Authors: Heidi R. Kling
Tags: #Young Adult, #Fantasy
— Queen of Hearts
More than anything I wanted Logan to bear the mark.
To be the Chosen.
The first step toward peace. So we might have a real chance together as I believed we were prophesized to be.
Now that was gone.
All of it.
“Lily?” Logan pushed my mirror image, this doppelganger that’d appeared in the clearing with Logan instead of me, out of his way. “Lily!” His strong hands were on my face.
“Don’t touch me,” I said, in a voice so small and fraught it was almost unrecognizable.
His hand was still on my arm. The hand that had been all over her.
His lips moved. The lips that had been all over her skin.
His voice came through, but all I saw was this nightmare version of him, all over
that was pretending to be me.
I flinched away from his hand. “Do. Not. Touch me.”
Rage crawled up my bare feet and simmered in my core. A fireball grew, hot and furious, in my palm.
I stepped into the clearing, facing the mirror image of myself. “Who the
We exchanged a look—part standoff, part-disbelief—before she surprised me again. With a quick bat of her eyelashes, which now, to my bitter eyes, looked like grotesque spider legs, she dashed into the forest and was gone.
Like she’d shifted into the wind.
He tugged the side of his hair.
Lily thought he had kissed another girl…on purpose.
Had laid his hands. Done things.
Things Lily and he hadn’t.
He rubbed his eyes hard with his knuckles. She wouldn’t look at him.
“I thought it was you, Lil. I never would have…otherwise. You have to believe me.”
Lily faced him, eyes like stone.
“You saw her. She looked exactly like you.” Defending his actions wasn’t helping, so he simply said, “Lily?”
When she met his eyes, hers melted into pale blue glaciers of grief. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so badly.
“Couldn’t you tell it wasn’t…me?” Her voice was sad and small, like the way she might have sounded as a young girl.
“Yes! But not till…later. When the amulet didn’t react to her. She was so—”
“What?” Lily wiped the streaming tears from her cheeks. “Sexy? Seductive? Things I’m not?”
“You are all of those things and more, Lil. Come on, you have to believe me.” He reached out to touch her arm, tried to make her hear him. But she pushed him away again. This time, he held his hands up, assuring her he wouldn’t touch her again unless she wanted him to. “I’m not lying. But whoever did this—we’re doing exactly what they want us to do: fighting instead of finding out who was behind this. We have to figure out who did this to us.” He pointed into the forest. “Whoever shifted that girl knew I was meeting you here tonight. Clearly they don’t want us to be together.” He glanced into the forest, his eyes trailing the path of the girl. “And they used some pretty extreme magic to make it happen.”
I wanted to believe he wasn’t cheating on me with my doppelganger. As soon as the sentence crossed my brain, I realized how ridiculous it sounded. He was obviously telling the truth. What motive would he have to be making out with someone who looked exactly like me—if he didn’t want to be with me? Or didn’t think she was me?
“That was…just…excruciating to watch. For lack of a harsher phrase.”
“Believe me, it’s excruciating for me to relive.”
I wiped a tear off my face, unable to meet his eyes. It didn’t look like he was in a great deal of pain.
He read my thoughts, of course.
“Lil. I’m so unbelievably sorry.”
Swallowing back some of the anger, I tapped into the rational part of my brain. It wasn’t Logan’s fault. He was meeting me here just like we’d planned. He thought she was me.
When he reached out to let me know how sorry he was, I let him. He held my hand, then peered closer. My skin was glazed with glowing sparkles.
“This is what was all over you, I mean whoever that was, in the grove. What is this stuff?” He flicked the phosphorescent dust off his fingers.
“It’s…it’s a long story.”
“Yes?” Eyes darkened, brow furrowed, he waited for an explanation I didn’t want to give.
“I had no idea they’d put someone in my place.”
In your place? You better tell me what’s going on here, Lil. Especially after all of this…” Drama. But he generously left the word out.
“I will. I promise I’ll tell you everything. You need to know that I never meant for anything… that’s why I stopped it. Logan I would never betray you…”
Logan paused for a second, licked his bottom lip, and then glanced over his shoulder into the dark forest. He wasn’t listening to me anymore.
“What?” I pressed.
“Quiet a sec…”
Never trust a witch.
The voice in my head was dark, sinister…and male.
Logan grabbed my hand. “Did you hear that?”
The trees around us swayed softly at first and then violently, as a harsh wind picked up. A thick fog crept in and blanketed the copse in eerie-wet white.
I heard the rustling first, followed by a high-pitched scream, the likes of which I’d never heard before. The wind blew so hard eucalyptus leaves spun off their branches, intoxicating and dizzying me with medicinal boldness. My eyes burned as a cloud of black smoke twisted toward us, a tornado of soot ripping through the forest.
Grabbing my arm tight, Logan pulled me to my feet. “Jacob,” he said, a look of terror spreading across his face.
“I’ll help you fight him.”
“Fight him?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “I can’t fight him, Lily. He’s my father.”
“Oh, right.” My hackles rose. Logan’s father was my enemy, not Logan’s. And then a horrifying thought dawned on me. Was this a trap?
His voice overlapped my thoughts. “He can’t know who you are. You have to run.”
Relief flooded through me. “I’m staying.”
“Lily, you need to hide. He can’t find us together.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out my amulet. “You’ll need this for protection.”
I shoved it back at him. “It doesn’t protect me the way it protects you. You have to keep it. We’ll figure the rest out later.”
Before he could argue, I slipped it around his neck and latched the clasp. I breathed a protection spell into his neck with my kiss. “No matter what happens,” I said, “don’t let it go.”
Logan tugged at the chain, but it wouldn’t budge. He cursed under his breath; infuriated that Lily had refused to take the charm. But he only had seconds of regret before the putrid cloud of smoke descended into the clearing. The familiar stench of rot nearly overpowered him. He closed his mind from Lily—unwilling to compromise her safety—and prepared to meet Jacob.
I ran, but not far enough.
Not as far as Logan would have wanted. I ran until I was well concealed in a grove of thorny shrubs under a tall euca-tree.
Crouching, I watched in horror as sickening smoke morphed into a monstrous looking old man with saggy pallid skin and a skeletal frame.
This was Logan’s Father, the infamous Jacob? He looked more like a nursing home escapee than one of the most powerful warlocks alive. But I’d seen the tornado—felt the wicked energy. This old man was much more powerful than his rotting image suggested.
Chills shot up my spine as I grasped the full extent of my shock. That thing raised my Logan? The image of him in the same company as this man…this was the guy Logan went to when he was sick? Wanted a bedtime story read? It would be laughable—if it weren’t so terrifying.
“Who was she?” Jacob demanded, shoving a bony finger into Logan’s chest. His blood-red eyes flashed like a wild animal’s in the darkness.
Logan shrugged. “Nobody.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy.”
“Someone I met at the beach. Just a girl.”
Jacob’s mouth turned up in a sinister sneer. “That was no human girl.”
I wanted to cover my face with my hands, but couldn’t tear my eyes away. My swordfinger responded, hot and twitching, I was more than ready to fight if I had to defend myself.
“I assure you she was a human girl who’s done nothing wrong. Punish me, Father. Let her go.”
“A human—ha! That was a witch, you ignorant child. She must have enchanted you if you believe that lie.”
“A witch?” Logan rubbed his forehead, playing dumb. Even in the seriousness of the moment, his acting made me smother a laugh. If the whole warlock thing didn’t work out he could try his luck on stage. “A witch wouldn’t dare trespass on warlock land. I swear we just wanted to hang out. I know it sounds stupid, especially the night before the competition, but I was just so…edgy. I thought maybe being with a girl would help me burn off some steam.”
Being with a girl?
“Father, you have to believe me. Everything I care about is at stake here.”
“I believe you fell for the charms of a seductress. But why would you risk such a thing? You know what a witch can do. Without the close monitoring of the Congression, without the safety of the Stones, a witch could rob you of your magic.”
Black smoke escaped Jacob’s cracked lips when he snickered. “I can’t fault you too much for that, son. I’ve fallen prey to a seductresses or two in my day.”
When Logan’s face visually relaxed, my heart slowed down.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m sure you are. But rules are rules, and you broke a rule. You must be punished.”
I filled with dread. Punished
? Logan bowed his head in respect. “That’s fair, Father. I accept your punishment without argument. And the girl?” Logan pressed.
The air around me sizzled. Heat radiated from Jacob’s reptilian eyes as he peered into the forest, the rays like lasers burning everything in their path. The leaves of the shrub next to me smoked. Quickly and quietly, I cooled them with my breath.
“You mean the witch? Well, she must be taught a lesson.”
“Father?” The word drew Jacob’s eyes back onto Logan’s face. He flinched, obviously feeling a burn. “Let her go, she’s probably halfway home by now.”
“If she were halfway home would the air still smell like rotting petals?”
Above me, euca leaves sparked as if lit by a match. First one, then two. Three, four, five.
Dodging a shower of sparks, I waited, hunched over in the cool dirt.
I was about to bolt out of the forest and flee for safety when I remembered a legend Iris had once told me about. How in the medieval era, witches were sometimes able to survive being burned at the stake by using a spell.
My eyes rolled back as I murmured the protective spell. It wasn’t working. Then, I remembered Logan’s amulet in my pocket. I grabbed it, squeezed it into my palm. Its energy pulsed through me as its magic mixed with mine. Soon, a layer of ice formed on my skin, preventing me from burning further. As my skin cooled, I sighed with relief.
The legend was true. Witches would wait in the fire until the persecutors—the murderers—had gone home. Then, they would melt the soot-coated ice off their charred bodies and run into the woods for safety before they were buried alive.
Jacob levitated, then hovered over Logan, breathing black smoke onto his face, until Logan went limp. Spinning like a funnel cloud, he sucked Logan up, like a corpse into a tornado.