron. Masses of white and gray curls were pinned to her head and she smiled at us as she held a basket covered in cloth over her forearm and stepped into the room. She looked rather like a sweet old grandmother straight out of a fairy tale.
“Good day to ye,” she said in a pleasant voice, setting the basket on the table in the living area. “I’ve brought ye some fruit and baked goods from the kitchen.”
“Good morning. Mairi, is it?” I asked, trying to impart the accent I had heard in the constable’s voice earlier.
“Yes, lass. So pleased to meet ye.” She took my hand in hers and shook it lightly.
Her eyes grew round as saucers and her mouth fell open. “Good heavens! The man forgot to light ye a fire. You’re freezin’, lass. Never mind,” she said, patting my hand. “I’ll set to it directly.” She released my hand and touched my arm before she turned away.
Kevin and I watched as Mairi scurried from the fireplace to the kitchen and each bedroom. Kevin stood motionless, like one of the two wooden beams in the corners of the room, while the cheery woman mumbled dissatisfaction as she flitted around the cottage, tidying the already immaculate space. I lifted the cloth covering the basket of food and opted instead to stand by the recently stoked fire. I glanced at Kevin and couldn’t help but laugh under my breath as he watched in astonishment. It was as if we were caught in a movie whose scene had been set to fast-forward. Before I could blink, the fire was stoked, a half of a ham Mairi had pulled out of the icebox was sliced and returned to the refrigerator for later, two bottles of spring water were placed next to fresh flowers at the tiny blockwood kitchen table, and two heavy woolen blankets in a green and blue tartan plaid were perfectly folded and placed on the end of each bed.
“Yes, well, that should do it,” she said, rubbing her hands on the apron as she scanned the room for any chance item out of place. For the first time since realizing I was cold, she glanced at Kevin and then me. The smile I wore at seeing Kevin’s astonished look remained and we both thanked her as she made her way out the door.
“You’d think she believed we were on a honeymoon or something with all the attention,” I said, shutting the door behind her and giving it a forceful push as it stuck two inches from closing.
“She probably does. I wouldn’t think Mr. MacCristal is sharing the details of the quest with just anyone. We’d have received quite a different reception if he was.”
Kevin peeked into the basket and settled on a piece of fruit.
“You should eat something, love,” he said. “Once we meet with Ceanag, I don’t know when there will be another chance.”
I remained by the stone hearth, where the fire was now blazing, reluctant to leave, even though my stomach was grumbling. Kevin brought the basket of goods over for my perusal, slid a hand over my hair, and kissed a temple. I smiled up at him through tired eyes and plucked a pear. My thoughts went back to our mad rush from New York and I tried not to think of the dark shadows that couldn’t be too far behind us.
With no other choice, we’d had to leave Aria and Elise to face the two remaining massive hurricanes that were headed for the southeast coast of the US, and also one of Tarsamon’s efforts to reduce the human population quickly. Elise and Aria were gifted in their otherworldly abilities to affect the elements of nature. The last I’d heard, three of the five hurricanes had pushed away from the coast, back into the Atlantic. Once the last two were safely contained, Elise and Aria would join the rest of the team on the quest, hopefully in a couple of days.
How long can it take to find a key? Gazing into the fire, I took a bite of fruit and patiently waited to meet with Ceanag. Finding this key was only the first step to stopping the evil that was moving faster into our world. We had a longer voyage ahead for the other two keys.
I turned to see Kevin sitting on the sofa. He reached for a magazine on the side table and flipped through the pages without directing much attention toward them. He assured me that the other members of our team were safe. So why was I feeling a sense of unrest? If C-05, someone who I was sure had left our side to join forces with Tarsamon, was on our trail, I was in potentially greater danger as the moments passed. Kevin hadn’t told me that, but he didn’t have to. I could feel the tension and worry from him as he explained the details of our trip to Scotland during the flight. He wasn’t blocking his emotions from being felt by me now, a rare thing in the time I’d spent with him so far.
I could feel so much from everyone around me, but it struck me numb from the moment I’d met Kevin that I could not feel what he felt as an empath. It was a gift, or some might consider a curse, to feel the emotions of people around me. But it gave me insight into the truths they carried. It was most useful in my practice as a psychiatrist, while at the same time, it was a burden to carry my own feelings and to feel those of the people near me.
Tension encircled Kevin even more so now than on the plane. It had grown rather quickly since arriving in the little cottage. I could feel from him a level of impatience that he was stifling with increasing difficulty at waiting to meet with Ceanag. I took another bite of the pear and watched him. He looked like a champagne bottle that had been shaken and was ready to pop. I knew it wouldn’t be much longer before he would seek out our contact himself, refusing to hold our mission up any longer under the confines of the constable and his cheery wife.
I rubbed the warmth over my arms from the heat of the fire and wandered through the cottage to get a better look at the rooms and view from the single picture window in each of the two bedrooms. Soft, handmade quilts covered the beds with a floral design, while a plaid tartan throw, of unknown clan descent, lay neatly folded over the arm of a white stuffed chair near each window, similar to the one Mairi had placed on the end of the bed. There were worse places to be held up waiting for someone. I immediately began to feel the lack of sleep catching up with me and with it a sudden desire to pull back the soft quilts and snuggle beneath for a long nap.
A knock startled me, ringing through the stillness like the thunder of a coming storm. I turned toward the door, realizing I must have been just as anxious as Kevin to get going. He was already standing on the front steps as I arrived to greet the constable, with an air of relief in his expression.
“Well now, here ye are,” Mr. Watson said as he stepped past me and set the two bags and cases containing our swords inside the entry. “I was asked to give ye this, miss,” he said, turning to me and reaching into his inside coat pocket. “It was just delivered this mornin’, nay but five minutes ago, with special instructions that it not be left for ye but handed directly to ye.” He paused and scratched his head. “Aye, the man was quite insistent,” he added, handing me a small, unmarked box covered in white paper. It reminded me of the mysterious package I’d received in my office not more than a week ago that, once opened, was determined to be my sword sent from Ardan. It, too, had arrived unmarked and in a similar plain box.
“What man?” asked Kevin.
“I dinna know exactly. A delivery person, I suppose. Odd-looking fellow he was,” he replied with a shrug.
I peeled back the paper and lifted the lid of an antique wood box to see all three symbols had in fact been delivered safely as the great gray wolf Karshan had promised at my last visit to Ardan. I glanced from the box to Kevin and he nodded once, acknowledging the mental image, my view, of the symbols.
The wolf was an ally I’d met in Ardan, one of many who would aid me in the mission and who’d told me the symbols would be delivered. Karshan had mentioned he had the same ability as all of us to cross the boundary of current life into the parallel world of Ardan and back if necessary. I’d learned that the immortal members of my team could do this while dreaming. But there must be another way to cross over, because in my hand were the symbols from Ardan, and the danger Tarsamon brought wouldn’t wait for us to sleep.
“Thank you, sir. I’ve been waiting for this,” I said, shifting my gaze to Mr. Watson. “Is Mr. MacCristal at home?” I felt an urgency to get the symbols to Ceanag and avoid the curiosity I sensed from our host. The small bow-tie mouth of the constable opened and shut.
“Aye, I just spoke with him on my way up,” he replied. “He’s asked me to bring you to his home. If you’re quite ready, you can follow me.”
As we headed down the path toward the constable and his car, I felt an odd sensation to take a detour. I shook off the notion as a simple distraction and kept pace with Kevin down the path from the small cottage. The wind continued to blow in mighty gusts, whipping my hair about my face. Carried high on its breeze, I heard my name. This time I stopped and turned my head away from the car.
“What is it?” Kevin asked. He stopped with me as Mr. Watson waited steps ahead of us with the door open to the large Austin Princess, a 1964, I guessed from a glance. It was a transportation car, not particularly fancy but classy enough for carting people with its resemblance to an older-style Rolls Royce.
“I can’t go with you,” I said to him.
“Why? What is it?” I could feel him searching for an answer in my thoughts that could not be read, not because I blocked him from his ability to do so but because I didn’t know.
“I have to go there.” I shifted my eyes past him. “To the River Teith just beyond those trees.” I lifted a chin in the direction of the river.
“I’ll go with you. We can meet Ceanag later.”
“No,” I replied, staring off into the distance that was calling me toward it. “I have to go alone.” I turned to face him, handing him the box. “Take this to Ceanag. I’ll catch up with you. Ask Mr. Watson to return for me.” I pulled a few long strands of hair away that had blown across my lips and turned into the wind. “They will be safer with you, for now,” I said, feeling his protest at delivering the symbols without me.
“I don’t like this.” He stared into my eyes knowing that he couldn’t argue with the guidance to lead I’d been granted by the Alliance.
“I’ll be fine.”
He let out a breath. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “But if you’re not back within thirty minutes, it won’t just be the constable who returns for you.” I nodded to him as he touched my arm. He felt through my coat the silver bracelet he’d given me as a gift at his home in the Cape and seemed comforted that it would let him know the moment I was in danger by sending a signal indicating where he could find me, like a GPS device. Kevin cupped a hand along my jawline, stroked a thumb over my cheek, and kissed the space between my brows. “Be careful.” He turned with the small box in hand and, with a few long strides, reached the car, stopping only to say a few words to Mr. Watson.
“I can feel you, but I can’t touch you,” I whispered, extending an open hand to the empty space in front of me. “Where are you? Who are you?”
“Right here, my love,” came a whispered reply.
It had been my voice that had awoken me to the scent of pine trees spanning as far as I could see, which wasn’t more than a few feet with a sky lacking moon or stars or any explanation for the bluish-gray hue of night lit without them. Only moments before, I was certain someone was standing beside me. The sensation of fine hairs rising on my neck traveled the length of my arm in response.
At first glance, the space around me appeared gloomy, as if I’d been caught in a shroud of soupy, black fog. I rubbed the blurriness that plagued my pupils while considering if I’d been drugged and dumped in a forest. That notion seemed as ridiculous as the reality that faced me now, but it was the only plausible explanation for how I’d gotten here. The last memory I had was the high-pitched beeping sound of an alarm and heaviness in my body just before falling into a well of darkness. I stood alone in the emptiness of the forest for another moment before starting off with no particular direction in mind.
“This is madness,” I said to myself.
After hiking for what felt like an hour, I gave up trying to recall just how I’d arrived. My latest struggle was trying to keep from screaming out in fear. My heart echoed the call as it began to race at the thought of never finding a way out of this obstacle of gray and green.
Stuff it, Sara.
I’d learned long ago the best way to escape a difficult situation was to think one’s way out. Giving in to the easy wave of panic that threatened to crash over my senses was a sure death sentence. My foot caught at a tree root that had risen above the dirt path and twisted slightly. I fell hard, landing on my hip and forearm. A curse slipped from my lips. I needed to find higher ground. From there I might find city lights or a campsite to suggest some direction to go. I’d settle for any sign of life right now. I rubbed my ankle and pushed myself up.
One lousy survival class was all I had under my belt, pressed upon me as a New Year’s resolution by a friend who insisted on having a partner. “Maybe it’ll come in handy if you ever try camping,” she’d joked. I never thought I’d actually have to use it.
A drop of cold sweat rushed down my back, sending another chill through me, as though an icy fingertip teased along my spine.
My memory seemed intact. I began ticking off each one from a mental checklist. My name is Sara Forrester. I’m thirty— no, thirty-one, just last week. I’m a psychiatrist with a successful practice. And I have zero interest in committing to that kiss-ass Tyler Mason no matter how close or how wealthy our families are. He was nothing more to me than a family friend who lately had been pressing for more of my time and attention.
What was my last memory before the alarm bells? I shook my head as a vague thought attempted to push through. I was supposed to attend the benefit for the Forrester Foundation with Tyler. Did I go? I couldn’t remember. Just the way I couldn’t remember how I’d arrived in a damn forest. Could Tyler have had anything to do with me landing here? Not likely. He wasn’t capable of doing harm to me. I was sure of it. It wasn’t because he cared enough, though he pretended a good game. There was too much financially for him to lose. But at least there was a chance he would pull a search party together. Maybe.
I pressed on, forging through soft ferns, over boulders, and past a thicket of constant trees, while a nagging feeling that I wasn’t alone picked at my conscience. It’s nothing. But I could sense the presence of someone lurking in the shadows. My eyes argued against the sensation, not finding a shred of evidence to prove it. I could panic but I wouldn’t. I was a survivor, having come through a lot worse than this and at a much younger age. A whisper of white fog brushed between the trees immediately in front of me. I whirled around, following it with my eyes. It returned this time, slowing its pace. I held my breath as my heart began to pound heavier, until it was the only sound I could hear. In the transparency, the image of a face transformed in the mist, taking in my appearance much as I was of it, until the entire ghostly figure flitted away. That was the confirmation my eyes needed to prove I wasn’t alone.
“What the hell is this place?”
The sensation of watchful eyes from somewhere in the darkness remained. But this time the hairs had not risen on my arms with the fleeting image.
I despised a coward and suddenly remembered I had nothing to fight with, save whatever jiu jitsu I could remember.
“Why won’t you face me?”
I was losing it, shouting to nothing in the depth of darkness to rid a feeling. If I was meant to die, better to get on with it. As if in answer, a piercing pain shot through my head and I closed my eyes, pressing my palms to my temples.
Behind my eyelids, I saw the image of a group of five, maybe six people with swords, battling fiercely against a cloud of black that swept in multiple directions. I couldn’t make out the faces before the scene began to fade. Another immobilizing pain ripped through my head and sent me to my knees. This time the world spun around me and my stomach began to dance into nausea. I swallowed it back, as the hairs rose up my arms and neck. I opened my eyes and was startled to see the figure of a man squatting beside me.
“Jesus!” I gasped, extending an arm behind me to prevent falling backward. “What the…? Who the hell are you?” The pain subsided, and I stared, frozen with fear.
Few features were visible in the dim light. His wavy chestnut hair hung at his shoulders. But it was his eyes that held my gaze. They were blindingly white, like the headlights of an oncoming car at night, leaving me unable to read anything in them.
“I don’t want to frighten you,” he said, extending a hand slowly toward me as if approaching a scared animal.
I was, I supposed, as frightened as I’d ever been. Fear kept me immobile, while a little voice in my head screamed, Move! I let out a small breath I realized I’d been holding in one gasp. He smiled past closed lips.
“Will you take my hand?”
“No.” My voice was almost a whisper. “Who are you? What do you want?” I began inching backward ever so slowly, as the signals from my brain strained to reach my muscles.
“Does this help?” He brought a hand over his face for an instant, and when he removed it, the blinding white in the irises of his eyes had been replaced with a beautiful shade of cobalt blue. I stopped my backward retreat and rested on my bum. The only slight distance between us was that of my knees pulled up to my chest.
“I won’t hurt you. Please, take my hand.”
I cast a cautious eye at him and his open palm. If I was going to die, it was either alone in a forest or quickly by the hand of someone else. I made my choice for the latter, turned my head, and closed my eyes.
His gentle grasp enclosed my hand and he didn’t move. “Sara,” he said, waiting for me to look at him. “I know you’re scared. I can feel it. There’s no need to fear me.”
I breathed in an ounce of strength and turned to face him. “I don’t know how you know my name or how you got here. Hell, I don’t even know how I got here. And I definitely don’t want to be talking to people I don’t know, unless they can tell me how to get home. Can you do that?”
“You’re not going to die here.” He paused, stroking a thumb over the tops of my fingers, unsettling me further. I tried to pull my hand free, only to find his grip tighten slightly in a squeeze before releasing it. He stood, as I pushed myself up, brushing remnants of dead leaves and a few pine needles from the knees of my pants.
“It’s surprising that not a single recollection of who you really are has returned since you arrived,” he said, eyes fixed upon me. He folded his arms and leaned against a nearby tree. “And I suppose if you don’t know who you are, you wouldn’t remember me, either,” he said, more to himself than to me. His eyes narrowed, and his head tilted slightly, as though I was a puzzle he was trying to figure out. “I find it fascinating.”
The fear he was going to kill me disappeared like a fallen leaf in the wind. “Oh, I know who I am. And you’re right, I don’t remember you because we’ve never met.”
He laughed lightly. “We have a long way to go.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Not yet but soon.”
Before I could argue, he took steps to meet me, standing a few inches taller than my own five foot ten. “I’d like to put at ease all of your worries and provide answers to your questions, but I cannot. Not yet.”
“And why not?”
His eyes softened with a look of understanding but remained fixed in a penetrating stare. “We must adhere to a sequence of events previously planned by the Alliance. You do remember the Alliance?”
I shook my head. “What are you talking about? What Alliance? Who are you, anyway?” I began to wonder if I was hallucinating. His index finger traced my jawline, causing me to stiffen.
“Never mind. You’ll remember.” He paused. “You’re a skilled fighter, Sara.”
He turned, took a few steps, and stopped, glancing over his shoulder. “And you are in your right mind. Perhaps open it a bit wider to other possibilities.” And with that, he proceeded in the opposite direction, disappearing behind the trees.
I glanced around, turning in a full circle. “Are you kidding me?” I asked up to the sky. I finally find someone who might have the answer to getting out of here but doesn’t even tell me his name, and then he’s gone. Frustration rose to the surface as my eyes began to fill with tears, but I forced them away, faced with the need to focus. My life depended on it. No time for fear.
Okay. Just think for a moment.
I surveyed my surroundings. The tall clusters of pine and maples seemed familiar enough. Still, I was fairly certain I wasn’t anyplace I had ever been. The strange visitor and apparition had already convinced me of that fact. The fear of being lost and facing possible demise rose to the surface, refusing to be ignored and threatening to make me fall over the teetering edge of sanity. There was enough light to see several feet ahead and behind me, outlining a path. Judging by the fading shades of darkness in the sky, I guessed the time to be somewhere around nine p.m. But who really knew? I continued pushing through the brush, climbing higher over the enormous rocks as though they were a rigid team of defensive linemen intending to hold me back.
The incline was growing steeper. By the way my muscles were straining, I had to be edging toward the summit. It was unusual that my breathing did not change from the exertion, nor did I feel any fatigue from the higher altitude. I was certainly no hiking expert but worked out enough to know that trekking across a mountainside was no easy task. Instead, I moved with little effort, feeling almost weightless.
Every detail of the environment began to sharpen, as did my awareness of the complete stillness that settled around me. I couldn’t hear anything now but the crunch of my own footsteps over the dead foliage covering the rocky floor, until I stopped to listen. There was no breeze that should have been present at this altitude. Silence echoed in my ears. As if to fill the void, a faint ringing crept into the space. I sat down, sinking my head into my hands as tears began to well. I was as alone as I’d ever been or ever imagined anyone could be.
Don’t lose it. Just hang on. If there’s a way in, there’s got to be a way out. The tears dropped one by one down my cheeks, dampening my shirt in dotted patches. I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, brushing the wetness from my cheeks.
“I’ve got to clear my mind,” I whispered. “There must be a rational explanation.”
It was possible I was in the Adirondack Forest, a six-million-acre parcel of forest, wetlands, and streams that included areas of human settlement. I was bound to find a trail leading to civilization eventually.
“Even if you were in that forest, why is there no moon, no familiar nighttime sounds?” I asked aloud. “Why am I dressed in this unfamiliar clothing?” I glanced behind me. “And men with pure white eyes don’t come out of nowhere and talk to you.” I sat for several minutes, staring into the darkness, wondering if the man was indeed a figment of my imagination. The fresh scent of pine needles and musty dead leaves rose up through my senses, reminding me how real this environment appeared.
All I wanted was to leave, to go back to my comfy home on the outskirts of New York City and to what was familiar, not to be captive. With that thought, I shifted abruptly to my feet. A crunching sound. Footsteps? Not mine. The fact that I saw no one didn’t stop me from quickening my pace in the opposite direction of the sound.
The feeling of being watched had returned. Had it ever left? Was I being tracked? I shot glances on either side of me. No one. Still, the footsteps could be heard, urging me to move faster.
I shot a glance upward. Twinkling lights? Why hadn’t I seen them before? Was that a small house? In the trees? I continued my race forward, my feet grateful for the less rocky and root-filled terrain. The pounding of my heart and sweat-soaked shirt the only proof I was running for my life. But from what? Why?
I risked slowing my pace, as the trees began to thin, welcoming a deep breath at neither hearing nor seeing any sign of the owner of the footsteps.
To my surprise, lit cottages were sprinkled about. Tiny tree houses with roofs covered in moss. A small sense of relief came and went. Was this find good or bad? My heart skipped a beat, uncertain if it should gear up for fight or flight.