Lights of Aurora
Book Three of The Stone Legacy Series
The scent of dried herbs and fresh rain poured through the open window.
For the rest of her life, with every whiff of sage or wet earth, Zanya would remember Contessa’s quaint home in Moscow and the shock of that day—of losing Jayden.
She might as well have been gone when he needed her most. Zanya could still see Jayden’s bright blue eyes staring back at her while he struggled to hold Sarian off long enough for them all to escape.
She could have saved him if she’d been more focused, more experienced with her abilities. Instead she’d done exactly what Contessa thought they’d do all along. Failed. She couldn’t even heal Jayden. Instead she froze under the pressure.
A tear slipped down her cheek, and she tightened her fists while staring down at Jayden’s body. Someone had to care for him. Even though his spirit had been torn from this world, he deserved his last rites.
Zanya dragged the sheet that covered his body over his face.
Their mission to retrieve his soul could also fail, and the boy she’d first met in the orphanage could be ripped out of her life, leaving an empty hole of memories and regret.
She crouched beside Jayden, placed a kiss on his shrouded forehead, and whispered in his ear. “Hang on. I’m coming for you.” She curled her fingers around the cotton sheet. “I’ll get you back.” Her voice caught in her throat, and she choked back a flood of tears.
Arwan placed his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him and saw empathy in his gaze. “We will get him back.” The silky tone of his voice usually comforted her, but not now. Not until Jayden was back, alive and safe. It would happen somehow. She’d make sure of it.
Zanya forced herself to stand. The fabric of her canary-yellow ball gown swooshed with the movement, a badge of blood smeared across the front. Jayden’s blood. Somehow that made it worse.
First she needed to get out of her ridiculous dress. She wouldn’t be able to hike through the caves of Naj Tunich in a gown.
Renato’s dress shoes tapped over the floor as he approached from behind. “I’m calling Peter.” He dialed a number on his phone, stealing the occasional glance at Contessa from the corner of his eye. “I hope he is still at the hotel.”
“Make sure you don’t tell Tara where we’re going,” Zanya said. “She’ll freak out.”
“As she should. This mission of yours may as well be a suicide attempt.” He frowned. “The king of the underworld will never allow you to leave there alive.” Renato walked outside to Contessa’s front step without another word.
He was probably right, but she couldn’t turn her back on Jayden when he needed her the most. Suicide mission or not, she was going after him.
Hawa moaned, tearing Zanya’s attention away from her thoughts. Hawa lay on Contessa’s couch with her leg elevated on a stack of pillows. The break was bad, but she wasn’t crying anymore. That was a good sign—even if Contessa had only healed Hawa to make her shut up. The red-haired witch even had the audacity to say that aloud.
Renato walked back inside, the corners of his mouth sloped into an even deeper frown. “Peter did not react well to our plans. He insists on going with the two of you. He’s coming here right now.”
“No, he can’t come with us. Tara will already be pissed at me for taking off without telling her. I can’t take Peter too.”
“Then you should depart as quickly as possible.” Renato rested a hand on Arwan’s shoulder. “I know you will take good care of her.”
Determination sparked in Arwan’s eyes. Zanya didn’t doubt what Renato said was true. He would protect her, no matter the cost.
Zanya bit her lip. She was touched that he cared so much, but he was risking his life now too.
The cab took nearly an hour to arrive. While the taxi waited by the curb, Zanya stood on Contessa’s doorstep. She and Arwan would drive straight to the airport, but first he’d have to come out of Contessa’s house. No doubt Renato was giving him every precaution to take before their journey.
She gazed lifelessly at the mud-crusted rims and the fogged taxi light while her mind wandered between realms.
Whispers yanked her out of her thoughts.
You will never recover him. You are a failure, just as your mother was. But I have plans for you, and soon you will be mine.
She turned and peered over her shoulder, expecting to see someone there—someone she would promptly punch in the face for being such an asshole. But she was alone on the steps.
Was she seriously going crazy?
The blare of the taxi’s horn made her jump. It must be the stress, or the fact she had barely slept for the last few days. Deprivation played tricks on the mind.
Renato’s voice became louder as he and Arwan walked toward the open door. He handed Arwan a credit card and some cash before they shook hands. The lines on her uncle’s face deepened when he turned to her and pulled her into a hug. As he cradled her against his tailored suit, the rich scent of tobacco surrounded her. All of her life she had wished for someone to care about her the way Renato did, though she’d only known him for a short time. Still, his embrace was enough to make her hesitant to say good-bye.
“You must make it out of this journey alive,” he said in a raspy whisper. “Even if you do not succeed in retrieving Jayden’s spirit, please”—he held her tighter—“return unharmed.”
Zanya nodded and forced a smile. “I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. The stone needs me.”
His grip loosened, and he looked down at her, his familiar brown eyes filled with a mixture of despair and pride. “The stone is not the only one who needs you, Zanya.”
His fear was well founded. She was about to walk straight to the gates of hell with no knowledge of what to expect.
“Now go. Go, and come home safely.”
“Make sure to tell Tara…” Her throat ached. Leaving her best friend behind was something she’d sworn she’d never do. Not in the orphanage. Not after they were taken away from that place. Not ever. Now she was going against every oath she’d ever made to herself—and to Tara.
Zanya reached into her bag and grabbed the pendant Cualli, the middleworld goddess, had given her. The pendant was a gift and an omen of support, and usually it calmed Zanya.
Arwan lifted a duffle bag from the floor. He traced his fingers down her cheek, holding her gaze until she finally allowed a hint of a true smile to break through. His touch was all he could give to comfort her. Showing him it had worked, even a little, was the least she could do in return. After all, he insisted on going with her, and there was nothing she could do to repay that.
The cab’s horn blared again. Zanya jumped and glared at the taxi. “You’d think he’d be happy to just sit there with the meter running.”
Arwan shook Renato’s hand one last time. Her feet were rooted to the ground, contemplating one last hug. When she glanced at her uncle, her eyes stung with more tears. He must have noticed her hesitation. Maybe even understood it.
With a soft smile, Zanya walked straight to the cab without any more good-byes.
* * *
After grabbing some clothes off the rack of a sporting goods store, Zanya continued into the dressing room and checked herself in the mirror, horrified at her reflection. Wet, limp hair stuck to her cheeks and neck. A huge bloodstain spread over the front of her once-beautiful gown, which was now smeared with mud and torn in several places. Her cheeks were burned from the biting cold, and her nose was so red she could pass for Rudolph.
She sighed and worked at removing the pins and ties from her hair until it finally came undone, and then used one of the ties to lock it in a bun. The next thing would be to get out of her dress and change into something warm and dry.
Zanya craned her neck as she fumbled with the strings laced down the back of her gown. The damn thing was threaded so tight there was no way she could do it herself.
Zanya sighed. Perfect.
She grabbed the dressing room curtain and pulled it aside. “Arwan?”
“Hm?” He lifted his head from his hand where it was rested, his eyes half-glazed over with sleep. Her shoulders slumped forward. The poor guy was exhausted. She couldn’t blame him. He’d been through a lot these last few days. They all had.
“I just…” She pointed to her back. “I need some help with this corset thing.” The man sitting two chairs to the left of Arwan gawked at her. Zanya made double sure the curtain hid the stain on her dress.
Arwan stood and eased toward her. “Turn around.”
She noticed more people shopping and several men slumped in the rows of chairs in the waiting area. “Uh, no. Come inside.” The fact she had to ask for help undressing was humiliating enough. There was no way she’d let him undo this thing with everyone around.
He opened the curtain and slipped in, then secured it behind him. He rested his hands on her waist. “Turn around.”
She did and stood with her back straight, watching his reflection in the mirror while he worked at to loosen her bodice.
The pressure around her ribcage eased, and she drew in a deep breath. “Thank you. That thing was killing me.”
The air caressed her skin as the damp corset slowly opened, exposing the curves of her back. She crossed her arms over her chest to prevent the top half of the gown from falling off completely.
Arwan worked to unlace the last of the silk ribbon. His fingers brushed against her lower back, spreading warmth up her spine. She studied him in the mirror. He was soaked and miserable, yet he hadn’t complained—not even once. “You should go get changed. I can handle it from here.”
He rested his hands on her shoulders, and his gaze slid over her bare back.
Besides riding together in the taxi, they hadn’t spent more than a few moments alone since London. The longing she had carried all this time now suddenly overwhelmed her.
He placed a kiss on the curve of her shoulder. Her eyes fluttered shut, and she gripped her dress tighter, tilting her head to the side and exposing her neck.
“Arwan.” This wasn’t really the best place, never mind the fact she probably smelled like wet dog.
He hooked her elbow and gently spun her around. When they stood face to face, it was clear her heart was no longer hers. It belonged to him completely, and even though they’d only met recently, it seemed as if they’d known each other for a lifetime.
Whatever drew them to each other—whatever made her promise herself to him so completely—they had a bond that would never be broken. And even though it surprised her, she’d made that promise with all of her heart.
He cradled her face. “If anything happened to you…” His jaw flexed. She wanted to press her fingers against his chest and run her hands along the curves of his shoulders, but if she let go of her gown, it would fall to the floor.
He brushed his thumb along her lips, and his gaze flickered to them. “Si algo te hubiera pasado…me hubiera roto el corazόn.”
Her chest fluttered. She really, really needed to learn Spanish. Regardless of what he said, hearing him whisper like that made her weak in the knees.
He pulled her close and kissed her, one arm wrapped around her waist, the other caressing her cheek. The light in her chest—the mark of her heritage and power—flickered on and filled her with the cold energy it always brought.
She pried her arms free and wrapped them around his neck. With the top of her gown pinned between their bodies, the sides of the corset fell open, exposing the curves of her waist. He ran his hands along the length of her bare back before resting them on her hips.
The light in her chest brightened, and electricity sparked over her skin. His lips curved into a smile, causing them both to pause.
He pulled away just enough to look her in the eyes. “Your heart’s racing. I can hear it.”
She ran her fingers through his hair and drew him closer, into another kiss. He held her with a tenderness he hadn’t shown before.
Her light dimmed as a new type of passion took over.
She didn’t just want him, she wanted his heart, forever.
“Ahem.” A woman on the other side of the curtain cleared her throat, sounding annoyed. Zanya pulled away and looked down. At the bottom of the curtain, she saw the foot of a store employee tapping impatiently. “Is everything all right in there, or do I need to call security?”
Zanya’s cheeks blazed with heat. “Everything’s fine.”
Arwan clearly wore a crooked grin. “Maybe we should finish getting our supplies.” He slipped out of the dressing room to speak to the woman waiting outside. His tone was apologetic while he explained Zanya’s wardrobe malfunction.
The time is getting closer now, a voice whispered in her mind.
She shut her eyes and tried to block it out. The light in her chest grew warm rather than cold, making her stomach gurgle with a sick heat.
Prepare to rule under me.
Zanya squinted her eyes shut.
You are mine. Don’t ever believe differently.
The whispers started after she’d claimed the ancient Mayan relic and taken it back from Sarian. She suspected this voice was his, reaching through the only link they shared and using one of the few things she loved to drive her mad.
After spending more than she could comprehend at the sporting goods store, Zanya and Arwan loaded all of their new supplies into two hiking packs. With Cualli’s pendant hanging around her neck, Zanya unzipped the front pocket and transferred the very last and most important item.
The only pocket big enough to accommodate the large oval stone was the main compartment. Funny enough, though it was large, it wasn’t heavy. Perhaps a magical quality she hadn’t noticed before.
The stone’s energy scraped against her skin, raw and sharp from Sarian’s partial hold. He may have broken the spell set upon the stone at its creation that made it obey only the guardian, but it still recognized her.
Unfortunately, unlike when she’d bonded with it, her stone no longer spoke to her. It was quiet. Too quiet.
Its colors morphed and pulsed, transforming from its normal hues of white and blue to deep violet and brown. Its polluted energy burned her skin as if she were handling a hot coal. She wanted to flinch away, but ground her teeth and cradled the stone closer. She had to prove it was home, where it belonged. Luckily she could heal after her brief encounters with the stone.
“Are you ready?” Arwan stood and slung his pack over his shoulder.
She rubbed her temples, then blinked to clear her vision.
“I just have a headache and…” She considered telling him about the whispers but that would only worry him. If she got some rest, her mind would be stronger and maybe more capable of fending off the mental attacks. She stood and slipped on her backpack. “Never mind. It’s not important. Let’s go.”
Hunkered down in a window seat, Zanya jumped when her phone buzzed in her pocket. She hid it from the flight attendant patrolling the aisle as she read the message from Tara.
Tara: Renato just got back with Hawa. How could you not tell me you’re leaving?
A heavy weight settled in Zanya’s stomach.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” Zanya’s raised her gaze to the brunette flight attendant smiling down at her. “All cell phones need to be powered down in preparation for takeoff, please. You’ll be allowed to turn them back on when we land in Guatemala.”
“Oh, sorry.” She’d have to answer Tara once they landed. Plus, she had no idea what to say. “You’re totally right, I’m a jerk?” That wouldn’t exactly help things.
The flight attendant moved on when Zanya tucked her phone away. She rested her head on Arwan’s shoulder and sighed. “Tara’s mad. You think she’ll forgive me?”
Arwan kissed the top of her head. “Of course. You’re her best friend. She’ll understand.”
She wanted to believe him.
Half an hour after takeoff, the Fasten Seat Belt sign finally pinged off. Zanya unbuckled, reached under the chair, and pulled out a small leather book from her pack. Renato had “borrowed” it from Contessa’s shelves and apparently thought it was important enough that she needed to read it on the flight.
The front cover was engraved with a giant tree inside a circle. There were three levels inside the circle. The first danced above the branches, the second lingered in the middle, and the last—
most ominous of worlds—was trapped beneath the tree’s enormous roots, deep underground.
The title on the first page of the book read Yaxche and Xibalba.
She had read about both of these in the scribe journals from Renato’s library. A smile tugged at her lips. She missed that house. It had only taken a few weeks for her to feel at home there.
Zanya turned her attention back to the book. Yaxche was the tree of life that spanned from the heavens to the middleworld and down to the underworld. Long ago, the Maya had understood that the earth spun on an axis. The ancient enchanted tree was that axis. It secured the planet in place and connected all three worlds. Yaxche was not only earth’s stabilizer, but a portal, and Zanya suspected they would have to eventually travel through the massive trunk to find Houn, the god of death.
“Hey.” She tilted the book toward Arwan. “Do you know much about Yaxche. When he didn’t respond, she looked up and saw he was asleep. Zanya lowered the book into her lap. Some rest would do him good. She yawned. Maybe it would do her some good, too.
She tucked the book under her leg and crossed her arms, then laid her head on Arwan’s shoulder. He drew in a deep, sleepy breath and pressed his cheek against her head. As she rested, her mind drifted into semiconsciousness.
A voice wove through her exhausted mind.
You will be mine, whether by force or compliance. Make no mistake.
She shuddered at the snaky hiss of Sarian’s words. Her dream state deepened, paired with an image of Tara’s bright hazel eyes.
“How could you leave without telling me?” The broken tone of her friend’s voice stabbed at her.
Another image formed behind her lids. A book—the one Zanya had first seen in a dream, then again in her vision when Sarian had broken the obedience spell. Its pages flipped faster and faster until they stopped. Blood seeped from the yellowed parchment.
The image of Renato shaking his head as he stood on the patio in Victorian London.
Sarian in his beastly form fighting against Arwan, who moved with almost inhuman speed and accuracy.
“He does not need help.” Renato’s gaze finally met hers, and the depth of sadness in his eyes nearly took her breath away. “Arwan is not who you think he is.”
Zanya opened her eyes and sat up, rubbing her face. “What the hell was that?” She clutched Cualli’s pendant, running her fingers over the smooth curves until her heartbeat returned to normal.
With her three crutches—her stone, her music, and Cualli’s pendant—she hadn’t had a panic attack in months. But Sarian had clearly broken into her mind and didn’t intend on leaving. Her night terrors—more accurately, Sarian’s blatant intrusions into her dreams—had always been isolated to a deep sleep. Now they were everywhere. His hold on her stone had taken its toll, and unless she figured out a way to stop him, his invasions would undoubtedly become much worse.
* * *
Arwan watched out the bus window as trees and small village huts flew past. He and Zanya had been traveling for almost two hours on a route that would bring them to the entrance of the caves.
He frowned at the dark circles casting deep shadows under Zanya’s eyes. She must not have gotten any sleep on the plane. Perhaps she was ill, though that was unlikely for a guardian with the ability to heal. Like Peter, her healing powers made her nearly immune to middleworld sickness.
Still, she hadn’t been acting normally over the last few days. Headaches and lethargy were obvious signs something had happened that she didn’t want to tell him about. Something more serious than her concern over Tara or her heartache over Jayden.
He too carried worry in his heart, and just like Zanya was doing to him now, he hadn’t told her the entire truth either.
Maybe it was just a matter of time for them both.
The bus slowed to a stop, delivering them to their destination. They had taken the route to the back entrance of the caves, surrounded by dense jungle and heavy overgrowth.
The government authorities had restricted tourist access to the front side of the caves years ago, but the area would still be crawling with photographers and small-time archeologists, all of whom would have a watchful eye on the glyphs, and thus anyone going in or out.
Arwan checked his watch. There was still about two hours before sundown. They both needed their strength to hike, especially because it wasn’t Zanya’s strongest skill. He’d packed energy bars in her bag, though he had no idea how long they’d be stuck in the cave.
A cave his mother had once crawled out from.
A cave he wished he could forget.
He pictured the drawings hung on his bedroom wall at home. His mother’s face was calming and somehow torturous at the same time. But he wouldn’t forget her. She was the reason he still lived, while his father was the reason she had been ripped from his life when he was just a boy.
Zanya massaged small circles over her temples, her eyes closed and her skin visibly clammy.
He brushed his hand against her leg. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
She drew in her bottom lip and sat back in her seat. “I’m fine. Just tired.”
The single door at the front of the bus screeched open. They had a long journey ahead, and he had to be mentally prepared for whatever was to come. “We’re up.” He grabbed his bag while Zanya stood, and followed her down the aisle and outside, onto the dusty ground.
It was the wet season, but there hadn’t been rain in weeks. The earth was cracked and the air was dry. Many of the locals probably suspected the gods were angry. Telltale signs proved his suspicion true as they strode down the wide dirt road between huts and small bakeries selling freshly made flatbread. Offerings lay scattered along the ground, some in basins, others lying in beds of banana leaves. What was left of the river lazily flowed downstream, over shiny pebbles and old stumps that hung on to the compacted silt.
The town had changed since he’d last visited. Boxy televisions were propped in the corner of several outdoor market stalls, and many of the villagers had cell phones pressed to their ears. It was as if the life had been drained from the rich culture of their Maya descendants, all of whom had nearly forgotten the honor and greatness of their history. Instead of building great cities, they wove blankets, carved colorful trinkets, and sold small statues of the abandoned temples, once the pride of their nation.
At least this village was one of the few without Catholic churches towering over the ruins. Instead of Christmas, this small community still celebrated winter solstice—and had, since Arwan could remember.
The shortest day of the year marked the beginning of longer days, but more importantly for Riyata, the time in which bonds of the soul were made. He felt it coming, deep in his bones. All the years he had observed the solstice, celebration the coming season. It was the only surviving link to his lineage that he’d kept as part of his life.
A statue of the rain deity, Chaac, stood in the center of the town with offerings scattered around him. Basins of fresh water lay near the statue’s feet, and hand-strung beads hung from the lightning ax gripped in Chaac’s hand.
Some still believed.
An elderly woman sat beside the statue with a wicker basket nestled in her lap, begging for scraps of food. Her meek frame was buried under layers of tattered clothes and a shroud of fabric draped over her hair.
Arwan paused beside her. The painted markings on her hands and forehead meant she was a village elder. When he was part of the community, elders were respected.
He reached in his bag and found an energy bar. If giving it to her meant he’d go hungry, so be it.
He broke away from Zanya and walked toward the woman. Her wrinkled face turned up as he approached, and her gaze followed him down when he crouched beside her.
The emptiness in her eyes told of extended neglect and hunger. He placed the food in her basket. He hadn’t spoken his native tongue in such a long time, but she was a Maya villager from the old tribe—probably one of the last—and most likely didn’t understand anything but Yucatan. Shame weighed on his shoulders. He hung his head, all but having forgotten how to greet her properly.
Her shaky hands reached out and rested on his forearm. His heart weighed heavy to see his people begging on the street. To find her begging beside a statue of Chaac was worse. It was a common practice among beggars to sit beside a statue of a deity in hope those withholding charity would feel guilty and be more compelled to give.
It had come to that.
The people’s hearts had turned cold.
He stood and glanced back at Zanya waiting for him on the far side of the dirt road. Her head was hung, her gaze cast to the ground. It was obvious she understood the elder’s situation was grim.
Arwan gave the woman the respect she deserved by resting his hand on top of her head, wishing her well on her journey through the underworld, to the heavens, once she passed. It probably wouldn’t be long.
She stilled, and her eyes slowly shut. She understood what was happening.
He was telling her good-bye.
As he stood, he dropped a few coins in her basket—as much as he could spare. Perhaps she could buy food, or a good night’s rest in a suitable bed.
Arwan walked back to Zanya’s side. She took his hand. Her warmth was the only remaining link he had to mankind.
“That was really nice of you,” she said with a gentle smile. Her gaze moved to the woman. “It’s so sad.” She squeezed his hand.
He checked his watch. “We have about an hour to be in town. Let’s get something to eat before we start the hike.”
She sighed. “Hiking. Right. I wish I knew where I was going, I could have transported ahead.”
“But you don’t, and I would really rather you stay close. Just in case.” He draped his arm over her shoulder. She had no idea how badly he needed to be close to her, though he still couldn’t explain why. When he’d met her, he hadn’t expected the connection would be so strong. The bond wasn’t just physical but something tangible that linked them together. He just hoped what was soon to come wouldn’t tear them apart.
* * *
The uneven ground pushed against the bottom of Zanya’s feet as she followed Arwan over the game path that stretched from the village’s eastern border of the jungle. At least that’s what Arwan had told her. She couldn’t tell east from west if her life depended on it.
“How much longer do we have?” She took a few quick steps to catch up to him.
He tipped his face toward the sky. A bead of sweat ran down his temple. “We have about three miles to go, but the terrain’s going to get more difficult.” He examined the thick foliage on either side of the trail.
She grabbed her water bottle from the side pocket of her backpack and gulped down half of her supply.
Arwan’s eyes narrowed as he came to a complete stop.
Zanya swallowed the rest of her mouthful and poured some into her palm. She patted the back of her neck and fanned at her damp skin. “What’s wrong?”
He pressed his finger to his lips as his gaze darted through the trees.
Zanya froze. The only sounds were the distant screeches of monkeys and a few birds in the branches above them—typical jungle soundtrack.
After a moment, he finally spoke. “I thought I heard something. Let’s keep going.”
“Okay. But what did you think you heard?” She slipped her water bottle back in her backpack and tried to keep up.
“There are a lot of things we need to be careful of. You aren’t used to being out here, so I’m just being cautious.”
She glanced around. “Cautious of what?”
“I’m not trying to scare you.” He guided her over a sudden incline in the path.
“I won’t get freaked out. I promise.” A promise she’d probably break in about five seconds, but she needed to know what they were dealing with. They’d hiked together in Belize, but back then they’d traveled on well-known paths the tribes had used to collect water and visit each other. Now they were on a barely discernible game trail in the middle of nowhere—totally different story.
He exhaled. “Tigers, elephants, snakes…” He paused and turned toward the greenery.
He sensed something was out there. That much was clear.
His grip slid from her hand up to her wrist.
His focus intensified by the second. “Go. Walk ahead of me.”
“Why?” She gripped his arm.
“So I can keep an eye on you.”
She walked ahead, her senses tuned to every noise, every twig that snapped in the trees, every chirping bird—
Zanya paused. The birds. They’d all gone quiet. Something had spooked them, and she had a feeling that whatever it was, it was still close by.
The twilight skies were streaked with hues of red and pink when Zanya followed Arwan out of the canopy of trees. An area bare of foliage lay straight ahead. They were supposed to make it to the mouth of the cave by nightfall, but considering they hadn’t reached it yet—probably thanks to her short stride—that was probably not going to happen.
“What are we going to do?”
Arwan dropped his pack on the ground. “We need to make camp. It’s almost dark, and we need to collect firewood. This is a good spot for us to spend the night.”
Zanya groaned. “I figured as much.” They didn’t have any real shelter, and there were more bugs than she could fathom, all of them probably waiting for her to doze off so they could crawl over her face. She cringed. “What if it rains? We’ll get soaked.”
“It hasn’t rained in weeks, and I doubt it will rain tonight. The skies are too clear.”
“Oh. Right.” She’d have to learn how to look for signs like that. She rolled her shoulders and let the pack hit the ground with a thud. Throbbing pain pulsed through her neck and upper back. “Ugh.” She reached across her chest and massaged the knot.
“I’ll gather firewood. You can get out your sleeping bag and—” He pointed to some rocks near the path. “If you can gather some stones and make a circle for a fire pit, that would be helpful.” He unzipped his hoodie and tossed it beside his backpack, revealing the muscles packed under his T-shirt.
Heat spread through her body, and she cleared her throat. “Sure, no problem.”
“I won’t be gone for long. Yell if anything happens. I won’t be far.”
She bit her lip in an attempt to suppress a smile. “Thanks for being so worried about me.”
He examined her with a quirky grin. The kind of grin that made her heart skip a beat and her breath hitch. “You’re the guardian. You don’t need me around to protect you. You just think you do.”
An hour later, the sun was all but gone by the time Zanya finished organizing the stones into a circle. She wiped her dusty hands on her pants and unzipped her bag and then spotted Arwan’s pack. He hadn’t returned with the firewood yet. He must have been gathering enough for the whole night.
It would be helpful if she got his sleeping bag out, too. He’d have to build the fire when he returned—God knows she had no clue how to do it.
Twigs cracked behind her, and Zanya spun and fell back on her butt, her palms pressed against the warm earth. She scanned the tree line. Too bad it was dark and she couldn’t see anything but a thick wall of foliage.
“Arwan?” Her voice came out in a squeak. She cleared her throat and slowly stood, her focus never leaving the jungle. “Arwan?” Another crack sounded from in the trees. Zanya scanned the branches until she spotted a huge white owl perched on a branch just above her.
She exhaled and rested her hand on her chest. A smile crept over her lips. “Oh thank God. It’s just an owl.” The creature looked down at her inquisitively, rotating its head from side to side. It was beautiful. Large, with caramel-brown feathers outlining its heart-shaped face. The moonlight shimmered against the bird’s feathers.
It hopped toward her down the branch, seemingly unafraid. Though out here, it probably didn’t have any reason to fear people. Zanya stepped closer, her focus on the bird’s almond-shaped eyes that analyzed her every move.
She smacked her lips and extended her hand, rubbing the tips of her fingers together. “Hey, beautiful. What are you doing here?” Her voice turned to a soft coo as she waited for it to move closer. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
More twigs snapped behind her and she turned, sure she’d see Arwan walking toward her with a huge stack of wood piled in his arms.
There was only darkness and silence.
Zanya dropped her hand to her side, her eyes wide. A soft growl radiated through the night. She stepped back, her senses on high alert.
She gripped the wicker emblem hung around her neck, and for the first time since London, her stone spoke to her.
Its whispers morphed to static. A spike of adrenaline tore through her. She rushed to her backpack and ripped open the zipper.
With the stone cupped in her hands, she shifted away from the cluster of bushes in front of her. Her breath stalled when her gaze met a pair of pale yellow eyes peering at her from the foliage.
She tried to speak, but her voice was trapped somewhere in her chest. Her stone, scalding scalded the tender skin on her palms. The large cat’s gaze moved down to the pulsing orb in her chest, then to the light that radiated from her stone. It bared its teeth and then relaxed, smoothing the wrinkles in its snout. The animal cocked its head. Its small, perked ears made it look as if it were curious.
“Good job on the fire pit.” Zanya spun around and jumped to her feet. Arwan must have seen her panicked expression because he immediately dropped the firewood and ran to her side. “What happened?”
She pointed to the bushes where the large cat had stood just a moment ago. Now only shadows loomed in the empty space. Arwan must have scared it away. “There was a—wait!” She spun and pointed to the branch where the owl was perched, but the bird, too, was no longer there. “First it was a—it was right there!” She turned back to the bushes and surveyed the empty space. “It was some kind of cat. Maybe a cheetah or something. It had spots.”
Arwan grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer. “Where?”
“There.” She pointed to the empty space where small plants lay crushed into the soil by the beast’s paw.
“An owl. It was huge.” She pointed to the tree. “Right there. It was all white with some caramel feathers on its face and dark eyes.” She drew in a sharp breath. “What if the big cat comes back? Maybe we should sleep in the trees or something.” She gathered her sleeping bag off the ground and hugged it against her chest. She wasn’t Steve freakin’ Irwin. She didn’t jump on gators or tame snakes. She certainly didn’t sit face-to-face with a predator that considered her a snack.
“Sleeping in a tree isn’t a good idea.”
“What? Why?” She clung tighter to her sleeping bag while she scanned the jungle. “At least it would keep us off the ground.”
“Because it was a jaguar, and they drag their prey into the trees to eat. At least normal jaguars do.”
Her eyes widened. “What do you mean ‘normal’?”
“‘Normal’ as in middleworld.”
“Middleworld? You don’t think they’re from here?”
The possibility that the jaguar wasn’t from this realm seemed ten times worse than it being just an ordinary jaguar on the hunt. Especially after being attacked by the demon from the caves near Renato’s house, and then the gargoyle-like beasts on the beach. Suddenly facing a regular big cat didn’t seem so bad. “Well, how do you know it was a jaguar? It could have been a cheetah, right? Or a lynx or something. Something totally middleworld.” She swallowed.
“Cheetahs don’t live in this area, and the jaguar has been stalking us since we wandered into its territory. But I don’t think it wants to hurt us.”
“And how did you come to that conclusion?”
“Because if it did, you’d be dead.”
Arwan started the fire like an old pro. It was too risky to catch something and cook it. The smell of fresh meat would tempt not only the jaguar, but also other predators in the area.
He sat beside Zanya on his sleeping bag, and pulled up his legs, resting one forearm on his knee while using the other hand to poke at the glowing logs with a stick. “As long as we keep the fire going, we should be safe.”
“Should be safe?”
“I’m sleeping beside you just in case. Don’t worry.” He tilted his face toward the treetops. “Noises from the other animals will let us know if something is close. The monkeys are good for that.”
Zanya unwrapped an energy bar and took a bite. “Freakin’ monkeys better be on high alert or we’re screwed.”
Arwan let out a chuckle. The flames rose and fell, casting shadows over his face. The jungle atmosphere suited him. He seemed at home.
She sat back and admired the millions of tiny white orbs speckling the night heavens. The sky wasn’t black, rather a deep shade of royal blue. “Look up.”
He followed her prompt, and a faint smile spread his lips. A sad smile—the same kind that graced his face whenever he spoke about his mom.
After a moment of silence, he let out a deep breath. “The cave is only a few miles away.”
She covered her mouth through a deep yawn. Man, she was tired. “Well, that’s good, right?”
He poked at the fire again, causing flames to waver and dance. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
She crinkled her brow. “What do you mean am I sure?”
He stared intensely into the embers. “Once we enter the caves, we can’t turn back. We will need to go through the appropriate channels in order to enter. There are no shortcuts. No free passes.”
She had to be brave. Not for herself, but for her friend. “Jayden only has two days left. If we don’t get his soul from Houn by then, we won’t get it back. We have to keep going.”
“If that’s what you want.”
Maybe he was scared. She didn’t blame him. She was too. But she couldn’t put her own fear ahead of saving Jay. He wouldn’t turn his back on her, and she couldn’t do that to him. Even when he’d left her in the orphanage, he’d thought he would go back to her. That they would be together again. She didn’t love him in that way. Not anymore. She loved Jayden like she loved Tara. That was enough.
Arwan lay down and stared up at the sky. His features were solemn.
He wasn’t the only one with weight on his shoulders. The dream she’d had about Arwan on the plane was something she needed to address. She hadn’t found the right moment to bring the two-ton elephant into the room, but no moment would seem right for something like this.
She gathered her hair and pulled it over her shoulder, playing with strands between her fingers. It was all she could do not to seem obviously nervous. “Renato made a comment I can’t stop thinking about.” When he didn’t react, she continued. “He said you aren’t who I think you are.”
Arwan’s jaw ticked. “He said that?”
Zanya observed his tense shoulders. He was hiding something, and she had a right to know what it was. “Renato isn’t the only person who told me.”
Arwan looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“Sarian said the same thing. He said you and him aren’t very different. I just thought he was trying to manipulate me.”
“And you believe him?”
“You’re not giving me a reason not to.” The truth was, she didn’t know what to believe. If he insisted on staying silent, she’d have all the more reason to pry.
“I guess you can believe whatever you want.” He turned his attention to the fire, poking at the burning embers with a stick.
“That’s not fair.”
“Fair or not, that’s all I can tell you.”
“That’s all you will tell me, you mean.”
“Stop prying, Zanya.”
He stood and stared down at her. “Or you may find something out that you really don’t want to know.”
She pushed to her feet, holding his gaze. “I have a right to know.”
He fisted his hands, his chest heaving with every breath. He paced to the other side of the fire. “I knew eventually it would come to this.”
Zanya wrapped her fingers around Cualli’s medallion as anxiety bubbled in her chest. “Come to what?”
The flames slashed at the air as his piercing gaze bored a hole in her heart. “Are you sure you want to ask me this? Because if you ask, you have to be sure you want to know the answer.”
In reality, she wasn’t so sure. His sudden change in demeanor was so unlike him, and that kind of one-eighty could only be caused by something serious. She shifted her weight. “You’re starting to scare me.”
Anguish washed over his handsome features.
She couldn’t bear seeing him with such a tortured expression for a second longer. She moved beside him and laid her hands on either side of his face. He shut his eyes. The despair radiating from his touch was nearly unbearable.
She understood his longing. She had desired so much in her life—relief, acceptance, courage, peace—and never received any of it. Until she’d met Renato and the others. Being told she was precious was more of a reward than she could have ever hoped for. So she’d give him the acceptance he longed for. She’d give it to him without any more questions or accusations.
Whatever he was hiding wasn’t worth tearing him apart to find out. Not over the word of Sarian. Not even over the word of Renato.
“Listen to me. I won’t push you to tell me anything you don’t want to. I don’t know what could possibly be so bad—”
“Will you still want me?” His voice was ragged.
She furrowed her brow. “What?”
“Just…please.” He buried his fingers in her hair and pressed his forehead against hers. “Tell me you will still want me, no matter who I am.”
She sensed his anger, fear, agony—all radiating through his touch and the desperation in his tone.
“Please believe me. I would never do anything to hurt you. No puedo vivir sin tu amor.”
She pushed a strand of hair out of his face and brushed her thumb over his eyebrow. “You know, you’ve got to start translating for me.”
She waited for him to crack a smirk. When it failed to come, she kissed him anyway. The fire warmed her back while a chorus of sounds echoed around them. The jungle was deafening at night, but in that moment, his touch drowned out the noises.
He slid his arms around her and crushed her against his chest. She squeaked, and then melted into him, twisting her fingers in his T-shirt, finding solid muscle underneath. She couldn’t help but push under the material to explore.
His skin was warm, and her fingers brushed against a thin line of hair trailing down his stomach. She followed it until it vanished beneath the buckle of his pants. His chest expanded with a sharp inhale. The subtle fluttering in her stomach exploded into a fierce energy radiating through her body.
His lips slid to the corner of her mouth and down her jaw. She tilted her head back toward the night sky while his mouth ran over her neck.
He pulled away, nearly panting. “Zanya—”
“No.” She rose on her tippy-toes and kissed him again. She wouldn’t have him try to talk reason into her. Not now, when they were finally alone.
When dawn broke, they would risk their lives. This could be their last chance to be together if it all fell apart.
She spread her hands across his back and trailed them over his shoulders. His fingers dug into her hips and he broke their kiss again. “Heavens help me,” he whispered in a raspy breath. “Zanya, please.”
She shifted her weight. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head.
“Don’t you…” The thought of saying it aloud made her blush. Maybe he didn’t want to move forward, though his kiss said otherwise. She hung her head. How could she have been so wrong?
He hooked his fingers under her chin. “I can’t. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Fair? What are you talking about?” She bit her lip, trying not to notice the electrical current that spread over her skin from his touch. What the heck was wrong with her? She’d never acted like this before—wanted anyone so much.
He brushed his finger along her cheek. “Please, trust me.”
She paused, realizing she’d moved her hands under his shirt, and was resting her hands against his solid muscle. The mental haze slowly faded. Being this into him was a little scary.
Zanya slowly pulled away and pressed her hands against her sides. Maybe it was the fresh jungle air, or maybe it was just that they were headed into the unknown the next day. Whatever drew her to him was relentless. Her head spun, and she rested her fingertips on her temple. It was as if something had taken her over. Something with an insatiable need.
She blinked away clouded vision and forced a soft smile. He was right. Waiting was better. She’d sworn she’d take it slow. He’d promised he’d wait. Not push. Not pressure her. And he hadn’t. Not even a little. There was nothing wrong with taking things one step at a time.
Except suddenly she wanted to leap.