I almost laugh at my silliness. Of course the island isn’t trying to tell me something. And so I ignore the voice deep inside warning—no, begging—me to leave.
Instead, I remind myself that the voice wasn’t particularly happy about the Boneyard, either, and that turned out okay. Besides, it’s not like my friends are about to change their minds now, so I try to shake off my uneasiness as I step away from Flint and Jaxon so Flint can shift back to his human form.
Hudson is walking around the edge of the forest about twenty feet away, trying fruitlessly to peer into the darkness. I think about reminding him that if I can’t see in there, he certainly can’t, but I know he’s just trying to occupy himself doing something. He feels as antsy as I do.
Xavier, Macy, and Eden join us a few seconds later, and under the dim light cast by Macy’s wand, we start to search the crater for the den of the Unkillable Beast. We may not have any plans for going in there at the moment, but it’s pretty hard to lure someone or something someplace if you don’t know where the starting point is.
But the more we explore the interior of the crater, the more apparent it becomes that the place is enchanted. It’s March, which means the temperature on one of these islands should range anywhere from fifteen to forty-five degrees, depending on the day and the kind of winter/spring we’re in store for (thank you, Google). And while it definitely felt about thirty-five degrees at the opening, the area inside the crater is a near-tropical climate that has me sweating inside my many layers of clothes.
So yeah, definitely magical is the consensus, and that’s before we discover a waterfall and hot springs that seem to appear out of nowhere and cast an eerie light within the crater. It’s like the water itself is enchanted, its soft blue depths glowing so brightly, the entire area is lit like early morning, revealing trees, tall and green, with big, strangely shaped leaves that look more like they belong on a tropical island than this close to the Arctic Circle. Hibiscus and bromeliads envelop the forest in their sweet scents, and giant boulders are scattered randomly around the nearby clearing.
“This is where it lives,” Jaxon says as we walk closer to the water, even as he keeps his eyes peeled for the monster.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Where would you choose to live?” Jaxon counters. “In the pitch-black forest on the other side or near this glowing hot bath and fresh water?” He motions with his head just past us and grins. “Also, there’s a cave on the other side of the waterfall.”
“What do we do?” I ask, my gaze fixed on the waterfall now.
“We back away slowly,” Xavier whispers. “And try to figure out what trap we could possibly set.”
“Obviously, we need bait,” Eden tells him as we move back toward the dark forest, to hide in the shadows and plan. “Really good bait.”
“What kind of bait?” I ask even as the voice inside me whispers over and over, Leave.
“I’ll be the bait,” Xavier volunteers. “Once we decide the best place to set up the trap, I can go in and lure it out. No way is it going to put up with having some interloper in its cave.”
“But we don’t even know what the beast looks like yet,” Macy complains. “What if it’s small and faster than a wolf? Or is twenty feet tall with eight long, octopus-like arms that you can’t avoid?”
I know she was just offering some extreme examples, but I find myself nodding to each one. They all sound plausible to me right now.
“We just have to lure it out of its cave and keep it trapped or distracted,” Xavier reminds us as we start looking around for a good place to set our trap. “The heartstone is probably kept right at the back of its cave where the Unkillable Beast can protect it.”
Hudson catches my eye and mutters, “And this is your genius plan? To catch a beast when you have no idea what it looks like or what its powers are? And when you have no idea if your trap is the right size or strength of magical constraint? And you thought my idea was out there…”
I roll my eyes at him but turn to the group and ask, “Do we have any idea what this beast is? How big it is? How strong it is? If it’s magical? I mean, how could we possibly know what kind of trap will keep it, well, caught?”
“It’s obviously got to be magical,” Macy says. “There’s no other way to be prepared for whatever comes barreling out of those caves after us.”
Everyone nods. Makes sense, I guess.
“Yeah, but what are we talking about here?” Eden says. “A spell? And if so, which one?”
“I could fry it,” Flint suggests with a grin. “Pretty sure it wouldn’t come back for more after that.”
“Yeah, but what if it’s wearing the heartstone and you fry it, too? What are we going to do then?” Macy asks. “Whatever the trap is can’t be that violent.”
“So you want to give the Unkillable Beast a chance to get a second wind?” Flint asks incredulously.
“No. I think I should put it to sleep,” Macy suggests. “I have a spell for that, and I think it will work.”
“You think it will work?” Eden asks, both brows raised.
“Well, I can’t guarantee it, since I have no idea what the Unkillable Beast is, but yes. It should work. I looked it up on the way here, just to be sure.”
“And if the sleep spell doesn’t work?” I ask tentatively, not wanting to set Macy off, but not wanting to be caught without a backup plan, either.
“Then I say Flint freezes it. Xavier and I discussed it on the way here, and it seems like the best move,” Jaxon volunteers. “It won’t fry any stone the beast might have on it, but it will give us a couple of minutes to think things through once we know what the beast is and what it can do. Acting is always better than reacting, anyway.”
Hudson snort-laughs at this. “The day my brother thinks first, then leaps second, I’ll eat my shorts.”
You’re not wearing any shorts, I remind him.
He turns and winks at me. “Why, Miss Foster, have you been peeking?”
I know he’s trying to distract me; he must sense my nerves are about to snap like a piano wire, but I blush all the same. You’re obnoxious.
He simply bows at me before turning back to the half-baked plan we’re currently cooking.
“So where are we setting up?” Xavier asks, looking around. “The beast’ll be coming out along this path, right?” He points to the broken stone path that leads around the water’s edge and then straight across the lake, with large, flat boulders, to meet the waterfall. “So how far out from them do we want to bring it before we spring the trap?”
“Not too far,” Eden suggests. “We need cover, and there isn’t much except this forest once you get away from the clearing.”
“I agree,” I tell them, thinking back to playing paintball with my dad as a kid and all the lessons he taught me about ambushes. Now that I think about it, I can’t help but wonder if he knew I would need the information someday. Maybe not to fight an Unkillable Beast but because he came from this paranormal world and he knew just how dangerous it was.
“Flint should hide up there.” I point to a small ledge a quarter of the way up the inside of the crater wall. “You can still reach the beast if you shoot ice from there, can’t you?” I ask.
He measures the distance with his eyes. “Yeah, I should still have reach.”
“Good. And Macy needs to be closer—”
“How much closer?” Xavier asks, and he doesn’t look happy.
“As close as I need to be,” she answers him with a glare before glancing around. “If it’s coming down this path, I can get a really good shot at it if I’m sitting in that tree.” She points to a huge coniferous tree about thirty feet away from the waterfall.
Xavier looks like a thundercloud at the very thought, and I have to admit, having her that close to the walkway doesn’t make me feel particularly good, either. I mean, if the beast can jump, it could be on her in seconds, and there’s nothing we could do to stop it.
“I’ll be fine,” Macy says, as if reading my thoughts.
“Maybe we should rethink—”
“I’m doing it,” she tells me as she jogs toward the tree. “Besides, no guts, no glory, right?”
“The saying could also go, no guts, no terrifying death,” I tell her.
She turns back just so I can see her roll her eyes. “I can do this, Grace. You need to trust me.”
She’s right. I know she’s right, and still it’s hard for me to watch her swing herself up into the tree and then find the branch with the heaviest foliage to hide on.
“I think we should have Eden as backup, too,” Jaxon says as Flint gives me a quick wink before flying up to the ledge we decided on.
“I’m not sure how much help I’ll be,” she comments. “I only shoot lightning. If I aim at the beast, I will electrocute it.”
“Which is why you’re going to be Flint’s backup,” Jaxon tells her. “Worst-case scenario only.”
“I can do that.” She glances around. “Where do you want me?”
“Probably as close to the mountain as you can get,” I tell her, “but on ground level. That way if Macy and Flint miss, you can come in behind him and do what you need to do.”
“How about over there?” She points to a small alcove carved into the actual mountain that’s only a couple of feet from the entrance.
“That’s really close.” I look around for someplace else. “How about something a little farther away?”
She grins at me. “Don’t worry, Grace. I got this.”
“I know you do, but—”
“Don’t worry,” she repeats. “Just make sure you don’t get eaten, okay?”
“Yeah.” I smile sickly. “That sounds like a plan.”