We reappeared at the edge of the dark forest. The six of us sat there for a moment, processing everything that had just happened.
“We’re not dead,” Joshua mumbled, lying on the forest floor. “Praise the Lord, we’re not dead…”
Logan eyed Kai suspiciously. “Why did you help us? Is this some sort of trick?”
Ruth, who had been aiming her staff at Kai, straightened up and lowered her weapon. “No, it’s not,” she said. “His intentions are pure.”
Kai continued to sit silently, not looking at any of us.
“We truly appreciate your help, Kai,” I told him. “We wouldn’t have made it out if it weren’t for you.”
Kai shook his head. “Evelyn.”
“What?” I asked.
“Evelyn. We’re losing her.” Kai dashed over to Evelyn’s side, and the rest of us followed him.
She was still unconscious. Black cracks were spreading from the edges of her eyes, and her whole body was shuddering.
“I need to go into her mind,” said Kai.
“What? Why?” Logan asked, slightly defensive.
“Fear is taking over,” Kai explained. “She’s trapped in the deepest, darkest part of her mind. The only way to save her is to get her out.”
“I’ll go,” I said. “I’m more skilled in telepathy, I should — ”
Kai shook his head. “You can’t. Not even a Storyteller could travel that far into the mind and make it out sane — or alive, for that matter. I have to do it. I’m the only one who can.”
“Your intentions are pure now,” said Ruth warily, “but that can always change.”
“So how do we know we can trust you?” Logan asked.
Kai sighed. “You don’t.”
Evelyn shuddered again, and tears fell from her closed eyes. The black veins began to spread.
I looked up at Kai. “Bring her back to us.”
We joined hands once again, then each took one of Evelyn’s hands. I closed my eyes, connecting mentally with both Kai and Evelyn, serving as a bridge for Kai to Evelyn’s mind.
* * *Kai opened his eyes. A small girl stood before him, no older than seven, with long, tangled blonde hair. She was in the middle of a mountainous forest, hugging her knees. She looked terrified.
It took a moment, but Kai recognized her.
The little girl sniffled, wiping away her tears with her small fists. The sound of a twig snapping pierced the air, and the girl whipped her head around. Behind her, a woman approached her slowly.
“It’s okay,” the woman said softly. “I just want to help you.”
“Who — who are you?” the young Evelyn asked, her little voice trembling.
“My name is Esther,” she replied. She kneeled down next to Evelyn. “You know, I can tell you’re special. You have a gift.”
Evelyn’s lip trembled. “How do you know that?”
The woman smiled. “Because I have that gift too.”
Evelyn’s eyes widened.
Esther extended her arms to Evelyn. “Can I pick you up? I’d like to take you inside, where it’s warm, and there’s food.”
Evelyn considered the request for a moment, then nodded.
Esther smiled, extending her arms to Evelyn.
And then a pitch-black blade sliced through Esther’s chest.
Evelyn screamed, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“It’s not real, Evelyn!” Kai cried, but she didn’t hear him.
Evelyn stumbled backward and ran away, disappearing in the shadows. Kai ran after her, calling her name desperately. He squinted through the black fog, and his eyes landed on another scene.
Evelyn, older now, standing next to Bradley in the doorway of the Author’s Guild Headquarters. Across from them stood the Author.
The Author looked at the ground, like he couldn’t bear to look the children in the eyes. “Evelyn, Bradley…” His voice caught as he spoke; it sounded as though he was holding back a sob. “I have bad news.”
Evelyn’s eyes went wide. “No.”
Evelyn gazed at them in horror, her mouth ajar. She stumbled backward, then ran back inside.
She ignored them, covering her face in her hands.
Kai ran after her again — only this time, he came across a scene that was familiar to him.
Evelyn stood outside the Library, which was alight with purple flames. But Stormi and Logan were nowhere to be seen — nor was anyone else. It was just Evelyn, alone in the darkness, the burning Library the only light.
She fell to her knees, stifling sobs. Kai knew exactly what she was feeling in that moment — it wasn’t just fear. It was isolation. She’d lost everything. She was alone.
He knew the feeling all too well.
“Evelyn?” Kai said softly. “Evelyn, can you hear me?” He gently placed his hand on her shoulder.
As soon as he touched her, she whirled around, summoned her spectral bow, and aimed an arrow at his forehead. Her eyes narrowed when they met his. “You,” she hissed. “You’re here to finish me off, aren’t you?”
“No!” said Kai nervously, holding up his hands in surrender. “No — I’m here to rescue you.”
“Like I’m going to believe that,” she scoffed.
“No, really,” Kai told her. “I — I left the Dark Alliance. I left my family. What we were doing wasn’t right. I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
Evelyn eyed him suspiciously. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
“You can’t lie in the mindscape,” he replied. “There’s no way to conceal your true thoughts when two minds are connected.”
“I’m — I’m in the mindscape?” she said slowly.
Kai nodded. “Whatever you were seeing just now — it was nothing but shadows.”
“It — it seemed so real…” Evelyn shuddered at the memory.
“There isn’t much time,” said Kai, beginning to rush his words anxiously. “I have to get you out of here before the fear takes over your mind.”
Slowly, cautiously, Evelyn lowered her bow. “So…you — you really left?” she asked. “You’re on our side now?”
Before Kai could answer, a deep, hissing sound echoed from the shadows. They were swirling together, combining to create a massive, hazy form with glowing red eyes.
“We have to go,” he said quietly. “Now.”
Evelyn turned around, then let out a shriek.
The monster roared and charged forward, its narrow red eyes casting a crimson glow over them.
Kai grabbed Evelyn’s hand and pulled her along as they ran from the monster.
“Where do we go?” she said as they dashed through the mindscape.
“Right now, away from that thing!” Kai replied.
“How do we stop it?”
“You have to fight the fear.”
“How?” Evelyn asked breathlessly.
“I…I’m not sure.”
“Oh, great, that’s helpful,” she muttered.
“I don’t know — think of something that can counteract fear,” Kai suggested.
“Like what?” she demanded.
“I don’t know! It’s your fear!”
As they ran, the monster began to catch up with them. It snaked alongside them and eventually turned inwards, cutting them off. Its eyes began to duplicate until there were glowing red eyes all around them.
“What’s it doing?” Evelyn asked nervously.
Evelyn screamed as the claws grabbed her shoulders and dragged her down into the shadows.
“Ev — ”
Kai was cut off as the ground underneath him dissolved, and he sank into what felt like ice-cold water. He could still breathe, but he floated as if he were submerged.
“Evelyn?” he called.
“Kai?” Her voice was muffled and distant, coming from somewhere in the blackness. “Kai, where are you?”
“This must be another fear!” he shouted to her. “You have to conquer it, like you did with the last one!”
“Kai! Kai, what’s happening?”
She can’t hear me, Kai realized.
He floated through the darkness, searching anxiously for any sign of Evelyn, desperately wishing he could help her. His anxiety increased with each moment that passed, the thought that she might not make it growing stronger every second.
Everything was silent.
Everything was dark.
And then an orb of soft blue light pierced the darkness, with Evelyn at the center of it.
“Evelyn!” Kai cried, letting out a sigh of relief as he floated over to her.
Evelyn’s eyes softened when they landed on Kai, her shoulders loosening. “Kai.”
She took his hands in hers and pulled him into the sphere of light. She held him tightly, as if afraid to lose him again.
“You did it,” Kai said, smiling warmly.
Evelyn nodded, biting her lip.
A deep rumble echoed in the darkness, making the two jump.
“What’s happening?” Evelyn asked, a slight tremble in her voice.
“I don’t know,” Kai replied.
The rumble grew louder and louder — then Evelyn’s nightmares flashed before their eyes, one after the other —
The cold, dark forest.
Esther and Aaron’s dead bodies under sheets.
Then everything went dark.
* * *
My eyes flew open. Kai and Evelyn jolted upright, chests heaving. Evelyn rubbed her eyes, from which the black cracks had receded. She glanced at her right hand, which Kai was still holding, and quickly pulled it away.
“Evelyn!” I cried, throwing my arms around her. “Thank God you’re okay!”
Evelyn hugged me back tightly. “You came back for us… But how?” she asked. “Logan destroyed the key.”
“I made a new key,” I said.
Evelyn’s jaw dropped. “You made a key? And it — it worked?”
I blushed, chuckling shyly. “Yeah.”
Logan rushed over and tackled us both in a hug. “My favorite gals!” he exclaimed.
Evelyn snickered. “Don’t tell Kayla you said that.”
“Well, it’s on her for not being part of Team Awesome.”
I looked up at Kai with misty eyes. “Thank you,” I nearly whispered.
He blushed, staring at the ground. He opened his mouth to reply when Logan jumped up and gave Kai a bear hug. “Dude! You saved my best friend’s life!”
Kai went stiff, looking simultaneously confused and uncomfortable. “It was the least I could do,” he said, slipping out of Logan’s hug.
Logan gave Evelyn a look, like, What do you say?
Evelyn tensed. “Thanks,” she muttered, not looking at Kai.
I furrowed my brow. “Are you okay?” I asked Evelyn.
A shriek rang out in the distance, followed by several hissing noises.
“Kievan’s coming,” said Kai. “We need to get out of here.”
“Where will we go?” Ruth asked.
“I would take us back to the Agapē Order’s dimension, but I don’t have any paper to make another key,” I said. “Besides, I’m not sure I have it in me to make another one.”
Logan’s eyes widened. “The key — the pieces are still in the chamber!” he told me. He turned to Ruth and Joshua. “Is either of you a healer?”
“Well, neither of us specialize in healing, but Josh knows a little bit of healing magic,” Ruth offered.
“Emphasis on a little bit,” Joshua said, eyeing Ruth.
“Do you think you’d be able to use healing magic to fix the key?” Logan asked.
Ruth and Joshua glanced at each other. “I don’t know if healing magic will work on paper,” said Joshua.
My eyes widened. “Wait — what if we combined our magic?”
Joshua looked at me curiously. “What do you mean?”
“The key was made from Storyteller magic,” I said. “So Storyteller magic and healer magic together might be enough to fix it. We could cast the spell together.”
“Is that even possible?” Joshua asked.
I shrugged. “We won’t know until we try.”
The hissing whispers were growing louder, echoing throughout the forest.
Joshua nodded. “Alright.”
“How are we going to get there?” Ruth asked.
“I’ll teleport us,” I said.
Logan placed his hand on mine. “Stormcloud, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said gently. “There’s too many of us, and you’re still a little weak.”
“I can do it,” said Kai.
“No,” Evelyn said abruptly.
I turned to her. “What?”
“It could be a trap,” she said. “He could take us right back to his brother.”
“Evelyn, he saved your life,” I said. “If that’s not reason enough to trust him, I don’t know what is.”
Evelyn shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere with him,” she said quietly.
A booming voice hissed in the distance: “Find them!”
“Evelyn, it’s now or never,” I told her. “I’m not leaving you behind.”
Evelyn hesitated, her jaw clenched and gaze on the ground. And after an agonizingly long moment, she looked back up at me and said, “Fine.”
We all joined hands, then Kai opened up the shadows beneath us and we fell into the darkness.