Mac led us to a cabin in the thickest part of the woods. It wasn’t old, but it had been lived in, and I wondered how many other visitors had taken refuge there. The kitchen stovetop was stained from overuse, and the futon that sat against the wall sagged in the center where people had slept. As I looked around I breathed in the earthy scent of the forest that had seeped in from outdoors. Aside from the common area, which was both the kitchen and living room in one, there was only a bathroom and a single bedroom.
“Sorry if I gave you two a scare back there,” Mac said, collapsing heavily into a seat at the multi-purpose table in the center of the room. “Can never be too sure these days.” He leaned back in the wooden chair, his brawny body testing its strength.
I raised my eyebrows at his casual brush-off. Oh, sorry for shoving my loaded shotgun in your face. Maybe it was smart though. Having me heal proved I was who I was—the last healer. Still, poisoning a deer was a little dramatic.
“Well, someone could have at least warned us you’d be armed and dangerous,” William said, his voice cutting through the quiet cabin. He took my hand and led me to the futon.
“It’s best you just assume that from here on out,” Mac laughed back at him. I didn’t find it as funny. It wasn’t that he frightened me, or that I felt too uncomfortable in this strange place, I just had too many thoughts in my head to process those insignificant feelings. I still hadn’t gotten my bearings. So much had happened in the last twenty-four hours or more. I wasn’t sure how long it had been.
“You guys must be hungry,” Mac said, breaking the silence.
Starving, I thought. When had I last eaten? My body had moved past hunger pains and was simply ignoring my need for food, at least until it was mentioned.
“I think my stomach is eating itself.” William cracked a smile for the first time since the gun incident.
Mac stood up, his heavy weight dragging the chair loudly across the old wood floor. He was built like he was made for the military, like he could pick a guy up by his throat or bust a door down with a swift kick. It was strange seeing such a burly man in a dainty kitchen, but he seemed to feel well enough at home. He pulled two plates from the fridge, which he had already prepared for us.
“I’m not the best cook, but it should do the job.”
I didn’t care if it was mashed celery. I would have eaten anything.
“The zucchinis grow out back, and the meat is quail,” he said tentatively, his guttural voice not matching his kind words. “Sorry it’s cold. I could heat the beans up on the stove if you want.”
I moved a little too quickly to the table. “It’s fine, thanks,” I said with gratitude. I could see he wasn’t a cruel man, just protective. After all, he did have the power of safety in his blood. Could you blame the guy for being a little overly cautious?
He picked up his shotgun and examined it, making sure it was loaded. As if someone could have stolen the shells without him knowing. William and I watched with curiosity as we inhaled our meal, every cold, delicious bite.
“Anything else you need?” he asked as we finished, plates nearly licked clean. “We have to talk about what’s going to happen here.”
“I could use a shower,” I answered honestly. I wanted time to think. I wasn’t ready for more.
“Sure,” he said, placing his gun to the right of the door. “You guys will have the room, so I put your clothes in the dresser in there. Towels are under the sink.”
“Okay thanks,” I answered, wondering how my clothes had ended up here in the first place.
The solitude was nice, so I didn’t bother to be quick. I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and smiled at how unkempt I looked. Tired, chestnut eyes stared back at me. My dark brown hair was greasy and tangled, and my clothes were dirty from trekking through the woods. I looked like a ragdoll that had been dragged around the playground by a five-year-old.
I gazed back into my reflection, trying to convince myself that everything was all right, that I had no reason to worry. But was it true? I stripped down and stepped in the shower, letting the steaming water wash away layers of salt and sweat as I ran through the facts, every stepping stone in the path that had led me here.
It wasn’t that long ago that I’d considered myself alone. The only one cursed with long life while those around me died. Then, only two others shared my secret, my burden—Anna and her daughter. They were more than friends; they were family, despite the fact that they weren’t Descendants. Things were so different now, like that reality was a lifetime ago. I’d dreamt that there were others, hoped it in the deepest parts of me, but I never imagined it would be so complicated. The world of Descendants, my people, with their supernatural abilities and secret lives, The Council, the laws, the prophecy, none of it had turned out how I’d hoped. Things were backwards, uncivil, and unfair in this new world. I shouldn’t have had to risk my life to heal my best friend, but it had come to that. If it weren’t for Kara, who’d once considered me an enemy, maybe I would be dead. I shook that thought from my head. It didn’t matter.
All that mattered was that Anna and Chloe would be okay. Their safety was at the forefront of my mind. Kara had taken care of them, and they’d be here soon. Thanks to William, Ryder was gone. I could let go of that worry, but there were still things unsettled. There was Iosif. The memory of his scream made my stomach turn, and I hoped he would be all right. Obviously The Council believed we were dead, so what more could they use him for? And what had come of William’s family? Were they questioned? Tortured? Did the Council members get involved? I would have to ask Mac if he knew anything.
As for the prophecy, apparently everything had gone as predicted, despite the fact that I was kept in the dark about the true way it would play out. What was it Iosif had said? You survived because you were meant to—to fulfill the prophecy. Your sacrifice set things in motion. Now it’s only a matter of time. But what did that mean, that I was supposed to start a war against The Council? Free the Descendants from their oppressive reign? Even as I thought the words, I didn’t believe them. How was I supposed to do that? Especially stuck here with most everyone thinking I was dead.
Only one thing comforted me as I mulled over everything: There was nothing I could do about any of it. Not right now at least. If I thought of it any other way, it all might come toppling in on me like an imploding building. Today, all I could do was talk to Mac. He was the only resource I had. I just hoped he knew what was supposed to happen next, and that I would be up for it.
I changed into my favorite old Levis and a long sleeve black shirt. When I opened the bedroom door, I caught them sitting at the table, talking with their heads close together like I wasn’t supposed to hear their conversation. It seemed odd, but Mac addressed me like it was nothing.
“Better?” he asked, his strong brown eyes too cheery for his rough face.
“Much,” I responded casually, but I knew better than to believe they weren’t keeping something from me.
“Did you see this?” William asked, trying to steer the subject.
He held out a hand-carved blow dart gun, the one Mac had used to poison the deer.
“Yeah, I’ve seen it.”
“Up close?” he continued. “Mac made it himself.” He thrust it toward me, and I took it.
It was handcrafted, with intricate designs and beveled edges despite its long, narrow shape. The finger grip was made of dried reeds woven into a tightly knit pattern, and it had a sight for aiming that was so thin and precise it must have taken ages to carve. Although it was an amazing work of art, I cringed as I held it. It was lethal. A weapon, meant to kill.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, trying to be polite.
“Glad you like it,” Mac answered with a wide grin. “I made it for you.”
I was confused.
“Why?” I reacted without thinking. Nearly ninety years of avoiding interaction with strangers didn’t exactly make me the best in social situations. I should have just said thank you, but he didn’t seem to take my question personally. Instead he considered it carefully, glancing at William in between thoughts.
“It will protect you,” William spoke for him. He had that desperate look he always got when he wanted me to see things his way, a mix between pleading and insistence.
“We’re in a safe haven,” I reminded him, handing back the weapon. “I don’t think I’ll need it.”
“You will,” Mac added, staring hard at me. “I’ll start training you tomorrow.”
My eyes moved back and forth between them, trying to pick up on what it was they were getting at. I didn’t like where things were going, and I wasn’t sure why they were pushing it on me. Without responding, I headed back for the bedroom.
“Wait.” William sighed. “There’s someone outside for you.”
If it had been anybody else, I may not have picked up on it, but I could read him so easily now, the crease in his brow, the pulse of his cheek muscle as he clenched his teeth—something had happened.
“Who is it?” I asked, trying to get more out of them before I faced what was out there, but they both remained tight lipped, unable to answer.
I listened for a hint of sound, but everything was so quiet here, eerily quiet. I eyed the dart gun and tucked my wet hair behind my ears. Without much of a choice, I walked almost unwillingly toward the front door, looking back at William for strength.
It was still light outside, brighter than I’d expected. Judging by how exhausted I felt, I thought it should be night. I had lost all sense of time. The thick trees blew lightly in the breeze, rattling their dry leaves like nature’s wind chime as I stepped out into the forest.
“Elyse,” a voice called from behind me, and I spun around with a gasp.
“Oracle,” I mumbled with surprise.
She laughed, the corners of her soft eyes wrinkling as she smiled. It made me uneasy the way she looked at me, like she had known me my whole life.
“It’s Florence, actually.”
Her loose linen clothing matched the color of the surrounding trees, like she was a part of the forest, and her hair tied up into an elegant bun had slipped slightly, letting pieces fall against her face. She looked too normal to have such brilliant power.
“Hello,” I managed, my timid voice wary as I waited to hear the reason for her visit.
“Will you walk with me?”
I nodded and began picking my cuticles as I took up beside her, mimicking her slow, graceful steps.
“You’ve had to give up a lot,” she began, her voice low and calm. “I understand how hard it’s been for you.”
She looked over at me as we walked, but I couldn’t look back. I was afraid to meet her eyes. Though they were kind, they’d seen things I knew I wasn’t ready to face.
“It’s not going to get easier, Elyse,” she said, her tone dipping with remorse. “The road ahead will be difficult. Not everyone will survive.”
My eyes reacted on their own, searching for any uncertainty in her expression. There was none.
“I’m here to tell you that you have a choice. You can always decide to take a different path.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “But you won’t. You are good. Selfless. That’s why you are who you are. You will lead them. Not because you have no other choice, but because it is right.”
I wondered how she could be so sure. If she asked me right now if I knew what to do, if I knew what was right, I wouldn’t have an answer. She had such confidence in me, everyone did, but they were wrong.
“Elyse,” she said, stopping abruptly. “The war has started, and they have made the first move.”
Her face was so intense it scared me, her motherly eyes afraid to give me bad news.
“They found Anna and Chloe—” she began.
I stepped away from her. “No,” I said, not wanting to hear the rest.
“Elyse,” she continued. “Kara tried her best, but Christoph took them.”
The words felt heavy, like gravity pulling me down.
“Are they dead?” As I asked the question, my voice shook, and everything started to break into pieces. I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t breathe.
“No,” she answered, her hand settling on my shoulder, “not yet, but they will be if you don’t go after them.”
“How?” I asked, my heart desperate. “How am I supposed to do that?” The fear shook me from the inside, making me frantic and reckless. “If you just tell me how, tell me what to do, I’ll do it. I’ll go now if I need to, if you tell me where they are—”
“Listen,” she said louder than I expected. It grabbed my attention. “This is what they want. They don’t believe you’re dead, and they’re trying to lure you out of hiding. They’re waiting for you, and they want you to come panicked and unprepared. Elyse?” She waited for me to look up. “You must not go until the last night of February.”
“Three months? That’s so long.” I shook my head. “It’s too long. I can’t.”
“If you go before then, you will fail, and they will die. Do you understand?”
I nodded and bit my bottom lip. “But where do I go? How am I supposed to save them? I can’t do it on my own.”
My shaking hands clenched into tight, steady fists. “I need more than that. Give me something to go on,” I pleaded on the verge of anger.
“I can only say so much without altering the future, Elyse.” She leaned forward to kiss my cheek, but I hardly noticed. “I must go before I say more. I won’t see you again after this. Good luck,” she said, before turning to leave. I watched her walk away, too stunned to move.
“Wait,” I called after her. “Where are they?”
“Where you’ll expect them to be,” she yelled without looking back.
“Where is that?” I shouted.
When she didn’t respond I took off after her, running as fast as I could, but I was too late. She disappeared beyond the boundaries of the safe haven, through an invisible wall I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to cross.
I leaned back against a nearby tree, too devastated and angry to move on. It all seemed clear to me as I stood alone in the forest. There was only one path ahead of me. I could choose to walk away, but I wouldn’t. She was right. They were all right. Maybe this would be my war.