Kieran finished coaxing the early flames into a comfortable blaze and turned to reach for his bow. It was gone, and he rose hastily, abruptly recognizing the feel of another’s hand on his weapon.
Troy, he thought, heading toward the feeling at a quick lope. Plunging through the quickly-darkening grove of trees he’d assigned the stranger to, he wasn’t too surprised when his sense led him through it and out the other side. He didn’t hesitate when he came out into the now dusk-lit meadow, quickening his pace when his senses twanged in alarm.
Bursting through the thin row of trees that separated the small meadow from a much larger one on its other side, he spotted Troy. The blond stood in the middle of the large meadow, his gaze fixed on the enormous flowering tree at its far end, a tree that was still strangely visible in the otherwise almost-dark meadow. Small lights twinkled around Troy, and the blond took a slow step forward.
Kieran broke into a dead run, ignoring the small lights that started to flicker around him too, pushing himself faster.
Troy took another step, his gaze never wavering from the tree.
Kieran kept his gaze fixed on the blond, never glancing beyond him. The small lights were thicker now, dancing in smooth patterns around Troy. Their moves around Kieran were jerky and erratic, and he never looked at them.
It seemed to take forever to reach Troy, and the air seemed thicker and harder to breathe as the Guardian neared him. He didn’t stop or slow, just took the blond down in one searing tackle, catching Troy in midstep closer to the tree.
“Umph,” Troy grunted as they hit, but he didn’t struggle or move.
Kieran scrambled off the blond, grabbing his arm and hauling him up in one quick move, then turned him away from the tree. The lights danced furiously around them, and Kieran batted one out of his face. “Troy, move!” he demanded. “Now!”
Troy blinked at him. “Wha—?”
Troy’s gaze shifted, caught by one of the lights, and Kieran slapped him across the face, open-handed. “Do not look at them!”
The blow rocked Troy on his feet, and he looked at Kieran, his gaze startled, but he was awake and alert.
Kieran didn’t wait for his reaction, just pulled him forward, away from the tree. “Run!”
Caught by the man’s fierce tone, Troy obeyed, and they ran, unsteadily at first until the blond found his balance, then their strides lengthened until both were racing across the meadow.
Lights danced around them, but they were fading and fewer, until by the time the two men broke through the screen of trees into the smaller meadow, there were only a few flickering dimly around them. There Kieran paused just long enough to snatch up the bow and arrows Troy had dropped, then pushed them both back into a lope across the open space, not letting them slow until they reached the by-now-familiar grove of trees, and then only to a fast walk.
The campsite looked just as it had when he’d left, the fire crackling cheerfully in the firepit, and he urged Troy over to a rock and sat him down, laying the bow and arrows beside him, then strode immediately back to the edge of the camp and stood still, waiting.
A light flickered at the edge of the trees, then another, then two more, and Kieran heard Troy’s soft gasp.
“They’re coming for me,” he whispered.
Kieran ignored him, watching more lights group, then start dancing toward him. Five feet away they jerked to a stop, twinkling furiously, and the Guardian smiled grimly. “A’ho Ke!” he commanded, gesturing with one hand.
Fire suddenly raced across the lights, the flames seeming to hang in the air for brief seconds before dying.
The air was clear again, the evening quiet and still, only the calls of distant night birds and insects—which sounded remarkably like crickets—echoing across the quickly deepening darkness. Above them the first moon lifted over the mountain peaks.
Kieran turned on his heel and strode toward Troy, who swallowed hard at his thin-lipped look. Kieran halted beside him, then knelt, staring into his eyes.
Troy’s gaze dropped, and Kieran grabbed his chin and forced him to meet his eyes. “Your energy—is the resonance blurred?” he asked, a tension to his voice that made the blond swallow, even though he didn’t understand the words.
Kieran’s eyes narrowed, and Troy swallowed again. “I, uh, don’t understand what you’re saying.”
The Guardian’s lips thinned. “What is your sense? Of yourself?” he added impatiently when Troy hesitated.
“Oh, uh…,” the blond answered, still unsure how to respond. Kieran’s stare sharpened, and Troy bit his lip. “I’m, uh, kind of dazed, a little sleepy, but I’m all right.”
Kieran held his gaze for a long moment, then released him, sitting back on his heels. “You are leagues past the Balance set,” he growled, his voice roughening. “Deabhal, Troy!” he exploded, pushing to his feet and staring down at the seated man. “What were you doing? You paid no heed to what I said!”
“Hey,” Troy responded, looking up to meet Kieran’s gaze, his own defiant but a bit unfocused, “stop babying me! I can hunt and build fires. I know how to use a bow, and—”
“You cannot use mine!” Kieran said hotly, his hands on his hips. “Do you hear anything I say? My bow is shaped to my energy, and no one else can use it, not even you!” He took a breath, obviously reining in his anger. “You are not in your world. You cannot just wander the forest, doing whatever you please,” he growled grimly. “There are dangers here you do not know, or understand, and other predators even more deadly than the Tree of Deception. You are here. Accept that and undergo the spelling. Do it now.”
He turned away, stalking over to where his pack lay against a small tree. Rummaging through it, he pulled out some dried meat and paced back to Troy, where he divided the meal scrupulously, handing half of it to the blond.
Troy hesitated, and Kieran thrust it into his hand and turned to sit on a nearby rock, setting a water bottle directly between them.
Troy looked down at the meat, then across at Kieran. “You aren’t hunting?”
“No,” Kieran answered shortly, stubbornly chewing his mouthful. “There is no prey to be found within leagues of this area now. Denying the Tree its intended prey alerts all within this area, and they will have run as far as possible from here.”
Troy took a bite of the meat and chewed it thoroughly, judging the intensity of the other man’s anger by the direct cadence of his speech. I think I was just incredibly stupid. Why did I follow that light anyway?
“What is that tree?” Troy asked when the silence grew too intense.
Kieran looked over at him for a long moment, as if deciding to answer. “That was the Tree of Deception. A few steps more, and you would have lost your soul to it. It hunts by drawing prey with the will-o’-the-wisps until you see the Tree itself, whose enchantment grows ever stronger as you approach ever closer.”
“It was so beautiful,” Troy muttered dreamily, not looking at the Guardian.
Kieran studied him, worry lines tightening around the corners of his eyes, then he leaned over and hit Troy, hard.
Troy tumbled back, landing on the ground with a yelp. “What the hell was that for?” he asked, one hand coming up to probe his chin while he stared at Kieran.
“I am forcing you away from the Tree,” Kieran answered grimly. “Those who approach the Tree of Deception too near may be rescued in body, but a part of their soul belongs to the Tree.” He held Troy’s eyes. “They wander all their lives searching for it, often drawn back to the Tree months or years later, to be devoured there.”
Troy stared at him, caught by a cold shiver that raced through him. “I—? Did I get too close?” Why can’t I just wake up? He moved to seat himself on the rock again and picked up the meat, which had luckily landed on another rock, and not dirt.
Kieran’s expression shuttered. “I hope you did not.” He shifted to catch Troy’s gaze. “I will Balance-spell you—tonight.”
The flat tone roused all of Troy’s ingrained hatred for orders, and he shook his head, not trusting himself to answer in words as hot anger rushed through him. You sound just like my father!
The Guardian stared at him for a long moment, then sighed, his shoulders relaxing. “As you will,” he said softly.
Troy forced a breath, trying to loosen tense muscles. He might be right, a small, reasonable part of himself pointed out. If what he says is true, Balance-spelling wouldn’t save me from predators, but it would make me less of a target. And that’s not a bad thing.
But he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bring himself to let go, to trust the man that far. He somehow knew that Kieran would hold Troy’s very self and his own sense of it in this world in his hands when he cast the spell, and Troy fought back the urge to fling angry words in the man’s face, to stalk off to bed like the teen he wasn’t. Just breathe. Let it all drain out, and breathe. He’s not my father, this isn’t a repeat of our arguments, and I can’t take it out on him, especially after what he just saved me from.
Troy nodded to Kieran and stood, carefully stepping over to his sleeping pallet and peeling back the blankets to crawl in.