We were quickly back to the oppressive silence, although soon an unfamiliar, high-pitched whine added to the cricket-and-owl chorus. I hoped it was just some harmless kind of Fae insect or frog rather than some terrifying night-stalking monster. I comforted myself that neither Kimber nor Keane seemed alarmed by it.
The quiet of the night made it easier to hear the pounding sound of horses’ hooves on the road, nowhere near far enough away for my tastes. Kimber reached over and took my hand, squeezing my fingers and biting her lip. I squeezed right back, my heart racing once more as the sound of hooves got closer.
Had Ethan had enough time to cast his illusion spell? It seemed like he’d been gone forever, but time tends to get sort of wonky when you’re in danger, so I wasn’t sure. I flicked the safety off my gun, though I was careful to keep it pointed at the ground and to keep my finger off the trigger. It would be ready for use if worse came to worst, but it would be my absolute last resort.
I couldn’t tell from the sound how many horses there were in the pursuit, but it sure sounded like a lot. I heard at least four distinct voices as the Fae search party called to each other. They were moving pretty fast by the sound of it. I hoped that meant they were moving too fast and wouldn’t notice any telltale signs of our passage even if Ethan hadn’t had enough time to cover us.
I held my breath and squeezed Kimber’s hand more tightly as the sounds moved ever closer … And then moved past, without stopping. The relief made me practically dizzy, and I could see Keane’s shoulders relax as some of the tension drained out of him.
We all listened intently as the search party continued down the road, but there were no shouts of alarm, and no indications that they were turning back. As the sound of the horses faded into the distance, I heard the rustle of undergrowth, and then Ethan appeared before us seemingly out of nowhere.
Keane jumped, and it was probably a good thing he didn’t have the gun, or Ethan would have gotten shot for the second time since I’d met him. Ethan smirked at his nemesis, and though it was too dark to see, I’d have bet anything Keane’s face was turning a uniquely angry shade of red.
“It’s just me,” Ethan said unnecessarily.
“You’re lucky I’m not armed,” Keane said, echoing my sentiments.
“I guess it worked?” I asked, hoping to head the two of them off at the pass.
Ethan made a face, but nodded. “It will keep them off our tail for the time being. I made sure the illusion covered any tracks we might have made near the road, but it only reaches about ten yards into the forest. It’ll hold during the night, but when daylight hits, it’s likely someone will start combing the woods and see around the illusion.”
Ethan’s face looked pale in the moonlight, and he swayed ever so slightly on his feet. He’d probably expended more energy than was wise creating his illusion, especially after inhaling a ton of smoke and then running like hell. Not that he was going to admit it.
“So we need to put as much distance as possible between us and the palace before the sun rises,” Keane said, stating the obvious.
“Without getting ourselves hopelessly lost,” Kimber muttered.
“Or getting eaten by Bogles,” I added, because hey, if we were going to be so cheerful and optimistic, we might as well go all out. “Who has the best sense of direction? I know it isn’t me.”
All three of my friends stifled laughs at that. I’d have been offended if I’d been the least bit sensitive about my ability to get lost in a closet.
“Um, that would probably be me,” Kimber said, surprising me—and Keane, by the look on his face.
Ethan nodded. “No doubt about it,” he agreed, then grinned at Keane. “Unless you’ve got bloodhound in your family tree we don’t know about.”
“The only hound here is you,” Keane retorted.
Kimber and I gave stereo groans, and both the boys shut up, though not without giving each other macho glares.
“Lead the way,” I prompted Kimber, then flicked the safety back on my gun and stuck it in my pocket. Ethan noticed it for the first time, but though he gave me an inquiring look, I didn’t comment, and he didn’t ask any questions.
Trusting Kimber to keep us from straying too far from the road, we all fell into step behind her and started making our way through the darkened forest toward the impossibly distant Avalon border.
This may come as a shock, but traveling on foot through unfamiliar woods in the dark of night is not easy. The moon was high in the sky, and when there was any break in the tree cover, a fair amount of its light would reach the forest floor. We trudged onward, making painfully slow progress as we tried not to leave too obvious a trail and tried to avoid the houses that were so skillfully hidden in the trees.
My full-blooded Fae companions seemed to have better night vision than I did, although even they struggled as the night wore on and the moon sank lower in the sky, hiding its light little by little. We were all stumbling over tree roots and getting whacked in the face by unseen branches, probably leaving a trail that could be spotted from orbit, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Obviously, we’d be able to move more easily in the morning; but then, so would our pursuit.
I tried really hard not to think about what might have happened to my dad and Finn once the rest of us had fled. I felt like a total coward for leaving them behind, and I kept halfway deciding that I had to turn back immediately. Then I’d wake up and realize that if I decided to go back, either my friends were going to stop me, or they were going to come with me. There were already enough people I cared about in trouble because of me. If I had a chance of getting my friends to safety, then I had to take it.