Cameron grabs at my hand, but she slips from my grasp, disappearing into what must be mist. A nymph. I can’t see anything but shadows and gloomy yellow light, each one like a distant, hazy sun. Before I can fall into such oblivion, I reach out, grabbing for anything. My cut hand closes on a cold, limp leg, stopping me with a bone-rattling jolt. “Cal!” I shout, but the howl swallows up my voice.
Grunting, I pull myself up the leg. It must belong to a corpse, because it isn’t moving. Cold fear tears at my mind, reaching with icy, sharp fingers. I almost let go, not wanting to see the face that belongs to this body. It could be anyone. It could be everyone.
It’s wrong to feel relieved, but I do. I don’t recognize the man tangled in the bars of his cell, one leg wrapped, the other still dangling. He’s certainly a prisoner, but I don’t know him, and I won’t mourn him. My back feels nearly split open by scars and burns, and for a second, I allow myself to lean back against the bars. The gravity in this block has shifted. Gareth is here, which means Kilorn, Shade, and Farley are not far behind. They’re supposed to be on the other side of the prison, emptying the far cell blocks—something has forced them in. Or trapped them entirely.
Before I can call out, I’m falling again, as the block seems to spin. But it’s not the cells that are moving. It’s gravity itself. “Gareth, stop!” I shout into the void. No one answers. At least, no one I want to hear.
Little lightning girl.
Her voice almost splits my skull in two.
This time, I wish for the sounder device. I wish for something to kill me, to give me the safety of death. I am still falling. Perhaps that will do it. Maybe I’ll die before she wriggles into my brain, and turns me loose on everything and everyone I care about. But I feel the tendrils in my mind, already taking hold. My fingers twitch at her command, and sparks jump between them. No. Please no.
I hit the other side of the block hard, probably breaking my arm, but I feel no pain. She takes it away.
With one last ragged scream, I do what I must, and use the last drops of my own free will to slip between the twisted bars beneath me, into the prison of Silent Stone. It shatters my ability—and hers. The sparks die, her control breaks, and blinding pain sears through my left arm and up into my shoulder. I laugh through my tears. How fitting. She built this prison to hurt me and the other newbloods. Now, it’s the only thing stopping her from doing just that.
Now, it is my last sanctuary.
From my place on the back wall of the cell—I guess it’s the floor now—I watch the mist dance. The gunfire slows, either because bullets are running low or it’s impossible to aim in such terrible visibility. A curling snake of flame blazes by, and I expect to see Cal follow, but his shape never appears. I call for him anyway. “Cal!” But my voice is weak. The Stone that saved me is taking hold. It presses like a weight against my neck.
She doesn’t take long to find me. Her boots edge the bars of my cage, and for a second, I think I must be hallucinating. This is not the glittering, glorious queen I remember. Gone are her dresses and jewels, replaced by a neat, navy-blue uniform with white detailing. Even her hair, usually perfectly curled and braided, has been slicked back into a simple bun. When I see gray at her temples, I laugh again.
“The first time we met, you were in a cell just like this,” she muses, stooping so she can see me better. “Bars did not stop me then, and they will not stop me now.”
“Come in, then,” I tell her, spitting blood. Definitely missing a tooth.
“Still the same girl you were. I thought the world would change you, but instead”—she tips her head, smiling like a cat—“you changed a little bit of the world. If you give me your hand, you can change even more.”
I can barely breathe through my laughter. “How stupid do you think I am?” Keep her talking. Keep her distracted. Someone will see her soon, someone must.
“Have it your way then,” she sighs, standing. She gestures to someone I can’t see. Guards, I realize, with a hollow, sinking resignation. Her hand reappears with a pistol, her finger already on the trigger. “I would have liked to be in your head once again. You have such lovely delusions.”
A small victory, I think, shutting my eyes. She will never have the lightning, and she will never have me. A victory indeed.
Again, I feel myself falling.
But instead of the bullet, the bars smack against my face. I open my eyes in time to see Elara sailing away from me, the gun spilling from her hand, a look of terrible anger twisting her beautiful face. Her guards scatter with her, disappearing into the yellowed clouds. And someone grabs my good arm, pulling me to him.
“C’mon, Mare, I can’t get you through on my own,” Shade says, trying to ease me through the bars. Breathless, I squeeze, pulling as much of myself as I can through. I guess it’s enough, because suddenly the world shrinks, the mist disappears, and I open my eyes to see blinding, white tile.
I almost collapse with joy. When I see Sara sprinting toward me, her hands outstretched, with Kilorn and Julian on her heels, I really do. Someone else catches me, someone warm. He turns me on my side and I hiss when my arm catches a bit of the pressure.
“Arm first, then burns, then scars,” Cal says, all business. I can’t help but moan when Sara touches me, and a blissful numbing spreads through my arm. Something cool hits my back, healing the burns, which were certainly infected. But before the healing can spread to my ugly, gnarled scars, I’m pulled to my feet and out of Sara’s control.
The door at the end of the corridor explodes outward, broken apart by rapidly growing twists of tree trunk. The mist follows, spinning toward us at great speed. The shadows come last. I know who they belong to.
Cal throws a blast of fire at the oncoming branches, burning them back, but the charred embers simply join the roaring whirlwind. “Cameron?” I yell, craning my head to look for the one person who can stop Elara. But she’s nowhere to be found.
“She’s already out, now go,” Kilorn yells at me, pushing me ahead.
I know I’m what Elara wants. Not only for my ability but for my face. If she can control me, she can use me as a mouthpiece again, to lie to the country, to do as she says. That’s why I run faster than the others. I have always been the fast one. When I look back over my shoulder, I’m yards ahead, and what I see chills me.
Cal has to forcibly pull Julian along, not because he’s weak, but because he keeps trying to stop. He wants to face her. He wants to pit his voice against her mind, against her whispers. To avenge a dead sister, a wounded love, a broken and torn-apart pride. But Cal won’t lose the last piece of family he has left, and all but drags Julian away. Sara keeps close to Julian’s side, one hand in his, unable to scream in fear.
Then I turn the corner. And I hit something. No, someone.
Another woman, another person I never wanted to see again.
Ara, the Panther, the head of House Iral, glares at me with eyes black as coal. Her fingers are still tinged gray-blue by Silent Stone and her clothes are tattered rags. But her strength is already returning, evidenced by the pure steel in her gaze. No way around but through. I raise my lightning to kill her, another one who knew I was different all along.
She reacts before I can, grabbing my shoulders with agility no human should possess. But instead of breaking my neck or slitting my throat, she tosses me sideways, and something ruffles my hair. A curved, spinning blade, sharp as a razor, big as a dinner plate, flies past my face, centimeters from my nose. I hit the ground, gasping in shock, clutching at the head I almost lost. And above me, Ara Iral stands her ground, dodging every blade that sails over us. They’re coming from the opposite end of the hall, where another person from the past stands, forming metal disks from the plates of his familiar scale armor.
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