World's of Ash: A Fantasy Tale

(hardback, and paperback, copies found at: https://www.austinmacauley.com/us/author/rutan-jonathan-lee)

Chapter Twenty-One

Ash was back on the Unkindness. Her dream or memory or quick bit of nothing abruptly finishing as she found herself on her knees, the fingernails of her left hand digging into wet slabs.

Her skin burned and itched. Not as badly as it had before, but bad enough to let her remember why exiting the Unkindness was much better than entering it.

Ash picked herself up. She brushed off the legs of her jeans too, and the sleeves of her long red shirt before she wiped a few errant strands of brown and red away from her forehead. She didn’t know if it was from her first trip to this highway or if it was from her visit to the library or maybe even if it was from all the running she’d recently done, but somewhere and somehow, she’d gotten very dirty.

She beat harder at her clothes, a puff of dust—what she hoped was a mess from her own world—blossoming into gray air. She flicked her hands at it, tried to shoo everything into wet and ruin rather than onto the road.

Ash looked at her fingers. A sharp pain was coming from underneath the nails of her left hand—a slight welling of blood found there as well. The blood was mixed in with a bit of dirt from the Fields of Kawshun, but Ash was too tired to give any thought as to whether the stuff would cause an infection or worse. She brought her fingers to her mouth.

After a few seconds, however, a thought did rise. It just came to her—what would happen if she spit? What if even a tiny bit of Kawshun dribbled off her chin? Ash swallowed—not a worry, or another thought, stepping forward to make her wonder if this was a bad idea.

She turned and saw the Reflection of her grandfather as he lay Casten down onto the road. The pane of glass they’d just come through was there as well. It was above and behind Poppa Henry, and Ash took note of how Freddy and Coach Littleton remained safe on the other side.

She dropped her now okay hand from her lips. Underneath her nails, everything still stung, but no blood or dirt was weeping out. She’d gotten it.

“You alright?” Poppa Henry asked. The black on him remained. In fact, it was worse. It had already wound its way over more and more of his body. It was way past his neck and had also just reached his thighs. “My Little Ash, are you alright?”

The black was making it harder and harder for her grandfather to stand. He swung on his feet, his legs cracking as Ash saw tiny fissures running up and down him before he caught himself.

“I—” Ash said. In her return to the Unkindness, she’d fallen a good distance from where her grandfather stood, yet in three or four steps, she was at his side. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

“I have a few minutes more,” Poppa Henry said. He stared at her, or at least she thought he was staring. His glass head had yet to give her any eyes to let her know what it was he was looking at. “But why did you have your hand in your mouth, are you hurt?”

Ash sighed. “Just cut myself. I was trying to clean out all the Kawshun I hadn’t yet gotten from underneath my nails. Was that…will the dirt make me sick?”

In an instant, everything that hadn’t stepped forward took a great big leap to the forefront of her mind. Was the Kawshun filled with germs? Was it poisonous? Maybe her desire to clean her own wound hadn’t been so wise.

Ash thought she could sense it in her gut too. A kind of lurch, as if she was going to be ill. But she wasn’t sure if it was nerves or something worse.

Poppa Henry laughed. “Swallowing the Kawshun is not a problem.” His glass body shook from his enjoyment. It cracked a bit more too. “On this road, you only need to worry about slipping off, getting lost, putting some of the Kawshun onto one of these slabs, or staying here whenever the very rare sunset occurs. Swallowing is okay.”

Ash sighed in relief as the unsettled feeling in her stomach disappeared. It really had been nerves.

“Good,” she said. The black on her grandfather was now past his cheeks. It was reaching for the top of his head. “But…but what about you? Why are you turning colors?”

Poppa Henry brought his right hand to his face. He turned it back and forth in front of where his eyes should have been.

His fingers were a pitch black, as cold and as empty as a cloudless midnight, his hand able to turn, his wrist flicking with a tiny bit of effort, but his fingers stayed rigid. They only moved and then splintered when he very harshly forced his knuckles to bend.

“I got lost again,” he said. “I wanted to find Peter as fast as I could and then get back to you, and I jumped too quickly. I went to the first strong reflective surface I felt without checking to see if that surface was close.

“I got stuck in the windshield of a passing car. Once I realized my mistake, I tried to jump back, but I only got a couple classrooms before I reached the library. I had to act fast, and what I used wasn’t big enough to accommodate all of me. I’m falling apart in a hurry.”

Ash shook her head. Something didn’t add up. “So—” she asked. She thought about the fight in her bedroom. “Why aren’t you letting that body go? You made a Reflection before and…I’m certain I heard Casten yell that you’d gotten rid of it.”

Poppa Henry’s body cracked more. When he turned from Ash to look down at the injured Elf, hundreds of fissures appeared.

“I didn’t have anything to hold onto when I jumped then,” he was so unconcerned with how his Reflection was breaking. “But I suppose with you safe, I can let this form go. Hold up your mirror.”

Ash looked at her hands, suddenly sure she’d dropped or broken the blue thing in her mad dash all around her school. The Errun had been fighting close by and Phyllis had tackled her to the ground long before she’d ever fallen to her knees or was pulled back onto the Unkindness. She’d even punched someone in the face—the mirror had to be damaged or ruined, but when Ash looked and saw it in her right fist (she had no clue how it had gotten there) it was fine. Even when she flipped it over and stared at its cool reflective surface, there was no sign of anything wrong.

“How is this not destroyed?” she asked. She held the mirror up.

“Oh, that,” Poppa Henry said. “I made sure to add a little something extra to that a long time ago. I made your mirror virtually unbreakable. It would take a ton of magic to crack it.”

He moved slightly—a tentative step, more of a shuffling of one foot forward rather than a huge leap. He was gone. His body—the parts that were a dark and complete midnight and the smaller sections that remained clear and pure—fell to pieces before exploding into tiny piles that were caught by a sudden breeze.

“I gave this mirror to your mother and father,” Poppa Henry continued. He was in the blue mirror. Ash turned it—saw him there, as if he was standing at a distance so she could see all of him instead of just his forehead and eyes. “At the time, I didn’t want the thing to break anymore. You see, the mirror is Penthyan—something I stole from a dear old Wiggan. It was much larger before, but after many months spent in the wilderness and a need to use it as a weapon, it became smaller.

“What I gave to your parents was the last good piece, and I didn’t want it to get hurt ever again, so I cast some of my best spells, something I should have done long before. It is another reason why I wanted you to take it. This mirror is quite special, in fact, it is so special it can do something I think you might enjoy.”

Ash held the thing close to her face, trying to listen as her grandfather began to say words she had never heard. It was three of them, possibly Greek or Latin or some other language maybe only used in Penthya. Poppa Henry spoke quickly as the sound of something sinister, a howl from maybe more wolves of the Kawshun, almost drowned him out.

The blue in her hands changed. It flowed as if it had life, a wild and crazy intent that made once stable plastic transform into something much more rope-like. Ash’s blue mirror quickly became her blue necklace, the mirror remaining, the rope did encircle it completely, but what was solid plastic soon was gone as a blue satin loop appeared in its place.

Ash draped it around her neck. Once the blue stopped moving, she let the mirror drop to below her throat. The sapphire loop allowed for Poppa Henry to be able to see wherever she was going, as long as she never tucked him between her long-sleeved red shirt and the white cotton undershirt beneath.

Ash laughed. “This is perfect. Why didn’t you do this before?”

Poppa Henry sighed. “An old man who isn’t even a man anymore must be forgiven his lack of mental acuity. Back when I first took this mirror, I never thought about protecting it from damage until it was already broken, and now I’m ashamed to say that until this very moment, I didn’t think about making it any easier to carry.”

Another howl, this one much closer, echoed over the Unkindness. It was the sound of a leader being followed by others. A whole pack of wolves was coming for her, but one was running ahead of whatever horde was tearing its way through the Fields of Kawshun.

Ash lifted her mirror back up. The wolves were worrisome, yet everything was still far enough away for her to let it be. “You stole this?” she asked.

“Yes,” Poppa Henry confessed. He walked forward until Ash again saw only his eyes and forehead. “Another regret of my life, I took this from a Wiggan Tribal named Pullun. He was nothing but decent to me, and I stole something he must have had simply because he was the leader of his people. If it is possible, and with your help, I do hope we will return it once I set things right.”

Ash smiled. She’d been disappointed to hear that her grandfather was a thief—that plus his prompting which had led her to punch Emily Baker (and what she’d heard from Casten and Arathus) had even made her wonder what else her Poppa Henry could be capable of.

“Of course, we’ll return it,” Ash said. His desire to fix one wrong made her happy. Even as a Reflection, he kept proving himself to still be the grandfather she remembered.

A flash of black, a large and furry mass of teeth and legs, crested the top of a nearby hill. The first wolf, the one whose howl had been running ahead of the rest, had found her.

“When we get Peter and Mom and Dad; when we get Emily too, I suppose,” Ash said. Everything remained okay. The wolf might be closer, but the road would protect her. “We’ll return this mirror to Pullun once we do that…but will it be enough? You said it used to be bigger, will he want this?”

“When we give it back,” Poppa Henry said, “I can do one more spell. Grow it to what it once was. It will destroy all the spells I have on it and make it so no other spell can ever be placed upon it, but I can return this mirror to its former glory when everything is finished. I can make everything better once Penthya is healed.”

Ash nodded. “Sounds good,” she said, “but now can you tell me where I’m supposed to go? How can—”

The first wolf leapt into the air. But instead of hitting some barrier, it kept coming. It landed right onto the middle of the Unkindness.

Ash ran to where she’d fallen. She didn’t know why she went. Her legs just fled and she was carried along.

She looked down. A few fingers had dug painfully onto the highway, but she hadn’t thought anything bad had happened. Yet as she peered as close as she could get, she saw one drop—just a splash of red mixed in with three even smaller flecks of dirt. Some pieces of the Kawshun were in front of her.

“Poppa Henry,” Ash yelled. The wolf was still a good ways away. But it was closing quick as more of its pack started to crest the same hill it had already crested. “I got the Kawshun onto the Unkindness!”

Ash scampered back to Casten and then to the pane of glass just behind him. Coach Littleton and Freddy Williams were still on the other side, but Ash realized they were moving slow rather than fast. Unlike what Arathus and Casten had been doing after she’d jumped through the glass cabinet in her dining room, Coach Littleton and Freddy were walking and looking around in a very languid manner. They had only just begun to turn down the row Poppa Henry had carried her along.

“Ash,” Poppa Henry said. He was suddenly in the pane with Freddy and Coach Littleton behind him. The blue mirror was aimed towards the thing, Ash realizing her grandfather must have simply stepped over and into the glass as soon as he’d seen it. “Ash, grab hold, I can pull you up.”

He was leaning over and had a hand out for her to take. But Ash ignored him as she turned to the still unconscious Casten. “What about…can you get him?”

“Not yet,” Poppa Henry said. “I just got rid of the other body I made, and it takes a good five minutes before I can do something like that from a pane I’ve already used! I could use your blue mirror, but I wouldn’t be able to keep my body solid for more than a second, so…you must go! Just take my hand and leave! Come back to the library!”

Ash kept staring at the fallen Elf. His green blood was flowing more slowly from his wounds, but it was flowing. There was no way he would suddenly stand and escape on his own, yet the wolf was closer, much closer. In only a minute—maybe less—it would have him in its jaws.

“If—” Ash said. It would take too long for her to get through the pane of glass her grandfather was in. And even if it didn’t, Ash had already figured something else out: trying for another pane on the Unkindness was a lost cause. Such an attempt would also take too long. “If you fall apart before you get back into a reflective surface, what happens?”

“Unless I use magic too dark to think of, magic that would rip someone’s soul away from their body, I would die,” Poppa Henry said. “But that won’t happen, I promise, just take my hand, go back to where it is safe, and I will make it. I will get Casten.”

“No.” Ash turned her head. She would have to be quick, quicker than ever, but she could do it. “I’ll be right back.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

The wolf was fast, incredibly so. Ash wasn’t sure if it was the same one she’d beaten to the puddle, but with her luck, it probably was.

She grabbed hold of Casten’s foot. He barely moved an inch.

She was so stupid! Getting Casten to her Poppa Henry was the worst of plans—there was no way that pulling on him would be fast, it would probably take as long as everything else she’d thought of. And even if she did find success, Ash now saw how she could only get Casten close to the pane, not up through it.

Where Poppa Henry was perched was too high, his glass ended a good three feet above the Unkindness. There was no way she could lift anything that far.

Ash dropped Casten’s leg. It was already too late. The wolf was closer. She needed something, yet for the life of her, she couldn’t remember where Casten’s sword might be.

It wasn’t on him. She knew that much. Her grandfather had used it back when he’d fought with Syndon; however, he must have let it go. Ash hadn’t seen the sword since he’d gotten rid of his glass body.

“Right in front of him,” Poppa Henry said. Ash looked back over her shoulder. Her grandfather was on his knees, his hands up against his pane as he pointed beyond her. “His cloak is covering it! It’s there!”

Ash jumped as the wolf did the same. Casten was on his side. His head was pointed towards the wolf, his arms and green cloak splayed haphazardly across his neck and over his face. How his cloak had come to cover most of his upper body was beyond Ash—it must have happened when he’d been thrown to the ground—but as she dug underneath his thick green robe, she prayed for a miracle.

She felt a hilt, her fingers banging against the end of Casten’s sword as she grabbed hold and pulled. There was a voice in her mind—a vague hello or a sigh of something coming awake—as the tip of what she held barely rose.

The wolf was upon her. It nipped at her shoulder, the force of its impact sending her skittering along the highway until she smashed into the gray wall with Casten right beside her. But the wolf’s teeth barely broke her skin. Everything was such a soft pinch, not the agonizing tearing she’d been expecting. The beast didn’t seem to have the energy to do any real damage.

Ash yanked at her weapon. The wolf slowly moved off her, yet the sword refused to budge. She tried a little harder, pushed and pulled, yet the blade would not surrender its hold.

Ash released the hilt—let the sword stay if it wanted. She got to her feet, the sigh in her mind immediately vanishing.

Ash took stock of what she’d done. The tip of the sword had lifted only a little when first she’d grabbed it, yet that had apparently been enough for the sword to catch the wolf under its furry throat. Then the sword must have used that fur to rise more, the poor beast driving the weapon further into itself as its leap onto her had made the edges of such sharp silver cut deep into its middle.

Ash kicked at the wolf. It rolled lifelessly down the Unkindness, and when it finally came to rest, she saw faint smoke lifting off its body. There wasn’t much, only light wavy gray against the air of an already gray sky, but it was there. The wolf was burning.

“Ash, are you alright?” Poppa Henry was yelling from behind her, his voice raw and weak. It sounded like he’d been yelling for quite some time. “Are you okay?”

Ash shook her head and turned to her grandfather. There were still wolves coming, they were already on the Unkindness. She couldn’t face them, but neither could she quite grasp what it was she’d done.

Back in the library, when she’d seen the Errun and the Light Benders, she’d stayed still in stunned awe. But she had also punched Emily, and on this road, she’d run from one wolf and now had slain another. She couldn’t stop questioning this whiplash of emotion—one second, some change would arrive and she would be amazing, the next, back to immobilized fear—what was going on with her?

Ash didn’t know. However, she did know—for sure—that there was one question that was even bigger. How had she killed something that was already dead?

“Are you okay?” Poppa Henry asked again. He was still in the pane—on his knees with Casten completely out of it beneath him.

“I—” Ash said. “I’m fine. But—how did I kill the wolf?”

“You didn’t kill it,” Poppa Henry said. He got to his feet and pointed a hand at what she’d cut. “You set it free. If a soul is lost in the Kawshun, it does get warped into those things, but that warping is merely a shell around the true soul beneath. Look. Look at what you’ve done. You’ve actually saved your life way more than you know.”

Ash turned back around. The faint gray she’d seen was no longer there—the body of the wolf now a torrent of foul tendrils. It shot up and up, wafting straight towards the heavens. The smoke caused the coming pack to halt and whine in fear.

The smoke faded, yet it left something behind—a man with long black hair, a man also clothed in only the tattered remnants of an old and heavy shirt that fell past his knees. He stood exactly where the dead wolf had been, with Casten’s sword held tight in his hands.

The man stared at Ash. “You opened me,” he smiled. “How can I thank you?”

Ash nodded towards the pack that remained a few feet from them both. Most of the wolves were still sniffing the air in uncertain fear, but a few were growling and making slow steps in their direction. Whatever it was that had made them stop, it wasn’t going to last much longer.

“Can—” Ash began, “can you get them to leave?”

The man followed her gaze. “No,” he sighed. “They smell their former leader, a scent they are used to, yet they can’t understand why that smell has changed. Once they realize I am no longer like them, they will come. Nothing can stop that.”

Ash quickly pointed towards the glass behind her. Even though the man wasn’t looking, she had to do it. “Then help me get into that,” she said. “Help me get that Elf up too.”

The man shook his head. “This is my pack.” He raised the sword he held. The few wolves that had been edging closer were joined by others. “I have to set them free.”

“Please,” Ash said, “help me.”

The man sighed again and briefly turned. “I have to help them first.” But he also nodded to something over his shoulder, something just behind the wolves. “However, that might be able to help…whatever it is.”

Ash looked. A vague blue light was slowly cresting the same hill that every wolf had just come over. The light was getting stronger, and above it, a circling horde of black birds flew.

“Riders,” Poppa Henry said, “the blue light and the ravens of the Unkindness herald their arrival! Stay with Casten! Ash, stay as far from the wolves as you can get!”

Ash had no clue what her grandfather was talking about—she had, actually, long since lost any clue about anything that was going on—but she did have the presence of mind to do exactly as her Poppa Henry wanted. It still seemed the best course to take.

As the blue light crested the hill, she stayed at Casten’s side. It was riders—now things made a bit more sense. There were four of them. Ash couldn’t see clearly, but there were definitely four, and all were on some very strange looking horses.

Unlike those who rode upon them, the beasts were easily recognizable from such a distance. Ash knew immediately what they were.

Yet, she also thought they had to be the sickest and most ruined horses she’d ever seen. Each was white—a deathly pale beyond any kind of healthy color, a hue some animal would acquire mere seconds before it died. And they were thin; their bones almost poking through the flesh that their riders rode upon. From far away, the horses were horrible to behold, they even had sick pink eyes that glowed with a weak and terrible light, their imminent arrival something Ash was sure would make them look only worse. She had to turn her attention elsewhere.

She stared at the man she’d torn out of a wolf’s body. He must have run, or maybe he’d stayed still as the wolves had charged because now he was in the middle of that vicious pack. He was swinging Casten’s sword at each beast who dared to lunge his way.

However, something odd made Ash look twice, then three times, just to make sure. The man was holding the sword with two hands. He was using it accurately—to be honest, he appeared to be rather skilled with the thing—yet he was also having to incorporate his whole body, whereas Ash had found the sword to be quite light, so light she’d lifted it with the slimmest of effort. Why was it different for him?

Ash shook her head. She had better things to look at.

Three more wolves were down on the Unkindness, two with sides slashed wide open and smoking, and one just whimpering soft with a leg gone and a good portion of its back cut to ribbons. That last wolf was drifting more and more away, its body turning into gray tendrils just like what was happening to the others, but it was burning slower than they, its painful yelping no longer terrifying anyone or anything.

Its agony inspired the wolves around it. All of them lunged up all the harder.

The man went down. One second, he was bringing the weapon he held back above his head—the burden of it perhaps what caused him some trouble—and the next, a wolf had him by the throat. It dragged him to the edge of the Unkindness.

Ash moved. Again, she just knew she had to help.

“Don’t,” Poppa Henry said.

“But…” Ash turned his way. “That man—”

“Just watch.”

“But—”

“Just watch,” Poppa Henry said again.

The man was off the Unkindness, most of the pack grabbing on. They began to pull him deep into the Kawshun.

Yet, as fast as those wolves were—and as good as they worked together—they weren’t as good as the riders. Those figures on sick white horses suddenly arrived, the blue light they’d brought with them flashing powerfully.

It was a sapphire jewel positioned on the top of a staff which Ash could now see was being clutched by a woman with dark black hair and eyes the same color as the light she held. The blue poured down from her staff. It hit the wolves, and as soon as it touched them, they howled in the worst pain Ash had yet heard in this gray world.

Those who were outside the Unkindness let loose of the man and tried to leap back onto the highway. They couldn’t.

The barrier had returned, and those who were still inside, instantly collapsed. They exploded and left behind bewildered and shaking people who were in different stages of undress.

Some had on only pants—others just long shirts—yet each was wearing things that were as tattered and as ruined as what the man Ash had freed wore. They all looked horrible and confused, yet Ash couldn’t help but to also notice how elated they were. They stared at one another and finally yelled at the top of their lungs, “We’re free,” until none had any breath.

“Yes, you are free,” the woman who held the staff said.

But her voice held no concern for the people she’d helped, and her blue eyes didn’t appear to find them interesting. As all the wolves who’d been outside the Unkindness scampered off into the Kawshun, the woman stared at her staff—just watched as the blue light returned to the jewel.

The other riders, two men and one more lady; nudged their terrible horses in front of the souls on the Unkindness. They at least found them of interest.

“You can come with us if you wish,” the woman with the staff said. She sighed and finally looked at those who were around her. “Or you can go off on your own as you did before.”

“We…we just woke from a wretched nightmare,” the man Ash had freed said. He got back to his feet and brushed himself off.

“We have just been released from the anger and rage we have known for far too long,” he continued, “and I have to know—how can I trust you when I never once saw you when first I arrived in this place? I got lost because no one on starved horses ever came to show me the way out. How can I believe you will help me now?”

“These are Kawshun Horses,” the woman with the staff said, “and there aren’t that many of them, there aren’t that many of us. This place is mainly filled with wolves and ravens, and you will have to forgive us if we didn’t get around to you before. This world has an end, but it is still a large world. We didn’t notice you.”

“But you notice us now,” the man Ash had saved asked.

“Who are you?” the woman with the staff said. “Give me your name.”

“No, I want to know—”

“And you will find out, but give me your name.”

“Not until you give me yours.”

“So be it,” the woman with the staff said, “my name is Amalin, and you?”

“Jeth,” the man Ash had freed said. He brushed black hair from his face and flicked long strands off his forehead and ears. Ears which Ash saw weren’t like the ears of any man she’d ever seen. They were sharp and pointy, and just like Casten’s. “My name is Jeth, and in another life, I used to be an Elf.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

“It can’t be,” Poppa Henry moaned, a tiny croak that was like weak steam coughing out of the world’s sickest teapot.

This time, Ash didn’t even bother to wonder what might be wrong with him. Let her Poppa Henry moan as much as he wanted because…well…there was something behind this. It was a nudge in her mind—or maybe more like a worrisome itch just beyond her fingertips. Ash knew there was an explanation; if only she could reach it. Was Jeth a part of Penthya?

Something clicked. Finally, and with a hallelujah chorus of “I can’t believe this miracle has arrived,” she grabbed hold, gave a good long scratch, and had an answer to one section of her chaotic day. She didn’t even have to say a word to get it.

Jeth did play a large part in her Poppa Henry’s stories. In what she was now remembering, Ash was sure that Jeth had always been someone her Poppa Henry had said was a good friend to Princess Isabella’s mystery husband. However, he was supposed to have died long before that mystery husband ever made it to Castle Watch. How could he be here now?

Ash let that question drift. It was like ignoring her grandfather’s moan—let him have issue with this resurrection because a day ago, he’d been dead too, so why not bring everyone back. Ash kind of hoped Princess Isabella might just pop up from out of nowhere too, saunter straight from the Kawshun with a wide smile of “See, anyone can swing on by” plastered on her face.

Ash cast her eyes all over. It was stupid, but she looked anyway until she was sure. It was just Jeth who was around.

She watched as he talked to the rider named Amalin. More and more, the strong blue all around Amalin was starting to fade, Ash now seeing that the jewel she carried was kept in place by the staff, the wood having grown over it in thick little arms that let the sapphire be seen, yet secure. It was beautiful.

“You can offer us a way out,” Jeth asked, “Is that true?”

“For you,” Amalin said, “no. And for that little girl behind you, no as well. For the rest…”

Jeth took a step towards her. “But you said…”

He was already standing near to Amalin, just two or three feet away, his proximity not a problem, yet when he moved, the other riders reacted. All of them pulled out long white swords Ash hadn’t yet seen.

They were impressive weapons, thick blades that looked more like they’d been made from sharp bone rather than steel. They’d been kept hidden in worn and ruined belts, things Ash had also missed, but now that she saw them, she found that those belts were around every rider’s waist except for Amalin. She alone held just the staff as the other three had their swords out in a flash, each pointing them right at Jeth.

“Whoa…whoa…” Jeth said. He threw his arms up in surrender. “I only wanted to know why the lady would lie.”

“I’m not lying,” Amalin said. She slammed her staff into the ground and slid off her horse.

“But you said you would take us out of this world, and now you’re telling me I can’t leave!”

“The Riders of the Kawshun are for lost souls who have not yet crossed over,” Amalin explained. She yanked her staff free and held it tight. She walked to the Unkindness. “We can do nothing for you. We are for the dead—you are alive—you have no need to cross.”

“What do you mean?” Jeth asked.

“Only this,” Amalin said.

She leapt off the Kawshun. Immediately, the sapphire at the top of her staff came back to life as the invisible field around the Unkindness tried to keep her out.

But it only kept her at bay for a second. Her jewel began to pulse, its blue light no longer fading, as it shone brighter and brighter. Amalin pushed; the field around the Unkindness expanding until she broke on through and stood before the people who, like Jeth, stared at her with dirty faces and dirty clothes.

“The Beacon helps us to find those who are dead so we can lead them out,” Amalin said. She looked up at the jewel she carried—now back to being its brightest blue. “The staff I hold wields its power, yet it is the Beacon which gives us Riders our strength. It finds the Pool and pierces the darkest spots in this world when it is not sending the wolves away. However, it does have problems when it finds too much life before it. I am alive, so are you, and standing as close as we were caused the Beacon to fade. You don’t need to be led out of here; you are near to the Unkindness and can use it to find whatever world you once were from. As long as you are not here when the sun sets, you will be fine. I am even sure—”

“Sister,” a voice rang out. It was dry and raspy, as if it had only dead air to fill its words.

Amalin stared at one of her Riders, a man as pale and as thin as the horse he rode upon. “What?”

“The sun has almost set.”

Amalin turned her head to the horizon, Ash following her gaze. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Past where she stood was the same gray that had been around since she’d first arrived.

Ash raised her right hand over her eyes, wincing at the slight discomfort Jeth’s nip had given her. There wasn’t much pain, but it was there. She immediately dropped her arm. What she’d done hadn’t allowed her to see anything better anyway.

But for Amalin, something must have been off. She stared past the Unkindness and over the rolling hills. She shook her head. Her dark black hair, braided and tied in a bun, came loose as a few locks fell around her shoulders.

“How?!” she yelled. She turned back to the pale man. “We knew it was today, but—Quill, we only have an hour, maybe less.”

“Probably less,” the pale man—he must have been Quill—said. The other two Riders nodded in agreement. “When did you last have a drink?”

Amalin sighed. “You know my flask is empty, and my last drink was long before we left the Pool. If we don’t return—”

“We will return,” Quill said. He looked at Amalin. In fact, all the Riders were looking at her as if they feared for her life. “Thur drank his last only two hours ago, and the Beacon will keep Fara safe, so I will let them take the staff and the souls, and I will ride with you. You’ll be fine.”

Amalin lifted her head, her eyes locking onto Quill with a sudden flash that made it clear why she was the one who carried the staff—something that Ash had already decided must be of utmost importance. From that look, Ash knew that if Amalin ever asked her for anything, she would find it hard to say no.

“You must go,” Amalin said. “Without the Beacon, I would have to watch you turn wolf. I won’t do that.”

“And without a recent sip from the Pool,” Quill said, “I’d only be watching you do the same. I don’t mind the risk.”

Amalin shook her head. “I mind.” She held up a hand—it shushed Quill who was about to speak. “No, you died, and you…I can’t. If I turn, I do it alone. You can have the Beacon. Just let me get a bearing on where the Pool is.”

Quill nodded, his mouth sealed in a tight line of acceptance. He pointed at Jeth. During the entirety of their conversation, Jeth had only been looking back and forth between the two of them in stunned confusion. His expression not unlike what Ash thought she too must be wearing.

How could Jeth be alive when Ash was so sure he had to be dead? And what exactly was the Pool everyone kept mentioning? Ash had so many more questions. It looked like Jeth had a few of his own.

“Go,” Quill said. He flicked his finger from Jeth to the Unkindness.

Jeth smiled. “You remember I’m here.”

“Just go,” Quill said, “before you die.”

The smile left Jeth as he nodded and headed for the Unkindness. If he was confused like Ash was, then he was also at least like her in another regard, they both may not have understood everything Amalin and Quill were talking about, but they did know it was serious.

Jeth walked to the Unkindness and stopped just once to bend down and pick something up. It was the sword. The one Ash had used on him—the one he could only lift if he held it with both his hands. He took it before he ignored the help Amalin was offering.

She’d gone to the edge of the Unkindness so he could get a lift up. But no matter how serious he was in following Quill’s words, his desire to obey had its limits. Jeth didn’t even look at Amalin as he jumped, hit the barrier, and was thrown back.

He rolled before he shook his head and stood. “That hurt,” he brushed himself off with a free hand.

“You have the Kawshun on you,” Amalin said. Her fingers danced out for him to take.

“I know, kind of why I’m doing this.”

Jeth patted his shirt, slapped at the back of his legs, and tried to show Amalin just how much he was working to get the gunk off his body. But everything was a failure. The Kawshun would not be defeated.

“That will never work,” Amalin said. She thrust her hand out more forcefully. “And we…no, make that me, you, and that girl behind me, don’t have much time. Let me help.”

“Why?”

“Because, Elf,” Amalin said, “you don’t have a choice. If you were to have just gotten a little on you, say only a few fingers had touched the Kawshun or your feet had dipped lightly into one of those nearby puddles, you could come right back. This road likes to play its games. It wants the wolves to get in, so it finds ways to trick the barrier. It allows for many to quickly jump off, and return.

“But there is no way the Unkindness could ever trick the magic of the barrier when someone is as filthy as you. However, the Beacon can help. If I hold your hand, the Beacon will flow and cancel all the Kawshun upon you, you’ll still be dirty, but it will become regular dirt instead of the Kawshun. You can enter this road.”

Jeth rushed over. Canting quite drastically to the side, the weapon he still held truly a burden whenever it was only in one fist, he and Amalin both pulled and pushed, the blue flowing down her staff and encircling him as the barrier expanded until he finally broke through. Jeth stepped onto the Unkindness, smiling as Amalin walked away and turned her eyes back towards the sapphire jewel.

“Why are you happy?” she asked. She still looked only at the gem that had once more begun to fade even though it also appeared to be pulsing slightly in its perch.

“Just excited to be back to normal,” Jeth said. “I fell into this world and wandered until one day something happened, and all I felt was rage. I…”

Amalin nodded. “You became wolf.” The Beacon was pulsing harder as she began to move further from him. “It must have been during the last sunset over six hundred years ago.”

“Six hundred,” Jeth said. “It couldn’t have…I…I…”

Amalin smiled. It looked weird on her. “Long time for an Elf to actually feel,” she said. “You guys don’t like emotions, do you?”

Jeth shook his head in confusion. “I don’t follow.”

“Just drink in the people nearby,” Amalin said. The pulse of the Beacon slowed. She took her eyes off it as the smile fell from her lips. “Do you see how they are?”

Ash and Jeth turned to the group, Jeth seeing them way more clearly than Ash since he was closer, but Ash got the gist of what Amalin was trying to say. Those folks had once yelled like mad men, but now they were quiet. Unlike Jeth’s ready and willing behavior, they had become more and more withdrawn as time went by.

“They’re also remembering how it felt to be wolf,” Amalin explained, “the rage, the anger, the pure hate they had when they ran on all fours—and they are ashamed. They look to have been human once, and if that is the case, then they know what it was like to feel, to accept emotion and keep it in check, and they are horrified to realize that when they were wolf, they easily became the animals they’d often denied themselves from being.

“But you were Elf, you buried emotion. You forgot they were there, and so I wonder, did you like what you felt, Mr. Jeth? Is that why you’re smiling? The others are disgusted by what was in their hearts, but you loved it didn’t you? It must have been the first time you let yourself go.”

Jeth didn’t answer. He merely dropped his smile as the Beacon finally stopped pulsing. Amalin threw her staff at another Rider, the other male who wasn’t Quill.

“You know I can’t wield this well,” the other Rider said. The Beacon was as bright as it had ever been, but the guy was right. It looked off, as if more of it were now alive.

“You won’t carry it for long,” Amalin said, “when the sun sets, the Beacon will glow all by itself, just keep Fara and Quill close. You keep them right at your side, Thur, and the souls, too, if they haven’t yet crossed. The pulse told me where the Pool is. I will be there. Go.”

Amalin turned, and pointed at all the people who still had their heads shyly bowed behind her. “All of you, go!”

It was her loudest command yet, and every single person who had once been wolf instantly did as Jeth had done. They reacted, and they reacted quickly. Each of them rushed off the Unkindness and took an arm of a Rider. Soon, the Kawshun horses got more weight put upon their backs, and when everyone was up, first Thur and then the other female who had to be Fara turned their horses towards the horizon.

“I’ll see you at the Pool,” Quill said. He finally turned his horse as well as he looked one last time at Amalin. He even cautiously eyed the blade that Jeth had hold of, but with the softest click of his heels, his horse was off as he overtook the other two Riders and was beyond the farthest hill in a matter of seconds.

“What about me?” Jeth asked.

Amalin pointed to Ash. “There is a window behind that girl,” she said.

Ash, for some reason, waved a hello—she was so much like her Poppa Henry—before she turned. Poppa Henry was no longer on his knees or standing up. He was sitting with his head down and his hands covering his face.

“Are…” Ash asked, “are you okay?”

“He,” Poppa Henry was crying, yet laughing too. “I—I just never thought…he was here the whole time, stuck in this god forsaken world, and I—I never expected this.”

He laughed and cried some more, Ash not sure of what she should do or how she could make him feel better. She turned away. It probably wasn’t the best choice to make, but it was a return to normal—no running to save anyone, just avoidance—so it didn’t come as a surprise. She put her attention back onto Amalin and Jeth who were almost beside her. They must have been walking rather quickly.

“We have to go through glass,” Jeth said. “You know the magic to do that?”

“Don’t you?” Amalin asked. She stopped in front of Ash and smiled again. It still looked odd on her. Not bad or fake, just as if smiling was something she only did in forgotten dreams. “I thought all Elves knew such spells?”

As close as she was now, Ash could at last see her fully. Amalin was as beautiful as the jewel she’d just gotten rid of.

She was covered head to toe in the dirt of the Kawshun, but her beauty shone through nonetheless. In a cleaner world, it would have been more amplified, her angular and radiant cheeks a soft white, her blue eyes—so otherworldly—stunning. Amalin had eyes that were a complete and vivid color, somehow wise and knowing, yet also simply blue and glowing. Whenever she blinked, a slight halo would vanish from around her face.

But no matter the strangeness of what she looked at you with—and no matter the dirt covering her or how it must have been quite a while since she’d let a grin find its way to her face—she was beyond words. Her long black hair helped. The way she carried herself—just looking at her made you feel safe—was a plus as well, and Ash could tell. Amalin held something, a kind of allure. Ash could see how if she’d been in any other place, such looks, such strength, such everything would have immediately made her the center of attention—the kind of woman that dazzled royal courts and dignitaries from afar.

As for Jeth, he wasn’t that bad either. In a way, up close, he reminded Ash of Casten, all lithe and tall with sinewy muscles and not a trace of anything soft. Jeth was dirtier than Amalin, but he too had echoes of what might have been outside this world. He seemed strong and full of energy, his ready acceptance and the smile Ash had noticed earlier, mixing in perfect with some dark green eyes to let her know he was a survivor—someone it would take a whole heck of a lot to knock down.

More of her grandfather’s stories came back. Ones about the Nomen and the Errun—everything Poppa Henry had ever told about Jeth suddenly made sense. It was no wonder that after he’d been a wolf for six hundred years, he was able to argue with some Rider the second he was free.

“And who are—” Amalin began, still smiling at Ash until she caught sight of Casten and let her voice drift.

She dropped down to check him out, and as she went, Ash realized that Jeth too was discovering his own shock. He stared up and over Ash’s shoulder as another smile returned to his face, this one larger and warmer than any before.

“Henry,” Jeth said. “Is that you? You look terrible.”

Ash turned to see how her Poppa Henry would react. Was he on his feet? Was he now only laughing instead of crying? She wanted to watch as two old friends reconnected, but she never got the chance. Her shoulder flared with a horrible pain, the bite Jeth had given was suddenly not so insignificant.

Ash screamed.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Did you bite her?”

It was Amalin. She was talking to someone, yelling at them really, when Ash opened her eyes.

When had she closed them? And why was she lying on the Unkindness, each damp slab she was on already soaking every inch of her back. Ash turned and saw Casten to her left—still out of it, yet flipped over and on his back as well.

His cloak…someone had taken it off. And it had been torn to shreds. Why had that happened?

Ash blinked; her eyes were fuzzy—her shoulder still hurt too. Maybe that was why things weren’t making much sense.

There was a stretch of green cloth along Casten’s leg, she saw that now. It was a bandage, and another much larger bit was covering the wound at his stomach. That’s why his cloak had been torn.

However, it wasn’t enough. Ash tried to sit up. What was wrong with her eyes—more questions to plague her mind, so nice—and why was the world spinning? She couldn’t get any of that to leave her alone.

She felt weak too; that was most likely causing the world to tilt even more, yet for some reason, she kept going back to one thing. What had been put onto Casten wasn’t nearly enough to make up what had once been draped around his shoulders, so…what had happened to his cloak?

“I don’t remember,” Jeth said. Ash saw him nervously pacing back and forth near to the pane her Poppa Henry was in.

She wanted to laugh. When she found Poppa Henry, he was so worried. He was crouched over. He wasn’t on his knees anymore—he was standing and was pressed against the window with his palms splayed out so they shone quite white. Ash didn’t know how he was keeping himself stable. Already, with the few times she’d seen him touching glass, it had usually started to ripple the moment he’d put a finger on it.

But this time, he had his hands up, yet he wasn’t falling out. He looked so odd, but it wasn’t only him she found hilarious. Coach Littleton and Freddy Williams, were still there. They were walking towards the glass, yet how they were doing that—like exaggerated versions of someone trying to show what slow motion was like—was too ridiculous to believe. The Unkindness really was having a blast with another one of its tricks.

“How can you not know?” Poppa Henry said.

Instantly, Ash lost all interest in everything that wasn’t her grandfather. His awe and wonderment, a lot of the laughing and crying too, was gone. He wasn’t happy anymore. He wasn’t happy at all.

“I should have known,” Poppa Henry continued. He saw Ash and smiled her way. It didn’t make him sound any better. “Of course, you bit her! You’ve killed her!”

That finally got Ash to stop slowly rising. She stood up in a hurry as Amalin, who’d been over at Casten’s leg, rushed to her side.

It was when she almost fell back down—the Unkindness swaying beneath her—that Ash finally figured out where the rest of Casten’s cloak had gone. To keep her balance, she grabbed for Amalin’s wrist, and when she did, she felt the movement of a thick and heavy bandage, one sticky and wet and wrapped tightly over where she’d been bit.

Ash shook her head to make the world stop spinning. She got the Unkindness to come back to some level of normalcy as she also brought her left hand over to her right shoulder.

The wound was wrong, and when she touched her shoulder, the fingers of her left hand found a bandage almost as large as the one on Casten’s stomach. Except, this bandage was as soaked as her back, and when Ash lifted her fingers to her face, she understood why. Her hand was coated in something gooey and black as night.

“Don’t say that,” Amalin said. She nodded reassuringly at Ash. “Don’t say this girl could die! That isn’t necessarily the case!”

“How is it not?” Poppa Henry asked. “I know this road, and when sunset occurs here, anyone who holds the bite of a wolf instantly becomes wolf without any chance of ever coming back! They turn with no sword being able to cut them free! Am I wrong?”

Amalin looked inquisitively from Poppa Henry to Jeth. “Who are you,” she said, “and how do you know him, Elf? How do you know anyone who has dared to make themselves into a Reflection?”

Jeth stopped pacing. He’d been walking with Casten’s sword held in his hands, the weapon still heavy, but he hadn’t yet found a way to let it go. He was only latching onto it all the tighter with fingers gone a stark white around the knuckles.

“I can’t remember everything that happened to me when I was wolf,” he said. He looked only at Poppa Henry. “But I can recall the emotion, the hate, and the anger I had long before I was changed. I’d been through so much, only to fall into this wretched land, and I was furious. That I do remember. I could have bitten your daughter.”

“Granddaughter,” Poppa Henry said.

“Of course,” Jeth quickly added, “granddaughter. I could have bitten her. I probably did bite her because Amalin is right. I spent a good portion of my youth learning how to deny my emotions. I may have never finished the training that all Littles learn, but I learned enough, and when I was in this world, I enjoyed the rage I found. I can’t believe I might have killed your granddaughter.”

Amalin took a step towards Jeth. “Stop saying that! I can do a lot for this girl, but I want to know who that man is who stands in that window! He is a Reflection, and I know what that means! How do you know him?”

“Which brings me to you,” Jeth said, “that man is my friend. I don’t know how he became a Reflection—the last I saw of him I didn’t even know he had any magical abilities. But I do know that Henry is good, very good, and if he somehow attained what many an Elf is never able to do, then I am sure he had a reason for it. There is no way he took a life to become a Reflection.”

Amalin nodded slowly. “Henry,” she said, “is a very dangerous name.”

Ash’s head began to spin even faster. She was trying to listen to the conversation, but it kept slipping. The fingers she had around Amalin’s wrist were the only things keeping her upright.

“Well,” Jeth pointed at Poppa Henry. “He isn’t dangerous. He’s as decent as they come.”

Amalin rolled her electric eyes. “Decency has to be earned, and the creation of a Reflection means the casting of a spell which calls for the use of a life. I cannot abide—”

“And you’re right,” Poppa Henry said before Amalin could finish. “I did take a life.”

“What?” Jeth said. “But, I—Henry, you’re older, but I know you. You’re not a murderer.”

Poppa Henry smiled. “And neither are you. I didn’t set out to take a life, in fact, I was so sure I had found a way around that part, but just to be certain, I set up safeguards so that if a life had to be used, it would only be my own. I died so I could get back and help Penthya.”

“And what’s wrong with Penthya?” Jeth asked.

It was Ash’s turn to talk. The world around her wouldn’t stop tilting no matter what she did. “Why am I going to die?” she asked.

Poppa Henry looked her way. “My Little Ash,” he said. “I shouldn’t have yelled that. I…I’m just worried, but…but you’ll be okay. You said she’d be okay, right?”

He turned to Amalin. “If I can get her to the Pool,” Amalin nodded, “everything will be fine.”

“But why don’t we go through the window Henry is in,” Jeth asked. “We step on through, and we don’t have to worry about any sunset.”

Poppa Henry’s eyes, Amalin’s too, went wide with shock—or fear, Ash wasn’t sure. “That won’t work,” they both yelled, their voices overlapping before Poppa Henry closed his mouth and held up his hands in apology.

“Okay,” Jeth said after a moment’s pause, “and why is that?”

“Because of the girl,” Amalin alone explained, “but also because of this Elf. If we take this child back to her world, she won’t become wolf, but she will die due to the poison now coursing through her veins. Also, in whatever world is past that mirror, I doubt they will be able to understand how to fix an Elf. The Pool is all that can heal those that have been on the Unkindness. If this Elf had fallen onto the Kawshun, there would be nothing we could do for him. But he is here, he is on the same road where you bit this girl, and we can save them. However—”

Amalin trailed off as Ash swayed more and more, the Unkindness feeling as if it were collapsing and taking her with it. She buckled, Amalin cradling her in her arms as she began to walk to the one Kawshun horse that remained nearby.

“But what?” Jeth finally asked. He stayed on the Unkindness as Amalin quickly scampered off the road. She threw Ash over the front of the horse.

Ash was drifting. Her shoulder was burning again. It was taking her down into something hot and filled with an all-consuming rage.

However, she could still feel and hear the world. She felt the rough hide of the animal that Amalin had placed her on, how the skin of the Kawshun horse was dusty and dry and horribly worn. The animal was covered in nothing but ragged flesh that felt beyond spent, more decayed then alive, and to top it off, the flesh was razor thin. To Ash, it was more like she’d been placed upon a horribly sharp skeleton rather than something alive.

“My horse is fast, very fast,” Amalin said. She made sure Ash was ready to go. “But if I want it to reach its top speed, it can’t carry too much life upon it. Just as it is with the Beacon, too much of the living can affect a Kawshun horse, and if I take her and the injured Elf, then none of us will make it. I must leave him behind, and that also means I must leave everything else behind. You, however, can step through the window your Henry is in.”

Amalin put her hands behind Ash and leapt onto the back of the horse. There were no reins—no saddle either. There was just a long and stringy white mane that had already been mostly matted down. Ash briefly saw Amalin grab as much of it as she could before she turned the horse around.

“The Pool is over there?” Jeth asked.

“Yes,” Amalin said, “it’s beyond that hill, why?”

“Because I’m coming with you.”

“You’ll never make it.”

“In all my time here,” Jeth said, “and long before I turned wolf, running fast was not something I had to worry about. I can carry that Elf.”

Amalin stared at him. “I don’t have the Beacon. You step off the Unkindness, you won’t be going back.”

“I know,” Jeth said. “Now go!”

Ash was barely aware of what was going on. She knew Amalin had struck her heels against the horse’s side, and they were off. She even knew she was leaving the Unkindness behind—leaving her Poppa Henry behind as well although she did hear him vaguely before she left.

Poppa Henry told Jeth not to worry. Jeth asked if he could follow and Poppa Henry told him he would be fine. Ash even thought she caught his voice coming to her from her blue mirror, really now her blue necklace and mirror, but then the Kawshun horse began to run, and she lost all sight and sound of him.