I smell the food before I hear the voices.
It smells like bacon and eggs. Thick grits with butter and cheese. Biscuits soaked in homemade gravy that pools unchallenged across the plate. The sharp tang of orange juice and the lingering velvet aroma of fresh coffee with lots of sugar and extra cream. I try to grin but my mouth won’t work.
“You sure that’s going to wake her? It did nothing for Chameleon.”
“It should be working.” Zakk sounds doubtful.
It takes all my power to pry open my eyelids. It feels like someone weighted them down with bars of lead.
“There she is!” Bandaged, long-fingered hands help me sit up. “Here, chew on this.”
Zakk plops a green leaf onto my palm. I sniff it. It doesn’t smell like anything in particular. Its texture and flavor are like what I’d imagine eating a leaf might be like. Not pleasant, but I don’t feel the need to throw it up, either.
“I could have sworn I smelled breakfast cooking. Bacon, eggs . . .”
Dace sighs, wistful. “I’d kill for that. When Z did it to me, I swear I smelled a Philly cheesesteak, extra onion, the steak still sizzling on the toasted bun. Aw, man.” He pats his stomach and grimaces. “I just made myself hungrier. Sucks, huh? Waking up to rabbit food instead.”
“I don’t know. The longer I chew this, the more energized I feel. What is this stuff?”
I start to roll my eyes at Dace’s joke, but the look of chagrin on Zakk’s face stops me. “Wait--you just fed me cocaine?” I shriek. It sounds more like a crow’s caw. “Where did you even get this?”
Zakk raises his hands in a defenseless gesture. “It isn’t cocaine, exactly. It’s actually leaves of a coca plant, which is where cocaine comes from. In South American countries, some people chew the leaf to combat elevation sickness. The buzz it gives is useful for us. You said so yourself--you feel more energized, don’t you?”
I blink for a full minute, unable to think of anything to say. I don’t even want to know how Z came across a coca plant in Ater. Ignoring Dace’s snickering laughter, I look around. We are still in Apaosha’s Den, huddled in the protection of the light bubble. The massive weight of tons of earth hovering above us is as disconcerting as before. The obelisk is now rubble. Dust coats every surface. Our packs, our clothing, Kam’s sprawled body--
I try to say his name but all I can manage is a choked squeak. I crawl over to him. My limbs are newborn-weak and shake with the effort. I can barely manage to lift Kamiron’s head and rest it across my lap. His chest rises and falls in unhurried breaths and I realize that someone’s replaced his bandages. From the precision and skill of the dressing, I have no doubt it was Z.
I gaze at Zakk in wonder--and then notice that his irises are cerulean, not hazel-brown. Slumping beside me, he manages an exhausted smile. “I am merged with my element. She lead us here and we were able to heal your major injuries, but we can do nothing about the blood loss.”
I reach out and squeeze his hand. “You’ve done great.”
He shrugs off the praise and stares at Kamiron sullenly. “Not enough. I sent Naja to see if she can find a way out of here, but even if she does . . . We can’t wake him. I fear he’s in a coma and if he is . . .”
Zakk doesn’t need to finish the sentence. I stroke Kamiron’s hair. In a hoarse voice, I explain all that’s occurred since we parted: the naked mage, Kamiron facing Apaosha, even my ability to “see” them through my connection to the arrows I’d gifted them.
“Saved my life, that’s for sure.” Dace settles against a chunk of rubble and polishes his cracked lenses. “If Apaosha was the tether, then where is it?”
“I don’t know if the tether is a physical thing we retrieve or just a sensation we’ll feel once we destroy it. Either way it doesn’t matter.” I cup my palm against Kam’s cheek, admiring how they frame his face so beautifully. Even while he fights for his life, he manages to look handsome. “Once Vayu and I destroyed his body, Apaosha went inside him. He’s trying to possess Kamiron.”
“We’ve got to help him.”
“You know better than any of us, Dace, that in our own states we’re also open to possession,” Zakk murmurs.
Place your bow on the ground in front of you, instructs Vayu. His presence and voice seem oddly muted and thin.
What’s wrong? I set my weapon where he’s indicated. Though I’ve not said a word, Dace and Zakk follow suit with Dace dragging Kamiron’s sledgehammer to the pile as well.
I exerted myself when we were merged. I will be fine momentarily.
Zakk retrieves one of our waterskins and dribbles a few drops on each weapon. One of his tattoos flare, a small one along his elbow, and a thin sheet of flame squirts from his fingertips and skids along the pile. He then takes a handful of rubble from the ruined obelisk and sprinkles the soil across our weapons to stifle the flames. At last he blows across the pile, mumbling words too low for me to clearly hear but I pick up their African cadence.
At last, Zakk sits back. His fingers fly to his temple and he sways with fatigue. I steady him, and he leans against me. His shoulder blades dig into arm and I can feel the steady tremor thrumming through his body. I shove down my alarm at his erratic and feeble breaths. Since the moment I found myself at Firestarter, Zakk has been my rock. Reliable, level-headed, constant. To see him so weak, his deep skin tone pale and clammy, it breaks my heart.
“Zakkarias has amplified our link so that for a time we may all communicate.”
My breath catches at the serene beauty of her voice. It sounds like tropical waves breaking against sunbaked sand. Light, pleasant, and refreshing.
“Are you the element Water?”
I hear her smile. “I am, although it is better to think of us as devas, elemental spirits. You may call me Ymoja.”
The air stirs around us, warm and carnal. “And I,” a husky, mischievous female voice announces, “am called Pele. The deva of Fire.” I can almost feel the spice and flame of her personality. Her presence is at once frightening, unpredictable, and undeniably sexy.
A deep voice, just as sensual as Pele’s, caresses every nerve of my body. It gives me the impression of an unshakeable, confident entity. “I am Gaian, the elemental of Earth. My brother, the deva of Air is--”
“Vayu-Vaata,” Vayu interrupts showing none of the earlier weakness I detected in his voice. If anything he sounds haughty and impassive. “Now that such banalities are out of the way, let us discuss--”
Startled, I try to catch him before he hits the floor, but I’m a half second too slow. Zakk topples like a redwood, his shoulder colliding against the pliable ground. It yields but not enough to stop the resounding crack of bone. Dace swears and immediately scurries to Zakk’s aid. He arranges Zakk on his back and pillows his head on his pack. Despite the painful bruise that will no doubt mar his shoulder, Zakk’s breathing is deep and restful--a direct contrast to Kamiron’s wheezing inhalations. Expression stricken, Dace positions himself near his unconscious friends.
“It cannot be helped,” Ymoja soothes. “He channeled my essence to save you all and cast this spell. He must rest.”
Gaian’s cough is like the
rumble of shifting mountains. “Kamichirō grows weaker. It will not be long for Apaosha
“What is Apaosha?”
“You would call him a demon,” Ymoja answers in a somber tone. “His power is that of drought. A decay of things.”
“Then how do we kill him?”
Quiet. I get the sense that the elements--the devas--confer amongst themselves.
“There is no true death for Apaosha. We can only keep him from taking another physical manifestation,” Pele answers.
“Possessing Kam,” Dace clarifies.
“Yes.” Gaian’s tone turns urgent. “Apaosha has perverted his mind. Kamichirō no longer hears me. Our connection withers. When it is gone, Apaosha will have full control. One of you must go to him.”
I frown and run my nails through Kamiron’s thick black hair. “You mean, go inside his mind?”
“You each possess abilities,” Vayu reminds me and for once he doesn’t sound bored. He seems resigned. “You will need to enter his consciousness, his deepest Self, and help him to remember himself.”
“How do we do that?”
“We do not know what it will take,” Ymoja admits, “but we have full faith that you will figure it out in time.”
“I volunteer.” Dace states. “Chameleon’s my best friend, even before Camp Gen. If anyone can make him remember who he is, it’s me.”
“No,” Pele counters. “As a medium, you would be too open to Apaosha’s possession.”
Dace snorts. “I know how to protect myself from demonic possession, Sparkles.”
I’m not sure what is more chilling: the fact that Kam is being possessed by a demon, that Dace is so used to demons trying to possess him that he’s comfortable defending against them, or that Dace just called Pele, the deva of Fire, “Sparkles”.
“Weak though you may be, little salamander, we will need you incase this fails,” Pele continues, her tone wry. “You will have to burn his body.”
“What?” Dace and I choke out.
“If Apaosha possesses Kamichirō there will be nothing left. We cannot let him regain a physical body,” Gaian asserts. “Or you all will die.”
“Shari will go.”
My head whips up at Vayu’s voice. How can he just volunteer me like that? Especially after claiming that it would be infinitely worse if Apaosha possesses me.
The six of us can debate for hours. Your friend will last another ten minutes at most. It is risky to place you within Apaosha’s grasp, but we have no other choice. Will you not help him?
My heart stumbles and I stare down at Kamiron’s round face. It’s just . . . you said that whoever goes must help Kamiron remember himself. With everything that’s happened between us--it’s only been a few days since he even started talking to me again, and then I went and killed his girlfriend. I don’t know if he’ll respond to me.
Then you will not try?
Of course I will. Aloud I say, “What do I need to do?”
Dace slams his palm against his thigh. “Shari can barely walk. We can’t send her after a body-snatching demon. She has no experience.” He glares around as if he can see our elemental guardians. “I’ll go. I can do it.”
“Dace, you will have to let Shari go.” Ymoja states, her voice soothing but firm. “Most necromancers are reluctant to enter Apaosha’s Den. He has no qualms about eating them, but the power gained from consuming four powerful souls will soon be too tempting to pass up. You are your friends’ only line of defense.”
Dace deflates. “Fine,” he scowls. “Let’s just hurry it up.”
I turn my head, half-expecting to find Gaian crouched over my shoulder. Only the delicate sphere of light that beats back the vast emptiness of Apaosha’s cavern greets me. “I’m ready.”
The elementals crowd around me, the power of their essences touching me in light brushes of approval and respect. Through their contact I learn what I have to do. It’s like meditating class at Camp Genki. I shove aside reminders of what happened in that particular meditation session and focus on my breathing, on stilling my senses. I begin to spiral down into my core self.
“Touch him for a stronger connection, Child of Air,” Gaian instructs. My fingers flare across Kamiron’s sweaty temples. I feel the heat wafting off his skin, a heat tainted by a viscous layer of filth. Vayu says something but he sounds far away.
“It will just be us, now,” Gaian announces. “Your connection to my brother will be . . . strained. Apaosha will sense this and try to use it against you. You mustn’t let him. I will guide and protect you as best I can.”
My body feels heavy and sluggish. I’m having trouble concentrating. I feel like I’m sinking into the depths of the earth. And then deep brown arms of corded muscle encircle me. I glance over and see Gaian, a massive, imposing figure as solid as a mountain. I try to focus on his face, on the moss and pine leaves that make up his hair, but I cannot. We move deep down and suddenly I can sense Kamiron, can smell him. Taste his sweat on the center of my tongue.
We are here. Gaian’s voice is like the vast jungles of the Congo. It’s up to you, Shari, to reach him. Make him remember what and who he is before Apaosha erases all trace of his soul.Yeah, no pressure.