“You—” He wrestles me to the ground, jams his knee into my back, but my attention is on Laurel’s moaning.
She’s stirring, and I’m sure she’s been hurt, though I can’t see how bad.
The man twists my arms behind my back. I feel a pinch of what should be pain. My sensations are dulled in this form— which means I have an advantage. I suck in a breath and ram my head back as hard as I can. The man’s face cracks against my skull.
He jerks back, screaming.
I flip over and scramble to my feet— right into the man I’d kicked in the groin.
His furious eyes lock on me. The fadehound paces behind him, once again blocking my path to Laurel.
“Who are you?” the man yells over his friend’s shouts of pain.
His sneer is meant to be menacing, but I’m just relieved to learn he wasn’t sent to derail my mission, that this isn’t personal. That he appears to be completely human.
I lunge into his stomach.
The man slams into the fadehound, and it grunts out a cloud of toxic breath.
I stagger back as the breath fogs around the man’s head. The man sags to the ground, unconscious.
The facehoud’s face flicks back up to me. It coils to lunge.
I drop to my stomach just as the fadehound leaps, grabbing a piece of the broken chair. It tries to turn in the air but sails past me, crashes into the man behind me. I spin, slam the wood into the fadehound’s head so hard it staggers sideways, hits the floor.
I drop the chair leg, dart to Laurel, haul her into my arms and stand. I sway but get my bearings and run for the door. I shift Laurel’s weight, yank the door open… and stumble to a stop.
On the front lawn wait a half-dozen veil-wraiths, spirits so dark they never even got a chance at Aeden — the only creatures who can actually cause a wisp pain.
They can’t harm Laurel, no spirits can. Without this borrowed form, I’d simply pass right through her. But as I stare out across the twelve red eyes watching me, trails of dark essence undulating around them like drifting black cloaks, I realize they’re here for me. Veil-wraiths feed on wisps’ essences, absorb them to strengthen their own. They’re the reason most wisps hide Earthside until our shot at Aeden, rather than drifting the Veil.
One wraith slides forward and the others wing out behind her, forming a V on the lawn. “Drop the human, wisp.” The voice is high-pitched, female, rasping. Her black, smoky form shifts into a female shape, lithe, shadow-hair dancing in an invisible breeze. Red eyes pulse from the shadows where her face should be.
All six wraiths hiss in unison like a mob of snakes, shaping words I don’t recognize. Behind me, the fadehound howls. I hear the men inside the house shriek in pain, two thumps, then silence.
Confusion startles a question from me. “Who were those men?”
“Fae-stealers. Smugglers,” the front wraith hisses. “An inconvenience.”
So Laurel is fae, then. A type that looks mostly human— selk-blood, maybe? I never got a chance to look closely, and I can’t risk taking my eyes off the wraiths now to check. The fadehound returns to the doorway behind me and paces. I clutch Laurel tighter. “What do you want from me?”
I can hear the smile in the wraith’s voice as she responds. “We want your soul.”
Oh, only that, then. Laurel stirs against my chest and I steady her, whisper, “It’s okay, I’ve got you.” I still don’t know what they’ve done to her, why she hasn’t woken up yet, but I can feel her breath against my arm, her body warm against my chest— she’s alive, and I plan to keep her that way.
This is too coincidental, Laurel taken right in front of me, the men, the fadehound, the waiting wraiths, and I still don’t know how Laurel is connected to the locket I was sent to retrieve. I narrow a glare at the floating red eyes. “Why me? Why now?”
The shadowed head tips to the side, red eyes peering at me. “Did you expect to earn Aeden so easily?” The wraiths behind her pulse and swirl into female shapes, too, strands of hair flapping in unison. The lead wraith’s smoky hands sweep wide, presenting her sisters. “We are your trial. If you make it past us to the street, we let you both go. If you fail, we feed.” Grey smoke lips appear on all six faces, curve into unified smiles. All twelve red eyes pulse. Their rasping voices speak in unison. “We do not intend to let you pass.”
I sweep my gaze across the front lawn. The motorcycle is at the end of the block. If I drop Laurel and dart down the row of houses, I might take the wraiths by surprise, outrun them long enough to make it to the street. But if I drop Laurel, I leave her at their mercy. They can’t hurt her, but the fadehound can. And if I drop Laurel, I lose my path to the locket, the whole reason I’m here.
I lock my gaze onto the lead wraith’s glaring red eyes, clutch Laurel tight, and step out onto the stoop. “Bring it on.”
The wraiths swarm, latch their lips to me like suckling leeches, every surface they can find, pulling life from my veins in an all-consuming fire.
Pain screams through my nerves, my vision blurs. I want to give in right then, but a memory of Cara flashes in. “Catch me!” Pink-striped leggings, bare feet racing through our front yard, ponytail flying, giggling as she spins back to make sure I’m chasing her. The loss of her slices through me again, followed by a hot rush of determination.
Aeden is my one shot to end the wandering, but more than that, it’s my shot to see Cara again, to tell her I love her— to tell her how sorry I am. I force my legs to stay upright, keep moving. Flames sear my veins but I take step after shaking step, focusing on the edge of the street, the end of the yard, my chance at relief, at seeing Cara, at freedom.
Halfway across the lawn, my arms give out. Laurel tumbles from my grasp and I trip, topple onto her. The wraiths release for one sweet moment as I fall, then dart in at me like bats, latch with vampire teeth to whatever part of me they can reach, suck life again. Pain rips through me anew. I arc backward. A rasping scream tears from my chest.
I force a breath through the pain, push up on shaking arms. I’m so near the street— a few feet, maybe. I stagger to my knees, crawl around behind Laurel, tuck my arms under hers, dig my heels into the ground, shove us backward toward the curb.
A dark shape rushes at me from one side— the fadehound, waiting for his chance, for me to fail. I roll my body toward Laurel’s, try to cover her. The wraiths flutter, shriek, drink harder.
My vision sways, blackens, returns in a blur. I haul Laurel another foot or so, then fall to the grass with her. The curb is inches from my hand, almost within reach. I push up on my side. My elbow buckles and I fall.
I take another breath, and Cara’s smile flickers through my mind— her eyes full of life, the way they were before. Do I even deserve a final home, an Aeden, a chance to make amends? Maybe this was always the end I deserved, a second death of pain, an eternity of wandering lost. But Laurel moans, and I remember this isn’t just about me. If I leave her here, my trial will be over, and whatever rules hold the fadehound back from feeding on her will be void.
A few more inches, I tell myself. Just to the street. Once I’m there, I can let go— let the pain take me, let the Archneph decide my fate. But if I make it to the street, the wraiths’ rules state Laurel can go free. At least then I won’t have an extra death on my conscience. Can I even trust them to uphold their agreement? I suppose I don’t have any other choice.
I summon the last bit of my strength, wrap an arm around Laurel’s waist, and heave us forward. We roll over the curb, crash hard onto the rough street.
The wraiths vanish.
I suck quivering breaths as the flames recede from my veins. Every part of me aches. My whole body trembles. I feel like I could sleep a year and still not regain my strength. But this borrowed body is still alive. We’re alive.
The fadehound paces the edge of the yard, but it seems he can go no further.
I roll to my side, slide my arm from Laurel’s waist. “Laurel?”
She doesn’t stir. She’s breathing, but it’s shallow. I force myself up onto shaking arms, brush the hair from her face. No visible injuries to her head or face, nothing on her arms or torso. I scan over her legs. Her jeans are torn at one ankle, a seep of blood staining the hem in the shape of a bite.
She’s been unconscious since she arrived at the house, and now I know why— the fadehound had already bitten her. Without an antidote, that means death within hours, even for a fae. I’ll never find an antidote in time, even if I knew where to go. I was too late before I even arrived here— I failed the moment she was taken on the street.
A dark form materializes on the pavement in front of me. I don’t bother to look up. I’ve already failed, what does it matter?
The voice sends ice down my spine, a dagger through my heart. I peel my eyes up. “Cara?”
I knew it wasn’t her before I looked, but it hurts worse than I imagined, this poor imitation of her. The smile is there, the rosy cheeks, the glossy brown hair, even the purple ribbon, tied now into a perfect bow. But the eyes are wrong— glinting with malice. The false smile on the forged face doesn’t even touch them.
I know of this creature, the Veil-Dearg, the one who commands the wraiths. Its venom is ten times as powerful as a fadehound, but that’s not what makes it so dangerous. It is skilled at imitation, at false realities— it lures pureblood fae children to the Veil, traps them, then feeds on their powers. It takes innocent life on purpose. It is everything I hate.
I slide my hand into my pocket, finger the knife. Veil-Deargs are vulnerable outside the Veil, but they’re fast. The odds of taking this one down without getting bitten are slim, and if it bites me I’ll be dead again in moments, my one shot at Aeden wasted.
The false Cara stretches out both arms in front of her, opens her palms one at a time. In one hand, she holds a bronze locket, heart-shaped and engraved with symbols, just as the Archneph showed me. In the other, a vial of silvery liquid. “Choose, Deo.”
I hate that it sounds like Cara’s voice, that it calls me the pet name Cara called me, that it’s stolen my sister’s form.
She tilts her head, smiles. “Save Laurel”—she lifts the hand with the vial— “or take your ticket to Aeden.” She dangles the locket by its golden chain. “You can only have one.”
I glance at Laurel, pale and still beside me. This is my fight, not hers. Another life on my conscience. For ten whole years of wandering, I thought of nothing besides my guilt, how I would give anything to undo Cara’s death. I can’t undo it— but I can prevent this. I can save Laurel and stop this Veil-Dearg from getting what she wants, from ever getting anything again, even if it costs me Aeden. Even if it means I never see Cara again, never make amends, never find my home.
I may wander forever, but this time, I can do something right as I die.
I stagger to my feet, stand tall on my shaking legs. “I’ll meet you in the Void.” I yank the knife from my pocket, lunge forward, and drive the blade into the Veil-Dearg’s chest.
She shrieks and flails. The locket and vial go flying.
I dive for the vial. I don’t catch it, but my hand deflects it so it bounces on the pavement rather than shattering. I grab it, pull the stopper with my teeth, and dump the liquid over Laurel’s ankle.
The Veil-Dearg flings herself onto my back, drives her fangs into my neck. I thrash, toss her off. She thunks to the pavement, twitches, falls still. The punctures on my neck flare to life like lit matches against my skin.
Laurel stirs, sits up. Blinks at me, gasps. From her expression, I must look terrible.
Fire rushes through my throat, up the back of my neck.
Laurel crawls toward me, grabs something from the road. “My locket. Quick, take it!” She shoves it into my hand.
The Veil-Dearg venom flashes through my nerves like lightning. My vision explodes with pain. My brain catches fire. Somewhere in the distance, I hear myself scream— but I’m already falling into blackness.