The world was a cruel, cruel mistress. She was beautiful, majestic, enticing, and exquisite; providing pleasure at every corner. But like every good thing, there was a dark side. And the world’s darkness was so fierce, so unrivaled, it was unlike anything that could ever be imagined organically. She was like a two-sided coin—the underbelly of each magnificent thing slung a wicked evil. She was harsh, violent, unfair, and demented.

This could be the only reason for what stood before me now—that the world was sick and enjoyed seeing my torment. It was the only explanation I could come up with. The powers and abilities I encompassed just moments before, were now lost to me. I no longer could feel the land, the energy, or the blood that ran through each and every atom in the atmosphere and deep down in the soil.

I was alone here.

Never could I have foreseen this turn of events, but here I was. And never before had I desired those gifts as greatly as I did in this moment. But the world was playing a cruel trick on me.

As I stood staring into the frightened, helpless eyes of my best friend locked in an iron-barred cage, the fact of my direful predicament screamed in my face like a blaring horn. I couldn’t use my gifts here in the Earthly realm—here in Kennebunkport, Maine. Why was Mycah able to, but I couldn’t?

The overwhelming connection to Luïnil that fueled my blood and my spirit before I passed through the Weeping Willow tree was cut off. The aid and guidance from Lassaira that stood only steps away were faint, if it could even be called that.

I did feel it was there, like a slight pull to go back through the tree—through the Ëlemmiire—but it was nowhere near enough to call upon its aid.

Nikolai, who watched me with precise, narrowed eyes, licked his lips and smirked. I wanted to puke. He spoke strongly, “Finally. I was beginning to think you would never return.”

“How long has it been? And what are you doing with Zaylie? Let her go!” There was no stopping the things that came tumbling out of my mouth one after another. Fear gripped my chest, but I tried not to show it. I didn’t want him to know I was terrified out of my mind.

When he turned his head, I noticed the burn scars that covered the right side of his face and head. I couldn’t believe he survived that explosion Mycah caused the last time Nikolai tried to kidnap us. I worried that the only reason Mycah kept sparing Nikolai’s life was because I asked Mycah not to kill him. I was beginning to regret that.

Nikolai shook his head before saying, “According to your friend here, you have been away just short of a year.”

Crisp, cool, autumn air whipped around my face, as if to mark his words as truth. I gasped back as my eyes darted around the area I used to be so fond of, and so in tune with. The trees were shining in an array of fall colors—orange, yellow, red, and brown. When I had left, they were stripped bare from the early bitter cold of late October that was all too familiar for Maine.

It had to be true. An entire year had passed me by in a blink of an eye. But I had no time to dwell on that newfound information, because the half-dozen tents taking up the space surrounding us, and the dozen rifle-clad military-looking men standing near Nikolai and Zaylie, tended to suck out all of my focus and attention. One of the men had a large, ugly gun pointed at Zaylie’s head through the bars. Her eyes stayed locked onto mine, looking wide and horrified.

“Who the hell are you?” Rydan demanded as he moved to stand in front of me. “What is this?”

“Do not take another step or the blonde dies,” Nikolai threatened, and Rydan instantly froze. My heart immediately squeezed in on itself and my stomach turned sour.

“What do you want?” Rydan asked, not so nicely.

“What do you think? We want to go where you just came from. We know about the other world where creatures stay forever young and never die. Take us through that tree and she lives.” Nikolai gestured toward Zaylie.

Ender stepped up next to Rydan. “It is forbidden and impossible. You would kill one of your own for nothing?” Ender scoffed.

Nikolai scrunched his eyebrows together in thought before saying, “Nothing is impossible.”

“And yet this is. You cannot enter our sacred Ëlemmiire. Your body and mind would be evaporated. You could never withstand it, and that is if there were some miracle that allowed you to pass through. However, there is not. Try as you might, you will not enter. It will not happen,” Ender argued firmly with confidence.

“Then give us the Sindora,” Nikolai retorted defiantly and way too haughtily for my comfort. The way he said those words elicited the strangest feeling in my gut. A horrible foreboding came over me. I didn’t know what the Sindora was, but already I didn’t like it. Ender’s eyes went to mine with a look of confusion on his face.

Great. Did that mean he didn’t know what the stupid thing was either?

“Nikolai, I already told you. I don’t know what that is, and I’m pretty sure none of us do.” I turned back to Ender. “Do you?”

Ender shook his head no. I didn’t need to ask Rydan, because I already knew there would be no way he could know. My eyes went to Naminé and she, too, silently shook her head no.

“Lies. I don’t believe any one of you. Where is Mycah?” Nikolai inquired gruffly.

“My god, Nikolai! What will it take for you to believe me? Mycah didn’t tell me anything about it because he knew you would use it against me! Just because we know Mycah doesn’t mean he tells us his secrets. And he is really good at keeping secrets, just trust me on that.” I crossed my arms over my chest, hating how true those words were. “And Mycah is somewhere you will never get to. He is the only one who knows where the darn thing is. So let Zaylie go, because this has nothing to do with her!”

The second Nikolai’s growing smirk turned to laughter, I imagined rolling up my invisible sleeves, stomping over there, and punching the daylights out of him. I stayed calm on the outside, but inside I was screaming as my blood rose to a boil.

Rydan took my hand and gave me a knowing look, as if he could tell I was in distress. He mouthed the word “breathe” silently. I closed my eyes briefly and tried to obey. Naminé stayed hidden behind Rydan’s back, and Ender placed a hand around my bicep in comfort. Or maybe it was meant to hold me back so I wouldn’t do anything rash. It was obvious none of us knew what to do and were afraid to take one false step. We were all in shock.

Nikolai snapped his fingers. The men began assembling around Zaylie and unlocked her cage. My feet automatically moved in her direction as they dragged her to stand next to Nikolai. He cut me off, halting me in place. “Ah, ah. You will stay right where you are.”

Cocking a silver pistol, he placed it on the side of Zaylie’s head, and I was left frozen. My heart shattered into a million pieces the moment the sun glistened against Zaylie’s fresh tears that fell down her dirty cheeks, while never removing her soft brown eyes from mine.