It looked just like its name said—stones forming a circular tower that reached up at least fifty feet tall if not higher. The roof came to a sharp point. The outside was coated in layers of deep violet moss and gray, withered vines.
Nisa swallowed deeply as she and the others tied off their thoas to the branches of mushroom trees behind them. The Tower itself stood in a completely flat area. The forest surrounded it, leading to hills that slopped downward, narrowing to where The Tower stood at the bottom of the hills’ convergence point.
“You ready to find out if this place really knows a way back to Earth?” Vanmor glanced at her.
Nisa’s eyes met Oliver’s, but this time, his warm gaze didn’t help her relax. His hand reached out to hold hers. Then Susie’s arm came to hers, and Bea’s, until Chris even joined them. The five friends clung to each other.
Teho pointed to the thoas, tied to trees behind them. “I checked and they’re all secure.”
Vanmor led the way down the sharp slope. Nisa’s feet tripped and she tumbled and then gave in, deciding it was better to slide down the hill on her backside than trip and tumble all the way down.
Somehow, Oliver had beat her to the bottom. He caught her in his arms and she embraced him, taking a moment to feel the comfort of his arms around her.
“Ready?” he whispered.
Nisa nodded and clung to his hand.
Vanmor led the way to the tower door and gently pushed it open. “It’s pretty narrow through here.”
Ena glanced at Aleyr and Teho. “We can wait out here. It’s not like we’re needed.”
Nisa wanted to say goodbye to them, but it was highly unlikely that they would travel to Earth the minute they stepped into The Tower, so she told herself they would have time to say goodbye later.
With that, she sucked in a deep breath and followed Vanmor inside. He led her up a winding staircase and she followed close behind him. The door slammed shut behind her and she jumped, squeezing Oliver’s hand.
He wasn’t there.
“Oliver?” Nisa stared down to see the rest of the staircase and The Tower entirely empty.
“Vanmor?” Nisa cast a glance up, but then dashed to the door leading outside and shoved against it as hard as she could.
“What is it?” Vanmor asked, running back down.
The front door wouldn’t open.
“We’re stuck in here! Oliver?” Nisa shouted.
“Ollie and the others… They’re not here!”
Vanmor frowned and held out his hands, but no magic appeared. “There isn’t any magic here. Maybe they stayed outside. Hey! You guys out there?”
Nisa’s heart hammered in her chest. “Wh—what’s happening?”
Vanmor gently held her shoulders. “Listen to me. The door probably shut behind you and its likely The Tower’s magic is keeping you and I here alone. I’m not sure why. I don’t think the others outside can hear us. Oliver and the others are probably with them. They might not have had a chance to walk inside behind you, okay?”
Somehow, his words didn’t really make her feel any better, but Nisa nodded. She sucked in a deep breath and followed Vanmor back up the long, winding staircase.
The eerie silence caused dread to seep through her bones like ice. Only the sound of her and Vanmor’s footsteps echoed across the walls and something about it reassured her that, at least, she wasn’t alone in here.
The staircase seemed to stretch on and on forever, which only made Nisa’s anxiety worse. Finally, they reached the top and Vanmor led her beneath an archway and into a plain room.
The room held nothing inside of it—no shelves, no books, no furniture, and certainly no portals going back to Earth. There weren’t even any symbols on the walls.
Nisa’s heart sank but then her eyes landed on a glowing circle in the center of the room. She darted toward it, with Vanmor right behind her. “Wait, it could be…” His voice trailed off.
Shock rippled through her.
The moment she stepped through the circle on the ground, Chris, Oliver, Susie, and Bea appeared.
“Wait…” Nisa’s eyes widened and horror filled her. “I don’t understand…”
“Oh, no…” Vanmor’s eyes glanced at the opposite side of the circle from where they came in, where a man wearing black and purple robes appeared.
“Hello,” the man said.
Nisa darted toward Oliver, ignoring the man. “Where were you?”
Oliver frowned. “I don’t know.”
“We were walking through the doorway and then just appeared here,” Bea said.
Nisa whirled around on the man. “Where did you teleport them? Who are you?” she asked.
The man gestured to the doorway. “There is no magic in this tower because it is protected. That is why your friends disappeared.”
Vanmor cast a glance over his shoulder outside the circle. He held up his hands and violet energy appeared. “He’s right. The only magic in this place is inside this circle.”
Nisa narrowed her eyes on the man, heart racing. “I don’t understand! What does that have to do with wherever you teleported my friends?”
The man shook his head. “I had nothing to do with your friends’ disappearance. I told you, this tower is protected and no magic exists within it, except the magic within this circle. I am a magical projection, just like they are.” His eyes stared at Susie, then Bea, then Chris, and last, landed on Oliver.
Oliver shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
“Of course, we’re real!” Susie shouted.
Nisa frowned, snatching Oliver’s hand. “Let’s go. This guy is insane.” She dragged him toward the edge of the circle.
Vanmor reached out for her. “Nisa, wait—“
The instant Nisa stepped outside the circle, Oliver’s hand disappeared. “Wh—?”
Fear and terror seeped through her and Nisa’s entire body trembled as her stomach lurched inside her. She stared at the circle, but the entire tower was empty, except for Vanmor, standing where he was.
“Wait, can you see them? Maybe that—that Sage is keeping them trapped inside the circle and now that I’m outside of it, I just can’t see them!” Nisa shouted.
Vanmor shook his head. “I don’t see them either, Nisa.”
Nisa darted back inside the circle, gripping Vanmor’s collar. “Where—“
Oliver, Bea, Susie, and Chris reappeared.
“Nisa…” Oliver started, but when he met her gaze, he paused. “What’s wrong?”
Nisa stared at him in shock, tears burning her eyes. She shoved passed him, glaring at the man, who had reappeared in the same place he had been. “Where are they going? What are you doing with them? What have you done?”
Instead of answering, the man simply took a single step backward, outside of the circle.
Another step brought him back inside and Nisa watched as his body reappeared right before her eyes. “No one else may enter this tower, except the one upon which the Eighth Curse has been cast. When it was cast upon you, the portal brought you to this world, but you were the only one who made it through,” the man explained.
Nisa gasped. “Wait… so they’re all back on Earth? I—okay, then send me back. Send me back right now!” she screamed at him, desperate. Her breathing quickened and she grabbed his robes.
“The explosion of the Eighth Curse killed your friends, I’m afraid. You will not find them on Earth or Glacea. The Eighth Curse is the Curse of Illusion.”
Nisa shook her head, staring at the man in shock. “I—I don’t—” She turned back to Oliver, who blinked tears through his eyes. Susie, Bea, and Chris all had tears in theirs too. “No, you’re all real. Tell me you’re real! I don’t… Oh—I don’t… You’re real! You know you’re real!”
“The magical projections that the Curse makes your mind conjure up are of people you love and care for. They are only able to stay within a certain distance of you.”
Nisa shook her head, falling to her knees, heaving. Oliver knelt beside her, but his hands brought her no comfort, nothing. She didn’t even feel them on her. “They’re real. They feel real.”
“But we have personalities,” Chris protested. “I mean, I have thoughts! How in the world can we be magical projections while the real us are…?”
Nisa stared up at the man, blinking, waiting, anticipating his answer.
But it was Vanmor who answered. “Magical projections can be detailed enough to feel and sound real. I have heard of some magic-users being able to give them personalities and even thoughts. I just—“
Nisa shook her head and gestured to Oliver’s arm. “They—they’ve been hurt. I mean, you felt pain.”
Oliver nodded, narrowing his eyes on the man.
The man met Nisa’s gaze. “All part of the magic.”
Vanmor fell onto his knees beside Nisa. “What arm? When was he hurt?”
Nisa sobbed, clutching Oliver’s arms as if they were her very lifeline. “In the Fabari village. The attack! His artery had been hit, but the griffin saved him!”
Vanmor shook his head. “Griffins don’t have healing abilities, Nisa,” he whispered.
Nisa grabbed his collar and glared at him, tears falling out of her eyes like waterfalls. “No! No, it healed him! How else do you explain it? Everyone saw it!”
Vanmor gripped her hands tightly in his own. “Nisa! If the Eighth Curse really has been cast on you, then it has the most powerful magic of all. All the other Curses effects the world, not just the one who has been cursed! It could have created an illusion of the griffin healing Oliver, to make up for the fact that he had been… wounded. But it’s not real. None of it is real.”
Nisa shoved him away with a mighty scream and turned back to Oliver. His arms wrapped around her and gently pulled her to her feet, holding her tightly. She sobbed, crying into his chest, but his hands gently rubbed her back and held her.
The man cleared his throat. “Now that you have had the Eighth Curse cast upon you, it is up to you to break the Eight Curses. The Curses are not just a plague upon humanity, but make each of the Cursed Ones suffer. You must find them—all seven other Curses.”
Nisa shook her head. “No. Send me back to Earth. I’ll—I’ll go back to the pyramid. That was when I was Cursed, right? We—we were all running in the pyramid, hiding from Callahan and his men and—and I put that—that thing in the wall in the symbol and the bright light…” Her voice came faster and faster until she completely lost her breath, until she collapsed onto the ground, grabbing her hair, squeezing her eyes shut, rocking back and forth to block the images out.
The white light.
It exploded around them and the last thing Nisa had heard was her friends all screaming in agony.
“The Curses are killing people,” the man continued. “Many of them. No matter what you do, your friends died back on your world and you cannot change that.”
Nisa shook her head and turned to Oliver. He was right there with her, just like he’d always had been. “H—how are you not real?”
Oliver gently rubbed her cheeks. “I—I don’t know.” He glanced up at the man and helped her stand to her feet once again. “I feel normal. Completely normal. What if this is all a lie?”
Vanmor shook his head. “Everything this man is saying lines up with the legends. And how else can you explain that in the one place where magic can’t exist, you all disappear?”
Chris shook his head with a curse and stepped out of the circle. When he stepped back in, he reappeared.
Oliver’s eyes widened.
Susie and Bea both screamed.
“I have no memory when we disappear,” Chris said. “Or when you say we disappear. What—what happened when I stepped out?”
“You disappeared,” Susie whispered.
Oliver shook his head. He snatched the gun out of his holster and fired it.
Nisa winced. “What are you doing?”
“The bullet disappeared.” He nodded his head toward the circle and she gazed all around the tower, but there were no markings on the wall where the bullet should have hit.
“That—that doesn’t mean anything…” Nisa shook her head and looked back at Oliver.
Sucking in a deep breath, Oliver pressed the gun against his hand and fired.
Nisa screamed, charging toward him.
There was no blood on his palm. Only a hole, which closed up right before her eyes.
“I—he’s been injured before. I—I don’t… I don’t understand…” Nisa stared at him in shock.
Oliver exhaled and walked over to grab her. “Nisa… you didn’t know the truth before. That was why your mind always imagined the right things about us. Wounds healing, my cell phone disappearing when you left, us eating and drinking. I—I haven’t felt hungry or thirsty since we got here.”
“Me either,” Bea said, staring at the wall in shock.
Nisa stared up at Oliver, but her tears made his face blur. “I—don’t… I don’t…”
Oliver pressed his lips to hers, but she didn’t feel anything.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
“Your mind is learning the truth,” he whispered. “So, now, we’re looking and acting more like projections.”
“You’re not. You’re not…” But even she didn’t believe it.
“They’re created from your consciousness,” the man explained. “As you learn the truth, so do they.”
“None of you can be dead. I can’t—I can’t do this without you. The—The Eight Curses, I mean, wha—what am I—what am I supposed to do?” Nisa collapsed and Oliver caught her smoothly in his arms.
“Here is a map to show you where to start.” The man held it out, but Nisa couldn’t move.
Vanmor thankfully grabbed it. “The Seventh Cursed is outside Glacea?”
The man nodded. “He resides in the Kingdom of Nakar.”
Nisa shook her head, staring at Oliver in shock. No part of her mind could fully process or understand what this really meant.
Oliver was dead?
Bea? Susie? Chris?
They were all gone?
The pyramid… the explosion, the white light… Their screams pierced through her minds and she groaned, collapsing onto the ground, shaking and trembling and crying. They were all dead. They had all been dead, for weeks. Maybe even for months. She had no idea how long it had been.
Oliver’s arms on her felt like nothing.
Nisa shoved him away and sprinted out of the circle. Vanmor quickly caught up with her before she made it to the staircase and he caught her. “I can’t do this! I just want to go back home, back—back to Earth.”
Vanmor shook his head. “You can’t. Even if we found a way, you’re one of the Cursed now. We have no idea how the Curse would affect Earth and you’re the only one who can break them. We have been waiting hundreds of years for the Eighth Curse to be cast, so that the Curses can be broken. They’ve killed thousands of people, Nisa.”
Nisa shoved him away. “It’s not my responsibility! I’m just—I’m just an archaeologist!”
Vanmor gripped her shoulders. “What do you have back on Earth now that they’re gone? You won’t return to see them alive, Nisa!”
A sob tore itself from her throat and he brought her into his chest for an embrace. It didn’t feel warm, but it felt—
Not like nothing.
“I can’t break all the Curses alone.”
“You’re not alone,” another voice said.
Nisa glanced up to see Ena, Teho, and Aleyr standing in the archway. She had no idea how long they had been there or how long they had been listening.
“We will help you break the Eight Curses,” Vanmor reassured her.
Nisa swallowed deeply and rushed back inside the circle. She met the eyes of her precious friends—Susie, Bea, Chris, and last… Oliver. The man she loved, the man she had wanted to marry and have a life on Earth with… “Will I still see them?” She met gazes with the man.
He nodded. “Your mind will still make them appear. Along with other illusions along the way… for you to see and for others. That is the way of the Curses—for they affect you and the world around you. But now that you know the truth, your mind will no longer make up things to hide the truth of the illusions from you.”
Nisa fell into Oliver’s arms and he clutched her tightly. “I’ll always be with you, Nisa,” he whispered.
Nisa couldn’t listen anymore. Oliver was dead and the life she wanted with him… It was dead too. Vanmor was right. There was nothing left on Earth for her…
Nothing left anywhere for her, except to break the Eight Curses. If others were suffering the way she had suffered… Then she had to do everything to stop it.
Taking a deep breath, she said words that she wasn’t entirely sure she meant, words that barely held her together, words that made her feel like she could fall apart at any moment.