“You’re still connected to the Erlking,” Keane said. “That means he can find you through the bond, right?”
I heard Kimber’s gasp of dismay, but I already knew just how much deep shit we were in. It wasn’t just Ethan that the Erlking could track anywhere in Faerie.
“You’re going to have to leave me behind,” Ethan said.
“No!” Kimber said. “Absolutely not!” She looked back and forth between Keane and me, waiting for our chorus of agreement, but we didn’t join in. For entirely different reasons, I suspect. I couldn’t help thinking that Keane would get some amount of satisfaction from abandoning Ethan, but maybe I wasn’t giving him enough credit.
“We have bigger problems than just Ethan if Titania’s set the Wild Hunt on me,” I said. “I bear the Erlking’s mark, too.”
Kimber gasped in surprise. Keane, of course, already knew about the mark, so it made sense that he didn’t look shocked. I expected more of a reaction from Ethan, but there was no sign he was surprised by my announcement.
“You knew!” I said to him with a hint of accusation in my voice.
“He told me,” Ethan responded, and I didn’t need to ask who “he” was.
“Seems like you have some explaining to do,” Keane prompted me. “What were you saying about the Erlking’s mark?”
I said a silent thank-you to Keane for not telling anyone he’d already known about the mark. I doubt either Kimber or Ethan would have taken it well if they’d found out.
Wishing I’d found the courage to fess up earlier, I gave Kimber the same abbreviated version of the story I’d given Keane.
Keane was still all for leaving Ethan behind, though I think he was saying that just to be irritating. Much as he disliked Ethan, he wasn’t truly spiteful at heart. We would have to keep Ethan tied up and under close watch, otherwise he might try to drag me off into the night again, but there was no way we were going to abandon him. Even if he did side with Keane for the first time in known history.
“The Erlking’s orders were vague enough that I could at least try to work around them this time,” Ethan argued. “But he’s not stupid. He’ll find a way to make me do what he wants.”
“You won’t be able to do much of anything all tied up like you are,” Kimber said, and Ethan gave her a condescending look.
“If he forces me to use magic, it won’t matter that I’m tied up.”
“So we’ll gag you, too,” she said, never one to give up easily. “You’re good, but even you can’t work magic without words or gestures.” She sounded really certain of herself, but she ruined the effect by tacking on “Right?” at the end.
I had already made up my mind that we weren’t leaving Ethan behind, so I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the argument. I’d already been forced to leave my dad and Finn, and I was damned if I was going to do something like that again. Besides, as long as I had what amounted to a homing beacon set into my flesh, leaving Ethan behind wouldn’t do any good. The Erlking was a supernatural hunter, and he was no doubt even now hot on our trail. He had horses and was familiar with the terrain, and we were on foot and the next best thing to lost. Not to mention we had no food or water. He could be on us in a matter of hours.
“We need to destroy the mark,” I blurted, interrupting yet another argument I hadn’t been listening to.
My friends all turned to me with varying expressions of confusion and wariness.
“What do you mean, destroy the mark?” Kimber asked, staring at me intently.
“As long as I have this mark on my shoulder, the Erlking can find me. Let’s not kid ourselves: we’re not going to be able to outrun him or hide from him. So the only way we can stop him from catching me is to destroy the mark.”
“Destroy how?” Keane asked grimly.
My palms were sweaty, but I shivered as I tried not to think too much about what I was proposing. The Erlking’s mark was like a tattoo, and I was hoping that like a tattoo, it was only skin-deep. Trying not to look as scared as I felt, I turned to look at the remains of our fire, which had burned down to embers over the course of the night.
“No!” Ethan shouted, struggling against his bonds. “We are not doing that!”
Kimber’s face was almost green, her eyes wide with horror as she clapped her hand to her mouth. Only Keane looked like he was actually thinking about what I said, so I focused on him.
“If we don’t find a way to destroy the mark, then the Erlking will catch me and he’ll force me to join the Wild Hunt. As if that isn’t bad enough, he’ll make me take him out into the mortal world so he can hunt defenseless human beings. If it’s a choice between that and dealing with a few minutes of pain, I’ll take the pain.” My throat tightened with panic even as the words left my mouth, and I forced myself to take a deep breath.
“No!” Ethan insisted again. He was struggling against the bonds so much I was afraid he was going to hurt himself.
Keane sneered at him. “Are you worried about her, or about your own pretty face?”
I thought sure my heart was going to stop. I’d been so focused on my own mark that I’d allowed myself to forget about Ethan’s. There was no point in destroying mine if his was going to lead the Erlking right to us anyway.
“Think what you want, asshole,” Ethan growled at Keane. “I’m not just going to sit around and let you burn a hole in my girlfriend.”