I’m not sure how long I’m hunched in the Fade, crying. But I cry until there are no tears left. With my palms, I dry my cheeks and push my face back in place. My breaths are still ragged when I stand. I’ve cried out everything and all that’s left is my resolve.
“Let’s go, you and I, one last time.”
Hook walks with me through the Fade. The tendrils of mist that surround me begin to thin and a twilight forest begins to come into focus. The line between my world and his thins and the moment I cross over is like a crack to the back of my head.
The last of Eldas’s magic leaves me, vanishing on the wind, as though it had never been there to begin with. I’ve taken ten steps when a final whine alerts me to the fact that I am now walking alone. I stop and look back to Hook. He sits on the edge of the Fade, daring to go no further. His ears and tail are low and still, brow tilted with sorrow.
“Go back,” I command weakly. “And thank you, for everything.” Hook gives a bark, then another. “Take care, Hook,” I force myself to say.
A lonely howl echoes through the sun-dappled redwood forest as I make my way down the path and to the temple.
I don’t look back. I keep my eyes forward on the world I’ve been longing for. The air is as I remember—sweet with peat, the smell of redwood sap, and a tang of ocean spray. Late spring is in the woods and it fills me with a vitality that can’t be replicated on Midscape. It smooths over the pains of leaving, invigorating my steps. It is life, not just the illusion of it that reigned in Midscape.
A Keeper sweeping the area in front of the main temple is the first to see me. He scrunches his brow and tilts his head, as if trying to figure out why someone from Capton has ended up in the deep wood by the Fade.
“You…” His broom clatters against the stone walkway as his grip goes slack. The muscles in his jaw fail him as well. Words have failed him. “You— You— You’re—”
“I need to speak with the Head Keeper.” I look up at the sanctum in the shadow of the mountain rising above Capton. The mountain looks the same on the other side of the Fade, like a mirror. And where the castle is in Quinnar, the temple sits in Capton.
The man runs off without another word. He comes back not only with the Head Keeper, but the rest of the Keepers of the Fade as well. They stand in shock and awe, looking as if they’ve all just been struck on the head.
“Luella?” the Head Keeper whispers. “Is it truly you?”
“It is.” I nod. “I’m here on a mission for both our worlds.”
“A mission?” she whispers almost reverently. They stare at me like I’m some kind of goddess incarnate, walking among them. I suppose I am the first queen who’s returned outside of Midsummer. And returned without a host of elves surrounding her.
“May I walk the temple grounds freely?” I ask. I know there are some places relegated to the Keepers of the Fade only.
“Of course, Your Majesty.” The Head Keeper bows and I start into the sanctum, not bothering with the discussion of titles just yet. I don’t know what people in Capton will refer to me as. I don’t even know if I’m staying yet.
I pause at the altar that Eldas and I stood before nearly three months ago. It seems like a lifetime. A dull ache thrums through me like a low drum with every heartbeat until I can’t bear to stare at it any longer.
If my theory is correct, and balance must be restored, then the temple is a mirror for the castle of Quinnar, and what the Keepers refer to as the sanctum is merely the entry hall.
Turning, I walk as if I’m back in Midscape, just in reverse. I slowly progress, Keepers following me, until I arrive at a clearing in the center of the temple grounds. There before me is the largest redwood tree of the forest.
“The throne was the roots for this tree,” I whisper. A similar energy hums within its mighty trunk. It rains down from the leafy boughs soaring above me.
“Pardon?” The Head Keeper steps to my side.
“Sorry, I’ll explain soon.”
I cross the threshold of stone and grass and walk over to the tree.
Everything was meant to be in balance, for it to work. Lilian based her part of the first king’s and queen’s magic on ritumancy—the idea that the arrangement of items and actions in time can hold inherent magic. It’s not identical, as there is no equal to the queen’s magic. But it was close enough that Lilian could leave a piece out of place.
I walk over to the large tree—the mirror of the throne in the Natural World. At its base, I kneel down and set the heartroot on the ground next to me. I begin to dig with my hands.
This soil…the earth that nurtured this tree and the young women who came from it for decades. It will hold the first heartroot back in the Natural World. I remove the necklace I found with Lilian’s journal from around my neck and bury it first. Then, I carefully unpot the heartroot and arrange its roots around the token.
The tree represents the throne.
Lilian’s necklace represents that dark place my consciousness would go to.
The heartroot encases it all. It restores the balance. The heartroot remembers where it has been, and my hands pat earth tightly around it.
A perfect mirror of Midscape in the Natural World, now complete. The missing piece that kept the worlds out of balance, restored. I sit back on my heels, staring up at the tree with a little smile. All it took was a plant, a necklace, and some understanding.
“Thanks for making it simple, Lilian,” I whisper.
“What did you do?” The Head Keeper asks.
The Keepers have surrounded me, looking on in confusion. They can’t feel the magic that’s beginning to flow through this tree. They don’t know that the essence of this world is being soaked up by the branches that scrape the clouds and pushed through the Fade—through a tangle of roots—and into Midscape.
They aren’t aware of any of it. But I am. Because even though I might never return to Midscape again, I will always be the last Human Queen.
I finally say, “I ended it.”
For five days, I wait.
I’ve commanded the Keepers to keep my presence a secret. It’s a painful demand and I spend every night staring out the window of the room they’ve given me, looking down at the glittering lights of Capton and second-guessing my choice. But I know it’s the right choice. If I’m wrong, giving my parents and Capton hope the cycle has ended and then immediately taking it from them would be too cruel.
I don’t sleep much. Everything is too…normal. This place, these people…they’ve managed to continue on with their lives like nothing has happened. It was my world that changed in the past three months, not theirs. A fact that has me shifting in my suddenly too-small bed like I’m lying on pins.
Because of this, I’m awake when the elf messenger arrives. A Keeper comes to my room in a rush, breathless. “Your Majesty, we need—there’s a messenger here from beyond the Fade.”
“What did he say?” I step away from my window.
“Nothing other than he’ll only speak to you.”
“Let’s not keep him waiting, then.” I’m not sure what to expect from this interaction, but I gather my courage to ask, “Is the Elf King with him?”
“No, thank the Forgotten Gods,” the Keeper mumbles. He doesn’t even bother apologizing. He assumes the sentiment is mutual. After all, who in Capton could ever think of Eldas as anything good after his last display during the Town Hall? It took me weeks to soften to him.
The messenger wears the armor of a Quinnar knight and I vaguely recognize him as one of the knights who first came to collect me. He waits in the center of the sanctum, relaxed in the face of the wary stares given to him by the Keepers. I see some of them reaching for their labradorite on instinct and I can’t suppress a smile. I remember being just like them, afraid at the mere sight of an elf.
“Your Majesty.” The elf bows his head at me.
“What news from Quinnar?” I ask, somewhat eager. I assume that this man’s presence means there’s been a sign of my success or failure. When I left, the throne was in need of charging. I brace myself to hear words of snow, to hear Eldas’s demands funneled through this man, commanding me back.
But then he says, “The redwood throne has sprouted limbs and holds leaves. General Rinni asked me to tell you that the Elf King sends his congratulations. That your efforts on behalf of the Natural World and Midscape have worked.”
“If that’s true…” The Head Keeper steps forward, looking to me. “Then what you explained to us on your arrival has come to pass?”
The first night was a long explanation with the Head Keeper and a few of her most trusted advisers. I had filled them in on the broad strokes of my mission and what was occurring in Midscape while they told me that Luke had been sent to the prison in Lanton for what he’d done.
“I believe so.” I smile for show. The world doesn’t seem to glisten or glow with joy. I have done something previously thought impossible. I have helped save two worlds. And yet…I am hollow. There’s a void in me that can’t be filled. Nothing is quite as sharp, or bright, or colorful as I expected.
“With that,” the elf messenger continues, “the king has concluded your business is finished, and wishes you well. I will retrieve Poppy and we will depart.”
Nothing seems quite real as I drift from one room to the next. I speak with people, I think, but I can’t be sure. There’s a vague sense that I thanked Poppy for her work, telling her to squeeze Willow tightly for me before bidding her farewell. The Keepers continue to ask me questions that I do my best to answer as much as I’m able—as much as I think they’ll understand.
The cycle is over. I ended it. I will never have to return to Midscape. Eldas won’t come demanding me.
I should be excited. And yet—
The world comes back into focus the second I see my mother standing at the entrance to the sanctum, my father next to her. I run over to them, throwing my arms around both of them at the same time. It’s an awkward, weepy embrace, but I feel more than I have felt in days.