I’ve never been so terrified in my life.
I run so hard and fast, my breath scours my throat. I don’t even know how long I’ve been running. Agony spikes my legs with every step, but I can’t stop. I don’t dare.
It’s dark, but I don’t want to see. I don’t want to hear, either, but I can’t help it.
Screams. High-pitched screams. A little girl, tortured—her soul ripped apart. It’s awful, and it goes on and on and on . . . my God, when will it stop? It has to stop!
Another scream. A man. I know the voice, but I don’t want to know it. I don’t want to hear it. I can’t. I keep running.
A face leaps out of the darkness, blocking my path. Its size is impossible—as tall as I am, white-pale skin stretching over bloodshot white-orb eyes and a mouth open so wide it could swallow me. I scream, but no sound comes out. I back up, but I can’t turn away. The blank eyes lock on mine, and bloody tears start streaming down its cheeks.
I step back into nothingness. The last thing I see is the head exploding into scarlet mist.
I fall backward, flail my arms and legs, catch on nothing. The dirt walls of this pit are out of reach, but I can see them, see the twisted faces undulating just under their surface. I see their clawed fingers reaching out to me. Their susurrant voices call to me in a language I can’t understand, but the meaning is clear.
These are my dead, and they’re hungry for my company.
The voices keen louder as I plummet. I try to plug my ears, close my eyes, but I can’t block them out. They fill my senses until a blinding-sharp pain pierces my spine. I raise my head and see it: a massive metal spike impaled through the middle of my body. I hang on it, twisting helplessly as the dead souls above claw through their dirt coffins and crawl down to claim me as their own. . . .
“NO!” I scream.
“Clea,” a voice says. “Clea, it’s okay. . . . It’s not real. . . . You’re safe now. You’re okay.”
I hear him, but I feel too foggy to understand. The pain in my back is fading, but my face hurts like something’s slicing into it. A rush of cold washes over me, and I don’t want to open my eyes. I’m more afraid now than I was surrounded by the dead, but the reason why floats out of my grasp. All my attention narrows to the strap of pain eating across my forehead, my eye, my nose. . . .
A seat belt. It’s a seat belt. I’m in a car. Of course I’m in a car—I can feel it now, the familiar hum and vibration and movement. I must have fallen asleep slumped against the seat belt.
I sit up and wince away from the sting. The pain in my face ebbs, but other aches and flames explode all over my body. I open my eyes . . .
. . . and see Nico, Rayna’s boyfriend, staring down at me. It’s dark outside, but I can see him in the streaking headlights from cars going in the opposite direction. He’s so tall and broad, he looks stuffed into the backseat, like it’s a clown car. He’s not belted in; he’s braced over me, one hand on the back of the passenger seat and one hand on the seat behind my head, his body tenting mine. Twigs and leaves mat his blond hair and dirt smears his face, but his deep brown eyes grip me. They’re so filled with worry and—
Nico has blue eyes.
I gasp as I remember everything. I see it all—the maelstrom in the woods, bullets and branches everywhere. . . . Nico—the real one—with the dagger in his hand, his moment of hesitation as he held it above Sage’s chest . . . I see Ben tackling him, the horror in Ben’s face when he saw the dagger embedded in Nico’s stomach. Then Sloane, leaping up and grabbing the dagger, plunging it into Sage and killing him, killing him, for real and forever.
I stare down at my hands and see the shadowy mess of dried blood from cradling Sage’s body. A bubble of agony rises in the pit of my stomach as I remember his face, vacant and empty, his body lifeless in my arms. . . .
“Clea,” Nico says. “Look at me. It’s okay.”
I do look at him, but only at his eyes. His brown eyes.
“Sage?” I ask.
He smiles, and I see double. It’s Nico’s face, it is, but that’s Sage’s slow, sideways smile, and Sage’s eyes, Sage’s soul.
The relief is so overwhelming I can’t breathe. I try to throw my arms around him, but the seat belt catches and jars me backward.
“Here,” he says. He reaches across me to gently play out slack in the belt, leaning forward so, for just a moment, his neck and cheek are by my lips. My heart pounds, and I breathe deep to take in his scent.
But it’s not there. I smell something musky, with a chemical sweetness. And when he pulls the seat belt loose enough that I could easily lean into his arms . . . I don’t.
“Thanks,” I say instead. I don’t touch his hand as I gently take the belt back from him and ease it into place over my chest. “I’m good.”
He smiles, but his eyes betray him. He looks wounded, which hurts like a punch, until another image bursts into my head: Sage wrapped in the arms of another woman, kissing her and tearing at her clothes.
He severed our soul connection to be with another woman . . . so why is he looking at me like he loves me?
It’s Ben’s voice, and it’s as tight as his hands gripping the steering wheel.
“Are you okay?” In the rearview mirror, I see his eyes dart to Sage. “Is she okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say. It’s not exactly the truth, but there aren’t words to explain how I actually feel. “What happened? The last thing I remember . . .”
The last thing I remember is Nico’s ravaged body healing right in front of me. But how did I get from there to here?
“You passed out,” Ben says. “We carried you back to the car. Nico—Sage carried you back to the car.”
“I passed out?”
Sage laughs—a low chuckle that reverberates deliciously in my stomach. “Was I right?”
I’m clearly on the outside of the joke, and I don’t like it. “Were you right about what?”
“Ben was worried about you. I told him you’d be fine . . . just furious at yourself.”
I don’t know if I’m angry at him because I’m offended, or because I’m annoyed that he’s right.
“I’m not the passing-out type.”
“You’re human, Clea,” Sage says. “It’s okay.” He puts his hand on my cheek, and my skin vibrates at his touch. I don’t even realize I’m leaning into its pressure until he moves it to slowly brush back my hair. He does it gently, barely grazing my bruises.
His eyes. I thought I’d never see them again, and now they’re looking at me with so much love I want to cry.
“ ‘Human’ is simplifying it,” Ben cuts in. He looks pointedly at Sage between glances out the windshield. “It’s not like she’s Blanche DuBois with ‘the vapors.’ You had a vasovagal response,” he continues, turning his eyes to mine. “It’s one way the body can react to stress. Your heart rate and blood pressure drop, which reduces blood flow to the brain. I have the same thing when I get shots.”
“Really?” Sage asks.
Even in the darkness I can see Ben’s face go bright red, but his voice stays strident. “I’m just saying, it’s not a sign of weakness or anything. It’s normal.”
“Well, that’s good,” I say. “I’d hate to think anything about our situation wasn’t normal.”
Sage laughs out loud. “She’s fine.”
He stretches back as far as he can in the cramped space and closes his eyes.
I stare as each streetlight thrusts him into a momentary glow. A couple of minutes ago I couldn’t bear to move into his arms; now I’m aching to shift next to him and lay my head against his chest.
But what would happen if I did? Whatever I saw in his eyes just now, it doesn’t change what he did. He broke the tie between us. Forever. Didn’t he?
Another car streaks past, and in its light I see him wince. He looks pale, too, but I can’t really tell—even tanned, Nico’s skin is so light it’s hard to say. Then he takes a long, measured breath through his nose and presses his lips together. The muscle in his jaw flexes as he concentrates.
“Sage?” I ask. “Are you okay?”
He nods his head, but barely.
“He’s having some issues,” Ben says. “He’s been like that most of the ride. He perked up when you started talking, but mostly it’s been that. You know, when he wasn’t yelling at me to pull over so he could puke his guts out.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with him?”
Through the rearview mirror, Ben gives me the driest look imaginable. “I honestly don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.”
“Okay, fine. But I mean . . . is this normal?”
“Normal for a guy whose soul got torn out of one body and thrust into another one that I’d just killed two seconds before? Gee, I don’t know. It’s not something I deal with every day.”
There’s an edge of hysteria in his voice, and I realize he’s struggling to keep it together.
“You didn’t kill Nico. You didn’t want that to happen. You were just trying to save Sage.”
“Well, I certainly did that, right?”
He laughs, but it’s manic. I don’t like it.
Sage’s groan cuts me off. “Ben! Now!”
“Crap,” Ben mutters. He looks over his shoulder and cuts to the side of the road. We crunch onto its graveled edge, and Sage staggers out of the car. Bent double, he hurls himself to the guardrail and crawls over it. I get out in time to see him stumble down a steep weeded embankment and disappear into the darkness.
“Sage!” I shout. I start to climb the guardrail after him, but Ben takes my arm. It hurts more than it should, and I know it must be covered with more bruises.
“He doesn’t want you to see. The last few times he didn’t bother.”
“That’s just stupid. I can handle someone getting sick.”
I try to tug away, but Ben’s grip tightens.
“What’s stupid is both of you running around down there in the dark.”
I yank my phone out of my pocket and turn it on so Ben can see its glow. “Better?”
“No. It’s not exactly a floodlight, Clea. Sage is fine. He’ll come back when he’s ready.”
That’s when we hear the scream.
“Sage!” I cry, and rip away from Ben to jump over the guardrail and run blindly down the embankment, trampling through prickly brush until I run into the solid wall of Sage’s chest. He wraps one arm around me, but it’s not a hug—I can feel him leaning on me for balance.
“I’m okay,” he says. “I just stepped wrong and fell. I think I landed on something. My arm . . .”
I press a button on my phone to turn it on. It might not be a floodlight, but it’s more than enough to see what he’s talking about: a thick slab of glass, what looks like the bottom of a beer bottle, embedded across the inside of his left arm, just above the wrist.
“Oh my God . . . We have to go to the hospital.”
“We don’t. It hurts like hell, but it’s fine.”
Before I realize what he’s about to do, he grabs the glass with his right hand, yanks it free, and throws it to the ground. A wild gush of blood bubbles up and pours out of him.
“What did you do?”
“I pulled out the glass so it can heal,” he says, but his voice sounds a little spacey, and he stares at the torrent of blood as if it’s a fascinating curiosity, not a danger to his life. I have to snap him out of it.
He isn’t paying attention. He’s transfixed by his own wound. He might be going into shock. I rip off my hoodie and yell up the hill, “Ben! I need you! Call 9-1-1! And bring a towel or something from the car! NOW!”
I place my hoodie against Sage’s soaking arm and press down as hard as I can. He looks at me, childlike confusion in his eyes.
“A cut like that . . . that’s nothing. It should heal right away. . . .”
A sticky dampness wets my palms. For the second time tonight, they’re soaking in Sage’s blood. I can’t stop flashing back to before, and what it felt like to hold his lifeless body. Panic pounds in my head, but I can’t let it take over. I won’t lose him again. I force myself to calm down and speak with gentle authority.
“Don’t talk. I need you to lie down. Slowly. I don’t want you falling on anything else.”
I can’t tell if he really understands what’s happening, but he nods and lowers himself to the ground.
“Great,” I say. “That’s great. Now I’m going to raise your arm over your head.”
I kneel over his wrist and press my whole body weight against it. My hoodie squishes between my fingers like a sponge.
“They’re on their way!” Ben calls as he crunches down the hill. The ambient glow from the cars on the highway barely reaches us down here, but I can see a vague silhouette of him, and it looks like he’s carrying something. Good.
“What happened?” he asks.
“Did you find a towel?”
“I had one in my gym bag. It might not smell too great—I’ve been pushing pretty hard on the free weights, and I’m up to six miles on the treadmi—”
“Seriously?” I pull the ratty hand towel away from him and press it onto Sage’s wound.
“Sorry, I . . . Here, let me do that.”
“I’ve got it.”
“Stop. I’m stronger. He needs more pressure. On the count of three: one, two, three.”
I pull away, and Ben takes my place. Now that I’m off triage, my mind spins terrible fantasies about all the hideous, flesh-eating bacteria that could live on that sweaty gym towel and get into Sage’s bloodstream. My stomach lurches.
I need to focus. I crawl to Sage’s face and smooth the hair off his forehead. His skin is clammy and cool to the touch. I bend down close so he can see me. He has a half smile on his face, like he still can’t comprehend what’s happening.
“I feel so . . . strange,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, keeping my voice light. “That’s what happens when you almost bleed to death.”
He shakes his head. “I can’t bleed to death.”
“They drained the Elixir from you. You won’t heal anymore. Not like you used to.”
“But . . . my stomach. I saw it heal. You saw it heal.”
“That wasn’t the Elixir,” Ben says, his voice strained from the pressure he’s putting on Sage’s wrist. “It was the soul transfer. I don’t know how exactly it works, but it heals the host body.”
Healed, maybe. Now Sage’s breath comes in fast, shallow gasps, and I know it’s only a matter of minutes before he loses consciousness. I run my hand over his cheek and will him to stay awake and alive.
“You’re going to be fine,” I say. “You just need to take better care of yourself from now on, okay?”
Sage gives a single puffing laugh. “I guess you’re not the only one who’s human.”
We hear the ambulance siren, and Ben says, “Go up to the road so they see us. I’ll stay here and keep the pressure on.”
I hate to leave Sage’s side, but I lean down and kiss his cheek, then race up the embankment. I stand in the glow of our car headlights, jump up and down, wave my arms, and scream.
It works. The paramedics pull over, and two EMTs make quick work of stabilizing Sage enough to put him on a stretcher and bring him back to the ambulance. Ben and I don’t have to say anything to each other; we know I’ll ride in the ambulance and he’ll follow in the car.
Sage spends the drive unconscious, hooked to a machine that measures his heart rate and blood pressure. I sit on a hard, cold bench that keeps me close enough to hold his hand. One of the EMTs is with us, but he doesn’t ask any questions. I guess for him it’s not so strange to find three people covered in dirt and twigs, battered, bruised, and bleeding out on the side of the road.
He’s so fragile. I never thought of Sage that way, but it’s true. There’s so much I don’t understand, but I do know our time is precious. I can’t waste any more of it with doubts. “You’ll be okay,” I whisper into his ear. “I’m here for you. No matter what.”
I keep my promise and stay close as Sage is transferred from the ambulance to the emergency room. They wheel him into a room with two beds, but the other one’s blocked by a curtain. Sage is still out, so I tell the nurses what happened . . . more or less. They listen, then make me step into the hall while they pull another curtain around him and go to work.
It’s only after I plop down in the most uncomfortable molded plastic chair that I realize I have no idea where we are. We started in Vermont, I know that, but I’m not sure how long I was out. Are we closer to home? I scan the hall for clues, but there’s nothing except doctors and nurses moving briskly between doorways, and a lot of anonymous equipment.
My phone vibrates. It’s Ben. He’s in the waiting room. They won’t let him in, so he says he’ll wait until I can come out.
“And don’t forget,” he says, “Sage is Nico.”
“Right, because that was totally going to slip my mind.”
“I mean officially. For paperwork and stuff. He has Nico’s wallet in his pocket, with all Nico’s ID.”
I hadn’t even thought about that, but it’s the kind of detail Ben would never let slip.
“Thanks,” I say. “Sorry.”
“No problem. I’m here. Text or call if you need anything.”
I hang up quickly as I see a man in a white lab coat stroll into Sage’s room, and I duck in after him. He disappears behind the curtain around Sage’s bed and I hover by the door, staring at the red container of USED SHARPS for the eternity until he emerges again.
“How is he?”
Something flashes in the doctor’s eyes when he looks my way, and I know he recognizes me. I’m far from famous, but my family’s filled with some of the decade’s biggest political players, not least of whom is my mom, Senator Victoria Weston. We’re not the Kennedys or the Clintons, but I’ve had my picture in enough newspapers and magazines that some people know who I am. The doctor’s professional enough that he doesn’t say anything. He also doesn’t question if I’m authorized to hear private information about Sage, so maybe the recognition is good.
“He needed stitches and blood,” the doctor says, “but he’ll be fine. The biggest worry in a case like this is infection, so we have him on IV antibiotics plus a painkiller, and we’ll want to give him a tetanus shot . . . unless he’s had one in the last ten years?”
“I’m not sure,” I say.
“That’s fine. We’ll do it as a precaution. We’ll want him here for another couple hours, then you can take him home. The stitches will dissolve on their own, so just keep his wound clean and dry, and bring him right back to the emergency room if he develops a fever or shows any sign of infection.”
“Good.” He nods toward the curtain around Sage’s bed. “You can go in, if you’d like. He’ll drift in and out of sleep, but when I left him, he was awake.”
I don’t even respond; I dart past him and pull aside the curtain.
Sage is awake, but he looks like he’s in a daze. He stares down at the back of his good hand, where the IV line disappears into his skin. His other hand is bandaged, to hide the brand-new stitches. For a moment, I concentrate hard enough to stencil Sage’s old body over this one: dark hair; angular face with the slightest growth of stubble around the mouth, chin, and neck; sinewy body; Italian olive skin and chocolate eyes.
It’s an impossible image to hold. The eyes are still there, but every other part of him is milk-fed farm boy.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” he says. His voice is relaxed and dreamy.
“Of course. You were hurt.”
“No . . . I mean thank you for letting me see this.” He raises his hand with the tube snaking out of it, then turns to indicate the IV stand and electric monitor that beeps as it measures his vitals. “Magnificent.”
It sounds bizarre, until I think about it. “I guess if you haven’t been in a hospital for five hundred years, it’s pretty amazing.”
“Five hundred years? I knew it was a long time . . . but that long?”
“What do you mean? Don’t you remember?”
He shakes his head. “I remember Magda, that old woman in Japan . . . the things she showed us . . . images from a long time ago. People . . . you and Ben, but you didn’t look like yourselves. And I was there too, but I always looked the same, year after year after year. . . .”
His dreamy voice rings out in the room, and I dart my eyes to the curtain separating us from the next bed. I lean in close to Sage and whisper, “That’s because you never died. You drank the Elixir of Life, remember?”
“I do remember. . . . I remember knowing about the Elixir, and that I’ve had a long life . . . but I don’t remember living it. Does that make sense?”
“No. Not really.”
“That day I met you in Brazil . . . I took one look at you, and knew I loved you, at that moment and forever.”
“Right. Because you already knew me.”
“I suppose . . .”
He squeezes his brows together, as if struggling to find something in his mind. Then he gives up and shrugs. “It’s not there. I don’t remember. I remember you. Clea Raymond. The minute you and I met . . . that’s when my memories start.”