Chapter One

 

SO IT turns out the elven council chamber stank of burned incense and sweat.

The first smell came from the ceremonial incense they burned when giving thanks to their god, Koran. The second was from the standing-room-only crowd that had assembled to watch Kor and Ater get sentenced.

Why am I not surprised that elves can be rubberneckers?

Kor and Ater were shackled with enchanted silver that could have contained a wild elephant if necessary. Using it on two unarmed men was just rude and tacky, and we all know how little patience I have for tacky. They knelt on a raised dais, waiting for Nystel to make her judgment.

Again, the whole scene was crap. Nystel had made her judgment weeks ago when Ater came to tell Kor of the death of Pullus, Kor’s brother. Just as she had, long before, condemned Ater and the other dark elves to death simply for not following the edicts of Koran. Kor was being punished for helping Ater escape, a crime that, it seems, came with a death sentence as well.

I am the reason they are here, because they came to Nystel and offered up their surrender in return for her help against Oberon and his attempted attack on Olim’s ice castle. Olim, by the way, happens to be a witch from a pretty popular book series featuring a talking lion. Why that is, we don’t know yet, but I just wanted to throw that out for those who are new here.

So here were two elves, about to be killed because they chose to be different than everyone else. I’m curious, how okay do you think I am with that?

Nystel opened her mouth and proclaimed in Elven, “Les accusés ont été informés de leurs crimes.”

Don’t speak Elvish? Let me translate for you.

Nystel opened her mouth and proclaimed, “The accused have been informed of their crimes.” Neither Ater nor Kor looked up; they were long resigned to their fate. “I have prayed long about this and asked Koran for his judgment.” The room grew quiet as the ghouls—I mean, the faithful—waited for her to continue. “For turning away from the Light and crimes against Koran’s Faithful, you are both sentenced to—” Dramatic pause for effect. “—death.”

And words that sounded a lot like “Watermelon!” and “Cantaloupe!” arose from the assembled people.

Nystel raised one hand to get their attention. “Because Koran is a merciful God, I will ask if there is anyone present who will speak for the accused, who will attempt to defend the actions of the condemned.”

Surprise, surprise, no one raised a hand. Go figure.

“I will,” a voice called out from the far rear corner of the room. The people standing there moved aside, shocked because they thought no one was behind them. Funny thing is, they had been right; I wasn’t here a few seconds ago, but now I am.

A figure dressed in a black cloak and hood stepped out from the crowd and repeated, “I will defend them.”

If Nystel’s eyebrows had climbed any higher, they’d have taken off from her head and started flapping around. “Silence!” she commanded the elves who were now openly asking each who the hell that was. “And who are you?”

The hood slid back and revealed… me.

Oh yeah, I just totally Return of the Jedi’d this bitch.

“I am Kane, consort to the Throne of Arcadia and Guardian of the World Seed,” I said, encouraging the seed to fade into visibility. It glowed with a light that was impossible to track and that defied all logic. It cast no shadow and couldn’t be stopped by covering it with anything. If this thing wanted to glow, it glowed, and you just stood there and were glowed on.

Which was what Nystel was doing right now, getting glowed on big-time.

“I am here to defend these two,” I said, walking toward her. “They are my friends, and you are going to let them go.”

“You are not an elf!” some guy… er, guy elf in the crowd shouted.

Can’t get anything by him.

“No, I’m not,” I replied, looking in his general direction. “Is that a requirement to speak on their behalf?” A light flashed from my eye, and suddenly I was an elf. I mean it, the ears, the eyes—I think my bones had changed too, but it was hard to tell. The room had a different tint to it, and I could tell the elves use a lower light range than humans, because everything seemed much brighter than it had a second ago. Conversely, their sense of smell must be a little dimmer, because the incense didn’t reek as much. Oh, the things you find out when you alter reality to make yourself another species.

I waited for the crowd to settle down after my first miracle and then threatened them with another. “Or if being an elf isn’t enough, how about I make us all humans?” I raised my hand and pulled back my sleeve so I could more clearly snap my fingers. Nystel screamed at me to stop.

Between you and me, I doubt I had enough juice to change the entire room, but the elves didn’t know that.

“I know who you are, Kane, and I am not sure what you hope to accomplish here.”

She was still playing to the crowd. Her voice was too loud, her body language was directed to them, excluding me. I had a sinking feeling this wasn’t going to go anywhere while she had them watching her. So I took care of that.

Everyone in the room save Nystel and me stopped moving. They were breathing, yes, but movement was beyond them.

“Better?” I asked, letting myself slip back into being a human. Holding the room in stasis was trying; doing that and keeping myself an elf was almost unbearable. At least by doing it this way I wasn’t taking life force from Hawk. I’d never take his life force, even if it was the small amount needed to make a point. Never.

You remember that Hawk and I share a soul, right? Well, turns out that magic in general comes from life force, and the more I use, the more I need, which means if I turn it up to eleven, I end up leeching off him. And we all know I didn’t need to do that to convince Nystel to let Ater and Kor go.

“What have you done?” she asked looking at the lamps all around the room and the frozen flames in each.

“Giving us some privacy,” I explained, walking up to the dais and stopping next to the frozen Kor and Ater. “I’m sure you don’t want your people to see me threaten you.”

She looked at the two accused, then back to me. “You can threaten all you want, but I am not commuting their sentence. The deal was I help you and they turn themselves in.”

“Which they did,” I pointed out. “They turned themselves in, but no one said anything about letting you kill them.”

“It is Koran’s will.”

And that was when I lost it.

“Really? You really want to try that shit with me, Nystel?” Her eyes widened at my outburst. “Are you absolutely sure you want to tell me that?”

Wisely, she said nothing.

“You see, I know the truth about you. The question is, do you want them to know it?” I asked, gesturing to her frozen faithful.

“I have nothing to hide.” Her voice cracked a little.

“Okay, then. If I tell them the higher planes have been cut off for centuries because Titania moved the World Tree from Earth, that would be okay? They would understand when I explained there is no way any god, not even Koran, can contact anyone, much less give you instructions about these two?”

Her face went pale.

“You see, I figured out where you were getting your power from. Normally you’d call upon Koran’s power, and he would grant your request, and that would be that. I asked myself how are you doing that with no connection to Tokpewa?” That’s the realm of the gods if you are just tuning in. A whole world full of people so powerful they are mistaken for gods. You’ve heard of a few: Thor, Odin, Oprah Winfrey, they all come from the same place.

“And then it came to me.” I looked over to the frozen elves. “Faith. Their faith that you are speaking for Koran gives you power, and the power they give you gives them faith that you are speaking for their god.” I glanced back at her. “How much power do you think you’d have after I tell them you’ve been lying to them?”

Her lips had pursed into a small line of hatred.

“So you have a choice: release my friends or roll the dice. But I assure you, Katniss, the odds are not in your favor this time.” She glared at me, confused, and I waved it off. “Release them, or I start time and we let the people decide.”

“You are meddling in things you cannot understand.”

“I am saving the lives of my two friends from a religious zealot who’d rather kill two people than admit she’s a bitch.” I snapped my fingers and time started again. “Make your choice now.”

Ater looked up at me, startled, not sure how I got up on the dais without him noticing.

“A moment,” Nystel said, raising her hands to calm the crowd down. “I have been given a judgment.” Everyone stopped talking and held their breath, waiting for the death sentence. She looked over at me, and I just glared at her, daring her to call my bluff. “Koran has granted these two mercy and has ordered they be released from their bonds.” She gestured, and the chains around their wrists vanished.

Now the crowd was saying “Watermelon!” and “Cantaloupe!” pretty angrily. Note to self: never get between rubberneckers and an exciting double execution. Nystel tried to talk over them. “They are to be released and exiled from Evermore for life.”

Ater didn’t even acknowledge that, but Kor looked up at her with a heartbreaking expression of desperation on his face. “You are both judged as lilkanas and are sentenced to bathe in the Light no more.” She looked down at both of them. “May Koran have mercy on you.”

“You can’t do this,” Kor said, still on his knees in shock.

Nystel ignored him.

“Gather your belongings and leave.” She was glaring at me. “And pray we never cross paths again.”

That’s me, making friends and influencing people wherever I go.

 

 

HAWK PACED Olim’s throne room like a jungle cat locked in a cage.

“I should have gone with him,” he complained for about the tenth time since Kane had left to rescue the Ater and Kor.

“And done what? Be in the way?” Olim suggested, sitting on her throne of ice watching the prince pace.

“I am a trained warrior with real-life battle experience. I am never in the way.”

She laughed. “And your consort moves reality around in the same manner a toddler plays with blocks. What exactly do you think you can do that he can’t?”

Hawk had no intention of answering that question aloud.

“I should have gone” was all he said, resuming his pacing.

Ruber had been floating to the side, watching the conversation curiously. “I am confused,” he said in that precise British accent he used. “If you can sense Kane’s thoughts, aren’t you aware if he is in danger?”

“Not at this range,” Hawk explained, but it was a lie. The truth was that Kane’s thoughts were becoming harder and harder to read as he embraced the powers the World Seed was fueling. At first Hawk could keep his thoughts from Kane; now Hawk could only sense Kane’s thoughts if Kane was nearby and not using his powers.

It was frustrating to say the least.

If Ruber knew of Hawk’s lie, he didn’t say anything. Instead he went back to waiting for the prearranged signal Kane and he had set up. Kane had more than enough power to move himself back to Faerth where the elves were being held, but he lacked the ability to return two people back with him without expending life force. He was trying to avoid using too much energy because the more power Kane used, the more of Hawk’s soul would be drained, a problem they had dealt with a few times before.

Instead Ruber had taught Kane how to send a mystic flare to him, giving the gemling Kane’s exact location and allowing the ruby to open a portal from his side to get them all home with no one’s life force being drained.

“I have something,” Ruber said.

Hawk immediately moved toward the gem, even though he could do nothing to help Ruber. “Are they well?” he asked, panic a clear undertone in his words.

“All I have is his position, not his state of being,” Ruber replied. “I am focusing on the pulse and following it back.”

“Well, does it feel like he is hurt?” Hawk asked again.

“It doesn’t feel like anything,” Ruber snapped. “Please move back.”

Hawk took a few steps away as a glow appeared in front of the gem. Ruber wasn’t a Sender, which meant he was incapable of opening a two-way portal between worlds on his own. He could leech the energies of a portal and trace them, like he did in following the portal the dark elves made when they captured Hawk, but opening one solo was impossible for him.

Luckily Kane was not bound by such limitations.

Kane could project a signal from his location, and Ruber could then use it to indicate a route back. The rest was all up to Kane. Kane had already proven he could make such portals when he used Truheart to open one to Hawk when he was being held in the Underdark. In theory, then, the human should be up to such a task.

The key word in that sentence being theory. Kane pushed aside the barriers that lay between Faerth and Niflgard the same way someone would push aside curtains blocking a view from a window. The amount of power involved in what Kane was doing was staggering, but Kane’s strength had vastly increased since Oberon’s attack. The World Seed had amplified his abilities as a half-Being beyond description.

All of which was a fancy way of saying that one second the room glowed with an intense light, and the next an angry gash opened, floating in the air with Kane and the two elves on the other side.

The three of them walked into the throne room with the same ease as someone else would have crossing a street. The fact they had just traveled between dimensions was just an afterthought. The second they made it through, the gash sealed itself once more, looking completely normal to the naked eye. Ruber could see the residual scar in reality, though; it would take months to fade. Even then a thin spot between there and here would always exist. As Hawk rushed forward to embrace Kane, the ruby wondered if Kane was aware of what he was doing to reality. And, more importantly, if Kane understood he had overused his power, whether or not Kane knew enough to care. Not for the first time, Ruber wanted someone to train his young friend.

“You’re all right,” Hawk said in a relieved tone.

Kane hugged him back and laughed. “Of course I am, silly. It was just Nystel.”

“She’s just the high priestess of Koran,” Ruber clarified. “She commands all of his power.”

“Not really,” Kane countered offhandedly. “She’s mostly just faking it, using her people’s faith as a crutch. She might get off a decent blast or two, but she doesn’t have the energies for an extended fight.”

Ruber said nothing about Kane’s first impulse: combat.

“I was still worried about you,” Hawk commented, trying to hide his earlier trepidation.

“It’s better you stayed. There were a ton of elves in that temple, and I don’t know if I could have protected you from all of them.”

Ruber could see the shock on Hawk’s face.

“Let’s find you guys some rooms so you can rest,” Kane said to the elves. “I can’t imagine being held prisoner for a couple of weeks is fun.”

Ater glanced over at Hawk and Ruber and then nodded. “Thank you. That would be acceptable. Kor just stared forward as if dazed.

“There are rooms on the fourth floor…,” Olim called out.

“I’ll find them,” Kane said over his shoulder. “I’ll just borrow a couple of your guys.” He gestured and two ice giants stepped out of the substance of the castle walls. “Find us some rooms,” he commanded.

The giants half bowed and began walking out of the room with Kane and the elves in tow.

No one spoke for several seconds.

Finally Ruber said, “Is no one going to mention the change in his demeanor?”

“Leave it alone,” Hawk said, his voice raw with emotion. “I’ll handle it.” He stomped off after the group.

When Olim and Ruber were left alone, she asked, “You know what’s happening, don’t you?”

“I have my suspicions.”

“Allow me to confirm them. That is bad.”

“That much I knew,” Ruber muttered.

 

 

THE GIANTS were made from the same ice that made the castle, so they knew the state of any room in question the same way you’d know where your arm was if asked. The Ice Giants came to a halt and stared at Kane. “This should work,” he said, opening the doors into a suite of rooms. Kane waved his hands and the creatures melted back into the walls.

Ater followed the human boy warily; he had never seen Kane act like this before. “You’ve changed.”

Kane turned around and gave him a grin. “You bet your ass I have.”

Ater didn’t like the expression on Kane’s face. He looked almost drunk, flush with a power the dark elf emphatically did not want to comprehend. “What happened?”

“He does know he can come in, right?” Kane asked instead of answering.

Ater turned around and saw Kor standing in the doorway, not moving an inch. “Kor, come in.”

The elf looked up, confused. “What?” Then he looked around. “Oh, right.” He walked in and fell into a plush seat, his gaze losing focus as he stared silently at something only he could see.

“Is he okay?” Kane asked after Ater closed the doors.

The dark elf’s shoulders tensed, but his voice was quiet when he answered. Deadly. Quiet.

“He has just been exiled from the land that has been his home for over a thousand years. And he was exiled for defying a God he pledged his life to. So no, he is not okay.” He poured a glass of water for Kor from an ice pitcher someone had created for the room. “Here. Drink this.”

Kor didn’t even notice the glass until Ater put it in his hand. “Drink,” he urged quietly.

Kor stared toward him, but Ater knew he was seeing right through him. “I’m not thirsty.”

“Just drink.” Ater commanded.

Kor shrugged and took a sip from the glass.

Once the former light elf was settled in place, Ater walked over to Kane. “Thank you for getting us out. What do you need of me?”

Kane was openly confused, so Ater did his best to clarify.

“Though I would like to believe you came to rescue us out of concern, there must be some other reason you did so.”

“I did it because I wasn’t going to let you guys hang for a favor you did me.”

The dark elf looked unconvinced.

“What kind of a person do you think I am?” Kane raged. “You really think the only reason I’d save you is because I want something? Do you honestly think I need anything right now?”

The boy’s eyes glowed, and Ater took a step back.

Thankfully the doors opened and Hawk walked in. “Good, you got settled.”

Ater refused to take his gaze off Kane. “Yes, thank you.”

Kane looked over to Hawk. “Tell him we saved him because he is our friend and we don’t need anything from him.”

Hawk’s face hardened for a moment. “He is our friend, and we do need something from him.”

The look of outrage on Kane’s face would have been comical if he wasn’t actually furious and if he wasn’t a young person with more power than he knew what do to do with, and emotions that weren’t always controllable.

“What do you need, then?” Ater asked, feeling more relaxed with Hawk in the room.

“I need you to show us the secret ways into the castle. We’re taking back the capitol this week.”

Ater nodded. Hawk’s answer had put him back on more familiar ground.

 

 

“SHOW ME again,” Adamas ordered.

Caerus resisted the urgent desire to sigh and reactivated the magical map of the Arcadian capitol. “This is from two days ago,” the sapphire explained. “I had an agent infiltrate and capture some images.”

The courtyard looked deserted save for the piles of bodies made up of the Dark, who had taken the capitol as well as the fairy guards who had tried to defend it. The only things moving were the ghouls feasting on the dead. And they barely budged, bloated from their meals as they were.

“I thought the humans had some form of taboo about their dead. Isn’t that why we went to the top of Gott’s Ascent? To dispose of Ater’s mate?”

“These are fairies. Pullus and Ater are elven, not human,” Caerus said patiently. “But yes, they do have several customs dealing with their dead, and allowing these birds to feast on the dead is only one clue.”

“Clue to what?”

The sapphire stopped herself from asking if Adamas was all right. Though he was her father, the diamond was also king of the Crystal Court, its Personification. Any personal inquiries after his well-being might be taken as offensive, inferences that he was anything less than perfect. Caerus knew Adamas was anything but perfect. He was stern, unfeeling, and at times downright draconian, but he was her father, so she considered instead the good he had done in his long life.

For the first time she realized exactly how long Adamas’s life had been.

“There are no guards,” she explained, again. “The entire area seems devoid of anyone alive. It is possible we are preparing for a fight that will never happen. What if Oberon has abandoned the capitol?”

The king said nothing for so long that Caerus wondered if he had drifted off.

“Father?”

“It is irrelevant if he has abandoned it or not. It is equally irrelevant that there are no signs of life. You don’t prepare for battle based on what you hope might happen, you prepare based on what you dread may happen. And I dread Oberon has gathered another army and they won’t be so disorganized this time that they will fall to inferior forces.”

He began to float away. “Your information is useful, but I assure you, it won’t change a thing as far as our assault is concerned.” And with that he left.

Caerus stared after him, her worries increasing, and she wondered if she were imagining things, all the while suspecting her imagination had nothing to do with it.

 

 

AS SOON as Hawk and I closed the door of the elves’ room behind us, I laid into him.

“You sent me to rescue them because we needed information? I thought you were worried their lives were in danger.”

A flash of something passed over his perfect face for just a second. I’m not going to lie; my first instinct was to look through our link and see what his expression meant. But I had gotten better at turning the damn mind link off, so I wasn’t in any hurry to use it again.

“I was worried for them, and he has information we need. I didn’t send you to rescue just Ater. I said rescue both of them.”

Something about that sentence really hit me the wrong way. I say something because I had no idea why I was about to react like I did. I’m just telling you that Hawk had said the wrong thing for some reason. I didn’t understand the reason. And what I said next and the way I said it came from my gut, not my brain.

“You don’t send me anywhere,” I growled, taking a step toward him. “I went because they were in trouble and nothing else. And if I find out you sent Ferra and Molly on some insane mission—”

“I didn’t!” he barked back. “If I sent them anywhere, I would have told you. What has gotten into you lately?”

Hawk’s question was the same one I used to ask myself all the time. Lately I asked it less and less. After the fight with Oberon, I started to get worried about the way my moods were changing. I was distant, cocky, at times downright arrogant about my power, and I had no idea why. The problem was that, as time went on, I cared less and less about my reactions. I simply couldn’t summon any fucks to give that I was acting like a dick. Everything was too much. I was too far from home; too many things were happening all at the same time. For the first time in my life, I could actually feel the concept of “being pulled in different directions,” and I hated it.

Of course I said none of this to Hawk because… well, just because.

“Maybe I’m just tired, Hawk. Maybe I am sick and tired of this entire shithole you call a world and just want to get back to my own life. A life where I didn’t have to worry about crazy fairies trying to kill me and risking everything fighting your father.”

Yeah, that was a half-truth. I did want to get home something fierce, but only because I was worried about my dad, not because I was sick of Hawk’s world. But for some reason I was just so pissed it all came flowing out like I was a junior high kid who decided to see how much vodka he could drink before his parents came home from whatever parents did to have fun.

“I’m just tired,” I said, seeing the hurt in his face and sighing. “Forget everything I just said. I’m tired and grumpy and I think hungry.”

He nodded, but I could still feel the tingle of his pain in the back of my mind.

“I’m sorry,” I said, knowing I should say more but having no idea how to phrase it. Instead I turned around and walked back to our room to lie down. I had been so sure we were going to have a good day too.

 

 

“WHAT EXACTLY­­­ are we looking for?” Ferra asked as Molly opened the workshop door.

“A clue to what happened to me,” the clockwork girl answered, inserting her key into a small hole, disarming the security system within. “You said before the battle that I did things in here I don’t remember. I’ll be honest, I didn’t believe you, but I did know how to implement those weapons we brought back with lethal results—a skill, last time I checked, a companion did not need to possess. So it is possible there are things about myself I am not aware of. Normally I would ask my creators, Tinker and Jones, but no one has seen them in centuries, and it is doubtful they are still alive. Which means if I want answers, I am going to have to ask the workshop myself.”

They had descended into the workshop proper as they talked. As she and Molly passed the waiting area they had teleported into on their first visit, Ferra noticed the piles of choppers they had defeated were gone. Choppers were half-dead, half-mechanical creatures whose sole purpose was guarding the workshop. They regularly cannibalized parts from other machines to repair themselves, so Ferra wasn’t sure if they could be destroyed, which meant they could still be a danger. She summoned a spear of pure ice in reaction.

“What?” Molly asked, knowing her companion would not arm herself unless she thought there was trouble.

“The choppers,” Ferra explained. “They’re gone.”

“Oh,” Molly said, sounding relieved. “The workshop has a maintenance schedule.” The barbarian looked at her blankly. “It cleans itself regularly. Every so often it will send automated units through the halls to do both cleanup and removal of trash and debris. Most likely they took the choppers’ bodies down to the smelter for recycling.”

Ferra opened her hand, dismissing the ice lance. “Recycle for what?”

Molly kept walking. “Spare parts. The organic pieces will be discarded, but the metal and mechanics can be repurposed. I’m willing to bet most of those choppers ended up being part of the next cleaning crew.”

“Why not make more choppers?”

Molly stopped and stared back at her. A pair of amber lenses had covered her eyes, and her voice was that of a gruff and angry male. “Information about workshop security is restricted. Cease this line of inquiry before this unit is forced to respond.”

The lenses slipped back up, and Molly kept talking as if nothing had happened. “I’m willing to bet most of those choppers ended up being part of the cleaning crew.”

Ferra was baffled. Before, the lenses had been red and Molly seemed to be some kind of combat unit. This was something different, the voice that came from her sounded stern and unforgiving, nothing like the Molly she knew and… cared strongly for.

“What is that look for?” Molly asked, her voice now melodic and questioning.

“I just want to find some answers,” Ferra said after a long couple of seconds. “I’m worried about you.”

Molly tilted her head and her mouth servos moved to simulate a smile. “I’m fine, silly; you worry too much.”

The clockwork girl kept walking. Ferra thought, And you don’t worry enough.

“What in the nine hells?” she exclaimed to herself as she looked up and down the street. The horses trotted, each gait perfect and in time with all the other horses. The people all walked at the same speed, although some led with the left leg, some with the right. Ferra didn’t peer too closely at faces, knowing in advance they would be identical. Instead of making the city seem more authentic, the clockwork people and animals just made it that much more unreal. But why go to all this work?

That exact moment the people on the street froze and orientated on her. Up close Ferra could see their flesh had long since torn and faded, leaving the mechanical parts beneath clearly visible. She was being stared at by half-a-dozen metallic skeletons dressed in fine suits and dresses.

“Intruder alert,” they all stated at once. “Intruder in command pod.”

Ferra formed her armor and spear. “I know what that means.”

Seconds later they attacked her.

 

 

“SO EVERYONE has an adventure buddy?” I asked after we’d triple-checked our belongings and our strategies for the fifth time.

They all looked at me like I was stupid.

Nothing new there.

“Oookaaay, then. Ruber, Kor, Ater, you’re with me,” I said, reluctantly leaving Hawk’s side so my group could stand together.

“I am too,” Demain reminded me, smiling.

“No. You’re going for your own purposes. Let’s not start lying to each other this soon in our relationship.”

Her smile vanished.

That left Hawk, the rest of the gems, and Olim on the other side of the room. Although his expression was calm, Hawk hadn’t stopped sending me reassurances and reminding me how much he loved me. I thought the same back to him, although I knew I didn’t look calm at all.

“I will remain here,” Woogie added, hovering in between our two groups on his little wings. “I won’t keep the portals open, but I will keep them active. If you need to retreat, simply rub the gem in the middle of your palm.”

I’d opened my mouth to ask “What gem?” when I felt something press against the center of my hand. I looked down and there lay a flat emerald that looked like it’d been part of my palm forever. I clenched my fist and watched the gem fold neatly on itself.

“This way, even if you are tied up, all you need to do is rub it with your fingers and I will know to pull you back.”

“I don’t have hands,” Ruber piped in after a second.

Woogie glared at him. “Very good! You have mastered basic anatomy. What do you think you will focus on next?” I had been Ruber’s friend long enough to know he was winding up for a scathing reply, possibly accompanied by lasers. Undeterred, the tiny dragon explained, “I assume all of the gems can send a magical signal out to get my attention. The gem signal was for the noncasters. If you like I can put a gem on you.”

Ruber said nothing in return. After a moment Woogie sighed and turned back to all of us.

“I am sending the Wolflands group with a time sync so they will be experiencing time one to one ratio. The Earth group I am sending without a sync, which means roughly one hour over there will be one day here, which is the current difference. If any of you Beings is thinking of using your powers to move from one world to the next, I suggest you don’t. Moving from a synced world to a nonsynced one or vice versa can cause a temporal breakdown, which is… messy.”

“What’s ‘messy’ mean?” Demain asked, shocked.

“It means ‘don’t do it,’” Woogie said, giving her a sidelong stare.

No one had anything to say to that.

“We will be as quick as possible,” Hawk said to our team. “Just delay my father but try not to engage. He is not to be trifled with.”

“Got it,” I said with a smile. “No trifling your father.”

He tried to shoot me an angry thought, but he failed. The thought sounded much more like “Take care of yourself and don’t let me come there and find you dead” than “You are an idiot.”

For a few seconds, we all stood, uncertain whether to set out, wanting only to have our tasks done and quickly. Finally, Caerus said to the group, “Since Ferra isn’t here, let me say it for her. Logos go with us.”

Kor’s head snapped up. “Don’t waste breath on prayers that won’t be heard. That have never been heard. It’s insulting.”

The silence was uncomfortable.

“And with that,” Woogie said, pointing both index claws straight ahead and opening the two portals we would need, “we’re off.”

“I love you,” Hawk thought at me.

“Prove it,” I thought back. “Save your mom and then haul ass to me.”

I felt him smile, and our souls and minds embraced one last time.

And then as one, we walked into the portals.