Explosions rocked the room like a ship on a tormented sea. Shouts of fear echoed from the hallway as flecks of dust and debris rained down
from the ceiling.
“Come on,” Kane said. “Stay close to me.”
I followed him out into the dim hallway, air shallow in my lungs. Onyx guards were waiting outside my door for their king, and they pulled us through the wreckage.
I could hardly breathe, let alone move. I needed to get to my family. “We have to—”
“I know,” he shouted over the panicked cries surrounding us. “They’re around this corner.”
Flickering lights swung with the blasts, casting grotesque shadows on the hall. I could only catch glimpses of servants and nobles alike scrambling from room to room. The calming smell of coconut and ocean salt was at odds with the fear coursing through my veins.
This never should have happened here.
A belated horror hit me, tearing my hand from Kane’s and up to my mouth. The guards behind us stopped abruptly, slamming into one another.
“Are you hurt?” Kane took my face in his hands, searching for the source of my gasp.
“I did this,” I said, unable to move. “What are you talking about?”
“I told Halden that your banquet was with King Eryx. That you were hoping to make an alliance.”
I had essentially condemned all these people to death. The enormity of
Kane shook his head.
“Listen to me. You are not at fault. The fault is of the men behind the cannons. We need to keep moving.”
I knew he was right. We had to find my family. But the guilt was all-consuming. As I looked at the terrified faces, it sunk deeper into my bones. The ashy scent of smoke wafted toward us. Out through the windows, the spiky trees were lit with flames. A piercing scream beside me nearly popped my eardrum.
“We have to help these people,” I said, as we ran through the shaking corridor.
“How does Amber have such manpower? To light the whole castle on fire? It’s not possible.”
“They don’t. Garnet does.” “Can we stop the cannons?”
Kane looked like murder. “It’s not the cannons I’m worried about. It’s the salamanders.”
I broke our stride and redirected to the nearest window, looking for the first time at what was lighting the forest ablaze. Massive, fanged lizards crawled across the beach. With their long necks they looked like snakes, but hefty legs moved them forward like lizards, each with claws that could rip a person to shreds like wet paper. Manned by Garnet and Amber soldiers alike, they made their way toward the castle. With each exhale, a rope of fire sprayed the ground in front of them, charring everything in its path.
Unfaltering Peridot soldiers were stationed around the perimeter, but their spears were no match for the slithering, flame-throwing creatures. More hot, dancing fireballs flew past the Peridot men and toward the castle exterior.
That’s what was shaking the castle—the blasts from the salamanders. We were being trapped and roasted. Burned alive.
“Bleeding Stones,” I whispered. Kane grabbed my hand and pulled me onward.
“Arwen, come on.”
We ran as fast as we could toward the other rooms. We got to Ryder’s first. Kane rapped on the door.
“Open up, it’s us!”
When we didn’t hear anything, alarm flooded my senses. “Open it. Now!” I urged.
Kane slammed his body into the wooden door with more strength than I had ever seen someone exert. Fae strength. The door popped clean off its hinges and fell flat on the floor with a thud.
Inside, my mother and Ryder were huddled up behind the armoire.
“Thank the Stones,” I said, rushing over. “Why didn’t you answer?” When I got a good look at my mother’s tear-streaked face, panic expanded in my chest. “What’s wrong?”
“Leigh isn’t in her room,” she said. I turned to Ryder.
“We’ll find her, but she’s not on this floor.” He seemed calm, but I knew my brother. His too-wide eyes gave away his dread.
Kane put his hand on my shoulder and gave a slight squeeze. “We need to get everyone to the throne room. It’s where you will all be safest. We will not leave here without the little one,” He looked at my mother. “I swear it.”
We made our way there at a breakneck speed. I was amazed at how well Mother could move. After all these years, there had been a cure for her.
The throne room was heavily guarded by Peridot soldiers. As soon as we approached, they opened the doors for Kane. Inside we found King Eryx, Princess Amelia, and all the other dignitaries, Peridot and Onyx alike. Commanders, generals, and lieutenants moved around the room in a frenzied dance, barking orders at soldiers and guards. Everyone was shouting over one another. My head was swimming.
Where in the Stones was Leigh?
Mari was sitting in a corner, knees up against her chest, while Griffin talked to a Peridot commander a few feet away.
I ran to her and dropped down to the floor.
“Oh, Holy Stones, you’re all right!” She wrapped me in her arms. I
inhaled the cinnamon scent of her and tried not to cry. If I started now, I’d never be able to stop.
Next to Griffin stood a broad shape I recognized instantly—Barney, uniform still a bit tight, a pillar of stillness. I nodded and he returned the gesture back to me, worry shadowing his expression.
I just needed a sword, and I could go track my sister down. A slight longsword glinted off the makeshift table that had clearly been shuffled in here minutes ago, and piled high with maps and lanterns and weaponry.
Before I could stand and make my way over to it, King Eryx’s voice boomed through the room to Kane. “It is as we feared. Garnet and Amber have joined Lazarus. They will take the kingdom before daybreak.”
I had seen the attack with my own eyes mere moments ago. And still, genuine fear—pure and all consuming—clouded my vision.
His wrinkled general was next to speak. “The only way out is the caves below. That’s how we can get to the beach.” He turned to Kane and his Onyx men. “The fortress at Siren’s Cove is built atop an elaborate expanse of caves that border the bay. Our ships are tethered where the stone cliffs meet the sand, and the caves are the fastest way out.”
“Way out? We aren’t going to stay and fight?” Princess Amelia asked.
King Eryx shot her a brutal glare. “We do not have the blade. It is not worth fighting Lazarus without it. We cannot win.”
“We can’t make for the beach, they’re stationed there,” said a lanky Peridot soldier.
“Well, that’s where our ships are. We’ll never get everyone out via horse or on foot. The palms that surround the castle are on fire,” said the general.
“How did they get through the bay?” Amelia raged at them. “Where were our guards?”
“Your highness,” the lanky man tried, “They sunk each of our guard ships. Lit all the watchtowers aflame. It was more firepower than we ever could have anticipated.”
It was Fae lighte—that was how. And Amelia knew it.
Even if Peridot had had months to prepare, rather than minutes, they were no match for Garnet, Amber, and Lazarus.
Amelia glared at Eryx with disdain. “These are our people, father. Our sole purpose on this continent is to keep them safe.”
Eryx only turned to Kane. “Do whatever you need to do, but Amelia and I will be on our ship within the next hour. I won’t stay to see my only remaining family torched alive.”
“Silence, Amelia!” He roared, spittle flying from his reddened face. “It is not up for discussion any longer.”
I couldn’t listen to this a minute more; I needed to find Leigh. I stood, heart in my throat, ignoring Mari’s objections.
Kane’s incensed silver eyes met mine immediately.
“Griffin,” Kane interjected, before Amelia could protest further. “Go with Eryx, Amelia, and their men. Take everyone you can with you. Get them to the ships. I’ll find Leigh and meet you there.”
“You are my king. I am not leaving you behind.” Griffin’s light green eyes hardened. For the briefest moment, they dipped down to Mari, before shooting back to Kane.
“You will do as I say,” Kane insisted before turning to the rest of his guards in the throne room. “You all will. Nobody is to come with me. Now go.”
“Well, I’m coming with you,” I said, following him out and grabbing the longsword from the table beside me.
He barked out a dark laugh. “Absolutely not.”
“You’ll never find her without me. I know her better than anyone.”
My mother held tightly to Ryder, who let the debate unfold in silence.
Kane considered me, his eyes burning like the fires that surrounded us. “No, Arwen. If something were to happen to you…”
“You won’t let it.” I looked down at the sword in my hand. “And neither will I.”
Without giving him a moment to argue I pulled my mother, Ryder, and Mari into quick embraces. “Stick with Griffin. Get to the ships. We’ll be right behind you.” And then I pushed my way out of the throne room, Kane following closely.
“Where should we start?” Kane asked, dodging a toppled statue.
I couldn’t let myself believe that someone had taken her, or worse. I pushed the thought from my mind. “If she fled, she would have gone high up. She’s a sneaky climber.”
We hurried up a thin spiral staircase toward the thatched roof of the fortress.
“Leigh!” I called out. Kane echoed my cries. We looked through the floors, each room, each nook. Long minutes passed with no sign of her. There was nothing but destruction and despair and death.
The castle had started to fill with smoke. As we dug through a slowly crumbling parlor room, I coughed and rubbed at my eyes.
I felt Kane watching me. “Don’t even say it.”
“You should get to the ships. I’ll take you there and double back for her.” “No—”
A charred plank of wood dislodged above us and fell with shocking speed. I jumped out of the way and grasped at my heart, willing air into my lungs, then coughing hard. Not air then, but smoke.
“Arwen!” he roared. “You can’t save her or anyone else if you are dead.”
It’s all he had asked me to do from day one. I closed my eyes and tried not to let my face crumple. I could not break down right now. I just wanted to hold her in my arms and know she was all right. Please, I begged the Stones. Please, not Leigh.
“Let’s just try the stables. She loves animals. Maybe she tried to escape on horseback?” I said.
“No,” he growled. “You cannot leave the castle walls. It’s swarming with soldiers and salamanders out there.”
“I’m going whether you come with me or not,” I snapped. “I think I’m a lot safer with a Fae such as you than alone. Don’t you think?”
He ran a beleaguered hand through his hair. Ash had coated both our heads, and it rained down onto the floor beneath us. He must have agreed with me, because he gave one curt nod, took my hand, and we ran toward the back of the castle.
The balmy night was filled with a cacophony of anguish and damage. Amber, Peridot, Onyx, and Garnet soldiers crowded the courtyard like ants on spilled honey. We ran for the hills that marked the stables, and I tried not to think of all the other people who were looking for—and losing—their families too. And how it was my fault.
Once the structure was in view, I sprinted.
“Arwen!” Kane’s voice rang out through the night air, but I moved as fast as my feet would carry me. The area was clear of soldiers, of people in general. It was too quiet.
I looked in each stall, under every gate. The stables were empty.
“Where are all the horses?” I breathed. Kane caught up to me, catching his breath, and looked around.
“Perhaps the stable hand freed them when he saw the fire.” “No, I did,” came a small voice from the corner.
The relief was so intense it nearly knocked the wind out of me. I choked back a sob. Leigh popped her head up over a haystack and ran into my arms, shaking with emotion. I tried to hold mine together for her, but blubbering tears slipped down either side of my face.
“What were you doing out here?”
She looked up at me sheepishly. I wiped the tears from my face and stroked her honey hair back.
“I couldn’t sleep. I was looking for the dragon.”
The sound of footsteps sent shivers up my spine and across my neck.
“Come,” I whispered, pulling Leigh behind a wooden stall. Kane slipped behind the one across from us.
A lone soldier in Amber armor strolled through the path between the stalls. I squeezed my eyes shut and held Leigh to my chest, quieting the breath in my lungs.
“Halden!” Leigh gasped, dashing from my arms and throwing herself at him.