Chapter XV: The Beginning

"Kale! Kale get back here!" Mora scrambled after him, puffing angrily. "Waterboy, get your sorry butt back here!"

With an exasperated sigh, Kale whirled around, scowling.

Mora's eyes were lightning in thundercaps. "You can't just run of like that! We need you!"

"Oh, now you need me?" he snapped. "Why? What the heck are 'we' supposed to do, Mora? According to that crackpot, we're supposed to destroy the universe! Any idea how to do that, great all-knowing Invisible One?" He crossed his arms over his chest and raised one eyebrow. "Well?"

For once, Mora didn't glare or snap back. She stood very still, face soft, silver eyes wide, looking as confused and terrified as Kale felt.

"I don't know."

It was so quiet it was hardly a whisper.

"Oh, storms, Kale, I don't know."

Kale thought he saw a single tear slid down the Helian's cheek, but before he saw more, Mora turned and disappeared into the woods' shadow.

The Hydronian stood frozen in place, every emotion in him wrestling like great eels; he didn't know whether to cry like a girl or throw up. He suddenly realized he was shaking all over, the horrible, surreal realization sweeping over him like a slow tidal wave.

Storms, the end of the world.

He struggled against the bile rising in his throat.

The beginning of the end.

Everything in him was screaming against the thought, but his heart was racing and the world was beginning to spin.

It's all over, then.

He fell to his knees, retching.

Mora didn't understand what had come over her, why she was suddenly so frightened. She had erased fear from her mind years ago. She refused to feel anything, but here was terror creeping into her heart and . . . what was that feeling? She shook her head, trying to clear it, but found her heart was still racing and that it ached with every beat as if there was a tiny jackhammer in her chest, beating a hole inside her. Everything else sank into that darkness, and her entire being was in pain—pain she hadn't felt until her father came home when she had made herself stop feeling.

She collapsed to the ground, leaning against the smooth bark of a sapling, and began to cry. Storms, how long had it been since she had cried?

Since he came, she thought bitterly. Since that creep came back and took mom away from me, took my freedom, my life. He ruined everything.

Her fingers clawed the soft, fresh earth.

If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be like this . . . I wouldn't be here, wouldn't be doing this . . . wouldn't be . . . wouldn't . . . She flung herself down, clutching and screaming in wordless anguish into the earth.

Blaise had been sitting all day at the hidden waterfall in the glen. The faeries were hidden, sleeping he hoped. He prayed that they didn't know what he had done—or was doing, he didn't know which—and hadn't disappeared or perished. He found that the glen was the best place to clear his thoughts when his mind was troubled. Sometimes, he thought he could hear the trickling water speaking to him. His face was set stone, his eyes a blazing flame. He heard and saw nothing. If you can tell me anything, he thought, staring at the stream, tell me what to do, now, please. I don't want this to be the end. I can't destroy the world, I can't.

"But you can."

No, no I can't. I don't want to. Blaise Coal: the man who destroyed the universe. Yeah, that will make me popular . . . not that anyone will care or be around by the time they find out I did it.

"Funny way to think about it . . ."

Oh, you can laugh, you aren't destroying the world.

"But I am."

Blaise stiffened, eyes growing wider. He couldn't really be speaking with something—someone.

"But you are."

Blaise shook his head as a cow shakes off a fly. Storms, I'm going crazy.

"Crazy people don't know they're crazy."

Blaise groaned in aggravation.

"Don't worry, Little Flame. The galaxy has reached her time—she has been screaming out in pain for too long, and, now her misery can end."

"But what about us?" Blaise snapped out loud. "What about people, huh? Maybe we aren't ready to be wiped out yet!"

"Would you ever be ready?"

Blaise couldn't answer.

"See? All must end at the set time, Son of Flame," the Voice said calmly, gently. "But it will all be good in the end, you'll see."

"How can it be good if we're all dead?" he growled, resting his chin on his knees.

"You can't think that death is merely an end. It's just a path to a new beginning, the beginning of the real story, the truest story."

Blaise exhaled loudly. He didn't draw much comfort from the thought of his body, cold and hard, blown into oblivion as a pleasant end or beginning of anything.

"Death has no hold over you, Blaise," the voice said. "And don't fear your destiny, Little Flame. You see, you're not the destroyer but the messenger of life."

I'm what?

"You must tell all you meet just this: believe."



Blaise nodded slowly, confused.

"You'll understand soon enough, my son."

If you say so . . .

Blaise almost thought he could hear the Voice chuckling.

He sighed and slowly stood, stretching. His back ached from sitting hunched over for so long; he had come in the mid-morning, and the sun was growing low in the sky, just before twilight. The teachers had not come today, when they were most needed. Everyone had disappeared, as if hiding from the world could save it.

Blaise didn't blame them; he hadn't wanted to see anyone at all, but that wasn't really new. He had always been more of a loner, content to have only his music and thoughts for comforting, until lately. After coming to Isyra, he had found he favored the company of the others, as if finally he had found people to understand him. Now, it was all coming to an end, and there didn't seem to be a point in being with anyone at all; he would be alone for all eternity soon enough, why make the separation even harder?

He looked up with a jolt. Was he imagining things . . . or had something just crashed to the ground nearby? He whirled around, eyes and ears sharp.

Wide, terrified teal eyes shone at him from behind a large bush, the creature stirring slightly, its eyes never leaving his face. Then, there was a sudden, great whirring. The branches above rustled and cracked, and the eyes were gone.

Maybe this place holds more magic than we thought . . .

Tal hugged her knees to her chest and sobbed. Oh storms, he knows! He knows! He saw me!

"Hello?" she could hear Blaise call from below her.

She pressed her back against the tree, her fingers digging into the rough bark. A single leaf shook loose from her perch, and she held her breath. Her eyes followed it silently as it floated down, down, down directly toward Blaise.

Oh, by the Unseen, no . . no . . no . . .

It landed on his head, and he brushed it out of his shaggy hair, looking confused.

Oh please . . .don't look up, don't look up!

He lifted his face, frowning at the canopy.

Don't see me, don't see me!

With a sigh, Blaise turned away, rubbing the back of his neck. Only then could Tal breathe again. She leaned her head against the trunk, drawing deep slow breaths.

She had come here to think as Blaise had, only he had beat her to it. Tal couldn't take the imprisonment of camp, and her usual haunt at the other side of the wood seemed particularly dark today; she could have sworn that shadows moved of their own accord, and the air would suddenly turn cold as if in puffs of icy breath. Tal had felt more self-conscious, more silent and withdrawn than she had in a long time—since the boarding school and Micah. The memories came back with a fresh, searing pain, and she winced.

I won't have to think about it much longer, she thought. The world's going to die anyways, and it can take my pain with it.

With that, she leapt straight up, and a fawn-colored feather fluttered to the forest floor.

Elgin paced back and forth in his tent, hands clasped behind his back. There has to be a reason for this . . . a logical explanation . . .anything . . . maybe she was just speaking figuratively or something . . . anything other than . . .than . . . He couldn't bring himself to call it the truth. He looked up at the tent ceiling and growled loudly in exasperation. "This can't be happening! It's not real! It's not real! IT'S NOT REAL!"

A shadow stirred in the corner, and terror gripped Elgin's heart as it never had before.

It can't be real. . . .

Ketti heard Elgin's cries, and a part of her wanting to reach out, to tell him it was true but that this was their greatest opportunity. They could fix things, now. They could go back and rewrite everything. Elgin could save his sister, Alwynn, and Ketti, she could . . . she could . . .

I can change everything. We could be happy again. The thought made her heart pound with a new, vibrant hope she hadn't felt in ages. The world was lighter, brighter, and suddenly full of life.

I'm going to fix this; I'm going to make it right.

She crawled on her hands and knees, groping for her treasure. Ah! There it was! Kale's ring, free of its chain, resting in the grass, gleaming with a light all its own. Ketti held it to her heart, eyes closed, drawing in the warm of the band of the materializing dream.

It won't be long, now.

She quickly scraped back the topsoil, and drank in its warm, green scent.

Rueben, I'm coming.

Kale came trudging up the hill to camp, sulking, drenching wet. The only place he felt at home was in the water, but even that had not soothed him. He wiped his mouth, hoping he didn't smell of vomit; he had been sick three times that day, and even when there was nothing to throw up any more, his stomach would heave. He had decided it was his fault, really; he had infuriated Mora, and, after she had gone into the woods, she had found the pool and the ring. He hadn't seen the Helian since that morning, but Tal had told him the story, and, after that, he had needed a swim. Sitting in the bottom of the lake, cursing his stupidity and arrogance, he had begun to wish, for the first time in his life, that he was capable of drowning.

He came to the crest of the hill, and squinted. Ketti was squatting in the dirt next to the ashes of that morning's fire. "Ket? Ketti, what are you doing?"

But she didn't look at him. Instead she held something up to the sun, a bright, strange smile on her face, as if she were drugged, and Kale thought he was going to be sick again.

His ring.

She had his ring.

"Ketti! No!" he yelled, sprinting toward her. "Ketti! Stop! You can't! That will start—"

But she pushed the ring into the soil, and in a flash of silver light, she was gone.

The world was spinning, and Kale could hear nothing but his own scream and see nothing but the agonized darkness that consumed him.

It had begun.

The beginning of the end.

And it was his fault.