Authors: Lynne Matson
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FOR STEPHEN, ALWAYS
AND NOW THESE THREE REMAIN: FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE.
BUT THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.
â1 COR. 13:13
Paulo blinked, slowly, his consciousness returning in crisp frames filled with color and scent and sound.
He stood alone on the black rock platform. The acrid smell of death filled the air, accompanied by the distant crackle of flames. Above him, the sun burned like smokeless fire, still high noon. But over the carving, the gate was gone. Skye was gone.
His chance to leave was gone.
Reality set in, stark and devastating.
, he thought.
A cry ripped from his throat like the wail of an injured animal. He dropped to his hands and knees on the harsh black rock, landing so hard that pebbles raked his palms, drawing blood, but he was too consumed by his growing terror and overwhelming bewilderment to care. How had he missed the gate? He'd waved to Skye, grateful she'd made it, knowing he was last and that the timing felt rightâthe completion of a circle begun three months before, the end of a cycle begun years before he or Skye were ever born. Only he'd hesitated, for reasons that he couldn't explain. For reasons he couldn't
He'd lost time, mysterious minutes stolen by an invisible entity.
And now he was alone on Nil.
An angry tear welled in his eye; he wiped it quickly, already pulling himself together, knowing he wasn't truly alone. There were lions and hyenas and pumas on the island too, and he was very aware that he did not sit on top of Nil's food chain. He coughed, then choked, tasting smoke and salt. The thick air billowing up from the meadow snapped him to attention like a hot slap to the face.
He needed to get away from the mountain. There was nothing for him here, not now.
Not for three more months, to be precise.
Paulo stood, and with one last look around the silent black platform, he stepped back. Then, even though there was no escape, he turned and began to run. Down the steps, past the fiery meadow.
Around him, the island burned.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The island let him go.
It would wait.
It was accustomed to waiting. Once it had waited for centuries. Time wrapped the island like an invisible sheath, fluid and constant, both armor and weapon.
The island was weakened but not broken.
The male kept running, through smoke and flames and blood as the island settled in to watch. And to wait. And above all, to renew.
And so it began, again. Only this time, the island would not show weakness.
That era was over.
MAY 21, MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy.
I think I might be crazy. If I'm not already there, I'm definitely hovering on the brink.
Rives and I flew into Madrid yesterday afternoon. We landed eight hours ago, almost to the minute. I'm still acutely aware of
. Sometimes I think I should stop counting, stop noticing as each day vanishes into the past. But other times I think counting is my way of
, of reminding myself that time is fleeting, and precious, like life.
So I count.
It's been three weeks since we said a tearful farewell to Dex under a fiery Hawaiian sunset among friends, and almost nine weeks since we last touched the strange island of Nil. Nil, a place that still exists, a place where you have exactly 365 days to escape or you die.
Rives and I did it.
We escaped. We saved as many as we could, and we left Nil's ticking clock behind.
But something came with me through that final gate, something powerful; I feel it. It whispers to me in the nighttime darkness. It's a distant whisper, one I don't want to hear. One I can't block out.
One I fear is stronger than me.
My dreams began the night we got back. First I dreamed of raging fire, of choking smoke. Of blood-soaked hands and cruel smiles and the crushing pain of leaving a friend behind even though he was already gone. Other dreams focused on Paulo, a different friend, one who had inexplicably chosen to stay. I dreamed of him racing through fire and fear, only I never saw where he was running
, or what he was running
. I never saw what haunted his backâbut something was there.
Just like I know something is
. In my dreams, in the dark.
Now I dream only of blackness: the sightless, yawning blackness found between gates, cold and consuming and frighteningly
But not empty.
It's never empty.
Something lives in that blackness, writhing like invisible fog, something dark and chilling and
. It reaches for me, whispering without words, clawing at me with charcoal fingers; it invades my daydreams and haunts my nights, its grasp almost finding purchase in those moments my mind is dark, and unguarded.
I won't let it in.
But I can't shut it out.
I haven't told Rives. Then again, I think he knows. I see it in his eyes when he looks at me: the worry, the fear, and the love. The same love that pulls me back, the same love that keeps me sane. Because at that frightful moment when I'm trapped in the darknessâwhen I'm seconds away from breaking, a breath away from
âI reach for Rives. I always find him, or maybe he finds me. Either way, he brings me back.
I'm not crazy.
I'm not crazy.
My name is Skye Bracken, and this is the truth.
MAY 28, ALMOST MIDNIGHT
Look around. Pay attention.
Notice what others ignore.
My dad's classic advice, advice I painfully honed during my 365 days on Nil. Advice locked in my head for life, advice now second nature. Advice I couldn't stop following if I tried.
I took it all in: the shadows beneath Skye's eyes dulling her skin like bruises, the way she anxiously tugged on her raw diamond necklace when she thought no one was looking.
But I was always looking.
And when it came to Skye, I noticed
, especially the problem she seemed hell-bent on ignoring.
It was the elephant in the room, big enough to screw with her sleep. Regardless of where we crashed, Skye tossed and turned, her nights restless and full of dreams. Her days weren't much better. More than once in the past few weeks I'd caught her completely zoned out, her eyes unfocused and distant. I didn't ask where her head was; I didn't need to.
It was Nil-related. It had to be.
And it seriously pissed me off.
The island had already taken enough, from both of us. We'd served our time, paid our dues. We'd survived. We were
Forcing myself to relax, I pulled Skye close, feeling her cheek press against my chest.
, I reminded myself.
We're safe. And we're together.
She actually seemed asleep. Steady breathing, lips closed but soft.
I slowed my breathing to match hers. Moments like these made me feel invincible, like
were invincible. Nil wouldn't steal another minute from us. Nil was my past.
Skye was my future.
The amused whisper sliced through my head like broken glass, cruel and cutting. I froze, willing myself to chill out, grounding myself in the
until the flash of memory passed.
An instant later, Skye cried out, her spine twisting. “Rives!” Her whisper was choked. Her whole body shook; her skin had turned ice cold.
I held her close. “I'm here,” I whispered, gently stroking her hair, willing her trembling to stop. “It's okay. Just a dream.”
“Rives,” she said again, her voice full of relief. But her heart still raced, like mine. We lay like that for a long time. Me, stroking her hair, Skye, fighting to let go of her demons.
When we'd left Nil ten weeks ago, I thought we'd won.
Now I wasn't so sure.
This one was strong.
He came from a land of ice, but his spirit was made of fire. He fought valiantly to stay conscious as he traveled between worlds, clinging to awareness up to the very limit of fracture, much like another human who had come before: that one a female, a descendant of a visitor from an earlier time. Only where she had truly been familiarâher flesh, her bloodâthis one was new. Nothing about this human felt familiar except his innate strength; it touched every part of him, a current running so powerfully through his being that the island had sensed it through the fibers of space, of timeÂ â¦ making him the right choice. The necessary choice. It had nearly exhausted all of the island's fading strength to reach him, to call him, but he had answered.
He would do well.
He would need to.
The island watched as he rolled out of the gate and spilled onto the black sand. The island waited as he stirred and blinked, as he raised one hand to block the bright sun. Fear lanced through his heart with the fierce light. For an instant, he stopped breathing.
And then he sat up.
Slowly, his muscles on high alert like his senses, all fog cleared from his consciousness with one deep inhale. He breathed, steady and calming, lowering his heart rate by will, an impressive show of strength as he gazed around.