We walked another fifteen minutes in silence. I noticed belatedly we had come into a tomb, or at least, it felt that way. The ambient forest noises had died away; no animals skittering through the brush, chattering, or birds chirping. Even the wind seemed loath to stir the trees.
I could smell the dankness of the swamp from here. We were close to the border, where the ground could give way suddenly, sucking you into hidden sinkholes. I studied my feet as we walked, cursing Butch silently. When we found him, he was in
much trouble. How did you punish a dog for running off, anyway?
We passed another of those natural arches; this one reminded me oddly of a gazebo, as if we were entering someone’s yard. I stepped into a small clearing. I saw evidence of passage in flattened grass and churned earth; nothing so subtle as paw prints.
Something big had traveled this way, though I didn’t know how long ago. Judging from the depressions in the dirt, it was heavy, as the channels sank almost six inches. I didn’t want to think about what could have made them, although to my morbid imagination, it looked like massive talons had raked through the soil.
I so didn’t need to be thinking along those lines.
Plants had been blackened all along this unholy trail, and a low-grade stench wafted from the dead greenery. Apparently this thing killed whatever it touched, causing wilt, wither, and rot. Where the
was my dog?
Bile rose in my throat, preventing me from calling out. As if in answer, Butch pranced around a huge split tree that was covered in gray-green lichens. The ground around the dead tree sank inward, as if a meteor had crashed there. He barked as if to say,
What took you so long?
It was nice to know the dog had so much faith in us, but why had he brought us out here? I took a step toward him. Then I knew.
Inside the dead tree sat a madman’s jumble of lost possessions: necklace, bracelet, ivory hairbrush, a china doll with its face half charred. Every item looked as though it had been plucked from a conflagration. I could almost smell the smoke.
“They’re trophies,” Jesse whispered.
“Yeah.” Even from a distance I could tell that.
This place reeked of death, solitude, and decay. I felt numb as I came forward. I thought I recognized one of the items half buried toward the back, and I could no more resist kneeling than I could have stopped breathing. Jesse stopped me from reaching out with a hand on my arm.
“You don’t want to touch those, Corine.” He left the subtext unspoken, but I suspected he was right. I’d never seen so much evil heaped in one place.
“No. I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking. Will you get it for me? Please?” I pointed to a delicate chain. If I was right, when he pulled it free, it would have a flower pentacle on it.
As if he sensed the import, Saldana didn’t argue, though he had to be reluctant to poke through the pile. Butch actually brought him a stick, which drew a second look from both of us. Jesse leaned in and raked a few items aside, and then, after a few abortive attempts, raised the necklace into the light.
I forgot to breathe. Tears rose in my eyes, hot and searing. The last time I’d seen this, it shone silver at my mother’s throat. Fire blackened now, yes, and filthy from the years it languished in this unholy place, but it was hers, undoubtedly.
“Oh God,” I whispered. My lower lip trembled, and I snatched the chain before Saldana could stop me.
The world dissolved in fire.
Derelict on Memory Lane
I lost myself.
First in pain, and then darkness, and then—
My daughter would die if I failed here. I knew it. Terror lent me speed, and I hurried to the chest of drawers where I kept my spell components. One mistake would be fatal. I didn’t have much time.
I cast the circle and had spoken most of the words when I sensed approaching peril. Corine was asleep upstairs; I ran to rouse her. For some reason, my frantic words made no sound, but she seemed to hear me. She argued with me.
I hugged her fiercely and then shoved her out the back door. I hoped she knew how much I loved her. I went to meet the men who wanted me dead.
My ears rang. I couldn’t hear what they said. There were twelve of them, like a jury of my peers, come to judge me. I didn’t need to see more than the torches. I slammed the door and locked it.
Then I ran back to the circle I’d drawn on the floor. My hands shook as I sealed myself inside it. I had one last thing to do.
Protect her, I begged. Give her the gifts she needs to survive. Let her live as my legacy to the world. I poured everything I was into the working.
The door flew open. A tall man stood in the doorway, and I would never forget his face. May you burn in hell for what you do this night. Turn and burn, you dark one in human skin. Licking flames threw weird shadows around the house that had been our home. Never again. Raising the athame, I gave myself over to the Lady.
And I died.
“Corine!” The voice came from a long way off, desperate, terrified. I didn’t want to heed the hands pummeling me.
At least they seemed to be. No, they were pressing down, not pummeling. Someone was performing CPR. Was I dead? My flesh felt odd and heavy, almost entirely inert.
I felt a mouth over mine, then breath being forced into my lungs. I couldn’t seem to open my eyes. And then I coughed. If dying hurt, living was worse. Butch nuzzled me, whimpering, but I couldn’t lift a hand to reassure him.
Jesse brought me upright. His hands rubbed over my back, and when I finally managed to lift my eyes, I found him looking wretched, almost as bad as I felt. The burn on my left palm felt as though it might never heal.
“You died,” he whispered, raw.
I couldn’t work up any concern over that. “So did my mother. She—she killed herself. Why didn’t she run? We could’ve both—” A sob tore free.
I didn’t need an answer after all. I’d
Cherie Solomon for the last few minutes of her life. She hadn’t run, because the men would’ve come looking, and she’d loved me so much I ached with it. My tears ran freely, slipping down my cheeks. I felt dire and bloodied. All these years, I’d thought she died in the fire.
But the truth was somehow worse. She’d died by her own hand, part of that final spell. I had always assumed they’d come upon her before she finished—and that was why my powers were incomplete. Based on what I’d just seen, that obviously wasn’t true, so the fault must lie in me. I was a faulty vessel.
“Oh God.” With gentle hands, he unfolded my fingers from around her necklace.
It fell from my grasp into his palm. Numbly I noted a new scar: The flower pentacle had been branded into my palm. The wound showed livid and purple with little white blisters around the edges. I’d never seen anything quite like it, and what seemed stranger—I had
other marks on my left hand anymore.
Jesse followed my gaze and registered the change as well. “What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
“We should get you to a hospital.”
I shook my head. “That’s fifty miles away. I’ll be fine, but Chance won’t.”
Before he could argue, Butch lifted his head and growled. The heavy chill I’d noticed before the letters appeared on the wall returned. Everything stilled, even the wind. It felt like too much work even to move. Something was coming. I sensed the vibrations in the earth.
Something huge and heavy would burst into this clearing and roar over finding us toying with its trinkets. It must have an awful reason for keeping mementos of the dead and would most likely add us to its collection. I knew I should be frightened, but I felt as though my emotions had been burnt at the sockets.
Was it possible I hadn’t returned all the way? Perhaps I was undead; that would be mightily inconvenient. I pinched myself, just in case. No. It stung a bit.
“Corine, we have to go now. Can you walk?”
I didn’t know. When he pulled me to my feet, I discovered I could, clumsy, stumbling steps. Saldana snagged Butch, who wisely didn’t protest. Before I hardly knew what had happened, he tucked me behind him and drew his weapon. I had a feeling it wouldn’t do us any good against what shared these woods with us, but men always seemed to feel better being proactive.
As we moved through the trees, trying unsuccessfully to be quiet, the distance between reality and me receded. My skin started to feel like my own again. The pain in my palm anchored me, and I tried to banish the memory of my mother’s death. In a way, it was
death too, for that touch had killed me. Only Jesse’s hands and mouth had kept me from slipping away into the dreaming dark.
He appeared to be doing his best to save a life I didn’t want as much as I should right then. Reaction got the best of me. It seemed easier just to wait for the thing to find and eat us, or whatever it did to its victims.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” The insanely deep voice came from everywhere and nowhere. At first, I thought I must be losing my mind. It rumbled all around me, shivering the earth as if with a happy sigh.
I stopped walking and glanced at Jesse, who looked like I felt. “Did you—”
“Hear that? Yeah.”
He spun in a circle as if trying to find the microphones and bass amps. The way dark mist rolled in around us, he might want to check for a smoke machine too. I smiled slightly over that. For someone who was introducing me to Gifted society, he didn’t seem to have run across as much weird stuff as I had.
I wondered if the unseen thing wanted some response. “You aren’t?”
“No,” it rumbled. “You are precious to me. Poor pretty thing. I wondered when you would come back.”
A cold shudder rolled through me, and dead man’s hands slid down my spine. I’d heard those words straight from Mr. McGee, just before he died. Beside me, Jesse froze. Clearly he’d made the connection as well from my recitation of the story.
“You know me?” I forced the words through numb lips.
“Darling child,” the dark thing crooned, “I hid you. Sheltered you. You slept in my arms on blood night.” For a mad moment, I thought we must be speaking to the dark spirit of the wood. My breathing grew labored, fear oozing out my pores in acrid sweat. “I kept your mother’s legacy
The necklace in Saldana’s grasp suddenly seemed tainted. I wanted to grab it from him and throw it as far from us as my pitching arm could manage. He seemed to share the instinct, but after that first twitchy impulse, I shook my head. If there was evil in it, then it had already infected me. I gazed down at my marked palm with a dry, aching throat.
My chest felt as though I might be suffering the beginning stages of a heart attack. “Does that mean you will let us go?”
“Gladly,” it rumbled. “Go from here and do not return. There are others in this place who mean you ill.”
People, I guessed. But sometimes people were the worst monsters of all.
“Let’s go,” Jesse said beneath his breath. He started walking, fingers white-knuckled on his gun, as if to test the offer of free passage.
Butch never even twitched. I was afraid the little dog might have died of fright.
Getting away couldn’t be so easy; it was never a matter of asking nicely not to be devoured. The monster must be playing with us, for I couldn’t be misconstruing the air, thick with hunger and malice. It wanted us in ways I didn’t understand.
I never lost the sense of it as we passed back through those arches on this profane path. If nature should be a temple, then this one was desecrated. The monster kept pace with us, an unseen presence slithering through the underbrush. I decided it could shift shapes, whatever it was. It did not have to be huge and heavy; it could be whatever it desired. That knowledge shook me in ways I didn’t like to think about.
“Your friend will die in the dark,” it said in parting as we came to the thinning trees that marked the end of its dominion. “Farewell to you, precious child. Farewell.”
My breath whooshed out of me.
Though I told myself I couldn’t believe anything that creature told me—it was probably born of lies and darkness—I nonetheless tasted the certainty in its words. Sometimes truth tormented best of all.
As we stepped into the yard at last, I felt cold and dirty, weary beyond all belief. The fire in my left hand went beyond any hurt I’d previously suffered or imagined. Tiny lightning worms gnawed at my nerves, writhing in devilish sparks all the way up to the pain centers in my brain.
I desperately needed a good night’s sleep, but there was no time. It was already late afternoon. If we delayed any longer, we would lose all hope of springing Chance before dark.
Because Jesse insisted, I washed my face and hands before we headed back into town. I also changed my clothes, not wanting to look like I had been rolling around the forest floor. We took his Forester because it was parked behind the Mustang and I didn’t want anyone to recognize us.
He also demanded I eat one of the peanut butter sandwiches we’d packed for lunch. I didn’t want it, but I didn’t complain, munching mechanically and washing it down with tepid water. Afterward, I pulled Butch out of my bag and cradled him to my chest. As if he knew I needed comfort, he nuzzled his cold nose against my neck.
“Here’s how it’s going to be,” Jesse told me as he parked in front of the courthouse. “I’ll do the talking, and you agree with whatever I say. Got it?”
If I’d possessed the wherewithal to get Chance out earlier, I’d have done it, so I didn’t mind letting Jesse call the play. I merely nodded and led the way downstairs to where they were keeping Chance. It was a makeshift jail at best, a small area barred off for town drunks. Sheriff Robinson looked slightly annoyed to see me back. His eyes narrowed when he realized I’d brought backup and wouldn’t be inclined to play ball with his “good old boys make the rules in this here town” party line.