THE STORM PUT A HITCH in their plan.
As he watched the rain sluice off the rooftops and darken as it disappeared into the gutters, Alex felt the thrum of apprehension underneath his skin, heavy and unwelcome. He drew in his shoulders against the cold snap of the wind. It wasn’t as though they hadn't operated in worse conditions, he thought; the Phantoms had pushed through everything from dust storms to blizzards, had never let something as trivial as weather get in the way of a perfect score. But it had gotten harder.
The Dragonhands had gotten smarter, and in the last few months, they had had to make increasingly complicated plans on shorter and shorter timelines. It felt like playing an endless game of chess, with the Phantoms scrambling desperately to always stay two moves ahead. Tonight’s heist had been thrown together in the span of the few hours since they’d gotten intel about the shipment, and it rested heavily on the marble-sized smoke bombs that currently lined the inside of Alex’s coat—the ones that the storm made obsolete.
Alex pulled his hood low over his eyes as he crossed the deserted street, avoiding the pockets of dim yellow light cast by the oil lamps. He found himself wishing for the days when their names were just a whisper in the wind, a rumor that the royal guards could never quite prepare for. Now the whole city passed their title around like a legend. Wanted posters carrying sketches of their masked faces were plastered everywhere they went. There was something thrilling about their infamy, of course, a rush of pride in knowing that what they did meant enough to leave a mark. But their job had been easier when they were ghosts.
When he reached the other side, Reggie and Luke were waiting for him already, tucked away in the shadows of the alley. He slipped silently under the awning with them and shook the rain from his shoulders.
At his presence, Luke pulled a torchstone from his dark coat, the wavering glow of it illuminating the angles of his face and the sharp flash of his smile in the darkness. He had that familiar gleam in his eye, the eager spark of anticipation that always came just before a heist, and just as Alex’s caution was necessary, Luke’s excitement was reassuring. “Nice of you to join us,” he grinned quietly.
“We have a problem,” Alex said in lieu of a response.
“What, the rain?” Luke lifted an eyebrow, an inch of bravado behind his voice. “It’s a rough storm, but we can handle it. We’ll just have to be more careful on the rooftops, that’s all.”
Alex shook his head. “It’s not that. The smoke bombs are practically useless in this weather. The wind and rain will scatter the smoke too quickly.”
Beside him, Reggie straightened where he was leaning against the wall, suddenly alert. “But that’s basically the whole plan,” he hissed, his voice low but pulled taut with worry.
“So you see the problem.”
“Alright, then we’ll wing it.” Luke squared his shoulders, the determination in his expression unwavering. He did a better job of hiding his concern than Alex or Reggie, but still, Alex could sense the pinprick of his nerves, could see it in the sharpness behind his eyes, the way his hand flitted to the hilt of his sword.
“We’ll be pinned in seconds,” Alex responded flatly. “The Dragonhands will be ready for us. They’re not going to let us swoop in and take the money just like that.” The Dragonhands were the guards in charge of protecting and transporting Orpheum’s gold—Alex thought it was a fitting name, since all the royals ever did was hoard it for themselves. They were ruthless, growing more and more desperate to stop the Phantoms; if they saw them coming, they would cut the trio down where they stood.
In the distance, there was a sharp toll from the clock tower. Luke’s head jerked towards the sound, then back to Alex. “We don’t have time for a Plan B,” he said. “We don’t know when another shipment will come through, and we can’t take that chance.”
“I’m not saying we abandon ship, but we can’t go in there without a plan—”
“Do you have one? Because I’m open to suggestions!”
“The—the lightning bomb thing!” Reggie said abruptly. The other two turned to look at him, and he met Alex’s gaze first. “That project you were working on. You said it was done—do you have it with you?”
Alex felt for the weight of it in his coat pocket, a sphere the size of his palm. He’d spent weeks trying to get the formula right—a bomb that would burn with enough flash and targeted heat to rival a lighting strike, enough to stop the transport in its tracks no matter what it was fortified with. It was a dangerous weapon to carry around, and he’d brought it more as a last resort than anything—though he supposed the situation called for it now.
“I—yeah,” Alex stammered, “but I don’t even know if it works, I’ve never tested it—”
“Test it now.” Luke said from behind him. “The supply’s supposed to pass through the old blacksmith district. Those buildings are all abandoned and mostly stone; we can try it there.”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
Luke’s hands met Alex’s shoulders, steady, that immutable reassurance that grounded the buzzing under his skin like a lightning rod. “It’ll work.” The clock tower chimed again, and as Luke pulled his navy mask over the lower half of his face, there was a grin in his voice. “We’ve got this. Don’t look down, boys.”
Alex and Reggie looked at each other, and then echoed back: “Don’t look down.”
They split up before moving to the blacksmith district. It was safer to travel that way; even in the dark hooded cloaks and masks of the Phantoms, they were less recognizable on their own. Alex hung close to the shadows, ears pricked, eyes careful. By the time he had scrambled up to the desolate rooftop of one of the buildings, he was soaked to the skin.
Through the rain, he could just barely make out the faint outline of Luke’s figure landing nimbly on a balcony across the street before ducking inside. There was a palpable tension in the air. A million things could go sideways tonight: the bomb could fail, or there could be more guards than they could handle, or the information could be a ruse, or, horror of horrors, the Curse could make an appearance—Alex knew he was overdue for another episode.
Don’t look down, he told himself, playing the words on a loop inside of his head. Between the three of them, it meant a hundred things: keep pushing forward, lay the past to rest, don’t dwell on the fall. But that was easier said than done when he was standing on the roof of a five-story building with a bomb in his pocket, he thought.
In the corner of his eye, there was a brief flash of light. Reggie’s signal. Under the patter of the rain Alex heard the soft rumbling of wheels over cobblestone, and the transport rounded the corner. He held his breath, waiting, waiting. In a few seconds it was right under him. Now or never.
He sent a silent prayer to whichever gods were listening, dropped the bomb, and ducked, covering his ears.
1. 2. 3.
A flash and a sound like a clap of thunder ripped through the air. Alex shut his eyes against the blinding light and felt all the hairs on his arms jolt upright. For a moment the wind was still and white-hot, singed with static. But it passed, and he was unharmed. When he opened his eyes, the building was fully intact, and a rush of triumph surged in his chest: the bomb’s blast radius had been confined to the street. He peered over the roof’s edge as the smoke cleared.
The transport was lying on its side, half-decimated, the air around it still rippling with heat. Armored Dragonhands were dragging themselves out of the wreckage. Some of them looked worse for wear, while others were clambering to their feet; the Phantoms would have to move quickly before they got their bearings. Alex squinted down through the rain to see the shadow of Luke’s figure emerge onto the balcony across the street, perching on the railing like a raven.
Phase two, he thought, and Luke leapt off the edge.
He landed on the upturned side of the wagon, sure-footed, and drew his sword. The gleam of the blade highlighted his rain-soaked hair with silver, and he moved, true to his title, like a wraith, smooth and quiet and deadly. Alex could barely see what was happening, just the clashing of blades below.
He was so caught up in spectating that he only just ducked out of the way as a crossbow bolt whizzed past his ear. Alex bit back a curse; he’d been spotted. That was his cue—he felt a burst of adrenaline as he fastened the end of a rope to the nearest spire on the ledge and gave it a sharp tug. When he was sure it wouldn’t snap, he gripped it tight and jumped off the roof. The rope pulled taut. He slid sharply towards the ground, feeling especially grateful for the thick leather of his gloves.
The moment his boots met the cobblestone, a Dragonhand rammed into him. It caught him off guard, fear spiking in his chest; they both hit the ground, and rain and mud splattered Alex’s face. When he spotted the quick flash of a knife, instinct pushed through the panic settling in his head and he brought his knee up into the guard’s stomach, hard, and rolled desperately out of the way. The blade bit stone. Alex scrambled to his feet, and the man lunged at him again with all the fury and bared teeth of a starved wolf.
Alex had never been as good a fighter as Luke, and it was moments like these—with him jerking out of the way of a Dragonhand’s blows and fumbling for the weapon in his belt—when that worried him most.
His back hit the wall. He yanked his dagger from its sheath and parried the first strike, but the next sent his blade skittering to the ground. The man caught his wrist; Alex was sure in that second that he was dead—but then the butt of an axe handle—Reggie’s axe—slammed into the guard’s skull from behind. He crumpled to the ground in a heap, out cold.
Alex looked up with a mixture of shock and pure relief. He hadn’t even seen Reggie approach them; the latter had this habit of appearing completely out of nowhere. At the moment, though, Alex couldn’t complain. “Nice timing,” he grinned, breathless.
“You okay?” Reggie replied, eyes scanning Alex briefly, and Alex nodded.
“Peachy. Are we all packed up?”
“Just a few more, c’mon!”
The two of them pushed their way through the wreckage of the wagon, hauling bags heavy with gold coins out from under the debris. Reggie had already severed the horses from their breeching. As they tied the last few loads to the saddles, the fear and anxiety of the night gave way to the thrill of it, excitement and triumph roaring in Alex’s ears. They were close. They were winning.
“Let’s go!” Reggie called out; Alex could tell he was grinning even behind the mask. Luke’s head snapped towards them from where he was keeping the last few Dragonhands busy. Alex loaded a bolt into his crossbow and made a clean shot to one of the guards’ armored chest, sending him stumbling back, and Luke swept the feet of another out from under him. Then he bolted.
He reached Alex and Reggie with his eyes sparking and swung up onto a horse’s back as they did the same. There were shouts behind them, but the trio was already surging forward, leaving the guards in the dust and taking their coveted gold with them.
In that moment, they might have been flying. The night, the money, the whole city was theirs—the Dragonhands were nothing but spots in the distance now, had never stood a chance. As they rode through the streets, the wind whipping at their hair, Alex felt invincible.
“The Phantoms strike again!” Luke shouted, his voice flooded with pure glee.
The crack of hooves was like thunder in their wake. They were untethered, wild and roaring and inescapable. The storm had nothing on them. Somewhere behind him, Reggie gave a whoop of joy, and Alex, with his bags full of gold and the rain pelting his face, tipped his chin towards the sky and laughed.
“Drink up, boys,” Luke said as he dropped three foaming tankards in front of them. He kicked his feet onto the table and grinned. “We’ve earned it.”
“Cheers to that,” Reggie beamed; they clanked their drinks together, and Alex took a swig. The rum-spiced hot cider burned a little in his throat, the warmth of it chasing down the chill that had been left over by the storm. They’d changed out of their soaked gear and into dry tunics and vests before coming to the tavern, but he still hadn’t been able to shake the cold.
It had been worth it, though—the gold was currently safe with their distributors, being handed out to the people of Orpheum who needed it most. The satisfaction of the successful heist was settling in, mingling with the warm, jovial atmosphere of the bar to smooth over his buzzing nerves.
They never finished a job without coming here after. The Danforth-Evans’s tavern was on the outskirts of town, away from prying eyes, and it was a sort of second home to the trio. Back when they had first started, when there were four of them and they were just runaways with nothing to their name, the couple had given them work and food and a place to sleep. Since then, Alex, Luke, and Reggie had done their best to pay them back however they could: paying extra for drinks, helping out when they were needed, leaving gold behind. Though they tried to keep their identities as the Phantoms under wraps, Alex was sure that Ryan and Chad had figured out where the money was coming from. Still, they had never confronted the boys about it, and there was sort of an unspoken rule that here, any suspicions had by the patrons were never voiced. They could afford to let their guard down.
At least, to some extent. Alex still worried about the fact that the red dye was quickly fading from his hair.
“Your bomb today was epic, ” Luke said in a low voice, leaning across the table to Alex with a sparking grin. “What are we gonna call that thing?”
Alex felt himself beam as Reggie piped up, “ The Thunderbolt. Or like, Djoyan’s Hand . Cause the lightning god, y’know?”
“Those are...surprisingly not bad,” Alex admitted, and Reggie gave him an affronted look.
“You don’t have a great track record,” Alex said pointedly. “You wanted to call us ‘The Moonlight Boys,’ remember? ”
Luke snorted into his drink as Reggie jutted his lower lip out in protest. “I stand by it!”
“It doesn’t exactly invoke fear into the hearts of noblemen, Reg,” Luke said, and Reggie all but hissed at him.
Alex just laughed. Luke rolled his eyes, and for a moment it seemed like he was going to respond, but then his gaze drifted over to a table across the room where a game of Hythrones was in full swing.
Alex knew that expression. “Luke,” he said, admonishing.
“One game.” Luke turned back to give him a pleading look. “Just one.”
“We just finished a heist; we’re supposed to be laying low. Besides, isn’t our job to give money to the people, not take it away?” There was no chance of Luke losing their money, because Luke had never lost a game of Hythrones in his life. Alex was sure that most of the players there would abandon the game if he made his way over to their table, but there were a few unfamiliar faces that might unwittingly be dragged into a match or two.
“ Alex,” Luke protested in a whine, and Alex threw his hands into the air.
“My friends are children,” he grumbled. “Fine! You can play your stupid card game. If you lose all our gold I am never making you jetna rolls again.”
Luke grinned at him as he stood up, tongue between his teeth; they both knew it was an empty threat. Alex was half-tempted not to follow out of spite, but Reggie was already tailing behind Luke, so he relented, making his way across the tavern.
As they reached the other players, the round was coming to a close. Alex spotted a familiar head of blonde hair and smiled; Nick, the tavern-keepers’ son and one of the few people that the Phantoms trusted to help distribute the gold, was stacking the deck of cards and pulling coins towards himself. He saw the three of them and waved. “Hey, guys,” he beamed, as sun-bright as his hair, “glad you came. I hope you didn’t get caught in the storm, it seemed pretty intense. I’ve heard there was some crazy lightning.” There was more than a trace of humor in his voice.
“We managed to keep dry,” Luke replied lightly, his eyes flickering. “Deal in one more?” He was met with a chorus of groans from most of the table.
“Guess my winning streak just ended,” Nick grinned.
One of the frequent players, the man who owned one of the fruit stalls nearby, stood up from the table and clapped a hand on Luke’s shoulder. “Stupid kid should be banned,” he huffed, half-fond, and Luke smiled winningly back at him as he took a seat.
While Nick dealt out the cards with deft hands, Alex surveyed the rest of the table. It was a mixture of frequent patrons and a few newcomers testing their luck; most of them, Alex recognized only vaguely from around the town. His gaze settled on a man sitting at the table’s corner, a heavy navy cloak draped over his shoulders. His eyes were dark, his hair greying—Alex was sure he’d never seen him before, but there was something unsettlingly familiar about him that he couldn’t quite place.
The man caught his gaze, and something flashed over his expression. Recognition? Alex felt a prick of fear in his chest and ducked his eyes away.
He had changed since he left the castle. The year he’d spent as a Phantom had helped him grow into his limbs, and he had started dressing in commoner’s clothes, had let his hair get long enough to fall into his eyes and dyed it a ruddy orange color. But there was still a chance that the man knew his face. He spared a glance upward. The man was no longer looking at him, instead occupied with the fan of cards in his hand. Reggie gave Alex a concerned look.
He shook his head, releasing a breath. He was being paranoid. After all, as far as most of Orpheum knew, Prince Alexander was dead.
He let his eyes slip back to the game.
The players had started placing bets, gold coins gathering in a small pile in the center of the table. Alex watched as the cards changed hands, following the game carefully; he hardly ever played, but he’d picked up some of it from Luke. Luke’s stack of cards was already growing as the other players’ dwindled; the rite changed from larks to sparrows and two of them left the table, swearing under their breaths. It wasn’t long before Nick’s deck was empty, too, and not long after that when Luke and the navy-coated man were the only ones left facing each other.
Luke poured another handful of gold coins and slid them to the center of the table. The man watched him carefully before emptying his pouch—a few pieces of silver slipped out, but hardly enough to bet with. A scatter of laughs swept across the spectators.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that!”
“Alright, alright,” he relented to the crowd, his voice sandpaper-rough, and with a furtive glance around the room he slowly drew a roll of parchment from his cloak. He gripped it gingerly, like it would crumple in his hands, and placed it on the table. “Here.”
It didn’t look like much. A thin line of red thread kept it furled, and the edges of the yellowing paper were worn and tearing. Luke lifted an eyebrow at it, quizzical. “What is that?”
“This,” the man said in a low voice, his dark eyes burning with intensity, “is a map.”
The ghost of a smile crossed the man’s face. He nodded, leaning across the table. “Not just any map,” he began, hushed and dramatic, gaze sweeping over the crowd as though he were relaying some great tale. Alex fought the urge to roll his eyes. “What I have in my possession holds immense power. It has the ability to take you to your greatest wish—if you’re worthy of it. This map,” he paused here, while his audience held their breath, “will lead you to the Fallen Star.”
There was a rush of whispers across the crowd, and something in Alex’s chest jolted. “That’s a myth,” he heard himself say, half a scoff. The man’s eyes turned to him. His gaze was withering, but Alex continued anyway. “The Fallen Star doesn’t exist. It’s just an old legend.”
“Legends are built from reality,” the man replied darkly. “You have no idea what lies beyond Orpheum, do you?”
Alex bristled, the question sharp against his skin and burning with truth. He had never ventured outside the kingdom’s capital, not even after leaving the castle for good. Only traders and those with permits were allowed to cross through the gate into the neighboring villages, and the only other way out was over the high stone wall that surrounded the city and kept out the forest. Those woods bled with magic, and no human had ever ventured into them and come back alive.
There was a whole other world out there, though. It was hard not to feel claustrophobic when he was stuck within the confines of the city, living half on the run regardless of what costume he wore. In some ways, Alex was just as trapped as he had ever been.
Luke’s voice broke the unsteady silence. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, his eyes cutting between Alex and the man in front of him. “I don’t really care what you bet with; I’m just here to play.”
His opponent’s eyes lingered on Alex for a moment longer. Then he shrugged, turning his attention back to his cards. “Alright, then, on with it. First rite,” he announced, flipping over the top card of the center deck, “doves.”
And with that, the round began.
The newcomer, shockingly, kept pace with Luke. The cards moved and shuffled almost too quickly to follow, but the crowd stayed enraptured, interjecting with their own bets and commentary. Luke wasn’t playing casually like he had before; his gaze was sharp with focus, watching both the cards and his opponent’s expression intently. For most of the game, Alex couldn’t tell who would win.
But he shouldn’t have had any doubts. It was Luke, and Luke had never lost a game of Hythrones—and he clearly wasn’t starting now. With the center deck nearly gone and the odds roughly even, Luke pulled four cards from the fan of them in his hand and splayed them out on the table for the crowd to see. He’d formed a Golden Sword—the highest hand in the game. There was a burst of cheers from their audience. His opponent slumped back in his chair, defeated.
“Yeah, Luke!” Reggie laughed as Luke scraped the winnings off the table and into his pouch, beaming. When he reached for the map, though, the man across the table caught his wrist.
Instantly, Alex felt a spike of adrenaline, his hand flying to the dagger at his waist. “Let him go,” he said sharply.
Luke twisted his arm, but the man held fast. “Listen to me,” he said, and his voice was suddenly deadly serious, “that map isn’t something to take lightly. It’s powerful, do you understand?” His eyes searched Luke’s face, then Alex’s and Reggie’s. For a moment no one moved; the air was still and tense. Then he took a steeling breath. “Just...be careful.”
He let go.
Luke jerked his hand back, scooping up the map and shoving it into his bag. He turned to Alex and Reggie, and something unspoken passed between the trio: it was time for them to go. They pushed their way through the crowd, pausing only to say goodbye to Nick as they stepped out of the tavern and into the cool night air.
It had stopped raining. The streets were still slick, the wind a dull roar that swallowed the noise from the building. The three of them were quiet as they slipped back into the shadows, until they finally rounded the street corner and Reggie broke the silence. “That was weird, right?” He gave a nervous sort of laugh. “Like, I wasn’t just imagining that guy being really creepy?”
“Definitely creepy,” Alex agreed, his nerves on edge. The encounter certainly hadn’t done his anxiety any favors. Something about the stranger had felt off from the beginning, and while nothing had really happened, he couldn’t shake the feeling of dread from his shoulders.
Luke, though, didn’t say anything. Instead, he paused in his tracks and rummaged in his bag until he pulled out both his torchstone and the map. He unfurled the parchment, holding it up to the rock’s warm glow.
“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that thing,” Alex said, eyeing it critically. “It’s not like the Fallen Star actually exists.”
“How can you be so sure? There is magic outside the kingdom.” Luke’s eyes were bright even in the dim lighting. “Who knows what’s real?”
Reggie looked between the two of them. “Does someone wanna fill me in on what this thing is?”
Alex hesitated, casting a glance across the deserted street and twisting the strap of his satchel. “It’s just a story that my—that they used to tell at the castle when we were younger,” he said finally.
“Well, tell me,” Reggie said, his eyes bright and earnest.
“I don’t know if I remember everything…”
“Whatever you do remember.”
“Alright…” He was sure that the details of the story had faded with time, but as he started to speak, the words poured out of him, like he had known them by heart all along.
“They used to say that all magic in the land came from one place,” he began. “You know the tale of Jiya and Akran—the goddess of the night and the god of the day, lovers who were cursed to be apart. They reunited during the first eclipse, but when it ended, Jiya missed Akran so much that her grief shook the sky. When a star was shaken loose, Jiya decided to send it down to Earth as a gift—she couldn’t see Akran, but as long as the star was on Earth, he would always have a part of her with him. The myth says that Jiya’s love for Akran was so powerful that with the star, she gifted him a piece of her soul—and this is where Earth’s magic comes from. But apparently, only the true ruler of the land can find the star itself, and whoever commands it can grant themselves anything, and make a claim to the throne.”
“That is epic,” Reggie breathed, and something hitched in Alex’s chest.
He had loved that story as a kid. His mother used to sit him in her lap, Luke perched on the bed beside them, and regale the two of them with legends like this one, her voice lilting and soft and weaving adventures and life out of words. Back then their world had seemed so big, no dead ends in sight. Back then he’d felt safe and loved and hopeful.
The memory was a knife-twist in his gut. Alex kicked at a loose stone, eyes burning and trained on the ground; it was almost impossible to reconcile those brief flashes of warmth with the woman he now knew his mother was. Those nights of storytelling in his bedroom felt like a lifetime ago.
“It’s just a myth,” he said again, unable to keep the sharp bitterness out of his voice. “Even if you believe the stories about the gods, all that ‘rightful ruler’ stuff is bullshit, and anyway, humans can’t command magic. No human has ever been able to. Trust me, if the Star ever existed to begin with, I doubt anyone is going to find it now, and whatever power it might have had is probably long gone.”
Reggie’s mouth twisted into a frown, but there was a flash of hopefulness in his eyes as he looked at Luke. “What about the map?”
Luke gave a huff of laughter and shook his head, handing the worn parchment to him. “It doesn’t even pretend to be real—it’s a mess of lines and symbols on a page. I can’t read any of it.”
Alex peered at the map over Reggie’s shoulder. “Reg, you’re holding it upside-down,” he said, amused, and turned the page around. He didn’t understand what Luke meant; the map was beautifully made, an intricate picture of the woods outside of Orpheum’s walls etched in gold and black ink. Elegant handwriting noted important landmarks, and the long, twisting path to the star almost seemed to glow on the page. “You can read your own awful handwriting but not this? Sounds like you had a bit too much to drink,” Alex teased, looking up at Luke.
Reggie tilted his head at him. “What are you talking about? It’s practically just scribbles.”
Blinking in confusion, Alex looked back down at the map. Vivid drawings of the forest and detailed scripture still stared back at him, shimmering in the dim light. “Did both of you forget how to read?” he said with a forced half-laugh. “Or, y’know. See?”
Luke narrowed his eyes. “Alex...there’s nothing to read. There’s hardly anything here.”
“Yes, there is, ” Alex insisted, thrusting the map at Luke and pointing at the images and words. “Look, Orpheum’s wall is labeled right there. They marked the neighboring villages, too, there’s Tovind, West Kraw, Thrushing—they named this river the Malatori River—how can you not see this?” Luke just stared at him, shaking his head. Alex knew his voice was bordering on desperate, but the dread that had formed when he first made eye contact with the stranger in the pub was trickling back in. “I don’t understand...”
“Only the true ruler of the land can find the star.” Reggie’s voice came in a sudden whisper, barely loud enough to be heard. Alex and Luke turned to look at him, and in the pale light of the torchstone his eyes were glittering. “What if—”
“ No. ” There was a little more force behind his words than strictly necessary. Alex shut his eyes, pushing the map into Luke’s hands. “There’s no such thing as the Fallen Star, okay? It’s a made up story for kids.”
“Okay, then how do you explain the map?” Luke countered.
He struggled for a response, any sort of explanation that could help make sense of what was happening. “You guys are messing with me,” he said fiercely. “Or it’s—it’s from one of those shops that sells magical contraband—I heard Hartsfeld has a ton of those. It’s just a trick.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“But you want me to believe, what, that I was chosen? That a piece of paper decided it wants to lead me and only me to an object that doesn’t actually exist?”
“You can’t know that for sure!” Luke burst out. “Remember what that man said in the bar? Legends are built from reality. What if this thing is real?”
“It could be. And maybe we could find it.”
“So what’s your plan?” Alex challenged. “Go running into the woods that no one has ever come back alive from on a maybe, spend weeks of travel chasing after a fairy tale on the off chance that I’m some kind of chosen one and just hope that we can find this thing that may or may not exist in the middle of all the magic and danger and terrifying monsters?”
“Well, when you put it like that— ”
He barked a laugh. “You’ve had some pretty crazy ideas, but you’ve officially outdone yourself with this one.”
“I’m not joking, Alex.” The blue of Luke’s eyes was blazing. “Don’t you get it? If you found the Star and came back with it, it could change everything. You could make a real claim to the throne even before your parents’ death. We could finally stand up to them—no more hiding in the shadows and waiting around. We could fix things for good. If there’s even a chance—what exactly do we have to lose?”
“Our lives? And in case you’ve forgotten, we have a job to do here. The people don’t need a myth, they need the Phantoms .”
“And how long are we supposed to keep that up?” Luke demanded. “It gets harder every time—eventually, the Dragonhands are gonna beat us, you know that. The three of us can only hold out for so long. Then Orpheum will have nothing .”
“And what happens when we don’t make it back?”
“At least we’ll have tried—”
“That’s not good enough!”
“You’re being a coward.”
“ You’re being stupid and reckless.”
“At least I want to do something ,” Luke snapped. “Would you rather just sit on your hands and hope that things fix themselves?”
Heat pushed at the back of Alex’s throat, raw and angry, and he did his best to swallow it down. Luke and Alex bickered constantly but didn’t truly fight very often, but when they did it had always been explosive. They knew too much of each other for it to be any other way. “Luke,” he tried, “even if it is real, how do we know we’re ever going to find it? Or that it’ll work for us?”
“You have to have faith—”
“Faith isn’t gonna save this kingdom.”
“Neither are we, if we just keep running around in circles, playing cat and mouse with the guards.” Luke locked his eyes with Alex’s, his gaze burning with intensity. Desperation lingered on the edges of his expression; behind his voice, there was a plea. “Alex, this can’t be a coincidence. The map chose you for a reason. You’re the crown prince, and you have a responsibility to lead the people—”
“What if I don’t want it?”
“Don’t be selfish. It’s your duty— you can’t keep running away from it!”
A hot burst of pain flared at Alex’s wrist in time with the lurch in his chest, like a warning sign from the Curse. “You’re one to talk about running away,” he said with bitter vitriol, before he could stop himself.
For a moment he was sure Luke would hit him. He could see it behind his eyes—that flash of hurt and anger, the ferocity of it— he’d gone too far— but before either of them could blink Reggie was standing in between them, his hands raised.
“Stop it,” he said desperately, and Alex and Luke went still. Alex could still feel the blood roaring in his ears, and Luke’s hardened gaze didn’t pull away, but then Reggie gave them a look that was all at once sad and fierce and disappointed and all the heat in the air between them pettered out. “This whole fight is stupid, okay? Can’t you guys just—” He broke off in a huff and tugged a hand through his hair, his shoulders pulled taught, and Alex felt a flash of guilt that surpassed his anger by miles. He swallowed back the lump in his throat as Luke’s expression softened.
“Reg...” he began, and then trailed off, letting the three of them slip into the pressing silence. There was a low rumble of thunder in the distance. The storm would start up again soon.
Alex locked eyes with Luke. A silent truce passed between them: they would put this aside for now. Whatever the map had wedged between them didn’t matter anymore—neither of them were finished, but at least in the moment they could pretend that nothing happened. For Reggie’s sake.
“I’m sorry, Reggie,” Alex said finally, twisting the strap of his satchel in his hands as Luke nodded in agreement. “We just got carried away.”
Reggie looked between the two of them, wearing that drawn, quiet expression that he always did after moments like this. “I know,” he said quietly, with a forced sort of half-smile. “Can we just go home? It’s getting pretty late.”
Luke rolled up the map in his hands and redid the threaded tie, shoving it into his bag as he slung an arm around Reggie’s shoulders and turned back to meet Alex’s gaze one last time. They both knew they were coming back to this—but it could wait. Somewhere miles away, a bolt of lightning split the sky, and Luke held out a hand to catch the first drops of fresh rain. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Let’s go home.”