“I’m dead,” I said to Kerrick.
He kept his flat expression, and I knew I’d get more cooperation from the cave’s stone walls. Too bad for him that I didn’t need his approval. But it would be nice if we worked out an agreement at least.
“No one knows I survived. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to go undercover, and—”
“No. It’s not safe,” he said.
“Why not? No one will be looking for me. I could slip in—”
“What about Danny and Zila? They’re going to need you to teach them how to be healers.” Kerrick added another branch to our small fire.
We had stopped to rest in a narrow cave. Kerrick and I’d been traveling at night and sleeping during the day to keep a low profile since we still remained in Tohon Sogra’s realm. We were close to what had been the Realm of Vyg’s western border. After the plague had killed two-thirds of our population nearly six years ago, many of the Fifteen Realms resembled broken toys, with tiny pieces of their populations scattered far and wide.
Unfortunately Tohon had decided to sweep up those pieces to form one realm, or rather one kingdom. A good idea until you realized Tohon, the powerful life magician, was also a deluded megalomaniac whose army included a battalion of dead soldiers. Yes, dead. Tohon had discovered how to reanimate the dead.
“Danny and Zila don’t need me yet. They’re too young,” I said. “Danny probably won’t develop healing powers until he’s closer to fifteen, which won’t be for another year or two. Zila has six or seven more years.”
“Still, it makes the most sense to rendezvous with Ryne in Ivdel as planned. We’ll need to gather his men and then join forces with Estrid so we can stop Tohon’s army from advancing into Pomyt.”
“For you,” I agreed. “Not me.” Before he could argue, I added, “Besides, I gave my word to Estrid—”
“Which was voided when you died, Avry.” He sat next to me and pulled me in close, wrapping an arm around my shoulder.
I leaned against him, breathing in his scent of spring sunshine and clean earth. Every time we talked about my death, he’d sought my touch as if he still couldn’t believe I’d survived. Considering the plague had a hundred-percent fatality rate and it had indeed killed me a week ago, his actions were understandable.
However, a giant Peace Lily had brought me back to life. The ramifications of that action were...huge. Which was why I needed to figure out exactly what happened and what it meant for the rest of the Fifteen Realms. Or what was left of them.
I dropped the topic. For now. Kerrick and I had just admitted our feelings for each other. We had seven more days until we reached Peti, and I didn’t want to spend that time arguing with him. So much better to do...other, more intimate activities while we rested.
* * *
We approached the outer edge of Peti near dawn. Stopping in a thick copse of trees, Kerrick reached out with his forest magic to search for ambushers, marauders or mercs. His magic was a gift from the forest, and through that connection, he sensed other people. Or rather, he felt the irritations and annoyances that the forest considered intruders to its home.
When I held Kerrick’s hand, I also connected and experienced the unique bond he shared with the forest. I wondered if my eye color changed from sea-green to a darker green when his magic zipped through my body. Kerrick’s eye color changed to match the forest. Since it was the middle of spring, the surrounding greenery was thick and lush, an emerald carpet.
When I had first met him, his eyes were russet with flecks of gold, orange and maroon. The warm colors belied his personality at the time. He had been as cold and distant as the snow-capped peaks of the Nine Mountains.
But not anymore.
He caught me staring and smiled. It transformed his face from unreadable to...happy. Which still surprised me. I had been used to him gazing at me with annoyance, anger or exasperation, and these pleasant looks threw me.
I shook my head and returned to studying the town. It was near the foothills of the Nine Mountains. Even from this distance, it appeared that most of the buildings had burned down. No signs of life.
“Do you think the marauders got to Peti?” I asked. Since it was the closest town to the main pass through the mountains, it had been a popular place to stop before making the treacherous crossing.
Even after the plague, Peti had managed to survive. But without law enforcement, large groups of marauders had formed in the foothills. They would attack populated areas when they ran out of food and supplies. They’d killed, looted and burned without mercy.
“Probably before Tohon got to them,” he said.
Tohon had swept through the foothills and killed all the marauders, leaving their bodies for us to trip over. He had claimed he was cleaning out the undesirables that had infected his kingdom. I considered Tohon’s abominations—his dead soldiers. Why wouldn’t he turn those marauders into more mindless, obedient troops? I asked Kerrick.
“He wanted us to find them. So we would rush to the pass and right into his ambush.”
I shuddered. The memory of the dead carrying me away still haunted my sleep along with Tohon’s voice beckoning me. The forest didn’t consider those things intruders because they weren’t alive. According to Kerrick, the living green ignored the damage they inflicted since it couldn’t sense any life nearby. Which meant the dead could sneak up on Kerrick. An unpleasant thought.