THE FOREST IS SILENT, BUT I know I’m being hunted.
Frost spreads across my blade, covering the sharpened sea-glass until all that’s left is a small patch of muted red. The flicker of a heartbeat. The flame of something desperate to survive.
I rotate the dagger in my hand and push forward through the snow.
The silver birch is heavy on this side of the forest. Not like the forests in Victory, with their spacious clearings and limited places to hide. I haven’t been within Caelan’s borders since the day I fled his palace. But here there are a thousand places to disappear. A thousand ways to become invisible.
And still they found me.
The snowfall is fresh enough that my boots sink into the ground with each step, leaving a trail for my predator, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve already been marked.
I duck beneath a low branch, winding behind dormant trees and snow-covered vegetation. It isn’t much of a maze, but it’s enough to buy me a moment.
And a moment is all I need.
I throw myself behind one of the larger trees and kick my weight off a protruding root to help lift me onto the lowest branch. I climb quickly, fingers ignoring the scratch of frozen bark, until I’m hidden in the tangle of thick branches with a view of the clearing up ahead.
A hooded figure sits at the base of a tree, still as the frozen world around them.
I tighten my grip on my dagger, eyes glued to the path, waiting for the other one. My hunter. Because the stars know they never travel alone.
But the quiet is sinister. Not even a wraith could move so silently. And as I watch the snowfall, it occurs to me that I’ve been so busy watching the ground, I forgot to watch the trees.
An earthy growl rumbles nearby. Before I have a chance to turn around, an enormous weight throws itself against my body, tearing me from the branches. My right shoulder hits the earth with a crack, scattering my dagger out of reach. I roll to the side, push myself to my feet, and spin around to face my attacker.
The beast shimmers like a galaxy of clouds and stars, its body distinctly snow leopard. But its ocean-blue eyes don’t belong to any animal—they’re human.
I lunge for my weapon, but the wildcat is too quick. It throws itself into a pounce, and we’re tumbling over rock and shrub and snow. I ignore the pain that shoots through my hip, focusing my grip around the beast’s neck as its razor-sharp canines snap uncomfortably close to my face.
With a strained grunt, I focus on my consciousness, letting a thrum of power build in my palms before throwing it all toward the animal. The force of energy knocks the creature back across the snow, and its body tumbles to a stop. A snarl erupts from its flashing teeth as it slowly gets back on all fours.
The snow leopard isn’t injured, but it’s definitely annoyed.
I scramble quickly, snatching up my dagger as I run toward another tree. By the time I look over my shoulder, the starlit creature is already sailing through the air for a second pounce.
I shut my eyes, letting another thrum of energy absorb every inch of me, and surround myself with a veil.
I become invisible.
Throwing myself out of the way just in time, I hear the cat slam into the base of a tree—the place I left behind. The branches above give a shudder, and a pile of snow plummets onto the creature’s head. I reappear several feet away, blade pointed toward the cat with a snarl of my own.
The snow leopard’s eyes morph into two bright lights. No longer human, but Dayling.
Nearby, someone cackles. “All this time training, and all you’ve managed to learn are a few parlor tricks? How disappointing.”
I turn around to find the figure who was beneath the tree. She stands several feet away, hands hovering beside the blades at her hips. Even beneath her hood, I can see the tug of a smirk. A challenge.
My eyes don’t leave the pacing cat in front of me, even though my voice is meant for the woman. “I’ve also learned to never show all my cards in the first round.” My fingers twitch toward the earth. A lonesome branch sits in the snow, waiting. Waiting for me.
The branch flexes and morphs, pixels bursting across its elongated surface, until it becomes a solid club. I snatch it from the ground in an instant, just as the snow leopard bares its fangs and leaps toward me—and I strike the animal over the back of the head.
It falls to the ground, stunned.
The woman’s smirk becomes a flash of teeth. She lets out a growl from beneath her hood, but I’m already swinging my blade toward her chest. She throws out an arm to block, and my dagger finds her armor. It’s paper thin and more second skin than metal, but it absorbs the weight—and damage—of my attack. I stumble against her, and she swings her body around to reveal a pair of matching obsidian knives. She slashes left, then right, and I’m being pushed backward and toward the heady brambles. Unwilling to be cornered, I swing my blade upward with every bit of my strength. She uses one knife to block, and the other to pierce the skin between my ribs, barely missing my heart. It’s the kind of cut that’s intentional and meant to maim, not kill.
Except no one really dies in Infinity. Not yet, anyway.
It takes everything in me not to cry out in pain, but I don’t. I’ve come too far to let a knife wound slow me down.
I push my body against her, forcing her back. And as she’s busy retrieving her knife from my bone, I throw my head against hers with a furious crack, sending her stumbling toward an uprooted tree.
She stills in midair, just before making contact, floating like an otherworldly being. And maybe she is. Maybe we all are.
The blood gathering at my wound feels sticky and warm. But the fight isn’t over. There will be time for healing later.
I approach, pulling my daggered fist back for another swing, and she vanishes completely.
Her laugh fills the cold forest, but I can’t see her. She sounds nowhere and everywhere, like an echo filling a canyon. My shoulders tense. I’m scanning the woods, heat rising in my cheeks, when the creature made of clouds and light crashes into me, smashing my skull against the nearby tree. I sink to the earth.
Winded, my gaze full of stars, I sense the world tilting behind the beast’s snarling head. And then—a sandpaper tongue scrapes against the side of my face.
“You’re too soft on her, Nix,” the girl says with another laugh, coming into view once more. “Need I remind you she tried to bludgeon you?” She pulls her hood down to reveal a face I’ve nearly memorized: pale skin sprinkled in freckles, ocean-blue eyes, and brown hair braided into three sections. A sigil of a herring and a thistle is embroidered on her collar. The symbol of the Salt Clan.
Not that there’s much left of it.
The snow leopard gives a purr against my ear and nips at my hair. “Can you please call off your ferocious Dayling?”
He huffs in response.
“Don’t take it personally, Nix,” Kasia says, giving a short whistle that has the cat immediately at her side. “Nami doesn’t like affection.”
I scowl, but I don’t say anything. I’d rather everyone think it’s hugs I don’t like, instead of the actual problem, which is that growing close to anyone just isn’t a possibility anymore.
Not after what happened, and what it cost me.
I let myself get close to someone—trusted them so much that I missed the warning signs—and, because of me, the Colony fell.
I sheathe my knife, ignoring the pinch in my chest as Kasia scratches behind Nix’s ears. “I thought you were patrolling the border today?” I remark.
“I was. Then I saw you.”
I glance at Nix’s bright white eyes. There’s not a hint of Kasia left in them. “Do you think he feels it? When you take control of him?” The ache in my chest is constant, but when I think of Gil, and what Caelan did to him…
That’s when the ache starts to burn.
Kasia’s smile fades. “Nix isn’t a consciousness. He’s made of memories. And holding on to memories is a very human thing to do.”
“You make it sound natural,” I say. “But there’s no one else in the Borderlands who can use a Dayling like it’s a second body.”
Her blue eyes flicker with mischief. “What can I say? I’m one in a million.”
I fight the urge to laugh—the urge to feel like myself again. The Nami whose biggest worries included pop quizzes and whether her best friend liked her the way she liked him.
But human Nami died. And the things I wanted to hold on to, like believing people were capable of changing, and thinking kindness and understanding would always be more powerful than hate…
There isn’t a place for that in Infinity. There isn’t a place for the old me.
Annika told me fighting was the only way to survive—so I’m adapting. The person I am now? She will do whatever it takes.
I blink, pushing back at the guilt even when it feels overwhelming. “How far can you travel with Nix before your mind is pulled back?”
Kasia watches him the way someone would watch a beloved pet. “There was a time before the First War when we’d travel the length of all Four Courts without a second thought.” Her voice turns breathy. “But joining up with Nix is like being in a vessel. I can steer, but I can’t become him. I have no abilities beyond what Nix could do himself. If I lost him in the Labyrinth, alone, in a sea or a cavern or something worse… I might never be able to get him back.”
My gaze drifts to the falling snow. If I had a Dayling like Nix, and the ability to use them as a vessel, I’d travel to Victory. To War. To Death, if I had to. I could get the information I need, and finally figure out where the others were taken after I betrayed Caelan and proved Ophelia’s point.
But Infinity is a big world. All I can do right now is train as much as possible, and prepare myself for the day I’m ready to venture back into the Labyrinth.
I owe the Colony so much more than their freedom.
“If I could show you how it works, I would.” Kasia’s smile turns grim. “But the bond I share with Nix requires a great deal of trust—and trust is something I cannot teach.”
I don’t bother pointing out that trust is something I’ve had far too much of in the past. She saw my memories through an Exchange; she knows what happened on the Night of the Falling Star.
Trusting Gil and Caelan—who turned out to have been the same person all along—is part of the reason I failed.
“I don’t need a Dayling,” I say bitterly. “I need an army.” Someone willing to fight with me, because I’m still not strong enough to do any of this alone.
“I know you’re planning to leave this place one day, and I train with you because I want you to have the best chance possible. But you know how the clans feel about returning to war,” Kasia says. “You know what we’ve already lost.”
“If you won’t fight, at least help me find them,” I argue. “Isn’t the whole point of the Border Clans to guide humans to safety? You once told me I was the first human in over a hundred lifetimes to follow the path in the stars. What good is a map if no one knows how to find it?”
We should be out there telling people the truth. We should be helping them.
This is the safe haven Annika and the others deserve. The home that should’ve been theirs, not mine.
Nix slides back on his haunches, mouth open in a yawn. No doubt tired of hearing me argue the same point over and over again.
But I can’t let it go.
“We’re still here, aren’t we?” Kasia notes. “You may not see waiting as a sacrifice, but you have only been here a short time. We have stayed to look after this place since the First War.”
“Yeah, and for how much longer?” My words are sharp as steel.
Ten months ago, I’d never have noticed the waver in Kasia’s eyes. The flicker of hesitation in a deep sea of blue.
But I’m not the same person I was ten months ago.
“I know the council voted again.” There’s an edge in my voice. Maybe a hint of impatience, too.
Kasia considers me, while Nix flicks his tail at the frostbitten air. “Yes. Just as we have every fortnight for the past two cycles.” After a beat of silence, she sighs. “Nothing has changed. The vote was three to one, as it always has been. The Border Clans aren’t going anywhere.”
“But you still voted.”
“I voted to stay.”
The snow crunches beneath my boots as I inch closer, fists balled. “How can the clans still be thinking about leaving, after everything I’ve told you about humans and Residents?”
“The Borderlands were never supposed to be a permanent solution.”
“You have hundreds of trained fighters. The clans should be voting on whether to go to war, not whether they should abandon every human in the Four Courts!”
Nix bristles. Kasia clicks her tongue, gaze falling to my hands. “Careful, Nami. I like you, but if you let your temper loose on me, I’ll snap you in half and I won’t apologize for it.”
I blink, feeling the energy already building at my fingers. It used to take so much effort to hold on to even a sliver of power. But now it seems tied to my anger. Tied to me.
Sometimes I worry I’m a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode without any warning at all.
But I reel the power in, because Kasia is not my enemy, and she certainly doesn’t deserve my rage.
She stares across the frozen stretch of woodland, lashes coated in snowflakes, and exhales, breath visible in the cold. “I believe maintaining the Borderlands is the right thing to do. But many of the others are restless. This isn’t their home. It never will be.”
“The clans can’t leave. Not when there are still survivors out there.” I need somewhere safe to bring my friends when I find them.
I need to be able to give them hope.
Kasia motions toward Nix, who immediately stalks back through the forest. With a final glance my way, she adds, “I won’t go to battle with you, but that doesn’t mean I’m not on your side, Nami. Try to remember that when you feel like setting the world on fire.”
She vanishes back through the heavy silver birch, and I remain standing until the snow covers the footsteps she left behind.
A reminder that even when I’m surrounded by humans—humans who have given me sanctuary since the day I chased the stars through the desert—I’m still alone.
I spend the rest of the evening training near the western border, where the snowfall is constant but the fields are wide. I let the energy build in my palms, and knock down makeshift targets in the distance. Stones, sticks—they’re all fair game in this lifeless, empty place.
Even when I’m exhausted, I keep going. Even when my muscles ache, I don’t stop.
The Border Clans won’t fight; when the day comes that I return to the Four Courts, I’ll be going alone. If I only get one chance at a rescue mission, I need to be ready. So I train to be quicker with a dagger, and better with my veils, and more resilient to pain.
One day I will become a weapon my enemy won’t see coming—and then I’ll leave these walls and track down every single person I left behind.
I’ll rest when they’re all free.
I practice throwing my blade, forcing it to arc through the air and swing back toward me. I catch it a few times, miss a few others. And then, as I watch the red blade spin through the sky and reach out my hand, my tiredness catches up with me, and I fumble my grip.
The blade nicks my wrist before falling into the snow behind me. At my feet, I count droplets of bright red blood.
A hiss escapes through my teeth as I inspect the wound, putting pressure against it out of habit. The same place where my O-Tech watch used to sit.
A flash of Ophelia’s black void appears in my mind, and the memory makes my spine tense.
I haven’t accidentally called on her. But sometimes I wonder if reaching out to the Residents is the only way I’ll ever be able to find out where the Colony is being held.
It’s a reckless idea. And maybe if I weren’t so tired, I wouldn’t even be entertaining it.
Desperation pounds at the floodgates, demanding an answer.
I failed them once. I can’t fail them again.
I brush my thumb over my wrist, smearing blood, but it isn’t Ophelia I think of. It’s someone who never felt truly Resident or human.
I think of the prince who let me escape.
The scent of pine hits me hard, forcing me back to reality with a violent shudder.
I blink several times, regaining my composure. Talking to Caelan again… I’m not sure if I’m ready to open that door. If I’ll ever be ready.
And why waste time trying to get information out of a liar?
I tear my hand away from my wrist, grab my knife, and force myself back through the snow.