“Not only am I your ancestor and thus have something of an interest in keeping you alive, but I also kind of like you, kid.” Seller was squinting at me over his sunglasses. “Besides, even if I didn’t, you dying isn’t exactly conducive to me having a long and healthy lifestyle. Cuz if you wander off out there and die, Gaia’ll rip my tongue out, skin me alive, and string up what’s left as a birthday party pinata.”
Despite myself and the horrible situation, I gave the man a brief look at that. “You’d never even tasted nachos before that day back at the bowling alley, but you already know what a pinata is?”
The man shrugged. “What can I say? I enjoy making my own food, but I still love a birthday party.” Clearing his throat, he added, “The point is, I don’t want you getting killed out there. And the Victors aren’t going to let me violate their direct orders and go with you. They won’t care what you do. Hell, they probably won’t even care what Miranda here does. Not enough to step in anyway. But if I tried to go out with you, they’d put a stop to it. Which means they’d stop you too. That’s just the way it is.”
My mouth opened to sarcastically ask if he cared more about pleasing some so-called leaders than saving the life of an innocent girl. But I stopped myself in time. He’d just explained that they’d stop all of us if he tried to go with. And while I had obviously improved over the past few months, I wasn’t nearly stupid and arrogant enough to think that I could do anything against the entire Eden’s Garden leadership. If they intended to stop us, there would be nothing that I or anyone else here could do.
Instead, I just bit back that comment before saying, “So we’ll go ourselves, the three of us. We’ll find Roxa and get her back here. Then you can send her home while we… we wait for Abigail to wake up.”
Before Seller could respond to that, Koren spoke up. “You said three. You mean four. I’m going with.”
“What?” I looked to her. “But you… I mean… Koren, your mom was almost killed. She’s basically in intensive surgery right now. And your dad…” I trailed off for a few seconds, flinching at the sight of the other girl’s expression then. “You’ve been through enough. You don’t have to go out there with us.”
“Have to?” the brunette echoed before shaking her head. “No, I don’t. But you’re not the only one who doesn’t want Roxa to die out there. And besides,” she added darkly, “after the night I’ve had, I’d kind of like to kill something that deserves it, and anything out in that forest that attacks us is fair game.”
I was still worried about Koren going out there. She had just found out that her father was dead, and her mother had been inches from the same fate. I didn’t trust that she was thinking clearly. But I also knew that trying to stop her was a bad idea. I’d just have to keep an eye on the other girl. I’d take care of her, I promised myself. Nothing else was going to happen to Koren today. Not as long as I could help it.
“What about Wyatt?” Tristan put in. “He’s gonna be upset if you go out there without him, you know.”
“I know,” I confirmed quietly. “But he’s helping them save Abigail. This is where he needs to be. No, we’ll go out by ourselves, grab her, and get back here. I’m just… not sure how we can find her, because that’s a pretty freaking huge forest out there. And I mean that both geographically and arborally.”
Sighing a little, Seller took a second before coming to a decision. “Well, they can stop me from going with you, but they can’t stop me from giving you a little help. First, take this.” Reaching into the inner pocket of his suit, he produced what looked like a weird compass. The thing was about the size and shape of a baseball that had been chopped in half. It was gold, with strange red runic designs adorning it. All along the flat top was glass, and through that, I could see what looked like the arrow of a compass without any other markings. When the man handed it to me, it made a soft humming noise.
“Each of you hold it for a few seconds,” Seller instructed. “Then get out in the forest and it should point you to the nearest Heretic who isn’t here in the base itself and isn’t someone who just held it. That should be good enough for you to get close. And this,” he took what looked like a red metal tube about the size of a cardboard toilet paper roll and handed it to Koren. “Hold that to your mouth and say the name of the person you want to talk to. After that, everything you say through the tube will only be heard by that person, no matter how loud you shout. You’ve still gotta get close enough for her to be able to hear it, but at least you can shout as loud as you want into it without attracting more attention.”
Koren looked at the thing in her hand, then held it up to her mouth. A second later, I heard her voice say, “I’m really scared about my mom. And after my dad… after he… I don’t even know where he is. I don’t know who he is. I feel… wrong, because I know I should be grieving for Dad, but I don’t even know who he was. I can’t remember him, Flick. I can’t remember him enough to grieve for him. I just… I know the idea of my dad. I know the idea of not seeing him again makes me sad. But I don’t know why. The specifics are… they’re just… gone. I can’t remember my own father. The Fomorian, he… he took that away. My dad is dead and I might not ever remember anything about him. I… I just need this, okay? I need to try to help someone, anyone. I need to help you save Roxa. I just… I need to.”
Biting my lip, I met the other girl’s gaze. Thanks to the tube, I was the only one who had heard what she said. After watching her for a few seconds, I gave a little nod, reaching out to squeeze her arm.
Finally, Seller gave us each a piece of bark from the tree itself. They were similar to the one that he’d broken smaller bits off of to bring us all here in the first place. Apparently, the tree constantly tried to call pieces of itself back to it. But the Garden Heretics put a magic shield around these pieces of bark that stopped the tree from recalling them. When we wanted to go back, all we had to do was slam the wood into something to break the shield and we’d instantly be teleported back to the tree when it called the wood back to itself. Technically we only needed one since it would also transport anyone who was touching the person who broke it. But Seller wasn’t going to send us out into that giant forest with only one way back. In case we got separated or anything bad happened, we were each given a piece.
I knew we were going as fast as we could without rushing headlong into certain death without a plan or any way to help, but it still felt like this was taking too long. Roxa was out there, and who knew what was happening to her? She was barely dressed, had no weapon, and probably had no idea where she was. She was in trouble, and we had to hurry. But we also had to be ready and not be stupid about it.
Paradoxically, even though I felt like every last second we were taking was too long, when we actually started out of the room to leave the tree and actually start looking, it felt like we were rushing too much. It didn’t make any sense at all, but I still felt like we were forgetting something important.
Oh, right. Telling the others to hold up for a second, I took the tube from Koren before tugging Seller with me out of the way. Then I held the tube up to my mouth, said his name, and started. “Can you contact Gaia completely privately? I mean so that no one else can hear what you’re saying to her.”
Raising an eyebrow, Seller nodded. “Sure, there are ways to make sure of it. What’s the big secret?”
Pausing briefly to take a steadying breath, I explained as succinctly as I could. “The people who killed Professor Pericles back at Crossroads, the person they meant to kill was Wyatt. They just don’t know yet. They were trying to kill the person who put the protection spell on Avalon, and their magic told them that the person was named Zedekiah. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only Zedekiah out there. That’s Wyatt’s real name, the name his parents gave him. He’s the one who put the protective spell on Avalon. You need to tell Gaia so she knows, just in case… just in case anything happens out there.”
Clearly reeling a bit from that, Seller took a second to collect himself before nodding. “I’ll take care of it. But you be careful out there. You understand? You get in there, find your classmate, and get out. And if it gets too dangerous, use the bark and we’ll find another way. It’s better that you make it back here so we can regroup and plan than to push things too far just because you want to save the girl, and end up getting killed yourself. I mean it. If it’s too dangerous, you all get your asses back here. Got it?”
I nodded, and he waited until the rest of us had all agreed to the same before stepping out of the way. Miranda took the lead, showing us across the breathtakingly enormous branch at a jog. As we moved, I took in the sight of all the other people moving along the other branches. The whole place was busy, like a literal city built in the branches of a tree. It almost felt as if we were bugs scurrying along a normal-sized oak. Bugs that built literal houses on the branches rather than burrowing into holes, but bugs nonetheless. Only the thought of Roxa being out there and alone was enough to make me focus.
Except one thing was bothering me, and the thought made me slow down. “There’s a time difference between here and our world?” I asked Miranda. “I mean, when we left Florida, it was late at night. But it’s obviously late morning here. Maybe even later than that.” I gestured around us to demonstrate.
The other girl started to nod, but before she could say anything, Tristan spoke up, blurting. “Oh, I know this one! Vanessa was talking about it. Something about how Crossroads is synced to be on the same time-frame as North America because that’s where the majority of the students are from. It lets them, you know, keep a normal schedule for when they go home or whatever. But Eden’s Garden’s timescale makes it day for them while it’s night for North America. That way while the worst of the Strangers are out and prowling around, it’s their daytime, so most of them are already awake and ready to go.”
Miranda blinked before nodding. “Uh, yeah, that’s right. But why would Vanessa know that?”
Tristan just winked at her. “If my sister knowing random crap like that surprises you at all, you clearly don’t know her. If it wasn’t for me and her roommate, she’d probably study twenty-four/seven.”
“And speaking of going out and doing things,” I added with a glance toward Tristan, “You and Roxa were night-surfing?”
He nodded. “Sure. It’s fun, you should try it. Especially since that little shark pack of yours keeps pretty much everything else away from the beach.”
By that point, Miranda had led us to a cordoned off part of the branch where a short fence surrounded a platform that stuck out away from the tree. There was a man standing guard there, but he moved away after she said something to him, and Miranda opened the fence before gesturing for us to go through.
“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked while stepping out onto the platform. The only thing out here was a stack of what looked like wooden boards that were about two feet across and three feet long.
She shrugged. “I just said that you were the visitors and that Seller sent me to take you down there.”
Nodding, I leaned out to look down… down… down the tree. A sense of near-vertigo overcame me and I quickly leaned back before getting too dizzy. “Ah, how exactly do we get down there, anyway?”
“Watch.” Reaching down, Miranda picked up one of the boards from the pile before giving it a light toss off the platform. The board fell… right to the edge of the platform itself before stopping short like it had hit something. It then just floated there in mid-air, even after the other girl stepped out onto it and proceeded to jump up and down a couple times. It floated there as solidly as if it had been attached.
“See that right there?” Miranda gestured to a black marking on the edge of the platform. When I leaned closer, I saw that there was a rune etched into it. “See, this wood here,” she tapped her foot against the plank that she was standing on, “won’t go any lower than that mark unless you tell it to with the command. And when you give the command, it’ll slowly sink down to the other mark at the bottom of the tree. When you want to come back up, you just step on the board and give the command to rise.”
“It’s an elevator,” I murmured, fascinated despite myself. “Every board is a really dangerous elevator. What if you slip or something? Or, you know, get dizzy because you’re up so high on a little board.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty useful. There are other, more normal elevators in the tree itself, but these are the easiest to get to out here. And if you don’t want to fall off, just say ‘lock feet,’” she instructed. “Toss a board out and step on it, then say that. You’ll see.”
The three of us shrugged at each other before doing as she instructed. As I stepped carefully onto my own board, I looked down at it while saying firmly, “Lock feet.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt something like a powerful suction effect against my shoes briefly before it faded. It felt weird, and when I tried to lift my foot up, it wouldn’t come. Both of my feet were locked tight against the board.
“Whoa,” Tristan laughed. “Now this would be a useful spell to know. So how do we unstick it?”
“Just say ‘release feet,’ Miranda answered simply. “Okay, now to go down, say ‘go to the ground.’” As soon as she’d said it, the other girl’s own board began to sink at a steady pace, dropping away from us.
We did the same, and before long, all four of us had dropped on our own personal wooden elevators clear to the bottom of the gigantic tree. From this angle, when I looked back up to where we had been, I couldn’t even clearly see any of it. The tree was so unbelievably enormous that it was all too far away.
“Holy crap,” I murmured under my breath in absolute awe. Hell, the base of the tree was clearly as wide as a city block. The scale of it was almost impossible for me to actually comprehend.
“You said it,” Tristan agreed, staring with me before adding, “It’s as big as the Calicerata tree on Eft.”
“Eft?” I echoed, looking that way before shaking it off. “Never mind, tell me about your adventures another time. We have to find Roxa before anything… fast,” I amended. “We have to find her fast.”
We passed around the compass thing, making sure it had registered all of us before I held it up. The needle pointed off into the giant forest, and I gestured that way before starting off at a run. I had no idea how far away Roxa had been dropped, but I did know that it had taken us way too long to get moving. We had to find her, had to get to the other girl before something horrible happened to her.
“If she’s hurt,” Tristan muttered while jogging alongside me, “I swear I’ll kill whatever did it.” He was easily keeping up, clearly resisting the urge to go sprinting off by himself. As much as the boy joked around, I could tell that this whole situation was eating him up inside.
“It’s not your fault,” I told him after glancing down to check that we were still going the right way. “If anything, it’s mine for not remembering that you’d be dragged along with me. I should’ve found a way to warn you before we did it. I’m sorry.”
The boy shook his head at that. “It’s okay. You had enough to deal with. I… I just… we have to find her, okay? I know what it’s like to suddenly get yanked away onto a dangerous alien world. I got lucky with the Meregan. If something else had found me, if I was…” He trailed off and gave a little shudder. “We just have to find her.”
“We will,” Miranda promised. She had already split into four different versions of herself that were scouting ahead. “We’ll find Roxa, I promise.”
Nodding firmly, I glanced back toward Koren, who was using the magic tube to shout for the girl in question. “Yeah, we’ll find her, Tristan.”
I meant it. No matter what it took or what we had to go through, we would find Roxa.
I just hoped we weren’t already too late.