The full weight of Divine’s gaze settles on me as if I’m the only person that exists. It is disconcerting watching an ancient druid study me behind the face of a youthful blond teenager. Pride and surprise filters through his gaze as he finally takes note of the others around me.
My nod is shy.
“I don’t have long.” Divine/Dace’s head tilts left and right as if the druid is looking at something beyond us, in Ater. “To hold this connection attracts attention.”
Divine/Dace looks down. Though Dace doesn’t move--his hands rest loosely against the arms of the chair--I get the impression that Divine is rustling through a book of some sort. Pages softened by time hiss in the air between our dimensions.
“From the Elements born
Through barren wombs,
Four lives destined
To avert the doom:
“A Vessel of wit and Flame,
A Mind that Nature constrains,
A Manipulator of sensation and Sea,
And an Intuitive who through Wind,
Knows what is to be.
“Against the Hunter one is foreknown,
But to the devas each are foresworn.
Into Ater land of death and despair,
The Mantle of Battle these Four shall bear.
“In a clash of Light and Dark,
The victor will be the spark,
That ignites two worlds into chaos and war,
Or purges one world from the Hunter forevermore.”
Divine/Dace falls silent and his expectant gaze returns to me. I exchange glances with my companions. They look just as baffled as I feel. I assume the poem contains clues to the identity of the Three but there’s hardly anything concrete to go on.
“How am I supposed to get them back to Ater?”
“The bridge is always open for one who has been.”
That’s probably the most straightforward answer I’ve received so far. Licking my lips, I force myself to share what’s on my mind. “The Steel Fang is here. She knows about the Blood Shield.”
Divine/Dace grimaces. Dace seems to age five years. “Time is shorter than we anticipated. You have no choice. You must kill her.”
I have trouble hauling my jaw off the ground. “Surely you can’t expect me to--”
“Hurry, Shari. Bring them to me.”
The air heats up again. Dace’s breathing grows shallow and his muscles strain as if he is fighting some great battle. A mist belches from his ears, mouth, and nose. He coughs, doubling over as a pained grunt escapes.
Zakk rushes towards him as Dace begins to heave. The misty heat congeals above us for just a moment and then vanishes. Dace crashes against the table, coughing and choking.
“Think I’m gonna puke . . .”
Hamilton is on it in an instant, grabbing a nearby trashcan. Dace vomits into it while Kamiron sprints to the bathroom. I hear a faucet run, shutting on and off before Kamiron returns with a small paper cup.
Dace curses, straightening. Sweat courses down his pale face as he reclines against the armchair’s legs and drains the paper cup in one gulp. Hamilton takes the wastebasket to the front porch.
“I’m never doing that again.”
I dip my head to him reverently. “Thank you, Dace.”
“What’d it say?”
“First, are you alright, bro?” Kamiron kneels beside his friend, concern etched into his stormy eyes. Dace shoves back his sweaty blond hair and shudders.
“He rode me hard for a bit there.” Dace falters and then grimaces at his choice of words. “But I’ll be fine. Throwing up ectoplasm’s the worst, though.”
“Think of it as ghost residue.” Hamilton settles beside me. In his hands I notice a tablet and pen. He’d been taking notes. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
“It’s gross shit.”
“Language, dude,” Kamiron reminds.
“Gross stuff,” Dace amends. “What did Casper have to say?”
“That bad, huh?” He sighs and reaches for his glasses. “So do we need to sacrifice puppies or something?”
Kamiron’s face darkens. “He said to kill Sandra.”
Dace’s glasses dangle forgotten in his hands. “Shi--shoot.”
“There are four people.” Hamilton glances down at his notepad. His handwriting is typical of a teenage boy’s--I can barely make anything out. “‘From the Elements born/Through barren wombs/Four lives destined/To avert the doom--’”
“Sounds like bad poetry. Let me see.”
Hamilton tosses the poem to Dace who is silent as he reads it over. “Your handwriting sucks, man.”
Hamilton flips him off.
“So this is exactly what the guy said?”
“Word for word.”
“Why is it these things are always so cryptic?” Kamiron paces the length of the small living room. “Why not just come out and say it?”
“What would the be the fun in that?” Zakk muses, a small smile curving his lips.
We sit in a silence peppered by Kamiron’s agitation. We don’t discuss Sandra.
Dace lets out a slow breath. “Well, if we think about it logically--”
“As if logic has anything to do with evil interdimensional creatures,” Hamilton snorts.
“It’s the Legend of Andhakar Lake all over again. Revamped. Four people are chosen to venture into Andhakar’s realm . . .” He lets the rest hang in the air--like the fact that the previous four never returned. “It’s happening again.”
The full weight of his words sinks in and a chill steals underneath my skin. “You’re saying I’m one of the four who must re-imprison Andhakar?”
“That’s the most reasonable conclusion, Shari. The Legend never says how the four are chosen,” Dace gestures to Hamilton’s notepad, “But now we know.”
My mouth feels like dirty cotton. “But I always thought--”
“What, that you’d find the three, bring them to your druid, and then be free to go home?” Zakk’s disbelief stings and I realize how delusional I’ve been. Of course I wouldn’t be free to return to my normal life. There is no freedom from The Darkness-That-Hunts.
“Guess I always assumed that I’d find these mysterious people and they’d know what to do. They’d be expecting me, and would take over once I passed them to Divine.” My voice sounds flat, lifeless.
Hamilton rubs my back in an effort to soothe my budding despair. I like it when he touches me. His fingers leave a trail of goosebumps.
“So,” he begins, “the three Shari needs will fulfill Dace’s legend, and more than likely, they don’t know it.”
Dace shakes his head. “Poor bastards.”
Kamiron takes a break from pacing and peers through the wooden shades into the darkness that slinks beyond the windowpane. The rain is tapering off, the storm clouds billowing away to reveal weak moonlight. Too bad the storm brewing in Firestarter isn’t one that’ll blow over if I just wait it out.
My fingers fold into fists. How can I possibly save the world? I can’t go toe-to-toe with Sandra much less Andhakar.
A soothing calm washes up against me, nuzzling my skin before sinking deep into my bones. My clenched feet loosen and I shoot Zakk a grateful look.
“We’re here to help, Shari,” he assures. He flows around the table to take up the cushion beside me. His hand grips mine and more calm infiltrates me. Now more than ever I’m thankful for his special talent.
Hamilton, chuckles. “Comes in handy, no?”
My gaze bobs around the room, settling on the boys surrounding me. Kamiron doesn’t look at me, preferring to stare at the fading rain and Dace is too preoccupied re-reading Divine’s cryptic message, but I sense their resolve to help me and it untangles my knot of fear.
“Read it to me again, Dace,” I order and am surprised at the confidence in my voice. Now, if I can just feel it . . . “The part starting with the clues as to who I’m searching for.”
“So it says something about wombs and being born ‘from the elements’, whatever that is. Okay, here we go--‘a Vessel of wit and Flame, a Mind that Nature constrains, a Manipulator of sensation and Sea, and an Intuitive through Wind knows what’s to be--”
I frown. “That’s four. Which am I?”
“The last one,” they answer simultaneously. When I open my mouth to argue, Zakk interrupts me. “You know what’s happening--at least more than us, right?”
My nod is reluctant.
“And you’re very intuitive,” Hamilton adds.
For all the good my intuition’s been doing me.
“So the ones I need are the first three.” I think over what Dace’s read aloud but continue to draw a blank. For ten minutes, we bounce ideas off one another, each trying to fit together the clues, but the puzzle is too complex and I feel like we’re just chasing our own tails.
“Well, the storm’s passing finally. The stars are even out,” Kamiron alerts, breaking the silence. He shoves away from the windowsill and perches on the arm of Dace’s chair. “Any new ideas?”
I sigh and try to massage away my sudden headache. “No. This entire thing is turning out to be a colossal waste of time.”
“Let’s try examining them one at a time,” Dace suggests. He plops the notepad on the coffee table between us. “First up--our vessel of wit and flame.”
I stare at the words as if expecting them to rearrange themselves into something useful--preferably a name followed by a perfectly accurate physical description. “Well, for starters, no one can be ‘of flame.’”
“Unless,” Dace begins slowly, his eyes narrowed in contemplation. “Maybe it doesn’t refer to someone being born out of fire. What if it’s someone who can control fire?”
“Like a pyrokinetic,” Hamilton, Zakk, and Kamiron chorus.
I blink. “Wait, so you’re saying the first has power over fire?”
I tilt my head at the poem, my attention falling on Nature and Sea. “Then the others can control earth and water?”
“Makes sense--at least, in this context,” Dace replies.
It does, but something doesn’t feel quite right about the conclusion.
Sensing my hesitation, Hamilton tugs gently on my earlobe, forcing me to look at him. “What is it, bonita?”
“Well, if I’m like them, then that means air is my element, but I certainly can’t manipulate it.”
Their shoulders drop.
Zakk sighs. “It was a good thought, at least.”
“The stars are out.”
We stare blankly at Hamilton for a moment before Kamrion checks out the window. “It’s foggy now, man. You can’t really see the stars.”
Hamilton murmurs in rapid Spanish and suddenly his eyes widen. He stares at us as if our heads have morphed into pretzels.
Dace raises an eyebrow. “I’m guessing he objects to fog?”
Our resident telepath ignores Dace and whirls on me. His violet eyes stab mine, anchoring me to him. “What’s your birthdate?”
After a brief pause, Dace swears long and slow. “Oh, this ain’t good.”
Once again, fear starts to tangle inside me. “October tenth,” I force between numb lips. “My birthday is October tenth.”
Dace rubs the bridge of his nose. “March thirtieth here.”
Hamilton nods to Kamiron who sullenly declares he was born on December twenty-seventh.
“And mine is July fifteenth,” Zakk finishes, “Which makes me a Cancer.”
I’m still not sure what our astrological signs have to do with anything, but from the guys’ shaken expressions, I get the feeling I don’t want to know.
“It’s possible to be born of an element, Shari,” Hamilton says, and my attention swivels back to him. “You’re a Libra and I’m a Gemini. Both of us are Air signs. Zakk is Cancer, which is Water, while Kamiron is Capricorn, which is Earth and Dace is--”
“The Fire sign Aries. Best of ’em all.” His cocky smirk helps to lessen the uneasiness swirling in the room, but even Dace’s usual snark fails to reach his eyes.
“Then the Three are connected to me through astrology?”
“The Three are us, Shari,” Zakk corrects, his tone somber. “Think about it. I can sense the people’s emotions and alter them--manipulate sensation.”
The last piece clicks into place.
“And I am a vessel.” Dace kicks the coffee table hard enough to make it rattle. “Knew being a medium would get me nothing but friggin’ grief.”
Guilt twitches inside me but I hunt for a way out. “It can’t be.”
“It is, Shari.” Hamilton gestures to Kamiron. “Remember ‘A Mind that Nature constrains’? ‘Mind’ refers to psychic ability. ‘Nature’ refers to natural forces.”
“So my telekinesis, my clairaudience, both are ways that I can ‘control’ nature.” Kamiron, looking grim, heads back for the window.
“No,” I squeak and force Hamilton to look at me. “This is just a--”
“Coincidence?” Hamilton slides his fingers through the shaved half of his head. “No, love, it’s not. Think about the first part: ‘From the elements born/Through barren wombs.’ We brushed it off before, but tell me--do you have any siblings?”
I wilt like a gardenia in the Sahara. “I was a miracle baby. My mom wasn’t supposed to be able to have kids.” From the flicker of Dace, Zakk, and Kamiron’s expressions, I know I’m not alone. It is too precise to be coincidence. “I’m so sorry.”
We don’t speak. Shame and fear burns my cheeks. I wanted to protect my new friends, but not only has my presence endangered them, I’m supposed to drag them into hell with me! I want nothing more than to run away. To put as much distance from Camp Genki as I possibly can and hope Andhakar never finds me.
“You can’t run forever,” Hamilton’s voice caresses my ear and its warmth sends shivers across my skin.
“I know.” But how can I convince them to come?
Hamilton pats my arm. “Have faith.”
“Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the Three, but we’ve still got the problem of Sandra,” Dace broaches.
Kamiron stiffens and glares. “You can’t mean to kill her.”
I lower my gaze and gnaw on my bottom lip. “She’s not what she seems--”
“So she carries his mark. That doesn’t mean she’s completely evil.”
“She is, Kamiron. She serves Andhakar first and foremost.”
“You don’t know her, Shari. She’s kind and compassionate--”
“Kam, she’s evil,” Zakk chimes in. “I know you love her and all, but--”
“But because some ghost says so, we should murder her?” Kamiron thunders.
I lift my chin forcing down the guilt and fear rattling inside me. “Do you think if she could, she’d hesitate to kill us?”
Darkness flashes in Kamiron’s grey eyes. He studies each of us as fury courses through him. “I’m not sure about any of this, and definitely not sure enough to kill because of a tattoo and a ghost. Nor will I let any of you hurt her.”
He starts for the door.
“I’m going for a walk,” Kamiron interrupts, waving me away.
“But the curfew--”
The shoji screen slides open and closed and he is gone.
My heart races with adrenaline and I leap to my feet. Hamilton grabs my elbow. “Give him space, chica--some time to think.”
“Don’t think we have that option.”
Zakk studies Dace warily. “What makes you say that?”
“Chameleon’s loyal to the point of stupidity. And he loves her. Ten guesses where he ends up, without even knowing it. Factor in Sandra’s a psychic vamp . . .”
“She’ll crack him before he even realizes.”
Ham beats us all to the door, but we crash into one another when we discover Kamiron hovering just beyond the porch, head cocked to the side, his T-shirt billowing in a slight mountain breeze.
“What is it?” Zakk approaches him cautiously. Kamiron turns towards him, his feature shaken and vacant.
“I think--something very bad is happening.”
“Bad how?” Dace’s gaze darts to each shadow and pit of undulating fog. I huddle with my hands tucked beneath my armpits.
“I think,” Kam begins, turning in a semi-circle, his expression locked in one of concentration, “I just heard someone die.”
My breath catches. Kamiron’s supernatural hearing.We are beside him in an instant. “Let’s go.”