Ross Juarez bolted out of bed.
His feet skidded, and he crashed into the wall. The pain came as a relief. The wall was solid. Real.
He pressed his palms against the cool plaster. He was in his bedroom, on his feet. Not writhing on the blood-soaked dirt beneath a chiming crystal tree.
The room seemed small, the walls close. He tried to focus on the stars overhead, but instead he saw the flaws and bubbles in the glass ceiling. If it fell in, it would shatter into a thousand crystal- line shards.
Ross fled the house, nearly tripping over the tabby cat on the landing. He bolted across the street, and fetched up in Mia’s yard.
He leaned against a barrel, shoved his sweaty hair out of his eyes, and gazed at the comforting golden glow of her windows. Mia was awake, and happily at work. Seeing her would make him feel better. But if he went in, she’d be upset because she couldn’t fix his nightmares.
Ross was the only one who could.
When the blood-red singing tree had first invaded his mind in dreams, he’d had to visit it in person to establish his side of their mental link, so he could communicate with it, then learn how to shut it out.
But after the battle against King Voske’s army two months ago, he had again begun dreaming of the soft pop of exploding seed-pods, of shards piercing his skin, of barely noticeable pain becoming unbearable agony as tiny needles grew into razor-edged knives and branched through his body. And always, as he lay dying, he looked up at leaves like knives and branches like swords, glittering in the moonlight and black as coal.
The scarlet tree that had grown from his blood contained his own memories, but those dark trees had grown from the bodies of Voske’s soldiers, who’d worn night-black camouflage – soldiers whom he’d used his own tree to kill. Ever since, the obsidian trees had forced their way into Ross’s dreams to share the memories of the agonizing deaths they’d been born from.
The worst part wasn’t the pain. It was waking up, and remembering his guilt.
Ross couldn’t go on like this. He had to face those singing trees.
He pushed himself away from the barrel. Confronting the trees would be risky, but at least he’d be awake, not dreaming and helpless.
Out of habit, he headed toward the town hall, with its secret tunnel that led to the mill at the juncture of two city walls. But after the battle, sentries had been posted at the mill, along with extra guards along the walls. He needed a different route.
Ross hurried through the sleeping town until he came to the Vardams’ orchard. He could use the fruit trees as cover, then climb over the wall in the time it took the sentries, who always looked outward, to make their fifty steps in the other direction.
He hooked his good hand around a branch and pulled himself into an apple tree. A mother raccoon hissed from a neighboring bough, then scampered across a swinging vine bridge into another tree, followed by her litter of kits. The raccoon family vanished into an elaborate two-story home of hardened mud and fallen branches.
The hot Santa Ana wind whipped stinging dust into his face. He smothered a sneeze, then checked the sentries, who did not miss a step. The rustling leaves had covered the sound.
When the sentries passed, he wedged his fingers and toes into hollows in the wall. Halfway up, he grabbed a slippery knob of stone, and set his foot onto an adobe outcropping. It broke off under his foot. Ross slid. He caught himself painfully, scrabbled for a new foothold, then inched upward until he could haul him- self over the top.
He dashed into the cornfield, then crouched to catch his breath. An opossum hurried past, an ear of blue corn in its jaws.
Ross forced himself to move. He sensed his own singing tree; its chimes called to him in his mind. But he had only sight to guide him through the abandoned cornfields. Now that the area had been declared off-limits, tall weeds grew in the cracked earth and tumbleweeds rolled everywhere.
Soon he saw the jagged black fingers rising above the corn stalks, blotting out the stars. Globes of dark glass hung from faceted branches. Just one crystal shard had cost him much of the use of his left hand, and each seed-pod contained hundreds of them.
He was well out of range of the black trees. Still, he didn’t feel safe. Crystal leaves should have clashed together, ringing out a threat, but the trees were silent. It was as if they wanted him to come closer.
Closing his eyes, he visualized a concrete wall with a small steel door. The door led to his own tree in the center of the obsidian grove. Ross opened the door a crack. His tree glowed a deep ruby red, an ember within coals. He gave the mental door the smallest of pushes, and—
Glass shattered and popped as every seed-pod in the black grove exploded. Needles of pain stung Ross’s face, his throat, his bare hands. He’d missed one of those black trees in the dark night!
He grabbed his belt knife, knowing he could never cut all the shards out of his flesh before they took root. . .
Ross forced his eyes open and unclenched his fingers. There was blood on his hand, but only from where he’d scraped it against the wall. The left was unmarked.
He slammed the door in his mind. The pain vanished.
Ross bolted back to the wall, checked for sentries, and climbed as fast as he could. He caught his breath in a tree laden with pomegranates the size of crystalline seed-pods. They tossed in the wind, and one bumped against his shoulder. Ross jerked away, then fled the orchard. He didn’t slow until he reached Mia’s cottage, his footsteps heavy.
Before he could knock, the door popped open. “Ross! I heard you coming.”
As he stepped inside, Mia adjusted a blanket she’d flung over a corner of her worktable. Sometimes she didn’t like people seeing her projects until they were done.
After Ross had nearly died in the battle, Mia’s father, Dr. Lee, had ordered him not to do anything strenuous, so he’d been assigned to assist Mia with engineering projects and mechanical repairs. He and Mia quickly discovered that they had to divide their working space, or he could never find his tools and she got annoyed at him for rearranging hers. His side of the table was neatly organized, hers a chaos only she could understand.
Mia’s shiny black hair swung tousled against her cheek. Her glasses slid down her nose, which was smudged with the blue paint that also marked her fingers. She absently shoved her glasses back up, leaving another blue streak. Though his knees were watery and his throat dry from his run, he couldn’t help smiling at how cute she was.
She didn’t smile back. “You went outside the walls, didn’t you? Ross, you promised not to go there alone.”
About the Authors: Rachel Manija Brown is the author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. She lives in Southern California. Sherwood Smith is the author of many fantasy novels for teenagers and adults, including Crown Duel and the Mythopoeic Award finalist The Spy Princess.