The closer we get to the southern forest, the colder the air gets. I’ve got my blanket wrapped around me, along with almost all of the blankets on the ship, and I’m sitting next to a fire in the kitchen, and I’m still freezing cold.
The cook laughs as he stirs a large cauldron of stew. “I thought Keepers weren’t affected by some things here, like the temperature.”
“I guess not,” I manage to say without cutting my tongue off with my chattering teeth.
He laughs again and another pirate runs down from the main deck.
“Keeper, Captain Scratch be wantin’ to see ya up on the main.”
“Are we at the Winter Forest?”
He nods. “Aye.”
I stand up so quickly that the blankets fall to the floor. My flying blanket rises from the top of the heap dejectedly and shakes itself off and follows me running upstairs, the freezing cold temporarily forgotten.
Even though it’s so cold outside that there’s frost forming in the air when people breathe, I don’t care. I’m too excited to see the Winter Forest. I managed to get one of the pirates to talk about it, and it sounds beautiful.
“Take a look, Shar,” Scratch says as he hands me his spyglass.
The cold metal will leave a mark on my skin, but I don’t care at the moment. I look through it at the black and white forest and gasp. It’s even more beautiful than I imagined it would be.
Black tree trunks are gracefully topped by caps and garlands of ice and snow. Giant icicles hang down from branches everywhere, reflecting the light and the reflection of the sea and theDreamcatcher, making the entire forest look like a giant mirror.
In between the trees, I can see cream-colored stags mounted by people in all white. They raise a white flag with a barely visible blue snowflake on it.
“What are they doing?” Scratch asks.
“They just raised a white snowflake flag,” I answer.
“Raise the snow flag!” Scratch yells. A lanky crew member scurries up to the crow’s nest to do the captain’s bidding.
“Let me see the glass, Shar.”
Reluctantly, I hand him the spyglass and look down at my palm, which is bright red and hurting from holding onto the freezing metal.
As soon as our snow flag is raised, something happens and the tree branches seem to part, creating a gateway for our ship. TheDreamcatchersails through and into the Winter Forest.
As soon as we leave the Grass Sea, the gate behind us closes, and the temperature drops thirty degrees. I feel my lips start turning blue and start shaking.
Scratch laughs and slips off his black jacket, which is much warmer than it looks. “Here. Nieva would never forgive me if I delivered the next Keeper in an ice cube.”
“Of course she could, Captain. She’d just keep her as decoration in the palace instead of helping her rescue her friend,” calls out another pirate.
I try to smile, but my lips are numb.
“We’re just messing with you, Sharon. You won’t freeze, Nieva will make sure of that. Her kingdom’s been attacked by the nightmares, too, and she’s just as ready as the rest of us for another Keeper ruler.”
“Do I have to rule?” I ask, narrowly missing biting my tongue.
Scratch shrugs. “It’s up to you, but if you don’t, then the Nightworld goes right back to how it is now, with the Nightmares running rampant and using anything and everything to feed the Offspring.”
“The Offspring?” I ask softly.
Scratch nods. “The Nightmare’s children. Well, eggs really. They’re very carnivorous and eat anything that moves.”
“How long do the Nightmares wait until they feed something that they’ve caught to the Offspring?”
Scratch shrugs. “It depends on lots of things, Sharon. But I think that you’ll be able to make it to your friend in time to save him.”