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The Starlight Quest, Page 3

Rachel Morgan

  Elle sat up and crossed her legs. “What if I’m not allowed to take three fae with me on this quest?”

  “We’re Dex’s guards,” Xander answered immediately. “He can’t go without us.”

  “You’re not my guards,” Dex replied. “And you don’t need to put your lives at risk for—”

  “Oh, but you can put your life at risk? Prince Chevalier, heir to the throne, no longer dying of mysterious dark magic?”


  “If you’re insisting on going, then so are we.”

  “I assume the Godmother will make it pretty clear what’s allowed and what isn’t,” Elle said, hoping to bring an end to the argument. “We can all go and meet her.”

  They continued discussing the types of magic and obstacles they might find in the Never Woods, and the ways in which they could protect themselves—as well as the possibility that the Godmother’s story was a complete lie—until Astrid arrived. Elle thanked her repeatedly for agreeing to come with, and Astrid shrugged and told her it sounded like an adventure, if nothing else. She perched on a lounger beside Xander as Elle sat forward to survey the group of people who’d volunteered to take this journey with her.

  Dex, the person she simultaneously wanted most at her side and wanted to keep furthest from harm. Olly and Xander, his best friends and self-appointed protectors. Alissa, someone Elle could hopefully call a friend if they came out the other end of this quest intact. And Astrid, who was little more than a stranger to her.

  Dex met her gaze and asked, “Ready?”

  Without answering, Elle swung her legs over the side of the lounger and pulled on her black combat boots, which Dex had brought with him when he returned to Xander’s home that morning. “Yes. I’m ready.”

  “Wonderful,” the Godmother said as Elle climbed from the back seat of Xander’s car and looked past the Godmother at the coffee shop she’d requested they meet at. “You’re all on time.” Elle glanced over her shoulder as Astrid’s car—older, bulkier and far less shiny than Xander’s—pulled up behind them. Astrid and Olly climbed out. The Godmother rose from the small sidewalk table she’d been sitting at, sweeping one hand through her perfect white hair. “Are you ready for your quest?”

  Elle moved to stand beside Dex in the glow of a street lamp. “As ready as we can be, considering we have no idea what we’re about to face in the Never Woods.” Her gaze wandered past the Godmother and through the coffee shop windows, traveling over the vintage filament light bulbs, copper finishings, and exposed brick walls. Though it was more like dinner time now—Elle and her companions had eaten in their cars on the way here—the coffee shop was still open. “Interesting place. Is there any reason you specifically wanted to meet here?”

  “Yes. I love their cinnamon rolls.”

  “That’s it? We’re here because of cinnamon rolls?”

  “Yes. I’ve been craving them lately.”

  Elle crossed her arms. “You mean you can’t just snap your fingers and have a cinnamon roll appear in front of you?”

  The Godmother laughed. “Was that a hint of sarcasm, Elle? Is it possible you’re still bitter about what went down at Savoy’s house yesterday?”

  “Why would I be bitter? Because you killed our enemy only to take his place? Because you stabbed Dex so you could force me into making another wish?”

  The Godmother spread her hands wide, palms up, an innocent expression on her face. “The prince attacked me first. I was merely defending myself. And I don’t know why you’re so grumpy about the wish. The price is hardly a price. It’s a gift. By the time you reach the end of your quest, you’ll have magic.”

  “And you will have finished plotting how to take down Dex’s father,” Astrid said, arriving at Elle’s side, “so you can claim the Astranerican throne for yourself.”

  The Godmother tipped her head back and released a gloriously rich laugh. “Oh, you are too funny, young shapeshifter.” She dabbed beneath her eyes as if wiping away tears of mirth. “As if I hadn’t plotted that long ago.”

  “So that is your plan,” Dex said, his tone rough.

  “Maybe. Maybe not. Are you going to throw a blade at me again, Prince Dex?”

  Dex didn’t answer, which Elle figured was probably for the best.

  “No, perhaps not,” the Godmother continued in a thoughtful tone. “Perhaps you’d secretly be grateful if I removed your father from the throne. You certainly don’t agree with all his views. Especially not his views on humans. He’s going to make things very unpleasant for you when you tell him you want to marry one.”

  “Okay, what exactly does this have to do with my quest?” Elle interjected, feeling warmth steal its way up her neck and into her cheeks. She and Dex weren’t even dating yet, and now the Godmother was making things more awkward by suggesting marriage?

  The Godmother tapped a painted fingernail against her chin. “Remind me again why it is that your father hates humans so much,” she said to Dex. “He wasn’t always this way, was he, Dex?”

  “That’s Prince Dex to you,” Dex said through gritted teeth.

  “I wonder what would happen to his hatred if he forgot all about that horrible incident.”

  Dex took a step forward, his hands balling at his sides, but Xander grabbed his arm and tugged him back. “Are we going on this quest or what?” he demanded. “I feel like we’re just wasting time right now.”

  “Yes, of course.” The Godmother rubbed her hands together. “I see we have some extras though. You three are all fae.” She pointed at Dex, Olly and Xander. “Elle needs only one of you.”

  “Will it ruin the quest if we all go?” Xander asked.

  “You’re aware, I hope, that I’ve never been on this quest myself? I’m not precisely sure what will ruin it. I only know what is required.”

  “You said you’ve been around since the time humans used to do this quest as a normal part of life,” Elle said. “You must have heard of larger groups going into the Never Woods?”

  “Why must I have heard of this?”

  “You’re the Godmother,” Alissa pointed out. “You keep making out as if you know everything.”

  “Not everything,” the Godmother answered with an impatient sigh.

  “Look, does it really matter?” Astrid asked. “This quest is all just some kind of trick, isn’t it? It would be really cool if it wasn’t, but I have trouble believing nobody knows about the fact that once upon a time, humans had magic just like the rest of us. So how about you just let us all go into the Never Woods, and together we can all discover the real reason you’re sending us in there.”

  The Godmother regarded her thoughtfully. “I find it interesting that you’re here, considering you’re apparently so full of doubt.”

  Astrid shrugged. “Perhaps I just want to see what’s inside the Never Woods.”

  “Or perhaps you’re hoping this quest is real after all.”

  “Uh, remember the part about wasting time?” Xander reminded her.

  The Godmother drew herself up to her full height, which still left her shorter than Xander and yet her presence seemed to tower over him. “I’m not sure why you’re so concerned about time, young man. Once you enter the Never Woods, it will become fluid. It will speed up and slow down without you even knowing. Some have completed the quest in what they believed to be mere hours, when in fact weeks have passed.”

  “Weeks?” Dex repeated. “We can’t be gone that long.”

  “You don’t have to be. No one said you must be the faerie to accompany Elle.”

  Elle was aware of Dex bristling at her side. “She’s not going into the Never Woods without me.”

  “Wonderful. Then it doesn’t matter how long it takes. And since you all want to go so badly, you can all begin the quest. But don’t get upset if you happen to reach a point where only four of you can continue. And if for some reason the two extras never make it out alive, don’t come complaining to me.”

  At that point, the coffee sho
p door opened and a man hurried out. “Here you go, Godmother,” he said, stopping at her side and handing her a bag containing several takeaway boxes.

  “Ah, thank you.”

  “Always a pleasure. I snuck in a few extras. Your favorite with the nuts sprinkled on top.”

  “Marvelous.” The Godmother beamed at him. “Do pass on my regards to Helena and little Drew.”

  “Yes, of course, thank you. Have a good evening.” He ducked back inside as the Godmother set the bag of takeaway boxes—presumably containing cinnamon rolls—on the sidewalk in front of her. With a quick swish of her hand and a sparkle of gold faerie dust, the bag disappeared.

  “Excellent,” she said, smiling at the group. “Now we can go.” She raised her hands and positioned her thumb and third finger together. Elle tensed, knowing what was coming, but as the Godmother snapped her fingers and everything vanished, the jolt that rocketed through Elle was just as nauseating as it had been every other time the Godmother sent her hurtling through space in the blink of an eye.

  The world reappeared, expanding away from her in a rush of color and light. She stumbled forward a few steps before someone caught her arm and helped steady her. “You okay?” Dex asked.

  “Yes, thanks.” She straightened and looked around. It was still twilight here—wherever here was—and the grassy hills, rocky outcrops and distant civilization were visible in the dim light. “I’m guessing that’s it,” Astrid murmured behind her. Elle looked over her shoulder, then turned fully.

  A hush fell over the group as they regarded the forest of closely packed trees that began only a few feet away. Tall and spindly with silvery gray leaves that lay utterly motionless in the still air, the trees rose higher than Elle could have imagined. A light mist hung between them, making it impossible to see more than a few feet into the woods.

  “Which Never Woods are we at?” Elle asked.

  “The nearest one, of course,” the Godmother answered. “Though it still would have been a very long drive for you, getting from that coffee shop to the northernmost point of our country. Fortunately, you have me as your travel agent.”

  “Perhaps not so fortunate once we’ve completed the quest,” Dex pointed out, “since it’ll be a very long walk back to that coffee shop where our cars are waiting for us.”

  “Oh, I’ll be here to meet you, don’t worry,” the Godmother said. “I’ll need to make sure Elle has paid her price.” She met Elle’s gaze and smiled, but Elle couldn’t help feeling there was a threat behind those perfectly painted lips. Would the Godmother reverse the healing she’d given Dex if she didn’t manage to pay her price? She was too scared to ask. Better not to put the idea in the woman’s head if it wasn’t already there. “Well, what are you waiting for?” the Godmother asked. She waved toward the woods. “Off you go.”

  “What, just like that?” Elle asked. “No further instruction?”

  “I told you, a messenger who knows your intent will appear. I’m not certain on the details, but I know that all necessary instructions will be revealed to you as you go. So all you need to do—” she extended her hand toward the woods once more “—is walk right in. You’re welcome to take your time if that’s what you’d prefer, but I have places to go and people to see.” She looked at her watch—the device on which Elle remembered seeing tiny moving images instead of a clock face or digital numbers—and nodded her head once.

  “Wait,” Dex said, his gaze focused on the Godmother’s wrist. “Is that my mother’s face?” His hand shot out toward the Godmother’s arm, but she sent him spinning away from her with a flick of her fingers.

  “I don’t remember inviting you to take a look at my watch, Prince Dex,” she said as he came to a halt and steadied himself with his arms out.

  “Was that. My mother’s. Face?” he repeated, his tone low and threatening.

  The Godmother sighed and examined her watch once more. “Hmm. Could be. But if so, she needs to do something about her hair. It looks nothing like the elegant updos the queen usually sports on TV.”

  Xander grabbed Dex’s arm before he could rush forward again. “Just chill, man. She’s trying to get you worked up.”

  The Godmother chuckled. “It’s so easy.”

  “Have people told you before what a terrible person you are?” Astrid asked.

  “Oh, all the time. And yet, people keep making wishes.” The Godmother looked pointedly at Elle. “Which is why we’re here. Anyway, I’m off now.” She raised her right hand, saluted Elle, and vanished.

  “Wow,” Astrid said. “So that was the Godmother. I’ve seen her before, but I’ve never had any interaction with her. Can’t say I’m a fan.”

  “Me neither,” Dex said darkly.

  Together, the six of them moved to face the Never Woods. “So I guess we should just go for it,” Astrid said, taking a step forward.

  “Wait.” Elle reached out to stop her. She moved forward and turned to face the group. “In case I haven’t thanked you enough already—”

  “You’ve thanked us about a thousand times,” Astrid said with an eye-roll. “We get it. You’re grateful. Now let’s get in there. I want to be able to tell people I survived a trip through the Never Woods.”

  “Agreed,” Alissa said, joining Astrid as she stepped past Elle. “I’ve always been curious about the Never Woods, despite the nursery rhyme. I finally have a good reason to find out what’s in there. And I won’t have to complain anymore about having a boring life.”

  As they walked ahead of her, Elle looked at Dex. His eyes filled with warmth as he returned her gaze and gave her the smallest of nods. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

  Silence pressed in around them as they entered the Never Woods. No sound came from the forest itself, and all Elle heard was her own breathing and the crunch of twigs and dead leaves beneath her boots. She had the strangest feeling that if she spoke now, she would find herself in some sort of vacuum, unable to hear her own voice, separated from everyone else by silence. She looked back, her heart thrumming, and called, “Dex?” Relief flooded her chest as she heard the word loud and clear. Dex moved through the mist and took her hand.

  “I’d rather we not end up separated,” he said, and she nodded in agreement.

  They continued forward, making sure to stay close to the rest of their party. Elle had expected it to be darker in here among the close-set trees, but after another few paces, she noticed a glowing white orb, and then another and another. About the size of a person’s head, they hung in the air a few feet up, drifting slowly about despite there being no breeze.

  “Do you think the Godmother sent us in here to die?” Astrid whispered.

  “Why would she do that?” Elle asked.

  “For her own amusement?”

  Elle thought about that for a moment. “I wish I could say she’s not that terrible, but I honestly don’t know anymore. Perhaps everything she does is for her own entertainment.”

  “She mentioned that some people have completed the quest in what they believed was only a few hours,” Olly said. “So even though time apparently moves differently in here, it’s possible that the quest itself doesn’t take that long. Or it shouldn’t feel as if it takes that long. You know?”

  “Yes,” Elle said. “I know what you’re saying. It’s not the kind of expedition where we have to camp overnight for several nights because our final destination is so far away.”

  “I hope not,” Alissa said, “since the Godmother didn’t tell us to bring tents or sleeping bags or extra food. Can you guys conjure up that sort of thing?”

  “Not from nothing,” Olly said. “We would have had to gather those things beforehand and reduce their size. We could shrink them to something so small they might look like nothing, if we wanted it to appear as though we could conjure them into being from thin air. But we didn’t do that, so no. Though the Godmother probably could,” he added, “but her magic is like … on another level.”

>   Dex stopped for a moment and turned fully. Elle followed his gaze as he squinted into the mist. “Everything looks the same in every direction. Trees and mist and these weird floating orbs. How are we supposed to know if we’re going the right way?”

  “I don’t think it matters just yet,” Elle said as they continued walking. “A messenger is supposed to appear. Someone who senses my intent.”

  Astrid snorted. “Well, I hope you’re projecting your intent loud and clear. Otherwise we might be wandering around like this for a very long time.”

  Elle looked around. My intent is to complete a quest that will give me magic. She formed the thought into words inside her head and tried to push them outward, feeling a little bit silly. If a being of some sort really could sense her intention, he or she would surely know it already.

  Ahead of her, Astrid giggled. It was such an innocent, girlish sound compared to the gruff, sarcastic image she’d portrayed so far. “What is it?” Elle asked.

  “Nothing, it’s just …” She reached up toward something. “Don’t you think the trees look so funny?”

  “Hey, stop, what are you trying to touch?” Alissa asked, smacking Astrid’s hand back down.

  “Just look,” Astrid said, linking her arm with Alissa’s and pointing upward, her voice tinged with wonder.

  “You’re right,” Elle said with a smile. “They do look funny.” She started laughing. “Their branches are bending into the strangest shapes. Do you see, Dex?” She looked at him, watching a smile grow on his upturned face.

  “Yeah, I see.”

  It wasn’t creepy in here after all, Elle realized. The trees weren’t frozen in place like long-dead beings with skeletal arms. They weren’t dull gray with patches of bone white. No, their bark was actually a rich brown, with knots and ridges that formed comical facial expressions. They were smiling and laughing, and as their limbs contorted into odd positions, she found herself wanting to dance along with them.