Waking up from my hour or so nap, I stretched muscles that finally felt infused with power. Glamour rippled in the air around me, seeming to bounce off the wards that protected the manor. I had a new sense of movement outside those wards, things whose abilities were well practiced. It was… invigorating.
Oddly at ease with the world, I was hyperaware it meant something would go wrong soon, or at least not the way it should. I heard Ren’s and Kishan’s voices across the hallway. When I walked out of my room, the white brute halted in his tracks. His brother’s black tail flicked around the edge of the staircase.
“Are you two fighting, or just discussing things?”
With a sigh, Ren shifted long enough to reply, “Discussing things.”
“Sure,” I grumbled as he padded off, waiting until the conversation from earlier resumed downstairs. From my extended senses, I could pick out Meghan and Kelsey’s questions, and Ash’s patient explanations. I hesitated another minute more, in case Ren decided to join in, or tell them I recovered. I retreated into my room and then shook my head. “You’re scared of ruining your good mood,” I told myself under my breath, and it was true.
Apparently I had every reason to be. As soon as I convinced myself and got to the door to the kitchen, I stopped dead. They were talking about the warning that the Wolf had given. The unpredictability of resurfacing memories, the instability it created in me, the way my self-control faltered under a particularly strong impulse. They were wondering if I was the one with shadows in my heart.
Incredulous, I listened to my friends’ musings. If Lokesh had gained strength from cursing the others, if I had lost control of myself during the time continuum change, he would have had a perfect opportunity of taking over my head.
“I’m not turning into a traitor!” I exclaimed, bursting into the kitchen. “The Wolf intended it as a warning, not something that will turn you all against me!”
Gold, silver, and varying shades of blue grew wide-eyed. “We never called you a traitor,” Meghan was quick to say.
I ignored her and scowled at Ash. “What, a Hunter you don’t trust saves us, and you decide to question everything I’ve done? Don’t you see that I’m trying my best here, brooding boy? I’m torn between the past I changed and the past I’ve made for myself, and you’re sitting here thinking I’m influenced by a warlock who tried to kill me!” I couldn’t calm down. I only guessed that my elation from before had to deal with this sort of crash now. Power could be a bitch.
Almost at a panic attack, I raced out of the manor. The air whipped around me as I passed through a trod I hadn’t known was there, and then the sensation of falling took over when I hit another one. Any time my feet were on solid ground, I ran.
“Starr!” I heard from behind me, even though I knew Ash was several dimensions away.
Finally, I stopped near an unfamiliar waterfall. The sound of the crashing cascades matched the roar of blood in my ears. I was panting hard, my legs shaking. I gasped and dropped to my knees, river stones digging into my shins.
Blinking the frustrated tears from my eyes, I switched to my haunches, rocking on the balls of my feet. The stretch in my legs helped me focus on something other than my apparently unknown morality. Gazing up at the waterfall, I realized it was more familiar than I’d initially thought. There was something important in the autumn breeze that perpetually raked over everything. It reminded me that we couldn’t change the natural order completely. I thought maybe this was where I first learned to mess with time. There was definitely a sense of timelessness here, more so than in the faery realm. I was also calmer than I had been in a long time, despite the anger currently making my limbs shake. And this place was also a part of Faery, I realized belatedly, in spite of everything that made it unique.
I rocked back on my heels and stood. “How did you find me?”
“Because I know you,” Puck answered. His emerald gaze cut past me to watch the falls. “You always come here to figure things out.” He swung into a low-hanging branch, one leg dangling down as he leaned on the other. “So, ice-boy get to you at last?”
“You could say that.” I paused. “You weren’t in the manor?” That explained why I hadn’t seen him in the kitchen, but only confused me more in the long run.
Goodfellow shrugged. “I didn’t use any of my time like this, and I got some fresh air. I actually was just coming back when I saw the wards shivering outside the courtyard.” He smirked. “What did Ash do that irritated you so much? No pun intended, but you’re usually the two cool and collected ones.” For once, I simply wanted a straight answer out of him.
My response was to turn my back on him. I hated the sting around my eyes, but I could easily blame the mist that the breeze wanted in my face. Honestly, it felt amazing. A few minutes later, I recognized why, as my inner fire flickered hungrily before dying away.
Realizing what could be behind that, I lowered my head. “What if I’ve changed too much?” I murmured.
“Hey, if this is about people not believing in you, I’ll shred them.” Leaves rustled as Puck jumped to the ground. “Tell me what’s wrong, little warrior,” he requested, his tone verging on a plea. “You shouldn’t keep everything bottled up.”
My fingers instinctively clenched into fists. “If I do, maybe I’ll become the hero everyone seems to think I am.” A ring of mist swirled around me. Neither one of us was manipulating this place, of that much I knew. I could also feel my sanity slipping away, bit by bit.
Hands curling around my own, Puck forced my fists open. “You aren’t the same person they remember. You’re better.” His green eyes bore into mine. “Starr, no matter if fate is still in charge or your manipulation keeps its hold, you create your own life. The Wolf may have heard about someone or something falling under Lokesh’s influence, or he might have been a cryptic Hunter for the hell of it, as most fey usually are.” He released my hands as soon as I lost my tension, knowing my reaction to touch… when I was actually able to fight. “I hate that the world has done this to you.”
“Would you rather I let you die?” The words were out of my mouth before I could think.
Puck looked shocked. “You remember that?”
“No,” I said quizzically. “I––” Protectiveness rushed through me faster than I could speak. I narrowed my eyes. “They were going to torture you if I had let them kill me. Not just curse you and have you…” I trailed off, unsure of where I was going with this. I had no idea what I was saying. “I’m sorry, Puck. I still don’t know who you are.”
Features schooled into careful mischievous defense, he merely replied, “It isn’t your fault.” When I lapsed into silence, letting the mist wash over me, he stood at my shoulder.
You’re lacking your inner guard. He had still put enough space between us that the gap stabbed my heart with each passing second. He had been one of my most trusted, he continued to fall in as my protector, and his intention of friendship held true.
Most importantly, he had known how to come after me.
An image drifted into my head, one I had seen in Oregon before this whole mess started. “That was you, wasn’t it? The vision of the hunter I had when I visited your cage?” I waited a beat. He waited, too. “I mean, I know it was, since your picture is hanging in the manor to remind me. But you sent me that memory.”
“It was the first one you had of that life,” he whispered. For a few seconds, neither of us said anything. “It was from the ambush, you know. Every time it hurt you to think about the attack, all I could think about was how I got through to you.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him slump. “Except I did more harm than good in the long run. If I hadn’t opened the floodgates, you wouldn’t have been as incapacitated as you were. We could have kept you from this world until you were stronger.” He hurled a rock into the falls.
I had no idea where the rock came from, since he had never bent down to pick one up. Deciding to leave the trickster to his mystery, I could only shrug. “It would have happened eventually. I could be hurt worse, too, if something else triggered it. Look at what happened when Ky went psycho.” He actually shook himself. I bit back a smile.
Puck glanced sideways at me as if he sensed it. “What, little warrior?” His once-perpetual smirk ghosted over his lips as well.
“You.” I turned to face him and stepped between him and the chutes. “Don’t underestimate me, Goodfellow. And don’t question what you already know is true.”
Every time you were out of my sight during the ambush, I felt a piece of me die each second until I knew you were alright. “I’ve never underestimated you, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry.” Puck’s smirk widened into a real one. “You would never abandon us, though. No matter how upset you were, or how much you recalled, you’d come back.” I could still see the rugged hunter in my head. This Puck, using up his minutes to calm me, was nothing like that deadly image.
Reaching for the black string around his neck, I revealed a pendant that was similar to my own. In fact, it could probably connect with mine to form a power symbol of some kind. I toyed with it in my fingers. “I’m glad it was you who came after me,” I told him, staring at his necklace. “But I didn’t like Meghan’s, uh, jokes.”
“We have one more thing in common, then. I hate seeing you with Ash.”
I let the pendant fall against his chest. “Too bad these are two things we can’t fix yet.” He was stock-still, barely breathing with how close I had made myself. Every instinct in me screamed its usual cry to get away, put as much distance between me and the nearest person as I could. Yet now, it seemed that only fully applied to him and our enemies. “The Ash thing, not at all. I’m going to stay with him as long as we remain friends.”
“What do you think Meghan and I are, little warrior?” I lifted my gaze to his grinning face. “You still have a lot to learn, I guess.”
“So do you.” I pressed a palm to his cheek before I lost my nerve. “I appreciate you coming after me, mister. I just wish we hadn’t wasted today’s time.” I pecked his cheek gratefully, then nearly tripped over myself in my haste to back away.
Hurt flickered in his eyes for a moment but was quickly gone. “Someone has to make sure you’re alright,” he said, shrugging off my backwards thanks. “And honestly, no minute was wasted if it meant I cheered you up.” He began to pull away from me, literally and metaphorically.
Recognizing that, I overcame the shiver in my veins and grabbed his wrist. “I’m doing what I can, Puck. You have to believe that.” He gave me a look that had I do believe you etched across his features. The instant I released him, he shifted into a tiger.
If I could fix everything just by wishing it, none of this would have even happened. Too bad there were no wishes, supernatural or mundane, that came true.
Glancing down at Puck as we headed for the manor once more, I fought the urge to sigh. There was so much he had been through, for Ash and his service to Oberon and that girl he initially loved. It hurt me knowing that I only made his life worse, especially after the deal I’d struck with Lokesh. I bit my lip. What else was I supposed to do, let my friends die? At least like this we were all alive, although I heard Ren argue once that I didn’t count without my memory. Puck deserved the warrior girl he had known before. They all did, and still she eluded me constantly.
Locking myself in my room, I glared at the wall, as if it was withholding the truth from me. Goodfellow had allowed me privacy by saying he couldn’t get me to come back with him, and I realized it wasn’t a total lie. I would have told him no, had he asked. Instead he distracted me enough that I didn’t fight it when I fell into step with him.
My pendant began to glow softly. A hazy image materialized in front of my dark gaze, the goddess burning gold. Her eight arms condensed into one, the weapons she’d been holding disappearing into thin air. I reached a hand backward, and one of my swords flew to my open palm. Our magic settled in the room around us.
The goddess smiled patiently. “You act as though I am an enemy, Starr. Although after all that you have been through, I can’t say I’m surprised,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
Keeping my sword low but not nearly relaxed, I cocked an eyebrow at her. “You are immortal, and Lokesh, thanks to me, is immortal. While you may be nothing like him” –– I gestured to the light dominating her aura –– “who’s to say I can trust you?”
“My chosen will help you remember,” she answered cryptically. “I am the goddess Durga, my old ally. I wish you the best.” As quickly as she’d come, she was gone.
A cry of pain echoed through the manor. I growled under my breath and bolted downstairs. Tears misted Kelsey’s blue/green eyes, but her face was solemn. Red lines seared across her wrists. I stood in the doorway, numb, and did not back away when Ren came in front of me.
“What happened?” he demanded, seeming to ignore Kishan’s help in getting the angry tattoos soothed. “Kelsey was fine until you decided to come back. Where did you run off to?”
My temper flared, enlivening me again. “You think I purposely did this to Kels? She’s one of my best friends.” His cobalt gaze was alight with fury… and frustration. He knew he and Kishan couldn’t ease her initial pain. “Whatever you believe of me, Dhiren, I have only ever done what’s best for my friends.” Strength flowed into my veins, but I let him push me back to the hallway.
Ren’s expression grew protective. “You might have tried, Starr, but this curse is in no way what’s best.” He gestured behind him. “What just happened to Kelsey will scar, though the pain may fade in time. Do you think we asked for these torturous lives you threw upon us?”
“Do you think I want this?” I retorted. “I never wanted you guys involved in the war, but we were close enough that I knew there was no stopping you. I couldn’t erase the image of your body torn to shreds, with Kishan in no better shape. Kelsey has been marked by darkness and light both. Meghan deserves to hide in whatever place the fey found for her.” I couldn't stop the torrent of words. “I brought the two of you back to life, yet Lokesh took you from me and forced you into creatures you shouldn’t be.” My head started to pound in rhythm with my heart. “You were both dead, Ren. Meghan and Kelsey would have been if Sage wasn’t there to stop them from running into Lokesh’s circle. Rowan was God knows where, probably dead or dying. Puck and Ash were trapped inside the circle with me. It was a damn miracle that conniving wizard didn’t kill them on the spot!” I took a labored breath. Ren had long since softened; now he grew worried. I kept going. “He wanted them to see my death, to know that he could take what he wanted before he killed them, too. That world was his.”
“Starr.” Ren caught me when I swayed on my feet. “I’m sorry. Both our tempers like to get the best of us.” I swallowed hard, the fight draining out of me at his words. I could have kept going, but he was kind enough to interrupt. “You never meant for any of this to happen, I know. Sometimes I forget that, thinking your visions could have foreseen this and stopped it.” He waited until I pushed away before releasing me.
Through my increasing migraine, I scowled at him. “I don’t know what Kelsey sees in you.” His face remained stoic, although there was a tiny flicker of hope in the cobalt depths. I rubbed my left hand against my temple. “You’re lucky I forgive my friends easily.” He sighed in relief. I curled up on the couch, brain crashing against my skull.When he had gone, I didn’t question the ice that flowed across my skin. Forest-green irises appeared in the darkness I’d closed myself in. I sat up at Sage's attention. “Take me to Meghan,” I ordered.