If I doggedly mounted these carpeted risers, was it me I’d find up there?
Like I said, I take nothing for granted anymore. Not a damned thing.
Darroc? Had he truly died?
Some other sidhe-seer, dispatched by Jada, to reconnoiter the house?
Nah. Sidhe-seers worked in twos or more, not alone. Jada and I were the oddity, not the norm.
I eased my foot onto the first riser, placing it squarely in the middle because stairs always squeak when you’re trying to climb them silently. Sure enough, it let out a sullen squeal.
Biting my lip, I eased up, foot sideways, attempting to distribute my weight evenly, moving cautiously.
Above me a door banged shut and I heard another muffled curse, followed by an angry, “Where are you?”
I froze. Sniffed the air. Faint, but there. So faint I’d not caught it, but then I hadn’t expected to.
Squaring my shoulders, I marched up the stairs, determined to lay this particular bullshit to rest once and for all.
Another door banged, footfalls approached. I stiffened and stopped halfway up the stairs as the intruder burst from one of the bedrooms and stormed toward the very stairs I was on.
No. No. No.
This was wrong. This was so bloody wrong.
Alina stood at the top of the stairs, emotion flooding her beautiful features.
Shock. Astonishment. Joy.
Tears trembling in eyes I knew as well as my own. Better. I’d looked at her much more than I’d looked at myself in a mirror.
“Mac?” she breathed. “Holy crap, is it you, Jr.? Oh my God, oh my God!” she squealed. “When did you get here? What are doing in this house? How did you even know to look—Oh! Ahhhhh!”
She froze, mid-sentence, her joy morphing to pure horror.
I froze, too, midway up two more stairs, boot in the air.
She began to back away, doubling over, hands going to her head, clutching it. “No,” she moaned. “No,” she said again.
“You are not my sister,” I growled, and continued bounding up the stairs. I was confronting it this time. Staring it down cold. Proving the truth to myself, even without my sidhe-seer senses. My bastard Book, or Cruce, or whoever the hell was behind this was not playing this game with me.
Never this game.
The Alina-thing whirled and ran, hunched in on herself, clutching her stomach as if she, too, felt as kicked in the gut as I did.
“Get back here, whatever you are!” I roared.
“Leave me alone! Oh, God, I’m not ready. I don’t know enough,” she cried.
“I said get the hell back here! Face me!”
She was sobbing now, dashing through the house, stumbling into walls and crashing through doors. Slamming them behind her and locking them.
“Alina!” I shouted. Even though I knew it wasn’t her. I didn’t know what else to call the monster. Was my Book projecting an image? Or was the worst I’d feared for so many months now true?
Had I really never stepped out of the illusion that night we’d “allegedly” defeated the Sinsar Dubh?
Had it suckered me so completely that I only “believed” I’d been the victor but was in truth living in a matrixlike cocoon, my body in stasis, under complete dominion of the Book, merely dreaming my life? And I could either dream good things or have nightmares?
For months now I’d been crippled by that debilitating fear.
I didn’t trust one damned thing about my so-called reality.
“Alina!” I roared again, crashing into a locked door, blasting my way through it. Hall after hall. Door after door.
Until finally she was trapped. She’d locked herself in one of the back bedrooms, one door between us and no way out for her. I could hear her sobbing on the other side.
What the hell was the Book playing at?
I kicked the door in with perhaps more violence than was strictly necessary.
She screamed and wrapped both arms around her head. Rolled over and puked violently.
I took a step closer and she screamed again, as if in soul-rending pain.
I stood and stared, trying to make some sense out of what was happening.
“Please,” she whimpered. “Please. I don’t…want you. I’m not…looking for…you. I’ll…go home. I’ll…leave.”
What the hell?
“We’re ending this now,” I snarled.
“Please,” she cried. “No!” She unwound one arm from her head, raised it, shaking as if to ward me off. “Darroc!” she screamed. “I need you!”
“Darroc is dead,” I said coldly. “And so are you.”
On the floor, huddled in a ball, my sister screamed and screamed.
I ended up leaving.
I couldn’t take it one more second. What was I going to do? Kill the illusion of my sister?
I spun on my heel and stomped down the stairs, hands thrust into my pockets, head down. With the scent of lavender Snuggle sheets in my nostrils.
I grabbed the doughnut on the way out. It was in a bag, sitting near the vase of dusty flowers on the table.
I took the coffee next to it, too.
With the coral-pink lipstick on the rim, precisely the shade my sister wore: Summer Temptress.
I figured I might as well enjoy the happy parts of my madness if I had to stomach the bad.
Munching a soggy cruller (they may have gotten the right supplies but certainly weren’t professional bakers—then again, if this was all an illusion, why wasn’t my doughnut stellar? Was I so self-sabotaging I screwed up even my own illusory treats?), I ignored the mirrors I passed and forgot entirely about the blasted dolmen until I was nearly back to the intersection where I’d left the Hunter.
Of course, it wasn’t there.
I tapped my foot irritably, cracking the thin layer of black ice sheeting the pavement.
And felt utterly lost.
I’d just seen the impossible. Confirming my fear that I might truly be stuck in an illusion I’d never escaped.
But other details, like the imperfect doughnut, the half-warm coffee (with heavy cream, no sugar, just the way my sister liked it), the sheet of ice on the pavement, all hinted at a cohesive reality.
This was what I’d been doing for months now, constantly assessing everything around me, trying to ferret out the Ultimate Truth.
Had Barrons really shouted me out of my illusion that night in Barrons Books & Baubles when (I believed) I’d seen through the projection of Isla to the reality that Rowena, possessed by the Sinsar Dubh, was trying to trick me into giving her/the Book my amulet by masquerading as my biological mom? Perhaps the illusion the Book had woven for me that night had never stopped.