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A thought began to gather in my skull, a dangerous, traitorous thought I did not try to tamp down. Because it meant taking action, and action I understood.

I put a hand on Blossom’s shoulder. “Gather all the Enders and the Rim guards in the barracks. I need to speak to them right away.”

She bobbed her head. “I’ll have them there before the sun tops the redwoods.” She spun and ran from me, her braid flapping against her back. I glanced up where the sun cut through the trees. Less than half an hour, then, and Blossom would have the other Enders waiting for me.

Which gave me time for those who were left standing, grieving Lark’s loss.

Three of us were left in the main clearing of the Rim. The other two who loved Lark the most, perhaps outside of Belladonna and myself, had not moved from their spots. I stared across the Rim to where Peta sat in her snow leopard form where she had also watched Lark leaving us; Shazer stood with his head bowed beside her. Lark was gone, disappeared into the forest, but they remained where they were. As if she would suddenly appear, and tell us to come with her.

But that wasn’t Lark’s way. She would take this punishment, and try to protect those she loved.

Peta quivered all over, making the spots on her coat tremble and dance as though they were alive. Her ears laid flat back to her skull as the tip of her tail lashed violently back and forth, creating a groove in the dirt. As Lark’s familiar, she was bonded to her charge, and losing that connection with her was going to be brutal on them both. From what I knew, it wasn’t only the elementals who suffered when they were banished.

And in Peta’s case, she’d lost more charges in her life than any other familiar, which could only make this that much more painful. A reminder of the past, as well as the culmination of this current pain.

Shazer, though, wasn’t a true familiar. More like . . . an addition to Lark’s small army of those who would fight at her side. He chose to stand with her against his very creator. Against those forces breaking the world apart piece by piece, despite the fact he didn’t have to. His ears flicked toward me as I approached, but he said nothing. A rare thing when it came to him and his smart-ass quips.

Carefully, I drew close to Peta, mindful of the fact that she could decide I should have done more to stop what happened to Lark, and end up taking her grief and anger out on me. Not that she would be wrong, in my opinion. I dropped to one knee beside the spotted feline and gently put a hand on the top of her head.

“Peta, she will be okay. She is strong enough for anything that is thrown at her, you know that. We both do.”

A soft mewl escaped her and she pressed her face into the crook of my neck, surprising me. “You don’t understand, Ash, my heart is shattered. I only just found her. To lose her again is more than I thought would be asked of me. This is beyond cruel.”

I didn’t argue with her; the bond between elemental and familiar was one I didn’t have. But I knew what it was to love someone, and know you might not ever see them again. I’d believed for two years that Lark was dead, with only the driving hope that I was wrong, and that Peta’s belief was right—that Lark lived somewhere. To find her alive, to hold her again . . . and then to see her cast out and cut off from all those who loved her. A spear to the belly would have hurt less.

I kept an arm around Peta, keeping my thoughts to myself. There would be no arguing with Peta that perhaps I did understand, at least, a little of what she was going through. Her own grief was too overwhelming. And perhaps that said it all—I could still function, while she struggled to breathe, her sobs against my neck shuddering through us both.

“I must go.” Peta pulled away from me, and seemed to gather herself, closing down her emotions with a single blink of her big green eyes. She flicked an ear at Shazer. The Pegasus snorted and trotted in time with the snow leopard toward the far side of the Rim.

“You sure you want to go now, cat? I won’t begrudge you a time to rest,” he said. She answered only with a leap, shifting as she did and landing on his back with ease. She glanced back at me. “Stay out of trouble while I’m gone.”

“Wait, where are you going?”

“I have a task that Lark asked of me.” She blinked twice and then bobbed her head. “I will be back soon enough, and then we will find a way to fix this.”

I nodded, grateful she was still with me. For two years, we’d acted as elemental and familiar, even though we did not have that connection. Peta was my friend, probably my closest friend after Lark. “Yes, we will. Be careful, Peta. There are still forces out there that would take you out if they could.”

She bobbed her head again, but neither of us said the name out loud. Cassava. The bitch queen who had started the avalanche that had caused these current events to unfold. She was still out there. I was sure of it.

And with her alive, no one, especially those who Lark loved, was safe.

I lifted a hand in farewell, stifling the urge to tell Peta . . . what? That I would be fine and wait quietly for her to return? I snorted to myself. If Peta or Lark thought I would let the banishment slide, perhaps they didn’t know me as well as they thought. I had other plans, and already I saw how I could make them happen.

There was something I could do, something I should have done before. I had been too stunned by the events to truly realize what was happening before it was too late. And there had been more than a few moments where I thought all would be well, where I would see Lark as our queen.

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