Chapter 49
The Advice and the Liar

"What now?" I whispered.

"We decide who's going first," Maera said. "I'll volunteer if no one has any objections."

Neither Damarios nor I were interested in taking her place so the Selkie stepped to a single tall crystal that stood in the center of the room and she placed her hand on top of it. Suddenly the lights in the crystal walls ceased their frantic movement. A blurry image appeared before her, and if I'd had to guess I would have said it was a seal.

"We know your purpose." The voice was whispery and layered, as if many voices were speaking in absolute unison. I couldn't say whether it came from the seal or the walls.

"Where is he?" Maera asked.

"The one you seek is alive but trapped in death. He waits among the ferns in the Palace of Mourning, placed there by its Queen."

"How did she get him?"

The voice was silent for a moment and my ears popped as the image contorted like static. Finally, it spoke again. "You were correct to be distrustful. Your friend was betrrrrrrr-" and then more static.

Maera shot a glance our way, and I got the uncomfortable feeling she was evaluating us.

"That is not your only purpose. You wish to find the Palace of Mourning and you have brought a witness that will help you. Follow the light of the wrist and what is lacking in the bearer will be your key."

The image disappeared and Maera removed her hand from the crystal. "They speak in more riddles than I'd hoped," she said simply, a look of deep thought on her freckled face.

"Who's next?" I asked, my voice coming out higher than I'd expected.

Damarios took a deep breath. "I'll go. If I don't do it now I never will." With those words he strode to the crystal and jammed his hand to it.

A blurry, shadowy monster appeared before him. It was perhaps vaguely dolphin-shaped if dolphins had blazing red eyes, long fangs, and jagged fins all down their backs. Damarios almost took his hand back.

"We know your purpose." The image flickered to something humanoid and then back to the dolphin monster. "You already know how to achieve one, to become what you were. But you must fulfill another purpose to get there. The girl with the light of the wrist will guide you to many destinations, but only if you can get her to the Palace of Mourning alive." The image flickered again. "You have doubted the truth of her purpose, but this is folly!" The static went off in a burst and my ears popped more painfully this time. "She must be preeeeee-"

The image disappeared but Damarios didn't move his hand.

"I think they're straining to move enough power through her nets to speak freely with us," Maera said quietly.

Damarios finally stepped back and I set my hand on his shoulder. "That was freaky... you ok?" I asked.

He nodded and looked at me with new consideration, but only briefly before averting his silvery eyes. "You're up," he said, laying his hand over mine and squeezing it before stepping out of reach.

I stepped up to the crystal, put my hand on its surprisingly warm tip, and for a moment... nothing happened.

I glanced at Maera, who shrugged. Just as I was about to remove my hand and try again, an image appeared before me and the same thrumming from the entry filled my body. The image was barely blurry this time. It was a child. Or more specifically, it was me as a child.

"We know your purpose."

I tried not to shudder. "Why did the Trees bring me here?"

The image tilted her head. "Because you are female."

"They… they brought me here because I'm a girl?"

"Yes. That is all."

I was angry. "So what, do they just have some sort of feminist agenda? Are they just ticking boxes? Or am I supposed to fall for Amaros so the bonds of love can be stronger than the bonds of magic?" My sarcasm mixed with sing-song at the last idea. "Well, I can tell you, that's one thing that's not going to happen!"

"That was not their purpose. Their purpose was not your purpose. You don't belong here."

"Then why am I here?"

"The Trees thought you could open the gates of the Palace of Mourning." It smiled, and my blood ran cold. "Do you wish to be a key or a crowbar?"

So I was a tool. I'd always known it, but I'd hoped there was a bigger reason, something special about me specifically, something needed that only I could do that would make a big difference. Not just being a girl, for whatever reason that was important.

"If you follow the path of the Trees, you will die. If you become the key, you will die. It will fulfill their purposes," it said, sweeping its arm over Maera and Damarios, "but not your own. You wish to survive this and return home. That is your purpose."

"I thought you were supposed to give me clues on how to succeed. Why do they get hope and all I get is doom and gloom?" I couldn't contain my frustration.

It smiled again. "Do you know what we are?" It gestured to itself. "This image presented to each of you. It is a representation of each of you, how you see yourselves in the most honest corners of your minds. The Selkie sees herself simply as she is, her other self. The Dolphin mostly sees himself as a terrible monster, though there are flickers of memory of what he used to be, what he desires… And there's you. Deep down at your core, you see yourself as a child. Small, insignificant, helpless. Does that sound like someone who should be here?"

"You're supposed to help me!" I snapped.

It giggled. "I am helping you, child. Helping you survive."

In a flash the static was back and the figure was bouncing between the child me and a figure as tall as the room itself. Back and forth it flickered until the larger image won out, a huge figure draped in furs, a somewhat feminine but relatively pointed, inhumanly angular face beneath a bald pointed head, eyes glowing green as she roared, "LIES!" And then it flashed to a shorter, thinner woman before child me was back, looking furious in the moment before I stumbled back from the crystal and it all disappeared.