“I can do that,” I agreed. “And I promise not to keep secrets from you anymore.”
“Friends again?” he asked with a hopeful smile, holding out his hand to me.
He’d had his hands shoved in his pockets, but mine were cold and damp from touching the vehicle to check for damage. When I took his hand to shake it, the warmth that enveloped me was astonishing. Instantly, I knew this was a bad idea, but I didn’t let go of him.
The air smelled of snow, water, and fresh pine needles. The dripping water had dampened our hair, making his a bit wavier than normal, and for some reason it made his mahogany eyes appear brighter. I was cold and wet, and I imagined how much warmer it would be in his arms.
And then I wasn’t imagining it. We’d both moved forward, filling in the gap between us, and he let go of my hand.
“We should, um, probably get going,” he said in a low voice.
“Right,” I agreed, forcing a smile when I stepped back from him. “We should check the GPS and find out how close we are.”
Pushing down all the conflicting emotions I had swirling inside me, I turned to the job at hand and got back in the car.
The coordinates for the lake weren’t exact, so we’d made our best guess with longitude and latitude on the GPS app on Ridley’s tablet. I grabbed the tablet off the dashboard, but it was updating slowly. Service could be sketchy out here, blinking in and out. At least it was working now.
“What’s it say?” Ridley asked when he got in the SUV. He shook the water from his hair then peered over at the tablet in my hands.
“According to the GPS we’re not that far anyway, and there isn’t a road going directly to Lake Isolera. Want to try walking it?”
“Sure. Why not?”
I started the Land Rover and carefully drove it back up to the road, parking it near the tree that had diverted our course. It ran normally, which was a bit of a relief, and parking it along the road would make it easier to find when we came back.
We added ponchos over our winter gear, then grabbed our packs and locked up the vehicle before making the trek out into the wilderness. Ridley had a waterproof case for his tablet, which was good because the weather showed no signs of letting up.
The first hour we wandered through the trees was the worst. We went where the GPS directed us, and when we found nothing, we began circling out further. Every time I had the chance, I broke branches and tied red string to trees, trying to leave some signs so we wouldn’t get lost, and we’d be able to find our way back to the SUV.
Though we had put on boots, hats, and gloves, it had all soaked through. We were used to the cold, but it seemed to permeate everything, making my bones ache. Every step had become painful, but neither Ridley nor I were willing to give up so easily.
Just when I was getting to the point where I wasn’t sure I could take the cold much longer, I saw an odd shimmer through a patch of pine trees. A subtle change in the snow falling down, like it was bowing around the side of a snow globe, but it only lasted a moment. When I tilted my head, though, I was almost certain I could see rays of light spilling out through it.
I started walking forward, moving more quickly than I had before, with Ridley following.
“What’s going on?” Ridley called from behind me.
I stopped long enough for him to catch up, and I pointed at the trees in front of us. “I think I see something.” I tilted my head again, and for a split second, I saw it—a shimmer across the air. “When I look just right, I can see it.”
Ridley squinted and brushed back the snow that clung to his eyebrows. “I can’t see anything.”
I knew that I might be crazy, that this might be some cold-induced insanity causing me to see a mirage, but deep down, it just didn’t feel that way. The closer we got, the more certain I became. Ridley continued to echo his inability to see what I was chasing, but he never suggested we turn back.
Maybe it was my Skojare heritage. My mom had said that the lake had been cloaked in enchantment so that even other tribes wouldn’t be able to find it. I must’ve had just enough Skojare blood in me that I could see the faintest hint of it.
The pine trees were growing closer together, so I had to bow my head and physically push branches out of the way to get through them.
When I finally made it through and lifted my head, the sun was shining so brightly I had to squint. I held up my arm to block the light, and it was a few seconds before my eyes adjusted enough to really see anything.
The first thing I saw, sparkling like a massive sapphire, was a lake spanning several miles. It sat in the center of a clearing surrounded by a thick barrier of pine trees, and it had to be the most beautiful body of water I’d ever seen.
“Lake Isolera,” Ridley whispered behind me, sounding in awe. “It does exist.”
In the bright light, the grass that framed the lake appeared almost lime green, sprinkled with brightly colored wildflowers in shades of pink and purple. The grass gave way to fine white sand that sparkled as if it were mixed with diamond dust, and the water lapped gently against it.
It was so warm that all my winter gear felt unbearable. I shed my hat and poncho first, then I kept going until I was left in the black leggings and tank top I’d worn underneath my sweater and jeans.
“How is this even possible?” Ridley asked.
I glanced back at him, pulling my eyes away from the lake with some difficulty. He’d taken off his boots and jacket but apparently moved much slower than I did. A bright blue butterfly fluttered past him, and his eyes followed it, transfixed for a moment.
“The Skojare must’ve had power unlike anything we’ve ever seen if they could cast a spell like this and keep it going for years,” I said, then turned back to the water. “Hundreds of years, if my mom’s book is to be believed.”
In Doldastam, it took half a dozen gardeners working in special “greenhouses” to keep the garden up and running. Growing grapes and tomatoes couldn’t be anywhere near as difficult as this oasis, even if the gardeners’ psychokinetic abilities were working against subarctic temperatures to keep fruits and vegetables alive. On top of that, we’d had to poach several of the workers from the Trylle, since their powers were stronger than ours.
“Our ancestors used to be more powerful,” Ridley reminded me, but he sounded as if he was in a bit of a daze. “We’ve lost our abilities over the centuries. I mean, we’ve heard that our whole lives, but if another tribe could do this, then we’ve lost so much more than I ever imagined.”