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       Reign, p.21

           Chanda Hahn
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  The beautiful door loomed in front of her. Mina’s future depended on the choices she’d make once she entered. It was too much for a seventeen-year-old girl to take.

  Queen Maeve and King Lucian stood on the nearest palace balcony overlooking the maze. He addressed the contenders. “Remember, only the most worthy among you shall make it to the tower. Once the princess has made it into the star observatory,” he pointed to the tower, “a light will shine across the land for all to see.” Lucian seemed pleased with his announcement and placed his hand around Maeve’s waist.

  Two trumpeters on either side of the Fates lifted their instruments to their lips and began a melodious fanfare.

  Mina was neither nervous nor excited. She was sick to her stomach and really just wanted to find a place to throw up. This wasn’t happening. She shouldn’t be here. The trumpeters ended the fanfare, and the final contest began.

  As Mina approached the silver door and her hand brushed the iron latch, she almost lost her nerve. What was she going to do? She had to enter, or at least start the contest. She turned the latch and the door swung inward with barely a creak.

  Swallowing back her misgivings, she entered the maze. The grass was soft and a pleasant aroma of poppies surrounded her. The door swung closed behind her, and Mina gasped. She grabbed at the handle and twisted, but it was too late. She was locked inside the maze.

  Forward was the only option. As she moved farther into the maze, she kept her right hand on the hedge and tried to follow the twists and turns by never letting go. She wandered that way for most of an hour. After a few more bends, she came across a beautiful stone bench.

  Trying to use the bench as a marker she continued on for another hour and wound up right back at the same bench.

  “What?” she turned in a circle and looked at the entrances to her little seating area. “Okay, I’ll go this way.” She took off again on a mission to get as far away from the bench as she could. Forget the tower. After another hour, the bench greeted her once again.

  “So this is how it’s going to be, is it?” She spoke to no one in particular.

  Mina decided to sit down and think things through before she went on. She knew—or at least thought she knew—what was going to happen. All of her steps up to this point had seemed oddly destined. There was no doubt in her mind that she had already come to the past and had a part in the division of the books and even in giving the seam ripper to the Royals.

  But the possibility of what could happen next terrified her. She wasn’t sure how to proceed without messing up her own timeline. She was here to change things, after all, but what was right? And what would ruin everything? Should she sit and wait for Annalora to make it to the center of the maze and to Teague? Maybe by doing nothing—she was doing something. If only that was the answer.

  No, waiting didn’t feel right. She caught her breath and continued searching the maze.

  Mina tried to gauge the time by watching the suns cross the sky. She had to have been going in circles for quite some time. The contest had started a few hours ago, and it looked to be almost afternoon. Her stomach was growling, and she’d begun to lose feelings in her legs from walking for so long. She shaded her eyes and looked up at the tower for any sign of life. Had she seen a shadow move past the glass? Had someone made it to the tower? Or was that Teague pacing and watching them from above? She turned toward the tower and was again confronted with the stone bench.

  She heard soft footsteps and angry muttering. The noise drew closer.

  Annalora hurried around the corner of the hedge.

  “You!” her angry voice rang out. The gnome princess looked out of breath, her cheeks red and perspiring. A sheen of sweat dotted her forehead. Her deep red dress was cut low to show off her assets, which honestly made her look desperate for attention.

  Annalora glanced around hesitantly to see if anyone was near before approaching Mina. Her right hand was hidden behind the folds of her dress. The way she walked warned Mina that something was afoot. “I finally have you alone.” Annalora laughed softly, but it sounded stilted. Her eyes looked a little wild, and there was something desperate about her mannerisms.

  “Leave me alone, Annalora. Solve the maze and go live your life with the prince,” she rushed out. “I’m no threat to you.” Mina took a seat on the bench, hoping to convey she wasn’t going to compete.

  Annalora continued her approach, her head shaking, “Oh no you don’t. I’ve searched every inch of this maze, and I’ve gotten to the center—to the tower. There is no entrance. There’s no way up.” She started to laugh and scratched at right her arm. “Then it dawned on me,” she continued. “The Fates said that only the worthy one would make it to the tower.”

  Mina looked at her, confused. “Yes, we all heard the rules. So what?”

  “Don’t you see? The answer was there all along. There can only be one. Only one of us can win. The others didn’t believe me, but they couldn’t find the entrance either. I’m right. I know I’m right.” The whole time she spoke, she crept closer.

  Mina noticed that some parts of her red dress looked darker than others—wet.

  “So that means the tower won’t open until there’s only one of us left…alive.” She pulled a large stick from between the folds of her dress and swung at Mina’s head.

  Mina wasn’t prepared for the assault and fell backwards off of the stone bench. Her dress hampered her attempt to get to her feet, and Annalora was on her in two seconds flat. Mina struggled under the weight of the gnome girl and used all of her strength to keep the makeshift club at bay.

  Annalora’s animalistic scream echoed into the sky, sending birds flying. When she couldn’t get the branch past Mina, she tossed it aside and went for Mina’s throat. She squeezed.

  “Anna…cough…Ann…cough…stop!” Mina gasped out. She clawed at the hands strangling the life from her. She didn’t dare release her grip to reach for the Grimoire, but she was starting to black out from the lack of oxygen.

  Something moved in the corner of her peripheral vision. Mina heard a thud and a small groan as Annalora went limp and fell forward, crushing her. She continued to gasp and cough but was able to move her unconscious attacker to the side.

  Ferah stood over her with Annalora’s discarded branch in her hands. The elf girl, wearing green leather pants and a vest, looked fully recovered. She gave Mina a slow nod, and a mutual understanding passed between them.

  A life for a life.

  “Thanks,” Mina wheezed, rubbing at her sore neck. But the girl was gone, running back into the maze.

  That’s when Mina noticed the blood on her hands. She searched her body for the source, but she had no open wounds. She rolled Annalora over and searched her, but again came up empty—except for the blood splatter on her dress.

  It must have come from one of the other girls! “No! Dinah, Ever!” Mina whined, and took off running, desperately searching for her friends.

  There was blood on Annalora.

  Fresh blood.

  She’d said she had to convince the others. Did that mean what Mina thought it meant? Had the crazed Annalora killed Ever and Dinah?

  “Ever!” Mina screamed into the maze. “Ever! Answer me, you stubborn pixie.”

  Picking up her skirt, she ran toward the tower. Of course it wasn’t easy. It was a maze. Every time she turned right, it dead-ended into a wall. She’d turn around again and hit another wall. The hedges were changing, making her turns impossible to keep track of. She was thoroughly lost, and she kept envisioning Ever lying in a pool of blood somewhere in the middle of the maze.

  What had happened to Annalora? Was it the maze that changed her? Bringing out her ruthless side? Or was that Annalora’s true self? Is that what Plaith had meant about the maze changing them?

  Near panic, Mina grabbed her head and turned in a full circle. The maze changed again. There was no exit. She was completely enclosed in a square hedge. Mina closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Please. I just
want to find my friend.”

  When she looked again, there was another opening. Mina dashed through it before it changed and found herself on a cobbled path. Was she getting closer to the tower? She tried to keep it in her line of sight, but every time she headed toward it, the path led her farther away. How was she supposed to get to the middle? To find Ever?

  “Please! Someone help me!” Mina cried out again, hoping that someone—anyone—would answer. The wind picked up and leaves scattered along the path before her. A mist gathered near the turn ahead of her, forming into a familiar ethereal being with dull brown hair and a small moustache.

  “Dad?” Mina clasped her hands over her mouth.

  It couldn’t be him. He’d died. Or as Mrs. Colbert said, his physical form died. He still lived on in the Fae plane, and he was here. Her father James was right here. In the maze.

  “How?” she choked out in the midst of sobbing. Was the line between future and past so thin that he could cross it as easily as she passed through the Fae plane? Or was he a much-needed figment of her imagination? She decided to believe the first.

  He stepped out of the mist, whole and looking very much alive. He was taller than she remembered, and his kind brown eyes were filled with worry. He wore the same outfit she had last seen him in, when he walked out the door of their house never to return—his favorite white shirt and vest and the khaki pants with smear of peanut butter on them.

  “Don’t worry about the how, sweetie,” her father said, stopping just short of her. “Just know that I’m here to help you.”

  “But, Dad, I have to know. Why’d you make the deal with the Stiltskin? Why did you leave us? Why did you die?”

  He looked anxious. He was fading in and out as if he was struggling to stay with her in the past. “I can’t answer those questions. Another time mayhap, but you asked for my help and I can only stay here for a short time. So come with me.” He turned and beckoned for her to follow.

  She’d be an idiot if she didn’t, and Mina wasn’t about to let her father out of her sight. He headed straight for the tall tower, ducking into the hedge in front of him. She pulled up short, stopping before the branches snagged her dress.

  Her father leaned out of the bushes, surprising her. “They’re not here. Just walk through them.”

  “Easy for you to say,” she mumbled. Full of doubt, she held out her hands in front of her, closed her eyes, and stepped through the hedge. On the other side was another row of hedges and, just beyond it, the tower. Her dad turned down the cobbled path that ended by a fruit tree.

  In front of it, crumpled in a heap, was Ever. She was bleeding from her head. Mina kneeled down and ripped a silk petal from her dress to press against the wound. She felt her neck for a pulse. It was barely discernable, but she felt a soft flutter against her fingertips. “She’s alive.”

  “Yes, she is,” her father leaned down and looked over the young girl.

  “But where’s Dinah?” Mina swung her head around to look for the nymph.

  Her father shook her head. “She wasn’t as lucky.” He turned to point across the same cobbled path to the hedgerow. At first Mina couldn’t see anything, but when she leaned to the side, she could just make out the ruffle of a green dress and one leg, angled oddly, lying near the path. The rest of Dinah’s body was hidden by the hedge.

  “No!” Mina cried out, standing to go to her.

  Her father stepped in front of her and blocked her route. She wasn’t sure how, but his strong arms wrapped around her in a hug.

  Mina started to sob. “It’s all my fault. If only I hadn’t given up. Maybe I could have saved her. I could have stopped Annalora.”

  “Shhh, there’s nothing you could have done. If you had gotten here any earlier, you would be the one lying there unmoving.”

  “No, I could have used the Grimoire. I could have—”

  “No my dear, you couldn’t have. But there is something you can still do. You can still save your family. Finish the test and return home.” He rubbed her shoulder and she leaned back, sniffing awkwardly.

  “How? The glass slippers are gone. They went back without me.”

  Her father looked at her, his eyes filled with pride. “You’ve grown up so much. I’m so proud of you, and I’m about to lose you again.” He pulled her into another hug, and Mina took a deep breath, imprinting her father’s scent in her memory. Tears fell freely down her face.

  Reluctantly, he pulled away from her and pointed to Dinah’s body again. This time, Mina took a closer look. The shock of seeing her and the overwhelming guilt she felt had made her overlook something crucial. On Dinah’s feet, glinting in the afternoon sunlight, were Mina’s glass slippers.

  “She stole them? But why? She was the sweetest, most honest person—” Mina started.

  “It doesn’t matter. There’s darkness within all of us. Bitter jealousies that sometimes cannot be controlled and make us do stupid things. I would think you’d understand that more than most,” her father spoke softly.

  Mina shuddered and nodded her head, thinking back to when—in her own fit of jealousy—she’d manipulated the Story into hurting Nan.

  “Jealousy caused her to steal the shoes,” he said. “Take them and hurry. Your friend is fading fast.”

  Mina reluctantly left the warmth of her father’s embrace and kneeled next to Dinah’s body. Thankfully, the hedge protected her from seeing the worst of her injuries, but Mina still noticed the large pool of blood that spread to the edge of her green dress.

  She started to hiccup as she tried to control her anguish. “I’m sorry, D-Dinah. Please forgive me.” She reached for the glass slipper and slid it from the nymph’s foot. She pulled the second one and noticed that the sands of time were almost depleted. She had very little time left. Had they picked up their pace when she neared the end of her quest?

  She took the shoes and carried them as she walked slowly back to her father, wondering at his presence. He held her gaze and straightened up.

  Then he stood back and grasped his vest, as if already distancing himself. “Well, put them on. It’s almost time for you to go, and you haven’t helped your friend yet.”

  Mina nodded absently and slipped off her borrowed shoes. She slid the cool glass slippers back on her feet. “What do I do now?”

  “You know what you must do.” He looked up at the tower, and Mina shook her head.

  “No. It can’t be. This is not how it’s supposed to happen. It’s not me. It can’t be me,” she pleaded.

  “Mina, it’s always been you. It started with you and will end with you. Everything we’ve done—the curse, everything—started because of the events that happened this day.”

  “No, we can change it. I don’t have to go up there. It doesn’t have to be like this. We can live without ever having the curse over our head. I can sit here and wait for Ever to wake up and then she can enter the tower and everything will be put to right.”

  “Sweetie, listen to yourself.” His voice was firm, commanding her to heed his warning. “Everything has already been put in motion by your decisions. You have to finish what you’ve started.”

  “I can’t! I know what happens. The one who goes up there betrays him, causing him to lose his heart and turn evil. He’ll destroy everything. He’ll eventually destroy you because of the stupid curse. I can’t let you die again, not when I have a choice. If I don’t go up there, you’ll live. We can be a family again.”

  Her heart broke further with every word, because her father continued to shake his head.

  “Oh, honey, there’s so much you don’t know. Things we could never tell you. If you don’t go up there, we’re already dead. All of the Grimms. You are our one chance of survival.”

  “It can’t be. I can’t be the one to betray him, to betray Teague.”

  His eyes softened for a split second, and she thought he would concede and let her off the hook. Instead, he turned his back on her and walked away.

  “No wait! I’m sor
ry. Come back.” She chased after him, but he kept walking. She crumpled to the ground and cried out, “Dad!”

  He turned back, clearly weakening. Whatever was holding him in this time was losing its power. His eyes filled with hurt and anger. “If you don’t go up there, Ever will die! We will die! Do you hear me, Mina?”

  Mina blinked in surprise, taken aback by his fury.

  “Go up there and face your destiny like a Grimm.”

  “Dad, what’s happening?” He was fading and she was losing him. A misty cloud surrounded him.

  “Mina, I love you. I’m proud of you. Tell your mom and brother I—”

  As fast as he’d reappeared in her life, he disappeared.

  Chapter 28

  There was no more time for tears. Every fiber of her being wanted to mourn the loss of her father…again. But Mina had to turn to the problem at hand.

  Ever was dying.

  She ran back to the girl and felt for her pulse. And she couldn’t find it.

  Ever’s skin was cold to the touch, and Mina realized she might already be too late. She ran for the tower, made a full circle around it, and could find no way to enter the pillar. There wasn’t a door or hidden ladder. Nothing.

  The suns were setting, and it was becoming dark. Every minute she wasted was a minute that Ever slipped closer to death, that her shoes could send her forward in time, that Annalora could wake and attack her again.

  Mina pressed her hands along the stone base and felt along the wall. Every single brick was real and solid, until she suddenly fell forward into the darkness. It was another glamour.

  She followed a stone staircase heading to the top, and her dress kept snagging along the steps. She picked up the silk flounces and continued upward. She could feel it in her bones, the urgency. She was running out of time. For every step she took, ten more steps magically appeared, as if she were running up the wrong escalator. The further she ran, the more lightheaded she began to feel.

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