“No? How are you going to stop me?”
Ethan opened his mouth for a response, and Kimber jumped on him, clapping her hand over his mouth as magic suddenly filled the air. Ethan glared at her, but she ignored him as she gave Keane a pointed look.
“Taunting Ethan probably isn’t the best idea,” she said, trying for a tone of grim humor and failing miserably. She was visibly shaking, and I wished I’d never dragged her into any of this, never allowed her to come to Faerie with me.
“My bad,” Keane said, holding up his hands and looking embarrassed.
Kimber waited until the last hint of magic faded before she took her hand away from Ethan’s mouth, and she was poised to slap it right back into place if necessary.
“I wasn’t going to hurt him,” Ethan said, but I wasn’t so sure he was telling the truth.
“Don’t try that again,” I said. “If you’d rather we leave you behind, we’ll do it.” The words came out low and raspy, but he wasn’t the one who was in danger from the Erlking. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get Kimber to go along with it, but it turned out I didn’t have to worry about it.
“I’m not worried about myself,” Ethan said. “If I’d thought about burning it off before, I’d have tried it already. But it’s not really a tattoo. I don’t know if burning it will destroy the magic.”
His brows drew together as if he were concentrating hard, and then he shook his head and looked me in the eye. “The Erlking says to tell you to spare yourself the pain. It won’t work.”
My stomach did a nervous flip-flop. I knew Ethan could really communicate with the Erlking—thanks to the damned mark. But I also knew that if burning the mark would destroy it, Arawn would hardly say so. And that Ethan could have made this message up as a way to stop me from hurting myself.
“We’ll just have to find out for ourselves,” I said firmly, “because there’s only one way to know for sure.”
Ethan started to protest again, but Kimber grabbed a leftover strip of my T-shirt and stuffed it in his mouth. The glare he aimed at her was positively terrifying, but she was unaffected.
“We don’t have a choice,” she said hoarsely. “This could be our only chance.”
Ethan still didn’t agree, I could see it in his face. But by now he had to know that the rest of us had decided and he couldn’t change our minds, so when he managed to force the impromptu gag out of his mouth, he didn’t argue.
“Do me first,” he said instead. “I’ll be able to tell if it works, and I’m not sure Dana will.”
He was right about that. The Erlking had told me that if I fed magic into the mark, I could call him to me—though why I’d ever want to do that was anyone’s guess—but it produced no sensation right now, no tingle of magic that told me it was active. If I couldn’t feel it working, then I wouldn’t be able to feel it not working, either.
“Problem with that,” Keane said as he moved over to the remains of our fire and started poking at it, coaxing out some reluctant flames, “is that if you tell us it isn’t working, we won’t be able to believe you. The Erlking could force you to tell us that even if it isn’t true.”
Ethan grimaced, but Keane was clearly right. If the Erlking could force Ethan to try to drag me out of camp, then he could force him to lie. The only way we’d know if burning the mark worked was if we managed to evade the Erlking against all odds.
Keane found a piece of green wood that poked out of the fire, its end a glowing ember despite its obvious reluctance to burn. I swallowed hard and tried to slow my racing heart. I felt deep down in my gut that this was what I had to do, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying.
“You get to decide who goes first,” Keane said, “not him.” He jerked his thumb at Ethan.
I was scared to death of what was about to happen to me, but I suspected watching it happen to Ethan first was just going to make me feel worse. Besides, I had to make sure I wasn’t going to chicken out at the last minute. No reason to put Ethan through hell if I wasn’t going to be able to go through with it myself. I dragged in a deep, unsteady breath.
“I go first,” I said, then pushed my hair to one side of my neck. I unbuttoned the first couple buttons of my shirt and pushed it down, exposing the mark.
Kimber knelt beside me and adjusted the shirt and my bra strap. Her eyes were glistening with tears, and her hands were shaking.
“I’ll be all right,” I told her, hoping it was true.
She sniffled. “I know you will be. But this is still going to suck.”
“Tell me about it,” I mumbled.
“Maybe you should lie down,” Keane suggested. “Your instinct is going to be to pull away, and you have to hold still.”
I nodded, then positioned myself as comfortably as possible on the ground, my head pillowed on my hands. I felt Keane’s weight as he straddled my back and pressed one hand down on the opposite shoulder blade. I heard Ethan’s growl of protest at the intimacy of the position. Then, before I had time to think about it anymore, the ember touched my skin, and it was all I could do not to scream.
I’d burned myself on the hot stove a couple of times when I was cooking for my mother—she was often too drunk to be trusted near an open flame—so I thought I’d be prepared for this. I was wrong. The pain that radiated from my shoulder was like nothing I’d ever felt before, and though I managed to hold back the scream, I couldn’t help a moan of protest.