Trying to ignore the chattering of my teeth and the chill in my bones, I pull Leo along with me as I stumble through the dense undergrowth, feeling as if I were a blind camel navigating the Arctic.
We’re very near Christy’s fortress -- I can feel its miasmatic manifestation lurking in the darkness, a panther waiting to strike. It takes all of my will not to turn and flee.
The mission, I remind myself. I have to stop Christy; only then will Courtney be safe.
A tiny voice nags at the back of my mind. What if it’s too late? You’re not around to protect her anymore. How do you know Christy hasn’t gotten her already?
I oppress the thought. I can’t afford to think like that.
Leo breaks the silence. “How much longer?” His voice seems to be muffled by the darkness.
“Not too far,” I answer. “Almost there.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I can feel it. It’s so cold.”
I nod absentmindedly, letting the silence fall back upon us once more. We trek on wordlessly until we emerge from the forest.
And my jaw drops.
Christy’s fortress is looming as far up as the eye can see, right in front of us, its smooth obsidian walls radiating pure malevolence. It’s so massive, so overwhelming that it almost blocks out the starlit sky.
Leo vocalizes my thoughts. “Holy. Shiz.”
I give myself a few seconds to stare, then force myself to snap out of it. “Okay. Big black tower thing. What do we do now?”
As if the fortress has heard me, the gates creep open, revealing an interior not unlike the maw of a lion. An all-consuming vengeful black hole, and we’ve got to enter. As my pupils adjust to the shadows, I manage to make out a slim, feminine figure standing within. Christy.
I turn to Leo, seeing my own fear and awe reflected in his eyes. His mouth is still gaping. Gently, I reach out and shut it.
“I guess we go in.”
My eyes narrow as I instantly recognize Leo Qi, the insolent boy whom Sid captured and brought to me -- the boy who turned my own servants against me.
He will pay for that.
Accompanying him is another boy, Japanese something-or-other, short dark hair framing a pale face. I don’t recall seeing him before.
Before I can question him, however, he calls out to me, “Christy? Is that you?”
Slowly, I step forward to reveal myself. “I am she.”
The Japanese boy strides towards me boldly, Leo trailing behind him hesitantly. “I brought someone to visit you.”
“I see.” I’m careful to keep my face completely placid. “And who are you to come traipsing into my fortress with one of my worst enemies?”
He doesn’t flinch. “I’m Jack Frost.”
I snort with derision. “No, really.”
“Yes, really,” he replies, raising an eyebrow and mirroring my tone. “My name is Jack Frost.”
“Very confident, aren’t you?” I say in a mocking voice. “We’ll see about that. What are you doing here?”
“I told you,” Jack says. “People told me you were looking for Leo, so I brought him.”
“And what are you hoping to gain?”
“I want to join you. I heard you were lacking followers, so I thought I could help.”
I tap my foot, weighing the possible outcomes. On the one hand, this Jack character might actually be useful to me. It’s true that I’ve lost all three of my former supporters; I can’t hold the fortress and guard the Cosmo Prison all at once. But on the other hand... exactly how trustworthy is Jack?
I make a split-second decision. It won’t matter what Jack finds out about me -- I can end his life whenever I want.
“All right.” I beckon to Jack. “Follow me.”
Then I turn to Leo.
“And as for you...”
I let the corners of my mouth curl up in a devilish smile.
“Your life is about to get a whole lot worse.”
It’s been an entire day since Jack and Leo set out, and I’ve been plagued with nightmares the entire time. There are so many things that could go wrong... things that would surely lead to Jack’s death.
Unable to sit still any longer, I get up from my position on the floor of the dilapidated hut I’ve been occupying. I’ll go mad if I stay alone any longer.
As I push open the door, the damp evening air splashes like paint over my skin. A gentle wind plays with my hair, twirling its soft fingers in my long, dark curls the way Jack likes to. Instead of bringing comfort, however, the feeling only sends chills down my spine.
I need to talk to Ramya. She’s been one of my closest friends for... what? Centuries?
It takes a while for me to recall where she might be -- Town Hall, most likely. Breaking into a run, I leave the breeze rustling against the windows behind me.
It’s only minutes before I arrive at Town Hall, slightly out of breath from the exertion. I’m just about to barge right in when the sound of whispering stops me. Leaning against the crack in the double doors, I strain my ears to make out the words.
It sounds like Ramya and Suchet.
“Shouldn’t... do this... Debbie...” The remainder of Ramya’s words are snatched away by the wind.
But before I can eavesdrop more, a voice pronounces itself behind me. “What are you doing here? Thought your boyfriend was the spy.”
Whirling around, my eyes find Sophie’s judgemental ones glowering back.
“I wasn’t spying on them,” I protest.
She gives me a withering look. “Yeah, you were.”
I hastily change the subject. “What are you doing here?”
Sophie folds her arms. “Same reason you’re here,” she mutters, the hostility from yesterday still tainting her tone.
"I have no idea what I'm doing, so that doesn't work."
“I came here to talk,” Sophie murmurs forlornly. “But there’s no one left to talk to.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I let the saturninity between us stretch out. Sophie offers no words either, and we submerge in the cold silence.
After the most uncomfortable minute of my life, I decide to take a risk. “You can talk to me, you know.”
Sophie just gives me a look of disdain.
“Look,” I say with a sigh. “I know you’re mad at me, and I know everything is my fault. But I want to try and heal it. I can’t fix this, but I can help... if you would let me.”
She raises her haunted gaze to meet mine but still says nothing.
“Please,” I add.
Her fingers tracing cracks in the walls of Town Hall, Sophie leans her head against the bricks. “You don’t understand. You couldn’t understand.”
A lump rises in my throat. “I...”
Suddenly, she turns her face towards me. “But you might... someday. Perhaps soon.”
Chills run down my spine as I stammer, “You -- you mean Jack?”
Sophie looks me directly in the eye. “Yes, I do. What would happen to you if he dies on this mission of his?”
“I -- I couldn’t live if that happened,” I whisper. “I couldn’t live.”
“Yeah, you would,” Sophie snaps vehemently. “You’d live, all right! After all, it’s happened to me, right? And I’m still alive, aren’t I?” Her caustic words seem to reach right past my skin and sear my heart.
I quail under the enmity of her glare. “I mean, I might survive... but I wouldn’t -- I couldn’t live.”
“There’s no difference,” she says, suddenly quiet. “Not anymore.”
“So why do we even try to live if it doesn’t matter?”Sophie just gives her narrow shoulders a half-hearted shrug. “That’s the thing. We don’t.”