So let me get this straight,” Cassie said. She caught my eye in the mirror and turned around, mid-blush stroke. “You fainted in Asher’s arms, but you woke up in . . . Devin’s?”
The sun had long since set behind the mountain, and we were back in our room at the lodge, getting ready for the campfire later that night. The nurse had discharged me from the infirmary a few hours earlier. When I didn’t show signs of anything worse than boredom, they’d sent me on my way.
“I guess you could twist what I said so it sounds like that.” I grinned.
Now I sat propped up by pillows on the bed, in softly worn jeans and a black zip-up fleece, watching Cassie line her eyes with deep brown liner. I didn’t know who she could possibly be getting so glammed up for—she hadn’t told me about any new crushes lately, and she was the worst secret keeper I knew. If Cassie liked a guy, we all knew it.
“So?” she prodded. “Details?”
I had hoped after the nurse had interrupted her that Cassie would forget she had questions. But I wasn’t so lucky. I thought of the snow falling away beneath my skis, the terrifying speed at which it had come toward me. Asher and our cave. The fire. Devin—healing my ankle with no more than a touch. It would sound totally insane to say all of this out loud. It was totally insane just to think it. I wondered if the trauma of the ordeal had made me hallucinate.
I needed to find Devin and Asher. I wanted them to explain what was going on. But Cassie had morphed into a mother hen and hadn’t left my side since I was discharged.
I smiled impishly. “There’s nothing to tell! I just blacked out when I fell, that’s all. I don’t even remember it, just that Asher was there with me.”
“I’m calling your bluff,” Cassie said with a swipe of lip gloss for emphasis. “I’ll get it out of you, one way or another.” She laughed an evil-villain laugh, then giggled at her own ridiculousness. Cassie’s giggle was addictive—it had gotten us into trouble way too many times to count (in the library, in the back of class, during last year’s guest lecture on the evils of social networking). I was powerless to resist it—soon we were both laughing so hard it hurt. We were still laughing when we heard a knock at the door.
Cassie got up to get it. Dan and Ian stood on the other side.
“Oh, sorry, is this the wrong room?” Dan teased. “We’re looking for our other, cooler, sane friends.” His hair flopped into his face, and he brushed it back out again. Dan needed a haircut so badly it was comical, but something like that would never occur to him on his own. His mom would probably kidnap him in a week or so and whisk him off to Supercuts. Cassie sniffed and wiped away a tear, smudging her eyeliner.
“Who gave you a black eye?” Dan asked.
“Shut up, you’re one to talk. You look like a shaggy dog.” Cassie laughed, her eyes gleaming. She fixed the smudge as I grabbed our jackets from where we’d flung them on the edge of the bed and tossed Cassie’s at her. I was still ginger on my ankle even though it didn’t hurt anymore. Unbelievably, when I’d first left the infirmary it had felt fine—like I’d never sprained it in the first place. But it had been hurt. I knew it had.
“So word on the street is that Asher saved your life,” Ian said.
“I wouldn’t go that far.” Or maybe I would. Without him, they might have never found me. He and Devin both seemed to have an uncanny ability to sense when I was in trouble and come to my rescue. But then again, I never used to get into so much trouble before they arrived.
Cassie shooed the guys away from the door. “Come on, come on. Let the invalid pass.”
To the left of the lodge, a dirt path snaked downhill through the woods. As I followed it through the dark, Cassie’s flashlight bouncing off the pine trees, the motion reminded me of the snow slipping out from under me. My vision swam, and for a moment, I felt dizzy. I stopped abruptly, waiting for the forest to stop spinning.
“You okay?” Ian whispered, coming up next to me.
“Fine,” I said, shaking my head to clear it. “I’m fine.”
“Maybe hanging out tonight is too much, too soon after your fall? Do you want me to walk you back to the room?”
But going back to the room would accomplish nothing. I didn’t need a night to rest. What I needed were answers. I had to discover if I was going insane or if there was even the smallest possibility that the strange things that had been happening to me were real.
The path opened into a clearing, where a fire was already crackling away and Ms. Manning was just finishing up laying out the rules for the restless crowd.
“Remember, no alcohol, of course, and no smoking. Keep the area clean; put the fire out when you’re done.” She smiled and held up a plastic grocery store bag filled with marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate. “Because we had an exciting day,” she said, eyeing me.
As Dan, Ian, Cassie, and I spotted a log on the far side of the fire and headed toward it, I was bombarded with questions from my classmates. Apparently the rumors had been raging out of control. Though I was happy to be safe, happy even to be alive, how could I explain to them what had happened on the mountain or in the infirmary? I would have to be convincing about whatever lie I told. I had no idea what I was going to say, but I opened my mouth, about to make something up.
“She was incredible.” Asher’s voice cut in from behind me, and all eyes focused on him as he walked up next to me. “You should have seen it. A huge chunk of ice broke off the side of the mountain and gathered this momentum of snow. Yet Skye was totally outmaneuvering it,” he said, shooting me a sideways grin.
“Until I fell,” I added.
“But even then,” Asher told the group. “Heroic. No wonder she wins all those medals.”
I groaned at the melodrama. “It wasn’t heroic.”
“Well, you hit your head pretty hard. You might not remember it all exactly how it happened.” He gave me a pointed look, and I shut up. I had promised to keep his secret. It had happened. So the only question left was, How?
Playing along, I pinned him with a fake smile. “You must be right,” I said lightly. “I don’t even remember how we got back. Maybe after the campfire, you can fill me in.”
Then Ellie was there, grabbing Asher’s arm. “Glad you’re okay, Skye,” she said over her shoulder as she pushed him toward the other side of the fire. I caught his eye, but he just shrugged and gave me a what-can-I-do? look.
“Looks like you’ve totally lost out with Asher,” Cassie said under her breath as I sat down next to her.
“Cass, it really doesn’t bother me.”
But secretly I was seething. What was wrong with him? How could he be the way he was with me in the cave and then, the next minute, scamper off with Ellie like nothing had happened between us? Maybe the chemistry between us was all in my head.
I settled onto the log next to Cassie, and Ian sat beside me. Within a few minutes, we were roasting marshmallows and making s’mores.
“So I guess we have you to thank for this,” Ian said, licking chocolate from his fingers. “Maybe you should try getting sent to the infirmary more often.”
“I think Ms. Manning was just trying to make me feel better.” She’d been the one handling all the paperwork for me at the infirmary, and had tried Aunt Jo’s cell but hadn’t gotten through. Finally, I called the office; they’d been in regular touch with her via satellite and promised to let her know what had happened. I was exhausted just thinking about how hard it was to track her down.
After all the s’mores had been devoured, Devin showed up at the edge of the group. I watched as he strolled over and joined Asher on the other side of the fire.
Cassie clapped her hands, drawing everyone’s attention. Her eyes took on a mischievous glint. “Let’s tell campfire stories. . . .” She picked up a gnarled piece of kindling from next to the fire and tossed it to Dan. “Dan, tell us about that time you snowboarded off the mountain and it turned out the ski patrol who saved you was dead.”
“She wasn’t dead,” Dan huffed. “She had no face, okay? And now there’s not much left to tell.”
“Okay, then, I have one.” Asher spoke up from across the fire. Next to him, Devin’s eyes barely reflected the dancing flames as he stared at them.
Dan passed the stick to Asher.
“Stage is yours, man,” he said. “Though beating the faceless ski patrol story? I dunno. . . .”
Asher gave him a co**cky grin. “Shouldn’t be too hard.”
I watched him carefully. The firelight flickered across his face, catching a dimple near the left side of his mouth. His eyes held a spark of excitement. “It’s a legend we tell in my family,” he said carefully. Devin’s jaw clenched, but he kept his eyes trained on the fire and didn’t say a word.
“Once upon a time,” Asher said with a flourish, “there was an all-important council that ruled over the people of Earth. It was higher than the president of the United States, higher than the powers of all the world. It was called the Order. Older than time itself, the Order was responsible for one thing: to keep the world in check.
“Its members fell into ranks. The highest were gifted with the Sight. The ability to foresee people’s destinies. And the Gifted saw it as their duty to guide the lives of those who roamed Earth. While the lower rank”—his eyes flashed with controlled fury—“were forced to carry out the orders of the Gifted. They were known as the Guardians of the Natural Order. Or Guardians, for short.” Asher took a breath. “They had no free will. They were essentially slaves to the Gifteds’ commands.”
The faces of those surrounding the campfire were rapt, their eyes unblinking. Asher had that kind of power. Devin avoided everyone’s gaze, but I saw his hands clench into fists as his cousin continued.
“A small group began to emerge who refused to adhere to the Way of Things. They believed the world would be better if those gifted with the Sight didn’t meddle in the fragile balance of Earth and its people. The world would be better if chaos was allowed to bloom every now and then. If people could make mistakes and live a life that was messy and beautiful. The group formed, fought, lost, and left the Order. But as punishment, the rebels, banished from the Paradise in which they lived, were forced to walk among the people whose lives they used to control.”
“The rebels spent their time on Earth harnessing their own powers. To counter the Sight of the Gifted, they honed their control of the elements. They learned to create chaos.”
Asher poked his stick into the flames, and sparks fanned out into the darkness. Devin flinched, something I’m sure no one else noticed. Slowly he lifted his gaze to me. His eyes were unreadable but definitely not tranquil. I realized I’d been watching the two of them too closely. I looked away.
“That was how things were, anyway,” Asher continued, regaining his command of the circle, “until something unprecedented occurred that rocked the natural order of things.” His voice hooked on to the word rocked, sounding almost like a growl. “Upsetting both sides, the Order and the Rebellion.” He looked right at me, and I heard myself take a sharp, involuntary breath. “Love. The great destroyer of worlds.”
Cassie gripped my arm. She was the biggest sucker for epic love stories.
“Eighteen years ago, a Rebel fell in love with a beautiful, lonely Guardian. The Guardian had a predestined soul mate chosen for her by the Gifted. Like all Guardians, she had been raised to hate the Rebellion and everyone in it. But in spite of everything, what she felt for this Rebel went deeper. Maybe he had sexy eyes, I don’t know. Or a great smile.” Asher winked at me, and my stomach dropped away. He had a great smile, and he knew it. “Unable to act on her feelings, she tried in vain to hate him. But she soon realized that she had a choice to make: stay in Paradise and allow her destiny to unfold as the Gifted had planned—or forge a new path. One that was unscripted. She didn’t know what would happen. Only that she would be walking into the unknown if she left the Order.
“It turned out the Rebel Elders were as angered by this love as the Gifted. And so, a council of the highest order was held: seven of the Gifted and seven Rebel Elders. The couple was tried.”
Everyone around the campfire was silent. Cassie had her head resting against Dan’s shoulder as she stared at Asher, their faces glowing amber in the firelight. Dark shadows flickered across Asher’s face. His story was clawing at my memory. I had heard it before, somewhere, hadn’t I? Parts of it? But where? And how could that be? I struggled to remember.
Asher captured my gaze and held it as he said, “The Rebel and the Guardian stood together waiting for the tribunal’s final verdict. The price for their love was banishment—they would belong to neither faction. They would be nomads, forced to walk among the people of Earth, stripped of their otherworldly powers. And, going forward, their days would be numbered, like the very people among whom they were forced to live. Their punishment was mortality.
“When the couple settled in a small town and gave birth to a daughter, both sides took note. What would a baby born of the Order and the Rebellion be like?
“The Gifted and the Rebels worried that such a child could be dangerous. But they reminded themselves that this child would be human. She might not have any powers at all. . . .
“And so the vigil began. Agents from both sides were sent to guide and protect her. And to determine what, exactly, was in store for her future.”
The sounds of the fire snapping and popping echoed through the trees. Asher looked up at us, as if finished with the story.
“What ended up happening?” Cassie asked breathlessly.
Asher hesitated, glancing at Devin before continuing.
“That’s all we know. The legend is supposed to be open to interpretation.” He swept his gaze around the circle, giving us all a devilish grin. “It’s just a legend, after all.”
I clapped along with everyone else, but I was flooded with disappointment. Why had the story ended so abruptly? Some pull deep inside me didn’t want to leave the girl’s life open to interpretation. I wanted to know who she was, what she became.
“It’s so romantic!” Cassie sighed. “Oh, Skye, can you even imagine? It’s like a celestial Romeo and Juliet!”
“If you like that kind of thing,” Dan grumbled, faking a yawn. “I’d rather hear about a ski patrol with no face.”
“What about you, Skye?” Asher asked quietly, squeezing himself onto the log next to me. He stretched his legs out toward the fire, and the flames exploded in a leap of spark and ash. I thought about the fire in the cave. “What did you think?”
Honestly I didn’t know what to think. The story sounded so familiar, but my mind was struggling to place where I’d heard it before.
And suddenly, without warning, it came to me. All these memories came pouring back, moments long forgotten. My father holding me up to the bathroom mirror before bedtime, telling me something I couldn’t quite remember. Both of us studying my reflection and laughing. He and my mother tucking me into bed. My mother’s soft, clear voice singing to me as I drifted off to sleep. What was the melody of her favorite song? What were the words to her lullaby? Something about the Ancient Gifted Ones, and the Rebellion, and the love of a thousand lifetimes.
I scanned the others sitting around the fire, my eyes resting momentarily on Devin. His jaw was clenched, and I could tell he was upset. By the story? Why?
The fire popped loudly. He looked at me. And I could see in his ice-blue eyes the warning he’d given me about Asher.
I looked away from Devin. My heart was pounding.
One phrase kept replaying in my mind.
Love. The great destroyer of worlds.
How could Devin and Asher know about the songs, the stories my parents made up for me? Who were they? Was I just looking for connections?
“Skye?” Asher whispered into my ear. “Are you okay?”
Suddenly I was furious with him for telling the story—and at myself for letting it get to me.
Destroyer of worlds.
“Leave her alone, Asher,” Devin said quietly, sternly, from his place by the fire. “You’ve done enough.”
It was all connected in some way. It had to be. The fire. The story. The two of them, staring.
The boiler explosion.
And the axis that brought them all together. Me.