Worry tightened the muscles in my shoulders. Where were Mathias and Callan going? Did this walk mean Mathias really intended to abandon his own people? How could he leave Callan alone to deal with that hateful witch Zilya and her annoying shadow Etoi plus a village full of small children?
Something didn’t fit here.
Callan followed Mathias with his head held high, but anxiety radiated off of Callan’s every move and tensed neck muscles.
I fought the urge to put my arm around him, doubting he’d welcome my comfort right now. He still hadn’t decided if I was his enemy or not.
I couldn’t let this go any longer. “Are you really going to do this, Mathias?”
Callan answered instead. “This is not your concern.”
“Then why am I going with you?”
Before Callan could say another word, Mathias cleared his throat as if he had something blocking his words. “Let me explain, Callan.” Then he addressed Rayen. “The TecKnati scouts told us we would not stay here past turning eighteen, but Callan and I have figured out that this is only to demoralize our group when it doesn’t happen. So we’re pretending I am leaving, then I am to come back tomorrow, explaining that the TeKs gave me the choice to be locked up back home or to stay here.”
Now I understood. What a nice thing to do for everyone considering how dangerous it was out in these woods. “Exactly how long are you going to be gone?”
Callan had given Mathias a questioning look, then must have decided there was no point in keeping the rest secret. “Just twenty-four hours. Mathias will enjoy a much-deserved break.”
I asked, “But why did you bring me instead of one of your people, Mathias?”
“Callan has shared with me about how you battled two croggles and how you fought for, and then helped to heal, the little boy.”
That didn’t really explain why I was walking with them, but I let it go since it sounded as though Mathias had a more favorable opinion of me now.
Mathias had entered the forest and stopped in a small clearing, evening twilight feathering through branches and leaves, slanting cold fingers of darkness and quieting all bird sounds. He turned to Callan with a look in his eyes that gave me chills.
When Mathias spoke, his voice sounded raw. “It’s time for you to know everything.”
So this is where all my bad feelings were coming from.
Callan’s face fell at hearing that he didn’t know everything. “What do you mean?”
Callan hadn’t shown even the slightest indication of fear while facing the croggle, but some worry shadowed his eyes now, and darkened his skin, which started changing rapidly, a physical action that I’d decided was tied to emotions. What would cause such a severe emotional reaction in Callan?
Mathias looked resigned as he glanced over his shoulder where I saw a glimpse of the red moon low in the purple sky, but no green stripes.
Were the TecKnati really coming for him? Had one arrived during the ceremony and everyone missed the signs but Mathias?
But Callan missed nothing, and should have seen, too.
Mathias scrubbed his hands over his face then told Callan, “We don’t have much time.”
“What have you kept from me?” Bitter disappointment seeped into Callan’s voice.
I wished for some way to figure out exactly what had Mathias acting so spooky.
Mathias drew a deep breath that shuddered through him, then he told Callan, “I had you bring Rayen for a reason. V’ru told me what he’d learned so far.”
Callan’s stony silence weighed heavier than the humidity clinging to my arms.
I couldn’t stand the tension between these two. “Do you believe what I’ve told you, Mathias?”
Chill bumps raced up my arm at finally hearing the right answer. “So you’ll tell Callan to release us?”
“He can release you, but only if you promise to help them find a way out of the Sphere.”
That got a reaction out of Callan. “What can she do?”
I had no idea, but I told Mathias, “You have my word.”
For the first time since meeting Callan, I heard true worry enter his voice when he asked Mathias, “You’re still only going away for a day, right?”
Mathias took another look up at the sky. “No, I’m disappearing. For good. There’ll be no coming back.”
“What?” Callan’s golden-brown hair turned bright blond and the splattered aqua shapes on his skin darkened into dark blue storm clouds. “You’ve been holding out on me?”
Mathias kept speaking quietly, every word forced from deep inside. “Yes, I haven’t been completely honest, but you’ll soon understand why I had to do this. And just as I have lied to you, you will lie to the others as well when the time comes.”
“No, I will not.” Callan quivered with anger. “You said we are to be leaders. Leaders do not lie to their people.”
Mathias grimaced as if Callan had cut him with his blade. “Listen. I could not tell you what would happen before now or you would have focused on the wrong things. Your duty is to keep their spirits up and convince those children they are going home. If not, they will not survive. I was here for eight months longer than you. I watched our children lose their will to live without hope and they died.”
I heard things in Mathias’s voice that weren’t coming out in his words. He still hid something from Callan.
Crossing his arms, Callan snarled, “I have believed you, trusted you. And now...now you tell me you won’t come back? Tell me the truth, all of it.”
“I always did tell you to be prepared for anything, including my not being around to help.”
Walking several steps away, Callan muttered, “But I thought you meant if a croggle killed you. I would never have let that happen.”
“I–” Mathias choked on the word and his shoulders jerked straight as if he stood at attention, muscles clenching. Sweat broke out on his skin.
Callan spun around and stared at him, lips moving but no words coming out.
I lifted a hand toward Mathias and he shot me a warning look. “I did not bring you to interfere.”
“Why did you bring me?”
“To understand why you must not break your word.”
Callan took a step toward Mathias who shouted, “Don’t touch me!”
“Why?” Callan shouted back and took another step toward him, a cautious one. “What’s happening? Talk to me.”
Mathias gritted out his next words. “I am not the first to turn eighteen in the Sphere. Anatoli arrived with me.”
“I know that name. He’s of the Cultivation House.”
“Yes,” Mathias continued. “And he reached his BIRG Day a month before you arrived.”
Callan’s eyes opened wide. “Where is he? He should have told the House leaders about us or stayed here to help us.”
“He’s not to be blamed for anything and you will not tell the children where I’ve gone when you return to the village.”
“Anatoli left and...” The struggle to understand what was going on carved anxiety in Callan’s face. “Did SEOH send Anatoli to a prison a telepath can’t reach into? Being G’ortian, maybe I can help. Tell them to take me.”
“No, SEOH hasn’t figured out how to do that, but he has proven to be far more sly than any of us anticipated.” Mathias’s body jerked with a spasm. Sweat now dripped from his forehead and arms, as if his body wrestled with something. He groaned.
Callan rushed forward, but at that moment, Mathias flew up ten feet off the ground with his arms stretched above his head like a puppet whose master had yanked the strings. He hung there in midair.
Callan roared, “Mathias!”
I reached for the heat within me to do battle and called out, “What holds you? How can I kill it?”
Sweat poured down Mathias’s face when he lowered his chin, speaking through gritted teeth. “I’m sorry I lied, Callan. You’ve been a brother to me, but now you’ll know why I could not tell you. I did what you must do. Lie to protect the others.”
A howling noise started deep in the forest and gained volume. Like a killer wind bent on destruction. But what was it?
Callan shouted, “What are we fighting?”
Mathias looked right and left, terror riding his gaze. His body shook. He yelled back, “Give Rayen her freedom. Trust her to use it wisely.”
Streaming bands of black energy shot through the opening, whipping past me. Heat built inside my chest, rolling through my body. I lifted my arms into the energy shooting around us on the ground. Sparks crackled with contact between my power and the attacking energy. Something clasped my wrist and yanked me up a foot off the ground.
Steel bands of strength latched onto my waist, pulling my body backwards. The force holding my arm drew me up, threatening to rip my body in half.
Mathias shouted, “Noooo, Rayen. Your word.”
My heart thundered in my chest. I fought tears over the pain tearing through me.
Callan yanked on my body, shouting, “Let go!”
But whatever had my wrist released me and whispered in my mind, Next time.
I fell backwards, landing against something hard and warm. Callan.
The energy still swarmed, alive with distorted faces and glowing yellow eyes, but didn’t touch me or Callan. A dozen or more black spirits howled through the clearing.
Wind blasted branches and scoured leaves across my face and body, held wrapped in Callan’s arms. His shouts were nothing more than hoarse noises filled with raw pain. I looked up as the horde of black ghostly bands whipped around Mathias one at a time, round and round until the only part left in view was his agony-filled gaze, staring at nothing.
All at once, the howling ended.
And Mathias was gone.
An unearthly silence reigned.
I couldn’t stop shaking. So that’s what the TecKnati meant by the MystiKs leaving here at eighteen?
Somehow, Callan managed to get to his feet with me still clutched against him. He turned me to face him and I wanted to cry over the misery in his eyes.
Instead, I wrapped my arms around him and held on. He pulled me tight into his embrace, his breaths coming in ragged shudders. I wanted to comfort him, but his strength comforted me. My mind raced to understand what had happened. These deadly spirits had to be something created by the TecKnati for them to attack at moonset on the day a captive reached eighteen. That made MystiKs fair game when they were no longer technically children.
Mathias had spent all these months knowing he faced this end to his life.
Only a truly cruel person could come up with that kind of torture.
Mathias was right. Those children in the village couldn’t know what had happened to him, or that the same fate waited for anyone else they depended on. Or for them.
I pressed my lips against Callan’s chest, tasting the salt of his skin. He tucked my head against his shoulder, unwilling to give me up and I didn’t try to push away.
Mathias’s message was clearer now. He hoped that I wouldn’t abandon Callan once I knew that there was no way for Mathias to return.
He was right.
Callan finally drew a breath that had a sound of finality to it. He eased his hold on me.
I placed a hand on his chest and took a step back. “I, uh,” I mumbled, at a loss for what to say. Saying I’m sorry he’d lost his friend didn’t begin to cover Callan’s loss.
He touched my chin with his fingers, lifting my face to meet the eyes of a warrior, but he had to swallow before he could speak. His voice came out hoarse, but strong. “Mathias is right. You can’t tell anyone about this.”
Nodding, I added, “My word.”
I still had to get Gabby and Tony back to the safety of Albuquerque. An hour ago, I would’ve had no problem abandoning this place. Lifting my fingers to brush his cheek, I made him an offer. “I’ll stay to help you protect these kids and search for a way out of here, but I want you to free Tony and Gabby to leave if we can find a way to get them home.”
He didn’t answer at first. Lines formed at the bridge of his nose in a sign that he struggled with a decision. “You would stay?”
Looking deep into that haunted brown-eyed gaze, I realized I’d do far more than that for him. “Yes.”
“And you’re certain that Tony is not TecKnati?”
“Yes. He’s from over a hundred a sixty years in the past, not your world.”
He took my measure with his next look. “Then I’ll free him. He and Gabby will be allowed to return to their home.”