Samir saw Varajas’s eyes roll back. Had just enough time to wonder what was happening when a wave of dizziness rolled through him. His head fell back; his knees buckled. Only the fact he still held that iron thread of magic in his mind saved him. He sent a burst of power through the Star, made the Star in his mind flare bright, and sharp, cool, clarity radiated out.

But when he opened his eyes, he wasn’t in Ulek anymore. He was in Lysander’s tent, where Lysander and Varajas were having a conversation. Lysander didn’t see Samir. Varajas seemed to, but he didn’t acknowledge it. They were talking about that day in the woods. Like that day had been today.

Had it been?

“Show me what I cannot see,” Samir murmured, the Star still fixed in his mind. “Show me the truth. Show me what is real.”

Dinner wavered like a mirage, faded into darkness, and Samir and Varajas were back in crumbling Ulek. And this time, Varajas was clearly staring at him.

“You were there.” Varajas’s words sounded slurred, blurry. Like he was drunk, or coming out of a deep sleep. “But you weren’t there. You couldn’t have been.” He shook his head, looking all around. “This dream…can’t escape this dream.”

Except that a horrible truth was dawning through Samir’s mind. “No. This isn’t the dream. This is real. It’s the rest that’s the dream.” He put his hand on the bars of the gate, pressing his fingers against Varajas’s. Letting Varajas feel he was solid, warm, alive. “You should let me in.”

“The shadows,” Varajas began, but he shook his head again, blinking, confused. “Where are they? Where did they go?”

His eyes sharpened with sudden clarity, and he took a step back, his hand on his sword. “How do I know you’re even real?”

It was a reasonable question. One Samir had plenty of experience with himself. For good or ill, there was only one answer. “You don’t. You can’t. And until I figure out what’s going on, I don’t know you’re real either. But I’m trusting my gut, and that’s the best advice I have for you. What feels right?”

Varajas’s long silence implied he was giving the question a serious interrogation. With practiced patience, Samir gave him the time he needed.

“Nothing about this feels right,” he finally said. “But you don’t seem like one of the shadows. So let’s pretend, for now, that we’re both real and go from there.” He twitched a lopsided half-smile that gave Samir a tingly flash of warmth, then pushed up the lever to open the gate.

Samir ducked inside. Krys took the opportunity to spread her wings and drop from his hand, flapping up to a higher perch.

“I’m going to presume she’s real too,” Varajas said, watching her settle on a railing, hanging from both her feet and the hooked claws attached to the bends of her wings. “Which raises the question of how we all got here.”

“Not to mention the question of where here is.”

Varajas once more let the gate fall, then gave Samir a raised-eyebrow look. “You don’t recognize this place?”

“It’s Ulek, of course, but this isn’t the Ulek I saw just weeks ago. Or even…” he trailed off, trying to think. Why was everything in his head so slippery? “We were coming back here. Did we…did we get here?”

Varajas had one hand on the stone wall beside the gate, studying it as though it held answers. “I…” A frown, his brow drawn tight. “I don’t know. I remember being on the road. And then…”

Varajas turned to stare up at the castle proper. He took a couple steps towards the yawning darkness of the great door. Samir moved with him, unwilling to be separated again, even by a little.

“You were there with me. At dinner with Lysander.”

“No.” Samir was going on instinct, but instinct forged of years of study and then time spent fighting through a different maze created out of his own worst nightmares. “That was a dream. I was in the dream with you. But I think you were remembering something that actually happened.”

“But it’s the last thing I remember.”

For Samir too. So he said, “I want to try something.”

“Of course you do.” Varajas sighed, still looking up at the castle. “Wizards always want to try things.”

That sparked…something. Anger. Yelling. But the thoughts sidled away before Samir could bring them into focus. He let it go—for now. “Just don’t run off. I don’t want to have to find you again.” And he pulled his fate deck out of its pocket and started sifting through.

“What are you doing?”

Samir didn’t answer. If it didn’t work, it didn’t matter. He’d give Varajas an answer when he had one. He knelt down and pulled the ace of air. “The start of a journey,” he murmured, laying it on the ground. “We started. We were on the road.” He shuffled the cards with agile fingers. Emptying his mind of everything but the question. “What happened next?”

He drew a card.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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