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So I just gazed back at her silently, trying to keep my expression blank. Although as my twin, she could probably feel my anguish bubbling up within her own stomach. She would know something was wrong, just not what.

“All right,” I muttered beneath my breath. “Let’s try.”

The moment I said the words and Sofia nodded her head in agreement, Ibrahim’s hand clamped on my shoulder. Then Vivienne’s form along with the rest of The Shade vanished into a blur of colors.

Chapter 34: Sofia

Back in the circular chamber at Headquarters, Ibrahim and three other witches stood around Derek and I. The others had agreed to join in on a spell in an attempt to make our camouflage last longer.

“Close your eyes,” Ibrahim said.

We did as we were told and Derek’s hand clasped mine. And then their chant started. Softly at first, but gradually growing louder and louder, words I could not recognize, but that sounded precise and sharp nonetheless, some powerful ancient tongue.

I expected pain as my physical features transformed. But I felt nothing. And when the ritual came to an end, I wondered if they’d failed.

But then I let go of Derek’s hand and placed both hands on my face. Sure enough, where my nose and mouth had been was a sharp bump. The shape of a beak. Tough leathery wings had sprouted just beneath my shoulder blades. I turned to look at Derek and despite the situation almost laughed. He too had transformed into an overgrown bird.

We cast our eyes down into the starry abyss, the pale blue whirling substance forming the walls of the tunnel.

“So now we just… jump?” Derek asked.

“Yes. This will lead you directly to Aviary. You’d better hope no Hawks are watching this gate at the other end. If there are, I suggest you jump right back through again.”

Derek and I exchanged nervous glances.

“And remember… I can’t promise you I’ll be able to keep this open more than twelve hours. I will do my best, but if the Ageless enforces her will, there’s not much I can do. Just make sure you’re back within plenty of time.”

Derek took a deep breath and jumped first. His body shot downward through the tunnel and disappeared from sight. Fastening my hair in a bun, I took the leap myself.

As soon as I fell, the suction swallowed me down. I was travelling at such a speed that everything was a haze. I could barely breathe and my heartbeat tripled its pace.

Just as it felt like I was about to pass out, the tunnel came to an abrupt end and I was thrown upward, landing on a bed of leaves. Rubbing my head, I dared to open my eyes. The sweltering heat settled over my skin. The sticky, humid atmosphere did nothing to help me catch my breath. I’d landed a few feet away from Derek. We didn’t have much time to gather our wits about us. Our first priority was to make sure that we were alone.

Derek crept through the undergrowth and ducked down next to me. We were sitting in some kind of jungle. Brightly colored insects the size of bats buzzed around us. The chattering and cawing of exotic birds filled the atmosphere. The air smelled of rich pollen. And it was strangely dark. I looked up to see a dense canopy of sharp-edged leaves.

Beads of sweat were already breaking out on my forehead.

“What is this place?” I breathed out.

Derek was still looking around us. “We’re alone.” He lifted himself up from our hiding place, standing on his tiptoes. “Too bad these wings are useless,” he said. “I have no idea which direction we should even start heading for. And we can’t afford to waste any time.”

I joined him in standing up and looked around. We could barely see twenty meters; the jungle vegetation was dense and the patches of fog didn’t help either.

“Well, let’s first get away from this gate. It’s not a good idea to hang around here. I’m shocked it wasn’t guarded in the first place,” I muttered. “Let’s try climbing to the top of a tree to see if we can get a better idea of where we should be headed.”

Derek caught my hand and we began walking toward a tree with low-hanging branches. He grabbed hold of one and hauled himself up, then extended his hand. I refused his help. I had enough strength to do my own climbing.

As we ascended one close-knit layer of leaves at a time, careful not to lose our footing on the moist bark, it was becoming lighter and lighter. The air also felt more oxygenated; I was beginning to breathe more freely.

Then a moss-covered tree branch began moving. It was a colossal snake, heavier than any I’d ever seen in my life. I nearly screamed as it lifted its head and began hissing at me. Derek, who had already climbed up to a branch just above me, reached down and yanked me up. We quickened our climbing, hoping the snake wouldn’t follow us. I tried to ignore the spiders twice the width of my hand that scuttled along the branches inches away from my feet, and the shiny foot-long centipedes. It was starting to feel like we’d never reach the top when I heard voices overhead.

Derek and I froze.

A figure dropped down through the layer of leaves above us and balanced himself on the same long branch we were perched on. A male Hawk.

His beak opened in surprise, then he squinted his eyes at us. “What are you doing down here in the Lower Layers? Didn’t you hear that orders are for all able Hawks in this quarter to gather in the Battalion for briefings?”

“Briefings…” I said, as though I had any clue what he was talking about. “Yes, of course we heard. How could we not? We’re on our way. We were just…” My mind worked furiously trying to concoct some excuse a Hawk might come up with.

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