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Her voice was small, nearly lost in the dripping of water from the fountain. But the power it carried—and the effect it had on me—was monumental. I’d heard the expression “weak-kneed” before but had never lived it until now. My muscles didn’t feel as though they could sustain me, and there was a great swelling in my chest, the result of a tangle of emotions I couldn’t even begin to describe. Love. Joy. Relief. Disbelief. And mixed in with all of them were the emotions that I’d endured these last few months as well: despair, fear, sorrow. It spread out from my heart, and I felt tears form in my eyes. It wasn’t possible that one person could make you experience so many emotions at once, that one person could trigger a universe of feelings, simply with the sound of your name.

I also knew then that they were wrong—all of them. My mom. My dad. Nina. Anyone who thought love could simply be built on shared goals alone had never, ever experienced anything like what I had with Sydney. I couldn’t believe I’d almost lost this through my own ignorance. Until I looked into her eyes now, I didn’t truly realize what a hollow life I’d been living.

“Sydney . . .”

It would take too long to walk around the fountain. I jumped up on the edge and then into the pool, wading through the water toward her. I would’ve done it even if I wasn’t wearing dream clothes. No physical discomfort mattered. Only getting to her did. My entire world, my entire existence, became focused around her. The journey took seconds, but it felt as though I’d been traveling toward her for years. I reached the other side and stepped out, dripping water onto the sunlit stones. I hesitated only a moment and then wrapped my arms around her, half expecting her to vanish into thin air. But she was real. Real and solid (in that dream kind of way), and her whole body shuddered with a repressed sob as she buried her face against my chest.

“Oh, Adrian. Where have you been?”

It wasn’t a chastisement, simply an expression of her own longing and fear. She couldn’t have known about the demons I’d faced these last couple of weeks or how very close I’d come to missing this opportunity. I cupped her face in my hands and gazed into those brown eyes I loved so much, eyes that now glittered with unshed tears.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. I looked for a long time . . . but I couldn’t reach you. And then I—I slacked off. I know I shouldn’t have. You wouldn’t have. God, Sydney, I’m so sorry. If I’d tried harder and sooner—”

“No, no,” she said softly, running her hand through my hair. “There was nothing you could have done—not until recently. They regulate our sleep here with some kind of gas. I’ve been too drugged for spirit to reach me.” She began to tremble. “I was so afraid I’d never reach you—so afraid I’d never find a way out—”

“Shh. You found me now. Everything’s going to be okay. Where are you?”

A remarkable transformation took place. She looked as though she wanted nothing more than to hold me and cry out all the fear and frustration she’d experienced over the last few months. I knew because I kind of felt the same way. But no matter her own longings, no matter what hell she’d endured, she still remained the strongest, most amazing woman I knew. Before my eyes, she pushed all those fears and insecurities aside, ignoring the part of her that only wanted comfort in my arms. She became the Sydney Sage I’d first met: efficient, strong, competent. Ready to make the tough choices in order to accomplish what needed to get done.

“Right,” she said. She paused to wipe the tears from her eyes. “We might not have long to talk. I’m not sure how long I’ve been asleep. And . . . I don’t know where I’m at. I haven’t seen a window since I was taken. We’re kept underground.”

“Who’s we?” I asked.

“There are twelve others—er, thirteen now, we just got someone new—all former Alchemists who got in trouble. They’ve been reprogrammed to varying degrees. Some are just playing along, I’m certain of it, but it’s hard to tell. We get in big trouble for stepping out of line.”

“What kind of trouble?” I asked. Although I’d been drinking up all her features since she appeared, I only now paused to truly study her. She was in some kind of horrible khaki outfit, and her golden hair looked longer than before. Both her face and body also seemed thinner, but I was uncertain how accurate that was. Unless the spirit user specifically altered the other person’s appearance, that person usually showed up in the dream as a mix of what he or she looked like in reality and how that person perceived him or herself. Often, the two weren’t the same. I made a mental note to ask her about her physical condition later.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said brusquely. “I’m fine, and I’m sure there are others like me, they’re just too scared to act. Others have been completely reprogrammed, though. They’re just like Keith. They’re—” Her eyes widened. “Keith. That’s it.”

“Keith?” I repeated dumbly. I was still hung up on her evasiveness about getting in “big trouble” and didn’t see where her former ass**le colleague fit into this.

“He was there. Long before me. At the same facility.” She clutched my sleeve in her excitement. “They have this wall where people write confessions, and he wrote one—well, an apology actually, to my sister Carly. The point is, he was there, and we know he left. Maybe he knows where the facility is. He had to go outside when he got out, right?”

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