“Well, we’re here,” Dean announces.
It’s the first sentence anyone has uttered since we embarked on our journey to Christy’s fortress, and I can’t help but notice how tense his voice is, as if he’s waiting for something terrible to happen.
“So what do we do?” Jack inquires. “Just wait until the two of them come out?”
“Follow me,” Dean responds, advancing towards the fortress.
We stop where the forest ends abruptly and gives way to the sea -- or, now, the ice covering the sea.
“Uh, Dean? Are you sure this is safe?” Sophie asks.
“Of course it’s not safe,” he answers. “But we have to go over it to actually reach the fortress.”
Sophie and I glance at each other. I shrug, then tentatively take my first step onto the ice.
“Careful,” Dean warns. “See that massive hole over there? That’s where Sid escaped from the temporary prison Rachel created when she died.”
When he speaks her name, the shadows around us start to twist and writhe, as if the memory of their former commander reinvigorated them.
“They should be coming out any time now,” Dean murmurs.
“Who?” I ask.
“Christy and Sid.”
Suddenly, as if on cue, the ice between us and the fortress erupts with a ferocity rivalling Mount Vesuvius. Bits and pieces of razor-sharp ice rain down upon us and an explosion of icy water bursts forth like a geyser.
“Run!” Dean shouts.
Dodging the spears of ice, we scramble away from the site of the blast, but a lone figure dives down in front of us, blocking our way. Through the haze of chaos, I make out Sid’s unearthly smirk. His stentorian laugh easily carries over the maelstrom.
“Miss me?” he sneers.
Sid comes straight at us like a bullet on its path to murder. I look wildly around for an escape route, but there is none. And on top of that, I notice that the patch of ice we’re standing on is starting to crack.
“Get back, we have to run!” I yell, pointing at the gash in the ice.
But before any of us can take this advice, Sid is upon us. He swoops down and slams into the ice, enlarging the hole.
Then he kicks Jack hard, square in the chest.
Jack stumbles back a few paces, his feet slipping on the slick surface, but it’s no use; he can’t regain his balance. He falls backward -- straight into the icy water.
“Jack!” I scramble towards him, but Sid pounces on me before I can get there. I hit the ice hard and my vision starts going black around the edges.
No, Sophie, you have to stay conscious, I tell myself. Get to Jack. You promised to take care of him.
The weight on my back suddenly lifts, and I hear Saket screaming, “Get off of her, you slimy piece of --!” The sound of punching and a loud wail follows.
I gasp for air, trying to clear my head, and see Jack bobbing in the water only a few feet away. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I crawl over and grab hold of his wrist.
I’d expected him to pull himself out of the water, but instead, he thrashes even more violently.
“No! Let me go, please!”
“Are you insane?” I shout back. “Come on, Jack, get out of the water; you’re going to drown!”
“Then let me drown,” he says, so quietly that I can barely hear him over the roar of the fight. “Please -- do this for me--”
“Courtney told me to take care of you,” I argue.
“Yes, but she would want you to let me go,” Jack says.
I hesitate, beginning to understand what he means. At first, I’d thought Courtney just wanted me to keep him alive. But at what cost? Anyone can see that the only way he can ever be happy again is if he is with Courtney, on the other side of the stars -- if he is dead.
Finally, I realize what Courtney really meant. She wouldn’t want me to keep Jack alive if life is torture for him.
“Do this for Courtney, if not for me.”
I nod. “For Courtney, then.”
I let go of his hand, and he sinks into the choppy waves.
Just as Sid is gearing up for another kill, Dean appears out of the blue and smashes his flaming fists into the other boy’s back. Sid howls in pain and backpedals over the ice, desperately trying to extinguish the white-hot fire, while Dean races back towards us to help.
Sophie stands up, shaking her head. “It’s too late; he’s gone.”
I stand up, watching Jack disappear into the murky bay. “And what about Sid?”
“I injured him pretty bad,” Dean says. “He’ll go back to the fortress to recuperate -- he’s out of the fight for now.”
“We have to go, Sophie,” I say, grabbing her arm and pulling her away from Jack’s watery grave. She stumbles along with me, her eyes unfocused and distant.
“So, are we safe?” I ask, once we get back to the forest.
Dean shrugs. “Somewhat.”
Sophie points to the land in front of us. “Then what’s that?”
He narrows his eyes. “Oh... no. We’re not safe.”
“What is it?” I ask, my gaze following Sophie’s finger.
“Quicksand. Sid’s quicksand. It’s all around us, see?”
I look around. Sure enough, there’s some black, tarry substance bubbling up from where the grass used to be. It’s several meters away at the moment, but as I watch, it comes closer and closer, devouring all the vegetation in its path. Soon, we’ll have nowhere to go.
“How -- how do we get out?” I stammer.
Dean sighs. “It’s not just any quicksand. It devours everything it touches, living and non-living alike. Sid’s signature gift to his victims.”
“So we’re dead, then.”
“No,” he says. “Sid left a loophole. When the superhumans are severely injured, they’re unable to fly like normal and must resort to ground travel. So when Sid made this, he made sure there was still a way to get through.”
“So let’s do it. What are we waiting for?” I ask impatiently.
“Well, the loophole isn’t really simple for people with consciences,” Dean explains. “You see, because of Sid’s loophole, the quicksand can only devour one human at a time. After the first person steps in and dies, it will turn into glass and stop killing for a while.”
“You mean one of us will have to die,” I say.
“It has to be me,” Sophie says suddenly, stepping towards the quicksand. “Please.”
“No way!” Dean and I shout simultaneously.
He rushes forward and drags her back, despite her fierce protests. “You’re not dying on my watch, Sophie.”
Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Sophie stops struggling. “Then how are we going to get across?”
I exchange a look with Dean, then step in front of her, right next to him, so that Dean and I are standing side by side.
I can see the horror of realization in Sophie’s eyes. My gut twists as I think of the torture we’re about to put her through, but I don’t back out.
“No, no, no!” Sophie cries. “There’s no way I’m going to choose between you two!”
But even this cannot mask the way she looks at me, how her eyes rest on me for a millisecond longer than they do for Dean. How they fill with reproach, resentment, and distaste in those few moments.
No, she does not need to choose.
I back up towards the quicksand, my steps slow at first but picking up speed as I draw nearer.
“What the heck are you doing, Saket?” she shouts.
I stop once I’m only a foot away from death. “Remember when you told me that you couldn’t see what the point of living was anymore?”
One more step.
Sophie reaches towards me, as if she can somehow cross the space with her hands alone. I hold her gaze, hoping my eyes will convey all of my unspoken words.
“Saket...” Her voice is desperate, almost pleading, but I can’t stop now.
I step back again, and this time my foot finds something other than solid ground. I begin to sink.
Perhaps death will give me something that life cannot.
“Well, Sophie, I’ve figured it out now. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because you are the light.”Her scream of anguish is the last thing I hear.