A growl rises in my chest, bloodlust bursting in my veins.
“She can’t promise that, Leander. Not yet,” Taylor says softly. “But that’s what the talks are for. It gives us a chance.”
A guttural shriek tears across the wide plains.
“Decide quickly,” the male Vundi says. “There’s more in the storm than simply dust.”
“Do you agree, winter king?” Para presses.
Taylor leans against me, a silent promise that she isn’t going anywhere. “Please, Leander.”
I bend to the will of my mate, because she is the only reason my heart beats and my breath stirs. “I agree.” The sizzle of magic whips through the air, and the deal is struck.
“Follow me.” Para turns and heads into the low brush as her companion eyes us.
“You will return my mate’s blade.” I glare at him.
He doesn’t respond, but motions for us to follow Para, the sword still in his grasp. I’ll retrieve it later and may use it on him for good measure.
Gareth shoots me a look. “I don’t trust her.”
“Neither do I.” I lift Taylor onto Kyrin and climb up behind her. “But we need to beat this storm. I’ve heard enough tales of what lurks in the swirling dust to know we need shelter. We must follow, but keep your wits sharp and your magic ready.”
“Always.” He settles behind Beth, and we follow Para into the red wastes as the storm bears down, promising ruin.
“Are you certain the Vundi didn’t harm you?” Leander asks for what seems like the dozenth time.
“I’m fine. Really.” I squeeze his hand. “It was weird. One minute I was awake and then, bam, snooze-city. That guy is like a creepy-eyed sandman, or maybe the Lunesta-Man. He could make a killing back home.”
“I would never allow him to kill you or anyone you cared about.” His arm tightens around my waist.
“No, I mean he’d make a lot of money. Humans have a ton of anxiety, so they sometimes need help falling asleep.”
“You don’t seem to have trouble.” He guides Kyrin through the brush and gently sloping red dirt. Para walks ahead of us, her back straight as she navigates the terrain like she was born to it.
I shrug. “I used to toss and turn, but now … Now that I’ve been here, it’s been easier.”
“You mean now that you’ve been sleeping with me.” I don’t miss the cockiness in his voice.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” But yes, I think it’s him. Before, I’d run through shadows from my past, every worry I had, even some that verged on imaginary, before I could fall asleep. Now, in his arms, I seem to drift away so peacefully that the transition is nothing more than a ripple across clear water.
I peer into the distance as the red storm grows taller by the second. We’ve been traveling away from the road and perpendicular to the storm for half an hour. Now I can hear the rumble of the wind, the rush of dirt brushing against dirt, and every now and then, a peculiar screech. Para doesn’t seem to notice it as she forges ahead of us. But Kyrin tenses beneath me and Sabre lets out a huff.
I finally get up the nerve to ask, “What is that sound?”
“Wind wights.” Beth’s eyes are wide. “I thought they were a myth, just a stupid story told to us changelings to keep us in line, but—” Another howl cuts through the air, louder now.
“Wights?” I stare as the heightening maelstrom turns the sun a vicious shade of crimson.
Beth’s creeped-out stare intensifies. “Spirits so malevolent they couldn’t pass to the Ancestors and refused to enter the Spires. They say they’re huge monsters formed from the blood and bones of ancient warriors.”
“A great war was fought on the Red Plains almost three thousand years ago,” Leander says. “Some of the greatest warriors of fae legend perished here, millions of dead on either side.”
“Why?” I can’t imagine the enormity of a battle like that. “What were they fighting over?”
“All of Arin.” Leander says it so matter-of-factly, as if world domination is as sensible as the sun rising in the morning. “It was a clash of seelie and unseelie fae. They say the plains used to be a beautiful land of farms and plentiful crops. But that battle created such evil that the ground turned to sand, forever stained crimson from the blood of the children of this world, the rivers dried up, and the wights rose from the mounds of the dead, their dark magic feeding from the strife.”
“That’s kind of intense.” I hug myself and try not to think of the sheer horror of war, the propensity for evil that exists in the hearts of all creatures—human, fae, everyone.
More piercing cries sound, and Beth leans forward in her saddle. “Hey, Para lady, how much longer? Because I really don’t want to feel my bones being crunched in a wind wight’s maw.”
Para shoots a glance over her shoulder but continues walking. I can’t see a path. The entire landscape looks exactly the same, as if someone took a stamp and pressed it all over the world until it meets the horizon.
“Soon. I’ll just take that to mean soon.” Beth sits back, and Gareth rests his arm around her waist. Comfortable. They look used to each other. Close, even. I can’t help my smile.
“What?” she asks.
A cacophony of screeches burst from the storm to our right, and I cover my ears out of sheer reflex.
“Don’t worry, little one. I won’t let anything harm you.” Leander’s voice rumbles through me, stroking my fears until they relent.
Para takes a sharp right, and the horses follow, though their movements are getting a bit jerky, the shrieks eating away at their confidence. I don’t blame them. The storm is a red wall rushing toward us, and if I stare hard enough, I could swear I see enormous skeletal fingers emerging from the redness every so often, like giants running full speed at us.
“God,” I breathe out hard at the sight.
“Safe, little one. Always safe with me.” Leander has one hand on the haft of his blade.
Para seems unhurried, and her companion at our back doesn’t rush us, just follows along. She walks a little while longer, then stops and steps to the side, motioning us onward.
“What is this?” Gareth stares at the landscape, which is exactly the same as the one behind us.
“Safety.” Para crosses her arms over her chest. “Hurry, before the storm hits.”
“Hurry into what?” Gareth sputters. “There’s nothing here. No shelter! We’ll be set upon by the wights and ripped to shreds.”
Para hitches a dark eyebrow. “You can either wait here and perish or follow my instructions and live.” She gestures for Gareth to continue onward. “I suggest you save yourselves. The wights sound particularly hungry, especially now that they’ve scented royal blood.” She looks to Leander. “It’s their favorite.”
Gareth glowers. “If this is a trick—”
“Suit yourselves.” Para shrugs and marches forward into the red waste. And then she … disappears.
I lean forward, my eyes likely popping out of my head. “What the hell?”
Beth yelps as if she’s been struck and stares at the spot where Para vanished. “She’s tricked us!”
“Not a trick.” Her companion strides past, my sword strapped to his side, and disappears right in front of us. The more I stare at the spot, the more something strikes me as off. This piece of land doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the landscape, as if the stamp on this area had a crack running through it.
“Hang on.” I tap Leander’s hand. “Let me down. I want to see something.”
He jumps down, his eyes wary, and then helps me to my feet. “Stay close.”
“I think ...” I sidestep and turn. “Wow.”
Leander has already drawn his sword as he hews close to me. “What is it?”
The shrieks are almost constant, and the low hum of the wind has grown to just under a din.
“An optical illusion.” I point. “Look.”
Para and her companion stand just inside a tall, rectangular doorway. “It’s masked to mimic the landscape, painted too. Look at it from any other angle, and it seems like just more of the same.” I take one step farther to the right, and the doorway disappears. “That’s kind of genius.”
“What magic is this?” Gareth frowns.
“Not magic. Perspective.” I reach out and touch the layered edge of the doorway, each inset like a piece of the horizon. “Art. No one would be able to find it if they didn’t already know where it was.”
“If you’re done, we’d like to get inside.” Para points to the roiling wall of crimson.
“Watch your tone when you speak to my queen.” Leander’s growl rivals the fury of the storm.
“It’s okay.” I turn and look up at him, his dark eyes filled with nothing but me, my reflection. Something inside my stomach flips. “We should go.”
He takes my arms and pulls me away from the door. “If anything happens, always run to me. I will keep you safe. We can’t trust the Vundi, especially not now. But they won’t take you. I will always protect you.”
“I know.” I hold his gaze, though worry twists in my gut. If it’s true that there’s a high bounty on me, how could Para resist turning me in? Especially if she’s telling the truth about her people going hungry.
A particularly sharp roar sends ice cascading down my spine, and Kyrin whinnies.
“In.” Leander motions for Gareth to ride forward.
Gareth can’t see the door, but he doesn’t question Leander. He and Beth disappear as Leander grabs Kyrin’s reins and we all walk into the red stone world of the Vundi.
The wind howls as the storm hits, bits of red dirt filtering down through the layers of rock and silting the floor as we walk deeper into the heart of Arin.