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We set up camp in a secluded place a few miles from the lake and its wretched city. The Noble-lords are finished now, but our troubles are far from over. I've contemplated where we should head next. It's difficult to know the best place for a confrontation with an insane sorcerer. Returning to the forest in the north was my first thought. If nothing else, I know the area, which might offer a slight advantage. Yet, that could put the people of Nikom in danger. I've also considered going back to Garreg's hill. The stone man could provide more information on what I might expect from his old master, even if he can't aid in the fight itself. But again, it would be too close to Nikom.

Syndel sleeps fitfully beside me, clinging to the doll I gave her with both hands. I don't suppose her encounter with Thremas and the other Noble-lords will leave her anytime soon. Despite her hatred toward them, especially now that we know she is the last of her kind, I know she would hate herself more if she had given in to those feelings. I know the conflict well.

My mouth opens in a great yawn. I seem to be more affected by tiredness with the pendant around my neck, as if it's slowly making me more human-like the longer I wear it, but I refrain from sleeping in order to keep watch. Mulogo could come at any moment.

Well into the night, Syndel awakens, finding me staring off at nothing.

“You should get some rest,” she says, sitting up with the blanket around her shoulders.

“I'm fine.”

She gives me a stern look. “You're tired and you know it. Just for a few hours.”

The idea of getting some rest is appealing, especially after the difficult time in Heldra. “Two hours will be enough.”

I take her spot on the softest part of the ground and shut my eyes. It doesn't take long for sleep to claim me.

The usual darkness breaks after a time, taking me to a place I've been before. I stand beneath a thick canopy of leafy boughs with the same stillness in the air, the same murkiness, though it is warm beneath the trees this time. I turn around, half expecting to see Bronek appear with the wagon carrying the body of his beloved Lenna. But I'm alone.

A light flashes around me, changing the setting. I'm in a dark chamber; I know exactly where I am. Mulogo's lair. Everything is how I remember—broken and smashed.

Then I hear a gentle thumping, repeating in a steady rhythm. A lit lantern rests on a table beside me. Grabbing it, I cast the light about, searching for the source of the sound. I pause, my eyes widening. On the floor, surrounded by a dark stain, is an unmistakable . . .

I awaken to Syndel nudging my shoulder. Morning light frames her face.

“Sorry,” she says with a half-smile. “I let you sleep longer than two hours. You needed the rest.”

I sit up, rubbing my eyes. The events of my dream are still fresh in my mind. If I truly saw what I think I saw, I know where we need to go. “Do you remember Bronek's words before he collapsed?”

Syndel gives me a strange look. “Yes. He felt something, though it was far away.”

“I think I know what he was talking about. I dreamed I was back in Mulogo's lair and I found something that was left behind, something that might help us.”

“What?”

“Bronek's heart.”

Syndel's mouth falls open. “How is that possible? Wouldn't it be withered to nothing after all this time?”

I shrug. “Perhaps it awakened after Bronek chose to let go of his hatred.”

“But, Cress,” she says softly, “it was just a dream.”

I open my mouth to protest, but I know she has a point. If I trusted everything that came into my dreams the monster inside me would have won long ago. Why should I treat this dream any differently? I wish I had a better explanation. Yet, the more I think about it, the more I'm certain it's what needs to be done.

Syndel suddenly reaches out and takes my hand. “I will go wherever you decide.”

I can see she's still not convinced, but she is willing to trust me. I hope that trust is warranted. Unfortunately, I have no idea where the sorcerer's lair is. I think back to the dream, as well as the vision of Bronek's venture to the cave. “The forest was warm this time, even in the shade. I'd guess it's farther south. And Bronek's map, though it was faded and I only saw it for a moment, was quite detailed.” I shut my eyes, conjuring the image in my mind. “Mountains to the east and . . . a great expanse of water to the west. The forest seemed to connect two large land masses.”

Syndel's hand falls away from mine. “It sounds like Braddagh Wood.”

“You know it?”

She nods, her eyes downcast. “It's near Lokir. I went into the woods many times myself when I was young to pick wild mushrooms.”

I stare at her. “I'm sorry,” I say, feeling responsible for once again dragging her back to a time and place of such pain.

“Don't be,” she says, giving nothing away in the tone of her voice. “On the bright side, I know exactly how to get there. The northern edge of the forest is not more than two or three days' journey from here.”

She's hiding her pain, though I know it's there. Seeing Thremas again, and now the prospect of heading near the home she lost, might be too much. Maybe she was right from the beginning. A dream is just a dream. “You don't have to come with me.”

She flinches as if I've said something insulting. Getting to her feet, she walks away from the camp, disappearing among the trees and shrubs.

I should go after her and try to explain. I glance at Hetty, who eyes me reproachfully. “I just want to protect her,” I say. My efforts so far haven't been outstanding. I push myself up and trail after her. “Syndel?”

She's not far. I find her sitting at the edge of a small stream, her hands cupped together, supporting a ball of blue light. Her hands move slightly, changing the color and appearance of the light. Sometimes it's the crackling green she used in Heldra or a hissing red, but it always returns to the calm blue.

“I didn't mean to upset you,” I say, my hands wringing together. “I—”

“I have endured many hardships,” she says, the light in her hands vanishing. “I've lost so much. But everything in my past has brought me to this point. I wouldn't change anything.” She suddenly stands and faces me, her eyes shining. “There's no place I'd rather be than with you.”

I'm not sure if I heard her correctly. “Is that true?” I ask.

She frowns at me. “How can you not know that?”

Know what? What is she saying? My tongue is too heavy for me to speak. Yet, I cannot let this moment pass without some kind of response. Now is my chance. I raise a hand and lightly brush my fingers along her cheek.

I am ambushed.

My lungs seize within my chest, my vision blurs. I stagger backward. It's happening again. Darkness falls around me, joined by the cruel voice of the monster.

“What are you waiting for? Tell her every pathetic feeling you hold in your worthless heart. She obviously feels the same way about you.”

I grit my teeth. “Then why are you interfering?”

He laughs. “Because the moment you say the words, your emotions will break like a dam, weakening your defenses. I will not hesitate to use that opportunity to strike.”

“You're lying,” I say, though even I hear the doubt in my voice.

“By all means, put it to the test. Tell her you love her and risk destroying everything you've worked so hard for. I'm sure she'll understand.”

With another hateful laugh, the voice and the veil of darkness disappear.

I'm lying on the ground, my chest heaving. Syndel kneels beside me, her face white with worry. When she sees I've regained my senses, she grabs one of my hands, holding it in both of hers.

“Cress, what happened? Are you hurt?”

I push down everything, swallowing my unspoken words and the new fear I have about uttering them. “I'm fine.” Extracting my hand from hers, I clumsily get to my feet, ignoring her offer of assistance. “We have a long journey. No more time should be wasted.”

I head to camp to put our things together, not daring to look back at her. She soon joins me, folding the blanket. I catch a brief glimpse of her face. She's been crying. Shame and regret stab me in the heart. I am the monster.

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About the author

KacieTaylor

Bio: YA fantasy is my jam. I don’t include sex or swearing, and violence is minimal. I live in Utah with my awesome husband.

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