Someone was shaking him, his head resounding against the rough tree behind him. His brain felt thick behind his eyes and Carrot let out a mumbled
complaint, pushing at the hands jerking him. "Stop that!"
"Darling, wake up." Chocolate let out a soft sigh when the boy finally opened his eyes, brown slits that winced from the bright sun sparking through the leaves
above them. He seemed dazed, but she didn't have time to wonder, a loud curse making both her and Carrot flinch.
"What are you doing asleep in the first place?" Gateau growled, glaring down at the boy. It was true that they'd only woken a few moments ago, but they had
an excuse. The sorcerer had put them to sleep. But he hadn't used magic on Carrot, if he had then the boy would have transformed. He'd still been tied to
the tree when they woke. "What happened?"
"Happened...?" The tall blonde was glaring daggers at him, but Carrot couldn't seem to clear his head at all. His eyes felt as if there were a slight film over
them and he could smell a tangy sweet scent that made him want to fall back again. The grass beneath him suddenly looked so inviting. He was sinking
toward it when Tira caught his arm, holding him upright. Her eyes were hidden behind wide glasses and he gave a distracted smile at how small her chin
looked. Then his heavy eyelids started to fall again.
"Darling?" A heavy footstep sounded behind her, but Chocolate paid the angry man no attention at all, her hand lifting the boy's chin. His eyes remained
closed and her breath caught with worry. "What's wrong? What did he do to you?"
"He couldn't have used magic on him," Gateau said sharply. Despite his words, it was obvious that something had been done and he crouched near the
red-haired girl, frowning at Carrot's small smile. Tira let out a small gasp and he looked at her, his eyes following her hand to the boy's cheek.
"Maybe it isn't magic at all," Tira said softly, brushing her fingers over the brown-haired boy's cheek. She couldn't see the pale powder well, but she brought
the hand to her face, catching a soft odor. "It smells like...a fruit? I don't know, but I guess this could be why he's so sleepy."
"No way-" Gateau's words stopped when the girl shook her head suddenly and wavered a bit. His arm shot out to catch her and she clutched his shoulder
tightly. "Hey! Don't you pass out, too."
"Mmm, it feels really nice," Tira murmured softly. Then she took a deep breath and leaned away from Gateau, shaking her head again. "The smell lingers,
there's definitely magic mixed in with that stuff, whatever it is."
"But if he did magic on the powder and not Carrot, then he wouldn't be able to absorb anything, right?" Chocolate glared at her sister's hand before her eyes
slid to Carrot again. "Fine, then we just have to get rid of the powder, or the smell. Both."
"Great, we can throw him in the first stream we find," Gateau muttered. "Try dumping the water on him, if it's not enough I'll carry him. We don't have time."
"We should tell Momma," Tira said as she stood and went to their supplies. She found the water jug and handed it to Chocolate, watching as her sister
washed Carrot's face. It would have been funny, the discomfited grimace that crossed the boy's expression. But there wasn't anything amusing about their
situation. Now that her initial worry over Carrot was abated, she turned to Gateau. "Do you think she can tell us what's going on?"
The girl was asking him and Gateau almost blinked at her in surprise. They never asked him what they should do, they asked Marron. The young magic user
was always the calm collected one, the one they all looked to for advice. It was odd, having the girl ask him. "I..." He stopped himself, not willing to admit how
lost he was. "If she knows what's going on, then she would have contacted us by now. We can't wait here, and she can find us if she wants to. I didn't see his
face, but I'm assuming that was the sorcerer we're after, meaning we already know where he is. Last night, Marron said he was probably across that expanse.
He's usually right."
Tira nodded, glancing away from those angry blue eyes. She hadn't asked him anything, but he obviously knew more about what had happened than she
did. From her position near Carrot, she hadn't been able to see anything except her own bent legs and the ground beneath her. But she'd heard everything
up until the moment sleep had fallen over her. It was frightening, not that she was about to admit that as her pride was too stubborn. But it was, a little bit.
The sorcerer had simply walked into their camp and taken down every one of them, effortlessly. And he'd taken Marron without a fight. That was the hard
part to understand. Marron was the only one of them who could use magic, he was the one who should have been on equal grounds with the sorcerer. Her
memory was usually excellent, but she frowned at the scuffed grass, trying to remember if Carrot's brother had gotten even a single spell cast. She
remembered him waking them, his ward, then she'd dropped her eyes to rise and that spell had struck her. After that, she'd only heard Carrot's voice and the
sorcerer's last whispered words. "Carrot..."
Blinking, Tira looked over and gave a relieved smile to see those warm eyes fluttering slowly. He still looked as if he could fall asleep easily, but he did seem
to be more focused than before. She crouched next to her older sister, sharing Chocolate's smile. "Carrot." The boy frowned and rubbed his eyes furiously,
then he froze, his face hidden by his hands.
"Darling, don't." Chocolate shook her head when Tira gave her a confused glance and directed her eyes on the boy. She could feel him tense where her
hand lay on his shoulder and she straightened slowly, frowning in preparation of his looking at her. Finally, he dropped his hands and she shook her head
again at his blank expression. "Whatever you're thinking, it's nonsense. We're going to go defeat him right now, we were just waiting for you."
"It was him, the one in the picture," Carrot said slowly, not looking at either of the girls. His eyes were directed at the ropes that lay near him, where they'd
been discarded earlier. If he hadn't been tied, they wouldn't be in this mess. Didn't that make it his fault? He thought it did, he was almost sure of it. "I'm
going to kill him..."
"Get in line." Gateau snorted when the boy shot a quick glare in his direction. "Let's go." The girls nodded sharply and he turned to their supplies, tossing
them over a shoulder. The land looked completely empty and flat, but Marron had hinted that it might be an illusion. Oh, there was definitely a field at the
edge of the woods, but the black-haired man had been quiet when he'd stared at the horizon. Gateau was pretty sure he'd seen something but hadn't wanted
to mention it until he was certain, his friend was like that. The most Marron had been willing to admit was that their target was over that field. That was where
they were going.
"How do you know which way?" Carrot asked, grabbing his sword quickly when the tall man walked away from him and the girls. It didn't take but a moment to
catch up and he frowned, looking around. He hadn't caught any sign of tracks, not that he was good at tracking, but Gateau seemed to know exactly where
the sorcerer was headed. "Well?"
"You wouldn't know since you were busy drooling over that girl last night, but Marron said the sorcerer was past the fields, to the west." A glance showed that
his barb had struck when the boy flinched and glared at him. Suddenly, he didn't care. Marron didn't like it when he made comments about Carrot's
obsession, didn't like to hear his brother being ridiculed. But he wasn't there, and the boy deserved it. Gateau knew better than to blame Carrot, but he
couldn't seem to help himself, the boy was an easy target and there *was* some truth to it. "Speaking of which, here she comes."
Still glaring, Carrot tore his eyes away from Gateau to follow the pointed hand. He blinked sharply and took a step to the side before clenching his hands and
stopping himself. It was a natural reaction, but he didn't want to give the blonde more fuel for the fire. Besides, now wasn't the time to be chasing girls. Still,
he couldn't just ignore her. "Is something wrong?"
Chocolate frowned, tapping her fingers on her hip. The pretty dark-haired girl was standing at the edge of the woods, a wide smile curving her lips as she
looked at Carrot. That was just what they needed. But it did prove that the boy wasn't as worried as she'd feared, at least he hadn't let his spirits get down.
"We're in a hurry," she said firmly, nodding when the girl's eyes flicked to her.
"I know," Kendra smiled. "I just wanted to apologize for last night. It isn't often that we get to talk to people, so I really didn't want to miss the chance. We'll be
visible till sunset, if you want to visit some more." Her eyes were on Carrot and she gave a shy smile. "My father wouldn't approve, but I always regretted
dying before I had a boyfriend."
Gateau choked, his eyes flying to Chocolate's stunned gaze. Then he looked back at the girl, trying to see anything that would give her away. She looked
normal, not even Marron had felt anything from her. But...it made sense. "I knew it," Gateau said slowly, nodding when the girl gave him a sweet questioning
look. "He put you there to distract Carrot, didn't he." It wasn't really a question, but the girl nodded.
"He said if we helped then we could be alive again, if only for a little while. And he kept his promise, none of you have been hurt." Carrot's face was white and
she blinked at him, taking a small step back. "You...aren't angry are you? He said you wouldn't be, that you wouldn't care..."
"He took my brother!" Carrot's mouth snapped shut when the girl gasped and jerked away. He couldn't remember ever having yelled at a girl, even a ghost,
and he was surprised at himself. But she looked so sincere.
"Really? I didn't know. Will your parents be angry when you go back without him?" The boy flinched and she had the impression he was resisting the urge to
lunge forward. He couldn't hurt her, but she still took a small step back. "I mean, I can see that you're angry, but don't you think it's for the best? If he's your
brother, then you should at least want him to be happy, even if you don't care about him."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Gateau muttered, exchanging another glance with Chocolate. "What did the sorcerer tell you?"
"You're his friend," Kendra smiled, nodding at the blonde man. "I know you must be upset. I'm still surprised that he," she waved at Carrot, "is his brother, but
I understand that *you* have questions. He said you would and told me to tell you whatever I thought best. Come down and sit with my family before the sun
sets. That way, you won't go back home still worried."
"We're not going anywhere without Marron," Carrot said suddenly, finding his tongue. The girl gave him a funny look and he glanced at Tira, wondering if he
was the only one who was furious. The pink-haired girl's hands were curled but she gave him a small nod before following Kendra.
Stepping closer to Gateau, Chocolate lowered her voice, her eyes never leaving Kendra's back. "This could be part of it, making us waste time here."
"I don't really care what the sorcerer told her, I would rather just go now." The girl shot him a knowing look and he gritted his teeth. "If Marron were here, he'd
say it's a chance to learn how our enemy thinks, by listening to the story he told them."
"I'm sure he's fine," Chocolate said, her eyes dark slits beneath the fall of blood-red hair. "But you're still taking this better than I'd have expected. Did what
Carrot said really get to you that much? I didn't think you'd let his opinions get between you and Marron."
"I don't care what Carrot thinks of me," Gateau muttered, glaring at the boy's back before stepping after them. Now was not the time to remind him of *that*
confrontation. "Marron's the one who agreed with him."
"Oh." The blonde moved away and she gave a small sigh. There'd been a distinct difference in the two since that fight, but she was surprised Gateau would
give up so easily. His pursuit of Marron was so long-lived. He'd been chasing him as long as Carrot had been chasing girls, though he was much more subtle
about it. Thinking back, though, she had to admit that Marron had been absolutely silent during Carrot's tirade. She hadn't paid much attention to him, too
surprised that Carrot would come right out and forbid any relationship between the two friends. Usually, he tried to pretend he was oblivious.
Her sister was waiting near the edge of the field and Chocolate shook her head. That really didn't matter right now. "I'm coming."
"Her parents are still here," Tira said as Chocolate walked past her. They moved down the hill, stopping near Gateau and Carrot. Mathew was seated in front
of the large tent, his expression only a bit wary considering the glares being sent at him. But then, if he was a ghost then they couldn't exactly threaten to kill
him so he had nothing to fear.
"Papa, Carrot is that boy's brother." Her father's eyes flew to her and Kendra nodded quickly before sitting down next to him. The four hunters were standing
on the other side of the dark fire and she waved at the grass. When they'd finally sat, she leaned forward and flashed a sad smile at her mother who was
sitting on the other side of her father. "He's going to be in trouble when he goes back without his brother."
"That's not-" Carrot gave a frustrated growl when the girl smiled at him again. He wasn't used to being angry with a girl, he didn't know how to handle it so he
turned his gaze to her father. "We're going after Marron. She said you'd tell us what he told you."
"He never said that boy was your brother," Mathew said slowly.
"Did he tell you what he planned to do with Marron?" Gateau's voice was devoid of any emotion, and he stilled himself for the answer he expected.
"He said you were his friend," Mathew nodded, "I'm sorry for your worry. He won't hurt the boy, no more than he did you. I admit, I wasn't sure if I should have
helped until I actually met the four of you. Then I saw what he told us about. That boy, Marron, he's *not* like the rest of you." His eyes narrowed and turned
to Carrot suddenly. "I can't believe the two of you are brothers."
"What do *you* know?" Carrot demanded angrily. Chocolate and Tira set hands on his shoulders as if to restrain him, but he shrugged them off. "You just
"You gave an impression that would last a life-time," Mathew murmured. "And he was so quiet, I could tell he had inner demons, just like the sorcerer said.
There's no reason for him to have to stay and fight that alone, especially if he has magic. I never met a sorcerer before Shibo, and all I ever heard about them
was how evil they were. But Shibo was different, the same as your friend."
Tira glared, leaning forward. "Marron's not a sorcerer."
"No? He was born with magic, wasn't he? Shibo said you didn't accept him, despite the fact that you travel together. He's a sorcerer, Shibo saw that."
"You shouldn't be so angry," Kendra said quickly, her eyes darting to each of them before landing on Gateau. The blonde man's eyes were cold looking, but
at least his anger she understood. "Don't you want your friend to be happy? To be where he belongs?"
"He *belongs* with us." Gateau's narrow eyes flitted to Carrot when the boy stood suddenly and he looked away from him again.
Glaring at the family, Carrot clenched his fists in frustration and anger. "What's wrong with you people?! This guy--this sorcerer kidnaps my brother and you
say we should be happy about it?" The girls stood, taking up position to either side of him. "Why are we even listening to you?"
"Right. I've heard enough." Gateau rose slowly, his hand shifting their supplies as he turned away from the family. "We have no time for this."
"You're really going after them?" Kendra asked, her eyes wide when Tira nodded sharply, Chocolate staring at her as if she were stupid. "I don't think he
"Good," Carrot said sharply, "better for us."
"You won't get far before dark," Mathew said slowly, his eyes lifting to the sky. "There's a storm coming in."
"Do you know how far this Shibo's castle is?" Chocolate asked.
"Very few people can see us, but he has been through here many times before. He always stops to speak with us so I believe his castle can't be too far. He
travels on foot." They nodded at him, but Mathew shook his head. "You're wasting your time, though. Your friend won't *want* to come back." Carrot
flinched, eyes wide, but he continued. "And if you try to take him away by force you'll have to defeat Shibo. All that will do is cause your friend even more
pain. I'm telling you to let it go."
"Great," Carrot laughed, his voice a bit too high. "Advice taken *and* ignored. We're out of here."
"Wait!" Kendra hurried over to them and put a hand on Gateau's shoulder, her eyes turned up to him. "You're going after your friend, right?" The man didn't
respond, his eyes dark. "Well, Shibo said to tell you something if you decided to. He said the others wouldn't, but that *you* might come after them."
"What is it?" Gateau didn't even have to look to know that Carrot was stiffening behind him and he ignored the boy.
"No, just you."
The girl's cheeks flushed a light pink and Gateau's stomach dropped. That didn't sound good at all. But he followed her a few feet away, carefully avoiding
Chocolate's gaze and Carrot's anger. Kendra was shorter and he crouched down, the girl leaning on him as she whispered in his ear.
"I don't understand all of it," Kendra whispered, her eyes on the others since her head was over the tall blonde's shoulder. "But he warned me that you might
get embarrassed if I said it in front of my parents. He didn't say anything about your friends, but I think he was sure they'd be gone by then."
"Just tell me," Gateau muttered.
"Well, he said a couple things. First, he said to tell you not to bother, that you'll just hurt him more. He said you were too slow and that you should never have
taken no for an answer. And he said he was sorry for you but he's going to win." She smiled when she leaned back, her cheeks still tinted. "Shibo and you
both *like* him, don't you." The blonde was staring at her and she dropped her eyes. "I wish I could have had two men fighting over me, it's so romantic."
"There's nothing romantic about it," Gateau whispered. The girl raised her eyebrows in questioning, but he stood, looking at the horizon again. A glance
found the others watching him curiously, Carrot still glaring. "Let's go, now."
"What did she say?!"
The boy was furious, but he ignored that, walking away from the family and the hill, leaving the forest behind. "It's none of your business."
"Marron's my brother!" Carrot yelled, running to catch up. "Gateau-" His teeth snapped together when the man rounded suddenly and lifted him by the neck
of his shirt.
"Listen to me, Carrot. It's *none* of your business. Get it?" The boy continued to glare and he flung him backwards, watching impassively as Carrot got back
to his feet. The brown-haired boy stood, his hands curled into fists but he was done with their contest. It was obvious that Shibo had heard of the
confrontation and his challenge was much more important that dealing with Marron's older brother. "I'm leaving."
Chocolate exchanged a long look with Tira before moving to Carrot. "Darling, let's go get Marron back." The boy snorted softly, glaring holes into Gateau's
back. "We should hurry."
* * *
The wind started suddenly, and it blew the grass away. That was the impression the four hunters had when the flat plain they'd been walking across changed
to sand. As Mathew had warned them, their progress was halted almost completely. The sky had darkened too quickly, thick clouds blocking out the sun
moments before the first gust. Tira's glasses protected her eyes from the stinging sand blown around them, but the others were not so lucky.
"There's no point moving in this," Chocolate called out, squinting. She couldn't even see the field they'd crossed. In fact, she couldn't see anything that was
more than two feet away and she tightened her hold on Carrot's arm. "We'll end up going in the wrong direction."
"No way, he's just trying to slow us down." Despite his words, Carrot stopped, wiping his face. The wind was dry, but the sand seemed to stick to his face, as if
it were working toward his mouth and eyes. "Where did this desert come from, anyway?"
"An illusion," Gateau muttered, wiping his lips with the inside of his shirt. He'd closed his eyes when the others stopped and he didn't bother to open them
again. "And we walked right into it. But we were definitely going west. Mathew said there was a storm coming, this must be it. We just have to wait."
"You wait," Carrot spat, glaring in the direction of the blonde man's voice since his eyelashes were spotted with sand.
"Don't argue about it," Tira said softly, her coat protecting her mouth as she wiped her dusty glasses. "There's no moon tonight. Even if the sandstorm stops,
I don't think that cloud-cover will blow away before tomorrow. There's nothing we can do but stop and set up a tent."
"Think it'll bury us?" Chocolate turned her back to the wind, grimacing at the coating that seemed to be covering her face. "This is a sandstorm, don't they
bury things? And he's on foot, too, right?" A hand touched her shoulder and she squinted at Gateau, giving him a weak smile when he handed her one of the
blankets. Wrapping it around her shoulders and face, she waited until the others were similarly covered.
"Don't worry about that," Gateau said, pulling his own blanket up around his face. "He's not going to risk traveling in this, the ground isn't stable with all the
sand relocating. As soon as the storm's over we keep going."
"In the dark?" He didn't want to talk to Gateau, but he did seem to know more about where they were going. Chocolate's arm suddenly didn't feel so
uncomfortable on his shoulders and Carrot loosened up a bit, peeking out of the blanket at Gateau.
"Your back's to the direction we want to go in," Gateau commented, meeting the boy's gaze. Their problems could wait. Arguing now wouldn't help anything.
"As long as we remember that, we can move in the dark. We just have to walk carefully." None of them spoke and he hunkered down suddenly, folding his
arms and ducking his head. He thought his reasoning was right. If it were a magic-induced storm, then Carrot would be affected, right? Maybe. Marron
would have known for sure.
* * *
The boy was doing it again and Shibo was almost amused by it this time. He'd set down when the storm started, using a shield to keep the sand from touching
him or his captive. Now, he was seated comfortably as sand piled up around the barrier, a dark head resting in his lap. And the mage was glowing with a
blinding white light.
He'd been watching for long enough to know the teenager had magic as strong as any sorcerer, but during his vigilance he'd never seen this. It was as if he'd
suddenly tapped into a well of power that was consuming him. Whether it was a result of the spell, he didn't know, but it was definite proof that the boy was no
mere mage. A soft sigh left him and he brushed silky black hair away from Marron's forehead. He'd planned to keep the boy asleep until he was secure, but
he couldn't let him continue to use whatever magic he was calling. He shouldn't even be able to use magic, meaning whatever he was drawing wouldn't be
able to escape his body. It could easily destroy the boy if trapped long enough.
His hands framed that pale face and he brushed his thumbs over the boy's eyes, shaking his head when they snapped open immediately. This was the
second time, but the white glow was cut off as soon as Marron regained awareness. Pale golden eyes locked onto his and he smiled at the steady gaze.
There wasn't the least hint of fear. It made him wonder if the boy remembered the last time he'd been forced to wake him. But he would have plenty of time to
ask. Closing those oddly colored eyes, he set the spell again.
* * *