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Authors: J. A. White

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BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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Though she had only been five at the time, Kara remembered with uncommon vividness the man who had dragged her out of bed that night. Bailey Riddle had not only brought Kara to the execution, but he had also made light of Mother's death afterward, as though it were all some sort of game.

“I hated him,” she acknowledged, “but I never harmed him.”

“Are you so sure about that?” Sordyr asked. “Do you not remember the night after your mother's death? The dream you had? You hated Fen'de Stone the most, of course, but it had been beat into your impressionable little brain that he was to be revered, no matter what. You just couldn't imagine any harm coming to him. But Bailey Riddle was nothing more than a cruel, insignificant man. You needed to punish someone, and since you were too
little to do it yourself, you imagined his death beneath the jaws of a terrible beast . . .”

“Stop it,” said Kara.

“. . . and something in the Thickety heard you, Kara. Heard you, and obeyed! I wonder. Did you feel it feasting? Did you taste that man's blood on your own lips?”

“You're lying.”

“You know I'm not. I
felt
your hatred, Kara, and I knew then that there was a seed of true darkness within you—I only had to give it time to blossom. I waited until you were twelve and in full possession of your powers, and then I ordered one of my Watchers to guide you to the grimoire. I had hoped that its influence would help you accept the evil within your heart, at which point you would return to me for proper training in the ways of a
wexari
. For some inexplicable reason, however, you rejected the grimoire's powers and denied your true nature,
saving
those people in your village when you should have been
destroying
them. I knew then that you would never accept my tutelage, so
I sent the old witch to do my teaching for me. One way or another, I needed you to be powerful. The darkness, I knew, would come later. It always does.”

Kara stared up at the canopy, starved for the few rays of sunlight brave enough to enter this cursed place.
Is it true?
she wondered.
Am I really responsible for the death of Bailey Riddle?
Sordyr's words had pecked away the shell of long-forgotten memories; she remembered lying in bed, her burning eyes beyond the point of tears, wishing with all her heart that some terrible violence would befall the horrid man who laughed at—

What if Sordyr is right? What if there
is
darkness within me? What if it's only a matter of time before it takes over?

And then, like a cool balm, she felt Taff's hand touch her arm. He shouted at Sordyr, “You may be powerful and scary and old, but you don't know
anything
about my sister! She saved my life! She's saved the lives of so many people that I don't even know enough numbers to count them all. She's brave and kind and . . .” He paused here
and looked to Kara for guidance. “What's the opposite of evil?”

“I think just ‘good,'” she said.

Taff turned back to Sordyr. “She's really, really good,” he said. “Nothing you do or say is ever going to change that! I don't know why you've brought her here, but she will never help you! Ever!”

Sordyr lowered his face to Taff's and, squeezing the boy's chin between two twig fingers, twisted his head from side to side, like a farmer inspecting livestock at market.

“Interesting,” said Sordyr. “I never considered you. The brother. What harm your influence might be doing to my fragile
wexari
.”

“Don't touch him!” Kara shouted. Before she could intervene, however, brown tendrils sprouted from the swing and wrapped around her wrists, holding her in place. Sordyr flicked his fingers and a handful of dirt plastered itself across Kara's mouth, instantly changing to a
black, viscous substance that stilled her lips.

“Shh,” said Sordyr. “We're having a moment, the boy and I.” The Forest Demon poked Taff's cheek with a branch finger as sharp as a stake. “I wonder,” he said. “Perhaps the only thing separating Kara and her true nature is another family tragedy.”

Kara struggled harder against the vines, but it was no use; they were as strong as chains.

Sordyr pressed his nail against the soft flesh of Taff's neck.

“It is in despair that true evil is born,” said Sordyr. He dug inside his cloak. “But not to worry. I won't kill you. I have an even better idea.”

Between two twig fingers he held a black seed.

Taff screamed, which was the worst thing to do, for it gave Sordyr a chance to pry his mouth open before he could clamp it shut. The Forest Demon tilted Taff's head back and lowered the seed to his mouth.

Mumbling through the dirt-gag, Kara screamed the
words Sordyr wanted to hear. For a horrifying moment she feared she was too late and Taff would be lost to her forever, but with the seed dangling between Taff's lips, the Forest Demon turned to her.

“What was that?” he asked.

The vines released Kara and the substance sealing her mouth was suddenly dirt again. Choking, Kara spoke the words: “I'll help . . . you. Whatever . . . you want. I'll do it.”

“I know,” Sordyr said. “I've known since you were five years old.” He dropped both Taff and the seed. Taff fell to his knees, gasping for breath. The seed tunneled into the ground. In a few short moments a single flower emerged, slicing the air with knife-edged petals.

Kara knelt by Taff's side. He was shivering but otherwise unhurt.

“Do you know the story of how I became trapped on this island?” Sordyr asked.

Kara nodded. “Mary told me. You gave a grimoire to a
little girl. A lot of people died, so a
wexari
named Rygoth tracked you down and sacrificed her life so you couldn't hurt anyone anymore.”

“That is the way they tell it here in Kala Malta,” Sordyr said. “But does nothing about that story seem strange to you?”

Kara remembered a peaceful night outside a field of yellow grass, the song of the grettins. And the advice Mary had given:
You must learn to ask the right questions. . . .

“How did Rygoth trap you here?” Kara asked. “She was just a
wexari
, like me. She could control animals, and even
make
animals, but she wouldn't be able to turn a forest into a prison. Unless . . . did she use a grimoire? Her Last Spell?”

“I wish she had,” said Sordyr. “Rygoth would be suffering in Phadeen right now and I would be free.” He paused. “At least, I don't think she used a grimoire. It was so long ago,
lifetimes
ago, and—” Sordyr clasped the sides of his head and screeched in torment. The Thickety
creaked and howled with him.

“Stop it!”
he shouted.
“Stop that this instance!”

The chaos around them settled to a soft buzz.

“She likes to weaken me,” he said, his voice unsteady. “What little she can. It's her only entertainment, I imagine.”

“Are you talking about Rygoth?” Taff asked. “But—she's dead.”

“Oh no,” said Sordyr. “She's quite alive. And while her magic may keep me from leaving the island,
my
magic has kept her imprisoned deep within the earth for centuries. We have trapped one another, neither one of us strong enough to escape from a stalemate that has lasted far too long.”

“How is that possible?” Kara asked.

“In our prime, we cast the right spells,” Sordyr said, leading Kara to the cage hovering over the pit. “Grew the right flower. Created the right animal. At this point, you might even call us immortal. But magic has changed both of us over the years, and these days Rygoth is little more
than a monster. That's why I need you, Kara. I've waited so long for a
wexari
with your particular talents. Bend her to your will! Go down there and
make
her release me.”

Sordyr unhooked the gate of the cage. Ignoring her brother's protests, Kara stepped inside. Through the gaps in the floor she felt a rush of subterranean air.

“Free me and I will leave you in peace,” Sordyr said, latching the gate. “You can have the island. I will even tell you how to break the spell on your father.” Kara looked up at this, and she caught a glimmer of a smile beneath Sordyr's cloak. “That's right, Kara. There is a way.”

“Even if I did believe you,” Kara said, “you're asking me to sacrifice the rest of the world just so my family and I can be safe.”

“Perhaps. But ask yourself, Kara: What has the rest of the world ever done for you?”

Working together, the two Devoted spun the large wheel holding the rope and the cage began to descend slowly into the earth. Taff pushed past Sordyr and threw
himself against the gate, his fingers reaching for her between the wooden bars.

“Don't do this, Kara!” he exclaimed. “You don't know what's down there! It's too—”

Then all was dirt and darkness.

T
he cage descended for what felt like an eternity. Kara gasped for air, the walls of the narrow shaft pressing against her.
If some ill is going to befall me
, she thought,
let it be in the open air. Not here in the dark
.

The cage squealed to a sudden stop.

Kara unlatched the door and stepped into a rocky tunnel. Globules of luminescent fungi dangled from the low ceiling like beaded necklaces, illuminating her path.

“Light,” Kara said. “Light is good.”

She moved forward, trying not to think about the
mountains of earth separating her from daylight.
If the ceiling were to collapse, there'd be nowhere to escape
, Kara thought. She found herself taking short, quick breaths, imagining how it might feel to gasp for air and swallow only dirt instead. . . .

Calm down
.
This cavern has obviously stood for a very long time. It's not going to collapse today. Probably
.

The tunnel widened into a large chamber. The air smelled different here—dank, to be sure, but without the persistent rot that suffused everything aboveground, the taint of Sordyr's corruption.

I don't think he has any influence down here
, Kara thought, and a calming sensation filled her. She proceeded to the end of the chamber, where three passageways led deeper into the cave.

Which one?

The last thing Kara wanted to do was get lost. Taff was alone with Sordyr, and she needed to get back as quickly as possible.

She reached out with her mind.

It shouldn't be hard to miss a creature as powerful as Rygoth
, she thought, but despite her concentration all she could sense were the tiny inhabitants of the cave: quadrapedes and ketchy-koos, tangle bats and blindteeth. Kara heard a scratching sound and caught sight of a six-handed creature scurrying for a nearby hole. She built a mind-bridge and the creature came to her almost immediately, maggot white with a toothless, sucking smile. Kara held one of its hands in hers and marveled at the dozens of joints, perfect for finding insects in even the narrowest of cracks.

“I seek Rygoth,” Kara said.

The creature hesitated. It looked back at the crevice, perhaps wondering if it should have escaped while it had the chance.

“Maybe you don't know her by her name,” Kara said. “She's a—”

Cavemole take. Honored to help Witch Girl
.

“You know me?”

We all know you!

The cavemole, no taller than her waist, gazed at Kara with knowing eyes that shone in the darkness. Its smile widened.

You destroy hurt-hurt creatures. Eater of shadows. Eater of lost things. You will heal us all
.

Kara looked away in shame.

These animals expect me to save them
, she thought,
and instead I'm going to free their greatest enemy. I'm a traitor
.

Except that wasn't true at all, which was the worst part. By freeing Sordyr, Kara
would
be saving them. She would just be condemning the rest of the World.

Either way you look at it, someone is going to suffer
, she thought.
There is no right answer
.

The cavemole led Kara into the center tunnel, which sloped downward across a natural bridge that had been eroded to glacial smoothness. A hole in the distant rock wall spat out water that plummeted through the darkness
with an earth-shattering roar. Kara peered over the edge of the bridge but could not see where the water landed. They pressed onward. There were no forks in the passageway, no other way to go. The cavemole scampered onto Kara's shoulders and curled around her like a scarf, its skin cold against the nape of her neck. Kara's stomach grumbled. She wondered if she had made a mistake, assuming this trip would take hours instead of days.

Then they stepped through a fissure and into the largest underground chamber Kara had ever seen.

It was colder in this part of the cave—and windy too, as though all the frigid air had been funneled into this one area. The ceiling of the cave was a blurred, distant shape that reminded Kara of the canopy outside. From it hung stalactites as long as trees, their spires glowing with a powerful blue light that illuminated moss-covered walls—and something far less expected.

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
9.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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