Here, at last, is Chapter 9! In this chapter, two very important things are revealed! I'll leave it up to all of you to infer what they are (though the second is very obvious... oh well). The next chapter should be posted sooner than this one, considering I had two science projects to do while working on this one. So enjoy, my dearies, and next chapter I think I might add a little discussion between my characters and I :D

~Crimrose

Chapter 9

Pledged To The Darkness

I have you to thank, for lighting up the dark…

"So I see you've been to Wonderland and survived," my reflection murmured in the dream, and she had the nerve to give me a thumbs up. "Good job."

"You… you…" I had no words to describe the furious rage boiling through my veins, the kind that makes your muscles bunch up and makes you crave to hit something. Somehow I knew that everything, everythingthat had happened was her fault (even though it was my reflection, but that seemed like a minor detail at the time).

Rushing forward to where the two reflections parted, I expected to be able to fly through and shake her until her head fell from her neck, but no such luck. I was met with a barrier-like substance, and I banged my fists on it in my fury. Why couldn't I get through? Why couldn't I strangle this witch that had brought all this misfortune upon me? I kept banging my fists against the reverberating substance until they ached, which shouldn't even be happening, considering this was a dream.

The reflection held her hands up in mock surrender. "Easy there, girl. You can't hurt me without hurting yourself."

"What does that even mean?" I demanded, scraping my nails down the barrier. It didn't even budge or scratch. "Everything is so stupid and condescending and foreboding and I'm sick of it!"

"Man, you're pissy," she snickered from her side of the invisible wall. That only enraged me further, but I knew it was futile to try and break the infuriating wall between us. I slid down the wall until I fell to my knees, breathing roughly. I hated being so useless. I was born for action, to just dosomething, but I couldn't in this place, for whatever reason.

"Why is this happening?" I practically sobbed. "My life was torn out from underneath me. For the second time! Now I'm being dragged to some parallel universe and I don't have a clue why."

"Calm down," she called again, putting her (my?) hands on her hips with a cruel twist of her lips. "All your questions will be answered in due time. There's only so much your mortal mind can handle."

I snapped my head up, instantly curious. "I thought I was a fire mage."

She snorted. "I'm a mage. You've just inherited my powers."

Bashing my head against the barrier, I cried, "What does that even mean?"

"All in good time, fierce one," she chuckled, crossing her arms. "For now, I've come to warn you."

"Oh Jesus, what is it now."

She rolled her eyes, which were now beginning to look less brown like mine, and more blue. "You're just going around, trusting random strangers, I've noticed," she began with a growl. "That, my inexperienced friend, is a terrible idea. Didn't you hear that sluggish ex-knight tell you about the Shadowlanders and how they can take on human form?"

It was my turn to snort. "Yes, and he also told me about how they have all different eye colours. I think I'd know whether or not someone I talked to was a Shadowlander."

The look that overtook her face frightened me. It was the cruelest, haughtiest smirk, like she was some sort of all-knowing god. "To cover and change one's eye colour is a simple trick. If you are talented enough in the Dark arts… well, it'd be nearly impossible to tell if one was a Shadowlander."

A chill ran through my blood, making my body convulse violently and heart leap into my throat. "But… that's completely unfair!"

"Yes, it is," she groaned. "Which is why you shouldn't traipse around aimlessly while throwing away your trust. You are supposed to be me, which should have made you naturally wise with an explicit gut instinct. I am seeing lack thereof."

I glared up at her. "What would you know? Who the hell are you, anyway?"

She returned the glare threefold. "The true question is, who are you?"

"I'm Valerie Feyrin," I roared, standing up from my pitiful spot on the not-there ground. "I get some of the best grades in my school, I dance, I'm a martial artist, I like to write, I lost my sister to some creep in an alleyway, and I am sick and tired of people talking to me like I have no identity!"

"Valerie, if you don't trust your instincts, your death is inevitable."

My legs began shaking violently and I nearly collapsed again. "I know that," I hissed. "But you failed to mention it until it was already too late."

I could see her face transform into something feral and monstrous. "I did warn you, you insolent little girl!" She spat. "Your mortal mind is just irritatingly equipped with a natural reflex to reject that which you don't understand!"

"Why are you talking like you're so superior?" I demanded, bashing another fist against the glass.

"BECAUSE I AM!" She roared, making me stagger back. "I was the most powerful mage of my time, until I once let my heart be led astray by some charm and kindness, like a fool! If something like that happens again, I am finished!I cannot die, not this time. I'm so close… so close…" She began trailing off, looking somewhere into the far distance.

"So close… to what?" I asked hesitantly.

"Nothing of your concern," she snapped. "All that matters is that you must believe me when I say trust no one." Her expression darkened again, and I somehow began believing that this was not really my reflection. This was something else, some sort of thing inside of me. "Not even me."

Then something terrifying began happening.

The darkness around me began unfurling into moving tendrils, breaking the invisible wall to reach her on the other side. They wrapped around her body, squeezing her until she became part of their entirety. I staggered back in horror, only to realize that these things were all around me. They began consuming me, sliming against my skin, stabbing into my very flesh to drag my bones out…

I awoke with a jolt, panting and sweating despite the frigid air creeping into my small room.

Desperately, I began scraping at my skin, the feel of the snake-like darkness so real and wet that it was like it was truly there. It was like I had been plunged into Jello or something, and had it seep into my bones and stay there to rot away.

What the hell was that? Who was that person? Or rather… what was it?

I didn't know, and something inside of me recoiled at the thought of knowing. So, for now, I let it be, trying to heed the warning that thing had given me. Don't trust anyone? Fine, I wouldn't. It wouldn't be that hard, anyway.

A quick glance at the clock on my nightstand informed me that it was still December twentieth, only nine p.m. And I was starving, provided that I hadn't eaten for a good six hours. Then I suddenly had an insane craving for asparagus. So I hopped out of bed, swayed on my feet, then headed down the stairs. Zombie style.

(+)

- –

My family and I were evenly dispersed in the now fully decorated sitting room, bleak as it was, minding our own business. I was reading a novel on mortal politics, Renard and Ash were playing some game of cards, while Rhys was watching the TV, blank and cold as ever. My father was upstairs, plotting like the evil overlord he hoped to be, when Beck burst in the front door, snow dotting his woodsy hair and his snapping eyes threatening.

"The princess has already been to Wonderland," he announced, and he got the reaction he must have been hoping for.

Ash and Renard dropped their cards. Rhys snapped his head around from watching the Discovery Channel and its segment on wolves. Dad came bounding down the stairs, all business and scheming. And I snapped my head up from the thick volume to glare at him.

I knew something was off about her today. So she had been dragged to hell by the Door To Darkness. That was an interesting development. The destructive, demonic part of me slowly turned to face my father, eager to hear what he had in store for her know that she knew what we were trying to keep her from discovering.

"Well," he began, rubbing his strong jaw with his hand. "That is some interesting information. Any idea what she did once dragged in?"

"No, sir," Beck reported, closing the door behind him and shaking out his hair. "But I assume she had a fair amount of training from the excessive heat she was giving off today. She has most likely come into her magic."

"I see," Dad growled, sitting down on a stool by the island. He contemplated in utter silence as my fellow soldiers and I waited for instruction. Finally, he stated, "This changes things."

"How so?" Rhys demanded.

"Now that she may know what she's up against, it will prove difficult to take her by surprise and rip her soul out of her that way." A dark, cruel grin twisted my father's face, his forever twenty-five face gaining some wrinkles and age it usually lacked. "So we might as well crush that spirit and add to its Darkness, then rip it out from her, piece by piece."

I narrowed my eyes. "Elaborate."

"New orders." He stood and faced us all formally, and we stood in our usual line, from youngest to oldest. He scanned all of our faces, looking for some sort of leak, something to punish. Upon seeing nothing, he continued. "The best way to get her soul to become darker is to earn her trust… then betray it."

My stomach twisted at the idea, for whatever reason. Today when making her snowman, she seemed so innocent, so childish and oblivious that I almost wanted to kill her right there so I wouldn't have to see that enviable look on her face anymore. Almost. But somehow, I couldn't bring myself to edge closer or further away. I didn't want to be near her and the scum that stained her depths. But I didn't want to be further away, either. It was like I was being drawn to her and her differences from Feyria by some invisible, irresistible force, and no matter how I scraped at other ground and tried to recoil, I couldn't escape.

She had me permanently locked in her clutches, just like how it used to be.

"And what's the easiest way to gain her trust?" Father continued without noticing the internal battle that raged inside of me (thankfully). "You get her to like you, perhaps even love. Then you smash her and her disgusting heart into little, tiny pieces, and then she will be more vulnerable than ever before. She'll be so weak from heartbreak that she won't even be able to lift her hand."

All my brothers looked at each other with feral grins. I kept my expression carefully neutral, knowing that the moment my father had spent my life training me for was about to arrive. And I had to push these repulsive, mortal feelings aside to fulfill my duty. My destiny.

"The operation begins as soon as possible," he decided with a clap of his hands. "Renard, Ash, you two will be at a disadvantage considering that you don't attend the same school. But I expect you will make use of your many talents and play with her as you see fit."

"Yes, sir," my eldest brothers said in synchronization, copping it off with a salute.

"Beck, Rhys, Christian." He addressed us with a cool look in his eyes. "I expect more of you considering you can get closer to her whenever. Work your hardest, and our goal will be achieved fairly quickly."

"Yes, sir," we all repeated, though my heart wasn't in it.

"Dismissed." He then proceeded to tromp into the basement and most likely do some sort of freaky ritual, like he did when I was just ten years old and walked in on him talking to people that weren't really there. One could understand why I didn't follow.

Instead, I went upstairs. I hesitated in the long, dark hallway, wondering if I should just go to my room or risk a visit. I took the ladder, and proceeded to the very first room on the left.

I was surprised with how much they did so quickly, inhuman or not. The room was all light, with cream walls that were lit gold by the soft light beaming from the lamps and light wood floors. Sheer white curtains billowed in a breeze from the buzzing fan beside the grand, queen size bed right in the center of the room, with comfortable throw pillows overflowing from it and a canopy fluttering in that same breeze. The only furniture besides that were an antique, light bureau, a soft, brown leather ottoman, and even a wall-mounted flat screen. The very best for our own princess.

I didn't need to try and make my footsteps silent; they always were. It was like I was a ghost, sliding across the floor with an unmanly grace. I dodged the fan to not let it make that weird sound it always did when touched, and stood next to her softly breathing figure, sleeping soundly on the bed.

Even though I didn't make a sound, she stirred and opened her unseeing aquamarine eyes like she knew I was there. She blinked a few times, trying to recognize the presence, then her face as soft as white rose petals bloomed into a pearly smile. "Christian?" She guessed, her voice as soft and peaceful as an angel's.

"Yes," I responded. "Sorry. Did I wake you?"

"No, no," she assured, even though it was obvious I did. "Please, sit."

Being careful not to weigh her down, I sat gingerly on the corner of the bed. She opened her thin, brittle arms with a smile, and I reached down and buried my face into her familiar neck.

"How are your brothers?" She asked, and I sighed.

"Fine and weird as ever." She laughed at that, which is what I was aiming for. On a more serious note, I said, "Everything's finally coming together."

Almost imperceptibly, she tightened her frail grip around my shoulders. They were so big and bulky compared to her that I was afraid I'd crush her if I held on too tight.

"You'll finally be well again… Caroline."

(+)

- –

Mom and Dad were nowhere to be seen. Normally, I wouldn't think much of it, but then I remembered what day today was.

It was December twentieth. The day Alice died.

Instantly, I felt like a horrible, terrible person for forgetting. I was being so selfish, wrapped up in my own thoughts, my own problems, when today was the anniversary of my little sister's death… no. I had no right to call her that, blood related or not. I didn't deserve to have someone so wonderful in my life. Which was probably why she was snatched away.

The entire house was plunged into darkness, the shadows of snowflakes falling into light shadows. I shivered, probably because of what happened so recently in the basement, and made my trip to Mom and Dad's room quickly, where they kept the last remaining picture of her.

I opened their door a crack, revealing a sparse and neat room that seemed to be the trademark for parents. They had installed a small, fake fireplace, and right on the mantle was where she sat, watching over them while they slept any other time.

The sickness that roiled in my stomach whenever I saw her came back full-force, and I gritted my teeth to not burst into unbecoming sobs. I just stared at her photo, silently saying that I was sorry, over and over.

Then I shook my head and left, not feeling right in the presence of an inanimate object that would never do her justice.

Once I reached my room again, I turned on the bright lights so I wouldn't feel like things, creepers, were watching me from the shadows. Waiting. I needed a distraction, so I began trying to do my homework while cranking some tunes, so not as to hear the distant creaks and groans of the house. But that got boring really quickly, as it always did, so I considered actually braving downstairs to watch TV. Turning on all the lights, of course.

Just when I was about to leave my safe haven, my phone started blasting the theme to Robot Unicorn Attack. Embarrassed, I quickly answered it and pressed it to my ear.

"Hello?"

"Hey, girlie!"
Dotty. "What's up?"

"Do you want to hang out right now?"

My brows furrowed, glancing at the clock. "It's nine thirty."

"Your point being…?"

I supressed a sigh. "Can you grab a taxi and come here, then?"

"Ha ha, yes! See you in a few!"

"Yeah, sure."

Before I hung up, I heard her voice call, "Val!"
Groaning, I pressed the mobile back to the side of my head. "Yes?"

"You don't still have that embarrassing ringtone, do you?"

Flushing with shame, I yelled, "I am the night!" Into the receiver, then hung up.

Honestly, I was grateful for the distraction, though I was sure I wouldn't be the best company right now. I took a deep breath, then ran out into the hallway, flipping on all the lights I passed. Screw the electricity bill for now; I was freaked out. When I reached downstairs, I grabbed the remote and flipped on the TV, then went to start making snacks. Mom and Dad probably wouldn't even notice Dotty was here, unless she said something directly to them. Especially today.

A few minutes and several mini tacos later, a pounding began to resound on the door. And it didn't stop. Rolling my eyes, I strolled over and tore it open to see my grinning best friend on the steps.

"We should invite Jesse and make this a party!" She whooped, stepping past me to invite herself in. "On second thought, maybe not. He always ruins everything."

My eyes travelled to the overnight bag slung over her shoulder. "You're staying the night?"

She shrugged, her hazel-eyed gaze becoming distant. "Yeah. Dad found a favourite new brand of liquor, and a waitress to go with it."
I nodded in understanding. "You're welcome, then. Want to dump your stuff in my room?"

"I will when we go up there." She dropped her bag by the door, then took a flying leap to land on the couch in a lounging position. "Bring on the snacks!"

She was idly flipping channels when I returned with a tray of baked Mexican appetizers. She raised her eyebrows.

"Really? Should dancers be eating stuff like this?"

"If they want to lead a fulfilling life, yes."

She plucked up a taquito and examined it. "Filling? Yes."

I shrugged, turning upside down to sling my legs over the top of the couch, mini taco in mouth. I was secretly stressing about her being here. What if a Rift opened right here, right now? It was pretty clear Dotty had nothing to do with Wonderland. If I sucked her in… she'd be gone forever.

Maybe having her here was a bad idea. But I couldn't just kick her out, regardless of whether or not it was to keep her safe. She needed me right now, and I had to be here for her.

"So," she began mimicking my position. "Have you got an outfit planned for tomorrow?"

Groan. "No."

"Wardrobe is everything, Val."

"Not to me, it isn't."

She rolled her eyes, leaving them staring heavenward. "Do you even have a dress picked for the Winter Formal right after?"

I jolted up into a normal sitting position. "That's tomorrow?"

"I thought you knew," she snickered. "But don't worry about a date. I'm sure the man-"

"Don't even finish that sentence," I warned, and she clamped her mouth shut with a devious little grin. "I wasn't even planning on going."

"Don't make me slap you upside the head." She sat up normally, as well, staring me in the eyes with a silent challenge. "This is your high school life. You won't ever experience stuff like this again. You only live once, right?"

I rolled the flavour of beef in my mouth. "False. You live every day. You only die once." I didn't want to mention that the chance of my death had shot up in just a day in this time. I could die any day, and regardless of how slowly time passed here while I was in Wonderland, eventually it would pass enough for people to notice that I was gone and wasn't coming back.

She waved her hand flippantly, thankfully not taking notice of my internal war. "Regardless. Hey, are you ever going to tell me why you aren't interested in guys?" Imperceptibly, I flinched, though she didn't seem to notice. "You're obviously not a late bloomer."

After a few moments of hesitation, I shrugged. "It's just never interested me, I guess." Technically it wasn't a lie. After the incident, the thought of getting that close to any guy was very unappealing.

"Do you think that could change?" She asked quietly, suddenly serious. "It's just… sometimes when I look at you, you seem so… I don't know, lonely. I hate being lovey-dovey with Ryan around you, because you start looking so forced and fake. I know that you're really happy for us, but… don't you think you should be happy for yourself once?"

I shook my head, a sad smile in place. "No. Watching you and Jesse obtain your own means of happiness is enough for me." She still looked skeptical and worried. "I'm not… lonely. I have so many great people in my life. How could I be?"

"Well… okay," she sighed, but her expression still seemed pained. "But if you ever feel the slightest bit sad or lonely, you'll tell me, right?"

It almost seemed like a lie when I said, "Of course."

"All right," Dotty exclaimed, clapping her hands together. "Time for serious talk is over. Let's go raid your wardrobe." Before I could even object, the snapped off the TV and pulled me up by my hand, dragging me through the house like it was her own. She stopped to get her bag on the way, and I took that time to run back and snag the rest of the mini tacos.

"What's with all the lights?" She snorted as we walked down the brightly lit hall.

I shrugged. "It felt too gloomy."

"Whatever you say."

We made ourselves comfortable in my room, with Dotty rummaging in my closet as I laid on my stomach on the bed, kicking my feet in the air. Clothes were flying out here and there, some of which I had no idea I owned. After a while, a deep groan resonated from within the closet, and Dotty staggered out, her curled hair a tangled mess.

"You have no skirts or dresses," she hissed, glaring at me. "Only jeans, sweats, hoodies, tee shirts… you'd think I was looking through a guy's closet!"

"Not true. Our uniform has a skirt."

"That hardly counts!"

"I was serious when I said I didn't want to go," I muttered, standing up to at least try and help her look. "I'm not too fond of dances and the like."

"Oh, live a little," she growled. I almost felt tempted to tell her how much I'd 'lived' over the past few days. But I held my tongue, digging an off-the-shoulder red sweater out of a corner.

"That's perfect!" She yelped, snatching it from my hands and holding it up to my frame. "Red looks so good on you. We just have to find some nice pants, through them in the wash, then at least you'll be presentable for the concert."

"Why can't we just wear our uniforms?"

"Because this is one of the only days we don't have to." She smiled at me, all confidence and wisdom. "Now help me find some black jeans."

"I don't know if I have any."

"I've seen you wear a pair before; they looked awesome on your chicken legs."

Why were people so obsessed with insulting my bodily features? "Fine, fine."

We rummaged a bit more until the aforementioned pair turned up, and Dotty began to head to the basement. But I hesitated at the top of the staircase, remembering what happened the last time I went down there. Guess what the first thing I did was? Turned on all the lights in there. Jason must've change the bulb, god bless him.

Dotty and I hung out a bit more, at least until that load was done. My family had still yet to show, but then they finally arrived home at ten thirty, looking dreary and depressed. Jason muttered a greeting to my best friend, then shut himself in his room for the rest of the night, while my parents did the same.

We took that as a sign that we should probably head to bed, as well. So we bolted downstairs, grabbed my now clean clothes, then collapsed in bed. Despite my earlier catnap, my eyes were heavy as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Then I drifted into, thankfully, a dreamless sleep.

(+)

It was one of those mornings when the last thing you wanted to do was get out of bed.

When something in me finally stirred and I awoke, I was so comfortable in my clean, tangled sheets, just the right warmth, and in the best position imaginable, that I didn't want to do jack for the entire day. It all seemed like too much effort.

But I, of course, just had to be one of those people who was so obsessive about their responsibilities. I had to perform a concert today, then go to Dotty's afterward so she could find me a dress for tonight (groan). Which I found pointless, considering I wasn't even planning on dancing, anyway. But I was going to go regardless, not because Dotty was making me, but because I'd feel kind of lame if I was the only one staying home on a night like this. Despite all that had happened to me, I was still your average seventeen-year-old.

So, with a groan, I forced my eyes open to find myself sprawled all over the bed and Dotty's absence. I hated myself for doing it, but I pushed myself into a sitting position and glanced around. I could hear some bustling and humming in the bathroom. She must have been getting ready.

I heaved a deep sigh, then staggered out of my bed, only to have my bare feet meet with the chilly floor, sending a shiver down my spine. I got my pack and everything ready while waiting for Dotty to vacate the bathroom, and after what seemed like forever, she skipped out, her hair lilac hair freshly curled and gentle make-up applied.

"You take forever," I grunted, narrowing my dreary eyes at her.

"Whoa, someone's a grumpy puss this morning," she teased, thudding on the bed. "Go pretty yourself up. Want help with your hair?"

Gingerly, I picked up a lock between my fingers, frowning. "I wasn't planning to do anything."

"I'm curling it. You'll look adorable."

"Okay, then, I trust your judgement."

She squealed in delight, then waited for me to get dressed in my uniform, despite the fact that we were just going to change when we got there. Stupid protocol. Once I had brushed my teeth, leaving a cinnamon taste in my mouth, and put on some make-up, Dotty took over my hair, and all I could smell after that was apple-scented hairspray. I gagged.

"Wimp," Dotty teased. I grinned at her in the mirror.

She worked in concentrated silence, leaving me to my own thoughts. It was very strange; even though I had the most comfortable sleep in a while, there was some sort of hollow feeling in my chest. Like something was missing, that it wasn't complete. I had never really felt anything like it before, except for when Alice died. Maybe it was because I forgot about yesterday? Who knew. But it wasn't going away, despite how much time I spent with Dotty that morning.

Since we were exempt from third and fourth period classes, we only had to bring our English text, leaving plenty of room in our bags for the change of clothes. We stuffed them in, and I brushed my curled hair behind an ear, revealing the piercings (a bad decision, in hindsight).

Mom and Dad were already gone, of course, and Jason was actually sleeping in his room for once. So Dotty and I had the kitchen to ourselves, and we made the executive decision to try and make smoothies (let me just clarify that before that I had never touched a blender in my life). Good thing that no one was there to watch it get all over the counter and even on the wall. That left little smoothie to drink, and a whole lot more to waste time cleaning up.

Jesse pulled up and honked outside shortly after, and we left the door while combusting with giggles. Once we climbed in the truck, me in the passenger side and Dotty in the back, Jesse raised his eyebrows.

"Did you two have a little accident?" He snickered, wiping some leftover smoothie from my cheek. I grinned wryly at him.

"It wasn't even worth it," Dotty muttered. "Those smoothies sucked donkey ass."

"Language," I scolded, though I was still giggling about the entire experience.

We pulled up to the school in a matter of minutes, and Dotty and I buckled out while Jesse went to scour for a free spot in the parking lot. We were approaching the doors, thinking that maybe we'd get away scot-free today, but no such luck. A familiar figure stood right at the entrance, managing to find something to scold every one of the students about.

I groaned. "Dear god, he's here."

Our student body president wasn't like a normal school's, which tended to be cool and involved. No, Ivan Hellock was your stereotypical, nerdy president, a stickler for the rules and thinking he owned the world. His lanky, bespectacled figure stood immobile at the doors, scowling at everyone who walked by.

"Well, well, well," he drawled as Dotty and I approached with identical we're-getting-real-tired-of-your-shit looks. "If it isn't Miss Valerie Feyrin and Dorothy Garrett. Disobedient as ever, I see."

Dotty bared her teeth at him. "Leave it alone, Ivan. We're not doing anything wrong."

"I beg to differ!" He roared, and I could picture him pulling out a pocket-size version of our school's rules. He didn't, but he might as well have. "Your distracting, neon colours of… well, everything is strictly against school policy. By no means should your hair colour be unnatural. This is a learning environment, not a fashion show.

"And don't think you've done no offense, Feyrin," he spat at me, and I could only shake my head. "You're just as bad. That red in your hair is clearly not meant to be there. And no bodily piercings on the premises! I won't even try to count the number of times I've told you to pull out that ear jewelry of yours."

Two piercings in each ear? Someone arrest me. "I'll take them out as soon as I get inside," I said snidely, not meeting his irritating gaze.

"Excellent," he muttered, leaning back. Apparently his little rant was done for the day. "You may proceed, but I expect that the two of you are more orderly for the next inspection. Good day."

Once inside, Dotty and I both stuck our tongues out to his rigid back.

"Get chewed out again?" Jesse chuckled, loping up beside us. He had escaped without a lecture purely because he was a good, quiet student. Jerk.

"Yeah, yeah, make fun," Dotty growled. "But one day, my girl here is going to give that guy what's coming to him."

"Probably not, though," I added, heading to the bathroom to temporarily pull out my piercings. I didn't get what was so violating about metallic flowers and butterflies.

Considering that today was the last day of school before winter break, hardly anyone attended, since the only interesting thing happening was the concert in the afternoon. That being said, my first and second period classes were just filled with idle chatter and even a movie in English. I hardly paid attention to it and my best friends' bickering, trying to focus on my World History project, due just after winter break. I was taking notes on knighthood, all the important facts, and trying to justify why females could be knights (while withholding the info that some females could have their body enhanced with magic). It went something along the lines of with the right training and a strong enough will, anyone can accomplish anything. Cheesy and cliché stuff like that.

Finally lunch came, and the dance team (among others) spent the break preparing for whatever performance they had to do. We managed to squeeze in one last practice, though the majority of it consisted of Dotty yelling at Jesse because he was just going on stage in his uniform. He justified it by saying that he was a guy and didn't give a damn about stuff like that. They then proceeded to ignore each other, while I remained the neutral party. Same old, same old.

The performance went off without a hitch, thank the lord. The entire time we were up on stage, I was trying my hardest not to break out into a nervous sweat. Not because I had stage fright; I got over that long ago. But rapid images of a Rift opening and pulling me in with a bunch of defenseless people with me kept skittering through my head, and I was constantly on edge. But nothing worth noting happened, and Jesse even managed to keep from collapsing off the stage. I had never been more proud of him.

I was standing backstage, trying to catch all the breath I had lost, when an irritatingly familiar figure emerged from the darkness to stand beside me.

"Nice work up there," Patrick purred, smiling. Why was he here? You'd think that all of the 'popular people' would skip out today, because their brains might as well have been programmed just for finding loopholes. Take any chance you can to get out of school.

Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and forced out a smile. "Thanks," I said, trying to keep my tone neutral.

"Were you planning on going to the dance tonight?" He asked nonchalantly, standing next to me and leaning against the wall that I was.

Oh boy. "Yeah, I think so. But I was planning on going with Dot and Jesse."

"Well then, I guess tonight's your lucky night," he chuckled, flashing another white-toothed grin at me. Oh, gag. "I'm going if you are. Hey, I'll even save you a dance."

Where did all that confidence come from? "Thanks, but… I wasn't planning to dance with anybody."

He snorted. "Then what were you gonna do? Stand around all night like some kind of loser?"

I bristled. "Maybe so."

"Come on, Val," he groaned, turning so his side was against the wall and he could look straight at me. "Have some fun with me, just for one night. You'll enjoy, I promise."

I was about to tell him where he could stick his little idea of fun, but then something warm and solid wrapped around my shoulders, and a deep voice growled: "Sorry, but she has other plans."

My heart tripped over itself, fell down a hill, and landed in a puddle of lava when I recognized Christian's voice and scent. He stood at my side, an arm carelessly slung around my shoulders, grinning like a vicious cat getting ready to devour a little mouse. What the hell did he think he was doing?

Patrick took one look at him, and his easy expression turned into a snarl of hatred. "You," he spat. "Didn't I tell you to steer clear of me and my business?"

I felt him shrug against my side, and I had to use all the force in my body not to blush and start hyperventilating. "Maybe so. But she clearly doesn't want anything to do with you. So I suggest you take you and your lack of a brain out of here."

Patrick's hand balled up into a fist, like he was getting ready to punch Christian square in the face. Even though he was much bigger than Christian when referring to muscles, I somehow knew that trying to take the mysterious boy on was a seriously bad idea. His body was lithe and stealthy, almost like it was made for destruction.

So I said: "Um. Yeah. I was planning to hang out with Christian a bit, so…" I trailed off, leaving him to figure out the rest for himself. When I said his name, Christian's fingers hand tightened on my shoulder, making a shaky breath blow out of me. What was his deal?

Patrick turned to glare at me, and I saw the horrible person he could be reflected in his eyes. But he 'tch-ed', and turned away, shoving his way out from backstage. I felt all the breath I was holding rush out of me at once. That was exactly why I hated dealing with guys like him.

Christian's arm dropped from my shoulders, the shock of cold from its absence sending a shiver down my spine. He leaned back with the easy grace of a cat, looking slightly irritated.

"Um, thanks, I guess," I managed, looking away in embarrassment. "But… why'd you do that?"

He snorted, causing his hair to fall into his eyes. He raked a hand through it, not meeting my probing gaze. "People like him irritate me. Any chance to take joy and accomplishment away from him is one I'll take."

"That's really sadistic," I observed, and he glared at me. But I still smiled at him, because it was a kind gesture to save me from some jackass, even if that wasn't exactly his intention.

He was quiet for a moment, observing me silently. Then, out of nowhere, he asked, "You are going to the dance tonight, right?" I was shocked to silence, so I nodded mutely. "Save me a dance, then."

Okay, his whole big rescue act seemed kind of pointless considering that someone else I didn't want to dance with just asked me to. But I had to admit, the idea was tempting. I wondered why he was asking; it seemed like he didn't like me very much, just liked antagonizing me. This was weird. I had never felt tempted to get closer to a guy, or anyone for that matter, before. But now, looking at Christian's pretty face and seeing something stir in his deep eyes, I blurted out: "Yes."

"All… right, then," he muttered awkwardly, staring at me a moment longer, then shoving off the wall and leaving.

I had to leave backstage to catch my breath and calm my racing heart.

I staggered out of the door to enter the empty hallway, planning to go to the bathroom and splash some water on my face, maybe smack myself for just agreeing to something like that without considering what affect it could have on me. I was almost there when a chill skittered down my entire body, just like…

Being splashed with ice water.

I had that feeling before. Right before a Rift dragged me back home. It couldn't be… but when I looked behind me, I saw a large, gaping black door-like space in the middle of the hallway, and these black tendrils that kind of resembled hands began reaching out. Towards me.

I panicking, glancing around. I was alone, thankfully. Just in time, for I could feel the chilling black substances wrap around my ankles, then give a painful tug so I landed flat on my ass on the floor. It then began dragging me in, and I didn't resist, because I knew that it would be pointless.

But it was frightening, seeing that dark space in front of me gaping like an open mouth, preparing to devour me. I automatically began cringing away from it, struggling in place. My feet were now inside of the space, then my ankles, my legs, torso…

Then everything was consumed, and I could only see darkness.

(+)

"Honey, I'm home!" I sang as I burst through Muirik's door, making the retired knight jolt in surprise.

As I thought, that mysterious door of darkness was, indeed, a Rift. After it had dragged me in, I awoke in a field a few meters away from Muirik's little cottage, so close I could almost see him working through the window. I had been changed into the same outfit, made out of Focca fur, and the shoes, and I still wondered how the Rift managed to do that. My sword was still attached to my belt, and I never had to pull it out, thankfully. No monsters approached, or most of them might've been sleeping during the afternoon, which appeared to be the time. The sun was shining in its zenith, and I assumed Muirik was eating lunch.

When I burst through his door, he had dropped his makeshift fork in surprise, proving he was.

"What… did a Rift drag you back?" He demanded, standing to look at me with his scary expression.

"Good to see you, too," I grumbled, earning a grunt from him. "And yes, a Rift did drag me back." I heaved a sigh, hoping that no time passed while I was away again. Contradicting myself, I was kind of… looking forward to seeing Christian tonight. And dancing with him. Just the thought of having his warm arms around me…

Dear Lord, I was becoming a pervert. "How long was I gone?" I asked Muirik, shaking away those thoughts. I had to focus on this world now, or surviving would prove difficult.

"About two days," he grumbled, sitting back down to mow down on his… I didn't know what it was. Now I knew why he insisted that I cooked.

My eyebrows slashed down in concern. "Two days? That's it?"

He examined me carefully, discovering that something was amiss. "Why do you ask? How much time passed on your end?"

After a moment of silence, I said: "About two days."

His expression mirrored mine. "That's odd. Usually there is a large time difference, from what I've heard. How much time passed when you were here previously?"

"Not even a second."

"Now this is strange," he muttered, finishing off his… stew? "In knight training, they had never told us about no time passing in your world while you're here, but when you return, the same amount of time passes in both worlds. I'm not certain if this is more or less random, or if that's just the way it works. We can't research it; who knows how long it'll take?"

"Maybe it's just one of those things we have to accept," I stated, taking a seat across from him on the rickety wooden chair. I had already begun considering this my home away from home, and could make myself completely comfortable, besides Muirik still being a bit of a stranger. "I've found that in Wonderland, there are some things that you can't understand, no matter how hard you try. It's 'just the way things are'. And in that way, our worlds are alike."

"I suppose so," he sighed in agreement. "What are you going to do now? Have you figured out your purpose?"

I groaned. That dream I had, the one of my reflection, didn't really shed light on anything, except for maybe her deep-seated anger. So I said: "No, I haven't discovered anything. Do you know if there's some place, or maybe an oracle or something like that, that could help me figure it out?"

"I know of none," he muttered, drumming his fingers on the table. My heart sank to my stomach, leaving me wondering if I would ever find a way to stay home. In my world. "I haven't really come across a Traveler on my own; I've only heard of them in my training. So I wouldn't be able to tell you."

I bashed my head against the table, leaving Muirik to roll his eyes. "This isn't impossible," I muttered, more to myself than him. "There has to be some sort of clue. A Rift couldn't just keep dragging me back and forth forever if there was any indication that I wouldn't be able to fulfill my purpose."

"You shouldn't believe that," he growled threateningly. "I told you- quite frankly- about how Rifts have a mind of their own, and are completely random. You can never tell what they're planning to do."

"But that wouldn't be fair!"

"I think we've established that nothing is truly fair."

I looked away, biting my lip to keep from screaming in frustration. There had to be something I could do, some way I could fulfill whatever it was I had to do here. But I had no idea what my limits were, no idea what I was even supposed to do. For now, the best thing I could do was keep trying to get stronger, to get used to this messed up place.

So I said: "If it's not too much trouble, could you please…. Please keep training me?"

He let out a snort. "I've basically taught you all the basics. They only things you really need to know now are battle maneuvers and how to control that insane magic of yours. But it'd be a shame to give up on you now, especially when you're such a promising pupil. So yes, I agree to keep training you."

I smiled in honest and pure relief and gratefulness. "Thank you," I murmured. "Thank you so much."

He waved his hand dismissively. "Don't thank me until I've taught you all that I can. For now, let's try and find something to cover your face."

I had forgotten about how much I apparently resembled the princess. So I nodded, and we began rummaging through his house to find something to cover me. Luckily the makeshift gloves Angelique had given me were still in place, so my marks of Renascentia were covered up.

We managed to scrounge up what could've been a black doctor's mask, but made of thicker material. I tied it around my mouth and nose, pleased with the discovery. Just in the nick of time, too, for within the next few seconds, the door burst open, and two familiar figures barged in.

"Thank goodness," Alistair sighed, looking rugged and out of breath. "We thought you might've gone already."

My heart leapt at the sight of the two brothers, and a cheerful smile broke through the surface of my face, though they couldn't see it. "Nope, I'm still here and working hard," I sang cheerfully.

Lucius was right behind his younger brother, and entered with a snort. "That's not a good thing. You're not really cut out for this if you've been here for this long and still don't know what you're doing."

The words of Christian-look-alike made me bristle, though I was glad to see the both of them. It felt like it had been forever, when in reality, it had only been about a week. Despite them still being male strangers, they had still saved me, taken me to the place where I could learn to survive. I was forever in their debt.

"You have good timing," Muirik purred, which surely couldn't be a good sign. The three of us gave him a wary look. "Valerie, why don't you test out your skills with these two?"

"Because I'm not suicidal?"

He snorted. "Please. You should at least be able to land a few hits. Although any accidents would be most unfortunate."

Because that was completely reassuring.

"I don't mind," Alistair grinned in that childish way of his. "I've kind of been dying to spar with you since we took out those bandits."

"Don't blame me if you get hurt," the elder brother muttered, looking down on me. In more than one way.

Of course, I had the dastardly sin of pride. So I bristled and bared my teeth, eager for a challenge. "You're on," I said, then internally slapped myself. What was I thinking? These two have been training with Muirik for years. One wrong move and I could end up seriously hurt.

My heart began pounding with a strange combination of fear and anticipation. Muirik nodded, seemingly enjoying himself too much, then ushered us outside to fight like fools.

"We'll start you off with something easy," Muirik stated, then he roughly patted Alistair on the back. "That means you first."

"Hey!" Alistair barked, face flaming. It was clear the Lucius was the more threatening one, from his rigid, predatory posture and piercing glare. So I silently thanked and cursed Muirik for his small mercies and dumb ideas.

In the small space directly outside of Muirik's cottage and within the safety of the wards, Alistair and I faced each other squarely. Muirik taught me to silently observe and judge my opponent; see if you can find their strengths and weaknesses before you go throwing yourself into battle. Then again, he most likely taught Alistair the same thing, so this could prove difficult.

"Try not to aim for vitals," Muirik announced, tossing us wooden training swords. They didn't look quite as professional as a bokken, but they seemed sturdy, and would work just fine. I judged its weight, trying to find the best way I could hold and maneuver it, while Alistair instantly adjusted his makeshift weapon to his liking. Ass.

Finally I found a position I was comfortable with, the other two men watching with bemused expressions. I carefully but quickly observed Alistair, trying to see some sort of breach in his defense. He stood as tall and strong as a mighty oak, holding his blade in front of him in a two-handed wielding pose. His feet were planted firmly in the dusty ground, making his legs rigid and tight. Hrm, how could I go about this? His arms seemed slightly susceptible, but with his sword in the way…

Too soon, Muirik called, "Start!"

Neither of us moved for a moment, then Alistair slowly began circling me like a hungry cat. I never took my eyes off of him, watching his stealthy movements as if they were my own. Weakness… weakness… This wasn't like fighting with Phoenix in my hands, having a partner to help guide me, as long as I gave it my support. The bokken-like weapon felt dead and useless in my hands.

Alistair suddenly darted forward, holding his blade at a horizontal angle. Almost automatically, I countered it while holding my blade with one hand, trying to shove him off roughly. Our blades clashed, and he stumbled back at the unexpected force. But he quickly recovered and swept the blade in an arc, and I slid back a few paces as quickly as I could to avoid getting a blunt in my side.

This was much harder than I expected. Alistair was fast, his movements lethal and precise. He stepped back a few paces, only to slide to the side, then come charging at me from a different angle. It'd be risky, but there was a dirty tactic I could try.

I waited until he was so close that his risen blade could chop down on my head, then let my body fall completely backward, almost in a fainting motion. Surprised, he quickly lost and regained his balance, but not quickly enough. I hoofed him in the shins, and his legs buckled.

Trying to be as quick as possible, which was even faster than I thought I could manage, I darted up and swung my blade around to chop him in the back. He 'oofed' then fell to the ground with a thud. I mounted his back, stuck my blade under his chin horizontally, then pulled upward, so it looked like I was pulling on a speeding horse's reigns until it slowed.

It was an awkward position, sure, and my breath was coming out hard and struggling, but I had him down and rendered helpless. I slammed my foot down on his hand, earning a yelp, then kicked his dropped weapon away. I hated hurting him like this, but in all honesty, when I got in the zone, it was rarely easy to stop me. Thus how I became an assistant instructor so quickly, despite only being a teenage girl… though I suppose being a super-powered mage helped me out a bit.

There were a few moments of breathless silence, only broken when Lucius said: "That, my brother, was pathetic."

"Shut up," the guilty party wheezed, sounding strangled and pathetic.

"Nice job," Muirik acknowledged with a nod. Pleased with the semi-compliment, I stood off of Alistair's back, leaving him to finally breathe.

"Seriously," he gasped, turning so he laid on his back. "Where did you learn to move like that?"

I just shrugged. "Where I come from, that's just self-defense."

"You're kidding."

Lucius sauntered up to us, smirking like a hungry serpent. "This will make it all the more enjoyable once I have beaten you."

Oh damn. "Well, I'd like to see you try," I huffed, trying to keep my head held high. But internally, I was cringing, screaming, pleading for mercy. And again my sinful and stupid pride gets in the way of my common sense.

"Well then," the older and more attractive (sorry, Alistair) brother purred, leaning down and scooping up the bokken as his brother hobbled away. "Let' start, shall we?"

Hesitation and fear coursed through me like a ferocious wave. There was something about his expression, a mixture of ferocity and hesitation, that made me think he was going to try not to hurt me. But it wasn't going to be easy.

"Go easy on her," Muirik actually had to say, and I flinched, seeing myself lying face down on the ground, bleeding out.

"You don't need to tell me," Lucius smirked. He was clearly very, very strong. So much so that Muirik actually had to tell him to be gentle.

We faced each other, the same way I had faced the younger brother. But now I was much more uncertain and rigid. Alistair looked so gentle, so easy-going. But Lucius was a pure predator, a lion stalking its prey with a feral grin. Curses!

I tried to observe him like I did with Alistair, searching for some breach of defence. But the most frightening thing about Lucius is that I saw none. His entire frame was in the posture of a careful, calculating menace, managing to say relaxed yet prepared. Confidence was oozing off of him, completely sure he was going to beat a little girl.

Well, I wasn't going down without a fight.

I barely understood my own weaknesses, so it was hard to try and hide them. But one of my obvious ones was that I had issues with seriously injuring people, making my need to fight pointless. Somehow I had to show that I wasn't hesitating, appearing to be completely impassive.

"Start!" Muirik called, all too soon.

Completely unlike his brother, Lucius didn't hesitate or start circling me in quiet observation. He surged forward with frightening speed, and I got the impression that Muirik wasn't the only one who was testing me. He slashed at me horizontally while stooping low, and I parried with a quick, jerky slash, though was forced backwards. I cringed against the sheer force and strength of his blow.

He didn't stop there. Pure horror and terror seeped deep into my bones as he rapidly slashed in all directions in succession, never growing tired, never pausing to let me get a blow in. I could only stand there and try to block, as I kept being pushed back. I hated being like this, so useless and unable to do anything. My body was beginning to ache, and I was already growing a bit tired. How could someone who seemed so young and honest be so powerful?

Changing tactics, he began circling me to try and get a blow to my back so I would pitch forward. I followed him, a snarl covering my face. I was getting pissed. I surged forward and tried to attack, but he darted to the side and evaded, and that gave him free access to my back as I was still reeling from the empty space I ended up hitting. He smacked the back of my knees with his weapon, a point where it made me cave forward to land on my knees. I tried to twist around and smack him with my blade, but he easily bat it aside, making my wrist spasm and ache. My blade went flying as he held his sword horizontally and pushed forward, so I was shoved roughly to the ground and he straddled me, looking… amused.

This bastard. I struggled against him, against the strong binding of his knees binding my legs together, and tried not to choke as he kept pressing his weapon against my throat.

"Enough," Muirik called roughly, stamping his foot. "The victor is clear."

Lucius shoved off of me, smirking. I struggled to get up, but my aching back couldn't support me. I thudded back down, panting and hurting, glaring up at him.

His triumphant expression vanished, replaced with one of worry and sincerity. "Sorry," he grumbled, dropping his sword and holding out a hand. "Are you alright?"

And the stupidly attractive accent strikes again. I reached out to take his hand, then an idea came to mind. I grasped his warm hold firmly, then put all my strength into my arm and yanked him down to my side, earning a satisfying surprised grunt. I got on one knee and placed my other foot on his chest, pressing down with a grin.

"It's quite alright," I responded. He growled at me.

"Enough, you two," Muirik barked again, and I stepped off of the glowering Lucius. "Valerie, I think you've proved that you can manipulate the element of surprise."

"'Course," I smirked.

I could feel a menacing, humiliated aura behind me, and I snickered. Lucius swat me on the head. I whirled and was about to start pounding my fists of fury on his chest, but Alistair pulled us apart.

"You two are worse than a married couple," he hissed with a grin.

The rest of the day continued as if I never even left. Alistair and Lucius were staying the night again, and we all made the trek to Colla Village, considering Muirik's food supply had run tragically low in my absence. We bought more strange meats and vegetables, and I wondered where he got all this money from. I decided that I probably didn't want to know.

We had to rush back to Muirik's home before moonrise and the monsters got rowdy. I assessed the ingredients I had to work with, then decided I could probably make a spiced steak- at least that's what the meat seemed like- and some boiled vegetables. It took a bit of time, filled with whining and complaining, but I finally finished and the quality managed to shut all the men up.

The moon had already risen by the time we had all dispersed into our sleeping spaces, Lucius taking the floor this time while Alistair and Muirik got the two beds on the other side of the room from my own little cranny. I was used to my own bed by now, so it was hard to adjust and fall asleep in this uncomfortable pile of hay disguised as a bed. But I eventually got my eyes to drift shut and fell into a sort-of sleep, where you feel like you're dreaming but you're really not, and you're just thrown into this spiral of confusion and horror.

But it was because of that sleeping-but-not state that I heard the scraping and scratching on the outside of the cottage. I startled out of my kind-of sleep, just in time to hear some yelping and hissing outside. I began shaking and was fully awake with fear. Maybe monsters were just fighting out there. But… how could they get this close to the house? It didn't make sense. What if the wards had worn out or something, and we could be attacked while the men slept?

I had to know what was out there.

I couldn't tell if I was being stubborn or just plain stupid, but I still stealthily grabbed Phoenix, safely propped against the wall and within my reach. I yanked my knightly, strange shoes on, breathing hard in a frightened way against my fabric mask. With Phoenix in hand, I tried to peek out the window, but couldn't define anything properly.

Then a splatter of red was tossed on the window, making me stumble back and try not to scream. Something was fighting out there, and fighting hard.

My hand holding Phoenix was shaking. Could I really go out there and take care of whatever the problem was? I had no clue. But I had to try. Because whatever was happening could very well injure everyone inside. And despite them being strangers, I still cared for them very much, my three saviours. I would do anything to ensure that they were alive and safe.

So I placed my trembling hand against the door, and silently pushed it open. I didn't stick my leg out first, for fear that it could be chewed off, but instead my head, since it was much higher up and I could assess the situation. I saw nothing out front, but I still heard yelping. I ground my teeth together when I realized I would have to circle the cottage to the back.

Since it would be pointless to step out one limb at a time, I charged out of the door while trying to make my footfalls silent. I slid Phoenix's sheath into my belt, but kept my hand firmly on the hilt in case I had to pull it out instantaneously. Making sure to look everywhere I could, I crept up to the side of the cottage, prepared to leap out and scare whatever was out there. I was shaking. But I had to do this.

So I leapt from my safe hiding place while simultaneously unsheathing Phoenix, and carefully assessed the scene before me.

At first, the darkness lead me to believe that a monster was feeding on a human. Terror and dread melted in my stomach, but then the eerie green moon peeked out of the shadows called clouds, and the light made my stomach churn when I realized it was the other way around. A human was eating the monster.

"Who's there?" I demanded, edging closer with Phoenix held in front of me.

The figure flinched, their shoulders going rigid and dropping the monster's- a boar's, to be specific- devoured and fleshy carcass. Their body began shaking violently, realizing they had been caught.

My stomach recoiled at the words I announced next. "Make one move to run and my blade will be in your chest."

With a heavy, defeated sigh, the figure's shoulders fell with hopelessness. Then, very slowly and deliberately, they turned so that the light of moon showed me their face.

My breath was stolen away.

Crouching in front of the devoured beast, with blood covering almost every inch of his luminescent skin, was Lucius, his eyes shining violet, blue, and a bright green. I didn't understand what was in front of me at first, how someone's eyes could look like that; first they were that moon-green, then an aquamarine, then a toxic purple. Then I remembered.

Shadowlanders have more than one eye colour.

Concealing one's eye colour is a simple trick.

"Lucius," I said in a rush, backing away as Phoenix trembled in my grip. "You're… you're a…"

His face fell as his black bangs covered his tri-coloured eyes.

"A Shadowlander."