A freezing chill crashed over my skin.
I gasped, but sucked in water. I was drowning, my shoulder burning from puncture wounds.
Panicked, I found the brightness of the surface above, and swam upward. The water peeled away from my face and I wheezed in a reviving breath, coughing and spitting up the water.
Where am I?
I shivered in the freezing water, my burgundy cloak heavy around my shoulders. I unfastened it in case it threatened to drag me back into the water.
There was nothing but grey here. Churning mist draped the water everywhere I turned, I couldn’t even see above it.
My wolf ears were already grown, fright shaking my soul as I trembled in the water. “H… hello?!” I cried, coughing. “Is anyone there?!”
My wolf ears picked up shouting within the mist. The voices were nearby.
“Help!” I called, swimming toward the voices, my shoulder hot with pain. “P-please…! I need help!”
A splash came behind me.
I whirled, but saw nothing. “H… hello—Aaah!”
Claws dug into my back, hooking me, and I screamed as I was dragged backward—
An arrow shot at the beast, the crystal tip plunging into its skull with an ear-splitting crack! The blow was so powerful, a spiral of wind rushed after it and cleared the mist in a wide circle around me.
The creature screamed in pain and released me, squirming into the water out of sight. Now that the mists had cleared, I saw a winged man flying above, a second arrow nocked along his bowstring.
“Young sir!” the bird-shifter called. He put away his bow and arrow and soared down to me, grasping my outstretched hand to pull me out of the water. “the Archer be praised, you’re alive! Don’t worry, your mother has exterminated the rest of them, all that’s left was the one who’d dragged you under.”
I blinked at the winged man, baffled. “My… mother?”
He flew us onto a ship’s deck, and I fell over my knees and hacked the water from my lungs, quivering at the pain in my shoulder and back.
A wide circle had formed around me, and I heard a woman barking orders.
“Make way!” she commanded. “Make way, that is my son…! Alexander! Alexander, are you hurt?!”
The woman came hustling toward me, clad in a fur cloak and her braided hair tussled and frazzled around the twinkling gemstones pinned in the strands. She crouched and held a tender, gloved hand to my shoulder wound. “Bloods be good, you’ll need medical attention… I’m glad I resurrected Aiden in time to find you.” She turned to the winged man who’d flown me here. “Aiden, tell the ship nurse to treat Alexander immediately—”
“No,” I said, panting over the floorboards. “I… I’m not Alex…”
But why do I know that name? The thought stabbed my brain, and I clutched my throbbing head. I knew someone with that name… yes, I knew them well… but how?
I shook my head. I had other priorities to see to. “Was another found?” I asked the woman. Death, but she looked familiar. I coughed. “Other than me? A girl, with white hair. She… she was with me—had you found her as well? Please, there is a man after us, I don’t… I don’t know what’s happened to…”
My temples swelled, and I grunted, head shaking desperately.
The woman’s breath died on her tongue. She squeezed my good shoulder and lifted my chin to face her, staring at my eyes. “Seamstress Cleanse me,” she whispered, tears welling. “Xavier…?”
“Yes…” I said slowly, the name familiar. “Yes, that’s right. That’s my name… but I must find my friend.” Her name returned in a blink. “I must find Willow.”
“Oh, Nira be blessed…!” She took my hand eagerly and dragged me toward the cabin. “Lucas! Lucas, come look, we’ve found…!”
“Where am I…?” A voice trilled in my thoughts, a whining ring hitting my eardrums.
I screeched to a stop, the woman’s grip pulled from my fingers.
“Who… who’d said that?” I asked, a chill prickling the hairs on my neck.
“Xavier?” the voice called, shaking. “Xavier, can you hear me?”
I knew that voice… it was… “Alex?” I whispered, remembering the name of my brother.
“Yes!” He laughed, though still sounded shaken. “Where are you? It’s so dark here… There’s n-nothing. But I can see the ship. I can see Mother. Where are you?”
“I… don’t know,” I admitted, gazing at the woman who now stared at me in shock. “Mother…” I said. “Yes, that’s right. That’s who you are—”
Her face suddenly shrank away, the world sucked into a funnel as I was thrown backward.
The world I’d seen had been condensed into a single, circular window, which hung suspended in an empty, black void I now floated in. All traces of pain had vanished, along with the chilled water soaking my garments and hair.
I stared at my hands, at my feet. I radiated with a soft light.
In the window, the woman leapt back. “Death’s Head!” she shouted, her voice crystal clear and echoing all around this void. “Alexander…?”
The window streaked left and right, blinking. “What in Death…?” Alex’s voice hissed. Hands appeared in the window, palms turning in examination. “What was that place? Xavier…? Can you hear me?”
I reached a hand at the window. It was like touching water, the images rippling under my fingers. I pushed on it, pulling myself through—
The void was sucked away behind me, and I collapsed into the outside world, cold and bleeding as the pain burned at my shoulder and back.
Screams echoed from my head.
“Alex?” I panted, searching the deck for him, but couldn’t find him. My breaths grew ragged, the screams worsening. “Alex! Stop it, stop screaming…!”
I clutched my wolf ears, but it did nothing to blot out his frightened cries. I pushed on my skull desperately, staring at Mother. “Wh… what’s happening…?”
Mother’s grey face had drained white, whispering, “Great Mother below.”