Kahli scanned the dazzling white snow, looking for a sign of the guards, but they appeared to be alone. That’s what the vamp world was, appearances and illusions, the false façade of an evil society. One thing at a time, she told herself. “I’m not running, Cass. It isn’t sunset yet. The game isn’t over. I can’t leave the flag. I have to go get it.” She didn’t want Missy’s blood on her hands. Smacking down someone who talks trash about your friends is one thing, killing them is quite another.
Cassie stared at her like she had two heads, “But we’ve already won. What’s the point?”
Kahli shrugged, “I don’t know. There may be no point, but I have to find out. What would happen if we had both? What would happen tonight if our team had the flag and all the items on the list?” Cassie shook her head, unsure. “That’s my point. Nobody knows. And we have very little leverage to get any say in anything. I can’t leave the flag there. I have to try…”
Kahli desperately wanted Cassie to understand. It felt like there was a hand crushing her chest, squeezing her heart. The joy was sucked out of Cassie as she spoke, her expression becoming dower; her dark eyes surged with worry. That was the last thing Kahli wanted, but the flag was too valuable. She had to get it. Kahli pressed the bag into Cassie’s arms. “Take this to the palace and I’ll meet up with you at nightfall.”
There wasn’t much said beyond that. Cassie understood what Kahli meant, why she wanted the flag—but a girl in her position couldn’t afford to do something like that. She was weak as it was. The idea of running through the snow and trying to get past the other team to get to the flag, well, it was beyond her. Cassie took the pack, and walked away, leaving Kahli alone.
Kahli hiked toward the western side of the palace. She hoped Cassie didn’t get her bag jacked on the way back to the palace. That was the only risk in letting her walk back alone, but she didn’t think that the other team had it in them. Everyone was so afraid of getting bruised or scratched that they didn’t fight back. That desire was driven out of them and replaced with fear.
The hairs on the back of Kahli’s neck prickled. She felt like someone was following her, but when she looked back, no one was there. It must be the guards, she thought to herself. Ignoring them, she walked on, careful to remain hidden. Wandering the western property, Kahli walked through frozen glens and the Queen’s rose garden. Each flower sparkled like it was cut from crystal and planted in the snow. The colors—reds, pinks, whites, yellows—all peered through the ice. It was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. The Queen must have had the roses grown indoors, and then had the flowers planted. The world had grown so cold, that roses iced before they had a chance to wither and die. As she glanced around, Kahli noticed the entire garden was like that. Nothing was barren. It made her pause. Kahli bent at the knees and snapped a rose from the slender bush. It came off in her hands, the thorns sharp as iron, protruding from the sides. Kahli rolled it between her fingers, admiring its beauty before placing it in her pocket with the frozen shiv. She made a mental note to get weapons that wouldn’t melt as soon as possible.
Kahli passed the garden through a stone archway that was dusted with snow, and moved toward a lake in the distance. It shone like a mirror as the sun set behind it, blinding her. Kahli raised her hand and saw it. There to the right of the lake was a white tower. The lake was in front of it, making her an easy target. She’d have to go around another way to see if she could get close. It was possible that the opposing team had given up and headed indoors, but Kahli wasn’t going to chance it. The flag was too important. Glancing over her shoulder, she doubled back and moved around the edge of the lake out of sight.
Crouched behind snow drifts, Kahli moved methodically closer to the tower of ice and snow. It stood about ten feet tall and twenty feet wide, large enough to hold a few people. But were they inside? Feeling the sharpened ice in her coat pocket, she wondered how insane it was to try and force a flag from them. They had to be desperate by now, especially if they knew that she’d taken their bag. Kahli approached, silently, moving closer and closer until there were only a few feet between her and the wall of ice. There had to be an opening into the fort, but she didn’t see it. Listening for signs of life, Kahli waited, but the only noise she heard was the rush of wind.
Kahli approached the fortress carefully. It appeared to be abandoned. At the top of the structure, there was a tiny pole. At the top of the pole flew a small white flag with silver stitched around the edges. That was it. Kahli turned her head side to side, looking and listening for danger. The sensation that eyes were on her didn’t cease, but she didn’t consider it again. Cassie said the place was crawling with guards.
After a few minutes of circling the bottom of the wall, Kahli was certain that the post was abandoned. There was no one else here, but her. She took her time, trying to reach the flag. The first attempt to scale the exterior wall landed Kahli on her butt. There was no purchase in the ice. It was like the snow had been smoothed into a seamless sheet and raised into walls. Kahli’s body was numb. Her cheeks stung. The cold had soaked through her clothing ages ago, and it was becoming more and more appealing to lay down in the snow and rest. But she knew what that was, what that meant. People who rested in the snow didn’t get up again. Hypothermia snuck up on them, and before they knew what happened, the snow felt warm and soft. Her mother had taught her well. Kahli remembered and never rested on the snow.
Pressing her hands to her head, Kahli growled, irritated. She’d gotten this far and it was for nothing. The sun was beginning to sink. There was less than an hour to grab the flag and make it back to the palace. Kahli looked around for something to use, something to make it possible to scale the short wall and grab the flag. But there was nothing. Without thinking about it, she shoved her hands in her pockets. She wrapped her fingers around the rose and the shiv. She fumbled them in her hands, staring at the wall, thinking. The ice was thick. The rose stem felt like a nail in her hand. Her eyes widened, and she pulled the icicle out, gazing at it, then back at the walls. They were built today. Even if they appeared to be ice, they weren’t. The snow beneath didn’t have time to turn into that gleaming frozen stone that covered everything. She wondered if the wedge of ice was stronger than the wall. There was only one way to find out. Kahli pressed her hand to the side of the fort. With her other hand, she gripped the shiv tightly, and slammed her hand into the wall just above her head, stabbing it. The piece of ice sank through the surface and into the wall. Kahli’s lips spread into a thin smile.
She repeated the action with the rose, hoping that it would hold as well. The thorns cut into her palm, but it didn’t break. She hoisted herself up the wall, one, two, three, times and she could reach the top wall. Her right hand left a smear of blood over the perfectly white walls. It soaked into the snow, turning orange as it spidered into the ice. Her heart was pounding as she pulled herself to the top of the wall, and pushed up.
There was no one in the fort below her. No one to stop her. The interior of the fort didn’t look the way she’d hoped. The center was a hollow cylinder, except for the pole holding the scrap of fabric. How did they get it up there? It was like they threw the flag and it attached to the top of the pole on its own. There was no way to get it down. Not without reaching the pole from the top. Sighing, Kahli edged forward, slowly, carefully. She could almost reach the flag. It was right in front of her, fluttering on the pole. If she reached out, she’d have it already, but there was nothing to prevent her from falling, nothing to hold on to. Kahli edged closer to the flag, feeling the wall becoming slicker the closer she got. A gust of wind could knock her down now, and she’d break her neck.
The flag was so close. Her feet wanted to slide out from beneath her. They barely had purchase. The wind shifted and blew the flag hard, in her direction. Reaching out, Kahli thought of nothing but the flag. It was so close. The gust made the flag snap, the little triangle stretching toward her outreached hand. Kahli’s fingertips caught the edge, and she yanked it hard. The flag released, and Kahli slipped backward and over the edge of the wall. A scream tore from her throat as she sailed toward the ground, her fingers clutching the scrap of cloth in her hands. Frantically, she tried to grip the walls to slow her fall, but they were solid. The tools she used to scale the wall were gone and she was in a free fall.
Before her head hit the ice, someone was under her, but they didn’t stop her fall. Instead, she crushed them and rolled to the side. When Kahli’s back collided with the ground, the wind was knocked out of her. She made strangled sounds, trying to breathe. A hand was on her back as she panicked.
“You’re all right. Breathe. Just breathe.” It was Cole. He was breathless and kneeling next to her. Suddenly her lungs worked and heaved in air like she was dying. She took a few strangled breaths and pushed herself up. “You okay?”
Gasping, she asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Following you. After you sent Cassie back to the palace, I followed you,” he pulled his cap off, messing up his short black hair, “I saw you take the things from the other team. I knew you did it to save my sister. I can’t thank you enough,” he bit back the distain he felt for her. This was too important, “You spared her life. But I don’t understand what this was?” His thumb jabbed toward the empty pole. “Why was this risk necessary?”
Kahli pushed herself up, wincing at the stabbing pain in her ankle, “Why is everything a risk? Some things are just necessary, okay?”
“Like a broken ankle?” Cole looked down at her foot. She wanted to put all her weight on that leg, but couldn’t.
“If this does what I think it’ll do, then it was worth a sprain.” Kahli glanced at Cole and then back at the sun. They had less than half an hour to bring the flag to the palace from the looks of it. “What happens if we don’t get there on time?”