More light greeted my migraine-bleary eyes, which I assumed were bloodshot. I groaned but forced myself to look around. The sunlight eased its harsh glare.
“You’re crazier than I remember.”
On high alert, I jerked my gaze north. I leapt to my feet when I realized there was no one nearby. My head throbbed at the sudden movement, but I was running on instinct. Tinkling laughter filled the air around me. “Show me who you are, coward,” I snapped, wondering where my friends were.
“Look more closely, Starr. Not everyone is against you.” There was glamour in the sunlight that should have made me relax; it only served to increase my fears more. The laughter ceased. “At least give things a chance.”
Reluctantly so, I did. Once again the forest changed around me. I stepped through an unfamiliar door.
Puck’s smile was the first thing I noticed. The second was that it was directed at two of his best friends, and none of them saw my entrance. I took a step forward, but the image shivered around me in warning. Meghan was in a white dress with gold embellishments, already the epitome of light. Ash, the dark faery that he was, had on his usual black, a bluish ice crown resting on top of his head. He didn’t seem to be affected by the iron tiara adorning Meg’s artfully styled blonde locks.
“They’re all too good-looking,” Puck commented to Kishan, who wore black and gold gear.
Ren and Kelsey entered the room. The eldest prince had white and blue gear similar to his brother’s, reminiscent of their tiger forms as usual. Kelsey was also in a dress, hers a pale green laced through with silver. Neither of them wore crowns, but then again, Ren had given up his throne a while ago.
Kishan smiled at the four of them when they fake-glared at Puck’s comment. “Maybe, but it was a special day.”
As soon as I figured out what occasion it was, my heart nearly stopped. If I wasn’t allowed to interact, that meant I wasn’t there for their wedding day. It did nothing for me when I recognized Puck’s outfit as the one that gave him his ‘hunter’ nickname. There was no trace of mourning on his face, nothing that would indicate I ever existed and possibly died. Or that I did, and he just never met me. None of them did.
“You changed the course of time, Starr,” that same voice from before remarked. “Don’t you remember?”
I stared at the personal celebration unfolding. “I didn’t live through this,” I said quizzically. “I just… Are you talking about when I saved us from the second ambush?” Thinking back on it, on the shadows that had encroached, I recalled the stench of iron. At least my faeries hadn’t been there.
“This time you altered things so that Lokesh and his partner never existed. To maintain the balance, your side had to give up someone –– and you decided to sacrifice yourself.” Of course I did.
“Wait. Something doesn’t feel right.” Hope sparked in my chest at Puck’s words. There was no way this was real. He snapped his fingers, and cake appeared. My heart sank. “That’s better.”
A lump formed in my throat. Sure, they were all happy, but it still did not seem to have any weight in actuality. “No.” I shook my head violently, trying to clear it of the sight in front of me. “No, I would never make them forget.” Backing away from the scene that clearly existed, I caught the sensation of falling and then was on my feet in a much darker realm. The sounds of battle reached my ears. I called to that phantom voice. “Where are we?” I hoped none of this was real and I was just sick at home.
“You backed out of the life you created, and so fate has brought you back to the fight that engendered it.”
Suddenly I was thrust into the fray. I unsheathed my swords, very aware of the death around me, and cut down opponent after wayward opponent. A scream pierced the cacophony around me. I shivered at the pain it inflicted on my ears; letting my instinct guide me, I turned my attention to the hillside.
Lokesh and his partner. The sorcerer stood on what was the equivalent of a raised platform, a rundown castle providing shelter for some and hazards for others. Decked in her goddess’s gifts, Kels valiantly fought against him. Near her, Meghan fought against a king covered entirely in iron. I had no idea where Ash or Ren were, or even Kishan. A cord drew around my heart, drawing my gaze away. Puck needed help.
Meanwhile, another achingly familiar voice tore apart what I was seeing. “Wherever you are, Starr, it isn’t real!”
“Ren?” I blinked, trying to sort through my jumbled thoughts. The trickster needed me, and yet… The haze began to pull back. I panicked momentarily. “Kishan! Ren!”
The light this time was artificial, electric combined with a few torches. I jerked awake and instantly started gagging. Someone rolled me onto my side. His presence stayed right behind me until I finished my coughing fit. Resting my forehead against the cool ground for a second, I forced away the tears that had come with the attack to my airway.
Nosing my face, Kishan sat back on his haunches when I went to push him off. The black tiger folded his tail over his paws, pirate gold eyes watching me cautiously. I clenched my fists before forcing all my muscles to stretch. Surprisingly, nothing hurt.
“Kelsey’s still hallucinating.” Ren came into my line of sight. “How are you feeling, Starr?”
Unlike in my apparent hallucination, I did not have a mind-splitting headache. “Better now,” I admitted, pushing myself into a sitting position. Kishan padded over and wrapped himself around my lower back so I could lean against him. “Where are we?” Other than the sconces placed evenly along the walls, there was nothing to go off in order to guess.
“Durga’s temple.” Ren settled on the ground across from me. “Kelsey is at the base of the statue dedicated to Durga. It seems the two of you called for help, and the goddess came rushing in.”
I toyed with the fur on Kishan’s scruff when he rested his head in my lap. “Is she okay?” I wanted nothing more than to go back to the manor at this point. Then I remembered the looks on their faces and decided I was better off here.
Ren nodded slightly. “Relatively speaking,” he said honestly. “I haven’t been able to wake her up.”
“She isn’t trapped in a nightmare like I was.” Even from this distance, I knew that much. Ren nodded anyway. “Durga might be helping her with the quest.” God, Lokesh had a partner? We had our work cut out for us. Kishan pressed against my calves as I shakily got to my feet. Ren stayed where he was. “She’ll be fine when she comes to. Don’t worry.” I paced the length of the receiving hall, then turned and looked at the princes.
Kishan shifted. “What did you see?” he asked softly.
They could both read my face. I forced myself into a mask of neutrality, knowing fully well that my voice was likely to give me away. “Nothing important,” I lied. They seemed dubious, but they at least had the sense not to push me. I found the door to Durga’s inner sanction and hesitated outside it. “She got us out of there in time, but we still caught haze?” I checked.
“Yes,” the youngest prince answered. “There wasn’t a lot we could’ve done to stop it before she got there.”
It was a miracle she had gotten there at all. I pushed into the private room, leaving the brothers outside. Kelsey was still asleep. In the dimness, I saw a faint aura surrounding her peaceful body and smiled to myself. I knew why we had lost the gifts when I rewrote destiny. To protect them, I made them a part of Kelsey.
Really, Durga? I thought, turning my gaze to the statue. A necklace, an apple, a piece of cloth, and a pearl? Those could have easily been lost.
They almost were, came her response.
I knelt down and took Kelsey’s phone from her pocket. There was an unread message from Meghan, saying that everything was okay but, of course, Ash and Puck endlessly worried about our group. I texted her back everything that had happened, with a note at the end not to tell either of them. Until we knew for sure Kelsey was meeting with someone subconsciously, I wanted the boys to know as little as possible. We could tell them when we got home.
“Uhn… hi, Starr.” Kelsey yawned widely. “We aren’t dead, are we?”
“Far from it,” I reassured her. “Everything alright?”
When she commented her head was killing her, I realized her magic must have taken the brunt of the hit in order to save me. It was no wonder, considering the multiple times in the last few weeks alone that I was knocked out. I helped Kelsey into a sitting position so she faced the Durga statue before calling the boys inside. Ren kissed the top of her head after making sure she was okay; I went back to curling up against Kishan, who this time was human. I felt drained, and I knew from past experience why. Visions were never easy to deal with.
Durga came to life. “Ah, your tigers are here after all.” Kelsey nodded, looking weary. “You have all that you need to defeat Lokesh and his army. There is only the matter of unlocking your abilities.”
“What about the other one?” I asked softly.
My friends’ expressions confirmed their belief that I was crazy, but also that they trusted me completely. Durga blinked those dark eyes, similar to mine except for the omniscience. “Machina is not a threat to my end of this war.” She gestured to the princes and their girl. “Ferrum once would have held him in check, and yet now I fear a potential alliance between them, should Ferrum approach one last time. That problem belongs exclusively to the courts.” I winced. So it wasn’t Lokesh who turned the Seelie knights against us.
“Who are you talking about?” Ren started to scowl at me. “If we can help––”
Kishan snaked one arm around my stomach. “Maybe that’s why she didn’t tell us what she saw, Ren. Durga claims they are not our fight, and Starr would never open a front with us if it’s not our fate.” God, I loved him. It was a shock that I opened up faster to Ash than to Kishan, who just knew.
Because he was as much like me as anyone possibly could be. I smiled over my shoulder at him. “What happened to us fighting off deadly guardians together?” I teased. The golden depths promised not to let me off that easy, but for the moment, he helped.
“I suspect it was both of their efforts to draw you out of the hotel,” Durga remarked once we circled back to strategizing. “Starr’s affinities prevented it, although obviously, they wanted to separate your group. They almost succeeded.” She gave me a meaningful stare. “Your powers are increasing.”
Kelsey read the discomfort on my face. “Not necessarily,” she chimed in. “Maybe it took her this long to access them. Heck, it took her weeks to remember.” I was proud for her instincts never to curse in front of the goddess, especially when my own filter was nonexistent.
“That was instinct, not order,” Kishan added. “I was with her when it happened. She didn’t know what to expect, only to get me out of the way before it did. Had we shown up somewhere less friendly than near an empty building, she would’ve taken down any enemy nearby. It was her subconscious defense.” His grip tightened for a second and then released as he moved his arm. “Which would explain why we never saw that kind of power unleashed before.”
Painstakingly slowly, Durga began to nod. “I suppose that’s true. None of you have ever been put in that position, at least not with an unknown, malevolent force.” I dredged up the memory from her taking Kelsey once. We all had known Kels was safe that time.
Ren stood and stretched. He helped Kelsey to her feet. “If you’ll excuse us, goddess, I think we all need some rest.”
“Of course.” She waved her hand in the air after Kishan and I got up, as well.
The penthouse materialized around us. I groaned and collapsed on one of the beds. “Please tell me you aren’t going to suggest I train Kelsey now,” I said accusingly. Ren moved out of my line of sight, yet not before I saw him duck his head. “What, we’re going back tomorrow too?” I demanded, bolting upright.
“No, but we should return soon. We have multiple forces out there targeting us, and one enemy is focused on Meghan alone.” Ren’s voice held the protective glare I knew he was fixing on nothing in particular, his back to me. “I figured you of all people would want to stop them.”
“Have I mentioned I hate you?” I winked at Kishan to take the bite out of my words. Ren would know. Eventually. Relieved it was not real tension between us, his brother relaxed. I waved off the two of them and swept on, “Fine. Go get some food or something while we work. There is one spell that I know of, maybe more, that will wipe our blood sugar.”
Kishan grinned when Ren stiffened. “Alright, nuisance, we can take a hint.” He ushered the elder prince from the room.
As soon as Kelsey settled across from me on the other bed, I folded my legs underneath me. The first task was to see how much she remembered of her control, and how well that old skill set worked in this new timeline. Neither of us had any idea where the gifts would stay the same or vary by being a part of her genes.
The princes came back an hour later –– probably Kishan’s idea, considering –– and left the food on the nightstand between the beds. For the most part, they stayed out of the way when Kelsey started toying with verbal spells.
Eventually I ordered her to mental charms, which did not work out the way I’d hoped. Ren had to duck a few times, while I sent bolts of lightning out to absorb her unraveling magic. By some feat, Kishan went unscathed. I wondered if that said anything about her.
Up for over twenty hours, not including the time I was incapacitated from the attack and subsequent vision, I started to yawn after the second full hour passed with Kelsey’s lessons. My eyelids began to droop when we neared the three-hour mark despite the fire that flooded my veins. The unnatural heat kept me awake for another thirty minutes before I tilted forward.
A white tiger jumped onto the bed. He shoved his weight against me; I collapsed to my side, the strength going out of me. He rested a giant paw against my hip in warning, a growl rumbling in his chest, and Kishan handed over a bottle of water and a sleeping pill.
“You’ve been awake or mostly awake for over a day,” Kishan murmured. Ren continued to sit sentry on the mattress beside me. “We can take care of the penthouse while you rest.”
Whether it was an abnormally fast metabolism or Kelsey deciding to practice on me, I fell asleep quickly. What felt like only fifteen minutes later, I heard something rattling against the counter in the kitchenette. The alarm clock on the nightstand glared in red numbers that it was lunchtime. I groaned.
“Morning, sunshine,” a Winter prince greeted in a too-cheery voice.
I rolled onto my back. Rowan stood above me, grinning like a madman. “Nice try, but it’s afternoon.” I stretched my lower back languidly. “Who let you in here?” Ren moved out of the corner of my eye. I smirked at his back. “You were so good to me last night, you brute,” I teased.
Someone had even slipped the comforter out from under me during the night and then covered me with it. No longer utterly unconscious, I was too hot under the blanket. Kelsey, who had gone to bed later than me, was also sleeping in. It was Kishan who was cooking, although Ren seemed to be doing his fair share of making things. Or recooking, I noticed, using the food from earlier as extra ingredients. I briefly wondered where the money was coming from to pay for the suite as well as our meals.
“I have something to show you, once you’ve eaten. Your friends should come, too.”
In the past, wherever Rowan led, Mab was often notified of us being on her land. Something told me this time was different. “We aren’t going to have to fight anything, are we? I don’t think I’m up for my fourth fight in three days.”
At last I noticed his smile was laced with pride. “Don’t worry, Starr. I sent my Thornguards there to scout the place. Everything’s clear, and they didn’t even see the prize I left them to defend. I think it’s protecting itself.” He should have used a plural. I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but bit my tongue against the words just in case.
“Not all of us are going,” I informed the others. “Just me and Rowan.”
Kishan bared his teeth. “Like hell I’m letting you face down something alone, fight or no. I don’t trust him, even now.”
“You’ll start an argument you won’t win,” Ren reminded his brother. I was already tempted to take on the younger prince, much as I didn’t want to. “Whatever this turns out to be, if she needs any backup, she can summon one of us or even the two she’s mad at right now. We all know that.” I liked it better when he pretended to hate me, since then I knew where we stood with each other. I was far from used to agreeing with him unless Kelsey was involved.
The trod was easy enough to find. I did not like leaving when Kelsey was asleep, but the urgency and excitement radiating from the Ice Prince was infectiously distracting. His discovery intrigued me as much as the fact that he was letting his emotions show.
“Face the outer reaches of the forest!” Rowan ordered. Through the trees, the silhouettes of his Thornguards turned away. “They’ll keep any intruders out, though I’m sure we won’t have a problem.”
I looked around the dappled leaves, colored in summer and autumn light. There was a chill to the air that was purely winter, yet the scent of growth promised perpetual spring. “I’ve… been here before.” I narrowed my eyes in thought.
“You were aiming for it when you stopped the division.” I gave him a sharp look, one eyebrow arched. “Kishan explained what happened. I put the pieces together.” Rowan continued walking along the path. The undergrowth pulled away from us. “The reason you were thrown into woodland after you singed that building was because there was still a hint of the spell tugging at you. When you faced the dragon, the barrier broke, but you were still tied to that primal realm.”
The air shivered across my skin. “Where are we now?” His assumptions made sense, but the empty clearing we entered was another matter.
Rowan frowned. “You don’t see them?” He seemed almost offended.I was about to say no when my ages-old Sight flickered. What came into view was literally breathtaking.