Retreating from us, Divine hovers in front of a long wooden table. Bones, clay bowls and herbs litter every inch of the table’s surface. He picks up what looks like a short oaken rod. Carved into its handles are some kind of Celtic symbols but it’s too dark to tell what.
“I need your help to cast a spell.”
“Here we go,” Dace mutters, “Epic quest time.”
Kamiron ignores his friend. “What does this spell do?”
“It robs Andhakar of his power. Without his power, he will be unable to command us. We will regain our autonomy.”
“So you need us to gather the ingredients for your spell?” Zakk guesses.
“Not exactly.” The druid gathers a few herbs that look like dead twigs and a bowl filled with white powder. He returns to the tin basin that sits between us and dumps the herbs and powder inside.
“Shari.” He motions me to join him. Feeling my friends’ eyes on me, I haul myself to my feet and approach the basin. Inside, the twiggy herbs float along small ripples and make hollow chimes when they rap against the edge of the tin siding. I realize the powder that Divine has poured into the water is ground salt.
Divine takes my hands in his. “I want you to dip your hands into the water. It will feel a little odd, but do not remove them until I tell you.”
The water is warm when it swallows my palms. The herbs tickle and the salt chafes my skin but nothing feels out of the ordinary.
And then I sense it. A curious tugging feeling on my gut. Like something is drinking the air from my lungs. I gasp. My hands start to tingle and go numb. Nothing hurts, but Divine is right. It feels . . . odd.
His fingers curl around my wrists and slowly ease my hands out of the water. He uses a cloth to dry the excess water and then motions for me to return to my mat. Using the rod, he stirs the solution and it begins to steam and bubble.
“For the most part, I have what I need for the spell, but it is useless to cast it without first destroying the tethers.”
The last of the steam evaporates and the water is once more clear and placid. I cannot see any of the items Divine dumped inside. I tilt my head at him. “Tethers?”
“Think of tethers as anchors between Ater and Earth. There are four total, and they link together to form a bridge that connects this realm to that of Earth. Once these links are broken, The Darkness-That-Hunts and all those who swear allegiance to him will be trapped in this world for eternity.”
I frown. “But what about the Blood Shield? Won’t that trap you here as well?”
Using the tip of the rod that was placed in the water, Divine draws a circle in the air. Astonishingly, the liquid from the basin funnels up into Divine’s circle and forms a small oval that shimmers in midair. “That is where the spell comes in. Once it is cast, Andhakar no longer controls us. We can break our fealty and our souls will be set free.”
Zakk stares at the transparent sphere as it swells, growing from the size of a volleyball to that of a basketball. “If that’s the case, the souls will move beyond--to whatever exists after death, but you’re still alive. Your soul would simply return to your body . . .” He pauses as a sudden thought strikes him. “You intend to return to Earth with us?”
“It would be nice to go home,” the druid admits, a note of wistfulness coloring his tone, “But the world I knew has long since crumbled and the spell requires a life in order to cast.”
I gasp, horrified. “But--”
“Death would be a welcome release from this suffering, Shari. I will be free of this place, and perhaps my spirit will finally know peace.”
There is nothing I can say to that, so instead I question him about the tethers that bind Ater to Earth. “Where are they? What do they look like? Why couldn’t you destroy them?”
For a moment, the druid’s brow creases as he tries to make out my jumble of questions while guiding the sphere’s development. “First you must understand that the tethers are not physical objects, at least ordinarily, and only The Darkness-That-Hunts knows the locations of each tether. That is not to say we did not look for them. We even stumbled upon two of them, once, but were unable to destroy them. To break the link requires an essence of purity, something none of us in the Blood Shield possess. We corrupted our souls with Andhakar’s bargain.”
“Which is why you need us,” Kamiron deduces. “If you can’t tell us where the tethers are, can you at least tell us how to find them?”
“I cannot, however . . .” Tangerine eyes swivel to me. “Shari can.”
I choke on my own disbelief. “W-what?”
“You can sense the links. You will be drawn to their locations.”
I frown. “Like some kind of tether-compass?”
A ghost of a smile feathers across Divine’s lips. “Exactly. Your intuition will guide you much like a compass.”
He gives me a moment to ponder that before turning to Dace who appears lost in thought. “You have a question?”
Dace blinks rapidly and it takes a moment for him to organize his words. “I was just wondering . . . You said ordinarily tethers aren’t physical objects, but what about the ones that are?”
Divine nods to the sphere as it becomes opaque and takes on a silver-grey hue. Setting his rod beside the basin he steps away and watches as the sphere starts to form a shape.
“Your predecessors helped us find two tethers. Unfortunately, they died before breaking them. Nevertheless, it forced Andhakar to bury the tethers inside items that he could monitor closely. Shari will show us what items these are.”
I stare at Divine dumbly. “I will?”
“With the help of the ritual I just performed, yes.” He gazes pointedly at my hands.
The water and the odd sensation. Did he use a spell to somehow tap into my supposed intuition? I stare at my hands as if expecting them to morph into snakes at any moment.
No one speaks. We watch the sphere of water coalesce. Its silver-grey depths bleach white and its malleable form turns rigid and straight. Its edges sharpen into hard points and the entire image starts to rotate in a lazy circle.
My muscles tense and my breath catches. A white jewel, like a small star, glimmers before us. Its faceted edges hurl a kaleidoscope of colors into the air, creating a breathtaking rainbow that curls along Divine’s dirt walls.
Kamiron’s jaw drops. “That’s a tether?”
“The tether is inside it, yes.” Divine speaks to Kamiron, but his gaze remains on me. Again I glance at my hands, astonished that holding them in water for a few minutes was able to reveal all that.
“I thought the tether would be something more . . . ominous,” Dace admits.
The rainbow fades as the white crystal begins to darken. Deep shades of ombre and wisps of ethereal green saturate the room. The white crystal bleeds to burgundy. Then amethyst. And finally obsidian. Darkness obliterates the last of the previous crystal’s light, and even the braziers’ flames cannot dispel the overwhelming gloom.
“No!” I’m surprised my voice cooperates. Fear has made it raspy and weak. I back away from the replica as if by placing distance between us will keep me safe. A chill nestles across my body and I rub my arms fervently. “There must be a mistake. My hands, or the spell, something went wrong.”
Divine stares at me with sad eyes. “I’m sorry, but there was no mistake.”
“What is it, Shari?” Kamiron’s arms surround me in a tight hug but I can’t stop trembling. Zakk and Dace form a protective circle around us and stare at the image of the second tether.
“That belongs to The Darkness-That-Hunts.” Unlike the white crystal, the replica of the black gem doesn’t rotate. Instead it dangles above the tin basin like a lynched corpse, bloated and grotesque. An eldritch glow pulsates from inside, pressing against the walls of the jewel as if attempting to escape. “He wears it around his neck at all times and uses it as an anchor for his power. All the victims he tortures, all the souls he eats--they feed that crystal. There’s no way we can get that, not without a fight we can’t hope to survive.”
The severity of our situation presses against their shoulders and they look sick.
“I’ve seen what that . . . that creature can do. There’s no way we can break that tether,” Dace hisses.
“It’s necessary.” Divine picks up his rod and stabs the dark crystal. The image shatters into a deluge of water and crashes back into the basin. Heat and steam contaminate the air, driving away the gloom and chill. “The tethers need to be broken, and I will need both of those crystals to finish the spell.”
“Of course you need the crystals, that’s how these things always go,” Dace huffs and then starts pacing. “Look, man, we’re just average kids, not freakin’ superheroes.”
“You are not as helpless or as ‘average’ as you may appear,” he points out evenly.
Dace deflates and a sullen frown tugs down the edges of his mouth. Kamiron steps in. “You’re right. We have unusual gifts--”
“Gifts that are but a taste of your true abilities, ones which I will unlock for you.”
In a rustle of leather, bones, and feathers the druid strides to the center of the chamber, arcane power wafting off his skin. The braziers about the room flare, shifting through the spectrums of color. One turns carmine, the other olive, the third topaz and the last tangerine, like Divine’s eyes. The boys shift closer to one another, their muscles tense and expressions wary.
When Divine speaks, it is in Gallic and while I can’t understand, I sense that he’s chanting a spell. With each repetition of the guttural resonances, the braziers burn brighter, their fires writhing and wailing as if in agony.
“Reach into the flames that call you,” the druid grunts. Sweat beads across his forehead. His tattoos glow in a light that gives off no brightness or color.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Kamiron eyes the braziers with open distrust.
Divine repeats his demand, impatience stamped on his furrowed brows. He continues his chant and I feel the pain behind his words. Whatever spell he is conjuring causes him discomfort.
“The flames that call you,” he barks. My attention drifts over the colors before landing on the orange fire. It beckons me. I feel the phantom scrape of calloused fingers tracing my jaw, my cheek, my lips. Curious, welcoming. Little tingles shoot up and down my neck.
The boys don’t trust Divine, but they trust me.
I’m not even aware of my own movements. One second I’m near my friends, at the next I’m crouched before the brazier, orange flames inches from my fingers. The light they cast turns my dark skin to bronze. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the tendrils of flames are reaching for me, eager to taste my flesh.
Zakk’s warning comes too late. I plunge my hand into the brazier. The sensation stuns me. A whirlwind of warm air breezes over my body, burrowing deep into my soul. I recognize it and it recognizes me. There is a moment of profound joy, of unshakeable purpose. The connection turns strangely . . . erotic. My cheeks burn, my breath hitches, my heart stutters. My toes curl and a moan escapes as warmth blossoms deep, right between my--
--Knuckles collide against something cool and smooth. What in the world . . .? The fire blinds me so that I can’t see what I hold but my fingers curl around the arc of the object and I yank it out. The fire sputters and dies.
I clutch the leather-wrapped grip of a curved shaft of polished yew. It takes me a moment to realize the D-shaped object (which is taller than me) is a kind of a longbow. Orange feathers so pale they’re almost yellow flutter from the bottom limb but the longbow doesn’t have a bowstring or any kind of arrows. I peer into the brazier to find nothing but ash and charred animal bones.
“The rest of you--hurry.” Strain roughens Divine’s plea, but it’s enough for the boys to approach the three remaining braziers.
Kamiron’s shoulders rise with his deep breath and he thrusts his hand into the green flame. The fire eats his forearm and then his shoulders. It creeps across and down his body in wispy vines. Kamiron’s eyes flutter closed, his head jerks back, and a deep groan of pleasure escapes from between his lips. A noticeable bulge strains the leather of his breeches. I avert my gaze, embarrassed to have witnessed such an intimate moment. I am careful not to look at the others as their gasps and soft sighs fill the chamber.
The last of the braziers winks out and plunges us into a darkness so complete I cannot even see my longbow before my face. The druid’s chant dies and he whispers a command. Above us, small, round globes like the ones that I saw outside the knolls fill the chamber in hues of brass. Tangerine eyes scour us and for a moment Divine looks astonished and . . . encouraged? The emotion recedes beneath his glowing tattoos. He brings a shaky hand up to wipe the sweat dripping down his face and then chuckles.
“Seems the Elements have chosen their champions.”
His knees suddenly give out and he falls, crashing against the table and knocking assorted arcane ingredients to the floor. Clay pots shatter and herbs scattered against the ground. I rush to his side, but a burst of arcane energy knocks me on my butt.
“Do not touch me!” Divine snarls.
Startled, I scuttle back and immediately Kamiron takes a defensive stance in front of me. Divine huddles on the ground, his harsh and sporadic breathing the only sound. The glow suffusing his tattoos dim to ordinary ink. Gradually his breathing evens and the strength returns to his limbs. He uses the leg of the table to haul himself to his feet but remains slumped against the tabletop for a minute more.
“Forgive me.” He spares me an apologetic glance, “I was serving as a conduit. If you had touched me the power would have flayed the skin from your bones.” Grimacing, he straightens and brushes his fingers through his tangled hair. Wood clacks and assorted charms tinker with the movement. “That summoning was more taxing than I anticipated.”
“Exactly what are these?” Zakk raises what looks to be a polearm. Ribbons of navy twine down a shaft of white oak that measures at least six feet and ends in a rounded, heavy silver cap. It is a beautiful weapon but there is no blade fixed to the silver guard at the polearm’s top.
Kamiron grips a three-foot long, steel handle. A mint green tassel dangles from the bottom of the haft but I don’t see a guard or a slot for a blade. I suspect the missing top of his weapon is some sort of blunt object like a hammer or maul.
Dace clutches two brass hilts, one in each palm and designed to interlock. Padded leather dyed a pale maroon snakes around each grip. Like Kamiron and Zakk, there are no blades.
“I get you want us to face off with your evil overlord, but what’re we supposed to do with these?” Dace lobs his hilts into the air, watching them spin and whirl before catching them with a dexterity that surprises me. “You want us to throw sticks at him?”
Divine’s patience with Dace’s snark is astonishing. The druid tilts his head at us, his gaze scrutinizing each of our weapons. “You are mistaken--I did not give you those arms. They are gifts from your patron element. It’s up to you to figure out how to use them.”
I tug on one of my feathers. It’s surprisingly stiff. “Any suggestions?”
Divine smiles without mirth. “You will need to believe in what you cannot see.”
“Is it so hard to get a straight answer for once?” Dace scowls.
Kamiron nods to the druid. “These elements--you’ve mentioned them before.”
Divine approaches one of the room’s dirt walls. A deep grumble rolls throughout the room and the soil begins to heave. Rocks and roots clatter to the ground as the dirt separates, revealing a hidden alcove filled with shelves of slate and stuffed with paraphernalia. Divine digs out four burlap satchels.
“You are each special, born to barren mothers as a manifestation of the Elements. You are essentially their children and can harness their power.”
“You mean that time when you were possessing Dace and you gave me clues to find the three . . . you weren’t talking about astrological symbols at all, were you?”
“A minor correlation,” he snorts, shoving items wrapped in linen and skins into each of the four sacks. “What you do not realize, Shari, is that the Universe conspired to bring you to this moment.”
“That sounds like a bunch of horse shi--”
“But no less true, Dace son of Fire. You would never have been given the weapon you now hold. This is your destiny.”
“I don’t believe in destiny,” Kamiron protests. “We have free will.”
“Indeed we do. It does not make destiny any less valid.” He passes us our satchels. I grunt at its weight as I strap it to my back. “Your choices shape the destiny of your world--a heavy burden for those as young as yourselves.”
Zakk interrupts Kam and Dace’s budding objections and instead dips his head respectfully. “Thank you for your help. Are we leaving immediately?”
“It’s too dangerous for you to remain any longer. You must not be caught here. I am sorry you do not have an opportunity to rest before you begin your task.” Divine straightens and looks every bit the powerful druid. Bronze light plays across his bare, muscled torso. In two strides Divine stands before me. Thick hands grip my shoulders and he smiles. It is a rare one, filled with unwavering belief. I don’t share the faith he seems to have in me, but I offer a smile I hope exudes confidence. From the amusement that flickers in the depths of his tangerine irises, I know I’ve failed.
“You are their guide and their compass, Shari. You will help them survive as you have survived.”
I take a deep breath, chewing over the words but they leave a sour taste in my mouth. I did manage to escape Ater, but I’ve never wandered its various zones, searching for metaphysical tethers. I may have survived once, but can I do it again? And more importantly, can I keep my friends alive?
Divine passes me a rolled up sheet of vellum secured by a tin clasp. “A map from the Blood Shield. Use your pendant to find safe houses.” Cool, chapped lips press against my ear. “If you are lost, seek inward. Trust your intuition and you will always find your way.”
He strides from me to Zakk. Divine’s hands suddenly darken and begin to pulsate with a sickly black radiance, like the ebony soil of a fresh grave.
He seizes both of Zakk’s wrists before the boy can react. The polearm clatters to the ground. Zakk screams and the smell of burning flesh throttles me. I freeze in horror. It’s Kamiron who reacts first, diving for the pair. He slams against an invisible barrier and is thrown back, crashing into the side of the table. Dace tries next, banging on the barrier with his brass hilts but he, too, is sent flying backwards, tumbling until he slams into the wall.
Shrieking as if his soul is being shorn in half, Zakk falls to his knees but still Divine does not let go.
The black glow melts from Divine’s hands and plummets into Zakk’s wrists, burrowing underneath his skin. His body swallows the poisonous energy and only then does Divine release him. Zakk chokes and sniffles. Snot and blood dribble from his nose as he presses his face against the dirt and whimpers. Finger-shaped red welts mar his wrists.
“What the fuck?”
If the druid is concerned by Dace’s outrage, he doesn’t show it. Instead he squats by Zakk’s face and uses a dingy cloth to wipe at the blood, snot, and sweat. My knees wobble threatening to buckle. My thoughts collide with each other in a jumble of befuddlement. After all he’s done to help us, and with us almost out the door, why would Divine turn around and hurt Z?
It’s only when Divine turns to me that I realize I’ve spoken aloud.
“I had no choice.” He ignores Kamiron’s glower and Dace’s curses. He leans over and helps Zakk to his feet. Zakk clings to the druid, swaying as if drunk. Blood stains the collar of his blue undershirt. “It was the only way I knew to transfer some of my knowledge to him. I essentially had to sear it into his mind.” He pats Zakk’s shoulder apologetically and retrieves a wooden cup filled with some kind of purplish liquid. “This should help.”
Zakk’s hands shake as he brings the cup to his lips and takes deep gulps. When he is done Divine exchanges the cup for the haft of his polearm.
“You display an innate talent for magic, I knew it when you sensed the ward upon first entering my domain. If we had time I could have taught . . .” He sighs and beads, bones, and feathers hiss with the shake of his head. “I daresay you would make a great Druid.”
Zakk is finally able to stand on his own, but the hand that grips the shaft of his polearm continues to shake, and he leans on it like a staff. Giving the druid a wide berth, we crowd around our friend and gasp.
Tattoos cover his forearms, snaking up his neck and the left side of his face. I glance at Divine and notice the same runes on his body as well. Zakk offers a weak smile, but there is something alien to his hazel eyes. Old wisdom in a young body.
“I’m fine, guys.”
His voice sounds the same, but we remain skeptical.
Divine starts towards Dace, but the boy backs away. “Don’t fucking touch me.”
“It’s alright, Dace,” Zakk reassures, motioning for Divine to wait. “For a moment it felt like my mind was being torn in half but afterwards it was like trying to download the entire Internet using a slow processor. He didn’t mean to harm me.”
Soothing energy embraces me. Feather-light. Warm. Muscles I didn’t know were stiff, a heartbeat I didn’t recognize was erratic, all that tension recedes.
I watch a similar transformation in Dace and at last he grants Zakk a reluctant nod.
“This will not be painful,” Divine’s stained teeth flash in a teasing smile. He takes Dace’s glasses and blows across the lenses. The rough pads of his fingers trace the wire frame. “You have magic in you as well. Your gifts are perhaps the most varied of your group. Your eyes are a strength, not a weakness. Your vision penetrates not just vast distances, but also time and space. Light and darkness are of no consequence.”
Scowling, Dace plucks his glasses from the druid’s hands but hesitates to replace them, suddenly wary.
“If I put these on, I’m not gonna explode, am I?”
“Your mouth will cause more trouble than necessary,” Divine snorts, “But it will get you out of just as much.”
The druid then turns his attention to Kamiron. To his credit, Kamiron doesn’t flinch when Divine’s fingers tap his chest. “Trust in your heart, in what you think and what you know. The past holds no sway for a child of Earth.” Divine’s thumbs pass over Kamiron’s ears and then thump his biceps. “Sharpen your senses and know that what is difficult for others will come naturally for you. Your stoicism is your strength and your strength is your stoicism.”
Backing up, Divine eyes us each speculatively but I cannot guess his thoughts. “Andhakar will not stop because you are gone. He will continue his assault on your world, starting with your camp and branching out as his power grows. Time is of the essence.” Suddenly, Divine bows low. His tumble of hair falls over his shoulders in a dirty curtain. When he straightens, I note the apprehension in his gaze. “May fate be kind.”
I move to thank him, but between one blink and the next we’re standing at the rim of the clearing facing the twisted black trees that make up the Onyx. The knolls rise up behind us, but the strange floating orbs with their brass glow are gone. Above us clouds obscure the bloody sky and makes the Onyx appear especially ominous. An amethyst mist crawls along the forest floor and I find myself reluctant to discover how far it goes.
Dace eyes our lifeless surroundings and then glances back at the trio of hillocks. He exhales in relief. “Is it just me, or was that guy was bat-shit crazy?”
“Tell me about it,” Kamiron grimaces. “I’m not eager to see him any time soon.”
Zakk’s polearm thumps the ground as he pauses beside me. We share an exasperated eye roll before he motions ahead. “Ladies first.”Tightening my satchel and mustering my courage, I plunge headfirst into the misty forest.