The purple haze caresses us with heated fingers and conceals the woodlands from us, revealing only a section at a time. While it hides any potential danger, it also hides us from said danger, and for that I’m grateful.
“We can barely see,” Kamiron whispers, striding beside me. “Can we risk a light?”
“I’d rather not. Everything here doesn’t really need light to see so it would only act as a beacon that we’re intruders.”
Kamiron grunts and falls back.
We walk for what feels like hours, stopping only for me to periodically check the map. When I press Gjinna’s pendent against the vellum, tiny red shields spring up across the map, designating safe houses and supply stashes. Unfortunately, there’s no indication which is which, so I hope that the place I’m leading the guys towards has a space for us to rest.
“I don’t understand. It should be around here somewhere.” Frustrated, I squint at the mist, searching for anything that looks like a hut, or a camouflaged cave, or any kind of hideout. All that greets me are malformed trees with thick branches that drip silver cobwebs. Thorns and bristles line the narrow trail and are broken only by tufts of dead grass and weeds. The Onyx is quiet. No birds, no animals, not even leaves that rustle in the wind.
It’s unnerving, and not the best recipe to keep exhausted travelers awake and alert.
Behind me Kamiron stifles his hundredth yawn. Dace taps his hilts against his shoulders and sighs. Zakk rests a consoling hand my shoulder. In the sparse light, his new tattoos seem like infected wounds.
“I’m guessing it’s a supply stash after all,” he muses. “Maybe we should just find a relatively safe place and--”
Dace inhales sharply. “What’s that?”
Fear spikes through me and I brandish my longbow like a club. The mist obscures everything directions and I can barely make out the footpath ahead, but if something’s stalking us . . .
“No, look up. It seems like some kind of . . . tree house.”
We follow Dace’s finger as he points to something a few yards off the trail. At first I don’t notice anything, but when the fog shifts, I spot a mammoth tree. Black vines clog its trunk, spiraling up its branches and weaving into a strange structure that looks like a giant bird’s nest. Moss, strips of bark and vines tangle into a hollow oval that looks big enough for a person to fit inside.
“That must be it.” I try to keep the relief from my voice.
“Think it’ll fit all of us?”
“Only one way to find out.”
It’s surprisingly easy to climb the tree although the black vines leave a sticky residue on our palms. The nest turns out to be a deception. From below it looks like only a single person might curl up inside, but once we are up in the branches, we find that the nest camouflages a broad hole that extends a few feet into the trunk of the tree and we’re able to fit inside comfortably. It’s not a four-star hotel, but it’s infinitely better than sleeping on the forest floor where we’re exposed to any of the Onyx’s dangers. We’re so exhausted that only takes us a few moments to get situated. No one volunteers to keep watch, and no one argues about where to sleep. We each stake out our territory and, curling up against Zakk with Kamiron and Dace nearby, I fall asleep within seconds.
A hand shakes me and I shrug it off. I’m not ready to get up even though my bed is hard and something digs into my lower back. I shift to try to relieve the pressure, but it only gets worse. I’ll have to get Zakk to take a look at it. Maybe drop by Firestarter before breakfast? Assuming Mel doesn’t want me to wait for her.
Again a hand shakes me, this time more urgently. “Wake up. Something’s outside.”
It’s Dace. How did he get inside Starjungle?
The pressure stabbing into my lower back makes me gasp and I jerk upright. The tree trunk’s ebony knots swirl around me. Broad leaves from a black vine coat the floor and I think I see some small insect scurry into a hole in the wood.
My heart drops as I remind myself that I’m back in Ater.
And that Melissa’s dead.
“My bad.” Kamiron winces as he stretches out his right leg. “Didn’t realize my knee was digging into your back.”
I rub the sleep from my eyes and find Dace crouched near the nest’s entrance, peering outside. The safehouse isn’t tall enough for me to stand upright so I crawl over our satchels and weapons to look out at the Onyx.
“It’s over by the trail, sniffing,” he whispers.
Though the canopy blots out most the sky, it doesn’t seem as dark as before we slept--more like a late evening murkiness instead of the pitch dark of just past midnight, but I think that’s just our eyes growing accustomed to the ambient gloom of Ater. The fog from earlier has retreated and cleared visibility. I spot it instantly. Heavy muscles shift beneath taut purple-black skin. It lifts its head from a tangle of moss and sniffs the air, turning briefly towards our tree. Blue-white eyes glare across the Onyx and I find The Darkness-That-Hunts’ brand gleaming like silver across the creature’s bald head. It straightens and I notice that it has no legs. An opaque mist undulates at its waist, writhing like worms. The dry cluster of grey grass beneath it does not indicate anything stands there.
“What do you think it is?” Dace whispers.
I shake my head. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Zakk squats next to me while Kamiron peers over his shoulder. We duck our heads as two other creatures, both female with bare breasts and hair crawling with scorpions, float out of the surrounding trees. They converse with the bald creature for a moment and the three continue along the path, drifting east.
“Those are Unseelie,” Z whispers. “By the looks of them, relatively low ranking members of the Winter Court.”
I cut my eyes at him. “How do you know that?”
Zakk taps his temple. “Divine’s memories are a part of mine now. I know what he knows of the Dark Court, and of Ater. I know many of the spells that he has committed to memory.”
“And the tats?” Kamiron ventures.
Zakk examines the runes and Celtic symbols that crisscross his body. “They embody a concept, an arcane facet.” He lifts up his aketon and I find a large, ugly rune marring his ribs. “This represents ‘Stealth.’ It allows me to cast spells of concealment. This other here,” his fingers trace what looks like three parallel wavy lines, “Is a representation of Malleability. It grants me the power to alter the shape of matter.” His palm cups a nasty tattoo that flares across his neck like an infection. “This means Death. With it, I can animate inanimate objects.”
We stare at him in disbelief and awe. A blush taints his cheeks and he lowers his aketon. “They burn into a mage, branding the knowledge to flesh. It is why Divine’s method of transition was so . . . painful.”
“Will it hurt when you use it?”
“It will not be a pleasant experience, but I’m sure I can grow accustomed to the discomfort.” He stares at the spot where Dace spotted the first Unseelie. “The good news is that I don’t think they were looking for us. I think they were just passing through.”
Kamiron squirms. “Then what’s the bad news?”
“We’re close to Unseelie territory. There will be more like them, and those particular kinds of Unseelie are magic users. Even if we knew how to use our weapons, they would be able to kill us in seconds with just a word.”
I take a deep breath to settle my queasy stomach. I don’t know much about the Unseelie, but we cannot cross their lands.
Dace retreats to the back of the nest and starts rifling through his sack. He pulls out what looks to be dried meat of some sort. “Well, let’s hope they aren’t sitting on a tether.”
We eat a brief meal, a few strips of jerky followed by a couple swallows of water before I unfurl Divine’s map and balance it across my knees. The territories and zones of Ater flare before me, each new region marked by a meticulous hand. I’ve seen Divine’s handwriting, and this does not match. Where did he get this map? It must have been someone from the Blood Shield, of course, but who would bother to map this place? It would have taken thorough exploration, and considering the dangers . . .
“So, Golden Compass, where are we heading?” Dace crosses his legs and starts rolling the hilts of his weapon between his palms.
“Well, we know where two are. The white and black crystal.”
“The dark one is around his
neck,” Kam whispers, “You can’t possibly mean to--”
I give a sharp shake of my head. “Not yet. The white crystal is nearby but . . .”
“As soon as we take it--”
“Assuming we can,” Dace interrupts.
“It will alert him,” Zakk continues. “We’ll have to save those two for last. Can you tell where the others are?”
I stare at the map and try to ignore the three sets of eyes that scrutinize my every move. I nervously tug at Gjinna’s pendant.
How am I supposed to know where the other two tethers are hiding? Divine says to trust my intuition, but that’s not saying much. I can’t have us navigating the dangers of Ater on just a hunch. I trace the curled edge of the vellum, marveling at the soft texture of the cream-colored page. The ink stands out in deep shades of jet, peppered every now and again by jasper and peridot. The pad of my index finger traces the border of the Onyx, which dominates the south and southeastern curve of the realm, and skims through the Unseelie territory that straddles the southeast. The great savannah called the Hallow Wastes hovers in the center, bordered by the Necropolis to the west and the marshlands of the Sepulcher to the northeast. Andhakar’s residence sits just above the Necropolis and is capped by a mountain range with a jagged red line ripping them in half.
No idea what that serrated line means, but . . .
I stop, my fingers tingling. An odd sensation like nails plucking at my mind makes me frown. The boys move to speak, but I stop them with a raised hand. I shut my eyes, feeling as if . . . something is trying to get my attention. Again my fingers roam the soft surface of the map, tracing over the ridges of ink. The sensation fades or gets stronger, cresting against my wrist like ethereal waves.
Until it doesn’t go away. An electric buzz vibrates up my arm.
“That’s it.” My eyes fly open and I find my finger stabbing at the marshlands of the Sepulcher. “One of the tethers is somewhere over there.”
I expect the guys to question me, but their expressions are oddly accepting.
“You look like you expect us to argue with you.” A smile quirks the corner of Kam’s mouth.
“I thought at least you’d question my reasoning.”
Dace motions to the bizarre forest just outside our nest. “Considering this is outside our purview, we’ll defer to your wisdom, O Golden Compass.”
“And so far your claircognizance has been spot on,” Zakk adds.
“Claircognizance?” It sounds familiar though I can’t recall what it means; from the way they eye me--as if I’ve just bitten the head off a rat--I get the feeling I should know. “What?”
“You can’t not realize you’re a claircognizant, Shari. Not after all we’ve been through.”
“I’ve never really . . . I don’t . . . what is it?”
“That gut feeling--a hunch,” Kamiron explains, “But stronger. It can be a dream or emotion or sensation. It persists and even though you don’t know why you know, you just--”
“Know,” I whisper, sitting back. An odd sense of relief and delight blooms inside me and I marvel at my newfound belonging. I’ve found my place, my own ability, and I’m glad I have friends who are like me and can understand. It’s then I realize the depth of hope that Camp Genki inspires in people with ESP. What it meant to Mel and Hamilton to find acceptance and to explore their abilities.
The images of Mel’s spunky grin and Hamilton bent over his guitar act like a splash of cold water and I sober instantly.
As if reading my thoughts, their expressions turn glum. “He’s with Hamilton right now, isn’t he?”
“The Darkness-That-Hunts will keep him alive because he knows we’ll come for him, but . . .” I blink away sudden tears and focus on the map. There’s no telling how broken Hamilton will be by the time we save him. “So a tether is somewhere in the Sepulcher.”
“Then let’s not waste any more time.”
We climb down the sticky vines and return to the Onyx floor. Skirting the spot where we saw the Unseelie, we return to the path and head north. For the most part, we walk in silence and watch the Onyx unfold around us in steep embankments filled with thistles or giant trees with mossy branches that drag along the ground like funeral veils. The silence isn’t as disturbing as before we slept, but we dare not interrupt it with our voices. Eventually the trail we follow starts to angle more westward and I hesitate.
“We’re getting too close,” Zakk cautions at my left shoulder. I pull out my map and squint at its information. Zakk glances further down the trail, and then into the trees around us before risking a small, wispy ball of light. Deep green floods the vellum and I shoot him a grateful glace.
“We lost?” Kam whispers.
I shake my head. “We’ve no choice,” I tap the trail that we follow and Zakk sighs. “We won’t need to pass into their territory, but we’ll have to get close to the outskirts. It’s better to stick to the edge of the Onyx than risk crossing the middle of the Hallow Wastes.”
Dace shifts at my side. “What’s in the Hallow Wastes?”
“Lobisomem,” Zakk responds. His green ball of light winks out as I roll up the map. “Cursed creatures that were once human, though they’ve likely forgotten it.”
“Think of them as werewolves.” I translate for Dace and Kam. “But they don’t shapeshift. They look like wolves that can walk upright. Human intelligence but with the ferocity, power, and stamina typical of wolves.”
“Fantastic,” Dace mutters. “Got any silver?”
“Silver wouldn’t harm them.”
Again we walk but I motion for Zakk to take the lead. Kam brings up the rear and Dace trots at my right. We each grip the shafts of our weapons as if they will save us should we be attacked. We follow the dirt trail around a bog that encases a small pool of fetid water. Strange wispy lights the color of fresh snow dart along the bank and I hesitate. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I heard music. Hamilton’s, to be exact. I cock my ear, listening. There it is, more distinct now. The echo of an acoustic guitar, the haunting song Hamilton played near Shizuka Lake.
Pain rips up my arm. It’s Dace's nails digging into my forearm as he hauls me back. I hadn’t realized I’d stepped off the trail and into the bog. Zakk waves his hands in front of my face, his expression fearful.
“Can you hear me?”
“Thank God.” He steps in front of me, his tall body blocking my view of the bog and the water. “Will o’ the wisps. You must not look at them or let them fool you. They use illusion to lure you to your death.”
“Or to that thing.” Dace points at the water where a dark figure hovers in the middle of the pool.
My breath catches as feral eyes find mine. The figure drifts closer to the edge, its sleek and powerful body beautiful in the bleary glow of the wisps. A mane the color of dusk drifts down its long neck. Lustrous black scales line its hindquarters and its thick tail drips with water. It steps out of the lake. The wisps retreat from it, floating into the deeper recesses of the bog.
Kamiron frowns and takes a few steps forward. “I think that’s a horse.”
“Run,” Zakk barks, dragging his friend back to the path and shoving him forward. “Now.”
We break out into a mad sprint, fear and adrenaline giving our feet extra speed. The Onyx blurs around me and my breathing sounds overly loud. A stitch stabs at my ribs forcing me to slow.
“I can’t . . . any further . . . wait.” I manage in short bursts. We stop. Dace drops to his knees and starts swearing. Zakk leans against his polearm, his eyes closed and chest heaving. Only Kamiron seems fine, his body evidencing no exertion aside from a thin sheen of sweat along his forehead.
“What the hell was that thing?” Dace hisses.
“A kelpie,” Zakk gasps, not bothering to open his eyes. “Another of the Winter Court. Shari, we should just brave the Hallow Wastes.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Kamiron whispers. He points to our right.
Ice coats every surface of the forest, glimmering like snow and lending the woodlands a soft, mystical ambience. The air is sharp and cold like a December night. Black, crimson, and midnight blue flowers grant the Onyx a sweet aroma that makes me think of cozy winter evenings with a cup of hot chocolate and a fire crackling in the fireplace. Glossy vines curl at the giant roots of majestic willow trees with silver trunks and . . .
All blood drains from my face and my knees give out. Dace scrambles back, his expression twisted with horror. When Zakk opens his eyes, he does not speak but his lips form a grim line. Buried in the trees are people. Hundreds of them. Their faces are torn in agony and shift beneath the silver bark as if they are burning in a private hell. A hand, broken fingers jutting out at all the wrong angles, runs up the swirling knot of a willow. A head, barely more than a skull with loose flesh, protrudes from a tree root. Articles of clothing--ripped jackets, stained jeans, frayed dresses, ripple just beneath the surface of a thick branch. I make out the outline of a long leg fused with the elbow of another person.
Dace helps me up. “I’m not going in there.”
For a moment my voice won’t work. When it does it is defeated and hollow. “We’re not. We’re just suppose to follow along the border of the Unseelie territory for another thirty minutes--”
“Shari, look at them. They’re still alive and fused into trees,” Kamiron protests. “I don’t want to meet whatever Unseelie that has that kind of power.”
Good point.I turn my back on the gruesome border and motion for them to follow.