"Are you prepared to give it all up? All of it?"
Nobody is ever really ready to give everything up.
But life was always full of difficult choice. Picking the right smoothie at Jamba Juice. Choosing between Kendra and Seth when it came to yard football. Picking between handling things himself and risk a bloody future or trusting in a masked little girl with sickening hollow sockets for eyes.
"Have you an answer for me?"
"I need more time," Warren pleaded, but there was no time. He was out of time for planning. For guessing. "Just give me a day, an hour. Ten minutes."
"Time isn't very patient, Time doesn't listen no matter how hard you plead," retorted the girl in the fox mask. "But I have made you a promise."
The rules of the masked girl's game were simple. He'd played the game before, and he'd won. The masked girl trusted Warren, but he didn't trust her.
Not after the cryptic things she'd told them during their last game. Not after she drew him horrific pictures predicting Kendra's fate and Seth's fate and Dale's fate. She'd drawn something for Warren too, but he chose to ignore it at all costs.
"And if I agree to your bargain, what happens? Tell me what happens!"
"I don't know, I saw the future written on stone, not in stone. Anything could happen, I showed you one outcome of many."
Warren had thought that he'd get some other kind of answers. He racked his brain for anything remotely clever. But his thoughts were shocked into submission. The masked girl watched with her curious black eyes. Warren inhaled deeply, and risked a look at the perfect blue lake they sat beside.
If the how the world around him had been created remained in innocence, Warren would've wanted to stay. Spring and autumn remained eternally entwined around the lake. But he had to go and snoop. He had to know what he was going up against. Warren had to figure out what the lake was, who the creatures were that lived there.
But in doing so-
He'd found out more than he'd ever wanted.
The masked girl gestured to the reeds glowing against the twilight sky, "Everything is waiting. Everything is ready. All you have to do is say the word."
"I can't, there has to be a way around this!" Warren snapped, he'd long since grown tired of riddles and hidden information. "I can't do what you ask."
"But it's easy, you'd be comfortable here. You will be my family, I've always wanted a family to love me."
There was no way he could bring himself to abandon those he cared about, "But you had a family..."
"Yes, yes, I know," it was the masked girl's turn to grow frustrated. "And they threw me aside. They threw me away."
"I can't agree to this and essentially kill them."
"You'll die if you don't."
Think! Think! Think! There had to be something he hadn't already sacrificed to a bargain. He'd told his best pun, he'd given away his time, he'd even sacrificed his one chance to escape the masked girl's world. All for-
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
How selfish of him to think of only things to influence himself. Warren hoped the masked girl didn't catch the slight smirk tugging at his features.
"If I accept your gift, I have to stay here," Warren clarified. "I stay here and live alone. My friends all find their fates, none of which are anywhere near happy. My friends never see me again. They're killed, but hey, Bracken stops the ritual. "
The masked girl flopped to her belly on the grass. Soon she began to spin a crown of grass. Every so often, the masked girl plucked up a flower and added it to her crown, "But if you don't take my deal, you go back into your world and die. You die and then your girl goes mad, the other girl never regains her sight, and the boy never wakes. I told you that if you leave this world, what I showed you will come to pass."
Even the masked girl's bargain seemed appealing. Was it better to sacrifice himself and let his loved ones live their lives? They'd be horrifically depressing lives, but they'd be alive. Warren would be dead of course, which wasn't appealing. But if he used the magic hiding in the lake to reveal the woman behind this mess, he'd forever be trapped with a fickle girl in a mask and leave his loved ones dead.
The longer Warren sat thinking of a clever loophole to escape the fates he'd seen, the less time he had outside of the masked girl's world.
No matter what, Warren wasn't allowed to enter back into his world until he was allowed. He stared at the reeds. And ever so slowly an idea began to pick itself together.
"What are you thinking of?" The masked girl quipped, placing the grass crown on Warren's head.
"Oh nothing," he answered, hoping to perfect his idea before the masked girl lost interest. If she was anything like she used to be, the masked girl always hungered for a secret. The reeds. The pictures. No matter what, Warren would have to return to Fablehaven, but he didn't have to return.
Warren made a mental note to thank Seth for wriggling around the rules. If not for him, Warren would've been stumped on the riddle.
"Tell me right now!"
"I'm not thinking about anything, I promise I'm not. Nothing but air up in this head of mine."
The masked girl whined, "That's not true, you're clever and you're thinking about something. I want to know!"
"Now that's no way to ask for something, now is it?"
If the girl hadn't been wearing a mask, Warren was sure he'd see a face full of loathing. The masked girl huffed, "Please tell me what you're thinking about."
"There we go," Warren chuckled, reaching out to ruffle the masked girl's already unkempt hair. It was more of a rat's nest than unkempt. "Promise you won't interrupt me?"
The masked girl nodded.
"I know what you really want, and it's not odd little trinkets or hearts or body parts or seeds. You want to be forgiven. You want the blood off of your hands, and don't you dare claim that you don't know what I'm talking about, I saw what you did. I saw the things you chose to do."
Warren knew he'd hit a nerve. The masked girl bowed her head. Seth did the same thing when he'd been caught breaking rules; it was the body language of a child who knew that they'd done something very wrong and felt shame because of it. The gesture cemented Warren's theories that the masked girl wasn't nearly as heartless as she claimed to be. Something was still in her chest beating away. Not necessarily a heart, she'd lost that years ago, but a tiny thread of empathy. He set a hand on her shoulder and crouched down to the masked girl's level.
"There's nothing you wouldn't do just to forget and you can't. You won't be able to, trust me, I know all about that," there were countless bad things Warren knew he'd done in the years he'd been a Knight serving under the Sphinx. The words pouring from his mouth were words he needed to hear too, "There's no way to go back in time and change what happened, but-"
The masked girl's head shot up, her empty black eyes almost sparking with hope.
"But you can become a new person. You can get a new heart."
"How? Please tell me how, I'll do anything to get it back. Anything. I'll wither away. I'll drown in the lake, I'll-"
"No, no, no, it's much simpler than that. There's no suicide involved... All you have to do,"
"What? What is it?" The masked girl touched Warren, though unlike before, her little hands weren't so wintry.
Calmly, Warren gestured to the proud reeds.
"All you have to do is help me."