Ghost awoke, suddenly, like all the other times. Heart pounding, eyes wide, arm stretched out in the darkness, reaching, reaching for….
Shivering, Ghost sat up, pulling her bedding up around her. It had been the same every night since she’d experienced the vision. At least, that’s what she thought it was, what it had felt like. It had been so clear, so real. So heart-achingly real. She was on a high pinnacle, looking out over a vast panorama. On one side, a shifter woman, her face grim but her eyes dull as she pulled on her fighting gear. Asha. An older Asha than Ghost had known, but Asha nonetheless. There was a weariness about her that was at odds with the older sister she remembered, the Asha itching to prove herself, insisting to their mother that she was ready to do more. Ghost watched as this Asha drew on a pair of gladiatorial gauntlets with sharp steel blades extending from them like claws. She drew the straps tight and tested the fit, methodically doing practice strikes one glove against the other. But there was no eagerness in her eyes, only a kind of weary resignation, an indifference to living or dying but knowing that the habit of surviving meant that this was just one more fight to get through. One more night in the pits before the roaring crowds of on-lookers shouting incoherently amid their drinking and betting, waiting for the first blood to be shed.
At the same time though, the other side of the pinnacle looked down upon a different scene: her fellow Fire Wasps beset by a horde of minotaurs, hostile and menacing, eyes blood red, as unlike Eustace as the underdark was to day. The battle was a desperate one, and though Kidalis, Eustace, Tilly, Tristan and The Shaper were all fighting valiantly, it was clear that, without Ghost, things would go against the Fire Wasps in a very bad way.
Then the moment came as on the one side Asha readied herself to leap into the fight pit while on the other the Fire Wasps braced for the minotaurs final assault. And Ghost, feeling as if she was being ripped in two, had to choose. There was no way to run to both, it was one or the other. And it was now. “Stay alive!” she cried urgently to Asha as she drew her kukris and bolted to where the Fire Wasps were to join the fray. “I’m coming! Please, just stay alive!”
And then the vision had ended and she was back with the others.
Ghost couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d been compelled to make a choice, but she didn’t understand why. Visions were supposed to be omens, portents, glimpses of possible futures, or at least that had been her understanding of them. A choice made in a vision didn’t mean anything, did it?
She’d thought about it afterwards, in her private moments, and she knew why she’d made the choice she did. Asha was Asha. Even though ten years had passed, and Ghost’s memories were from back when she’d still been the shifter girl known as Squirrel, Asha was Asha. Brave. Strong. Fierce like their mother. And for all that they fussed and fought with each other, Squirrel would put her older sister up against any of the other young shifters in their village. And Asha had survived, all this time. In the beginning, it had only been a suspicion, but after hearing of a pit fighter called “the White Cat” from a stranger who’d visited the island, she’d dared to hope. And with the answer she’d gotten from the seer she’d dared to believe. Asha had survived. And in the fight pit, it would be Asha against a single foe. And Ghost would still bet on Asha to be the one to prevail. Ultimately, it was her companions who needed her more. They were faced with greater numbers and the fight was already going against them. It was a battle decision, the kind she’d had to make many times, with no time for anything but instinct. And thus she’d chosen.
But ever since the vision, Ghost had been having the same dream. It started the same as the vision, but in her dreams, it was Asha she reached for, Asha whose name she called out as she awoke in the darkness, arm outstretched but fingers closing on empty air. Had she made a mistake before, during the vision? And if so, did it matter? Reluctantly, Ghost lay down once again, trying to will herself back to sleep. Stay alive, sister, she willed into the darkness. I’m coming. Snow Leopard watch over you until we meet, but stay alive. Stay alive.