Authors: Conner Kressley
By Conner Kressley
How did this happen? How did I get here? I was just in the Hourglass. I had beaten a hole through the anchors. I had finally found a way out. It was all going to be okay. But now- now Owen’s hands were tightening around my neck. He was crying and apologizing, but damn if he wasn’t squeezing. And damn if it wasn’t getting harder and harder to breath.
Think Cresta. This doesn’t make any sense.
How much time had passed? What had happened, and why couldn’t I remember any of it?
The moon was in the sky again, red as blood. But that couldn’t be. I fixed that. I undid the bloodmoon to save Sevie.
And the woman beside us, with Royce unconscious (or maybe worse) at her feet, it was the same woman I saw back in the Hourglass, the same woman that they all told me didn’t exist.
Well at least I got that much right.
“Owen…” I managed to choke out as his grip tightened even more. “Owen, this isn’t you.”
But the thing was, it
him. I could see it in his clear eyes, in the tears streaming down his face. He wasn’t be controlled. His mind hadn’t been warped. This was Owen, the love of my life, and he was killing me.
How could that be? Even if I knew what was happening, even if my mind hadn’t just put me through the wringer, I doubted any of this would have made sense. There was no set of circumstances that would lead Owen to do what he was doing now. I knew that as well as I knew anything in the world.
But here we were. God, I hated prophecies.
Think Cresta. You have to make sense of this. You have to beat back whatever’s happened to your mind. Remember Cresta! Remember!
And then, like a wave that flared up to swallow a dam, the memories flooded in, and I did remember….
Fourteen days before I was consumed by the Dragon, I woke to a blinding sun. I had no idea where I was or how long I had been unconscious. Truth be told though, none of that mattered, because I was free. I had broken through the anchors. We were out of the Hourglass. Finally, I could grab hold of this nightmare and try to make it better.
I sat up, gagging and dry heaving as all the blood rushed to my head and bile bubbled in my gut. Spots colored my vision and, as I stretched, I ached more than a little.
Rubbing my eyes, I saw…well, I saw nothing. There was sand as far as the eye could see; a bright blaring nothingness that stretched for miles in all directions. The Hourglass was nowhere to be seen, which was good. Because, if it had been, Breaker goons would have no doubt descended on us, drug us back inside, and made me regret I ever had the gall to think I could escape them in the first place.
“We’re in the desert,” Casper’s voice, though it clanged painfully against my eardrums, was as sweet as a song. I had been the first through the Great Wall and, though I was sure they would follow if they could, it was good to know that Casper had actually made it out.
Now, what about the rest of them?
I turned to find Casper sitting on the sand, his arms wrapped around his knees. There was a picture in his hand, the sonogram photo he showed me before we got out.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I think so,” I answered, surprised at how dry and raw my throat was. “Where are we? Where is everyone?”
“No idea,” he said shakily. “I just woke up. Looks like the desert.”
Looking around, I had to agree with him. Was it possible that we had risked our lives breaking out of the Hourglass only to have it deposit us in the middle of the Sahara or something? Would we die out here, dehydrated and begging for water?
I shook the thought off. We had survived tougher situations that this. We’d get out of here. Wherever here was.
“We have to find everyone else. Did they get out?”
“Royce did,” Casper shook his head. “I was right after him.”
“Was he all right?” I asked, still not completely comfortable with the amount of concern I felt for him. Sure, we were on the same side of things, and he had risked his life for me more times than I could count at this point. There was no denying our relationship was complicated. He wanted something from me, something the prophecy assured him that I would give.
But I wasn’t sure I could and, after ‘seeing’ Owen again right before the escape, I was convinced that I didn’t want to. I cared for Royce, but I
Owen. Regardless of what some prophecy said (or how good a guy he was) I couldn’t see myself being ‘joined’ to Royce. But what if I could? The truth was, like it or not, that stupid cowboy was growing on me.
“After the sexual healing session you gave him back there, he was practically bouncing,” Casper murmured.
My face went red. “It wasn’t like that.”
“I get it Cress,” he answered. “You know me. Just trying to defuse the tension.” He pointed to the sky. “Though, given that it looks to be high noon and neither of us thought to bring a canteen, I guess that doesn’t seem likely.”
I hadn’t realized how hot I was until he said that. But, seeing as he did, I began to notice the sheet of sweat that covered me.
“Maybe getting out of the Hourglass separated us. What if the anchors do that somehow?” Casper added.
“That would mean Royce, Echo, and Dahlia could literally be anywhere in the world. They could be in Timbuktu for all we know.” I said.
“Or they could all be in different parts of the world.” Casper sighed.
“But, if that’s true, then why did we end up together?”
“How much would you hate me if I said fate?” he groaned.
“Too much,” I said, staggering to my feet. Getting dizzy, I stumbled a little, but found Casper there to steady me. “Looks like you’re having an easier time getting back on your feet than me.”
“Well, I didn’t almost kill myself getting us out,” he said with his hands on my shoulders.
“How cool did that look?” I asked, finally getting my bearings under me.
“On a scale of one to ten? Badass.” He answered. “You don’t have secret ‘four wheeler producing’ abilities by any chance, do you?”
“Not that I’m aware of. Though, at this point, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me.”
I took stock of where we were, really took stock, hoping I’d see anything that might help give away our location.
Okay, it was sandy,
sandy. And that was about it. Hills rolled up to the left, but to the right lay a desert plain that stretched out for miles ahead of us. It was like something out of Aladdin, and I knew that if we went that way, there was no way we’d actually make it out of here alive.
“What’s over that hill?” I asked, running a hand through my hair and finding it full of caked up dirt.
“Educated guess?” Casper winced. “The other half of a big ass desert. But hey, maybe it’s Disneyland.” He nudged me on the shoulder. “Only one way to find out.”
Before I could stop him, he darted off toward the hill. The sun bore down hot as I followed him, running as fast as I could to catch up.
It occurred to me then, Casper and I had ran so much in our lives, much more than a girl and guy our age should have. And where had it gotten us? After all these months, after all this fighting, were we any better off than when we started? The world was still destined to end. I was still targeted as the one responsible. And, unless some savior descended on us like a winged angel ready to scoop us up and take us toward salvation, I didn’t see any way we were going to survive it.
I mean a desert? Really?!
“Sweet fanciful Moses,” Casper muttered, jerking to a stop at the top of the hill. His hands flew up to his mouth and his eyes grew wide and startled.
My heart flew into my throat as I neared him. I knew Casper, and the sort of situations we found often found ourselves in, well enough to know that if he was shocked, then it certainly wasn’t for anything good.
That’s what I get for expecting Disneyland.
“Cass, what is it?” I asked, narrowing the gap between us.
“Her,” he said through his fingers.
Looking down, I saw that Casper was right. The desert stretched out at least as far on this side as it had on the other. There was nothing but sand for as far as I could see; nothing but Dahlia.
She sat on her knees, her face cut, filthy, and stained with tears. Her hands were balled up atop her legs, and she wept openly.
A pool of blood surrounded her.
“Jesus!” I said, and ran toward her. Seeing Dahlia cry was something like what it must be like to see Bigfoot; rare, stunning, and hard to process. Still, she was a good woman. Even if she wasn’t the warmest person in the world, she had given up a lot for me. And not because she felt she owed me. God knew she didn’t think of me as some charity case. She was on our side because she believed it was the right thing to do now; which, given how ardently she had been against me in the beginning, served a testament to how far the Council had pushed her.
“Dahlia!” I screamed, kneeling down beside her. Blood be damned.
“Where’s the rest of him?” She muttered. Her eyes were glassy and wayward and her tone sounded as weak as a kitten.
“You’re in shock,” I said, feeling Casper settle beside me. “You’re bleeding.”
“No” she shook her head hard. “No, I’m not.”
She lifted her arm. Opening her hand, she revealed a hunk of something inside. It was red, slick with blood, rounded at one end and jagged at the other. It was about the size of-Oh God, it was a finger.
I jerked away instinctively, but couldn’t take my eyes off it. Along the base, matching the one on Dahlia’s own finger, were the ring etchings that I knew came with any Breaker joining ceremony.
“Echo…” I muttered, realizing that not only was this his finger, but that the blood I now knelt in belonged to him as well.
So much blood.
“So where’s the rest of him?” Dahlia asked again, tears streaming newly down her cheeks.
I was going to be sick. I could feel it coming up in my throat. “Dahlia, you need to pull yourself together-“
But vomit came up, spewing out onto the ground and cutting off my words.
Casper’s hand appeared on my back and his voice chimed in to replace mine. “We don’t know that he’s dead, Dahlia. It’s just a finger.”
“Don’t patronize me Neanderthal!” She yelled, anger replacing her sorrow. “Look at this mess! No one could survive this.”
“Maybe not, but Echo isn’t just anyone,” Casper said, ignoring the insult. “You told me what his name meant once, why the Council gave him the name Echo.”
“Don’t,” she muttered.
“Tell me,” he said. “Tell me why.”
Her eyes narrowed, flickering back down to the blood, but she continued. “An echo is deceptive. It is humble and shapeless. It forgoes obvious power and instead lives within the subtly of voices. But an echo can be devastating. For it is an echo that causes an avalanche.”
“You’re right,” Casper said, taking her hand. “No one could survive this, no one but him.”
It was the first time I had ever seen him touch Dahlia. Hell, it might have been the first time I had ever seen
touch Dahlia. But it seemed to be helping. She cleared he throat, wiping her face, and letting it steel over the way only hers could. She released Casper’s hand as she stood, but kept Echo’s severed finger tight n her grip.
“This place is rife with conflict. There was a fight here. The shade tells me as much,” she said, referring to her ability to pull shade from people, places, and things to garner information.
“But then why didn’t we hear it?” I asked, moving away from both the blood and my vomit pile. “Could we have actually slept through a fight that caused all this?”
“Perhaps,” Dahlia conceded, already much more sturdy. “Or perhaps we saw it and can’t remember. Legend states that the anchors surrounding the Hourglass can do strange things to the mind, even to the minds of those who escape it.”
“So it’s possible that we’ve been away from the Hourglass longer than we think? It could have been days? It could have been months?”
“Perhaps,” Dahlia said.
“It could have been years,” Casper added, looking at his sonogram photo once more.
“No!” I said, shaking my head at the thought. If years had passed, years without seeing Owen, years without knowing if he was okay. “It can’t be. It just couldn’t-“
“And it isn’t,” Dahlia answered. “The Council would have found us before that. Trust me, whatever happens after this will happen quickly. And besides, you two don’t look any different to me. You’re at the age where growing a few years older would be very evident.” She shook her head. “I don’t know how long it’s been, where we are, or what’s happened to my husband. But we’re still in the thick of it. That much I can say for sure.”
“So what do we do?” I asked, half relieved and half dreadful. Sure, it was nice to know that I likely hadn’t just spaced out on years of my life. But Dahlia did just assure me that the Council would strike quickly, and that we likely wouldn’t be able to escape.
You take the good with the bad, I suppose.
“We find out where we are, and then try to piece things together. There’s much to do here, and much at stake. We still have the Damnatus to think about, and it’s of the utmost importance that we keep our heads low until we find some form of backup. We can’t risk being found out.”
“Would a silver Jeep speeding toward us count as being found out?” Casper asked, pointing forward.
Looking ahead, I saw an SUV barreling toward us, glinting like a bullet in the sunlight.
“Get behind me,” Dahlia muttered, looking forward.
“It’s just a car,” Casper said. “What if it’s just-“
“Get behind me!” She screamed.
We did as she told, not so much because we thought she was right, but because she could be really scary when she wanted to.
But, as the Jeep grew closer, it occurred to me that she almost definitely
right. There were no roads here. There was no anything here. Whoever was coming through this desert was doing so with a purpose. And us being here couldn’t be a coincidence.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
Looking down at the finger in her hand, she growled, “With any luck, I’ll get some answers. If not, I’ll vent my frustrations.”
As the Jeep neared us, I saw a symbol etched across its hood. It was a black shape. I squinted so I could make it out. They were wings, angel wings.
Like an angel swooping in to take us toward salvation.
The Jeep skidded to a stop in front of us, spraying us with hot sand. I flinched as the driver’s side door opened, closing my fist and readying myself to fight.
To my surprise though, Royce bounced out the door. He was clean and relaxed. He wore a pair of sunglasses and one of belts with the absurdly huge buckles. A smile crept over his smug face.