A Number's Game

This Time I Won't Forget

I find myself spluttering.

What?

What?

"What?"

I'm not sure how many of those I actually said out loud.

Eight's face shifts into a mixture of sheepishness and deer-caught-in-headlights horror, like he can't believe he just said what he said. "I wanted to tell you, honestly, but—"

"Hey, guys!" I hear Nine yell above Eight, and I fight the sudden urge to go over there and give Nine a second good whack. Now, now was not…

"Let's go see what's over there!" Eight exclaims, suddenly pulling himself away from me and pointing with both hands in the direction the rest of the group was going. I'm not in the mood to go sightseeing, and I try and swipe at him, but he ducks under my reach and backsteps.

"I will impale you!" I warn, raising a finger at him. "You can't just say crazy stuff like that and then try and change the subject!"

"And I don't doubt you would," Eight says comically, his smile full of apologies. "But this will show you, I promise. I can't just tell you everything, your brain will explode."

"My brain will be just fine!"

"How about I explain as we walk there?"

Instead of responding I swipe at him again, and this time he disappears into thin air. A moment later, he rematerializes, and proud red rock in his hand. He holds it out to me. "This… this will explain everything."

I huff loudly, not taking the stone but glaring at it. "A ruby? How?" I say hesitantly.

"It's not a ruby," he pulls my hand from my side and places the rock in my palm. "It's a phoenix stone."

"A phoenix stone…" I repeat, the anger dissipating for a moment. These were what Six had been talking about, the things that were going to restore life to Lorien when we'd eventually arrive there. "But…?"

"Come," He says, grabbing my free hand and pulling me along the big hall. I look up and see where he's leading me: the giant throne room doors, the ones we'd been trying to break into before the battle. Now I could see the effect of Ra's final blast had blown the doors off their hinges.

When we reach the threshold of the doors, I suck in a breath: the room was jammed with the large red rocks. In fact… I don't think it was a throne room at all. This room must have been a vault. For phoenix stones…? (No wonder we couldn't get inside). The pile is just stunning to look at, and for a moment I'm swept away in the pure power sitting just in that room.

I return to… let's call it 'reality'. "Eight… what does this have to do with anything? And—" I suddenly notice no one else is anywhere to be seen. "Where is everyone?"

"They were never really here." Eight says knowingly. "They were just memories, all this time."

Memories? I look at him with appraising eyes. "So that makes you…?"

"I'm me. I'm, you know, me."

"You?"

"I'm the me." He points to himself. "You know, the one that died. I exist here."

I can tell by his expression I'm giving him a blank look.

"It's all Ella, Marina." He says to me. "Ella has everything. Her power isn't just communicating messages, it's communicating everything. I'm here, One's here, Crayton—" Eight looks over his shoulder at the door. "Well, Crayton was supposed to be here-here, but he's here, too. Everyone is here, Pittacus made sure of it before he died. And that's part of the reason Ra wants Ella so bad—The phoenix stones, they're here."

"…In Ella's head?"

"Well, yes, technically. They're really on Lorien—their essence is here. She doesn't even know it, but there's incredible power here."

"And so then we are…?"

"In Ella's head. She brought you here, just like she brought me here. But you still have a body to return to, that's the difference. John, Nine, Six—they're just fictions made up of Ella's memories of them."

My first reaction is to scoff, but mostly out of shock. All these things… this extensive world… all the things I'd done… are just a thought? That's… that's a lot.

But at least, at least there are these stones. If any of this is true, this could be the difference we needed. And if all of that was just to find this, I could come to terms with that.

I lean forward, wrapping my arms under Eight's and falling into him, my face on his chest. Because it was him, really, really, really, him and not all the excuses I'd made up to not love him. And to know that maybe I wouldn't have to live without him after all… that was a relief.

"Why the hell are we in Oz, Eight?" I say into his shirt.

He laughs quietly. "It's Ella's favourite movie from when she was little. It's kind of how she organizes herself in here. And now with Ra—"

I pull back and look up at him quickly. "What?"

"You know he's been invading her mindscape for days, now. He's been trying to find the stones. We weren't fighting anything imaginary, and he was getting stronger every day. But he seems to be gone, at least for now. You really did a number on him."

I digest that for a second. That explains why the witch and Ra both said that same line to me; they're both being controlled by the same person. But if Ella's mind really was being invaded…

"But she's fighting him?" I say hopefully.

"Better than even I think he expected her to. She may not be just yet, but Ella's going to be very powerful one day."

I nod, because I knew she always would be. "Can I talk to her again?"

He gives me a confused look. "Again?"

"I spoke to her in Chinatown. She told me this was the only way she could contact me—and she'd already said that it was all in my head. Everything. The fight."

He gives me a wry smile. "I've never seen her, I'm pretty sure I'm a brain-freeloader. I don't think she has any idea of all the things she's storing in here."

I smile back at him, and an instant later I recognize the feeling in my stomach and it drops. "I can't go back."

"Of course you can. I think she could have at any time really. Pulling someone out of their body has to be exhausting."

"No, Eight. I mean, I can't go back home without you. I became a different person when you left, and the only reason I ever got my legacy to work in the first place it because of you."

He doesn't stop smiling. "It shouldn't be hard, especially for you. You're tougher than you give yourself credit."

As if to directly disprove his point, I feel my eyes watering. "But then maybe I'm powerful enough to fight stupid, fat aliens. But if I was really as strong as you think, I would have jumped into that mind-river in the first place and left you behind. But I couldn't. I could fight a thousand more fights with you by my side, rather than have to lose you all over again."

He thumbs a tear away from my cheek. "That's crazy. You're underestimating yourself, Marina. Besides, I think that was just your common sense talking. The Paradise River literally could have taken you anywhere; it wouldn't have ended well considering your body is still in Florida." The joke sounds half-hearted.

"Why—"I make sure to catch his eyes for continuing. "—why did you pretend you didn't know me?"

"I," He looks torn. "I was going to, the first time I saw you. I thought you may have been dead, since I'd never seen you as a memory before. But I could tell you weren't, and I realized she'd brought you here for a reason. Then you wouldn't get to fight, and use your Legacy. And she knew you needed to have some confidence in yourself before you went out to face the real enemy. I just… if I told you, you wouldn't learn. And I didn't want to distract you by being together, as much as it killed me."

"Well, that totally backfired. I would have fallen for you either way, you know."

And the smile that spreads across his face is enough to bring one to mine, as well.

I laugh, something I felt like I haven't done in a while, and I can't help myself with what I do next. "I can't believe you never told me." I say, reaching up and grabbing the nape of his neck before bringing his face down to mine. This was our kiss; one of many, now. But this was the first one where I knew it was really him, and I wasn't going to let us miss out on what we didn't have in the physical world. It was beautiful and bittersweet and (on the level where we were inside the head of the twelve-year-old) weird.

He pulls away from me, but only just enough so he could speak quietly. "The stones bring life, Marina. Don't forget that. When Ella realizes what she has, all these things she doesn't know, that's when they will become a reality. You have to give her the chance before it's too late."

I go from Eight's warm arms to the feeling of pure ice in less than a second, and my eyes fly open in shock.

"Oh, my god, Marina!" I feel disoriented and dizzy, and the first thing I see is Six's looking down at me, her face twisted with worry. There's no longer an emerald ceiling but a brilliant orange sky, and I find myself soaking wet and lying on a cold metal floor.

I was back.

I don't know whether to cry or rejoice. I didn't even get to click my heels.

I force my arms underneath myself and with Six's help I get myself into a sitting position. Nine comes into view, sitting across from me, soaked as well after what I assume was jumping in to save me. (How sweet).

"I'm so sorry, Marina." He says quietly.

"I know." And I do, and I understood, and he may not have known it but I forgave him.

"No, I don't think—" He begins again.

"I know, Nine. It's okay." And maybe he saw my expression and heard the genuine tone, because he visibly relaxes on the spot.

I turn and look at Six quickly. "The Mogs…?"

"Flew past after we stopped the boat to get you." She says, sitting down next to me and across from Nine. "We're probably better off hiding under the trees until night. But what happened to you? You just fell right over. We thought you were hurt or something."

"I…" I realize my hands are empty. The stones are still with Ella, of course. But… now that I'm back here, I feel like it was all really a dream. (How cliché of me). That would make more sense, right? As much as I hate the thought of Eight really being gone, and finding out Ella really has these incredible powers… there was no way any of that was actually possible. It realistically could have just been shock.

I feel my insides cringe at the thought of all of what just happened being fake. I went through too much emotional turmoil for it just to be an illusion. And yet…

"I don't really know," I'm trying to think of a way to word it so that it wouldn't sound completely crazy. I reach a hand up to wring my soggy hair, and that's when I feel it—the thin metal chain, one that most definitely hadn't been there before I feel overboard. I slide my hand down to the front, and my fingers wrap around the small moon pendant.

I hold the pendant between two fingers and hold it out to Six. "Do you see this?"

She gives me the strangest look. "Yea…?"

"And you?" I hold it out to Nine.

"Looks like a necklace to me." He says.

So if that means… it wasn't a dream, and he was really there. And the necklace had somehow made its way out, with me. It was real! (It was almost unsurprising, considering all the weirdness I'd just experienced).

And somehow that gave me a thought: if a necklace could manufacture itself from just a memory, that would mean the stones would, too, right? And if the stones could really bring life back to Lorien when we arrived there, what's not to say that it could liberally bring life back to everything?

"Guys," I look between Six and Nine, both of which look completely perplexed. "I think… I think I know how to save him. Maybe even all the Garde." Eight had said everyone was there, and Pittacus had made sure of it. But maybe he hadn't just meant the three Garde, maybe he really did mean everyone. It was possible, right? "I think we could save everybody!"

We had to get to Ella.


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