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Chapter 40: A Viper Inside Your Refuge

Madison


Rory’s hand hadn’t left Dove’s for more than a second at a time the whole last hour, though with the way Rory was clutching Dove’s palm over the gear shift as he sped down the dirt road behind town now, I was sure both their hands had to be hurting.


“Up there, the woods on the right,” Dove said.


The first three Gates we’d tried hadn’t responded to us—and this was the last one within twenty miles.


Rory veered the car onto the grass, slinging me to the side as he took the sharp turn. Thankfully, the seatbelt kept me from toppling into Fogarty in the backseat. He was glaring enough already.


The fact that we were offroading in Dad’s precious Jaguar wasn’t lost on me, but it had been knocked down a few pegs from where it would usually have fallen on my worry list, landing somewhere between “Our friends might be in danger” and “I’m riding in the backseat with a glamoured bear.”


Rory skidded to a stop just shy of the line of trees, and I prayed my sore neck would survive the series of mild whiplashes it had sustained over the past sixty minutes.


Dove yanked her hand from Rory’s and jumped out the moment the car stopped moving, then grabbed his hand again when Rory, Foge, and I joined her outside the car.


“It’s right ahead,” she said, pointing with her free hand at a shadowy place between the trees.


If I looked closely enough, I could see an arch-shaped section of the air shimmering—the Gate, glamoured to blend in with its surroundings.


Dove tugged Rory forward, then removed her runed stone from her pocket with her free hand and pressed it to the edge of the invisible Gate.


As we had at the previous three Gates, we held our breath and waited.


This time, the Gate surged to life after a few seconds, its edges solidifying into a stone archway. The air inside was still shimmering and translucent, showing the copse of trees behind it.


“Oh, thank goodness!” Dove dropped the stone away from the Gate and smiled back at us. “They must still be monitoring this one. Now we just wait for them to respond.”


A moment later, a male voice—young, like a teenager—spoke from seemingly nowhere. “Dove.” His tone sounded as though he knew her, but it was also laced with concern. “What are you doing way out there?”


Dove stared into the archway, where I assumed they had some kind of hidden camera, or the magical equivalent. “We’ve been trying to contact the Hub, but no one was answering the emergency line and every gate we tried closer to town was inactive. Please, let us in. We have an important warning—”


“If it’s about an attack, we’re fine. It was a false alarm,” the voice answered.


Dove’s face tensed. “I’m glad you’re alright, but there’s more. Please, Roinan. Just let us in. We need to speak with Chairman Hart.”


“They told me not to—” the teen began to answer, but a woman’s voice cut over his.


“Duvessa?”


Dove sighed in relief. “Chairman Hart. Yes, I’m here. Please let us in. I accompanied Rory and Madison to their home, but—”


“You were not supposed to leave the Hub. Any of you. The Hub is on lockdown.” Her words were clipped, irritated.


Dove’s brow pinched in worry. “Yes, I know, and I’ll accept the consequences. But please, we need to speak with you right away. It’s important.”


Consequences? My stomach dropped at the thought that Dove would get in trouble because of us. But Dove just stood, stoic in expression and bouncing slightly on her toes with impatience, waiting for Chairman Hart’s decision.


“Very well,” Chairman Hart said after a tense moment. “Roinan, open the Gate.”


Air whooshed out at us from the archway, cold and salt-scented, then the Hub courtyard appeared through the opening. It was bustling with activity, with Chairman Hart standing just inside.


“Come in quickly. We need to seal this back,” she said.


We all rushed through the Gate.


The moment it snapped shut beside us, Chairman Hart turned to Dove with an expression of concern, not the reprimanding fury I’d expected. “What is your news?”


From the way she said it, I took it that Dove didn’t often cry wolf. She’d said there was a problem, and Chairman Hart was taking her seriously—thank goodness.


Dove dropped Rory’s hand and wrung her fingers nervously. “Rory had a vision, one born of dark magic.”


Chairman Hart glanced at him, eyebrows raised. “And?”


With what Dove had just stated, I’d expected a much worse response.


Rory blushed from Chairman Hart’s sudden attention, but stammered out an explanation. “I—the dark magic from the Void seems to have connected me to the mind of some of the Dark King’s minions. Or maybe to the Dark King himself? I—I don’t understand how it works, I just—”


Chairman Hart stepped toward him, her expression turning gentle. “Sometimes none of us do. Dark magic can be tricky. It’s okay, Rory. Just explain what you saw.”


Her tender reaction to him honestly took me aback, but Rory drew a breath and plowed ahead.


“I’ve been seeing two women. One’s beautiful but obviously evil. The other’s a squatty little hag—long claws, very scary. She carries a lantern.”


“A Veil-witch, a female Veil-dearg,”a familiar voice said, and I spun to see Ayla standing to the side, gaping at us.


“Ayla!” I rushed toward her, crushing her in a hug.


She laughed and returned it. “I’m okay.”


When I pulled back, she smiled at me—and it was so good to see her looking normal again. I forced back a shudder as the memories of the battle, of what Sevryn had made me do to her. I wasn’t sure I would ever get that out of my mind…or off my conscience.


“What’s going on?” Ayla asked, concerned.


Chairman Hart gestured for Rory to continue.


He drew a breath. “Anyway, I’ve been seeing these women in my mind—but it’s like I’m really there with them, in the Void. Sometimes they see me, sometimes not, but it’s like I can watch their conversations. And this time…”


He paused as everyone stared at him in anticipation, but his eyes flicked to me. It was like he couldn’t bring himself to say the words.


I met Ayla’s stare. “He saw Sevryn with them.” Just saying the name made my stomach clench with nausea. I swallowed it down.


Ayla gaped at me. “What?


“It’s true.” Rory cut a worried glance at me, then turned to Ayla. “I saw him talking with the women. He’s alive, I’m sure of it—he looked right at me. He knew me.”


Ayla stared at him, at a loss for words.


“That’s not even the worst part,” Rory said. “They were talking about Kaizyn going into the Veil, that they were going to kill him. The Dark King saw me there. He told me it was already in motion, too late to stop it.” He shuddered, then glanced at Chairman Hart, his expression desperate for reassurance. “But that’s not possible, right? Kaizyn wouldn’t be dumb enough to go back into the Veil right now. He’s in Teionyr. Or maybe back in Arcvale?”


Ayla paled. “No,” she said quietly. “He’s on his way here… to check on me. Because I told Jordan the Hub was under attack.”


Her grandfather wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.


Ayla glanced at me, her face etched with worry. “Callan is with them. And Reina, and her parents.”


The pieces all crashed together in my mind, a perfect puzzle I’d never wanted assembled. “The false alarm—that must be why.” I looked at Rory. “It was a trap, to bring Kaizyn here—because they knew if Ayla was in danger, he would come.” My blood turned cold. “Sevryn could be waiting for Kaizyn in the Void. He could have a whole Dark Fae army, ready to ambush them.” And because of Callan’s stupid, perfect, endearing loyalty, he would die before he ever let the prince be harmed. My heart plunged to my toes.


Ayla gaped at me, horror filling her eyes. “No, no, no. We have to find them. We have to warn them.” She spun to look at her grandfather. “Please, we have to do something.”


Chairman Hart turned to Maddox, her posture tense. “I’ll assemble a—”


A beeping alarm sounded overhead.


“The Gate alert again,” Chairman Hart said. She tapped something on the device on her wrist, then spoke into it. “Which Gate this time, Roinan, and who’s there?”


“It’s Brone and Striker!” the teen voice from before answered. “At the southeastern Gate. Quinn’s with them. And a Fae woman. ArcFae, maybe? Like the other one.”


“Keyja,” Ayla breathed.


Her grandfather tensed, then turned to Chairman Hart. “If the Madame ArcFae herself is here, it can only be bad news… but I trust her completely. She poses us no threat.”


Hart nodded. “Open the Gate, Roinan. Let them in.”


A moment later, the brick wall behind us split open, and Brone, Striker, Quinn, and Keyja all rushed out into the Hub courtyard.


Brone turned to Hart immediately, his face somber. “We’ve got a problem, Meredith. A big one.”


Chairman Hart gave Brone a curt nod, but turned to Keyja before answering him. “‘Dame Keyja,” she said, tipping her head in respect. “You are welcome here—but please, allow me to skip the formalities.” She glanced between Keyja, Brone, Striker, and Quinn. “What’s going on?”


“It’s about my vision—” Quinn started, at the same time Brone said, “Arcvale was attacked.”


What?” Ayla said, her voice climbing. “Is everyone okay?”


“We were the only ones still there,” Quinn said.


“Arcvale still stands,” Keyja said. “The darklings pulled back. However, the Eldervine Mraugathal witnessed something during the attack.” She turned a wary stare on Chairman Hart. “Have you any other visitors here?”


“Yes,” Chairman Hart said. “An ArcFae, the one called Varias. He’s in a holding room.”


The glowing orb in Keyja’s chest crackled with electricity. Chairman Hart flinched away.


Ayla and her grandfather exchanged a worried glance.


“You have brought a viper inside your refuge.” Keyja’s jaw clenched as she held Chairman Hart’s gaze with a steely one. “Varias Burgild can no longer be trusted.”


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