Wildfire

By Claire Louise Aire All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 38

Sometime after the moon had passed its midnight peak, Cassie felt a shift in the air. At first she thought it was perhaps some change in the night’s entertainment, that the music had altered pace or that something exciting was going to happen. Cassie mentioned it to Anna, but her friend looked back at her uncomprehendingly. It was only Cassie who had sensed anything different.

Scanning the grand hall and listening intently, Cassie could see nothing that could account for this strange feeling. This did nothing to reassure her, and her feeling of unease grew.

Goosebumps rose on her skin and she felt a creeping, shivery sensation as if something disgusting or frightening was nearby, watching her. She turned swiftly on the spot, but could see no unwelcome eyes looking in her direction.

Growing cold, though the room was warm, Cassie moved closer to the fire. As she did, she heard the door at the far end of the hall open. New guests were arriving. People had been coming and going the whole evening. She almost didn’t bother looking up. Almost. But as the last guest stepped through the door, that strange feeling intensified, filling her with inexplicable dread. Glancing upwards, Cassie saw who had just entered the hall and felt bile rise at the back of her throat. It tasted of bitter fear.

For a moment her vision blurred and her knees threatened to give way, but her survival instincts reacted, masking the shock and terror she felt. Turning away from the entrance, Cassie linked arms with Anna, laughing prettily with her friend at the joke one young nobleman had just made. A slight pressure on her arm was all Anna needed to know Cassie wanted to talk privately.

They drifted away from the group near the fireplace, nodding and smiling politely at those they passed. Her face carefully empty of the turmoil she felt, Cassie murmured to Anna,

“We have to leave.”

Anna raised her eyebrows, just slightly, but the question why was clear in the movement.

“James. He’s here.”

Again, a subtle change in Anna’s expression asked where?

“Down the other end.”

Moving behind a marble pillar, they both looked subtly towards where Cassie had indicated. Anna’s eyes widened; Cassie knew what she was seeing. She’d seen it too, and it warred in her mind with what she now knew about him.

He was dressed almost entirely in black, barring some delicate silver embroidery around the collar and sleeves of his shirt and a matching silver belt. His flawless white skin and white-blonde hair glowed with ethereal beauty. He looked almost exquisitely angelic. Until you saw his eyes. Cassie had looked at his eyes when she’d first met him and had seen only a lovely, pale blue. Now she looked at them and saw a blue as piercing and brittle as shards of ice. And they were equally as cold.

“We have to leave.”

Anna nodded, dragging her eyes away from James. Casually, she lifted one hand to her ear, as if to adjust the emerald drop that hung from it. She tugged it gently, then let her hand fall to her side again. A moment later, Cassie felt a brief touch as someone stepped beside her, matching her pace. She flinched, thinking James had found her. Instinctively she released Zephyr on both wrists, catching the blades deftly in her hands. Turning, she discovered Jhi dressed in servants’ black. His eyes beckoned for her to follow and she did so without looking back, wary of letting James see her face. Anna followed close behind. They may as well have been wearing masks, their calm faces concealing any of the emotions beneath. Jhi opened the door for them, bowing to let them out. They slipped through unnoticed, Jhi following quickly. As he closed the door behind them Cassie glimpsed the room one last time.

Her heart leapt in her chest, beating so hard she swore it would tear free. Across the hall, those cold blue eyes met hers. It lasted less than a second but he had seen her. He had recognised her. His face flickered with fury and Cassie heard a silent cry so angry it hurt her mind to hear it.

And then they were gone. Wrapped in their dark cloaks again and running. Cassie knew no one could follow Jhi if he didn’t want them to, but still, she kept the sharp blades nestled safely in her palms until they arrived back at the Mouse Hole and were deep inside its catacomb-like depths.

When they reached Cassie’s room, Anna told Jhi why they had left so suddenly. Of course, Jhi had seen James enter the room. He saw everyone, never missing a single detail.

Had James befriended a noble, or was he pretending to be one, just as Cassie had been? Cassie remembered how easily he had manipulated her mind to believe whatever he wanted. She didn’t doubt his ability to bend the minds of others too. She shivered at the thought of him gaining more power and influence.

Jhi disappeared while Anna made warm drinks for them all, adding a selection of herbs and honey to each cup. When Jhi returned with the Rat, Cassie’s nerves were starting to relax. The Rat wanted each of them to describe what had happened, to make sure no detail was missed. There wasn’t much to tell, it had all happened incredibly quickly. When they finished talking the Rat rose and spoke to Quinn, who’d been waiting by the door. He left swiftly, to send Mice to gather any information on what had happened after they’d left the ball and, more importantly, on James and his new identity amongst the nobles.

The three friends were exhausted after the excitement, both good and bad, of the night’s events. The Rat checked that Cassie’s mental barrier was still strongly guarding her mind and that it had not been breached. Satisfied that Cassie was safe from James’ power for the time being, the Rat left them to rest. Cassie thought she would not be able to sleep for hours yet, if at all, but she underestimated her exhaustion and the calming effects of Anna’s tea. She soon felt herself slipping into gentle oblivion alongside her two friends.

As she drifted, some small part of Cassie recognised that she was not sliding into the usual pattern of sleep in which she dreamt of the coming Immortals. It felt strange and different. But that part of her was too tired to care. Besides, she never had much choice about the path her dreams took of late, anyway.

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