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“Rachael!” Amber’s voice was high with panic, though I was sure she hadn’t actually noticed me from the door.

“Over here,” I grunted. My hand burned from the thorns buried in my flesh, but I refused to let go even as my blood dribbled down the branch. Behind me, I heard Amber’s footsteps run up to me, only to stop a few feet away.

“Oh,” she when she saw me. “Um, are you okay, Rachael?”

I couldn’t help but laugh, wincing as the movements drove the wooden barbs into already damaged flesh. I leaned forward slightly, to get a better view of the girl. “I’m not trapped, if that’s what you’re asking.”

She nodded carefully. “And um, this is intentional?”

I started to nod, then gasped in pain as a the forest reached out with another vine, pushing thorns into the back of my hand. “Mostly intentional.”

Amber nodded, shooting a glance back at Kinder’s house.

“Don’t!” I said quickly, making Amber turn back to me. “If you tell Mark or Kelcie, they’ll just worry and try to stop me.”

Amber took one last glance at the house, sighing. “You aren’t making a good case for yourself, Rachael.”

I smiled, trying not to think of the thorns in my hand. “I knew you had to have a sarcastic streak in there.”

“I’m serious!” she said a little louder, reminding me of some of our teenaged clientele. She wasn’t that young, but compared to the older librarians, it was hard not to notice her youth. “You better tell me what you’re doing before I march in there to tell Kelcie.”

“Helping Karen,” I said. The forest was as dark and foreboding as it had been when I walked out. I’d hoped for a slightly more obvious effect. “At least, I hope I am.”

Amber looked from me to the forest, and sat down on the driveway that lined the forest. “Explain to me,” she said firmly. “Or I tell Kelcie.”

I sighed. “Fine. I’ve got time for a magic lesson. You know there’s seven domains of magic. Do you remember how they’re divided up?”

“There’s four primary elements and three orders of magics,” she recited. “Fire, Nature, Water, Air are the primaries, and the orders are Fae, Arcane and Demon. And I’m supposed to be the expert in the Air domain.”

“Good,” I said, gritting my teeth. The thorns were digging in, forcing my hand to involuntarily clenched harder. “They did teach you something. The domains have uses on their own, of course. Fire can heal, and arcane can transmute, for instances. But most people combine the fields to create better spells. Especially elements and orders.”

“Like how Kelcie tried to teach me to make blasts of wind?” Amber asked. She looked at her signature on my face. “She said it was fae.”

I nodded, feeling my hand pulse around the thorns. “Fae magic combines well with primaries. It’s flashy and creation based. Almost the entire team knows and uses fae magic. Except for me. And Karen.”

Amber looked up at the forest that hadn’t been there yesterday. “This looks creation based.”

I shook my head. “Karen is very good at nature magic. She cheats. Cheats so well even I forget that it’s not fae-based. This whole forest? It’s demonic. And demon require a sacrifice.”

“So you’re sacrificing yourself?” Amber asked. The branch was slick with my blood now, making the dark grey wood even darker. “On the hope that it’ll help Karen?”

I nodded. “They said you were smart.” My arm was starting to quiver, I wouldn’t be able to do this much longer. I really hoped Karen was actually in there. I didn’t know what I’d do if both Karen and the books were missing. I might have “go Jack Bauer” as Mark had put it.

“Does it hurt?” Amber asked, cutting off my train of thought.

“It would be a bad sacrifice if it didn’t,” I said, my voice stuttering slightly.

Amber reached out to the forest tentatively, touching one of the thorns. It looked like a rose thorn, stubby and black. As I watched, she placed her thumb over the thorn and pushed, driving it deep into her finger. She winced, and I could see her fighting the urge to pull away from the pain.

“The first time is hard,” I said quietly, still gripping my own thorns. I wanted to let go. I needed to let go. But I knew she’d let go the moment I did. I drew in a shaky breath. “Why did you come out?”

“You said you were going out,” she said, grimacing. A bead of blood bloomed around the thorn. “I wanted to come with you.”

“Do you need to pick up something?” I asked, slowly pulling my hand out of the twined branches. They snapped as I pulled away, reluctant to lose their prey. There was a sense of satisfaction as the thorns peeled out of my flesh. I dropped my bloody hand into my lap, breathing carefully.

Amber looked like she wanted to pull away too. Instead, she wrapped her fingers around the branch, driving two more thorns into her palm. “I need to… check on my cats,” she said hesitatingly.

I nodded, re-wrapping my hand in the bandages. “No boyfriend or anything who can check in on them?”

Amber shook her head, eyes still locked on her hand. “I could call my uncle. But they hate him.”

“That sounds like a story,” I said, trying to catch her eye.

She gave me a small smile. “Last time I went on vacation, I asked him to stop in. Squee sat in the hallway and swatted at my uncle when he tried to feed them.”

“Sounds like an ungrateful cat,” I said.

Amber laughed a little. “I guess so. But he’s cuddly when he wants to be. Unlike my other little terror, Paradox. He bites.”

“Oh, so you’re used to this,” I said, gently pulling her hand away from the thorns. “Still, no use in over-doing it your first time.”

Amber sighed in relief, looking at the three deep puncture marks. “Do you think that helped?” she asked.

“Assuming she’s in there at all,” I said, rummaging through my purse one-handed. I pulled out a pack of adhesive bandages and she took it gratefully.

“Where else would she be?” Amber asked, covering up the bloody holes with the little fabric squares.

I shrugged. “No where good.”

Amber frowned, looking at the forest and her hand, covered in beige squares. “What else can we do?”

“Not much,” I said, pushing myself to my feet. The ground swayed slightly beneath me. “Let’s go feed your cats.”