Chapter 9 - Stone (Part 2)
In the black recesses of his mind, he heard voices, but could not attach meaning to the words. A presence twisted and pulled at him. A thread of warmth coiled around him before coldness splashed over him and a sharp, astringent odor shot up his nose.
His eyes flew open as he jerked up, coughing and wheezing in an attempt to clear his nasal passages of the stench.
The woodsy and fresh smell of burning cedar along with the slightly sweet and spicy aroma of juniper surrounded him. As his vision sharpened, he could see darkness creeping in as the first few stars popped out in the purple sky.
He was dripping wet and a hint of salt covered him.
A sigh heaved behind him. “Finally. I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to deal with your high testosterone level induced by the lycan matebond,” the Spirit Walker said. “I had to force an immediate purification jab to cleanse you so we can begin.”
As he dragged in lungfuls of air, Aubree crouched down next to him and brushed his dripping hair from his face.
He grabbed her hand and pressed her palm to his moist cheek as he closed his eyes and gulped in more air.
“Hey, it’ll be okay,” she said in a soothing voice.
He shushed her, focusing instead on the feel of her hand against his cheek. Its warmth and softness alone eased him. Her emotions and presence relaxed the sudden shock to his system.
Whatever took place was beyond his cognition and as his heartbeat began to slow, he relaxed with it.
His stomach growled loudly after he’d calmed down enough to make sense of his surroundings. He didn’t know how he got outside, but he wasn’t too far from the house. A greenhouse stood on his left and some kind of makeshift hut made of earth and clay stood before him. There was a lingering smell of cedar ashes seeping out from within.
Clear Waters strolled up from behind him now and placed the big pot of roasted mutton, potatoes, and carrots in front of him.
“Eat,” he commanded. “We’re running out of time and you’ll feel more relaxed with a full belly. Keep your mind clear and your thoughts pure now. I pray the pull of the matebond will subside for now, or at least until we begin.”
Nodding, he picked up the meat in his hands and began tearing off chunks with his teeth.
While the Spirit Walker busied himself with the fire, adding a block of wood here, sprinkling some herbs there, Aubree began to giggle next to him.
He cast her a sideways glance and elbowed her gently.
“You really do have terrible table manners.”
Swallowing the morsel in his mouth, he said, “What table? Did you eat?”
“Yup. Clear Waters made me eat in front of the campfire.”
He sniffed her and wrinkled his nose. “No wonder you smell like smoke.”
She shrugged. “He thought it might help to keep you in check.”
“It’s also cleansing,” the Spirit Walker said as he made his way back to them. He gestured to Aubree with his hand. “Come. While he’s eating, I’ll start with you.”
A growl rumbled up Stone’s throat. He couldn’t help it. Instinct was kicking in and he didn’t want Aubree leaving his side.
Clear Waters took no offense as he paused a dozen yards away. “I know, I know. I’m not going to hurt her. You had your chance to get in on this at the same time, and you lost it. Eat up and join us in the circle when you’re done. And no, you can’t bring the food in.”
“Then, I will sit on the outside,” Stone said as he gripped the pan with both hands and rose to his feet.
The Spirit Walker sighed. “I guess that will be fine. Stubborn male.”
“You have no idea,” Aubree chimed in as she stood up and followed the short man to the fire.
Stone followed after her, and when they reached the campfire, Clear Waters pointed to the circle and ordered him to stay out.
The circle was lined with sand—black, gold, red, white, and blue. It stretched out about a dozen or so feet from the fire with thin blankets laid out on the ground to sit on. A pile of sticks and thin logs rested a few feet from the fire with pots of dried herbs next to it.
At some point when he was knocked out, Aubree had swapped her shorts for a pair of jeans and pulled on a sweater. She would need it in a few hours as the cold desert night air settled in.
She laid down on her back on the covered earth with the Spirit Walker sitting by her side. He commanded her to close her eyes and focus her attention on taking deep, steady breaths.
As Stone sat down a few feet from the edge of the circle, he watched as the Spirit Walker began to chant unusual words softly under his breath, humming here and there as he went. His hands, though a few inches over her body, moved in and out as if he were almost swimming. Sometimes, his fingers fluttered over her as he paused over one part of her body before moving onto the next. He placed dried herbs and some fresh over her body. A braid of lemongrass over her heart, a sprig of rosemary in her hair, and so on until there were bits and pieces of all kinds of herbs covering vital organs on her body.
The sky grew darker and dozens of stars began to appear, unhindered by the lack of light pollution. With each passing minute, he saw stars that he hadn’t seen in decades. Stars that he had once gazed upon in his youth, with Adelaide in Schwarzwald, and more recently alone in what was once a grassy knoll at the edge of the city, and was later bulldozed over to build more residences, schools, shops, and streets before the glare of the streetlights hid them all from sight.
Emotion clogged up his throat as his stomach knotted, recalling all the times he had stared up into the sky in wonder and entranced by its beauty. How with each passing decade after Adelaide’s death the stars were blotted out and a loneliness like he hadn’t felt since he was a pup, fell on him until it almost hurt him to look up at the sky again. It only reminded him of everything he had lost, and could never reclaim again.
His eyes fell on Aubree.
Now, he had his chance to make things right again. To find joy in his life again. To allow himself to breathe again.
The Spirit Walker looked up from Aubree’s side to catch his gaze before nodding his head.
[If you are finished, take the pot into the kitchen and cleanse your hands. I’m ready when you are.]
Stone had only eaten half of the meal, but he was satisfied.
An ache filled him as he tore his gaze away from Aubree and the glow of the fire against her smooth cheek. The pull came from within, his soul reaching out to hers.
How much would things change after this?
He closed his eyes and bowed his head. Goddess, have mercy.