Sharp pine needles pricked my skin. The forest around us was wet and damp; my legs were shaking, but it wasn’t from the icy wind blowing through the forest. I sheathed my sword and gaped upwards at Reverie, the floating kingdom we’d fallen from. We shouldn’t still be alive. Without Lucian, we wouldn’t have been. The scent of mold and leaf-litter tingled my nose. Bright green buds were poking through the carpet of dead leaves, but it was too early for spring.
The muscles in my back shifted. I winced in discomfort as the black wings between my shoulder blades, Lucian’s creation, folded away.
I felt the demon shifting around in my thoughts. I’m so tired, he murmured. I think I’m going to hide in the sword for a bit. I nodded, still too stunned to answer.
A hand seized my wrist. I tore my gaze from Reverie and looked instead at Alexander. He held me so tightly that I wondered if he could feel my pulse racing beneath his slender fingers. The intensity in his blue eyes took my breath away. It was as if he could strip me bare and see everything I was thinking. Light dappled through the forest canopy, casting spots of light and shadow over Alexander’s golden hair and fair skin. As I looked at him, time seemed to stand still for just an instant. He really was beautiful. Then he spoke and ruined the moment.
“What just happened?” Alexander asked, his voice shaking. “There’s no way way could’ve…”
He looked at me with a mixture of awe and fear, as if were a powerful mage, instead of a fraud from the Scraps. Which, I guess, he still thought I was. When I arrived in Reverie, I’d been a fraud, just pretending to have magic and cheating my way into the magic academy. I didn’t know what I was now. But as far was Alexander was concerned, I was a rich girl from Argent, the gated citadel in the middle of the Lower Realms. One who could talk to demons. A useful talent for a prince like him, even if it was forbidden.
I wasn’t ready for Alexander’s questions. Not after fighting against one of my possessed classmates, not after falling from Reverie, and not after all the magic it’d taken to free Lucian. I was too tired to lie, so I kept my mouth shut, averting my gaze towards the forest floor. It was so dark and green. I crouched, running my fingertips over the moss and studying a trail of ants.
“Wynter,” Alexander said, kneeling beside me. He brushed his fingers across my upper lip, and they came away sticky with blood. It reminded me of our kiss in the library.
“No one has ever survived a fall from Reverie,” he said, wiping his hands on a white handkerchief he pulled from the inside jacket of his dark gray coat. It was lined with silver trim that glittered when he moved.
“We did,” I replied absently.
“Yes, but how?” He handed me the handkerchief, now stained with blood, and I used it to clean up the rest of my nosebleed. Alexander’s rapier was drawn but held down at his side. I supposed that was a good sign. He hadn’t resolved to stab me yet.
I bit my lip. “I didn’t save us,” I said slowly.
I don’t think you should tell him, Lucian murmured.
Maybe not. But I was so tired of keeping secrets from everyone. And would it be so bad if Alexander did know what I’d done? If anyone in Reverie would accept me releasing a demon, it would be Alexander. Probably.
When I snapped my gaze back to him, Alexander’s eyes searched my face. Whatever he saw there didn’t please him.
“You actually freed it?” he asked, sounding hoarse. “But why isn’t it attacking? Wynter, you can’t—can you control it? Or did you just—”
It? Lucian asked indignantly. Remind your princeling that I just saved his life!
“No,” I said, “I can’t control him, and he’d like me to remind you that he just saved your life.”
He dropped my wrist and backed away with a sharp suddenness. My heart sank. Alexander had been the one to warn me against listening to the voices. Like all mages, he thought the demons were evil creatures, whispering evil temptations and destroying minds.
Hundreds of excuses flitted through my head, like butterflies trapped in a glass jar. But I was too tired to deal with Alexander’s disappointment. Maybe I should’ve lied, even though no lie would’ve been good enough to satisfy him. We were both about to die. Freeing Lucian was the only option, and I didn’t regret it.
Alexander’s face lost all its color, and yet his eyes seemed to brighten and sharpen. Beneath the wariness and the alarm, there was a spark of fascinated curiosity.
“He can…hear me?” Alexander asked.
I nodded. “Lucian hears everything I do.”
Alexander laughed, the noise edged with something brittle and hysterical, and sank to the ground. After a few seconds, he fell silent. I let the quiet stretch between us, glancing over his shoulder into the dark woods. I’d never been this deep in the forest before, and I had no idea how to survive in one. I wondered how far we were from the Scraps. With a sinking feeling, I realized that Alexander probably hadn’t been in a real forest, either. He’d grown up in luxury, surrounded by sculpted gardens, and thought a visit to Argent was slumming it. For a moment I felt a stab of fear. Just because we’d survived the fall from Reverie, didn’t mean we were safe.
“This is too much,” Alexander said suddenly. “You—you weren’t—you weren’t supposed to release a demon! Wynter, what if he tries to kill us?”
“If he wanted to kill us, he’d have let us fall,” I said.
“What if it’s something…I mean…” Alexander trailed off. “How do we know we can trust him?”
“Lucian didn’t control our classmate and make her attack us,” I said. “And he didn’t tear apart the Academy floor and make us fall from Reverie. All he has done is save our lives, and I think if we’re going to talk about people we trust, Lucian is a safe bet.”
Alexander buried his face between his hands and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. I felt a pang of sympathy. He must’ve been so confused, but at least, he wasn’t angry. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be angry at all. I didn’t think I had the strength to fight him.
I looked back to Reverie, nestled in the fluffy clouds and draped in the colors of sunset. It looked as beautiful as it always had, only I knew now it was full of dangerous mages and backstabbing politics. The earthquakes, the demon attacks. I took a deep breath and realized the air was thicker here, full of oxygen. I let it clear my head. For a moment, I wondered if I could just go home and leave this all behind me. I belonged on the ground with Briar and Sterling. I could just find a direction, head to the Scraps, and never think of Reverie again. Maybe I could even get Alexander to tell everyone I was dead, so no one would come looking for me.
But then I remembered Tatiana in the hospital, and the wild look in Viviane’s eyes when she attacked me. Someone in Reverie was behind the demon attacks, and the same person had possessed Viviane and nearly torn the Academy apart. Whatever they were looking for, I knew it wasn’t over. Could I really turn my back and let more people get hurt?
I looked back at Alexander and met his sharp eyes.
“I hope Viviane is all right,” I said.
“Me, too,” he sighed.
Viviane was awful to me, but I still wouldn’t have wished any harm on her. It must’ve been terrifying, to be controlled by someone else and forced to hurt people. After I’d burned through the glowing sigils in her arm, she’d collapsed and stammered in confusion. I wondered how much she even remembered.
“I wonder who the target was,” Alexander said. “Was someone trying to hurt Viviane, or someone else? Because she was being controlled with sigils, it had to have been a mage. Probably one that was nearby, too.”
“Like one of our professors?” I asked.
Alexander nodded slowly. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said.
Neither did I. But whatever happened to Viviane was connected to something much larger—something involving demon attacks, earthquakes and potentially a magical charm. I thought of all the girls I’d met at the Academy, the girls who’d had classes with me and slept in the same dormitories with me. I thought of Celeste and Professor Gareth, who had both been so kind to me. Whatever was going on up in Reverie, it was unlikely to stop now, which meant everyone in Reverie was in danger.