I stumble as I am pulled farther away from Cassius. His eyes dart from me to the man holding me. A small part of me wonders if this is a Test, but the larger part of me sees Cassius' face and tells me that it is not.
"Caught without a weapon, I see," the man with the knife says to Cassius. "Looks like this will be easier than I thought."
"You're working with Maxim?" Cassius guesses casually. "Then I can confidently tell you that this won't be easy for you, regardless."
The man laughs, a raspy, hollowed out sound that almost seems pained. "Peter," he growls, "took everything from me. Maxim is helping me get it back."
The next instant he has traded the knife with what looks like a long, sharp needle. He holds it firmly, ready to jam it into the side of my neck. "This," he says, "is laced with Pirate's Bane."
"We can talk about this," Cassius says, his voice tinged with desperation, "just let her go."
"Like I said, I had everything taken from me. And now," the man says, raising his knife, "I am going to take everything from you."
He jams the tip of the needle into my neck and Cassius shouts. The man laughs, steps back as I start to fall into darkness. Just before my vision goes completely black, I see an arrow pierce through the man's hand.
I am lying on the ground while hot air blows around me. Leaves crunch under the fall of footsteps and I hear someone say my name, but I keep my eyes closed.
I'd know that voice anywhere. I sigh at the sound of my name coming from his lips and open my eyes.
Cassius is staring down at me, that light in his eye. "What happens when two people who aren't supposed to be together fall in love?" he asks, leaning toward me.
"I dont know," I whisper.
His lips meet mine and I taste them hungrily. He smells like smoke, but tastes like honey. I moan as his arm circles my waist and pulls me into him.
He pulls his lips from mine and looks at me, a sleepy smile on his face.
"The world ends," he answers.
It is then that I see the ash falling from the sky like snow. I sit up and look past Cassius to see that every tree in the forest is on fire, the leaves burning, screaming, crashing to the ground dead.
I wake with a gasp and sit up hastily, looking around me. The room I am in is dimly lit; only a few candles sit on a wooden table beside me. I am lying on a bed made of leaves and netting and the room smells like damp earth. I bring my fingers to my head and try to shake that dream out of my head. I am still dizzy and groggy, but I am conscious enough to tell that I am not alone in the room. I search the shadows until I see a figure sitting in a chair.
"Cassius?" I ask, trying to focus my vision.
He gets up and stretches his arms. He is dressed differently than I remember, and his hair looks longer. I squeeze my eyes shut to stop the world from spinning and say, "Where am I?"
I open my eyes to see Cassius walking out of the room. I furrow my brow as I watch the dark hole that he had just exited through. Why hadn't he said anything?
A few minutes later, I hear footsteps and sigh in relief that he has come back to get me.
But suck that breath back in when I see Alice walk through the door.
"Cassius told me to come and get you," she explains when she sees my confused expression.
"Why didn't he just get me himself?" I ask, rubbing the tender spot on my head where I hit the ground.
"You were attacked by one of Maxim's men," Alice explains, helping me to my feet and leading me through the door. "That's not a good thing."
"You're telling me," I say ruefully. "What was that? Pirate's Bane," I recall the man saying.
"Poison. You're lucky that Julius was there with his bow. And that he's an expert with things like poisons."
My mind flashes to the image of the arrow piercing the man's hand. Lucky.
I look around me as Alice leads me through hallways. They're obviously underground tunnels, like the one that Cassius and I had walked through before coming to the underground bar. I swipe at a tree root and sigh. "So I'm guessing Cassius went to take care of business?" I ask.
Alice nods. "He had to go warn his father, make sure the other two Brides were safe, then send troops out to search for any more Pirates."
"So where are we now?"
"This is the Oak," Alice replies. "It's where the lost boys live. It's connected to the Tavern."
"Why am I here?"
"Cassius had to make sure you could recover some place safe after you were given an antidote. He didn't want to risk carrying you back through the forest incase there was another attack."
"And the man that attacked me?" I ask, questions almost pouring out of my mouth. "What happened to him?"
Alice sighed. "Taken back to the Manor for questioning."
"So why did Cassius send you?" I finally ask.
Alice smiles. "You don't think I can fend off a Pirate?" she jokes. Her smile fades, though, and she looks at me with large hazel eyes. "Cassius isnt bad," she says. "He knows I want to see my sister. That's why he sent me."
No, Cassius isn't bad, I want to say, thinking of when he helped Mary back to the Oak, but bite it back. I just wish I realized that sooner.
Once back at the Manor, I go straight to my room and step into the shower. The hot water feels so great against my skin that I almost collapse with relief.
I am shaken awake by Alice. I cant remember how I had ended up in my bed, and I am groggy as I look around my room.
"There's a formal dinner tonight," Alice says as she leads me once more to my vanity. How long have I slept?
"What does that mean?" I ask.
"You're closer than ever to becoming Cassius' bride," she says, and I cant help but notice how my stomach flutters when she says this, "so now you get to meet Cassius' parents and have a formal dinner with them."
I stare at my reflection in the mirror, watching my eyes grow larger. Another dreaded meal.