Chapter 13

I was shaken awake to find Asher crouched beside me with a finger placed over his lips in warning.

"Keep quiet. Others are nearby," he whispered, glancing over his shoulder. "We are preparing to leave."

I nodded and slowly sat up, careful not to disrupt the nearby grass. I could hear voices and the sound of horses from the road.

The sky was tinted with pink and gold. It was sunset, which meant I had slept for almost twelve hours. That was unusual—since adopting a regimen of early mornings after my undergrad, I had not enjoyed the indulgence of a long, lazy morning.

I plucked a few long pieces of grass from my hair and reflected on what I could remember from my strange dream, which I recalled with a remarkable level of detail. Malachi's triumphant smile while I controlled the forest around me was blazoned in my mind. I tugged my fingers through the tangled bits of my hair, wincing. And if that dream was more than simply that, then he hadn't lied to me. We were truly connected.

"Eat this," Asher said, pressing a piece of bread into my hands. I wrapped it in both my hands to hide their subtle shaking.

A strong wind swept across the plain, surrounding us in the roar of bending grass. My hair was swept from my face as the wind whipped against me. Asher looked up as his cloak twisted around him, fixing a speculative eye on the sky above us. He muttered something under his breath, but before I could ask, another soldier crawled behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder and whispering something in his ear. Asher nodded.

"The travelers have passed," he said at a normal volume. "Evan is recovering his strength. Once the sun is below the horizon, we will depart."

It wasn't long before Caleb came to fetch me. By then, the only thing left of the bread was crumbs, and I was ready, my dwindling hygiene routine complete. I stood for the first time over the waist-high grass, breathing the crisp, night air.

The evening was warmer than the last, and on the eastern horizon opposite the setting sun was a blank of dark clouds. Another wind roared past from the same direction as the ominous wall of clouds. The guide stood apart from Asher's soldiers, watching the eastern sky with a frown.

Once we were all gathered, we began our trek across the plain. My heels were still sore from the previous night, and there was persistent ache at the center of my lower back that would not go away. There was a little light left in the sky above me, and the distant storm leant a peculiar energy to the night.

I was relatively well-rested and stayed only a few yards behind Gregor. Unlike the previous night, he maintained a slower pace and did not press ahead of the group; as a result, we stayed together. No one seemed very interested in conversation. Though the darkness had hidden the clouds, I'm certain that I was not the only one who realized that our path led toward the forbidding storm. Occasionally, a strong wind would flare up and wrap my cloak around my body while unseen dust blasted my face.

After about an hour, Gregor slowed to allow Asher to reach him.

"The storm is approaching," he warned. I could not see his face, only a dark silhouette and disembodied voice. His voice was a deep baritone with an unfamiliar lilt, a peculiar weight on the "o" that was different than the accents of the other men. A shadowy hand pointed to the horizon. "We have the night, I think."

I glanced toward where the wall of clouds would be. Distant lightning flashed faintly in their depths. It appeared that the clouds were only hours from reaching us, not a full night.

"Can we weather it?" Asher asked.

The guide shook his head. "This wind is nothing compared to the storm's worst. And here in the flatlands, you'll drown in your sleep when this grass becomes a swamp. It is unwise to face it in the open."

"Then what is it that you suggest? The closest town is Amarlna, a day's walk in the wrong direction." Maybe it was just me, but there was an undertone of impatience in his voice. And it was Asher who didn't want this journey to happen in the first place after all.

"Lord Allendore," Evan suggested suddenly from somewhere behind me right shoulder. I looked toward him. "His manor is not far from here. We might reach it before the worst of the storm begins," he said, glancing between Asher and the guide.

"Lord Allendore was among those trapped in the castle. We cannot be certain that Miren is not under the control of the whisperer," Asher protested in a serious voice.

"Really Asher," Evan chided him, "we can trust Miren. Do you know the way to the Allendore manor?" he added, turning to our guide. We had slowed to a stop by this time.

"Aye, Your Highness," he replied. It was the first time I heard someone address Evan with his title, and it was odd, like it still did not seem to apply to him. The Shrouded Prince was only Malachi's creation, but he carried the dignity I expected from a royal. Evan seemed too normal to be a prince.

"Please do not use my title," Evan added stiffly. "We cannot risk anyone hearing it, even here."

"Of course, sir," Gregor added distantly. He turned toward the storm and took a deep breath.

Gerald stepped forward. "I can also sense the way if you believe it is best to abandon the road."

Evan turned to the guide with an assessing eye. I could see him weighing the risk.

"How long if we keep to the roads?" he asked critically.

Gregor looked around for a moment, turning in a slow circle. I watched him and wondered if we were lost after all. But his eyes were fixed acutely on the shadowy landscape around us, and I realized he was actually estimating the distances between major landmarks. Like a GPS, the guide was using terrain to determine our location. My respect for him edged a little higher.

"Seven hours—if we keep a quick pace," he answered.

"There is at least as many hours until dawn," Evan said. He turned to the rest of us. "We will keep to the road and make for Allendore manor," he announced, his eyes resting on Asher. Something passed between them, but I didn't allow my gaze to linger. And anyway, Evan turned and continued along the road without another glance. And the rest of us trudged after him.

Gregor set a faster pace. Ahead, I could hear him, Evan, and Asher discussing how our detour would impact the journey into the mountains.

"Before, we would have entered the mountains from the plain," the guide explained, "but from Allendore manor, the closest road is through the Gated forest. The first snowfall is only days away on the mountain slopes. We cannot delay."

"The forest," I heard Asher whisper. "There is no other way?" he asked.

"None."

"Evan, are you certain this is what must be done? That we cannot wait till spring comes? The border of Lothern is not far, and we cannot know what danger lurks in that cursed forest." His voice was laced with concern and empty of the petulant tone I always noticed.

Evan shook his head. "Everyday his power grows and everyday he roots himself more firmly into Renaer. This is what must be done," he said, though with less conviction. "Are you certain we can reach the manor in seven hours? I would like to arrive before dawn to avoid—distressing the residents with my condition," he admitted.

He was tense. From behind him, I could see his back was straight like a rod, and his gaze ahead. I suspected that this mysterious Miren Allendore did not know about the prince's curse.

"Yes sir," Gregor replied.

Asher glanced over his shoulder, and our eyes met briefly before I looked away, embarrassed to have been caught eavesdropping. Asher stopped and allowed me to reach him before falling in step beside me.

"Evan would like to keep his condition a secret," he explained idly. He turned to look at me. "But it is even more important for you to keep yours hidden. The commoners are incredibly hostile to the whisperers, and we would not be able to protect you if you were discovered. You must control your emotions."

Fear flared in my belly. What would happen if I did something unusual and attracted their attention? My ability to tap my power was inexplicably erratic without any rhyme or reason to how or when it appeared. If I become angry or frightened, would I risk exposing myself?

"So my abilities are connected to my emotion?" I asked, swallowing hard.

"As a novice, yes. And it is often tied to a specific ability. From what I know, whisperers have the power to manipulate the kerah in almost limitless ways, but each one has an element they have a natural inclination to control. From some, it is fire. Others, water. For you, it would seem that your element is the air," he explained.

"What?" I asked.

"In the tent that first day, you created the wind."

And the first night with Malachi and later in the dream forest. But he wouldn't know about that. I nodded, unable to speak.

"Can you sense it around you?" he asked, still watching me. Asher intimidated me in a way that Evan did not, and the intensity of his questions unsettled me.

"I—only sometimes, I think. And only when I'm frightened or angry, I have some sense of it," I stuttered, sounding like some bumbling fool. I always managed to sound like an idiot around him.

"You must learn to suppress it. Your senses of it are heightened then, because your natural reaction is to seek the source of that power when you are afraid. You must conquer your fear." He paused. "The kerah always surrounds you. It is a matter of learning to recognize it—and if you can sense it, you can control it."

"How would you know?" I snapped. I immediately regretted it. Beside me, Asher stretched a little taller, and when he answered, his voice was cold.

"I am no whisperer, but my gift is closely tied to sensing the whole range of the kerah. Other than Malachi, I am your best chance to learn restraint, which perhaps ought to begin with that temper of yours," he explained icily. I flinched with a sudden flashback to Malachi's deal to train me.

"And it may serve you to know that the reason I know what I do about your kind is because I was trained to combat whisperers. Now, try to sense it."

It was a ridiculous proposition. But Asher's silence meant that he was waiting for me. I sighed and focused on the night around us. It was almost silent with only the crunching beneath our feet and breathing to interrupt the quiet. There was a certain energy in the air, the kind that stands your hair on end. But it was the volatile energy that precedes a thunderstorm. You didn't have to possess a special power to recognize the peculiar charged atmosphere of an approaching storm.

It was not enough to awaken my vision. So I reached for the fear that always loomed readily at the back of my mind, the fear that I usually struggled to ignore. It came easily—my stomach twisted into knots, sticky sweat in the palms of my hands and the back of my neck. My hair clung to my collar in the humid night air. It was too strong, I realized, because it overwhelmed me. I tried to feel around it, to funnel my fear beyond myself. I could not—there was only the fear.

"You must be aware. It's just another sense, like smell or taste."

I could not be ruled by what I felt. But how could I be calm when only strong emotions worked? That night it the dark forest when we fled the camp, I was swallowed by fear. When I created the wind in Evan's tent, it was anger that swirled inside me. Unless—unless it wasn't emotion. It was adrenaline.

"I can't," I admitted.

Asher shook his head. "You cannot give up. You must learn control."

I rolled my eyes, grateful for the cover of night to hide my expression.

I focused on remaining calm and attempted to reach beyond myself for something that loomed on the edge of my senses. It took time to notice it, but I found that energy I experienced in the forest and in the inn basement with Malachi. I could not see it like I did before—this time it was subtle, like the heat of a flame, just like Evan had explained.

It spanned across the horizon, pooling within the depths of the storm clouds. A gust blasted across the plain, whipping my hair behind me and sending tendrils of kerah over my skin. I raised my arms as if to catch the breeze or perhaps take flight, because I had the strange confidence that if I desired, I could bend the wind to my will. Asher said this was my element—what was there to stop me from claiming that power?

I was so distracted I did not notice that Asher had drifted away.

I didn't care. At best, Asher was standoffish and reserved. At worst, he was a hostile and distrustful companion. Perhaps he was different before their ordeal with Malachi, but I didn't understand his and Evan's friendship. I was fine without his company.

Besides, I was fascinated by the world through new eyes. And my vision of the kerah did not waver, even when I turned my attention elsewhere. I worried that it would disappear or fade from sight, but it remained, waiting for me.

The hours passed. The storm now loomed overhead, closer than the manor, which was about the size of my thumb on the horizon. But brief flashes of lightning revealed a sea of undulating grass that separated us from the distant manor.

I could see the kerah inside the tempest, dancing on the winds. Powerful updrafts pushed the warm, moist air higher and higher. Rain fell in sheets, creating the cold, punishing winds that charged from the center of the storm. My powers were limited to weak breezes. What scale would limit me?

A cold raindrop landed on my arm. It was followed by another and another. The rain was cold, and it struck my face and body with large, wet drops that soaked the fabric of my cloak and left a chilly trail along my neck and beneath my collar. The drops became a downpour, and we were surrounded by the susurrus of falling rain. I pulled the hood of my cloak over my head and held it there. The improvement was minimal.

Lightning illuminated the night. Thunder followed a second later, rumbling above the sound of the rain.

The rain obscured the landscape, so I followed the black cloak ahead of me. The night was black and the rain hid any shapes I could have discerned in the shadows. The wind was strong, and blasts of rain pelted my face from every direction. I could no longer see the manor—scratch that; I couldn't see anything more than a few feet beyond my face.

Living in a city, I was rarely encountered the frightening strength of nature, except through news reports of distant natural disasters. But I was insignificant and completely at the mercy of the wind and the rain. I was frightened and completely overwhelmed by the power of the storm around me.

Raindrops clung to my eyelashes like tears, and my soaked cloak had become a dead weight on my shoulders. The rain had washed away all the excitement of awakening my vision.

My frustration grew, expanding in my chest without an outlet. Suddenly, the kerah disappeared. A blast of wind swirled around me, clearing the rain from my face. It happened quickly, and the downpour returned a second later. No one else seemed to have noticed what I had done.

We were pressing forward through the storm in the direction of the manor, but our progress was unbearably slow. I did not know if it would be another hour before we escaped the storm or if we would even reach it before dawn. It was impossible to know.

The wind whipped aside my cloak, and the rain soaked my clothes. Raindrops fell across my face like tears, and my hair was dripping and plastered to the side of my face. The ground around me was soaked, and soon, I dragged my feet along the muddy road. For now, my feet were dry, but the bottoms of my boots were heavy with the thick, brown mud.

I clenched my jaw and pressed forward, squinting to see the path ahead of me.

Blind men were said to have keen hearing. That one sense must compensate for the other's absence. The limited visibility strengthened my vision of the kerah, like I experienced that black night in the forest.

I was not blind, though, and every part of me knew it was there. There was a low buzz humming above the sound of the rain, and the kerah added definition to those objects that were surrounded by it. I had always dreaded being caught outdoors by a thunderstorm, but I was calm and at ease.

Lightning flashed somewhere nearby; the light seemed to swallow me and the explosion of sound that immediately followed was everywhere all at once. The lightning's flash had blinded me, and I blinked furiously, trying to restore my vision.

I was surrounded by rain and wind, and the energy seemed to draw closer to me. I was euphoric—the aches disappeared from my body, the faint hunger was banished, and my strength returned in full force. I took a deep breath, and it was more than only air that filled my lungs. Despite the storm, I laughed aloud.

There was so much power. If this was what Malachi experienced, perhaps I could understand some part of him, the part that could not resist seeking this thrill.

But unlike Malachi, I had no use for the power building inside me, no meaningful outlet. It filled me, but then, the feeling edged closer to discomfort. The pressure was building in my chest; it felt like I was holding my breath, but despite the pain, I could not release it.

Black spots appeared at the edge of my vision, and I tried to disengage from the swirling kerah, but I couldn't. My power was swept up in the current.

It was too much. The ground rushed toward my face, and the black overwhelmed me. As I slipped under, I could hear the wind howling around me.