Macy shrugs. “I don’t know. I found it when I was a kid, and it’s kind of always been my place. I used to hide from my dad in here when it was bedtime.”
“Well, I, for one, plan on visiting a lot more once we get the Circle the fuck out of Katmere,” Xavier says with a wink at Macy. “It’s really cool.”
“It could use a dragon sticker or two,” Eden tells her as we wind our way around one of the twists and turns.
All of a sudden, Xavier leans over and licks Macy’s cheek. She shrieks and shoves at him, and a glance around tells me everyone else is about where I am—doubting what we just saw with our own eyes.
But Xavier just shrugs and points at a sticker directly above her head. “I was just following orders.”
I move closer and see that it reads, Get a Taste of Religion: Lick a Witch, and I can’t help it. I burst out laughing. Macy and Eden crack up right after me, followed quickly by the others. Xavier, the giant goofball, looks exceptionally pleased with himself, though I don’t know if it’s because he managed to get all of us to loosen up or if it’s because he licked Macy and didn’t get punched.
The last traces of tension are completely gone as we wind our way down the hallway until it dead-ends at a short ladder, right in front of a trapdoor at the top of the wall. “Next stop, planetarium,” Macy says as she scoots to the front of the group and climbs up the ladder. Seconds later, she pushes open the door and crawls forward a few feet before she disappears with a loud squeak.
Xavier bounds up the ladder after her. “Macy? Are you okay?” Suddenly, he falls through the hole, too—though the noise he makes is more of a yelp than a squeak.
The rest of us kind of look at one another in a “who’s next?” kind of way, but none of us actually makes a move for the ladder. Facing the Unkillable Beast, sure. Falling through a floor…maybe not.
Eventually, though, Eden rolls her eyes and mutters, “What the hell,” right before she charges up the ladder, two rungs at a time. A little more cautious than the other two, she sits on the top of the ladder and slides in feetfirst. Seconds after her head disappears, we hear a soft thump on the other side of the wall, followed by another, louder yelp.
“Think she landed on Xavier?” Mekhi asks, brows raised.
“Oh yeah,” Jaxon answers. “No doubt.”
Jaxon seems determined not to go before I do, so I climb the ladder next. I slide my feet in first, just like Eden did, then close my eyes and call out, “Incoming,” right before I let myself drop straight into darkness.
My feet hit solid wood and not werewolf, thank God, but it’s so dark, I can’t see two inches in front of my face. I do have the presence of mind to shuffle several feet away from the gaping hole above my head, but after that, I’m left fumbling for my phone as I call for my cousin.
“Right here!” she answers a little breathlessly, and when I finally get my flashlight app open and focused on her face, it’s hard to miss the fact that her lipstick is smeared in all the right places. Looks like Xavier found more to lick than just her cheek…
I gesture for her to wipe her mouth just as Jaxon comes through the hole and lands like a cat next to me with barely a sound. Flint slides through after him, whooping like he’s on a ride at Disneyland. Then again, when isn’t he whooping like he’s on a ride at Disneyland?
Mekhi brings up the rear, and then—flashlights out—we’re stumbling around, looking for a light switch.
Xavier hits the switch to turn on the giant star dome above us. Suddenly, all the constellations are rotating over our heads and it’s strangely cool to be in this room, with these people, as all the stars float by above us.
It reminds me of the night Jaxon first kissed me, when he took me out on the battlements to watch a meteor shower. I glance over at him, feeling all warm and fuzzy on the inside, only to find him already watching me, a soft smile lighting up the hard planes of his face. So I’m not the only one remembering that night.
“So, wanna tell us why we’re in the planetarium, Macy?” Flint asks.
She gives him a huge grin. “Well…I was practicing how to build portals with Mr. Badar, our Lunar Astronomy teacher, because I figured we might need one to get back to campus after the Boneyard. Anyway, Mr. Badar was demonstrating how to build a portal leaving campus instead of just returning, and so he built this one…” She holds her hands wide like she’s revealing a magic trick. “And he left it up so I could come back and study it!”
“Way to go, Macy.” Flint offers her a high five, and now we’re all grinning.
“Only thing is that portals tend to move a few inches with the rotation of the Earth, so this one could have moved.” She points to a corner in the room. “Last time I saw it, it was over there.”
I turn and take a few steps back, so I can see around the telescope to where she’s pointing, then scream as I feel myself falling, falling, falling for the second time in less than a week.
No matter how hard I try to right myself as I tumble through the vortex—determined not to make the same mistakes this time—I end up falling out of the sky and flat on my face. It turns out, hitting the ground hurts even more than slamming into the planetarium stage did, and it knocks the breath out of me.
Still, I scoot along the ground, trying to get out of the way of the portal before someone else comes shooting through after me. Sure enough, I still haven’t managed to take a full breath before Jaxon lands on his feet nearby. The jerk.
“Are you okay?” he asks, crouching next to me.
I nod as my lungs finally start working again. “One of these days, you’re going to need to teach me how to do that without nearly dying,” I gasp.
He grins. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Seconds later, the portal drops Macy out—and she, too, manages to land on her feet. It’s a shakier landing than Jaxon’s, but that’s not saying much, since I’m pretty sure the moon landing was shakier than his.
I look around and realize we’re in the forest beyond the cottages. I wish I could see a bit more as I wait for everyone else to make it through the portal. But it’s dark and there isn’t much to see.
Once everyone arrives, Flint and Eden change into their dragons. Flint lowers his head and I’m just about to climb on the way he showed me—much to Jaxon’s chagrin—when we’re suddenly surrounded by about twenty Circle guards in their black uniforms—several of whom have partially shifted into their werewolf or dragon forms.
The others—vampires and warlocks—stand shoulder to shoulder with them. And every single one of them looks like they mean business.
“You need to come with us,” the vampy-looking one with the most stripes on his shoulder says.
Jaxon steps forward, gives him a sardonic look. “You know that’s not going to happen, Simon.”
The fact that Jaxon knows his name surprises me, until it registers that these are his father’s guards. “The king has given orders that anyone trying to leave campus be detained and brought to him immediately,” the guard responds.
“My father doesn’t get to make those decisions at Katmere and you know it, Simon. The Circle doesn’t run this school.”
Jaxon takes another step forward, angling his body so that he’s blocking as many of us from the guards as he can manage, while also keeping me firmly behind him.
“Yes, but I take my orders from your father, and I will follow them. He thought you and your mate might be too afraid to show up tomorrow, so we’ve been on the lookout for you all night. And here you are.” He doesn’t finish the sentence with like the cowards you are, but his voice says it for him.
“We’re not running away,” Jaxon tells him in the most reasonable tone I’ve ever heard from him. “We’re out here practicing for the Trials tomorrow. My mate was nervous and wanted to do one more practice session.”
“Well then, I’m sure the king will understand when you explain it to him.” Simon grins coldly. “But you will be explaining it to him. Tonight.”
His voice is sharp as steel and filled with resolve, but that’s not what has my breath catching in my throat and my blood turning to ice.
It’s the malice in his eyes—it’s obvious he’s been looking forward to this for a long time, and he isn’t going to be talked out of it. Which means we’re about to be hauled in front of the king before we get the heartstone, or we’re about to put up a fight. Either isn’t optimal right now, especially not this close to the school and the hundred or so other guards the Circle brought with them.
“You need to shift.” Hudson’s voice comes, loud and urgent, from deep inside me. “There’s going to be a fight, and you’re way too vulnerable as a human.”
If I shift now, I’ll take any element of surprise away from Jaxon.
“Jaxon can handle himself and so can the others. If you don’t shift now, it will be too late.”
My friends and I talked about this the other night, what to do if we ended up getting caught on school grounds. Jaxon was adamant about us leaving him, but now that we’re faced with that decision, there’s no way I can do it. A glance at the others’ faces—especially Mekhi—tells me the same thing. None of us is going anywhere without Jaxon.
And so I do almost what Hudson suggests. I reach for the platinum string and hold it gently in my hand. I don’t close my fist around it quite yet, but I prepare myself to be able to in a split second.
“Shift, damn it!” Hudson is frantic now. “You don’t know my father. You don’t know what he’s capable of—”
Can you please be quiet? I urge. I can’t hear with you shouting in my head. Just give me a minute to think, will you?
“Simon, we both know this isn’t going to end well for you and your little band of misfit toys.” Jaxon’s voice snaps like kindling. “Which means you’ve got two choices. You can go on your way and pretend you never saw us out here practicing.” He holds up his backpack as proof of our late-night practice routine. “Or you can get your ass kicked. Now, I don’t care which one of those you choose, but it is going to be one of those two choices. So take a minute, talk it over, and let me know what you guys end up deciding.”