The Director dismisses all but the camp staff, chief of security and cabin leaders. As we file out, I spot Sandra and Kamiron heading for the stage. As if sensing my stare, Sandra turns and her gaze centers on me. She gives a sweet smile that could melt butter and I hastily turn away, sticking close to Dace and Hamilton. Once outside and in the chill night air of the Smokey Mountains, I grab Dace and drag him to the side. We walk over to an elaborate statue of a sitting Buddha, hovering near a stone plaque that reads, “Enlightenment is always with you. There is no need to think about it. Your busy life itself is enlightened activity. Because it is always with you, difficulty itself is Enlightenment.”
Difficulty is enlightenment? Then I must be the Dalai Lama.
Swiveling away from the cryptic message I brace myself to confide in my friends. Dace and Hamilton watch me as I try to organize my thoughts, but when I hesitate, Dace seizes the initiative.
“You’ve seen that before.”
It is a statement that leaves no room for denial. I avoid their direct gaze and focus on the svelte curves of the J.B. Rhine Auditorium.
“I have.” Before they can ask me to further elaborate, I tap Dace’s sketchpad. “I need a huge favor. Can you find out as much as possible about that mark?”
Dace studies Hamilton’s drawing and shrugs. “Shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Might have to do some finessing to get past the stupid firewalls they put up, but that’s not big deal. What’s it for?”
I bite my lip; Sandra’s warning rings in the recesses of my confused mind. I have to keep them safe and for the time being that means keeping them in the dark as much as possible. At least until I have proof. The last thing I want is another incident like with Kamiron.
“I’ll explain later. Until then, this stays between us three, ok?”
“Roger that. Guess I’m heading to the computer labs.” Dace tucks his sketchpad into the back pocket of his shorts and departs. I manage a half-hearted smile at Hamilton, but his purple eyes only narrow and I know that I will not get away so easy.
“No,” he confirms, “You won’t.” He slips his arm around my waist and ushers me away from the cliques of people talking by the front of the auditorium. We follow a side trail that dead ends at a rock garden encircled by trees. Once Hamilton’s satisfied we are far enough away from everyone and hidden from prying eyes, he backs me against the trunk of a spruce and blocks me with his body.
“Spill it, Georgia. All of it.”
I try not to focus on the fact that I have such a gorgeous guy so close to me. I can smell his earthy scent. Feel the heat of his skin against mine. Hear the measured breaths he takes as he waits. Back home, no guy would have noticed me. Especially not someone like Hamilton.
“Telling you would put your life in danger, and I can’t make that mistake again.”
He tilts my head up to his, staring into my eyes as if he could read my thoughts. Knowing him, he probably can. “You told someone else.”
I try to look away but the intensity of his amethyst eyes contrasted by the roasted golden skin and black hair is as intoxicating as it is overwhelming. Warmth flushes through me and I find I cannot guard my thoughts much less my responses. “Kamiron.”
He eyes shut as if wounded and he steps back, granting me space to breath and retrain my brain how to think. “He didn’t take it well.”
I snicker. “He won’t even talk to me now.”
Hamilton takes my hand, running his thumb back and forth over my knuckles methodically. “Tell me, Shari. I’m not going anywhere. Whatever danger it is, I’d rather know what to expect.”
I don’t know if it’s his proximity to me, my raging hormones, or the magic his thumb is working on my hand, but my defenses waver and unload some of my burden.
“That mark you saw, it is the personal insignia of Andhakar.”
I brace myself, ready for Hamilton to pull away. Prepared for the accusations and insults, but he only watches me expectantly. His encouraging expression is the last nudge I need and I find myself telling him about my memory of Ater, about the Blood Shield and the note from the druid who helped me escape.
“Do you have it with you right now?”
I dislodge my hand from his. “It was stolen.”
I want to retreat, but I can’t bring myself to move. I bat away thoughts of Sandra and Starjungle and her warning to me as she snatched my note. I can’t let Ham know, but what can I say instead?
“So Sandra’s one of them.”
I inhale sharply. Telepathy. Why do I keep forgetting that? “In Ater she is known as the Steel Fang,” I admit reluctantly, “The Darkness-That-Hunts’ right hand.”
Hamilton’s teeth tug at his lower lip. An unbidden desire to kiss him strikes me. I clear my throat and peel my gaze away from temptation.
“I can see why Kam would walk away.”
I refuse to look at him. “I shouldn’t have---”
Hamilton twines his fingers around mine. “Te creo, Shari. I’ve always believed you.”
Dumbfounded, I can only stare up at him. His hair falls over his left shoulder, parted so that I can’t see the shaved part of his head.
“Thank you---that means a lot to me.”
Smiling, he tugs me along. We return to the side path and head back towards the auditorium. The night is moonless, the stars obscured by thick clouds. The J.B. Rhine building is deserted, everyone having retreated to his or her cabins or respective halls.
“You obviously can’t go this alone. I’ll help you. Dace and Zakk also.”
I open my mouth to protest, but Hamilton shakes his head. “Dace lives for this kind of thing. You can’t seriously expect him to not want to know once he finds the intel.”
“And Zakk’s an empath. He and I knew something was wrong with Sandra from day one but since Kam is like a puppy for her...” Hamilton shakes his head and redirects our path towards the cabins. “Kam’ll need irrefutable proof---I take it that’s why you had Dace look up that stuff?”
“And because those who follow Andhakar bear his mark somewhere on their bodies---usually their neck.”
“Sandra included?” Seeing my nod, Hamilton continues. “So if Kamiron sees the mark . . .”
“We’ll need to set up surveillance.”
I skid to a halt. “No way. Too dangerous.”
“We’ll be fine, Shari, really. Besides, you have a telepath on your side. I can catch glimpses of her in the minds of others. Zakk and even Dace, for all his goofing off, know how to be subtle. If we keep a tally on the places she goes, maybe we’ll find a clue. Does she converse with The Darkness-That-Hunts at all?”
I finally catch the gist of his motives. “You think she communicates with him and if we find out when . . .”
“We can find out what they plan. Between the four of us, we’ll figure this out, Shari.” Ham gives my hand a reassuring squeeze. I hug him, more hopeful than I’ve been since I’ve arrived. Soft lips brush against my temple before Hamilton pulls away and heads for Firestarter.
The scrape of a screen door sliding open jolts me awake. I lay unmoving in the darkness, listening to the heavy breathing of my cabinmates. I hear the screen slide closed, but no footsteps.
Someone has just snuck out.
Propping up on my elbows, I squint at the clock that dangles on the wall above the open door. Three in the morning. Who could possibly have somewhere to go at this hour?
Before I can talk myself out of it, I slip out of bed, slide on my shoes and wrestle on a light jacket. I sneak out of the communal room and notice Melissa and Sandra’s door is ajar.
Three guesses who’s not there.
The night is chilly but still humid. I can only see a sliver of the waning moon beyond misty clouds. It must have rained sometime during the night because the wooden steps are damp and the woods around me steam. The wet grass does not crunch beneath my feet as I stick to the tree line and shadows. Sandra doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. She walks confidently, her strawberry hair shifting back and forth across her shoulders in a serpentine fashion. If she knows she’s being followed, she gives no indication.
Sandra leads me to a clearing, the one where Dace told the story of the Legend of Andhakar Lake. The shells of burned out logs jut out of the fire pit like discarded bones. Empty benches litter the area. Crouching between the tree trunks and tangled bushes, I hide far enough away to avoid being seen but close enough to still hear.
Sandra digs into the pocket of her designer jacket and pulls out what looks to be an envelope. She walks backwards around the fire pit, muttering words in an arcane language. As she chants, she reaches into the envelope and sprinkles what looks to be ashes or powder into the center of the fire pit. She then dips her hands into the envelope again and draws the insignia of Andhakar on her forehead.
It glows the hellish green of his hounds’ eyes and a wind picks up, rustling the boughs around us. An unnatural cold slithers over the clearing and I watch as hoarfrost crawls across log and stone. Between one blink and the next, The Darkness-That-Hunts materializes in the center of Sandra’s circle, hovering knee-deep in the fire pit. He makes no move to break free. Instead, he turns about as if orientating himself to his new surroundings. As a creature, he is neither beautiful nor ugly, but his face is foreign. A strong jaw, a nose that looks almost feminine and yet not. His hair, the color of cobalt, stretches down his back to his waist. Even knee deep in the pit, he looms over Sandra and yet his presence seems oddly muted. I realize that he’s not physically here, but a projection summoned by Sandra who genuflects on one knee.
After a pregnant pause, he allows her to stand. “A summoning?”
“It was the easiest way to contact you, my heart.”
“A life had to have been taken.”
“No one is any the wiser. I didn’t leave a mark when I ate his essence.”
“I cannot afford attention, Steel Fang.”
She bows and offers up my note. “It was necessary to get this to you.”
A scarlet flash flares through the night and to my surprise, Andhakar is holding the druid’s message. “You found this on her?”
“I haven’t figured out who wrote it, but whomever did was the one who helped her cross. I request I be allowed to return to hunt down this traitor.”
I watch The Darkness-That-Hunts skim the note, committing it to memory. “Your request is denied.”
The openmouthed shock on Sandra’s face would have been enough to make me laugh---if I knew I wouldn’t die as soon as my voice was heard.
“But I’m hardly needed here---”
“You will do as I command, Steel Fang.” Andhakar turns and glances in my direction. I duck, letting the foliage swallow me, but not before I notice a glint in his golden eyes---recognition? But he says nothing. “You will make sure to return this to Shari.”
A flash of rust and the note is again in Sandra’s palm. She gapes at him though he continues to scan the tree line and doesn’t appear to notice. “But the summoning was so that you could keep it in Ater! Give it to the Dark Fae, surely one of their ilk can sniff out the writer---”
“So that I could ‘keep it in Ater,’ you say?” Andhakar turns back to Sandra, his black eyebrows raised in amusement. “And the increase in power from the Kiss was but a minor consideration, I suppose?”
A blush stains Sandra’s cheeks. “It’s been so long since I’ve fed. And to bring you over . . .”
“There are others in this plot against me, Sandra, and I will have them all.”
“Then I’ll torture it out of her.”
“You will not harm Shari.” Andhakar’s tone is unyielding and he begins to fade. “Or I will rip your throat out myself.”
The Darkness-That-Hunts disappears entirely but the ice choking the clearing does not thaw. For a moment Sandra stands there, staring into the fire pit and the circle of stones that guard it. The glowing emblem on her forehead dims and then winks out. Ash mars her perfect skin.
My note crumples in her fist. “Exactly what is she to you, my heart?” Venom drips from her voice. “I look forward to the moment when I paint my face with her blood.”
Sandra’s hair whips around her as she turns her back to me and stalks off.