Wicked Winter

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Chapter 7

When noon came I couldn’t help but feel the growing pains of hunger, so when a maid came by with a fresh supply of towels, I asked her if she could bring me some food. She glanced at me, pity in her eyes. “I’m sorry, miss. I can’t. You have to go to the cafeteria if you want something to eat.”

“But you brought me food before?” I asked, puzzled.

She shrugged. “Well, yeah. But that was only because Sage Akan himself requested it. And as of now, the requests have stopped.”

Annoyed, I said my thanks, took the towels, and shut the door.

I didn’t want to go to the cafeteria. What if Sebastian was there? I
couldn’t, I wouldn’t see him. How could I face him after what we just did?

Shame burned the deepest pit in my stomach. He kissed me, and I liked it. And he knew I liked it. Why would he kiss me? He barely knew me, for God’s sake!

With a growl of resentment, I threw the towels across the room where they fell to the floor with a soft thump. Too soft for my liking. I wanted to be loud, to be destructive. I wanted to show everyone here I was a force to be reckoned with and God dammit, they needed to stop pushing me around!

Next, I grabbed my pillows and threw them against the wall. And then my boots. And then lastly, the lamp sitting on my nightstand, which shattered into hundreds of tiny shards of glass. I smiled when it broke apart with a crack, but still my anger didn’t leave me.

Giving up, I tiptoed over the broken shards to pick up my boots. Lacing them up, I dragged myself out my door, through the hallways, and down the stairs. The sun was high now, completely overhead, beating down and warming the entire region. Though I was pleased a slight, chilly breeze blew through campus. Glancing around, I spotted the three story building Sebastian had pointed out before and made my way towards it.

Students now crowded the courtyard, playing with brightly colored balls, throwing discs that seemed to float, and some practicing their magic skills on one another.

I witnessed as a large boy with a square head and black, beady eyes elbowed his buddies and pointed at a small brunette in a black, tea-length dress across the sidewalk. He whispered into their ears and all of their eyes went wide with surprise, then eagerness. They bobbed their heads up and down and soon Square Head took on a mischievous smirk. With no more than a whisper, a large gust of wind tore through the courtyard, blowing the poor brunette’s gown up until you saw what lay underneath.

She jumped with a shriek, trying desperately to get her dress to go down while hoots of throaty laughter and highfives sounded behind me. My tempter burned. What was it with men?! They all seemed like self righteous, self pleasing, arrogant pigs!

With my anger burning hotter than the sun, I stormed over to the group of boys who were still laughing so hard, tears were streaming out of their eyes. I pinpointed Square Head and yelled, “You think that was funny?”

The large boy stopped laughing upon seeing me, his shoulder squaring for a fight. Something gleamed in his eyes while he cocked a grin. “I thought it was hilarious,” he said, his voice low a gruff, as if he’d been smoking fags for three days straight.

I rolled my eyes. “That was uncalled for,” I snapped back, putting my hands on my hips.

The boy laughed, looking back at his friends, as if telling them to join. Soon enough and the whole group was laughing at me. My blood boiled and I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks, unable to hide my embarrassment.

“Hey Tewy!” came a voice from behind. ‘Tewy’ raised his eyes, staring at something behind me and I turned. “At least I wear underwear.”

It was the tiny brunette, and though I expected her to be crying in a corner like I would be, she smiled, revealing perfectly straight teeth.

She didn’t even have to utter a spell. Instead she gave her wrist a small flick in our direction and soon small vines and weeds sprouted from the ground, wrapping around Tewy’s legs. He gave a small shout of alarm but it was too late. The vines gave one big tug, and soon his black jeans and undergarments were by his ankles.

This time the whole courtyard erupted into a piercing laughter, and I couldn’t help but join along, my stomach aching. The brunette just wore a smug grin, and that only made it better. People clapped and howled, pointing at Tewy and started chanting, “Tiny Tewy, Tiny Tewy!”

Rage burned on Tewy’s face, and for a moment I was scared he was going to charge the small brunette, but instead he pulled up his pants and stormed off towards the dorms, pushing a laughing kid into a trash can on his way. When he reached the door, he spun on his heel and shouted, “You’ll pay for that, Nicola!”

The brunette, Nicola, giggled and put a manicured hand to her lips. “Who, me?” she cooed while she batted her long eyelashes.

With one more howl of rage, Tewy turned and stormed into the dorms.

The laughter died, but I couldn’t help giggling. I turned to see the girl, Nicola starting at me. With one finger she motioned me over, and I couldn’t help my heartbeat. What would she want with me?

When I was close enough, she cracked a huge smile. “You know, you shouldn’t go against Tewy if you don’t plan on showing him a lesson. He eats little girls like you for breakfast.”

Little girl? I knew I was small, but I looked down on her. Not the other way around.

I snorted, trying to sound self confident like her, but to me it only sounded like I was trying to get a booger out of my nose. “What makes you think I wasn’t going to show him a lesson?”

“You were practically pissing yourself right then and there. If I didn’t step in, you would’ve been crushed.”

This startled me. I knew Tewy was an ass, that much was clear, but he didn’t really rub me as a woman beater. I shivered, thinking of all the woman in the Village that suffered from years of domestic abuse with no relief. “Crushed?” I asked.

Nicola rolled her beautiful hazel eyes. They were like golden moss. “I don’t mean physically.”

She must’ve saw the puzzled expression on my face, because she flicked her wrist in my direction. “Nevermind. It doesn’t matter.” Then, “What’s your name?”

“Eve,” I said. “Eve Scotts.”

She then looked me up and down, and I found myself fidgeting under her accusing eyes. “Not too bad,” she muttered, as if to herself.


“You’ll make an amazing best friend,” she said matter-of-factly. She reached out and grabbed my hair. “Though, darling, this is dreadful.. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Don’t you know that?” She shrugged and gave her hand a wave. “We’ll need to work on the hair, maybe the eyebrows, but you’ll be dazzling darling, I promise.”

Could she see my mouth hanging open? Suddenly she looped her arm in mine and pulled me towards the cafeteria, practically skipping down the sidewalk. Everyone in the courtyard turned to stare at us, almost as confused as I was.

Once at the door, she glanced my way, her eyes narrowing slightly, expecting. “Well?”


“Aren’t you going to open the door?”

Oh. I fumbled for the door handle with my free arm and held it open for her. She smiled. “Thanks, sweetcheeks.”

“Welcome,” I mumbled, more to myself that to her. I wasn’t even sure she heard me.

I filed in after her, but stopped dead in my tracks once I reached past the threshold.

The first thing I noticed was there was so much glass. Everything was clear, flat, and shiny. Even the ceiling was a huge crystal dome, sending bursts of rainbow light throughout the room in bright streaks.. Three stories high, just as Sebastian had said. But I guess he failed to mention it was so clean. I felt so out of place, with my frizzy hair and nasty eyebrows, as Nicola had mentioned earlier.

Someone cleared their throat. I looked up, and Nicola stood, her hands on her hips, her lips pursed. “Are you coming or not?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m coming.” And I hurried after her.

I followed her to the back of the cafeteria, where all the food stations were lined up in a row, and we hopped in line behind a group of gossiping blondes. They took one look at Nicola and sneered, their perfectly glossed lips turning down in despicable frowns. But Nicola didn’t even glance in their direction. In fact, she deliberately turned her back towards them, focusing on me instead.

“I haven’t seen you around,” she said. Not a question, but a statement.

“Um, yeah. I’m new.”

She laughed. “Well obviously.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I kept my mouth shut and stared at my dark leather boots. The line moved surprisingly fast, and when it was my time to order, I froze, not knowing what to do. Thankfully Nicola came to my rescue. “She’ll have the same thing as me,” she told the older woman with greying hair behind the counter. The woman handed us our trays with food, and soon Nicola was strutting towards a table in the center of the cafeteria. A table no one else sat at. Personally I would’ve prefered a table in the corner, or somewhere darker, somewhere people wouldn’t notice.

But for Nicola, being in the center of attention was where she shined, so I guess I wasn’t that surprised when she sat down at the center table.. And I guess I also wasn’t surprised when my heart sped up when I sat down next to her.

“You don’t know how to order?” she asked, picking up a plastic fork and stabbing a steaming pile of pasta smothered in a creamy white sauce.

For some reason I didn’t want to tell her where I grew up, how I survived, and what I’d been through, so instead of answer I just shrugged. She stared at me as she shoved a stick of bread into her mouth. “Are you going to eat your breadsticks?”

I gave her a puzzled looked, and she sighed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Then she pointed to my tray - which I hadn’t touched yet - and to the sticks of bread on either side of my plate. “Breadsticks,” she explained.

I nodded my head. “Yes, I’ll eat them.”

She snorted. “You’re not a woman of many words, are you?” I shrugged again, and this time she actually laughed out loud, causing people around us to throw suspicious or annoyed glances our way. I fidgeted in my seat. “Yet you can stand up to Tewy in front of a whole courtyard of people? Darling, you’re something else.”

“So I’ve been told,” I muttered and unwrapped my plastic fork like I’d seen Nicola do with hers. My appetite was ravenous, and it took all my willpower not to shove my face into my food. I stabbed a noodle and stuffed it in my mouth.

I practically moaned as I chewed. “What is this stuff?” I asked between mouthfuls and Nicola smiled.

“Good to see you have a voice,” she remarked. “But it’s called fettuccine alfredo. Pretty good, huh?”

I moaned in response, shoving another large forkful into my mouth. The sauce was delectable; buttery and hinted with garlic. It seemed to melt over my tongue, sending my tastebuds on a journey of sweet bliss.

All of a sudden Nicola groaned herself, but it wasn’t because of her food. I glanced up and and followed her longing stare to the front of the cafeteria where a group of kids stood, their eyes roaming the crowd.

My heart stopped when my eyes met a pair of golden ones.

Sebastian stood in the center of a large group of kids, all ranging in ages, and none of them but one that I recognized. The girl from the hallway, Sebastian’s sister stood by his side.

“The Counts,” Nicola groaned. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”

“Who?” I asked, though it was a stupid question. Out of the seven children there was only one older guy: Sebastian.

“Sebastian O’Neill,” she said, her eyes glazed over in a dreamy state.

“He’s the Count of Night, Medeia O’Neill’s son.” I swear I saw a line of drool dribble down her chin. “What I wouldn’t do to be wrapped in those arms all night.”

I rolled my eyes, trying to ignore the squirmy feeling I got imagining her wrapped in his arms. “Who are the rest?”

No answer.

I snapped my fingers in front of her face. “Who are the others?” I asked again.

She jumped and stuck her tongue out. “Lord, let a girl admire our creator’s handiwork every once in awhile. Is that too much to ask for?”

I chuckled. “Whatever. But seriously, who are they?”

“Do any of them matter besides Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome?”

I gave her a look, and she sighed. I was surprised on how fast I’d warmed up to her. I felt like I could spill my entire life story out on the table and that still wouldn’t be enough.

“The girl standing by Sebastian is his sister, Zafira O’Neill, and next to her, the small boy, is their youngest brother Clance.” I shifted my gaze down to the small boy holding onto his sister’s fingers, bearing the same large, golden eyes and curved nose. He even had Sebastian’s shaggy, ebony hair. And to my surprise, he too had a small tattoo of a crescent moon under his right eye.

They all had tattoo’s under their right eye, just like the Sages.

Nicola pointed to a slender girl with long,thin brown hair and soft eyes. But her eyes were the only soft, smooth thing about her. She was made up of sharp points and angles; even her face and cheekbones. “That’s Tonya Whelan. Daughter of the Sage of Earth. She’s Sebastian’s age.” I could tell. She had her mother’s eyes.

“The bitch with the blonde boy next to Zafira is Danna Farrell, and her brother Enzo.”

“Why is she a bitch?” I mean, it probably wasn’t that hard to make Nicola not like you, but I was still curious. My ovaries made it impossible to turn down gossip, even if I wasn’t the one spreading it. (This was knowledge I’d gained from Nicola.) And Danna was beautiful, her hair made up of golden straw and the entire sky seemed to be held captive in her eyes - dark purples smeared with blue. I wanted to be her.

“Her and Sebastian dated a while back, and she’s been up his ass for the past few months trying to get him back.” Nicola’s hazel eyes were slitted with amusement and/or annoyance. “Rumor has it she cheated on him with a nerd from her air classes in exchange for homework. How pathetic is that?”

But I could tell by the smile on her face, it wasn’t pathetic at all. She thought it was funny, hilarious even.

“Wait... Did you start those rumors?” I whispered under my breath, hunkering low to the table in fear of someone overhearing me.

Nicola flashed a devious grin, her eyes sparkling like dew covered moss. She put a hand over her heart. “I would never!”


We both broke out in a fit of giggles and it felt good to laugh. After crying so much lately, it was nice to have tears of joy rather than sorrow stream down my cheeks. It was strange, laughing with someone I barely knew, yet feeling completely at ease. I guess I could actually focus on relationships now that I wasn’t worried about feeding myself and others. When we finished and everyone in the cafeteria was staring at us - including Sebastian - she continued with her lesson on the Counts.

“See the girl with the slanted eyes and dark hair? That’s Blanche Moore, daughter of Tavon Moore. She’s thirteen but has the attitude of her older sister, Dori. In other words, she’s a little witch. No pun intended,” she sneered.

“Older sister?”

Nicola shrugged. “Well, once the Counts reach the age of twenty, their training stops. There’s only two that’ve reached that point - Dori Moore and Dmitri Murrary.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

We continued to eat our fettuccine alfredo and Nicola kept stealing glances towards the Counts who had sat down at a table in the back of the cafeteria, more drool practically dripping from her lips as she goggled at Sebastian. Talk about deer in the headlights.

Unlike Nicola, I tried my best to avert my eyes, to make no contact whatsoever. I would not acknowledge Sebastian or his siblings, or any of the Counts for that matter. Though I did come close - my mind wandering towards the kiss we shared in my room, his lips on mine, my hands tangled in his hair.

Bad, Eve!

What was I doing? I couldn’t be fantasizing over the man who brought me here to begin with! It didn’t matter that he was extremely gorgeous; he was practically the enemy.

But he kissed you, hissed desperate Eve.

He was only doing that to confuse me, to make me weak against him, logical Eve snapped back. Get a grip on yourself!

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get a grip on myself, and by the weird looks Nicola was shooting me, I assumed she could tell too.

“Have something against sweets?”

“Huh?” I looked up from my empty plate. I’d been playing with a single noodle, chasing it around on my plate with my plastic fork.

“Bash is like, hardcore eyecandy and you’re avoiding looking at him like you’re allergic to sugar.”

I shrugged, focusing on the noodle. I couldn’t tell her about Sebastian and I. Nobody could know. No one would believe me anyway, would they? “I don’t know. I guess I just don’t find him attractive.” Lie. He was drop-dead-sexy, but I couldn’t admit that. Because if I did, then there would be no logical explanation why I wasn’t eye-raping him like Nicola was - and every other girl in the room for that matter.

Her eyes almost bugged completely out of her head. “Your mother dropped you on your head.”

I don’t even have a mother, I thought but didn’t reply.

I didn’t say much after that. I just sat there silently and listened to Nicola complain about Danna and how ‘she was always showing too much cleavage’, or how ‘just because her pants zip doesn’t mean they fit’. I was surprisingly good at drowning her out. I guess too good, because soon someone tapped on my shoulder.

Turning in my seat, I was surprised to see Sebastian, his midnight hair strewn into his eyes and shoulders tense. My heart started to hammer in my ribs. I shuffled through the cards in my mind for something to say, but couldn’t come up with anything. Blank. White. Thankfully, he saved me. “It’s one. You’re next class will be at two. Considering you missed your first set of classes I suggest you go to this one, and I’ll be there to take you.. Meet me here, in the cafeteria in half-an-hour. Got it?”

I tried not to bristle, so instead all I did was nodded briskly. My heart was thrumming in my throat and I prayed he would leave. Like now. He nodded once to Nicola sitting across from me, and then turned to strut away. Only he turned... and was the a wink I saw?

Serious Sebastian, plafull Sebastian. Two totally different personalities somehow blended into the same being. A miracle.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Nicola pounced, hurtling questions at me as fast as her lips would move. “You know him?” “He knows you?” “Why is he taking you to class?” “Did he wink at you?”

“He was assigned to me-” was all I got out before wave number two hit.

“Assigned to you?” “Do you need a bodyguard?” “Who’s trying to hurt you?”

“Why him?”

I groaned and shoved the butt of my palms into my eyes and rubbed viously, pushing my tray away with my elbows. What I wouldn’t do right now to lay in my cot at home, the straw in the mattress pressed down and molded to hug my body perfectly in sleep. What I wouldn’t do to be home. again. Away from all of this. “It’s complicated,” I pronounced.

Nicola’s eyes narrowed, her breathing stopped. “Really? That’s all you’re going to tell me?”

“That’s all you need to know,” I snapped back but instantly regretted it.

Nicola was the first person who actually showed interest in me without the looming thought of controlling me or using me, and I really didn’t want to push her away. Even if I had just met her today, I still felt closer to her than anyone else in the Village, and sure as hell closer to her than anyone here in this God forsaken academy.

“Well,” she said, neatly placing her fork back onto her tray and rising from her chair. “I see.” She turned to leave.

“Nicola I’m sorry.” I didn’t want to lose her, even if I never really got the chance to know her yet. I had a nagging feeling I wouldn’t survive long in this place without her. “I just... I don’t even know why he was assigned to me,” I lied. It tasted terrible rolling off my tongue, at least when I was spitting it in her direction. “He’s just suppose to show me around and make sure I get to my classes on time.”

She slowly sat back down. “So he’s just like, an escort?”

I shrugged. “I think so.”

The anger seemed to melt off of her in one swift motion. “Ha. Darling, that’s all you had to say,” and she sat back down.

When one-thirty came around, I was surprised to see people still in the cafeteria, conversing, eating, teasing. Nicola still sat across from me, going on and on about Tewy - who I just figured out was her ex - and how he sucked at kissing. Apparently she didn’t like trips to “Saliva Town”. She told me she stayed for me, but I wasn’t stupid. She was staying for Sebastian, who was bound to make another appearance any moment now.

As if on cue the front doors swung open and revealed a very annoyed, very sexy Sebastian. My stomach churned. This time he didn’t even bother coming to our table. Instead, we made eye-contact over the large room and he jerked his head, a silent “Let’s get going.”

I looked towards Nicola. I hoped she could see the apology in my eyes.

“Sorry,” I said. “But I think I gotta go.”

She continued to stare in the Count of Night’s direction. I rolled my eyes, picking up my tray and flipping my ponytail over my shoulder. “Bye Nicola,” I chuckled. I think she muttered bye, but I was already pacing towards Sebastian, tray in hand, heart pounding in my throat. I stopped by a trashcan and threw what was left away and placed the tray on top, just as I saw other students do before me.

I tried to slow my racing heartbeat as I got closer, but it was useless. I couldn’t get the image of him and I entwined by my door, his luscious lips on mine.

“Where to?” My voice shook too much for my liking.

“You have combat training from two to six o’clock.”

I choked. “Two to six?”

He turned and rested his hand on the door, ready to push. “Yes.”

Four hours? God, I was going to die. It wasn’t like I was fat and incapable of physical activity - far from it actually. Living in the Village, you learned many important skills to survival. One being: endurance. You’d be surprised how much stamina you build over time running from pissed off hunter, merchants, and farmers, their livestock or freshly killed game in hand.

It had only been a few days since I left home, so there was no way I lost all my muscle mass, but I wasn’t what you call a meaty girl. I was shorter than average, and my hips popped out too much for my liking, and okay, maybe I stuffed the areas where my breasts should have been when I was growing up, but what girl didn’t? We all thought having a husband would solve all of our problems, and better yet, fill our hungry tummies. Obviously we were wrong.

I was a twig, basically.

I guess the main thing I was worried about was who I would be fighting, and who would be watching...

Sebastian led me out of the cafeteria and down a small lane that went away from the actual academy. We were a few hundred yards into the trail when I turned to him, confused. “Where are we going?”

“To the training grounds.”

I bite down my rising panic. So I wasn’t going to be inside. Where the training grounds that big?

The small dirt path wound in and out of the lining forest, birds surprisingly chirping and singing from the canopies. I glanced up, shocked to see a flock of small red birds, some varying in hue, sitting on a branch, their weight making the wood bow beneath them.

“What are those?” I asked, pointing to the small birds.

“Cardinals,” he replied without even looking up. “They flock together in the fall for the upcoming winter.”

I shivered, not because I was cold, but because a jolt of excitement buzzed through my limbs at the mention of winter. Snow, ice, wind. Yes.



I tried not to pout at the short replies. I mean, why should I be angry? All we did was kiss, and judging by his attitude towards me now, he thought it was a terrible idea. Something he regretted. So why should I care about one stupid little kiss?

You do care though.

Ugh! I did. I did care. I shouldn’t, but I did. And it pissed me off.

For some stupid reason, I cared what this stranger thought of me and our stupid kiss we shared. I cared about his feelings towards me or if he had any at all. I worried that I was nothing but a fling to him and he was going to throw me away like he did with Danna. And what pissed me off the most was the fact that him with Danna, even if it was before me, made my blood boil hotter than the surface of the sun. I didn’t know her and I hated her.

“Eve, watch out!”

We were completely in the forest now, so far from campus the only sound in the air was the chirp of birds and the rustle of autumn leaves shuffling across the forest floor. I must’ve been too absorbed in my own personal thoughts to notice a pair of glowing yellow eyes adjacent from mine, perched in the bushes.

I stopped, stared, and right when my mouth opened to scream, it pounced.

It stalked with lethal grace, hackles raised and white fangs gleaming in the sunlight. It reminded me of a housecat, only ten times larger and with the intent of murdering me and swallowing me whole. It’s long, silvery coat was spotted with white and black dots that ranged in size, reminding me of the different sizes of holes in cheese. Large, razor sharp claws dug into the dirt, clawing at the ground as it grew closer and closer...

“Sebastian” I whimpered, cool sweat forming on the nape of my neck. My chest felt so tight it ached. There was nothing standing in between me and this creature - no doubt a faerie, and I most likely wasn’t going to live to tell the tale. “What do I do?”

The large cat’s ears lowered until they were tight against its skull. Its low snarl resonated deep in my gut, vibrating me to my very core.

“An iele.” Sebastian’s whisper was sharp against my ears. “Whatever you do, don’t move.” His voice was low, warning.

“Don’t move?” I was doing my best not to flee in the opposite direction, squealing like a newborn babe.

The grey cat sulked to the ground, its tail twitching in annoyance as the steady hum of its growl echoed through the afternoon air.

“It’s a cat-”

“A faerie cat!” I snapped back.

“You run,” he continued, his voice low and calm, “and it’ll give chase. Just stay still and I’ll try to draw it away from you.”

There was shuffling behind me and soon enough the cats bright yellow eyes weren’t trained on me. Instead, they were focused on something behind me.

The cat sprung into action immediately - a white, black, and silver streak against the reds and oranges of the changing forest. It jumped past me and landed silently on its paws in the dirt despite its weight, and tore after Sebastian, hot on his heels. I watched the two disappear behind a bend in the trees, and suddenly I was alone.

The forest was eerily quiet - not even wind dared to whisper. I stood there, in the center of the trail leading towards the training grounds, and waited, my heart in my throat.

Suddenly there was a rustle in the underbrush once more, and I spun on my heel, only to come face to face - or in his case, his face to my shin -
with a tiny man who only seemed to stand a foot tall. His face was covered in wrinkles and white wiry hair that he seemed to drag behind him, and he stared up at me with beady black eyes. He wore a small blue coat with silver buttons, and he carried a small spear at his side. A large red hat sat atop his head, so big it almost fell past his eyes.

I should’ve been scared, I should’ve screamed or ran. But I didn’t. I stood there, staring at the small man with the red hat, bewildered on how bold this tiny creature seemed to be. His back was straight, his stomach protruded from his chest, and his face was frozen in a fierce scowl.

“I’m Bunkkor Turkor, gnome commander of the Red Cap Regiment in the Unseelie Army.” His voice was nasally, seeming to resonate in his large nose before escaping through his mouth. “I have come regarding business with Queen Maeve of the Winter Court.”

Though my heart was racing not a moment ago, everything in my body froze. My stomach felt like a large, heavy rock weighing me down. Queen Maeve of the Winter Court?

He stared at me, as if waiting for me to reply. I awkwardly nodded my head. “Okay?”

“The Queen states that you are to meet Foster Quinn, General of the Aubrie Army of Elven Knights, here, at midnight. Is this understood?”

I stood there, bewildered. What was I supposed to say? Not knowing what else to do, I nodded again.

The gnome gave a curt bow and ducked back into the bushes, the only sign he was there at all were his small footprints left in the dust of the road. For some odd reason I felt as if I should get rid of any trace of him. So grabbing a branch with soft pine needles, I dusted the tiny footprints out of the dirt - erasing them completely.

The familiar clunk of heavy boots on terrain assaulted my ears. I flung the branch back into the undergrowth, hoping Sebastian didn’t see me at all.

“Eve,” he panted. I turned, amazed that he seemed almost completely unscaved. No blue or red blood clung to him, though the knees of his pants were quite dirty - as if he’d fallen on the trail. “We need to go. Now.”

“Did you kill it?” I asked, my voice airy, nothing but a whisper.

He shook his head, his golden eyes confused. “I didn’t have too. It took off towards the Mountain in the east.”

I nodded my head. Of course it did. It was nothing but a distraction. The iele was nothing but a decoy - something to get me utterly and completely alone so the gnome could give me his message from the queen.

He walked up to me and grabbed my arm, his fingers surprisingly gentle against my skin. “I need to get you to safety. Come on.”

He dragged me through the rest of the woods, the heat of his fingers seeming to sear through the fabric on my arm. When we finally reached the mouth of the forest, he stopped and shoved me slightly through the opening.

“Continue on without me.” He pointed to a small hill in the distance. “Right over that hill is the training grounds. Ask the first person you see for Fritz. Once you find him, tell him it’s a code blue and to send for the Water Sage.”

I barely had time to process his instructions before he turned and darted back into the woods, but not before he stopped and turned back to face me.

His eyes swam with an emotion I couldn’t place. His mouth opened and closed as if he couldn’t find words. Finally he came up with, “Hurry. And don’t die.”

He was gone before I could call his name.

I ran then. I ran towards the hill, my booted feet pounding like a horse’s hooves against the dirt of the trail. My breath came in ragged gulps as I finally reached the peak and gathered enough courage to look down at the training grounds below.

What I saw took my breath away.

Black, white, and silver tents, some as large as buildings and some small enough to fit inside a single room, littered the countryside. The largest tents - which were black - bore the Order’s symbol, a seven pointed star within a silver ring. It looked like a rolling ocean of black, white, and silver cloth over the bluffs. The chatter of camp ringing out through the air was equivalent to the roaring of waves crashing on the surf. Grey fingers of smoke reached towards the sky, twisting and twining up from the countless campfires strewn throughout the grounds.

This wasn’t just the training ground. It looks like I’d found the Order’s Army.

Sebastian’s instruction rung through my mind again, reminding me of my task at hand. I was scared to enter the camp, but I was surprisingly even more terrified to be alone in the woods. Who knew what else lurked in the undergrowth. I had a feeling it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

I tore down the slope, which was much steeper than the one I’d run up, and barreled into camp, my legs moving faster than I could keep up with. The camp was closing in fast, the tents, small in the distance, were now growing at a rapid rate right before my eyes. A rock must’ve clipped the underside of my boot, and without any balance, I suddenly sprawled face first in the grass, my jaw snapping shut upon impact.

Stars exploded behind my eyelids, and I tasted the sharp tang of blood on my tastebuds as my tongue was split open by my own teeth. When I finally skidded to a stop, I could feel blood trickling through my hairline.

“Halt!” someone shouted, their voice ringing out above me. “State your business.”

I rolled onto my stomach, using my hand to block the sun from my eyes. My head pounded, my heart practically beating behind my eyeballs. “I’m Eve Scotts. Sebastian O’Neill sent me. I’m suppose to tell Fritz it’s a code blue.”

I squinted into the sunlight, the silhouette of the Order’s special guns hovering above me. The gun vanished, replaced by a hand. I grabbed it, and soon I was standing, swaying on my feet.

A man stood in front of me, his hair buzzed tight to his skull. His skin was light, his eyes were dark, and I found myself wanting to flee at the sight of him. A scar ran down the left side of his face, causing his eye to slant at an odd angle, and his skin seemed to be as tough as leather.

“Apologies,” he said, his voice as low as the iele’s growl. “Right this
way, Ms. Scotts.”

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