THE day after they escaped the palace, Eiko took Ora high into the mountains. They flew most of the day, only stopping in a tiny village long enough to find some food. Eiko chose the form of a sleek, black dog and played the part, its tail wagging and tongue lolling.
A thachwing woman took pity on them and shared a fresh loaf of bread and a wedge of sharp-tasting cheese. They sat on a stone bench outside, surrounded by a thriving vegetable garden. Their host did not ask how a human girl ended up in the middle of nowhere, and she did not seem to care. Instead, she spoke at length about her family and garden.
Ora pretended to listen and nodded along with the fae woman’s long-winded stories of domesticity. Not caring if she appeared rude, she stood up as soon as she wiped the last crumbs from her mouth. “We are in a hurry,” she said. “Thank you for the food.”
As if seeing the girl for the first time, the thachwing swept an inquisitive—or was it a suspicious—gaze over Ora. Her eyes lingered on the missing pinky. “A hurry? What for?”
The first tendrils of apprehension snaked their way into Ora’s gut. She stepped back from the fae. “We have a long way to go is all,” she said.
“Who did you say you were?”
“No one.” Before she could be asked any more questions, she hurried toward the garden gate. The pukha rushed after her.
They walked at least a mile before slowing their pace. The trees and the landscape had long since hidden the small village from view. Still, Ora could not shake the flutter of anxiety in her chest. She strained her ears, trying to listen for the telltale snap of twigs or shifting of rocks beneath boots.
As if it sensed her worry, the pukha sniffed the air and then said, “No one followed us.”
She willed her shoulders to relax but could not convince herself they were safe, not truly. “I don’t like the way she looked at me,” she said and sank down onto a rock. “How far are we from Tirnan?”
“Far enough that you needn’t worry. Your missing pinky might be problematic, though,” it mused. “A four-fingered hand is difficult to forget.”
Irritated, Ora curled her hands into fists. “It won’t matter. We’ll be in Himil by the end of the day.”
Eiko gave a small nod but said nothing more. It didn’t need to. She could not forget its warning. Despite this, she tried to convince herself the fae would not bother with her once she returned, and if they did, they would be met with silver.
They drank water from an icy mountain spring before taking to the sky once again. Ora spent the rest of their journey peering over the pukha’s side at the rocky cliffs and pine forests, watching the landscape change the farther north they went. Eventually, the mountains sloped down into an enormous caldera with rolling emerald grasses. Beyond that, were barren flatlands that stretched as far as she could see.
Is that the Basin? Ora asked, eager to at last return home.
Yes, said Eiko, we’ve made it.
Like an island, an odd hill sloped up from the middle of the Basin with a stand of pines growing on it. It made Ora think of a tortoise shell. The pukha landed at the bottom of the hill, and she slid off its back. Aside from the brush of wind in the trees, there were no other sounds.
The crossing is at the top of the hill. The pukha shifted into its wolf form as it spoke.
The hill looked taller than it appeared from above. They walked through the quiet trees until they thinned and gave way to a slab of dark granite. The crossing appeared as if it had not been disturbed in ages. Moss grew over the glyph-like carvings, and pine cones and twigs were strewn across it.
She followed the wolf to the center of the circle. A powerful, old magic rose from the stone. She could feel it in her bones as she walked across it, like the lowest of vibrations when a distant horse approached, or when faraway thunder shook her family’s home. It both thrilled and terrified her.
“Breathe in and close your eyes,” said the pukha.
“Must I close my eyes?”
“No, but it is advised.”
“Fine,” she said and did as told.
Eiko said nothing. She opened one eye, puzzled by its silence, but then, the ground dropped away so violently, she nearly lost her footing. The shock of movement made her eyes fly open. The world shifted and spun for only a moment, but it was enough to leave her doubled over and retching when it stood still again. A high-pitched ring flooded her ears.
“My head won’t stop spinning,” she groaned.
It sat beside her and said, “Be patient. Breathe.”
Ora pressed her head against the cool stone, unable to move for several long minutes. At least they had crossed the Ether in one piece.
As the ringing in her ears faded, she heard the crash of waves in the distance. She breathed in deeply, the familiar scent of the Hy Borea nearly bringing tears to her eyes. Careful not to move too fast, she sat up and looked into the branches of ancient spruce, hemlock, and fir. Moss hung from the branches like wiry green beards. Below, the ferns and brush grew thick.
She wobbled to her feet and flung her arms around the pukha. “Thank you,” she said, burying her face against its neck.
“You’re most welcome, Ora.”
But as she pulled away, her smile faded. Nearly a dozen cliff elk stood on the other side of the stone circle, motionless and almost invisible in the brush. “Eiko,” she whispered. “There are Yewolyns.”
With a snarl, the giant wolf turned. The Yewolyns stepped from the brush and shed their cloaks. Some drew swords, and others raised their hands, ready to cast spells. The pukha clearly unsettled them, but they had strength in numbers. Cyn was among them. He hung back from the rest, holding up a dren with a slumped over head and bloodied cloak.
“Let us pass, and I will not kill all of you,” said the pukha, its voice curling and feral.
Only Cyn looked past Eiko; his eyes lit up in recognition. “It’s her,” he said. “The Marigens’ human.”
“Are you certain?” asked another.
Then, it struck Ora. The fallen Yewolyn was Callum. She stepped back with a small gasp and looked between them all. If that was Callum, where was Tyg?
“Give us the girl,” Cyn said. “You have no right bringing her here.”
The pukha laughed darkly, making even Ora shiver. “How very wrong you are,” it said.
In a blur of shifting black fur, teeth, and claws, Eiko attacked the Yewolyns. The first fell with a broken neck, the next doubled over with a gash in her stomach, and by the third, the Yewolyns had scattered. They could not make out the pukha in its ever-changing forms.
One of the swordsmen ran toward Ora in the chaos. Still nauseated from the crossing, she bolted clumsily into the brush and wove her way through the old growth as fast as she could. A slick tree root made her lose her footing, and she fell forward. The earth dug into her palms as she caught herself. Panting, she flipped over just as the dren caught up.
“Eiko!” she shouted.
Before the dren could grab hold of her, something thudded against his head. He fell, the back of his skull bloodied.
And there stood Tyg.
She looked half-mad. She was covered in blood, and hair stuck to her face and neck. Her cheek was purple and swollen. But it was her eyes that frightened Ora most of all. Rage burned in her gaze, consuming all else.
Ora leapt to her feet and staggered back. “Eiko!” she screamed again.
Its voice filled her mind. I’m coming. Where are you?
She did not have time to answer. Tyg bore down upon her and slammed her hard against the trunk of a tree. “I should kill you for what you’ve done,” she said and wrapped her hand around Ora’s throat. “But that’s not good enough for you. No. I will take you back to Mysanhal so that you’ll live for hundreds of years, and I will personally see to it that you suffer every single day.”
Ora’s desperate hands wrapped around Tyg’s wrist as she struggled to breathe. The dren’s eyes fell on her mutilated hand.
“Perhaps I should start by taking your whole hand?” she said with a predator’s smile, but when her eyes rose to Ora’s face, she took pause.
The girl’s eyes had always been dark, almost black orbs, but now they were changing. Silver light swirled in them, and the delicate veins in her face emitted a soft glow.
“What are you doing?” Tyg’s voice rose in a high-pitched panic.
All sense of place and time dissolved. Ora wondered if she might be dying, but then, a white-hot flame spread through her hands and up her arms, as if it coursed through her very blood. She met Tyg’s gaze and watched with cold indifference as pain and shock twisted through the dren’s features.
At last, Tyg relinquished her grip with a furious roar and staggered back. Ora stepped away from the tree. Her silver eyes glittered. She did not know what compelled her, what power flowed through her veins, but when she lifted her hand, a force burst from her fingertips and struck Tyg like a boulder. She heard the snap of bones and branches as the brush swallowed the Yewolyn. Then, came a black rush of shadow, and she felt herself slump into the pukha’s soft fur.
The boughs of evergreens and dappled sunlight swam above Ora. Her time in the fae realm felt like a dream, the stuff of her uncle’s stories rather than reality. She smiled to herself, happy to be awake at last and breathed in deeply. But what was she doing sleeping on a bed of moss?
“Ah, you’re awake.” It was Eiko, its voice warm and relieved.
The mist of sleep dropped away, and she closed her eyes again. “I’d rather not be,” she said with a groan. It came back to her then, and she gingerly touched her throat. Tyg had almost killed her. Again. She remembered slipping from consciousness only to come to with a lightning bolt of vigor.
Ora sat up and looked at the pukha. Her brow wrinkled with confusion. “What happened?”
It had a wolfish smile. “It seems as though you have a bit more magic in you than I thought.”
The pukha went on as if she had not spoken. “And by a bit of magic, I mean you seem to be quite powerful, Ora. You were glowing when I found you. Don’t you remember?”
“Not—exactly?” she said. The details were foggy, but she did remember the dren being flung away from her. But that couldn’t have had anything to do with her, could it?
“I should think anyone would remember glowing like that.”
“Yes,” it said. “There is strong magic in your veins, Ora. And it would be wise to accept it now.”
“Eiko …” But Ora did not know what to say. She had not summoned it or meant to use it at all.
“Magic, without control, can be quite dangerous,” Eiko said. “You are lucky it did not harm you.”
She shook her head. “I’ll worry about that later. I have to find Hademar.”
“I thought you might say that, which is why I very much want you to meet the Cedar Clan.”
“The Cedar Clan?” She felt ridiculous repeating the pukha’s words, but her mind was too clouded to make sense of anything. She wished it would be quiet.
“If anyone has seen an odd brush pig running about, it would be one of them.”
She rubbed her palms against her eyes, trying to focus. “I—I need a minute.”
It laughed. “Unfortunately, they’re already here. Look up.”
Ora tilted her head back to peer into the hemlock. Peeking down from its thick branches were seven silky, black pine martens. The weasel-like creatures looked between each other, having their secret conversation, and then climbed down, their little claws scraping at the bark. Once on the ground, they each shifted into a wolf, though they changed less fluidly than Eiko. Their limbs took a little longer to change, and their forms settled less elegantly.
One of the shadowy wolves stepped toward her and sniffed her wild, curly hair. Its wet nose swept past her ear, and she jerked away. “Sorry,” she said when it gave her an incredulous look. “Tickled a bit is all.”
“You are Eiko’s human?” it asked, dark eyes narrowing. None of them had the bright splash of green in their gaze. “It has bound you to it?”
Name binding is a cruel, unthinkable thing to a pukha, Eiko explained, its words sliding into her thoughts. It does not sit well with them.
It kept you from an unfortunate end.
Whether or not Eiko’s words held truth, she dropped the subject and swept her gaze between the wolves. “Well, yes. In a way. But … it seems we have become good friends.”
“Indeed,” said Eiko and looked pleased to hear her say so.
The wolves looked between each other approvingly.
They introduced themselves, but she could not distinguish one from the other. As she tried to recall their names, Eiko asked if they had seen an odd brush pig that might not know it was a brush pig, not entirely.
“There has been one.”
“He lives in a secret place.”
“We saw him contemplating his reflection in a spring.”
“It’s not really a secret place.”
“But it’s not so easy to find.”
“We can show you where.”
“It does not move from that spot.”
At last Eiko interjected, cutting the swirl of speech to an end. “Please, take us there,” it said. “Ora, are you ready?”
The seven pukhas began to lead the way, their movements like black water beneath the brush, taking no form but the shadows. Ora walked alongside Eiko, who remained as a wolf, and grew more and more anxious as she went. What if Hademar had already forgotten himself? How long had it taken her to escape? Was it too late?
They walked for the better part of the afternoon before they came to a hill cluttered with enormous boulders. Ora ran her hand along the dark, damp stone faces and looked to the pukhas, who stood around her as pine martens once again.
“The brush pig is in there.”
“We will not go there.”
“Don’t lie. You won’t go without us.”
“Eiko, take the girl. We will not go.”
“It stares into a spring night and day.”
“We will wait here.”
The Cedar Clan pukhas climbed a nearby tree and peered down from the branches. Eiko took a step toward an opening in the stones. Though the Cedar Clan’s words made her heart race, she followed Eiko into the wind-carved rocks. They wound through open passageways, at times narrow and at times opening up to small stands of alders.
The farther they went into the labyrinth of rocks, the more she became aware of how the air changed and the ground beneath her seemed to emanate a secret power. The hairs on her neck prickled.
“Why wouldn’t they come?” she asked.
“Old magic is often best left alone. A pig staring at its own reflection is not a good omen to them.”
They went deeper into the stones until they at last came across a clear, babbling spring. There stood a brush pig staring into the water.
“Look,” said Ora.
They crept up behind the pig, not wanting to frighten it, but it did not budge even when they were close enough to touch its spotted hide. They peered over the pig’s shoulder. There, reflected in the clear water, was the face of a man.
Ora gasped. “Hademar.”
But the sound of his name did not rouse him. He continued to stare into the water, unmoving and silent. She reached out one shaking hand and rested it against his side.
“What is it?” Eiko asked as her expression grew somber.
“He’s cold,” she said.
The pukha studied the spring, and when Ora looked up from her brother, she glimpsed another face in the water as well—a sharp, fae-like face with dark skin and emerald eyes. Long, black hair spilled over its shoulders, and she could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. Right away, she knew she had seen Eiko’s true form. Remembering what it said, she did not let her gaze linger, but she could not stop herself from turning a bright shade of red.
Pushing aside all other thoughts, she tried to pull her brother’s head away from the spring. But Eiko stopped her as it backed away from the edge of the water. “Don’t move him. There is something strange about this spring.”
“I can’t just leave him here!”
“You said he is cold?”
“Ora, his spirit has left his body.”
“It is a nymph’s spring. If you gaze too long, your spirit becomes ensnared in her waters. If you move him now, his spirit will be severed from his body forever.”
She looked between the pig and the spring. The reflection of her brother made her heart ache. “How do I help him, Eiko?”
The pukha hesitated to answer. “You must find the nymph and kill her. But, Ora, it is not so simple. This spring is only one manifestation of the nymph. It’s fed by underground streams. You will have to find the fountain from which all her waters flow.”
“We will need a seeing stone.”