Chapter Thirteen: Escape
I start running before Coburn’s voice even breaks through the air.
We sprint down the hallway together, turning the corner before a loud bang causes us both to jump. The pitch-black remnants of a shadow expand against the dark wall, like ink on a gray sheet of paper, seeping into the many cracks of the wall, creating small rivers of darkness.
My eyes widen for a moment before we continue running down the seemingly never-ending hallway. Our footsteps land with dull thuds on the carpet, the sound feeling as though it is echoing throughout the hall.
A cold wave suddenly rushes over me, like someone has covered me in ice. The feeling causes my mind to race, the nervousness seeping into my body like a parasite, finding its way into every part of me.
Oh no, is my heat resistance overcompensating again?
I try to take no notice of it.
The Shadow Realm is cold, what do you expect? Maybe that was just a cold spot. It’s fine. You’re fine. You have nothing to be afraid of. You can handle this.
We keep running and turn another corner as a wave of dizziness washes over me. It causes the sides of my vision to blacken a little, like a vignette, narrowing my line of vision. The sound of my footsteps echo in my ears as we keep running, my breath strained.
What the hell?
I slow down a little, but I manage to push through the feeling after a few moments. I try not to focus on it, but I can’t shake the lingering feeling that something is wrong. The feeling attaches itself to me, refusing to let go no matter how much I push it away.
What is happening? Why do I feel this way? Why would a headache be coming on now? It makes no sense. Should I be worried about it?
I glance at Coburn, who is a little bit ahead of me, his face intent and serious.
It’s fine. You’re fine. Just get out of here.
A few second later, another surge of dizziness captures me, and I can’t escape it’s grasp this time. The nauseous feeling wraps around me, trapping me in it’s hold, demanding to be known, to be the only thought I can hold.
I stop running, my vision getting splotchy as I grab my head, grimacing. The room spins, as though something is rotating the hallway around me. I can’t tell which way is right side up or upside down. It takes everything I have to not fall over, to not give in to the unsteadiness. My heart beats in my throat, echoing, pounding in my ears. The dark walls feel as though they’re closing in on me somehow, like they’re coming closer, closer.
Coburn stops running, but before I can see his face something pulls me backwards, something that feels like a hand over my mouth and nose.
I can’t breathe.
I shut my eyes as I hear the sound of a door slamming, hoping that this is just a dream – a nightmare – that I can wake myself up from.
I’m brought back to my nightmare from a few weeks ago. The wave of darkness wrapping around me, taking away my ability to move, to speak, to fight back.
The fear covers me like the flood of shadow, with no escape.
I’m floating, submerged, drowning.
Maybe this is a nightmare. Maybe I can still get out of this. Maybe this isn’t really happening. Maybe none of this is real.
But it is.
It couldn’t be more real.
I open my eyes as I try to free myself from whatever is holding me, giving me a chance to look around my surroundings. I appear to be in a small, dark room, with minimal light aside from a small fixture on one side of the room. It gives the area a dim yellow glow, just barely enough to see what is directly in front of me, but not much else. The air feels dense and heavy, weighing me down, making breathing seem like more difficult task than it is.
“Don’t make this harder than it needs to be,” I inhale sharply as Nox’s icy voice sends another wave of chills down my spine.
I’ve been caught.
I have no idea where Coburn is.
I have to get out of this myself.
Before my nervousness has a chance to fester within me, I put my hand on his arm as a small fire sparks in my palms, causing him to jerk away.
I make a break for the dark wooden door, reaching for the handle when he throws the knife from earlier just beside the doorknob, narrowly missing my fingers. I instinctively jolt my hand back as numerous sparks shoot out of my fingertips.
Without thinking, I quickly grab the handle of the delicate blade with the intention of defending myself with it.
Maybe this could work. Maybe this will help me get out of here.
A sharp, needle like sensation shoots up my arm and into my shoulder as I wrap my fingers around the hilt, the feeling pulling me out of my somewhat hopeful thoughts.
I hold my wrist, cursing under my breath.
Before I have a chance to react any further, Nox quickly grabs the knife and holds it to me, grabbing the collar of my jacket with his other hand.
“Silly girl. This knife was designed for me, it can’t be picked up by anyone other than me,” he says smugly.
“What do you want?” I hiss, grimacing a little before kneeing him in the stomach, but he holds his grip.
He eyes me suspiciously, breathing heavily, “I already told you. I want to find out what you know, and what you took from the library. You and that boy know something, and I plan on figuring out what it is.”
“I don’t know anything.”
The whitish blade shimmers in the dim light as he places the side of the knife along the base of my neck, “you’re still a terrible liar. Want to try that again?”
Tell him something. It doesn’t have to be much, but it’ll get him off your back.
“I – er – I know it has something to do with me, I don’t know,” I stutter, quickly covering my mouth as soon as the words leave me.
Saf, you idiot! Of all the things you could have said, it had to be that? Now he’ll know you took the notebook for sure. This is hopeless.
“And how do you know that?” He narrows his eyes.
Come on, think!
I’m not telling you,” I snap back before I turn, biting his hand.
I grab his wrist as his grip loosens and twist his arm around until it’s pinned to his back. A sharp pain crosses my collarbone and I feel something dripping down to the hem of my shirt, but I don’t have the time to investigate it now.
“Hmm, you’re stronger than you look,” he muses as I kick him behind the knees, hard.
I look between him and the door.
Now’s my shot!
I’m about to make my move when . . .
All I feel is pain.
A head-splitting pain that is enough to make me want to scream. It feels like it’s breaking me in two, like my head is trying to crack open somehow. The feeling radiates through me, its demanding presence overpowering me.
The next thing I know I’m on the ground, my hands clutching the sides of my head. My heart pounds in my ears, all I can hear is my own breathing. My vision blackens, but I’m still aware of every feeling, every nerve in my body standing to attention.
A voice echoes in my head, but it’s not my voice.
It’s something else.
You’re nothing. You know you’re not strong enough. The pain will go away if you give in. You know you can’t handle it.
The phrases repeat in my head, over, and over, and over . . .
“Get out of my head!” I shout.
As quickly as it came, the pain is suddenly gone, and I become more aware of my surroundings. The chill of the stone underneath me. How much my hands are shaking. My heartbeat pounding out of my chest. The corners of my eyes feeling wet. The slight dampness of the air around me. My body doesn’t seem to believe that the pain is gone; it feels as though it’s waiting for it to come back, for it to take hold of me again.
I meet Nox’s dark eyes above me as he points the knife at my chest.
I gasp once I realize what’s happening, but I can’t move, even though I have an overwhelming urge to get up and run. I know I could, he’s not pinning me down or anything, but I can’t find the strength to move. It’s like my body is afraid of the pain coming back if I move, that the feeling will surround me again, even though I know it’s him that caused it.
I think I’m in shock, but I can’t be sure.
It feels as though I’m floating above my own body, like my limbs aren’t my own, that I’m outside myself somehow, even though I can feel everything around me.
“Well, since you seem to know our upcoming plans, I’ll give you two options. Tell me everything you know, and I’ll let you go back to your world unharmed, or I can enact those plans now. Your choice, darling.”
“Don’t call me that,” I say through my teeth.
Before he can get another word in, I find some strength left in me and adjust my legs, kicking him over onto his side. The action gives me just enough time to get up and put a wall of flames around me, barricading me to the door, preventing him from coming any closer.
Before he can do anything else, I open the door and retreat back into the seemingly endless hallway.
I run aimlessly down the hall for several moments, with Coburn nowhere to be found.
Where did he go?
I call out his name.
. . . no answer.
Panic begins to set in.
Did he get caught too?
Where is he?
My ears prick up at a sound coming from around the corner, but I can’t make out what it is. Footsteps maybe?
My heart sinks.
If it’s Midnight, I’m done for. But what if Coburn is there too? Maybe he needs my help. If it is Midnight, there’s an unfortunately high chance that Coburn is with her.
Without another thought on the matter I start running towards the sound. The sooner I find him and get out of here, the better.
I’m about to turn the corner when I see Coburn enter my line of vision.
Before either of us realize what’s happening, we smack into each other and he falls on top of me, knocking the wind out of my system a little.
“Saf! Oh my God,” he starts before his eyes move to my collarbone, “what happened?”
I shake my head, “long story, I’ll tell you later. Are you okay? Where’s Midnight?” I ask as we get up.
“She’s down, but not for long. Let’s just get out of here,” he mumbles.
I grab his hand and we run down one of the halls, finding a flight of stairs going up at the end of the hall.
“Maybe that’ll lead to a way out?” I suggest.
He gives my hand a quick squeeze and nods as we continue running.
But then . . .
. . . the pain comes back.
It comes back at a force that feels a million times worse than before.
My vision gets splotchy again, the rest of my senses fading.
I’m barely aware of Coburn catching me before I can fall over.
“Saf? What’s going on?” I hear his voice whisper.
All I can focus on is the pain, all I can do is cry out.
He sounds more panicked this time.
But I can’t find the words to respond to him.
The voice from before starts to repeat its mantra in my head.
You’re nothing. You know you’re not strong enough. The pain will go away if you give in. You know you can’t handle it.
Just give in.
Just give in.
I put my hands on my head again.
I’m vaguely aware of Coburn leading me up the stairs to the second floor, my blurred vision meeting the windows we saw from the outside. I feel myself lower to the ground, leaning against a wall – or something – I don’t know anymore.
The pain demands to be known.
The voice demands to be heard.
It’s demanding me to give in.
The more I resist, the worse the pain gets, like someone is bashing my head continuously in an attempt to split me open.
To break me.
I cry out again.
Maybe it would be better if I gave in. Then the voice would go away. Then the pain would stop. Then all this could stop.
I feel my eyes begin to flutter shut before Coburn places his fingers under my chin, tilting my head up to meet his gaze.
“Don’t you dare pass out,” he says softly, “stay with me. Focus on me.”
My eyes meet his, and I dissociate.
I’m taken away from here. Away from the pain. Away from all of this.
Instantly, I’m brought back to the picture on my nightstand.
The wind is whipping through my hair, the salt on my skin. I’m riding on Coburn’s back as he wades in the water. He feels so strong, so warm, so safe. Laughter fills the air. Memories of what it feels like to smile until my cheeks hurt come flooding back to me. I remember how happy I feel with him, picturing his dark brown eyes, the woody smell in his room that makes me feel safe. I let the memory of coming to him in the middle of the night envelop me, his thumb skimming my cheek until I fell asleep again. My mind reminds me of flying my kite with him when we were kids, how it was the first time I felt happy since my parents died. There was another time he taught me how to skate on a nearby pond in the winter and I fell into a small snowbank, but I never felt unsafe. I remember being in his arms and comforting him when he was upset, feeling his strength around me.
As suddenly as it came, the pain just . . . disappears.
I’m brought back to the present day. Back to the Manor. I’m sitting on the ground with Coburn crouching in front of me, in a large room somewhere in building surrounded by windows. They don’t let much sunlight through, though that’s to be expected. They have pointed arches like the rest of the architecture here, with black, swirling, intertwining frames acting as décor.
I blink at him, my hands vibrating, and I realize how hard I’m breathing. My skin is still standing to attention, like before. Small sparks buzz from my fingertips, though not large enough to ignite anything. I’m even more nervous about the pain coming back, about the voice coming back, echoing in my head.
My mind suddenly catches up.
I remember he told me he was fighting Midnight . . . what came of that?
“Are you okay?” I ask, reaching for him.
He takes my hand, “you just went through whatever hell that was and you’re worried about me?” He looks down, “Saf . . .”
In the next moment we both turn in response to the sound of footsteps.
He helps me to my feet and without thinking I blast one of the windows open without much thought so that we can get outside, making sure the hole is big enough for us to get through.
“That works,” he says with a smile as he guides me through the hole to the outside.
I try not to look down as we step out onto a small platform that extends from the window, my stomach lurching once I realize how high up we are. I try to take no notice of it, clutching Coburn’s arm to distract myself.
Without another word, he focuses his energy into a swirling lilac portal in front of us and we step through.
We land in the HQ foyer in the next moment, my eyes adjusting to the bright light of our world. I’m still clutching Coburn’s arm, but I find myself feeling like I’m not in control of my own body again. That I’m outside myself somehow. My mind feels distant, as though part of me never left the Shadow Realm, like I’m still there.
You’re not there anymore, they can’t get to you. You’re safe. Everything is okay.
I slide my hand down Coburn’s arm and lace his fingers in mine, causing him to glance over at me with a small grin.
“Made it,” he reassures, giving my hand a small squeeze.
I force a smile and nod.
He turns to me, his other hand gently trailing along my collarbone. I look down and see the area dripping with blood, staining the neckline of my shirt.
So that’s why it felt wet earlier.
“What happened back there?” He asks softly.
I’m about to answer when Ehren comes bounding into the room; he must be eager to find out how everything went.
Coburn and I quickly give each other some distance as soon as we notice him.
“How’d it – oh my God, are you two okay?”
“I’m just glad we’re home,” I mumble.
He looks between us, eyeing us suspiciously, “you guys got caught, didn’t you?”
Coburn runs his hands through his hair, nodding.
Ehren opens his mouth to say something but shakes his head, “I’m getting the vibe that now isn’t a good time. We can talk about it later,” he says, glancing at the cut on the base of my neck. “I’ll let Luna know you two are back.”
“How’s Ana?” Coburn asks.
“She’s okay, she had fuzzy memories of it all, so it was mostly filling in the gaps for her. She’s just resting now,” he explains before running up the stairs and disappearing around the corner.
I run my hands through my hair, feeling my heart pound out of my chest as my body recoils from everything.
How could I have been so stupid? Stupid enough to get caught, to get separated, to let Nox into my head like that. How did all this happen? How did I let this go so wrong? Are they going to come after us now? Could they find newfound strength to travel here because of what they know?
Are we even safe anymore?
What is safe?
Why can’t I relax?
Why do I still feel like I’m in shock?
Why don’t I have control over my own body?
The feeling of arms around me pulls me out of my panic attack, bringing me back to reality. Coburn has me in a tight embrace, holding me like I’m the most important thing to the world in this moment. Once I realize what’s happening, I hug him back just as hard, nuzzling my cheek against his chest and shoulder. I ground myself in the feeling, letting my heart rate slow down, feeling my breathing relax.
I pull away but keep my arms around him.
He knew exactly how to calm me down. I got lost in my thoughts and he could tell I needed help in this moment.
He really does know me better than anyone.
“I . . .” I trail off.
“You don’t need to say anything, it’s okay,” he whispers, tucking a stray curl behind my ear as Luna comes down the stairs.
We quickly separate as she approaches.
“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Luna breathes a sigh of relief before her eyes travel to my cut, “how did that happen?”
“Long story,” I mutter.
“Let’s find a spot and we can discuss what you found in the library,” she says softly as she leads us to the small sitting area by the kitchen.
I don’t even remember sitting down and emptying the books that were still in our pockets throughout everything that happened. It’s hard to believe they didn’t get lost or something, or that one didn’t get snatched up by one of the twins after they realized we were there.
Maybe they wanted us to find the books we did. Maybe it was a trap.
I take a deep breath, cutting off the thought.
Saf, that’s not what happened, and you know it.
Don’t ruminate on that.
Luna hovers her hands over the base of my neck as I feel the pain get pulled out of me, my skin coming together to close the thin gash; as though nothing ever happened.
She glances at some of the book covers while healing me, “you both did excellent. Really. You should be proud of yourselves.”
I give her a light smile in return.
“So how did you get caught?” she asks, looking between the two of us.
“Is it that obvious?” I avert my gaze for a moment.
She looks at us dubiously, “I can just tell,” she pauses, “so what happened?”
I glance at Coburn.
“Nox ambushed us in the library,” he explains, “there wasn’t much we could do about that. Then we hid for a bit to get them off our trail, but . . .” he sighs, “we ended up getting separated.”
“Hmm,” she thinks for a moment, “well, considering you got caught, both your injuries are minor in the grand scheme of things,” she contemplates, turning her attention towards me, “is everything all right? You seem a little distant.”
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” I glance at her.
She pauses for a moment, “I understand. I know it’s been a long day for you two,” she smiles before turning to Coburn, “you seem to be okay from what I can tell. Any pain anywhere?”
He contorts his face for a moment before taking his jacket off, revealing a few dark bruises along his upper arm.
“Just here, I think,” he explains.
He must have gotten that from fighting Midnight.
Anger burns within me at the thought, but I try my best to hide it.
I lean the side of my head against the arm of the couch, but I’m too scared to close my eyes. It’s as though I’m afraid that closing my eyes will transport us back to the Manor, that we’ll be caught. That the nightmare will come back in the darkness, that the pain will come back. That the voice will come back. That I won’t have the strength to resist this time.
Maybe it never even left. Maybe it’s just lingering in the back of my head, waiting for a chance to come out again.
Am I going crazy?
“Saffire,” I’m vaguely aware of Luna placing a few fingers on my forehead before she quickly retreats her hand back, “did Nox get inside your head?”
“What?” I mumble, “I don’t know, maybe.”
She places her fingertips on my forehead again.
“Was there a moment when you felt pain in your head? Or a voice, perhaps?”
I blink at her, my eyes widening as I sit up again.
Can she tell?
“How do you know that?”
“I had a chance to help Ana while she was out, and I picked up on a great amount of residual stress in her head. You have the same thing, albeit not to the same level, but the observation still stands.”
Suddenly my mind goes back to the conversation I had with Jaxson back in the containment building.
He talked about a voice in his head, pain like it was splitting his head open before he set the building on fire.
I gasp, “he was trying to compel me,” I pause, “at least, I think.”
Suddenly Coburn’s eyes light up with realization, “Luna, can you pass me the notebook for a second?”
He flips through the pages, quickly scanning the words.
“That’s why your name was in here!” He hands me the notebook, his expression falling, “I – I think you were their next target, Saf.”
He puts his arm around my shoulders as I scan through the words.
Before, all I could make out was my name, but now that I know what I’m looking for, I can make some sense of the scrawls.
‘Saffire is the best option for compulsion at this stage. She’s vulnerable, and would help her society turn against fire wielders. . .’
Oh my God.
I contort my face as I flip to another page, seeing another entry, from earlier in the week.
‘Ana’s present state presents a perfect opportunity to get rid of another elemental leader . . .’
The pages of the notebook slam together as I shut the book, clutching the cover tightly, trying not to cry.
I feel everything and nothing at once.
I was right.
They were behind Ana’s actions. They want to wipe out the elemental leaders. They want to present a reason to hate fire wielders, and then let our society do the rest. They want to give rise to chaos. Hatred. Betrayal.
“Saf?” Coburn’s hand moves idly over my shoulder.
I don’t say anything as I gently pass the book back to him, looking straight ahead, focusing on the whiteness of the walls.
Am I safe? Are they going to try compelling me again? What if they do? What if the pain comes back?
Moments later I pull myself back, realizing that Luna is looking at me.
“Sorry. Do you, um, do you think they’ll try it again?”
Luna shakes her head, “their powers are stronger in the Shadow Realm, and if they couldn’t get to you there, they probably won’t try again while you’re here,” she pauses, “you two threw them off their game, and now they have to regroup from square one, which buys us time.”
“So, what do we do now?” Coburn asks.
“Get familiar with compulsion using the materials you found, and be as ready as you can,” she says in a firm tone.
“Hmm,” I agree, some of my senses coming back to me.
Coburn laces his hand in mine again, giving my fingers a reassuring squeeze.
Luna looks between us, smiling to herself before picking up one of the books.
Maybe I am safe, for now.
I perk up when I remember something about Luna.
“Are you only their half sister?”
She tenses a little, looking between Coburn and I.
“Yes. How do you know that?” She narrows her eyes for a moment.
“It was in a book about the rulers of the Shadow Realm,” I explain.
“Hmm,” she contemplates, “I didn’t even think there’d be a record about me,” she muses to herself, flipping the page of the book as a light crinkling sound echoes through the room.
“Why did you leave?” I ask, my curiosity peaked.
She sighs, glancing up from the thin pages, “to make a long story short, I didn’t belong there. I didn’t agree with many aspects of what my brother and sister were groomed to do, and it reached a breaking point one day, so I left,” her tone tells me that she doesn’t want to discuss the matter any further.
That just raises so many more questions for me, but I don’t want to push her to share if she doesn’t want to.
“Oh,” I look away.
She tilts her head to the side with a small grin, “I don’t mind you asking, by the way. It’s just a very long, complicated story,” she reassures before sighing, “I’ll leave you two to rest, we can discuss more about this tomorrow.”
“Sounds good,” Coburn comments as Luna gets up, leaving us alone in the room.
“I’m going to get some water; do you want any?” Coburn asks.
I shake my head before he quickly squeezes my hand again, turning the corner towards the kitchen.
Finally, I have the courage to close my eyes for more than a second.
I have so many questions for Luna about her lineage, her father, why she left in the first place, what growing up with Nox and Midnight was like. I can only imagine it was terrible, based on what I’ve seen of the Shadow Realm. She likely grew up in the Grand Manor as well. The thought makes me shudder a little. I don’t blame her for leaving; I don’t know how someone could spend their entire lives in a place like that.
Suddenly, a loud clapping sound makes me jump, causing me to let out a small yell in alarm as I open my eyes to Ehren laughing to himself.
“Holy shit!” I mutter, catching my breath.
“You should have seen your face, priceless,” he chuckles.
“Very funny,” I roll my eyes with a grin.
He sits on the arm of the couch and I sit up, leaning against the back cushion, the stiff fabric crinkling slightly at my actions.
“In all seriousness though, it’s nice to see that you’re doing better,” he comments.
“Eh, more or less,” I sigh.
He analyzes me for a moment, narrowing his eyes.
“I didn’t notice before, but your energy is quite similar to Ana’s. Why?”
“Probably because the twins tried to compel me,” I look down.
His expression immediately softens.
“Oh, hon, I’m so sorry, are you okay?”
“Whoever said the body doesn’t remember pain is lying to themselves,” I say with a nervous laugh.
“Ana mentioned the pain too. Seems to be a running theme, hey?”
I nod, “I wish it wasn’t,” I mumble.
“I know. And I can’t imagine what that must have been like,” he says, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder, “at least it can’t get to you now.”
I smile, placing my hand on his, “at least there’s that,” I chuckle.
Coburn walks into the room in the next moment, sitting down next to me as he places his water on a coaster.
“Your hands are so cold, girl,” he laughs to himself, looking at Coburn, “but I’m sure you knew that too, didn’t you?”
I look between the two of them as Coburn shoots Ehren a playful glare, Coburn’s cheeks turning a light shade of pink.
I put my hands up in a surrender formation with a laugh, “I come by it honestly,” I joke, “they’re not that cold though, are they?”
“Are your hands icicles?” Ehren teases.
I playfully roll my eyes as Coburn lightly brushes his fingertips over mine, sending a small rush of warmth to my hands. I glance at him for a moment, smiling.
“Not always,” I muse.
I lean back against the couch, feeling myself truly relax for the first time since we got back.