Ethan slowed down as we crashed through the underbrush, and because he had his arm around me, I was forced to slow down, too. Keane and Kimber both kept going full speed for a moment, then stopped and looked back at us with wide eyes.
“What are you doing?” Keane cried. “We’ve got to haul ass.”
Ethan shook his head. “You can bet they have a tracker who can follow the trail we’re leaving.” He pointed at a couple of bushes we’d just plowed through. It was dark out here under the trees, although the moon was bright and close to full. I had to be practically on top of the bush to see what Ethan was pointing at, but then I saw a couple of broken branches. If I could see our trail, then someone with superior tracking skills would have no trouble picking it up.
“Shite,” Keane muttered, and I couldn’t have agreed more.
“Well, we can’t just stand here!” Kimber said, and she was right, too.
Ethan’s brow furrowed. “I can create an illusion to hide our trail if we move slowly enough.”
“And by the time we’ve gotten a hundred yards, they’ll be on top of us,” Keane argued. “Trail or no trail, we’ve got to move.”
“No point in moving if they’re just going to catch up with us immediately,” Ethan countered. “We need to hide. They’re going to assume we’re running like hell for the Avalon border, just like Seamus told us to. If we can hide ourselves, we can let the pursuit go straight past us. Once they’re gone, then we can get moving again.”
“So you want us to just sit here and cower,” Keane growled, and there was that curl of his lip again.
I knew the boys were going to keep arguing if I didn’t intervene, and we didn’t have time for it.
“If you can hide us, do,” I said to Ethan, then turned to Keane. “We’re not cowering. We’re trying to be smart about this, and Ethan’s right. Leaving a trail anyone and their brother can follow is going to get us caught real fast.”
Keane didn’t like it one bit, and I thought he was going to waste more time arguing with me. But I guess it was easier for him to concede the argument to me than to Ethan, because he nodded tightly.
“This had better work,” he warned Ethan, giving him a narrow-eyed stare that would have been more intimidating if we weren’t running for our lives. If this didn’t work, Keane was going to be the least of Ethan’s worries.
“It will,” Ethan said, though I wondered if that was confidence, or arrogance. “I’ll run back to the road and do what I can to hide the evidence of where we veered off.” He looked back and forth between the three of us. “If I get caught, I’ll holler.” His eyes landed on Keane. “If that happens, it’ll be up to you to protect the girls.”
Kimber punched Ethan in the shoulder. “We’re not helpless damsels in distress. We don’t need protecting.”
Even in the darkness, I could see Ethan rolling his eyes. “Fine, you two protect Keane. Just don’t try to play hero if I get caught.”
“Don’t worry,” Keane muttered, “we won’t.”
Ethan pretended not to hear him, slipping away from us and heading back toward the road. Leaving the three of us alone and strung out on adrenaline in the darkness of the forest.
At first, I could hear the rustle of Ethan’s footsteps as he moved away. Then there was nothing but the sound of crickets and the occasional hoot of an owl.
My heart was still thudding in my throat, and I still felt like my lungs were coated with soot. I didn’t dare cough, not when the road was so close by, but the very fact that I didn’t dare cough made the urge even stronger.
Keane had taken a couple steps toward the bushes through which Ethan had disappeared, putting himself between Kimber and me and the road. He probably thought he was being subtle, but you could bet that if Ethan shouted an alarm, Keane would stand there to cover our retreat while ordering Kimber and me to run. What he could do to protect us when he was apparently unarmed, I didn’t know.
And that was when I remembered the gun my father had given me before we’d set out. Like every other mortal artifact I’d brought with me, it was in my backpack. I wasn’t sure I could shoot anyone, even in self-defense, and I doubted killing our pursuers would make my situation any better, but at least I didn’t have to feel completely helpless.
Moving as quietly as possible, I slid the backpack off my shoulders and lowered it to the ground. Keane jerked at even the small noise I made, turning to me and putting his finger to his lips. I ignored his furious look, digging through the backpack until I found the case at the very bottom.
When I pulled out the small silver gun, Keane gaped at me. I hadn’t told anyone I had it. Kimber looked at me with a raised eyebrow, but she seemed less shocked and more amused by my possession of a firearm. I stood up slowly, keeping the gun pointed at the ground and the safety on.
“Do you know how to use that thing?” Keane asked in a whisper so quiet you could almost mistake it for the wind.
I put my finger to my lips, happy to be able to return his gesture, then nodded. Hey, he only asked me if I knew how to use it, not if I was any good at using it. I think he read between the lines, based on the look of pure skepticism he gave me.
“Just don’t shoot me in the back,” he said, and this time both Kimber and I put our fingers to our lips. He shook his head and turned back to face the remnants of our trail.