The first thing Varajas knew was that his arm pounded, a loud, sharp pain that, for a moment, was all he could think about.

The next thing was that he was on a cold, hard floor. The air around him was dank and chill. It was dark, or seemed dark, even though he could see.

He was back in the cursed castle.

He’d fallen when he’d gotten pulled into the magic, crumpling to the ground, landing on his injured arm. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to be bleeding again. He held it out carefully as he pushed himself up onto his knees.

Samir was also sitting up, rubbing at his eyes. At Varajas’s side, Ruan was doing the same. The animals seemed to be doing better, with Krys quietly grooming and Bolt sitting up alert, his tail gently thumping any time someone looked at him. Everyone was coming awake from the magic.

They all looked at each other. No one spoke. So much awkwardness from the intrusive intimacy of what they’d all just shared. Varajas had no idea what to say, and by the way neither Samir nor Ruan seemed willing to meet his eyes, neither did they.

Ruan stood and, without a word, walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Samir stared, like he was trying to see through the door to where Ruan had gone. “Should we…?”

Varajas shook his head. “He needs…just give him some time.”

Easier to think about Ruan’s need than to try to figure out his own.

Samir scooted back, away from Varajas, until his back was to a wall. He leaned back against the support, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them, making himself into a tight ball. “We were all in there. Together. In each other’s minds.”

It wasn’t a question, exactly, but Samir’s tone sounded like he was searching for confirmation. “Yes.”

“How did that happen?”

Somehow, through all of that, Varajas hadn’t lost his grip on the fate card with Samir on its face. He held it up. “We found you in here—Bolt found you—only you were hidden. I was trying to…honestly, I don’t even know what I was trying to do.”

Samir dropped his head forward, pressing his face into his knees. “That’s good. The thing we were really needing in here was you messing around with magic you didn’t understand.”

That was unfair. “What was I supposed to do? We were trying to find you.”

Samir’s head snapped up. “You were supposed to leave me alone. Like I’ve been asking you to do since…Light, since the first day I met you!”

“And I can’t now any more than I could then. Especially now. Ruan and I are just as trapped in here as you are, and if we don’t all work together, we might none of us get out.”

Samir took a deep breath and sighed, leaning back against the wall. “No guarantee we’ll be any better off together. You’re only in here because you followed me.”

Varajas could remember that now, how he and Ruan had raced up to the castle. How they’d both felt the strange ripples of magic, a tingling disassociation as they got close. They’d gone in anyway, Varajas leading them towards the main courtyard, where Samir had cast his spell earlier that day.

The castle had been dark. It was night, and no one was here to light the lamps, but it was more than that. A darkness that had fallen over his eyes and made him fall…fall…until he’d woken up here with no memory of what had come before.

Now that he remembered…well, nothing was any easier. That was for damn sure. But this was what they had. This was where they were. It was time to figure out how to move forward.

Solving problems meant facing all the problems. “Samir, I’m sorry.”

Samir raised an eyebrow. “For what? For lying to me? For intruding on my space and never listening to what I wanted? For letting me believe that you could care for me?”

It would have been easy to try to make excuses, to deflect and minimize the things he had done, but Samir deserved better. “Yes. For all those things, I’m sorry.” Except, “I did care for you though. I do. Yes, I lied about who I was, but our time together—I swear that wasn’t a lie.”

Samir shrugged, a gesture of unconcern. Varajas was almost certain it was a lie. “It doesn’t matter anyway. We all saw—I got a front row seat to you and Ruan. Which seems all kinds of fucked up, by the way. But it was pretty clear that you two are—”

“Nothing about the two of us is clear. Nothing about any of this is clear. But if we’re going to get out of here, we’re going to have to work together.” No, that was too sterile. Too careful. He was asking Samir to take a risk, so he had to be willing to do that too. “We’re going to have to…to listen to each other. To find a way to trust each other. And that means being honest, which I realize I haven’t been great at so far.”

That earned him a tiny, wry smile from Samir.

“But I’m going to try. I’m not asking you to forgive me, but I am asking you to listen. And I’m promising you that, no matter what, we’re all in here together. Nobody gets excluded.”

“And after we’re out?”

“I admire your optimism.” Even if Varajas was certain that question had been driven by the opposite. “But if you’re asking if I’m just using you in the short term to get myself out of danger, the answer is an emphatic no. If you’re asking anything else, well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Getting out was going to be its own challenge. They knew more than they had before, but it wasn’t enough, and Varajas wasn’t sure he understood it all yet. It was time to talk. For everyone to share what they knew. And Ruan had had enough time on his own to brood.

Varajas pushed to his feet. “Wait here. I’m going to drag Ruan back. And then we’ll all work this through together.”

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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