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A Terrible Secret
Talia jolted out of her sleep panting and sweating. The night was dark and quiet around her, but she could not shake the memory of her dream. It had seemed so real. She could remember the vivid images, the sounds of her friends’ screams ringing in her ears. She tried to slow her breathing, but found that a near impossible task.
There was a grunt and something stirred beside her. Fueled by the desire to not wake her friends up, she forced her breathing to slow. She let out a shudder as she forced herself to lie back down.
She heard Ace’s comforting voice from the stirring figure. “Talia? Are you okay?”
She released a shaky breath. “It’s fine. It was just a bad dream,” she said quietly.
The sleeping bag rustled and she felt Ace’s warm hand on her shoulder a moment later. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “We all have bad dreams sometimes.”
Talia choked back a sob. Not like mine, she thought. Her dreams had started to gravitate more towards the terrible secret that she possessed. Surely her friends had no reason to feel as guilty as she did.
A small voice tugged at the back of her mind. Doesn’t he deserve to know? She remembered two weeks ago. She had failed to deal with one of their allies, Wiz, and he had fled, leaving her gravely wounded. Ace had spent several days and nights keeping her alive, risking his own health to save hers.
She remembered the multiple times he’d saved her life, sometimes risking his own to keep her out of harm’s way. He was the friend who was closest to knowing who she really was. It was almost dangerous to be around him in case he figured out something was wrong with her. She was a little annoyed at the fact that he knew her that well, but a part of her also felt grateful for that. He had started to grow closer to her over time. Breaking his heart would likely cause hers to break as well.
Ace’s hand left her shoulder and a few minutes later, she could hear his deep breathing. Talia sighed and burrowed deeper into her sleeping bag. They were lucky to have shelter for a night. She had only one more night before her real self would burst free. Might as well get the rest she needed. She knew that she wouldn’t get much in the days to come.
Tears leaked out of her eyes as she closed them. She knew what she had to do to complete the task that bound her, but that didn’t mean that she would enjoy doing it.
Talia’s eyes were puffy when she opened them the next morning. Zero was stomping around the small room, muttering about the cold. Talia peeked out of her sleeping bag, not wanting to leave the warm comfort of her sleeping bag. She felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She had to complete her task and reveal her secret today or several kingdoms would receive the punishment.
“Will you shut up for one minute?” Song shouted, the sound muffled by her sleeping bag. “We still have a few minutes until it’s time to go.”
“It’s freezing,” Zero complained.
“Then put on a hat or something,” Song retorted.
Talia looked over at Ace’s sleeping bag. It was empty. He was standing at the door of the small hut, holding a quiet conversation with River. Both of them looked concerned about something. After a few moments, Ace stepped away from the doorway. “Guys, we have to get up now,” he said. “River senses dragons.”
“What kind of dragons?” Champ’s voice came from somewhere behind Talia. “Maybe they’re the ones we sent for to cross the mountain pass.”
“No,” River said. “Wiz is with them. They’re less than a mile away. Thanks to the weather, they can’t fly, but they can run. We only have a few minutes before they get here.”
There was a shudder among the team as River said Wiz’s name. She noticed most of them glancing over at her. She hadn’t completely recovered from Wiz’s desperate attack, but she could still run from him. Talia hurried out of her sleeping bag and muttered a spell to make it roll up on its own. She picked it up and placed it in her bag. Her other friends did the same. There was no time to eat. They would do that once they were far enough ahead of the dragons.
They hurried out the door. Talia could see a dark stain on the snowy horizon. River led the way in a fast walk. She was heading toward the forest. The rest of team followed suit.
They broke into a run, kicking up snow. Talia stayed near the back, releasing spells behind her to wipe the snow clean of tracks. She knew that they would find them anyway, but she could at least make it difficult for them.
There was a dragon’s bellow from behind them. Talia felt a surge of pain from her side where the old wound was. She stopped, doubled over and gasping. Wiz was probably using magic from his sword to make her remember the pain.
Ace fell out of the group and ran back to her. “Sorry, this might hurt,” he said as he scooped her up. She winced, but bit back a cry of pain. This wasn’t real pain. It was made of magic. She could withstand it.
The rest of the team had stopped and were drawing their weapons to fight. Ace tried to run toward them, but he stumbled and nearly fell. Champ, one of the better magicians in the group reached out toward the approaching group of dragons, his hand trembling. Talia’s pain ebbed slightly. She heard a cry from one of the dragon riders and the spell shattered, taking the magic pain with it. Ace set Talia down and they started to run.
“Talia, look out,” Ace cried. He jumped behind her and swung his sword, smacking an arrow out of the air. The dragons came into sight, many with riders on their backs. The rider at the front hurled a spear at Talia. Ace cursed and tackled her. They both fell, rolling down the slope that led to the frozen river.
Talia could hear River cry out as the dragon riders attacked. The dragon riders knew her secret. She suspected they were just going to trap her friends so they wouldn’t get in the way. Ace was the only one in real danger now.
Several dragons broke free of the group and rushed to surround them. Ace drew his sword and stepped in between Talia and the dragon with a rider. Talia felt tears spring to her eyes as she unsheathed her dagger and stared at the spot between Ace’s shoulder blades. Now was her last chance to fulfill her task. She raised her dagger slightly. Memories of Ace and the good things he’d done for her flashed into her mind, making her pause. Maybe a little part of her had started to fall in love with him with every small act of kindness he had performed for her. It didn’t matter now. He couldn’t possibly love her back, and even if he did, it was too late. It was better that he died than the kingdoms that hung on the line.
Talia’s hand shook. She hadn’t chosen this path. The Dark Sorcerer had promised her that if she didn’t complete his task, her soul would be enslaved and thousands, maybe millions of people would die. She just had to stop and kill the little band of heroes who had been scraped up for this quest. There were six of them total, one of them from each kingdom, but she was the only one in the team who knew that the Sorcerer already had complete control over each kingdom as well as the ability to destroy them all.
Perhaps she and the sorcerer were really the only ones in the world who knew that. Her soul and the land the kingdoms were on were connected to the secret so that if she told it, the punishment would carry itself out with her enslavement and the destruction of the kingdoms.
The dragon rider removed his helmet to reveal Wiz, the man who they were running from. “Step away from the girl,” he shouted to Ace.
“You,” Ace snarled. “I should have known I hadn’t seen the last of your traitorous face. You abandoned us in the mountain pass and nearly killed her.”
Wiz sighed. “I didn’t abandon you. I was framed. But there’s no time to explain that now. Step away from the girl.” He raised his crossbow.
“No,” Ace shouted. “You’ll have to get through me to get her.”
Talia struggled to raise the blade again. Her thoughts cried out to him. Get away from me, Ace! Listen to him.
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. She lifted the dagger again. Her eyes fastened on the place between his shoulder blades. She felt sick to her stomach. How could she do this? She would be punished if she didn’t. The consequences were too vast.
“Get away from her,” Wiz cried, his eyes widening in alarm. “You don’t understand. We need to stop her.”
“Stop her?” Ace said. “She’s one of the Chosen Heroes. Stopping her would mean stopping the entire quest.”
Talia raised the dagger again, but she felt the pain in her wound flare again. She cried out and fell to one knee. “Don’t try anything, witch,” Wiz snapped. “Ace, step away from her.”
Ace summoned a ball of fire and shot it toward Wiz. The pain stopped as Wiz cast a spell to shield himself. Talia gritted her teeth and started to stand.
“Get away from her,” Wiz shouted.
“Never,” Ace shouted. “I love her.”
Talia gasped, but it was too late for her to stop. The hand holding the dagger was already on its way down. She clenched her muscles to stop, but they refused to cooperate. She could sense another presence in her mind, controlling her body. The Dark Sorcerer had already come to claim his prize. She stared in horror as the dagger fell. An unearthly scream escaped from her mouth. Ace started to turn, his eyes widening at the sound of her scream.
There was a flash of black in front of her. Her knife sank into flesh, but Ace was no longer there. One of Wiz’s dragons let out a bellow of pain before he collapsed. He had shoved Ace away from her just on time. Her tears were starting to freeze on her face. Her unwillingness to kill Ace had been costly. She could feel the Dark Sorcerer taking control of her body. It was too early for him to carry out the punishment. She watched in horror as her body drew another dagger and stepped over the dying dragon.
Talia wanted to stop. She wanted to drop the dagger in the snow and run. Or maybe she wanted to collapse and die on the spot. Either way would have been preferable to losing her control. She focused one thought toward the Sorcerer. The day is not done yet. I still have time to complete the task.
He replied through her mind. I know, but your intentions betray you. I will finish your task for you now that you have given me the opportunity. By tomorrow morning, the Six Kingdoms will be nothing but dust. No one will survive.
Talia mentally summoned a spell. The Sorcerer had too tight of a grasp on her to completely dispel him from her mind, but after two minutes, she would regain control of her body for a few brief moments. Now that the Sorcerer had broken his promise, she could explain everything to her friends before she ran from them in order to protect them.
Ace had fallen to the ground, his sword sliding out of reach. He stared up at Talia, his face a mask of shock and terror. “Talia,” he cried. “What are you doing?”
“I’m on your side, Ace,” Wiz said. “You have to trust me. I’m not the traitor.”
“He’s right.” Talia could hear her voice saying the words, but it sounded strange to her ears. “I am.”