Authors: Shannon Mayer
Astrid took a step toward me, and held a hand out. Those miniscule sparkles surrounded her fingers. If I couldn’t get my hands on her, I wasn’t sure I could fight her off.
A single tear escaped me and I blinked it away. “Then I’m taking you with me.”
I opened to both Spirit and Earth. The power of the earth flooded through me, and Spirit tangled with it, like lovers long parted.
Astrid snarled, “No. You won’t.”
With a burst of speed, I leapt at her. She dodged to the left, her black eyes narrowed as she glared, the sparkling lights darkening to shadows that thrived and danced. I snaked a hand out and grabbed her shoulder. I dug my fingers in until she screamed.
Last chance. We tumbled to the ground and I wrapped my legs and arms around her and held her tightly to my chest.
She clawed and screamed, writhed and fought. The shadows drove through my body, filling my nose and mouth until I couldn’t breathe. Spirit and Earth, that was all I had left. I released myself to them, let them pour through me into her.
She stiffened in my arms. “No. NO!”
I opened my eyes. Face to face, I saw her eyes fade, the black shadows retreating until there was a pair of everyday normal green eyes looking at me.
“No,” she whispered.
Once more her face cracked, tiny fissures running under the skin. They opened, and light poured out of her in rays as though she’d swallowed the sun. Sorrow flowed from her to me. A pain so intense, I couldn’t help but grieve for what I was doing to her.
That I was the one causing her pain even though I had to. Her green eyes blinked once. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said as I ripped her essence apart. Astrid’s soul, and the darkness that had been in her scattered, first through my mind, and then into the world once more. Only this time she was so small, so miniscule there would be no infection of another grimoire, or person.
Panting, I realized I was on my hands and knees. Across from me, Giselle sat on the edge of the stairs, her eyes wide. “What happened?”
“I . . . pulled her apart. Broke her into tiny pieces.”
“I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Neither did I.” My voice cracked as though I’d been running in the desert.
I turned my head to see him staring at me with eyes nearly as wide as the kid’s. “I didn’t know you could do that either.”
With a shrug, I pushed to my feet. I shouldn’t have felt embarrassed, yet I did. Like being strong was a sin. Giselle wobbled to me and touched the back of my hand.
“You feel like him.”
I felt like him. Like Talan, the one who’d taught her to use her abilities.
Understanding flowed over me. He had to be a Spirit Elemental. Or maybe a half-breed like me. “Mother goddess, I am not alone.” The words escaped before I could catch them.
In front of us, Cactus stood over the ashes of the book, his hands still flickering with firelight. “You got a dust pan?” Yeah, those were not the heroic words I’d expected out of him. Yet that was Cactus for you.
Giselle shook her head.
“Open the door,” I said, pointing at the back door. He walked over, opened the door, and the wind in the house picked up, blowing out the ashes of the grimoire, and along with it, the feeling in the house settled.
I touched Giselle’s head. “You understand why we burned it and destroyed the spirit in it?”
“Yes.” Her voice was barely audible. “Ask your questions.”
“Are you up to it?” I held her out from me so I could look her in the eye.
She drew in a deep breath and nodded while Cactus grumbled about me pushing her too fast. I glared at him. In some ways he was still the wild child I’d known in my youth. Quick to find a game, slow to do what he was asked to do. “This is her job. She will be pushed every day for the rest of her life as she tries to balance what she is with who she wants to be.” He frowned at me. “Do not give me that look, Cactus.”
Giselle stood. “I can do it. I . . . I thought the grimoire would help me be stronger. At least,” she put a hand to her head, “that’s what it felt like when I read it. What she told me.”
“Grimoires are the journals of witches and Readers gone bad.” Peta wove herself between Giselle’s legs. “They hold evil spirits like a honey holds flies. You are not the first to be fooled, nor will you be the last. You are lucky we came along when we did. Pray the madness hasn’t taken seed in you.”
The kid nodded, swallowed hard, went to the middle of the room and sat on the rug. “Larkspur, can you sit in front of me?”
To business it was, then. It made me like her even more to see her put herself back together with such speed.
Only the strong of heart could pull that off.
“Do you not want to discuss payment?” I asked.
She lifted an eyebrow. “You saved my soul. That is payment enough.”
I moved to the rug and sat across from her. She reached out and took my left hand first. Her fingers trailed lightly over my skin, pressing here and there, turning my hand from side to side while she squinted at things only she could see.
“Is she going to marry soon?” Cactus blurted out behind me. I startled with the sound of his voice, and then glared at him over my shoulder.
“No. I don’t see a marriage for a long time, if at all,” Giselle said, her voice a bit dreamy. “Love. Lust. Sex. She sees marriage as a yoke that will bind her wings and break her.”
“That is not my question.” I bit the words out, silently cursing Cactus for butting in.
“I can handle those three,” he said as he crouched behind me. I whipped my head around and stared hard at Giselle.
“Are you ready for me to ask my question?”
She shook her head. “Not yet. I’m following your life line.” She trailed a finger across my palm. “It’s too interesting not to Read.”
I closed my hand over hers. “I am not here for my own life, Reader. I am here to save another.”
“Your father, I know. I see that. But you need help to find him because he is in the shadows of his own madness. I cannot see him clearly; he is cloaked from me.”
I didn’t like how she put that. It made me think of Blackbird. If my father had been caught by Cassava and her lover, they could in theory put that cloaking spell on him. Giselle went on. “Someone doesn’t want you to find him.” Her eyes flickered ever so slightly. “Am I right?”
I was relieved. Another step in the journey, one that would take time. A quick nod was all I gave her.
“You need a Tracker then,” she said. “That is a bit harder than doing a Reading of your palm, or answering a question like ‘will she marry?’”
She stood and went to the kitchen. The sound of a drawer opening and closing and then she was back with me. In her hand was a deck of cards. She held them out to me. “Think of your question, then choose a card.”
“Why don’t I say it out loud?”
“That’s not how this works.” Giselle looked at me, her face serious. I on the other hand struggled not to laugh. Niah had sent me to a child who had no idea of her own abilities. Sighing, I pulled a card and handed it to her. She flipped it over and laid it in front of me.
The picture was of a large black tower with flames curling out of the windows. A smell of burning flesh tickled my nose and I clenched my teeth to keep from gasping. The picture on the deck moved as figures ran to put the flames out.
“The Tower,” Giselle said, her voice aging as she spoke, leaving behind the girlish tones. “Violent and destructive change comes your way, Larkspur of the Rim.”
Her words echoed my own vision that Spirit had shown me. “I know. But that does not answer the question I asked.”
Giselle put her finger on the Tower. “This is a picture of the Tower of London. I think that is a clue as to where you will find the Tracker.”
The air tensed around us and for a moment I thought the dark spirit was back, but it was not that one. Giselle’s guides whispered around us.
The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting not to drown
The lion saved the unicorn
When they hid in Shire town.
Some struck them on the rump,
And some just frowned;
Some gave them magic
While drumming out of town
Cactus let out a low whistle. “Damn, my skin is trying to crawl right off my body.”
I didn’t take my eyes from Giselle. The song was twisted from the version most people knew, but it had originated in England, giving credence to her suggestion of the Tracker being there.
“I want to ask another question.” What I wanted to know was if there was anything else she could tell us about the journey. Anything helpful.
“Pick a card.” She held the deck out to me again. I paused, letting my hand hover over the cards before picking the one on the far edge. I gave it to her and she flipped it over. A gruesome creature looked back at us, blinking up at me with tiny pig eyes. Ram horns curled off his head, and his bottom half was that of a goat. A curling forked tail wrapped around his waist, flicking here and there. He opened his mouth in a silent roar.
Peta peered over the edge. “That can’t be good.”
Giselle turned the card over. “Someone else is searching for the Tracker. They,” she frowned and her eyes went distant, “they don’t have anything to do with you on this journey, but on another journey they will interfere with something important to you. Right now they want to kill her. That doesn’t make sense.” She closed her eyes, a frown tight on her lips.
“Someone wants to kill . . . her? The Tracker is a woman?”
Giselle blinked up at me. “Yes, that’s what I see when I look at this card. The monster is after a woman with long dark hair.”
Well, goose shit, that was something of a surprise. “In London?”
“That is my best suggestion. I’m sorry I can’t be more sure.”
I stood. “Time to go, then.”
The kid scrambled to her feet, then reached a hand out to me. “There is something else.”
We stopped and I looked at her. She swallowed hard. “I don’t understand it, but when I look at you . . . there is so much swirling around your aura. I have to speak it.”
“Then do it,” I said, not unkindly.
“I’m sorry.” She paused, swallowed again, and then went on. “The world will balance in your hands not once, but twice before your life’s journey is through.”
Peta gripped my vest hard. “All nine of my lives are going to be used up on you, Lark. Why am I not surprised?”
Giselle glanced up at her. “You will save her, time and again. And in the end, she will save you.”
Peta shook her head rather violently. “No, it doesn’t work that way.”
Giselle gave her a tiny smile. “You don’t have a say in it, former bad luck cat.”
I had to give it to Giselle, she was good at what she did. There was no way she could have known Peta’s former moniker.
My cat’s claws dug in until the leather creaked under her grasp. I reached up and ran a hand down her back but directed my words to the Reader. “Thank you.”
She shook her head. “No, thank you. I don’t think I could have broken free on my own. I hope what was dispelled does no harm to anyone else.”
I didn’t want to burst her bubble. What I knew of dark spirits was not a lot, but a simple rule of thumb was they were never truly destroyed until they realized the error of their own ways. So in other words, the only thing we’d done was spread it out.
Giselle lifted her hand in a forlorn wave. “I wish you could stay a while. With Talan gone, I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
Loneliness rolled off her in a wave so strong I couldn’t have missed it even if I didn’t have Spirit pumping through my blood. I looked at Peta, knowing how much comfort she brought me in the dark hours of my life even in the short time she’d been with me.
I wasn’t sure I could find Giselle her own Peta. But maybe something close. “Wait here a moment.” I touched Giselle on the shoulder and headed to the door that led to the backyard. Cactus lifted an eyebrow and I motioned for him to wait too. Peta butted my head with her nose. “What are you thinking?”
“She’s lonely. What can we do to soften our leaving?”
“I’m not staying with her,” Peta said.
“No. But . . . you know the human world better than I do. Is there something we can do? A form of comfort we can leave with her?” The last thing I wanted was for Giselle to struggle after we were gone. She had a hard enough path ahead of her as it was.
Peta leapt from my shoulder and landed with a thud on the grass. “Maybe. Wait here.”
She took off, a streak of gray and white, bounding across the lawn and then up and over the wooden fence. She didn’t make me wait long. A few minutes later Peta leapt over the wooden fence once more, though this time in her snow leopard form. In her mouth was a dead dog. Its head flopped at a bad angle and its legs swayed with every step she took.
“Peta!” I couldn’t believe what she’d done.
She spat the dog out at my feet. “Pick it up, Lark.”
With a grimace I did as she asked, and realized it wasn’t a dead dog. Though it looked like it. The fur was silky soft, and the eyes were made of a black material that was not natural.
“The humans use them as fill-ins for real companions,” Peta said.
I touched her on the head, gently. “Thank you.”
We hurried back into the house. Cactus was having his palm read.
“ . . . broken over and over. That is all I can see,” Giselle said, putting his hand down.
I held the soft, stuffed dog out to Giselle. “For the dark nights. It isn’t the same as staying, but it—”
Her eyes lit up, and a smile curved her lips. “It’s perfect. Thank you.”
Peta shifted and leapt to my shoulder. “Of course it is, I picked it out.”
Giselle smiled even wider but it slipped as she looked to me.
I touched her cheek. “I’m sorry, we have to go now.”
Her eyes welled up and a tear trickled down as she clutched the stuffed dog. “This path you are on won’t end well. You should stay here with me.”
I took a step back. “I’m sorry, you know we can’t.” Not wanting to drag the goodbye out longer than we already had, I gave Cactus a quick look.