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A Momentary Lapse of Judgment
Clinging to Life
An Unsettling Feeling
Taking Care of Business
A New Approach
The Evil Twin
Stealth and Trickery
Ishibashi’s Horrible Secret
Spying on the Palace
A Proper Disguise
One of a Kind
Aaron’s First Lesson
Aaron Grows Desperate
Plan in Motion
A Wild Ride
A Missed Opportunity
A Rough Night
Aaron Does Something Right
And Then He Messes Up Again
The Hour of Calm
A New Perspective
Peeling Away the Skin
Taking a Different Path
The Craziest Plan of All
Finding the Inner Applecorn
A Journey Begins
Island Number Seven
The Mysterious Coiled Water Dragon
The Journey Continues
The Orange-Eyed Children
Back to the Island
The Song in the Night
Return to the Island of Shipwrecks
And They’re Off
Heading for Home
But First, a Pit Stop
Back to Artimé
A Trip to the Ancients Sector
The Plan Comes Together
And Then It Falls Apart
To the Amphitheater
The Hour Before Dawn
The Pile of Sand
Epilogue: One Island Away
About Lisa McMann
For Unwanteds fans everywhere
A Momentary Lapse of Judgment
Alex Stowe, head mage of Artimé, stood alone at the helm of the magical white boat called Claire, speeding eastward over the waves. The island, his friends, and all the people who were gathered on the glorious green lawn grew smaller and smaller behind him. He didn’t know where he was going. He only knew that his identical twin brother, Aaron, was out there somewhere. In trouble, definitely, but alive—Alex could feel the life in his own broken soul.
He also knew that there was no one else in the world who would rescue Aaron.
Not that Quill’s high priest deserved rescuing, especially by the head mage of Artimé, after everything Aaron had done to hurt him and his people. And even though Aaron wasn’t technically responsible for either of Quill’s organized attacks on Artimé, he had killed Mr. Today. An unforgiveable offense. Yet the invisible bond between the brothers was ridiculously stubborn, and it wouldn’t let go of Alex, no matter what Aaron did. It was wrong and maddening, but it seemed they were irrevocably tied together. And thus, here he was.
With nothing but open sea before him, Alex closed his tired eyes as he traversed the waves, letting the cool breeze wash over his face and flutter at his shirt collar. He hadn’t been alone like this in ages. Neither Spike, the intuitive whale of Alex’s own creation, nor Simber, the winged-cheetah statue who protected Artimé, had noticed his impulsive departure, so he remained gloriously alone and vulnerable. It was exhilarating. Feeling rejuvenated from the weariness of battle and grief of the past weeks, Alex filled his lungs with fresh air.
He opened his eyes. The gentle swells of deepest blue seemed to stretch out forever before him. So serene and peaceful—he loved the sea.
Now and then a spear of doubt over his sudden departure pierced his conscience, though he tried to ignore it. His intense premonition that his brother had been so near death and was now most certainly alive had clouded his judgment. It felt like a second chance . . . but a second chance at what?
He rubbed his side where the pain had been. His premonition was more than magical—it was physical. Something much deeper than magic could ever be. What was Alex supposed to do, ignore it? It seemed irreverent to do so.
Granted, he knew this was an impulsive move. It was the kind of move Alex rarely made these days. And it might cause problems in the near future, with the looming presence of Gondoleery Rattrapp growing larger and remaining completely unpredictable.
Alex’s actions might even be considered reckless by some. After all, he and Lani had just managed to rid the entire island—Quill included—of the ice spell Gondoleery had cast upon the land. And even though Liam Healy had reported that Gondoleery’s palace takeover was spur of the moment, no one really knew what she had up her singed little sleeve, or when she’d attack next.
Alex’s mad dash to rescue Aaron had more immediate problems as well, which he realized as he looked around the boat. He’d brought no food. No water. If this was to be a rescue trip, Alex was sorely unprepared. It might take days or weeks to find Aaron. What was Alex supposed to do? He couldn’t stop for provisions at the nearest island to the east, since it was a jutting cylinder of sheer rock that looked completely unconquerable and inaccessible. And paying a visit to the carnivorous-gorilla island beyond it was not something Alex would ever do if he had even an ounce of life left in him—that place meant certain death to anyone who landed on its shores. He couldn’t get the image of the saber-toothed silverback attacking the pig out of his mind.
Alex paled. What if Aaron was on that island? If so, he must have found a place to hide, at least temporarily. He’d know in his soul soon enough if Aaron got killed. He was quite sure of that.
Alex searched his robe pockets, disappointment growing at his inadequate provisions. There was nothing there that could help him take down a monstrous fanged gorilla, other than a smattering of nonlethal spell component options. He had no idea if the spells would work on such a creature. These same spells had done nothing to stop the horrible eel that had plagued them on their previous journey.
Now that Alex had spent a few minutes really thinking about the consequences of his actions, he realized that he was more like someone in need of rescue than someone who was setting out to help another.
“What am I doing?” he muttered.
He slowed the boat and glanced over his shoulder. He could no longer tell who stood at the shore watching him go, only that there was a large group of people gathered there—scores of Unwanteds, but also abandoned Warbler children and mistreated Necessaries from Quill who had all found acceptance and protection in Artimé. They were people and creatures who had come to trust in Alex and rely on him to protect them. They were loyal, and they’d fought valiantly and tirelessly as thirty of their friends and loved ones, including Alex’s best friend, Meghan, had fallen in the ferocious battle with General Blair and his Quillitary. They were resilient, and they’d withstood Gondoleery Rattrapp’s ice spell. But they were most certainly in for more trouble from the new high priest and dicta
tor of Quill.
Alex looked within himself. What kind of leader and protector would willingly and selfishly leave his faithful followers at a time like this? The head mage of Artimé should have one goal—to protect his people. And Alex was doing the exact opposite, leaving them horrendously in danger while he went out on a lark to save somebody whom nobody else wanted to save.
As the truth set in, Alex released a heavy sigh. He’d lost his mind, or at the very least he’d had a severe lapse in judgment. Aaron Stowe, former high priest of Quill, enemy of Artimé, wasn’t worth it.
Aaron wasn’t truly worth anything.
And it was high time Alex let go of him. Forever.
With new resolve, Alex took one more look at the sparkling sea, then swung the boat around and headed home.
Clinging to Life
Inside the rock shelter on the Island of Shipwrecks, the afternoon air was heavy with moisture, which was almost too thick to breathe for someone who’d lived all but the past several days of his life in a desert. Outside the thunder crashed and the wind howled. Ishibashi, Ito, and Sato kept watch over their unconscious visitor. There was little else they could do now but wait.
Aaron’s eyes remained closed, his breath labored, his body feverish and broken, and his mind trying to make sense of the strange environment. Over and over he dreamed about a rare day when he was ten. Water poured from the sky as he and Alex did chores in the backyard. It was the day Aaron drew with a chicken bone in the mud, and Alex took the blame for it.
Because of Aaron’s altered state, the dream turned in a dozen odd directions, repeating incessantly. His brother’s face was replaced by the High Priest Justine’s. His father became Gondoleery Rattrapp. And the bone turned into Panther’s tail. He could even hear Panther’s scream alongside the thundering of the giant rock’s voice.
As the dream raced through Aaron’s head, he tried again and again to rouse himself, but he was paralyzed, unable to move at all. When the panther appeared and raced toward the boys, fangs dripping, Alex jumped in front of Aaron. Aaron watched in horror as the panther tore Alex apart. And then their father came outside and mistook Aaron for Alex.
“Oh good!” said Mr. Stowe. “Aaron’s dead. I guess you were the good son all along, Alex,” he said to Aaron. “Aaron got what he deserved. I’m glad he’s gone. Now you can be the Wanted son.”
In the dream, Aaron was tired of pretending and tried to explain. “I’m not Alex! I’m Aaron!” he cried again and again.
But his father only laughed. “Your lies won’t work on me anymore, Alex. Stop covering for your awful brother, and accept that you are the only son we want.”
No matter how many times the dream played out, it always ended in confusion, with Aaron desperate to explain the truth. But no one would listen.
On the cool damp floor of the shelter, Aaron’s body lay still, but inside his mind he was struggling and fighting, kicking and shoving, trying to pull himself out of the fog and nightmares that enveloped him.
He was not successful.
An Unsettling Feeling
Alex was a little embarrassed driving the boat back to the lagoon. His friends saw him coming and gathered to wait under the tree where the platyprots often perched. Lani held the robe he’d shoved at her, folded neatly and draped over one arm. Samheed, at her side, had a smirk on his face so exaggerated that Alex could see it from the boat. Simber lounged in the shade on the beach, casually nibbling at a claw and pointedly not looking at Alex, while Spike swam nearby and trumpeted water from her blowhole as he waded back to shore.
Sky stood with arms crossed, a teasing sort of smile on her face, which made Alex blush all the more. It was clear they all had heard by now what he’d set out to do. And he knew he wasn’t going to hear the end of it.
Automatically he looked for Meghan—she’d stand up for him. But then he remembered, and her death ripped Alex’s heart in two again. Would it get easier? Would he ever get used to her absence? Or would he have to live with this ache every single day for the rest of his life?
He swallowed hard, hesitating in the shallow water, and then forged ahead toward his friends.
When he reached land, Sky met him on the beach and fell into step with him, linking her arm in his. “Is everything running as it should?”
Alex shot her a puzzled look. “Huh?”
“The boat’s working all right?” she asked, a little too innocently. “No damage from the ice?”
A hint of a smile twitched at the corner of Alex’s lips. “Oh. Right. No damage,” he said. “Glad we got that checked out. What’s next on the list?” He cleared his throat and dared not look at Samheed.
Lani pushed her long black hair over one shoulder and held the robe out to him, her piercing orange eyes dancing with glee. She didn’t say anything.
But then Samheed let out a snort.
Alex looked at him. “Shut it, Sam,” he muttered in an attempt to remain perfectly straight-faced. “Don’t start with me.”
“Seriously, Al,” Samheed said. “What exactly did you think you were going to accomplish? Stupid move. When will you finally realize that Aaron isn’t worth it? You are such a—”
Alex lunged at Samheed, plowing into him and throwing him off balance. As Samheed stumbled, he grabbed Alex by his shoulders and shoved him to the lawn, where they rolled around, arguing and gasping and laughing at the same time. Platyprots and rabbitkeys scattered, giving the boys a wide berth. They took up a lot more space now than they had a few years ago, when they’d had their first tussle in Artimé.
Lani looked at them with disdain, and then she and Sky turned to Simber, who was lumbering to his feet and shaking his head ever so slightly. Together the three of them left the boys on the lawn and strolled to the mansion for dinner.
» » « «
“Of course you’re right,” Alex admitted to Samheed about ten minutes later. The two lay on their backs on the lawn, chests heaving from the fight. “I’m ready to give up on Aaron now.” It felt okay to say, which gave Alex a bit of comfort. He pushed himself up on one elbow. “And thanks to Gondoleery, we have plenty of other things to think about.”
“I think she’s a little nuts the way she was talking and cackling after the battle,” Samheed said, staring at the sky. “Which is even more scary than dealing with a somewhat sane dictator like Aaron. Gondoleery’s unpredictable. Any idea what she’s going to do next?”
“No.” Something about the question bothered Alex, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “I’m planning to see what we can find out about her from Liam. Maybe tomorrow. Did Lani melt the ice in Quill, too, or just in Artimé?”
“It’s gone everywhere.”
“So Gondoleery knows we did it,” Alex said.
“I would assume so, you dolt. She’s not stupid.”
Alex laughed and elbowed Samheed hard in the ribs. “Shut it.”
“Ow! All right,” Samheed said. “This time. Only because I’m exhausted. I’m still sore from the battle, you know.”
“Yet you still managed to pin me. Like always.”
“I have my pride.”
“Yes, you do.” Alex yawned. “You know what would be nice?”
“If we didn’t have to constantly worry about being attacked.”
“Yes, that would be nice,” Samheed agreed. “Maybe someday.”
Alex frowned. It seemed endless. And it was unsettling and exhausting not knowing what was going to happen next. It felt like all they did these days was fend off attackers.
After a while Alex and Samheed got to their feet and limped into the mansion. It had been a long few weeks with little sleep. And after being away for so long, it was nice to be home and have a chance to explore more of the many secrets left behind by Mr. Today. Alex was gl
ad he’d come to his senses and turned back home.
» » « «
After dinner Alex stopped in the hospital ward to check on the injured. Henry Haluki was there, administering medicine as usual. He seemed busy, so Alex didn’t want to disturb him too much. But he knew how tirelessly Henry worked, and he was worried about him.
“You don’t have to do it all, you know,” Alex said gently. “Get some sleep.”
Henry kept his head down. “I will when I’m done here.”
Alex watched him work for a moment, but the boy didn’t look up. “Are you okay, Henry?”
Henry paused, then nodded. “I’ll be okay.” He looked up, finally. “Thanks.”
“Sure,” Alex said. “Let me know if you need anything. Or if you just want to talk. I know this is hard.” Alex waved his hand, indicating the injured among them.
“It’s not hard seeing the ones who are improving,” Henry said. “It’s the other ones . . .” He dropped his eyes once more and continued his work.
Alex smiled grimly. He understood. Or at least he thought he did. But Henry gave nothing else away, and Alex respected the younger boy’s need for privacy. Still, Henry’s mood seemed off. “The offer stands,” Alex said. “I’m always here for you.”
Henry nodded, then began counting aloud the number of drops he was putting into a small vial. “Six, seven, eight . . .”
Alex pursed his lips, then turned and quietly walked away. He remained thoughtful the rest of the evening. But with his mind turning back to Gondoleery and the issue at hand, he soon forgot about Henry.
Taking Care of Business
When Alex woke up the next morning, he was desperately trying to hang on to a thought that had burrowed around in his mind for a good part of the night. It concerned Gondoleery and the conversation he’d had with Samheed the previous afternoon, about wondering what she would do to them next.
Hasn’t Gondoleery already done enough? He stared at the wall, cocooned inside his luxurious bedding, which he’d missed so much on the ship. “Maybe we’re doing this wrong,” he said, his voice rough with sleep. He thought some more, and after a time, sat up rather quickly.