Zakk sneezes and Dace uses the hem of his T-shirt to cover his mouth and nose. I barely notice the aroma. I’ve grown used to the scent of decay from my previous venture into Ater. Rounded walls of soil crowd around us. Pale light reveals a small foyer with crumbled stone flooring. Wreaths and streamers of bones, stone and dried herbs dangle from the low ceiling.
“You sure about this guy?” Kamiron bristles.
“He helped me. I trust him.” I motion towards the macabre charms. “But like everything else, he is trapped here and cannot afford to attract attention.”
I start down a very narrow tunnel that leads further into the knolls. Though I’ve only been here once, I intuitively know where to go as if I am a pigeon that can hone in on Divine’s presence. I’ve always been good with directions and can sense how to get around once I’ve gotten a feel for a place. We walk in silence. At regular intervals the tunnel opens up to alcoves, rooms, and other dark passages, but I do not waver. Copper orbs, similar to the wisps bobbing outside the knolls, sway inside glass lanterns and provide more than enough light to navigate Divine’s home. Unfortunately, the smell doesn’t seem to get any better.
It’s Z who pulls me up short and knocks me out of my daze. He scoots in front of me and holds out a hand as if he is placing it against a wall. A wispy black barricade throbs around his long fingers. When Zakk pushes against it, it shoves back almost like a spring. I place my hand beside his but it easily passes through the barrier.
“How’d you do that?” Dace squints at the dark tendrils with naked interest but he and Kamiron maintain their distance.
“Some are sensitive to the inner workings of magic. I am pleased this one can sense it.”
We whirl. Emerging from the tunnel behind us looms the druid. He towers over us, standing at least a foot taller than Zakk. Tattoos, Celtic and tribal, cut across his bare torso and curl down his spine to the hem of his trousers. Oval beads of oak and white feathers tangle in his thick hair. A few bones taken from fingers dangle from his stretched earlobes and loop about his neck.
I step between the guys and the druid. His tangerine eyes lock on me, taking in the swollen left side of my face. He nods, grim but satisfied.
He strides down a tunnel that wasn’t there before. We follow at a slower pace.
“So that’s our hobbit,” Dave whispers at my left ear. “He’s ripped.”
“What were you expecting?”
“Some old guy. Glasses, long robes, pointy hat--you know, Dumbledore. Not this Chuck Norris lookin’ mother--”
I hear the thump of a palm hitting flesh and Dace grunts and rubs his shoulder. “Sorry, Chameleon.” A mischievous glint steals into his blue eyes. “Speaking of Chuck Norris . . . I hear he has a grizzly bear rug in his house but it’s not dead--just afraid to move.”
“Ugh,” Kamiron huffs. “Not the lame Chuck Norris jokes, dude. This really isn’t the time.”
“I don’t know about that, Kam,” Z murmurs as he brings up the rear. “Did you know that Mr. T once beat a man to death with his own corpse?”
“Oh, God, here we go,” Kam groans, shoulders dropping. For the next five minutes as we navigate the narrow corridors, Zakk and Dace keep our growing apprehension at bay with ridiculous “facts”. I learn that:
As a joke, Chuck Norris once urinated in a semi-truck’s gas tank--and that semi-truck is now known as Optimus Prime.
Mr. T. never learned how to drive, roads simply moved to be where he is. A road once failed to move prompting Mr. T to pity it until it became the Grand Canyon.
When Chuck Norris does a push up, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.
The last time Mr. T. and Chuck Norris fought, the Big Bang occurred.
Oh, and Mr. T is a “Night Elf Mohawk.”
Whatever that is.
Their banter ends abruptly when we emerge inside a small room. A stone fire pit sits in the center, its flames eating the air and heating a cast iron pot. Mats of woven grass line the floor. Embalmed creatures sway from hooks in the ceiling, their jaws, beaks or pincers splayed wide in death to reveal yellow, jagged teeth or bloated gray-black tongues.
“Charming,” Dace mutters.
Divine removes the lid from the pot and stirs its contents. He nods for us to sit. Producing wooden cups from a dusty shelf, he ladles a gray broth into each cup and disperses them amongst us. He motions to a trough filled with water in the corner of the room. Another ladle dangles over its wooden sides.
“If you are thirsty, drink.” Tangerine eyes flicker to my bruised face. “Or clean yourselves.”
He straightens and the bone necklace dangling from his neck crackles like dry leaves. The shadows from the fire makes the blue tattoos across his face and body seem to sway.
“For now, rest yourselves. I will bring you fresh clothing and then we will speak.”
He disappears into the shadows of the underground channels.
“Chatty fellow,” Dace observes. He cautiously sniffs his food. “For once it doesn’t smell like ass--I’m sold.”
Using the tip of his finger, Kamiron pushes around some of the more solid ingredients in the stew. “If there are no animals like at home, then what’s this meat-like stuff?”
Eyeing the dead creatures
that sway from the ceiling, Zakk immediately sets aside his cup. “Think I’ll
I blow across the surface of the soup and watch as steam disperses over the lip of the cup and the thick broth ripples with tiny waves. I take a sip. It’s bland but hearty and more importantly, filling.
“Don’t ask where it came from, just eat it. It might be a long time before we can get another meal and we’ll need the strength for what’s ahead.”
For a moment I think the guys will argue with me but either it’s the memory of how starved I was when I first came to Camp Genki, or the fact that I haven’t collapsed on the floor, foaming at the mouth and twitching, the boys to take an experimental taste. When nothing happens, they tear into the meager meal. It’s only until we start eating that we realize how hungry we are. When we left Camp Genki, we didn’t have enough time to get any food or supplies for our trip. Foolish, but unavoidable. After the death of the security guard, Sandra, and the destruction of the J.B. Rhine Auditorium, there was no way we would have been able to sneak off to Lake Andy.
Taking turns at the narrow trough, we spoon ladles full of water into our mouth, guzzling our fill. Despite the slightly gray tint to the liquid, the water is cold and delicious. Hunger abated and thirst quenched, we wash off the worst of the blood and filth and turn to the concerns at hand. We take a closer look at the room Divine has left us in. It seems to be a makeshift kitchen with the pit serving as the stove. No tables, no chairs, no windows. Smoke from the fire drifts up into a series of holes in the curved earthen ceiling. Shelves with wooden dishes and a bucket of--I wince and back away, retreating to my mat. Apparently dinner was once some six-legged woodland creature with tufts of sickly green fur and pinchers.
I pat my stomach to keep the food down. This will take some readjustment.
“So I thought all things in Ater are dead, Shari,” Kam ventures, folding his legs under him in the Japanese style while Dace and Zakk sit with their legs crisscrossed in front of them.
“Most things are, though they may look otherwise.”
“The druid looked alive to me.” Zakk nods to the kitchen area. “The dead don’t need to cook.”
“I am one of the few things not dead here.”
We all jump and whirl towards the doorway. Divine stands there gripping bundles of dark clothing.
“Jeez--could you not do that?” Dace growls, patting his chest. “Nearly scared me to death.”
A ghost of a smile flitters across the tattooed face. Divine tosses each of us a bundle. “Change into those and we will begin. We will burn your soiled clothing later. When you are dressed, come into the hallway.”
Before anyone can respond,
he disappears. Kam rolls his eyes. “He’s laying on the mystery a little thick,
don’t you think?”
My outfit is a rough-hewn cotton shirt the color of a moldy pumpkin and a black aketon so dark it seems to devour all light. I slide on the supple leather breeches and replace my tennis shoes. My belt loops around my waist and dangles against the flare of my hips. My friends are dressed similarly though their undershirts are different colors. Dace’s is the shade of coagulated blood, Kamiron’s the hue of gangrene, and Zakk’s the color of stagnant water. Black leather breeches and aketons with corded belts complete their look.
Divine waits for us in the hallway. He turns and we follow.
“Exactly where are we?” Kamiron’s voice is immediately swallowed by the dark expanse. Only the small lights strung from iron chains in the ceiling break the night. I avoid looking into the shadowy alcoves and sunken craters that we periodically pass.
“My domain, the knolls.”
The druid swings right and we start up a flight of dirt stairs hollowed out of the hill. “This is confusing for you but I am sure Shari has explained to you about the Blood Shield.”
We arrive in a room much larger than the kitchen. Rimming the chamber are four braziers who flames do nothing to brighten the space. Straw mats form a tight circle around a tin basin of clear water and the druid motions for us to take a seat.
Divine splays a hand across his chest. His nails are black with dirt and ink. “I am known as Divine. My true name I forgot long ago. I used to be a Druid, a priest. It was my duty to commune with nature and spirits.”
“Since you’re here, I take it that didn’t end so well.” Kamiron has no qualms and doesn’t hide his skepticism. I shoot him a warning look that he pointedly ignores.
To my relief Divine doesn’t take offense, or at least he doesn’t show it. Instead his beads clack and his feathers rustle as he nods. “It did not.”
“Then how did you end up here?” I dare myself to ask. I had never had the courage to question him about his past life; I had simply taken Gjinna’s word that he could be trusted.
“I hail from an Arveni tribe and I lived in a small village south of Gergovia. For generations my family had been farmers and it was expected that my brother Eadoin and I would continue the tradition when we were of age. We would have except that when I was nine summers, a Druid took notice of me. I was taken from my family to be trained for the priesthood, to become a medium between the mortal and the divine. Eadoin grieved. To be a Druid is to have no family, no one tribe. Eadoin and I were as close as brothers could be but when I became a Druid he became dead to me.
“Years would pass before I saw Eadoin again. Soon after my departure, he left our farm and became a warrior for our king. At this time, the Romans were invading my homeland Galli. Eadoin fought in countless campaigns but sensed that we Gauls would inevitably come under Roman rule. He felt the only way to preserve our way of life was to seek help from elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere being a spirit of some sort?” Zakk concludes.
With a grimace, Divine shuts his unusual eyes. The tattoos drip across his cheeks and jaw. “We worshipped gods and goddesses but also nature. There existed an entity we knew as ‘Braedan’ which means ‘from the Dark Valley.’ Nowadays he is referred to as The Darkness-That-Hunts, or simply Andhakar.”
Around me the boys tense. Sensing their discomfort, Divine offers a wry smile. “My domain is heavily warded. It is safe to speak Andhakar’s name here, but I would advise against it once you leave least you attract undesired attention.
“I advised Eadoin against summoning Braedan, but he demanded I perform the ritual. Because he was once my brother, I did as he asked but I cautioned him that I would not be privy to what happened afterwards. When Braedan appeared, I left him and Eadoin to their arrangements. Some time later, Eadoin became one of the greatest warriors our tribe had seen. He had driven back the Romans and rumors spread that he could not be defeated in battle.”
Divine pauses for a moment and gazes into the basin at his side as if he is looking back on his past life. Despite the confidence coursing through his powerful body, he seems weary, as if he wrestles with a great burden.
“Years passed before Eadoin once more sought me out. Despite his success, fame, and fortune, he was aging. With each year, his fear deepened. He had made a bargain and soon Braedan would collect. Swallowing his pride, Eadoin begged me to find a way to free him. I couldn’t.” Divine’s voice is passive but his eyes hold a muted pain. “Instead I made a deal of my own. My soul in exchange for that of my brother. Braedan laughed. He found my loyalty to Eadoin . . . ‘quaint.’ He agreed to my request and as a ‘bonus’ promised to keep me alive. Because of my martyrdom, he dubbed me ‘Divine.’ A joke. A perversity like this realm of his.”
I’m well acquainted with The Darkness-That-Hunts’ perverse humor.
Divine’s hands clenches into fists before he relaxes his fingers. “I am under The Darkness-That-Hunts’ control, but not entirely. There are others like me--”
“The Blood Shield,” I whisper, and my finger traces Gjinna’s teardrop pendant with its shield trapped inside.
His gaze caresses the copper chain for a moment, a mournful smile curving the corner of his mouth. He reaches into his tangled hair and shows me a similar Blood Shield pendant though his is made of stone with leather, beads and feathers braided around it. “We all seek the same thing: freedom from this plane. For that, we need your help.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” Zakk drags his long legs up and props his chin on his knees. “Especially if you can’t stop him yourself.”
“More importantly, what’s in it for us?” Dace proposes. “I hate to be a dick, but you’re asking us to risk our lives for you and your Blood Shield. We have nothing to do with your fight.”
“On the contrary, you have everything to do with this fight. The Darkness-That-Hunts has once again turned his attention to Earth. He seeks unbridled access to your realm, access without the need for ley lines or summonings. Free from the confines of nightfall and crippling shadow-forms. Once you see more of Ater, you will understand why Andhakar must never be allowed free reign on Earth. He has tried to gain access before, but he was thwarted--”
“By four shamans.” Kamiron eyes his friend. “Dace, like in the Legend.”
Dace inhales sharply. “Then there must’ve been four people before us, who came after the shamans.”
Silence arches between us, broken only by the flames crackling in the braziers. Dace licks his lips. “I take it they failed?”
Zakk stares at the druid with new insight. “You tried to help them, didn’t you?”
Wooden beads clap and bones rattle as Divine dips his head. “I did.”
“If they failed, what makes you think we stand a chance?” Kamiron presses.
“Each of you were chosen. Your very birth was for this reason.”
“Who chose us?” Dace demands. “How could they have engineered--”
“I do not know how you were chosen,” Divine interrupts and though he speaks softly, his voice is flat. “I only know that it is you who can save us. It was ordained you would arrive and you have.”
Ordained? Was my abduction, the horror I faced when I was first brought here, predicted by some musty old book?
The druid glances at Kamiron with an approving nod. Kam turns towards us, his expression resigned. “When Dace was possessed, the poem he read. Hamilton wrote it down, remember?”
The thought of Hamilton shoots electric pain through my heart. I think of our last time together, at Lake Shizuka, watching the night blossom, listening to his story, to him strumming his haunting song on his guitar.
Divine turns to Dace and fixes him with a hard stare. “Earlier, you asked what’s in it for you.”
Dace pales under the druid’s scrutiny, but manages a shallow nod.
“You’re not the only humans trapped here. Your friend, Hamilton, is here. There are countless others. Some are too far-gone, their minds and bodies broken for the Andhakar’s pleasure, but others can be saved. Will you abandon them to their suffering?”
Dace lowers his gaze in shame. Divine keeps his expression neutral, but not before I manage to catch a glimmer of . . . satisfaction?
His chains rattle as he spreads his arms. “I am not cruel. I understand what I ask is difficult, and that it is your decision. You can help us stop Andhakar, or if you decide you cannot, then I will return you to Earth and you will not hear from me again.”
My heart slams. Divine is offering to send us home! Home--with my family, back to my life, back to sweet tea and sunshine and normal people who don’t have uncanny ESP abilities or want to kill me. It’s almost a dream come true.
And yet . . .
Andhakar will not stop until he’s destroyed everything I know and everyone I love. There’s also no way that I can leave all those people here to suffer at his hands, least of all Hamilton. While I may yearn for home, I know I could never forgive myself for abandoning Hamilton and possibly dooming my world. And that assumes that Andhakar doesn’t just abduct me again.
From the grim expressions on Zakk, Dace and Kamiron’s faces, I can tell they’ve come to the same conclusion. They glance at me with resigned nods. Licking my lips, I voice the words that seal our fate:
“What do you need us to do?”