The pain comes in waves, rolling over me like crimson smog, smothering me and then sucking the air from my lungs—my dead lungs—lungs that are not supposed to work anyway. I can hear Mary shouting for the pixie, but it’s hard to concentrate on her words with the pain burning in my chest.
“I’m going to help you,” Mary is saying, and her voice is hollow in my ears. The pixie shrieks a response, something with the words touch and bad idea, but the pain flares again and I bend over, arms wrapped around my midsection, and blink the tears away.
When Mary’s fingers press against my shoulder, the world goes from red to black, the blood colors sucked out of the sky until all there is left is shadows. My eyes widen as the castle in the distance becomes nearly invisible in the blackness, its aura growing even darker.
Beside me, Mary gasps and I wonder if she can see the shadows too, but her eyes aren’t filled with fear, only pain, and I know she can’t.
“W-what?” she asks, but her words are lost in the darkness, sinking away into the black where the ground and sky merge until there is no horizon.
In the distance, I can see shadows moving somewhere near the castle. No, not shadows, I realize, just one shadow. A figure dressed in a black cloak, its pale fingers—human fingers—poking out from the long sleeves. It reaches up toward its head, fingers sliding beneath the black hood and shoving it back, revealing a pale face, once weathered by wind and sun, now pale as a ghost.
My eyes widen as recognition dawns on me: I’ve seen that face before. I shudder in horror; he is a ghost.
Suddenly the world snaps back into place and I jolt upward, gasping as red fades from the sky. Mary is shaking beside me, her eyes narrowing as she shoots a dirty look toward me.
“What was that?” she asks, and when I don’t respond she asks again, her finger hovering over my shoulder where she was planning to poke me but thought better of it.
The urge to breathe no longer haunts my lungs and I look up at the sky—gray like it had been before—and with a sudden snap the pixie is back beside us. His face is contorted into a look of discomfort and he shifts his weight from foot to foot, his wings fluttering irritably. When his black eyes land on me, they nearly suck the breath from my lungs. Again.
He knows, I think. He knows I know about the shadows.
Mary yells something at him, but I don’t pay attention to it. My mind is spinning with the possibility that what I just saw was the truth. But this is Norland, and nothing we’ve seen so far has been realistic in the least, so this couldn’t possibly be true.
I try to convince myself of that.
“The King,” the pixie says, “he’s imprisoned there.”
He points a small finger at the dark castle in the distance, and I can swear I still see shadows moving in the distance. I don’t look too close, just in case.
“By what?” Mary asks, crossing her arms, clearly annoyed at the little pest.
“The other one knows,” he says, and my chest clenches again for a whole other reason.
Mary’s eyes slowly shift from the pixie to my face, her eyebrows pressing together as her eyes narrow. “You don’t really know what’s going on here, do you? You’re lost too, right?”
I swallow hard, shoving a hand through the ratty tangle of curls that hang long past my shoulders.
“No, what?” she hisses.
“No,” I tell her. “Actually, I do.”
Her mouth drops open, hanging low until I’m sure that if she had been infected like me, it would have fallen off completely. “What do you mean you know?” she demands, her voice tight. The muscles in her neck bulge slightly and shift uncomfortably, glancing back at the gray castle that seems somehow…closer.
“Is that—?” I point toward the gray stone walls in the distance that have somehow become clearer. I can see cracks in the foundation now, the pattern of the tiles as they lead up to sharp spires jutting into the sky above us. Yes, definitely closer.
“Don’t avoid the question,” Mary snaps. “What do you know?”
“Not much.” I shrug my shoulders, which seems to make her more annoyed.
“Then what is it?”
“When you touched my shoulder, I think he distracted whatever it was that was affecting me. It was more than just my heart, it was whoever has my heart—the King—and when you touched me, you…distracted him.”
“So?” I can tell she’s itching to cross her arms, but she’s too irritated, her hands fluttering beside her. A few feet away, the pixie picks at his teeth with the long stem of a piece of corn husk. Where he got it, I have no idea.
“So, I saw something in the dark. I saw someone who looked familiar. I think I know who has the King here.”
“Who is it?”
“Do you remember when—” I take a deep, shuddering breath and start again. “Do you remember when Randy was asking about my life before the infection—when I was still a pirate? A living, breathing girl?”
Mary nods, her lips pressing into a hard, pale line.
“Do you remember the boy I was telling you about? The one I was engaged to be married to?”
“Yes, so—?” She stops midsentence as a kind of knowing recognition flashes across her eyes.
“His name was Sebastian. He was the son of a nobleman, or at least, that’s what my father told me. It’s what he said my mother wanted for me.” I wave the thought away. “That doesn’t matter now. The important thing is that he was alive nearly two hundred and fifty years ago. He shouldn’t be here.”
“He could be one of the irritable ghosties,” pixie-man pipes in, and both Mary and I turn to glare at him.
“What irritable ghosties?”
“The ones that surround the castle,” he says as if that should have been obvious, his fingers twisting the piece of husk nimbly.
“How can Sebastian be a ghost here? How did the King get him?”
The pixie looks startled for a moment, dropping the piece of corn and twisting his hands together. “The King did not find him.”
“Then why is Rose’s, uh, friend at his castle?”
“Oh, this—” the creature sweeps a hand out, gesturing to the massive gray walls of stone that are now directly in front of us. “This is not the King’s castle?”
“Then whose is it?” Mary asks at the same time as I say, “How did we get here?”
The flittering man doesn’t respond to either of us; instead he marches forward to the large iron gate that has suddenly appeared only one hundred feet away from where we’re standing on the road, and raps his knuckles against the stiff metal. It swings open with a resistant groan, and Mary and I exchange an anxious glance.
My eyes flash up to the top of the gate where figures parade back and forth, pacing agitatedly above us. The shadows that I thought I saw earlier aren’t shadows at all; they’re soldiers. Creatures dressed in all black with strange metallic beak-masks protruding out from beneath dark cloaks.
“The ghosties,” the pixie whispers, his round eyes bulging as he stares up at them, and a shudder runs through his body. “They protect the gates.”
“From what?” Mary’s voice cracks, jumping to a higher note as two more of the ghost-men-creatures pass overhead.
A sudden rumble pulses through the castle, rattling loose stones that litter the ground inside the gate, and the pixie cringes, darting backward and leaving Mary and I just outside of the gate’s opening. Above us, the creatures make hideous moaning noises, gathering into a dark clump, and staring down at us.
“N-n-not g-good,” shrimp man stutters.
“Yo, Gremlin,” Mary snarls, “what are they protecting the gates from?”
Black smoke flashes suddenly in front of us, and he’s here. Sebastian. The name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t speak it. I can barely breathe as his eyes, once a blue the same color as the ocean, now a pale white, stare straight through me.
When he speaks, his voice is deep; richer than I remember. “They’re protecting this place from you, my dear.” He smiles and his teeth are rough and jagged at the tips. “Welcome to my castle.”