He watched the rocky foothold break loose against her heel and opened his mouth to shout a warning. Alethea swung her arms out to grasp the protruding ledge above her but the reach was too far. Sweeping his gaze around their precarious station in a lightning second, Kaede made a small leap up the narrow incline until he was directly under her. He spread his feet and bounced his knees lightly, his hands splayed out like a small net in front of him.
She cried out as she plummeted backwards. Before he could react, Alethea slammed into him, her spine pressed against his palms. Pure survival instinct rushed through Kaede. He gripped her waist and propelled them both forward, away from the thousand-foot drop at his back.
His hand found a small crevasse and wrapped white-knuckled fingers around it. When he felt their weight stabilize, he leaned against the side of the mountain and closed his eyes.
Alethea’s arms were wound tightly around his middle, her breath coming in gasps. He touched her arm gently, trying to reassure, but felt his own body trembling like a leaf.
When she pulled away, he guided her hand to the same crevasse to steady her. She remained silent for a long moment, wide-eyed and pale.
Kaede mustered a smile, attempting to dispel the fog that followed their brush with death. “We live to Phoenix hunt another day.”
His voice seemed to shake her out of fear-stricken stupor. The sudden clarity in her gaze was almost unnerving.
“Kaede—” she began, and then faltered. “I—”
“Oh, please, no eloquent speeches.”
He felt a small thrill of pleasure and relief when her lips quirked upward. A measure of color began returning to her face.
“Thank you,” she said simply.
His chest throbbed. No one else could steal his ready wit with the simple authenticity Alethea possessed. Her dark hair fell like a messy frame around her face and he felt pain pulse through him as he considered how terribly close an encounter she had with mortality.
She is not like Abigail. He recalled his earlier, vague comment, which hung between them.
Her sister was a risk-taker and adventure-seeker. She could lead a clan with her spirit and courage. Kaede admired Abigail, certainly, and found her wit and daring a worthy match to his.
Alethea chased after none of that—peril, renown or glory. Yet she would brave hell and high water for those she loved. She can inspire men, and she does not even know. With a pang, Kaede thought even his mother could not do that, though she dedicated her life to the pursuit of prestige and influence among the Sparrows.
His instinct urged him to deflect her gratitude with a jest, but he resisted. “My pleasure,” he returned genuinely. In a lighter tone, he quipped, “I’m not brave enough to face the witch alone.”
She laughed, but he heard the quiver in her voice.
“Look. We are nearly there.” Kaede motioned at the ledge a few feet above their heads.
When they clambered over the final ridge, he sank onto a large rock, feeling the fatigue in his bones. The last segment of their climb was the most hazardous, and he had slept poorly the night before, turning over in his mind ways to shield Alethea from the inevitable sorrow she would endure. If they failed, Abigail would remain in her deathly state. If they succeeded, she would learn of Kaede’s deception—and a secret, selfish part of him almost hoped Abigail would not awake to expose his duplicity.
It was a terrible thought. Alethea, in all her simplicity and artlessness, put his character to shame.
“Kaede.” Her voice reached him in a hushed, strained tone.
He rounded a small bend to find her staring at the mouth of a cave, flanked on both sides by great stone monuments that resembled wings.
A breath caught in his throat. “This is what Demarion described?”
“Yes—Kaede,” she said, whirling to face him abruptly, “I have not told you…” she trailed off.
His chest tightened with mingled fear and anticipation. But the thought of his own deception pressed painfully in his mind and stirred up earnest empathy. “You can tell me.”
A glint of desperation flashed through her eyes.
“I am afraid we will fail,” she whispered finally.
Kaede did not know if it was her quiet voice or her honest admission that inspired a steely, protective spirit within him. He gripped her arm and felt her startled gaze lock with his. In the back of his mind, he vaguely hoped he did not overstep the bounds of propriety.
“While I stand and breathe, Alethea, she will not hurt you.” His voice sounded rough but sure in his ears.
She bit her lip and cast her eyes downward. “What of Abi?”
He felt a wave of helplessness but stifled it quickly. Kaede had no power over that.
“We can only try.” He sensed the weakness of his words, though Alethea still nodded and forced a grateful smile.
The inside of the cavern was dark, but a small light glimmered in the back, flickering like candlelight. A subtle but persistent dank smell wafted around them. Kaede rested his hand on Alethea’s shoulder, though he was uncertain if the gesture offered any consolation or simply made her uncomfortable.
A billowing shadow fell over the dim flame, darkening his vision entirely. He felt Alethea tense as they stopped moving.
“I have not entertained visitors since your father last came.”
Her voice was smooth and unthreatening but something in her tone made Kaede grow cold. The shadow fell away and the light suddenly glowed twice as brightly, revealing an older woman with gray hair, wrapped in a deep crimson cloak.
“Hello, Sela,” Alethea said.
Sela’s mouth curved up, though her smile carried no warmth. “You have Demarion’s eyes.”
Kaede gripped Alethea’s shoulder more tightly, but she hardly flinched. He sensed a quiet conviction and composure enshroud her.
“Your curse took my sister. I need you to undo it.”
Admiration and brief astonishment at her newfound courage pierced Kaede’s haze of anxiety like a spear.
“Ah, dear Abigail. She had the hot blood of the Dragons, like your father. You, on the hand—”
“How do you know these things?” Kaede broke into her musing.
She glanced at him for the first time, a haughty but penetrating look in her dark pupils. Wordlessly, she lifted her cloak off her shoulder and exposed a blood-colored Phoenix tattoo.
“The gift of foresight,” she returned. “Though,” she muttered quietly, “I did not anticipate a second daughter—” Her gaze returned to Alethea.
“Undo the curse,” Kaede repeated.
Sela did not respond, but rather moved further into the cavern, beckoning them to follow her. Painfully aware of how vulnerable they were—he suspected that swords and knives would serve no use here—he trailed after Alethea.
They arrived at a dead end in the back of the cave. A small fire burned on wooden logs haphazardly tossed together. If she plans to kill us…
“I cannot undo the curse.”
Alethea became very still, but a slow, steady fury began to burn inside Kaede, like Sela’s fire.
“Why not?” he demanded.
“Phoenix limitations. The creator of a spell cannot reverse it.” She paused, shifting her gaze intently from Kaede to Alethea. “I can only transfer it, or another Phoenix must conjure up an appropriate counter-curse.”
“Phoenix spells are binding. A counter-curse cannot simply reverse the original; it must make a new provision or develop an antidote. Few,” Sela emphasized, “are ever effective.”
Hopelessness and resentment churned in black waves within Kaede. “There are no more Phoenixes in the Adamaris.”
“What do you mean, you can transfer it?” Alethea asked suddenly.
Sela raised a thin brow at her. “I can remove the curse from Abigail and give it to another. Curses cannot be destroyed, but they can be passed along.”
Kaede felt a sick horror in the pit of his stomach as he watched Alethea’s face. She could not think—
“No!” He moved in front of her, half-shielding her body from the Phoenix, as if the effort might protect her from her own deliberations. He glowered wrathfully at Sela, his earlier qualms vanquished by revulsion. “You are wretched.”
The older woman appeared unaffected. “I do not make the rules.”
Alethea stepped out from behind him, touching his arm as she did. “What about the Adamaris? The famine still lies over the mountain.”
“I offered an remedy for that one. Peace between the clans.”
“We won’t have peace without Abigail!” Alethea exclaimed in a sudden burst of passion, her face reddening. “We won’t have peace without her marriage to Kaede.”
Sela did not respond right away, but turned to look at Kaede. He felt her hawk-like gaze blister him, peeling away his layers until the core of him lay raw and naked and bleeding. Cold dread filled him and his lungs closed as if he were underwater. For a brief moment, he wondered if she was casting a spell over him, but the dismay he experienced originated from his own, familiar demons.
“How fully she trusts you,” Sela murmured. “Odd, isn’t it? It was your ambition that the curse used, and yet here you are, asking for the life of the girl you cheated.”
His blood ran like ice through his veins. Alethea turned to him, perplexed, but with a hint of trepidation in her eyes that cut through Kaede.
“What is she talking about?”
Sela’s gaze did not move from him. “Now,” she purred, “who is the wretch?”